blarg?

Reflected Sky 4

I haven’t seen these ideas together in one place, but I think it’s a noteworthy observation. Brought on by David Eaves’ recent link to an old post of his about why policy matters in politics, I thought I’d mention this:

The Overton Window is a brilliantly cynical public-policy manipulation tool named for its creator, who noted that “priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and remain unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison. The degrees of acceptance of public ideas can be described roughly as:”

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

If you’ve been watching American politics recently, you might have thought that Ron Paul is obviously nuts but, well, y’know, he’s no Michelle Bachmann, so there is that. And yeah, that’s exactly how that works.

What he didn’t note is that from a practical standpoint this involves publishing, promoting, accomodating and legitimizing people who are completely fucking crazy, and those people don’t just disappear in a puff of frothing lunacy when you’re done getting your newly moderate-seeming views enshrined in law.

He also neglected to mention how quickly that can drag your entire party away from anything vaguely resembling rational policy towards a situation where dogmatic adherence to whatever the pants-on-head-craziest son of a bitch around feels like getting frothed up about is the most important thing ever.

So what ends up happening is you get your Republican Revolution, sure, but crazy guy and all his friends still have their podiums, newspaper columns or talk shows, and it’s probably the best gig the crazy guys will ever get so they’re going to ride it like a pony. And that’s what I think we’re seeing now in the US on the right side of the aisle; the degenerate case of Overton-style political machinations, the last vestiges of anything that isn’t gibbering insanity, crazy that can only beget more crazy.

Fred Clark has a great post up, about the intellectual drift that lets you coast downhill from lying to plain old black-helicopters-and-illuminati nuts, but I wanted to point out that this isn’t an accident – like most great evils, it’s not just about one person’s decision (though it is) or about another’s complicity (though it is), it’s also about the engine built up around those decisions that gives them weight and momentum, that makes it harder to stop or derail and eventually even steer the politics they advance. And in a country with hundreds of millions of people in it, there’s enough crazy around to keep that motor running an awfully long time.

Which is all to say, when you see brain-damaged demagogues like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann at the helm of what used to be a respectable political party, that’s all part of the plan. But that plan was designed by people without the foresight to understand what they’d put in motion.

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Nearing Sundown

I own a DSLR and take a lot of pictures, which makes me an authority on the subject of cameras and photography, and guarantees that every time my shutter snaps, magic happens. It said so right there on the receipt.

Now, that is obvious nonsense, but I get asked a lot of questions about cameras anyway. I carry around an SLR sometimes, so people ask me what camera should I buy or how do I take better pictures, just a bunch of stuff I don’t always have answers for. Honestly: my occasional hobby is buying cheap, weird old lenses and filters off Craigslist and seeing what kind of pictures I can take with them, because I think not knowing how things are going to turn out is fun, but that’s the extent of my qualifications.

I take a lot of pictures, go me, and some of them come out OK.

Focused

But this little rant was brought on when I saw someone just recently with obviously no idea what they were buying drop two grand on a camera they’ll likely never really use, much less take a decent picture with. The most cringeworthy bit was when the person asked which, of a prime or zoom lens, would “take better pictures”.

So I thought I should get this out there. Having done this in an amateur capacity for two or three years, here’s entirety of my thinking on buying and using cameras.

The first thing is: don’t buy a DSLR. Just don’t. Get yourself a competent point-and-shoot. Don’t skimp on the memory card; buy a large one from a reputable brand, but buying last year’s cameras on sale is a good idea. Don’t spend a lot of money; just learn to use it well enough that you can go from off and in your pocket to on and taking pictures in one motion with one hand. Fiddle around with the menus until you’ve turned off digital zoom and the flash, carry it with you wherever you go, and when you see something you’d like to take a picture of, take a picture of it.

Gate And Sky

Take lots and lots and lots of pictures. Don’t take the kind of pictures you think you should take; take pictures of the things you find interesting. You’re taking the whole picture, not just the subject; frame the subject in the shot. Move around, just for the change in perspective, and take more pictures.

You can expect to take a few dozen or hundred pictures for every one that’s even kind of good, and strangely as you get more experienced that number will get higher, not lower; the bar you set for yourself will get higher faster than you improve. But now that pictures are just about free that’s a good thing: failure is more informative than success when you’re just starting out. The Rule Of Thirds will get you a long way here, so keep it in mind.

Phone

So by and large what kind of pictures are you taking? What works well, what doesn’t? What is great, what isn’t and why? Are you zoomed all the way in most of the time, or all the way out? Are they mostly scenery, mostly people? Plants, cars? Are they mostly moving, or are they sitting still for you? With that information, do you still enjoy taking pictures?

Are you still interested in getting better at this? If so, and with all that information, consider buying yourself a DSLR, maybe.

You can blow up a 6 megapixel shot to a 20″x30″ print and they look great, so megapixels are an irrelevant metric. This is doubly true in this modern age where virtually all your picture-viewing happens on a screen; your top-of-the-line 1080p HDTV is a whopping two megapixels; extremely expensive computer monitors might go as high as three. All cameras, and indeed almost all lenses, have been better than that for a couple of years.

Buy used, if you have that option; expensive cameras do not promise good photos, and digital camera prices drop like a rock. I shoot Nikon, but from what I hear the rule of thumb is “If you shoot things that are mostly moving, Canon. If you’re shooting things that mostly aren’t, Nikon”. That said, when you see a guy winning a Pulitzer with a $30 piece-of-crap Holga, you’ve got to know that ultimately the technology is secondary. If you’ve had your point-and-shoot for a year and haven’t shot a few thousand pictures with it, looked at them and thought about them, don’t buy anything, why are you even doing this? If you don’t go places just to take pictures of whatever’s there, don’t waste your money; if you don’t take a lot of photos, having a lot of camera won’t help.

Self

If you’re buying the camera as a kit, as entry-level DSLRs are often sold, you will often have the option to upgrade to a slightly better zoom lens. Did your point and shoot spend all its time zoomed all the way in, while you took pictures of stuff a ways away? If so, and if you have the means, spring for the longer lens. If not, save your money and in a couple of weeks or months buy the cheapest prime lens you can find.

Paint Over Concrete

You now have more camera than you’ll likely ever need. You can learn a lot about the bells and whistles that modern cameras provide, but my advice is to the same as it was for the point-and-shoot; set it to JPEG-Fine and no-flash and take lots and lots more pictures. Keep your point-and-shoot in your pocket anyway; as always, the best camera you can get is the one that will be in your hand when the shot comes along.

If anyone has any other advice, I’d love to hear it. That’s all I have.

Chain Links

I’ve been thinking about this for a bit, but finding this Onion article among other recent news spurred me to get it written up.

Google has impressed me on a couple of fronts recently; the first was their quite prompt about-face with respect to the Buzz default settings. I was surprised at how quickly – about two days – it took to turn that all the way around; their Buzz feature now suggests rather than shares by default, and the options for turning it all the way off are much easier find and use.

The second is that now, on their flagship portable OS, they’ve made installing “unapproved” software – as in “unvetted by Google”, as in “actually owning your own phone” – a decision you can make with a single checkbox. Phone manufacturers and telcos are doing their best to mess this up for people, in the traditional manner: installing old versions of Android, locking them down and just generally making products as crappy as they can before selling them to people who don’t know better.

This shouldn’t sound like I’m coming down on people for not understanding the guts of their portable electronics, because that’s not what I mean; to clarify, I mean that people are going to see “Android” on the side, and expect to get the benefits of an up-to-date version of Android. You don’t expect to see that laptop you bought from Dell last week to arrive with Windows For Workgroups on it, you know? A while ago, I said:

Boy, ChromeOS (and, indeed, Android) has a rocky future ahead of it. Just recently, Google pulled out their increasingly dog-eared copy of the Classic Microsoft playbook and started putting the screws to their Android clients in a move seasoned veterans of the Microsoft desktop space will find immediately familiar. “We have no intention of developing a competing product. Please, use our OS. Go right ahead, we have no intention of developing a competing product. None. Did I mention we’re not going to sell a phone? Use Android, love Android, let us help you use Android and love Android. Invest heavily in Android. Oh, you did? Great! Check out the new Google Phone! Isn’t it awesome?”

And I still think that was a dick move, but Motorola has since gone ahead and used an older version of Android to build a crappy, locked-down proprietary-goop-laden phone, reverting to the Motorola norm by taking beautifully-made hardware, pouring the worst software they can all over it and completely and utterly justifying said dick-movery. Google has, whatever the political risks of alienating their collaborators, built their own phone with the best software on it that they can provide, that you can buy directly from them. They’ve put a stake in the ground and said this is what Android can be, unlocked, free and open, and they’ve put their name on the side.

The last, and biggest one is that Google has started redirecting searches done on Google.CN to Google.com.HK – search, news and images – to provide uncensored results to Chinese citizens.

I don’t have a clear view of how this is going to play out – playing “this is perfectly legal” with a country that sanctions the black-market sale of the organs of executed dissidents seems to me an extraordinarily risky move, particularly when you’re doing it by turning China’s semi-balkanized internal politics against it. But to take that stand and assume that risk as a matter of principle is extraordinary, very nearly unheard of in a world where your typical large corporation will fall all over itself to collaborate with corrupt or oppressive governments when there’s a whiff of profit to be made, assuming they’re not the one doing to corrupting and oppressing themselves.

To borrow a line from a friend, it’s pretty shocking how much of the future depends on Google not being evil; open systems at a time when everyone else is building high-walled, tightly-controlled gardens, drawing bright lines about who they’re willing to cooperate with when most companies are racing to be the best collaborators they can be, offering security and uncensored information to their customers instead of just trying to monetize them… decisions like these, made for ideals beyond profit, are not exactly the common parlance these days, but they get more important all the time.

A few years ago, I said:

Any digital forums that allow public participation are either:

  • Gated communities, or
  • Running firefights.

[...] It follows that, for a piece of socialware to survive widespread uptake it must have mechanisms in place that provide its primary administrators with:

  • walls, and/or

  • guns.

… and I’m relieved that guns of the calibre Google can level aren’t pointed back at us.

Have a comment? The original article is here.

Things have been a little thin on the ground here at Mountain Fortress Blarg, and while I have no good reasons, perhaps an excuse or two might do in their stead. Dave Humphrey recently linked to an article on composing, which David Byrne closes by saying:

“But one might also ask: Is writing ever NOT collaboration? Doesn’t one collaborate with oneself, in a sense? Don’t we access different aspects of ourselves, different characters and attitudes and then, when they’ve had their say, switch hats and take a more distanced and critical view — editing and structuring our other half’s outpourings? Isn’t the end product sort of the result of two sides collaborating? Surely I’m not the only one who does this?”

And surely he’s not, but when those other aspects of yourself won’t shut the hell up for a few minutes so you can get some damn writing done, it isn’t always this pleasant coffeeshop chat about this fine spring day’s occurrences. It’s not that I have less time to write, strictly speaking; it’s the two or three hours of staring at my keyboard, clenching my jaw and vibrating in place until my eyes bleed that I don’t have.

According to Sartre “hell is other people”, which makes me think his internal monologue was very different from mine. Let me tell you: managing those jackals is work. Other people are comparatively well mannered.

Anyway, here are a few pictures of the reason I don’t have that time anymore. She continues to be 100% adorable, and her quickly-improving mobility continues to be 100% some elaborate German word that denotes bursting with pride about something which also terrifies you. We’ve already hit “Baby’s First Circumvented Security Measure”, thankfully to no particular harm, and so now the arms race begins.

Soon

Hoist

Eyes

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The Abyss Googlies Also Into You

I have no great insight why this would be – a childhood watching Sesame Street and the Muppets, maybe? – but for some reason the tiny dose of anthropomorphic surrealism you get from finding a pair of googly-eyes looking at you from somewhere unexpected can turn a rough day all the way around.

Thank you, person-putting-googly-eyes-on-random-stuff-in-my-neighborhood. Whoever you are I salute you.

Noonish

I’ve just wrapped up Assassin’s Creed 2, and my goodness.

(There’s some spoilers here, but nothing severe.)

If you’d said to me a few months ago, you know Hoye, Parkour seems like a lot of fun, but you know what would make it even better? Stabbing your way through a Templar conspiracy in Renaissance Italy. With a heavy dollop of science fiction spooned over the top. I would have said, that does sound kind of neat, but I don’t see how those things could possibly go together?

And I would have been wrong! They are terrific together, and AC2 is a great game. There’s running about, there’s the sneaking and the stabbing that I love so and you periodically get to punch minstrels just for being minstrels, which puts a small-minded, mean-spirited smile on my face every single time. So much so that even though it advances the story not a whit, sometimes I just wander around Venice, seeing the sights and looking for minstrels to punch.

Maya doesn’t play this game with me, incidentally, but when the time comes I will tell her that even though you shouldn’t hit people even if they’re asking for it, unsolicited lute-playing definitely constitutes asking for it.

The ending is pretty weak, though in principle it doesn’t seem like it should be; honestly, what could be bad about a fistfight with the Pope? But it does feel like the game betrays itself in a number of ways in the last hour; ending a beautiful open-world stealth-and-free-running game by pushing you down a long hallway is bad enough, but having to butcher your way through a bunch of stand-up fights you’ve been explicitly trying to avoid the whole game, culminating with a boss fight? It’s really too bad, particularly considering it resorts to the old, put down-your-weapons-we-do-this-like-men cliché to give you a boss fight that’s a lot more like punching a fat minstrel than anything related to the core gameplay.

Without giving too much away though it’s right about here that the narrative decides to play the long ball, something good enough to forgive a bit of lax design in the gameplay. So I’m going to pick up AC3 when the time comes, for sure.

I should tell you though, the bigger and prettier video games get the more distressed I am that all these huge, glorious open-world environments are essentially one-off, unrevisitable, single-use things; there’s no way revisit Rapture, for example, no matter how pretty it was, without being assaulted by the same locals again. The lost wastes and huge castles of Ico or Shadow Of The Colossus, the magical brass-and-oak detail of Riven, the blown out dystopias of the Fallout series or the shiny, polished futurism of Mass Effect and Halo, they’re just built, used once and abandoned; there’s no way to build on those enormous efforts, to curate or extend or even just revisit existing virtual spaces.

Which is just horribly, horribly sad, I think.

Have a comment? The original article is here: http://exple.tive.org/blarg/?p=2152

Gate And Sky

I’ve been reviewing a couple of the predictions and pieces of advice I’ve given people about tech in the last year, just to see how I did.

In April, I said don’t buy anything, because:

  • Pixel Qi will start shipping their awesome screens in late 2009. As of now, they’re apparently cranking them out, but they’re not available at street level yet. They really are awesome, though, so I hope to see them soon; so not false, but definitely not timely advice.
  • ARM processors are going to be all over. On this, a resounding sort of! They’re not everywhere, and not a significant player in the subnotebook/netbook space because you can’t run Windows on them. But they’re the go-to for the increasingly smart smartphones of the world, so there is that.
  • nVidia’s ION platform is coming out. Which it did! And it’s also pretty awesome, and while it didn’t appear in a ton of portables, it did appearing in a bunch of “net-top” boxes and small-form-factor PCs. So, one unqualified yes.
  • Windows 7 is going to ship and be good. It did, and it really is. Two! Two yesses, ah ah ah ah ah!
  • Apple is going to come out with a next-gen iPhone, a tablet of some kind, and more affordable iMac. So, two for three there, with the cruel fault of logic being thinking Apple would aim for “affordable”, ever. The 3GS shipped that summer, and while it was much later, the iPad was announced a few weeks ago. Hardly timely, that last bit, for which I will award myself only part marks.
  • Palm will be releasing the Pre, and the EOS, now called the “Pixie”. Which they did, go me. It depends on who you ask, but if you took away the App Store and the Apple marketing juggernaut, the Pre would be a legitimate contender in the smartphone arena. But you can’t, so they’re in the process of doing what scrappy underdogs usually do, and getting stomped in the marketplace. Which is a shame, because the Pre is a pretty good product.
  • Nokia will ship something running Maemo. Which they did, also go me. It’s called the N900, and it’s pretty shockingly good except for the fact that Nokia strangely refuses to build enough of them or market them at all.

So, dropping a full point for Pixel Qi not making it to stores and half a point each for the general half-assedness of the ARM and Apple predictions, let us say five out of seven. And the “November or so” timeline I gave seems to have been born out for many, but not all of them – the iPad was came later, and didn’t use the Pixel Qi screen I’d been hoping it would. So, let us say 5.5 out of 8.

Trippy Monster Will Trip You

On the subject of open software, I also said that “unless Windows Mobile 7 is at least as good as iPhone OS 1, then the walled-garden fuck-you-and-your-freedom model wins. Which makes me really sad, because the alternatives to the Microsoft approach right now are way, way worse.” Windows Phone 7 as it’s now called is apparently not Windows Mobile at all – it’s slated to ship around Christmas of this year, won’t be compatible with any software from any previous version of Windows Mobile and the development environment for it was just announced to be Silverlight/XNA.

Which translated into English means Windows Mobile doesn’t exist anymore; this is a Zune Phone, but they’ve decided to stamp “Windows Phone” on it so it’s not associated with that boat-anchor of a media player. But why not build your own little snow-globe of a software ecosystem out of the leftovers of a failed media player a Flash knockoff?

I mean, who wouldn’t want that?

One thing I did say a while ago was that the Zune brand would continue to be an albatross around the neck of that company and that the management of their entertainment division needs to be keelhauled, which continues to be very, very true, and now they’re gearing up to throw the Windows Mobile development community under the same short Zune Bus they drove over their PlaysForSure efforts.

So all told that’s a relatively arbitrary 6.5 out of an entirely arbitrary 9, a little shy of a 75% success rate.

A friend of mine recently expressed some shock when I told him that I have no problem at all with my daughter playing video games, but I’d rather she not watch television. “Really”, he said?

Life Skills

Yeah, really. And the more TV hits me in the eyes the more convinced I am that I’m entirely in the right.

From a practical standpoint, video games have a lot of things going for them. They’re either in the house or they’re not, for one; you don’t worry too much about your kid stumbling over something with wildly objectionable content. And more importantly the content I find most objectionable about television is the advertising. Video games don’t by and large spend eight minutes of every half hour of use shivving advertising into your child’s eyes, which is unambiguously a win.

And they’re participatory! You can play games with your child, either by taking turns or cooperatively, and more and more of these games can be fun, rewarding experiences for all involved. When was the last time you were done watching television and thought, we did that? We beat the bad guys together, we finished that quest together, we win?

And if my daughter is ever going to drive a Lamborghini into a concrete wall at 250mph I’d rather it be in Gran Turismo, frankly.

More philosophically but also of tier-one importance to me is that video games (especially of the open-world variety) don’t just offer you a choice, but the act of playing them forces you to make choices. There’s no detached voyeurism here and you are not, either in which games you have or in actually playing them, absolved of your own agency in this process.

I’m sure that Mcluhanites or some other school of metamedia junkies have some better word for this, but medical and crime-scene dramas are just about the canonical example of what I’ve been referring to, for lack of a better term, as “agency porn”. Pretty, driven people with morals and ideals and goals on the screen, having these heavy emotional relationships the viewer can turn off with a button, doing ostensibly important work you’ll never do and periodically splattered with entrails that don’t belong to anyone you care about; pornography of a life of decision and consequences, instead of sex.

A Fistful Of Noodle

These things are consumed without the least input or interaction, uncritically. And I am 100% convinced that if you watch enough of these it skews your view of the world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the startling rise of helicopter parenting, overprotectionism and the general pushback to letting kids have any kind of personal freedom has happened at the same time as these viscerally vivid crime dramas about child abductions and serial killers have moved towards being on TV 24/7.

I want no part of any of that. I mean, it’s hardly news that if you pick the right channels, you can watch CSI-alikes that makes A Clockwork Orange’s “ultraviolence” look like a pillowfight from noon to midnight on any given day, but just as an aside: Christmas day of 2009, A&E decided to run a 24-hour CSI marathon. 24 hours of murder-porn on Christmas day; way to go, A&E. I’m not saying it was better when I was a kid, because it wasn’t, but when I was a kid it also wasn’t possible to watch formulaic murder-porn nonstop through the Christmas holidays.

Sure, there are games like the Grand Theft Auto or Gears Of War series’ out there, but they’re big-kid games you don’t get free with basic cable. (In GTA3, you can just walk down to the hospital, take an ambulance and drive around picking people up and driving them back to the ER, if that’s what you really want to do. Which might be where all the chum they grind through in those medical dramas comes from, now that I think about it.) And I am not even a little opposed to the existence of games like the (awesome) God Of War series or (the awesome) Assassin’s Creed 2; I’m just saying that there a distinction to be made between pornography, art and harmless, healthy fun, as much in violence and its various portrayals as in sex, and an age to start finding out about all of it.

But it is critically important to me that Maya knows that what she sees on the screen is there by choice, and that she engages media in a way that allows and encourages choice. I think those choices are deeply hidden by regular television and I firmly believe that worse than the greed, the obscene violence and routine debasement, worse than the crappy writing and the idiotic commercials is the habit of passive acceptance cultivated by the viewer’s perfect inability to engage.

Science!

And I want to introduce her to this stuff on mom and dad’s schedule, deliberately, not by some accident of numbed channel surfing. And besides, when she thinks she’s ready (maybe, maybe not, maybe almost…) for something Dad doesn’t approve of? That’ll probably be a negotiation and a half, and an interesting day for sure. But she’ll have to go after it, it’s not just going to roll in here on its own.

Which will be kind of the point.

Have a comment? The original article is here.

I apologize for the long absence, cult following. Between moving back into our basement and wrangling a now very mobile daughter, I have been busy aplenty.

Hooray For Standing

So yeah, that. It’s busymaking.

Also, I believe that this is not made clear to prospective fathers, but it turns out you don’t get to keep that cozy little man cave you’ve built for yourself once the kid is old enough to be mobile. It becomes “the playroom”, and you pretty much have to suck it up and childproof whatever sliver of territory you don’t cede outright.

She seems quite happy to be puttering around in it, so there is that.