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Journal of No. 118


March 24th, 2017

Engraved on the Eye, by Saladin Ahmed @ 04:09 pm

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A collection of short stories, about half set in distinctly Islamic settings, often a mix of the near-future and the 1001 Nights. Others range further, from the Old West to a more traditional sword and sorcery land. All very good stories, with strong character focus, with the possible exception of one supervillain-themed bagatelle that didn't quite work for me. Maybe just because it's fresh in my mind from being last, but I really dug the sword and sorcery milieu of 'Iron Eyes and the Watered Down World’. It starts as a love-letter to Fritz Leiber -- and you will always earn high marks from me for that -- and then wanders off into territory Fritz would never have trod in Nehwon.
 

March 21st, 2017

Anza Borrego Trip @ 08:41 pm


Dr. Pookie and I travelled out to Anza Borrego Desert State Park to see the superbloom of desert wildflowers, much like our 2005 trip to Death Valley (q.v. (and photos)). Our original plans to drive out there involved the 91, but as it turns out, they were blocking the brand-new FastTrak (grrr) lanes and it was causing all sorts of havoc. Fortunately traffic was light and we went down the 405 and then cut inland on the Ortega Highway, which turned out to be scenic and twisty in all the best ways. We took a quick stop to take a nice photo as the highway dumps you over a ridge overlooking Lake Elsinore.

Click on throughCollapse )
 

March 19th, 2017

The Last Guardian @ 10:28 am

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It's a pretty game, and the story does a good job of showing the bond forming between you (as the kid) and the giant feathered cat with a chihuahua head. You can definitely see the influence of Ico on the gameplay, but instead of two equal human type people cooperating to traverse obstacles, there's a lot of freshness to having cooperation between big and small. Trico (the giant featered cat with a chihuahua head) can be an annoyance -- it moves slowly and even when you're trying to tell it where to go, the little hamster in a wheel brain (or rather the AI) is not very reliable. Not a hardcore game, but an enjoyable experience with some challenging puzzles.
 

March 4th, 2017

Pitching science at the level of a creationist @ 07:43 am


Creationist: Take a look at all you present, anything you think a 5 year old won't understand, explain it. Act like a teacher, Teach it first.

Endogenous Retroviruses

When mommies and daddies love each other very much, they make a recipe for a baby. They mix a copy of half of daddy’s recipe with a copy of half of mommy’s recipe to make a baby recipe. The recipe is so long that it takes nine months to make a baby!

And by looking at your recipe later, you can see that you are related to your mommy and daddy because you can see bits of their recipes in you! (Or you’re adopted, but your mommy and daddy still love you!)

And this can go back through the generations. If half of grandpa’s recipe goes into your mom, and half of mom’s recipe goes in you, then one quarter of your recipe comes from grandpa!

Now, if you have first cousins, that means one of your parents was the brother or sister of one of theirs. And those siblings had the same parents… your grandparents. By comparing your recipe to the recipe of your first cousin, you can see that you share a common grandparent. This is called common ancestry. Since recipes get shared in an unbroken chain from ancestor to descendant (that means a baby!), if you have enough information, you can determine whether two recipes have a common ancestor. Fortunately, those recipes are really long, so there is a lot of information.

But sometimes little accidents happen to the recipes. This is really important, but we’ll save that for when you are six. But one particular kind of accident is when you get sick. Sometimes a germ will leave its cooties in your recipe. Ew!

Before, maybe your grandpa had a recipe with a line that said:

Step 146734 Make five itty-bitty toes on the end of each foot.

And afterwards, it might read

Step 146734 Make five itty-bitty toeGERM COOTIESs on the end of each foot.


And now that might be part of your recipe! Because he is your ancestor.

Your friend on the playground might have this in her recipe:

Step 146734 Make five itGERM COOTIESty-bitty toes on the end of each foot.

Do you have a common ancestor with her?

Did you say no? Because the cooties are in the wrong place? Haha, the joke’s on you. The answer is actually yes. All human beings are related. But looking at this one tiny piece of the recipe, we don’t have any evidence that your friend descended from your grandpa. (Don’t ask him about it in front of your grandmother.)

Since grandpa got the cooties in his lifetime, it can only show up in that exact spot in his descendants, or in someone else who coincidentally got the cooties in the same exact place in the recipe. But the recipe is so long this is very unlikely.

But if we look at the whole recipe, you and your friend actually have a lot of recipe cooties in common. Ew! I know. But it’s pretty harmless. Everyone has them. Thousands of them. And because a lot of them are in the same place, we know you share common ancestors. But since a few of them are different (like the one from your grandpa) we know that your common ancestor was further back in generations than your grandpa.

So by comparing the number of shared cooties to the number of unshared cooties, you can see how closely related you are.

And when we compare your cooties to those of a chimpanzee, we find a lot of cooties in different places, but a lot of cooties in the same place! We also have common ancestors, but it wasn’t in your grandpappy’s day or your great great great grandmammy’s day. It was 5 million years ago.

In fact, orthologous cooties fall into a nested hierarchy among primates.

 

February 12th, 2017

DC @ 05:58 pm

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I went for a quick business trip to Washington DC.

Pictures here.

The flight out was pretty rocky. Coming in for landing at Dallas, the lady next to me had her airsickness bag out. It was a near thing, but we made it through together. Alas, my bag was so frightened, it stayed in Dallas. But it was coaxed onto the next flight so it arrived at my hotel at midnight. So much for getting an early night to help with the time change.

The business stuff was successful, and (as the photos show) I had some time to walk around the national mall before heading back to the airport. I was surprised there were no protestors at the White House. Just a small gaggle of tourists.

On the flight back, I couldn't help but notice the guy next to me with his e-reader set to blind-bat text size, especially when the screen read:

"aggressively sharpened on the whetstone of her sex"

Which reminds me... there was some commercial for something quoting Dylan Thomas - "Do not go gentle into that good night". Seems to me James Bond uncharacteristically missed an opportunity for a witticism in The Man with the Golden Gun.
 

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters @ 05:17 pm

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A mystery novel set in an alternate (hopefully) universe in which the Earth is destined to be smacked by a large asteroid a few months in the future. This situation naturally has a great impact (er) on the way people think about their lives, and what they're worth, and what other people's are worth. There are a lot of suicides, and our titular detective investigates one such, an insurance actuary hanged in a McDonald's bathroom. Something doesn't sit right, and when you come to think of it... in a world where suicide is very common, what better way to hide a murder? Red herrings and revelations pull our hero by the nose through comedy and tragedy until the case is cracked. There aren't a lot of viable suspects, but Winters gives just about the right amount of hints and misdirection to keep the mystery mysterious.

I liked it a lot. Not quite love, but a lot. The book won the Edgar, and the followup won the PKD award, so I will probably make my way through the trilogy.
 

February 10th, 2017

The ALL NEW Don't Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff @ 05:24 pm


Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

This is an updated (2014) version of the 2004 original by Lakoff, a cognitive scientist at Berkeley.

Basic idea: conservative leaders have been better at framing issues than liberal counterparts.

Frames are embedded deeply enough in people that rational argumentation and facts are useless.

Voters have had these frames imposed upon them so that their kneejerk reactions are predictable.

e.g. describing a bill to lower taxes as 'tax relief' builds up the concept that taxes are (always) a burden. And inherently bad.

If liberals fight against these frames by mentioning them, this only reinforces the frame. Liberals may talk about tax relief for the middle class, but this leans on the idea that taxes are inherently bad.

Liberals need to find their own frames to use. 'Taxes contribute to the many valuable services we all make use of. They are investments in our future happiness and the happiness of our children. They are the 'membership fees' of citizenship.'

And then I start to get an itchy feeling.

"These are accurate views of taxes, but they are not yet enshrined in our brains. They need to be repeated over and over again, and refined until they take their rightful place in our synapses. But that takes time. It does not happen overnight. Start now."

Lakoff would like us to please brainwash ourselves.

This is not an exaggeration of his position. One of the strange things about the book is his frequent discussion that these frames are physical 'structures' in our brains. I mean, I too believe that mental states supervene on physical states in the brain, and there is no soul making 'free' decisions. But, unlike Lakoff, I don't think that makes rational argument useless.

“You might think that the world exists independently of how we understand it. You would be mistaken. Our understanding of the world is part of the world--a physical part of the world. Our conceptual framings exist in physical neural circuitry in our brains, largely below the level of conscious awareness, and they define and limit how we understand the world, and so they affect our actions in the world."

Inasmuch as he promotes frames as a weapon, he literally wants us to circumvent thought and react unconsciously to stimuli. [We will set aside his apparent disregard for the existence of an external world independent of ourselves.]

In discussing climate change, he notes that scientists are terrible at framing:

"The crucial words here are high degree of confidence, anomalies, consequence, likelihood, absence, and exceedingly small. Scientific weasel words! The power of the bald truth, namely causation..."

Those are not weasel words. Those are the correct ways to phrase these scientific results. If some treehugging granola-eater wants to wave a sign saying "Climate change caused Hurricane Sandy," that's fine, but it is not a scientific fact. Nor is it "the bald truth". It is irresponsible to ask scientists to say anything other than something like "it's unlikely for an event like Hurricane Sandy to have occurred without the influence of anthropogenic climate change." I know, it doesn't fit well on a placard. It's complicated. But it's what the science shows.

"The issue of "immigration" is about a new generation of such refugees. President Obama, in a speech ... beautifully states his moral understanding of the issue. His words showed that the current wave of refugees, referred to as 'undocumented immigrants' are in many ways already citizens --they contribute enormously to American society."

This has a couple things I want to mention. First, undocumented immigrants are not (in general) refugees. So Obama was right to so characterize them. Lakoff is indulging in spin, to put it most favorably. Second, Lakoff was hoping that by describing them as refugees, it would arouse feelings of compassion that would make us more likely to help rather than harm these people. Of course, Lakoff wrote his book in 2014. Right now, Americans are probably more afraid of 'refugees' than of 'illegal aliens'. I mean, that is perhaps a demonstration of the whole point of his book -- that there are different ways of framing the issue to cause kneejerk responses. But he has once again caused me some pause, since he starts his own framing exercise by lying, to put it less favorably.

In a FAQ at the end, he tries to distinguish between frames and euphemisms, spin, or propaganda. I wasn't really satisfied by his answer. Frames are not very different from euphemism, spin, or propaganda. These certainly have their place in politics.

His vision seems to be of two large masses of primates mindlessly shouting slogans at a small band of undecided primates in the middle, each hoping to inculcate the middle group with its slogan. While this is not an unfair description of American elections, I think we can do better. The way to fight propaganda is not (only) with propaganda of our own, but by exposing propaganda for what it is.

But possibly I'm wrong and brainwashing ourselves and others is the only route forward to victory.

Fortunately, it appears I'm not alone in being leery of Lakoff. I found a great point/counterpoint between Stephen Pinker and Lakoff. Skip to Pinker's Salvo to see his review of Lakoff's ideas from a different (but similar) book and a really good yo mama joke. This is apparently an outburst in a decades long intellectual war between the two, and I'm not qualified to judge the more technical aspects of their discussion of linguistics and cognitive science, but when it gets down to the political applications, I think Pinker is in the right:

But Lakoff’s advice doesn’t pass the giggle test. One can just imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff’s Orwellian advice tried to rebrand “taxes” as “membership fees.” Surely no one has to hear the metaphor tax relief to think of taxes as an affliction; that sentiment has been around for as long as taxes have been around. ... And even if taxes were like membership fees, aren’t lower membership fees better than higher ones, all else being equal? ... In defending his voters-are-idiots theory, Lakoff has written that people don’t realize that they are really better off with higher taxes, because any savings from a federal tax cut would be offset by increases in local taxes and private services. But if that is a fact, it would have to be demonstrated to a bureaucracy-jaded populace the old-fashioned way, as an argument backed with numbers–-the kind of wonkish analysis that Lakoff dismisses.
...
The problem with this burlesque is not that its targets don’t deserve criticism. It’s that it will backfire with all of its potential audiences. Any of Lakoff’s allies on the left who think that their opponents are such imbeciles will have their clocks cleaned in their first debate with a Young Republican. The book will be red meat for his foes on the right, who can hold up his distortions as proof of liberals’ insularity and incomprehension.


Overall:

B+ for showing how conservatives have used framing successfully.
F for suggesting that the liberal's only hope is to fight fire with fire, brainwash ourselves, and lay off the facts and rational thought.
F for not really exploring the liberal frames that already exist. The shortcuts to careful reasoning. Diagnosing police brutality, racism, sexism, without the full facts. Nazipunching. Reading the book, you get the impression that only wicked conservatives have frames to manipulate people, while the benevolent, wise, but prone-to-losing liberals are stuck with only useless tools like facts and rationality.
 

February 3rd, 2017

The Business, by Iain [no M] Banks @ 04:46 pm

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The Business recounts a slice of life in an up-and-coming executive in the eponymous organization. It's a fictional(?) millennia old organization devoted to making money and amassing power. Not particularly secretive, but they don't make waves. Given its age and the nature of compound interest, The Business is well-funded and thinks big. On the current business plan is to find a modestly sized country and acquire it for business purposes. Being a Banks novel, it's populated by oddballs, strange details, and crackling turns of phrase. Lots of Machiavellian plots within The Business as different executives jockey for benefits both business-related and personal (and many of them can barely distinguish the difference). I enjoyed it, but felt the loose ends got wrapped up much too rapidly at the end.
 

February 2nd, 2017

Son of Nazipunch @ 05:29 pm


My rhetorical question appears to have been answered.

If one cannot bring oneself to punch a lady Nazi in the face, you should pepperspray her in the face.

Now, it's almost too good to be true that she had just finished saying "I'm looking to make a statement by just being here and I think the protesters are doing the same. Props to the ones who are doing it non-violently, but I think that's a very rare thing indeed."

So, if you're of a conspiratorial bent, this is a false flag operation or something. But I think it's fair to say that there were plenty of anonymous violent troublemakers there. The police are of the opinion that they were 'outside agitators' (a phrase I knew we would see more and more of) and not Berkeley students. Which is probably the case, since I'm now hearing all about these experienced antifa activists. Who are these experts all of a sudden and where did they get their expertise? There hasn't been a fascist state to fight in some time, and never in the US, so I find myself suspecting that these are just people who like to have fistfights with skinheads. Whoever they are and whatever their movement is about, they know squat about working against the excesses of a Trump Administration.

Instead, of course, they are falling into the trap.

Now some have correctly pointed out that neo-Nazis can be experts at using 'the System' to quash opposition. "Oh, we're the victims, save us, save us, Law & Order!"

So then I ask: Why the fuck would you fall into their trap by punching people on the street? Are you stupid?


Berkeley was literally the origin of the Free Speech Movement and Sproul Plaza is Free Speech Central.



The university did the right thing in not preventing the speech, and they (or the UCPD who made the call) did the right thing in shutting it down for safety reasons.

Of course the Donald had to weigh in on Twitter:

"If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?"

This is literally one of the stupidest things I've ever read. Even among Trump tweets, this is a doozy.

But remember my warning "Fortunately, we on the left are waaaaay too smart to be manipulated by Russian propaganda. Right? Right? No one would be suckered in by the idea that democracy or free speech are inherently flawed concepts"

Don't be down on Free Speech, just because Trump says he likes it. This is exactly the kind of emotional response thing that Trump apparently uses to perfection. Of course, it only works on stupid people. So don't be a stupid person.



Anyway, I'm reiterating my distaste for Nazipunch and the flawed philosophy behind it.

And again I'm warning against falling into the trap.

Because if not, something terrible is going to happen, and years from now, some kid will be walking with his grandfather on the campus, and grandpa will point to the pocks of bullets in a wall and say something like, 'And over there in that field is where it happened. It was a terrible thing those kids died. But these outside agitators (communists or anarchists or some such) came in and caused a lot of trouble, and stirred things up. Setting fires and so forth. Had to restore Law & Order.'

Because no shit that's exactly what my grandpa told me 40 years ago as we visited Kent State.
 

January 29th, 2017

Hollywoodland Stairs @ 03:16 pm


We took a hike this morning to climb up and down some of the stairs in and around the original Hollywoodland development. There's a nice guide to the trail here (and a couple other hikes on the site).

All the pictures.

You do get a bit of a work out.

Stairs Hike

Lots of crazy castles and castle-esque stuff up there.

Stairs Hike

Views of the Hollywood Sign, Griffith Observatory, the Ocean, and a few spots for DTLA.

Stairs Hike

Going down is less work, but reminds me of the dangers of climbing down Mesoamerican pyramids.

Stairs Hike


The guide describes this as Prince Valiant.

Stairs Hike

But surely Valiant is raven-haired! This is more Ivanhoe.



The grandest stair had two staircases. Originally, the middle had a stream that ran down it, now replaced by planters.

Stairs Hike

The sun was difficult for many shots in the early morning, but I still like this of DTLA through a tree.

Stairs Hike

Also ran into the Theosophists.

Stairs Hike

After the hike, we jetted down Sunset to an estate sale in Santa Monica, where we picked up a new desk chair for me, in which I now sit.
 

Journal of No. 118