ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms


Musings09 Jun 2011

So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.

Some commentary on the present state of media literacy from Thucydides, the Athenian who wrote the eye-witness account of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC).

News is what people want to keep hidden. Everything else is publicity.

Some commentary on the present state of journalism from Bill Moyers on John Stewart’s show last week (June 1).

Musings01 May 2011

The media wobbles form poll result to poll result; the political parties focus on the coming election at the cost of everything else. It is left to us, the citizens, to look beyond the short term. When you vote tomorrow, think about the future. If the Conservatives hold on to power, there will be implications for our democracy and our prosperity that go beyond however long the next government lasts.

On Democracy

Stephen Harper is the least democratic Prime Minister that I can remember. He’s centralized the government’s messaging in his own office. He doesn’t like to talk to the media, and when he does, he often says things with only the smallest kernel of truth inside. He doesn’t like to confront those who might disagree with him, something that, as the leader of a democracy, is his duty. He prefers optics to substance, appearance to reality. And when he says things like “If you don’t win the most seats, you don’t get to form the government,” (during the leader’s debate no less), a statement that is emphatically not true in our parliamentary system (see: his own attempt to replace Paul Martin’s Liberals with a coalition in 2004) he shows that he a) doesn’t think the voters have paid much attention to his actions in the past, and b) doesn’t mind telling an outright lie about something as fundamental as our constitution in the service of winning this election.

In other words, he cultivates the ignorance of the voter, not the voter’s knowledge, and in a system where well-informed voters are the key to achieving good government, there’s nothing more dangerous than that.

I know he’s in this to win, and I’m not so naive as to think that the other party leaders aren’t trying to win too, but the Conservatives are the worst perpetrators of this any-means-necessary approach. Whenever this politics of noise over substance arises, it must be vigorously opposed. We ignore it at our peril (see: our neighbours to the south and the current nonsense about Obama’s birth certificate as just one example of the politics of noise run amok). Sometimes the only thing we can do as voters is keep our politicians honest. If we reward antidemocratic tactics with a majority government, what kind of message does that send, not only to Harper, but to every party leader in every future election?

On Prosperity

Stephen Harper says he’s the best to shepherd our economy out of the current economic troubles. I’m not sure that claim is true, but even if it is, it’s still an incredibly short-sighted thing to be concerned about. The biggest threats to our continued prosperity are environmental damage and climate change. Harper’s record on tacking this is worse than bad: he’s been actively counterproductive. He’s managed to take climate change out of our daily conversation, and he’s turned us into a laughing stock overseas.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment-to-moment performance of our economy, but in ten years, or twenty, is anyone going to care about how our economy was doing in 2011? When you vote, ask yourself this: Will my grandkids look back and say “I’m so glad Canada got out of the global recession of 2008-2009 a little bit faster than everyone else”? Or will they say, “Why didn’t Canada do something about climate change back when they had a chance?”*

A Harper majority will mean at least another four years of painting the house while it slowly burns down.

So Vote, and Not for a Conservative

There are three good alternatives to Harper’s Conservative party. Please vote for the one that you think will do the best for Canada. This is not an election where you can safely stay at home: a Conservative majority is definitely possible. Vote strategically if it makes sense for you (but be wary of strategic voting websites). We can do better than Harper.

Thank you. Tomorrow is going to be interesting.

*Don’t take this as an endorsement of the Green Party; while they have the best focus on climate change, they might not be the best poised to do something about it. But don’t take this as a dismissal of them either.

Musings and Photos and Travel12 Jun 2010

I have an iPad.  I got it last week at the Apple Store in Montreal, where we spent the weekend being tourists.  I would have picked one up sooner, but they sold out pretty quickly in Ottawa.  I’ve had it for a week now, and figured I’d post a little review here on the old blog.

In short, I like it.  It’s definitely a luxury item, and doesn’t replace an actual computer, but I’m finding it useful and fun, and will probably continue to do so after the initial novelty wears off.  I have one of the 3G models, which carries the added cost of a monthly data plan, but the iPad really shines as an “always connected” device.  I understand that most folks use their smart phones for their Internet-on-the-go, but I’m a telephony Luddite and my phone is categorically “dumb”, so the iPad fills that role for me.  I like that you can adjust your data plan month by month, and so can save some money when you don’t actually need cellular internet access.  While we were visiting Montreal, the 3G came in handy for checking email and finding our way around the city.  Since the trip I’ve pretty much just used wifi at home and at the office, except for browsing the web on the bus a little bit (more on that later).  I think during normal operation I won’t bother to buy the 3G data, but it’s great when traveling, and is much preferable to paying for hotel wifi, not least because you can take your connectivity with you when you leave the hotel.

It’s while traveling that the iPad really shines.  At a pound and a half it’s much easier to lug around than a laptop, it can always get online (unless you’re beyond the range of the cell towers), and it fits comfortably in a backpack or shoulder bag.  It’ll even download and beautifully display photos directly from your digital camera, which we would have made great use of on the Montreal trip, if only the Apple Store hadn’t run out of camera adapters.  Oh well, I’m looking forward to using the  iPad for in-the-field photo viewing in future.  In the mean time, I’ve contented myself with loading the photos of our trip via iPhoto on my Mac after we got home.  There are also some great on-the-road apps, such as the excellent Urban Spoon, which shows you nearby restaurants along with reviews and ratings, and the built-in maps app, which told us which subway line to take and how much it would cost to get to the Montreal Biodome, where I took this and many other pictures of penguins.

I’ve taken the iPad on the bus everyday this week, where I’ve mostly used it as an ebook reader.  Canadian publishers haven’t got their act together and so new books aren’t available on the iBooks store yet, but I don’t mind, because there is a ton of public domain material on Project Gutenberg to be downloaded and read.  I’m half way through The Three Musketeers and am enjoying it immensely.  I wasn’t sure how I’d like reading on a lit screen, but I’ve found it to be just fine, especially with a bit of daylight to counteract the screen glow.  It looks not unlike an actual book, and flipping pages with a finger feels natural.  And the iPad is more portable than the copy of Anna Karenina I lugged around for a month a while back.  I’m also quite curious to see what iPad magazine issues turn out to be like.  I’d ditch my paper New Yorker subscription for an electronic one if the experience is right.

And what of the other iPad capabilities?  As mentioned, viewing photos is great.  I watched an episode of Doctor Who on it the other night, and found that to be quite acceptable.  I’ve used it as the world’s largest iPod, and while the iTunes-like-but-not-quite-iTunes interface is a bit confusing, music via headphones is just fine.  The built-in speakers are understandably not super.  Except for some online chess, I haven’t done much gaming on it yet, but it seems like it could be a good gaming device.  I am looking forward to exploring that aspect.  

Typing with the on-screen keyboard is pretty good.  My one quibble there is that it takes two taps to get an apostrophe.  I typed the bulk of this blog post on the iPad, and while it took a bit longer than it would have on a real keyboard, it wasn’t unpleasant.  Unfortunately the included notes app with its cartoon felt marker font and lack of wireless syncing is a bit of a letdown.  I wrote this using the free version of Evernote, which syncs to my Mac via the cloud.  I’m not sure if Evernote is the answer to all my iPad writing needs, as the free version won’t save notes on the iPad so you can access them when you’re offline (so forget looking up the grocery list from the grocery store, for example). Also, it crashed on me at one point while writing this and cost me a paragraph. When my current month of 3G runs out I’ll either shell out for the paid version (5 bucks a month or 45 for the year) or ditch it for some other app. Maybe I can write my own notes app, I am keen to do some programming for this gizmo at some point…

Surprisingly, given Steve Job’s assertion that the iPad is the best browsing experience ever, I’m only feeling luke-warm about the web in the iPad.  I find browsing a little constrained.  Perhaps that’s because I normally open a million browser tabs at once, and the iPad’s browser doesn’t really allow that.  This is also the one area where the lack of multitasking hurts the iPad: it’d be nice to be able to go do something else while waiting for webpages to load in the background.  On the whole, one doesn’t really notice the lack of multitasking most of the time, as apps load quickly and remember state very well.

I don’t know if the iPad is quite the “magical and revolutionary” gizmo that Apple’s marketing department would have us believe, but it is pretty slick, and using it makes me feel a little like a character in science fiction.  I think I’ll probably discover more uses for it the longer I have it, too.  I’m not running around recommending it to everyone, but I like it a lot.  

Be warned: an iPad is surprisingly hard to put down once you pick it up.

Links and Musings10 May 2010

Ah, Facebook. Walmart of the Internet. Sad to say, I have a profile, though it’s becoming increasingly bare: the more they strip away the screen of privacy, the more information I delete. It’s not that I really miss the privacy. I’ve always considered anything on Facebook as being effectively public anyway, I’ve been under no illusions in that regard. I’m just not really sure why I should be so cooperative as to neatly present all my vital statistics in a form that can be easily data-mined and sold to marketers. Hmm…

Two articles:

In The Guardian, Facebook is just the latest sensation to contract a case of megalomania suggests that Facebook now thinks it can own the entire internet, and that it will eventually pay for this hubris.

In Wired, Facebook’s Gone Rogue; It’s Time for an Open Alternative suggests that the admittedly valuable functionality of Facebook ought to be taken out of the hands of one company and turned into an open internet standard, which is an interesting, but I think far-fetched idea.

I don’t know if I’ve reached the point of actually deleting my profile, but I’m having some serious thoughts about it. I wonder if Facebook might face a bit of a backlash. True, they’ve been slowly dialing back the privacy settings for years and nobody complained all that much, but it seems like the pace of it is accelerating. Every other king of the social networking scene fizzled eventually, can Facebook hold on forever?

Musings27 Apr 2010

I was lying in bed, deep in the middle of the night, wishing I was asleep. I got up for a drink of water, and then climbed back into bed. I fell into a dozing half-sleep state where I knew I was still in my room and in my bed, but started having a dream at the same time. The dream was about some bizarre game of ninja assassins played in an unfamiliar house with unfamiliar people, wherein the participants snuck up on each other and shouted “bang”.

Then I woke up. Damn it, I thought, am I going to get any sleep tonight at all? I was thirsty, too. Wait a minute. Something’s not right here. How could I still be thirsty? I just had a drink of water. I thought back to that drink carefully. I distinctly recalled floating through the air to the kitchen and back. Hmm. That’s unusual.

I realized that I had, in fact, just been asleep. I had been dreaming that I was awake in bed trying to sleep. I had dreamt that drink of water. I had dreamt that I had fallen half-asleep and had another dream. Now I was actually awake, I was pretty sure. It’s difficult to tell that, sometimes, apparently.

I rolled over and wondered if I was going to fall asleep or wake up next.

Musings13 Mar 2010

Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’

- Lao-Tzu. (At least, it’s usually attributed to him, although I so far haven’t been able to find that particular idea in Tao Te Ching. Of course, there are a million different translations of Tao Te Ching, so who knows. I like it anyway, regardless of who actually said it.)

I have a proposal: let’s all wake up an hour earlier than usual. Let’s eat breakfast in a fog, put on mismatched socks, and go to work an hour earlier. Let’s break for lunch before we’re hungry, and let’s knock off an hour earlier in the afternoon. It’ll give us more daylight hours to enjoy after work.

Could you imagine what it’d be like if someone actually made this proposal? It would be hard to get anyone else to play along. And, supposing the idea did catch on, you’d eventually get to an awkward stage where half your co-workers showed up an hour earlier than you (or an hour later), and it’s extremely hard to organize a group for lunch. And even if the idea really caught on, there would still be hold-outs, call them the True Nooners, who would stubbornly resist changing their schedule after everyone else had long ago adapted to that 6:00 am wake-up.

And yet, this is exactly what is going to happen on Monday, with all the attendant grumbling and traffic accidents. Daylight Savings Time begins tonight. The brilliance and tyranny of DST is that it bypasses the messy process of trying to get everyone to agree on something, and just flips a digit on the clock. And because we’re used thinking of The Clock as an immutable external force that must be obeyed, we go along with it. It never even crosses our minds that the whole thing is just a convention we have tacitly agreed to follow.

There’s probably a lesson here about how easy it is to manipulate people into doing things, if only you can find the right artificially-created (and thus, easily changed) concept to fiddle with. In this case, we’re being manipulated into something basically harmless, but Daylight Savings Time serves as a reminder that we can be easily thus hoodwinked. This is the danger of living too comfortably with abstractions: 12:00 noon is now quite divorced from the real phenomenon of the sun at its highest point in the sky, but because we live by the clock (the abstraction) and not the sun (the concrete thing), we don’t even notice the disconnect.

Abstractions are useful and all—having a standardized system of time sure makes scheduling that lunch meeting easier—but we should also remember to keep an eye on reality.

Musings20 Feb 2010

The CBC Reports:

Nobody feels worse than Mellisa Hollingsworth right now.

The 29-year-old skeleton racer from Eckville, Alta., considered to be a lock for a podium finish at the Vancouver Olympic Games, had a medal slip through her fingers after a disastrous fourth run down the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Friday night.

“I feel like I have let my entire country down,” Hollingsworth told CTV as tears streamed down her rosy cheeks.

No Melissa, you haven’t let us down. If you’ve been made to feel that way, perhaps by the reporters shoving microphones in your face and flaunting their photographs of your tears, or by national sports officials eager to “own the podium” at the games, then let me apologize for them and for all of us. We’re happy to cheer for you, ecstatic when you win, and we share your disappointment when you fall short, but we don’t need you to win a gold medal for us. We’ll be just fine if you don’t.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying you should stop striving for gold. We want you to go for it, and we know in your competitor’s heart that you want that gold medal badly. But whether you finish first or last (and 5th place at the Olympics is a rather good showing) we’re proud of you. And if we aren’t, that’s our problem, not yours.

Musings16 Jan 2010

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Physicist Richard Feynman, from the report on the Challenger disaster.

This is obvious, and yet apparently easy to forget. It drives me nuts when I see corporations and governments spending marketing dollars to tell us how Green they are, or Sustainable, or Organic, or whatever the branding fad of the day requires (google “greenwashing”). The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, not in the advertising copy. This applies most immediately to the climate crisis. Even the best ad firms in the world aren’t going to be able to fool nature on that one.

Musings13 Dec 2009

The global corporation sells mass-production techniques, even in their branch plant version. To be profitable, however, mass production requires mass consumption—that is, the homogenization of the tastes, needs, values, and priorities of all the nations within which the firm and its subsidiaries operate. In the name of technical efficiency, we erase the differences among persons, the style and the art of their living. People of different cultures and nations in varying stages of development are made, through enormous selling and advertising pressure, to want the same things. The freedom of the individual to choose, to maintain his own preferences, and to search for satisfaction, is reduced.

Economist Eric W. Kierans, from his 1983 Massey Lecture, “Globalism and the Nation State”

In this TED talk on the paradox of choice, Psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that the west’s vaunted “freedom of choice” is not liberating but crippling. Not only do too many options bewilder us, he says, but they also raise our expectations. He gives the example of buying a new pair of jeans. In the past, there had only been one kind of jeans, but on a recent trip to the clothing store, he discovered that there were many different options to choose from. He eventually left the store with the best-fitting pair of jeans he’d ever owned.

All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why? […] The reason I felt worse is that with all of these options available, my expectations of how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor; when they came in one hundred flavors, damn it, one of them should have been perfect. What I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. So I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing.

I think Schwartz is on the right track, but in light of Kieran’s observation, I wonder if Schwartz might have missed something. He says that when there was only one flavor of jeans, he had no expectations. If he had no expectations, he can’t have been very invested in his need for a pair of jeans. Perhaps the kind of choice that we find so paralyzing is actually choice among options that don’t really appeal to us in any deep way. Why was Schwartz so sure he actually wanted jeans in the first place? Was his desire for them a product of advertising and social convention rather than an expression of his real preferences?

If you have to choose among 100 options when your heart isn’t really in it, of course you’ll have a rough time. When it comes to choosing things that you really care about, having a wide range of options does not seem negative. For example, I never feel buyer’s remorse after a trip to the bookstore, but then I love books much more than I love jeans. Maybe we don’t have a paradox of choice so much as an illusion of choice. Choosing among a hundred pairs of jeans is not a real choice, if jeans are not meaningful to the chooser. Maybe the reason Schwartz felt deflated after buying his jeans is that he thought he was getting a choice, but in the end it wasn’t a meaningful one.

Musings and Software22 Nov 2009

At work, I use a Mac and a Windows Vista machine every day. I also poke around on XP and Windows 7 from time to time. When I have to switch from using the Mac to using some flavor of Windows, I always wince a little bit. I’ve been trying to work out exactly why.

I’ve always thought that the Mac’s user interface, especially since Leopard, looks much cleaner and grown-up (I have a special hatred for XP’s Fisher Price blue-and-green default colour scheme; thankfully Vista and Win 7 have moved away from that), but my discomfort with Windows can’t just be because the Mac is more pleasant to look at. People often say that Macs are “easier to use”, but how does one measure that? There aren’t wild differences between their user interfaces: both are point-and-click and built on the metaphor of a “desktop” with several “windows” floating above it, and each window contains a “document”. We tend to take that basic arrangement for granted, but it is useful to remember that it really is only a metaphor: one could conceive of other modes for performing the same underlying interactions. For example, a command line interface is built on the metaphor of a conversation: I tell the computer to do something by typing a command, it does it, and then tells me about the result with a line of text.

Of course, most of the time we don’t interact with computers via the command line: we use the desktop metaphor instead, because it is an easier metaphor to work with. It’s easier for us to conceptualize a pile of documents that can be shuffled and sorted and laid out than it is for us to carry on multiple simultaneous conversations with the machine. We can accept this metaphor at face-value and then get on with working on our “documents” without bothering to remember that they are really representations of the underlying computer data. And I think this might be one way in which the Mac user experience is an “easier” one: the Mac does a better job of maintaining the metaphor.

Here’s an example that I hope will illustrate what I mean. On a Mac, there’s a little “grip” area in the bottom-right corner of a window that you can use to resize the window by clicking and dragging. On Windows, you can resize a window with a similar grip, and also by dragging the edges of the window’s frame. While these interactions are superficially the same, there is a key difference. On my Mac, the window always resizes smoothly. On my Windows machines (Vista and 7 especially), the window’s content tends to lag behind the frame. For a split second there will be an empty black gap between the outside edge of the “document” and the inside edge of the frame, and then the document “jumps” over to fill the gap. Well, so what? Does this really matter? After all, on both platforms, I accomplished the same thing, didn’t I? I resized the window, giving me a larger area in which to work on my document. So what if it looks a bit less clean on Windows?

That wily window frame has some other quirks too. Sometimes, when application is starting up on Windows, the window frame will appear before the content, giving you a split-second view “through” the window at the desktop behind it (imagine holding up an empty picture frame and looking through it at the room behind). Then, the window content appears and the whole thing is properly opaque. This never happens on the Mac.

These may be small things that you barely notice consciously, but I think the small details are really important. On the Mac, the window content (the “document”) and the window frame are a cohesive unit. A window is a solid thing, it contains a document, and it behaves in a reliable way. On Windows, you get these constant reminders that all is really an illusion. Every time the window shears apart, the metaphor is broken, and your brain has to work a little harder to paper over the little gap between the metaphor and the reality. The Mac’s interface doesn’t tax you in this way. I think that’s why I breath a little sigh of relief when I switch back to working on the Mac: I know I can just relax and get on with what I’m doing.

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