I feel just as safe as I did last Sunday

I haven't really wanted to blog about the bombing in Boston, because I don't think I have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation.  But today in my Sociology class, the teacher asked a question that really pissed me off:  Do we feel less safe now than we did before the bombing? No.  No, I don't.  And no, neither should most people.

If you live or work in or around Boston right now, that's one thing.  Or if you're about to go to a major cultural event.  And if you're Muslim or Chechen, being around strangers in America might be a bit less safe now than it was last Friday.

But living within a half hour's drive of a place where a bomb went off almost a week ago isn't notably dangerous.

If I felt like everyone else was being reasonable, I would say that the only reason you might feel less safe now than you did last week is if, prior to now, you were totally unaware of the reality that some people suck, and sometimes people blow things up or shoot people.  There are loads of reasons people do these things, but the reasons don't matter all that much on a personal safety level.

What matters is that people living in middle- to working-class neighborhoods and attending community colleges that have no large geo-cultural or political significance are just as much not targets as they were before something other than them was targeted.

This isn't about not giving in to terror.  This isn't about putting up a brave face.  This is me, pissed off that my peer group can't handle the idea that bombs in one place do not automatically, systematically increase the likelihood of bombs everywhere.  I, like most of the people I know, am actually not less safe because of the bombing on Monday.

It's fine and normal to be sad, freaked out, or confused right now.  But if you actually feel like your safety has declined since Monday, and I didn't mention you in paragraph three, I think you probably haven't been paying attention.

Google, search, and Star Trek

I love seeing people write about Google's long-term ambitions.  It's so cool to see people display publicly the struggle to understand the volume of what Google is trying to accomplish with search, the struggle just to believe that, when Google employees talk about their goals, they're telling the truth.

Farhad Manjoo at Slate.com has a great article, Where No Search Engine Has Gone Before, about his journey toward comprehending, and believing (if not necessarily believing in), Google's ambitions.

 “The Star Trek computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we're building,” [head of search rankings team Amit] Singhal told me. “It is the ideal that we're aiming to build—the ideal version done realistically.” He added that the search team does refer to Star Trek internally when they’re discussing how to improve the search engine. “It comes up often,” Singhal said. “For instance, we might say, ‘Captain Kirk never pulled out a keyboard to ask a question.’ So in that way it becomes one of the design principles—we see that because the Star Trek computer actively relies on speech, if we want to do that we need to work to push the barrier of speech recognition and machine understanding.”

What does it mean that Google really is trying to build the Star Trek computer? I take it as a cue to stop thinking about Google as a “search engine.” [...] A search engine has several key problems. First, most of the time it doesn’t give you an answer—it gives you links to an answer. Second, it doesn’t understand natural language; [...]. Third, and perhaps most importantly, a search engine needs for you to ask it questions—it doesn’t pipe in with information when you need it, without your having to ask.

One of the things I love about where Google is going with search (although this point is more optimistic than Google has necessarily justified) is the opportunities it creates to make the world a better place.  Manjoo quotes a question Google struggles with, near the end of the article:  "Why are men jerks?"  If, instead of taking you to a bunch of websites that validate that position, Google answers outright with a discussion of complexity and individual identities, Google will naturally shift the whole of plugged-in human experience to greater peace and understanding.

Some under-celebrated internet slang

Tom Chatfield at the Guardian has written a column, The 10 best words the internet has given English, that has some great entries.  There are the common ones, yes:  trolling, memes, lol -- but there are also a couple really great entries, whether because the word is less obviously associated with the internet, or because the explanation he gives is fantastic.  For example, Scunthorpe problems:

Computing can be as much combat as collaboration between people and machines, and the Scunthorpe problem is a perfect example. Entirely innocent words can fall victim to machine filth-filters thanks to unfortunate sequences of letters within them – and, in Scunthrope's case, it's the second to fifth letters that create the difficulty. The effect was labelled in honour of the town in 1996, when AOL temporarily prevented any Scunthorpe residents from creating user accounts; but those who live in Penistone, South Yorkshire – or people with surnames like Cockburn – may be equally familiar with algorithms' censorious tendencies.

Or, Spam:

The most enduring gift of British comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus may prove to be a digital one: the term "spam". The key episode, first broadcast in 1970, featured a sketch called "SPAM": the brand name used since 1937 by the Hormel Foods Corporation as a contraction of the phrase spiced ham. Set in a cafe where almost every single item on the menu featured spam, the sketch culminated in a chorus of Viking warriors drowning everyone else's voices out by chanting the word "spam".  A satirical indictment of British culinary monotony, it took on a second life during the early 1980s, when those who wished to derail early online discussions copied out the same words repeatedly in order to clog up a debate. Inspired by Python, the word spam proved a popular way of doing this. "Spamming" came to describe any process of drowning out "real" content – and the rest is repetitive history.

Apologizing instructions

On Whatever, one of my new favorite blogs (I've been meaning to start reading it for years), writer John Scalzi recently published an instruction manual to apologies, that looks to me like a really good and important instruction manual on whether and when to apologize.  We all learn that apologizing is important in elementary school -- this post, I think, covers the high school level of that skill. One of my favorite parts:

Are you willing to let your apology be an apology? Meaning, once you’ve apologized, are you going immediately start backtracking from it, adding caveats, exclusions, conditions and defensive annotations? It’s remarkable the number of perfectly good apologies that don’t stick the dismount. People can’t leave them alone, I suspect, because of defensiveness and ego — yes I was wrong but you have to admit I’m not the only one who was wrong here, or yes I was wrong but in general you have to admit my point still stands, or even yes I was wrong but it was wrong of you to make a big deal out of it. Which, again, is going to make things worse.

Defender of Texel: an accidental new game addiction

So I play this game called Pocket Frogs, in which players collect and breed various color-combinations of frogs.  It's a Mobage game -- Mobage makes freemium app games for iOS and Android.  There's a pretty good play/cost balance, where you can get a lot out of the game without ever spending any money, but I really want to baby-proof another one of my habitats (you start with one nursery) so that I can breed more frogs at once.  That costs 499 MobaCoin, or $4.97.[1.  I would have some more MobaCoin left over after that transaction, but since they're sold in batch increments, that's the smallest amount of money I could pay to get a sufficient quantity of MobaCoin.] Instead of paying that, I'm just taking their pop-up offers, to download and start playing various other Mobage games in exchange for MobaCoins.  I'm up to 175 through these promotions, and I've started spending a lot more time playing one of the games, Defender of Texel (D.O.T.)

In D.O.T., players control a three-by-three grid of fighters, with which they explore linear dungeons full of random encounters.  Players have a high degree of control over the arrangement of their fighters, and reasonable control over their stats -- and during combat, choose the order of attacks, by drawing three tic-tac-toe style lines across the grid, forming three self-managing waves of attack against the enemy lineup.

There's also a semi-complicated system of evolution, to improve fighters, but I won't get into that.  The point is, Mobage's business model appears to be successful.  They have now enticed me into regularly playing two of their games, to the point where there's stuff I meant to have done by now today, that I haven't started on.  Like getting dressed.

Thoughts on Doctor Who series 7.2

So I caught up on Doctor Who -- after seeing a lot of hate about the series 7.2 premiere, then watching the first half of that episode, I took a break.  But I'm caught up now. And I really get the hate about the premiere.  It wasn't a good episode.  (Seriously,  'I don't understand WiFi' means 'I've never heard of Twitter?'  I can't figure out how to work Linux, but I can still make jokes about it.  I mean, I don't, but I'm aware enough of the stereotypes surrounding it that if I wanted to I could make uninformed statements that would sound like they made sense -- which is what it sounded like Clara was doing when the Doctor saw her incredible insight.)

And, a lot of the DW commentary I saw discussed giving up on the show after that episode, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.  Disliking the problematic content in a part of the series and stepping away from the show because of that doesn't, in my opinion, make someone a bad Whovian, and it certainly doesn't make them a bad person if they choose to stop identifying as a Whovian.  (Or never did.  I'm not actually sure whether the people writing those essays thought of themselves as Whovians.)

But I decided to stick around, and I'm glad I did.

I came to new Who about a week late, after it started airing in America, and the first episode I ever saw wasn't "Rose."  It was "The End of the World," which was really a pretty good episode.  It got way better, really fast, after that, but "The End of the World" gave me enough faith in the show to keep watching, mainly because Doctor Who seemed important, and I wanted to be a part of the community.

A lot later, I got around to seeing "Rose."  You know, the one where the trash barrels come to life and a giant bowl of lava threatens Rose with a really obviously plastic Mickey that Rose can't tell is fake for some reason.  I was pretty sure that, if I had seen "Rose" first, I wouldn't have bothered with Doctor Who.

That ended up being true of a lot of companions' first episodes.  It seemed a bit like the producers of Doctor Who had all made a deal that the first episode of every series had to suck.  The first time that didn't happen for me was with the Eleventh Hour, which remains one of my favorite episodes.

So I kept watching, this season, even after Clara's first episode, "The Bells of Saint John," really, really sucked.  And I watched "The Rings of Akhaten," which I loved.  It wouldn't make the top ten, but it brought me close to tears once or twice, and if I had to rank all the episodes of new Who, it would beat out "The End of the World."  In that episode, the show proved to me that it still had the stuff I cared about, if, like always, I stuck it out through the terrible episodes.

eHarmony's creepy attack ad

I saw an ad today for eHarmony.com, featuring a little girl whose teacher met someone online.  She runs into her grandfather's office (the grandfather played by  eHarmony founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren) and alerts him that he met someone on "one of those other sites, not eHarmony.com."  She goes on, "I told him it would never last. ... eHarmony.com has made way more marriages than anyone else, and eHarmony.com has all the hot babes."

This ad creeps me out for a few reasons -- top of the list being that eHarmony has a history of discriminating against non-white, non-conservative, non-heterosexual, and non-Christian people.  (Individually, not just people who check all four boxes.)  But also because it's essentially an attack ad against other dating sites, pushing to de-legitimize online dating as a general category in order to puff up its own status as the exception to the rule.

Also, I dislike ads that use children as props to represent purity of thought and simple truth.  See, for example, this series of AT&T commercials:

Pants Points Report

This week: 129/350 Total for v2: 2540/3750 completion: 67.73% I got a D.

This is going to be the last one of these for a little while.  As I said yesterday, I'm cutting back on some things, and as my scores may have shown in the last few weeks, I'm not doing great.  The stress of not having my wardrobe together enough to make the points is just a little bit emotionally draining every day, and for now I could use that extra breathing room.

When they return, there will be modifications.  I'm not certain what they're going to be yet, but version 3 will include alterations to the effect of:

  • Belts/suspenders are not mandatory when wearing pants that fit.  A few times lately, I've missed out on full points because I didn't want to bother stringing a belt through the loops of a pair of pants that stay up fine on their own.
  • Weather-based conditions for whether I need to wear two shirts.
  • A point bonus for actually doing laundry, rather than just the consequences of doing laundry.
  • Penalties.  Like, on days when I'm wearing more dirty items than clean ones, or if I dress inappropriately, or stuff.

Version 3 may end up integrating some of my other self-maintenance routines[1. Or non-routines, which is the problem.], too, like exercise, showering, shaving, brushing my teeth, and so on.  I'd want to roll it in slowly, so that I don't overcomplicate it and break the game, but I might end up with a much more coherent system for keeping my life together outside the internet.

Gamefying this aspect of my life has been working out pretty well, and I'm glad I'm doing it and will continue to do it.  But for a little while, it will be nice to have one fewer thing on my to-do list -- especially one fewer thing that involves math.

Combosaurus: I don't know what's going on here

I got an email today from OkCupid headlined "Combosaurus knows more about [my username] than [my username] does," which I assumed was just a creepy new way of letting me know they'd found someone thy thought I'd be compatable with. It turns out, Combosaurus is OkCupid's new social network?  They explain:

For most folks, it takes just a few minutes to sign in and tell us what you like (or hate) before we can make predictions. Once you do, we can…

  • Introduce users with similar tastes
  • Predict interests you might like
  • Help you mock or praise your friends’ ratings

Sign up and give it a shot.

I'm hesitant about signing up for a social network that might introduce me to people without checking with me first.  But I'm also really curious.  So I have an account now.

The first thing they had me do was rate loads of things on a five-point scale from D: to :D.After about 100 ratings, I realized it was on infinite scroll.

The homepage lists loads of results form, like, three other people, which I assume is a temporary condition while the site gets up and running.  There's also a "People" tab, which offers a list of people similar to me, and a "You Might Like" tab, which appears to be the D: to :D scale they dropped me on when I signed up.

I'm not totally sure whether this site is supposed to help me meet people or find stuff.  Here's the About page, if it helps anyone else.

Chris Nolan is making real sci fi; Anne Hathaway involved

Okay, "Real sci fi" is a pointlessly prejudicial term, but what I mean is science fiction that, at the time of creation, doesn't break any known rules of science, and relies entirely on plot devices that scientists agree might turn out to be true.  This kind of SF has gotten rarer and rarer, as science progresses further and further away from the comprehension of most writers. That is the kind of sci fi that it seems Christopher Nolan (and his brother Jonathan) are making with the assistence of Kip Thorne, who was until recently the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech.  Maybe there will be a lot of bad science by the time it goes in one end and out the other of a major studio, but the Nolans probably have the power, and might have the conviction, to keep it plausible.

The film is called Interstellar, IMDb says it will come out in 2014, and describes it:

An exploration of physicist Kip Thorne's theories of gravity fields, wormholes and several hypotheses that Albert Einstein was never able to prove.

So, that's the good news.  The awesome news is that Anne Hathaway is apparently going to be in it.  This is awesome news because, since the Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, and her responses to assholes in interviews[1. I was looking for the one where she talks about how much it sucks that we live in a culture where people sexualize non-consenting participants, but I couldn't find it, and this one's also pretty great.], she has become one of my favorite actors.

So, at some point next year, we (might) get an awesome new sci fi film, from a fantastic director, featuring a great cast[2.  Alright, that's a dubious claim.  I love Anne Hathaway, but I have fewer warm feelings about Matthew McConaughey.  Nothing vitriolic, just not enthusiastic.], and potentially really solid science.

What the hell, Fox?

So, Fox owns a lot of the rights to Firefly.  That's kind of sucky.  But as long as they leave the Browncoats alone, it's not that big a deal, right?  I mean, it's not like Fox is responsible for the premature death of a defining sci fi show of a generation or anything. So, yeah.  They screwed the community very nearly from day one.  The least they could do is just leave us the hell alone.  But apparently not:  they still want to make a profit on Browncoats.  Io9 reports, Fox is shutting down independent makers of Jayne hats, so there's no competition against their mass-produced version.

io9 writes,

Recently, Ripple Junction has licensed the fan apparel and obtained the rights to mass-produce the product. And in return, Fox is shutting down all the mom and pop Jayne hat makers. Which is ridiculous because the very point of a Jayne hat is to own a mangled handmade orange monstrosity that warms your noggin, not something churned out on an assembly line. But now that Fox has sold the licence, they now have to shake down Etsy members who are lovingly knitting their Firefly memorabilia.

ThinkGeek have something to say for themselves, too:

Browncoats, we hear your concerns about the cease and desist on Etsy Jayne Hat sellers!

We weren't involved in that process, but we have reached out to FOX and we've heard what you've had to say. As a result, we've decided to donate the profits from all Jayne Hat sales on our site to Can't Stop the Serenity, a Browncoat charity dear to ThinkGeek's heart that raises funds and awareness in support of Equality Now. We'll continue making that donation until we run out of stock.

We hope the Hero of Canton himself would approve.

All the snowflakes

The University of Utah has released news that might be really cool, or really terrible, depending on how badly you want every possible speck of magic in winter to stay exactly the way you imagined it when you were young.  They put out a press release today about the findings that they recieved when they left a high-speed camera system running outside for two years.[1. This description oversimplifies to the point of obscuring the truth.  Please read the actual article if you're interested in a more accurate description of the mechanism by which they took the photos.]

Snowflakes in traditional photographs "tend to be of a particular type that conveniently lies flat on a microscope slide, where a camera can get them perfectly in focus, and the photographer can take the time to get the light exactly right," he says.

"These perfectly symmetric, six-sided snowflakes, while beautiful, are exceedingly rare – perhaps one-in-a-thousand at the most," says Garrett. "Snow is almost never a single, simple crystal. Rather, a snowflake might experience 'riming,' where perhaps millions of water droplets collide with a snowflake and freeze on its surface. This makes a little ice pellet known as 'graupel.' Or snowflakes collide with other snowflakes to make something fluffier, called an aggregate. And everything is possible in between."

Here's one of the (still really beautiful) pictures of some more common snowflakes.

Strange things I saw today on the internet

I spent some time at my friends' house today, to have dinner and discuss the officiation of their handfasting.  Things digressed, as they often do, and we ended up spending some time sharing the weird videos we had all respectively seen during our time on the internet. We opened with a video I'd never seen before, Chocolate Bunny by Blink on Vimeo.  It's bright, disturbing, and feels deeply meaningful -- but I have no idea what that meaning could possibly be.

Maybe something about the inherent self-destructiveness of the consumerization of religious celebrations?

The next one was a video I brought to the table, How To Make Fruit Salad by How To Basic.  Here's what the video description says:

Today I show you how to make a healthy, delicious, light & fluffy homemade fruit salad. Follow the simple step-by-step instructions and you will make a fruit salad that will go down a treat with your family. This makes enough fruit salad to feed a family of 83. Perfect for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner or even a Snack!

Here's what actually goes on in the video:

This guy has 174 videos on his channel.  He appears to make two of them a week. Every single one has a thumbnail of the relevant food, perfectly cooked and beautifully lit.  If you didn't watch what actually happens in the video, please scroll back up and do that now.

We watched a few videos on his channel.

Next, we watched Kracie - popin' cookin' #3 - Sushi candy making kit (Edible / can eat) by RRcherrypie.  This one's one of my partner's favorite kinds of weird video, featuring self-assembly candies that require the user to mix powders with water until they set into molds, then taking them out and assembling them.  I can't imagine ever going to that much effort -- I'm pretty sure I'd just mix the ingredients, let them set, and eat them out of the mold.  But watching them come together into the amazing edible sculptures that RRcherrypie turns them into is enthralling.

We watched a few videos on that channel, too.

After that, we moved on to relatively more normal videos, but since I'm on the topic of weird, surreal youtube content, here's one that I occasionally remember, that seems pretty appropriate for this post.  It's an ad for Litlte Baby's Ice Cream called This is a Special Time.

If you feel like you're going to have any trouble sleeping soon, this might help.  Make it worse.

ThinkProgress on gender in the media according to SCIENCE

Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress published a post today, How The Mainstream Media Exploits 'Science' To Reinforce Gender Stereotypes, which lists five media events, connected with studies -- sometimes flawed, sometimes misrepresented, and sometimes not even published -- to make huge, sweeping claims about gender.

On Tuesday, mainstream news outlets covered the results from a small survey in Australia that polled just over 100 women about their sexual preferences. One headline atop an NBC story proclaimed, “Science proves women like men with bigger penises.” The reporter includes a few other examples of studies that have reached the same conclusions about women’s predisposition to larger male genitalia, but only after acknowledging that the results from past research on the topic “have been disputed as sexist, or scientifically flawed, or both.”

The article is heavy in evolutionary psychology, small sample sizes, and headlines that bear little or no relationship to the research they're reporting on.

This is a good example of the ways that science is held a little bit back by cissexist cultural narratives, and how the media is held  hugely back, and is holding everyone else back, by forcing every story they can into those narratives.

Mexico pushing for digital equality

Currently 70% of Mexican citizens don't have access to computers or the internet, but they're looking to close that gap.  Al Jazeera reports: 

Mexico wants to be recognised as a high-tech nation competing against countries like China and India with manufacturing jobs and foreign investment.

Mexico has signed more free-trade agreements than any other country in the world, and its economy is currently out-pacing Brazil, but there is one thing that could threaten its potential - that is the digital divide.

Around 70 percent of Mexicans have no access to either computers or the internet. As Mexico's economy roars towards the future, much of its success will depend on how many people get the skills necessary to participate in the boom.

There's a longer video on the article's page.

Pants Points Report

It seems like I may never again manage to get one of these up on a Friday.  Oh well.  Last week's scores were 160/350, bringing the total to 2411/3400. I mentioned last week that I started exercising, too -- I won't be regularly checking in with my progress on that here, but I am keeping track.  I have to have some boundaries, I guess.  Also, thinking about my physical health makes me super-insecure.  I will say that we've been doing at least 10 minutes of exercise a day -- save Saturday, which we missed -- and it's getting better, even as it gets more intrinsically embarrassing.

I'm actually watching OnDemand exercise videos, which are awesome for getting me to go through with a whole set of exercises without hurting myself, but they're so steeped in cultural baggage that I have to wait for my parents to go to sleep before I do them.  (Actually, I'm doing all my exercising after they go to sleep, or before they get home from work.  I don't have a super-healthy relationship with them, self-esteem wise.)

Movie Triggers: the best new website I've seen lately

A while ago, I had an idea for a website, that would use a social network/review system to catalog movies with triggering content.  It's a pretty basic idea, I don't think it was stolen or anything, and the hard part is obviously the work on putting something like this together. I'm thrilled to say that someone has actually done that work.

MovieTriggers.com is a catalog of movies which, over time, will hopefully accumulate a decent collection of trigger warnings for popular movies.  Right now, most of them say there are 0 triggers -- which, the site stresses, "does not mean that this movie is non-triggering."  (Emphasis theirs.)

Symbols specifically indicate whether more than 10 people have agreed something is triggering, and whether there are comments on the thread, which would hopefully offer a better idea of what the triggering content is, so visitors can make informed judgements about whether they can handle it.

I'm personally looking forward to when the site gets enough traction to start warning about spiders -- I sent a feedback message asking whether arachnophobia was an appropriate tag here's the thread:

[me:] Is there any sort of guideline on what counts as a trigger, or what sorts of things you hope to cover?  For example, I'm arachnophobic -- would it be appropriate for me to add a spiders warning to movies that caused me to panic?  (Right now, my strategy is looking away if spiders show up and letting my partner tell me when it's safe to look back up.)

[Response:] Hi,

Tagging with spiders is completely appropriate. There are no specific guidelines for what counts as a trigger. We specifically left it open ended so people could share their experiences.

Thanks for using the site!

- John

Please, use this site, share it, add your experiences to the catalog.  Including spiders.