December 22, 2011


Filed under: academic,lunacy,science — mhoye @ 11:27 pm

According to Wolfram Alpha, there are 2.9 x 10^6 dietary calories in a cubic meter of cheese, 142829% of your recommended daily caloric intake.

Furthermore, there are 8.468×10^47 cubic meters in a cubic light year. From this, we can conclude that there are 2.455 x 10^54 dietary calories in a cubic light year of cheese.

According to NASA the sun produces 3.8 x 10^33 ergs/sec or roughly 3.8 x 10^26 joules/sec. Over the course of a year that adds up to approximately 6.065 x 10^37 joules of energy.

One dietary calorie or “kilocalorie” equals about 4180 joules. Doing the math we conclude it will take 1.7 x 10^20 years for our sun to generate the same amount of energy as a cubic light year of cheese.

Be warned, however, that at 977 kilograms per cubic meter, or 8.27 × 10^50 kilograms per cubic light year, the Schwarzchild Radius of a cubic light year of cheese would be 1.23 × 10^24 meters, significantly greater than the 9.46 x 10^15 meters in a light year. From this we can conclude that a cubic light year of cheese, should that somehow manifest itself, will immediately collapse into a black hole.

So while you would think a cubic light year of cheese would be the obvious choice over the sun, if you are presented with a choice between them, the numbers suggest you would be far better off choosing the sun.

These numbers assume cheese of approximately constant density. Swiss cheeses require much more sophisticated modelling.

(This article has been updated to reflect a comment from Jin, seen below, who notes that Wolfram returns dietary calorie units, which is to say kilocalories, rather than simply calories. The original claim, that it would take the sun 1.7 x 10^17 years to generate the same amount of energy as is contained in a cubic light-year of cheese was inaccurate, and has been corrected above. The author sincerely regrets any inconvenience this may have caused.)

October 17, 2011

Shooting Holes In The Story

I don’t think I’m actually done this, so just pretend it’s a late draft. I might try to tighten it up later, but here you go; I hope you’re interested. Yeah, this is still about Portal 2, so bear with me. It’s not like Gears Of War deserves to be dissected like this, you know?

I’ve been spending some time chasing this idea around in the bowels of the Aperture Science facility, taking copious notes as I wander through the middle bits of Portal 2 again. There’s some important context here that it may help to be familiar with, but just playing through Portal 1 and 2 should be plenty.

It’s probably because I’m sentimental, but to my mind an important thing about Quest- or FPSRPGs that doesn’t get much attention, at least as far as video games is concerned, is that you actually are playing a role. Video games differ fundamentally from most narratives (and are closer to real life, in this sense) in that you are being allowed to shape a story and participate in a universe that you don’t fully own, and can’t fully command; the character whose role you play predates your presences in that space, and has a story that is in some sense theirs, reaching forward and back beyond your brief manipulation of their limbs and choices. Sometimes you need to take the time, wherever your character finds themselves – a dungeon, a running firefight, a ruined building or an open field – to do something that’s not relevant to your goals, or even to you personally, just to do some justice to the character you’re playing.

I found a lot of the “Rat Man’s Dens” on my first playthrough, being the sort of person who looks for the seams. Specifically, I found that corner of the facility where one of the radios, rather than playing the tinny Aperture-marimba, is playing The National’s “Exile Vilify”.

Did you find it? What did you do, then? It occurred to me as I sat there that this is the first piece of music we’ve really heard, in-game. But maybe, and maybe worse, there’s a decent chance that this slow lament about the burdens of alienation might actually be the only song Chell has ever heard.

I wondered what that might do to a person, how suspicious they’d be to have found that thing in that place, and how they’d react. Is it even possible to guess how somebody might feel in that situation? I crouched down to stare at the radio, listening to it all the way through before going back to finish that test. It seemed appropriate. I doubt it had any effect on the game at all (but who can know, with Valve?) but I have a sense that my participation in the game was improved somehow by it, and it’s hard to argue with that metric.

Anyway, let’s get back on track here.

So apropos of nothing, or at least it was at the time, a few months ago I wrote about the implications of the cave in Plato’s well-known metaphor having its own agency. It’s odd that the idea would find some traction in a discussion about the plot of a video game but, I guess, where else?

The idea of immortality which appears in syncretistic religions of antiquity was introduced in late antiquity. The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases, the “descent” (loss), the “search” and the “ascent”, with main theme the “ascent” of Persephone and the reunion with her mother.

– Wikipedia on the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Here’s a question for you: how many protagonists are there in Portal 2? Chell, GlaDOS and Wheatley… three, right? And you’re resurrected in the midst of Aperture Science’s protracted decay, to be dropped into this forgotten, sealed off subterranean wing of Aperture after a GlaDOS and Wheatley’s first confrontation, to struggle back up the mine shaft and restore the status quo ante.

That’s the game, to a certain superficial approximation. And all of that has to be wrong; there are hundreds of little details in-game that put the lie to it. Portal 2 isn’t a simple or superficial game, not at all.

Though Demeter is often described simply as the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sanctity of marriage, the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon.

– Wikipedia on Demeter

The first problem is, as I mentioned earlier, is all these little things that are where they really shouldn’t be. At the very bottom of Test Shaft 09, as you’ve passed Abandonment Seal Zulu Bunsen and entered Aperture’s antechambers, you start to see the signs that these sealed off and abandoned facilities aren’t nearly as sealed off or abandoned as you think. All the lights are still on, doors are still powered and they’re still controlled by devices with clean, white lines and modern-era lens-blade Aperture logos on the side. Likewise the hazmat warning labels on the pipes and vats as you ascend from the depths; with modern warnings and modern logos, this isn’t the long-abandoned a facility it seems to be at first glance.

There are other problems, like: in the last room before you ascend back through the containment door to modern Aperture, what activates that lift? You don’t. There’s no switches, no panels; the door just closes and up you go. The same thing happens in the moments before you meet Wheatley again; there’s stairs everywhere else but here, for no architectural reason, a lift you don’t actuate yourself hoists you up to the entrance to the next chamber.

You can see where I’m going with this by now. There aren’t three protagonists here; there are four. Portal 2 doesn’t make sense unless you consider the Aperture Science facility itself as an agent in its own right.

And it gets weirder, because it seems likely that the Aperture facility is the manifestation of its creator, Cave Johnson.

When Wheatley slams you down the shaft that drops you into the bowels of Aperture, it’s worth asking: why is that shaft even there? There’s no structural reason for it, and when you get to the bottom of it, there’s nothing else down there with you. It has to be something else. Another question worth taking a good hard look at is, what are you actually doing while you’re down there?

In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld. In ancient Orphic sources and in the mystery schools, Tartarus is also the unbounded first-existing entity from which the Light and the cosmos are born.

Wikipedia, “Tartarus”

It’s pretty well-established that GlaDOS is the electronic (and likely the very much unwilling) reincarnation of Caroline, Cave Johnson’s personal assistant. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Chell is in all likelihood Caroline’s daughter, and that likely by Cave. Indeed, partway through your ascent, you get a disturbing glimpse of Chell’s backstory when you come across a slew of science fair projects: the one with the hugely overgrown potato (whose shape bears a more-than-passing resemblance to that of GlaDOS, with its roots threading up into the ceiling) has two noteworthy details, one being the line that it involved a “special ingredient from daddy’s work”, and the other being that it’s signed “Chell”.

“For the record you are adopted and that’s terrible. Just work with me.”

– GlaDOS to Chell, Portal 2.

The chronology here is ambiguous, but Chell would have to have been between about six and ten years old to have made the potato battery project. Cave Johnson’s last recorded message in the Aperture Test Spheres said unambiguously that “If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place. Now she’ll argue, she’ll say she can’t – she’s modest like that. But you make her! Hell, put her in my computer, I don’t care.” If Bring Your Daughter To Work Day was when everything went wrong it’s likely that Caroline, forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, has already been a victim of that process. GLaDOS stands for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System; it’s not clear what being forced to be that genetic component entails, but the fact GLaDOS physically resembles a bound, blindfolded and gagged woman is I think telling, and an important part of the story.

“Sorry boys, she’s married – to science!”

– Cave Johnson, introducing Caroline in his first recorded message.

The timing seems wrong – Chell is clearly a lot older than 10, likely in her mid to late 20s in-game and it’s not clear when Cave Johnson died of the moon rock poisoning he suffered. “Daddy’s work” seems to imply that Chell’s father was still alive at the time, but it’s possible it means “from the place my Dad worked” or “created”. Either way, it’s pretty clear given the chronology that Chell really was adopted, but not by any other parents; she was adopted by Aperture. And Aperture is in a very real sense, with its vast, relentless complexity, advanced technology including “brain mapping” and its mad genius CEO, both a deity and a place.

One day they woke me up
So I could live forever
It’s such a shame the same will never happen to you.
You’ve got your short sad life left,
(That’s what I’m counting on.)
I used to want you dead but now I only want you gone.

– lyrics from Want You Gone, Portal 2’s concluding song, sung by Jonathan Coulton

What you’re really doing as you ascend through the history of Aperture from the bottom of Test Shaft 09 is resurrecting Aperture itself; resurrecting Cave, and reconnecting him to Caroline again, forever. And even though Cave ordered Caroline forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, he may not have wanted the same for his daughter, and now that the reawakened Caroline knows who she really is and who you are, she may not actually want that either.

And that’s why you’re ultimately sent away, and why Portal 2 is a weirder, creepier game than it first appears; while you’ve been solving all of these puzzle-tests, you’ve also been resurrecting your doomed parents to their respective (terrible, captive) immortalities, in the end being sent away so that “the same will never happen to you”. You made the last ascension serenaded by the facility itself; they’re left alone together as you emerge from the facility to a blue sky and a field full of tall wheat. It’s sometime in early autumn – harvest season – and you’re off to see the world, with your scorched old Companion Cube as a last going away present from your parents.

September 21, 2011

It’s The Little Details

Filed under: academic,arcade,awesome,digital,documentation,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 1:15 pm

I’m really interested in video games as narrative, and the possibilities virtual spaces open up to be examined through the lenses and terminologies of the various schools of literary criticism that are content to call anything that hits them in the eyes a text. There’s a lot of ground in that field to cover, and some of the best games are happy to give you a glimpse of the scope of the worlds they’re embedded in and the forces that shape them, a larger sense of who the protagonists are, and hint at the broad brushstrokes and hidden grammars of a story you’re barely a part of.

Portal 2 is great for this.

If you’re paying really close attention, there’s a few interesting discontinuities in Portal 2. Some of them are… maybe more obvious than they should be. The low-hanging fruit come when you’re fighting through Wheatley’s tests in the latter third of the game. When you first meet back up with her halfway up Test Shaft 9 Glados tells you that she “literally doesn’t have the energy to lie to you”; she later on she reverses herself on the claim that she didn’t stockpile test chambers when she’s called on it. Another one that might just be a continuity error comes up when you emerge from the last of the Test Shaft 9’s pumping rooms; the walls below are marked “1982”, but stepping through the door leads you to a vitrification order dated 1961. Continuity seems pretty clear, at that point, so, maybe this is nothing?

But maybe it’s something, or a hint at something. Because at the very bottom of the mine, in the doorway out of the fifties-era Aperture Science offices where the first picture of Cave and his runner-up contractor-of-the-year awards are, the sliding door is apparently controlled by a little white device, with little square lights. And if you look closely, you’ll see it inscribed with, not the 50’s era Aperture Science logo as you’d expect, but with the most recent lens-blade Aperture Science logo, the one we all know and love.
There’s no hint that I can find anywhere else in the narrative that this has any right to be there but there it is, and the implications for the story, both main- and back-, are pretty large.

I do like me some understanding a good story so self, I said to myself, why not just ask?

So I sent some email to Chet Faliszek asking him: is it there on purpose, or is that an oversight?

And I got some email back just now from Erik Wolpaw and Mr. Faliszek saying:


As you probably know, the answer to that seemingly innocent question would necessarily include partial answers to several even bigger questions. Nice try, though. Glad you liked the game!


I don’t know that I expected anything else, but there it is, and my slow-clap processor is running pretty hot right now. Whatever it means to the story, there’s functioning, modern-era Aperture Science technology deployed at the very, very bottom of Test Shaft 9, making a sliding door work.

April 8, 2011

Assorted Nerdery

First off, my colleague Donna wrote up a bit about the work we’ve been doing for the last few months. It’s been a pleasure to work with her, and I don’t really think of her as a crony but nobody tell her I said so.

The second thing is a way to get all the linuxes. That’s right, all of them; specifically a way to get a variety of them running in a single headless virtual machine on your OS of choice. You start with an Ubuntu .ISO and VirtualBox.

Install Ubuntu on a suitably capacious VM, make sure sshd is running and starts by default, pause it, close and quit VirtualBox. Then do two things; first, set yourself up with this script:

VBoxManage startvm Prime --type headless
VBoxManage setextradata Prime "VBoxInternal/Devices/e1000/0/LUN#0/Config/guestssh/Protocol" TCP
VBoxManage setextradata Prime "VBoxInternal/Devices/e1000/0/LUN#0/Config/guestssh/GuestPort" 22
VBoxManage setextradata Prime "VBoxInternal/Devices/e1000/0/LUN#0/Config/guestssh/HostPort" 2222
VBoxManage setextradata Prime "VBoxInternal/Devices/e1000/0/LUN#0/Config/guesthttp/Protocol" TCP
VBoxManage setextradata Prime "VBoxInternal/Devices/e1000/0/LUN#0/Config/guesthttp/HostPort" 8080
VBoxManage setextradata Prime "VBoxInternal/Devices/e1000/0/LUN#0/Config/guesthttp/GuestPort" 80

(My VM’s name is “Prime” in this example, to clarify. Yours may not be.)

Then read this article by Ted Dziuba about running several versions of Linux, simultaneously and non-virtualized, on the same machine. It’s pretty cool, and that should set you up with All The Linuxes, should you happen to want all the linuxes.

From that you can SSH to localhost:2222 for Ubuntu and schroot between the whatever other linuxes you desire. X-forwarding will help you here, and I wonder if you can add Android to that list? Hmm. Hmmmmm.

Next up, if you’re making changes to Firefox don’t/won’t/can’t get at their Tryserver test harness, I just found out (duh, of course) that all their tests are in their source tree anyway. Add these lines to the end of your Makefile, and you can run the whole test harness locally with one command.

    echo 'Running automated tests in 10 seconds. This can take a long time - hit control-C to end.' && sleep 10
    make $(MAKE) -f $(topsrcdir)/obj-ff-dbg/Makefile crashtest
    make $(MAKE) -f $(topsrcdir)/obj-ff-dbg/Makefile jstestbrowser
    make $(MAKE) -f $(topsrcdir)/obj-ff-dbg/Makefile reftest
    make $(MAKE) -f $(topsrcdir)/obj-ff-dbg/Makefile mochitest-plain
    make $(MAKE) -f $(topsrcdir)/obj-ff-dbg/Makefile xpcshell-tests

Configure, make, make test-me, then wait. This is a run-overnight kind of thing – it will stomp on your machine pretty hard – but at least it will tell you if you broke anything. I was briefly tempted to call that “trouble”, or “come-at-me-bro” rather than “test-me”, but I think wisely elected not to.

Finally, I broke down and installed Fedora on my little netbook, and to my surprise it’s awfully pretty. I miss apt-get, but the new Gnome UI is actually great, wildly better and more discoverable than Win7. It’s actually a respectable little computer now, all things considered. Except, of course my wireless doesn’t work, and if I put an SD Card in it won’t suspend anymore.

“Sysadmin” is a portmanteau of “administration” and “Sisyphus“, apparently.

March 21, 2011

The Practical Implications Of The Democratization Of Agency At The Intersection Of The Transhumanist, Architectural Primitivist And Existentialist Fields

Filed under: academic,analog,awesome,doom,interfaces,vendetta,weird — mhoye @ 2:56 pm

Ideas get lodged in my head, and if they’re interesting enough – not necessarily “good”, mind you, but “interesting” – then I basically can’t do anything useful until I’ve gnawed away at them for hours. If it’s OCD that applies only to the inside of your head, is there even a word for that? Obsessive Compulsive Extrospection? Intramania? Let’s watch what happens as my friend Dave pursues his secret hobby of sneaking up on me and sticking broomhandles through the spokes of my brainwheels.

14:23 <@humph> mhoye:
14:31 < mhoye> what what
14:32 < mhoye> is he projecting directly onto the sensor?
14:32 < mhoye> That is so great.
14:37 <@humph> yeah
14:37 <@humph> seemed like you might like that
14:37 <@humph> that's what I do with software, done with cameras and lenses
14:38 < mhoye> Shadows on the cave.
14:38 < mhoye> I've never heard the shadows-on-cave-walls parable end with "We need a smarter cave".
14:39 < mhoye> But maybe that's an avenue of inquiry that's overdue.
14:43 < mhoye> About every third conversation I have with you makes me want to go sit in a dark corner for an hour or four just to turn the ideas over in my head, and then go write somebody else's doctoral thesis.
14:43 < mhoye> But I CANT because I have OTHER THINGS TO DO, dammit.
14:49 < mhoye> i don't even like you.


15:17 <mhoye> GAH

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable about this at all.

March 9, 2011

Four Star Daydream

Filed under: academic,business,doom,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 11:07 am

The Light At The End

I was wondering the other day why investment banking, which is in theory a competitive service industry, appears to be so insanely profitable. A notion occurred to me, but not being an expert in the field it’s hard for me to evaluate its veracity. It’s got a certain sinister elegance to it, though, and if you’ll bear with me for a minute I just want to put this idea in your head.

The 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics went to Akerlof, Spence, and Stiglitz for their “analyses of markets with asymmetric information“, that is to say, the economic effects of the other guy knowing something you don’t. Akerlof’s classic paper on the subject is The Market For Lemons, of which Wikipedia provides a good summary, per usual. The more cynical among you are rightly saying, well yes, the economic effect of making a deal with somebody who knows way more than you do is that you lose your shirt, but that’s microeconomics; we’re talking macro here. There are no easy buckets on this court.

In any case, one thing I haven’t found in my cursory n00b investigation is something on the economic effect of what I will politely call an asymmetric understanding of the basic principles of modern markets and the naive company’s place in them. Which is to say, let’s imagine… I start like that because from what I can tell, “let’s imagine” is the traditional way of starting any argument about economics. Which probably tells you something about economics, now that I think about it. Seriously, try googling the name of your favorite economist plus “let’s imagine”, and count the Google hits. It’s eerie.

Anyway, you all know what derivatives, specifically futures are, right? The idea is that you can set up a long-term contract to sell a thing at some fixed price, fixing the price and letting the buyer at the other end absorb the risk, reaping the potential benefits or losses of a fluctuating marketplace. This lets our entirely imaginary A-One Flour Co. say “for the next five years we’re selling you this much flour for this price every year”, and whatever happens to the market price of flour, either more profit or unexpected loss, get absorbed by whoever’s on the other side of that futures contract.

That, in short, is why futures are traded – there’s both risk and potential profit involved, ownership can change, etcetera. But our imagined A-One Flour, a company with one major input of “wheat” and a single output of “flour” may choose to engage in the same sort of transaction on the wheat-purchasing end, to give themselves some stability on the supply side as well, a sensible move now that there’s a lot less flexibility available to them in terms of revenue. So they agree to buy a fixed amount of wheat for a fixed price over the course of the next few years, from some commodities trader whose hope in this case is that the cost of wheat will drop, thus insuring him some profit on the deal.

Now let’s say I’ve been watching all this, or more realistically I’ve had my computers watching all this. I see what the A-One people are up to, and because they’re traded commodities and I can, I buy both of those futures contracts.

Now: what just happened to A-One flour? They no longer control, in very real sense, the amount of money coming in, the amount of money going out, or who they buy from or sell to. They get wheat from me, they sell flour to me, and they’ve effectively been reduced from controlling their destiny to little more than operating their machinery. They went looking for stability, effectively trading stability for control. I own the complete set, in the Boardwalk & Park Place sense, of contracts for their material, and thus financial, inputs and outputs and this effectively means that I’m the one who’s really in charge of the company. All that without a single share of A-One Flour changing hands.

Better still, if I can pull the same trick with B-One Bread Co., and pair up those futures contracts profitably? That’s a pipe that spews money. And maybe even better than that, this is de-facto inside information about how profitable (or not!) A-One is going to be in the next year or three. So I have this great arms-length way to engage in what would normally be insider trading, knowing what’s going to happen to A-One long before shareholders or the public does. And it’s an oversimplified example, sure, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t already a well-understood process in some of the taller office buildings of the world.

I haven’t thought of a better way to make money recently, but I’ll let you know if I do.

March 2, 2010


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.


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.

February 9, 2010

The Eternal Recurrence Of The Same

Filed under: academic,books,digital,doom,fail,future,interfaces,losers,lunacy,vendetta — mhoye @ 3:28 pm

Eastward From Spadina

Oh, god. Via the New York Times:

Google has been talking about entering the direct e-book market, through a program it calls Google Editions, for nearly a year. But in early discussions with publishers, Google had proposed giving them a 63 percent cut of the suggested retail price, and allowing consumers to print copies of the digital books and cut and paste segments. […] According to several publishers who have been talking to Google, the book companies had balked at what they saw as Google’s less generous terms, and basically viewed printing and cut-and-paste as deal breakers.

Which is to say, “we intend to collude to force our customers to pay more for something with which they will be permitted to do less.” Honestly, that’s your plan? Your business is text, and cut and paste are dealbreakers?

With a plan like that, what could possibly go wrong?

Good luck, publishers. Don’t let the future hit you on the ass on the way out.

November 8, 2009

Acceptable Collateral Damage

Filed under: academic,digital,documentation,interfaces — mhoye @ 8:25 pm

Fine, I'll Play Your Little Game

A minor technical note, if you would – I’m building Mozilla from source these days for my own amusement, and I’ve had these problems with it that I should probably document. And some of you out there in internet-land might be asking yourselves the same questions, like “If I upgrade to Snow Leopard, and I’m heavily invested in MacPorts, what happens?” or “I followed the instructions and it didn’t work, double-yew-tee-eff?” So, here you go. I’ll put them up on the wiki in a few moments.

The short version is: when you upgrade to Snow Leopard you need to rebuild your dev environment from scratch. Otherwise you get a lot of spurious errors from MacPorts (no libiconv, can’t make executables, no perls, etc) that are all basically lies. Do not get fooled into playing whackamole with the MacPorts errors; that is not the way. Purge and rebuild.

The long version is as follows:

  • If you have the Leopard XCode package installed, the Snow Leopard installer won’t touch it; you need to go back to the DVD and get Snow Leopard’s XCode package out of the Optional Installs, or you’ll start getting “compiler cannot create executables” errors, or something very much like that. Obvious! But I declare it also “easy to overlook” because I overlooked it and doing so was, in hindsight, pretty easy.
  • Uninstall all of your ports: “sudo ports -f uninstall installed” from a shell prompt. After that, “sudo ports clean installed” just to be sure, “sudo ports selfupdate” and “sudo ports sync”.

Some of these steps might be unnecessary – if you’re working with the latest version of MacPorts “selfupdate” won’t do anything, for example – but this fix works for me. Now you can go back to step 3 of the OSX Prerequisites page and follow along, and it will work as advertised.

August 24, 2009

Four Essays

Filed under: academic,future,life,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 10:03 pm

The Wire

13:29 <humph> it feels good to do something about all the ideas that keep you up at night

I’ve come across a couple of essays recently that have lodged themselves in my apparatus like some swarm of intellectual candiru. They seemed to arrive all at once. I don’t know what the full impact of them will eventually be but in terms of my writing, the quality of the work that I do and the substance of what I’m working on at all I don’t know now that I can settle for what I have and have done. I’m not sure what that last sentence actually means yet, but for the last few days I’ve had these vague, jagged notions rattling around my insides. By never really choosing, I’ve chosen to be way too aimless in what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about it for way too long.

These excerpts are nothing; to get the meat of these essays, you’ll need to read them.

The first, on journalism as a conveyance of a well-informed understanding, is Matt Thompson’s essay on The 3 key parts of news stories you don’t usually get.

Read that story, and you might be surprised by how much Gawande focuses on his reporting process. At every turn, Gawande walks you through exactly what he sees, who he’s talked to, and how he comes to his conclusions. In one vignette, he gathers six doctors for dinner, and reproduces highlights of their conversation on the costs of medical care. It’s extraordinarily effective, both as a narrative and as a piece of journalism.

What Gawande did was to structure his search for truth as a quest narrative. Instead of hiding the details about how he comes by his information, he makes that the very focus. Along the way, he makes us apprentices in his quest for truth. We finish the article with a highly refined sense of how Gawande has acquired and verified the information he presents, as well as a framework for further inquiry of our own.

We get a lot more out of this type of reporting, in other words, than the vast majority of news stories, which leave these details out.

Number two is a five-year-old article by Gopal Kapur, called “I’m OK, The Bull Is Dead”, which Whedon fans will recognize as one of Joss’ favorite storytelling tools:

Early in my career, when I worked as an engineer, my boss had a process by which the engineering team was expected to report project status. He insisted that we use the following steps, in the specified order:
1. Punch line: The facts; no adjectives, adverbs or modifiers. “Milestone 4 wasn’t hit on time, and we didn’t start Task 8 as planned.” Or, “Received charter approval as planned.”

2. Current status: How the punch-line statement affects the project. “Because of the missed milestone, the critical path has been delayed five days.”

3. Next steps: The solution, if any. “I will be able to make up three days during the next two weeks but will still be behind by two days.”

4. Explanation: The reason behind the punch line. “Two of the five days’ delay is due to late discovery of a hardware interface problem, and the remaining three days’ delay is due to being called to help the customer support staff for a production problem.”

Notice the almost reverse order of these points in comparison with the common reporting style in which team members start with a long explanation of why things went wrong.

The third is Manfred Mann’s recent post, Better.

[…] to be honest, I don’t have a specific agenda for what I want to do all that differently, apart from what I’m already trying to do every day:

  • identify and destroy small-return bullshit;
  • shut off anything that’s noisier than it is useful;
  • make brutally fast decisions about what I don’t need to be doing;
  • avoid anything that feels like fake sincerity (esp. where it may touch money);
  • demand personal focus on making good things;
  • put a handful of real people near the center of everything.

All I know right now is that I want to do all of it better. Everything better. Better, better.

To underscore, I have no plan to stop making dick jokes or to swear off ragging people who clearly have it coming to them. It’s just that it’s important to me to make world-class dick jokes and to rag the worthy in a way that no one is expecting. I want to become an evangelist for hard work and editing, and I want to get to a place where it shows in everything that I do, make, and share. Yes, even if it makes me sound like a fancy guy who just doesn’t get it. Fuck it.

The last and most damning is Richard Hamming’s (inventor of what are now called Hamming Codes) talk, “You And Your Research”.

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, “Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven’t changed my research,” he says, “but I think it was well worthwhile.” And I said, “Thank you Dave,” and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, “What are the important problems in my field?”

As good as I am at what I do, it’s hard to see what that’s worth if am not putting my best effort towards most important problems I could be working on, in my field or indeed any. And I know in my gut that I’m not.

I’m not interested in being a big fish that never goes looking for the ocean. The world needs changing and my work and my writing frankly suck, because good enough sucks. Adequate sucks. Merely competent sucks, and don’t think I’m willing to set the bar at contentedness with anything that isn’t the best I’ve got on offer anymore.

[ Nine Inch Nails – Zero Sum ]
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