updatey thing

Tuesday, 27 October 2009 11:14 pm
The last week has seen me:

* startle Neil Stephenson [1]
* have an annoying contact lens incident [2]
* apply the necessary teachable-moment to a kid outside my workplace who was messing around with my bike when I left the office
* meet Stewart Brand
* watch a superconducting toy train, a sort-of real quantum computer and a really pretty 3-d movie which was narrated by Stephen Hawking [3]
* document the activities of the zombies at City Hall. Well, the zombies attracted to City Hall by a certain video. This was surprisingly fun.
* play with a working reprap, a supposedly self-replicating machine. [4]
* be part of creating and solving various problems; technical, social; problems of planning and problems of execution. Be pleased with some outcomes. Be exhausted at work, but not too exhausted.
* see [livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball off on his trip to Japan. Missing him a lot.
* not get enough sleep. Not get the rounds of bugs that are sweeping my workplace. Now if I can just get my flu shots before I have any flu symptoms, I'll be even happier.
* feel simultaneously lonely and not like talking to people. Sometimes I wish I were wired to be more social.
* spending quality time with Rover.

[1] I saw Neil Stephenson speak twice last week; afterwards, I thanked him for providing fun role-models for geeky people everywhere. I offered that I was occasionally inspired by Sangemon, the "hero" of Zodiac, whose style of bicycling in Boston traffic was over-the-top assertive. Neil looked a bit nervous at this- "I hope you do that safely." I laughed. Anyway, he was very polite.

[2] on second thought, I won't describe it. Not fun. [5]

[3] The toy train zoomed around a magnetic track. The "train" contained a super-chilled magnet and it was propelled by a shove from the demo-guy. The "quantum computer" was very poorly explained by a volunteer docent but it had an oscilloscope readout with a squiggle. And a plexiglass and metal assembly. Sorry, but that's all I got. I found my favourite part of the video, animated by NCSA - flying from the western spiral arm to the center of our galaxy. This was the most effective use of 3D I've yet seen.

[4] This evening I went off to the local nascent "hack lab" (clubhouse for tinkerers, more or less). I brought my arduino and stepper-motor. But I spent a lot of the time there socializing, playing with other peoples' toys [6], and such. It's a cool space, and my life isn't compatible with spending much time there, but I'm glad to see it exists.

[5] but my optometrist's office is 5 minutes walk from my office; and they gave me a new lens to replace the one that was stuck in my eye. Oops, I wasn't going to describe it. Well there you go.

[6] the reprap was a surprise to see in person- by the end of the evening, it was working, and it did "print" a plastic part used to make itself. Re-reading reprap.org, I had forgotten they only produce 60% of their own parts- yes it's a toy, but it's a fairly cool toy.

I'm missing some stuff in this update, but that's what I get for not posting frequently enough.


Sunday, 7 September 2008 01:16 pm
Friday night we saw the movie Diabolique, which was one of Hitchcock's style-influences. It was an OK (but merely OK) suspense/horror story.

Which I bring up now because it ended with a spoiler warning. Something like, "Don't be diabolical! Keep the surprise ending from your friends who haven't seen it yet!" ...And fifty years later, I won't say more about the surprise, out of respect for that.

This week, I've also seen a two-part Doctor Who episode from the new Series 4, which involves the Doctor meeting another time-traveller- she knows him very well; he's just meeting her for the first time. The show handled the interpersonal dynamics quite well. She'd tell him something impossible, he'd ask her incredulous questions, and she said, "Sorry, spoiler." The look on his face...

I like the dance in this show, between the Doctor being omniscient yet not- compared to men, he's like a god; but his omniscience usually turns out to be experience over his amazingly long lifespan, being very clever, and having good instincts for how things ought to turn out.

And this makes a story. True omniscience and omnipotence only make good stories in short doses (or maybe as acquired tastes).

(Of course in Doctor Who, he also treads the line on omnipotence; I know some people find it overly deus ex machina, but there seem to be a lot of things in science fiction that I'm willing to suspend disbelief for when it otherwise feels like a good story...)

I was recently thinking about these: would I be happier to know how something will turn out, with 100% certainty? How about probabilities? It seems to me that's the difference between a spoiler and a coming-attraction; it's all in the mystery.

And if I may get a bit theological in my journal; if there's a word for what God means to me, it might just be that: mystery.

So: bring on all the predictions through any human filter you like. But if we get to the time where we've got scientific instruments that can map a person's life with 100% certainty, or if I were to suddenly discover I believe in a God who doesn't respect free will... I expect then I'll have problems.

Last night's dream

Wednesday, 6 August 2008 10:04 am
I found myself wandering The Prospect of Whitby, the co-op house I lived in at Cornell. The house president was missing, which felt fairly ominous. I walked up the stairs, admiring the brand new 4th and 5th floors (which somehow hadn't changed the exterior profile of the house). There was lots of open space and I marveled at how much larger it looked from the inside.

I wandered into this guy's room, which was very tastefully painted in light shades, with a big glass table and a panorama mac monitor. We started chatting about what Cornell classes were like these days, and how odd it was about the the house president. I admired a rather incongruous-looking full-size animal costume sitting on a chair. He said, "Oh, we've all got them now."

Then Doctor Who walked in. "There you are," he said. "Something's not right here." He was followed in by another Whitby, a woman wearing a mouse-suit, the head under her arm. She was distraught; she felt somehow responsible for the president's disappearance. The Doctor looked at the pair of them and cheerfully asked what was the story with the fur suits? The woman showed off how they were made, partly from big stuffed animals they decapitated and re-stitched. It started feeling a bit gruesome, how intently they were into the dismemberment of these stuffed animals.

I had a mental leap that left an awful feeling in my stomach- we were in great danger if she put on the head; these poor students were being symbiotically controlled. For murder.

And then I woke up.

It amuses me to no end that I can trace most of the elements of this dream. The decapitation bit is probably trying to make some sense of the BC Greyhound bus murder that's been in the news. The Whitby stuff is because I was connecting with old friends on facebook yesterday. The Doctor Who bit is- well, a very convenient plot framework to make everything fit together, because my dreams like to do that. ...The only part I'm not sure of is the homicidal fur suits.

This and That

Wednesday, 9 April 2008 07:03 pm
It's quite shocking to me that in something like 9 hours, [livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball and I will be in Italy. Yow.

In honour of sitting in an airport, for reasons that will become clear if you follow the link: this is one of the best science-fiction short stories I've ever read. If you like "Castle in the Sky", Epistemology, or steam-punk:

Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum

My favourite line from it, which is also the line that caused me to track down the story online (from [livejournal.com profile] eeyorerin's profile): "We are bodies. But we are also the stories we tell about each other."
Natural selection is so cool. The Dec. 24 issue of the Economist has a neat article about humans' shift from hunting to agriculture; how it was in a sense a desperation move as they hunted the big game to extinction. Such as the rhinoceroses in France. 30,000 years ago. That's... amazingly recent. When they ran out of rhinos, they went on to elk and bison. When they ran out of bison, agriculture seemed like a good idea. OK, I'm bastardizing the story a bit, but it makes a fun story that way. I'd link to the article, but the Economist didn't put it on their website.

On Thursday, [livejournal.com profile] the_infamous_j showed me Gankutsuou. It's a sci-fi anime in 24 episodes retelling The Count of Monte Christo. After watching two episodes and reading up in Wikipedia, I want to read the (English translation of the) original. I may come back and watch the anime- it's got a different perspective, starting the story with the young aristocrat Albert and his friend Franz, piecing together the Count's story in flashback in a much less sympathetic fashion. Other interesting bits I learned from yon wonderful time-sucker wikipedia: two other stories whose plots were heavily borrowed from CoMC: Sweeney Todd (which I know some of you liked) and Stars My Destination (by one of my favourite old sci-fi authors, Alfred Bester).

Thirdly, from [livejournal.com profile] epi_lj: The Complete New Yorker on DVD has dropped in price from $100 to $39.99. That's cool enough- $40 is a very fair price- but if you order with coupon-code 'WINTER25' it's $29.99. Wow. I'm going to buy a copy for my parents; perhaps then they will throw out the great big stacks of the magazines in their house?... Yeah, it's unlikely, but I suppose I can hope. ;)

And now maybe my brain will quiet down a bit and let me get to sleep; though I won't complain, because the evening was pretty great. Not the least of which: for dinner d. made duck burritos and lemon bars. Yum!
It's a white whale in the sky! Where's the petunia?

60 rooms, cruising speed of 280km/h, 3-day circumnavigation of the Earth.

I'm not holding my breath, but I do really want to see this.
I read PKD's original book of Scanner Darkly last year, and on the basis of that, decided to skip the movie.

When I was visiting my folks, my brothers brought along the movie, and I let myself get sucked into watching.
The movie's much better, I think. You can argue whether "Bladerunner" is better than "Do Androids Dream" but I see no real comparison here. PKD's novel had distracting 60s slang and the drug/police cultures felt unrealistic and flat. All of these seem fixed by translating to rotoscope animation and limiting to 100 minutes. The visuals work better than the descriptions. Even though the scramble-suit is a bit silly.
A bit over a month ago, I saw Paprika, and its plot reminded me of one of the novels that turned me on to Greg Bear- Queen of Angels, a police thriller set in 2048 where an illegal device can read the "Geography of the Mind"- a remapping of one person's brain so it will make sense to others. I remember I had been really impressed by this book, when I read it in high school. Well, it seems my tastes change. It seemed so overdone when I re-read it last month. The poetry conceits were just conceits, the characterizations felt 2-d, and I couldn't finish it.

Contrast with Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, which I finished last night. First published in serial form in 1952 (and the very first Hugo Award winner), it has lent elements to science fiction from PK Dick to everything cyberpunk- it's set in 24th century New York City, where portions of the city are ruined by atomic blasts, some humans have developed ESP, and the mega-rich amuse themselves with vaguely magical-appearing extravagances.

The plot has surface-level similarities with Queen of Angels- it's a police whodunnit in a society which hasn't experienced murder in ages- in this case, because the "ESPers" keep track on the normals. The richest man in the world has decided he must kill his major rival, and we watch the esper police agent who tries to track him down.

The first third of the book was highly amusing, with sly in-jokes about 1950s-era New York and really funny slang that seems to be based on a prediction of the 60s. The middle third felt mechanically clunky to me, with the inevitable interplanetary chases. The last third made me grin quite a bit, partly with the awfully anachronistic computer with punch-tape, partly because the esper conceits (written in the style of visual poetry on the page) somehow felt new again after the dry middle part, and partly with plot developments.

This review might be a work in progress, but here are my first thoughts. I'm usually turned off by detective potboilers but I do like Bester's style. And it was fun to try and play "spot the future influences on my favourite science fiction."


Wednesday, 26 September 2007 12:16 pm
On my lunch hour, I:

- made a physio appointment in the student centre 100m from my office. For this afternoon. This seems speedy, considering that I made a doctor's appointment less than 48 hours ago, and saw the doc yesterday. What's the catch? :)
- got sushi
- didn't buy a tasty-looking pint of local strawberries from the campus farmer's market because the line was waaaay too long.
- discovered I should've read the Bulletin earlier this week, as William Gibson had a reading here last night. *shrug*
- filled my prescription for a Salbutamol inhaler
- learned that my staff health insurance is confusing to a pharmacist who hears "staff" and processes as "new student." So I have paperworks for to submit now please to Manitoba.

...I'd say it was a grueling hour, but that would be a lie because it was under one roof and actually quite speedy.

a little sci-fi

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 11:23 am
For anyone who appreciates sci-fi and has 30 seconds to spare: Understanding Grandpa.
Via [livejournal.com profile] boutell.

For [livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball: Things I Don't Believe In.


Tuesday, 30 January 2007 10:00 pm
I really like the word artifice. Not only the word, but qualities behind it- cleverness, craftiness, subtle deception. My fascination with Almodóvar is at least in part a fascination with his statements on artifice.

I think I first decided this while reading Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling, some years back. This book shows the next 75 years' science being adopted by mass culture, such as mass-market "tincture sets" to make home-brew concoctions that are partly food, partly drug, partly art. Life is mostly recreational, in this world which has solved the problems of disease and overpopulation. But the cost is an elderly majority who have dispossessed the young. The main characters are a roving collective of young people, devoted to creating artifice and art, instead of subscribing to the mass-media-consumption culture. It's partly about hacking culture, one of those topics Bruce Sterling treats pretty well. It's also about taking what one needs, when society is unwilling to share.

To be honest, the book didn't come anywhere near "changing my life"; but it pointed me at a particular quality of the arts, and possibly of culture, that makes me happy. It's really hard to describe (and I've been sitting on writing this entry for... quite some time).

So, what does artifice mean to me? It's not "art," which is broader but includes much of what I mean. It's not lying, specifically; but it's telling truth through lies. It's the cleverest storytelling. It's "cool"'s egghead next-door neighbour. All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. It's Almodóvar for certain. It's The Yes Men. And it's a pile of other things, which may or may not be important.

What say you?


I just came from the public library and a seminar by science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer. He spoke on "Approaching Science Fiction from the Top Down." While I'm not a fiction writer, I'm interested in how the creative process works, and this was a great hour-and-a-half glimpse. Afterward, taking the bus home from downtown, I had the following thoughts.

1) There is a great distance between aspiring to do something (...when one has time, or necessary experience, or oomph) and being in love with the idea of doing something (grand, exciting, interesting). And using the same reasons to not do it now, as for if I wanted to do the thing, itself. Why do they feel so similar to me? And is this a common experience to everyone?

2) Our local downtown bus terminal has: a usual location for each bus; a renovations location for some busses while the terminal is under construction; and... today, at least, a third (unannounced) spot where i actually found my bus, which I only noticed through scanning all of the busses around, when the bus was clearly late arriving. Even though I was pissed as hell as I ran to catch it, I was quite polite to the driver, asking how long it was going to be in this new location, instead of the renovation location. She said, "I've got no idea, I'm not involved with the renovations."

On that note, should I read "Who Moved my Cheese?"

3) Does it make any sense at all to talk about forgiving an institution? I can forgive individuals, especially for making mistakes. But if an institution has institutionalized a mistake, that's more of a problem for me for "letting go". Sure, I can forgive whomever is in charge; or the person who was the blunt end of the customer-service chain that happened to thwack me.

But the institution as a whole isn't endowed with any sort of common spirit with me; it doesn't have a conscience to appeal to, apart from that of each person who works there. I don't believe in some anima/soul/gestalt that's greater than all the people who work for an institution, even though that would be convenient as an agent of forgiveness. I can imagine forgiving each and every person involved with the problem at the institution. But forgiving the institution itself, feels to me like forgiving- a snowstorm.

And yet, the institution is so much more culpable- it's human-made, sometimes it should be human-dismantled or reshaped. Not forgiven.
Short review. If you like gumshoe mysteries, sci-fi that doesn't bother to explain itself (beyond "this is from the far future") and Deus Ex Machina up the wazoo, you might like this.

You might think this is a negative review, but it's not, really. This was a fun, very quick read. Such as for an airplane. (That's what dan's dad did; when he finished it, he gave it to me.)

I got a few chapters in before I remembered I'd already started reading this, once. But this time I finished it.

I told you this was a short review.

(no subject)

Sunday, 3 September 2006 01:46 pm
da: (bit)
Browsing the LJ of a friend, I just came across a fascinating story:

Before Pinochet, Chile had a democratically elected socialist leader, Dr. Salvador Allende, from 1970-1973. Allende performed an amazing social experiment: he started a project to install an "electronic nervous system" to control Chile's economy. His goals were to provide a socialist technocratic solution to the problems of Soviet-style top-down socialism.

The design was by a British visionary named Stafford Beer, a consultant and researcher in Operations Research and Cybernetics. His design involved a self-learning system that used Bayesian inference to understand public opinion, predict factory outputs, and generally connect government, the public, and industry nation-wide.

And so it was built, with a telex machine on each of 500 factory floors across the country, in what The Guardian has called a "Socialist Internet." While it was operational from 71-73, it never was completed. The control room was partly a mock-up: reports from the computer were provided by telex and employees drew charts that looked like they belonged in Star Trek TNG. Amazing.

In 1972, general strikes (secretly supported by the CIA), were circumvented by the computer network re-routing shipping around strike areas. Score one for the Socialist Internet. When the government was overthrown in 1973, Pinochet had no use for it and the control room and network were destroyed.

The Guardian story is fascinating; I hope to look up Beer's books at some point as well.

Now, when I read the first two-line description of this adventure, I thought it sounded familiar. I figured it out: Stand on Zanzibar features a fictional African country (Beninia) which purchases a country-wide computing system to propel it from third-world to first-world status. I was totally convinced John Brunner stole the idea, until I realized the book was published in 1969, a year before the elections in Chile.

That's just weird.
I just read Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, to try and decide whether I want to see the movie.

It was an... OK (long) short story. It certainly met the weirdness quotient I look forward to in PKD, and the shifting perceptions of what's real. But it was a complete throwback to the 60s/70s, with hippie sensibilities and language, that really made it tough for me to believe it was set in the "future" 90s.

It's not half as good as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it's possibly as good as Minority Report as a short story.

But both of those, I think, were enhanced by becoming movies.

From the preview clip, the film Scanner Darkly looks like Waking Life but instead of lucid dreams, psychodelic drugs and a mystery involving split personalities. I believe the only sci-fi aspects are: the drugs, the feds' "scramble suit" and their holographic detection devices. Meh.

I liked Minority Report. I love Blade Runner. I didn't like Total Recall. I never saw Screamers, Paycheck or Imposter (any recommendations there?) At present, I don't plan to see Scanner Darkly.

Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto

Thursday, 25 May 2006 05:16 pm
Imagine writing software that, say, needs to be able to identify whether a photo has Elvis Presley in it. Or whether the voice in a sound-clip is angry. Or does text recognition on scrawled handwriting. Amazon has released an API to make this possible via a web-service. So, your program calls this API (using whatever inputs you want, such as a question, or a picture) and it returns a value answer within some specified time period.

Cleverly, they named it "Mechanical Turk". It does precisely the same thing as the old-time pre-robotic chess-player, which was a fake, done with a small person hidden inside the console. When I came across this, I was convinced it was a practical joke. Like Google's pigeon-ranking algorithm from 1 April 2002. But no, this seems to be legit. People post a bounty (seems typically a penny) for others to claim by performing a "Human Intelligence Task" (as opposed to an artificial intelligence task). The requester can require particular qualifications, and they have the right to refuse bad answers.

Right now most of the questions are surveys paying a penny, though there are some transcription tasks that pay approximately $10/hr. This has fairly exciting (but scary) possibilities for outsourcing work across the globe. On the one hand, it literally puts people into an inhuman job, doing work for computers. At the same time, people have done menial jobs forever; and companies have been doing similar outsourcing over the internet for a while. This just brings it down to smaller companies, or anybody with a bit of cash and a computer program.

This development doesn't surprise me much; my ex-business-partner and I wrote a similar service in 1996, which we gave up on because we didn't have the means to make it big enough to matter. But at the same time, even though it's an obvious development, it creeps me out a bit that a big company is actually doing it.

It's also funny to me that this could directly be used to countervent "are you a human" tests.

Review: Donnie Darko

Wednesday, 29 March 2006 11:54 pm
Working my way through my movie to-watch list: I learned about Donnie Darko when I asked imdb for favourite cult films. The title totally didn't ring a bell for me. If it doesn't for you either, that's probably because its North American release date was October 2001, and it involves airplane parts crashing into a building. It had a poor theatre opening here.

However, it apparently played really strongly in the UK, and 2002 saw artist nutbars going around stenciling scary rabbit silhouettes all over the place.

I'm not going to summarize the plot. It involves time-travel, psychosis, destiny, teen love (with a slightly younger Jake Gyllenhaal), 80s music, skewering inspirational speakers (Patrick Swayze!), and, it must be said, a very Lolita-esque school band. Reading the wikipedia and imdb pages helped a bit after I saw it the first time; the amount of fan-exegesis of this movie is... well, it is what the Internet does best.

I liked it enough to watch a second time to tie up the loose ends (and replay some wonderful bits of dialogue. Favourite: "I heard they found feces all over the school." "What are feces?" "Baby mice." "Awwwwww.")

I like the overall magical-realism feel, as well as the dark humour, and I like the ending-credits song ('Mad World', a somewhat dark song written by Tears for Fears). The story is... clever. And occasionally maddeningly opaque.

[Edit: I saw the Director's Cut, which is supposed to be the better version.]


Sunday, 26 February 2006 12:43 pm
This spam threw me for a loop.

Date: Sun, 26 Feb 2006 09:38:10 -0600
From: Felecia Crenshaw <something@hominy.k12.ok.us>
To: <me>
Subject: Maybe?

"Just before he died he left me his tusks in his will, written right
down here, see? These are real vat-grown tusks and cost a lot. Can they
be transplanted?"

[standard porn talk]

I wasn't sure where I saw it, but that text looked familiar.

Can anybody identify the science-fiction novel that came from? ...a prize to the first who IDs it without a web search (like I did). Comments screened.

...Now I need to see if I still have the novel squirreled away somewhere. It's been a while.

If you're thinking of googling it, be warned that the text has apparently gotten into the porn-site ouvre and the first half-dozen matches are sorta nasty.

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