Thursday, December 14, 2006

Michael Crichton Is Not Just an Idiot, he's a Libelous Idiot

I'm entirely stunned at how stupid Michael Crichton is.

He's a White-House-visiting Global Warming Denier. We already knew that.

What we didn't know is that if you piss him off, he will insert you into his next book, as a child rapist.


(Via Talking Points Memo.)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"God of the Gaps" explained

John Wilkins over at ScienceBlogs has a great explanation of The God of the Gaps, and why "Intelligent Design" people really have a very small god.

Money quote:

Those theists who think that God is an explanation only of that which we cannot explain any other way have at best a very small and limited god, one that gets pulled out of the desk drawer only when we are or want to remain ignorant of the nature of something. And that is all ID is - the desire to remain ignorant, so we can call it divine.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review: The Android's Dream

So I finished John Scalzi's The Android's Dream last night. Here is my report.

Bottom line: it's a light, enjoyable SF romp that trades knowingly in SF tropes and conventions and flirts with cliché in places without going over the line. It's fun. I enjoyed it.

It's not as meaty or as lean (to aim my metaphors in different directions) as Scalzi's earlier novels, Old Man's War or The Ghost Brigades. It feels less "worn smooth", which has its positives (energy and exuberance) and negatives (a feeling that the book could have been pared down by 10 or so pages, mostly in the beginning).

There are some astonishingly funny bits in the book (though it's not a comedy as such), as well as some pretty serious stuff, but overall it's light and fun.

My issues with it are somewhat nebulous -- it's hard to tell how much of them are me as a reader being my particular and peculiar self, and how much are "in the book", with others seeing the same thing. For instance, the book opens (with an interstellar fart joke, no less) with an entire chapter about Dirk Moeller, who then proceeds to not be in the rest of the book (for reasons which are obvious once you read it). I spent Chapter 1 getting into the mode of "Okay, Dirk Moeller is the protagonist, here's his backstory, and here's his setup, and whooops! there he goes."

Then we have another chapter where we get another set of potential protagonists (whose goals are in opposition to Dirk Moeller's), and then I'm all, like, "ohmygod, who am I going to root for?".

And then, only in chapter 3 do we meet the person who turns out to be our real protagonist (Harry Creek).

I feel like Chapter 1 should have been labelled "Prologue", and (part of) Chapter 3 should have been Chapter 1, and Chapter 2 could stay where it is, and the rest of Chapter 3 could be Chapter 3.

Now, this whole "who is our protagonist" theme could be considered auctorially interesting, and anyone who knows me knows that while I like nice linear storytelling, I also like weird time-slicing and multiple viewpoint stories as well. But what I really like is knowing who to root for, even if it's more than one person and they're against each other. (This is one of the reasons I hate so much of the "adultery in the suburbs" genre -- everyone is loathesome, so why bother?)

The other thing that really struck me -- forcefully, which is somewhat remarkable since I'm usually a fairly inattentive reader on these sorts of things -- is that until we meet Robin Baker (the other main protagonist), on page 116, there are basically no female characters. I think someone's mother is mentioned (possibly by name), and there's a short bit with a farmer whose wife (who we don't actually see) really doesn't like to be woken up -- but that's it. We see chunks of the US State Department, and of the US Defense Department, but there's not a woman in sight until Robin shows up -- and barely any other than her, after.

This is especially bizarre given the number of strong female characters in Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. Now granted, a lot of the secondary characters in The Android's Dream are criminals or military, or nerds, which as subsets of humanity, tend to the testosterone-heavy. And Scalzi is on record as explicitly mentioning Elmore Leonard as an inspiration. But still. It's somewhat weird. Or maybe I'm weird.

And there are a couple of sequences which violate my cardinal rule of technological extrapolation: don't do details, because they'll almost certainly be wrong. (If you can extrapolate technology and get it right, then you might want to think about designing new gadgets and user interfaces and building the tech, not writing SF!) The positive version of this rule states that tech details should be left as vague as possible, so things don't date too badly. (Nothing dates as badly as last year's consumer user interface.[1])

The last bit of ranting I'll do is about a major (and nearly literal) deus ex machina that is threaded throughout the book. There's a long rant about how arrogant AI people are (which is true), which concludes with the "obvious" way to make an AI (copying an existing brain), which no one (in the book) has thought of. Well, it's a great deus ex machina as it's written, but it's also silly to posit a SFnal world where no one has thought of this, since in our world, lots of people have thought about how to upload their brains into computer simulations. Clearly The Android's Dream exists in a parallel universe where Ray Kurzweil, Greg Egan, and a bunch of other people (including Frederick Pohl, who "vastened" Gateway's Rob Broadhead in Heechee Rendezvous all the way back in 1984) never existed. What I really wish Scalzi had done was explain that lots of people had tried this, but no one had succeeded, and then explain how clever this particular uploaded AI's uploader was.

What can I say? I'm a science and computer geek. Things like this bug me.

Wow, I just spent ten paragraphs criticizing a book I really enjoyed reading. What's up with that? Well, if John Scalzi is interested in a nitpicking science and computer geek to help keep him out of trouble, he can consider this my audition. (Yeah, like he's going to be reading this.)

Or maybe I'm simply still annoyed at him for linking to this, which (as I mentioned a few posts ago), has eaten up way too much of my time. Damn you, Scalzi!

[1] Some notable non-consumer interfaces, like good command line interfaces, age very well indeed.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Damn you, Scalzi!

One, for this online game (which I found via Scalzi's "By the Way" blog). Possibly the best use of Flash ever.

WARNING: this is highly addictive. I wasted spent way too much time today on level 11.

Two, for making me (yes, making me, with the mighty power of his blogging!) pre-order The Android's Dream twice. I hadn't realized I'd already pre-ordered it the second time I went to pre-order it, so I ended up with two copies. If I enjoy it as much as the other ones he's written, I'll probably be sending one of them to someone I like as a Christmas gift. (If I don't enjoy it, I'll send it to someone I dislike.)



Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sic Transit Meph

Our big cat Meph (Mephistopheles) died today. He was diagnosed with advanced metastatic squamous cell carcinoma last week, and was beginning to really show signs of pain and distress, so we took him to the vet today and made his passing as painless as possible.

In his honor, then.

As a little little kitten -- but look at those paws! (He maxed out at 18.5 pounds, but was down to a svelte 14.5 this summer, and was far far too skinny at the end.)

Little Meph

As an adult, taking up a human-sized chair:

Meph Taking Up a Chair

And two pictures of Meph at his goofiest:

Meph Goofy 1
Meph Goofy 2

We're going to miss you, Meph.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Why I Should Start Watching Letterman Again

Letterman eviscerates Bill O'Reilly. Money quote:

O'Reilly:It isn't so black and white, Dave — it isn't, 'We're a bad country. Bush is an evil liar.' That's not true.
Letterman: I didn't say he was an evil liar. You're putting words in my mouth, just the way you put artificial facts in your head!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Life Imitates Art, part N+1

This time, it's this story of a 19-year-old who disabled a carjacker/kidnapper by crashing the car. (The kidnapper/carjacker was not wearing a seatbelt.)

I can't be the only one who immediately thought of Larry Niven's "The Deadlier Weapon", can I? And my wife, when I mentioned the story to her, immediately thought of the season 1 finale of Veronica Mars.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Paging O. Henry....

Does no one read O. Henry any more? I'm saddened that no one mentioned "The Cop and the Anthem" in this AP story, titled "Jobless man asks judge for jail time".

Trust Laundering

If there's any phrase I wish I could insert into the national political consciousness, it would be trust laundering.

It's the perfect way to tie all of the Republicans together into one neat package, so we can toss them overboard all at once. The Foley cover-up scandal is the perfect mimetic carrier for this.

This provides a simple rhetorical hook to allow us to talk to moderate Republicans and unaffiliated people who have voted Republican in the past:

"No matter how decent or moderate or reasonable your local Republican Representative or Senator is,", we can say, "they still vote in the Republican caucus, and elect as their leaders people like Dennis Hastert and John Boehner, who have been covering for a sexual predator. They take your trust, and then, just like money laundering, they hand it up to their leadership, who abuses it."

The trust laundering goes farther, of course: the Republicans in Congress further launder this trust to support (some might say lie down for, or even bend over for) a President whose handling of the country a large majority of the population disapproves of.

The list of Bush's faults isn't worth getting into here (and it's probably preaching to the choir), but if you know someone who disapproves of Bush's handling of the country, but still feels it reasonable to vote for a Republican Representative or Senator because that Republican is a decent person, ask them "would a decent person support someone who covers for sexual predators?"

Random does not imply Equally Distributed

Via Slashdot a few days ago: Steven Levy on the secrets of the iPod shuffle. Executive summary: the iPod "shuffle" feature really is random, but since our big hairless ape brains are supreme pattern finders, we see patterns where there are none.

Most interesting tidbit:

But the non-randomness illusion was so prevalent that ultimately Apple felt compelled to address it. In the version of iTunes rolled out in September 2005, there appeared a new feature: smart shuffle. It presents iPodders with a scroll bar that "allows you to control how likely you are to hear multiple songs in a row by the same artists or on the same album". If you pull the lever to the right, the iPod will mess with its usual distribution pattern, intentionally spacing out songs by a given artist. As Jobs explained it in his presentation the day the new iTunes rolled out, he gave what he hoped would be the last word on the Great iPod Randomness Controversy: "We're making it less random to make it feel more random."

This is something that's driven me nuts for years: random does not imply equally distributed. In fact, it's randomness that leads to us seeing patterns. To borrow an example from Stephen Jay Gould, think of constellations: evenly distributed stars would not have any patterns -- they'd be in a grid or something. It is, in fact, the bunchiness that comes from a random distribution that leads to patterns emerging.

An example:

While I was a grad student at Harvard, the Administration (headed by the Dean, who was a computer scientist [remember this]) decided to switch to pure random placement of non-freshmen into the Harvard Houses. The previous placement method had been a weird ad-hoc system of "non-ordered choice", with a random component to spice things up; this had in turn replaced "ordered choice", which had replaced "apply to the House and see if the upper class twits would accept you". Or some such wonderfully egalitarian system.

In any case, while I was there (and a Tutor in Leverett House, if you're curious), It Was Decided that non-ordered choice had to go. (My interpretation: under non-ordered choice, a significant number of black students managed to end up living in the same House. And that Was Not To Be Borne.) So they went for random choice. (Ironically, one of the major justifications for it was "It's the way that Yale does it", which strikes me as simply insane, since Harvard's justification for 95% of everything else it does is "We're Harvard, we're not like other places, and especially we're not like Yale.")

In the Random Choice method, each freshman would join a rooming group (of up to 20 students) and rooming groups would be randomly placed in a House. Details of The Placement Algorithm were tightly guarded. (Clearly it couldn't be pure randomness -- the Houses all had different capacities and whatever assignments were made had to fit the number of rooms.)

The first year after they implemented the Random Choice method, they ended up with Houses with drastically skewed gender ratios in their sophomore cohorts: the combination of the large rooming groups (which were largely single-sex) and the random placement meant that some Houses got a lot more men than others, and some few got equal numbers of men and women. (Harvard was one of the last universities in the country to reach gender parity in its student body, and it hadn't yet done so at that time, so no House got more women than men, as far as I know.)

There was a great kerfluffle. Perhaps even a hullaballoo. "How could the gender ratios gotten so far off?" came the cries, with much rending of garments. "It was random!"

Because, you see, random does not imply equally distributed. Especially for small numbers.

Now the Dean of Harvard at the time, you may recall (if you read carefully above -- you didn't realize there was going to be a quiz, did you?) was a computer scientist. One of the major problems in computer science is the generation of random (or more accurately pseudo-random) numbers. It undergirds all cryptography, after all. So my question for years has been: how the heck did Harvard's computer scientist Dean not understand this?

Clearly, being a Harvard professor may mean you're smart, but it doesn't mean you're wise.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Friendly Plug: Twenty Epics

John Scalzi blogged about Twenty Epics a couple of months ago. I thought it sounded interesting (the structuring conceit of the anthology is that each story tells an epic tale in 10,000 words or less), but this was in the middle of our two-weddings-and-a-funeral summer, so I more or less forgot about it.

A short while ago, I got back in touch with a friend I had fallen out of touch with, and it turns out he had a story published in Twenty Epics. When I found that out, I went and ordered the book immediately, read his story first, and quite enjoyed it. I then read the rest of the stories, and other than one or two which were a little too elliptical for my taste, I enjoyed them all.

So if you like epics you can read in less than half an hour, go get yourself a copy and enjoy. Or not. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

John Hodgman, My Hero

Go read this interview with John Hodgman, and then go watch his bits from The Daily Show, especially Net Neutrality, White Minority, and Bush's Tax Cuts.

UPDATE: I forgot to add Hodgman's blog. So there it is.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Favorite Fantasy Books

A friend asked me for my list of Important SF Books. I posted one last week.

Which of course, means that I need to post a list of Important or just Favorite fantasy books.

To quote from the SF books post:

Note: this is a list that skips lots of things; this is my list, after all, and I may well have missed something in my scan of my bookshelves (I reserve the right to add things later!). While I think that all of these are Important, these are also ones I enjoy, so there are other Important books I did not include. Some of these were historically important but are dreadful to read now, or which I wouldn't want to re-read.

I'll leave the hair-splitting to others about what SF and Fantasy are, and where their boundaries lie. I include some Horror here, and put some "steampunk" (like China Miéville's stuff) here, but you should feel free to disagree with me on that one.

  • The Prydain books (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, etc.) by Lloyd Alexander. Based on Welsh mythology, these are wonderful young adult fantasy novels.
  • The Vlad Taltos/Dragaera books (Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, etc.) by Stephen Brust. Wonderful Zelazny-esque swashbuckling adventure; watch out for Teckla (book 3), though -- it's a real downer.
  • The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. Wonderful epic fantasy in a highly believable world.
  • Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card. Highly original fantasy, one of his early books, before he went 'round the bend.
  • Little, Big by John Crowley. One of the best novels ever.
  • Magician (in two volumes, Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master) by Raymond E. Feist. Light epic fantasy set in a highly derivative world, but entertaining and well-executed.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. His first prose novel, adapted from his BBC series. A bit rough but very entertaining.
  • Sandman by Neil Gaiman (and many artists). The classic 10-volume (plus) graphic novel. If you haven't read this, get your hands on a copy.
  • Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. Possibly the best standalone novel of epic fantasy ever. Realistic, poignant, and lyrical. Ignore the sequels.
  • Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly. One of the best vampire novels around. It's 1905 and someone is hunting the vampires of London; they recruit a human to help them.
  • The Thread Which Binds the Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Her wonderful debut novel of Powers and Principalities in a small community in the Oregon woods.
  • A Red Heart of Memories and Past the Size of Dreaming by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. A pair of entertaining novels about people finding magic in unexpected places.
  • The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. This one follows a number of characters through the Reconquista of an alternate-historical Moorish Spain.
  • The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay. Set the same world as Al-Rassan, but dealing with that world's Vikings and early Britons.
  • The Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz. The Deryni Chronicles trilogy and the Histories of King Kelson trilogy are the best; the (chronologically) earlier ones are quite depressing.
  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. Billed as a "Melodrama of Manners", it includes no magic, but plenty of intrigue and buckling of swash.
  • Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner. A fine rendering of the classic ballad into novel form.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. This one is entertaining; the sequels I found boring. Your mileage may vary.
  • The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series by Fritz Leiber. Wonderful swashbuckling adventure. These vary from short stories to full novels. They are collected in various ways, but usually as six novel-length collections whose names start with Swords. (There is a seventh, but ignore it.)
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip. A debut fantasy novel by a major talent, it has aged very well. Marketed as a young adult fantasy novel, but it's quite intense in places.
  • The Riddlemaster books (The Riddlemaster of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind) by Patricia A. McKillip. Truly fantastic books; I re-read these yearly.
  • The Sorceress and the Cygnet by Patricia A. McKillip. More elliptical and lyrical than the Riddlemaster books, but masterful world-weaving.
  • Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. A stunning, epic, sprawling, steampunk debut novel.
  • The Scar by China Miéville. A sequel of sorts to Perdido Street Station, it's more tightly plotted and just as fascinating.
  • The His Dark Materials books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) by Phillip Pullman. Serious fantasy about (but arguably not for) young adults. The series title comes from Paradise Lost, which should give you a sense of where this is going.
  • The White Mists of Power by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A very fine debut novel by someone whose prolific output (in my opinion) has not lived up to her potential.
  • Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. Simmons' debut novel. It's scary and scarily well written.
  • Summer of Night by Dan Simmons. A horror novel in the Stephen King vein -- definitely not something to read alone in a dark house.
  • The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick. An fine example of "steampunk" fantasy about a human changeling child raised in a fantasy world where dragons are manufactured.
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Because it has to be here, and you can't see just how much dreck that gets published is ripping him off until you read it.
  • The Chronicles of Amber (Nine Princes in Amber, etc.) by Roger Zelazny. A classic in the field. (Skip the sequel series.)
  • A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny. His last novel (and one of his best). It is narrated by Snuff, the guard dog for a cursed man called Jack. They encounter Dracula, The Wolf Man, a witch, Dr. Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, and others, while competing for a mystical prize.

Anyone looking for good books to start on should look at the World Fantasy Awards or the Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards.

UPDATE: Edited the Prydain entry to be clearer. (Hi, Colorwheel. :-))
UPDATE: I'd like to add The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. (Thanks go to someone who shall remain nameless, but who knows who he is.)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

ABC: Bush Collaborators

The ABC "Docudrama" (note, not a documentary) about 9/11 just gets worse and worse the more we hear about it. As related here, even people who've worked for Bush are calling bullshit.

The thing that really burns me about this is that the RoviansRepublicans are getting away with this, after spending months in 1998 blaming Clinton for "wagging the dog" by attacking al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, ostensibly to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

I want to see one Republican (or hell, one Democrat) stand up and say publically "I was wrong to criticize President Clinton about that".

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My List of Important (or just Favorite) SF

A friend (you know who you are -- hi!) asked me for my list of Important SF Books. So here it is.

Note: this is a list that skips lots of things; this is my list, after all, and I may well have missed something in my scan of my bookshelves (I reserve the right to add things later!). While I think that all of these are Important, these are also ones I enjoy, so there are other Important books I did not include. Some of these were historically important but are dreadful to read now, or which I wouldn't want to re-read.

Also: there is no fantasy in this list; I'll do that later. (I'll leave the hair-splitting to others about what SF and Fantasy are, and where their boundaries lie. To quote my wife, "I know what I mean.")

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and next two sequels) by Douglas Adams. Best SF comedy ever.
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. The classic Galactic Empire story.
  • Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov (collection) -- some of the Good Doctor's best stories.
  • Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (and the rest of the Culture series). Recent British New Space Opera. Fantastic stuff.
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. The classic text. See why Alfred Bester got a Psi-Cop named after him in Babylon 5.
  • The Stars, My Destination by Alfred Bester. Another classic novel.
  • Startide Rising by David Brin. What if humans genetically engineered dolphins to drive starships?
  • The River of Time by David Brin (collection). Brin, like many SF writers, is a scientist who writes great short storires.
  • Otherness by David Brin (collection)
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. A classic of the near-future sub-genre. A fascinating glimpse of what the future meant in 1968, when it was published.
  • Shards of Honor and Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold. The beginning of the Vorkosigan books. Wonderful stuff.
  • The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. Grand and witty space opera.
  • Falcon by Emma Bull. A great twist on the superhero canon.
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Another classic, compulsively readable. Skip the sequels.
  • Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh. A major novel, the beginning of Cherryh's Merchanter series
  • Heavy Time and Hellburner by C.J. Cherryh. Set in the same universe as Downbelow Station, but on the other side of the war.
  • The Pride of Chanur, and its sequels, by C.J. Cherryh. Some of the best aliens in all SF.
  • Serpent's Reach by C.J. Cherryh. Hard to describe, but well worth it.
  • Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang (collection). Nine stories, each of them a polished gem. Highly recommmended.
  • Quarantine by Greg Egan. Quantum Mechanics and a mental patient who can walk through doors go together how?
  • Permutation City by Greg Egan. Absolutely brilliant exploration of what it means to live inside a computer.
  • Axiomatic by Greg Egan (collection). People interested in the Philosophy of Mind love this stuff.
  • Luminous by Greg Egan (collection). More fantastic stuff.
  • Strange Wine by Harlan Ellison (collection). One of Ellison's best collections. Includes "Jeffty is Five".
  • Alone Against Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison (collection). Slice of the best of 1970s New Wave SF.
  • Approaching Oblivion by Harlan Ellison (collection). Slice of the best of late 1960s New Wave SF.
  • Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison (collection). Possibly Ellison's masterwork.
  • The Unreasoning Mask by Philip Jose Farmer. A crazed romp through the Pluriverse.
  • Jumper by Steven Gould. A "young-adult" novel which takes the hoary SF trope of teleportation and rings the changes on it wonderfully.
  • Wildside by Steven Gould. Another great trope revival: what if you found a door to another world?
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Published in 1975 by Vietnam Vet Haldeman, it's one generation's defintive SF war novel.
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. Possibly the best of Heinlein's novels.
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. An earlier generation's definitive SF war novel, but also a meditation on citizenship.
  • The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein (collection). A collection of most of Heinlein's best stories.
  • Voyage from Yesteryear by James P. Hogan. A fun romp through colliding cultures.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. A classic cultural/political SF novel.
  • Learning the World by Ken MacLeod. Another of the British New Space Opera novelists, working at top form.
  • Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The end-of-the-world novel.
  • The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. One of the best First Contact SF novels ever.
  • The Getaway Special by Jerry Oltion. What happens when someone invents the Star Drive?
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl. The classic (and Hugo/Nebula award-winning) psychological SF novel.
  • Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds. The blazing debut of one of the British New Space Opera's brightest stars.
  • Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds. A semi-sequel to Revelation Space, highly political, and fairly disturbing.
  • Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds. The direct sequel to Revelation Space.
  • Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Literary SF at its best.
  • The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith (collection). 1950s and 1960s SF that is as compelling (and off the beaten track) now as it was then.
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volumes I, IIa, and IIb edited by Robert Silverberg (anthology, picked by the SF Writers of America). The place to start for Golden Age SF.
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson's Big Book.
  • The Big U by Neal Stephenson. An early novel, which holds up remarkably well.
  • More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon's masterwork.
  • The Golden Helix by Theodore Sturgeon (collection). Some of Sturgeon's best stories.
  • Sturgeon is Alive and Well... by Theodore Sturgeon (collection). Many of Sturgeon's other best stories.
  • Millenium by John Varley. A romping time-travel novel told in intertwining first person narratives. One of my absolute favorites.
  • Titan (+ sequels) by John Varley. Great, solid, world-building SF.
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. A huge, sprawling, epic, Hugo-winning novel.
  • A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. A prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, tighter but nearly as epic.
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Yes, this is SF, although no mainstream reviewer noticed. It's brilliant, but not to everyone's taste.
  • Fire Watch by Connie Willis (collection). Connie Willis' first collection. Some of these stories are very dark, but they're all brilliant.
  • Impossible Things by Connie Willis (collection). Lighter than Fire Watch, but no less brilliant.
  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. An amazing novel. Warning: Black Plague.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. A much lighter novel set in the same world as Doomsday Book
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. Zelazny's SF masterwork, set on a world where a starship crew set themselves up as gods of the Hindu Pantheon, ruling over the colonists.
  • Eye of Cat by Roger Zelazny. The last Navajo tracker is recruited to foil an interstellar assassination, and sets in motion an amazing story.
  • Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny. A smart-ass "perpetual student" in year 13 of University gets tangled up with interstellar intrigue.
  • The Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny (collection). Some of Zelazny's best stories.
  • The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth by Roger Zelazny (collection). Most of Zelazny's other best stories.

Anyone looking for good books to start on should look at the Hugo and Nebula Award winners.


  • China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh. A wonderful debut novel.

Software Interoperability, Hardware, and Next Year's Model

I was reading Standards and specs: Not by UNIX alone, which is a nice article on Unix software development. It made me pull out an older rant of mine and polish it up for this blog.

Software companies build a fundamentally different thing from hardware companies.

To most people, this is so obvious that it shouldn't even need to be stated. In the obvious ways, Most People are right. But there are non-obvious ways in which this is importantly true.

Toyota or Ford don't actually have to make next year's models "interoperate" with this year's models. I'm not even sure what "interoperate" would mean in the context of cars, beyond "they have to use some version of unleaded gas, and be able to fit on the roads, park in garages (I'm talking to you, Ford Excursion) and have the same user interface -- steering wheel, accelerator & brake pedals, etc.".

Auto companies can make everything else about their cars change from year to year.

They don't, of course -- there are strong rewards to not changing too much too fast, and for sharing ("conserving", in the genetic sense) parts within a product line -- both temporally (last year's model and this year's model have a lot of the same parts) and organizationally (our luxury model uses most of the same parts as the base model). But if someone wanted to radically change their engine without touching their car body or interior at all, they could. In fact, that's basically what Honda did with their Hybrid Civic. Looks just like every other Civic on the road, except for the little "Hybrid" sigil on the back.

In the same way, computer companies could radically re-engineer their hardware (motherboards, peripherals, CPUs) as long as they look the same to the rest of the world (e.g. programs). This is what Intel and AMD do every time they bring out a new product line. (Well, these days. The 286 to 386 jump was a doozy.)

But software? Software is a totally different thing. It has to interoperate. The lateral interoperation (between co-existing hardware) isn't that important to some software producers -- Microsoft deliberately engineers incompatibilities all over the place to keep the Mac a second-class computer -- but temporal interoperation, that's a big one. The Office 95/97 incompatibilities burned Microsoft pretty badly, although they'll never admit it.

This is arguably the defining distinction between the Unix and Microsoft worlds.

Most Unixes are built, maintained, and pushed forward by one of two groups:

  • Software engineers who work for hardware companies, and whose job is to build a great OS which can help ship more hardware units. I'm mostly thinking about Sun here, but most other Unix vendors were in this camp: HP, SGI, DEC, etc. And Apple is now in this group with OS X being Unix underneath.
  • Hobbyists: Linux and the BSD bestiary. These folks are not tied to any particular hardware, usually. These follow the original Unix in the way they're developed: by the people who use it, for the people who use it, and not directly for money.

Microsoft is a (relatively) hardware-agnostic software-only company (notwithstanding the Xbox or the Microsoft Mouse or Keyboard). Windows runs on most Intel x86 hardware.

Guess which set of software producers has sold the most incompatible versions of software?

Okay, that's a no brainer.

Apple navigated the 680x0 to PowerPC migration in the early 1990s quite well; I'm sure they'll handle the PowerPC to Intel migration just as well. Stuff will Just Work -- on expensive Apple-only Macs, but it'll Just Work. Mostly.

Unix is a weird case for a lot of people, I think. I remember doing a Sun 3.7 to 4.0.1 OS migration, which also involved a 68020 to SPARC 1 hardware migration at the same time. We had specialized video capture hardware to deal with, including all sorts of special code to drive it. We simply recompiled everything, and except for a few little things, it all Just Worked. Try that going from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, or 95 to NT.

There are programs written in the early 1980s which would compile directly on any modern Unix these days. They might need a little tweaking for header files or libraries, but they'd Just Work. A lot of this is the whole command-line vs. GUI issue (all our fancy Unix boxes still act like they're talking to VT100 terminals from 1978, which in turn are not all that different from actual teletype machines from the 1950s -- cf. In the Beginning was the Command Line). The Unix programming model is so clean and spare, it has barely changed (regardless of what's under the hood in the OS) -- the clean separation of functionality and coherent interfaces simply make it Just Work.

Unix has a long history of having things layer on top of each other -- things continue to Just Work. Contrast this with Windows, which changes radically (and disruptively) every few years. That might be calming down; Windows 2003 seems to be more like "Windows 2000, but done right this time" than a totally new OS. But the Home edition of it (XP) still has some idiotically disruptive things in it compared to 2000. E.g. the My Computer and My Documents links disappear off the desktop. The claim is that having everything under the Start Menu makes it easier to learn Windows. That may be true, but it's sure annoying to someone used to Windows 2000. Sure, you can tell it to look like Win2k, but you still have to manually tell it to put My Computer and My Documents back on the Desktop. Stupid!

This is one of those clear cases where Microsoft is trying to make software the way that auto companies make cars -- "next year's model can be different because it'll be a new batch of people". Except it's not. The software market is a lot more mature than it was 10 years ago when Windows 95 came out. It's a lot closer to saturation. Even most home users are buying upgrades, not a first computer. And businesses? Wasn't Windows supposed to be the business OS? (Macs, of course, are the long-haired arty-farty computers.)

Businesses that plan for the future (i.e. businesses that will be around for the future) do not buy new OSes and throw the old ones away. They migrate: they have different versions coexisting. As much as it'd be nice to simply rip out everything and rebuild, it's simply impossible to do. If you have a big IT installation (and especially if you're providing a service, like web pages or email, or VOIP or something), you simply cannot do that. Won't work. You have to evolve, not revolve.

Any OS that makes it hard to migrate from one version to the next is a real pain. Unix is simple. It all Just Works. It has its pains, but it usually Just Works at this level.

Windows? Ha. This is an OS that doesn't have to worry about long-term OS uptime because urgent security patches come out monthly and therefore no box is going to be up longer than a month, because so many patches require a reboot. There are Solaris boxes at my company that have been up for 3+ years without breaking a sweat.

To summarize: software is NOT like hardware. It's not like automobiles, or appliances, or anything else that people replace. Software lives a lot longer than any single piece of hardware, has to play nice with other software, and most importantly, has to play nice with its descendants. The entire idea of "next year's model" is absurd and idiotic when it comes to software. There's only the next version. And that version MUST play nice, or you're going to piss people off.

It's entirely unclear to me if any Windows admin (who hasn't used Unix for any length of time) understands this. I'm guessing no.

It's entirely unclear to me if anyone at Microsoft truly knows this, either. Or is it just that if they understood it, they wouldn't be able to market their stuff without wanting to kill themselves in shame?

Monday, September 04, 2006

System Administration as a Craft

Over the past five years or so, my wife has consistently been disappointed with my utter inability to explain what I do at work in a short, pithy way that works at parties. I could just say "I'm a Sysadmin", but I'm not just a tape monkey, or a Windows re-installer, so I try to avoid the short title, because people have in the past assumed I don't do anything truly productive.

My job at this point is Systems Architect, but no one outside of Systems departments knows what Systems Architects do, so that doesn't help much on the party circuit.

When I've tried to explain more fully what I do, I have fallen back on metaphors of building trades. Basic sysadmin stuff (setting up accounts, changing backup tapes, etc.) is like being a building super. Setting up new servers is like contractors putting up buildings (or more floors on an exisiting building). Debugging and troubleshooting are like electricians and plumbers fixing problems. Designing large-scale installations is like being an architect (which is why we're Systems Architects, duhhh).

This may explain why I usually feel pretty comfortable with people that build and maintain stuff -- cognitively, we're all pretty similar.

In my previous post, I linked to Shop Class as Soulcraft, which gives me a lot more of a sense of just why I think this. Case in point:

White collar professions, too, are subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same process as befell manual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers — clerks — who replace the professionals.

One of the reasons I do what I do is that I find it challenging -- as much as they might want to replace us Systems folk with clerks, they simply can't. Here's hoping it actually stays that way.

Thank You, Organized Labor

Thank you, not only for this Labor Day, but for The Weekend.

In honor of Labor day, it seems quite fitting that I came across (via BoingBoing) this article on O'Reilly's site, pointing at "Shop Class as Soulcraft" on the The New Atlantis site.

It's a really wonderful essay on the artificial, Manichean, and ultimately incorrect divisions between "manual" and "mental" labor.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Ranting Nerd, FCD

I am now a Friend of Charles Darwin.

Go Charlie D! Take that, creationists!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Google Maps Bizarrity


Google Maps has a weird bug (feature?) in the way it chooses which cities/towns to label at different length scales.

Try this link. It should center around Albany, NY, with the "one grid = 100km" scale.

In New York State: no Buffalo, but yes Boston, Newfane, and Royalton (in a font the same size as Toronto!). I'd never heard of Royalton or Newfane, NY. (Newfane, VT, yes -- we got our marriage license in Newfane, VT.) No Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, or Albany.

In Massachusetts: no Worcestor, but yes to Belchertown. On the Cape, Wellfleet and Truro, but no Provincetown.

In Rhode Island: no Providence. That's basically the entire state!

Totally crazy.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Bérubé steals my post again

Go read this post, and pretend I wrote it.

Okay, don't pretend I wrote it, but let me bask in reflected glory.

I'm now fully convinced that had Al Gore picked someone else (maybe Russ Feingold) as his running mate in 2000, we might not be in this horrible mess.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How Air Conditioners (Don't) Work

Every year in the hot weather, I have a conversation with my wife that goes something like this:

  • Me: Dear, could you not set the AC units so low when none of us are in the room? It wastes energy.
  • She: But it's hot, and I want it to cool down quickly.
  • Me: Yes, dear, I know, but turning down the temperature set point doesn't make it cool off any faster.
  • She: Well, it should.

The vast majority (if not all) of air conditioners (and refrigerators, dehumidifiers, etc.) have two settings: a fan setting and a temperature setpoint. The fan setting just controls how hard it blows. The temperature setpoint does not control the temperature of the air the unit puts out. Instead, it controls when the system goes from full run mode to idling mode.

AC units push out only one temperature of cold air: cold. They work until their temperature sensor shows a temperature lower than their setpoint, and then they go idle (although their fans may continue to blow). When the temperature at the sensor rises above the setpoint again, it turns the system back on.

Turning the setpoint down very low will not make the room cool down any faster; it will simply make the AC unit work longer and not go idle as soon.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Why I Think Lewis Black is Brilliant

From "Red, White, and Screwed", Lewis Black's recent HBO special:

I never thought that during the course of my life that a President would be elected who didn't believe in evolution. Or at least, kind of in the ballpark of it, or thought, "Maybe it's got some merit!"

But no! He believes that the earth was created in seven days.

Hoo! Takes my breath away.

And why does he believe that? Because he read it -- in the Old Testament. Which is the book of my people. The Jewish People.

And that book...wasn't good enough...for you Christians....

(laughter and applause)

...was it?

You went "No, we've got a better book, with a better character, you're gonna love him!"

And you called your book "New", and said our book was "Old".

And yet every Sunday, I turn on the television set, and there's a priest, or a pastor, reading from my book. And interpreting it. And their interpretations, I have to tell you, are usually wrong.

And it's not their fault, because it's not their book!

You never see a rabbi on TV interpretring the New Testament, do you?

NPR: Lame, or Shilling for the Powerful?

I was listening to NPR while driving over the past few days, and I heard them use two phrases that made me realize just how little analysis they put into their phrasing -- or how much they're sucking up to the powerful (which is worse?).

The first, which I have to paraphrase since I didn't write it down yesterday, was their "headline" in response to the Supreme Court Decision against military tribunals: "President Bush will turn to Congress for the authority to deal with terror suspects".

Think about this for a moment. It sounds so reasonable on the surface, but if you unpack it, it's easy to see that this is basically a Karl Rove talking point. Implicit in the summary is the idea that the Administration's hands are tied; that the US Military and the Justice Department are totally incompetent to prosecute suspected terrorists; that 219 years of U.S. law under the Constitution (and several hundred years of English Common Law before that), plus the Uniform Code of Military Justice (plus those "quaint" Geneva Conventions) have nothing useful to say about prosecuting people who are accused (oh wait, no, there are no actual accusations -- these men are not so much accused as insinuated at) of conspiring to attack the United States, or who were prisoners captured in a conflict with the US armed forces.

The second phrase I heard today; it was regarding NASA deciding whether or not it would launch the space shuttle Discovery. The person reading the news said something like "Some inside NASA say that foam from the fuel tank could pose a risk to the shuttle....".

Some inside NASA? Like, the engineers?! But what really made my eyes bug out is the idiocy of the "could pose a risk" phrase. This is so meta it makes my teeth hurt. Something can "pose a danger", or it could "be a risk", but "could pose a risk"? That's saying "it might be might be dangerous".

Okay, I'm probably playing Militant Grammarian of Massachusetts too much here, but I really do think that that phrase has serious overtones that Orwell would recognize in an instant -- bluntly put, it's a way of downplaying whistleblower critiques of decisions made on political grounds. Not is a problem, not could be a problem -- but might could be a problem.


Shame on you, NPR.

(What was that about a Liberal Media again?)

Why I Read Online Comics

Because sometimes there are gems like Ozy and Millie, which had this brilliant strip last week.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Bush Being an Idiot is Not the Point

George Lakoff has a good essay pointing out that however fun it is to point out that George Bush is an incompetent, deeply incurious man -- that's not the point. We don't want to replace him and the Republicans because he's incompetent -- but rather because he's achieved the goals of what passes for mainstream conservatism.

Good piece. Go read it.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

More on Insane Republicans

I ran across a new-to-me blog, Back to the Woom (via Blog Around the Clock, née Circadiana), which pointed at "The Moral Majority Is Watching Your Inner Child Molester", which is an interesting take on some of the batshit insane Republicans running our government.

Followup to Sanity = Pussiness

I've been poking through some of the diaries at Daily Kos, and followed a link to this one, about how Ann Coulter, by being her batshit self, functions in the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy (VRWC) as an outlier to help make the rest of the Republicans look moderate.

That post linked to another (by thereisnospoon of There Is No Blog), a post which introduced me to the concept of the Overton Window, which is explained, out in plain sight, by a member of the VRWC. To save you googling, here are the top two google links when you search for "Overton Window": first and second.

Basically, the Overton window idea says that if you lay out all the possible political policies regarding a particular issue, and order them along some continuum, you'll find that only some set of them is politically possible, and that these cluster in the Overton Windw. If you get a bunch of people to talk about and make noise about some ideas to one side of the existing window, you can shift the window, or at least widen it out. Especially if you have them make noise about ideas that are farther out than the "next step" outside the window, then you legitimize the ideas in between by sounding radical and making them look moderate. (This requires those making noise on the far-out ideas to take some heat and stand their ground.) It's what the Republicans do and the Democrats don't (remember the whole health care "debacle" in 1993-1994?).

In other words: the Democrats are pussies.

But it's not just that. The Democrats seem to think that the way to win an argument is to be reasonable. It reminds me of engineers talking to salespeople. Why do salescritters and marketroids make more money than techies, even in tech companys? Because techies always act reasonable, even though it is they who create the real value in tech companies.

A strange thought just occurred to me: when was the last time liberals/progressives/whoever actually engaged in Overton-window frame dragging? I'd argue that it was in making the overt expression of racism and sexism vulgar and beyond the pale. That was actually working (it didn't "cure" racism and sexism and other isms; it just pushed things underground, but it did shift the discourse; anyone who thinks that nothing's changed in the last 30 years or so hasn't been paying attention, especially to attitudinal shifts toward homosexuality) -- but then the right wing hit upon "Political Correctness" as a pushback mechanism. They don't like it when their tools are used against them!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Democrats are too sane

In watching the latest Republican circus (ring one: gay-bashing; ring two: making sure that obscenely rich people get to keep more of their wealth), I was forcefully reminded of an idea that first occurred to me back in the Clinton years:

Democrats are too sane.

What I mean by this is that the Republicans have some seriously batshit people in Congress, from Rick Santorum to Sam Brownback (can we turn "Brownback" into a verb? "Yeah, the two of them met at the bar last night and spent the night brownbacking"), and some even crazier motherfuckers in the House. They push for crazy shit all the time.

And then the Republican leadership (sic), which is only marginally less bugfuck than their fringe, can settle on something that's only 80% insane, and look "moderate", and willing to "compromise" in doing so.

I don't even know what the left/progressive version of Rick Santorum would be. Someone who supports public group sex -- with animals -- in Central Park or the Boston Common? There simply is no one on the left as crazy as the whacked-out Right Whingers. There is certainly no one as extreme as the extreme Right in any level of government. When John Kerry is your example of a Dangerous Liberal, you clearly didn't look very hard.

And just think of how long it took them to find Ward Churchill after 9/11 -- months to find one lone nutball of an ethnic-studies professor at a mid-size university. That's the best they could come up with?

This goes hand-in-hand with the wingnut "think" tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute (which, credit where credit is due, is not as crazy as the others): these folks give cover to the not-quite-as-pathological "moderate" Right Whingers.

And the Democrats? They're people who have forgotten how to negotiate: they ask for what they want, rather than for what they know they can't get, and then they get 20% of what they want instead of 80% after the haggling is done.

Democrats are a bunch of pussies, basically.

Did Iran get the U.S. to take out Iraq?

I was reading this post about PSY-OPS (Psychological Operations) over at Daily Kos and it spurred me to wonder....

When (if?) we know what really happened with the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, will we conclude that Iran managed to get the United States to take out their biggest direct enemy, Iraq?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

British Myths and a Small Rant

Recently, I finished re-reading Guy Gavriel Kay's The Last Light of the Sun, which is quite good (nearly equalling The Lions of Al-Rassan in my estimation). I also recently watched King Arthur (the one with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley). Since this was a few weeks ago, I can't remember if I went to go re-read the Kay book after watching the movie or not. In any case, I tip my hat to Synchronicity here. Between the two of these, I was struck by two things.

Thing the first: What is it about British mythology that so much of it is about preserving order against chaos? The resonances here with T.H. White's Once and Future King are clear and, I'm sure, deliberate on Kay's part. While there's definitely such a thing as Too Much Order (e.g. East Germany pre-1991), most British mythology is contrasting order not so much against license as against rapine and pillaging -- defense against marauding invaders.

Is it simply that much of British history is about just that: defending against invasion? (Or succumbing to it in a number of cases....) Certainly British history's foundational stories often involve repelling invasion -- think of the Spanish Armada, or the Battle of Britain -- or successful invasions, like the battle of Hastings.

But certainly there is a long British tradition (one that J.R.R. Tolkien subscribed to, certainly) that sees maintenance of order as a cardinal virtue -- to allow people (well, people with enough money and time and the right set of sex chromosomes) to tend their gardens and drink beer at the pub. (There's an argument to be made that this is Conservatism in its best sense, but you certainly wouldn't recognize that in today's Republicans in the USA.)

What's interesting about this vision of maintaining order is that a significant part of the goal of order is allowing people to learn things and write (and read) books, and forge bonds with each other, instead of fighting with each other. (I sense another rant coming, about the differences between US and British SF and how that might be connected to differing histories and shaping ideas about colonialism. More on that later.)

Mythology, n.
The body of a primitive people's beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.       --Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

The second thing is more from The Last Light of the Sun than King Arthur, but the latter did touch on it a bit. I don't think it's a huge plot spoiler to reveal that part of The Last Light of the Sun touches on the remnants of mystic power in Britain by including beings from Faery.

Kay's alternate-world Christianity (Jaddism) has declared belief in Faery to be heresy. Kay works this interestingly, because in this alternate world, Faery and its power is in fact real, and several of the characters have to deal with the fact that their Church is pushing something that blatantly contradicts reality.

What I wonder, in a Devil's-Advocate sort of way, is whether the long domination of Europe by the Catholic Church, with its stamping out of all heterodoxy, might have made it easier for the development of modern science in the European Enlightenment.

Imagine the counterfactual setup: a Europe where dozens or hundreds of belief systems ruled. (And by "belief systems" I mean things that include claims about the way the universe works that are actually empirically falsifiable, and mostly -- mostly -- avoided by modern religions in the European-influenced world.) In this counterfactual Europe of the 1500s, the natural philosophers of the day would have had to tackle dozens or hundreds of different cosmologies, instead of one, to convince enough people that what they were saying was right.

To set up a Straw Man for a moment, I would guess that some (naive) Cultural Theory types would argue that this hypothesis is wrong because science is merely a competing worldview that historically supplanted parts of the Church's cultural hegemony. Of course, since this is my Straw Man to knock down, I say hogwash! Science is ultimately about empirical evidence, evidence which can convince other people, even those who don't agree with you or your theories.

More Linkage

I know, I'm lame, I have no content of my own. Deal.

But first, go read Matt Yglesias guest blogging at Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo.

Why you should read Bruce Schneier

The Value of Privacy

Buh. (Vitamin Edition)

Vitamin Industry: Findings on Vitamin Science "too Sciency".

(Via Pharyngula.)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Best Lab Report Ever

(Via Pharyngula.)

I don't care if it's apocryphal, it's funny.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

What part of "Martyr" didn't you understand?

Zacarias Moussaoui gets life in prison instead of the death penalty, and the Right Whingers go apeshit.

Haven't any of these people looked up "martyr" recently?

Bush & Co Tell the Truth

White House says Bush doesn't speak Spanish all that well.

These guys have some nerve. They tell the truth to gain back ground with the racist "Minutemen" types who are "guarding our borders" ("What? Me? No habla Español..."), which of course flatly contradicts Bush's 1994 and 1998 Texas gubernatorial races and both the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections, in which he would give carefully rehearsed speeches in Spanish to Spanish-speaking audiences.

The most ironic part of this is that the entire "Bush can't speak Spanish very well" is being deployed to deflect attention from reports that Bush sang the U.S. National Anthem in Spanish with some audiences during the 2000 Presidential Campaign:

McClellan made his remark in response to a report that Bush had sung the Star-Spangled Banner in Spanish during the 2000 campaign. Just last week Bush said the national anthem should be sung in English, not Spanish.
"It's absurd," McClellan said of the report, suggesting that Bush couldn't have sung it in Spanish even if he had wanted to.

I am so waiting for that video to surface!

George Lucas finally comes to his senses

Lucasfilm is finally releasing the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD.

Now if only we could get him to "digitally remaster" the prequel trilogy into something watchable.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Colbert? What Colbert?

So Stephen Colbert gave the address at this year's White House Correspondents' dinner, in character, and was brilliant. (Video via Crooks and Liars; transcript via Daily Kos.)

Of course, if you didn't catch the C-Span broadcast (a rumored rerun hasn't shown up yet and probably won't), you won't have heard about this at all.

I wonder if the Liberal MediaTM's lack of noise about this has something to do with the following line:

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!

Truth to power. Sigh.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Go to the Light, Boy

As long as we're talking about Schizophrenic Shamans, hop over to Circadiana and read his post about REM Sleep and Near Death Experiences.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Schizophrenic Shamans

I'm a bit behind on magazines, and I was reading the February 11th (2006) issue of Science News today. Its cover story, Self-Serve Brains, is about research into neurological sources of the sense of self. It's an okay article; it's a survey -- every third paragraph is of the form "People X and Y, of institution Z, did research on Q" -- without a lot of synthesis.

One thing did leap out at me, though:

Frith now suspects that anarchic-hand syndrome and schizophrenia's delusions of being controlled by others share a neural defect that makes it seem like one's movements occur passively. However, people with schizophrenia mistakenly perceive the passive movements as having been intentional.

In support of this possibility, Frith and his colleagues find that when shown scenes of abstract shapes moving across a computer screen, patients with schizophrenia, but not mentally healthy volunteers, attribute good and bad intentions to these shapes. Patients with schizophrenia may monitor their own actions in excruciating detail for signs of external control, Frith suggests.

This seems to me to be an explanation for every sky-god cult in the world -- into which category I place the most useless parts of all religions -- those that try to explain the behavior of the natural world in moral terms.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Bush Resigns

Ha, ha, April Fool!

But more seriously, why do geeks seem to really delight in April Fool's jokes?

Slashdot today gave themselves an April 1st makeover, and are linking to other 04/01 pages, such as Locus Magazine's announcement of Star Wars "adult-themed" books.

Notably, Google today "launched" Google Romance, which looks real until you look at their press release.

And don't forget all the various April Fools Internet RFCs: RFC 3251, "Electricity over IP", RFC 4042, "UTF-9 and UTF-18 Efficient Transformation Formats of Unicode", and especially RFC 1149, "A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers".

EDITED TO ADD: wikipedia has an April Fools Day 2006 page which is astonishingly large.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Re-Reading Cryptonomicon

I just finished re-reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. This is my favorite of Stephenson's novels (for the record, the surprisingly durable The Big U comes in second).

There are several things that come to mind upon my completion of this endeavor:

  • The ending is less abrupt than I thought. I just wasn't paying attention the first time or two.
  • Stephenson is terrifically funny. The whole "beards as totems of the white male patriarchal privilege" episode still makes me fall off my chair, and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is in general a cause of hysterical laughter.
  • Stephenson could easily be a "literary" writer if he wanted to -- the several page story about Randy's impacted wisdom teeth would not look out of place in the New Yorker. Except that it's hilarious. Hilarity does not often ensue (in text anyway) in the pages of the New Yorker. Of course, if he were a "literary" writer he'd make almost no money. (See question #2 in this Slashdot interview.)

But the biggest thing that comes to mind after re-reading Cryptonomicon is this: ye gods, we geeks were naive in the 1990s.

One strand of this naivete of this parallels the evolution of Bruce Schneier's thoughts on security. He started out (in Applied Cryptography) claiming that cryptography was going to save us, but came around to the idea that cryptography is necessary, but hardly enough. In Beyond Fear, he uses the metaphor of a mile-high fence post when the rest of the fence is two feet high, or nonexistent. Human and physical factors are extremely important too. Good crypto does you no good if the Feds (or the Mob, or your company) put a keystroke monitor on your computer.

An overtly political strand of geeky naivete is that back in the Clinton 1990s, we thought that the biggest threat to freedom was going to be people trying to pass laws against cryptography. We had no idea that we'd be faced, within a few years, with a President and Administration that claims it's above the law (and therefore can spy on people at will, violate the Geneva Conventions, and so on), a Congress that would bend over for it or actively abet it, and a corporate news media that would report government press releases as if they were actual news stories.

I miss the 1990s. I already look back on the Clinton Presidency as a lost Golden Age. Okay -- a Silver Age. I wonder how long before we all look back on those eight years of peace and prosperity with nostalgia and sadness?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Choice, As Long as Grass is Green and Water Runs

Cecilia Fire Thunder, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in misogynist South Dakota, is going to open a Planned Parenthood Clinic on tribal (sovereign) land.

Read here for more details on how you can contribute.

I'm trying to come up with something sufficiently caustic to say about South Dakota's governor, but nothing seems to match the magnitude of this guy's sheer shitheadedness.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Missing Isaac Asimov

It's been a while since I thought of Isaac Asimov, and one of my favorite quotes from his work came to mind, quite forcefully, this evening:
Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.
It's amazing how true that is, and getting truer every day.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Strict Constructionism, My Ass

Why is it so hard for Right Whingers to actually understand their own Constitution?

This case, wherein a law banning the sale of sex toys was upheld, includes this choice quote:

A Hinds County judge ruled in 2003 that state law does not extend the right to privacy to the commercial sale of sexual devices.

The Mississippi high court said there is no fundamental right of access to buy sexual devices.

Who the hell says there has to be a fundamental right to something before people get to do it? Where the hell are the libertarian Republicans (all two of them left uncastrated)?

Haven't these people read the Ninth and Tenth amendments?

  • Ninth Amendment:
    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
  • Tenth Amendment:
    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

How much clearer can you get? There are rights that aren't listed in the Constitution, which people nevertheless retain.

Strict constructionism is bullshit.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Science: Unexpectedness

Here are a couple of articles that illustrate why science, as a way of understanding the world, is so interesting, and so useful. It actually discovers things that we (culture-bound creatures that we are) would never think of. Both are from the NY Times (registration required; use BugMeNot if you don't have a login):

Insert obligatory slam on "Intelligent [sic] Design" here....

Monday, March 13, 2006

Amen, Sister

Molly Ivins tells us why we shouldn't back any D.C. Democrats. I say we run her for office.

Amen, Brother

Digby calls bullshit on whiny "liberal" Christians who claim "secular leftists" reject religious candidates.
Every secular "knee jerk liberal" has voted for religious candidates their whole lives. Indeed, it is impossible not to. You cannot get elected in this country if you do not profess religious belief. We have enthusiastically backed candidates who are from every religious tradition and from every region. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both born again, southern evangelicals. We do not scorn religious candidates, period.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Why you should read Michael Bérubé

He wrote this, so I don't have to.

I was going to rant about Ralph Nader today, too. I'm glad that I don't have to spend any more time thinking about him that I already have, since that would make me nauseous.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"Nature vs. Nurture", Descartes' Error, and Computers

It's odd. Even though most people don't understand computers (how many people don't get the difference between RAM and disk space?), they seem to have absorbed the hardware vs. software distinction, and they apply it to "nature vs. nurture" all the time. Perhaps, though, that's because it mirrors (a) religious descriptions of the world and (b) Descartes' Error -- which mirrors (a) anyway.

Descartes' Error is the term used by materialist (or monist) philosophers to describe Cartesian Dualism -- the idea that Mind and Body are separate things, made of separate substances. More on this in a bit.

Animals (and it's amazing how many people don't understand or believe that we're animals) don't have hardware and software (or Body and Soul, as most European religious traditions -- and Descartes -- would have it). Instead, we have what the cyberpunks of the early 1980s called "wetware". I'd rather call it "meatware" -- that has the added benefit of pissing off PETA.

Meatware is not like hardware and software: when you unplug a computer, hardware stays the same (except for transient voltages), and software just fades away (going back to being unactualized ones and zeroes on the disk, or disappearing entirely if there's no copy on disk). In contrast, if you "unplug" meatware, it just rots.

Meatware is hardware that changes, embodying the software in its very being. Ironically, this is a lot like some of the original computers, which were hand-wired to program them; the programs were not separate from hardware at that point. It was a conceptual great leap forward to separate hardware from software (see punch cards, Jacquard looms, etc.), but it definitely also meant that Descartes was right -- but about computers, if not human brains.

Discursive aside: I am a materialist. Not in the sense of liking to acquire worldly goods (though I'm pretty happy to do that too), but in the sense that I believe there is one kind of Stuff in the Universe: Stuff. Matter and energy (which are both Stuff). There may also be Dark Matter (which might be anything from supersymmetric partner particles to other exotic stuff we haven't figured out yet) and possibly Dark Energy (which could also be a supersymmetric partner particle, or might just be the Cosmological Constant), but it's all Stuff. It's not Souls. There is no Soul-stuff, separate from Matter-stuff. That's the point of philosophical materialism.

Descartes' Error is believing that there is Soul-stuff separate from Matter-stuff. It can be easily demonstrated to be an error, like this: Soul stuff either affects Matter, or it doesn't. If it does not affect matter, it has to be entirely separate, and then Soul just becomes some metaphysical attribute that cannot be talked about in any empirical way, because it cannot affect or interact with Matter. If Soul does interact with Matter, it's just another kind of Matter, and is in the realm of empirical science.

Discursive aside to the discursive aside: this does not mean that I believe that morality (or ethics, or whatever) comes down to physics. I simply don't, and anyone who makes the claim that philosophical materialists are undermining morality because we deny the "Stuff-ness" of Soul or Spirit is simply talking trash. Just as Chemistry deals with a regime of behavior of Matter that fundamental Physics doesn't, and Biology another regime of Matter Behavior, I believe that philosophy, law, politics, morals, ethics, and other ways of describing the world that deal with Human Behavior in Relation to Other Humans are disciplines that deal with Matter Behaving in yet another regime.

So: "nature vs. nurture": it's not just brains. It's the entire life of each organism, from DNA up to the organism level, including all its interactions with the physical world, including other organisms.

What any organism is now, at this instant, is a deeply historical integration of many many things: its genes have been interacting with its environment for its entire life. Its environment may have included being incubated in its mother's body (if it's a mammal, for instance) and being washed in hormones from itself and its mother (and potentially from siblings from the same litter) for the period of its gestation. There is diet (or soil fertility and rain for plants). There is exercise (for animals). There's stress level. There are accidental things: cosmic rays, viral damage, physical damage. And so on.

ALL of these contribute. All of these affect the others. Genes are turned on or off: genes activate and deactivate depending on environment, and the rates at which they are activated and deactivated change depending on environment. Animals have equisitely complex systems for adapting to their environment. Everything interacts.

Are the Pima Indians who live in Texas and eat American fast food, and many of whom are hugely obese, "naturally" fat? Their cousins in Mexico, who eat a basically Aztec diet, are skinny. Are they "naturally" skinny? Or is it all "nurture", and diet? Well, some people eat lots of fast food and don't gain weight.

Is Yao Ming "naturally" 7'5" tall? Might he have been taller with a different diet? He certainly could have been shorter with less protein at the right times in his life.

Lots of people (including me before I started to learn about it) think that genes are like a computer program -- a batch computer program, that runs once, straight through to completion, and then is done, like following a blueprint and then your building is built. It turns out genes are a lot more like computer programs than we guessed -- like modern computer programs that interact with the world: operating systems, or phone switches, or complicated databases. The code is constantly running, but different parts are active at different times. Genes are turned on and off, or have their activity modulated, based on what's going on in the cell. Hormones influence gene activity. Levels of proteins influence gene activity. Other genes' activity influences gene activity. It's bloody complex, and it's going on all the time. There's no "completion" of the genetic program. There's no done.

Like many other things in the world, the false dichotomy of "nature" vs. "nurture" is bogus, because the world is a system -- a complex, interlocking, feeding-back system that doesn't have neat boundaries. Deal with it.

Anyone who says "nature vs. nurture", and believes it, is sadly deluded.

Here endeth the rant.

Edited to add: go read Pharyngula today for a neat take on genes and development.

Democrats are Today's Conservatives

"Democrats don't have any new ideas" -- so goes the slam from the Right Whingers. Wait -- I thought conservatives didn't like new ideas.

Oh, right. The Republicans aren't conservative -- they're reactionary. They want to push back the long (and slow and occasionally faltering) march of progress in our society. Conservatism, in its best sense, is about preserving what's good about what we've got.

So the Democrats, who really don't have a lot of new ideas, have a lot of really great old ideas. They should grab the "conservative" label and run with it. The Democrats are the party of balanced budgets, running a smart defense of our country, the party of small government when it comes to Big Brother -- and the party of equal rights for all citizens, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour work week, and (if they have any cojones at all) national health care as an issue of economic competitiveness.

The Republicans are the party of corruption, incompetence, borrow-and-spend fiscal irresponsibility, and the party of the President as King. They're Tories.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bush Claims Osama Bin Laden as a Supporter

Yeah, we all knew this already, but still, to hear Bush admit it: Bush: Bin Laden helped me.

Let the spin begin!

Friday, February 24, 2006

More Reason To Teach Graph Reading

DarkSyde at DailyKos' Science Friday has a great post today about how hurricanes form and grow, the connections with global warming, and the absolute uselessness of most media outlets in explaining both.

This goes along with an earlier rant on this blog: the consequences of shifting a distribution when what people are watching is how many events are above a threshold. In the case of Tropical Depressions, Tropical Storms, and Hurricanes (categories 1 through 5), we put all of these phenomena into baskets based on wind speed.

As long as you don't move the goalposts (and who, he asked innocently, in this Administration would do something like that?), then shifting the distribution of storm strength a bit higher on the strength scale will automatically lead to more storms in the higher-strength baskets.

I'm thinking more and more that we should be teaching kids statistics and graphs as early and as often as possible (rather than starting with algebra and geometry[1]). Statistics and graph skills are exceedingly important to understanding the world.

[1] Math curricula may be quite different from when I was in school. YMMV.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Constitutional Amendments I'd Like to See

Today on Salon (premium content, sorry), Garrison Keillor argues that the U.S. should amend the Constitution to require military service as a prerequisite for the Presidency. I don't consider this totally outlandish, but here are my wish-list amendments to the U.S. Constitution:

  • The Anti-Aristocracy Amendment
    No person can serve as President whose parent, grandparent, sibling, spouse, or child has served as President.

    You could plausibly call this the "No Hillary, no Jeb" amendment.

  • The Service Amendment
    No person can serve as a member of Congress, Cabinet Secretary, Appellate Court Judge, Supreme Court Justice, or President unless they have done one or more of the following:

    • served a full term in the regular armed forces with an honorable discharge
    • worked as one of the following for at least a year:
      • public school teacher
      • nurse
      • public defender
      • <insert more here>
    • spent a year living on minimum wage
  • Tuesday, February 21, 2006

    Why do they hate America?

    I am so stunned by this story that I can barely type.

    FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky (AP) -- Wearing vests covered in military patches, a band of motorcyclists rolls around the country from one soldier's funeral to another, cheering respectfully to overshadow jeers from church protesters.

    They call themselves the Patriot Guard Riders, and they are more than 5,000 strong, forming to counter anti-gay protests held by the Rev. Fred Phelps at military funerals.

    Phelps believes American deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that he says harbors homosexuals. His protesters carry signs thanking God for so-called IEDs -- explosives that are a major killer of soldiers in Iraq.

    "Thank God for IEDs"?

    Is there a single Republican in Congress who will condemn Phelps and his band of assholes? Hell, is there a single Democrat who will?

    Friday, February 17, 2006

    Depressing Friday

    It's gray enough here in eastern Massachusetts in mid-February. I don't need extra stuff to depress me:

    Glaciers Flow to Sea at a Faster Pace, Study Says (title says it all).

    Religion in the News, about groups that conduct "Biblical tours" of science museums and research centers.

    Wednesday, February 15, 2006

    Right Whingers


    whinge Pronunciation (hwinj, winj) intr.v. whinged, whing·ing, whing·es Chiefly British
    To complain or protest, especially in an annoying or persistent manner.

    It came to me tonight in a flash: the Right Wing in this country is a bunch of whiners. They control every branch of government; most of the media; most of the business establishment; and pretty much everything except a few colleges and universties and the Unitarians. But they still whine about how they're so oppressed, and how they're being picked on.

    The Brits have a great version of "whine" for this: "whinge". Let's call them Right Whingers from now on.

    This is your Modest Proposal for the day.

    Tuesday, February 14, 2006

    Physics Jokes

    Cosmic Variance has a Bad Physics Jokes post. I had to add a comment with my favorote, which I reproduce here:

    There once was a theorist who was hired by the American Dairy Council to help optimize their milk production (because, you know, physicists are smart).

    She goes around to the pastures, to the milking stations, looks at the scaling of the distribution networks (definitely not scale-free), etc. After months, she has a presentation prepared. The auditorium is packed. She puts up her first slide and says "First, assume a spherical cow...."

    Friday, February 03, 2006

    Health Care as Homeland Security

    If you're interested in public health and epidemiology, go read this interview with Dr. Tara Smith on the Daily Kos' Science Friday.

    The bit that leaped out at me was

    Bush's solution to this [the threat posed by an epidemic] is Healthcare Spending Accounts; ignoring the fact that health care is a vital issue of national security. The public won't ever be "safe" while so many of us are vulnerable to the cracks in our healthcare system, no matter what the vector of infection.

    Look, it's yet another political opportunity for the Democrats to miss!

    NTP Considered as Indicator of Generational Shift

    In David and Lisa (the 1962 black-and-white version, not the 1998 Oprah TV version), David and Lisa are well-off white teenagers in a mental institution of some kind.

    The way they demonstrate that David (Keir Dullea) is disturbed is by having him be really twitchy about knowing the exact time. There's a scene where he raves on and on about how wonderful it would be if everyone had a watch that could synchronize itself somehow to a central clock, and everyone would know the correct time....

    My response is "and this is a problem why...?"

    This is especially ironic these days, since almost everyone's cell phone synchronizes its own clock with the cell network -- and cell phones (amongst other things) are driving a decline in watch sales.

    Moral: one generation's neurosis is another generation's basic expectation.

    Tuesday, January 31, 2006

    Special Interests, My Ass

    I caught Digby today via Making Light and this reminded me of an old rant I used to rehearse in the deep silence of the night: "Democrats are the party of special interests."

    If you've been around for more than a few years, you've almost certainly heard this. You might even have said it in some form or another; I know I have.

    Then one day I actually tried to analyze this. What "special" interests are They talking about? (And which They actually benefits from this?)

    So I sat down and listed the major groups that the Democratic Party tends to draw voters from, which they clearly court, and who have significantly effective lobbying groups pushing agendas associated with these groups:

    • black folks
    • women (well, pro-choice women and women who want to be able to have a job without sexual harassment)
    • unionized blue-collar workers
    • gay folks
    • environmentalists
    Not surprisingly, many of these groups are also those who are demonized or rhetorically coded as Bad by Replublicans. (In the case of women, it's only Some Women -- they have to use subdivide-and-conquer tactics since they do want women to vote for them.) But how "special" are these special interests?
    Aside: as near as I can tell, whenever a Republican uses "special", they mean "something I don't like or which I fear will cut into my social or economic position". This is why expansions of equal protection laws (to include, say, women or gay people) are usually met with cries of "special rights". It's to the everlasting shame of the Democratic party that they haven't hit right back with "it's equal rights, you shitheads". "Special" rights are things like "whites only" or "no women allowed" or "sure, go ahead, fag-bash, we don't care".
    So let's see:
    • Women are around 51% of the population and 54% of the voters.
    • African Americans are 11% of the population, 11% of the voters.
    • Unionized workers: these represent 20% of all workers at this point.
    • Gay people: depending on how you count, this group is something like 3-10% of the population, with recent research tending toward the 3-5% range.
    • Environmentalists: surveys show that a strong majority of Americans rate the preservation of the environment (including clean drinking water and clean air) as a value they agree with. (The numbers on this are all over the place since it's so dependent on how the questions are asked, but numbers in the 70-80% range regularly show up.)
    (These statistics are from CNN's coverage of the 2004 Presidential election and The Census Bureau.)

    Each of these groups is fairly large. Women are the majority in the population in the U.S. (by a bit), and are a significant majority of voters. Well over 90% of black voters vote Democratic, so in a nearly 50-50 national race they represent 20% of the votes that Democrats get. Even gay voters, as small a group as they are, are potentially a bigger group than "the Jewish vote" (2%), which seems to not get characterized as a Special Interest (because Republicans have been seeking Jewish voters for years via slavish support for Israel).

    These aren't "special interests" -- they're constituencies.

    What could be more of a "special" interest than oil company CEOs, anyway?