machine

MOVED

Howdy, folks. LiveJournal is a graveyard filled with weeds and Soviet-era monoliths. Spies flit about in the shadows.

( It's not paranoia, it's fact. Their server bank has been moved to a Moscow-area IP range and they've disabled HTTPS. The popular theory is, this was done by command of the government, to data-mine LiveJournal and track dissidents. )

Every time I post here I get the creepy feeling like I'm putting my friends at risk, especially the ones with ties to Russia.

So, I have cloned this entire journal, comments and all, to garote.dreamwidth.org.

Further updates will happen there, where commenters and readers can browse using HTTPS, and the admins are subject to - and dedicated to - decent privacy laws. Any comments you've made here have been migrated over by your "OpenID", so if you make an account on Dreamwidth, you can "take possession" of them there and carry on as if nothing's changed. Or you can stay on LJ and keep commenting via the OpenID.

"Why not do the full-on flounce and delete everything, before moving on," you ask? Well, what's the point? The admins obviously have backups; I'm not depriving them of any data. Still, it's a good idea for the sake of future web surfers: They won't be directed by Google to wade into this tar pit.

So, after a while, when Google and other indexes have found my new stuff and point to it instead, I'll push the button and flush this whole journal. (If I'm still allowed to. HAH! Hah.)
machine

Getting obsolete...

For a long time now I’ve looked down on the younger generation of programmers mainly because they use frameworks and libraries willy-nilly without understanding how they work and what exactly they do, and call it "programming", or worse yet, "hacking".

But this year I’ve been realizing that I’m the old geezer on the porch complaining that his generation was somehow different when it was not.

Sure I learned about programming by entering machine language into a console, and went up from there. But I didn’t know jack shit about circuit design, and I still don’t know jack about it. In the past I’ve claimed this was different because circuit design was hardware design, and as a software person I was in a wholly different field, and justified in ignoring what lay beneath it.

But that division only appeared in retrospect, after the messy innovation that spawned the first solid platforms had taken place.

Looking around now, what divisions are starting to take shape? What core fields of study are being placed firmly on the wrong side of those divisions, doomed to fade away into dark corners of the industry?

Here's a list off the top of my head:

* Tomorrow's programmers are going to stop worrying almost entirely about WHERE their code is actually being run. And it will be hard to figure it out in any case.

* Tomorrow's programmers are going to expect software to auto-optimize itself to a huge degree, by having an AI interactively refine their design. The very notion of optimizing something for a given platform will seem quaint.

* Tomorrow's programmers are going to rent all their development tools on a monthly basis. They will be auto-updated every 24 hours. Every keystroke they make while on the clock will be recorded, and much of it will be rewindable and branch-able like a git repository on steroids. Development in an offline state will be severely handicapped, perhaps even impossible, but it won't matter because everything will be online all the time, for almost zero energy cost.

* Tomorrow's programmers are going to expect to be able to take anyone's device anywhere, and with permission, authenticate to it with a fingerprint or iris scan or code key, and instantly start using their own personal development environment, picking up exactly where they left off. When they stand up and move more than 3 feet away from the machine it will sense this and auto-lock, and the programmer can move on to another machine. (This is almost the way it is already, for some online developers working exclusively in browsers.)

What changes do you foresee, that will render large parts of current knowledge, or process, useless or irrelevant?
weird science

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.
machine

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.
adventure destiny

The young will always be at odds with the old, forever

When I was younger, I had this idea that parents and kids didn't get along because there were things wrong with the world that the parents were too lazy to deal with, but kids could solve easily if given the chance.

REVOLUTION NOW!!!! Et cetera!

But at the same time, as a kid, I realized there was a huge nasty roadblock to solving those problems: Other young people.

... Because collectively, young people are influenced by what they really understand -- and they haven't been around long enough to understand much.

That's why young people pay so much attention to 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?
zelda bar

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?
castlevania 3 sunset

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.
bonk, dinosaur

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.