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Monday, September 19th, 2016
5:40 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 19: Like A Regular Odyssey, But In Space
Death And The Senator, 1961

An overly-long and very heavily dramatic story with the tiniest scrap of science in the fiction. Not at all worth the read. I have just one vaguely interesting comment: The story hinges on the discovery that living in zero-gravity has amazing health benefits, and may even help cure advanced heart disease ... but in the long years since 1961, we've discovered exactly the opposite: Linger in space, and your health will only decline. In fact, unless you take strenuous measures to emulate the burden of gravity, your health will plummet.

The Secret, 1963

The plot hinges on the supposed health benefits of low gravity, in the same way as Clarke's "Death And The Senator", except this time it's scientists on the moon living an extra 100 years, and trying to keep the secret of their extended life from the rest of the population back on Earth, so they don't trigger a stampede. I get the impression that Clarke was pretty well convinced of the truth to this idea, and was probably shocked to learn how much the body atrophies out in space.

It is a pretty counterintuitive idea. Shouldn't less gravity equal less "stress", and therefore equal longer life? Perhaps, if you forget the fact that the body is working really hard, all the time, just to keep you alive, and will eagerly cut whatever corners it can.

Before Eden, 1961

Venus didn't turn out this way, but whatever. Clarke tells the story of team of explorers reaching the south pole of Venus, through terrain similar to Death Valley (but even more death-y), and finding a large, extremely hot lake, and an alien life form nearby. The alien is plant-like, flowing over the ground, and looks like an enormous transparent Persian rug when they shine their lamps on it. A pretty fascinating sight.

But in a nasty twist, the scientists leave behind some trash buried under a pile of stones, and the alien consumes it, and becomes infected with Earth-style bacteria. In a matter of months the entire population of aliens - representing all complex life on Venus - is exterminated by the infection. It's a riff on War Of The Worlds: The humans come in peace, and bring their nasty germs along by accident. Kablam!

Fun fact: The surface of Venus is actually about 860 degrees Fahrenheit on average. I don't think there are any bacteria known on Earth that can survive that; not even thermophiles. (The toughest one I know of can take up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit.) 860 degrees is hot enough to melt lead.

Global warming: It's no joke!

Crusade, 1968

A strange story told from the perspective of a sentient being the size of a planet, floating in the vast darkness between two galaxies. The being decides to search for intelligent life within each galaxy, and spends millions of years methodically constructing probes and pitching them into the collective gravity well of the stars on either side, then examining the feedback.

The first thing it learns: Galaxies are hot. Stars are really hot. Duh. So it engineers the probes to be more heat resistant, a step at a time. The next thing it learns: One galaxy is completely devoid of intelligent life. No signals are found anywhere. The other galaxy is teeming with life, and flooded with communications, which the being sets about unraveling.

The being is confounded to discover a kind of intelligent life that it hadn't expected: Extremely hot self-contained creatures, with extremely limited senses and very poor computing power, that disintegrate after unbelievably short lifespans. How could such ridiculous things even organize themselves, let alone explore space? Eww, they're all tiny and sloppy, and they have sex and stuff. Eeeeeww.

Then, scattered among them, are more familiar beings. The reader recognizes them as supercomputers and artificial intelligences constructed by humans. The sentient planet, recognizing these beings as more like itself, and obviously superior to the gross hot critters swarming around them, concludes that the supercomputers have been enslaved by the humans, and ... many years later, the stars in the galaxy start winking out, as the alien robots built by the sentient planet invade to rescue their brethren. Bam! Surprise revolution!

Far-fetched, but short enough and silly enough to be worthwhile.

The Light Of Darkness, 1964

This story immediately reminded me of his earlier tale, "A Slight Case Of Sunstroke". Let's inventory the connections:

1. It takes place in an exotic third-world (to Clarke) location on Earth.
2. It involves the military.
3. It's about taking revenge on a bad man in a position of power.
4. The plan for revenge uses trigonometry and electromagnetic waves.
5. It's written as a confession, after the plan has been successfully executed.

This time, instead of a bunch of highly reflective playbills in a stadium, it's a high-power radio transmitter. Instead of immolating a man with sunlight, he is blinded by radiation. And this time, instead of inspiring me to do some basic math to see if the plan was feasible, I just had to shrug my shoulders, because Clarke doesn't supply enough numbers to plug in to his scenario for testing.

Alas, a forgettable story. And the audio version is flawed for another reason: The performer attempts to render the whole thing in a fake-ass South African accent that only makes Clarke's own Racefail™ proclivities stand out.

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Tuesday, September 6th, 2016
11:30 am - WTF
In 2014, 3/4 of a billion pain pills were prescribed by doctors in Ohio. That's nearly 65 pills for every man, woman, and child in the state.

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Friday, September 2nd, 2016
9:51 pm - Western Desert, parts 5-8
I was invited to post this on the Ambient Nights website as a guest mixer, but with the site under construction for the last two years and other work stacking up behind it, it's time to get this out on the internet.

This is mix 2 of a musical triptych about starting over - searching for lost identity. (Mix one is here.)

The idea for the particular sound came to me when I was bicycling through the high desert of eastern Oregon in 2009.

I was out by myself in a vast hot space, filled with clean air and shimmering light, with the epic scale of nature and geology laid bare around me. It was brutally inhospitable and deeply comforting and intimate at the same time, and an environment well-suited for self-assessment. It was also scattered with the detritus of older stories, of pioneering settlers and farmers, who engaged directly with this raw landscape to establish a new life and independence for themselves. Those stories wove into my personal thoughts as I traveled, making my little bike trip feel like its own epic expedition into the western frontier.

A few years later I wanted to return to that feeling, and began searching for a way to encapsulate it in music. It was very difficult to find things that were differentiated enough to have character, while still fitting within the mental space I had staked out. Eventually I ended up with a patchwork of heroic - and somewhat corny - Western movie soundtracks, hallucinatory ambient sounds, local background noise from wind and animals, and languid, seductive steel guitar. I wanted something long: A soundscape with different parts telling a loose story, each brief enough to have structure but also long enough to get lost in - to let the mind wander - and use it to meditate on a theme.

That theme is, succinctly: Starting over with nothing.

Parts 5-8 are combined into a one-hour mix:

Part 5: Karma
Part 6: Heat Visions
Part 7: Second Oasis
Part 8: Moving On

Here's an Apple Lossless (ALAC) version, in 24-bit, for all you audiophile types like me. (614mb)
Here's an AAC version, suitable for playing in iPods and almost all other modern music players. (133mb)
Here's an MP3 version, suitable for digital players new, old, and ancient. (111mb)

The cover photo was taken by my father during a trip down the Baja peninsula 40 years ago.

You can click here for the tracklist ... or just skip this link and listen to it without knowing what's in store for you. :)

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Monday, August 29th, 2016
3:40 pm - Back doors and encryption
In physical communications, the level of personal privacy and ease of interception form an inverse relationship, and we all instinctively understand this. A shout is less private than a whisper. A wave in a crowd is less private than a touch on your shoulder. Skywriting is not at all private. An unvoiced thought is the most private of all.

These days we make personal communications on devices that operate on a level beyond the basic physical one we all know. We are also beyond the "very directed form of shouting" that the telephone and radio started out as, and into something else. These new devices are things that we use in ways that feel private - tapping silently on them with fingers, speaking into them behind closed doors, turning off the display when we're not looking at it - but that feeling of physical privacy is, of course, an illusion. Almost everything we do on the device relies on sending data over a wireless network that we cannot see, but reaches all the way around the Earth and up into space. That network also has a memory, extending back some unknown span of time into the past. Clearly the ease of interception may not match the level of privacy we instinctively expect.

The best tool we have (among many) to impose privacy on these devices, is encryption. We leverage encryption to make these communications secure the way we expect them to be, the way they often seem to be to novice users already. But by making these devices harder to tap into, are we also making a the world a more dangerous place?

The government is already allowed to force a phone company to tap into the communications of a person using its network, by convincing a judge that the act is necessary to pursue a case. End-to-end encryption of the content passing over the network denies them this ability. Should the government be allowed to sabotage end-to-end encryption? Can the government make a case that a truly secure communications network cannot be allowed to exist?

How does the argument change when the government wants to have access not just to real-time communications, but to a data store containing your movements, your financial records, private communication between you and your spouse, photographs and video of you and your family, and so on? This is the kind of back door that the government wants to carve into the smartphone of every citizen. Is it a natural extension of a wire tap, or is it an overreach?

Let's take it a step beyond. If a technology exists that provides selective access to the most private parts of your being, should you be denied the ability to completely control that access, for the sake of law enforcement?

Suppose that 50 years from now, we come up with a solid-state machine about the size of a peanut that can be surgically implanted in your skull, deriving all its power from blood flow or body movement or something, and it is able to detect your very thoughts, and transcribe them into signals and send them to the people of your choice. Suppose this device uses end-to-end encryption methods the way Apple uses them to encrypt its iMessage chat service now. The system, as designed, would be effectively impossible to tap by government officials, or criminals. It would be telepathy, made real. It would fundamentally change the human experience.

Our current society, collectively, would only go for a technology like this if it was extremely secure, and most of us wouldn't go for it at all. It's probably the idea of it being surgically attached that makes it the most scary. But we carry smartphones around all day, every day, and even sleep next to them at night, so how long before society changes, and a product like this goes from scary, to coveted?

Now suppose we all buy these devices, convinced of their security, and after we've been walking around with them for a number of years, the government demands changes to the software inside them to make them less secure, so they can tap directly into the minds of suspected criminals. Every device would be altered, including the one in your own head.

At that point, all it would take is one corrupt or sloppy government official leaking the toolkit onto the internet*, and your very thoughts - and no doubt the history of your thoughts - would be subject to eavesdropping, from foreign government agents, all the way down to jilted ex-boyfriends.

(* This has happened already, at least once, with government-owned router and smartphone hacking tools. )

Yes, it would be very convenient to tap into the brain of a suspected murderer or kidnapper or suicide bomber or warlord. Likewise it would be very convenient for them, to tap into everyone else. Imagine the hell they could create.

If your objections are ignored and the software is changed, what are you going to do? Your social and working life, even your identity, is thoroughly dependent on this device. It would be very hard to abandon. Plus, the device is surgically embedded. You might not even know for sure that it's off!

Let's look at this hypothetical situation from another angle: What if encryption wasn't an issue?

What if the battle over encryption was somehow rendered irrelevant, and the government could tap into anything, anywhere? Is there a level of privacy, a form of personal space, that is sacred enough that eavesdropping would be fundamentally wrong, even if the government could do it? Assuming it has the tech, should law enforcement be able to get a warrant to tap in to the thoughts of a private citizen without their knowledge, if they were a suspected terrorist? If so, what about passive surveillance? Should law enforcement be allowed to mass-harvest the thoughts of every citizen and crunch them for patterns, to root out suspected criminals and deviants, without any prior authorization such as a warrant?

The government is already engaged in mass-surveillance activities with internet data*, and fighting to weaken encryption in order to expand that surveillance. Have they already crossed the line of acceptability? How close to the ultimate privacy of an unvoiced thought will government surveillance be allowed to get before it is considered universally wrong?

(* e.g. PRISM. )

Or will we ever get to that point, if the transition happens slowly enough?

Or, what about the more insidious scenario: Will we voluntarily submit to this filtering and see it as "proof of innocence", and begin to assume that anyone who does not voluntarily submit is not trustworthy, and perhaps a criminal?

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Friday, August 26th, 2016
6:30 pm - Why people age out of online blogging
Two very important related factors:
The valuation of privacy, and the devaluation of history.

Example 1:

You're an adult with a career now. You mind your online presence much more closely. Also, it's much much harder to be anonymous on the internet, now that search engines can correlate almost everything you do and show those correlations to other people. Why risk it?

Example 2:

You've gone through a relationship transition. All the memories, even the positive ones, revolving around your old spouse and their family and your friends, are now a potential source of jealousy, negativity, or embarrassment.

Either way, the solution is to wipe old things out of public view, and thoroughly sanitize anything you place in public later.

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Saturday, August 20th, 2016
4:26 pm - Thinking about this thing called cultural appropriation
(Revised August 26)

I grew up in the 80's and 90's. I loved logic puzzles, pixel art, absurdist humor, chat rooms, techno music, programming, electronics, and swordfights (real and virtual.) The label 'geek' sailed in and planted itself on me somewhere along the way, and I wore it with pride.

Around the year 2000, in my home town of Santa Cruz, it became fashionable among young teenagers to "dress like a geek", deliberately looking shy and awkward, wearing aggressively mismatched clothing, even wearing glasses when their vision was perfectly normal. This phenomenon annoyed me whenever I thought about it, but mostly I didn't think about it, because I was busy being a college student. Looking geeky has since dropped out of the spectrum of things young people think about, which is crowded with other things now.

But it turns out that was a harbinger of something much bigger: Thanks to the internet and now the smartphone revolution, large chunks of the culture I used to consider my own have been taken up by totally unrelated groups, in mind-boggling numbers, all over the planet in the last 20 years. Almost all of the time I consider this to be a kind of victory, a validation of how worthwhile my own interests were, even when they were unpopular. I'm glad for it. But some of these unrelated groups twist geek culture in ways that annoy me, or take it places that I find repulsive.

There's a term that's become popular in communities of socially sensitive people, called "cultural appropriation". When I came across it recently, a couple of interesting questions about geek culture came up in my mind, and I'd like to try and work through them here. The first question was: Have I and my fellow geeks been subject to cultural appropriation?

No, I don't think so, for at least two reasons: One, geeks are not an ethnic group. They do not represent a subset of humanity with a shared origin or appearance - they can come from anywhere, and be any color, shape, or gender. (They are often stereotyped as white people, but that's only a stereotype.) They're not an oppressed group, either. The old "jock bullies versus sensitive nerds" thing was in play in the 80's, but that's about it, and that ain't much.

And two, it is often acknowledged that geek culture itself consists largely of elements appropriated from somewhere else. They say that originality is the art of concealing your source - and geek culture has never been interested in that, and its subsequent radiation all over the world has only made those sources more apparent. Now those original inspirations are finding even more attention, and more genuine attention than when geeks were drawn to them merely for being exotic.

But the pull of the exotic for its own sake will always be with us in popular culture, no matter how much the wiser and more socially sensitive among us may wish to exterminate it.

And that thought led me to the second question, the one that I find more interesting: Is geek culture itself inherently more prone to commit "cultural appropriation"? Is the messy, half-coherent community formed around computers, card games, avatars, anime, science fiction, fantasy, and alternative (anti-organized-religion) spirituality, inherently more likely to co-opt superficial traits and ideas from an actively oppressed people's culture and parody them, cheapening that culture in the eyes of others while also reinforcing it as alien, or pretentious?

Recently I witnessed an online fracas over a phenomenon in Burning Man where white people (the term "white people" is always close at hand in these scandals) are assembling and wearing headdresses made of feathers that often look very much like ceremonial Native American materials, because -- well, some inane reason, I don't know. Then they wear these to a big rave in the desert, on formerly Native American lands. To me, and to plenty of righteous online commentators, that's almost hilariously distasteful, and a pretty clear-cut example of cultural appropriation. (But, I find Burning Man itself distasteful, so perhaps I'm just not the target audience, eh?)

On the other hand, I immediately saw my own behavior reflected in it: Six years ago I took LED strips, lexan, DC converters, and a lithium-iron battery, and strapped it all to my bicycle helmet and created a light-up mohawk for riding at night in San Jose Bike Party. A photograph of me wearing it appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. All the feedback I ever got from it was positive, including multiple requests to build more and sell them. But I have to wonder... Was I being a huge hypocrite? Was that a headdress or wasn't it?

Some people see cultural appropriation as equivalent to racism or sexism. (If you want quotes, google will provide.) But this is even more fractious than those because it has a more subjective, personal angle to it. There are lots of young people at Burning Man who don't think about Native American issues at all -- it never enters their minds. They go on Etsy looking for a costume, pick something that looks cool, and that's it. One could try to make the case that a headdress looks cool because it is loosely associated with (in their minds) an exotic midwest spirituality that they have some vague admiration for, but let's be honest here: A headdress looks cool, in itself, without any story behind it at all. In scientific terms, this is more likely a case of convergent evolution, than some kind of theft. It's also art, and art is not inherently restrained by dignity or respect or even common sense. The fact that you can find headgear made up of steel wire, plastic, chunks of baseball cap, spraypaint, and LEDs on the same search is informative. On the other hand, some of these are proudly labeled by their own creators: "Native American headdress." (Well that's a giveaway, isn't it.)

Adding to the confusion, take an instance of cultural appropriation and stretch it out over a few generations so the source is obscured, and it becomes culture, like the mohawk hairstyle. Are punks wearing it because they appropriated it from the Pawnee, or because they appropriated it from Iron Age Irishmen? Or for their own reasons, independent of those? I confess that I made mine because it looked cool, and because it had an association with subversive punk culture. Was I engaged in second-hand cultural appropriation? As a self-identified sensitive person, exactly how much guilt, if any, should I feel about this? Should I destroy the mohawk helmet? Or continue to wear and enjoy it?

This leads me to an interesting thought: Now that our world is an order of magnitude more interconnected, perhaps it is far easier to see cultural appropriation than it ever was before, because it is far easier to straddle the border between two groups: The group that lays an original claim to something - a mode of dress or a ritual or even a phrase (like "spirit animal") - and values it highly, and includes it in a rich history -- and the group that is using the thing flippantly, without respect or thought, as an accessory or an affect, and may not have any concern for - or awareness of - the first group at all. Now, both groups can see each other. Now, people can go out to some random patch of the internet, and bump into something that looks cool and exotic, and pick it up and mess around with it in their bicycle gang or cocktail party, and post pictures of their exploits back onto the internet. And likewise, people can go online and see something hideous taking place with materials or symbols they revere - without even leaving their house - and get furious about it. And let the flame war begin, and let's all choose a side, and spread the word, et cetera.

So let me apply that thought to the question: Are geeks more likely to be "cultural appropriators"?

Yes and no. I think that when geeks are young, we were/are more likely to build our identity from exotic things, because a common thread in geekdom is a need to feed the imagination by reaching beyond one's stifling environment -- often the stifling environment of middle-class American suburbia. But on the other hand, being sensitive souls in defiance of conformity, we are more likely to take cultural appropriation seriously, and pursuant to that, are more likely to accuse other people, including each other, of cultural appropriation, and demonize the targets of our wrath in a way that shuts down discussion.

Putting it metaphorically, I think geekdom is acting like a dog with fleas chewing on its own leg. I think this is why so many people have become fed up with it and are ditching the label - and the forums, and the scene, and the conventions, and the crusades - because they are left feeling weak from compassion fatigue. And if they are their own worst enemy, liking things that reinforce a sense of the alien in other groups - subtly racist science fiction, free expression that is cultural appropriation in disguise, a spirituality that tries to synthesize the best of established religions and invites abuse from all of them - all in the quest for identity ... why should geeks try to silence those internal and external critics, when they can disengage and walk away? Let them argue and apply nasty labels - the weather outside is peaceful.

Or, perhaps more insidious - why not continue to do it but close the doors to outside (online) observers, effectively rebuilding the walls of separation that existed before - perhaps the same walls that led to the cultural appropriation in the first place?

When I was a geeky kid I was fascinated by all kinds of exotic things, and as I grew up I retained that curiosity. I have taken many of the things that I thought were novel when I was young, and connected with their deeper roots as an adult. That has colored my vision. That has made me aware of the acts of cheapening and appropriation that continue all around me. For me, the lesson is, I need to see these acts through the understanding lens I use for my younger self. I know my own culture was an exercise in hybridization and borrowing, but nevertheless, it felt real and personal to me, and was a basis for my community. If I'd been told, "you don't get this thing; it's mine," I would have resisted, and I would have felt right in resisting. Who is anyone to tell me what I can and cannot like, or think, or wear? I was already in a state of rebellion with my immediate surroundings, in a way that felt important and real. However, if I'd been told, "what you're doing is causing harm to others," and been given an explanation, that would have been different. Best of all would be an invitation to learn more, to get involved, and to make up my own mind.

Knowing this, I instinctively bridle at accusations of cultural appropriation when they sound self-righteous. When we assume that a given people's right to a given mode of expression is self-evident, and that the people who don't respect it, or immediately see it, are only ever acting in bad faith, we give those people a reason to disengage (and keep wearing their headdresses at Burning Man) leaving us to fester in our echo-chamber. We need to take what we know about how geek culture originated in massive appropriation, about how we never identified as "the oppressor" even as we were constructing it, but how we would voluntarily change if given a reason, and pay it forward.

(One interesting way to consider the problem is to compare it to the trouble the United States and China are having reinforcing each others' patents. How do they find compromise? Can they?)

So no, I am not taking an unreservedly sympathetic stance towards those who accuse others of cultural appropriation. Including those who do it by proxy, in order to defend someone else. Cultural appropriation is a battle over modes of expression. It is tangled up in First Amendment concepts of free speech and religion, of integration versus multiculturalism, of intellectual property versus art. I think "why" is an okay question to ask. I also think that a person's culture - even if someone else thinks it was appropriated - can feel very personal and important to them, and that some people who are "cultural appropriators" are deserving of sympathy when they are told that the thing they identify with is not actually theirs. Starting out by calling them assholes is unfair, and probably counterproductive. I believe there is a middle ground that needs to be held, using different words, or the same arguments will repeat, as they are prone to on the internet, and the same walls will stay up, or be constructed anew as we all filter out the side that we can't relate to.

I think that for me, the anonymous online battles are just not worth it. There is not enough dignity, and there is not enough connection with real world activities - in fact it seems like there is a deliberate detachment from it, as if writing an angry rant - or even an essay like this one - was an adequate substitute for action. I have no illusions about how little effect these words have. I know my online journal is not important; I just use it to try to organize my thoughts. But I don't need any witch hunts, or shame campaigns, and I'm all full up on righteous indignation.

Perhaps the real lesson for me here is, discussing anything political on the internet is a fool's errand. Why am I even talking about the soul of geekdom as a collective anyway, when at best it's like a herd of cats? Perhaps it's all a massive illusion. Perhaps I should just stick to making jokes.

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Tuesday, August 16th, 2016
11:57 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 18: Arthur, Arthur, Arthur!
Saturn Rising, 1961

This story employs a character type that has been pretty common in sci-fi: The self-made zillionaire industrialist who personally finances a huge scientific breakthrough. Very popular for sci-fi writers because it's an easy character to write, and an easy way to get a bunch of scientists into a workshop, hammering doggedly at a problem with no concern about the expense. Just reaching back into my recent reading list, there are zillionaire industrialist characters in "Proxima" by Stephen Baxter, "The Light Of Other Days" by Baxter and Clarke, "Contact" by Carl Sagan ... and now, here.

I guess the archetype seemed fresher back in 1961, because there isn't much else to this story. It's pretty much just "rich guy finances vacation spots on Saturn's moons", as told from the point of view of a pilot that he consults with a few times. Pretty dull.

Also, Clarke admits in the introduction that his predictions about the environment on Saturn's moon Titan were way off: Any building on the surface would not have a view of Saturn rising, because it would be permanently submerged in clouds! Oh well.

The Last Command, 1965

A brief us-versus-the-Russkies tale delivered in the form of a "Last Command" from a war-ravaged earth to a military base on the moon. The twist ending falls into your brain about two paragraphs in, and the story just can't make itself short enough for the waiting to be worthwhile.

The Shining Ones, 1962

It took me a while to decide whether to spoil this story so I could more fully discuss it, or just give a summary. Then I realized that there have been such excellent adaptations of this story, in literature and cinema, that simply comparing it to the works it inspired would also spoil it - and possibly the other works as well. So I feel like my hands are tied either way. I guess the best point I can make is, if you've read Rendezvous with Rama and its sequels, this story is an interesting blueprint of Clarke's vision for the aliens in those novels. I look forward to seeing them on the big screen if Morgan Freeman's project ever gets enough traction.

The Food Of The Gods, 1964

A quaint little tale about the way food culture might change in the far future. When all food is synthesized from machines, the idea of eating animals - or even plants - may seem barbaric. I can't help pointing out that in the time since this story we've discovered that food - and our own digestion - is a whole lot more complicated than anyone would have guessed, and now it seems crazy to believe that a mechanical device could synthesize a better bowl of salad from scratch more quickly and more efficiently than a farmer could grow it with soil and sunlight. Especially if the farmer is a modern farmer using genetically-engineered crops. Millions of years of relentless optimization creates a pretty high bar for chemists to clear!

On the other hand, it's worth considering the secondary point Clarke makes in the story: A good way to synthesize appealing food might be essential when humans move off-planet, because soil and properly-filtered sunlight are pretty rare in space, and even if you launch the soil up there it's a huge pain keeping it viable for long.

An Ape About The House, 1962

I had low expectations for this story going in, based on the title. How insightful could a tale about a trained primate be, if it was written 50 years ago? I pictured three scenarios: First, Clarke could oversell the natural abilities of primates to make some kind of comment on the callousness of animal treatment in the 60's. "Hey, who solved professor Farnsworth's equation that he left on the blackboard last Friday? Oh my goodness, it was Mr Bananas! We've all been so wrong about you!!" I wouldn't buy it, and the story would annoy me. Second, Clarke could undersell his primates, making them into sullen brutes, and then introduce some fanciful medical technology - an implant, or a helmet, or something - that makes them hyper-intelligent. No doubt he'd spend most of this story describing how the humans had to destroy the apes or risk enslavement. A version of Planet Of The Apes six years ahead of the film, perhaps. Also not compelling.

Or third, Clarke could get his treatment of primates spot-on, and we could all learn a Very Important Lesson about treating our close evolutionary cousins with respect and empathy. This scenario would probably end on a sad note, since it couldn't help pointing out how terrible we've been at learning this lesson in the real world - with poaching, habitat destruction, abuse and exploitation by zoos and circuses, and so on. Not exactly a fun read.

But instead, Clarke found a personal angle that was more amusing than I expected. His story revolves around a genetically augmented version of an ape, in the future, that a well-to-do household employs as a housekeeper. There are still some edgy questions about slavery and personhood to grapple with, but they get muddled by the genetic tinkering. The ape's "owners" treat her almost exactly like a 20th-century household would treat a slow but disciplined maid. She is granted humanity - but not quite autonomy.

The head of the household, a rather shallow woman who seems to live to throw dinner parties and one-up the other neighborhood wives (Clarke uses his hatred of women like garnish around a meal), has the ape doing basic household chores at first, but eventually she decides to play a trick on one of her socialite competitors, and uses her housekeeper as the means. Her competitor likes to paint, and often shows off the paintings at gallery events. The woman has some painting skills of her own, so she decides to mock her competitor by holding her own gallery event, and claiming that all the art was actually painted by her primate housekeeper. To make the scenario seem real, she teaches the ape how to sit in front of an easel and slap paint onto it with a brush, and then brings her socialite friends over to see "the artist in action".

Everyone buys it, and the word gets around, and her competitor is thoroughly humiliated. Seems like an easy victory, and the end of the story, except one day while the woman is out, her competitor sneaks over to her house, locates the ape, and commands her to do a painting on the spot so she can see the proof with her own eyes. The ape dutifully sits down at the easel and starts messing around. To everyone's surprise, the resulting artwork is quite good - better than the woman or her socialite competitor - and the story ends with another gallery showing, this time heavily attended, and filled with authentic paintings from the world-famous artist ape.

Cute, humanizing without being preachy, and mercifully short. Well played, Clarke. It could have been worse.

The Wind From The Sun a.k.a. Sun Jammer, 1964

The prosaic title hides the juvenile origins of this story, in a 1960's magazine aimed at teenagers, no doubt filled with other gee-whiz adventure stories uncluttered by boring adult crap like philosophy and romance. A rich inventor builds a solar sail, and flies it in a race against other solar sails, on a route around the Earth and out past the moon. He's got some friendly competition from a Russian cosmonaut who has his own modular sail design. The Russian discards pieces of his sail at key moments in the race to try and overtake our hero, and it's neck-and-neck until an unexpected solar flare endangers them both, forcing them into a draw.

I listened to this while coasting across town on my recumbent at night. It was like a too-serious episode of "Wacky Races". Couldn't hold my attention. In fact, when the comparison came to mind, I went to Wikipedia to find a link about "Wacky Races", and ended up reading about that cartoon and its spinoffs for longer than it took me to read "The Wind From The Sun" in the first place! Oh Jimmy Wales, you rogue!

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11:05 pm - Top ten most influential: Games 2

As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

The next three:Collapse )

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Monday, August 15th, 2016
11:16 pm - Why does one political party seem to be the party of obstructionism, fear, and regression?
Rachel Maddow said this back in 2012 when Obama was re-elected:

And now, four years later, here we are with Trump. It's very frustrating to see one of the two major parties put up a circus clown as applicant for a job that demands gravitas and sophistication. Democracy suffers in a two-party system, and that suffering is compounded when one of the parties seems so dysfunctional that it can't even make a decent counterbalance to the other.

But to understand how we got here it's worth pointing out that Obama only beat McCain by 3.9% of the popular vote in 2008, and only beat Romney by 2% of the popular vote in 2012. Two percent! Let that sink in for a moment; I'll wait.

I live near San Francisco. Around here it's possible to spend an entire week roving around the city chatting people up and never meet a single Republican. (They're around, but they mostly keep their mouths shut and keep to themselves.)

People around here talk about a lot of good ideas, and know a lot about the good ideas and good policy that are embedded in the Democratic party, but they also freely mix that information with conveniently selected stories and references that demonize and parody the Republican party. As a result it's easy to get a very skewed impression of what the voting membership of the Republican party actually cares about, and/or listens to. Those people are not crazy. It's just that the party system that was supposed to serve them betrayed them worse than it betrayed the Democrats.

Around here the Democratic party also suffered an internal version of this when Bernie and Hillary supporters went diving at each others' throats for most of an entire year. We have the benefit of watching the dust settle and forming a more sensible - and factual - impression of the winner now. But we also need to keep in mind that the same thing is happening for Republicans. The party gave them a long parade of people, and they rejected each one, almost one at a time, until the one left was the one least interested in pandering to - or even being subject to the control of - or even listening to - the party officials. This was a pretty big "screw you" to their own party, intentional or not, but now that the process is done and the dust is settling, is it any wonder that they're starting to lose interest in their "screw you" candidate?

If Trump loses as big as we all think he will, perhaps this will be the decade that the Republican party finally (finally!) ditches the things that have stopped working for it: Courting huge, rich donors, goading religious conservatives into politics, and drumming up nostalgia for whitebread 50's post-war America. If they rebuild their platform into something that befits the 21st century it will be a really huge help for democracy in this country.

In that case, bless Trump for being the clown too big for the clown car, and crashing it into the telephone pole of progress.

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Friday, August 5th, 2016
7:23 pm - Birkel body owner's manual:
(For nephews (and niece) - think of this as one half of a map, to help you as you learn about yourself.)

* Watch the movie The Court Jester with Danny Kaye.  It's great fun.  Now, think of yourself as a mashed-together combination of Danny Kaye's wily, crowd-pleasing romantic, and Sir Griswold, his hulking, iron-chested rival who can punch clear through a shield.  You are lucky!
* We tend to be introverts, with complicated inner lives.  We're not necessarily made to thrive in public positions of power, but are a huge asset to the leaders we choose to be of service to.
* We also have a genetic predisposition to some form of ADHD, probably the inattentive subtype, as well as some form of cyclical depression.  Hopefully it will be mild for you - but it might not be.  Search for the coping mechanisms that work for you.  Practice them.  This will not be a fair or easy burden, but bearing it will make your life more meaningful, more varied, more valuable.
* Very are very responsive to exercise, and do best when we get a lot of it.  I mean a lot of it.  Every Birkel is potentially a world-class athlete.
* We like to sweat a lot, and we tend to have oily skin.  This is embarrassing as a teenager, but it pays dividends later on - with care, we'll look like we're 25 when we're 35, and 55 when we're 70.
* The most important factor in avoiding illness (after getting enough sleep of course) is keeping our core well insulated.  We have long shallow torsos, which bleed away heat if we don't take care to add an extra shirt, a base layer, a sweater, or a jacket when it gets cold.
* We're pretty cancer-resistant relative to other folks.  Barring accident, and with care, we can expect to live at least 80 years.  (If I could point to one external physical reason for this, it would be our legs.  Those big chunks of muscle and bone are the equivalent of a camel's humps for our immune and circulatory systems.)
* Our Achilles Heel seems to be a very aggressive immune system.  It can lead to mysterious or chronic allergic reactions, and we have a family history of thyroid issues.
* We have well-constructed lungs.  Try sleeping near someone from another family and notice how you breathe at almost _half_ the rate of most other people.  On the other hand we react more intensely to air-pollution, smoky rooms, allergens, et cetera.  We feel it impairing us and we don't like it!
* If you're a guy, you'll start to lose your hair way too early.  Wear a hat, and try not to let it bug you.  You'll still be plenty handsome.  (The hat is for sun protection.  If you decide a shaved head is your look, keeping the skin on the top of your head young will be essential!)
* If you're a girl, you'll probably be envious of petite women.  As you grow up, you'll realize all the advantages of your shape, and the envy will fade.
* We don't seem to have very good night vision, but we don't tend to need glasses either.
* We're not the loudest singers, but we've got very good pitch and rhythm.
* Our adult teeth often end up larger than our jaw.  You'll probably need braces, and probably need a few wisdom teeth extracted. 
* We get a nice set of bacteria in us when we're young.  Years later if we're dealing with an infection, we should try to avoid wide-spectrum antibiotics.
* Watch for thyroid problems when you reach your mid-30's.  A yearly blood test is a good idea.

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Friday, July 29th, 2016
12:01 pm - A thought about sexism in this presidential race.
I'm still wrestling with the question of how much of the rhetoric in this presidential race is inspired by garden variety sexism.

Eight years ago when Palin ran as a VP pick, it was hugely energizing to the GOP base, but her credentials were so questionable that a backlash started almost immediately. It was clear to Democrats, and eventually clear to almost everyone, that she was chosen because she was a relatively young and pretty woman who was enough of an outsider that the GOP could control her. When she went off-reservation and started spilling her own crazy ideas, we all had fun shouting "I told you so!"

Now we have presidential candidate Hillary who is pushing 70. She's not trending online as a MILF, she's not winking in debates, she's not an outsider that people can project their hopes of revolution onto, and yet ... again ... we have a backlash of people saying "She's just popular because she's a woman."

With Palin it was, "If she wasn't a woman, you'd recognize her as a know-nothing lunatic." With Clinton it's, "If she wasn't a woman, you'd recognize her as corrupt and criminal and evil."

Now, to me, this is apples and oranges, because I think Palin is a know-nothing lunatic, whereas I don't consider Clinton to be criminal or evil, and not particularly corrupt. But what I'm wondering is, how much of the "corrupt and criminal and evil" narrative arose simply because people wanted something to tack on to the end of "If she wasn't a woman..."?

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Thursday, July 28th, 2016
5:13 pm - Top ten most influential: Games 1

As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

Top ten games, the first four:Collapse )

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Wednesday, July 27th, 2016
12:10 pm - Talking paleontology
Me:When you were talking to Kirk, I remember him asking you about a theory - what was it? Something about fins versus humps? Or was that another conversation? Also, what's the kind and species of the bone we found in the wall? I've forgotten.
My Nephew:Well, we talked about the Jack Bailey theory of Spinosaurus having a hump, and how it doesn't seem like it would make sense in an aquatic creature, but I also talked about that with Rob, who supports the theory cause of the bone shapes. As for the bone, it is most likely to be from a dromeosaurus.
Me:Thanks dude! Yeah, a hump in an aquatic creature doesn’t make a lot of sense.
My Nephew:You are most welcome. That's what Kirk thought too, and the geochemistry supports at least semi-aquaticness
Me:OTOH I wonder if it created a flexable surface that changed the surface/volume ratio and acted like a swim bladder...
My Nephew:Hmmm.... I don't think that they would stay underwater long enough to need that. It's more like a crocodile than anything
Me:Ahah. Hmm. I wonder what predators a crocodile would need to scare away with a hump?
My Nephew:Umm.... Yeah.. It was the largest carnivore in it ecosystem, and a sail would be just as effective at scaring stuff
Me:Would a hump make sense for food storage?
My Nephew:Well, camels' humps aren't really supported by bone. I'm not sure how good something like a bison is at storing food
Me:Yeah they’re just, like, *splat*
My Nephew:To put it in the scientific terminology, yes
Me:Like the worst dish of ice cream ever, with hair on it
My Nephew:And skin and blood! Don't forget skin and blood!

(Fun fact: My nephew just turned 14 last month. Look out, world!)

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Tuesday, July 12th, 2016
1:11 pm - What makes a good coder?
In a couple of job interviews I've been asked, "what makes you a good computer programmer" and I've been delighted to reply with, "well, it's basically this: I'm lazy, stubborn, and suspicious."

Then I go on to explain that being lazy motivates me to automate things so I only need to do them once, being stubborn motivates me to solve difficult problems because I hate giving up, and being suspicious motivates me to write tests and verify things, catching errors that would otherwise be totally baffling. From my worst traits emerged some of my best ones. How much time did I lose, as a young person, believing I was a lost cause? I can't tell; it's all gone a bit fuzzy now that I'm 40. But more than I needed to, I assume.

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Sunday, June 26th, 2016
5:08 pm - Last night's dream

I dreamed that I was wandering in a dark redwood forest, and I came upon a house. There was a family living inside - a mother and two daughters.

There was also a young man there, who wasn’t related to the family. He was living in the basement.

The mother approached me and said that they wanted to get rid of the man, because he was being very aggressive to the youngest daughter. Threatening to sexually assault and murder her. They told him to leave but he wouldn’t come out of the basement.

She said they were all afraid of him because he was turning into some kind of monster.

So I went over to the basement door, and just as I was about to open it, the young man opened it. He had on a big black trenchcoat that covered everything except his head, which was pale and very round.

He pushed past me and started looming over the youngest daughter, threatening her with a knife.

I went over to the wall and picked up a fireplace poker, then ran at the guy and stabbed him through the stomach, pinning him to the wall. But the trenchcoat deflated like there was nothing in it, and his head detached from the coat and floated towards me like a balloon.

I grabbed it out of the air and realized it was made of rubber. Inside were a bunch of tiny vials of powder, like a collection of spices. I ran to the bathroom with the head, tore it open, and emptied the vials into the toilet one by one. He was trying to cast some kind of spell on the household, but I ruined it by flushing away the reagents.

When I ran back to the living room, the man was there again, wearing another trenchcoat. He was standing close to the daughter and appeared to be pleading or bargaining with her. There was no threat in his posture. I don’t remember any of the words.

I tore the fireplace poker out of the wall and brandished it at him. He picked up a metal bar that was leaning nearby and held it as though we were going to have a swordfight. His form was terrible. The expression on his face was more like curiosity than anger. So I made a pretend-swing at him, very slow. Then another. He mirrored my movements. He thought I was teaching him how to swordfight.

I noticed that his arms and hands were misshapen, and covered with cuts. His head was lumpy too, like he was a mutant, or suffering from some weird disease. I felt sorry for him. I decided I didn't want to fight him, but just then the other daughter came running into the room and stabbed him in the chest with a huge knife.

He collapsed on the floor and died. Then the mother and her daughters gathered around his body and dragged it outside into the woods, leaving it by the side of the road.

After that I stood around talking to the mother. I can't remember the exact conversation, but I remember asking her where the guy had come from, and she said he was from the house a little ways down the road.

Then she said something like, "now we'll have to find a replacement," and looked at me with a big toothy grin.

That was when I realized that the young man had not been haunting their basement. He had been imprisoned there. The family had grown tired of experimenting on him and abusing him - twisting his mind and body - and they used me to kill him off.

The mother took a step towards me and raised her hands up in the air as if she was going to cast a curse. I realized I was still holding the fireplace poker, and I swing it down directly on her head. CRACK!

It punctured a hole in the top of her skull, and blood came pouring out. When I tore the poker free, a chunk of her hair was tangled around it. Her arms were still raised. She laughed crazily. I swung the poker again - CRACK! And again. She stumbled in her advance. I hit her one more time and the poker got stuck. So I let go of it, turned around, and ran up the road.

I ran so fast I began floating up into the air, into the trees. Behind me the woman tore the poker away from her skull, then turned around and began walking back to her house, laughing the entire time. Her daughters stood there watching, their faces expressionless, as though this was no more eventful than a visit from the postman.

"See you soon!" she shrieked back at me.

Then between her and me I saw a transparent, skeletal figure come rising up out of the ground. It stretched like a funhouse mirror, and shot up into the trees above me.

Then I realized that since I was floating in the air, perhaps I was no longer in my own body. Perhaps this was the beginning of some curse or spell. Perhaps things were about to get a lot worse. "What if this keeps going," I thought, "and gets so bad that I actually die in my sleep, and get stuck here in these woods forever?"

I thought to myself "NO" and, BANG, my eyes shot open and I was instantly fully awake. The end.

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Monday, May 2nd, 2016
11:11 pm - A response to invite more discussion:

Another divisive image meme from the Bernie camp. Pass it along, if you want, I guess.

Bernie's popularity has risen by the sword of memes and zealotry, and it is now in danger of dying by the sword of memes and zealotry. You can claim that the other three remaining candidates - and/or their supporters - have behaved similarly, and you can find examples, but in terms of proportion, the Bernie camp has it all sown up. Do an undirected search of the major corners of the internet and see for yourself.

I'm especially annoyed by this specific meme. It reduces each of the four candidates to a single idea, each of them negative except Bernie, and those ideas conform with the defining narrative for the left, for this election cycle.

That narrative is usually expressed like so: Bernie is "revolution". Hillary is "corporate shill". Cruz is "religious nut". Trump is "racist hicks". On the left, all discussions, all memes, all editorials orbit this narrative. Almost everything everyone on the left says, conforms to this narrative.

But it's not a truthful narrative, it's just an emotionally convenient one. It lets people on the left place themselves on a nice high pedestal - with the Bernie supporters on the highest one - and lets them drop rocks on everyone below.

The simplest one first: Yeah, Ted Cruz is deeply religious. That's just about all the left knows about him, and for them that's enough. But he's also an extremely aggressively libertarian candidate. He wants to dismantle huge pieces of the government, and starve the remainder nearly to death. This - not his religious ambitions - is what makes him both a dangerous candidate and a weak and reviled one. He's still in the race mostly because of how deeply divided the Republican party is over Trump. And say what you will about the Republican party, but they have been carrying a torch for reducing the size and scope of the federal government - rather than expanding it - for decades. Even if the candidates they field with that platform don't survive the campaigning, at least they field them. Ergo, Ted Cruz.

An aggressively anti-growth candidate would never, ever appear in the modern Democratic party. The best you'll get is Bernie, whose ideas revolve around using "big government" as a necessary counterbalance to, and/or substitute for, the power of "big corporations" and the rich. It's worth considering that the more bloated the government - the more money it collects and redistributes - the more opportunity there is for large private organizations to divert that money under the table. But that's outside the leftist narrative this season.

Next: Trump is massively popular. Check out these disturbing general election poll numbers. Most of the working class on the right is in favor of him, and most of his support in general is working class. And they have their reasons. Left or right, government has been actively sabotaging their lives with inane subsidies, tax law shenanigans, conform-or-die regulations and deregulations, and yes, that subject Trump loves to beat on, trade agreements. But that doesn't square with the narrative, so that whole mass of people is mocked for "voting against their interests"; a dismissal with an underlying assumption: that these people are ignorant, bigoted, and racist. Take these ugly assumptions and spin up a whole picture from them, and presto, you get the Trump narrative: Fascist dictatorship. So convenient; so easy to dismiss.

His platform is mainly a love letter to large and small businesses and a gigantic pile of tax cuts, along with some ill-conceived immigration policy that would make Reagan barf. It's way more modern-era Republican than fascist. You could apply the label to his foreign policy: His website proudly floats the idea of deploying the navy into the South China Sea specifically to threaten China for the sake of trade, and that's got fascism written all over it, and is also a Very Bad Idea. But fold it in with the rest of his campaign speeches and professed policies, and the big picture becomes protectionism. It becomes anti-globalization. That's what excites his working-class base. Trump being champion of a liberal cause like anti-globalization is way too much for the narrative to handle. Would I call him a liberal? *snort* Heck no. Is this a liberal cause? Well, yes. It is.

And the most complicated one: Clinton is arguably the single most well-known female politician in the entire Western world. That means a whole lot of exposure - positive and negative. She is allied with one large SuperPAC ("Priorities USA Action") that has collected about 67 million in large donations, all intended to be spent endorsing her (the largest chunk being 6 million from George Soros, boo, hiss.) A couple of other, smaller SuperPACs have collected for her as well. Aside from this, she has her own official campaign, which has collected 180 million in donations - about the same as Bernie.

Hillary has a long and winding history of fighting for progressive causes, especially in health care and education, but diverges from the leftist scorecard on a number of things, especially in the military and foreign policy. That's probably why she ended up being secretary of state (and a good one, IMNSHO). She has moved slowly to the left over the last 30 years but is still not categorically on the left, a state that is quite aggravating to people who like their politics black-and-white. Still, the idea that she is "in the pocket of big business" coalesced when Bernie entered the race, as the way to distinguish Bernie from her. Was Obama in the pocket of big business when he was elected? Nobody was saying so - yet his 2008 campaign donations by industry were pretty similar to Hillary's donations (including SuperPACs) right now. And if donations alone were enough to set the attitude of a president, shouldn't we all be championing Trump instead? (Well, no - Trump wears his jovial attitude towards big business on his sleeve.) Assuming Hillary in 2016 is the same Hillary from 2008, what's different this time around? Bernie, obvs.

I've been over her platform in other discussions, pointing out repeatedly that even if it's not as wholeheartedly leftist and progressive as Bernie's (excepting gun control), it's still obviously leftist and progressive. And I'll happily argue it again, if only for the point that "oligarchy" is not a fair or accurate summary of it. If she's too well integrated with the political scene for you, well, you might prefer Trump, who has never held any public office. If she's too pro-government for you, you might prefer Ted Cruz, who wants to hack the government up and burn it. If she's too pro-rich for you, which is an odd accusation given her platform, then I guess Bernie is your guy.

Just to be clear, I'd happily vote for Bernie or for Hillary. I'm a bit tired of Bernie's revolutionary anti-rich schtick and I'm deeply concerned about his ability to control spending, but the good definitely outweighs the bad. I'm also annoyed that Hillary had to "evolve" on issues that have seemed pretty clear to me all along, and I don't like the idea of a family dynasty any more than I liked it with Geroge Bush Jr. On the other hand I really like that she's the only candidate who is running a campaign without an obvious scapegoat. It's what I liked about Obama. Even if the most she'll ever promise is 8 more years of an Obama-style presidency, that sounds pretty good.

I don't like Trump's tax plans, or much of the rest of his platform, and I can't find anything to like about Ted Cruz. But still, dismissing these people with inaccurate one-word labels is no help to anyone. The Bernie campaign really needs to control its own smugness if it's going to maintain a head of steam.

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Saturday, April 2nd, 2016
9:40 pm - It's exactly as bad as you imagine!
In the comments under What does it feel like to be fired from Facebook?:

As for legal standing, [...] I had zero energy to put into a protracted legal battle with my former employer. In the discovery process we also had a glimpse of the potential defense we would battle in court, and let this be a warning to all current and future FB staff: Everything you say, IRC, write, email, Messenger, and post to Facebook (internal and external Groups included) WILL be used against you. Your politics, your opinions, your friends, your sarcasm, your funny meme posts, your likes and gruesome likejacks, who you party with, photos and videos... everything. If it can build a case, even a "distracting from the main issue" case, it WILL be used against you. You won't be trying your case and its issues, you will be defending everything you have ever done or said in your life online. Facebook has it all in a database called UDB. But you Facebookers already know that... you just never imagined it would be used against you by Facebook. Classic victim-blaming/shaming strategy.

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Monday, February 22nd, 2016
10:51 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 17: Can't Teach An Old Clarke New Techs
The Other Side Of The Sky, 1957

This was a pretty interesting collection of short stories about life on a space station. The standout to me was a somewhat implausible one about an astronaut who brings a pet bird up into space, and one day the bird begins fainting from lack of oxygen, alerting the crew to a failure in the oxygen system and saving many lives.

I'm not sure if I liked it because the idea of a bird on a space station is kind of adorable, or because it brought up a series of questions that my skeptical mind began to chew on? Could a bird figure out how to fly, in an environment with no concept of "down"? Could a bird survive the launch into space, or would it have to be hatched from an egg on the station? Would the egg survive the launch? How would a bird deal with eating? Don't some birds tilt their heads up and use gravity to help them swallow or drink? Don't they rely on gravity to defecate cleanly?

I bet NASA has actually answered some of these questions.

The other stories were good, even if they didn't inspire so many questions. Clarke earned his lunch money here.

Out Of The Cradle, Endlessly Orbiting, 1959

A story framed as an interview with an old scientist, and based on an optimistic timeline for space exploration that has us heading off to colonize Mars well before the year 2000. A few minutes in, the old scientist describes the "second most awe-inspiring sound he's ever heard," and then announces that he's going to tell a story about the sound that beat it to become number one.

It's not that much of a story, so I don't feel bad for spoiling it, by saying that as soon as he made that announcement it was obvious exactly what the sound would be, just a matter of learning what parties were involved. Think about it: According to every trite storytelling trope in the world, what sound is a well-cultured adult male going to hear, that will immediately shove everything else he's ever heard into second place for "awe-inspiring?"

The birth cry of his first child. Duh. Damn it Clarke, you could have avoided telegraphing it so obviously if you'd just dropped the "second-most" setup. Oh well. (He's way too dead to care at this point.) Next story...

Dog's Star, 1962

A sappy not-science-fiction story eulogizing a dog. Not much reason for this to exist, except perhaps as a signpost for the beginning of Clarke's interest in earthquakes.

Trouble With Time a.k.a. Crime On Mars, 1960

I was certain this would be about time travel paradoxes, but it turned out to be a lightweight detective story, with a sci-fi flourish. The flourish is that the action takes place on Mars, which has no oceans, and so there is no convenient place to put the international date line. It just so happens that one of the cities on the newly colonized planet is laid right across the line, such that it's Friday on the East side of town when it's Thursday on the West side, and so forth. A burglar sneaks across town into a museum and waits until early morning to sneak out with a stolen artifact, only to realize that it's Friday all over again and the museum is open for business. He panics and the police nab him easily.

Undeniably silly, but reading it leads one to contemplate the international date line as it exists here on Earth, which can be very brain-bending. There's a good reason we've all agreed to stick it way out in the Pacific Ocean, and even zig-zagged it around various islands.

Cosmic Casanova, 1958

Like whoah. Some of Clarke's stories were first published in Playboy magazine (which all you young people may not realize was a monthly publication that was notorious from the 70's to the late 90's for being a source of naked-lady-pictures for curious teenage boys nationwide) and this story would fit right into those pages between the tastefully nude women and the advertisements for wine and cigars. But no, this was published somewhere else.

Here's the plot: In the far future, a man is doing the outer-space equivalent of long-haul trucking, spending large amounts of time alone on his ship, and repeatedly getting starved for sexual contact, then having a bunch of shallow sexual conquests every time he reaches a populated planet. (Yee haw!) This has repeated so many times that it's become a way of life for him, and he's developed quite a skill for recognizing willing partners and contriving a situation where they can get naked together. Then one day he discovers a beacon from a planet that's been out of contact with the rest of civilization for 5000 years, and as he heads for the planet to investigate, he starts up a remote conversation with an emissary from the planet, and she happens to be a pretty young lady. They plan his arrival on the planet so they can get some brief alone-time together, presumably for a quick bit of humpery, before she has to introduce him to the other officials. The plan seems perfect, and the man is practically salivating as his ship touches down and he runs outside to meet his interstellar booty-call, but then he gets a rude surprise.

The low gravity of the planet has affected this isolated group in a strange way over the last 5000 years: The woman is so tall that the man barely comes up to her knees.

What a tweeeest!

Well, even if the main character is a bit of a crawler, the story is still worthwhile, because the tweeeest ending makes for an interesting thought experiment. Could humans grow to 20 feet tall in a low-gravity environment, and still look more-or-less the same?

Well, evolution can do a lot in 5000 years, especially to species that have very short reproductive cycles. But reasonably civilized humans only reproduce every 20 years or so. That's 250 generations; doesn't seem like much... But I'm betting it's all a bit moot since a 20-foot-tall human would not be proportional, and would look quite alarming to anyone expecting a "normal" appearance.

Even if gravity is changed, physics still has its way. A person 4x taller would have 64x the mass but only 16x the surface area. Their whole physiology would have to be rearranged just to radiate enough heat and breathe in enough oxygen. Would they breathe, move, and speak at the same rate? Would their voice be the same, or would it be suspiciously deep? Perhaps we'd have to alter the atmosphere, the temperature, the light intensity, and the pressure, in very specific ways to try and counteract this - but how well would that work?

Would their hair be suspiciously dense-looking? With their eyes 4x larger on every side and 4x farther apart, would they still be able to focus them with the same muscles? The cornea takes in oxygen directly from the air - it contains no blood vessels - how well would that work in our re-jiggered atmosphere? Would they need redesigned tear-ducts to avoid dehydrating those huge eyeballs?

I'm not trying to make an argument from incredulity here, just saying that there are plenty of factors to consider in deciding how much a human's appearance might change if they were 4x taller, and reduced gravity does not eliminate very many of those factors.

Plus, we're already assuming that humans would naturally favor larger bodies in lesser gravity. Why would we do that? Perhaps because the largest mammals on Earth live in the sea, and they are less troubled by gravity there. ... But they also have pretty different body shapes, suited to moving through the water. It's not an ideal comparison since we're assuming a gaseous atmosphere on our hypothetical 5000-year backwater planet. Perhaps humans would get taller, and skinnier at the same time, and we'd end up with a planet full of gigantic slow-moving skeleton-people. Perhaps we'd have the Wookiee home world! (Except they'd be pretty lousy in a fight.)

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Sunday, February 21st, 2016
12:43 am - NZ Day 19: Logistics

We were up and about with plenty of time to wait for the shuttle that would take us safely up the mountain, but Kerry wasn't feeling well, so we sat around in the sun near the depot instead of doing our usual excited exploring. While we waited, a group of girls from a Christian school asked if they could sing us a song as part of a "scavenger hunt" their class was participating in. I couldn't help recording the show - it was amusing and a bit weird.

Kerry noticed that there were bees flying around the station, hunting moths. It was some kind of moth genocide, in fact. A bee would fly up to the plants near the bench, locate and carefully land on a moth, then methodically cut its head off. The headless corpse would drop onto the sidewalk, and the bee would fly on to the next moth. Perhaps this was an evolved form of pest control for the plants that sustained the bees?

As an aside, I've often wondered how modern farmers exploit these relationships between predator and prey. Everything has a predator, right? Wasps hunting caterpillars, beetles hunting aphids... It sounds like a fascinating area to study. I remember buying a box of ladybugs to protect my backyard lettuce crop, but the little jerks all flew and crawled away without seeming to notice the eggs and aphids I wanted them to eat. Bah!

The shuttle from Ohakune to National Park arrived with a bike trailer designed for regular bikes, but with a little guesswork we managed to get the recumbents secured.

We were traveling off-schedule and hadn't bothered to book a room in advance, so we rode around National Park and scoped out the options. We wanted to be comfortable during our brief downtime, and that meant a clean place with thick walls and plenty of hot water - and internet, since I had plenty of photos to upload. We settled on the Plateau Lodge, and Kerry laid down for a nap while I rode out to explore the town a bit.

Here's the automated weather station outside of National Park. There's a line buried in the road leading out to some kind of sensor under one of the lanes. I'm not sure what it's for - perhaps an electromagnet to count cars?

To the north I could see a long sheet of storm clouds weaving itself around the base of the mountains where we planned to embark on the Tongariro Crossing the next day. The weather was not going to cooperate, and in any case, Kerry was probably going to be too weak to attempt the crossing. Our schedule needed to change.

Here's how they indicate whether the highway is passable. Road crews can change the sign from "open" to "closed" by flipping a metal plate back and forth. Pretty nifty.

I like how they put in a metal flap to hold the plate down during storms. The flap is held in place with a twisted piece of wire, and I couldn't help thinking that if this was in the United States, there would have to be a padlock on it instead just to keep pranksters from flipping the sign as a joke.

I ate some snacks from a local gas station, chatted on the phone with a few family members, and rode back to check on Kerry. She was up, so we tackled the next thing on our to-do lost: Locating the box with our sleeping bags that we'd shipped to Adrift Outdoors, the river touring company.

We couldn't locate the Adrift Outdoors office, so we called the shipping company to ask exactly where they'd delivered the box. They left it with the staff at the restaurant on Waimarino Tokaanu Road. Confusing. We located the restaurant and quizzed the cook, and he said he used to have the box, but a week ago he took it to the office in the back of the building, so we went around there and found a sliding door with a bunch of rafting equipment visible behind it - but the door was locked.

I dug through my emails and found a phone number for Adrift Outdoors and called it, standing around in the parking lot. The woman who answered explained that Adrift Outdoors wasn't actually run from the office in the restaurant, but that's where everybody met up to prepare for each excursion in the morning, so it was the most sensible place to put a map marker. I had to agree. But what about the box?

"We haven't received any sleeping bags here, sorry. We did get a strange box a week or so ago."
"A strange box? What was in it?"
"Just a couple of metal plates, with wheels attached, and cloth straps wound around them."

Ahah. Somewhere along the line, the shipping company messed up, and the hardware we use to move the bicycle boxes around at the airport was sent to National Park, and our sleeping bags got sent ahead to New Plymouth where we would be disassembling the bikes. Not a showstopper; we could just borrow some sleeping bags from Adrift Outdoors, and carry the metal plates from here to New Plymouth.

We talked with the Adrift manager for a while about the weather, which wasn't looking good due to an approaching cyclone. Our best option would be to move the canoe trip up a few days, starting it tomorrow, and do the Tongariro Crossing afterwards, perhaps with a day of rest in between.

So we ate dinner, then rode home to pack up for the canoe trip!

Packing list:

  • covered sandals
  • shorts
  • light top
  • 2 warm tops
  • a waterproof rain jacket
  • sun hat
  • sunglasses
  • suntan lotion
  • personal medical needs
  • set of spare warm clothing to change into at night including underwear
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • water bottle
  • sleeping bag
  • camera

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Tuesday, February 9th, 2016
11:52 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 16: The Arthur Awakens
Into The Comet, 1960

A journalist accompanies a crew aboard a spacecraft that intercepts a comet and explores its core. The core generates massive electromagnetic interference (for some reason) that causes their computers to go haywire, buggering their calculations for the return flight, and they all believe they're stranded and doomed to starve ... until the journalist remembers that he knows how to build and use an abacus. He spends a couple weeks building an abacus for each crew member and they all crunch calculations by hand until they have a trajectory that gets them back into radio range with Earth, and everyone is saved; hooray!

Absolutely freaking ridiculous.

Security Check, 1957

A reclusive craftsman gets a job doing set design for a sci-fi TV show and starts turning in designs that are a little too accurate. Hijinks ensue. Amusing, but not memorable.

I Remember Babylon, 1960

Clarke gives himself a shovel-sized pat on the back for predicting the idea of a TV broadcast that cannot be subject to local censorship in this framed-as-nonfiction story, but he's buggered it up, because he's totally disregarded an obvious point: The Russians would never launch an unauthorized satellite into geosynchronous orbit over the United States, because it would immediately be seen as an act of war and all hell would break loose.

I mean, seriously, Clarke. First military chap who spots that rocket going up is going to assume the payload on the satellite is a big old dose of nuclear death. Before you know it, other rockets will be passing each other in the air. And you want to preach doom and gloom because someone might beam nudie pictures into American living rooms from space? Damn, you wrote this in the 50's for sure.

Summertime on Icarus a.k.a. The Hottest Piece Of Real Estate In The Solar System, 1960

A guy gets trapped on the dark side of an asteroid that has somehow remained close to the sun, like near the orbit of Mercury. Only a few hours before the asteroid rotates and the sun starts baking the planet. His robotic space-suit is hilariously crude, and there is no backup system to launch him on the return trajectory to his distant spaceship. Will he be rescued by his crewmates in time? Or should he just give up and depressurize his suit to avoid the torture of being burned alive when the sun rises?

Pretty exciting scenario, even if the numbers are all way off. But worth reading? Nah, skip it. Read the intro to 2312 instead.

The Songs Of Distant Earth, 1958

This was a long one, and I had high hopes for it going in, because the title sounded very familiar. Surely his well-known stories are his better ones?

It's a story about a young woman living in small city on a planet very far away from Earth, and a man who is an engineer on a space ship making an emergency pit-stop at the planet. Even though she's already in a relationship, the woman falls hard for the guy, and the guy falls not-so-hard for the woman, and the story is about how they deal with this doomed romance over a number of months while the engineer helps his crew to repair the ship and continue their mission to colonize another very-far-away planet.

As I was going, I tapped out four lines of notes to myself:

* No cities!
* Bees transported for orchards?
* World run by a computer brain?
* OMG the guy is a dick!!

Clarke has hypothesized that large cities would eventually vanish from Earth in several previous stories. His favorite justification is that once man invents an easy form of flight, geography won't matter, and so people will spread themselves out relatively thin just because they can. In a previous story it was the mass-production of the helicopter, and in this story it's a machine that can manipulate gravity directly. He glosses over all the other needs that might arise when living far away from others - food supply, energy supply, emergency services, ease of getting together in groups to work or play - by claiming that humanity either invented ways to supply them locally, or simply moved beyond needing them.

It's pretty obvious that he's projecting his own personality onto an entire global population when he makes this claim. There are many fantastic reasons for people to live very close together indeed, even in extremely large groups, and a good question to ask is one that turns Clarke's idea on its head: If effortless transportation can provide instant access to the outdoors whenever you desire, then why would you ever choose to live outside a major city?

Clarke doesn't actually propose it himself, but it's interesting to think of large cities as a kind of artifact of technology. Like, new technology has always given us ways to cram more people closer together with less waste and discomfort, but is there a new technology out there that would actually reverse the trend, and make everyone pine for the fjords? People often move to large cities to take advantage of the greater spectrum of opportunities there. Is there some future invention that would make the wilderness the go-to place for culture, employment, and socializing? I bet there were people in the late 90's who believed the internet was that very technology. Why live in a city when you can do all your work and play via telepresence?

Well, it turns out that telepresence is still an impediment to getting work done, for the vast majority of people and jobs. But that's just because the tech isn't refined enough, right? What about when we're all walking around in telepresence drones that look just like us, with senses just as vivid as our own? I'm pretty sure it'll still be an impediment, for a simple reason: Telepresence means people can get away with not paying their full attention, more of the time. And work will always suffer for it.

The next item on my list is about bees. Clarke declares that the orchards on the island where the woman lives are abuzz with bees transported from Earth specifically to enable pollination to occur and fruit to grow. He's making some gigantic assumptions about the ecology of the planet of course, the biggest one being that trees transplanted from Earth could actually grow at all in alien soil -- and that anything like soil would be there in the first place. It's pretty wacky, and it's not connected to the plot at all, so I had to wonder: Why is he throwing it in? Perhaps it's artistic, and he's trying to evoke nostalgia for Earth. The story in general is about how the vast distances in space travel can distort human culture and relationships. Yeah, maybe it's thematic. The bees are like furniture from an old victorian house: Evocative of a grander time, but a bit weird in your modern living room.

Next up is another Clarke favorite: The big computer in control of everything. He posits that the entire Earth is managed by a one giant artificial intelligence. This story is from the late 50's, after the invention of the first solid-state transistors, but a few years before the first MOFSET transistors and half a decade before the integrated circuits that would use them. So, Clarke was making a pretty big leap of faith that computers would be way, way more powerful than anyone knew.

He's a pretty smart guy for predicting that, and if computers had remained as expensive as they were (while still getting more powerful) we would probably live in a world closer to his vision. Computers would be instruments of large corporations and governments, and ordinary people would be acolytes tending them and subject to their whims. But instead, computing is cheap -- shockingly cheap. Nowadays we embed digital voice recorders in greeting cards for a laugh. You can make your own re-usable one for ten bucks. With computing power dirt-cheap and ubiquitous, the world is so much more complicated that one big artificial intelligence would have trouble just tracking everything, let alone managing it. Things have gotten even weirder than Clarke predicted!

Which brings me to item four on my list. I don't know if the humans of the far future are supposed to be callous, womanizing jerks, but the protagonist of this story sure is. He puts his pregnant wife into cryosleep, and a few weeks later (from his point of view) during an emergency landing, he spots a hot young woman - much younger than him - who seems to like him, and for months while he's repairing his ship and she's obsessing over his glamorous space-faring ways, he completely avoids telling her that he's already married, and already a father. Obviously he just wants to bask in this girl's attention and bone her a bunch of times, then ditch her when it's time to launch, returning to his slumbering, unsuspecting wife.

And that's exactly what he does. Ugh. I felt dirty after reading it. Along the way he decides to show his frozen wife to the woman, to drive the point home that she's just being used, and that they have no future together.

Now, I've certainly read stories about infidelity before, and had a whole range of reactions. But what got me here was Clarke's matter-of-fact treatment of the guy's behavior. He doesn't feel any shame, or even ask whether he should feel it, until the last possible moment before it's obvious he's dumping her. Likewise he feels no sympathy for her when he does - only for himself and how "hard" his pre-determined, self-inflicted ordeal is. No one else in the story has sympathy for her either, but I guess that's par for the course with Clarke, who wouldn't know how to construct a dialogue between two women even if he was taking dictation in a f*#@!% nunnery.

He apparently published several drafts of this short story - the second one no less callous than the first - before expanding it into a 280-page novel almost 30 years later. The novel has a similar doomed romance but hand-waves the jealousy and deception by claiming that the natives of the planet - including the girl - have a much looser sexuality and do not get jealous because they are not burdened by religion or poverty. Yeah, I dunno, Clarke. It's true I've met a number of people - men and women - who didn't seem to experience romantic jealousy. But they all either had obvious intimacy issues, or were psychopaths*. Not exactly the core of a new utopia.

(To the polyamorous: Please realize that I'm not bashing your category ... just those who are doing it badly.)

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