garote: (zelda letter stamping)
I think it's time to admit it:

I am a bicycling nut.

In fact, it's time to go beyond that, and admit that my very life - in the form of my health - depends on bicycling.

For the past week I've been suffering, because a support strut broke on the seat of my recumbent:


With no immediate replacement, I've been forced - FORCED I tell you - to ride my "upright" bicycle again. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the upright. It's an old Bridgestone frame customized into a good touring bike, and I've taken it on many rides including a brief tour of Tasmania:


... But it's not my recumbent. It's not that speedy, panoramic experience I've grown used to, where every joint is perfectly at ease. And that little difference is making me cycle a little less. And with that, I suffer. Wailing; gnashing of teeth, et cetera!


My mood is more down. My work goes slower. My sleep is more restless. My appetite no longer matches my exercise level, so I'm gaining weight. It's all going just a little bit crap, because I can't hop on my favorite bike. That's a pretty big deal. And it's a state of things that I should recognize.

So, fine. I'm a bicycling nut. Even though I don't own any lycra clothing.


garote: (weird science)
It's awe-inspipring every time I hear the fact that the universe is so large. It's awe-inspiriing because I am such a very small piece in it, and everything I interact with on a personal level is about as small as I am. This entire planet - which I'd like to think I've seen a fair amount of by now - is still just a tiny fraction of what's out there. I consider that and I think, "Wow, what a waste of space. Surely there's other intelligent life out there - some other collection of beings, living in a similar biological way, communicating in close to the same way - that we can have a conversation with, to avoid feeling so lonely." But why would it be so?

Seriously, why? It's a matter of expectations; and those expectations don't make sense. Just how big should the entire surrounding universe be, compared to the body of a living thing inside it? I'm comparing the size of everything around me to myself - my own arms and legs and head, my own lifespan - and feeling like there's too much room. But what should the proper fraction be then? Should I personally take up exactly half the knowable universe? Should I take up almost all of it? Or almost none, relatively? Maybe it's just a practical extension of physics that, in order for my body - and all the history and evolution that led up to it - to function properly, it needs this much breathing space around it, acting as a support structure. Perhaps if the universe was half the size it seems to be, I would not be here at all to comment on it. (Anthropic principle.) So I should probably just relax about all this empty space. Perhaps it's exactly enough space to make things work.

But, we have some rough math that rattles the cage of that just-so argument. We've come up with estimates for "number of habitable worlds in a given galaxy", and "chances of life evolving on a given habitable world", and even "chances of intelligent life evolving from life". Depending on how you move the sliders inside the equations, these numbers can move alarmingly, and present you with a case for intelligent life being so common around us that it's surprising we haven't blundered across it just by pointing radio telescopes upwards and waving them around. So again, if the point is to make a universe just big enough for life, but not any bigger, then we very probably have way too much room on our hands. No wonder we're prone to feel lonely.

But again, a little common sense saves us: If the universe was almost big enough for intelligent life - but not quite - no one would be around to comment on that. (Anthropic principle again. Kazam!) What we're left with, are the cases where the universe is just big enough, or bigger. Makes sense that we'd generally end up way over the minimum threshold, rather than just on it. And so, here we are. Your standard universe with more than one planet full of intelligent beings looking around and texting each other selfies.

A few seconds of thinking about that has side-tracked me. Dark matter! I assume someone has already floated the theory that the universe as we can observe it is not really the whole universe, but is merely an expanding borderline, defined by the speed of light? And so, for almost every other part within that border, there is matter just outside our personal vantage point on Earth, that is already affecting it, even though we haven't seen the evidence of it yet (because the light - and gravity - from it hasn't yet reached us) and that is what accounts for both the constant expansion of the universe and all the so-called extra mass that is influencing events around us?

Ah, I see. Scientists are calling this the "dark flow" theory, and setting it apart from all the weird - and more local - effects they're seeing with "dark matter".

Holy crap the internet is amazing. Amazing. Sometimes I forget that, in this haze of social media shame, outrage, and plastic positivity. I just found concrete information on cutting-edge science, with a few pokes of a keyboard. In seconds.



Jan. 5th, 2017 12:14 am
garote: (Default)
"Where there's smoke, there's fire" == "Where there's smoke, there's blindness."

Outrage is now a mechanism to drive ad traffic. Like fear used to sell papers, now it's outrage to deliver page views. The product is you, staking out your position in the middle of the mob, where you can feel safe. But the only way to win is not to play.

Did someone just say something stupid? Now it's here on your screen, and you have a tiny chance of saying something back to the author. How dare they say something so stupid where you, and others, can go read it. It might reach other people - not the stupid author, not you, not your fellow angry commenters, but some potential other third party that is gullible or equally stupid - and reinforce their stupidity. You must stop it! You have to drown it out in recrimination and mockery or sarcastic politeness! Quick, the chance to strike a blow against some stupid words that are on your screen is passing with every second, as the replies stack up and the crowd grows. Swing your fist before the target is obscured beneath other fists!

Whom do you blame for the stupid thing on your screen? The person you don't really know, who said it somewhere, at some point, a hundred or a thousand miles away? Or the chain of people who picked it up, and eagerly carried it all the way over to you and stuck it in your face? The chain is mostly anonymous. Hard to grasp. Ephemeral. And some of them are your friends - can you blame them? So much easier to accept their target as a gift and join in with the attack. An amusing and victimless crime -- well, except for the victim, naturally, but whatever.

He always, always deserves it - not just the snarky ripostes, but the insults, the crank calls, the petitions for firing and destitution, the fraud and vandalism and trespassing. And hey - you didn't want it to go that far, you just left a comment, and passed it on. ... Which is exactly how and why it came to the attention of the worst actors in the mob.

The only way to win is not to play.

Did you ever stop to think that the person who wrote the stupid thing did not intend you - or anyone - to be the audience? Perhaps you think that doesn't matter? Should everything said behind closed doors be sanitized for a global audience? That's an impossible standard. But as long as it's not you being held to it, it's a fair one. Let the games begin.

The next time you feel the urge to 'Like' or comment under some political screed on Facebook, ask yourself what it will actually accomplish. Ask if the political screed changed your mind. Did it? No. It either made you agree, or disagree and chuck an angry comment beneath it. Either way you've just given it another little push, causing this waste of your time to perpetuate further into a waste of someone else's, and more time on Facebook in general. A little scrap of your life is gone - gone! For nothing! Some electrons moved; that's it! - and meanwhile, Facebook earned a little money from an advertiser by sticking an ad on the corner of your screen. You have just been rage-baited. You have just been used.

You have just contributed to the using of others, including your friends and family.

Remember the conspiracy theorists on the liberal fringe ten years ago, who liked to scream "wake up, sheeple"? Well there's no conspiracy required here. Just the extension of marketing tactics into social networking technology. We're all wide awake; our only failure is in failing to understand that our online activity is now subject to such heavy filtering and interference that our political arguments and virulent "public" shamings are almost entirely self-referential, like yelling "booo, hiss" at the rich oligarch on a movie screen after we've wordlessly paid 15 bucks to get inside the theatre. In our enthusiasm for what's on the screen, we forget that everyone around us is already a customer, viewing something constructed by others to gather an audience: Rage is cathartic. You'll pay for catharsis, and the net is designed to deliver.

Money talks. And money can also silence.

Where I live, the core of modern liberal culture spent the last 30 years haughtily mocking conservatives for being manipulated by fear of other religions, distrust of foreigners, and blind aggressive patriotism. "My country, right or wrong." It was a convenient stereotype. Now the same liberals that dealt such mockery in the previous generation are in thrall to armchair political "activism" and abusive online culture wars, happily abandoning common sense and common courtesy for the chance to extoll the superiority of their barely-tested morals. The stereotypes they mocked 30 years ago are even less true today, yet their jeering is louder than ever, because an entire economic system has built up around exploiting their self-righteousness. They vent their rage inside a gigantic circus tent (replete with easy scapegoats and strawmen), constructed to reward them with a feeling of progressive accomplishment, while companies sell tickets at the door. This is the new middle-class pastime. This is the new Sunday Night Football. And it means about as much.

When you're online hunting for a product, presenting the right search result to you is worth a nice chunk of money. But when you're online because you're following a compulsion to "make your voice heard", that's a whole lot more time online, during which you can be distracted by anything - because you're not looking for anything in particular, except validation. An ad thrown at you just as you're finding that validation is worth a lot to an advertiser. How many times have you finished making your comment, or airing your fetid complaint, or satisfying your righteousness, and sent your eyes wandering around the screen for the next thing to explore, while those happy chemicals are still percolating in your brain?

The product is you, delivered to the ads, with an open mind, ready to celebrate.

Turn off. Tune out. Drop the connection. Go outside. Change the real world. Forget this fake one.

The only way to win is not to play.
garote: (golden violin)
From an email thread with Chaz, spruced up:

At the Oakland farmer's market last weekend there was a 17-year-old kid with a full drum kit set up on the sidewalk. He sounded amazing, and I could have sat there eating my fancy-pants crepe on my paper plate and listening to him for the entire afternoon. He had a nice stack of money collected in his hat after a few hours. That's cool; he's expressing his passion, and getting paid for it. He has a bright artistic future ahead of him, but still, I know he's not going to be nearly as lucky as I was. My passion turned into a zillion-dollar industry.

As a group, us geeks have won a huge victory, wielding massive influence in culture as well as economics all over the world. There are live-televised RTS games with sports commentators now. There are video game characters on ice-skating rinks doing tricks for families. There are billion-dollar movie franchises based on comic books, on elves, on vampires, on wizards, on space exploration, being dubbed in a dozen languages. You and I personally have written code that's passed through a hundred million pieces of hardware. You and I have seen our closet hobbies become cultural touchstones. Curating a software collection and building an online persona was just for geeks - now it is for everyone in the modern world. Catchphrases we used to throw around have become the bedrock of new language. Everyone knows what a hacker is; everyone knows what spam is. We have set tastes and precedents on a scale that is hard to overstate.

Yet, you and I remember when a lot of this was just some farty little thing happening in a coffee shop, or a ratty club, or a ragtag college group, and while we loved it, everyone else ignored it or actively scorned us for it. We lived through a time when nerds were still considered a group that needed "revenge". And now, this stuff has become so widespread that it's not even "our people" doing it any more. Our victory has swept around the planet like a wave, and come back at us filled with alien creatures and wreckage. To the old timers it probably feels like cultural appropriation. (Though of course, no one would take their side in that argument.)

Drowning in a crowd of imitators is not the standard outcome when you get older. Usually, the interests of older people are plowed under and forgotten by the next generation. This crowd is an anomaly, and an honor. Having people fawn over the things we create, and say, "wow", and "if only I could do that", is great, but ... our creative skills have also directly transformed into a means to make boatloads of money ... and money is even better than praise. That's way beyond "revenge". It's no surprise that this level of victory has spawned several generations of people running in the same footprints.

Two generations of new recruits has packed itself into this industry and the physical and cultural area around us, and the competition is fierce, and the growth is still exponential. But they've mostly grown the base, and that's grown the top, and paradoxically there is more room for us than ever before, and that room is higher up, in respect and in wages.

The other day I was out at lunch with a group of people who were newly hired to the lab - 20-somethings mosty - and one of them came up to me and said, "hey, are you the guy who wrote that 'Command Line' follow-up essay with Neal Stephenson?" I recognized him as one of the people I'd interviewed, back when he applied for a job months ago. He must have dumped me into a search engine. I felt a bit panicky - does this mean that I have to be as impressive to this guy, as Neal Stephenson is impressive to me? I know that's not gonna happen. I said, "well, we didn't collaborate or anything. He just said a few things to me and approved what I wrote, and that was that." I steered the conversation as quickly as I could into some tangential topic, and cracked a few jokes.

Perhaps this is the sort of cachet you and I have, now, even if it's by accident. Things we've done are now popping up in other people's discussions. It's natural given the growth and scale of this whole computer thing.

Of course, we're not essential. The newcomers can innovate just fine on their own. They don't care for us personally; they just like the same stuff we do -- or did. We were the conduit for something that became massively powerful, but we don't need to grasp the One Ring and destroy ourselves trying to wield it; we can remain ourselves, and diminish into the west. Either way, it's amazing that we can contemplate that choice.

It's kind of great being non-essential. We don't have to worry about "legacy". If I want to spend the rest of my life messing around in my garden, riding my bicycle, and excitedly discussing science fiction, that's fine. If you want to sit in your cozy room and knit sweaters for people you love, and find the perfect cup of tea, that's a perfectly excellent way to spend time as well. Inspiration and obsession will strike soon enough - they always have - and you'll find yourself on some insane adventure again. Let the excited young people work 55 hours a week, changing the world, aiming for "disruption" -- whatever that is. There's no need to compete with them.

The spotlight was going to shift elsewhere eventually. Good thing we never needed it.
garote: (machine)
For a long time now I’ve looked down on the younger generation of programmers mainly because they use frameworks and libraries willy-nilly without understanding how they work and what exactly they do, and call it "programming", or worse yet, "hacking".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What changes do you foresee, that will render large parts of current knowledge, or process, useless or irrelevant?
garote: (weird science)
Dial F For Frankenstein, 1964

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

Neutron Tide, 1970

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

The Steam-Powered Word Processor, 1986

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

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

Transit Of Earth, 1971

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

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

The Cruel Sky, 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVOLUTION NOW!!!! Et cetera!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings this rickety wagon train of thought around to the recent election. I've seen a resurgence of racism, jingoism, and fear in politics. So many people my age, or way younger, with goals and ideas that seem dangerous to me. What's the best way to change their goals? What's the best way to put their twisted fears to rest?
garote: (zelda bar)
It was surprisingly easy to track down and compile this footage in less than two days. One night I was walking in a crowd of protesters, the next day I was in a crowd of people dancing by the lake with children running around. If I had to pick one word for it, it would be refreshing. That's the vibe I got. So I put that sentiment into this video.

I'm fascinated by how so much of the way people interpret the events in Oakland is based on their feelings, and how much those feelings are guided by the context they get their news from. It really is true that people who tend to be fearful in their own personal affairs tend to find fear in the world at large. The question that's on my mind is, how do we counter this, while still doing what we need to do to be a civil and connected society?
garote: (castlevania 3 sunset)
Do we blame this surprise on a "prestige" vote? On people being too mortified to speak their preference for Trump in public, and then going out and voting for him anyway? Or is there something else going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We convinced ourselves the outcome was inevitable.

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

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

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

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

If we're surprised, it's ultimately our own fault. Time to open the filters back out again and see all the people we've painted as monsters and find some way to understand each other.
garote: (bonk)
Playback, 1963

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

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

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

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

A Meeting With Medusa, 1971

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

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

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

The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told, 1966

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

Herbert George Morley Robert Wells, Esq, 1967

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

Besides, that would be yet another exercise in recursion.

Quarantine, 1977

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

Oho, it's chess! Computers try to ... solve? ... the game of chess, and get all frizzy and go boom, just like the old Saturday morning cartoon robots. DOES NOT COMPUTE, DANGER, DANGER, et cetera. In this modern age, the average smartphone can beat the snot out of all but the world's best chess players, and rather than explode from the effort, it will only get unpleasantly warm. (Usually. Insert topical Galaxy Note 7 joke here.) I guess that alien invasion can happen after all.
garote: (machine)
This idea feels vaguely familiar, so I'm probably being redundant, but I made up this list yesterday and I think it's cute, so here you go:

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

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

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

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

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

Level 6: People are trying to hire you to remodel their kitchens and train their staff in the art of pancakes. You have some ideas for really weird pancakes that would change the course of pancake cuisine. Other people start calling you a pro. You're torn between opening your own restaurant, and retiring from pancakes completely.
garote: (castlevania 3 sunset)
A while ago I realized that I can actually speak as someone who has played this role before. So when I found the above question on Quora, I wrote an answer:

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

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

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

Whether you choose to expand that role at your current employer (if there is room), or jump to another that is explicitly looking for an architect role, is up to you. But having risen to that skillset organically, you will be very well prepared to succeed either way.
garote: (zelda library)
To invent a novel gene sequence, scientists rearrange the data that codes for collections of enzymes and promoters and other elements, often combining sequences taken from other organisms. As far as I know, no scientist has yet invented a sequence from whole cloth that happens to assemble an enzyme to catalyze a brand new reaction - only discovered them in currently living or newly bred organisms and collected them for use elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

("Because otherwise they wouldn't have a business model" Is not a valid reason.)
garote: (castlevania items)
Version 1.1!

* One of those pulp magazines you see at the checkout counter with Brangelina all over it: Yahoo.
* Almost all of what happens here, you are too old to understand, or care about: Snapchat.
* A city just off a major highway, populated by a horde of doppelgängers, built from stolen parts. A creepy attempt to ensnare the living. Wander in by accident and they will start following you everywhere. One of them even looks suspiciously like you: Google Plus.
* Exactly what you would expect, if you gave everyone, from the very helpful to the very very deranged, their own television studio: YouTube.
* The electronic version of the Ganges river. Vile, upsetting, infectious garbage floating past you endlessly, mixed in with cute cats and dogs accidentally doing stuff. A surprising amount of it has been tainted by corporations upstream. Nevertheless, you have somehow convinced yourself it is important and refreshing to bathe in this every day, because the rest of your family does too. Answer: Facebook.
* The schizoaffective version of Facebook: Twitter.
* What you get when you turn impotent rage inside out and stomp on it: Vine. Solid gold. Mixed-race friend groups doing 7-second parodies and shitting themselves laughing is a greater force for worldwide peace than every shame crusade or triumphant, preaching manifesto slime-trailing itself across Facebook in a dumptruck of 'likes'. Yes! A greater force, for it normalizes perceptions. (Also it's just funny: )
* The rest of the internet doesn't exist. You are safe there, ... mostly.
* Except Google will find you. I lied.
garote: (nausicaa table)
Friend Doug: We got along well, both had a subversive energy. We would run around and make jokes and wrestle. One day along at my house we wrestled on the tile floor and I knocked his head hard on the tile by accident. "Oh I'm gonna kill you for that!" he shouted. I got up and ran from him and hid. He went looking for me, saying he was going to get me. I was afraid of what he would do, so I got a huge knife from the kitchen and sat with it on my lap. He found me and asked about the knife. I said I was protecting myself. We sat in a stalemate for half an hour or so before his parents arrived. I never saw him again - which was okay with me because I was suddenly afraid of him. In retrospect it was probably ended by his parents. If he told them the story I can fully understand that being our last play date.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am the architect of my fate. Thank goodness I can still learn to be a better architect.
garote: (zelda minish tree)
Death And The Senator, 1961

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

The Secret, 1963

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

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

Before Eden, 1961

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

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

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

Global warming: It's no joke!

Crusade, 1968

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

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

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

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

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

The Light Of Darkness, 1964

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

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

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

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