ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

Musings


Books and Musings24 Oct 2009

The prevailing story on the Balloon Boy episode is that it was a stunt designed to attract attention to the boy’s family and help them secure a reality television show about themselves. I don’t have an opinion on whether the it was a hoax or whether Falcon’s parents really believed him to be aloft in their homemade weather balloon. However, if it is true that the family wants to bring the dead eye of a reality TV camera into their lives, well, I must question their judgement.

Actually, I’ll let Anton Chekhov question their judgement, since he does such a good job. Follow this link to read his short story “Joy”.

It laughed out loud the other day when I read this for the first time. It completely sums up my thoughts on our culture of celebrity-for-any-reason, and it was written in 1883. We ought to have learned our lesson by now.

Musings10 Oct 2009

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and the grocery store was very busy today. As we went about our shopping, we kept hearing, on the P/A, variations of “Mr. Smiley, telephone, line 1 please.” This call was repeated every few minutes the entire time we were in the store. My first thought was that Mr. Smiley ought to get himself a cellphone – it would make things much simpler for him, given that he gets a lot of calls and is never near a landline.

Then I started to notice that it was always different people asking for Mr. Smiley, which seemed a bit odd. Perhaps “Mr. Smiley” doesn’t even exist, and by calling him to the telephone, various store employees were instead sending some kind of coded message. “Shoplifter in aisle three”?

Then I started to worry about myself for inventing grocery store secret codes and conspiracies. Still, the whole thing was a little strange. Perhaps I’ll call them up one day and ask for Mr. Smiley, just to see what happens.

Books and Musings06 Sep 2009

I just finished reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, and I recommend it highly. The book imagines that all humans vanish from this planet overnight (aliens, killer virus, the rapture, etc) and then investigates what would happen to the planet after we’ve gone. It makes for a good framework within which examine all the terrible things we’re doing to our little blue marble home and what it would take to clean up our mess.

To me, the scariest chapter is the one called “Polymers are Forever.”

“Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated,” says [research scientist] Tony Andrady […], “every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”

Most of it is in the ocean. The large pieces are clumped up in what is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the middle of the Pacific Ocean absolutely covered in garbage. Which is bad enough, but that’s only the big pieces. The really terrifying part is what happens to the small pieces. Plastic pieces don’t biodegrade, they just break down into smaller pieces of plastic.

The book quotes marine biologist Richard Thompson, who studies the accumulation of plastic in the world’s oceans. Thompson has discovered that most sea creatures happily eat “bite-sized” pieces of plastic, and then die if the pieces are too big to pass through their digestive systems. As the plastic bits get smaller, smaller animals start eating them and dying.

At what point would [plastic debris in the ocean] star to naturally break down—and when they did, would they release some fearful chemicals that would endanger organisms sometime far in the future?

Richard Thompson didn’t know. Nobody did, because plastics haven’t been around long enough for us to know how long they’ll last or what happens to them. His team had identified nine different kinds in the sea so far, varieties of acrylic, nylon, polyester, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride. All he knew was that soon everything alive would be eating them.

“When they get as small as powder, even the zooplankton will swallow them.”

We’re wildly irresponsible in our use of plastic. It’s one of the most indestructible materials we’ve invented, and we use it primarily to make disposable goods like packaging and grocery bags. It’s insane. As a species, we’re terrible at long-term thinking. We’re merrily destroying our home and poisoning ourselves, but it’s happening slowly enough that we can turn a blind eye to it in the name of short-term profit.

We ought to factor the costs of safe disposal (and by disposal I mean breaking down to base elements) of our materials into their cost. It’d drive the price of plastic through the roof and probably ruin the holy economy in the short term, but it might keep the plastic wrapper containing today’s breakfast from being part of breakfast tomorrow.

Musings and News and Photos and Travel27 Jul 2009

Roy “Doc” Halladay, the best pitcher the Toronto Bluejays ever had, is very probably going to be traded before the end of the week. I’d never seen him pitch except on TV, and, with a little bit of panic, realized that his Friday night start in Toronto might be my last chance. So I did what any die-hard Jays fan would do in my position: took the day off work and booked a flight. Shengrong said I was “feng feng dian dian de” for my impulsiveness, but gamely came along.

Halladay is incredible. Because he plays in Canada, and not say New York, he isn’t as widely known as he could be, and he seems to like it that way. Whenever he talks to the media he’s thoughtful and well-spoken, even a little shy. One the field, he’s incredibly intense. He rarely smiles or even looks up at the crowd. He glowers down at every batter like an ace pitcher should. Occasionally, steam comes out of his ears.

And what a pitcher he is: “dominant” is a word often used to describe him. He’s an incredible athlete: all of his pitches from the 94 mph fastball with deadly movement, to his pinpoint curveball, to his devastating 92 mph cut-fastball (Marino Rivera, the Yankee’s legendary closer, throws only cutters), to the sinker and the change-up, are “plus” pitches, meaning better than the average for the league. He has great command of all of them: he can throw any pitch for a strike on the corner of the plate when he wants to, and the hitters can never guess what might be coming next.

But there are many pitches with great “stuff”, as the pitch-arsenal is called. Great pitches alone don’t make a great pitcher, and his “stuff” is just the beginning of greatness of Roy Halladay. Some pitchers with wicked pitches try to strike everyone out. They spend five or six pitches per batter and are worn out after five or six innings. They’re happy when they manage to finish the seventh. Halladay can “pitch to contact”, he throws pitches that look appetizing enough for the batters to swing at, but they don’t connect solidly with the bat, and turn into easy outs. He saves the strikeout for when he really needs it, and thus saves his arm. He usually leads the league in innings pitched and throws more complete games in a season than most other teams. He once threw a 10-inning complete game and won it 1 to 0. Incredible.

And then there’s his work-ethic. Starting pitchers throw every 5th game, and Halladay is known to make the most of the time in between, both in terms of physical conditioning and in his analysis of the opposing hitters, learning their weaknesses, formulating a plan. I don’t know if Malcolm Gladwell mentioned Halladay in his book on how “genius” is often a product of a huge amount of work, but if he didn’t, he should have. When Halladay first arrived in the major leagues, he dazzled everyone by nearly throwing a no-hitter in his second big-league game. Then he ran intro difficulties and seemed to fizzle out. He was sent down all the way to A-ball and most people thought that was the last they’d hear of him; he’d be the baseball equivalent of a one-hit-wonder. But Doc worked is butt off in the minors, retooled the mechanics of how he throws the ball, and came back. He’s been to six all-star games, he’s thrown 44 complete games, he’s won the Cy Young award for best pitcher in the league.

But Roy Halladay, the arch-competitor, has never been to the post-season. He’s on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1993, and that’s not good enough for the Doc. He’s current contract ends after 2010, and he’s said that, while he’d prefer to win in Toronto, time is running out for him (he’s 32) and he might look to other teams where he’d have a better shot. Right now, his trade value is as high as it has ever been, and so the Jays, fearing that he’d leave in 2010 and they’d get nothing back, have put him on the market. It’s unclear whether the Jays will get the kind of deal they want for him, but there’s a very real chance he could be going.

Whether he’s traded or not, I’m glad I got to see him on Friday. If it was his last game in Toronto, it was in some ways a fitting conclusion to his Bluejays tenure. He was brilliant, throwing 9 innings, giving up only 2 runs (1 earned) (giving up fewer than 4 earned runs in 9 innings is considered “good”), allowing only 4 hits, walking only 3, and striking out 10. The crowd, although not as big as it ought to have been for Doc’s final game, was certainly aware of what they might be about to lose. They gave him a standing ovation when he walked off the field after his warmup, they gave him a standing ovation after almost every inning, they stood and cheered whenever he got two strikes on a batter.

But for all of Doc’s superman effort, his team couldn’t get him the win. His opposing starter, Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza, kept right up with him, allowing only two runs to the Jays and baffling their hitters over nine innings. In the tenth inning, the Jay’s bullpen coughed up two more runs, and then the Jay’s hitters went quietly. As much as he tries to carry the team, Halladay couldn’t carry them enough to win the game.

Games and Musings17 Mar 2009

I believe I have made my feelings on chainmail underwear and other ludicrous video-game garb clear. Suffice to say, I’m not a fan. So I was quite pleased to find this a little while ago while researching a Secret Project(tm) that I may or may not be cooking up in my spare time lately.

It’s the box art from The Bard’s Tale, a computer RPG from 1985, and here are some adventurers that nobody wants to see in their skivvies. These blokes look like they can get the quest and the drinking done, and both without any nonsense. I’d trust them to liberate the town of Skara Brae from the clutches of the evil wizard Mangar long before I’d turn to a barbie doll in a titanium bathing suit. Gaming needs more heroes who don’t wear high heels. My only complaint is there don’t seem to be any women in sensible shoes among the lads here. Oh well, can’t have everything.

Bonus content: here’s an old magazine ad from the era when the graphics were mostly schematic and they actually had to tell you about their game.

Music and Musings19 Jan 2009

I feel like it has been a very long time in coming. Today is Bush’s last full day in office. I can’t say I’ll miss him a whole lot.

Here’s some appropriate exit music for “the decider”: the Two Gallants playing their tribute, “Waves of Grain”.

…such an infamous freedom / such a militant peace…

Links and Musings15 Jan 2009

I’ve been listening to “Ocean Mind”, a two-part “Ideas” documentary from CBC, which you can find here. It’s about whales and dolphins, the “branniest” animals on the planet, and how living in the ocean shapes their consciousness, their minds, and their culture. Yes, even culture. Whales and dolphins are communal, and one community differs in its conduct from the next. Killer whales execute complicated and coordinated hunting plans that must go beyond pure instinct. They teach their calves how to beach themselves safely and wriggle back to the ocean. The interact in ways we can’t understand.

Two things in particular struck me. Whales and dolphins have sophisticated echolocation capabilities, this much everyone knows. Some of the researchers interviewed in the documentary speculate on just how sophisticated these capabilities might be. Whales can of course hear each other’s echolocation clicks, and might even be able to interpret the information contained in them. A whole group of echolocating whales becomes one interconnected sensory system. Whales can perhaps literally share perception in a way that people can’t.

And if that isn’t mind-boggling enough, how about this: the sonar signals whales use to scan the water pass through solid as well as liquids. Whales can very likely “see” inside one another’s bodies, like a doctor can see into a patient with an ultrasound. The researchers speculate that it is easy for whales to perceive whether one of their fellows is excited, or wounded, or pregnant, and who knows what else. It occurs to me that the reason we have never cracked the code of whale and dolphin communication is that it likely operates on these kinds of nuanced perceptual levels of which we have no experience.

For the whales, all of this adds up to a very strong sense of community. As one researcher points out, the reason we humans have been so successful at hunting whales is that if you can catch one, you can probably catch a whole pod. Whales won’t leave one of their group who is in distress.

Musings03 Dec 2008

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has lost the confidence of the house of commons, or so says the opposition. He addressed the country tonight, which is an unusual step for Prime Ministers not fighting an election (although, depending on how things shake out over the next while, it’s possible that he will be fighting one very soon), as did the leaders of the opposition. I have a few thoughts.

(In case you’re not from the little country called Canada and don’t know what the deuce I’m talking about, here’s a good primer.)

Harper is making three assertions about this mess (I refuse to use the term “crisis”, because crisis implies a breakdown of the system, and the system is working exactly as it is supposed to) that I find problematic. First, he pretends his present troubles are not of his own making. He has provoked the opposition parties time and time again, forcing them to sit on their hands instead of voting against confidence motions for the entire life of his government. With the recent economic update, Harper pushed the opposition just a little too hard, and they decided to push back. Harper has had a minority government for two years and has tried to run it like a majority. Sooner or later that strategy had to break down, and he shouldn’t be so surprised.

Second, he tries to paint the proposed coalition between the Liberals and NDP with the backing of the BQ as being somehow “undemocratic”, which is at the very least, disingenuous. There is nothing unconstitutional about the actions of the opposition parties – their job is to “hold the government to account”, and sometimes that means voting against them. For better or worse, under our system, we don’t vote for a government, we vote to decide who goes to parliament, and parliament decides who governs. If the majority of parliament wants to change that government, it is their prerogative to try. While it is true that, as Harper says, the coalition was never approved by the voters, neither was Harper’s own government. I didn’t vote for or against Stephen Harper as Prime Minister, I voted for my local representative. We often talk about voting for party leaders as convenient way of speaking, but that isn’t how the system works and you can’t blame the opposition for following the rules of the game. (Now, if we had proportional representation, things would be a bit different…)

Third, I’m tired of hearing about how “The Separatists” (cue the bogeyman music) have pulled off some kind of great sneak-attack on our country by signing up to back the coalition. If I understand it correctly, all the coalition has got from the Bloc is a promise not to bring down the house in the next two years. That’s good, right? We’ve got “The Separatists” playing along for once, instead of being contrarian. Like it or not, the Bloc are members of the house and a force in Canadian politics. I don’t agree with them either, but I don’t think demonizing them is doing Harper any favors, and I don’t like the scare-mongering.

Don’t think I’m giving the opposition a pass here: the Liberals and NDP are playing a very dangerous game. Dion lost the last election badly and is going to step down in a few months, and Layton can’t be riding a big high in popularity with his party either, after failing to increase the NDP seat count. This whole coalition deal smells a little like two has-been leaders trying to grab a little glory for themselves and improve their own positions – Dion gets to be Prime Minister, and Layton gets to be the man who brought the NDP into power for the first time. They run the risk of looking like they are playing political games in the middle of an economic downturn, and if we end up with a new election in the near future, the voters might punish them badly (or just not show up to vote), finally giving Harper the majority government he’s long desired. If that happened, Dion and Layton would look like idiots, and Harper would once again look like the brilliant tactician he’s made out to be.

Tomorrow morning, the Prime Minister will go to the Governor General and ask her to suspend Parliment until next month, delaying the coalition’s opportunity to topple his government. No one knows what she will do. Who says Canadian politics are boring?

Games and Musings26 Nov 2008

Video games are full of improbably-shaped women wearing even more improbable clothing. I am far from the first to remark on this.

There are lots of reasons to object to this (sexist/idiotic/insulting/not-all-gamers-are-14-year-old-boys, etc.), and a few weak arguments to trot out in defense (it’s just fantasy/people like to look at someone attractive), and I think most gamers largely ignore it.

One of my pet theories about games-as-media is that games can excel in the creation of worlds. Compared to books and movies, games are handicapped when it comes to storytelling (though there’s much ink spilled over the possibility of “emergent stories” in games – I’ll save that topic for another time) and, to a lesser extent, when it comes to character (though I think there is fertile ground to be farmed by games here too), but games have setting pretty much sewn up. In no other media can you inhabit a world like you can in a game. You can’t walk around inside a movie or a book, but for games, plunking you in a world and letting you explore it is just a basic fact. Games have an amazing opportunity to transport the player to fantastic places and let them “live” there. Unfortunately, when you arrive in some new fantastical digital land, the first thing you usually notice is most of the female inhabitants are wearing chain-mail briefs.

Now, you might say, “But Scrim – living in a fantastical land full of pneumatic women attired in chain links and dental floss sounds like a really really good idea! Sign me up!”. Well, fine. But, as Peter Cook discovered, you can put as many naked ladies in story about coal mining as you want, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a good story.

To an example: I have been playing Heroes of Might and Magic V, a fantasy strategy game. Like most such games, it seeks to create a sweeping, Tolkienesque setting full of melodramatic elves and scheming demons. It does a reasonably good job, most of the time (though not nearly as well as some other games have), but then you run into something like this:

As an aspiring dark-elf warlord, I can fill my armies with such recruits as the “Blood Maiden”, a sword-wielding woman warrior. I think, as a player, the reaction I’m supposed to have when confronted with a cadre of Blood Maidens is “Oh good, boobies!”, but instead I start thinking about what kind of person dresses up in a burlesque outfit and high-heeled boots to go to war. What if we have to fight on rough ground and my poor Blood Maiden twists her ankle? What if we fight in the snow and she gets frostbite? What kind of general am I, not providing my troops with proper combat clothing? It’s as realistic as a coal mine full of exotic dancers, and it breaks the immersion. I’m no longer a dark elf general conquering a real country, but a gamer playing a fairly ridiculous game. The opportunity to draw me in to the setting evaporates.

I’m not asking for much. I don’t mind fantasy, just try to make it somewhat internally consistent and not too laughable. Keep the Blood Maiden and her sisters, but give her some proper kit so she looks like she’s actually a soldier. I don’t mind having attractive women in my game worlds; I’d just like to meet some who look like they might actually live there.

Links and Musings26 Oct 2008

From CNN.com: “Palin’s ‘going rogue,’ McCain aide says”.

Apparently there are complaints from within the McCain camp that Sarah Palin is trying to position herself for a 2012 run at the presidency. Unfortunately for McCain, this means she’s been going “off message”, promoting a “Palin/Joe the Plumber ‘12” ticket at the expense of “McCain/Palin ‘08”. I know she isn’t the first VP candidate to do this kind of thing, but given how much of a liability she’s turned out to be for the McCain campaign already, it’s surprising she’d actively try to compound things. I wonder if McCain is still happy with his choice of running mate…

There’s an article in the New Yorker called The Insiders: How John McCain came to pick Sarah Palin, and it lets the air out of the popular notion that McCain found an outsider-governor to pluck out of obscurity and place on the national stage. It seems Sarah Palin has been working on getting noticed by conservatives in Washington for some time. This puts her in a new light, but doesn’t change the fact that she’s not remotely qualified for the presidency. I can’t imagine she’d manage to win the nomination in 2012, and if she did, I can’t imagine Obama wouldn’t wipe the floor with her in the general election, unless his first term ends up being a disaster. But the prospect of Mrs. Palin “sticking around” past this November if McCain loses is going to take some getting used to.

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