Sushu's China Comics
Check out this series of comics that Sushu is doing to explain the little everyday things that are different between China and America.
Check out this series of comics that Sushu is doing to explain the little everyday things that are different between China and America.
This weekend I've been enjoying Pandora Presents: the Musicology Show, an internet radio show (or "Podcast", if you must, but I hate that word) which breaks down music theory concepts into easily understood chunks with plenty of examples. I'm trying to develop a more analytical ear for music (this is partly spurred by Guitar Hero / Rock Band), so a show that explains time signatures, chord progressions, major/minor keys, etc. with audible examples is perfect.
Pandora is best known for their internet music radio service which lets you create a custom radio station of your favorite musicians, and suggests other stuff it thinks you might like. I've been somewhat disappointed with it, because it tends to suggest songs that I already own, so it's not much different from just letting my iTunes play on random. But the algorithms they use to come up with suggestions &emdash; the so-called "Music Genome Project" &emdash; now that's interesting. (Unfortunately it also appears to be mostly secret.)
A very well-done music video called Here Comes Another Bubble, to the tune of "We Didn't Start the Fire".
I explained in a previous post why I'm excited to go to Mozilla. "Here Comes Another Bubble" explains the flip side. A big part of me is apprehensive because I'm headed straight into the middle of this kind of environment, and it will be a constant challenge to separate what's real and important from the general hypestorm of overpriced, faddish nonsense.
Bloxes.com is now live. This is a Humanized side-project which we've now spun off into its own company. Think cubic-foot sized omnidirectional cardboard legos which can build human-sized structures strong enough to stand on.
For the past half a year we've divided up our office space using walls made of bloxes. Now you can too, cuz we're selling them.
There may or may not be some embarrassing pictures of me in the slideshow.
You should definitely be reading Skin Horse.
Just a couple weeks old at this point, so catching up on the archives will be easy. What's there so far is very, very promising.
No, I won't even try to explain what it's about. Just go read it. From the beginning.
See, that's how you should start a story. Jump straight into the middle of a bizarre situation so the reader is immediately curious to find out what the heck is going on. Explain later.
OK, she got Ohio and Rhode Island by big margins, and probably Texas (although so narrowly that it's effectively a tie (and Obama may even get more delegates out of Texas; the rules are weird)).
This is really bad.
Clinton isn't winning either in delegates or popular vote. She hasn't even caught up; she's merely stopped her losing streak. She's still about a hundred delegates behind, with the exact number depending on who you ask. With only ten -- mostly small -- states left, plus Puerto Rico, there's essentially no way she can catch up.
So why is this so bad?
Well, if Obama had won one of the big states, or if Ohio had been a tie too, then he would have been a clear winner going into the convention. But now it's effectively a tie going into the convention; neither can win without the "superdelegates" -- high-ranking Democrats who can vote however they want. That means that in the end the popular vote and the pledged delegates aren't going to matter -- the nominee will be decided by the party elites. (Explanation of Democratic party rules and how they got to be that way.) And backroom deals with party elites are the Clintons' specialty.
So now Clinton has a serious shot again at being the nominee -- even if she loses the popular vote and the pledged delegate count. Very un-democratic. She'd be the equivalent of Bush in 2000. It will play horribly in the general election, where McCain can point out that she doesn't even have the support of her own party. Even if the superdelagates decide to respect the popular vote and Obama gets it after all, it's very depressing that he ends up relying on a farcical aquatic ceremony and not a mandate from the masses, so to speak. That won't play so well in the general election either.
I'm disappointed. I was really hoping that tonight would be widen or preserve Obama's lead, not narrow it, so that Clinton would be compelled to drop out. Because I really, really don't like her.
Why not, Jono? Why don't you like Hillary Clinton? What, are you sexist or something? Shouldn't we have a woman president, Jono? Weren't the Bill Clinton years in the 90s a pretty good time, Jono? Won't Hillary be a lot better than Bush at least? What's the big deal with hating her?
Let me explain.
I'm sure we will have a woman president within my lifetime. But whether I vote for her or not depends on who she is and what she stands for, not on her sex.
Democrats have a deep-seated need to prove that they're not racist and they're not sexist. In this primary they have to choose between the two. That's why you see Clinton supporters accusing Obama supporters of voting for him just because he's black, and Obama supporters accusing Clinton supporters of voting for her just because she's a woman. It's kind of an encouraging sign that anti-racism and anti-sexism are playing a bigger role in this fight than normal old-fashioned racism and sexism. I think that's why we haven't seen any overt racist or sexist campaign ads; they would backfire horribly among Democrats.
So, let's call Clinton vs. Obama a wash on the "put an underrepresented and previously oppressed group into the presidency" factor. They cancel each other out, as far as I'm concerned. Great! Maybe we can focus on substance then?
Besides, we keep hearing glurge like "no matter who wins, it will make history", bla bla bla, because we'll have a representative of one formerly-oppressed group or the other as president.
Except that we might not have either. Because it's likely that
Many polls show Clinton losing to McCain while Obama wins against McCain. A lot could happen between now and November, and polls are often wrong, but there it is for what it's worth.
It makes sense. The Republicans are scattered, disorganized, factionalized. A significant number of them continued to vote for Huckabee in primaries, even after it was mathematically impossible for Huckabee to win, so I can only interpret this as a protest vote by hard-core religio-conservatives against McCain. The only way they can possibly win is if they face off against the one enemy that would instantly unify and galvanize their base: Hillary Clinton. It's impossible to overstate how much she's hated by Republicans. She's an utterly polarizing figure.
In fact, Rush Limbaugh urged his fans to vote for Hillary Clinton in Texas, precisely for the reason that having her as the nominee is the best path to a Republican victory. It's impossible to know how many people actually did this, but Texas was so close that it might have been influential.
(You can tell a voting system is pretty screwed up when it motivates people to vote for the candidate they least want to win. But that's a rant for another time.)
I think Obama would do better against McCain: he wouldn't win on security, obviously, but he's strong in other suits. Obama's inspirational message, common-sense policies, sincere religion, and lack of 90s-era baggage are all soothing to centrists and moderate conservatives. In every state with open primaries, large numbers of independents and Republicans have been voting for him. It's all anecdotal evidence, but just about everybody I know has told me about at least one conservative relative who supports Obama. So I think the crossover vote for him is genuine, and I think he would do a good job of uniting people. Maybe he'd even break down some of the stupid counterproductive liberal-vs-conservative hatred which has so degraded the public discourse in this country.
I see this primary as a choice between the nominee who unites people and wins, or the nominee who divides people and loses.
And how sad would it be to lose this one? The Republicans have spent the last four years trying desperately to give the 2008 presidency to the Democrats on a silver platter. America is shouting that it hates Bush, that the Republicans are all rotten, that the war was a mistake, and that they people are desperate for change. If the Democrats have all these advantages and still blow it, they are officially the most pathetic political organization on the planet and should be disbanded immediately before they cause any more embarassment. (This is parody -- I think.)
But you know what? Losing isn't the worst thing. If Clinton is the nominee and she somehow wins the general, I fear that might be even worse.
Sure I hate Bush, but not enough to think that keeping Republicans out of the White House at all costs has to trump every other concern. I find it hard to believe that every Republican is pure evil. I want to take a good hard look at what kind of president Hillary Clinton would be before deciding whether I would rather support her or McCain.
With financial problems and personnel churn that suggest serious mismanagement, for starters.
Then there's her attitude: Every time Clinton loses a state, she explains why that state doesn't matter. Obama only wins in small states, she says, or only in states with caucuses, or only in states with large black populations. I'm winning among white, registered Democrats! That's what she says. It's being called the "Insult 40 States Strategy. Guess what: You're not running for president of white, registered Democrats. You're running for president of the United States.
Next: She wants to reseat the Michigan and Florida delegates. She agreed before the primary season began that they wouldn't count. Back then, she thought she was going to waltz to victory unopposed. (And in any year when Barack Obama hadn't been running, she probably would have.) Once she started losing, she wanted to change the rules. That's not kosher. In fact, Clinton's name was the only one on the ballot in Michigan. (OK, OK, Dennis Kuchinich was on there, but he doesn't count -- sorry, Jake.) The only way it would be remotely fair would be to have a do-over in those states, since so many people probably didn't even bother going to vote, thinking it woudln't count.
But, since it's a tie going into the convention this year, it's likely we'll see a protracted legal battle over whether Florida votes count or not. Gee, what does that remind you of? Not something I'm eager to relive.
Clinton has also run a much more negative campaign than Obama has. Obama takes every opportunity to praise his opponents' achievements. He disagrees respectfully and explains why his own ideas are better. He's refrained from mentioning any of the items from Clinton's rich, juicy, and incredibly extensive resume of scandals.
(Bookmark that page, because you're not going to finish it in one sitting. As my friend Geoff said of Hillary Clinton: she's a liar and a criminal and she should be in jail. More about this later.)
Up until quite recently, Clinton mainly avoided negative campaigning as well. The few extremely minor attacks that she tried -- like that weaksauce "plagarism" charge -- seemed to rebound against her. I actually started hoping that we might be seeing the start of a new era where negative campaigning is no longer effective. Ha! Silly me! As the Clinton campaign got desperate, it turned to much dirtier over the last couple of weeks, such as apparently circulating this photo of Obama in traditional African clothes, presumably to make people afraid of his scary foreign-ness and Muslim ancesry.
Speaking of backfiring campaign ads, how about that red phone?
Clinton's campaign message of having 35 years of experience and being ready to lead and ready to handle a national security emergency at 3 AM is a mirage. It has no basis in fact, but the media continues to parrot it unquestioningly.
Junior Senator from New York is her first and only elected position, which she has held for eight years. "First Lady" is not an elected position and it carries no official powers or responsibilities. Obama was in the Illinois state senate for eight years before moving to the national Senate, which means he's actually been a legislator two years longer than Clinton has. In addition, Clinton's record of actual legislation sponsored in the Senate is paper thin. Obama accomplished more in two years in the Senate than she did in eight.
Listen to the long awkward pause when Clinton's team is asked "What foreign policy moment would you point to in Hillary's career where she's been tested by crisis?". The answers they come up with are pathetic.
The truth is that Clinton never had security clearance even when she was in the white house. She's mostly trying to use her husband's national-security credentials as her own. I predict this gambit will backfire instantly as soon as you put her side-by-side with an actual combat veteran.
Obama's credentials are no better than Clinton's in this area, but at least he's not trying to fake it.
Finally, Clinton has been talking an awful lot about universal health care, and how she has lots of experience fighting for it. Um, she might not want to be emphasizing that so much: the 1994 "Hillarycare" plan was an ill-conceived, big-government, bureaucratic horrorshow. Among other terrible ideas, it included criminal penalties for people who tried to pay for unapproved health care out of their own pockets. It was rightfully defeated, but in the process it set back the cause of national healthcare by ten years.
Time for some video evidence!
Here's Clinton being interviewed by John Stewart. Watch carefully. Note that this interview goes on for ten minutes and she doesn't say a single goddamn thing except to repeat what John Stewart says back to him in different words. Typical empty-suit politician: says whatever she thinks you want to hear, and no one will ever know what she really thinks.
She reminds me of Richard Nixon.
Watch this video, where Clinton attacks one of her own supporters who asks her a question about her vote on Iran. She accuses him of being a plant -- says that someone put him up to asking that question.
Nixon-style paranoia. They're all out to get her. There's a vast right-wing conspiracy.
Here's another video. It was posted to illustrate the unnattractive "Hillary Cackle". I don't really care what her laugh sounds like; that's just as dumb as picking on Barack Hussein Obama's middle name. But this video reveals something a lot scarier than her laugh. A transcript:
Questioner: "conservative hitjobs", "right-wing conspiracies": Why do you and the president have such a hyper-partisan view of politics?
Hillary: (laugh) If you had walked even a day in our shoes over the last fifteen years, I'm sure you'd understand.
She doesn't even try to rise above partisanship: she embraces it. Although this video is from the 90s, it reflects an attitude still central to her campaign -- Conservatives are bad, they're out to get her, it's all about her and how unfair people are being to her. It's never been about America or how unfair our government is being to us.
Compare: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
I'm not the first person to compare Hillary Clinton to Richard Nixon. Dana Blaneknhorn does it often: With Hillary Clinton we get to re-live the past of the Baby Boom generation into the indefinite future.
Here's another one: "She helped impeach him; now she displays just as much paranoia".
(That's right: Hillary Clinton was one of the lawyers for the prosecution at the Nixon impeachment trial in 1974. I don't know if it's irony, or destiny, or what, but it's like she killed Sauron and kept the Ring for herself.)
More similarities: Though Nixon was a Republican, the actual policies he enacted were centrist, even liberal. According to some, he didn't care about policies: only about power. The mood of the 1960s was liberal, so in order to win he enacted liberal policies. But once he had won, he abused his power to persecute his political enemies -- the hippies and the war protestors and the democrats. His problem was not that he supported bad policies; he didn't. His problem was a total lack of personal ethics.
I see a strong parallel. Clinton will say and do anything to become president. She doesn't care about policies: like her husband, she'll do whatever is popular. The laws she signs will lean to the right, just as Bill Clinton's did, just as Nixons leaned to the left, because the current political climate is conservative and she has no interest in changing it. "Democrat" is not a statement of ideals for her, or her husband, but merely a political power structure to exploit. With the power that she attains, she will persecute her political enemies -- in this case, the Right, especially anyone involved in the attacks on her husband. She will attack them mercilessly, further polarizing and dividing the nation.
All hypothetical. This isn't what I can prove, only what I fear. But now you know the source of the chill I feel every time I hear her speak.
Richard Nixon founded the modern era of politics, the era of the ideological slugfest, of constant battles between Left and Right, of every new problem being exploited as a wedge issue instead of being solved, of my-side-right-or-wrong thinking, of red-state/blue-state confrontation, of Baby Boomers treating every vote being a referendum over the Vietnam War and the hippie movement.
It sucks and I want it to end already so we can get on with solving real problems, the problems of today. I want Americans to focus on the things we can agree on, compromise, work together, make progress, solve problems. I want us to remember that we're all on the same team here, the American team. Instead, the current state of politics forces us to divide into the egghead-commie-liberal team and the gun-totin-redneck team and battle it out against each other.
Obama, as the first post-baby-boomer presidential candidate, could possibly help to end the era of the ideological slugfest. Clinton would not: she would make it worse. Her administration would be a constant scorched-earth battle between the Red Team and the Blue Team over every single insignificant piece of ground.
And that's the Hillary Clinton that people are overlooking when they go and vote for her simply out of name-recognition, or out of nostalgia for the 1990s, or because it's time for a woman president.
Now, I hope, you understand why I think her election would be a disaster.
This is pretty cool. Political campaign contributions over $1,000 are legally required to be public. So why not make that plot all that information on a map and make it easily serchable? The Huffington Post has a site called Fundrace 2008 where you can search for people who contributed to a certain candidate or party, or scroll around an area to get the gist of it, or zoom in to the street level and see contributions coming from individual houses. You can even search by company and see who, say, Apple employees are supporting.
It's a little freaky how much personal information you can find on here. But people chose to make it public when they made campaign contributions. And privacy is dead, anyway.
I don't seem to be on here yet, but for the record I donated $250 to Barack Obama earlier tonight.
Oh dear, it seems that I have plummeted to my death -- at least, according to LUGRadio in what I can only describe as an Aza Raskin fanfic.
They had us pose like a boy band when they took our pictures. (Link goes to Businessweek's weird Flash-based article reader. I have no idea why they think it's a good idea to show articles in Flash rather than PDF or better yet HTML.)
As usual, the article's all about Aza, He tries to share the spotlight with the rest of us, he really does, but the reporters who write these articles only want to talk about the boy genius with the famous dad.
The ol' japanese-cartoon-imation club at University of Chicago is putting on their annual one-day convention, Uchi-con, this Saturday. Here's the schedule and the directions for getting there, in case you're interested.
I helped run it the first couple of years. This year I'm going to go as part of Artist's Alley / Webcomickers panel and make my first public attempt to pimp out my webcomic. Hmmm... I'll have to print up some business cards with my URL on them before Saturday.
Addendum: The Chicago Maroon had a very positive article about Uchi-con.
Python is not just for web frameworks. You can use it to build a real, actual, client-side, desktop, GUI app, just like in the old days. And you can package your application for distribution cross-platform.
I'm giving a talk about this topic at the Chicago ACM on February 13, and then again at PyCon 2008, Chicago. This post is mostly a collection of links to resources for anyone who wants to learn more about building real applications with Python.
A lightweight, if somewhat klugy, way to call C functions (in a compiled C library) from a Python program is the CTypes module.
A heavierweight, but more robust and flexible solution, is SWIG. (Which was created by my favorite teacher at the University of Chicago, David Beazeley.)
Once you're using C as part of your project, you'll need a way to control the build process. I like SCons, a replacement for make which lets you use Python scripts instead of Makefiles.
You've got a lot of choices for Python GUI toolkits. The one that's included with Python by default is TKinter. Some people prefer WXpython (a Python wrapper for the cross-platform WXWidgets library). Both of these are well-documented and pretty easy to get started with, but you'll run into their limitations when you want to do more advanced stuff. There are also many other choices.
You might also want to look into PyGame and pyglet, two frameworks aimed at rapid game development, which could be useful for other sorts of GUI programming besides games as well. In particular, pyglet does almost all the work of interfacing with OpenGL for you, and so lets you get started with 3D graphics very quickly.
As an interface between Python and the Win32 API, you can use Mark Hammond's excellent Win32 Extensions. This is extremely useful for applications that need to interact with the OS on a deeper level than what you can do with just the os and sys modules.
To turn your Python scripts into Windows executable files, you can use Py2exe. Py2exe bundles up the Python interpreter and standard libraries into your application, so it can be run even by people who don't have Python installed on their computers. The drawback is that having all this stuff included in your application will make it pretty large.
Python is already included on Mac OS X, so you don't need to worry about distributing it to your users; instead, you have to worry about your users having incompatible versions installed. It seems that Mac OS 10.5 comes with Python 2.5, while earlier versions of Mac OS X come with Python 2.3. It's possible to have more than one version of Python on the same Mac, but this generally leads to confusion and I don't recommend it.
The equivalent of py2exe on Mac is Py2app. It will turn your scripts into a .app bundle for the enjoyment of other Mac users.
If you use Apple's XCode IDE, you can choose "Python project" as one of the basic options when creating a project. By default, it will link your project up to the Python Framework in Mac OS X, and to Objective C, so that you can trivially use Objective C to interface with Cocoa and do Mac-native GUI widgets. (Just be aware that relying on this will limit the portability of your application.)
Obama is winning! Virginia, Maryland, and DC had their primaries today and they put him about a hundred delegates ahead of Clinton.
Why am I so excited about this? Because this is the first presidential election of my lifetime featuring a candidate I can cheer for (not just tolerate as the lesser evil) who has a decent chance of winning. In fact, I think he will win. Here's why.
A year ago the mainstream media were treating a Clinton nomination like it had already happened; up until the Iowa primary they were still doing it; after Iowa the story was about how This Obama Kid Sure Is Plucky And Idealistic But There's No Way He Can Beat Clinton On Super Tuesday. But now? I don't think Clinton's campaign ever expected to be in second place this late in the race. Do they have a plan for catching up? Meanwhile Obama is gaining popularity with every speech that he makes and every debate he participates in; he's gaining over Clinton with every state that votes; he's increasingly driving the terms of the campaign (note how much the words "change" and "hope" are now appearing in speeches made by his opponents).
By the way, you should be ignoring everything you hear about one or the other person in a Democratic primary "winning" a certain state. The states are not winner-take-all like the general election. Rather, each has a number of delegates assigned proportionally. The news shows just like to report who "won" a state because it makes for good drama. Many states have actually split their delegates almost down the middle.
It must be a depressing time to be a Republican. Turnouts in Republican primaries are low: I think they're not excited about any of their choices. The GOP doesn't know what it stands for anymore; it's splintered into factions. It might not be much of an exaggeration to say that the corruption and incompetence and miserable failure of the Bush administration has mortally wounded the Republican party. Even now that McCain is pretty much it, a lot of his own party still hates him. Even Anne "All Democrats are traitors and should be sent to the gas chambers" Coulter is endorsing Clinton over McCain. If even the threat of the hated Hillary as president isn't enough to get Republicans unified, I get the feeling that a lot of them are just going to stay home. And Obama has done really well in the South and in traditionally red states. And he's constantly preaching a message of reconciliation and unity and rising above party politics and getting beyond the whole stupid red state/blue state divide to represent all Americans. So he might even get a significant crossover vote in the general election.
His enemies will be digging up all the possible dirt on him for sure, but there's simply not much dirt to be had. (It's the upside of his almost non-existent political record.) About the worst anybody has been able to come up with is that he had a Muslim dad ( Fox News has spun this into "Obama went to a Madrassa" which is BS ) -- and that he did drugs as a teenager. Of course Bill Clinton and Bush II both did drugs as a teenager and still got elected; I honestly think this is a total non-issue with voters anymore. And Obama freely admits it; none of this "I did not inhale" stuff. Meanwhile those who use the race card or the Muslim card (and he's not even Muslim, he just has a Muslim name) is just going to make their own side look petty and bigoted.
OK, so that's why I think he can win; now why do I think that's a good thing?
Earlier today I randomly ran across the blog of writer Dana Blankenhorn; I don't really know who this guy is but I like how he writes, especially about politics. He has a theory about how presidential elections follow a pattern of thesis, validated thesis, antithesis, and then deranged parody of thesis, before a transformation occurs that creates a new thesis. He argues that while Clinton would just be another round in a thesis/antithesis argument we're already sick of hearing, Obama could be a transformational president, a kind who comes along only very rarely, who will transcend the arguments over the old thesis and take us in a new direction entirely.
Interesting theory; I'm not sure how much stock to put in it; but I wholeheartedly agree that we need to try something new to get out of the stupid, stupid, tug-of-war between "left" and "right" that has defined politics for my entire lifetime. It feels to me increasingly irrelevant, like an advertising war between Coke and Pepsi when for the sake of our health we should be quitting fizzy drinks entirely. I recommend reading Why Americans Hate Politics by E.J.Dionne, Jr., a meaty and well-researched book that taught me a lot of things I didn't know I didn't know about 20th century American history and how the two-party system degenerated to its present dismal state. The book argues that Republicans and Democrats have basically spent the past forty years fighting and re-fighting the cultural battles of the 1960s. To grossly oversimplify: if you think the hippies were right you vote Democrat; if you think they were just dumb long-haired drug-addled teenage commies you vote Republican. And if you're more interested in the present than in the 1960s then you lose interest in politics because nobody in politics is speaking to you.
You know what's kinda neat about Obama? He's too young to have an opinion about the 1960s. He's the first potential president from a generation which didn't fight in those cultural battles. He belongs more to the present than to the past, and that's why he's so popular among my generation: someone's finally speaking to us and our concerns.
Read Obama's technology platform. While Clinton and McCain are both likely to see the Internet only as "that computer thing my kids use to waste time and steal music", Obama has a coherent policy centered around net neutrality, privacy, broadband infrastructure, and using the Internet to increase participation by citizens in government decision-making:
Obama will integrate citizens into the actual business of government by:
1. Making government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities. Greater access to environmental data, for example, will help citizens learn about pollution in their communities, provide information about local conditions back to government and empower people to protect themselves.
2. Establishing pilot programs to open up government decision-making and involve the public in the work of agencies, not simply by soliciting opinions, but by tapping into the vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry to help government make more informed decisions.
There's a lot more -- you should read the whole thing -- but I wanted to hilight "Vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry". Think about that for a second. That didn't come from the mouths of the Wikipedia project, it came from a mainstream politician.
Could this be for real? Could this be the sea-change, the new thesis? The American federal government turned Web 2.0 style?
I've been watching Obama's speeches on YouTube and again and again I'm impressed by his public speaking skills. He's probably the best public speaker of my generation: he speaks with eloquence and conviction and he proves he's the bigger man every time he praises his opponents rather than attacking them. Most of all, he inspires people. I feel inspired. The crowd obviously feels inspired. And what are the contents of his words?
I'm asking you to believe not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington... I'm asking you to believe in yours.
When the american people are determined that something is going to happen then it happens. But when they're disaffected and fearful and cynical and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't.
Again and again: It's about us, not him. The vast distributed expertise of ordinary Americans. America should be led by the people, not by Obama or any other politician, and this can happen if we let go of the cynicism that makes people drop out of political participation, and let go of the fear that says we have to vote for the lesser of two evils.
Obama's policies themselves, while good, are not that remarkable or that different from Clinton's policies. Where Obama is profoundly different is in this, his philosophy of how government should be run. His message, as expressed in his books and his speeches and his campaign website, is so consistent and expressed with such fervor that I can't help but think it's the genuine thing. He doesn't want to run the country like a business (as Clinton would) or like an army (as McCain would); he wants to inspire us with his speeches, remove the obstacles to our participation in government, and let us lead.
Does it matter so much that Obama lacks political experience, if he has all 300 million Americans as his policy advisors?
Now lots of people are dismissing this as fantasy, as more empty promises that will leave us disappointed, either because the Washington establishment is too entrenched to change, or because this kind of naivete in a hostile world will make us weak.
But I prefer to look at it a different way: the world is already changing. Humanity is right this moment going through a sea-change, a generational shift, of nearly unimaginable magnitude. The explosion in information and communication technology is enabling an interconnected series of revolutions in every aspect of our culture. It's hard to get a handle on, yet, but I think I'm starting to see the common thread between all these revolutions. We are seeing the open network start to replace the closed hierarchy as the fundamental organizing principle of human society. In the old way, some guys at a television news station, behind closed doors, would decide what we should think about some factoid in an election race, and they'd tell us over a one-way, centralized broadcast, communication medium, and we had no way to argue or check their facts or present an alternative viewpoint. In the new way, anyone with a net connection can create their own media -- including clips of video from the TV along with clips they recorded themselves, along with text quotations and infographics, linking everything to the original sources of information to make their research verifiable, and sharing it with the world. Anybody can easily call public attention to the hypocrisy of a public figure, or point out where the facts don't add up or where someone is lying. They can construct their own view of events and if that view rings more true to people than the official account it will be widely linked to and passed around and paid attention to.
The old way was one-to-many, one-way, boss-to-subordinate; the new way is many-to-many, two-way, peer-to-peer. It's comparable to the changes brought about by the invention of the printing press, except now everyone has a printing press. The whole point of a government is for people to band together to help each other; now that the technology allows people to instantly communicate many-to-many, peer-to-peer across any kind of distances, government can become much more democratized and decentralized. Many of the reasons we used to have to rely on a centralized, authoritarian hierarchy are simply not relevant anymore. The old style of politics, exemplified by Clinton's insider connections and mainstream TV coverage, will be swept away and replaced by something that looks an awful lot more like Wikipedia than like TV.
(I know these sound like half-formed ramblings right now, but that's because it's 4 in the morning and I'm too excited to sleep because of the heady mixture of Obama speeches and technological speculation.)
Because of this transformation that's happening, it's of the utmost importance that we fight to keep the internet free and open, that we reform copyright to allow remixing and commentary and sharing of content for the sake of the free and open exchange of ideas, that we as individuals reclaim our culture from the authoritarian hierarchies that seek to control it; and that we capitalize on the technological possibilities to create a new form of government infrastructure that is more open and participatory.
That's the future. And maybe I'm just hearing what I want to hear in some vague hopeful rhetoric, but I think Obama believes in this new world and can help it to be born. That's the new thesis that's going to replace the worn-out left-right narrative.
And that is why I'm so excited about this campaign that I'm still awake at 4 AM writing this, my own small contribution to the open exchange of political ideas.
This prototype is still very buggy and unpolished, but it shows the user-interface direction that we're trying to go in order to solve several major problems that are limiting the current interface design.
As you can see from the long, passionate, and in-depth comment threads on those posts, this is an issue which our users care about very, very much. You can also see that the proposed changes are already controversial.
Somehow, the Humanized weblog has accumulated a sane, intelligent, reasonable reader-base, who can disagree in a civilized fashion, and who write well-thought-out arguments and analysis. Our comment threads stand in stark contrast to most of the rest of the Internet. Hooray!
I just hope we'll be able to come up with a design that gets the benefits of this 2.0 prototype without losing any of the good things about the old version. Unless we can achieve that, we run the risk of dividing the user base into factions, which is something we very much want to avoid.
I'm not even going to talk about the Presidential race, because there's nothing I could possibly say about it that hasn't already been said by millions of websites with better writing and higher traffic than mine. I'm just going to talk about the bottom-feeder, a.k.a. state and local, primaries.
Why the heck hasn't somebody made it easier to just type in your address and find out exactly who's going to be on your ballot? Here's the site where you can do that for Chicago proper, and here's the one for suburban Cook County.
The latter site has a helpful list of all candidates on all Cook County primary ballots.
So, turns out I'm in the 9th district. (It would be easier to remember this stuff If ever lived in the same apartment for more than one or two years.) The 9th district is mostly the wealthy northern suburbs of Skokie and Evanston but it sends one little tendril sneaking down along the lakeshore to just barely wrap around my apartment complex.
Gerrymandering sucks! I searched for some congressional-district maps of Illinois to see just how bad it really is. Here's the map of Illinois (PDF) (Winner: district 17) and here's a close-up onthe Chicago area (Winner: district 4). These both come from an interesting (if extremely ugly) site called rangevoting.org which argues that congressional districts should be split by an objective and deterministic mathematical algorithm called shortest splitline.
I've decided to take the Democratic primary ballot after all. Now, what positions do I get to vote for besides President?
U.S. Senator from Illinois: Richard J Durbin running unopposed. BO-RING!
In looking for a place to get more info about these people, I found GovTrack.us, which tells exactly what legislation any given congress-critter has proposed and voted for. It's depressing to realize just how much of its time Congress spends on total fluff: naming buildings after people, designating Official Awareness Months for various diseases, and: "H. Res. 933: Commending the Louisiana State University Tigers football team for winning the 2007 Bowl Championship Series national championship game". I wish I was making that up. Here's the record for Schakowsky. She seems to have sponsored a lot of bills I would generally agree with, but exactly zero of them have ever been passed. (Zero is "average", according to GovTrack.us. Yikes.)
John Nocita's campaign flyer tells me everything I need to know... about why I should vote for his opponent.
State senate. Now we're really getting into the dregs. Few news organizations seem to bother even to cover these races. The best info I could find about Heather Steans and Suzanne Elder came from a pair of interviews they had with the Windy City Times, a local LGBT newspaper. (Steans interview; Elder interview).
I'd just like to point out that out of all the sites I've looked at in my research today, Suzanne Elder's is the only one that's not eyeball-searingly hideous. It's attractive, easy-to-navigate, intelligently written, and free from the elementary punctuation and grammar errors which seem to plague the websites of everyone else involved in politics below the national level. You'd think that senators and congressmen would make enough money to hire a damn copy-editor but apparently not. Websites aside, I'm leaning towards Elder for being obviously smart and angry and therefore more likely to do something interesting.
Time for my favorite public office, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner! This is a confusing race as there are eight candidates just in the Democratic party, and we're supposed to elect three of them. Rather than read about each one I think I'm going to be lazy and follow the local Sierra Club's endorsements.
Finally, there's one referendum on the ballot, which is whether or not it should be legal to sell alcohol in my police precinct (the 42nd). Apparently this is on the ballot every time, as Chicago leaves it up to each precinct to decide whether to be "wet" or "dry". Naturally I'll vote to keep it wet. I mean come on, my neighborhood is home to the Green Mill, where Al Capone's goons used to hang out. It just wouldn't be right to reinstate Prohibition.
That's all for tonight. Don't forget to vote, everybody!
My coworker and friend Atul, who got a Mac recently, put up a really nice article about what happens on a Mac vs. what happens on Windows when you take a USB keyboard/mouse out of one port and plug them into another — the kind of utterly basic thing that we computer people really should have solved by now so that nobody has to spend another second thinking about it.
(Edit: Link updated to point at Humanized weblog instead of friend-locked Livejournal post.)
Microsoft has made a $45 billion offer to buy Yahoo. That's billion, not million. To put that number in context, about two-thirds of the world's countries have a GDP of less than $45 billion.
Here's why the article is hilarious:
[Microsoft] is also worried that Google’s dominance in search and advertising allows it to dictate terms to advertisers, and gives it an unfair advantage over its smaller rivals.
Ha-ha. Somehow I don't expect Microsoft to get a lot of sympathy with this argument.
"Dinosaurs mating" was hacker slang invented in 1984 to describe the mergers of gigantic, but doomed, mainframe companies after their business had been made obsolete by microcomputers. I wonder if this merger (if it happens) will prove to be similar?
On the plus side, the best news I've heard in a while is that the "CTA Apocalypse" was averted. The apocalypse was that they were going to have to stop running like half of the buses in the city due to insufficient funding, leaving thousands of people with no way to get to work. It would have sucked really, really bad. There had been rumors of it for months. But at the last second the Illinois governor, Blagojevich, said "OK Chicago, I'll give you funding, but only if seniors get to ride free". Crisis averted! Except that the CTA is still underfunded and over budget and in desperate need of some major rehauls. On the gripping hand, after recent experiences in Connecticut and California I've gotta say Chicago's mass transit system is still better than what a lot of places have.
I thought Blagoman's condition was counterintuitive, since anybody riding free means that it's going to take more tax money, not less, to make up the difference, right? Anybody want to explain this to me?
I put a link into a comment on my own post and didn't close the tag properly, and now the HTML for this whole page gets royally screwed up if you choose to show comments. And I can't fix it because I can't log into my server from here because I don't have it set to accept incoming ssh connections. Gruu!
The link was to BBC's report of the cloning story.
I guess the only thing to do now is to come up with twelve new posts so the offending comment is pushed off of the bottom of the main page.
I am back to working on the comic. I have planned out the rest of the first chapter (which should run about 30 more strips, give or take a few) and pencilled the next six strips. But I won't be able to post the next strip until I get back to my scanner and webserver (i.e. the Mac on my desk in my apartment) next Thursday. Until then I'm in California for more planning meetings with Mozilla.
(Egads, what's that burning ball of fire in the sky? Oh, I guess that's the "Sun" that I've heard of. I guess here in California it's visible from the earth's surface.)
I want to talk a little bit about my method for writing the comic. The problem is how to capture the amorphous mass of Yuki-Hoshigawa-themed ideas that's swirling around in my head and turn it into a sequential narrative. (I'm not talking about writing dialogue, so much as just "deciding what's going to happen and in what order".) I've tried several methods before -- pencil in a notebook on the train, giant text file on a laptop -- but none of them has worked the way I wanted.
Finally a couple nights ago I discovered a method that works really well for me. I take a stack of 3x5 notecards and on each one I put a one-sentence description of one of the plot points or jokes that's floating around in my head. (Often the same idea could be either a plot point or a joke, depending on how it's played.) Then I go back through them and jot down the dependencies that each one has. By "dependencies" I mean, for instance, "joke X is only funny after personality trait Y of character Z has been established", or "plot twist A only makes sense after we know fact B about the setting".
So far I'm thinking about each index card as a single strip, but as I go through them again I look for places where two cards could be combined into a single strip. I feel that for a story to be tight and well-paced, every scene should multitask. That is, for a scene to pull its weight, it should provide at least two of the following:
I feel that a webcomic has to work in two ways: First, the individual strips have to be interesting (especially if it doesn't update that often). Including two or more things from the list above helps make a strip that has enough substance to stand on its own for a while. But a webcomic also has to work as a continuous story when you're reading through the archives in a big chunk. So for overall story pacing, the comic shouldn't neglect character development for too long, or neglect plot advancement for too long, etc. The different aspects have to be balanced in the long term.
I'm not very good about following my own rules, yet. For instance, in my comic I've been neglecting "plot advancement" almost entirely. Go easy on me, I'm a beginner at this, and I'm figuring it out as I go along.
So, I go through all the index cards again noting which ones hit character development, which ones hit plot, which ones hit theme, and so on, and if a strip is only hitting one of these things, I look for a way to combine it with another.
Next, I can lay all the cards out on the floor in a kind of dependency graph, so I can see what strips depend on what other strips. I can see whether there are several strips that involve the same characters in the same place, so they form a natural scene. From there, I can start to think about what order they'll all be happening in, and try to arrange them so that there's some kind of rising action. This is where the mysterious skill of "pacing" comes in.
Finally, glancing over all of the index cards and their dependencies helps me to see whether I'm missing something. For example, I notice that the names of the people in the office (besides Yuki and Fudai) haven't been mentioned in the comic yet. Some of them are scheduled for character development of their own later on, so I realize I'd better start dropping their names into the dialog, wherever it's natural to do so, in order to get people used to the idea that they might be people with their own lives.
Does it seem weird that I use such an analytical, top-down approach for what's supposed to be a creative process? Well, that's just the way I roll.
So, now I've got the rest of chapter 1 plotted out on index cards. This has a couple of nice side-effects. When I feel like sketching, I can look ahead to the next strip that hasn't yet been sketched. When I feel like inking or writing dialog, I can look ahead to the next strip that needs that done. Best of all, I have a solid base for revising and planning things, which I hope ought to lead to the comic being much tighter from now on.
If I can just find the free time to actually get the damn strips done!
By the way, I've found the TV Tropes wiki to be an excellent inspiration for story writing. (The only problem is that reading it can be so addictive that I never get around to writing anything...) This wiki started out as a list of tropes that are commonly observed on TV shows, but it's grown from their into something much more than that: it's almost like a design patterns for storytelling. And that's cool.
I've also been much inspired by reading the director's cut of Narbonic. This is one of my all-time favorite webcomics, which finished its story and ended after a six-year run; the strips are now being re-run with commentary by the author. The commentary is full of insights. There's a quote I can't find right now, so I'll paraphrase it from memory:
"When I started doing a daily strip, I mistakenly thought my biggest challenge would be coming up with enough material. So I thought I had to use everything I thought of. If this story arc had happened later in the strip's run, I would have cut this particular strip without a second thought."
That is wisdom. Seems like a major part of writing is knowing what to throw away: you will always have more ideas than you can use.
Final link for today: It looks like this hasn't been updated in a while, but what a great idea for a blog: Your Webcomic Can Still Be Saved. Note that in Yuki Hoshigawa I have committed every single listed sin of ugly lettering and ugly dialog balloons. I'll do better in the future, I promise! I'm hand-lettering my next comic; we'll see if that makes the text look better.
I dunno how TechCrunch found it out, but they did, and now everybody else is reporting it, so I guess there's no point in keeping it secret: I'm going to be working for Mozilla Corporation. Along with some of the other Humanoids.
So says this blog post by Rene Flores in regards to "Aza Raskin... an absolutely flippin gorgeous 23 year-old man-god".
Hehehe. We are teasing him about it at work today. It's fun.
My friend Brian is in the midst of a lengthy cross-country road trip. When he came to our wedding last weekend, he had already been driving for 10 days from Fort Myers, Florida. After staying with us a few nights he's on his way up to Seattle. He's writing about his adventures at a new blog called Lovers' Lanes. You should read it!
Remember that there's two subjects here. There's the policy issues of how the health care system could be better, and then there's the political issues of how to accomplish that. For the time being, I'm mostly focusing on learning about the policy issues, because I can't really decide where I stand on the politics until I understand how the system works. I've been reading pretty voraciously in an attempt to educate myself.
Here is a "back of the napkin" slideshow explaining the issues involved. It has cute doodles.
The Washington Post has a slideshow primer with voiceover and animation.
The Economist also has an introduction to the topic here. It points out that the U.S.A. spends 16%, or one sixth of our GDP on health care. We have by far the most expensive health care system in the world. Yet in terms of quality we rank thirty-seventh in the world, so what gives?
They also have a follow-up article about the political process of reform, called This Is Going To Hurt. Shockingly for a magazine that's generally quite free-market-uber-alles-rah-rah-rah, the Economist actually likes single-payer best out of all the options.
A lot of fascinating medical bill / insurance horror stories are collected at Andrew Sullivan's "The View From Your Sickbed" series.
Of course anecdotal evidence by itself isn't something to base policy on. And the individual stories point in all different directions and have competing suggestions for what exactly needs to be changed. But in gestalt they underscore the desperate need for some kind of reform.
Because of fear of lawyers?
83% of physicians surveyed reported practicing 'defensive medicine'. They do procedures they don't think are neccessary because they're afraid of being sued for not doing them. And they pay for malpractice insurance. Predictably, the doctor lobby is strongly in favor of tort reform, while the lawyer lobby is strongly against it.
However, studies show malpractice awards are not the main driver of health care costs, says this article from the Washington Independent. We might save some money by tort reform, but it's unlikely to be the main way to get costs under control.
There's a lot of interesting facts in that article. Apparently the cost of malpractice is calculated as only 2% of overall medical spending, so maybe there's not much savings to be had there. On the other hand, nobody can calculate the ultimate cost of defensive medical treatments. On the gripping hand, Texas already capped pain-and-suffering awards at $250,000 and had "a dramatic decline in lawsuits", but Texas still has some of the most expensive healthcare in the country. 29 other states have also done some sort of capping of malpractice awards, so it's not clear what else could be done in those states. Plus there are concerns that the Texas system makes it hard for people who have been legitimately harmed by real malpractice to get fair compensation for it.
A lot of points of view on tort reform, pro and con, are brought together in this Daily Dish post.
1. Ben Lehman has sent The Drifter's Escape off to the printers. This is a game he's been working on for as long as I've known him. It's about a homeless drifter wandering across America. One player is The Drifter, and the other players are either The Devil, or The Man. (You know, The Man who is always keeping The Drifter down.) He's releasing it as a book which is a combination of RPG and short-story collection. (Ben, correct me if I'm misrepresenting any of this.)
2. Ben Lehman has also released a game called High Quality Role-Playing as a free download. It's an extremely old-school (i.e. permanent death is one die roll away), low-fantasy world where there are heroes... but you don't play one of them. You play a random joe schmoe, like a beggar or a blacksmith or a peasant, and you're pretty much in way over your head.
3. Ewen Cluney (it's pronounced like "Aaron"), who worked on translating the Maid RPG to English, is now working on a translation of another Japanese tabletop RPG by the same author. It's called Yuuyake Koyake and it's a heartwarming, non-violent game where you play shapeshifting animal spirits who help rural townspeople with their problems.
4. Ewen is also working on two RPGs of his own design: one is called Raspberry Heaven and is a Japanese high-school girls slice-of-life game ala Azumanga Daioh. I got to playtest it with him earlier this summer. I played a painfully introverted and sickly girl who was the world's biggest fan of Dragon Ash. I could feel the potential there, but I felt like the game needs more structure so that the players aren't just floundering. (I ought to do a whole blog post about this.)
5. The other is called Slime Story. You play a jaded suburban teenager who kills stereotypical RPG cannon-fodder monsters (slimes and stuff) as a part-time job, for spending money. (They come through a dimensional portal.) Ewen, like I said to Ben: Correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong.
7. I haven't heard any updates about these lately, but I know Jake is working on some follow-ups to Glistening Chests based on the same philosophy of tightly genre-focused trope-parodying mechanics. He's got one in the works for horror movies, and another for cheesy Voltron-esque cartoons. (Jake, like I said to Ewen and Ben: correct me if I'm wrong. Also, if you've got links to any info about these projects, let me have 'em!)
Video of a panda ripping a guy's jacket off right through the cage bars. That panda really, really wants that jacket. You'd better let him have it before he rips your arms off along with it.
I've got a new favorite website. It's called Play This Thing. It's reviews and criticism of "non-mainstream" games: freeware computer games made by hobbyists (like Cave Story and Dwarf Fortress); retrogames and ROM hacks (like Megaman vs. Ghosts and Goblins); artsy conceptual "message" games (like Gravitation); modern interactive fiction (that is less about solving puzzles and more about, um interacting with fiction) like The Baron; Euro-boardgames (like Race for the Galaxy) and even indie tabletop RPGs (like My Life with Master).
This site gets me excited for four reasons.
First of all, I'm excited that all of the above are being covered in one place, because I've long felt there's a similarity between the indie RPG design movement and the modern noncommercial IF movement, for example; they are the same spirit, separated only by an incidental difference in medium, and Play This Thing brings them together again under one banner, making the connection explicit.
Second, I'm excited to find a gateway to an underground where simple, innovative game design lives on. I used to be a hardcore gamer in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, but in the late 90s / Playstation 1 era I started drifting away from video games; either they were evolving in a direction I didn't want to go in (e.g. adventure games died, FPS became the dominant genre of action game) or maybe because my tastes were changing and video games weren't changing with them (you can only attack/attack/heal/use fire spell on ice-themed boss/buy better sword/watch cutscene/repeat so many times before you realize Japanese console RPGs are a colossal waste of time).
Basically I dropped out of video games when video games started turning into Hollywood: every game had to be this huge slick production with 3-d graphics and voice acting and cutscenes, with an interface that requires a tutorial to master, a story full of sturm und drang, and gameplay consisting of incremental mechanical tweaks on an established genre.
What happened to simple games, games where you can get started, learn to play, and get to the meat within the first thirty seconds? What happened to games with a sense of humor and a cartoony visual style? Most of all what happened to innovation in gameplay, games based on presenting new gameplay concepts and creating novel experiences?* For the most part they went away when game development changed from something done by a team of 1-5 people to something done by a team of hundreds with a million dollar budget. Just like Hollywood, the space for individual creativity got squeezed out and blockbuster sequels became the safe thing to do.
(* To be fair, these things still have a niche on handheld consoles like the Nintendo DS, and a Katamari Damacy still comes along once in a while, but still.)
Third, I'm excited because the games featured on Play This Thing represent a veritable Cambrian Explosion of new ideas and contents that I've never encountered before. A game about bringing peace to Israel and Palestine? Games focusing on social interaction instead of combat? Games that are all about getting different endings depending on moral choices you make for your character? Games that use game mechanics as metaphors to express the author's views about the human condition? Sure, a lot of the new ideas are kind of gimmicky (a game where death is permanent - once you die you can never play the game again, cuz you're dead) but that's OK; a creatively bankrupt mainstream demands a vibrant indie scene, and a vibrant indie scene demands that we indulge people in some high-concept pretentiousness and some creative dead ends as the price for discovering the good stuff.
Fourth, I'm excited because I could totally make a game like one of these. I've got the tools, I've got the know-how, I've got the ideas, and now I've got the inspiration. All I need is a little free time...
My cousin Samantha, who is going to school in New York City, has been in a couple of videos lately. She's in a Microsoft X-Box commercial, and she's also in the music video for a song called 'hot mess' by some trashy disco band I'd never heard of called "Cobra Starship". (She's only in it for a couple seconds and you can't really see her face.)
It's kind of a horrible song. It's about, like, taking advantage of drunk women. Not cool.
But hey, with the economy the way it is I'm happy when anybody in my family finds any kind of paying work they can do. So, Go Samantha!
Googleshng wrote this, which is hilarious if you know the plot of the Phantasy Star games.
The narrator in this tour of a German accordion factory is the same guy I bought my accordion from.
This cry of despair, written by a former Mozilla intern who I worked with briefly in summer 2008, reminds us of the dark side of knowing everything about everybody.
It also reminds me, a lot, of the issues that a certain webcomic was trying to get at. I should really make time to get back to that. Now, where did I put my sketchpads after I moved?
Jake Alley has cut the price of his self-published board game, The Massive Vs. The Masses, down to $25. Go buy one while you still can! Especially if you're looking for a present for that person you know who loves board games but seems to already have everything.
I was heavily involved in the playtesting, so I'm far from unbiased, but I do believe it's a good game. It's a quickly paced, 2-player card-driven wargame that is dripping with theme, is well-balanced despite having two sides with completely different play styles, has a good amount of tactical depth, and shockingly high production values for a self-published game. (You just have to ignore the ugly yellow box.)
This reminds me, I need to add some kind of permanent links bar to this site, to point at my friends' sites and other favorites.
Bankuei has written up a trio of great posts up about dysfunctional role-playing:
That last one sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But so many gamers have trouble with it. Bankeui explains it pretty well, but I thought I'd offer my own take on it...
Here's how I see it. Most role-players think they've agreed to a set of rules, when they really haven't. Maybe they've agreed to play D&D, but that really only means they've agreed to the game-mechanical part of the rules. That's not enough.
Compare D&D where every player controls one character to D&D where every player controls a small army of hirelings and men-at-arms (yes, this was a common type of old-school play. The charisma and morale rules are there for a reason.) Completely different games. Compare D&D where all PCs are assumed to get along with each other, and backstabbing another PC is effectively against the rules, vs. D&D where PCs work for opposing political factions and are expected to plot against each other. Completely different games. Compare megadungeon-crawling, get-as-much-treasure-as-you-can D&D against backstory-heavy, team-of-heroes-on-a-quest-to-save-the-world D&D. Completely different games.
You've agreed to game mechanical rules (and hopefully a setting too), but you're missing a whole level of rules, something that could be called procedures - basically, how do we play this game? What do our characters DO in this game? How do we decide what type of characters are appropriate, what goals they are trying to accomplish, where the opposition comes from, how the characters are related to each other, whether they get along or not, what types of actions are appropriate for the game or out of bounds... I could go on and on.
These procedural rules are not in the book, but they're just as important to agree on as the game-mechanical rules, and should be considered just as binding. If you don't want players backstabbing each other in your game, make that against the procedural rules! If someone goes all "I stab (other PC) and take his stuff", the answer is "No, that's against the rules", just as if a fighter had tried to cast Magic Missile. As long as you have a game group that is able to talk openly about what the procedural rules, you have a way to fix whatever problems arise.
The biggest problem in role-playing is that so many players are unable to talk openly about procedural rules. They lack the vocabulary to talk about procedures, or even talk about the fact that procedures are missing from their game and must be filled in. Instead, they've got a whole mess of assumptions about "how you're supposed to role-play", based on previous game experiences, that they unthinkingly use to fill the gaps. Thinking that D&D is a single game, they join a group assuming they know how to play... and then wonder why everyone else is playing wrong!
Bankuei puts it all much more succinctly than I can:
"OH GOD POWERGAMERS." Wait. That’s like going, "OH GOD GO FISH" at a Poker table. It’s a discussion that shouldn’t even have to happen- someone wants a different game – why are they playing this game with you?
If role-players were on the whole were more socially functional people, they'd be able to deal with games that are missing procedural elements. They'd just go "Hey, I don't think the way I want to play is compatible with the way you want to play. Let's play something else, or play with different people."
But geeks have trouble with that. Have I ever linked to the Five Geek Social Fallacies from this blog? I should link to it more often - every geek totally needs to read this article.
Because geeks think that friends must do everything together (this is Fallacy # 5), they are constantly trying to get people to play in the same game with each other despite the fact that they obviously have very different, and incompatible, gaming preferences. Put this together with the inability to talk about procedural elements of the game and you have a recipe for huge trouble. Add in the way that traditional gamers treat a campaign like a freakin' marriage, as an indefinite commitment... horrors!
This has a lot to do with what I talked about in a previous post: traditional gamers think what they want is a way to get everyone to play together despite the fact that the players all want to play different games. When you tell them that no, in fact, the answer is to pick one game and play that (via Creative Agenda), they run it through a filter of Geek Social Fallacies and interpret it as an attack on their friendships.
I LOLed at this. Explaining it would ruin the fun so just watch.
Flixel is a free Actionscript library for easier development of Flash video games. The page also has links to documentation and, this is important, to free tools for authoring Flash files so you don't have to pay Adobe $700. It's basically everything you need to get started making Flash games in one place.
I love how the technological barrier to making your own games keeps getting lower and lower. It's super awesome! Like, Googleshng, who has tons and tons of game design ideas but isn't a programmer, finally has the ability to implement playable games. Huzzah!
This illdoctrine video pretty much sums up how I feel about the Christmas season. This year, I mailed off some cards and presents but I didn't do anything Christmasy, and I didn't miss it. Just hung out in Seattle play-testing the Jiang Hu game and playing the accordion and talking, did a little karaoke, had dinner at Chinese restaurants (the only places open.)
Most of my family had really crappy Christmases. Not surprising when the economy is as bad as it was in 2009. I kind of wish I could just opt out of Christmas without feeling like I'm letting people down; I'm not a Christian, so why should I celebrate it, anyway?
I just made a donation for Haiti through Doctors without Borders. Not to say there aren't also plenty of other worthy charities, but it seems like Medicins Sans Fronteires has a long history of working with Haiti so they should know what they're doing.
I hear that the earthquake flattened the UN building in Port-au-Prince, killing everybody inside, so the people who could have been doing the coordination of the relief efforts all died. Plus the city's airport and main seaport were heavily damaged so it's harder than it should be to get people and supplies in or out. And the epicenter of the quake was almost right underneath the capital city and most densely populated area. In the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Long story short, they are in really really bad shape.
Couple of links:
This is a good article: How Not to Help in Haiti explains why you shouldn't try to help by sending stuff or by going to Haiti yourself, and why donations will still be needed long after the tragedy stops being on the news.
Ill Doctrine explains Haitian history: "We need to act not because Haiti is some nation of perennial victims that we need to have pity on. We need to act because Haiti is a nation of heroes and we have to repay them for what they've given us."
Ben Lehman is donating all proceeds from game sales this week to earthquake recovery organizations. Go Ben!
I had plans for today, but then I found a link to Fantastic Contraption, and before I knew it I had wasted the whole day. So be warned.
It's a 2-d physics engine puzzle game. Each level has a pink ball that you're trying to get into a goal area; there are five very simple pieces which you can use in unlimited quantities to get it there. (Three kinds of wheels, two kinds of sticks). Everything behaves according to mostly realistic physics, and half the fun is watching your plans go awry as objects tip over, collide, get flung, slide off of edges, roll away, etc.
Unlike other physics-engine puzzle games (yes, this is a genre now), Fantastic Contraption doesn't limit your piece supply or score you based on the complexity of your solution, and levels have no single right answer. So your creativity can run wild. It's up to you whether you want to find a brilliantly elegant solution using a single falling stick positioned just so, or whether you want to use 300 pieces making a giant walking spider bot with back-mounted trebuchet to deliver the pink ball in style. There seems to be quite an active YouTube community posting videos of their proudest achievements.
How RPGs Lost Their Way - an editorial by Googleshng.
He's talking about video game RPGs, and from the perspective of a hard-core genre fan (i.e. someone extremely familiar with and skilled at a particular game genre, who craves a good challenge).
But it's got a lesson that can be applied to pretty much any form of game design:
When making a game with mechanics inspired by, or based off of, an existing game or genre, be careful of "innovations"! The reason the original game worked was because all of its parts interacted, probably in some pretty subtle ways, to create a certain experience. If you start adding, removing, or changing subsystems without understanding how those subsystems fit into the big picture, you may end up breaking what made the original game work.
E.G., to use one of Googleshng's examples: it's frustrating to die at a boss fight because you were worn down by random encounters! Let's put a free healing / save point right before each boss! Yes, it solves the frustration, but it also nullifies the resource scarcity which was the root cause of all interesting strategic decisions in older games.
Relevant to tabletop RPG design because most tabletop RPGs in history have been basically hacks to D&D that were made without really understanding how all the subsystems in D&D worked together. (I doubt even Gygax really understood them all.)
Anyway, read the article, and take it as an argument for why craft in game design is just as important as "innovation".
Sushu has a comic up about the ever-vital topic of squatting and Asian toilets.
She wrote, laid out, drew, inked, shaded, and lettered the whole thing during the time I spent inking one panel of my last Yuki comic. She works fast! I work slow |:-(
Check this out: Remember my nemesis, the Curvy Triangle Font?
These are the exact opposite: a set of Japanese fonts meant to invoke "European-ness" by putting round curves and serifs everywhere. Kind of neat.
Thanks to Chris for this link: some Chinese art school students took an old Chinese military truck and converted it, Transformer-style, into a giant metal statue of Guan Yu (roughly speaking, the Chinese god of war).
If you haven't seen this yet, you should:
It starts kind of slow, but watch the whole thing. The first half is about how the computer gaming industry got totally blindsided by the unexpected success, in the last couple years, of games that extend into the real world in one way or another, as well as games that exploit human psychological flaws to keep people playing and paying.
The second half is what I really want you to see, though. He lays out a vision of the future which is all-too-plausible, horrifying, and yet strangely attractive at the same time. "It's coming", Jesse says, "Because what's gonna stop it?"
The talk about "achievements" also reminded me of this lovely thought experiment: What if Super Mario Bros. had been designed in 2010?
Newspaper cartoonist Ted Rall travels back to Afghanistan and draws a diary comic about it.
You should start from the beginning. It's crudely drawn and usually more depressing than funny, but the observations about Afghan society, about the practical aspects of traveling around a war-torn country without getting killed, and about the continually evolving state of things over there are all totally fascinating.
Like, did you know the Taliban have started terrorizing the highways with high-speed, bomb-chucking biker gangs?
My awesome sister Kristin, who does scary movie makeup effects, is applying to be in a makeup-related reality show on the Sci-Fi (or should I say, ugh, "Syfy" :-P ) channel.
Her audition video is here and it's very good. Watch until the end where she demonstrates her skills by turning herself into a cyborg.
Go Kristin! I hope you get picked!
Interview with David Wesley (on the train to GenCon).
This is an absolutely fantastic interview - thanks to Chris for the link (and thanks to Clyde for doing it!). Major David Wesley, now in his 60s, ran a little game called Braunstein way back in 1967 for his historical wargaming club in Wisconsin.
In the interview, he talks about how, in pursuit of realism, his wargaming club used more and more complex rule sets for resolving combat. Besides taking a long time, the complex rules sets exacerbated the problem of Rules Lawyering to the point where people were spending more time arguing than playing. To fix this problem they appointed referees to arbitrate disputes. The referees got bored because they weren't getting to fight, so to have something to do the referees would come up with more and more elaborate scenarios, launch surprise events mid-game, or have hidden information that players would need to send scouts to discover.
And then he ran a game set in the German town of Braunstein. Instead of just two opposing armies, he created lots of non-combat roles, such as the mayor, the leader of a rebel student group, etc., each with their own agendas, and assigned these to his various players. The idea is that they could do a lot of Diplomacy-style secret dealmaking which would influence what the situation was when the main armies entered the town. It sounds like the negotiation was intended to be just a prelude to the wargame, but it took on a life of its own.
A referee creating a scenario with various roles in conflict, and then having people play them out, negotiating between their various agendas, and allowed to announce any action they liked, which the referee would interpret. (He even made up a rule on the fly when two people wanted to duel with swords.)
Sound like anything you recognize? That's right, Braunstein was the first recognizable ancestor of the role-playing hobby as it exists today. David even came up with the idea of using pythagorean solids as dice to generate different probability curves (although he denies any credit, assuming that other people surely came up with the same idea independently of him).
Anyway, the interview is a historical treasure and should be required listening for every RPGamer.
Braunstein inspired another Dave, Dave Arneson, to do something similar, but in a fantasy setting. His campaign was called Blackmoor, set in and around the Castle Blackmoor. For his combat system, he used a medieval miniatures wargame called Chainmail created by one E. Gary Gygax.
(Arneson and Gygax later got together and created Dungeons & Dragons as a sort of fantasy-role-playing add-on for Chainmail; and the rest is history. Gygax is well-remembered, Arneson slightly less so; but David Wesley is almost unknown among gamers, even though he predated both of them. It's a shame; he seems like a really cool guy.)
So here's another crazy awesome link:
Greg's character, Sven, a simple man-at-arms, was the sole survivor of the first ever dungeon adventure, which Dave Arneson ran on his basement ping-pong table in St. Paul, Minnesota over Christmas break of 1970-71. Check out that link (it's a quick read) and find out how the rest of the party met their grisly fates.
Two interesting things stand out. One is that the scenario involves the baron of the castle sending 30 men-at-arms down into the dungeon. In modern terms, that's a party of thirty first-level fighters. Pretty weird, but a totally normal thing for wargamers. (And think about it -- isn't that about who you would send on such a mission, if you were a baron?) Only six of them were player characters; the rest were NPCs under their command.
The other interesting thing was that the DM (Dave Arneson) assigned players for the two villains (the evil wizard and the balrog). I guess, coming from a wargame background, it's only logical that you would have two sides playing against each other, and a referee to arbitrate things. It's not clear from the write-up just how much of what happened in the dungeon was the result of decisions by the villain players, but I suspect it was a lot.
Also note that they were already introducing LARP elements like turning off the lights and screaming...
If you want to track the history of role-playing even farther back, before Arneson and Wesley, read Rob MacDougall's article "Dungeon Master Zero". He talks about Charles Adiel Lewis Totten, a crazy 19th-century military tactician who wrote Strategos: the American Art of War, the book which David Wesley found in the library that inspired him to try appointing a referee...
Some science links.
"A mysterious force is holding back the Pioneer probe". They've tried out a lot of possibilities - instrument malfunction, gravity from an unknown body and nothing else seems to account for it. Something is pulling the Pioneer probe back towards the sun with a force 10 billion times weaker than gravity (meaning, barely perceptible except over the course of the decades that the Pioneer probe has been traveling). The force is apparently constant, not getting weaker or stronger as Pioneer moves away from the sun.
Maybe we don't understand gravity as well as we thought? What are the implications for dark matter, cosmology, the inflationary big bang model, etc. if the forces attracting objects to each other are stronger than we've been accounting for?
Not only that, but also the proton is smaller than we thought. A ten-year experiment has shown that it's 4% smaller than predicted by the Standard Model. So that's interesting. What's going on there? Do we have to re-think quantum electrodynamics, as well?
This is all really exciting because advances in science come from encountering stuff that our models can't explain, which leads to new and beter models. Science is boring when everything behaves according to prediction and old theories are simply re-confirmed. Being wrong, on the other hand, is exciting because it means new things to discover.
Also: Michael Duff, of Imperial College London, says he has a testable prediction of string theory. This is exciting because thus far nobody has come up with an experiment that could confirm or deny string theory (at least not at any level of energy we could reach on Earth in our lifetimes) so it's been forever stuck in the realm of conjecture (or as some critics like to say, "numerology"). Duff says there's a mathematical similarity between the string theory representation for black holes and some math from quantum computing, so maybe there's an experiment we can do involving quantum computing? (I'm a bit skeptical because it seems like all of string theory is built on "mathematical similarities" which could very well be coincidences.)
Finally, and this is the most exciting one in terms of potential impact on human civilization, Fusion researchers at Lawrence Livermore labs have made a breakthrough! They've been trying to achieve fusion by focusing 192 powerful laser beams onto a tiny blob of deuterium and tritium. The big problem with this approach is laser-plasma interactions or LPI, which cause the blob to destabilize. But in January, the smart guys at NIF (National Ignition Facility) at Livermore figured out how to use LPI to their advantage by dynamically varying the wavelenths of the lasers to achieve highly symmetrical compression.
Fusion power might just be what solves the energy crisis and saves civilization from peak oil, air pollution, global warming, dependence on authoritarian middle-eastern regimes, and all that other bad stuff. So this is kind of a big deal. The joke is that fusion power is 40 years away, has always been 40 years away, and will always be 40 years away; but hey, we put a man on the moon, broke the sound barrier, built the Internet, and we know fusion is possible; I think we can do this.
(Hey, I wonder if we've been failing so far because we thought the proton was bigger than it is... there's a thought...)
In support of the March To Keep Fear Alive, Stephen's band Silhavey plays the Colbert Report and Daily Show theme songs. Watch it to the end - Stephen does a hilarious job connecting John Stewart to Hitler... and Justin Beiber!
(LOL @ "What better source of fear is there than schools?" Good job.)
The definitive deconstruction of dissociated D&D mechanics, or why 4th edition isn't fun - far better than I could have said it myself.
An interesting Grognardia discussion thread on why fantasy is so much more popular as a role-playing genre than science fiction. Is it just because D&D came first, or is it because fantasy is easier to explain, or has more shared baseline assumptions, or does it have to do with setting design, or Jungian archetypes, or what? Some insightful comments in there.
A great TED talk about why the office is the often the worst place to try to get work done. It pretty much describes my life.
Chris started two conversations on The Forge about role-playing games we did lately. I posted follow-ups to them. If you want to follow the conversations, there's this one about our Bliss Stage one-shot and this one about our just-finished PTA campaign.
This video clip freaked me out pretty bad last night. I had trouble falling asleep after watching it:
That's the town I used to live in. I don't recognize any of the people in the video but I recognize the streets and the buildings that are getting knocked down. Thanks to everybody who sent me links to that clip.
This is also Kamaishi. Note the tops of telephone poles next to that ship.
Japan knew a big one was coming eventually so they were crazy prepared. Apparently they have an early warning system that detects the faster P-waves running ahead of the damage-causing S-waves of the earthquake, so they had 30-60 seconds of warning before the earthquake hit and were able to shut down machines, get to safer places, etc. An earthquake this big in most other countries would have caused a much higher casualty toll than the 1,100 ish dead-or-missing that I heard reported last.
Interesting fact - Kamaishi had the world's deepest anti-tsunami sea wall, 63 meters deep across the mouth of the bay. It was completed in 2009. Without that wall, the damage would have been much, much worse; the shape of Kamaishi bay is basically a perfect tsunami funnel pointed right into the town. They were completely devastated by the tsunami from the Sanriku earthquake in 1933.
Lots of people have told me they want to help somehow and are asking where's the best place to send donations. I don't know a good answer to that yet but I'm asking some of my Japanese friends for suggestions.
Fingers crossed that that nuclear reactor doesn't go critical.
Sounds like my cousin Samantha's band is doing really well!
They're now called Friends and no longer called Perpetual Crush.
I keep missing their shows - Samantha and I kept missing each other's calls when I was in New York, and then they came out here and played San Francisco but of course it was when I was out of the country.
Anyway, I'll make it to their show someday, I promise. Congratulations, Samantha! Break a leg!
A lot of people have been asking about how to help with the Japan tsunami relief effort. I just heard from the Mozilla Japan folks that they recommend donating to the Red Cross. Here's a link.
(The article Nobody wants your old shoes: How NOT to help in Haiti still applies to this and all other disaster relief efforts.)
Wouldn't you know, right after I posted this post about my trip to the mosque, Sushu showed me this amazing video. A Pakistani mullah accuses a Pakistani actress, who was on a reality TV show in India, of shaming Pakistani culture and disrespecting Islam. The actress TOTALLY TELLS HIM OFF in one of the most amazingly righteous smackdowns I've ever seen.
I love, love, love how she was like "the Prophet, peace be upon him, would stand out of respect when a woman entered the room, so why don't you respect women?" And she was like "it's suicide bombers, and priests who molest children, that bring shame on Islam, not me". So good!
It's like I was saying in that post, who gets to decide what Islam stands for? I love that she finds references from the scriptures to support a peaceful and woman-respecting interpretation of Islam. It just goes to show that despite Abrahamic religions claiming to derive authority from their holy texts, what really matters is the cultural values of those who choose how the texts are interpreted. Christians, Jews, and Muslims can all choose violent or peaceful versions of their religions depending on what part of their text they choose to emphasize.
THE MOST important ideological battle in the world today isn't Islam vs. the west, it's extremist Islam vs. moderate Islam. It affects every one of us in the world, so we should all be cheering for the moderates to win out.
I've been to the town of Ishinomaki, once, on my way to visit the famous temple on the island of Kinkazan. It's a small, not particularly exciting town best known for being the birthplace of Ishinomori Shotaro, manga artist who drew Cyborg 009 and Kamen Rider. They've got a whole museum devoted to his works.
Ishinomaki has pretty much been turned into a lake by the tsunami. Eek.
This one guy, named Hideaki Akaiwa, escaped from the tsunami, but he couldn't contact his wife. So seeing his neighborhood consumed by the tsunami, he decided to grab a SCUBA suit and dive in, swim through the freezing, murky, black currents and riptides and the cars and jagged metal chunks getting tossed around, and find the apartment building where his wife was trapped on the top floor. He rescued her and somehow brought her back out to safety. He and his wife were both surfers, so I guess he had some relevant experience for this kind of thing.
And that's not all! Hideaki Akaiwa couldn't contact his mother either. So a couple days later he went in to the tsunami again, find where his mother was trapped, and rescue her too.
Now he goes back into the flooded city every day looking for more survivors.
This guy is a real-life superhero.
From this article from businessweek, sent to me by Mom this morning.
It's true, and it's exactly what I hate about Silicon Valley. Almost everyone here is ultimately working for the advertising industry. Including me, if you follow where the money comes from. I find that disturbing, because when your money comes from selling ads, your users are not your customers -- advertisers are your customers, users are just eyeballs. You can try to be ethical but the incentives are always there pushing you, not to solve users' problems, but to keep them looking, keep them clicking, to track their every movement and to predict their greatest temptations.
It seems like nobody starts a company anymore with the aim of selling software. (I tried it; it didn't work.) The very idea sounds quaint. There are fewer and fewer companies left that sell software: Apple, always more of a hardware company, is trying to turn itself into a media middleman. IBM is a business-process-consulting firm now. Microsoft still sells software but they're desperately trying to get in on the search-driven ad revenue with Bing. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and all the other internet companies who surived the first bubble are pure advertising and always have been, except for those like eBay and Amazon which sell physical objects. Sun is dead. That leaves, I guess, Oracle and Adobe? And game publishers, I suppose, although we're seeing more and more "play for free, give us money for better items" games every year. I guess there are some highly technical/professional niches where you can sell seat licenses for like CAD software or something for $1000 a person.
But increasingly it seems like there is no software industry, merely a branch of the ad industry that employs software developers.
The Real Life Social Network is a presentation by Paul Adams, UX researcher from Google. It's just about the only sane piece of writing I've read about the whole "social networking" phenomenon. Most writing about social networking is either
1. moral panic at the degeneration of society because of the kids and their Facebook dating
2. advertisers and marketers orgasming in their pants about how easy it is to spy on every aspect of their customers' lives -- sorry, I mean "to build relationships" with their customers and enhance "brand loyalty".
3. dreamy, utopian musing about how "social media" will replace newspapers, end war, topple dictators, and advance human consciousness into The Age Of Aquarius.
But the article I linked above (it's on an awkward slideshow interface, sorry) presents actual sociological research on how people relate to people and to groups of people that they know, online and offline, and points out several areas where current social networking technology is not well-designed to support normal/offline human interaction patterns. Go read it!
Yo, it's happening. First two episodes are online already. I just watched them and they look promising! Great animation, cool music, pretty backgrounds, solid characterization, funny jokes, sweet martial arts, inventive setting, hints of major plotlines to come: what's not to like?
Kind of unusual for a kid's show to be like "Hey kids! 70 years have passed, most of the characters you like have died of old age, sorry." That's how the Avatar Cycle works, though. They're being true to their mythology. I'm pretty excited that they allowed technology to progress enough in the intervening time that their fantasy setting has effectively been transformed into an early modern setting with some fantasy elements. I can't think of another series that's made that jump (except maybe Final Fantasy, but that has no continuity anyway). I'm looking forward to lots of stories about crime and political corruption and future shock. (Kid-friendly, of course.)
A friend of mine decided to spend some money on music and asked for music recommendations. I asked him what genre and he said no genre in particular, he just wanted some good stuff to listen to. "Your thought process, it is alien to me", I said. But then I started thinking about it as a puzzle: what albums to recommend if you have no starting point and no idea of somebody's musical taste. You want to pick out albums which are a good accessible introduction to an artist or style but also have a variety of sounds and moods, much replay value, and few or no dud tracks. So it's not exactly the same as the list of "my favorite" albums.
(I'm also leaving out some of the really super-obvious stuff - yeah Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon are great, but you don't need me to recommend you those.)
I wound up picking 20 albums. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, a representative song from each one is linked below so you can see if you would like them.
Antonin Dvorak - Symphony #9, "From The New World"
Gustav Holst - The Planets
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra if you don't know which versions to get)
Billie Holiday - Lady Day
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
Stevie Wonder - Innervisions
Earth, Wind, & Fire - Gratitude
Emerson, Lake, & Palmer - Welcome Back my Friends to the Show that Never Ends
David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Talking Heads - Stop Making Sense
They Might Be Giants - Apollo 18
The New Pornographers - Mass Romantic
Cee-Lo Green Is The Soul Machine
Del The Funky Homosapien - Deltron 3030
Tribe Called Quest - The Low-End Theory
Kraftwerk - The Man Machine
Tangerine Dream - Phaedra
Bjork - Homogenic
Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Graceland
Johnny Cash - The Legend of Johnny Cash
Kodo - Tataku
If you were making a list like this, what would you put on it?
As I've complained about before, it's hard finding usable advice for writing comics.
So I was pretty excited to discover, via random internet searching, a column called The Proving Grounds, by a writer named Steven Forbes. In each installment, a reader submits a draft of a comic script, and Forbes rips their horrible ideas to shreds. I mean, provides helpful feedback!
It's aimed at people who are trying to break into the American weekly-comic-magazine market, so there's the assumption again that writer and artist will be two different people. Nevertheless, there's a lot of good, useful stuff here about panel-to-panel flow, story pacing, dialog, establishing shots, and what is or isn't drawable. Plus I find it really entertaining when Forbes calls somebody out for "white void", "moving panels", or being "magically delicious" (when something we should have seen earlier appears out of nowhere).
There's another, newer column on the same site called Points of Impact which goes through comics published that week (mostly ones I've never heard of) pulling out graphic narrative devices to talk about why they work or don't work. I'm getting some useful ideas out of this one, too. The rest of the site is not so relevant to my interests.
Sushu's been working on scripting a new comic project of her own. She wrote a good post about killing your headcanon, among other things.
Japanese biologists grow a human eye precursor from stem cells. Not yet a functioning eyeball, but an embryonic proto-eyeball structure called an "optic cup". We've long known that in principle the structure of all the body's systems and organs is encoded in the DNA of a single cell, but this is the first time that a complex three-dimensional structure has been grown on its own from human cells. A future where we can grow replacement organs from our own DNA is going to be pretty cool.
Scientists in Long Island have mapped out the "wiring" of the mouse brain. This is not the same as knowing what every neuron in the mouse brain does. It's the equivalent of sequencing the genome, which doesn't tell us what every gene does but does provide the vital high-level framework and context for future exploration. This is the first vertebrate brain to be mapped at this level of detail and is considered a first step towards mapping the human brain. The team has made lots of hi-res images publicly available.
Google Research has trained a 9-layer deep neural network to recognize faces based on an unlabeled data set. The cool thing here is that the training data is unlabeled. Usually when you train a classifier to recognize faces, you have to give it a set of pictures with faces and a set of pictures without faces, so it can learn what to look for. In this research, Google just fed the neural network thousands of pictures without any labels and it learned to tell features apart, without any knowledge of what it was supposed to be looking for. It didn't just learn to recognize faces; it also learned to recognize several other common picture elements, such as the presence of cats.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has been using the same sort of "deep neural network" method to train a system for better speech recognition; they're using it to make audio files searchable, which is pretty cool. I seem to recall my machine learning course at U of C teaching us that a neural network with lots of hidden layers doesn't perform any better than a neural network with just an input and output layer. Apparently the "deep training" Google and Microsoft are doing is based on a breakthrough that was made in 2006 -- the year after I graduated. Ha!
Google is working on augmented-reality glasses, too. That might be neat!
They are also releasing some sort of mystical black orb of doom that costs $300. But what does it do? Something music-related? I'll let the designer explain:
“The sphere is a zero primitive form,” Jones says. “It transcends into this third wave of electronics where the interface, Android, is on another device. So now the actual object doesn’t have the burden of direct manipulation. It can have any presence and gesture within the room, and this encourages you to interact with it.”
Thanks, that sure clears things up. I'm sure everybody will want one.
I had been vaguely aware that there existed proprietary pre-internet networks in Europe, but I had never heard about "Minitel" until I read this article about the rise and fall of France's own government-sponsored proto-internet service, which is finally going offline this year.
Do-it-yourself surveillance drones, because why should the military have all the fun?
Germany is trying to go completely green energy, shutting down its nuclear plants while aiming to cut greenhouse gases 40% by 2020. They describe this extremely ambitious plan as "Energiewende", an energy revolution.
A new paper by a group of 22 climate scientists and ecologists summarizes what we know on tipping points in ecosystems. You may have seen this research reported on various news sites with sensationalistic and attention-grabbing headlines like "WE'RE ABOUT TO PUSH THE EARTH OVER THE BRINK".
The actual paper, as far as I can tell, does not appear to make this claim; from what I've read it seems to be more like "our ecosystem models are prone to rapid phase transitions when they cross a tipping point; the earth might be too, so watch out". They do point out that human activity uses 43% of the earth's land surface and speculate that maybe something scary will happen when we pass 50%? They don't claim to know the answer. We might be approaching a tipping point, but we don't know when, or what it will be, or what the ecosystem will look like afterwards. It's all about uncertainty and the need to know more about how the global ecosystem works.
Unfortunately, no matter how nuanced scientists try to be in their actual statements, the media always turns it into "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE". This is a good reason to be skeptical of science reporting in mainstream media and to try to get as close as you can to the original research (unfortunately, the actual article in question is behind a paywall.)
Sushu's back from Tanzania now. She was gone for two weeks.
During a boat ride off the coast of Zanzibar, when swimming with the dolphins, she accidentally dropped her glasses into the Indian Ocean. After that I spent about a week worrying about my poor wife, wandering blind around Africa. At least her friend Joanne was there to take care of her.
She sent me her prescription info and I ordered her a new pair of glasses from a local optical shop. They came in on Monday, so on Tuesday I brought them with me when I went to pick her up at the airport.
We were SOOOOO happy to see each other again! Yay, Sushu! <3 <3 <3 She brought me back a present - a double-headed cowhide drum from Tanzania.
2. An amazing point-by-point refutation of the previous rant, by a westerner who found learning Chinese easier than learning Spanish!
I'm a big fan of exploring alternate forms of funding for creative projects.
Humble Indie Bundle is one of the bright spots in this area. Usually they sell indie computer games, but their latest offer is a music collection. There's They Might Be Giants, MC Frontalot, Jonathan Coulton, and 3 other albums too. You decide how much you want to pay and how much of it should go to the artists/to Humble Bundle operations/to charity. The charities are Child's Play and the Electronic Fronteir Foundation, both worthy causes.
I bought the bundle yesterday and man, there are a lot of good songs in this list. Since I've been a fan of TMBG and Coulton and Frontalot for a long time, many of their tracks are ones I've heard before (or remixes of ones I've heard before), but in all there's 107 tracks here and enough of them are good, new songs to be worth a lot more than the $15 I paid for them.
The bundle is only available for like 3 more days so get it while the gettin's good!
1. The Curiosity rover has successfully landed on Mars!
(Check out the "scoreboard" on that page: Earth 15, Mars 24. Yes, we have lost a lot of probes on the way to the Red Planet.)
2. SpaceX has received a $440 million contract from NASA to develop the Space Shuttle replacement. They plan to launch their first manned mission by 2015.
Hmmm, more budget = they can hire more people = relevant to my interests.
Check out this awesome rotating 360-degree panorama of the Martian surface from the Curiosity rover.
Curiosity is the largest and heaviest space probe yet and lowered by a skycrane! That's cool!
Some crazy Dutch guys want to make a Mars reality show by 2023, wherein they spend $6 billion getting a bunch of people to Mars, broadcast their lives on TV here on earth, and make their money back from the profits off the TV show. What do you think: are they just crazy or could that work?
There's a spirited argument going on in the comments of a previous post about whether it makes sense to vote at all. My current thinking is to vote for the lesser evil while trying to get real change through other means.
And I think, before you decide voting is stupid, it's worth remembering the generations who fought and in some cases died for your right to vote. The women's suffrage movement started in 1848 but the 19th amendment wasn't passed until 1920, after 72 years of suffragette activism! Despite the 15th amendment passing in 1870, Blacks were in practice denied the vote by Jim Crow laws throughout the southern US until the Civil Rights movement led to the voting rights act of 1965, less than 50 years ago. So we're not talking ancient history here; we're talking people who are still alive today. Appreciate the sacrifices they made, and beware of modern efforts to disenfranchise people.
John Lewis, rep from Georgia, is one of those who marched for civil rights in the 60s, facing down deadly white-supremacist violence to do so. He draws a straight line from disenfranchisement under Jim Crow to the new voter ID laws that Republican state legislatures are pushing today.
Which brings me to the thing I want to talk about -- partisan voter-disenfranchisment efforts that come in the guise of "preventing voter fraud".
Of course we should prevent voter fraud! Who could possibly be against that? ... is what they're hoping we'll say, and not look too closely at the likely effects of the laws.
When the Republicans won control of many state legislatures in 2010, one of the first things they did was to start passing laws restricting early voting and requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls. 19 states have passed laws along these lines since the 2010 elections.
Who is eligible to vote but disproportionally lack photo IDs? People without drivers' licenses, which is to say people who don't own cars. The young. The poor. People who live in urban centers, which is to say disproportionately minorities. All of these groups reliably lean Democrat.
"More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democraticâ€”including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans."
"So what", you may say, "Go get a photo ID if you want to vote; what's the big deal?"
Well, as an example, more than 5% of Texas voters lack a photo ID, and 1/4 of Texas counties lack a DMV office, meaning some Texans would need a 250 mile round trip to get photo ID! Which is pretty hard if you don't already have a drivers' license. (warning: link has auto-play video about 80-year-old nuns in indiana turned away for not having photo IDs)
Getting photo ID also requires going to deal with bureaucracy during business hours on a weekday, which means taking days off of work, which if you're poor and working to support your family you often can't afford to do. So yeah, for some people, having to get a photo ID (after being able to vote for years without one!) is not an insignificant barrier.
The South Carolina Election Commission Executive Director answers questions about how easy it will be for partisan poll-watchers to challenge every voter they don't like, and how hard it will be for voters to overcome these challenges.
OK, so a lot of poor, young, and minority people will have a harder time voting under these laws. That's too bad, but maybe it's just an unfortunate side-effect of laws that we desperately need in order to save democracy from an onslaught of voter fraud!
Turns out... not so much. The only fraud scenario that photo ID requirements prevent is in-person voter impersonation fraud. Somebody who's not eligible to vote walking into a polling place and pretending to be somebody else.
I've been reading up on election fraud, and everything I've read says that this type of fraud is incredibly rare. Like, a recent study found ten cases of voter impersonation since 2000 rare. Ten.
Election fraud has happened in this country, but not by people walking into a polling place and impersonating someone else. The most effective methods of voter fraud all involve corrupt officials inside the system, involved in counting the votes at the precinct or county level. They can tamper with electronic voting machines, "lose" or invalidate a bunch of ballots marked for the other guy, or get ahold of a bunch of extra blank ballots that should have been thrown away and use them to stuff the box. Or they can simply report made-up numbers.
For instance, many people suspect that Mayor Daley of Chicago stole the 1960 election for Kennedy by tampering with Chicago vote totals enough to swing Illinois. If true, the fraud wasn't based on individuals showing up and voting who shouldn't have been allowed to vote. It was based on election officers who were part of Daley's machine making up thousands of Kennedy votes from thin air.
Individual voter impersonation is just too inefficient to swing an election. It's far more efficient for bad guys to work the system from the inside.Requiring photo IDs or shortening the time the polls are open does nothing to prevent this. You need more independent auditing of the tallying process.
Another way to cheat is buying votes, which is apparently fairly common... but photo ID laws do nothing to stop it. Someone with a valid ID can still be selling their vote.
Theoretically you could also cheat by registering a lot of fake absentee voters and requesting mail-in ballots for them ("Yes, there are ten eligible voters living in my house..."), thus getting a bunch of extra ballots you can fill in yourself. Again, requiring photo IDs at the polling place or shortening the time the polls are open does nothing to prevent this. The way to prevent this one would be stricter checking at the registration stage that someone is a real person.
Is election fraud real? Yes. Should we try to stop it? Yes. Is requiring photo IDs an effective way of combating election fraud? No.
OK, so Republicans got into power in the states and passed a bunch of laws that are ineffective at fighting voter fraud and will have the effect of suppressing voting among democratic-leaning demographics. But maybe that's just a coincidence; none of that proves that Republican state leaders are deliberately trying to...
"Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done", said Pennsylvania state House Republican leader Mike Turzai.
Laws in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania specifically disqualify student IDs. Is there any reason to do this except to discourage college students, who lean liberal, from voting? The speaker of the New Hampshire state house, speaking to a Tea Party group, basically admitted that that's the reason: "foolish" college kids are liberals, "just vote their feelings". So... we should stop them from voting?
John Boehner, Speaker of the House, really lays it out on the table when he says out loud he hopes Blacks and Lations won't show up for this election.
In the same article, a Republican county-level party chair in Ohio says this about closing down early voting: "I guess I really actually feel we shouldnâ€™t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban â€” read African-American â€” voter-turnout machine... Letâ€™s be fair and reasonable."
Hey dude, what exactly is wrong with "the urban - read african-american - voter-turnout machine"? They got a right to vote; what's fair and reasonable about blocking it?
You guys aren't even pretending not to be racist anymore.
Registered voter polls are regularly a few percent more democratic than likely voter polls. Republicans know that if everyone who is eligible votes, they lose. So they are trying to make it harder for the young, minorities, and the poor. They know that their voter suppression laws won't register as problematic to many people thanks to their superficially reasonable terms. "Photo ID? Of course! Who doesn't have one of those?" thinks the middle-class white guy.
Many of the Jim Crow laws designed to prevent blacks from voting didn't explicity mention race. They were couched in terms of poll taxes and literacy tests. History teaches us that attempts at legal disenfranchisement come in disguise; therefore, we should closely examine any law that puts restrictions on voting.
There is good news: Some of these state laws have already been challenged, overturned, or put on hold by the courts. The federal DOJ has been investigating whether several state laws violate the Voting Rights Act. The Pennsylvania one just got blocked today, thankfully; Mississipi's has been put on hold, and early voting is going on in Ohio now.
In the long term, we should all be speaking out against voter suppression laws and opposing them wherever possible.
But for right now, make sure you know the voting requirements for your state and check whether you're registered! (Due to voter roll purges, you might think you're registered but actually not be -- they might have taken you off the rolls because you have a name similar to a felon or a dead guy, and it's not like they notify you when they do it.) Make sure anybody you know in IN, FL, TN, MI, SD, ID, LA, KS, NH, or GA knows that they currently need a photo ID to vote!
The day after Hurricane Sandy I called my relatives in Connecticut. They're all OK, though they've lost power and they report major chunks of what used to be the beach are now missing. My family lives on Long Island Sound, meaning they were sheltered from the worst of the storm, but even so it ripped up reinforced concrete and threw boulders up the road. Here's a picture Googleshng sent me from his neighborhood:
Sandy smashed records for size, water levels, and tied with the great hurricane of 1938 for the barometicr pressure record. It was the worst storm ever to hit New York City.
Here's a page that had live updates of the damage - videos of the jersey shore wiped out, subway tunnels flooded, and over 8 million people without power.
There were a lot of fake pictures (either Photoshopped, or real-but-not-actually-from-Hurricane-Sandy) circulating. The Atlantic ran a guide to telling real pictures from fake ones. The one with the shark swimming down the street, and the one with the scuba diver int he subway, were 'shopped. It's not like the real ones aren't bad enough!
I've heard estimates of 20-50 billion dollars worth of damages, or about ten billion per day. (That's still less than Katrina!)
The thought that came to me as I watched the destruction unfold: Is this the new normal? With ocean levels rising and ocean temperatures increasing and extreme weather getting more common, are we going to look back on this decade as the start of the era of continuous, massive flooding of coastal cities and a never-ending refugee crisis?
The Onion read my mind with a non-fiction piece masquerading as satire: Nation Realizes this is just going to be a thing that happens from now on.
Three-quarters of the Arctic ocean melted this summer. We had a massive crop-destroying drought throughout the central USA. It's really hard to keep denying that the earth is warming, though some still argue that it's a natural process and not caused by humans. However, even a "natural process" can still kill us.
Bad Astronomy talks about how Sandy was made worse by warmer ocean temperatures. He calls it "The world's largest metaphor" and says it should be "a shot of adrenaline to the heart".
"We have a 100-year flood every two years now," said New York Governer Cuomo. "We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems and that is not a good combination."
NY Mayor Bloomberg says "anyone who says there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality".
The sea level in New York harbor is already about a foot higher than it was in 1900. That's not a prediction, that's a measurement.
And yet, we have a candidate running for president (Romney) who openly mocks the idea of sea levels rising.
He also wants to de-fund FEMA, the federal agency that responds to disasters.
FEMA, which I hear has been working a lot better under Obama than it did under Bush. Enough that New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has been campaigning for Romney all along, stopped to praises Obama's leadership of the hurricane response. Because, surprise, when you staff a federal agency with competent people instead of partisan flunkies, and when you're trying to make the government work instead of trying to prove your "government-is-always-incompetent-so-cut-everything-to-pay-for-tax-cuts-for-millionaires" ideology, then an agency like FEMA can do its job.
Yeah, I know, I should feel dirty even to be thinking "how will this hurricane affect the election" -- but look: responding to, and preventing, tragedies is one of the important functions of the federal government and the candidates have very different ideas about this function. Disasters are already political, whether we "politicize" them or not. Disaster preparedness/response is relevant to the election and vice versa. Far more relevant than, say, how many horses Romney's family has or whether Obama is going to show Donald Trump his college transcripts or any of the other stupid, stupid stuff that the media used as News-Like Filler Product all year.
The longtime predictions of climate scientists are coming true, and if Manhattan being underwater is the new normal, I would really like to have a government that's not in denial about it.
This is pretty cool: A guy plays the famous riffs from 100 rock songs, in chronological order, all in one take, producing a twelve-minute history of rock-n-roll. My observations:
1. Wow, that guy is good.
2. If I was learning guitar, I would think the synchronized fingering guides underneath that video are an amazing resource.
3. Most of the differences between the various styles and eras and sub-genres of rock is in the vocals and the production and how distorted the amplification is. Stripped of all the cultural and historical signifiers that say "flower power" and "heavy metal" and "punk" and "grunge" and whatnot, the songs reveal their deeper similarities, just as the skeletons of vertebrates reveal their common ancestry.
4. Sushu, who is not a huge music fan, grabbed onto the most obvious difference between the various riffs and created an instant folk taxonomy: she divided them into the "JUGGA-JIGGA-WUGGA"s and the "tweedly-deedly-dee"s. That is, the difference between chord-strumming (guitar as rhythm/harmonic instrument) and finger-picking (guitar carrying a melody line). My intuition says there's a third category too, but I can't quite define it.
5. Rock music is dead as a culturally relevant creative force, and has been for about half my lifetime. We've moved on to the historical archiving phase - establishment of the canon, analysis, remixing, nostalgia, transmission to new generations. Yeah, people will keep performing rock, but it will increasingly resemble the way they perform jazz, or classical music. An ever-shrinking, aging group of true believers will continue to follow new compositions, while most people will know a few famous songs and consider the rest too old-fashioned and esoteric to bother with.
Mark Lynas, who was a leader in the British anti-GM (genetically modified) food movement, has changed his mind and is now renouncing his former position. (Video is about an hour long including Q&A session, but there's a transcript if you wanna skim.)
He says that arguing with global-warming denialists taught him the importance of reading the original scientific research on a topic, and when he applied that method to the GM debate, he found that the fears he'd been propogating had little evidence to suppor them. He now says that GM crops, by feeding more people from the same area of land, and thereby preserving wilderness from agriculture, have been a net positive for the environment, and that trying to ban them is counterproductive.
The whole thing is worth reading, both for his description of his personal journey and for the details of the argument he presents. I respect somebody who is willing to change his mind based on the evidence. Far too many people, when faced with evidence that they're wrong, look for excuses and double-down on their challenged beliefs.
I think this is pretty important for anyone who wants to call themselves an environmentalist. Not just the facts about GM, but the philosophy of applying intellectual rigor to your pet issues. Good intentions are not enough.
"We started off as stumblemonkey... it's like airBnB but for online dating. When you left town, you could rent out your spouse or partner. Great idea, but then we found out it was illegal, so we had to pivot."
This is barely even a parody.
I'm working on an official Studio Xia website. I've been following this tutorial I found called How to Make Your Site Look Half Decent in Half an Hour, by Anna Powell-Smith. It's aimed at programmers who don't know the first thing about graphic design (that's me) but who know they need to pretty up their site.
She's provided some cool tricks and links to good resources, so I'm grateful for that, even though her aesthetic advice isn't really to my taste.
Step One is "Use Bootstrap", where Bootstrap is an open-source collection of basic html/css/js (made by Twitter) that you can use to get up and running quickly. Once I got through the first few steps of the tutorial, I suddenly understood why 3/4 of the websites made in the last 4 years seem to look almost identical. They're all using Bootstrap! (And the other 1/4 are using default Wordpress or Tumblr themes.)
Bootstrap does give you some basic accessibility features, like responsiveness to different screen sizes, so more of that makes the Web a nicer place. But I kind of miss the old days when every web page was a unique expression of its creator's (lack of) taste.
Studio Xia is going to be the umbrella brand for stuff that me and Sushu make. It's a company that we're starting, but it's not a "startup company", more like a family business.
Startup expert Paul Graham defines a startup as a company designed to grow fast at all costs. I'm not very interested in growing fast. I don't want to take venture capital or go into debt buying office space or whatever. My goal is to start something that makes me a modest living. That will be hard enough, I think.
So by Paul Graham's definition, Studio Xia isn't a startup, it's a "barbershop". I'm fine with that.
Anyway, we want to start trying to sell the Chinese learning game at the National Chinese Language Conference this year. It's in early April, in Boston. That gives me a nice hard deadline to keep myself on track. Now until April should be just barely enough time to finish a minimum viable product (I hope).
Of course, when we went to register, they asked for our website, so I needed to throw together a Studio Xia website quickly and have it look halfway professional.
That's why I was messing around with Bootstrap.js, that thing I told you about that makes all websites look the same. The Studio Xia site is therefore full of modern website cliches like that rotating-image-gallery thing (Bootstrap calls it a "carousel"). I'm not exactly proud of it. But it's just meant to be a placeholder, and it's doing its job.
The hardest thing was deciding on a name for the game! I had to call it something so I'm calling it "Legends of Hanyu" for now. This was Ben's suggestion (thanks Ben) and it was the least bad of all the terrible names we brainstormed. There's still time to change it if we can think of something better.
I'm not much of a web designer, as you can tell from evilbrainjono.net. Honestly I'd usually rather just leave everything unstyled and focus on writing words. I think studioxia.com is the first website where I've picked a font.
Chris introduced me to a webcomic called LARP TREK. What's it about? I'll let Geordi explain:
It gets better: the setting that Geordi makes up is a Cardassian space station in orbit around Bajor, recently ceded to the Federation. That's right: they role-play as the crew of Deep Space Nine. Hijinx ensue.
It's only 30 strips in, so getting caught up is quite a short archive binge. Thanks to Chris for introducing me to that one.
Reading LARP TREK made Sushu curious about Deep Space Nine, so we went and watched the pilot episode. It holds up mostly better than I expected. Except the costumes. Oh my god. So many weird unflattering shapes and ugly shades of brown.
That reminded me about the hilarious single-topic Tumbler Fashion It So which exists to make fun of stuff like...
...the fact that Romulans on TNG look like sofa pillows with heads sticking out of them.
Next Generation was "my" Star Trek. I remember catching both "Encounter at Farpoint" and "All Good Things" when they first aired, although I didn't watch it consistently in-between.
I went through periods of loving Star Trek and hating it, for its fake science, its hokey speeches, and its terrible plot devices (holodeck malfunction! space-time anomaly!). But looking back on it now, I can appreciate more of what they were trying to do, even though the execution was usually super-clunky.
You realize how unusual Star Trek is for having an optimistic, pro-science future, where a diverse group of competent people work together? It's easy to make fun of their naiive idealism, but in a world where most sci-fi shows are either GRIMDARK or fantasy/horror in disguise, it's nice that at least somebody was trying to show that we could build a future worth looking forward to.
They also tried (not always successfully) to show a future where humanity has gotten over sexism, racism, and nationalism, and in the process they fought against a lot of TV barriers and stereotypes, which is commendable.
It only made sense when I realized that "temperature below absolute zero" statement is not based on our intuitive definition of temperature, nor is it based on the definition of average kinetic energy of particles. They're using an entropy-based definition of temperature. Because entropy increases as energy flows from a hotter body to a colder body, you can redefine "temperature" by the relation between energy flow and entropy increase. Apparently the entropy of their quantum gas increases as colder objects give up energy to hotter objects, which makes its temperature-by-the-math negative. (Here's a clever analogy for understanding it)
So they may not have gotten colder than absolute zero in the sense that a layperson would mean, but they DID create an exotic state of matter with very interesting energy properties, so this is still a pretty cool discovery.
There is a mysterious giant hexagonal formation at Saturn's north pole. Nobody knows why.
The Curiosity rover came across something on Mars that sure looks like a hunk of processed metal, and it doesn't match up with any of the space junk we've left there.
Here's a video of the sun doing a rare hat-trick - solar flare, coronal mass ejection, and "coronal rain" all occurring at the same time. Watch for the point in the video where the size of the Earth is shown for comparison.
I finally finished writing that Firefox add-on for quick blogging of links.
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.
Or as KRS-One put it in "Health, Wealth, and Knowledge of Yourself":
Lesson two, make sure you got a dope crew
As the chart above shows, three-quarters of the "permanent", year-round sea ice in the Arctic has been cooked away in just 30 years. Over half of it has disappeared in just the last eight years. A vast expanse of ice larger than the European Union has vanished. What's left is half the area and only half as thick. Now some ice experts are saying what remains could be gone in as little as ten years -- or even four... This jaw-dropping acceleration of Arctic sea ice collapse is completely out-stripping the worst case scenarios of the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The news that CO2 is near 400 ppm for the first time highlights a question that scientists have been investigating using a variety of methods: when was the last time that CO2 levels were this high, and what was the climate like back then?... There is no single, agreed-upon answer to those questions as studies show a wide date range from between 800,000 to 15 million years ago. The most direct evidence comes from tiny bubbles of ancient air trapped in the vast ice sheets of Antarctica. By drilling for ice cores and analyzing the air bubbles, scientists have found that, at no point during at least the past 800,000 years have atmospheric CO2 levels been as high as they are now... That means that in the entire history of human civilization, CO2 levels have never been this high.
2 degrees warming probably equates to about a one-meter rise in sea level this century. Thatâ€™s enough to displace hundreds of thousands to millions of people in low-lying nations, and, as of now, there is no plan to deal with environmental refugees... The environmental-refugee problem becomes eye-poppingly scary when you look at the 150 million people living in Bangladesh. A one-meter sea level rise would swamp about 17 percent of the country.
Indeed, even moving relatively quickly toward a carbon-neutral economy will still result in a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere for the foreseeable future. But that is moot, because we are nowhere close to moving quickly in this regard anyway. Fossil fuel reserves have effectively increased, due to improved technologies for extraction, and investment in alternative energy sources has been limited due to artificially low prices on carbon-based energy. As a result, 2012 was likely another record year for human-induced CO2 production. ... As an upcoming paper being prepared by 15 of the participants* at the meeting will argue, we came to a broad consensus that there is an increasingly urgent need to seriously consider removing and sequestering CO2 directly from our atmosphere.
This idea that CO2 isnâ€™t dangerous has been a denier talking point for some time now, but that doesnâ€™t make it any less ridiculous. They claim that CO2 is just a natural and â€śharmless byproduct of natureâ€ť, which is bonkers; try living on Venus to see why.
A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nationâ€™s fruits and vegetables... A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.
In April, the European Union implemented a two-year ban on three neonicotinoids... Despite the fact that at least 30 laboratory studies have linked neonicotinoids to bee die offs... the multibillion-dollar chemical industry has fought against a ban on neonicotinoids, rejecting the scientific evidence that the pesticides are contributing to bee deaths.
Even if we survive the displacement from rising sea levels, and the food shortages from climate-changed induced droughts and the bee die-off, we can look forward to a future where robots have made us all obsolete:
Assuming Moore's Law keeps churning away at its normal exponential pace, Mr Drum figures that will happen somewhere around 2040, and it will gradually make our current economic assumptions untenable: most humans will become permanently unemployable since there will be nothing they can do that a robot can't do better and cheaper, which means there will be too few consumers to create demand for the products the robots can create.
Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without moneyâ€”most of usâ€”will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.
Of course, this disruption is already happening. People are already losing their jobs to "robots", even though they don't look much like science-fiction robots -- they're mostly internet-connected algorithms.
There used to be a job called "video rental store clerk", for example (I used to be one) but Netflix has rendered that job obsolete. There used to be a job called travel agent, but Expedia and other airline-search websites eliminated that. And of course Google is putting a lot of research into taking away the jobs of taxi drivers and truck drivers with their driverless cars.
Jaron Lanier (author of "You Are Not A Gadget", which I highly recommend) says in an interview with Slate that The Internet Destroyed The Middle Class:
At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?
If you think about it, software is only profitable if you can sell it to an organization. An organization is only going to buy the software if it saves them money. And how does it save them money? By letting them fire workers.
Whenver startup guys talk about "disrupting" an industry, what they mean is "we're going to fire all your workers and replace them with software, so that we -- the controllers of the software -- can be the new middlemen".
There are currently a lot of startup guys talking about "disrupting" education. Which means that teachers should be very, very afraid.
I can imagine a world where robots do all the work. In that world, capitalism and the current social contract of labor-for-wages are simply untenable. They'd have to have some other economic system for distributing the goods and services produced by all their robots. But how do we get there from here? In the short term, capitalism isn't going anywhere. And capitalism is going to ensure that technological advances continue to displace workers, while all of the productivity gains from the new technology are captured by the owners of industry.
It's a lot like what happened during the industrial revolution. If you take the very long view, you could say that the industrial revolution ended up making the economy better for everyone -- worldwide living standards and education levels and so on are higher now, and we have new jobs that are better than the old crappy jobs that were eliminated. But the long term benefit was small comfort to the people who lived through the industrial revolution and saw their jobs replaced by machines.
I'm not saying we should stop technological progress, even if we could. Instead, I think that the ongoing destruction of jobs by technological progress should be an argument for re-examining our economic system and our social contract, to try to come up with a system where the benefits of technological efficiency gains can be shared across society instead of accruing only to the top.
As of this month, we've discovered 884 planets, 692 planetary systems, 132 of them with more than one planet and, strange to tell, almost none of them look like us. "We are now beginning to understand that nature seems to overwhelmingly prefer [planetary] systems that have multiple planets with orbits of less than 100 days," says Steve Vogt, astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "This is quite unlike our own solar system, where there is nothing with an orbit inside that of Mercury. So our solar system is, in some sense, a bit of a freak and not the most typical kind of system that Nature cooks up."
An interesting observation -- but isn't it the case that our methods for finding planetary systems depend heavily on seeing a gravitational "wobble" in the star's spectrum? The more massive a planet is and the closer it is to its star, the more it makes the star wobble. In other words, our methods are especially good at detecting planetary systems with "hot Jupiters". We may be overlooking a lot of planetary systems without hot Jupiters. So it may not be that our solar system is a rare configuration, but rather that the other systems we're looking at are a systematically biased sample. No?
For anybody who still somehow thinks of Apple as some kind of fuzzy, benevolent company:
In 2011, for example, one subsidiary paid Ireland just one-twentieth of 1 percent in taxes on $22 billion on pretax earnings from various operations; another did not file a corporate tax return anywhere and has paid almost nothing on $30 billion in profits since 2009... Over all, Appleâ€™s tax avoidance efforts shifted at least $74 billion from the reach of the Internal Revenue Service between 2009 and 2012, the investigators said.
Of course, Google does it too:
In Googleâ€™s case, an Irish subsidiary collects revenues from ads sold in countries like the U.K. and France. That Irish unit in turn pays royalties to another Irish subsidiary, whose legal residence for tax purposes is in Bermuda. The pair of Irish units gives rise to the nickname â€śDouble Irish.â€ť To avoid an Irish withholding tax, Google channeled the payments to Bermuda through a subsidiary in the Netherlands -- thus the â€śDutch Sandwichâ€ť label. The Netherlands subsidiary has no employees... Last year, Google reported a tax rate of just 3.2 percent on the profit it said was earned overseas, even as most of its foreign sales were in European countries with corporate income tax rates ranging from 26 percent to 34 percent.
It's really weird for me to read comment threads where Apple fanboys and Google fanboys cheerlead their chosen team, as if either of them was anything but a typical rapacious multinational corporation.
This is all completely legal, too! They've got teams of lawyers making sure of that. (Teams of accountants to find loopholes, teams of shareholders demanding the exploitation of loopholes, teams of lobbyists pressuring government to create new loopholes...) That's the power of a multinational corporation in the modern age: the ability to pick and choose which sets of laws they want to apply to each subsidiary at any given time. Ala carte, from out of all the nations of the world. Which, of course, causes the race to the bottom in worker and environmental protection laws.
If fiscal conservatives really want to balance the budget and reduce taxes on the middle class, maybe they should take a look at all the behemoths who aren't paying their fair share? Just a thought.
(Extra irony: Google was built on the back of a technology initially developed by taxpayer-funded research initiatives.)
Weil suggested that sentences written in the language of number theory could be translated into the language of geometry, and vice versa. â€śNothing is more fertile than these illicit liaisons,â€ť he wrote to his sister about the unexpected links he uncovered between the two subjects; â€śnothing gives more pleasure to the connoisseur.â€ť
Using donated eggs (obtained by consenting women from certfied IVF clinics) robbed of their own nucleus, a whole skin cell was injected and given an electric shock to stimulate cell division. ThatÂ that even works is amazing. But the harvested stem cells acted like normal ES cells, and appear to be just as useful. They can be used to create patient-matched cells to study specific diseases in the petri dish, or engineered into neurons and other tissues to implant into a donorâ€™s own body. All without destroying embryos.
Edit: found more details in an article at Nature:
The success came through minor technical tweaks. The researchers used inactivated Sendai virus (known to induce fusion of cells) to unite the egg and body cells, and an electric jolt to activate embryo development. When their first attempts produced six blastocysts but no stable cell lines, they added caffeine, which protects the egg from premature activation.
Wait, caffeine ?!? And what the heck is "Sendai virus"?
Biology is cool!