ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Links and Strange15 May 2010

The Daily Mail reports on the latest trend among young British drinkers: Vodka Eyeballing. As in, pouring vodka into your eye. Go click on the link and look at the ridiculous photos of people with bottles stuck in their eyes. This seems to fantastical to be real.

Apparently, vodka-in-the-eye gets you drunk quickly, which I suppose I’d buy, given that there are lots of little blood vessels in your eye to absorb the alcohol, and it is a but a short vascular hop from the eye to the brain, but really? People actually think this is a good idea? Mind boggling. Also, apparently, damaging to the eyes.

Rest assured, I’m not in the habit of reading the Daily Mail. I only found this after following a link from a google image search for hedges trimmed to look like animals. Which I’m not really in the habit of looking up, either.

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?

Links01 May 2010

My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and enoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment

Albert Einstein, as reported on one of my favorite blogs these days, Letters of Note.

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.

Photos31 Mar 2010

This, the view from my window as the sun set yesterday.

Books21 Mar 2010

I have several complaints about Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: The book feels unfinished. The introduction is scattered and unconvincing. He often makes little asides that sound really interesting and then never follows them up. He doesn’t spend enough time exploring his many ideas. His solutions to the problems he discusses are often not convincing. And I could have done without the distraction of the too-clever section headings that appear every second page and feel like slogans rather than content.

But in spite of those complaints, I’m still recommending this book to everyone I meet. It expresses a number of ideas that I’ve felt implicitly, draws some incredible connections, and engenders a lot of worrying thoughts about the digital age we’re living in.

I tried to write a quick summary of Lanier’s argument, but the book isn’t really structured like an argument. Rather, it’s a web of interconnected and sometimes contradictory ideas. The best I can do in a sentence: Lanier thinks that our present technological and cultural milieu poses danger to individual identity and individual creativity. The book explores many forms of this danger, and considers some of the solutions. Some of the more interesting examples:

- That Web 2.0 sites like Facebook try to standardize the definition of fundamental human concepts like “person” and “friendship” in simplistic ways that are understandable to computers but miss much of the richness of reality. Because people are willing to dumb themselves down to fit into the boxes that the machine provides, we’re in danger of losing that extra richness completely. He uses MIDI, a music standard designed for digitizing pianos that has become the standard for digitizing all instruments, as his example of what happens when a poor representation becomes entrenched.

- That first order creation by individuals is not valued as much as aggregation and derivation by the anonymous crowd. He illustrates this by leveling some fresh criticisms at Wikipedia, that triumph of “crowd sourcing”. Most people who complain about Wikipedia worry about its accuracy. Lanier worries about Wikipedia’s tone, which is a kind of neutral journalistic style free of the imprint of any of its authors. He thinks wikipedia is in danger of claiming too much authority: it becomes the voice of the all-knowing crowd, rather than the creation of a bunch of real, individual people with whom one could meaningfully disagree. He draws an interesting parallel: “Like wikipedia, the Bible’s authorship was shared, largely anonymous, and cumulative, and the obscurity of the individual authors severed to create an oracle-like ambience of the document as “the literal word of God”.”

- That there is very little that is new coming out of online culture: “Even the most seemingly radical online enthusiasts seem to flock to retro references. The sort of “fresh, radical culture” you expect to see celebrated in the online world these days is a pretty mashup of preweb culture.

“Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over the garbage dump.”

If you don’t believe him, plug “Super Mario” into the search box at YouTube, and look at all the people making things about a game from the mid 1980s…

- And, most frighteningly, that there is no standard path to success for a creative person trying to make it online. In the old days, if you were a musician, you played concerts, got a record deal, and got your music on the radio. If you were a writer, you sold your book to a publisher. Large numbers of musicians and writers did these things and were able to make a living. Now, what do you do? There are people making a living from their online endeavors (he mentions Ze Frank and Jonathon Coulton), but Lanier thinks that their success is doesn’t represent a model to follow. They’re one-offs. There is no reproducible method. Once “old media” is dead, how will the creative people be able to keep creating?

The thing that makes his criticisms so hard to ignore is that he is not a Luddite. He’s a silicon valley nerd who believes that the internet ought to have lead to an explosion of new weird and vital forms of culture. He isn’t arguing against technology, but against the unconsidered attitude that the digital revolution will magically turn out alright, and against the way the technology is structured and used. Drawing an analogy to the printing press, he writes, that “People, not machines, made the Renaissance. The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult. What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.”

If you think all of this sounds interesting and true, you should read his book, because there is much more material where that came from. And if you think this sounds fishy and wrong, you should still read his book, because you can always benefit from someone challenging your premises, and the stakes are very high here.

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.

News15 Feb 2010

The elevator door closed. Then it popped open half an inch and made a crunching sound. Then nothing. There were six of us and a dog in the elevator, and we weren’t going anywhere. I’d never been trapped in an elevator before, and found that my reaction was to chuckle and roll my eyes. A couple of our fellow passengers became a bit panicky. At least the dog was calm.

Fortunately for us, there fire department was already on the scene. There had been half a dozen burly firemen standing in the lobby of our building when we’d stepped in to that elevator, and they quickly went to work on freeing us.

We had just spent ten minutes standing on the street with the fire alarm blaring, until those same firefighters had determined that the alarm had been triggered by “a malfunction in the garage sprinkler system” and let us back inside.

About 15 minutes before that elevator door gave up the ghost, I had just sat back down to our fancy Valentine’s Day dinner after fending off a telemarketer. I was just saying to myself, “that was our interruption for the evening,” when the fire alarm started to ring. Now, here we were, going nowhere at all in a small metal box, while our dinner rapidly cooled on the table, a dozen stories above our heads.

To the great credit of the Ottawa Fire Department, the firefighters managed to get the door unstuck after about five minutes of fiddling with it. We thanked them and took the stairs, laughing all the way back up to our apartment, and to our dinner.

Happy Valentine’s day, everyone.

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.

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