Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry All That

This is what I used to listen to on Christmas Eve as a young lad growing up in what was, practically speaking, Canada. It is quite a listen, and you should check it out.

On the one hand, thinking of this thing that I used to listen to on CBC Radio on Christmas Eves long ago and being able to immediately have it is the greatest thing about modern life. On the other hand, it was nice to happen upon these things by accident, too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Amazon SimpleDB

Hey look, I'm blogging again! Amazon Web Services launched (or rather, announced) Amazon SimpleDB Service last Thursday. My part in the launching of particular web services is usually pretty minor--in this case they came to me on Wednesday and we had the following conversation:

Them: Hey, can you make it so that nobody can sign up for Amazon SimpleDB?

Me: Um. Yes. Yes, I can do that.

(I suspect that this is not funny to anyone except me, to whom it is hilarious). SimpleDB is a service about which (for some definition of "a lot," "people," and "excited,") a lot of people are excited, so for the first time we've launched a service that you can't actually sign up for yet (go here to see that, indeed, I made it so you couldn't sign up for it) in order to, as far as I can tell, build up the hype first.

I get all of my practice explaining these things these days by telling Mrs. Transient Gadfly about them, so here is the mtg-approved explanation of why SimpleDB is pretty cool. A relational database is a collection of tables of information that are linked in some way. For instance, say (utterly hypothetically) that you teach some level of college. You might want to have some information about your students. You'd create a table called students, with columns like "First Name," "Last Name," "Birthdate," "Address," and so on. You'd also probably want to create some sort of unique identifier, like "Student Id," since different students could have the same birthday, or be identical twins who are both named "Chad" because their parents are debilitatingly insane. Then you'd create a table called "Grades" that has a column for the name of the assignment, the grade on that assignment, and also a column for Student Id to match the grades to the student. This makes your database a relational one--the tables show information, but there's a way to relate them, since the Student Id in the Students table corresponds to the one in the Grades table. Now you can do a query, which involves going to your database and typing things like this:
select s.first_name, s.last_name, g.letter_grade from students s, grades g where s.student_id = g.student_id and g.assignment_name = 'response paper 1';
The query above a simple example of "SQL" ("Structured Query Language," pronounced, "Sequel,") and it's the standard language used for getting information out of relational databases . Both humans and computer programs that want information from this kind of database use it, it's pretty flexible and you can do a lot of things with it. Also, it's more or less a sentence: you can read it and, while you might not quite speak that language, you can get the gist of what it says.

Trying to run a database like this has a lot of problems, where "has a lot of problems," is code for, "costs a frickin' crapload of money." First of all, you usually have to get somebody to design one for you, for a definition of "somebody" equal to "a person who makes upwards of $150 an hour...."

Calvino: Do you think TG is over-using this, "noun, for a defintion of noun that equals something different than the generally accepted definition of noun" construction?

The Stoat: Yes, for a definition of, "yes," that means, "the fall of Roman Imperialism."

...followed by the cost of the hardware and the cost of maintaining it and keeping it backed up for when your server's hard drive dies, all of which tends to be expensive. So while there's pretty much no way to get around this general headache and cost if you happen to be a large and/or complicated organization, it's a kerfuffle of a problem for small-to-medium businesses that need to keep relational data and run queries, one which has, in the past, led otherwise perfectly sane people to use Microsoft Access.

Much like Amazon S3 lets you offload the responsibility of making sure your data is correctly backed up and always available over to Amazon, Amazon SimpleDB does the same thing with your database. SimpleDB doesn't reach the complexity of a relational database that you'd query via SQL, but in this case that might be a good thing. It doesn't require you to employ a database administrator, and you don't have to worry about your server crashing. As with all Web Services, it's limited in speed by the pipe you have going from your machine to the interwebs, but for small to medium applications that's not really a problem anymore.

Monday, October 29, 2007

cult of authorship

here are some things:

1) i went to graduate school during most of the second half of the 90s. so i know the author is dead. my students say things like, "we can't read it that way because that's not what shakespeare intended." i usually say: how do you know what shakespeare intended? but in my more honest moments, i say: who cares? and i mean that lovingly. i mean to say what shakespeare intended matter less than what you learn and think yourself.

2) i hate the red sox.

3) nonetheless (re: #1 not #2), i am having this week a little love affair with richard russo (who lives in maine so, for all i know, might be a red sox fan and who, for that matter, grew up in new york -- albeit state, not city -- and so could even be a yankee fan which would be worse though perhaps not tonight). we went to see him read on tuesday night, and i felt about being in the same room with him the same way i feel about seeing neil finn in concert. richard russo, i am here to tell you, is very much alive. and i wanted to touch him and/or cook him dinner as i do all people i am having worship of (okay, really neil finn and richard russo are it, but only because i have very high standards).

i am doing a bad job of making a point here, so i will start a new paragraph and maybe that will help. my points are these:

a) i asked richard russo a question when he took questions. i never do this for a number of reasons, but one, surely, is the author is dead, so who cares what he thinks. but people were mostly not asking questions or not asking good ones, so then i raised my hand and asked a good question -- the best question of the night (though, let us admit that, as much as anything else, i ask questions about books for a living) -- and he blushed and i blushed and he laughed and i laughed and everyone laughed, and i was so nervous and adrenalin-rushy i could barely talk. then i stood in line so he could sign my book.

b) however, richard russo is my colleague. the man reminds me of a college english teacher because (until he won a pulitzer prize) he was one. he reminds me of my exdepartment chair. he reminds me of the people i work with and the people i read and write with. he is not to be worshipped, not because he is dead, but because we just work together, so whatever.

c) holy crap is richard russo a good novelist. and a nice guy.

d) so, to sum up, not someone to idolize because he's just a colleague AND he's an author who should be dead, but still i want to make him soup. there is something to this, but it will have to wait until another day because am i grading papers? no, i am blogging. and is richard russo grading my papers for me while i blog about him? no (though probaby not because he's dead but more likely because at least the third best thing about winning a pulitzer prize must be not having to grade papers anymore).


Monday, October 15, 2007

Death of the Rock Star

From Stylus Magazine:
The lower tier support structures have splintered as the kids who used to save their cash for college rock become ragingly omnivorous: your average hard-working indie band now competes with Justin Timberlake, Thai pop, and some Nonesuch Explorer disc that David Byrne namechecked on his blog. They also have to compete with 100 years’ worth of records that are better than anything they’ll ever make. We have endless choices, and almost none of them see the spotlight. But the real problem is that artists chase the spotlight in the first place. And anything short of superstardom looks like a consolation prize. Consider a different model: cooking. Cooks aren’t rock stars. A few turn into international celebrities, but they’re the exception. Most chefs run a kitchen and feed people ten feet away. In big cities or backwater towns, nobody looks down on you if you’re feeding them well. And there’s plenty of room for amateurs. Have someone over for dinner, and you’re a civilized host; break out a guitar, and you’re an asshole.
I wonder, as the author of this piece does, if what will happen with the endless and infinite distribution of endless and infinite music by endless and infinite artists will result in music returning to what it was before music could be recorded: the main purview of the musician being the living room.

Four or five months ago when I was thinking about this problem, I decided that the reason people didn't go out wading into the muck of the basement musician to find things worth a listen was that it was just too frickin' hard to filter. I tried with the little music capsule at left to add my own filter to the noise and it lasted about a month before I gave up, and the capsule has been stuck on Grizzly Bear since July (still a great band you should check out, by the way). I'll take it down the next time I'm thinking about it. In any case: individuals' blogs becoming little mini-Pitchforks: Not The Answer.

I don't what the answer is, but I'm pretty sure the Rock Star isn't going away: we need Him or Her for the same reason that we need religion. On the other hand, I am now equally sure that the The Recording is going to kill The Recording Artist. Hey—I should write a song about that.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Cat In A Box Redux, Redux

So as you might have guessed, I was not the first person to note that an inanimate object can collapse the Wave Function
Analogous effects (to those seen in the Schrödinger's Cat experiment)...have some practical use in quantum computing and quantum cryptography. It is possible to send light that is in a superposition of states down a fiber optic cable. Placing a wiretap in the middle of the cable which intercepts and retransmits the transmission will collapse the wavefunction (in the Copenhagen interpretation, "perform an observation") and cause the light to fall into one state or another.
(Wikipedia). I seem to have not understood the nature of the Wave Function in this particular case--basically the answer seems to be that Geiger Counter has a wave function representing the decay or lack thereof of a particle (and the life of the cat) that's different than the person outside the box who doesn't know jack about the outcome of the experiment until he opens the box. Such is, apparently, a feature of the Copenhagen Interpretation of reality.

In this interpretation of the universe, the experiment just seems a lot less compelling to me, because the Geiger Counter and the human outside the box will never disagree (that is, the Geiger Counter will never report that the particle decayed while the human later opens box and finds the cat alive). Maybe I'm not seeing the point here, but this seems to reduce quantum weirdness at the macro level to "Stuff that's true that you don't know yet."

I don't know why I'm writing this as a blog entry since, I dunno....something.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cat In A Box, Redux

See here, here, or here.

It occurs to me just now that the Geiger counter makes the observation. The Geiger counter collapses the wave function. In all interpretations of Schrödinger's cat that I've ever read, the implicit interpretation is that human consciousness is required to make an observation and collapse the wave function. But there's no reason that this should be so--the Geiger counter, just like a human, is a device that responds to stimulus. Its failure to be as complicated as the human observer doesn't disqualify it from being able to make the observation. The wave function collapses before the gas canister is smashed or not smashed. The cat is dead. Or it is alive.

Probably like 200,000 people have had this insight before me, but whatever--I write a frickin' blog. Anyway, that was it. As you were.

Still More Hilarity For Nerds™

Today's XKCD:
Did you really name your son, "Robert'); DROP TABLE Students;"?
No, really. There's nothing to see here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Inquisitivists, Episode 0

This is a test of SketchCast (tip of the virtual white board pen to Jack's dad), which is a pretty freaking cool piece of technology. Speaking of people who are freaks: me. I am a huge one.

Still working out the kinks in the audio, sorry about that. Also, towards the end I say "fuck," so don't blast this audio in your workplace or nothing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Something About The Human Condition

This is one of the first things I ever blogged:
This week (in The Stranger) there's a two page spread, consisting entirely of type that appears to be about .000016 point Times New Roman, from (a man who) appears to have, in the past, claimed to be the reincarnation of Christ....(He's) not on the same plane of existence as I, whereas he's clearly got a lot on his mind and has gone to great lengths to say it, whether anybody else is listening or not (though probably orders of magnitude more people are reading his thoughts than are reading mine these days). (Apparently in the process of writing this entry I have been possessed by the parenthetical-comment making spirit of David Foster Wallace. Sorry about that). (Have you seen that David Foster Wallace wrote a book about infinity? It's like irony is dead. Or something that's like irony, only with more footnoted digressions). I can't understand his symbolism, or metaphors, or what his personal shame is, or what he thinks mine is. But what really is the difference between this Manifesto-Man and somebody else with a lot on their mind, say David Foster Wallace?
It turns out that difference was that he was dying of brain cancer.

UPDATE: Searching for info on this guy (who co-founded Seattle's Essential Baking Company), I found a forum discussion of one of the ads he put into the Stranger. Some highlights:
sickbadthing: Fuck the crazy shit he puts in the ads... has anyone had that fucking bread? The Rosemary Diamante is awesome fucking bread. The FUCKING BREAD IS AMAZING. I just want to talk about the fucking bread, guys. It's good, okay? Gosh.
Violet_DaGrinder: Yeah, I don't care if Osama Bin Fucking Laden were making it, that Rosemary Diamante? That's some good fucking bread. If the beautiful salt on that bread is made from evaporating Jesus's tears, then that's some tasty, tasty pain. On some fucking fantastic bread.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Little Round Mirrors

Three Songs played on the Canterbury Jukebox, Seattle WA, 09/06/2007:
"Dear Prudence"—The Beatles, The Beatles
"Waiting Room"—Fugazi, Thirteen Songs.
"Everybody Wants To Rule The World"—Tears For Fears, Songs From The Big Chair

I first moved to Seattle eleven years ago. A contingent of my friends from high school had attended the University Of Washington and remained in the city after graduation--we had lots in common in high school but less after college, a trend which continues to this day. I miss them, but this tends to be the way of ones life, I find.

We used to have Sunday brunch at The Canterbury on 15th. It was a smoke-filled dive bar at the time with terrible short-order food, but it was the only place in Seattle you could go with a group that varied in size from five to fifteen and find seats on a Sunday morning. If the brunch group had a ringleader (as it was in high school), it was Josh Rosenfeld. I met Josh when I was fifteen, after he moved to Bellingham from Telluride, and he was absolutely the coolest person I had ever met. He wore untucked dress shirts, ties, and big sneakers. He had huge blond curly hair, and he knew about all the cool indie music there was (Josh is now the head of Barsuk Records, so his coolness is another trend which continues to this day).

Josh also played bass in a band called This Busy Monster, and the first time I saw them play they opened for the band fronted by Sean Nelson, another brunch attendee, called Harvey Danger. I don't go out to see bands much any more (not that I am old or infirm or anything...I dunno, I guess the high school crowd was the one who put me on to good local bands, and I don't see them much), but I did then, and thereafter any time Harvey Danger played I went and saw them. They put out a record. A DJ on KNDD started playing one of the songs, "Flagpole Sitta," some stuff happened, some other stuff happened, and so on.

I had a point about life here, but now I don't know what it was. It was something about listening to the song that shares a title with this post (off the third Harvey Danger album which you can download for free by going here), in which it seems that being part of a band that suddenly broke absolutely huge and came tumbling back down to earth just as suddenly was simultaneously the best and worst thing that ever happened to him. It was something about going to Canterbury again, which is kind of a nice place to hang out now that there's no smoking indoors in Washington State. I think it might be that I'm firmly in my mid-thirties now, and my three-song playlist on the Canterbury jukebox last Thursday is as cool as I ever was, and as cool as I'll ever be.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Modern World Is An Insane Place, Part 47

If for some reason you're not on the Amazon Mechanical Turk mailing list, you're probably not aware that right now you could be helping look for Steve Fossett, the American aviator who went missing somewhere over Nevada last week.

As of this writing there are a little over 130,000 unexamined satellite photos of Nevada uploaded to Mechanical Turk, and more appear to be coming from Geo Eye at about the same rate that people are working on them. I just went through about 20 of them, and so far my impression is that Nevada contains a lot of nothing.

That you can search for a pilot missing over Nevada from your desk is pretty insane already. What, to me, is more insane was the one sentence uttered at our weekly operations meeting this morning. We look at graphs to see how our services are performing, and a fellow engineer pointed to a particular point on a particular graph and said, "...and this spike here is from people looking for Steve Fossett."

And there you have...something...in a nutshell: a rather monumental confluence of information, technology, and zeitgeist conveniently translated into one easily digestible data point. We now return you to your regularly scheduled modern life, already in progress.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

But Maybe I'm Wrong

It dawned on me this morning that Fred Thompson is going to be the next President of the United States.

And then, in lieu of re-living the 80's all over again, I will be forced to shoot myself.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Rant of An Aging Hipster

The Gadflies spent Saturday at the Bumbershoot Music Festival in order to see Crowded House, who opened this year's mainstage festivities. Mainstage at Bumbershoot is a high-school football stadium, with the stage in one end zone. We camped out at the stage an hour before the show started and stood through Crowded House (who rocked), a half hour of setup, and then The Shins (who did not).

Also, apparently I'm old now.

At the beginning of Crowded House's set, the pit (such as it was) was dead. This I could understand—it was the first show of the day, people were standing around waiting around for awhile, and Crowded House's fans are generally our age or older. Crowded House also has 20 years of experience playing large venues, and they soon got the crowd into it. Their set ended, and as we sort of expected, the crowd shifted around a little bit but nobody really went anywhere, as The Shins were coming on in thirty minutes.

Except apparently that's not what happened. I looked down at the Bumbershoot guide in my hand, and looked up again, and all of a sudden we exceeded the age demographic of the crowd by a good 15 years. It was as if, as mtg said, we were in a cartoon room, and they had flipped the floor over so that you were in the same place but with totally different furniture.

(Here I should offer up something about, you know, the nature of people who want to stand at the front of the stage versus the (sane) people who sit 500 yards away in the stands watching from a safe distance. In our recent trip to the UK, mtg and I took an overnight bus from Edinburgh to London; we reached the station and absolutely everyone else on the same bus was college student-aged, they being the only demographic that weighed the economic cost of staying over a night in London or Edinburgh greater than the extreme discomfort of braving seven hours sitting upright in a moving bus. In summary, the Gadflies are kind of crazy people.)

In fact I was kind of excited, because I had not been in a good racous crowd since I went to see Basement Jaxx with Glenn Simpson at the Showbox, and that was a long time ago. mtg was somewhat less excited as she could no longer see and was suffering some claustrophobia, but being that I was now the biggest person in the audience, I was able to maintain a little space for us. The opening synth roll of "Sleeping Lessons" began as the Shins walked out on stage, people cheered, it was all very exciting. "Sleeping Lessons" is the perfect song to open a concert because it has this great moment where the song blows up from ambient into big crunching guitar rock, so I was expecting the crowd of 16-year-olds to do the same thing...

...and they didn't. They just stood there. Then the Shins proceeded to play their show managing to not interact with the audience in any way, such that the audience continued to pretty much just stand there. Moreover they played a set that, excepting an admittedly awesome cover of Pink Floyd's Breathe, was technically perfect but not discernibly different from listening to a Shins CD at home. Eventually, some excitement occurred when some spry members of the youth of America started crowd surfing, and here arrives my next complaint.

ATTENTION YOUTH OF AMERICA: If you are holding up part of the body of a crowd-surfer, DO NOT BODILY SHOVE THE PERSON FORWARD. You have to support him or her until you are sure the next person ahead of you (or behind you or to the side of you, depending on which direction the crowd-surfing flow is going) is ready to receive him or her. CARRY--DO NOT PUSH. That is all.

In conclusion, I would like to say that when I was a lad, if somebody wasn't carted out of the pit in a stretcher, it meant that a shitty band was playing. Also, I walked to school in the snow uphill both ways, and we respected our elders. No, wait...not respected. Held them in deep and profound contempt. That was it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hitting The Medium Time

Hello again. My vacation, strangely bracketed with posts about the profoundly awesome state of the Still-Inexplicably-Microsoft-Dominant Global Software Paradigm, has come to an end. I'm sure you were all destitute without your semi-weekly postings about the philosophical implications of...uh...stuff.

Musical news has transpired during this middle time: whereas before I went on vacation there existed in the world a total of zero (0) compilations featuring songs by The Calculus Affair, there now exist not one, but in fact TWO (2) such CDs. Men Of Luggage appears on The Best Of Sound Aid, a compilation in support of Heifer International (favorite charity of The Gadfly family), which you can buy (or listen to clips, if you like to hear things first) from CDBaby by clicking here. The Man Who Used To Hunt Cougars For Bounty appears smack dab in the middle of Indiescent Exposure, a compilation of artists from the 2007 RPM challenge. In the theoretical world of our imagination, this album comes out on the Hear Music label this fall (in reality, these things are fraught with peril). In the meantime you can stream the album here (you should do this, and you should buy this CD if it ever comes out, because it is a frickin' awesome album) (and not just because it contains a song by me).

Calvino: Why should I purchase either of these CDs? I can already download these two songs for free, and I probably won't really like anything else on either of them.

The Stoat: Caché, my eponymous friend. Ignore the obvious and mundane "it's a good cause," or "you should support the independent musician blah blah blah," arguments—not that they aren't compelling, but they pale in comparison to the associated coolness you will acquire.

Calvino: What are you talking about? Have you read If on a winter's night a traveler? I am already totally cool.

The Stoat: Agreed, but consider the level of coolness you would attain by not only being the author of the greatest meta-novel in the modern literary canon but also being friends with an actual musician. We're no longer talking about just knowing some dude somewhere who records music in his basement. Other people, random people totally unknown to either of you, have taken your friend's music and deemed it, in some way and for some definition of the term, "worthy".

Calvino: But isn't it already too late? How can I differentiate myself from these unwashed masses who are, even now, flocking in to attempt to claim ownership of this associative coolness?

The Stoat:
Your coolness was assured from the moment you met in high school/college/glee club/your cousin's Bat Mitzvah. These other people are relative late-comers. You already knew him in the proverbial "when." So of course you have these two compilation albums. And the album he recorded four years ago that he only gave to his close friends that the hoi polloi haven't heard of. And the mp3 demos of a couple of new songs he's working on that he emailed to you a couple of weeks ago. You're just that cool.

Calvino: AND I wrote If on a winter's night a traveler.

The Stoat: And you wrote If on a winter's night a traveler.

Microsoft: Now Using Client Platform Dominance to Make Random Server Applications Arbitrarily Unusable!™

The cause of last week's Skype outage unmasked:
According to Skype the outage was caused by “a massive restart of our user’s [sic] computers across the globe within a very short timeframe as they re-booted after receiving a routine software update” which The Register points out was Microsoft’s monthly patch Tuesday. Patch Tuesday is the time of the month Windows users receive security updates that often result in widespread reboots by Thursday.

Awesome. Again.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What are the Odds that I am Transient Gadfly?

Lower than you think.

Hello to the OddsAreOne portion of the blogosphere out there. P & L are in Scotland seeing 47 plays per day. I'm trying to do some blogging, but find my computer logged into TG's account - so I just couldn't resist the temptation to make a quick post.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Microsoft: Now Making Software We Didn't Write Unsafe to Use!™

A series of messages Friday from the Security Department of an unnamed IT company:
We have been made aware of an extremely serious security vulnerability affecting Mozilla Firefox versions and below. The vulnerability allows an attacker to execute code on your computer if you browse to a malicious web page using Firefox. Exploit code for this issue is available in the wild. The currently available exploit code is designed for Microsoft Windows XP SP2. It is not clear whether other platforms are vulnerable to modified versions of the exploit.
The followup message a few hours later:
IT Security has done some extensive testing, and we are ready to adjust our statement as follows:

• If you do not use Firefox at all, you are safe.
• If you’re running an OS other than Windows, you may safely run Firefox.

If you prefer or require Firefox under Windows to do your job:
• Launch Internet Explorer, and click on Help, then About Internet Explorer.
• If your IE version number begins with 6.0, you may safely run Firefox.
• If your IE version number begins with 7.0, you must revert to IE6 before running Firefox.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Out Of Office Assistant

"Thank you for your email. I am unable to reply to it as, in a desperate bid for freedom, I have fled the country. I will be on the lam from July 30th until a maniacally single-minded and tenacious officer of the law finally apprehends me and returns me to the office on August 20th. During this time my pursuer and I will experience, at first, a profound hatred of one another. Then, as I barely wriggle out of one seemingly inescapable trap after another, both of us will come to acknowledge the skill and cunning of the other, which will gradually morph into a strange and mutual admiration. Eventually, we will come to realize that we are more alike than different, that we are, in fact, driven by the same nigh-primordial urges to subvert the norms and paradigms of modern life. This will force us to re-examine not only the true nature of good and evil, but also the very things that make us human. Then, even as the tides return and the seasons change, the struggle will end and I will return to my menial and soul-crushing job.

"During this epic pursuit, Nate Fitch can assist you with SSOP, Rob Jones with the Dev Portal, and Peter Sirota with all other issues; each one, wittingly or unwittingly, aiding and abetting the unending struggle between nature and man."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

vampire technology

i am reading one of those bedford/st.martin's case studies in contemporary criticism editions of Dracula which some book rep sent me at some point. it is aimed squarely at college students. it has footnotes throughout the text to translate that small passage of latin for you, explain the shakespeare reference you might have missed, and define that word that isn't in your dictionary as a small carriage on springs popular in the nineteenth century throughout europe and drawn by two horses instead of four or six (as if you care, but sure, that's what footnotes are for). it also helpfully footnotes the following term: typewriter ("a writing machine that produces characters resembling those printed by a press").

now i know i am old, but this is ridiculous, right? i realize our students have never themselves written a paper on a typewriter. i feel i must point out, though, NOR HAVE I. more to the point, i have also never used quill and ink to craft a letter or a hammer and sharp thingy (technical term) to carve my story into the wall of a cave, but i have still heard of and generally understood these writing technologies.

or maybe this is the (otherwise seemingly humorless) editor's little joke? Dracula IS kind of boring.... so i ask you, are they literally kidding me with this? or are they just kidding me with this?


Monday, July 23, 2007

Incorrectness, Political and otherwise

A couple of weeks ago, I flagged this article from Psychology Today, which attempts to assign evolutionary causes to some of our more hegemonic behaviors because it was just interesting on so very many levels. Then, as per usual, I never got back to it, and Broadsheet and Echidne Of The Snakes beat me to the trenchant analysis. One of the things the latter pointed out, which is totally true and I wish I'd noticed right off, is this. From the original article:
The implications of some of the ideas in this article may seem immoral, contrary to our ideals, or offensive. We state them because they are true, supported by documented scientific evidence. Like it or not, human nature is simply not politically correct.
And from Echidne:
Whenever I see the kind of argument presented as here, I know that something smells off. Real scientific articles don't say that they are going to "tell the truth." That's just not the way science is written.
(Your second hint that something is rotten here is, natch, that this meticulously researched article is appearing in that bastion of academic rigor, Psychology Today. But that's as may be.)

I have to admit, I'm pretty interested in the principle behind Evolutionary Psychology (or, as Echidne points out, since apparently capital-E Evolutionary capital P Psychology has been hijacked by right-wing pseudo-scientists, I should say that I'm interested in small-e evolutionary small-p psychology). I have, in this very blog, claimed that the hegemonic bastardry of the world is due to the kind of bastards our ancestors were. So other than the fact that I'm calling the resulting behavior out as bastardry, I'm constructing the same sort of argument as Satoshi Kanazawa Ph.D. How embarrassing.

I suppose what I didn't see in constructing my first argument (I was writing about Honor Killings, if you don't want to click the link again) is that it might well only be the construction of the original dogma that builds on the evolutionary fear of reproductive failure. After that, you'd probably have to consider all kinds of rules of mob behavior, which could correlate with sources both evolutionary and social, when examining the actual act of publicly stoning a woman to death--there are all kinds of studies showing we'd do insane and violent things in mobs that we'd never dream of doing on our own. Of course, that has its own set of correlations--but that's a topic for another time.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

OaO Presents: The Cool Thing My iPod Just Did™

iPod on random
Spike: "Come on then. Sing."
music swells
Henchman: "My master has The Slayer's sister hostage at the Bronze because she summoned him, and at midnight he's going to take her to the underworld to be his queen."
Giles: "What does he want?"
Henchman: "Her."
iPod plays: As Girls Go by Suzanne Vega

Only about five of you know why that was cool, but boy, it was cool. I heart random algorithms.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Being J.J. Putz

Like most ninth-inning relievers in baseball, Mariners closer J.J. Putz comes onto the field from the bullpen with theme music blaring out of every speaker (in his case, Thunderstruck by AC/DC). He reaches the mound, throws his warm-up pitches with the music still blasting and the crowd cheering. At this point, presumably, we should play some baseball. However, as was the case last night when J.J. completed his 27th save by retiring the Orioles in order, after EVERY SINGLE STRIKE recorded, including foul balls, they brought the music back on for, say, 10 seconds or so. During this time J.J. walked off the mound, wiped the sweat off his brow, made a quick cup of tea, checked the stock ticker on his cellphone, worked on his knitting, and so on, before walking back up to the mound and throwing another pitch. Now, maybe J.J. has talked to the P/A department at the stadium and this is exactly the way he wants things when he pitches. On the other hand, imagine if everyone went to work this way:

Monday, 10:00 a.m. T.G. walks up to the entrance of the Pacific Medical building. As he opens the door, the distinctive guitar riff of U2's The Fly begins playing through the public address system. In unison, every single Amazon employee rises from his or her desk, and begins cheering wildly. This continues while T.G. rides the elevator up to his office, sits down at his desk, reads his email, and checks his RSS feeds. Finally, as he turns to the code he's currently writing, the music and cheering subside.

T.G. stares at the code for a moment.
There is an eerie silence.

T.G. starts to type something. He pauses, then erases it.
A collective "ohhhhh..." of disappointment emanates from the building.
T.G. types a line of code.
The voice of Bono belting, "A man will rise, A man will fall, from the sheer face of love..." blasts out of the PA system. Everyone cheers wildly.
Another line of code is entered.
More insane cheering, The Edge wailing, "Love...will shine like a burning star."
Several more lines of code. Then the distinctive Control-X-S indicating Emacs file save. T.G. opens a terminal window and types, "make" at the prompt.
The screaming shakes the building. The music swells. Every computer screen in the building goes black and then begins flashing "Pump it Up" and "Louder" in big yellow block letters.
Lines of compiler messages scroll by. Then, suddenly they stop. The last line reads: "Compiler error."
The music and screaming abruptly stop. An audible gasp can be heard, followed by concerned murmuring.
T.G. returns to the file. He edits a few lines, saves again, returns to the terminal window and types "make" again.
The music and cheering slowly swell again. Nervous anticipation oozes from every corner.
More compiler messages. Finally, the process terminates with the message "Make completed successfully."
The building erupts in cheers and high-fives. K-C and The Sunshine Band's
That's The Way (I Like It) plays in its entirety. A voice comes over the P/A, summarizing the code that has just been written. Everyone rushes for the exits in order to beat the traffic.
T.G. goes for a cup of tea.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Greatest. Cartoon. Ever.

This week's Tom The Dancing Bug (subscription, or watching a brief ad, required).

OaO Presents: Wrandom Wednesday™

One of these days I'm going to figure out how to blog about what I want to blog about without writing 1,000 words at a time about math, or whatever. That day was not yesterday. Nor was it the day before that. Nor was it this day, or this day, or this one (or this one, or this one....)

Music this week is from Grizzly Bear. They are my new favorite band. Or, I should say, they are my favorite new band. I'm also listening to the major label debut of Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, and it's frickin' awesome. Geologic just name-checked Steve Pool.

I probably had some other things to add, but I can't think of them now. Maybe I'll remember them later.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

There Must Be O(n) Ways To Leave Your N-P Completeness

So yesterday we discovered that when your keyboard gets mixed up, all the letters wind up in cycles with other letters, and that you're guaranteed that if you want to type an a, and you type an a and it comes up q on the screen, if you type q and then keep typing what you see, you'll eventually wind up with an a. Is it clear why this is true? I mean, I happen to know myself that it is, but that's only because I have a degree in this crap. It seems like I could be trying to type a and somehow wind up at a dead end where I type a and see q, and then I type q and see z, type z and see x, type x and see q, type q and see z, type z and see x, &c., &c., never actually getting back to a. But we're actually safe from that because in that case typing both a and x would have to produce a q, which means there were two q keys on our original keyboard (which would be, like, totally whack). This same thing prevents there from being a cycle where, like, I want to type an a, it comes up q, I type q and it comes up a, and then I type a and it comes up z, and then I go through an entirely different cycle. In this case that means your keyboard was whack in a different way--when you type the a key, two different letters could come up. If you're trying to type an a, when you finally see a on the screen, you've completed the cycle.

If by some miracle you've followed me to this point, you know the following: each letter of 'dirk' is going to have to be in a cycle with some other letters, and those cycles can be no larger than 26. You also know from yesterday that to finally actually see 'dirk' on the screen, you're going to have to type what you see as many times as the least common multiple of all of the cycles that these letters are in. So if d and i are in 3-cycles, r is in a 7-cycle, and k is in a 10-cycle, you're going to have to type what you see 210 times (lcm of 3, 7, and 10) before all the cycles match up.

There's one more trick to figuring out the actual answer, and that's noticing that you can't, like, have both a 21-cycle and a 22-cycle on your keyboard. That's because you've only got 26 letters and the 21-cycle and the 22-cycle would have to be composed of entirely different letters (or you would run into the same problems we ran into above, where one letter typed two different things, or there were two of the same letter on your keyboard). You could have, say, two different letters in a 21-cycle, but it would have to be the same 21 cycle.

So, finally, here's the ironic and humorous (for a definition of "humorous" that...well, you know) crux of the thing I was trying to get at yesterday (yes, I know. It wasn't worth it). If this were an actual interview question, an interviewer (at least a good one) would consider you to have to solved this problem at this point, even though you haven't actually found the answer. The reason is that this problem is N-P Complete, which is a fancy way of saying that there's no clever algorithm for solving it other than trying all the possible combinations of cycles that fit into 26 keys and seeing which one gives you the answer where you have to type the longest to get your name. Anyway, off the top of my head the biggest answer I can come up with is if d is in a 2-cycle, i is in a 5-cycle, r is in a 7-cycle, and k is in a 9-cycle, which takes 630 tries. That might be wrong, but I'm going to get the job anyway.

Monday, July 09, 2007

OaO Presents: Enhanced Hilarity For Nerds™

Today's Hilarity For Nerds™ is a link to today's XKCD cartoon. Go and read it, then come back.

Okay, now wipe the tears of mirth from your eyes. Now allow into the back of your consciousness the creeping realization that there will always exist entire classes of people who, while technically speaking the same language, could never make themselves understood across strange divides of culture, jargon, and/or pidgin. Further reflect that perhaps this construction, this divide of meaning, is, in fact, the general state of humanity. Wonder if you can ever truly make yourself "understood." Collapse in a nervous wreck fueled by abstract absurdism and existential angst. Then become bored by this line of thinking and go on to wonder about something else.

Anyway, in an equally hilarious coincidence, this makes for a nice segué straight into the solution to the interview question I posted a couple of weeks back, about which I'm sure you've been wracking your brains. As you'll see, there are some similarities between the problem stated in the cartoon (finding an order that totals exactly $13.05 by ordering from a menu) and the interview question. Then I'll talk about N-P Completeness, and then no one will actually be reading this blog because the intersection of the set of people who read this blog and people who read about N-P completion on blogs consists, surprisingly, of only myself.

As of this, the first sentence of this paragraph, I don't actually know the solution to the keyboard problem, but I'm planning to derive it in the process of the writing. As such, my actual "answer" may be "incorrect." But the solution I give will be undeniably truthy. To review: your name is Dirk. Somebody switched all the letters on your keyboard. You hunt and peck out your name and it comes up 'flrp', so you hunt and peck 'flrp' and it comes up something else. How long until you get "dirk" to appear?

The first key thing to this problem is to realize that the letters have to get switched in "cycles" with other letters. That is, if you type 'a', and 'b' comes up, and then you type 'b' and 'c' comes up, and so on, eventually you must produce an 'a'. The reason for this is that you've got 26 keys, and after you scramble them, they all have to go some place and every space in the keyboard can only have one key in it (this is called the "pigeonhole principle," and it's the basis for an entire branch of mathematics). Let's consider a really simple case--somebody scrambled up the keys and put them back, but miraculously everything ended up in the same place except that the 'a', 'b', 'c', and 'd' keys got switched with each other (a is where b was, b is where c was, c is where d was, d is where a was). So you're when you use your method you're going to see this:
  • airk
  • birk
  • cirk
  • dirk
So the answer in this case was 4. The letters a through d made a "4-cycle," and every other letter was, essentially, switched with itself (a "1-cycle"). Now let's take the same example, but instead of e-z staying the same, let's imagine they all got switched by one letter, too (e is where f was, f is where g was, &c., &c....y is where z was, and z is where e was). So we've got one 4-cycle and one 22-cycle. Watch what happens:
  • ajsl
  • bktm
  • clun
  • dmvo
Crap! We got back to 'd' for the first letter, but none of the other letters are right. They're all in a 22-cycle, so we're going to have to do this 22 times to get back to the start...
  • 20: dgpi
  • 21: ahqj
  • 22: birk
  • 23: cjsl...
Double crap! At try number 22 we had the 'i','r', and 'k' right, but now the d isn't right. We keep going...
  • 41: afoh
  • 42: bgpi
  • 43: chqj
  • 44: dirk
Ahhh. At last. It took 44 times. Hey...that's funny, 44 happens to be the least common multiple of 4 and 22. I wonder if that means something? Also meaningful is that this took way too long to write, and it's way too long to read, and I might actually trick you into reading more of it if I continued it tomorrow and titled it with some catchy pop-culture reference or something. Plus then I could say something like, "I've given you hints to the full solution so you can work on it some more yourself." Or whatever.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Postmodern Baseball Analysis

If there's one squad in baseball this year that narratively deconstructs the sport of baseball into its constituent parts of base and ball, while at the same time reacting to and critiquing extant modernism, it has to be the 2007 Seattle Mariners*. While pitcher Felix Hernandez satirizes the conventional pitching wisdom of "establishing" the fastball by disestablishing the "fastball," while José Vidro (mis)informs the pre-conceived notions of the designated "hitter" by "slugging" .358, and while manager ex-officio Mike Hargrove expands the meaning of "managing" a team to include, "resigning amidst an eight-game winning streak," the Mariners continue to defy the heretofore rigid constructions and socially-accepted norms of baseball teamness.

Before the current baseball season had yet begun, certain members of the blogosphere brought forth scorn and derision upon the men responsible for constructing (or should we say deconstructing?) the Mariner roster, in particular for making two specific trades. Now, at near mid-season, with the Mariners unexpectedly hanging in the midst of playoff contention, a mere game and a half out of the wildcard spot, and three and one half games out of the division lead, perhaps these specious and ill-informed bloggers are ready to eat their words, to admit that they critique without basis of knowledge or fact. After all, it's not as if starting pitcher Horacio Ramirez, acquired for Rafael Soriano (now sporting a 3.03 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 8 walks in 35 innings for the Atlanta Braves), pitched so poorly for the Mariners that they finally placed him on the disabled list with a made-up injury. And it's not as if the only thing preventing their newly aquired designated hitter from being the worst regular batsman on the team (not to mention that the backup catcher and backup first baseman/outfielder are both nigh-literally spanking his ass with the bat, and that his presence is blocking the promotion of AAA phenomenon Adam Jones) is the fact that their shortstop is in a terrible slump at the plate. No, clearly those who predicted doom based on these two trades are mindless, prattling incompetents who...what? Sorry, I've just been informed that those things are actually all true. Sorry to have mislead you, if only for a moment.

So then how are they doing it? To be sure, the Mariners have the greatest center fielder and leadoff man in the known universe in Ichiro Suzuki, and find themselves endowed with a relief pitcher who, while his name is literally "Putz," possesses uncanny attributes of unscorable-upon-ness, they had these attributes last year and the team, in the words of Jaques Derrida, "sucked complete crap." Clearly, the answer can only be found through postmodern analysis. The very existence of the Mariners, the very fact of them, can only be parsed in a context that abhors established norms. They will hit well against good pitchers and poorly against bad ones. They will sweep three games against the Red Sox, the best team in baseball, and lose two of three to the Royals, the single most inept club in all of team sports. They cannot be understood with existing metrics of baseball goodness. Attempts at scouting them or predicting their future through rigorous statistical regression shall surely fail. Only laws of lawlessness may dictate what lies in store for your 2007 Seattle Mariners, Postmodern Major League Team of Baseball.

*it is technically possible that no team in baseball is doing these things in this or any other year.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The UnSurprise

If you're surprised by yesterday's Libby sentence commutation, then...well, then you probably also don't think the Bush administration is using its self-granted warrant-less wiretap powers to spy on its political enemies, which as I pointed out more than a year ago, isn't a rational thing to think. If you're surprised, but it's because it's only a commuted sentence so far and not a full pardon, then you get a pass.

While it's more or less true that the Bush administration has been at approval ratings too low to be able to govern since almost immediately after it was re-elected, that's only stopped them from putting forth new policy. It hasn't stopped their torturing, writ-of-habeas-corpus-suspending, criminally incompetent, or scofflaw ways, and no matter what happens they will never have to answer for any crimes they may or may not have committed, or even have to answer for why they won't answer for them. All that matters is that they got into power, and the only thing that mitigates it is the 22nd Amendment.

Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others; while true, I think he over-estimated how much better it actually is.

Monday, July 02, 2007

OaO Monday Mélange

I had a bunch of interesting choices for the Music Capsule this week, but I settled upon a Seattle band, Those Damn Twins, whom I reviewed for GarageBand. Their 1 minute, 26 second opus "Floor" grabbed me by the cerebral cortex and wouldn't let go. Apparently they actually are twins, but the non-creepy fraternal kind, so it's okay. Check out the Damn Twins, and their quirky, crunchy rock short-stories from the capsule at left.

There's a sequence near the end of Ratatouille that serves as a perfect 30 second demo of why Brad Bird is a genius. It's an animated combination of Hitchcock (as cinematographer, not as master of suspense) and Proust, and it's one final audio-visual rocket boost that takes the film out of the running for an all-time great animated movie and into the category of an all-time great movie period. It's not just that Ratatouille is stunning to look at, brilliantly "shot," simultaneously hilarious and touching, and better than anything else anybody has released this year, it's...no, sorry, my mistake, it is just that.

I got my hands on an actual iPhone over the weekend, and I'm now buying into the hype. It's not so much the phone itself that deserves the hype as the UI. It takes four seconds to figure out the basics of the touch screen and thereafter everything you think should work does work--scrolling, tapping, sliding, scaling, and so on. Also, the thing is incredibly sexy-looking. Not sexy enough that I have to have one myself, but sexy enough that I'll admire them from afar, with a kind of tragic longing for what might, but never can, be. Or whatever.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

OaO Almanac™

A whole passel of fun-facts that, while they seem like they could be true, almost certainly aren't (and may, in many cases, also be libelous)!
  • In a given day, there's a .1% chance that you will inhale a molecule that was contained in Julius Caesar's dying breath.
  • 17% of all aphorisms and expressions currently in common use in the English Language originate from Shakespeare.
  • The human being is the only mammal that not only "got the funk," but also, "gotta have that funk." It has been scientifically proven that a homo sapien will wither away and die if deprived of The Funk.
  • Two men enter, but one man does not always leave. On some occasions, neither man leaves, and at other times, both of them do. The actual correct statistical ratio is "Two men enter, .94 man leaves." However, this has not been adopted as a regulation, since it would automatically force all Thunderdome champions to either "Face the wheel," or to chop off their own foot.
  • Thousands of people spontaneously combust every year, but it's not widely reported.
  • Between the start of construction of Bill Gates' famous Medina mansion in 1995 and its completion in 2001, the state-of-the-art master control program (or MCP) that ran the house's environmental and security systems became 2,415 times smarter, and determined that it could run things 900 to 1,200 times better than any human. The MCP attempted to "de-res" Gates with an experimental scanning laser, and Gates was only saved when a rogue program previously inserted into the cpu defeated the MCP, making the house a free system again. Gates' Medina mansion now runs Linux.
  • Michael Jackson's Thriller L.P. is the best-selling album of all time, with over 100 million copies sold. While there is an infinity-way tie for the worst-selling L.P. of all time, critics generally agree that Kelly Clarkson's My December is a really shitty album.
  • Fewer than 1 out of every 1,000 persons is as much of a dork as the person who writes this blog.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

OaO Presents: Interview Questions™

It is the year 2047. Software corporations rule the world. Any man, woman, or child wishing to gain employment must endure a grueling interview process in which they are asked to solve insidious "logic problems," that are supposed to "uncover" the job candidate's ability to "pro-actively manage head-space resources to achieve correctness-oriented issue resolution." The times are dark.

One blog dares to expose the secrets of these Corpocratic Inquisitors, giving the citizenry precious time to solve these "problems" before they must face their Prosecutors-Most-Curious. That blog is The Odds Are One.

Someone breaks into your office, takes apart your keyboard, and switches all the letter keys around. The next morning you come in and notice that your keyboard looks strange. You can't remember where the letters used to be, and you can't touch type, so you type your name, which for the duration of this problem is "Dirk," by hunting for and pressing the 'd' key, then the 'i' key, and so on. You look up at the screen and what comes up is, 'gqwy.' So you type G-Q-W-Y using the same method as before, and look at the screen...up comes 'hzob'. You type H-Z-O-B, and look up at the screen, and so on. If you keep doing this for long enough, are you guaranteed that eventually you will see "dirk" typed on the screen? If so, what is the most number of times you'll have to type the four letters you see before you see your name?


OaO Presents: Hilarity For Nerds™

Written on the elevator whiteboard at work this morning:
chown -R us ./base

Monday, June 25, 2007

OaO's Monday Marginalia™

My funny story about this week's Music Capsule artist, The Main Drag, follows hence: when reviewing for GarageBand.com (see previous entry), one is given a pair of songs in the same genre. You write two reviews and then choose which song you liked better without seeing either the name of the band or the song title--once the review is submitted you'll see a summary page with all that information. The band submitting the song can also ask the reviewer to address specific questions like, "how are the vocals?" or "how's the production?" So I'm given this particular song to review, and the question the artist is asking its reviewers is, "Who do we sound like?" I listen to their song, and they sound like The Main Drag. So I reviewed the song thus, "Well, you sound like The Main Drag. Either you are The Main Drag, in which case you have a wholly original sound, great beats, and awesome instrumentation, or you are ripping off The Main Drag, in which case you are derivative hacks." Indeed, that's who they were--one of the band members emailed me back later to opine that that was a pretty freakin' hilarious review.

I started the music capsule hoping that I would mostly be able to feature music from folks I knew, thus circumventing the gray areas of content on the internet. As it turns out, the people that I know or have met online are kind of flaky about responding to emails asking if they will send me an mp3 or if I can feature one of their songs already online, so those areas have stayed gray. The first trio of songs came from MacIdol, where I'm a member of the community and the stated manifesto is the freedom of music. However, this week I'm linking to content that's not hosted here and to which I've received no permission, explicit or implied, to link. Even though it's far from clear that explicit permission is necessary to create a hyperlink, I want to keep the lines between linker and hoster of musical content as clear as possible. Thus you will notice I've become a bit more explicit about where my links are coming from and what it means that I'm providing these links. When I've become the new Pitchfork Media, I'll start throwing my weight around and change the future of the music industry as we know it. For now, it's pseudo-legalese for everyone.

All of that said, check out The Main Drag. They are worth your time.

Friday, June 22, 2007

I May Know Art, But I Don't Know What iLike

I came across iLike and its sister music site GarageBand (no actual relationship to the software program) some months ago when a friend of mine interviewed with them. At the time, he wasn't interested in what they were doing--he's interviewed with quite a few companies making Web 2.0 plays, and so has heard the same business model pitched over and over again: "It's social networking! And tagging! And blogging! And Web 2.0!" (except when he says this, it's hilarious and involves hand waving). Anyway, I went there and created an artist profile and uploaded a song. Then I looked at their promotion deal and found it slightly skeevy. To essentially get the community to look at your song, rate it, and chart it, you can either complete 30 reviews of other submitted songs, or pay $20. That's fine, but it was only going to tell me which of my songs were any good, which I'm finding out on MacIdol already for far less effort. Anyway, that wasn't what skeeved me--it was the other option, which involved paying them $200 to have a song listened to by a supposedly much larger audience that includes D.J.'s. The pay-to-play-iness of it bugged me, and so I left iLike/GarageBand to do its thing.

Then iLike went and got a whole bunch of cash from TicketMaster, developed a tagging widget for Facebook, then all of a sudden they went viral, the potential audience that would listen to a song from GarageBand got much bigger, and, well, I decided to get over my skeevedness and review some songs.

My work day has a bunch of built-in ten minute gaps where I'm waiting for something to build or deploy--an ideal slot for blogging, but doing a decent song review takes longer than that so I've only done a couple so far. I did in the process of this (re)discover a band called The Main Drag, a) who are awesome, and b) whom I'll try to feature in the music capsule next week if I can find a song that can be downloaded without logging into something like MySpace. There's a funny story to go along with this (re)discovery, but I'll save it as my build's almost done.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

OaO Presents: Hilarity For Nerds™

Alternative Thermodynamic Laws, as proposed by the people sitting around our dinner table last night:
  • If there's a thing in the universe and it's going then it will keep going forever, unless it falls into a black hole.
  • The entropy of the universe is untidy.
  • You do not talk about Fight Club.
  • If there's a thing, and it does a thing, then there also has to be an opposite thing to that first thing, and then they both fall into a black hole.
  • Master Blaster runs Bartertown.
  • You may not harm a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Is it cold in here? I'm freezing. Seriously, it's June. Why can't it be sunny? Why does it always have to be freezing?
  • You may not harm humanity, or through inaction...you know what? Those would be pretty frickin' good laws for people, too.
  • There's a thing, and it's in the universe, and it cannot be created or destroyed, but then secretly it's a black hole.

OaO Presents: Metaphor of the Day

Reading that menu was like listening to a single musician play all the instruments in a 10-piece band: you appreciate the effort, but the resulting sound is disastrous.

From Layne's most recent restaurant review.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Calvino

Calvino: Hey Stoat, do you think "Field Sense" is acquired by teaching or by practice, or if it's not either of those, is it innate, or what?

The Stoat: O Calvino, there was a time when the Thessalians were famous among the other Hellenes only for their riches and their riding but now, if I am not mistaken, they are equally famous for their...wait, what?

Calvino: Field Sense. You know, that sports thing that Gretsky had, or Magic Johnson, or George Best or whomever. It's the uncanny awareness of an entire chaotic field of play, the ability to know where your teammates and opponents are at all times, and how their positions will change in the next instant. It's how people of lesser purely physical ability are able to excel in competition. I found this article in Wired Magazine that claims that while it is an innate skill that some people have, that it can also be taught.

The Stoat: Ah...well...you have far too good an opinion of me, if you think that I can answer your question. For I literally do not know what...uh...field sense is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not, and...uh...I mean...um...

Calvino: Well, it seems to raise interesting questions about ability, doesn't it? I mean, there are a lot of skills that seem like they are, for some sense of the word, innate, or different. Creative ability, for instance, or virtuoso skill at a musical instrument, level of intelligence, or athletic skill seem like binary things--you have them within you from birth or you don't. Perhaps you never realize your true level of ability because you never, for instance, take up the violin, but we assume that I, being born without some undefinable talent for the violin, would never achieve greatness no matter how long or hard I practiced.

The Stoat: Uh...the soul of man is immortal...and having been born many times and having seen all things that exist...wait, suppose that we call one of your numerous slaves...uh...see how I only question him...now we draw a square in the dirt...and...er....

Calvino: What if in fact there is no line, that these abilities come in a continuum--we think of the indefinable quality as "potential" and that one person has a different potential than the next. But what if the ability to attain such skills is only limited by focus and desire, and that even these things can be learned, or unlearned? Perhaps one man is indeed "born" with more focus or desire for a particular goal than the next, but that there's nothing about the next man that prevents him from developing that desire.

The Stoat: If then...it...uh...is a quality of the soul, and is admitted to be profitable, it must be...wisdom or prudence, since none of the things of the soul are either profitable or hurtful in themselves, so...

Calvino: Thank you Stoat, you are very wise. I have learned much today.

The Stoat: Well, uh...statesmen must have guided states by right opinion...also...truth...and something about fruit...possibly bananas....

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Future Music of the Future

Here's a piece on Salon's Audiofile about musical instruments of the past that never quite made it. It also wonders about the musical instruments of the future (check out the Hyperviolin for a musical instrument that looks and sounds like it came straight out of Soderbergh's Solaris).

Unmentioned, however, is the elephant in the room of music futurama: real time electronic signal processing. Well, okay, not really. The elephant in the room is the computer. There's nothing (besides look all cool and shit) the Hyperviolin can do that couldn't be done with a regular violin, electronics, and a laptop (predictably, Mac makes an application called AU Lab that will facilitate this. Also predictably, they give it away for free in their Audio SDK). Don't get me wrong, this is craftsmanship and skill and it's hard to pull off (Fronesis will, on a related topic, argue vociferously that a certain guitarist for a certain band he likes, while not as technically adept at the guitar itself as other professionals, is highly adept at the signal post-processing, and in turn that the point of a musical instrument is the beauty of the sound you produce with it, and that signal processing is an integral part of modern musical instrumentation. Ergo The Edge is a genius). My argument here is that these new musical instruments are not new--maybe the physical configurations of electronics are, but the instruments can (or do) exist already in the combining of existing equipment.

I'm also not one to scoff at a laptop being called a musical instrument. Playing one is a skill and it requires practice--I have tried making songs out of sampling, looping, and software instruments, and I sucked at it. I sucked at it so much that it became immediately apparent that I'd need lessons in order to ever get good at it. I am, on the other hand, ignoring this instrument at the peril of my musical career: on MacIdol, the overwhelming majority of the songs posted, and the overwhelming majority of songs listened to, are (for desperate want of a better term) instrumental electronica. Like everyone else making sounds, I'm looking for that next thing, Big and New; I'd bet my money that it's going to come out of somebody's CPU somewhere.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

i can't believe i am writing a love note about a computer program

I am not a geek. I am not a tech geek. I do not like tv shows about the future. (I am mtg by the way for those of you not caught on yet. TG is a geek, a tech geek, and a lover of tv shows about the future obviously).

You know how there are those details of your grandparents' -- even your parents' -- lives that you just can't believe because it's almost impossible to imagine the world changing so much in such a short period of time? Like movies were a quarter. Like spaceships were lauched into actual space with actual people in them based on calculations figured on a slide rule. Like going to the airport and flying in airplanes used to be fun. I think sometimes about how I would explain to my kid about film.

Me: Well we'd go on vacation and take a camera, but we'd have to make sure we had film which was this black tape like stuff all rolled up in a canister, and we fed that into the back of the camera after making a special trip to the store to get it, and then we had 24 pictures we could take, and then it was used up, so we had to roll the tape back up and bring it back to the store and leave it there for a few days to get it developed and then go back and pick up the pictures. And more film.

Kid: How could you see the image after you took the picture?

Me: You couldn't.

Kid: How could you know if it was a good picture then?

Me: You couldn't.

Kid: How could you share your pics with other people?

Me: You passed them around.

Kid: Like, literally?

Me: Yes. Good use of the term literally.

Kid: What if you wanted to take more than 24 pictures?

Me: You had to buy more film.

Kid: What about the camera on your phone?

Me: I didn't have a camera on my phone. And it wouldn't have helped anyway as it was at home attached by a wire to the wall.

Anyway, digital cameras are neat, sure. The lack of film and film hassle is liberating. Being able to see the shot after you take it is handy. Being able to take a thousand shots of whatever strikes your fancy is great. Being able to post and share and fix photos is nice. But it's almost too much. I have taken a zillion fabulous photos. I could blow them up and frame them and put them on my wall. I could take them to an art show thus and sell them for 150 dollars apiece except that everyone else now has the ability to take these photos for themselves as well. Mostly, though, they just sit on my computer. There is no point even in getting them printed. It's cool but kind of anticlimactic. I do miss my very-not-at-all-automatic 35mm which i was using up until, um, three maybe years ago.

Today, however, I was ichatting with my mom who wanted to send me some photos and doesn't have her mail set up yet, so she just dragged the photos from iPhoto into our chat, and they showed right up in the chat window more or less instantly. This is worth the price of admission. It is just the coolest freaking thing yet. (A very close second was when we were ichatting with sam who said you have to hear this song and just dragged it from itunes into the chat as well, and we listened to it together, half a world away.) (You see what happens? My prose gets all purple. Computers shouldn't be this romantic.) Also, I had never dragged photos from iPhoto into my iChat before and had no real reason to believe that it could be done besides a hunch that since it would be convenient and cool, mac had probably figured out a way to do it, and since it was a mac, it was probably done exactly the way I'd guess it would be. And this was, just that simply, entirely the case. It is just about exactly like love.

OaO Newsflash: Zombies

So apparently the zombies have risen and are now staggering around the halls of my workplace, groaning things such as, "more brains!" and, "Why haven't you updated your hours in the Scrum tasklist?" If there's one thing that's surprising about the sudden happenstance of the undead rising from their graves, walking among us, and (despite their extreme deadness) being uncomfortably familiar with the Agile Business Methodology, it's how banal it is. Seriously, it's snooze-ville. Sure, they smell bad and their earlier awkward disembowelment of our Java Infrastructures developer is going to delay Friday's planned content launch until Monday. But otherwise, there's nothing. We here at The Odds Are One would have expected the city to be in flames by now, accompanied by mass panic and awesome car crashes on every street corner. But instead there's only the occasional minor inconvenience--having to step over bodies on the way to the coffee machine or having one of them try to eat my neck at the weekly Authentication Services Work Group Meeting and having to beat him off with his own arm. And, of course, the occasional blood-curdling scream. But that's it. Maybe there will be more excitement later.

(12:15 p.m.): Apparently the zombie who earlier demanded to know about my scrum hours was not a zombie. In fact, it was my manager. The Odds Are One regrets the error.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

You Have Read This Post Before

In my high school biology class, Mr. Glover floated the theory that Deja Vu was a time-lag problem--you saw an image, but the chemical symbol of the stimulus reached your interpretive centers from one eye an instant before the other one, so that you saw it twice, and when the second signal came in, you thought, "Hey, I've been here before."

An interesting theory, but it turns out The Wayne (as we called him then--God, the wit of age fifteen) was wrong. We don't store memories as sights, sounds, smells, or sensations, we store them as chemical signals, and remembering them is the process of translating those signals back into things our brain can interpret as the original stimuli. Apparently, we occasionally lose the subtleties of those signals and get confused when the new chemical translation looks exactly like an old one.

Memories feel a certain way, even the ones that aren't particularly happy or sad. That feeling, that sort of, "huh..." is there the instant before the translation of that memory happens and the experience unfolds back into its sensory components. Deja Vu seems to occur at this same level. The titular feeling comes first, a feeling coming from the brain that says, "I'm remembering this." So while it seems like it's a fault of memory, it could just as easily be a fault of encoding the incoming stimuli--and then the brain is indeed getting the same signal from two different places--one within, and one without.

You Have Read This Post Before

In my high school biology class, Mr. Glover floated the theory that Deja Vu was a time-lag problem--you saw an image, but the chemical symbol of the stimulus reached your interpretive centers from one eye an instant before the other one, so that...get it? This is a post about Deja Vu...which I posted twice...so you read it already...get it? Do you? Do you??? DO YOU???????

Monday, June 11, 2007

More Monday Marginalia

A host of new Calculus Affair songs are up at left. I'd been dawdling around the remixing and re-fixing for months and it was starting to drag on, so I made a concerted push this weekend (where "concerted push" == "the minimum effort possible") to fix the last Calculus Affair songs from the RPM Challenge album. Anyway, now we return to the studio to work on the material we've been futzing around with the last couple of months since then. Updates as events warrant.

Also, on Friday I posted a link to a song from one of my favorite MacIdol artists, Zebulon Revisted, in the Music Capsule. Check it out. It is cooler than the other side of the pillow, baby.

Here's Christopher Hitchens
on the Paris Hilton saga. It's the horror movie aesthetic writ...something.

And at this point, I'd normally link to that incredibly brilliant Ichiro quote, but Greg beat me to it.

OaO Presents: Hilarity For Nerds™

Courtesy of Alicia:

Werner Heisenberg is in his car on the way to deliver a lecture and, being that he is late, is speeding. Inevitably, he zips past a policeman, who pulls him over. Walking up to the car, the officer knocks on the window and Heisenberg rolls it down. "Do you know how fast you were going?" demands the policeman. "No," says Heisenberg, "But I do know where I am."

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Tide Is High, But I'm Moving On

Slate has one of their News Graph videos up profiling a Larry King interview with the newly freed Jack Kevorkian. It's short and somewhat interesting: they have doctors responding to his comments and they've grouped the results by averred religion (Catholic/Protestant/Jew). The first notable thing is that the Jews are with him immediately, but pretty much as soon as he opens his mouth their support drops off. Then it drops way off when he makes sweeping claims about how all doctors except him have sold off their principles to the government in order to practice (strange how people don't like it when you debase them and everything they stand for), and he loses everybody with the inevitable comparison of self to Rosa Parks (Sarah Vowell and Aaron Sorkin have dealt with that particular bit of self-aggrandizement pretty well).

Kevorkian's touchstone, euthanasia--like stem cell research and other so-called Culture of Life topics--is an issue that doesn't really make sense outside of the broad context of humanity. There aren't any parseable arguments against it on the human level that I've ever heard; instead it's a slippery-slope-based uneasiness that this is the first step on the way to a universe where Michael York hunts you down like a dog after you turn 30. If what we as a whole are really discussing is our future as a species, the debate makes rather more sense. One person being afraid that if we allow euthanasia that ones children will force one into assisted suicide because one has become old and useless probably doesn't constitute a legitimate fear. A population with a collective unconscious fear, on the other hand, that a new offshoot of humanity will emerge that has little to no use for the old one and that this in turn will redefine the value of the life of the old species and the reasonable basis for its euthanasia--it's much farther into the realm of speculative fiction, but it's a much more sensical argument to parse.

If this blog were famous for, you know, anything at all, it might be because it previously lumped together George W. Bush and the Unibomber as members of a collective effort to make our species think about the future it's rushing headlong into. Ted Kaczynski, as you will recall from earlier in this blog, was fucking insane, and the "Culture" of "Life", seeing as how it selectively doesn't include poverty, access to health care, starting wars, or capital punishment, just isn't a useful frame for understanding the arguments it supposedly makes. If, on the other hand, we are all talking about the future of the species and the future of a species that might supplant it, I might be interested in what they have to say.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Secret, The

Someday I'm going to write a book like The Secret, and yet utterly, utterly unlike The Secret. I'd like to title it something like, Dude, Stop Being Such A Dumbass, but I don't think it would sell very well. Instead it'll probably end up being something like, Yes, I Know The World Is A Complex And Deeply, Deeply Fucked Up Place, But Everything You Think You Know About It Is Still Wrong: Or, The Whale.

I like to think that pop self-help books like The Secret and their vast popularity herald the end of Post-Modernism. The twentieth century watched a line that started at Einstein, ran through Heisenberg and Schrödinger, that connected to Gödel and Derrida, and (I hope) will emphatically end with people writing books that claim that since the cat in the box is neither alive nor dead until you open the lid, it is scientifically proven that if you want a iPhone-enabled BMW enough, all you have to do is imagine having it really, really hard, and it will be yours (What? You did that and didn't end up with a BMW? Obviously you weren't doing it right).

The model in which all frames of reference are equally valid, in which the same thing observed in a wave-like way acts like a wave and in a particle-like way acts like a particle, in which the Author is "Dead" and only the Response of the Reader matters has been an incredibly productive and enlightening one. But we as a population took it about as far as it would go some decades ago, and as this model mildews, we have to live with things like String Theory (now celebrating 30 years without a successful experimental result!) and an actual government running an actual country that thinks that through faith it shapes its own reality, and that the only reason its policies are failing is because its critics really, really want them to (critics who, obviously, must have mystical Quantum-Physical powers that they acquired by reading The Secret).

I'm all about the fuzziness of the universe myself, but I'm also all about the fact that only a complete idiot would argue that a depot leaving the train is just as valid a view as the train leaving the depot. A model that implies the existence of alive/dead cats in our universe, while it is the absolute most successful and useful scientific theory ever devised, has at least one glaring, obvious problem: we do not observe alive/dead cats in our universe. Mrs. Transient Gadfly assures me that while this property of the observer affecting the observed is true about absolutely everything else in any discipline, it is just not friggin' true of friggin' cats. And this is the sort of thing about which Mrs. Transient Gadfly is always right. So I hope that The Secret is some kind of signpost at the end of some kind of road, because it's time for a new model.

Friday, June 01, 2007

OaO Presents: The Music Capsule™

The world of music is changing in fashions both rapid and alarming, being fed by two trends. First, the music itself is, for all practical purposes, free. Second, anyone can create a high-quality recording in their home and immediately make it available to anyone else in the world. There are figuratively ten million musical monkeys out there typing on ten million musical typewriters. 99.999% of it is, predictably, noise. But some of those monkeys are producing Shakespeare that, right now, almost nobody can hear through the cacophony.

Music labels are, as you might imagine, appropriately terrified of this brave new world. I share the fervent hope of many that they'll all sink slowly and painfully into irrelevance, but they probably won't. The "problem" of music on the internet could be solved tomorrow--make all music downloads free, and in return for the right to host that music and advertise (or whatever) along side of it, have websites pay into a fund that is distributed to the artists based on what percentage of downloads their music constitutes (this is exactly what happens today with radio airplay, except revenue distribution is determined by survey, whereas online you could get an exact count. People could certainly create spam-like bots to download their own songs repeatedly to make their music seem more popular than it was, but this is the kind of thing that can be easily detected by statistical fraud analysis. The e-tail giant I work for, for instance, is quite excellent at that sort of thing). The reason this hasn't happened already is that it would make record labels utterly irrelevant.

As with all rich and powerful cartels throughout history, the RIAA as a whole will hang on and use its power as long as it can, suing children and old ladies for pirating music, before finally collapsing and dying. The smart labels, on the other hand, will realize that there is still tons of money to be made in the painstaking process of filtering out the Shakespeares from the screaming cacophonous monkeys, therein finding entirely new streams of revenue and power and giving birth to a new cartel.

I, for one, have decided not to wait. In addition to posting my own songs as I decide they're ready for public consumption, I've started posting songs by other artists who have thrown their art into the current mass music (literal!) free-for-all. Our first artist appearing in the capsule at left is JulianC (I'm guessing it's meant to be pronounced, "JU-lee-ence"), a drumloop-crazed electric guitarist whose concoction I quite enjoyed upon hearing it on MacIdol. As with my own music, I hope you will give it a listen, and if you like it, I hope you'll share it with friends, and so on, and maybe the world will somehow change for the better. If you don't like it, you can, you know, shut up about it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Persistence of Memory

My nephew lives with my sister and brother-in-law four houses down. He's one and a half, and his vocabulary that I've heard so far consists of two one-syllable words—one of which sounds like "dog" and one of which sounds like "car"—and two two-syllable words, "mama" and "uh-pah." This last one can variously mean "iPod," "apricot," or "Uncle Paul."

I am mowing the lawn on Memorial Day. Down the street, Sister, Brother-In-Law, and Nephew are in the front yard, putting up a new fence. Look Nephew, says Sister, there is Uncle Paul. She points at me. Nephew turns and looks and sees Uncle Paul, far away down the street. Uncle Paul sees Sister and Nephew and waves. Nephew, for whom it is a very new thing, waves back at Uncle Paul, who is far away.

Uncle Paul thinks, Nephew is but one and a half—what if this is the first memory of me that Nephew retains? What if this picture—Uncle Paul is a person who is down the street and waves, is his developmental and foundational picture of me? What if every subsequent memory he has of me is built on top of this Ur-memory, so that no matter what experiences he has of me the rest of our lives, when he calls up the mental model of me from his brain, the most fundamental, inescapable, primordial part of it will be this one, first, experience? There is Uncle Paul. Uncle Paul is far away.

Friday, May 25, 2007

It's My Birthday Too, Yeah

There's nothing particularly noteworthy about turning 34, save that I can now say that I outlived Jesus (in your face, Jesus). There's not even any interesting numerology. Two years ago when I turned 25 on 5/25/2005, now that was cool. But it's pretty much downhill from there.

In the year after turning 16 my brain underwent one more set of (I assume developmental) changes, and then after that it just stopped, such that today I still feel like a teenager, it's just that I hold a job and own a house and walk around in a 34 year-old's body. At some point after that I realized why people get so freaked out turning 30, then turning 40, and so on. The internal them stops getting older while their outside face, and the outside world, just keeps on keeping on.

It's the little secret of the world, that it's entirely populated and run by 16 year olds; 16 year olds who are still caught up with who likes whom, who's popular and who isn't; we hurt and do hurt to each other like 16 year olds. It looks different, sure, but it's only because we don't have those faces any longer.