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Thursday, December 1st, 2016
5:24 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 21: The C stands for Celeritas. (Nothing can exceed the speed of Clarke.)
Dial F For Frankenstein, 1964

The beginning of this tale is the ending to the amusing cult film "Lawnmower Man". If you know the latter, don't bother reading the former. Actually the plot for this story has been so thoroughly rehashed and explored in so many other stories that it's not even worth summarizing here!

Neutron Tide, 1970

Oh my god, it's a short story whose only point is to make a ridiculous pun. Ack!!

The Steam-Powered Word Processor, 1986

A charming story told in fragments, as though excerpted from multiple accounts, about a clergyman who becomes obsessed with steam power and decides to construct what he calls a "word loom." It's a monstrous room-sized tangle of gears and pedals, and when he plays it like a church organ, it spits out typeset sermons for his congregation. Of course the project ends in explosive disaster, as one might expect from any project involving steam and/or rockets.

This era of Clarke's short story writing shows a lot more playfulness than his earlier work, and it's a welcome change. This particular tale has an almost Terry Pratchett feel to it.

Transit Of Earth, 1971

An astronaut, stranded on Mars with no hope of rescue, ruminates about his mission and his fate while performing his last assigned duty: To record the transit of Earth and its moon across the face of the sun, from the vantage point of Mars - an astronomical event that follows a 284-year cycle.

I was hoping this tale would be better, justifying its length - but nothing happens while the astronaut slowly consumes his remaining air, except for the transit itself. No rescue arrives, no aliens intervene, and the astronaut is totally resigned to his fate. How depressing. What was the point of this story?

The Cruel Sky, 1966

When reading these stories so long after they were written, it's tempting to believe that every time Clarke talks in fantastical terms about a new technology, it's the first time anyone has talked about it. So with this story, it's tempting to think that this is the first time anyone has really explored the idea of a personal gravity field manipulator: A solid-state device you can wear like a backpack that cancels the effects of gravity for the wearer. Wow; this could change everything! Why hasn't anyone explored this before?

But if I give Clarke a little less credit as the fountainhead of all new future inventions, I start to notice the way his very specific predictions don't hold up to scrutiny. Not on a scientific level - it's easy to get a scientific hypothesis wrong, as any scientist will tell you - but on a social level, at the level where the science meshes into society, and society is transformed. That level is the most fascinating to explore, and also the core of science fiction in general, which is no coincidence. And like any human being, Clarke's vision is clouded by his personal context. His vision of future society - of the way society would or should be transformed - is defined by his surroundings. "What are people around me struggling with, that they shouldn't be?" "What are the current taboos, and is it right to eliminate them, or reinforce them?" "What are my own biases, and will future humans have them too?"

Most of the time Clarke shies away from these things, choosing to talk about technology without involving the social politics. And I understand why, because when he does try to make a social point he bungles it half the time. His contempt for women is legendary, his ideas about the inevitable and eternal nature of war are very of-his-time, his attitudes about animal intelligence are very hit-and-miss, and his scientist characters often behave like boys in a tree fort role-playing their action heroes, rather than the safety-conscious, highly collaborative professionals they should be. That last problem is what comes up in this story. The Cruel Sky has two scientists as protagonists, and Clarke wants us to accept a number of points at face value:

1. One of the scientists is "world famous", strictly for being a very good scientist. The media hounds him in public.
2. The personal gravity field manipulator is the work of this one scientist, working almost completely alone, in secret.
3. This scientist knows his invention is hugely important for humanity, but he also wants to make a splash unveiling it - like he's P. T. Barnum showing off some new circus act - so he takes the only two prototypes of the invention and uses them to climb Mount Everest in secret at night.

All these things are vital to establish the scenario: Two guys alone in the mountains at night, with little chance for rescue. It's an adventure story! But, all of these things are also totally ridiculous, for a reason that every modern scientist knows:

Amazing new inventions are always the result of a huge collective effort. An entrepreneur or a showman might claim the spotlight to unveil it, but the scientists involved are quick to acknowledge their collaborators at every opportunity, because their careers live and die on the strength of their collaborative ties. One of the most famous modern entrepreneurs is the late Steve Jobs, and people credited him with a lot of things - a lot more than he actually did - but even Big Steve with his obsessive showmanship would also take time out at the end of many keynote speeches to have the developers and engineers stand up, so the audience could give them all a round of applause with the world watching. That example rests at the top of a mountain of others that collectively make the scientists in this short story - climbing Mount Everest and risking their lives (and those of the inevitable rescue crew) - look like jackasses.

But, by Clarke's personal view, scientists are ignored and frustrated eggheads, so they need to act out, with theatrics and derring-do, and be world-famous. He sees scientists of his own time a certain way, and imagines the way they will correct for it.

What's especially frustrating about this story is that Clarke puts major effort into his trapped-in-the-mountains scenario, and spends no time at all discussing the implications of his gravity field manipulator for society. It would revolutionize every aspect of the world economy, and almost every scientific discipline. Everything from farming techniques to space travel to dance parties would be changed. Clarke could have bent his considerable imagination to the task of describing this, maybe with just a handful of well-chosen examples. Instead he says nothing. Some guys get into the mountains with less effort than usual, they get lost, then they get rescued - the end.

As I said earlier, Clarke's vision for how some new invention would change society is rooted in his own context. It can't be perfect. But it can at least be compelling, and I wish he'd indulged it more here. At this point I've gone through almost all of his short stories, and looking back, I can say with confidence that he is at his most entertaining when he breaks away from the standard adventure story format and just writes about people coping with change, like in "The Songs Of Distant Earth", "The Light Of Other Days", "Second Dawn", "Sleeping Beauty", et cetera. That's what keeps me coming back. His reach may often exceed his grasp, but it always inspires a great discussion.

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Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
2:10 am - Women in tech, hiring tactics, self-esteem, and stubbornness
To get the background, check out this blog post from a website that offers practice for STEM-area job interviews:

http://blog.interviewing.io/we-built-voice-modulation-to-mask-gender-in-technical-interviews-heres-what-happened/

The story is, the people who run the site made some aggregate statistics, and the statistics showed that women were getting much worse interview scores collectively.

They got curious as to whether their interviewers were showing some kind of bias against female applicants, so they ran a crude experiment. They used audio software to distort the voice of each candidate towards a male-sounding or female-sounding voice (the interviews are voice-only), creating four groups:

* Women distorted to sound more like men
* Women distorted to sound more like women
* Men distorted to sound more like men
* Men distorted to sound more like women

Then they conducted the interviews, and made some comparisons with a control group.

Long story short, they didn't uncover any systemic bias. They weren't willing to accept the face-value implication (that women are just worse at interviews) so they dug a little deeper and found something interesting:

Women were far more likely to get discouraged and quit the program after one or two bad interviews. Seven times more likely, in fact. 35% of all women who got a bad interview - that's one third - quit after that first bad interview, compared to 5% of men.

If the researchers removed these first-time and second-time quitters from the pool, the performance differences between men and women went away.

Now, a sample size of less than 300, on a web service that is subject to the whims of ad campaigns and selection-bias, is not definitive. But it brings up an interesting point to consider, and an even more interesting one after that.

* Is the problem here that women are too hard on themselves, relative to men?
* If so, is the solution to adapt the post-interview process so that rejections are delivered differently, to counteract the urge to quit?

I asked Kerry about this. She said she agreed with the first point. Early in her tech career she got one bad interview and it was devastating. She didn't apply for another job until a whole year had gone by, and she was much more confident in her skillset by then.

(I thought back to the beginning of my own career. The first real tech interview I remember was way back in 1993, at Atari. I was told, "you seem talented, but we're not going to hire a high-school student." The manager acted like an amused father trying to humor his over-ambitious son. It hadn't been a negative experience exactly - I knew it was a long-shot - but in retrospect, it was another three years before I actually applied for, and got, a job in tech.)

On the second point - that the post-interview process could be improved - Kerry agreed, but neither of us could figure out exactly how to change it.

But what about that first point again? Are women too hard on themselves generally? Do they tend to downplay their own talents and accomplishments, relative to men, who tend to brag and exaggerate? My gut tells me -- yes, absolutely.

Does this mean we need to make changes in the STEM universe on a broader scale, beyond the interview, in order to accommodate the more humble, deferential nature of women as a collective? Or does it mean that we should just accept this state of affairs at face-value, and let the women who can't hack it drop out into other careers, while the few that are happy in this male-dominated field stay the course? Is there actually anything we need to fix? Is the under-representation of women in this field just the result of personal preference? The cultural zeitgeist isn't calling for changes to the position of "sanitation worker" so that more women are encouraged to dump cans and clean sewers. Why is it calling for changes to the position of "software developer"?

I have some of my own answers to these navel-gazing questions. For one, I do not think the under-representation of women is due to personal preference, I think it is due to various conditions that are a legacy of the way the software industry started, making an environment that is arbitrarily hostile to women. The top two on my list are:

* A large base of eager male developers who were drawn into this career path by the gaming industry, which was heavily male-centric in marketing for decades after its inception, carrying along their own strange take on women. (Re: Lara Croft.)
* Too many brogrammers who have transitioned from college campuses directly to corporate campuses and carried along their behaviors, including hitting on women and being unprofessional with other men.

Also, I think the call to change the state of this field is legitimate, because the tech industry is a hugely important and growing one, and CEOs and hiring managers are clamoring to put more programmer asses in more seats, and keep them there. The average Joe doesn't have to care about the representation of women in tech -- the industry is what cares.

Also, there is another good reason to follow this thread. Men and women fall on a broad spectrum of temperament, and STEM fields are geeky fields where intellectual rigor and emotional perceptiveness need to go hand-in-hand. Men and women alike need to learn how to work harmoniously with people who can be a good standard deviation above the sensitivity level of the general public. We're not just talking about "apologize if you bump into them in the hall", we're on the level of "make sure you choose exactly the right words in your feedback to a comment on a pull request so you don't accidentally invoke a jihad over code formatting between your lead programmer and your project manager."

The (suspiciously) common wisdom is that men talk to prove themselves and gain dominance, and women talk to share and reach consensus. Well, I've been on a lot of teams over the years, and I can assure you that nothing is more refreshing than working with someone who admits their mistakes, owns them, and works to fix and prevent them, humbly recruiting others as needed. Is that more of a masculine trait, or a feminine one? I think the best answer is that it's a synthesis. And with too many bros strutting around, holding their egos out in front of them like squishy battering rams, that synthesis is hard to maintain.

One question to ask at this point is, how well does the ability to humbly negotiate consensus come across in the average job interview? Hah; I think it barely comes across at all. Young interviewers look for technical dexterity, since it's all they know how to judge. Older interviewers look for "fit", which can be subjective and capricious. Only if they're particularly wise, will they spend their allotted time with you judging your ability to negotiate conflict into consensus. ... But I can tell you, that is an archmage-level ability and if you find it, you hire it. With people like that you can build a team that punches out architecture like clockwork.

What this says to me is, the software industry - and perhaps all STEM fields - will function best by promoting a work environment that draws men and women towards a synthesis of their best traits. This is not a career like fire-fighting, where you need upper body strength, nor is it a career like early childhood education, where your experience as a caregiver in your own family gives you a leg up. This is a highly technical, highly articulate, highly cooperative pursuit. Neither women nor men have a monopoly here; we need to attract and retain both. And that means, we need to seek out and minimize the vestigial traits of it that are threatening to one or the other.

I went to Kerry's company's holiday party last year. They had women dressed as go-go dancers standing up on platforms along the walls, gyrating to the music. I had no idea how to interpret it, but it sure made me uncomfortable.

So yes, there are real changes worth making, and those changes are far from implemented. I haven't even mentioned the solid practical stuff, like on-site childcare, extended maternal leave, improved health insurance options, on-site charter schools, and outreach programs that mix work with recruitment and teaching efforts, for those (including myself) who would feel higher job satisfaction if they got to mentor as part of their career. Oh, and part-time or flexible month-on-month-off schedules, and better telecommuting integration.

But let's reel this back to the first major point that came up from the study:

If it is true that women in aggregate are discouraged "too easily" by negative feedback, then that presents a very real barrier.

In my last two interviews (both of which landed me jobs) I used the following line: "I believe three personality traits make me a good programmer. I am lazy, stubborn, and suspicious."

Then I waited a beat, and said (more or less) "I'm lazy so I'm constantly looking for a way to automate things. I'm stubborn, so when I hit a bizarre bug, I throw everything at it. And I'm suspicious, so I insert logging hooks, and write tests, and check configurations."

It gets a laugh and it's a good humble-brag at the same time. But the reason I bring it up is, you need stubbornness to do this job, because you have to smack your forehead against a wall most of the time you are at work. If you are not stuck, you are merely not caught up yet.

I was self-taught, and pushed ahead against an uncooperative and vexing machine to learn my trade, in a complete absence of positive feedback from any living soul. Sheer bloody-mindedness, as Sir Pratchett would call it, was at the very center of this pursuit and career from the beginning and to the present day.

This is really not a fulfilling career for anyone who is easily discouraged.

Now let me say, I have met many good female developers, and they all showed that same bloody-mindedness. I'm glad they're around, and I have respect for the added level of difficulty they face. (To borrow a famous quote, they are doing this job "backwards and in high-heels.") For example, it's a lot harder for them to communicate effectively when some indistinct group of male co-workers is keeping a minimum distance out of fear or spite, and another indistinct group is constantly distracting themselves by asking "is she flirting with me?" over and over in their heads every time they stand over the same screen to look at code.

Again, real changes do need to happen. But the point here is, are these women so few in number just because they are rare in the world to begin with? Is stubborn persistence in the face of rejection or failure, for year after year without burning out, just naturally less common in women? (Leaving aside the easily questioned meaning of "natural".)

If that is the case, then do we just have to accept that women will be under-represented in the software industry? What about other STEM disciplines?

My gut is telling me -- no. But unfortunately that's as far as I can take it, because I don't have numbers for the upcoming generation, that will hopefully take the reins of a tech industry that has undergone changes in their favor. Are more young women dedicating themselves to software programming? Are those numbers reaching up to parity with men? Will they actually make careers out of it? Or will they do it for a couple of years and then cast around for something else?

Actually, it doesn't matter, does it. It doesn't change our mission -- the point of these changes: To improve the efficiency and size of this industry as a whole, and to move closer to the ideal of judging every contributor by the quality of their work.

Sounds good.

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Sunday, November 27th, 2016
12:09 pm - The young will always be at odds with the old, forever
... For one bonehead-obvious reason: Young people like the things they do because they haven't been around long enough to appreciate other things.

That's why young people idolize good physical looks, popularity, and visible material wealth. It's what they collectively understand, so it's what they fight for in their peer groups, and that gives it value and makes it desirable.

When you get older, you realize that good physical looks are only a superficial indicator of attractiveness, and attractiveness is really driven by personality, wit, and poise. You realize that popularity is a superficial indicator of other things that carry real value - like integrity, talent, accomplishments, and power. And you realize that visible material wealth is just a superficial indicator of contentment, and true contentment comes from more subtle things, like friends and family, exploration, self-care, creativity, and romance.

When you are young, these are all things that you think you understand. What you actually do is imagine them as means to the ends that you do understand - talent as a means to popularity, self-care as a means to good physical looks, romance as a means to sex. In this way you devalue what you don't understand ... until eventually you get experienced enough to realize how backwards you've been behaving the entire time. (And by extension, how backwards many people around you are behaving, and how badly a youth-oriented culture misleads everyone.)

Of course, if you're fighting to stay alive and fed most of the time, this sort of enlightenment is no comfort at all...

This is coming to mind for me because I've been looking back at my own history, and finding value-transitions like this. Many times, I've gone from pursuing a goal that I thought would bring me happiness, to achieving that goal and feeling some measure of happiness, to eventually seeing that happiness fade even though the goal was still met, because it was actually dependent on some underlying quality of what I achieved - not the goal itself.

The best examples are with relationships. When I was a teenager I would explode with a combination of happiness and fear if a girl I had a crush on just spoke a few words to me. (For example, in 5th grade, a blond girl named Jennifer sitting down next to me and asking if she could borrow a pen.) It was all I could handle, up until the 10th grade, when I faced the fact that I wasn't really connecting with any of the girls I was attracted to. A few words or a nod in the hallway no longer meant anything to me.

I found that sense of happiness again by having longer conversations, where actual communication took place. In my Junior year I started doing my math homework in the school library before classes started. One day a girl named Tara showed up in the same room, doing her math homework, and we sat at the same table. She was pretty, with long straight hair, a round pale face, and a toothy, enthusiastic grin, but she never wore a revealing or form-fitting outfit, which made me feel safer somehow, and after we worked in relative silence for a few days I took the risk of asking a few non-math-related questions. She was friendly and intelligent, and though she made a point of mentioning that she was dating someone (without naming any names), she didn't shut down the conversation either, and I appreciated that. 25 years later I still remember that feeling of happiness, from learning real things - having a real dialogue - with someone I was attracted to, for the first time ever. (It's hilarious that I remember the feeling, but nothing of what she actually said. Hah!)

But that happiness faded too, when I realized I wasn't making a personal connection. I was always imagining that connectedness in my head, and the feeling I got was based on whatever small way the situation resembled what I imagined. I loaned a girl a pen, or saw her laugh about a story she was telling me, and I filled in the rest of the details myself. Sharing stories and playing 20-questions with a person isn't enough to really connect with them, and once I knew that, I wasn't happy with just any old conversation. I wanted intimate conversation. That took another few years to develop.

So was I wrong the entire time about what I wanted? Or was I just wrong about whether I had it? Or both?

For years my vision was something like: Me and the girl I love, staring into each other's eyes, quietly understanding everything we felt without needing to say a word. Also there would be candles or a fireplace, or we would be sweaty from some fancy outdoor activity like rock-climbing because we were both total badasses. It took me until my mid-20's to realize that that vision was not the pinnacle of anything, it was a relatively unimportant corner-piece of a much more complicated and interesting puzzle.

This all reminds me of a Savage Chickens cartoon that goes:

HOW TO ACQUIRE WISDOM:
* Live, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes.
* Repeat until wisdom is acquired.
* Realize that the wisdom you acquired is not really wisdom at all. (This realization brings new wisdom.)
* Repeat for the rest of your life.

I don't think there's a way to short-circuit this. It seems that with every goal, we inevitably find a mismatch between the vision we had, the happiness it promised, and the details of what we've achieved, like snapping a puzzle piece triumphantly into place and slowly realizing that there are just as many irregular edges as before. Of course, this immediately leads us to conclude that it's the process of discovery - the a-ha moment itself - that brings the happiness. But that's too simple of an answer. Sometimes we achieve a goal and it makes us miserable. Sometimes the picture revealed by the new puzzle piece is revolting. We need guidance in our goals, in constructing our visions, or things can go quite wrong.

If I was raised in a less respectful or thoughtful family environment, I might have taken the hormonal surges of sexual desire I felt as a teenager more literally, and embarked on a crusade to get into bed with a girl as soon as possible, by whatever means I had. Tell her lies. Flirt with her in that over-eager, sticky way that young boys can. Push her into doing something uncomfortable. There were times when my desire was so intense I tried to convince myself to behave that way, because I watched other boys that I didn't like, and they had girlfriends. Was being pushy the right tactic? How could it be when I hated being pushed? (It was my stubborn patience that saved me. Eventually I left high school and entered college, and there, most of the men who were threatened by quiet geeky types - and the women who spurred them on - had been weeded out.)

But my point is, when I was younger, my goals and my values were thoroughly constrained, and there was no way around it. "You'll appreciate it when you're older," didn't work; not on an emotional level. A lack of wisdom also worked against me directly, by harassing me with questions I just didn't know how to answer, like "Why do girls wear form-fitting clothing, and then get angry when I stare at them?" (Some men live right through their entire lives without figuring that one out.) As soon as I thought I understood what I wanted and how to get it, the game changed and my ambitions changed right along.

It's kind of ridiculous, but I'm not interested in raging against it, because it's also quite natural. I think it's the fate of all mortal, intelligent creatures to be turning in a kind of wheel of suffering based on learning one thing, and then learning how that thing is wrong, et cetera. What's interesting to me is, we have found a way to hasten and guide this cycle, by passing on what we value, through all kinds of cultural channels, some of then quite powerful, and many of them only recently made available with new technology. From holy books to internet memes, we can guide each other to figure out what really matters just a bit more quickly. Sounds great! I imagine some distant future, where all parents have enough time away from work that they can just spend 15 years caring exclusively for their kids, teaching them, letting them loose and then being there to answer questions, all while taking care of themselves and consulting with other parents as well so everyone's on the same page. A liberal society where you learn by doing, and curiosity - even of dark things - is answered with patience.

On the other hand, history has proven that we're collectively really bad at choosing the right things to pass along, in the right combinations, to bring enlightenment to the next generation. The aforementioned holy books being the biggest, baddest example. We have a tendency to simplify things down into absolutes, and ignore very important context. One good example of this is pornography. I don't think there's a "holy book" anywhere in all of history that has good things to say about pornography, even though the Venus of Willendorf is quite pleasant to look at and predates them all by thousands of years. According to modern Mormons, it "encourages destructive and selfish preoccupation". I think that's a bunch of malarkey. You know what encourages destructive and selfish preoccupation? The concept of original sin. (At least the Mormons got one right by rejecting that.)

And that brings this rickety wagon train of thought around to the recent election. I've seen a resurgence of racism, jingoism, and fear in politics. So many people my age, or way younger, with goals and ideas that seem dangerous to me. What's the best way to change their goals? What's the best way to put their twisted fears to rest?

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Friday, November 25th, 2016
11:02 pm - Learning about Adobe Premiere, going to Karaoke, and being a bit political

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Monday, November 21st, 2016
4:20 pm - Some thoughts on the movie 'Arrival'
Warning: Spoilers be ahead.Collapse )

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Monday, November 14th, 2016
12:39 pm - The message I want to send about where I live
It was surprisingly easy to track down and compile this footage in less than two days. One night I was walking in a crowd of protesters, the next day I was in a crowd of people dancing by the lake with children running around. If I had to pick one word for it, it would be refreshing. That's the vibe I got. So I put that sentiment into this video.



I'm fascinated by how so much of the way people interpret the events in Oakland is based on their feelings, and how much those feelings are guided by the context they get their news from. It really is true that people who tend to be fearful in their own personal affairs tend to find fear in the world at large. The question that's on my mind is, how do we counter this, while still doing what we need to do to be a civil and connected society?

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Thursday, November 10th, 2016
1:39 pm - Why are we surprised by this turnout?
Do we blame this surprise on a "prestige" vote? On people being too mortified to speak their preference for Trump in public, and then going out and voting for him anyway? Or is there something else going on?

Last I checked, Hillary won the popular vote by a mere 200,000. That's about 0.3% of the total votes cast, and about 0.15% of the voting-eligible population. That's barely even a rounding error. (Also enough to throw Pennsylvania in the other direction. If that had happened, we would still be counting votes right now.)

That is very sobering. We can confidently say that for every four people in the country, one cared enough to vote for Trump, one cared enough to vote for HRC, and the other two couldn't be arsed to do either.

On the other hand, why would we expect anything else? This is how it's turned out - with only a slightly larger rounding error - for the past four elections, back to 1996 and 1992, when Ross Perot threw a gigantic wrench into the Republican works both times.

So really, this outcome is just another instance of a regular pattern. The real question is not "why didn't we see this coming", ... it's "why did we ever expect anything else?"

A "prestige" vote is too self-centered of a theory. It carries the tacit assumption that the media we (democrats, in my social circle) have been consuming is the only collective media feed in town. We didn't hear about these people through our channels, therefore they were silent? I think it's more likely that the channels have become more and more balkanized, inviting us to accept a more and more distorted view of what "the country" thinks.

"But how can that be?" you ask. "Everyone hated Trump, everywhere I looked! Especially the media!"

How often these days do you - how often does anyone - come across a piece of news because of the actions of a journalist, or the actions of a journalism-focused apparatus like the county newspaper that my father would spread across the table a few times a week? ... And how often do we come across it because it was handed to us in a Facebook feed, or a comment thread, or a tweet, or a text message, or an email, or a search engine that has been studiously trained to show us something it thinks we'll click on? (These channels are the very definition of selection bias.)

How often did we participate in this same distortion, by only passing along the articles we enjoyed reading, the memes we laughed at, the polls that encouraged us - or called us to action by making us angry at a monster?

How much of this election was given to us for the sake of ad impressions in web browsers? Including those following it internationally? It's not so hard to imagine that a full quarter of the population can spend most of their 'news-reading' time eagerly devouring scandalous editorial takedowns of a candidate they loathe, considering themselves well-informed for the effort, and then getting a rude surprise when the votes come rolling in... And no one had to be silent, or even feel particularly embarrassed, for it to happen.

We convinced ourselves the outcome was inevitable.

Did Kellyanne Conway single-handedly engineer the election, even though she managed Trum's campaign for only three months, and spent all of that time applying spin and damage control for the sake of Republican voters tempted to jump ship? Did Gary Johnson and Jill Stein spoil the election with their third-party antics, even though the Libertarian ticket appealed to angry Democrats and Republicans alike? Did FBI director James Comey derail the whole election with his letter, even though a much more damning scandal - the Access Hollywood recording - didn't take down Trump, despite being prominently discussed at the debates? Or would a better equivalent be the HRC email scandal and the Benghazi hearings, both of which boiled away for over a year, but accumulated an epic backlash?

We could speculate about how many minds these things changed. But we might also want to speculate on how many minds were willing to change in the first place, because in the end it all came down to a difference of less than a rounding error, and as usual, half the population didn't even care enough to vote at all. Meanwhile, we arranged our filter bubbles to make each of us into a champion, fighting on the righteous side against pure evil, and even amongst those of us who was ethical enough to try and only pass along things that were true (rather than the beneficial lies), we nevertheless only passed along the parts of the truth that bolstered our cause, and conveniently ignored the rest.

Face a real fact: Half of all voters voted for the other candidate, because they were convinced it was the better choice.

Call them stupid and they will call you corrupt, or vice-versa, and we all go around this carousel for another four years. Or just accept that party affiliation - and your family and social circle and workplace and church - forms an information bubble around you, and the best you can do is navigate it with some awareness, and hopefully some f*&% class as well. Remember: It's very, very easy for the people you vilify to tune you out. It's so easy you won't even notice them doing it. And if you're like most people, you won't even care. People want to feel like they are right - perhaps even more than they want to actually be right.

If we're surprised, it's ultimately our own fault. Time to open the filters back out again and see all the people we've painted as monsters and find some way to understand each other.

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Thursday, October 27th, 2016
3:40 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 20: Makin' Sci-Fi Great Again (If You Don't Mind The Sexism)
Playback, 1963

This story stands out from just about everything else I've read from Clarke so far, because of its narrative structure. The entire tale is a monologue, delivered under mysterious circumstances that slowly clarify for the reader at the same time they clarify for the speaker.

At first we think we are hearing from an astronaut delivering a report to his superiors. Then we deduce he is in some kind of man-made medical device, recovering from a serious accident. Then we quickly realize that is wrong too, and the astronaut is speaking to an alien life form, which is responding non-verbally with images. The astronaut establishes that he is not just injured, but has in fact lost his entire body in the accident, and now only exists as a consciousness embedded in a solid-state device. The aliens offer to rebuild his body, but first he needs to describe it to them, and that proves difficult because his memory is jumbled and distorted.

He describes a vaguely human figure, then lapses into nonsense and goes silent for an unknown time. Then the aliens show him an image of his description and he is so horrified by it he declares they need to start over, but his new description is even worse. More babbling, more silence, and we realize that we are reading the stream-of-consciousness of a mind as it is disintegrates. At the very end, he thanks the aliens for trying to rescue him, then the narrative breaks up completely into gibberish.

Impressive, and arresting. And exactly the right length. Lately I've been listening to these stories while doing chores around the house, but this one was enough to make me put down my work and just listen.

A Meeting With Medusa, 1971

Progress can spoil good science fiction. This tale is the longest one Clarke ever wrote that could still be called a short story, and he imagined some very interesting aliens for it and took his time describing them, but half a century of new information about Jupiter has turned those aliens from hauntingly plausible, to hopelessly absurd. A few moments of online research confirms it as fantasy. But it's still a fun read as fantasy, so ... there's that.

And, there's more going on in the story besides the fantastical aliens. The main character is a cyborg, one of the first successful fusions of man and machine - perhaps the very first - and he's been turned into a cyborg without his consent, by surgeons working to save his life after a horrible accident. This leaves him with a bit of an identity crisis. He decides that the only way to find meaning in his life is by acting as an ambassador, in the conflict that will inevitably begin as more cyborgs - and intelligent robots who were never human to begin with - appear in the solar system and fight with humanity for emancipation. It may take another hundred years before the conflict starts, but he can wait, since his cyborg parts makes him effectively immortal.

It all sounds like the setup for a sequel, and since Clarke never wrote one, a couple of other sci-fi authors have done the job. At some point I might pick up that book, but right now man-machine conflicts seem a little played out. I think the future is going to be all about conflicts mediated by machines, rather than conflicts with them. Death by drone-strike is just the beginning.

The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told, 1966

A silly exercise in recursion; a joke rather than a story.

Herbert George Morley Robert Wells, Esq, 1967

A followup essay Clarke wrote to explain an inconsistency in the previous story (The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told). More engaging than the story itself was, but not engaging enough for me to write about.

Besides, that would be yet another exercise in recursion.

Quarantine, 1977

A story short enough to be written on the back of a postcard - and no wonder, since that was the constraint Clarke was determined to meet in writing it. The idea is simple, and silly: A robotic alien intelligence destroys the Earth as a protective measure, because every time they send probes to it, the probes get infected with a kind of logic virus, and self-destruct. It's the old "I say we take off, and nuke the site from orbit, just to be sure" scenario. What is this logic virus? Clarke only drops a hint: It involves a king, a queen, a rook, a knight, a bishop, and a pawn.

Oho, it's chess! Computers try to ... solve? ... the game of chess, and get all frizzy and go boom, just like the old Saturday morning cartoon robots. DOES NOT COMPUTE, DANGER, DANGER, et cetera. In this modern age, the average smartphone can beat the snot out of all but the world's best chess players, and rather than explode from the effort, it will only get unpleasantly warm. (Usually. Insert topical Galaxy Note 7 joke here.) I guess that alien invasion can happen after all.

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Wednesday, October 19th, 2016
1:19 pm - The Six Levels Of Pancakes
This idea feels vaguely familiar, so I'm probably being redundant, but I made up this list yesterday and I think it's cute, so here you go:

Level 1: You eat a pancake. Delicious! You realize you like pancakes a lot. Perhaps you could get a job making pancakes.

Level 2: You work really, really hard in your own kitchen, and produce one lopsided pancake. You treasure it. Soon you'll be a pro! The kitchen is a mess.

Level 3: You can make pancakes every day. You have the recipe and the ingredients memorized. The kitchen is clean. Time to get that job!

Level 4: The kitchen in the restaurant is different, but you get used to it. The customers want a variety of pancakes, so you learn different recipes. Mistakes are made. Orders get sent back. It's a struggle but you learn every day.

Level 5: You're working in a big kitchen now, coordinating with other chefs. You produce many pancakes every day. You can't treasure every pancake - in fact, you realize that pancakes are extremely disposable. Many of them end up in the trash before customers even see them. Efficiency matters. You upgrade the kitchen. Wisdom accumulates. You write a pancake recipe book. You can't tell what a pro is any more, but you know you're at least competent.

Level 6: People are trying to hire you to remodel their kitchens and train their staff in the art of pancakes. You have some ideas for really weird pancakes that would change the course of pancake cuisine. Other people start calling you a pro. You're torn between opening your own restaurant, and retiring from pancakes completely.

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Tuesday, October 18th, 2016
2:48 pm - How do I become a "Software Architect"?
A while ago I realized that I can actually speak as someone who has played this role before. So when I found the above question on Quora, I wrote an answer:

Your best path to an architect position is to work your way up into it.

I say that because to really succeed in the architect position you need to know four things:
  1. What works and what doesn’t in terms of design, and how to draw out and clarify the needs of the group you are designing for.
  2. What is easy to implement and what is hard, so you can design something that fits within your customer’s timeframe, AND so you can tell who below you is bull***tting you and who’s making real progress, and actually be CORRECT on both fronts. The consequences for being wrong are ugly. You don’t want to get into an argument with a project manager about how long your design “should” take to implement - you will lose that argument, almost by definition.
  3. What components to choose for a given situation (frameworks, development workflows, what’s compatible, what’s maintainable, what has a future, what you should insist on, what you can compromise on)
  4. How to earn and keep the respect of the developers and managers whose roadmap, and work hours, you are laying out.
The best way to learn all these things at once is to take a development job that also has the need, and the room, for a good software architect. Then, if your ideas are good, and you can responsibly expand your work to contribute design ideas as well as implementation, you can change the shape of your role.

With hard work and good ideas, and a good disposition, you will find that you have become de-facto lead programmer on one or more projects, and are making major design decisions.

Whether you choose to expand that role at your current employer (if there is room), or jump to another that is explicitly looking for an architect role, is up to you. But having risen to that skillset organically, you will be very well prepared to succeed either way.

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Monday, October 10th, 2016
4:56 pm - Something's rotten in patents
To invent a novel gene sequence, scientists rearrange the data that codes for collections of enzymes and promoters and other elements, often combining sequences taken from other organisms. As far as I know, no scientist has yet invented a sequence from whole cloth that happens to assemble an enzyme to catalyze a brand new reaction - only discovered them in currently living or newly bred organisms and collected them for use elsewhere.

No one can patent the process that turns genes into enzymes into metabolic activity into behavior, because that all clearly existed way before any scientist thought to examine it. With that being the case, why do patents on genes get to include this mechanism in their description of what makes them "novel"?

Compare it to the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg could patent that device, no problem. But say he sticks the letters into a particular arrangement inside the press, so it only generates a particular page of print. Does his patent now cover the words on the paper? The arrangement of words itself? If someone else invented another device - a slide projector for example - and projected the same words onto a wall, would they be disqualified for a patent because it's the same words, even though the mechanism for making them appear is totally different?

How is this different from Monsanto, or anyone else, claiming patent rights to a copy of the gene sequence inside some creature they assembled from parts in their lab? Aren't they claiming patent rights to the arrangement of words - the output that emerges from the device - rather than something novel in the device itself?

I'm a software programmer by trade. I can't patent my work, and I understand why. Nevertheless I can assert copyright, and take people to court for infringement if they violate my license. Why does Monsanto get to patent their sequences, just for being inside a different mechanism - a biological one?

("Because otherwise they wouldn't have a business model" Is not a valid reason.)

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Friday, October 7th, 2016
12:59 pm - Here's the breakdown:
Version 1.1!

* One of those pulp magazines you see at the checkout counter with Brangelina all over it: Yahoo.
* Almost all of what happens here, you are too old to understand, or care about: Snapchat.
* A city just off a major highway, populated by a horde of doppelgängers, built from stolen parts. A creepy attempt to ensnare the living. Wander in by accident and they will start following you everywhere. One of them even looks suspiciously like you: Google Plus.
* Exactly what you would expect, if you gave everyone, from the very helpful to the very very deranged, their own television studio: YouTube.
* The electronic version of the Ganges river. Vile, upsetting, infectious garbage floating past you endlessly, mixed in with cute cats and dogs accidentally doing stuff. A surprising amount of it has been tainted by corporations upstream. Nevertheless, you have somehow convinced yourself it is important and refreshing to bathe in this every day, because the rest of your family does too. Answer: Facebook.
* The schizoaffective version of Facebook: Twitter.
* What you get when you turn impotent rage inside out and stomp on it: Vine. Solid gold. Mixed-race friend groups doing 7-second parodies and shitting themselves laughing is a greater force for worldwide peace than every shame crusade or triumphant, preaching manifesto slime-trailing itself across Facebook in a dumptruck of 'likes'. Yes! A greater force, for it normalizes perceptions. (Also it's just funny: https://vine.co/v/5vzUQudZmLW )
* The rest of the internet doesn't exist. You are safe there, ... mostly.
* Except Google will find you. I lied.

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Tuesday, October 4th, 2016
4:14 pm - A pattern emerges. This has shaped my adult life.
Friend Doug: We got along well, both had a subversive energy. We would run around and make jokes and wrestle. One day along at my house we wrestled on the tile floor and I knocked his head hard on the tile by accident. "Oh I'm gonna kill you for that!" he shouted. I got up and ran from him and hid. He went looking for me, saying he was going to get me. I was afraid of what he would do, so I got a huge knife from the kitchen and sat with it on my lap. He found me and asked about the knife. I said I was protecting myself. We sat in a stalemate for half an hour or so before his parents arrived. I never saw him again - which was okay with me because I was suddenly afraid of him. In retrospect it was probably ended by his parents. If he told them the story I can fully understand that being our last play date.

I had a goofy friend named Isaiah. We got along well - loved to build lego spaceships and fly them around, make stupid poop and dick jokes, yell stuff into a tape recorder, and so on. One day his dad decided to rent a movie and order pizza, and we would all watch it together in the living room. The movie was a horror film called The Re-Animator, and though Isaiah laughed at the cheezy effects, I was terrified by them, so much so that I cried and said I wanted to go home. My bewildered parents picked me up, and they talked with his parents, and everyone agreed it was just an unfortunate mis-judgement. I had nightmares and didn't sleep well for quite a while after that. I was so embarrassed by my reaction to something Isaiah thought was harmless, that I couldn't bear to see him again. Isaiah never judged me, of course - the embarrassment was in my own head - but it was too much for me to get over.

At a birthday party for my friend David, with a group of kids including my friend Todd. David and I got along fabulously when we hung out alone, but when others were around he was careful to maintain a "cool" persona because he was very aware of the pecking order. Todd had a mean streak; sometimes he made nasty jokes about his friends just to set them against each other. That was his response to the pecking order. Maybe it was learned from his parents: His mother was meek and gentle, his father was a seven-foot-tall ogre of a man with a loud voice, who demanded that Todd call him "sir" and would dress him down in front of his friends. Anyway, at the birthday party Todd said something nasty to me, and my friend David laughed, and I cried and said it wasn't funny and punched David, then ran into the house. That incident ended our friendship. I was angry at David for what I saw as a betrayal. We hung out a few times after that but all the enthusiasm was gone. He acted "cool" out of self-defense, and I couldn't relax around him any more either.

When I hung out with Todd one-on-one, he forgot about the pecking order and was a good friend. We had fun playing video games, tromping around in the forest playing army games, catching lizards and bugs, making jokes, and so on. But one day he threw a birthday sleepover party. We all had fun running around late into the night, but after I fell asleep in my sleeping bag I woke up, in a daze, to find someone holding my arm out and dipping my hand in a bowl of water. The theory was that if you put a sleeping person's fingers in water they would pee in their bed. Just another of those dumb kid pranks. But I was livid. I knocked the water over, got upright in my sleeping bag, and shoved Todd away. He laughed at me, and kept laughing at me as I chased him around the darkened living room calling him an asshole. Eventually we all settled back down to sleep again, but the next day as I was being picked up, I decided that I would never hang out with Todd again. Another friendship, with its good and bad parts, ended because of a traumatic incident I couldn't get past.

As much as I might claim to be interested in getting people to play nice, I must still admit that when it comes to dealing with huge mistakes that can derail a relationship, I'm a lightweight. I can talk the talk of forgiveness and understanding, but in a community of imperfect people, I am far too absolute with my own trust. My whole conversation style is about moving people towards my inner circle by sharing feelings and finding common ground - but if you hurt me, it takes delicate work, and authentic contriteness, to avoid being shoved permanently back out to arm's length. And, to people who don't need precise communication, or don't revisit past events, that makes me "high maintenance", and a pain in the ass. I can truly see their point. It's a good one.

This is a formula for many things, but mostly, it is a formula for loneliness.

My only long-lasting relationships have been with people who almost never - or just plain never - make those mistakes. And there have been plenty of times, with every friend I had growing up, where I made stupid mistakes - insults, aggressions, snap judgements - and was forgiven for them without deserving it. For all of my high school years I was an unpredictable, domineering jackass. Now as an adult, I've moved away from the jackass behavior, but that same absolutist sense of judgement still haunts me. Plus, a major thing working against this is my genuine enjoyment of quiet time alone.

I am the architect of my fate. Thank goodness I can still learn to be a better architect.

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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.

http://www.bucyrustelegraphforum.com/story/news/local/2015/11/20/pain-pills-still-big-business-ohio/75476936/
http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/25/health/us-surgeon-general-letter-doctors-opioid-use/
https://www.propublica.org/article/as-controlled-substance-use-rises-in-medicare-top-prescribers-face-scrutiny

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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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