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What color are your eyes?
Thursday, January 24, 2002  permanent URL for this entry

Sheesh, the entries this week have been kinda long, haven't they?

I think I'll make today's entry really short.   *8)

Wednesday, January 23, 2002  permanent URL for this entry

So tell me, is there any respectable linguistic community for whom "battery" is a subset of "generator"? The little daughter's science class is doing a unit on Electricity and Magnetism, and I've noticed some fascinating facts in the handouts she brings home.

Did You Know:

  • Batteries are tiny generators,
  • Generators are huge machines that make the electricity we need,
  • Voltage is the amount of current that flows through a circuit,
  • Current is the electricity that flows through a circuit,
  • It's important to keep magnets away from diskettes, hard drives, and CDs.

Arg! I'm kinda surprised no student said "my Daddy has a generator in the garage, and it's not huge"; that's the suburbs, I suppose.

Should I write this teacher a polite little note?

From a reader, Enron CEO Ken Lay's Newest Venture.

Xanga, yet another weblog-hosting site.

Bizarre image o' the Week (note the server name).

From chiles.org, Alf Garnett ("I depend on meat"). [Flash required]

Holy Napster, Batman! Amazon has free mp3 downloads. I heartily recommend Black Box Recorder's cover of "Seasons in the Sun" (from Entropy Tango).

See Figure One.

Obfuscation of the Week, from an executive presentation: "the cost point was much more advantaged versus the competition" (i.e. we were cheaper).

So last Tuesday I had breakfast at the usual corner Deli, and exchanged the usual friendly words with the proprietor, and then I left. I, in particular, forgot to pay. Ouch!

Then on Thursday the place was closed (sign in the window about "necessary repairs"), so I had breakfast down the street at the diner. Then yesterday morning the place was closed again (sign in the window about "staffing problems"), so I got breakfast (toasted onion bagel with lox spread, small coffee) from the bagel place. If the deli goes out of business with me owing them money, I'm going to feel Real Guilty.

Maybe I should just push some money under the door...

Tuesday, January 22, 2002  permanent URL for this entry

Philosophers as original and important as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida are forging new ways of speaking, not making surprising philosophical discoveries about old ones. As a result, they are not likely to be good at argumentation.

That's Rorty again, in "Deconstruction and Circumvention". For some reason this pair of sentences caused a minor lightbulb event in my brain (the setting up of a new neural circuit, the erosion of a final wall in some phase space allowing a new flow from here to there, a new shortcut). "Oh", some part of me says, "is that what's going on!"

I've always liked the parts of philosophy that center around being good at argumentation. I also like certain bits of the Other Kind of philosophy (my Junior Paper in Princeton was on "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and I had a good time writing it), but I've always had the feeling that they didn't quite Get It. Now it occurs to me (and probably not for the first time, but perhaps for the first time this cogently) that they're just Doing Something Else. (Slow on the uptake, aren't I?)

It's actually still Monday, technically, as I'm writing this (sitting in the back room with the little daughter who's just finishing Fellowship of the Ring, appliances humming friendly decades-long hums). I won't post it until tomorrow (today, Tuesday), though, so that's okay.

Now we have a long and utterly self-indulgent book review; don't you just love those?

I've finished "The Sky Road", the fourth of Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution novels. They were good, on balance. The best part is that this is (science fiction but more importantly) political fiction, by someone who seems to understand (or be able to tell a convincing story about, which might as well be the same thing) politics, revolutionary politics in particular. I like good political SF (ref "The Ungoverned", and various other titles that don't spring to mind), and it's not something you see every day.

(Some mild spoilers in the rest; warning to those who haven't read them and don't want mild spoilers.)

Each of the books has (among other things) a working anarchy. "The Star Fraction" has a basically capitalist anarchy, one of a bunch of idiosyncratic statelets in a balkanized England; it is swept away by events. "The Stone Canal" has another capitalist anarchy; this one works because everyone has a strong common interest (survival on a hostile planet). "The Cassini Division" has a socialist (or really post-economic) anarchy that works because the technology can produce everything anyone needs; no scarcity, no problem (ref. Banks' "Culture", at a lower but still sufficient level of tech). "The Sky Road" has a pastoral anarchy that works because everyone has cute accents and calls each other "lad" and "lassie". *8)

And time and the world are full of revolutions, which may or may not all be parts of the same Revolution. Through it all the Fourth International keeps something alive, although it's not clear what it is (the way the meaning and value of the word "Communist" change over time is one of the funnier and wiser bonbons in here).

But that description is incredibly superficial, and gives you little flavor of the actual richness and plausibility of MacLeod's history and politics and moral debate; you should read the books for that.

I found the tech less satisfying than the politics. Nanotech and virtual reality and AIs and uploaded minds and transhuman intelligences nominally play a large part in the story, but I was left feeling that they were mostly cardboard props for the more interesting politics. The scintillating posthuman intelligences in "The Star Fraction" play no actual role in the book, appearing on like five pages total and being (most implausibly) destroyed by an attack that they should really have been able to brush casually aside. The incredibly dangerous stored "fast folk" in "The Stone Canal" turn out to be trivally easy to restrain and implausibly willing to answer any questions put to them.

("These stored intelligences are incredibly dangerous! We can't possibly make use of them without a hugely expensive isolation system out in interplanetary space!"

"How about if we use them right here on the planet, taking some trivial precautions that anyone thinking seriously about it would have considered and dismissed in the first five minutes?"

"Oh, yeah, that'll work!"

"And then we can ask them some questions, and risk our entire civilization on the assumption that their answers are honest and without any hidden traps!"

"Yeah, good idea!")

And then the terrifying superevolved transhuman intelligences in "The Cassini Division" are destroyed by... Well, allow me to rant some more. There's this star system with an Earth-like planet, and the people who live there have diverted a bunch of water- and organic-bearing asteriods so that they land, many per day, in like a couple of wilderness lakes on the planet, and these clever robots harvest the useful stuff from the asteroids and send it to the cities through the canals.

The scary transhuman intelligences turn out to be bad guys when they try to take over some human brains...

("I know! Let's forcibly upload ourselves into the very same slow and unreliable containers that we struggled so hard to escape from at the very beginning of our evolution, and thereby make enemies of the only creatures that could possibly harm us!"

"Hey, great idea!")

...and the Good Guys destroy them by diverting that stream of asteriods through a wormhole so that it hits the planet that they (the transumans) live on. The catch is that the planet they live on (and that they seem pretty well spread out all over) is Jupiter. As I recall from Fifth Grade Astronomy class, Jupiter is a rather big planet; a stream of asteriods that was intended to impact safely on an Earthlike planet would not only fail to destroy an ultraevolved transhuman civilization spread out over the surface of Jupiter, it would probably not even be noticed. ("Did you hear a noise?")

And don't get me started on "electronic computation is inextricably linked to electric power generation, and can disrupt it in expensive and dangerous ways". Yeah, sure! I blacked out all of Northern Westchester just the other day by forgetting to increment the loop counter in a Perl script. Phht.

These tech things annoyed me sometimes while I was reading the novels, but overall it wasn't a big deal (I've nattered on about them at length here just to make myself feel clever and important). The personalities are well drawn (some of the characters living and growing, or not growing, convincingly over hundreds of years), the history and politics are interesting and plausible, and so is most of the tech down at the human (as opposed to the posthuman) level.

So I do recommend these books! I hope that if we ever do build scary posthuman intelligences that want to have us for lunch, they turn out to be this easy to foil. But I'm not betting on it...

Monday, January 21, 2002  permanent URL for this entry

I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners -- all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty -- and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.   --


Greetz to all those coming to the site after searching AltaVista for "Martin Luther King jr" (or "martin luther king" or "markint luther king"); of course they probably aren't reading this since they're back two years ago.

Somewhat astonishing that that page, with just one picture, one name, one "I have a dream" speech, should get into the Web search engines as a prime MLK hit. On the other hand, it is distressingly hard to find really good and complete stuff about him on the Web. NPR played an excerpt from a good sermon (that man could preach) that I wanted to quote, but I can't find it anywhere.

Now we all know that it's stupid to discriminate based on race. We know it's stupid to discriminate based on gender, or sexual orientation. People still do those things, but at least the Common Consensus is that it's stupid.

So what's next? What's the next group G such that people currently think "well, of course those in G can't do X", and some smallish number of decades from now the Common Consensus will be the opposite?

The differently-abled (the physically challenged, the lame the halt the blind) are one candidate. Things are a little different there, of course: I think the Current Consensus is that it's stupid to discriminate against them on things that they (we) can do, but then (pretty much by definition) there are things that they (we) can't do. N decades from now, will the Common Consensus reaction to that sentence be "even people as enlightened for their time as this obscure weblogger could not see beyond the assumptions of their era, to the fact that X" (for some currently invisible value of X)?

Children? Will some parts of our current treatment of children (the parts we think are correct, not the parts we think are bad) look evil and primitive to some future generation? ("As late as the twenty-first century, children were forbidden to exercise their natural inclinations in areas as diverse as fly-fishing and news broadcasting, as well as being forced to wear athletic socks.")

What about clones? The problem there is that (except for the glowing red eyes and radioactive tentacles) you can't tell clones from non-clones. So it's hard to imagine how prejudice worth a civil-rights movement would arise. But people are unfortunately ingenious about these things.

Animals? That's a promising one; I definitely want to say "well, it's different with animals, since they can't speak for themselves, and the basis of animal rights is quite different from the basis for human rights", and that's definitely the sort of thing that an old-thinking barbarian would say.

Cyborgs? Space aliens? Genetically-enhanced non-human primates? People born with sub-standard cognitive abilities whose minds are housed half in their brains and half in the nanocomputers on their shoulders? We don't have any of these things yet, but it seems likely that at least some people will be prejudiced against them.

Artificial intelligences in general? That's a reasonably common SF theme. I discovered that I have mysteriously strong feelings along these lines many years ago in a discussion group, when we were talking about AI, and a group of dissenters claimed forcefully that not only could computers never "really" be intelligent, but if they someday "seemed" intelligent (and to have preferences, plans, goals, and so on) they would still not have any rights. The visceral strength of my revulsion at this claim tells me which side of the barricades my sympathies will be on, if barricades there ever are.

Porn Corner; a reader writes:

What's your take on [link] and [link]?

Not a whole lot, really. In the first one, an investigative novelist does an exhaustive and scientific study of hard-core porn by buying three videos as a sleazy local skinshop and watching the first half of each one. She concludes that they're really bad, and that porn is therefore a bad thing that we should teach our children to abhor. As opposed to erotica, which is a good thing.

If she's simply saying "I like some naughty films better than others, and most of what you can get in a random skinshop these days is really bad", I tend to agree. I like the fact that she doesn't think outlawing porn is the answer to the problem. I'm a little nervous about the suggestion that there's a "problem" at all. The headline on the story says that the author "shows why hardcore porn is repulsive, demeaning and dangerous". The fact that she really only says that she doesn't like it, and allows that it shouldn't be outlawed, won't keep the headline from being added to the clipping collections of the pro-censorship crowd.

The other piece is just sad. A woman who is apparently not getting along very well with her husband (or with her own self-image) finds some porn pictures on his computer, and eagerly and vituperatively dumps all the sadness and anger and guilt she feels about the relationship onto the porn, and the sex chatrooms. Her grief spills over onto modern culture in general, and she ends up wondering "whether al-Qa'eda might have been right all along".

That last puts her rather beyond the pale, but still you have to feel sorry for her. On the other hand, the piece contains absolutely zero rational content (if that's what you were asking!). So I'm not going to try to write a rational refutation; there's not anything there solid enough to refute.

From Center-Right, The Enron Scandal: A Guide. Depressingly realistic:

4. In five years, no one will remember this. Well, no one except political junkies, and even they will have trouble keeping the details straight. (Don't believe me? Try naming all 5 of the "Keating Five" and explaining what they were supposed to have done wrong; explain the Jim Wright scandal; tell me what the prosecution of James Beggs was about and why he was acquitted. No fair using Google.)

But enough about mere politics and sex! Let's talk about something important: Licorice.

Where can I score some really good, dark, bitter, melt-in-your-mouth black licorice? I bought a bag of something at the grocery, and if you suck on them long enough they start to have a little flavor, but that just got me hungrier. I bought a bag of somethings at the candy store in the Mall; they're soft and gooey, and the flavor is stronger, and they have that SMELL, but they aren't quite melting.

Anyone have a source for the Real Stuff?

Friday, January 18, 2002  permanent URL for this entry

A spammer writes:

Top Airline Executive with over 30 years at a major U.S. Airline declares endorsement and joins Advisory Board." This Executive? unique grasp of the travel industry will prove invaluable to our company? immediate growth?

Problem with? punctuation? Kinda funny? I thought?

Indirectly from geegaw, I highly recommend Answers to examination questions ("41. (a) Rigid pillow block bearing;") and for that matter lots of the other odd pages surrounding it.

Another spammer writes, apparently to someone else:

Dear, Mr. kgschu,

100 MILLION EMAILS + Bulk Mailing Software For Only $99.95
      super low price!

Have I violated federal postal regulations by opening mail intended for Mr. kgschu?


But anyway! Actual readers have sent in lots of good stuff in my request last week for comments on the latest pictures. A few are deep and enigmatic:

Rising in a small town, teat, but which way to go? Down the obvious and seductive path? To be trapped amid the berries and bassoons? To see myself (my "self")? Or is winter coming?

Eighty-five severed heads could not change the hallway flags, boy.

Mirror, mirror, on my car, whose blog's fairest, then, by far?

People liked some of the pictures:

Light on the leaves. Light under the porch. Light yogurt.

I particularly like the pictures of snow and ice. It's much nicer to look at pictures of snow and ice than to be out in them.

Glad someone noticed the light yogurt. *8) How much outside (nature) photography is good to look at because you wish you were there, and how much because you're glad you're not? (And how much some of both?)

Snow, night - beautiful!

I like that one, too. There's so much I don't know about light! The "Snow, night" one is a leading contender in my mind for the next photo.net critique.

yellow hydrant
wet reflection

that was a random reaction, after going through quickly and letting my eye land. it's intuitive and fun to do that sometimes...not think too hard, you know? later i might go look again and wonder why my eye liked those so much.

There's a deep question we may dare to touch later; what makes eyes like a picture? Les yeux ont leurs raisons que la raison ne connait point.

"The sun lit up the ice" and "light under the porch" are my particular favourites, maybe its all about the play of light and shadows, but I think it is also about looking at the small pieces of the world that we don't often see. - good pics David

Thanks very! I'm extremely fond of obscure small pieces of the world. I wonder why?

Someone who's clearly not me writes:

If it were me (which is a faintly ridiculous thing to say, as it's clearly not) I would put up "Light under a porch" and "Wet reflection". Those are very good compositionally, and also are very nice to look at. I didn't like "yogurt", there seems to be a problem with the focal length that causes the flourescent lamp to bend down into the rest of the picture and spoil the perspective of the shelves extending back, it also has poor definiton on the pots after a short distance, adding a cluttered look.

It's very interesting though how "porch" and "yogurt" although very similar in concept and composition, can work so differently. Maybe if the lamp hadn't been there in "yogurt" the picture would be more effective.

Those two (Porch and Wet) are popular; I like them too. "Yogurt" is sort of a funny one (both odd, and somewhat humorous in intent); the camera did some curious things (note how I blame the poor camera), but I like the (what?) delirious effect. Goes well with the whole Grocery Store experience.

Now a dissenting voice who didn't like the pictures. I very much value this kind of comment; but that doesn't mean I don't get all snarky and defensive. *8)

Sorry, these are not good photos. They are snapshots.

Consider this: the photographer's main job is cutting away, selecting what NOT to depict. He has the whole world in front of him -- any picture is a decision to ignore, cut away the rest of the world. Thus a photographer must cut away everything extraneous to his main point.

Your pictures are snapshots of reality with little visible effort to make them anything more. Most are too cluttered, have too many distracting elements. There is no point in them -- they are just what happened to catch your eye this day -- so what?

Take your orange hydrant image. Probably you were interested just in the shape and color of the hydrant. In this case the background is horribly intruding and distracting. This could probably be fixed in Photoshop -- try blurring and/or desaturating it. A closer crop would also help. If it's meant to be a geometric shape, make it a geometric shape, not a street scene!

Or maybe the colors/patterns of the houses in the background are important, too. In that case, since you are obviously shooting for symmetry, you should have taken more care with lining up the shot.

Again, sorry, but IMAO your verbal skills are much better than your visual skills.

I'll read that first sentence as "I didn't like these pictures": saying "this isn't a good photograph / isn't art / isn't a good song, it's a snapshot / a doodle / just noise" may give a personal opinion some odor of objectivity, but (IMHO!) it doesn't do it very well.

Similarly for "the photographer's main job is...". You don't really get to decide (and I don't really get to decide) what the photographer's main job is; there are as many ideas of that as there are photographers (or photography projects, or pairs of eyes).

But if I read that as "it's really important in projects like this one to decide what to leave out", I'll agree with you. Especially when you're out in the world rather than in the studio, and especially when you're going for tightish effects (whatever I mean by that!) it is important to leave stuff out.

Little visible effort to make the pictures anything more than snapshots of reality; I can accept that. Is it a virtue to have visible effort? Do good photographs make it look hard? *8) Sometimes I like clutter, sometimes I don't. Sometimes (often!) I like mere snapshots of reality (for some value of "snapshot"). It's okay if you don't; that helps make the world interesting.

I would claim that I do choose what to leave out of the picture, though. Three times per picture, in fact: I frame the scene in the camera, I decide which of the hundreds of shots I've taken are worth doing something more with (the digital camera is great for that, film-cost wise), and then I do more or less fiddling in Photoshop or whatever to get the picture the way I want it. The fiddling is more less than more; I don't see myself as doing computer-enhanced photography. And, as I noted, these last fifteen pictures didn't even want to be cropped. But I did ask them! They aren't uncropped due to carelessness, or to a lack of knowing how.

Just what happened to catch my eye today -- so what? So what, indeed! What else must / should / can / might a picture be? What are pictures supposed to do, and how can you tell if one has done it? How different are my criteria from yours, and how much does that matter?

Thanks for the comments on the hydrant specifically. I wasn't going for a raw geometric shape (otherwise I would have, as you suggest, given it a different background). I was going for the street scene, the play of colors, the contrast between the colorful rectangles in the background and the bright curve in the foreground. I wasn't shooting for perfect symmetry; perfect symmetry would be too low-energy for this picture. I wonder if you might enjoy the pictures more if you just looked at them, rather than trying to guess what the photographer was trying to do?

(Not that I think this is the perfect Fire Hydrant Picture, or that I'm a skilled photographer already; I'm just resisting the suggestion that it's a completely random shot.)

But I really do appreciate the critique, even if I think it somewhat misses the mark. If you'd like to say similar things about any of the other pictures, I'd be glad to listen. Upon request I will also either post and discuss the comments in the log or not, as you prefer.

So what are photographs for? This seems to be a very deep puzzle, one that expands to take in what fiction is for, what dance is for, what art is for, what life is for. I finished (reading) a short story the other day, and I was dissatisfied with it, and I thought to myself "well, these people did these things, but so what?". Now that question doesn't really make any sense; it can just as easily be asked about stories that I love. "Hills Like White Elephants": these people are waiting for a train, maybe the woman is pregnant, so what?

So what?

Some stories, some pictures, make us feel like we've been somewhere else, somewhere interesting, somewhere of which our mammalian novelty-sensors say "yes, that was good, do that again, learn more things". Some stories, some sculpture, remind us of things that we've loved, or enjoyed, or forgotten, things that put parts of our brains, our minds, into states that they've been in before, and that cause us pleasure. Some dances, some pictures, suggest new ways of thinking about things, new ways of looking at the world.

And then apart from all that (or not apart from all that?) there's the completely subjective experience of the aesthetic, of beauty broadly construed, the way the eye just likes a color or a shape or a curve, the way the mind just likes a story.

So there are different ways art can be good, different things we can get from it. Is there something that unifies all those ways? Or does art fill a disjoint set of needs? If you and I both think a picture, a dance, is good, how often is it because we both get the same (or roughly the same) thing out of it? How often do we get completely different things out of it, and (in some sense) mean completely different things by "good"?

("Here's an idea: the only reason we look the same is because we've both adapted to exploit a similar niche -- in truth we are com-plete-ly different...")

Oh, and my verbal skills are better than my visual? I agree completely. *8)

Thanks to all for writing; keep those shards and fetters coming!

(In particular, if anyone would like to recommend a photographer or a photography site that does whatever it is really well, please write; I'll post any submissions here for all to explore.)


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