garote: (ultima 6 bedroom 1)
There was a time, about 20 years ago, when internet connectivity was first spreading all over the world, where it seemed to me like humanity was on the edge of a cultural unification. Of course I would think that, since I was on the inside of it: The internet was unrolling around me like a carpet and as far as I could tell, the pattern was one I already knew, and the weave was flawless. It was just a matter of time before everyone realized that we had everything in common, and there wold be no more strangers, no more foreign devils, no more faceless enemies for patriots and zealots to declare war on. We would enter a new phase of civilization.

I based this naïve impression on what I knew: In the 1980s, as a young teenager in California, I'd connected to an IRC channel and talked with people from New York to Australia to Russia to Japan. Almost everyone was polite and intelligent, and impoliteness was punished with exclusion. With the internet spreading to every household on Earth, surely everyone would learn from the example of politeness online.

Well, we all know how hilariously wrong that prediction was, hmm?

Of course, I've had to acknowledge that my personal dream of the internet as the savior of humanity was just a product of my own human limitations. Worse yet, those very limitations are what made the dream impossible.

It's said that any given person only has enough space in their head for a hundred or so relationships at a time, and everyone else is just a mass of strangers. We navigate the strangers by assuming that they're like one or more of the people we know. Even if the internet could deliver us infinite variety -- allow us to connect to any other person we wanted -- our attention span would force us to narrow that variety to about a hundred people. Or, superficial fragments of a thousand people. Or, vague and easily manipulated impressions of a million people. In any case, we are also making decisions that exclude connection.

So, if you can potentially connect to a billion people, then that's 100 people you've decided to connect to, and 999,999,900 that you have decided to leave as strangers.

This kind of built-in limitation to the way humans work has been on my mind a lot lately. It has implications in politics and culture that I find very difficult to grasp. It boggles my mind that the same problems I have with seeing all the people around me clearly are also shared by everyone else. We are all half-blind, stumbling through our non-100 portion of humanity by making huge assumptions and applying them indiscriminately almost all the time, because it's impossible to function any other way.

Of course, sociologists have been examining this phenomenon since before "sociologist" was even a term. It's something humans have had to deal with ever since agriculture spawned the first cities, and it's why we have concepts like "the golden rule" - basically a "Newton's first law" for social etiquette. What's interesting to me is how this human limitation has run headlong into the internet, and rather than be changed by it one little bit, people are instead clamoring to reconfigure the internet.

Take the example of Facebook: As soon as your "newsfeed" grows beyond a few dozen active people, it becomes exhausting to follow. The developers of Facebook are constantly adding and tweaking features that chop it down to size. You are also presented with things that your friends have commented on, which exposes you to commentary from their friends, and so on. In a surprisingly short time the degree of separation is large enough to present you with an inflammatory comment made by a stranger - or perhaps just a comment that feels inflammatory to you.

And here's where the internet goes wrong: It's just words on a screen. There is no encompassing social context that helps us decide how to interpret them, or how to react.

We are hammering changes into the internet as fast as we can that make it more like in-person, on-location, real-time communication, because that context requires investment, and that investment compels people to behave. Nicknames become legal names. Blank icons become photos, which become video feeds. Everything gets a location. Things actually decay and vanish, by erasing encryption keys and revoking digital certificates. I suspect that a person's "digital persona" will eventually include some legal right to order companies to delete old correspondence from their communication platforms. Yes: The fact that the internet can store anything with perfect fidelity forever, is actually a problem that we need to solve!

But let me back up and point out an assumption I skipped over here:

In-person communication, and plenty of it, is the most satisfying way to conduct your social life, and the surest way to maintain or adapt that set of 100 intimate people.

Surely the internet has a role to play in socializing. But what if that role is a supporting one? What if you took an inventory of every way you communicate with people through the internet, and decided to reconfigure that communication so that it steered as quickly and as often as possible towards in-person communication?

What if you went through every person on your Facebook list and made the following choice:

1. Contact them right now and arrange a lunch date to catch up.
2. Drop them off the list forever.

What if you made a pledge that you would only read the internet for entertainment or news purposes if there was someone else in the room to bounce ideas off as you go?

What if you just approached face-to-face communication by degrees: The next time you start a text conversation with a friend, drop in "How about if I call you instead?" The next time you're on the phone with a friend, switch to video chat for the hell of it. Yes, I know we're all very busy, but there are ways to respect that and still add intimacy.

These are questions I'm asking myself. This is the direction my thinking has taken, now that I've accepted the foolishness of my earlier utopian dream. The internet is not going to remake civilization just by existing, but it can play a role in our efforts to navigate it. For example, it is a terrible substitute for in-person communication, but it is a remarkable tool for helping me choose whom to meet in person next!
garote: (castlevania 3 sunset)

This is mix 3 of a musical triptych about starting over - searching for lost identity. (Mix one is here, and mix two is here.)

The idea for the particular sound came to me when I was bicycling through the high desert of eastern Oregon in 2009.

I was out by myself in a vast hot space, filled with clean air and shimmering light, with the epic scale of nature and geology laid bare around me. It was brutally inhospitable and deeply comforting and intimate at the same time, and an environment well-suited for self-assessment. It was also scattered with the detritus of older stories, of pioneering settlers and farmers, who engaged directly with this raw landscape to establish a new life and independence for themselves. Those stories wove into my personal thoughts as I traveled, making my little bike trip feel like its own epic expedition into the western frontier.

A few years later I wanted to return to that feeling, and began searching for a way to encapsulate it in music. It was very difficult to find things that were differentiated enough to have character, while still fitting within the mental space I had staked out. Eventually I ended up with a patchwork of heroic - and somewhat corny - Western movie soundtracks, hallucinatory ambient sounds, local background noise from wind and animals, and languid, seductive steel guitar. I wanted something long: A soundscape with different parts telling a loose story, each brief enough to have structure but also long enough to get lost in - to let the mind wander - and use it to meditate on a theme.

That theme is, succinctly: Starting over with nothing.

Parts 9-12 are combined into a one-hour mix:

Part 9: Canyons
Part 10: Settlement
Part 11: Third Oasis
Part 12: Epilogue

Here's an Apple Lossless (ALAC) version, in 24-bit, for all you audiophile types like me. (735mb)
Here's an AAC version, suitable for playing in iPods and almost all other modern music players. (171mb)
Here's an MP3 version, suitable for digital players new, old, and ancient. (131mb)

The cover photo was taken by my father during a trip down the Baja peninsula 38 years ago.

All three of these mixes were hard to make, but this last one was especially difficult. I tried to compress it into an hour, but even at 70 minutes it just barely had enough space to breathe while still going all the places I wanted it to. This should have probably been four mixes, not three, but I'm not going to unravel them and start over. I did what I set out to do, and I'm happy with the result.

You can click here for the tracklist ... or just skip this link and listen to it without knowing what's in store for you. :)
garote: (victory)

I'm gung-ho on colonizing Mars. Let's do this!! It would be an amazing adventure and a useful scientific endeavor. But there's something I really want us all to keep in mind as we do it. Colonizing - even terraforming - is not an "insurance policy."

It's tempting to think in terms of eggs and baskets. Earth is one big basket, and Mars is another, and the more baskets we can distribute our eggs to, the better our chances of survival - as a species - if one of those baskets breaks.

But on closer inspection, that metaphor just doesn't work, because Earth is not just any old basket. If we drop it, we are straight-up doomed. Fixing our problems on this planet is way, way, WAAAAYY more important than any terraforming effort of some other planet.

For the foreseeable future, any planet we terraform is guaranteed to be:

  1. way too hot or too cold,
  2. poisonous,
  3. radioactive,
  4. suffocating,
  5. too dry,
  6. much more difficult to mine for resources,
  7. far away from assistance,
  8. devoid of supporting life

That last item is the most pressing. To take one example, planet Earth has a nice coating of soil on it. Soil is astonishingly complicated. 94 percent of all the Earth's bacteria are in the soil subsurface. A teaspoon of farm soil contains tens of yards of fungi, and the same amount from a coniferous forest can hold tens of miles. Custom mixtures have evolved for custom environments all over the planet. And here, it is literally cheap as dirt. Nothing like it exists anywhere else in the solar system and if you placed it anywhere else in the solar system it would immediately die.

No soil, no food.

That makes Earth pretty freakin' essential, I'd say. We mess things up here, it is game over, man. Game over! There is no insurance policy big enough that covers it. Could we terraform Mars? I think so, yes. But if we can't keep the Earth intact at the same time, what's the point? This planet has been human habitable for a hundred million years at least, and that's just my own conservative estimate as a non-expert. Unlike anywhere else, it can remain so for another hundred million years, without our intervention. In fact, it's our intervention that is the only real threat! That's some harsh irony.

A hundred million years is an absurdly long span of time - longer than any of us can imagine, and time enough to accomplish amazing things - but we have to earn it, by self-organizing, by setting our priorities, and by figuring out how to curb our worst behaviors. As a bonus, if we can last long enough, we're bound to make contact with other intelligent life in the universe, via robotic probes or otherwise. In fact, living sustainably may be the cost of admission to a galactic community. Suppose we discover life in a distant solar system, and show up with the terraforming equivalent of dumptrucks and dynamite, and claim that we need a spare planet because we've screwed up our own beyond repair? For the sake of all other intelligent life everywhere, It would be a righteous act for those aliens to nuke us out of orbit, follow us home, and post guards all around the Earth to keep us contained until we sort ourselves out.

That's some of what's in play here: We are expansionistic apes with extremely short attention spans keen to build an incredibly frail and suspiciously symbolic outpost, because we believe deep within ourselves that our whole planet of origin could go up in smoke any moment - not from any external threat, which geologic history has shown to be very remote - but from our own careless nature. Or maybe just the careless nature of those other apes -- the ones with the different religion, or the suspiciously different fashion sense.

We evolved as nomadic wanderers, relying on other life to reset our damage after moving on to the next fresh area. Our self-organization has helped us move beyond that, but we need to leave it entirely behind, if we are going to earn our deep time on this planet.

An outpost, a colony, a terraforming effort - these are experiments, adventures, proving grounds. But they are not an insurance policy. Not a backup plan. We lose Earth, we lose it all.

garote: (conan pc)
For example, why do most of the really infectious diseases travel so poorly and decompose so quickly? The answer is a brutal one: All the diseases that were highly infectious and very hardy lost in their competition for hosts, by thinning out their host populations too thoroughly. The long-term winners are diseases that dominate without destroying and spread slowly enough to avoid competing with too many of their co-evolving peers, and by that tactic, are consistently able to catch new species or populations by surprise.

Plant and animal life rose up from the sea of bacteria after potentially billions of years of trying and failing. Many kinds of multi-cellular organisms could have arisen and thrived for millions of years during that time, only to be exterminated in an instant by some plague, and then it's back to the drawing board. Eventually life hit upon a compromise form that could be attacked by bacterial invaders, and suffer, but could roll with the punches and never be entirely exterminated.

Based on this idea, and with no consideration for the current state of biotechnology, I suspect that humans will probably never accidentally evolve a disease that could kill all animal life, but they could probably construct one through complex artificial means that could have a pretty good shot at killing all human life. The only question is, are we dumb enough to try?
garote: (chips challenge eprom)
Traditional journalism pursued three things: 1. An impartial presentation, 2. From verified sources, 3. Of information that can be used to participate meaningfully in society. That third thing has a subjective element to it, and it is often what journalists spend the most time struggling with, because it's how they determine what to pursue, and what to ignore.

Needless to say, almost every single piece of "news" that crosses our path via the internet is none of those things.

We should keep that in mind, as we fritter away our time online getting "informed".

There is almost no such thing as mainstream or traditional media at this point. Sure, we've still got some good sources - off the top of my head, there's the Associated Press, chunks of CBS news, chunks of NPR - but these sources are separated from us by a massive filtering apparatus, made up of our friends and family, our peer group, and algorithms designed by corporations.

Because of this, what is the "mainstream media", to our current American society, from children to adults? When we are asked to identify the "mainstream media", where should we be pointing?

At ourselves.

Clickbait, editorializing, blog posts, "free" content wrapped in advertisements... For some reason, we assume that the information we feel most interested in consuming next should also be the most unbiased, truthful, and useful to us. Being highly-educated is no escape: It makes the assumption stronger. Even though the highly-educated might make fewer mistakes, their self-confidence leads them to cause much more damage when they do make a mistake. The problem goes deeper than lack of education.

Here's what I think happened: We all got collectively sick of sitting in a dull schoolhouse learning about civics and finance and history, so we got up and wandered over to the amusement park. Now years have passed, and we're complaining that the merry-go-round and the hall of mirrors haven't made us any smarter.

We know what's missing, but we're not willing to leave the amusement park.

How do we get out of here? Or, should we even be trying to leave, knowing that the dull schoolhouse will just make us pine for the amusement park again?
garote: (bedroom 1)

As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

The first two: )
garote: (Default)

The Hammer Of God, 1992

This is a short story that Clarke turned into a full-length novel a year later. Astronomers spot a rock heading for Earth, and scientists launch a spaceship to intercept it and nudge it off its collision course. No relation to the short story of the same name by G. K. Chesterton, or the similarly-named-and-themed novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle from 1978.

I don't know why it took him so long to explore the scenario; he was writing about landing ships on comets over 30 years before he wrote this. On the other hand perhaps it only seems obvious in retrospect. In the 1980's, the idea of an impact killing off the dinosaurs had barely even gained traction in the scientific community, let alone for the general public. Plus, everyone was obsessed with the idea of nuclear destruction at the hands of the Soviets. Who had time to think about rocks from space?

Then, geologists found a layer of iridium sewn into the Earth's crust, and in the early 1990's they found forensic evidence of an impact crater big enough to do the job. And bingo, Clarke writes this story a year later, which uses a description of that impact as a framing device. I guess it was a blind spot for even the great "Grandmaster of Sci-Fi". He should have read Niven and Pournelle's book!

As a kid, I remember reading Orn, by Piers Anthony, and finding an "author's note" in the back of the book, confidently laying out a case for the dinosaurs dying due to temperature change, from continental drift*. I guess that was the state of the art in 1971, when Orn was written. Today that theory would be laughed at just as heartily as the impact theory was in the 80's. We've come a long way. I wonder what ideas there are today, on the fringe of science, that sound very reasonable with our present knowledge -- but will seem unworkable in ten or twenty years, after we make new discoveries that totally reframe the debate?

Here's a few I'm willing to put forward:

  1. By closely examining the DNA of a person, and the taxonomy of their gut bacteria, a computer program can predict their ideal diet, on a meal-by-meal basis. Seems sensible now; will seem childish in 10 years.
  2. The space elevator is a workable concept for Earth. Tantalizing now, will seem like a boondoggle in 20 years or less.
  3. Wormholes can be used as a means of travel or communication. Plausible now; will seem like a fairy story in 20-30 years.
  4. High-quality meat can be grown in vats, more cheaply and with less waste than well-managed pastoral farming. Seems like an any-day-now invention, but I reckon the closest we'll get will be a product of fermentation like tempeh. Not a bad outcome really, since tempeh is delicious.

It's always risky to pronounce things as wrong before they've been completely explored. I'll check back in a decade and see how I did. Terribly, I hope!

(*Now we call it "plate tectonics" of course.)

Reunion, 1971

A short one with a twist in the last four words. It's ham-handed and I might as well spoil it. An alien race makes contact, and claims that they are humans, and colonized Earth with humans ten million years ago. (Never mind our 99% of shared genes with apes, or our 50% of shared genes with all other cellular life on the planet. Did they know any of that back in 1971?) Most of the aliens abandoned the planet when the environment turned sour, leaving behind a handful of humans who had "descended to barbarism" because of a "genetic plague" that had broken out in the population and caused them shame and suspicion. The big twist: The "disease" is white skin, and the aliens are ready to "cure" it as soon as they return, so we can "join the society of the universe without shame".

This story is 45 years old, and it suffers for it. For every modern reader who would think "hah, that's a solid Take That against the white supremacists in my family!" -- there are two or even three readers who would say "Wow, you suck Clarke. The righteous response to racism is not bigger racism." And this is galactic-scale racism!!

On Golden Seas, 1986

A light-hearted mishmash about how the world governments would react to the idea of trying to pay their bills by extracting gold from seawater. Clarke gets a point for proposing that a future US President would be female. He loses that point for proposing that other world leaders would still happily make sexist jokes about her in the international media.

He keeps the tone playful here, and perhaps he is also making some clever commentary about global politics of the 80's but that commentary is lost on me now. Given how long the downtime has grown between his short stories in the 80's and 90's, I think he's actually become sick of the short-story format at this point and is using it to rid himself of half-baked ideas that he doesn't feel are worth a full-sized novel...

Improving The Neighborhood, 1999

In the introduction to this story Clarke proudly says it was the first piece of fiction to be published in Nature (which is usually restricted to very non-fictional scientific papers). He reckons it might have upset scientists who didn't know they were reading fiction.

I don't think so. The story is a dispassionate recounting of the history of a civilization of "large" "loud" beings that were so thirsty for energy to drive their machines that they accidentally blew up their entire planet, as well as its moon. Partway through it becomes clear that the narrator is actually on an alien world and the "large" "loud" beings in the story are us humans. Aside from a snide jab at how much we all love gas-guzzling vehicles, there isn't much emotion, structure, or even any real point to this story at all. Considering it was the last short story he ever published, I was hoping for something professional and clever -- something with zing to it.


The Wire Continuum, 1997

And here at last we come to the final story.

This is an episodic look at a technology similar to what Clarke wrote about in "Travel By Wire", except now we're hopping between two characters as they witness its long-haul development and integration into society. It offers an alternate history, branching off in the 1940's when we make the key discoveries, and transforming the future from there.

The basic technology - and the 'fiction' part of the 'science fiction' - is that humans and other objects can be "transported" by breaking them down into a digital signature and embedding that signature into materials at some distant place. Clarke and Baxter hand-wave the quantum mechanics and physics problems by the time-honored method of calling our attention to them, putting them all inside a black box, and then labeling the box by name-dropping a bunch of scientists and mathematicians that supposedly worked very hard on the contents and met with mysterious success. To take what should be a classic example, a "warp drive" engine is just like a regular engine, except somewhere in the traditional wiring diagram there is a large box called the "Einstein-Rosen-LaMarche-Baxter Box" that does all the currently impossible stuff. How does it work? It does that thing that Einstein, Rosen, LaMarche, and Baxter all talked about, very fast. Sounds classy and smart, right? You would be able to understand it, if only you were well-read enough to know what Einstein, Rosen, LaMarche, and Baxter all had in common. The author surely knows, which is why he name-dropped these specific people. (Not likely since I just made "LaMarche" up.)

Anyhoo, this story has Baxter's fingerprints all over it, since it's about the space-race and has turgid family drama very tightly knit into the narrative, as though there were something metaphorical going on that you can't quite grasp. When he integrates drama into his science it usually works out fine, and adds a very important element of human perspective to a story, but in this short form it proves a little squirrely for him. And it's clear that this is almost entirely Stephen Baxter's work. The stock Clarke characters are missing, the overt contempt for women is gone, and there isn't so much emotional distance between the narration and the protagonists. Clarke always did struggle with complex emotion in his stories, as perhaps he did in real life.

This story ends on a 2001-style note of an old man in bed, near death, encountering the future of humanity and the unknown all at once, and then doing something ambiguous that is ripe for interpretation. A pretty good story all told, and it pulls on other threads that Clarke and Baxter explored in "The Light Of Other Days," an absolute favorite of mine for its too-ambitious scope and surplus of ideas. I recommend this story, so I ain't spoiling it.

Also, I'm glad I got to this one last, because it's a good high note at the finish this project. And now that I've been through them all, I can ask some big picture questions.


What was Clarke's best decade for short stories? I'd have to say it was the 60's, narrowly edging out the 50's. But the vast majority of his short story work was during those years, so that makes sense. How about a better question: What were his best two consecutive years?

I'm gonna say 1952, and 1953. In those years we get "The Parasite," which was the precursor to "The Light Of Other Days," "All The Time In The World," which was very smartly constructed and a fun read, and "Jupiter Five," which is enthralling and reads like a precursor to Rendezvous With Rama -- at least up to the point where Clarke rips us away from the interior of a spooky alien ship and makes the story about gravity shenanigans instead. And we also get "The Other Tiger," "Encounter In The Dawn," "The Possessed," and the whack-a-doo classic "The Nine Billion Names Of God" to round things out. Each hits on a very different theme.

Here's another question: Are there any I would consider good enough to read more than once? Yes, four of them:

  • Rescue Party (1946). It's so ancient it's turned Steampunk, and that makes it fun.
  • The Lion of Comarre (1949). Puzzling out the function of an ancient city is a premise that will grab me every time, and I've forgotten the details of this one.
  • All The Time In The World (1952). It's got a buildup like one of those dank Twilight Zone episodes. Fun to re-read knowing things in advance.
  • Before Eden (1961). The Venus that might-have-been, some chatty scientists doing their thing, and a nice twist as garnish. Worth another go-round.

Which story affected me - made me think - the most?

That's a hard one. I've been able to draw some interesting thoughts out of most of his tales. But if we're talking about influencing my worldview, or changing me, in a way that I can identity as important ... well, I don't know. I want to be able to point at one or two of these stories and go, "I am a changed person after reading that," like I can with "Rendezvous With Rama," or "The Light Of Other Days," each for their own reasons. But I can't. When I look back, it's just a pleasant blur, like that feeling you have after binge-watching a good - but not fantastic - television series. So, I have to fall back to the second level: What story made me think the most, even if it didn't change me?

That's probably The Songs Of Distant Earth, which gave me a lot to work with in the form of Clarke's ignorance - about future technology, about entomology, about civic planning, and about complex human relationships and romance. Clarke wrote this in 1958, which means he was 41 at the time -- coincidentally my own age now. I find that a little bit absurd. Not for any of the scientific inaccuracy, but because of his undercooked ideas about romance and sex. He writes about it like someone half his age.

I ranted a little bit about that in my original review, and I won't pick it back up here. Suffice to say that Clarke and I don't see eye to eye.

So hey, it took a little under SIX YEARS, but I actually went through every short story Arthur C Clarke wrote and gave each one some sort of review. I'm now much more familiar with his style. Also his flaws, and I have to admit that in spite of them, his title of "Grandmaster of Sci-Fi" is deserved. He may not know how to navigate a romance, but he sure knows how to build a story, and how to expand an idea at the corner of science, and on his best days he knows how to craft a great action scene and put you in the moment. I'm glad I went on this ride.

Thanks Arthur, wherever you are!

garote: (Default)
Kerry and I watched a live broadcast of it from some reporters standing in the midst of the protesters. It was a legit news channel though I forget which one. We heard the helicopters circling overhead, as our little house is only about a mile away from the Berkeley campus.

We were both more amused than anything. My reaction was, "hey alright, more authentic free speech!", as I cut farmer's market leeks into sections for the soup I was making, and Kerry fed the cat.

Most of the news organizations that reported it did a responsible thing - they pointed out that the demonstration was peaceful and orderly for hours up until a smaller group of individuals showed up, with covered faces and black clothing, and began tearing down the police barricades and throwing fireworks and flares. That group was clearly intent on causing such a disturbance that the whole event had to be cancelled. Not a move I would have made, but that's often the way it is with protest crowds. Less responsible people use them as cover. The same way wild-eyed vigilantes accumulate guns and training in the cover provided by hunters, patriots, and veterans.

The police also acted very responsibly here as well. Their attitude was "better a few tens of thousands of dollars in property damage than a million-plus dollars in medical attention and lawsuits against the city". They hung back and acted as protection - and a strong defense - for everyone there. No one from any side said a word against the police.

Of course, our dickhead in chief fanned the flames, and even floated the idea of defunding the lab system because of it. I mean wow, could he be any more utterly out of touch with American principles? What a dickhead. I never expected I could loathe him even more than I did last year, but boy oh boy, I do.

On the internet, of course, the whole thing is being discussed as though the students were devouring live babies and screaming "HAIL SATAN" and burning copies of the constitution in great heaps. This is by and large all anyone outside the city limits of Berkeley will hear of it ... and with fake-news editorials "covering" the incident with all the impartiality of a lynch mob, I expect the stink will be intense, and circle the Earth.

Raising hell when a well-established hatemonger tries to hold court in your home town, is not a "violation of free speech". Why would anyone claim that it is? Because they think they have a "right" to keep other people silent while they bloviate? The mind, it boggles.

So yes, comment boards all over are exploding with messages claiming that the entire city of Berkeley is "whiners" and "babies" and "against free speech" and "violent thugs" and so on and so on. But to me, these commenters are just angry, scared people, venting spleen from the safety of their dens. Lacking the sheer guts that the Berkeley people demonstrated by actually showing up, in person, and putting themselves in the situation. As I said before, and will keep saying, the only way to win is not to play.

This brouhaha will last about a week and they’ll move on to some other thing to spray down with misguided vitriol, and we’ll all carry on.

Hey! Spot poll! Who thinks Trump will actually be president for 4 years?

To tell you the truth, I’m actually getting a bit worried that in about a year he is going to start a war. North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, perhaps some kind of scuffle with China. And missiles will fly, and planes will start ramming buildings again. And of course it will all be more and more proof of how necessary the war is, and how the inhuman "other" must be exterminated, and we better not vote against a sitting president during wartime, because that would send the wrong message to The Enemy...

Ugh. I tried to stop watching internet news. I've already abandoned Facebook. Every time I lift the lid, nothing but hate comes screaming out. Is this the future of information warfare? Dump toxic waste in the community pool, so the effort of cleaning it out serves as a distraction, and you can move funds and pass laws while backs are turned?
garote: (Default)

As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

The last three: )
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?
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