20 April 2016

Tak

I just succumbed to a Kickstarter for simple little abstract strategy game called Tak, meant to be the incarnation of a game referenced in a set of fantasy novels. Its minimalism is charming, making Tak a good (belated) entrant for Daniel Solis' Thousand Year Game Challenge. It's playable on a square grid of spaces: 3x3, 4x4, 5x5, 6x6, or 8x8. (Because the game has an imaginary history and cultural context, there is lore that the 7x7 variant is “rarely played”, while the 8x8 variant is sometimes known as the “Master's Game”.)

The folks behind the game have a nifty idea for a “hybrid” gameboard that makes it easy to play (almost) any of the variants. It looks like this:

For the odd-numbered variants players place their pieces in the truncated-square spaces, while in the even-numbered variants pieces go on the diamonds. Nifty.

But this made me itch that the 8x8 variant is not accommodated. Surely a Tak enthusiast who plays the Master's Game would need to be able to also play the smaller-scale versions. So it occurred to me that the absence of the 7x7 variant creates a little design opportunity:

11 April 2016

Humans are scary

I wind up looking this up a few times a year, and I've never found a sufficiently legible version to satisfy me, so I'm cooking up one of my own.

It’s funny how science fiction universes so often treat humans as a boring, default everyman species or even the weakest and dumbest.

I want to see a sci fi universe where we’re actually considered one of the more hideous and terrifying species.

How do we know our saliva and skin oils wouldn’t be ultra-corrosive to most other sapient races? What if we actually have the strongest vocal chords and can paralyze or kill the inhabitants of other worlds just by screaming at them? What if most sentient life in the universe turns out to be vegetable-like and lives in fear of us rare “animal” races who can move so quickly and chew shit up with our teeth?

Like that old story “they’re made of meat,” only we’re scarier.


HOLY SHIT THEY EAT CAPSAICIN FOR FUN

YOU GUYS I HEARD A HUMAN ONCE ATE AN AIRPLANE.

A HUMAN CAN KEEP FIGHTING FOR HOURS EVEN AFTER YOU SHOOT IT

humans are a proud warrior race with a pantheon of bloody gods: Ram-Bo, Schwarzenegger, etc.

REMOVING A LIMB WILL NOT FATALLY INCAPACITATE HUMANS: ALWAYS DESTROY THE HEAD.

WARNING: HUMANS CAN DETECT YOU EVEN AT NIGHT BY TRACKING VIBRATIONS THROUGH THE ATMOSPHERE

WARNING: HUMANS CAN REPRODUCE AT A RATE OF 1 PER SPACEYEAR. DESTROY INFESTATIONS IMMEDIATELY

THE HUMAN MOUTH HAS OVER THIRTY OUTCROPS OF BONE AND POWERFUL JAW MUSCLES.

HUMAN BITES CAN BE FATALLY INFECTIOUS EVEN TO OTHER HUMANS

WARNING: HUMANS CAN AND WILL USE IMPROVISED WEAPONS. SEE CLASSIFIED DATA LABELED J. CHAN.

HUMANS CAN PROJECT BIOWEAPONS FROM ALMOST EVERY ORIFICE ON THEIR BODY. DO NOT INHALE

OH GOD THE HUMANS FIGURED OUT DOOR HANDLES OH GOD OH GOD


More seriously, humans do have a number of advantages even among Terrestrial life. Our endurance, shock resistance, and ability to recover from injury is absurdly high compared to almost any other animal. We often use the phrase “healthy as a horse” to connote heartiness — but compared to a human, a horse is as fragile as spun glass. There’s mounting evidence that our primitive ancestors would hunt large prey simply by following it at a walking pace, without sleep or rest, until it died of exhaustion; it’s called pursuit predation. Basically, we’re the Terminator.

(The only other animal that can sort of keep up with us? Dogs. That’s why we use them for hunting. And even then, it’s only “sort of”.)

Now extrapolate that to a galaxy in which most sapient life did not evolve from hyper-specialised pursuit predators:

  • Our strength and speed is nothing to write home about, but we don’t need to overpower or outrun you. We just need to outlast you — and by any other species’ standards, we just plain don’t get tired.
  • Where a simple broken leg will cause most species to go into shock and die, we can recover from virtually any injury that’s not immediately fatal. Even traumatic dismemberment isn’t necessarily a career-ending injury for a human.
  • We heal from injuries with extreme rapidity, recovering in weeks from wounds that would take others months or years to heal. The results aren’t pretty — humans have hyperactive scar tissue, among our other survival-oriented traits — but they’re highly functional.
  • Speaking of scarring, look at our medical science. We developed surgery centuries before developing even the most rudimentary anesthetics or life support. In extermis, humans have been known to perform surgery on themselves - and survive. Thanks to our extreme heartiness, we regard as routine medical procedures what most other species would regard as inventive forms of murder. We even perform radical surgery on ourselves for purely cosmetic reasons.

In essence, we’d be Space Orcs.


I do hope you realize I’m going to be picking up this stuff and running with it right?


Our jaws have too many TEETH in them, so we developed a way to WELD METAL TO OUR TEETH and FORCE THE BONES IN OUR JAW to restructure over the course of years to fit them back into shape, and then we continue to wear metal in out mouths to keep them in place.

We formed cohabitative relationships with tiny mammals and insects we keep at bay from bothering us by death, often using little analouge traps.

And by god, we will eat anything.


  • We use borderline toxic peppers to season our food.
  • We expose ourselves to potentially lethal solar radiation in the pursuit of darkening our skin.
  • We risk hearing loss for the opportunity to see our favorite musicians live.
  • We have a game where two people get into an enclosed area and hit each other until time runs out/one of them pass out
  • We willingly jump out of planes with only a flimsy piece of cloth to prevent us from splattering against the ground.
  • Our response to natural disasters is to just rebuild our buildings in the exact same places.
  • We climb mountains and risk freezing to death for bragging rights
  • We invented dogs. We took our one time predators and completely domesticated them.
  • On a planet full of lions, tigers and bears, we managed to advance further and faster than any other species on the planet.

Klingons and Krogan and Orcs ain’t got shit on us


can we talk about how pursuit predation is fucking terrifying

it’s one thing to face down a cheetah, which will slam into you at 60 mph and break your neck

it’s another thing to run very quickly to get away from a thing, only to have it just kind of

show up

to have it be intelligent enough to figure out where you are by the fur and feather you’ve left behind, your footprints and piss and shit, and then you think you’ve lost it and you bed down for the night but THERE IT IS


WAITING


WHEN YOU WAKE UP


and you split! again! but it keeps following you. always in the corner of your eye. until you just


die


we are scary motherfuckers ok

19 March 2016

Voter ID laws

The Nation:

North Carolina’s new voter ID law goes into effect for the first time during the March 15 primary, and 218,000 registered voters do not have an acceptable form of government-issued ID now required to vote.

Ethelene Douglas, an 85-year-old African-American woman who grew up in the segregated South and first registered to vote in 1964, was one of them. Her struggle to obtain the necessary ID vividly illustrates the problems with the law.

Tucking this away for future reference when talking to people who are naïve about the implications of voter ID laws.

04 March 2016

Running for gangster-in-chief

Donald Trump, answering a question at last night's debate:

Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists' families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they've been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders. So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me. Believe me.

But they're illegal.

Let me just tell you:

You look at the Middle East, they're chopping off heads. They're chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way. They're drowning people in steel cages. And he ... now we're talking about waterboarding. This really started with Ted, a question was asked of Ted last — two debates ago — about waterboarding. And Ted was, you know, having a hard time with that question, to be totally honest with you. They then came to me, “What do you think of waterboarding?” I said, “It's fine. And if we want to go stronger, I'd go stronger, too” because, frankly ...

APPLAUSE

... that's the way I feel. Can you imagine, can you imagine these people — these animals over in the Middle East that chop off heads — sitting around talking and seeing that we're having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That's my opinion.

But targeting terrorists' families?

APPLAUSE

And — and — and — I'm a leader. I'm a leader. I've always been a leader. I've never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they're going to do it. That's what leadership is all about.

Even targeting terrorists' families?

Well, look, you know, when a family flies into the World Trade Center, a man flies into the World Trade Center, and his family gets sent back to where they were going — and I think most of you know where they went (and, by the way, it wasn't Iraq) — but they went back to a certain territory. They knew what was happening. The wife knew exactly what was happening. They left two days early, with respect to the World Trade Center, and they went back to where they went. And they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon, and probably trying to fly into the White House (except we had some very, very brave souls on that third plane). All right?

APPLAUSE

Let's review:

  • Trump expects his orders as President to be followed without question, without regard for law
  • This reflects his understanding of “leadership” because of his essential qualities as a “leader”
  • He plans to order waterboarding and worse forms of torture
  • He plans to intimidate people by murdering their families
  • This bloodthirstiness distinguishes him as a better candidate for President than Ted Cruz
  • A Republican debate audience applauds this

He imagines the Presidency he seeks as like being a mafia capo, fighting the “animals” in the Middle East by ordering his obedient minions to commit brutality.

May the gods have mercy on these United States, though I gather that the American god is not merciful but just.

03 March 2016

Partial birth abortion

This is the post that made me pro-choice. Glad to see it still circulating.

Keeping the link handy. I'm sure to need it sometime.

24 January 2016

Treaties

So it was just pointed out to me that Canada makes an effort to honor treaties made with Indians through annuity payments. Isn't that interesting?

22 December 2015

Manhattan-ish projects

So today I saw yet another of these stories where “Politician X calls for a new Manhattan Project to Do Some Impossible Thing”.

I don't want to pick on this particular politician right now (though I am mightily disappointed), I want to talk about learning the wrong lesson from the Manhattan Project.

Many people seem to think that the Manhattan Project shows that you can just order up any breakthrough you want and if you give enough scientists enough money, they will just cook it up for us. “Here's a trillion dollars, go invent an antigravity machine.”

That's not how it works.

FDR did not wake up one morning and say, “Hey, wouldn't it be great if we had a bomb that could blow up a whole city? Let's get our scientists working on that.”

No, it was a thing physicists thought of, not politicians or generals. Grad students had been standing at chalkboards through the late 1930s working out the cross-sections of uranium nuclei, and the difference in mass between uranium nuclei and their fission products, and saying, “Huh, it ought to be possible to make a mind-bogglingly powerful bomb”, half-joking and half-horrified. “Boy, it's a good thing that to really build something like that you'd have to deal with a bunch of weird engineering problems that would be hugely expensive to solve,” they would say, nervously.

Then after a few years of that the US was at war with Nazi Germany. American universities, as a result, were hosting an awful lot of German Jewish physicists who had emigrated because they saw the writing on the wall. Physicists got to talking. Who was the one person in the world who was best-qualified to crack the problem of making a fission bomb not at a blackboard bull session but in real life? Werner Heisenberg, obviously. And where was he? Still in Germany. What was he working on these days? Nobody knew for sure.

Other pieces were falling into place, too. Better and better understanding of chain reactions. Better and better techniques for handling uranium.

Ominous.

So some physicists got together and wrote a letter to the President of the United States explaining the potential for fission bombs. They got the most famous and respected scientist in the world, a German Jew named Albert Einstein, to sign it. And that led, ultimately, to the Manhattan Project and the Bomb.

The Bomb is so stunning and counterintuitive and such a dramatic demonstration of the power of technology to bend the Cosmos to our will — and the Manhattan Project such a dramatic example of a big, expensive, resource-intensive project bearing fruit that changes the world — that it creates the impression that anything is possible. But that is the wrong lesson.

Remember: the scientists came to the politicians with the proposal. Not the other way around. Because the Cosmos does not coöperate with what we want, and scientists are not short-order cooks.

11 November 2015

Western civilization

Neal Stephenson, in his epic article on computers in China for Wired magazine (back when it was still cool), In the Kingdom of Mao Bell, makes a comment on Western culture that has stuck with me.

Our concept of cyberspace, cyber-culture, and cyber-everything is, more than we care to realize, a European idea, rooted in Deuteronomy, Socrates, Galileo, Jefferson, Edison, Jobs, Wozniak, glasnost, perestroika, and the United Federation of Planets. This statement may be read as criticism by people who like to trash Western culture, but I'm not one of those. For a Westerner to trash Western culture is like criticizing our nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere on the grounds that it sometimes gets windy, and besides, Jupiter's is much prettier. You may not realize its advantages until you're trying to breathe liquid methane.

13 October 2015

Brooks

I gotta assemble an index of David Brooks takedowns. I've blogged a bunch of them, but it's handier to have them together like I did with Thomas Friedman.

For when that day comes, I have a killer from Corey Robin, who knows more about conservatism than Brooks (or almost anyone else): You've Changed, You're Not The Angel I Once Knew.

08 September 2015

Apple Watch

I waited a couple of years to pick up the iPhone and, as an interaction designer, I regretted my hesitation. I had been an early adopter on smart phones — I even bought that Handspring phone attachment for a Palm PDA — and so had wanted to wait because I saw that the iPhone was still a little undercooked when it was first released. But I missed getting a head start on absorbing the feel of the interface-level behaviors.

So when the iPad was released, I pre-ordered it the day it was announced.

With the Apple Watch, I waited until I could see it in the flesh. But I made an Apple store appointment to do that the first day it was available, and so now I've been wearing one for months.

I have been an enthusiast for the idea at least, as I have been thinking about smart watches for a long time. I have sprung for a few that wound up in a drawer. In a post anticipating the iPad, I said ...

I have said for many years that there are only five fundamental form factors for personal computing, yet we have only colonized three of them, and one of them only recently: the Desk, the Clamshell, the Tablet, the Pocket Thing, and the Wrist Thing.

... and in recent years had come to think of the smart watch as a solution to some of the awkward behaviors of the smart phone. (Chiefly that it does this barbaric 19th Century behavior of making noise to get my attention.)

Having spent several months with it, I will grant that the Apple Watch has its charms. Having a watch face which shows me my next calendar event keeps it on my wrist, and I find that I use timers and alarms more often now that I have the watch to make them convenient. The software isn't quite compelling enough that it is entirely worth what I paid for it, though I expect that to improve over time.

But I grow more and more surprised at what I think is a fundamental wrong turn in the way that it is conceived. The Apple Watch has “watch apps” independent of my iPhone's apps, but I think it would be better if it were conceived entirely as a peripheral to the iPhone rather than as any kind of separate entity.


Consider these ingredients:

  • The Watch has sensors that tell it when it is on my wrist
  • The iPhone has sensors that tell it when it is in my bag or pocket (between the cameras and the proximity sensor)
  • Apple has devoted great effort in recent years to creating a unified notification system

This should add up to the iPhone being smart about how it notifies me of things, just Doing The Right Thing in each among several possible conditions:

  1. iPhone off, Watch on
    I have indicated that I want to be notified through my Watch by putting it on, so in this condition my iPhone never makes a sound. Anything that has an interrupt notification — a banner or an alert — on my iPhone will give me a tap and an onscreen indication on the Watch. I don't need to separately configure my notifications for the Watch, and iPhone app makers don't need to build a separate Watch apps: the Notifications settings on the iPhone tell iOS to do the right thing.
  2. iPhone off, Watch off
    In this condition, I may need audio alerts from my iPhone, since I'm not paying attention to it and the Watch cannot do the job with a tap. Depending on my setting for the hard switch on the phone and the Do Not Disturb moon, the iPhone delivers audio and vibration alerts for notifications. To make sure I don't miss the alert, the Watch matches the iPhone's audio alert behaviors, in case it is closer at hand than the iPhone.
  3. iPhone on, not in an audio or video app
    If the iPhone is on and not running an audio or video app, it's safe to assume that I'm looking at it. So interrupt notifications will tell me what I need to know without requiring the intervention of the Watch ... though if I'm wearing the Watch, as a grace note it gives me a small tap to coïncide with the visible notification.
  4. iPhone on, in an audio or video app, Watch on
    I don't want an annoying interruption in my audio or video, so Notifications manifest only on my Watch, as if the iPhone were off.
  5. iPhone on, in an audio or video app, Watch off
    In this condition, the iPhone obeys the hard switch and the Do Not Disturb moon, which indicate my intent about whether I want interruptions.

Thus the Watch configurator app on the iPhone does not need its own section for Notifications; this unified system inherits everything it needs from the iPhone's Notifications behavior.

By this same logic, the Watch should be smart about what iPhone app I last looked at. Whether the iPhone is on or off, if I was in an iPhone app that has a Watch interface built for it, then crown-clicking on the Watch should take me not to the Watch apps Home screen first but to the corresponding Watch interface. So if I had been looking at Maps, I get access to a Maps interface on the Watch, since that's my last registered intent.


The word on the street is that Apple will be announcing a major Watch software update tomorrow; I'm hoping it looks something like this.

30 August 2015

Committed people and Korman's Third Law

So there's a little aphorism I hate, attributed to Margaret Mead.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

On the face of it, it's a stirring message of hope. If you're like me, you picture Martin Luther King sitting around a kitchen table with Bayard Rustin and Ralph Abernathy and James Orange and Frederick Douglas Reese.

But looking at it closely, the aphorism rankles. It's vanguardist, almost anti-democratic: never mind most people and mass movements, it's the committed few who matter. It's Green Lanternism: will matters above all. And the romanticization of “changing the world”, which one sees a lot of in the tech industry, is not entirely wholesome. Change is inevitable and not all changes are good; I want to look to what will make a better world.

Plus, there's no evidence that Mead ever said it.

Plus — and this to my mind is most damning — thinking about who might draw inspiration from the thought of a small vanguard changing the world through he force of their will, and remembering Rhett's Law, I feel moved to offer Korman's Third Law:

If it makes a funny “Nazi-spiration” meme image, it's questionable motivational advice.

24 August 2015

SexyCyborg

A while ago I was charmed by the underlit skirt project of maker SexyCyborg that made the rounds thanks to a blurb on bOING bOING.

One of my favorite wearables is the Hikaru Skirt: http://hikaruskirt.tumblr.com

My problem with the existing design is— Limited external control (just responds to movement) and the ugly frilly skirt/tutu style is not suitable for anyone over 8 years old (or at least not Japanese).

Solution: Denim mini/micro skirt with control pack hidden in belt buckle. Skirt length is a matter of personal taste but with the LEDs off it passed for normal.

The project came to my attention because of a flurry of feminist internet commentators noting the predictable sexist dismissal of her as a maker because her outfit was revealing and her figure is so striking.

Having more recently gotten interested in infosec, she built herself some James Bondian shoes with hidden chambers in the high wedge heels.

A handbag would be suspicious and leaving cell phones at the gate would be standard practice in any reasonably secure facility. My typical clothing does not leave room to hide anything- but that’s all the more reason they would not be suspicious of me ....

So. She's doing clever projects, and she has a sense of wit about her Sexy Lady style:

Any women with questions about teaching themselves online should feel free to contact me on Reddit and I’d be delighted to offer any help I can. Remember ladies— if you are thinking about becoming a Maker, learning to code or doing hardware; if a girl who looks like me can do it, how hard can it really be?
:-p

Edit:

Normally I have to sort though about 50% identical replies to my posts on Reddit. For those flexing their fingers and getting ready to give me a hard time:

  • Yes, they are fake.
  • Yes, I feature them prominently and deliberately in everything I do.
  • No, most of my projects do not have all that much technical merit- they are 90% silicone and 10% silicon ;-)
  • No, if you point out the absolutely obvious no one will think you are insightful, edgy or cool. They will think you are 12.

It seems like it might be worth keeping track of her to see what other projects she gets up to, so to have them handy, links to her on Reddit and Imgur.

22 August 2015

The new Apple file system

A friend was just complaining about the elimination of Save As from Apple's OS X.

In partial defense of Apple, this is a tragically half-baked execution of a good idea.

Save-as with prompt-before-overwrite are the two primitives necessary to allow users to roll their own system for doing organization and version management of their files. But frankly most people are not sophisticated about how they do that.

What you should have is a system of automatic saving, versioning, milestoning, organizing, searching, and mirroring to backup.

OS X is obviously working toward this, but the current state of things is an annoying mixed bag of levels of maturity. The incompleteness and incoherence make it a less satisfactory answer than the old Directories-And-Save-As regime ... if you understood how to use the old regime well.

  • Automatic saving: OS X just does this, now. Which is good on the merits, but spooky if you have developed habits around saving explicitly. And since some applications have not yet integrated automatic saving in the new system, you cannot yet abandon those habits.
  • Versioning: Uh, there's time-based automatic versioning in Time Machine. If you use that. Which of course you don't, for a host of reasons, not least because the versions it creates are not made available in the context of your authoring applications. To get at past versions of a file, you have to leap out of your working context and into hyperspace, which is reïnforced by Time Machine actually looking like hyperspace.
  • Milestoning: There's no structural support for this. Except for the clumsy Duplicate function, which isn't smart enough to identify for you which is the copy you left alone and which you started modifying ....
  • Organizing: Someone at Apple knows that nonexclusive labels are a better solution for organizing large collections than the hierarchical directory tree ... but OS X assumes you only need half a dozen labels, and provides weak support for using them, which makes them no replacement for the tree in the Finder at all.
  • Searching: Text content search in OS X is astonishingly fast and complete in Spotlight in OS X, but it doesn't provide any structure, it just recognizes everything with the search string in it. There's no wisdom about metadata in the search at all.
  • Mirror to backup: iCloud supposedly does this. But the process is Not Very Transparent, and iCloud has other weirdnesses, so it's impossible to fully trust it.

If anything, this current state of things makes managing files even more dependent upon getting clever with your file naming conventions.

13 August 2015

Christian Reconstructionism

A really good interview with Julie Ingersoll, who has written a book on Christian Reconstructionism, an influential religious and cultural movement which has a complex relationship with the Christian right.

Reconstructionists do engage in explicitly political work but they claim that what they see as the religious right’s over-emphasis on the role of civil government is itself humanistic and therefore doomed to fail.

What Reconstructionists envision is a multi-generational transformation that starts in families: families need to be reconstructed in terms of biblical patriarchy. Women need to be in submission to men; children need to be educated in the home to fulfil their specific roles in terms of the exercise of dominion. Churches should be comprised of godly patriarchal families in submission to church authority.

I spent a lot of time thinking through how it is that Reconstructionists claim the religious right has failed while I maintain that the Reconstructionists have had more influence than has been recognized. It seems to me that our standards vary. Reconstructionists are looking for thoroughgoing consistent application of biblical law to Christian life and they do not see that happening.

There's also an interview on Salon:

One thing that emerges in your book is how different their concept of freedom is from what’s commonly assumed in America today, and how the opposite of freedom is defined so differently as well — majority rule, and democracy as tyranny. This has emerged particularly in the rhetoric of “religious freedom” against gay marriage. So where does this concept of freedom come from and? And what does it entail?

That’s a good one. Some of it, at least philosophically or theologically, goes right back to that division between submission to the authority of God — and claiming authority for our own rationality. It goes right back there. So, for these Christians, the way they understand it, the only true freedom is freedom in submission to God. The thing that we might think of as freedom is actually conceived of as bondage to sin. And in some ways, if you say “Where does that come from,” it says that in the New Testament, right? That’s what Paul says. Paul is working with all of those inversions: to live is to suffer, and to die is gain. And the leaders are the servants. He inverts all kinds of categories in that way.

You also see some of this in the discussions about slavery. And there’s a good bit about that in the book. To me, this is one of the more interesting developments over the last decade. Because, on the one hand, you do have this real minimization of the horrors of slavery, and the wrongness of slavery. You have people talking about, “It wasn’t so bad,” and “These are actually Christian families” and “People were well treated,” and “They were better treated than they were in Africa,” you get all that kind of stuff. So actual, literal slavery gets a little whitewashed, if you pardon the word, while being required by the federal government to fill out a tax form is considered involuntary servitude and slavery, and that’s appalling! I don’t feel like going out tax forms any more than anyone else, but I don’t really think of it as actual slavery. But they talk about it that way.