Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

Plinky linky another time sinky

Friday, January 16th, 2009

I’m trying out Plinky. It’s a site that asks an interesting or thought-provoking question each day. You then fill out the answer and share the answers with your friends. (And then buy stuff? Frankly the business model escapes me.)

The first question I answered was: Name three songs you’d put on a road trip mix tape. Here’s my answer.

Way too literal


[Red Hot Chili Peppers Album Cover art]

Road Trippin’
by
Red Hot Chili Peppers


[Rascal Flatts album cover art]

Life is a Highway
by
Rascal Flatts

(My son likes it because it was in Cars.)

[Willie Nelson cover art]

On the Road Again
by
Willie Nelson

Would a kitten by any other name taste so good?

Friday, January 16th, 2009

I found out about PETA’s new campaign to rebrand “fish” as “sea kittens” via an NPR story the other day. Their idea is that people might not eat fish if fish were called something cute like “sea kittens” instead.

I believe PETA does a great job of being intentionally outrageous in order to attract publicity. (Naked supermodels, modest proposals, screedy and divisive comics worthy of Jack Chick — the list goes on.)

Would people really change their eating behavior over just a name? Sweetbreads don’t seem to be very popular, despite their very appetizing name. But it’s true that I’d probably not chose to buy a brand of jam called “Nastyvomit’s Famous Rhubarb Preserves,” so maybe PETA is onto something.

As an experiment, I’ll be saying “sea kitten” instead of “fish” when I remember to. My suspicion is that no behavior will be changed. (Which reminds me, sometime I need to write about the Sapir Worf hypothesis.) The entire PETA campaign is very sea kitteny. But as they say: Give a man a sea kitten, and you’ve fed him for a day. Teach a man how to sea kitten, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.

Which leads to the question: What other animals need to be renamed along kitten lines? My friend Brian has already dubbed birds as “sky kittens” (as in, “those sky kittens downed that plane yesterday, so glad everyone got out of the Hudson alive”) and Rachel has started using the phrase “land kittens” to refer to regular, um, kittens.

I hereby declare:

  • “Cows” are now “land puppies”
  • “Pigs” are now “furless sty kittens”
  • “Chickens” are now “flightless sky kittens”

PETA needs to go the other way, too. In order to get people to eat more vegetarian food, it should sound appetizing. Therefore:

  • “Tofu” is now “soma”
  • “Soy burger” is now “yummy burgah”
  • “Tempeh” is now “bacon”

I am a subjectivist, except when I’m not

Monday, January 5th, 2009

I’m a subjectivist.  I believe the following: We only know the world through our imperfect senses and flawed brains, and our human categories and constructs and definitions are only approximations of reality, changing eternally and subject to endless debate, reinterpretation, misremembrance, bias and malfeasance.

However, for scientific or factual claims, I demand objectivity.  Isn’t that a contradiction?  No, and here’s why.

As far as human spheres go, I believe everything is subjective. If I have a bad experience with a cow as a kid, for example, that’s going to color my decision of whether or not to work on a dairy farm. When deciding if killing cows for hamburger is moral or not, my experiences shape my judgment.

When it comes to claims of fact, it’s entirely because our brains are such subjective messes that I demand an objective approach. The scientific method — of ruthlessly testing assumptions, using double-blind studies, bringing in as many observers as possible to try to decode — is necessary to try as much as possible to eliminate subjective biases. But when it comes to morality, that approach cannot work, because each individual human has so many diverse opinions about what is/isn’t moral and “right.” You can’t develop a double-blind test to “prove” whether or not cannibalism or gay marriage or euthanasia or abortion or adultery or anything else is moral or not. By definition, morality is a human concept.

One thing that humbles me when it comes to how little we understand about the world is the placebo effect. The human mind has immense powers over the bodies containing them, and in many cases, we can think ourselves well or unwell. So many quacks and charlatans in the world prey on that with their miracle diets or herbal remedies or snake oil. If you can convince someone that your $500 sugar pill is actually a super secret cure, and they part with their $500 and believe you fervently enough as they take it, for some percentage of the time, those people actually can get well (for a while, at least). A perfect example of why anecdotal evidence — subjective opinion — in no way substitutes for a rigorous, peer-reviewed, detailed study of an issue.

Remember that cold remedy Airborne? Our former nanny would swear by the stuff. It definitely had a placebo-like effect upon her. But it was basically overpriced vitamins and sugar, and I think the courts were right to rule in favor of the recent class action suit. She would have been better off taking regular vitamin C (which has been shown to have an effect on your vulnerability to cold/flu) and saving her money.

So it’s one thing to objectively show that Airborne is useless. It’s another thing to judge whether or not the people selling it were immoral. I don’t know if they knew it was junk or not, but I suspect the Airborne manufacturers thought it was a worthwhile product.

In the one case — is this product effective? — that’s a matter of objective, scientific debate. In the other case — are the makers of this product immoral to sell it? — that’s a matter of subjective opinion.

Natural vs. Unnatural

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Things that are “natural”:

  • oranges
  • cyanide
  • sunsets
  • tornadoes

Things that are “unnatural”:

  • Agent Orange
  • twinkies
  • symphonies
  • waterboarding

101 Things

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

Nicole’s blog introduced me to the “101 Things To Do In 1001 Days” project, which seems like a good motivational framework to get life goals accomplished.

Item 101 on Nicole’s list is “complete 95% of the list” which hurt my brain. But then, today, as I was contemplating doing a list of my own, I realized I could make it very simple.

  • 1. Create a list of 101 things to do.
  • 2. Do item #1 on this list.
  • 3. Do item #2 on this list.
  • n. Do item n-1 on this list (where n=4 to 100).
  • 101. Complete 95% of the list.

In other news: Done!

Spread this one around

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

In Mountain View, California early this morning, FBI raided an apartment complex after intercepting a page believed to refer to terrorist activity: “It goes down tonight.”

No arrests were made. After reviewing phone records, FBI announced it was a false alarm, as the page of concern was sent in response to a previous, more innocuous, message: “What night is trash night?”

The above isn’t a true story, but go ahead and tell it as if it is. I’ve always wanted to start an urban legend.

Are moral values subjective or objective?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Recast from this post.

I. The argument from Implied Practice:
1. If ethics are objective, then we should expect people to recognize which actions are “really” wrong intuitively.
2. But invariably, people find situations where they do not know if an action is right or wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are subjective and not objective.

II. The argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:
1. If morality were an objective matter, we would expect to find universal agreement on fundamental moral codes.
2. But there are disagreements concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is subjective rather than objective.

III. The argument from reformers:
1. If moral values were objective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there any given moral code would immediately be known to be imperfect when compared against the theoretical objective standard.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just according to a particular subjective point of view.
3. Therefore, moral values are subjective rather than objective.

IV. The argument from lack of clear cases
1. If moral values were objective, then there should exist clear cases of wrongness, where all people can say that an action is either true nor false that an action was wrong.
2. But even actions as reprehensible as the Holocaust are not universally condemned.
3. Therefore, moral values are subjective rather than objective.

V. The argument from human rights.
1. If moral values were objective, then there would exist inalienable human rights. (A right is a moral obligation on the part of someone not to do something to you. If I have the right to free speech, that means someone has the obligation not to forcibly shut me up.)
2. There are no inalienable human rights.
3. Therefore, moral values are subjective and not objective.

Now — is this more or less credible? All I did was take the original arguments and assert the opposite.

To me, it comes down to burden of proof. Whichever side has the burden of proof is sunk. If the burden of proof lies on objectivists to prove objectivity, they cannot meet the challenge because I have yet to hear an argument that is convincing, logical, and complete.

If on the other hand, moral relativists like me have the burden of proof to show that moral relativism is superior, I don’t think we can meet that challenge either.

It comes down to: People believe what they believe. I think it’s almost impossible to use Aristotlean logic (If A, Then B) when it comes to morality. There are far too many shades of grey.

The Web 2.0 dilemma: Public vs. personal personas

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

“Web 2.0,” if it means anything at all, is a term usually used to reflect the modern trend of interactive web sites that encourage users to create and share content. Blogs, wikis such as Wikipedia, forums, social networks, podcasts, comment streams, RSS feeds — all these approaches and technologies form the backbone of the web 2.0 universe. (The term also reflects the second decade of the web’s existence, and the transition of web users from dialup speeds to broadband speeds.)

Web 2.0 today is in a state similar to the state of the web in 1998. Back then, four years into its rapid growth period, the “World Wide Web” (as we still called it then) had proven itself to be much more than a passing fad, and the vast majority of major organizations had created a presence. URLs had become a common sight on billboards. While mainstream and popular, there were still many people who had not really used the web extensively.

Today, almost everyone has heard of blogs, and most have used one or more of the vanguard web 2.0 sites such as Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Twitter, etc. But even the most popular of these sites sign up only a small fraction of their visitors as users.

The central dilemma I see as a barrier to future growth is an adoption paradox: Coming up with incentives for users to create accounts and to start generating the content that in turn attracts more users to sign up. Peer pressure is an effective motivator, but many potential users don’t sign up because they don’t get what their role is, what the site is about, or how it would benefit them. In the meantime, they either avoid the site or lurk there.

(The lurker phenomenon is prevalent: A popular Flickr photo will have tens of thousands of views, but very few comments or links. A popular Twitter user’s page might be read by 100 times more people than actually sign up to follow that person. YouTube has hundreds of millions of viewers, millions of registered users, but less than a million users who have uploaded a video. For zeigen.com, according to my server logs, more than 5,000 unique visitors came to this site last month, and an unknown number more viewed the content via an RSS reader — but only 20 unique users left a comment.)

A user’s role at a web 2.0 site falls along a continuum between what I’ll call “public” versus “personal” personas.

Let’s take Flickr as an example. When you sign up for Flickr and begin publishing photographs, you’ll be doing one of these things:

  • Publishing artful or beautiful or technically proficient photographs intended to be appreciated by a general audience
  • Publishing photographs of a particular subject matter (such as, say, model airplanes) intended to be appreciated by fans of that subject matter (such as model airplane enthusiasts)
  • Publishing photos of your friends and family, intended to be appreciated by people who know you
  • Some combination of the above

YouTube follows the same pattern: Many users are uploading family videos, others are uploading things they find generally amusing or interesting, or a series of videos on a particular topics, or anywhere in between.

Similarly, blogs can be personal and intended for friends/family (journal sites), or public but general (such as a celebrity’s blog), or public and focused on a particular topic.

With some sites, such as Digg, the expectation is that there is no “personal” content — everything is for public consumption. You’d never promote stories about your family, only stories of interest to just about everyone.

Other sites, such as Facebook, are the opposite: Other than corporate or celebrity profiles, everything a user puts there is personal, about you, so almost no Facebook profiles are for artistic purposes. It’s all about your personal life.

Some Twitter users highlight the personal even to point of banality (“Ate lunch at sandwich place again. Had Turkey. Was good.”) while others spread breaking news, one-liners, observations, or punditry in an effort to attract more followers and support their public persona as a blogger or artist.

I’ve written about FriendFeed previously. and it continues to be the web 2.0 site I’m most interested in. The dilemma for me (and therefore I presume for most users) is where to draw the line.

For example: A friend posts a picture of their new haircut or has a status of “sad.” Because it’s a friend of mine, I want to compliment the haircut or ask them why they’re sad. Sometimes I just want to post what I had for lunch.

BUT — I have a few different types of followers on FriendFeed (co-workers, friends, business acquaintances, online contacts, random strangers). The people who subscribe to me who don’t know the person involved won’t want to follow that conversation. Sure, it’s fairly easy for them to skip it, but if my goal is to acquire more followers, I need to do so by keeping my persona public. So part of me becomes reluctant to post “personal” comments or links on FriendFeed, because the role I’ve so far taken on there is more public than personal. (I’m usually interested in starting conversations with a wide variety of interesting people about topics that I care about, and the items I share there are generally not about me.)

One prolific FriendFeed user, the notorious Robet Scoble, discussed creating a second account that’s more private, just for personal items — but that’s far from an ideal solution. Fragmenting yourself into different accounts is difficult to manage (especially when you start getting into the weeds of managing duplicate feeds, remembering to unsubscribe or subscribe to different people and join certain rooms on both of your accounts), and the UI of the site presumes that you only have a single account.

Yesterday FriendFeed launched a beta test of their new interface, and it’s a great improvement. In addition to improved aesthetics, there are a plethora of new features. The most important is the ability to categorize the people you follow into whatever labels you assign (Personal, Coworkers, Interesting, Noisy — whatever). Two of the default labels are “Personal” and “Professional,” which supports the observation I’m trying to make here.

However, I think FriendFeed has it almost backwards: It’s not so much that I want to categorize my friends based on how I know them (although I do want that) — much more, I want to categorize what I publish. Let me label the things I share as “Personal” or “Public” (and use even more tags if I want to assign them). That way the people who subscribe to me can decide if they want the full feed (complete with my lunch plans and haircut comments) or to automatically excise those parts they won’t care about.

For all web 2.0 sites, the first job is to clearly explain what the site is about, show how it benefits the prospective user, and ease new users up the learning curve. Once that’s done, helping users understand and manage their role along the public/personal continuum is essential to making the site sticky and successful. Tagging and categorization is the answer for that. Smart tools and good design will be needed to make this task intuitive and easy.

With Flickr, you can subscribe to a user’s entire photostream, or just to an individual series (as tagged by the user). The next step for many other web 2.0 sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and most of all FriendFeed, is to catch up to that concept.

What top soccer players tell us about astrology

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Nearly every newspaper carries a horoscope column. Almost everyone knows what “sign” they are. Most people do not take astrology too seriously, reading their horoscope for amusement if they read it at all. However, some people take pains to study the characteristics of the different signs and make assessments of people based on what sign they are, and attempt to model behavior or predict the future based on astrology. Others pay significant money to astrologers for a personalized chart. A 2003 Harris poll found 31% of U.S. adults stated they believed in astrology.

A simple question to ask someone who believes in astrology is why it works. What method do the planets or stars have of influencing one’s behavior, personality and future? It’s certainly not gravity, since the doctor who delivered you had a larger gravitational effect on you than Pluto did. (Assuming the doctor weighs 5kg and was 5 centimeters away from you; Pluto weighs 7.15×109kg and was at least 2.76×1014 centimeters away. Plus it’s not even considered a planet anymore.)

The good thing about astrological claims is that they’re testable. If someone says that Aries are supposed to be fearless and impulsive, one can design a survey and then check if those who answer the survey about impulsiveness who are Aries answer the questions differently. There’s a fair bit of research into the claims of astrology, and the most significant debate centers around the so-called Mars Effect, which claims those born during times Mars is ascending are more likely to excel at sports.

A fair amount of research seems to confirm that birth month has a significant correlation with excellence in sports.

Victory for astrology? Not so fast.

In the last few years, research into “relative age” has shown interesting results. Let’s start with soccer. Each soccer club and soccer camp has an age requirement. Imagine, for example, a summer soccer camp that requires the campers to be nine years old when the camp starts in June. So a kid born in May nine years ago will barely be able to make it in, while a kid born in September nine years ago will have to wait a year. It turns out that the “older” nine year olds tend to do much better in camp. Since they’re older, they’re generally more coordinated and can run faster and longer — which makes them tend to be picked first, which gives them more self-confidence. That early experience often seems to carry through the rest of their soccer career. This chart, for example, from a University of Alberta study, shows how world cup youth soccer players born in the first three months after the eligibility cut-off blow away those born in the other nine months.

I have little doubt that relative age affects a lot more than just sports. Parents tend to want to push to have their children moved up a grade, but it may be the exact opposite approach (thus having your child be among the oldest in the class) will have profound benefits that affect your child throughout his or her life.

I certainly believe astrology is junk. But I also believe we should pay attention to the research showing that the month of a child’s birth is actually quite important.

A flowchart showing knowledge gained from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”

Friday, June 27th, 2008

[A flowchart showing knowledge gained from Kenny Roger's 'The Gambler']

(Click to enlarge)

1 in 10

Friday, June 20th, 2008

If you meet someone on the street, about one out of ten times, that person will be:

  • left-handed
  • single
  • gay
  • African-American
  • retired
  • Hispanic/Latino
  • foreign-born
  • a single parent
  • poor

or

  • non-religious

Of course, many people you meet will be more than one of those things. Some people you meet will be none of those things.

My score is 3 (left-handed, foreign-born, and non-religious). What’s yours?

(Sources: left-handed source, gay source, single/single parent source, religion source, all other facts source. I rounded some of these statistics ranging between 9% and 14% to be 10%. Some of these figures, especially the homosexual data, are in dispute.)

Variegated miscellany

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

Today I attended Jack and Andy’s fifth birthday party at Hoover park, and watched Bob get pelted by water balloons and shaving-cream-filled sponges by ten ecstatic kids. (How I escaped that fate, given I’m a co-godparent? Dunno! But I am oh so grateful.) Aunt Beth made two cakes, one a race car, and the other a chocolate volcano with lava made from melted orange lifesavers. Amazingly beautiful cakes.

* * *

While I was feting twins, Kimi took Sammy and Sophie to the Hiller Airplane Museum, which never gets old for Sammy.

Me: Sammy, what did you see at the airplane museum today?
Sammy: Airplanes.
Me: What kind of airplanes?
Sammy: Old airplanes. With wings!

* * *

Yesterday was Sophie’s eight month birthday. She babbles incessantly now, has the tiniest of teeth buds coming in, gives a smile to everyone, likes to wave somewhat erratically at people, and can roll over, but seems to show no interest in crawling. We’ve started the ferberizing to break her of her 3 a.m. feedings, and so far so good; she slept through the night for the last two nights.

* * *

Yesterday was also photo day at Sammy and Sophie’s school, and in addition, teachers’ lunch out for Sophie’s class. This semi-annual event asks the parents to donate their time and a little money for the teachers to get an escape, while parents come in during the lunch hour to watch the kids. There are eight kids in Sophie’s class, ranging from four months to almost a year old. For the noon to 1 shift where I helped out, we had five parents. When we first started our shift, the teachers had left us well-fed, happy, clean-diapered kids. Within about, oh, ten minutes, half of the kids were bawling, and most had dirty diapers. We parents just looked at each other and laughed. What a profoundly difficult job. The two teachers handle four infants each, with aplomb. We parents were having difficulty with less than two each. Things soon settled down though, and the hour ended up flying by.

* * *

While the photographers set up outside the school and we lined the kids up to have their individual and class photos taken, smoke and haze filled the sky from the nearby Santa Cruz mountains fire. Yesterday morning over 3,400 acres had burned, dozens of homes were destroyed, and the fire was less than 1% contained. Even though we were fifty miles away, kids rubbed their eyes and coughed; and the strange air reminded me of a smell from my childhood, in London: walking down the street in winter evenings, with seemingly every house having a fireplace with a blazing wood fire, smoke pouring out of chimneys, getting on your clothes.

Chim chimminee, chim chiminee, chim chim cheroo.

I was very glad to see the unexpected and unseasonable light rain today, giving the firefighters the break they needed to control the mountain blaze. The dull weather was not so much fun for five-year-olds attending a birthday party, but everything in life is a trade-off.

* * *

Earlier in the week, I caught Speed Racer and then snuck in to a showing of Prince Caspian. It took me about thirty minutes to catch on to Speed Racer’s vibe, but once I did, I loved it. I think this is a vastly underrated movie. The critical smackdown is somewhat intense; I guess most of the critics never watched the original cartoon, because I think the movie catches the goofy tone of the movie pretty much perfectly. And the visuals do not disappoint, exceeding even the hype.

Prince Caspian, on the other hand, is a dreadful bore, missing all spark of charm and whimsy of the first Narnia movie, laying the religious theme on over-thick, and really missing the point of the book (which I read probably twenty times before I was 12).

Speed Racer is over two hours but feels like 60 minutes. Prince Caspian is over two hours but feels like three or four.

* * *

Rob and I have been playing a new card game, Race for the Galaxy (which Steve and Larry introduced me to when they visited a couple of months ago). We play whenever we get a chance. I love this game. It’s a bit fiddly to learn, and the fact that you’re not directly interacting with your opponents takes a few plays before you understand how you can actually have a huge effect on your opponents’ play — but it’s such a short and intense game, I find myself even dreaming about it. Get this game!

* * *

Kimi gave me the new Flight of the Conchords CD for my birthday (among a lot of other CDs, thanks sweetie!). Although I loved the first season of the HBO show, I had thought some of the songs were hit or miss. But I was able to really listen to the lyrics (thanks to the iPhone making it easier for me to carry around music), and now I love all the songs. Buy this CD. Please mister, you won’t regret it.

* * *

There’s a friends-and-family deal at TiVo right now for a TiVo HD. If you’re a friend or family and want a new HD DVR, drop me an e-mail.

* * *

While I do aim to generate content, rather than pass along content from elsewhere, here’s a link. I have to say I applaud these two for their convictions and avocation.
* * *

Kimi: “Your blog is so random. No one likes all the content. No one!”

Guilty — variegated miscellany is what this is. I do tend to be all over the place. Everything’s connected, somehow. Just think though — there are half of the categories listed on the right not even touched by this post. But comments are what I like best, so let me know what you’d like to see more of, and less of.

Speaking of Zen…

Monday, May 12th, 2008

My favorite koan:

Whenever anyone asked him about Zen, the great master Gutei would quietly raise one finger into the air. A boy in the village began to imitate this behavior. Whenever he heard people talking about Gutei’s teachings, he would interrupt the discussion and raise his finger. Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. When he saw him in the street, he seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and began to run off, but Gutei called out to him. When the boy turned to look, Gutei raised his finger into the air. At that moment the boy became enlightened.

Yuri

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Last Saturday, Kimi and I took a break from packing, got a babysitter and went to Yuri’s Night Bay Area over at Moffett Field, with Tracee and her friend Rafique. The event was an all-day affair, 2pm to 2am, with plenty of talks and interesting exhibits in addition to the music. It was quite Burning Man-esque, except without the playa dust, blinding desert heat, dust storm white outs, camping out for a week, driving several hundred miles, and the no commerce thing.

I would have liked to explore more, but based on our babysitting arrangements and when Tracee and Rafique could join us, we only made it there at around 9pm. The main attraction for Kimi was seeing Amon Tobin perform, which was around 10:15. The immediate problem was food: There were only a few booths, what they sold was a bit weird, and the lines were extremely long. Kimi and I waited in one long line, only to arrive at the front just as they ran out of food. So we bought some overpriced organic juice. Repeat again at the next line, where all we ended up with were some bizarre chips made from weird roots, and some chocolate. That was dinner. For an event of this size, they clearly didn’t plan the food situation well enough. More vendors, more choices, and adequate food supplies at each vendor would have helped a lot.

We spent a bit of time near a fire sculpture, talking with friends, and gradually made our way around to see different displays, some aeronautical, some environmental, and a few rides. We waited in line for the psycho-bike ride, which was a lot of fun: Four people pedal on bicycles, which spins around four seats in a merry-go-round. First you pedal and then you ride (or vice versa). I haven’t ridden a bicycle in a while, so it was a bit of a workout.

A fire exhibit, Yuri's Night, April 12, 2008, Mountain View, CA

We had to relieve the babysitter at midnight, so we weren’t able to stay too late, but we did enjoy the performances, and I thought the light installations were very well done. The music was so loud, though. I guess the kids today can’t have it any other way, but I was very glad Kimi remembered ear plugs. I was a little put off to see one dad had dragged along his (approximately) seven year old daughter and plunked her down by the speakers. She didn’t have ear plugs, and clearly wasn’t enjoying herself. Same kind of parent who drags toddlers to horror movies, I guess.

Dancers and light displays during Amon Tobin's set, Yuri's Night, April 12, 2008, Mountain View, CA

Amon was outstanding, and did make the evening worthwhile. There was a bit of cognitive dissonance in wandering past hangars and flight trainers, across a parade ground and runway, only to arrive at a rave on an airstrip. I would love to attend this event next year, prepared with having eaten at home and being able to attend more of it.

A light display during Amon Tobin's set, Yuri's Night, April 12, 2008, Mountain View, CA

(Apologies for the bad picture quality; the only camera I had with me was the iPhone.)

A moment of cognitive dissonance exposing prejudice

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

I don’t have the highest opinion of Wal-Mart (in part from watching this Frontline episode), and I admit I associate Wal-Mart with “low brow” and “middle America.”

(Even setting aside any anti-competitiveness, gentrification, and globalization issues, I don’t really like shopping there, because the one near us is always very crowded, and the shelves don’t seem well maintained to me. It always seems to be in disarray.)

But there’s no denying Wal-Mart’s importance as a retailer, so for a while I’ve been reading their Check Out blog.

I was startled the other day when I read this entry, which starts with a reference to philosopher Thomas Kuhn and one of his groundbeaking works (a book which profoundly influenced my way of thinking after I studied it in college).

The juxtaposition of Wal-Mart and deep thinkers: Not what I expected. So boo on me for my stereotyped perception that a Wal-Mart blog would be written to appeal to the lowest comment denominator.

A waste of time

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

Another daylight saving, another round of adjusting myriad clocks and devices, and dealing with the disruption to our children’s sleep schedules.

Why do we still put up with this farce?

Let’s just leave our clocks alone. The issue is that there isn’t as much daylight (where I live, this time of year, there’s about 11.8 hours of daylight, per the almanac). But mucking about with the clocks doesn’t manufacture daylight. What’s the benefit to morning daylight for people who don’t need it? Some people I know like it light in the evening, some the morning — you can’t have both (there just isn’t enough daylight), so some people are going to be upset.

Instead of tedious and disruptive adjustment of clocks, how about this simple workaround: If you want morning daylight, get up when the sun rises. In theory it’s the farmers who want morning daylight the most. Fine — hey farmers, set your day according to when the sun rises, ok? If that means telling your workers to set the schedule to have the day start at 7am half the year and 8am the rest of the year, what’s so bad about that?

My kids thank you. In turn, that would make me grateful by not being up at 3:30 because their schedule is all messed up.

Ban clock adjustment. It’s a stupid, time-consuming, disruptive exercise that has no place in the 21st century.

R.I.P., E.G.G.: I’m… [rolls dice]… saddened by his passing

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

Gary Gygax passed away yesterday. Tributes and discussions popped up all over the web for the co-inventor of Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons — the venerable tabletop roleplaying game (“RPG”), forerunner of today’s immensely popular fantasy multi-player computer roleplaying games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft.

(My favorite article about Gygax, which I read far too late into the evening last night, was this extremely funny and well-written story from 2006.)

In 1979, as an awkward 12-year-old newly arrived to America, with a weird British accent and not a single friend in the entire country, I stumbled across a lunchtime club at my junior high school playing AD&D. I joined in. In the first few minutes I played, the party was encountering a group of mind flayers, far tougher monsters than our group of low-level characters could handle. The mind flayers asked for a sacrifice to let the rest of the party go free. Not understanding the rules at all, trying to hard to ingratiate myself with the other players, I volunteered to be the sacrifice. The DM nodded and said, “Ok, you’re dead.” Wait, what? Your character can die in this game? What kind of game is this! Fortunately, over time, I got better at playing.

I introduced the game to my brothers and cousin, and we played. A lot. An awful lot. I played with them and other groups, through college and beyond. We tried many different RPGs over the years, but always kept going back to AD&D. To the chagrin of my wife, there’s still a huge stash of old AD&D books and modules and character sheets taking up space in our hall closet.

As my brother Rob said, on one occasion of taking up the game again, “The fact you can kill some monsters, roll some dice, and end up with 10,000 gold pieces is just awesome.” Sure, more modern games are better designed, better balanced, take less time — but the appeal of a game with such charming and bizarre rules, that is powered mainly by imagination, and offers infinite (even unbalanced) possibilities, and defies the entire concept of “game” by having no winners and no end — well, you can’t beat that. (Literally.)

Over the years, Gary lost control of the company he founded to sell D&D, and different versions of the game came out that he had nothing to do with. The newest versions seem to have lost a lot of the soul and quirkiness of the original. The original game was earnestly written, each page of the dense rules packed with ideas all happily lifted from dozens of sources ranging from Tolkien to Moorcock; dungeons were populated with mythic Greek creatures living side by side with creatures out of Arthurian legend or gothic horror or Arabian Nights. It stretched my vocabulary and creativity.

It was never a “cool” game though, and even here and now it’s a bit weird to be typing this up, knowing there’s a stigma with associating yourself with such an uncool pastime. I never met Gary, but the profiles and interviews paint him as an uncool guy. But a happy guy, a generous guy, and a supremely creative guy — who was not ashamed to be uncool.

These days, geeks and nerds aren’t so reluctant to identify themselves as such. Geekdom is slowly becoming cool. Vin Diesel plays D&D, and Vin Diesel is cool. So what the heck. In honor of Ernest Gary Gygax, creator of works that fired up my teenage imagination such as The Tomb of Horrors, and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and (most of all) Against the Giants — I hereby admit my enjoyment of Dungeons and Dragons, and raise a flagon of mead to salute the life of the man who started it all. Thank you, Gary, and RIP.

218 unread e-mails

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Sammy yelling out, time to wake up, gobble food, bundle up, drop off the kids, rush to work
218 unread e-mails
A phone call from a partner — yes, we can provide that data
Meeting reminder: 15 minutes until the post-mortem, snooze or dismiss?
Cell phone rings; it’s the dentist, reminding me of the appointment this afternoon
153 unread e-mails
Finish the report, subtotal, total, right-click, send, file
Review the numbers, look for anomalies, update the graphs
Pager goes off: Something not working right, drop everything, investigate, escalate
Start lunch at my desk, finish at the 1:1
Six or seven more items for the to-do list
IM my brother, IM the producer
46 unread e-mails
At the dentist: Drilling in the upper-right, lower left, cavity, crown
Most relaxed I’ve been all day
Outside, the sunset, rays like golden daggers ripping through the clouds
Fight traffic, beat the clock to pick up the kids
Daddy! I missed you!
Eat dinner, kids to bed
22 unread e-mails
Follow the feeds, read the blogs, write the blog
0 unread e-mails
Full moon shining, no wires at all.

The Next Barrier

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Either Obama or Clinton will be our Democratic party nominee for President. Given the Bush administration’s unpopularity, chances are good that either an African-American man or a white woman will be our next President.

What, I wonder, will be the next barrier to be broken? Which of these candidates are now possibly electable? (By “electable,” I mean: Able to overcome the biases and prejudices of the electorate on the basis of their character and qualifications.)

  • A homosexual
  • An atheist
  • A disabled person

As far as our country as come, I think it will be many years before any of the above types of people would stand a good chance, no matter how qualified. But I hope I’m wrong. I’m glad I was wrong about 2020 before.

Namephreak

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

The late Herb Caen, venerable San Francisco columnist and inventor of three dot journalism (do kids today even know who he is?), would often run stories about people whose names happened to be suggestive of their job or situation in life.

Like the guy who called up my Aunt Karen (back when she worked selling fixtures such as fasteners and knobs) to buy 6 gross brass knobs, whose name was Watanabe (pronounced Want-A-Knobbie).

Anyway.

In the paper this morning, story about the two skiers from San Francisco who were rescued two days after being reported missing, and who were found seven miles away from the ski resort, suffering from minor frostbite, using survival techniques they learned from the Discovery channel.

One of them had the last name of “Frost.”

Dun dun dun.

Good thing his name wasn’t “Frozetodeath.”