garote: (dragon quest guy)
The internet makes all fame relative. As long as you step away from youth-oriented culture - the playground of billion-dollar corporations - you're a success.

Young people nowadays love artists I don't know and don't give a crap about. I don't know the difference between Rihanna, Beyoncé, Adele, Alicia Keys, Kehlani, Kygo, Quavo, Khalid, Gucci Mane, Kodie Shane, Kodak Black, Fetty Wap, Aminé, Shamwou, Goapele, G-Eazy, Tekno, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Drake, Daddy Yankee, Zayn, 2 Chainz, Ty Dolla $ign, Joey Bada$$, and Wiz Kalifa*.

Lately the best time I've had from musicians is the little 4-piece bluegrass band that plays at the Baja Taqueria on Mondays.

*Only one of those is a made up name. Can you guess which?
garote: (Default)
I have an absurd amount of music, and it plays a gigantic role in my mental existence. I also have quite a lot of audiobooks, and those are often broken into lots of tiny little tracks that can overwhelm the database on an iPod. I want the best of both worlds (now that I'm using an iPod with a terabyte of storage) so I'm walking through my audiobook library and zipping all those little files together into big ones.

To verify that the files are joined in the right order, I need to listen to the middle of each book, for about 30 seconds at least. Every time I want to keep listening longer, and have to tear myself away. I've got a lot of interesting books to read.

... But I can't resist commenting on the book I just dropped into. It's "The Social Animal", by David Brooks. He just made two interesting points:

1. We often consider our lives to be at their best when we have a stable, safe home, and we get to make regular excursions outside of it.

I find it interesting that both a home and travel are fundamental components. No doubt one helps to characterize the other, as well. For all the fun and relaxing time I have at home, I still have a deep need to get outside and engage with things. Sometimes I catch myself in a ridiculous cycle where I dream about traveling when I'm at home, and I dream about being home when I'm traveling. Durrr.

I think that if I'd been raised in more threatening environment, or had a less stable home, I would be a lot less inclined to travel ... and probably a lot less able to relax at home, since I'd feel like it was constantly under threat. Truly this sense of stability is a gift. I also can't help but acknowledge the very weird sense of home that comes from a bicycle trip: The bicycle becomes a kind of mobile home. Not big enough to actually go inside, but big enough to carry all the supplies that would usually be in a house.

Then there's that strange, ironic feeling one gets, when one checks into a hotel for the night. It's four walls and a roof, and a bathroom and a bed, and usually dinner as well -- but it feels far from home, because it's not the seat of the bicycle. Sometimes the only way to combat this strange feeling is to wheel the bicycle into the room and sleep next to it, like it's the family dog!!

And here's David's second point:

2. The way parents engage in dialogue with their children does more for them developmentally than any amount of flashcards, books, tutors, travel, nutrition, freedom, or punishment. With that dialogue, they teach their children how to build their identity and navigate their own mental space, and how to send signals to - and read signals from - other people. The movement of the dialogue becomes the inner voice -- the tracks beneath the train of thought.

I think there's an awful lot of truth in that idea. Many of the formative events in my young life were conversations. One little example:

I had a CD of songs by Monty Python. I was playing it on the stereo one day, half-listening while doing some schoolwork I think, and the song "Oliver Cromwell" came up. My mother wandered into the living room. The song went:

"Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England (and his warts)
Born in 1599, died in 1658 (September)
But, alas (Oi Vay!), disagreement then broke out (between)
The Presbyterian Parliament and the military..."

My mother was intrigued. "What song is this?" she asked.

"Oh it's just some Monty Python song about a king of England," I probably said.

"Oliver Cromwell, that rings a bell," she said, and listened for a while.

"And Cromwell sent Colonel Pride
To purge the House of Commons of the Presbyterian Royalists,
Leaving behind only the Rump Parliament"

"The Rump Parliament?" she said.

"Yeah, I don't know what that is," I said.

"Hah! I bet we can figure it out," she said, and walked over to the bookcase and sat down. After a moment she said, "here we are -- European history," and she pulled out a large book with a tall black spine.

I was intrigued. I set my homework aside, and sat down next to her on the floor. She opened the book and guided me through the table of contents, then the index, then we scoured the page together. Eventually we found it, and she read aloud:

"The Rump Parliament was the English Parliament after Colonel Thomas Pride purged the Long Parliament, on 6 December 1648, ..."

We learned a little about that, and I asked some questions. I was excited to discover that a song I liked for the silly voices was actually making social commentary about real historical events. I restarted the song from the beginning, so my Mom and I could hear it together.

"The most interesting thing about King Charles the First,
Is that he was 5'6" at the start of his reign,
But only 4'8" tall at the end of it."

My Mom laughed.

"I don't get that," I said. "Why did he get shorter? Did he have some kind of disease?"

"No," she said, and laughed again. "He was beheaded."

"OOOOOh," I said.

We found a reference to that a few pages back. I was fascinated: It felt like Monty Python had somehow managed to sneak one of their skits right into the middle of an otherwise serious history book.

We chatted some more about Monty Python and eventually Mom put the book away, and I returned to my homework. But that little exchange has stuck with me for 28 years, as a template for action and interaction. It said: Curiosity about random things, and the desire to follow up that curiosity, is normal, and rewarding in itself. It said: Research tools are good for more than just school projects. It said: Curiosity can be shared, and finding answers together is more fun.

David Brooks is really on to something with point 2 there.

As an adult, I have had a strange flipside to this experience a number of times. Usually when talking to people younger than me who are having some kind of trouble. We talk, and the person calms down and starts to think, and if I've managed to make a good impression by saying something wise or helpful, the conversation enters this interesting semi-monologue state where I talk a few orbits around whatever wise thing I may have said, reenforcing it, giving it context, backing it up. I can sense that I have been given, for a brief time, the conductor's seat in their train of thought, and I am driving it for them, laying down different track than what they were on before ... so that much later when the conversation is just a dim memory they might run that track on their own.

I also remember being on the receiving end of this state when I was young and my parents or school counselors would speak to me. If they managed to get through, my perspective would be shifted. The storm clouds would be clearing, and their words would settle into my head like they were my own. I had made an emotional and subconscious decision to let them write part of my identity.

Human minds are so strange. But how does that quote go? "If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't."

Oh by the way; here's an illustration of Cromwell dissolving the Rump Parliament:

What the hell is up with that owl in the lower right corner??

Anyway, back to my books.
garote: (zelda bakery)
Since the beginning of this year, when I hatched a plan to divide the utility costs between the two halves of my duplex, I have been spending the majority of every day - when I'm not at work - managing "stuff". Physical possessions.

At least, it feels that way. If I go wading into the details I remember all the interesting things I've done this year that weren't stuff-oriented. I got to visit my sister for an extended time, and help with a science fair project. Got to participate in a "March For Science". Did fascinating tours of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Japantown, the Japanese Tea Gardens, and Cal Academy. Had a blast at a video arcade. Finished up two good music mixes, and my long-running Arthur C Clarke series. Ate a lot of great food. Read a lot of great books - mostly nonfiction - some of which inspired interesting thoughts I'd like to write down sometime. Went through a huge collection of old family photos and put them online -- something that feels very important to me.

But still, the idea persists. Why am I spending so much time managing "stuff", especially when I appear to have so little of it? In fact I've been concentrating on reducing the amount of "stuff" I own for what seems like forever, but here it all is. Heaped around me. Being stuffy.

Furniture, books, clothes, pots and pans, wires, bicycle parts, paperwork, candles, pictures, appliances, camping supplies, tools, more bicycle parts, spices, sporting equipment, musical instruments, posters, tupperware, rugs, cat toys, batteries, bags, even more bicycle parts, and more bicycle parts on top of those bicycle parts, packed away in cabinets or arranged in little piles for sorting or disposal or use in some ongoing project. It's like a Weird Al song in here. And I have to admit it's mostly just the everyday materials of middle-class living and I can't actually get rid of it all. Yes, I really do need cups. Yes I really do need clothes. No, I can't get rid of ALL of my clothing, though sometimes I am seized with the urge to just empty my closet out into the street. Most of this feeling probably comes from the fact that I've crammed my existence into a single room, in order to save money. The less space I occupy the more there is to rent out.

But I've been living for three years like this. I think I may have reached a minimum viable size for my possessions, and now it's just refusing to get any smaller without extreme measures, or some kind of fundamental attitude change. Mind you, it's been a pretty great three years. I've just been living a lot of it outside the house. I've also saved a boatload of money and am now in a much better position to consider my future and retirement. The duplex is actually managing to pay for itself at this point, or at least it would if I wasn't constantly maintaining or improving it. It certainly helps that I've refinanced my loan four times, ridding myself of mortgage insurance within the first year, then ridding myself of a home-equity line of credit, then ridding myself of most of a percentage point in interest. I ain't really complaining here. I'm just pointing out a condition I've picked up: I feel like I am constantly surrounded by "stuff" that needs dealing with in some way.

Now that I think of it, this feeling is almost entirely due to the house. Dividing the utilities in this place means installing a second electrical line, water line, gas line, water heater, and furnace, along with additional pipes and wiring in the walls. Getting estimates on that, deciding exactly how to do it, and following up with that project has been the biggest piece of "stuff" in my life. That project has also kicked off a whole family of related projects that have collectively dominated my free time. Actually, let me try to describe this whole demented family tree, so I can get it out in front of me.

Last week a utility inspector came out and told me that I had to clip some tree branches away from my electrical line before they could get to work. Their work is blocking the contractor's work, so this is top priority. I called the handful of landscape and tree specialists I knew, and they were all booked up for the next six weeks. I wasn't gonna wait that long. Since I'd already gathered estimates for trimming all the trees on the property, I knew that particular job would cost at least 100 bucks. I did some research and found the tool I need to do it myself: A sixteen-foot-long extendable pruning hook for 90 bucks. So I went out and bought that.

Standing in the driveway, with a big hat on my head, dancing around under this incredibly awkward device like the world's worst street performer, I realized that sixteen feet was still not long enough. So I opened the gate and backed my van into the driveway, then climbed up on the roof of the van and tried again. The jasmine vines threaded around the bay tree kept tangling in the blade, and I nearly dropped the contraption several times, but after an hour or so I had all the branches cut away from the power line. I smelled like a giant bay leaf afterwards and just about sneezed my face off, but the job was done.

Now my special house toolset includes a 16-foot pruning hook, propped against the shelf next to the bolt cutters, the hedge trimmers, the reciprocating saw, the sledgehammer, and the axe.

That stuff is all in the basement. That's bad, because I have to empty out the basement completely for the contractors to do their work, and after they've installed the furnace and water heater, there will be almost no room in there for tools. They also need a wide path to the basement, which means I need to empty out the garage. That's where I've been living - or at least keeping all my stuff - for the last three years.

So I've been feverishly reducing the stuff in the basement and the garage, with the knowledge that at some point I'll have to stuff it all in the bedroom next-door, and also sleep there while the work is being done. That will be grossly uncomfortable unless I get rid of everything I can. The good news is, "everything I can" is just about equivalent to "everything I should".

For example, I really don't need a gigantic beat-up faux leather armchair. Especially one that I bought used for 60 bucks. Nobody on Craigslist wanted to buy it, so now it's out on the curb. I really don't need a hideous glass-and-particleboard coffee table, either. That vanished weeks ago. I don't need a pile of hundreds of 35mm slides, sitting around inside a plastic bag, not useful or visible to anyone. So I scanned every single one of them, at very high resolution. It took weeks. Those are in a box, ready to be sent back to Roseburg, after I finish scanning the prints and yearbooks that accompany them. One less thing taking up space on a shelf.

The closet in the bedroom is much smaller than the closet in the garage, so I've culled my clothing mercilessly. All the pants that don't fit went to Goodwill. All the shirts that looked good went to my nephews. I don't need six sweaters; now I have three. I don't need five pairs of bike shorts; now I have one.

But wait, before I move anything, I need to take advantage of the bedroom next door being vacant. So, while I'm waiting for the contractors to be ready, I'm sprucing up the bedroom. That means repainting the walls and trim, replacing the crappy blinds, and replacing the carpet. At first I wanted laminate flooring, but after touring several stores and bringing samples home, I couldn't find a color or texture that suited the room. That was weeks of research, with nothing to show for it. I eventually decided to replace the carpet with newer carpet. But, it makes sense to do the painting first, of course, and once I'd settled on a color and bought supplies I realized that I should also repaint the rest of the rooms.

This has been an exhausting process, especially the prep-work. I had no idea it took so much time to apply painter's tape to trim and windowsills (and sockets and mirrors and lights). I'm done with the walls but now I need to purchase more paint and touch up the trim. But before that's done I need to get primer, to paint over the chunk of spackle I had to apply near the bathtub, to repair an ugly water stain that appeared last winter. Oh yeah, and speaking of the bathtub, I need to redo about a third of the grout, and all of the caulking as well. It looks grody.

Meanwhile, the trees in the back yard need trimming. I consulted with a couple of arborists, and along with the estimates, I got some advice. They both agreed that the cherry tree on the left side of the yard is just the wrong kind of tree for that spot. It's grown straight up, and started rudely poking at the eaves and windows of my house and the neighbor's house. It's only produces a handful of cherries each year, which makes sense because the temperature has to drop below freezing for a cherry tree to be inspired to fruit. Fat chance of that happening here in Oakland. So I decided to have the tree removed.

The estimate to do that was 400 bucks. That's serious bucks. Besides, I own an axe and I like chopping things. I couldn't handle the whole thing by myself though, so I had some folks over for a picnic in the back yard one weekend, including my pal Andy, and he brought his chainsaw, and we threw ropes over the top of the tree and cut a notch in the trunk and pulled the sucker down in two sections. Plus there was pizza thanks to Kerry, and chips and the board game Tak, thanks to Alex. And Andy's kids raked a whole bunch of leaves and earned ice cream from Fenton's for their work.

The chunks from the cherry tree have been going into the yard waste bin ever since. Probably three more weeks before it's all gone, along with the stuff from the front yard. That's just two trees dealt with -- but there's two more. The plum tree in the front yard needs pruning, and the apricot tree in the back yard is leaning heavily on my fence. Oh yeah, and the fence itself was knocked almost sideways by the stormy winds last month. Turns out it was built without proper cement footings. I've got to figure out how to add those, hopefully without rebuilding the entire fence. Maybe Andy can help, though he has plenty of projects of his own to attend to.

Oh and I totally forgot about the time the dishwasher broke, and I tried to fix it but couldn't, and eventually called a repairman. And the time the garbage disposal broke, and I replaced it myself. And all the hazardous old paint supplies I found in the basement from the previous owners. I had to take that stuff to a disposal center on the South side. I also massively reduced my camping supplies, rerouted the home network, rearranged the kitchen, and inspected the roof. That last item was pretty fun: I flew my drone up over the house.

I sold plenty of extra bicycling gear in a bunch of separate transactions, meeting strangers in coffee shops. A coffee maker I bought from a guy standing outside an apartment complex six years ago went to Goodwill. I only bought it because he included it with a blender I really wanted. (I'm keeping that.) I got rid of a huge mass of extra cables and gadgets by sending "care packages" to my nephews, who picked out what they liked and disposed of the rest. Somehow I ended up with an extra space heater. That went to Carlsbad. An air purifier I don't use went to Sacramento. A huge cooler I don't need went out to the sidewalk, and was gone after 20 minutes. For about a decade I've been hauling around a bunch of DVDs in binders. I've been copying those onto the RAID array and throwing them out. I think I've done about a hundred. There is one binder left, and it's half-full.

It feels like this sort of activity has been my life this year. I know it hasn't really, but it still feels that way.

Ugh. Just describing it all has overwhelmed me. I'm going to take a break from writing and go next door and remove more tape from the bathroom walls, and screw plates back onto electrical sockets for a while.

When will this chaos resolve itself into order? A nice, clean, low-maintenance household. That's worth pursuing. Why does the pursuit feel like a hamster wheel?

I wonder how much I could get for a hamster wheel on Craigslist...
garote: (Default)
The Sword In The Stone: Sir Arthur Pendragon accidentally consumes too many edibles, and walks off the parapet at Camelot, believing he can fly. A young stablehand is maimed in the ensuing carnage. His mother vows revenge, and assassinates the Knights Of The Round Table one by one, via poison, forgery, and a series of appalling traps, until Merlin confronts her. (TV14+, 120 minutes)

Three out of five stars.

The Secret Of Nimh: A streetwise rat (Marlon Brando) confronts his circus-freak past, with help from the crime lord (Don Rickles) he was ordered to kill. Meanwhile, an officer from Health And Human Services (Jude Law) and a naïve young mouse (Chloe Moretz) fight in court to shut the circus down for excessive "butt-play". Directed by Tim Burton.

One out of five stars.

Flight Of The Navigator: A troubled teen sneaks inside gigantic EZ-bake oven and gets accosted by the lamp. Caged in with his own stink and hormones for a week, he hallucinates an epic journey. His parents find him in a cow pasture 300 miles away.

Two out of five stars.

Grease 3: A ragtag cluster of disgusting, musically-inclined perverts breaks into a theatre while a show is in progress, and holds the audience hostage. The cast of the show challenges them to a dance-off for their freedom. Starring Al Pacino, Harry Shearer, Kate Bosworth, and Common. (R, 80 minutes)

Zero stars.
garote: (ghostly gallery)

The first Halloween mix was born from my effort to learn Ableton Live. Suddenly, beat matching was trivially easy! I had so much fun throwing samples on samples and trying weird things that it spawned a whole series of mixes, and with each new one I always promised myself I would get back to the Halloween theme. Well, it took eight years, but I finally got around to it. This mix has been waiting as unfinished pieces for about half that time, and the creative mojo to put it all together just hit me during this especially rainy spring season.

Back in 2009 I didn't understand Ableton's BPM settings very well, so I locked everything to 166BPM and rolled with it. This mix has more range. I got to throw in some old film scores, some classic industrial music, and even some hardcore punk! And of course there's the usual enormous pile of movie and TV and video game samples. If you only have half as much fun listening to it as I did making it, you'll still have a lot of fun.

Here's an Apple Lossless (ALAC) version, in 24-bit, for all you audiophile types like me. (357mb)
Here's an AAC version, suitable for playing in iPods and almost all other modern music players. (138mb)
Here's an MP3 version, suitable for digital players new, old, and ancient. (114mb)

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

Happy sort-of-Halloween!
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 efforts work making. 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.
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