Monday, December 31, 2007

XO: the slowness

XO is so slow that if you open 5 applications (sorry, "activities") it slows down significantly. If you open 6 of them, it slows down to a complete grind. And I'm talking about such low-intensity activities as text editing and web browsing! I haven't even tried video or sound recording or editing yet!

Having a minimal number of activities open is also not a guarantee that the laptop won't slow down. If you copy a large quantity of text to a clipboard, it will slow the XO down just as effectively as opening 6 applications. By "large" I mean "about 2 pages worth". For me it's typical to copy / paste chunks of text this size as I write and edit my stories or blog entries.

An XO / OLPC laptop An XO / OLPC laptop.

Well then, perhaps I should clear out my clipboard frequently to avoid computer freezing up? Yeah, that's a step you don't have to do in a traditional computer, but what's some small effort for the honor of using this radically innovative machine? It should be easy given that all your clipboard entries are conveniently lined up on the left side of your workspace. Hmm... but now how am I supposed to know which of them are the "huge" chunks that are hogging the memory, versus tiny one-word chunks? In my writing / editing process I generate both kinds, but much more of the latter. When you move the mouse over each clipboard entry, it obligingly pops up a menu allowing you to choose to remove the entry, add it to Journal, or to open it in an activity (such as "write", if it's text). However, it does not show you what the entry is (not until you open it in an activity, I suppose. And I already said what happens when you open more than 4-5 activities). So there is no easy way to know which entries to delete. Would it have been so hard to program the clipboard so that moving the mouse over a clipboard entry would show the initial words of the text (if it's a text)?

I guess you can point out that poor kids in the 3rd world are not graphomaniacs like me (actually, very few kids anywhere are), so they won't manipulate large chunks of text. Yet, this laptop gives kids an ability to record video and audio, and video / audio objects are bound to be much bigger than segments of text! If the laptop memory chokes on text, how will it handle multimedia? I'm afraid to even try it.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

No X's or O's for this toy

It's not the chiclet-sized rubbery keys (though I suppose I wouldn't try to type a dissertation on this keyboard. I haven't had a chance to type out long text documents on it yet, because I am still trying to find out the how to do the basic functions I do on a computer. ) No, there are several other reasons why I think this thing is crippled.

I know, I know. I can hear a bunch of voices yelling back at me that I don't get it, that XO was not supposed to be a "regular" laptop, and the fact that it can't do a lot of things a regular computer can do was a design decision, not a flaw. But then you have to wonder if the assumptions the designers made about the target audience (children in poor countries) were any close to being realistic.

You don't realize how much you rely on this feature until you miss it

Suppose you regularly update a web site, and you do it via a CMS (content management software). CMSes have web-based interfaces; you update them via a web browser. Often you want to upload pictures. Web browsers have upload widgets where you click "Browse" and a dialog box comes up that lets you select a file to upload. So you go to your CMS URL in the XO web browser, and you see your usual upload widgets, and you click the "Browse" button, and your computer cranks and flashes its blinkenlights, and you wait, and wait... while the itching feeling it's not going to pop up a dialog window grows stronger. You can't say why, not yet, but you just know it's not going to happen. When, after a lot of grinding, the XO web browser fails to pop up a dialog window (with no error message or anything), you realize why.

There are NO windows on this system!

An XO / OLPC laptop An XO / OLPC laptop.

The damn operating system does not have a window manager! All popular operating systems, whether Microsoft Windows, Mac or Linux, use a windowing system as a basic user interface paradigm. Any application you open opens in a window. Not so here. In OLPC interface, an application (or "activity", as they call them here) occupies the whole screen. Sure, there are ways to get from your "activity" screen to the Home screen and other activity screens. But the windowing paradigm is about more than that.

If you are a very linear person, XO may be for you

For one thing, a lot of mainstream applications, such as web browser, require opening another window in order to accomplish routine actions (such as uploading files), and they can't do that on XO. But the significance of windows is more fundamental. You can lay them out side by side and overlap them, enabling you to see several sets of data, several applications, several... um, activities, at once. It lets you shift your attention from window to window whenever something interesting happens in some window (for example, a friend IMs you). Our computing activities are rarely linear. You may be chatting in one window, while waiting for a video to load in another, while checking email in yet another window. You need to be able to see all that's happening at once! And children these days are even more used to that than adults. Everything that's been said about the contemporary kids and teenagers emphasizes that they are embracing multitasking the way no generation has done before -- IM'ing several friends, watching videos, and doing homework all at the same time, continuously managing multiple streams of attention. I would add that this is typical not just to kids, but to programmers too, of all ages. It is inevitable for us. While a program compiles, we don't dumbly stare at the screen: we research some other issue for another project, or answer somebody's question in an IM window -- only to interrupt those "secondary" issues when our primary project finishes compiling. And it should be enough to glance at it to know when it finished -- we shouldn't have to Alt+Tab to the other window repeatedly. Similarly, we need to know immediately when a colleague or a friend sent us a new instant message. For that, one needs overlapping windows on the screen.

XO doesn't let you do that.

So like I said, it may be good for kids who haven't been around regular computers, but any kid who's grew up in a modern digital lifestyle will find it crippling.

But maybe a window manager would be too power-intensive? It is a computationally intensive feature, I'm sure, at least as far as memory is concerned. And I've just talked with a guy at a coffeshop who has been following the OLPC program closely and he said that all these design decisions were dictated by the need to make the laptop consume as little power as possible.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Laptop crushes

My broken laptop is at the Fry's repair shop, where they will keep it for a week just to run some diagnostics on it! The diagnostics will cost me over 100 bucks. And that's not counting the cost of repairs. There's no telling how much that will be. The technician at Fry's said "it may not be economical" for me to get this laptop fixed versus buying a new one. I don't know if there are laptop repair shops in town that do the job faster and cheaper, there may very well be, but I had already spent one of my vacation days running errands and didn't want to spend the second one searching all over the town for a cheap computer repair shop. So I thought what the hell. But I prepared to reconcile myself with the possibility that I may have to put my beloved laptop to rest. So while I was at Fry's, I started looking at other laptops.

Even if a relationship ends, you can say it was good if it taught you what is important to you in relationships. And so it is with computers. If a laptop taught you what is important to you in laptops, it was worth it. And this laptop taught me a lot. When I bought it, I was confused about what I wanted -- all I had from my previous relationships with laptops was a vague sense of dissatisfaction, of spending too much effort working around their quirks; there was no balance of give and take. But now I know. Portability is extremely important, because I carry my laptop everywhere -- in a way it is a life partner. And for me, portability means primarily weight, and only then size. So, a 10" screen is only a marginal win over a 12 " screen, but 1.5 pounds is worlds better than 2.5 pounds! Reduction in weight often comes at an expense of an optical drive. And that's fine by me. I use a CD / DVD drive so rarely that I'll be perfectly happy with having an external drive to plug into the lappy when I'm at home. I don't need one "on the go". On the other hand, since I type a lot and in all sorts of places, the laptop's keyboard needs to be decent-sized. Chiclet keysx won't do.

That said, I announce my newest crush: Fujitsu Q2010! I looked at it at Fry's, and it's full of awesome! 1.5 lbs, 12" screen, no optical drive, but a keyboard suitable for marathon typing.

I feel awful saying this. I still hope my old laptop can be fixed.

An XO / OLPC laptop An XO / OLPC laptop.

Where does the XO come into picture, you ask? (No, you didn't, but I can dream, can't I?) It's not really in the running. It's a boy-toy, a rebound relationship. No, it's more complicated than that. If I was single, it would be a wingman / -woman. Or a wingpet, as it were. For all its inadequacies, it's really good at starting conversations. The last couple of days, being on vacation, I camped out with my XO at various WiFi-enabled coffeeshops and eateries, and half the time guys come up to me asking what it is. Hey single women! The Give 1, Get 1 program has been extended until December 31st! For just $400 you can buy yourself a perfect guy magnet!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Lumps of coal

This Christmastime the universe brought me an assortment of small nuggets of anthracite in the form of annoying and disappointing events. None of them is big enough to justify a whine (so consider this an unjustified whine); they are rather like small, delicate chocolates in the box -- as you bite into each one, you wonder which shade of bitter taste it will leave in your mouth.

Perhaps I shouldn't blame the universe: some of these things were brought about by my own clumsiness. First, I damaged my beloved laptop: not just once, but twice. I spilled coffee on it at a coffeeshop. Only a tiny bit of coffee, but it was enough to do a lasting damage. My 3 years of being very careful with this laptop came to naught. I am usually very aware of the placement of coffee and tea cups within one meter radius of the laptop. I don't put cups with liquid on the table where the lappy sits: I put them on a chair or on the floor, so that there would be no chance of spilling them. But all it takes is one time. My hand trembled, or something, and a few drops of coffee ended up on the keyboard. As a result, the mouse pad stopped working. The mouse acts as if its button is permanently pressed. So if you move the mouse over any window, it will wreck havoc as it "clicks" everything within that window, opening files, launching applications you didn't know you had, etc.

So I took it to Fry's yesterday to see if it could be fixed. But when I showed it to a technician, the mouse worked fine. I brought it back home, and the mouse is back to being unruly. So another trip to Fry's is in the stars for me tomorrow. I just hope the problem won't temporarily go away this time, only to reappear at home.

What's worse, as I was taking the laptop out of the bag at Fry's, I dropped it on the floor! Some parts of it outer shell cracked and chipped, but the fall didn't seem to affect it... at least not yet. I still feel very bad about harming my laptop, as if I had harmed a child.

Or perhaps it's a way my sneaky subconscious was trying to get rid of the old laptop so as to make way for what was supposed to be my holiday present to myself: an XO laptop (also known as OLPC, or One Laptop Per Child). I bought an XO as part of their "Buy 1, Get 1" program (you pay for 2 laptops, and get 1, while the other gets shipped to a child in a developing country, which is what the OLPC program was intended for). It arrived yesterday. My Christmas Eve night was spent on figuring out the XO interface, which is, in Tom Lehrer's words, "so simple, so very simple, that only a child can use it".

An XO / OLPC laptop An XO / OLPC laptop.

And not just any child, but a child who's never been around real computers before. For youngsters in African villages it may be perfectly adequate. But a western child who's been using computers since preschool, may find it about as comfortable as tying her shoe laces with her elbows. Yes, XO is cute. I grant it that. But a cute lump of coal does not a diamond make.

That's my verdict for now. I'll write more about it after I take a few deep breaths and spend hours on OLPC forums and wikis to see if there is even a circuitous way (much less a direct one) to do my everyday computing tasks.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Neil Gaiman "American Gods": a CFI book club discussion

5 members of the CFI book club attended the discussion. 3 of them have finished the book, 2 haven't but were planning to finish. For some reason we didn't get much discussion mileage out of this book. It did not prompt discussions as lively as the two previous books the CFI book club read, "The Sparrow" and "Towing Jehovah".

Everybody agreed the story starts out interesting but loses steam towards the end. A reader who characterized "American Gods" as half mythology, half modern road movie, said this setup pulled him through the first two thirds of the novel, but then he started to lose interest. Everybody felt pretty much the same.

The best part of the book: details, subplots, digressions

What people found the most memorable about "American Gods" was not the overarching idea or characters, but the details: various little tidbits, plot snippets and sub-stories that made this book a rather unusual piece of work. It is full sub-plots and sub-sub-plots that sometimes threw the readers off course, even if in a good way. For example, a few readers wondered about the significance of the taxi driver episode. Or the life story of an African woman who was sold into slavery and brought to colonial America. What role did these interludes play in the plot? Was it just to illustrate various ways gods from all over the world migrated to the US? One reader observed that Neil Gaiman usually manages to tie the plot threads that seem disparate (for example, "Sandman" has dozens upon dozens of plot threads, but most of them have an effect on the story), whereas in "American Gods" a lot of plot threads didn't have a connection.

And the concept of importing gods does not seem to be consistently thought out. Someone in the group wondered: when people came to America and brought their gods, did they duplicate them, or did they bring the only instance of a god to America? At the time when they came, there must have been a lot of people in the home country believing in the particular god, so this would imply most of those gods had "forked" (if you put it that way). Actually, I think the afterword answers that question: the immigrants indeed brought replicas of gods with them. In that case the central conflict is a bit myopically American-centered. You would wonder why the originals of the old gods did not back up the duplicates in the final battle? (Unless they too were dying out in their home countries, which seems plausible.)

Neil Gaiman book reading at Book People in Austin, TX, September 2005 Neil Gaiman book reading at Book People in Austin, TX, September 2005.

The most interesting characters end up as "furniture"

Speaking about the uniquely American flavor of the book, its main redeeming quality, in my eyes, is Gaiman's pitch-perfect rendition of small town America and all the colorful weirdos that live in it. I was impressed how Gaiman portrayed each of Shadow's quirky, kind, mysterious neighbors as a distinct person, with unique patterns of speech; how he brought those characters to life with just a few details. However, until the very end it didn't seem that those secondary and tertiary characters were more than "furniture" in Gaiman's picture of small town America. Admittedly, it was an interesting picture, bleak and cozy at the same time, and worth of a book in and of itself, but still, it was hard to see how those characters were significant. Shadow's interactions with them appeared to be digressions an author resorts to when he doesn't know how to advance the plot. I amended my opinion somewhat after reading the last 20-30 pages, as it turns out that some of the subplots involving secondary characters get tied up in the main plot line. Still it is less than satisfactory to have them tied up after the fact, rather than organically woven into the plot.

The plot loses steam towards the end

The general opinion of our group was that you may have fun with the details, but the book lacks something... overarching. Well, you can't say it lacks a concept, because it does have a rather unusual central concept. It's the notion that gods exist only as long as there are people who believe in them, and that believers brought their gods along as they migrated around the world. But a good premise is not enough to make a good novel. For one thing, this idea is not entirely new: as one reader pointed out, Terry Pratchett played with it in "Small Gods". The execution is what makes a book worth reading, and the execution of this novel fell apart towards the end. None of the 5 readers that took part in the discussion thought the ending made much sense, or had a clear idea of Shadow's role in the resolution of the central conflict. The way the plot petered out towards the end made it hard for me to sustain interest. I'm not sure if this testifies to my degree of sleep deprivation, or to some real flaws of the book, that I fell asleep while reading what was supposed to be the climactic scene, the battle of the gods.

I also wasn't sure what was even the point of a battle between old and new gods, given that most of the old gods were dying anyway. The conflict, as it was presented in the book, had little relevance to the world at large. Most people, unaware of those gods' existence, would not have noticed their disappearance.

I'm also surprised that neither old nor new gods tried to make an alliance with Jesus or Allah, as the latter two are still among the most powerful imaginary entities on the planet. However, introducing players of this caliber into the plot would have made it much more complicated, so I can understand the reason for this omission.

The book is oddly in favor of religion?

I guess this book may feel rewarding is if you are among people who bemoan lack of spirituality in the modern western society. Such a person may find themselves sagely nodding their head in agreement. Gaiman's observations about America's lack of soul, lack of spiritual places and a need to create artificial spiritual places would certainly seem poignant to me... if I believed that "spirituality" is a definable notion, and that there was more of it in the past (or in less advanced societies) than there is now. But since I don't believe that, those observations, while witty, sounded hollow to me. CFI being what it is, most of our group members did not identify with that sentiment either. "The book is oddly in favor of religion," concluded one of our readers.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"The Golden Compass": movie review

A couple of days ago I saw "The Golden Compass", based on Philip Pullman's book by the same title, the first one in "His Dark Materials" trilogy. We read and discussed this book at the Science And Religion In Fiction book club, and I'll write a report sometime soon; in this post I will mention some differences between the movie and the book. Of course, that's not what a proper movie review is supposed to do. But, being artistically challenged, I'm not in a position to judge things like acting or director's skill. To me the most important factor is how good the story is.

The movie sticks very closely to the book. It hits all the key plot points (except one: see later); no major characters were sacrificed for the sake of brevity or simplicity. That's more than one can expect from most movie adaptations. And yet that's not to say the story has not been simplified for the movie. It has been, and the result is a bit disappointing.

The most interesting thing about the book was the world Philip Pullman created. Since his goal was to write rational fantasy, one expects that the magical aspects of his creation -- daemons, Dust, parallel universes -- are all manifestations of an underlying order of his world, rather than memes / cliches an author pulls out of the hat whenever they are handy. In the book, Pullman does not immediately reveal what Dust or daemons are; he gives us a chance to put the puzzle together. For me that was the main intrigue of the book. Doubly so because those mysterious forces are ambiguous; even at the end of the book it's not clear whether they serve more good than bad.

But the movie deprives us of speculation, since it gives a simplified explanation of those things at the beginning, in a form of an infodump. In the same way, the scenes of Lyra reading the aletheiometer were too simplistic. In the book the deeper meanings of aletheiometer symbols came to Lyra gradually and after much thinking, not instantly or magically. The reader is invited to speculate along with her what those symbols mean. In the movie, she takes one look at the device, and the images appear in all their glory among psychedelic swirls of Dust.

I can see, though, how complexities of Pullman's world do not lend themselves easily to a visual format. It makes me wonder if the reason this book appealed to movie producers at all was because armed bear fights provide some majestic cinematic sequences. :-) And the hot air balloon flights don't disappoint in that department either. All that shiny, steampunky brass!

Speaking about the movie not being completely faithful to the book: there is a plot twist at the end of the novel that's missing in the movie. It involves Lyra's parents and it totally makes you reconsider who the good guys and the bad guys are! You have to wonder why they cut off the ending: to fit under a certain time limit, or did they think it made the story unnecessarily complex?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Towel animals

I must mention one neat experience I had during the cruise, something that offset the flashiness, gaudiness and noise. Towel animals! When making up guests' rooms, the housekeeping crew folded towels into animal shapes and placed them on beds. They did it while guests were at dinner. There was a different animal each night: a seal, a dog, a cat, a frog.

Coming from dinner, it was fun to wonder what kind of towel animal we'll find that night.

Towel seal seen on a cruise ship, November 2007 Towel seal, sitting on the bed
Towel dog with sunglasses, seen on a cruise ship, November 2007 Towel dog with sunglasses
Towel cat seen on a cruise ship, November 2007 Towel cat
Towel frog seen on a cruise ship, November 2007 Towel frog

Then on the last day of the cruise there was a workshop on how to make your own towel animals. It was only 30 minutes long, so we only had time to make a dog and a seal. Not because they take that long to make, but because the instructors had to explain the same steps over and over to a million people. Here are the pictures from the towel animal-making workshop, as well as pictures of several kinds of towel animals (including a swan and an elephant).

Friday, November 30, 2007

A mentally draining vacation

This was definitely one of those cases where you need a vacation to recover from your vacation. For a few days since coming back I was still exhausted and felt a fantom ship rocking under my feet. I also continue to be brain dead.

I'm wondering if we should have gone on a Geek Cruise instead. Yes, there are cruises that have classes on all things geeky, such as becoming a Mac power user, or learning the ins-and-outs for Photoshop, as opposed to what passed for entertainment on our cruise (men's hairy chest contest, a seminar on how to get the best deal on diamonds in Cozumel). My IQ immediately dropped two standard deviations and haven't completely recovered.

Aside from lack of mental stimulation, our cruise was very geek-unfriendly in one other way. Lack of electric outlets. For shame! There was only one -- count them, one -- electric outlet in our room! So our power-thirsty devices (two laptops, two cell phones, one camera) had to take turns being charged. Just as bad, there were very few power outlets all around the ship, in the areas people hang out, such as bars, lounges, and eateries. I was hoping to find a nice, quiet corner on the ship, with a view of the sea, away from people, and camp out there with a laptop for some quality writing and blogging. No luck. I did less writing there than I do on a typical weekend at home. Like I said, the cruise atmosphere is not conducive to intellectual exertion. :-)

Making you feel like a sheep

The second most popular thing here beside feeding, it seems, is taking people's pictures. There are photo stations set up throughout the ship, where you can have your picture taken in a variety of settings: on the grand atrium stairs, in front of a huge poster of the ship Ecstasy, dressed up in a period costume, hugging a showgirl, or with all kinds of other props. A photographer also walks around the tables at dinner time and takes everyone's pictures. You can later purchase the pictures you liked. At one time the photographer was accompanied by a man dressed as a pirate. (We were in the Caribbean, after all! :-)) The "pirate", of course, has a hook for an arm; he shoves his hook under your neck, you smile (or make a scared face if you're feeling creative), the photographer clicks, and they move on to a next person. There are ~ 1500 people dining at the same time, and the photographer / pirate duo needs to process them all. Methodically, without missing a beat, without lingering an extra second, they move from person to person: put a hook under your neck, wait for a smile, click. I guess an assembly line approach is efficient when it comes to, say, bagging groceries, but a bit counterproductive when attempting to create fantasy memories. :-) Still, on a ship with 3000 people, assembly line approach is usually the only possible one, especially where it comes to herding people off the ship and on to tour buses, then back on the ship, etc. At every step there are crew members telling you where to go, where to stand, when to have your card in hand, etc. It's been a long time since I've felt so much like a sheep, what with all that herding, card-swiping, photographing and force-feeding. :-)

But I'm not griping. After all, there was luxury and there was free time, which is more than you can say about most life situations.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The cruise: tour guides that double as salesmen.

As I said before, these cruises seem to be designed to herd tourists from one money-extracting opportunity to another. The shore tours were just as efficient. On a ride to the ruins, a tour guide doesn't just recite historical facts about the ancient Mayan civilization. He also makes a sales pitch. On the ride to Chichen Itza the guide told us about Mayan calendars. Interesting stuff, and Wikipedia has a lot more on it. Of course, our guide did not give us a lecture of the same length and complexity as the article I'm referring to; he condensed it into a few sentences, from which I took away only that Mayan calendars were systems of interlocking cycles of various length; one of the most important cycles is 260-days long and based on the length of human pregnancy. (Oh, and two major cycles will both end in 2012, and that year will be a beginning of a Mayan new era; some apocalyptic nuts are already preparing for that. :-)). So, the guide told us we now had a unique opportunity to have personalized Mayan calendars made for us, and he passed around forms to fill out with personal info to put on a calendar. The calendars would be made by local artisans while we wander in the ruins of Chichen Itza. In what way a Mayan calendar can be personalized, I don't know; do they just mark your (spouse's, children's, etc.) birthday(s) on those cycles, or what? Or do they mark "significant" dates that result from interlocking of the cycles, as the dates to start major undertakings in your life? Is it a bit like astrology, then? I don't know; I sat too far in the back of the bus to hear the guide very well. ;-) Needless to say, I wasn't tempted by the offer.

Similarly, on the ride to Tulum, the tour guide (a different one) was offering to sell us little silver charms with our names written in Mayan characters. The charms were yet to be made; the guide passed around forms to fill out with personal information that would be collected as we get off the bus, and the charms would be made while we were on tour. But... Mayan characters are funny business. Our Tulum guide said ancient Mayan script was phonetic (i.e. each sound was represented by a letter), hence it should be possible to write any name, including foreign ones, in Mayan. However, our Chichen Itza guide said Mayan language actually used logograms or hieroglyphs. (And Wikipedia confirms it.) In theory at least that would make it impossible to write foreign words in Mayan characters, as I don't believe they had characters for Jim or Bob, or anything like that. :-)) So if anyone ordered those trinkets (I certainly didn't), I can only wonder what the characters on them said. Maybe "kill all the palefaces"? :-)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More on Mexico

As I said, I didn't get to see much of Mexico, except for little towns I glimpsed out of a bus window. Those towns, starting with Progresso, were rather dilapidated. To get to the ancient ruins we had to pass a lot of modern day ones. The 1-2 story buildings that lined the streets had gaps between them like missing teeth, where formerly occupied houses had been left to decay. In some places inner courtyards of houses had become open where a front wall had crumbled; I could see smoke, but not a single soul concerned with the fire: were those fires purposeful? Did people cook on an open fire right in the middle of their backyards? Or did they incinerate their trash, or...? Who knows? I didn't have time to speculate as the bus kept moving (too fast for me to take pictures) and new scenes replaced the old ones.

A round house with scrollwork fence, seen out of a bus window in Mexico, November 2007 A round house with scrollwork fence, seen out of a bus window in Mexico. A beautiful house, but clearly it has seen better days, judging by the gaping holes where windows would be.

Even if you only spend a few hours in Mexico and stick to tourist routes, you can still see enough evidence that things are different there than here. Whenever somebody walked into a public restroom in Tulum, a restroom attendant would say: "water ees normal dee color". If you took a look at any of the toilets, you could see why she kept repeating it: the water in the toilets was dark brown, the kind of color that would make you go "ewww". Of course, it may have been more effective to plaster the bathroom with signs in several languages, but then the attendant would be out of job. Stuff like that can lead you to ruminate on topics like poverty, many faces thereof. Poverty is not necessarily having nothing to eat, it is also the only job available to you being one where you have to repeat the same phrase over and over, robotically, every 5 seconds. I'm sure I speak for a lot of people when I say I would turn into a blubbering idiot after doing this kind of work for just a few hours.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The cruise: Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of the best known Mayan ruin sites. It's a 2 hour ride from Progresso (Mexico), our second port of call. So we spent 4 hours on the bus and only about 2 hours in Chichen Itza. But even if I had spent several days there, I wouldn't have more to say about it than Wikipedia has. So what can I say that others haven't? I can only speak about my own clumsy attempts to grasp the greatness of this historical site.

As expected, the tour guide barraged us with information, much of it pertaining to the stone carvings on the walls of the Mayan ritual ball game court. I might have digested it better, had I a bit more time to tune my eye to the ancient Mayans' rather liberal interpretation of human anatomy. The carvings on the wall of the ball game court tell stories of human sacrifices performed at the ball game. Or they would, if you could make out actual human figures in those pictures. You can see a semblance of a face here or there, but mostly the carvings look like abstract ornaments. Yet to our guide they were clear as day. Here a priest holds a knife over a kneeling victim, he said. And over there he holds a severed head. And here is blood gushing forth from the victim's neck. Actually, I think I got a picture of the gushing blood. It might be the one below.

Beheaded player sculpture at Chichen Itza, November 2007 Beheaded player sculpture at Chichen Itza

And I think I was able to make out a severed head in this picture (below), although it was hidden really well.

Priest holds a severed head - a Mayan carving in Chichen Itza Priest holds a severed head - a Mayan carving in Chichen Itza

Regardless, S and I were left confused about some important aspects of human sacrifice. We could not agree if the guide said ancient Mayans sacrificed a player from the losing or the winning team. I thought it was logical that a member of the losing team would be sacrificed. However, Steve thought that since being sacrificed to the gods was a great honor, that honor fell to one of the winners!

Here is my bigger blog post with more pictures from Chichen Itza


Friday, November 23, 2007

The cruise: ruins of Tulum

The cruise: ruins of Tulum

Steve and I recently went on a Caribbean cruise that stopped at two places in Mexico. So, technically I can say I've been to Mexico, even though I spent at most 16 hours there, a good 10 of them on buses and ships. As little as I've seen of that country, it shall not prevent me from filling up these pages with my detailed impressions. As always, I'll do it in installments.

First, the Mayan ruins of Tulum.

Our ship stopped off at Cozumel and Progresso; a variety of tours was offered at each port of call. One of the options at Cozumel was to tour the Mayan ruins of of Tulum. They are not actually in Cozumel, which is an island; Tulum is in inland Mexico, ~ 1.5 hours bus ride from the coast. So, first you have get to the coast from Cozumel. It means taking a boat. A small boat. (Small, at least, in comparison with the gigantic cruise ship.) The waves are, of course, the same size whether you are on a big or a small boat, but the amplitude of motion felt by passengers is very different. What feels like a gentle rocking on a big ship, feels like a rollercoaster on a small ship. The ride was only 40 minutes, but man, did I get sick! Sea-sickness is a bitch. I felt residual nausea the rest of the day. And then I had to return to Cozumel on the same boat, across the same choppy sea! Fortunately, it wasn't as bad. Perhaps the sea was really calmer, or because I sat in the bottom deck (the amplitude of motion must be smaller at the bottom, at least in theory), or because I kept my eyes closed for the entire ride back (when you don't see the horizon heaving up and down, your brain has fewer clues that the ship is rocking), but I tolerated the ride back fairly well.

Nausea or not, the trip was worth it, even more so since I haven't seen ancient Mayan cities before. From the ruins of Tulum a beautiful view opens up to the sea

View of the sea from the ruins of Tulum, November 2007 View of the sea from the ruins of Tulum

It was there, according to our tour guide, that the Mayans of Tulum first saw the masts of Spanish ships over the horizon. (Or maybe our tour guide was dramatizing, as the ruins themselves weren't very dramatic, at least not in rainy weather.) And we all know what happened next. This adds a twinge of sadness to the beautiful view. Tulum survived only a few years after that. Actually, the tour guide said the Spaniards left Tulum alone, because there was no gold in it. The Spaniards had made their outpost in what is now Cuba, and raided various places along the Mexican coast, mostly looking for gold. But after the Spaniards conquered the Aztec emperor Montezuma, Tulum's days were numbered.

Then again I'm not sure if (a) I heard the guide correctly, and (b) he wasn't making things up. I later noticed some things our guide said were of dubious truthiness. (Like for example, that a certain restaurant at Tulum, run by his friend, had best margaritas in the world. I tried a margarita there, and it was decent, but I've had better in some places in Austin. Ditto for the food. Still, it wouldn't be right to go to Mexico and not have "authentic" Mexican food and drink, now would it?)

Here are more of my pictures from Tulum.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Alexis Glynn Latner "Hurricane Moon": FACT reading group discussion

Alexis Glynn Latner "Hurricane Moon": FACT reading group discussion

10 people attended the discussion of Alexis Glynn Latner's debut novel "Hurricane Moon". 4 people have read Latner's short stories before. 7 people started the book, 4 of them finished. Some others didn't finish it because they got it too late. This book had not been in stores for long at the time of the discussion. Some of these people were planning to finish it, if for no other reason then because they know Alexis personally (she has been coming to ArmadilloCons for many years).

"Hurricane Moon" is a story of an interstellar mission to find a habitable planet for humans to colonize. Finding the right planet takes longer than expected, and having spent a thousand years in a stasis, the colonists wake up with significant gene damage. Unless the damage is somehow fixed, they'll be unable to procreate; hence, the mission will have failed. The only person capable of coming up with a way to fix the damage is Joe, a brilliant geneticist who is somewhat of a difficult character. The other protagonist is a ship doctor named Katharin. Joe and Katharin feel attracted to one another despite disagreeing on just about everything.

Readers quibbled with science and with romance

People's opinions on the romance thread varied. Two people commented that the book lost their interest when the courtship of the two main characters took the central stage. Some others said the romance wasn't done very well: it wasn't as sophisticated as, for example, the kind of romance you find in Lois Bujold novels. "Those two people seemed to forget they were scientists, they didn't behave like scientists," said a reader. Other readers argued that the love story didn't dominate the novel; this was still hard SF, not a romance novel with a spaceship thrown in. The love story was merely part of the character development.

Some people found quibbles with the science in the book. One reader said it's strange for an Analog writer like Alexis to have pools of anaerobic bacteria on the surface of the planet (where they are presumably exposed to oxygen). Then he thought the explanation why the plants on the planet were blue was scientifically infeasible. These two perceived errors ruined his enjoyment of the book so much he put it down. Regarding the blue color of the plants, another reader tried to convince him he misunderstood the explanation. Somebody also thought Alexis Glynn Latner played fast and loose with deceleration. The numbers didn't add up -- the engine didn't have enough power to slow the ship down over a short period of time.

The plot lost its focus in the second half

Others, including readers well-versed in science, did not see serious problems in that respect. They found the science plausible, and they liked how the book started out as a classical hard SF story. The decision making that went into selecting the right planet, the weighing of the risks -- to stay at the originally selected planet, even though it turned out to be much worse than expected, or to travel further in search for a more suitable planet and risk greater gene damage -- all of this caught their interest. However, some of those who were initially impressed, thought the story lost focus in the second half. When the crew settled on the planet, it seemed the author didn't always know what to do with them. A reader said: "I could tell it was the first really long thing Alexis has written, because the plot was in some places, OK, I don't know what I should do next, so let's let Joe (one of the two main characters, the brilliant geneticist) wonder around and get lost. It happened 2-3 times. One time I could have handled, but 2-3 times? And he's the only guy who can figure out how to fix the genome so that the people could reproduce? And they let him get lost? And the plot depends on him getting lost?"

It can make you ponder logistics of running an interstellar mission

There were other indications that the plot wasn't well thought out. One reader said: "I would have wished that they would have done more exploration of Green, Blue and the other planet, sending drones or something, before settling down. Particularly because Blue is in the title of the book. They never go there, and yet it's in the title." Another reader reminded him that the mission had only enough drones for one planet. This led to an observation that the expedition seemed rather poorly equipped. They only had 1 doctor and one person with training in first aid, which is rather strange for an expedition that has landed on an unknown planet. (Not counting, of course, hundreds of doctors and people of all specialties that were in the stasis, waiting for their turn to wake up -- perhaps decades after the first colonists have landed. Those people were "passengers", not the crew.) This led to an interesting discussion of what is an optimal crew composition for an expedition exploring an alien planet. One reader, after thinking about it for a while, concluded it was a rational idea to have just the absolute minimum of people awake until they determine who else they actualy need. Because the more people you wake up, the more demands you have on resources, and then it becomes a challenge to find out what combination of human resources you need to wake up in order to support all those additional people that have woken up.

So it seems there are readers in this group who have given more than a passing thought to the logistics of running an interstellar mission. They've also read enough books in this particular subgenre where you have a spaceship with colonists in a stasis. Despite the debatable flaws of logic, "Hurricane Moon" came out ahead of many books in this subgenre. It may sound like this discussion report focuses mostly on the negative, but actually a lot of people in the group liked it. I guess they just didn't make it very clear to me what exactly they liked it for.

Alexis Glynn Latner Alexis Glynn Latner at ArmadilloCon 2007

Or maybe they did, to some extent. They liked the culture, for example. The new culture the colonists are trying to build in this new world, the rituals they create, was seen as some of the more interesting things of the novel. One reader, though, was thrown off by the characters changing their last names, as it made it difficult for him to keep track of them. He also found the motivations of the colonists not very credible. Not just the motivations for taking on the names of their home cities ("if they are forever cut off from Earth, why are they holding on the geographical areas that have divided us for a long time?"), but also the fundamental reason for leaving the Earth. Several main characters seemed to be driven by the notion that the Earth society was too screwed up, so they had to go somewhere else to establish a better society. But the colonists are only human, and human society is not going to be all that much better elsewhere, the reader pointed out.

Overall, most readers thought all of these flaws could be attributed to this being Alexis Glynn Latner's first novel. They thought Latner had potential, and her subsequent books are bound to be better.

I wanted to like this book, because I have a weakness for hard SF, and because Alexis Glynn Latner is such a nice person, but I found it less than satisfactory for several reasons. The pacing is, to borrow a word from another FACT reading group member, a bit "pedestrian". From the time the mission lands on planet Green, nothing much science-fictional happens. There are no interesting scientific discoveries until the very end. Instead, the pages are filled with interpersonal drama.Even though the colonists in the end make two significant discoveries that challenge their assumptions about this planet, those discoveries play no part in solving the main problem they are facing -- healing the damage to their genes.


It is especially strange that the colonists conclude that the aliens made Blue what it is and put it there in orbit for religious purposes. It's hard to believe that a very advanced technological civilization would attach so much significance to religious symbols as to make an artifact of planetary proportions and put it in orbit. As an explanation of Blue's origin and purpose, it seems rather like a cop-out. It's almost as if scientists can't be bothered to seriously study Blue, so they conveniently label it a religious artifact, because then you don't have to explain anything -- who can begin to guess what the alien religion was like; whereas if you assumed there were good scientific, technological or political reasons for the Blue to be made what it is and placed where it is, you would have to continue to look for them.


When I pointed out that those discoveries play very little role in the story, one reader suggested that maybe their implications are left to be explored in a sequel.

Another way the resolution of the book was unsatisfactory is that the ending depends on a protagonist's psychological transformation rather than scientific / technical ingenuity. That's not what I would expect from a classic hard SF tale.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book review: Richard Matheson "I Am Legend"

I read this book as "homework" for the FACT reading group, but ended up not going to the discussion because I've been steamrolled by work. Regardless, here is my review.

To sum up my opinion, it's a good character study, but a bit lacking in originality, and certainly lacking in scientific credibility.

The story follows a guy who (believes he) is the last surviving human after the Earth has been overrun by vampires. A cover blurb says Matheson was a big influence to Stephen King, and I wonder if that was the reason this book gave me a continuous deja vu. Stephen King has dealt with apocalyptic scenarios in some of his books, as well as with supernatural horror, though I think he did a better job of these two genres.

I was intrigued not so much by a premise that the humankind has been wiped out by / transformed into vampires, as with the notion that you can make an entire novel out of the last survivor's experiences (a short novel, but still). If the protagonist is the only person left alive in the world, what is the book going to be about? Him living out his days and dying? That would hardly make an interesting story. Thus, to fill up those 171 pages, something unexpected has to happen. Was the protagonist wrong in his assumption that he was the last person on Earth? The story is in no rush to reveal it. As the story goes on, you start to wonder if you were wrong and this is really a book about a lonely guy living out his sad, meaningless existence in a world without a future. He starts out desperate and pathetic. He is devastated by the loss of his wife and daughter to the vampire plague, and even more so by the realization that he is doomed to be alone until the end of his life. Even so, he's focused on survival. Each day he swings between alcohol-fueled rage and a tenacious, clear-headed effort to do what he needs to do to make it through one more day. Matheson portrays the character's emotional state so vividly and movingly that not only I sympathized with the protagonist, but I also started to think, grudgingly, that even if nothing more happens to him, the book will still be interesting enough as a character study of the last survivor.

Then the story gets better still, as the guy overcomes his alcoholism and becomes determined to find a scientific explanation of the vampire plague. That was the part I could really identify with. His frustrations reminded me a lot of my days in graduate school, when I used to bang my head against particularly ornery projects, or even of my current bouts with writer's block, as I struggle to think my way out of plot dead ends.

Yet when he found an explanation, it was very disappointing -- to me, at least -- because it was so implausible. Even more implausible was that nobody found this answer before him. And he wasn't even a scientist by training! He was merely a smart guy who taught himself biology from textbooks. Even though the plague was fast and the humanity, including all "real" scientists, was gone in a matter of weeks, it's still not likely that the CDC and other experts did not have time to make the same discovery that this self-taught scientist eventually did. Science is not this book's strong suit. Also, the ending did not seem well thought out. Certain things happened for no good reason.

The rest of the stories in the book were even more Stephen King'ish in their spirit. Their dominant genre is supernatural horror. There isn't much science fiction in them. But the characters are vivid, and their situations resonated with me in ways that held my interest despite the fact that this isn't my genre.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Maker Faire, part 5: of techno-optimism and reconstructed fashion

As one would expect at a faire, there were faire rides and merry-go-rounds. Supposedly they were all homemade? The amazing thing about them was that (I may be wrong on this) none of them ran on electric power. The ones I saw were all pedal-powered.

A bicycle merry-go-round at the Maker Faire 2007 A bicycle merry-go-round at the Maker Faire 2007
A pedal-powered fair ride at the Maker Faire 2007 A pedal-powered fair ride

Sure, these merry-go-rounds were nothing like roller-coasters in industrial entertainment parks, but they also required more active participation on the rider's part than simply giving in to the centrifugal force. And some of them, like this circular see-saw, managed to frighten some riders. Apparently, pedaling was less trivial than they thought. It got me wondering, by the way -- do the riders all need to pedal synchronously, in phase and at the same speed? What happens if one of them slacks off or falls out of phase?

A pedal-powered circular see-saw in motion A pedal-powered circular see-saw in motion at the Maker Faire 2007

(I didn't go on any of the rides, I must say. I'm way too uncoordinated for that. One look at them makes me lose my balance.)

And this rolling wheel was just stunning, but I wasn't sure if it could move on its own, or if it needed to be pushed. In this picture, a bunch of people are pushing it, but maybe just because they need to help it up the hill?

A pedal-powered mini Ferris wheel A pedal-powered mini Ferris wheel at the Maker Faire 2007

More than anything else in this Faire, the merry-go-rounds and the modified cars left me optimistic in general about the ability of western civilization to survive the looming energy crisis. Oil may run out one day, but human ingenuity is under no such threat, it seems.

And then there was Swap-o-Rama-Rama, a two day event where you were supposed to be able to drop off your used clothing and be taught, or inspired, create new, reconstructed clothes out of stuff people dropped off. I didn't even stop by to check it out, because I knew it would ignite in me a temptation to start making clothes again. Sewing and knitting were my major hobbies in high school and college, but I abandoned them in favor of hobbies that hold a more profound appeal to me, such as writing. But I checked out their fashion show at the end of the day. They demonstrated clothes that were, IIRC, created during the day out of stuff people dropped off. Most of them were quite original. As I understand it, the creators of those clothes were actual fashion designers who specialize in "reconstructed" fashion. An ordinary person off the street, such as myself, would not likely have created something as good in just one day. But it was still interesting to see. Men's ties seemed to be a prominent sub-theme.

A dress made of ties and other recycled fabrics A dress made of ties and other recycled fabrics

Several of the dresses shown at the fashion show were made out of ties. Well, it was good to see ties can be put to good use: I don't remember the last time I saw anyone wearing a tie according to its purpose.

A dress with a ruffle made of ties and other recycled fabrics A dress with a ruffle made of ties and other recycled fabrics

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Maker Faire, part 4: art cars

Many cars and bicycles exhibited at the Maker Faire made you pause and rethink your definition of a car or a bicycle.

There was a morbid, but fascinating roach mobile; a van covered with cameras (; an assortment of electric cars.

Camera Van at the Maker Faire 2007 Camera Van at the Maker Faire 2007

Some of them were made by companies that plan to make money off of them, others by hobbyists as tongue-in-cheek projects. Some were converted from cars that run on gas. Some allowed you to look under the hood, others (most) had no hood at all.

Then there was a panoply of wonderful bicycles in shapes of butterflies, grasshoppers, and who-knows-what. I felt like I stepped off into a fairy tale world.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Maker Faire, part 3

There was also some art where the point wasn't so easily found.

Tree of Secrets, dream recorder

An example of such a contraption was the Tree of Secrets, which was a cardboard tree with microphones hanging off of it. You could speak your secrets into those microphones, and they would get recorded. Then you could play them back. I think you could also listen to other people's secrets (thus making it a tree of no secrets, said S.) When the tree accumulates enough soundtracks, it starts mixing them up. I guess that was supposed to somehow make it more interesting.

Another example was a dream recorder (?) that looked like an old, rusty voltmeter from a high school physics lab. You put it near your bed, and record your dreams in the morning. "Record" is too ambitious a word, though, because the only thing you can do with it is press one of the two buttons: "good" or "bad". Also, if I remember correctly, it's connected to the internet, and the needle on its face shows you the proportion of people who are having good dreams versus bad dreams. (Or maybe my subconscious made up this part as it tried really hard to find some meaning in this project.) Even so, this kind of dream evaluation could be shared only by people who have identical dream recorders near their beds. But... how many of them are there? Isn't the dream recorder a one-of-a-kind thing, given that it was created by a graduate student as a course project?

Yes, both of these exhibits were created as course projects by students of a graduate program with some kind of... umm... trendy name, like Interactive Communications, or Interactive Media, or some such. S told me I wasn't supposed to see a point in these projects: they were Art. Period. I said it wasn't obvious to me that this program was primarily artistic rather than technical, as the name sounded slightly geeky. Well, S shamed me for looking for utility value in this art. Oh well. Yet I kinda felt sorry for those students. While I do remember having to do graduate course projects that seemed about as useful as shoveling sand from one pile to another (i.e. they did not involve original research, only reshuffling the existing data), I still think they were more meaningful than, say, making a tree of secrets. As I said, I'm not cut out to be an artist.

If you were curious what true randomness sounded like...

Along the same lines, I felt, was Kosmophone by Jerry Chamkis, a "musical" instrument that synthesizes sounds from gamma rays. This device measures frequency, wavelength, or energy (he said those things were interchangeable) of gamma rays that are hitting the Earth at all times, and a synthesizer "translates" those measurements into sounds. By the sound of it, gamma rays hit it at varying intervals averaging about once in a couple of seconds, so the device produces a steady ping-pong-pung of random notes at random intervals. This was the gist of the half-an-hour long talk by Jerry Chamkis. I actually figured out what it was doing after hearing the first 5-10 of these "musical" sounds. The rest were the details about how this instrument was made. I more or less slept through the details, but S was interested: his graduate studies in physics were all about chasing elementary particles, so he found some common ground with Chamkis. He had a chat with the creator of the Kosmophone about stuff like what materials you use to make a light-tight casing for your sensitive components.

The obvious -- and perhaps the only -- point of Kosmophone, as Chamkis readily admitted, was to give the listener an experience of true randomness. Try as they may, humans can't create truly random processes. But truly random processes do exist in nature, and spectral characteristics of gamma rays hitting the Earth are one of them. So, before I could open my mouth and say to S "this could make a really good random number generator on a computer", he turned to me and said the same thing. Then one guy in the audience said it out loud. Apparently all the computer geeks in the audience had the same thought. Chamkis replied that while that's true, it wouldn't be practical, because the rays hit the Earth way too infrequently. In computer applications -- mostly cryptography -- random numbers need to be generated much faster than a sequence of gamma rays would allow.

Screaming Babyhead, a robot band at the Maker Faire 2007 Screaming Babyhead, a robot band at the Maker Faire 2007

So, the projects demonstrated at the Maker Faire were a mixed bag. Which of course means there was a lot of good in it too. There were tons of robots, as I said before, but most of them had artistic rather than utilitarian value. For example: a robobabe/angel, or Marvin Niebuhr's Screaming Babyhead band of robots -- a very steampunky bunch of musicians. If they played any music, it must have been lost in the general din of the exhibit hall, as I couldn't hear anything.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Maker Faire, part 2

Maker Faire in bullet points:

Cute and practical: floating speakers, hidden in Mylar balloons.

Artsy and practical: Stop-Motion Armatures, poseable figures that can be photographed serially to create animation.

Pleo, a robot dinosaur pet Pleo, a robot dinosaur pet at the Maker Faire 2007

Artsy and geeky: thereping.

Geeky and cuddly: robotic dinosaur pets, named Pleo, that have a range of sentient-looking behaviors.

Geeky with a hard science edge: Stirling engines.

Quirky technology that has its uses: wood iPods.

A person trying to ride a bicycle with a hinge in the middle A person trying to ride a bicycle with a hinge in the middle at the Maker Faire 2007

Quirky technology that's not useful for anything except to build your character through extreme frustration: bicycle with a hinge in the middle. "You really have to steer it two ways!" said a perplexed guy after making a few wobbly laps on this bicycle. Many people fell trying to ride it.

This peculiar item is in a category that's worth a separate article: quirky / art cars. And it will have a separate post! But first, some snarkiness. Coming up tomorrow.

And here are even more pictures from the Maker Faire 2007

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Maker Faire, part 1

Maker Faire is upon us! According to its website, it is a "two-day, family-friendly event that celebrates arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset". In my own words, I'll say only this: who needs Flipside when you have Maker Faire? It has a much higher concentration of quirky technology and art, it's in an air-conditioned building (part of it, anyway), and -- best of all -- there is no techno music!

The Do-It-Yourself stuff exhibited here ranges from technology to art to food (cooking is the DIY of food, right?), and the exhibits cover every category: from practical, to art-that's-actually-beautiful, to art-that's-kinda-pointless, to practical technology, to technology that has no value except quirk, to technology that has no point at all. Most of the technology demonstrated here only had value as an art piece, however. Or as a proof of concept. There were exceptions, of course. I will cover a bit of all of those categories in a few upcoming posts.

For starters, here is an example of DIY art that struck the sweet spot between beauty and utility like only a few projects at the Faire did: lampshades made of interlocking plastic pieces, here and here.

The overlapping area between art and technology was densely populated by robots created by our own local Robot Group. A robot that unexpectedly appealed to my girly side was Mechanical Flower, created by Denise Scioli and Ms. Puiyee "PY" Hung from the Robot Group. The flower's inner petals are made of a steamer insert, identical to the one I have at home. Mechanical Flower's steamer insert dances, opening and closing to the music, slow or fast.

Here is a video:

The tiny holes in the steamer insert create hypnotizing moving patterns when its "petals" open and close. What an exaltation of a mundane steamer! (To be sure, I don't see mine as mundane. For me it is one of the most beautiful household items I own. Its petalness (petality?) can easily inspire one to think of its potential uses for art. To non-artistic people, like me, this call is barely a passing whisper, but artistic people take things like this and incorporate them into their art projects.

Here are more of my blog posts and pictures about the Maker Faire.

Oh, one more important thing. Steve enjoyed this event as much as I did! It is very rare for him to like the same things I do. Hmm, what else is going on in Austin on a regular basis that resembles Maker Faire?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

An authentication scheme cooked up by a pointy-haired boss

There was this article in Washington Post that reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend via his blog about authentication questions, the kind you have to answer in order to login to online banking systems and such. In this post he pointed out that security questions based on users' wishes, preferences and hobbies were useless. (My, has it been almost a year? It feels like we had this conversation just yesterday.) Well, things have only gone downhill in the security world since then, if this article is any indication.

This Is Your Life*... *As Determined by Confounding Identity-Protection Safeguards

Old authentication systems, as imperfect as their questions were, at least allowed you to select a question and an answer that suited you best (or that was less useless to you than others). But how would you like an authentication system that does not even let you choose the questions? Instead, it asks you your biographical facts that you are "supposed" to know. For example, your great-grandmother's birthday. I wish it was a joke, but it isn't.

How does the authentication system know your great-grandmother's birthday in the first place? To quote the article, "unlike traditional shared knowledge authentications, in which the user picks the test and the answer and regurgitates it with each sign-on, Verid [the company that makes this uniquely egregious kind of authentication software -- E.] vacuums public records for factoids, then tosses them at the user at random."

The birthdays of long-gone relatives are not even the most obnoxious example of authentication questions. Others are, for example, "what was your high school mascot" or "the name of your homecoming queen". So what do you do if you come from a country like mine, where not only high schools don't have mascots or homecoming traditions, but the very concept of high school does not exist (all grades from from first to twelfth are taught under the same roof. You don't have to change schools when you transition from primary to secondary education.) Well, OK, a non-existent homecoming queen of a non-existent high school would not appear in public records, and would not serve as a basis for an authentication question. But if you dared to forget her majesty's name, you are screwed. :-)

The article does address the issue that some people's lives don't follow a typical middle class American route, thus some people don't have, or don't remember, the biographical facts enabling them to answer security questions. What the article does not address, is the invasion of privacy committed by a company that "vacuums up the public records" and collects all the knowledge about you, up to your great-grandparents' names and birthdays.

Only a pointy-haired boss could have come up with this kind of authentication scheme. I just hope that the company I work for -- which happens to write software for online banking -- never comes up with something like this.

The best quote from the article:

"Computers are like very dumb people, but they're very fast at being dumb," says Jason Hong, a professor at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII).

Monday, October 08, 2007

Book review: Tales from the Secret City

I suppose I can't really call this post a book review, otherwise I would have to review each story in this anthology. And I'm not going to do that. So, call it what you will.

"Tales from the Secret City" is a collection of stories of various Austin science fiction and fantasy writers, many of who I've met personally. Many of them don't have a lot of publishing credentials; they are still trying to make their first sale (though some of them have already sold stories, even novels). So I had two good personal reasons for reading this book. I'm always curious to read the work of people I know, and I identify with aspiring writers.

The anthology turned out to be not bad, though I can't say any of the stories struck me as stunningly good. The overall quality i comparable to another anthology of stories by local SF writers -- "Cross Plains Universe" -- and the latter has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award!

It would be too tedious to comment on each story, so I'll mention just the one that was the most memorable to me. (Which is not to say it's the best -- this is just a reflection of my taste, nothing else.) It was "Nothing Personal" by Odessa Cole. Haven't most of us felt that our gadgets have conspired against us? Well, in this story they actually do. Normally, I'm not too fond of technological dystopias, but this tale of a guy trapped in a hell of "smart technology" appealed to me for unusual reasons. Suspecting that his "smart card" deliberately lies to him about his finances, he spends the rest of the story troubleshooting it. This story devotes an amount of loving detail to the troubleshooting process you can't expect from any real-life tech support person.

There is a term "gadget fetish", but I don't think I've ever heard a term "debugging fetish". But if you have the latter, you'll find this story really sexy.

Well, I can't say I always get my kicks out of debugging things. There are lots of technologies out there I wouldn't approach with a ten-foot pole, as their complexity simultaneously scares and bores me. And yet, once I get deeply into something, I do get a thrill out of troubleshooting it. And that's the part of me this story indulged.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

James Morrow "The Last Witchfinder": FACT reading group discussion

James Morrow "The Last Witchfinder": FACT reading group discussion

Another review of a book by James Morrow!

Everybody started "The Last Witchfinder" by James Morrow. Half of the people finished it. Everybody but one person read James Morrow before. The novel chronicles the life of Jennet Sterne, a fictional 17th century woman. After her beloved aunt and mentor is accused of witchcraft and executed, the 12-year-old Jennet decides to make it her life mission to put an end to witch trials. For that she needs to come up with an incontrovertible argument that would convince everybody that the notion of witchcraft is absurd and impossible. She devotes her life to this grand task, and it takes her on many interesting, even improbable adventures.

Everybody said the book was beautifully written. The prose was full of archaic turns of phrase, yet it didn't seem stilted or artificial. I personally was amazed that the characters' speech consistently sounded like it really could have been spoken three centuries ago. It must have taken some effort for a writer to maintain this prose style throughout a 500+-page-long novel!

The book too realistic for some people

Nonetheless, a few people commented that the book was very easy to put down. It is written in a picaresque form, which is uncommon nowadays, and it may distance a reader from the characters, so that it's difficult to get engrossed in a page-turning way in a book. Some readers admitted having wanted something a bit more escapist at the moment, so they did not continue. One reader said he could not enjoy the story, as good as it was, because it was too realistic. While appreciating the beautiful prose and the philosophical depth of the novel, he "could not forgive" James Morrow for torturing the reader. "I cared about the characters and I really feared for what was going to happen to them. I really figured he was going to kill [the protagonist]. [...] I know a little bit about witchhunting, and just the knowledge of pennyroyal for birth control was sufficient to be tried as a witch. Just herbal practices. There is an estimate that "Malleus Maleficarum" (the witchhunters' handbook) cost the lives from 600,000 to 9 million people. In Europe there were at least 40,000 documented witch trial cases in 5 years. It was unpleasant reality. This book was unpleasant for that reason. It was so hideous. I read SF to escape. If I wanted to find [about real-life horrors], I would turn on the news. [...] It's not that it wasn't well written, I just didn't want to be there, I didn't want to experience this." (Despite that, he read through the end.)

On the other hand, another reader found the witch trial scenes funny at the beginning; a scene where a accused witch is being "floated" even reminded him of Monty Python. However, as he realized the witchhunting specifics described in this book were historically accurate, he started to find them a little disturbing.

I myself admit I found this book very disturbing and emotionally harrowing. It was hard to read about a brave, admirable heroine who risks everything, including her life, for an improbable cause. I was pretty sure that the forces she was up against were going to kill her. I even had to look to the end of the book to see how it turns out, something I almost never do. However, the fast pace of the book kept me engaged. There were a few of us who found the story riveting and did not want to put the book down.

A discussion of the book's philosophical themes

It wasn't just the adventures that kept people absorbed in the book, but first and foremost its philosophical themes. One reader has a special interest in the time period the book is set in, the era when Newton made his great discoveries. He has read biographies of many members of the Royal Society, the salient points of which he generously shared with us. I myself was intrigued by the Newton era when I read Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver", but in my humble opinion, James Morrow did a better job portraying this historical period than Neal Stephenson. At the very least, I think James Morrow shows us very convincingly how the principles of scientific inquiry came into being -- something "Quicksilver" doesn't do as well.

What is the significance of the book-writing-a-book device?

The narrative in "The Last Witchfinder" is contained in an unusual framing device. The story is presented as if written by another book, Newton's "Principia Mathematica". Interspersed with the main story are Principia's personal reflections. We learn from them that Newton's masterpiece is engaged in a centuries-long war with "Malleus Maleficarum", in which each book tries to destroy the existing copies of the other, sometimes resorting to comical measures, such as sending troops of insects to eat the enemy's volumes. "Principia Mathematica" also admits it's been in love with Jennet ever since it laid eyes on her. One reader said she found those confessions of love very tender, but very weird; and another reader countered: "Hey, people love books -- why shouldn't a book love a person!" The notion of a book as a sentient being and an author of another book is probably the only science-fictional element in "The Last Witchfinder". But even then, it is only a framing device. Other than that, readers noted, the only way "The Last Witchfinder" could fit within the SF/F genre is it if were put it in a "secret history" niche subgenre.

But the book-writing-a-book device isn't merely for grins; in fact, it inspired some of the more interesting discussions in the reading group. One reader wondered, why was this framing device was needed at all? Perhaps because Morrow was trying to make a point that books have lives independent of what their authors intended? He said: "When an author releases the work into a literary world, the author can't say what it means anymore. It means what it means to the reader. Newton's "Principia Mathematica" feels very strongly about the demon hypothesis, even if Newton didn't. And I think Morrow is quite correct that the character's conclusion that Newton's Principia is the death knell of demon's hypothesis is quite true, even though Newton didn't see it that way."

Indeed, Jennet got out of "Principia Mathematica" more than Newton intended: it prompted her to establish the principle of "sufficiency of the world" -- the idea that phenomena of the world can be sufficiently explained by the natural world itself, without resorting to demons and the supernatural.

James Morrow being interviewed at ArmadilloCon 2015 James Morrow being interviewed at ArmadilloCon 2015, a speculative fiction convention in Austin, Texas

As for me, I thought the concept of a book as a conscious entity was simply meant to underscore the importance of wars of ideas that have been going on for... well, for as long as there have been ideas. One reader speculated that the war between rationalism and superstition did not die off in the age of Enlightenment; quite the opposite, it intensified. "Witchhunts began to happen in Renaissance, at a time in human history when we got a greater command of the physical world," he said. "I've long been convinced that religious fundamentalism is a product of Enlightenment, not a reaction to the Enlightenment. Because it was then that we started to take the world literally enough, not as a collection of metaphors. Then we started taking those commands about not suffering a witch to live literally. At the same time, Newton's view of the world really did destroy that."

Regardless of the reasons why James Morrow chose to make "Principia Mathematica" a sentient being, many people in this group are no strangers to a feeling that books have lives of their own. One reader said she had this point made very clear to her at one time during her college days. She was taking a tour of the restricted rooms of her university library. One of those rooms contained one of the early editions of "Principia Mathematica". Suddenly she realized that book was worth more than her life, because in case of fire, the room where the book was would be filled with flame retardant gas, which would kill her.

The protagonist too modern to be realistic... or is she?

A couple of us thought Jennet, while a very admirable and brave character, was a bit too unrealistic for a 17th century woman. She was very independent, treated men as equal and expected to be treated as equal by them. Her notions about women's place in the society were those of a 21st century woman. We found it unlikely that she, as well as her mentor, aunt Isobel, could have been brought up with such modern attitudes, and that they were completely unaffected by expectations of submissiveness and passivity that were beaten into many of their contemporary women. However, one reader, who is better familiar with that time period, said there were a lot of very educated women in the 1600s and 1700s, who wrote books, even very technical books. So while such women were unusual, it's not like they didn't exist.

Personally I have to say I liked "The Last Witchfinder" very much, both because of its beautiful prose and because of its themes: heroism, going against the dominant system of beliefs, trying to single-handedly right monstrous wrongs while pursuing scientific understanding. I think I would have liked this novel just for that, even if it wasn't so well written, even if storytelling wasn't so engaging. But since it has those other qualities too, this book is a real gem. I have only read two books by James Morrow so far, but I think he's going to be my Favorite Writer Of The Year. (Last year's title went to Robert Charles Wilson.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

James Morrow "Towing Jehovah": CFI book club discussion

4 people attended a Center For Inquiry book group discussion of James Morrow "Towing Jehovah". 3 of them liked it, one not so much.

Unexpectedly to myself, I liked this novel very much. This book was first recommended to me by a guy in the Atheist Community of Austin. When he told me about the book's premise -- God dies, falls to Earth, and his 2-mile-long body needs to be towed -- I thought it was absurd. He said, yes, but it's very good and very funny.

I am cautious of stories based on absurd premises. Too often they are simply incoherent, as if the author thought that absurdity alone makes a story funny, or that it is a good substitution for satire. This wasn't the case with "Towing Jehovah". Even though the premise patently doesn't make sense to either atheists or believers (only a vanishingly small minority of the latter believe that God has a physical body), the plot develops completely logically, and all of the major characters behave rationally in the bizarre circumstances. When I picked it up, little did I know how much I will enjoy it.

Lots of funny ideas

But not everybody in the CFI book club thought this book was great. One reader felt that while "Towing Jehovah" had a few funny ideas, it "didn't jell". There were plenty of comical moments, like the Pope watching big screen videos of Bing Crosby; or the whole subplot with World War II re-enactors. Or the scenes that give us an appreciation of how humongous God's body was. The mechanics of attaching chains to the eardrums in order to tow the body. Or driving the Jeep into God's bellybutton. Or individual hairs thick enough to tie things to. Or being underwater and swimming into a divine ear with scuba gear. (I would say those scenes were extremely gross, and just as fascinating. Overall, this book does not shy from the gross. It examines it in loving detail, even. If you think an up-close scrutiny of pores the size of moon craters is repulsive, just wait to see what happens when the ship gets stuck on the shallows near the coast of an uninhabited island.)

Some characters' motivations were hard to understand

So overall, one reader thought "Towing Jehovah" had lots of interesting little ideas, but overall didn't quite jell. "In the end," he said, "I was wondering, what was it all about"? He also did not quite buy Cassie and Oliver's reasons for wanting to destroy God's body. Cassie supposedly wanted to get rid of it because, as an arch-feminist, she was afraid that a discovery of God's body by the general public would plunge the world into the new Dark Ages. This reasoning sounded somewhat flimsy to this reader. If God was dead, wouldn't it be logical to show it to the world, so that they would know they were wrong in their belief? The ironic thing is, a discovery of a dead god did not serve either Christians or atheists. The former would find out they were right before, because God really did exist, but they are wrong now; the latter would be right, but not for reasons they thought.

James Morrow at ArmadilloCon 2015 James Morrow at ArmadilloCon 2015, a speculative fiction convention in Austin, Texas

A reader also noted that the lighthearted farcical tone of the book was inconsistent with certain tragic moments scattered throughout the book, where people die or getting seriously injured in ways that are not funny at all.

Satire equally directed towards believers and non-believers

Other people enjoyed the satire in the book. They appreciated that it was directed not just towards religion, but towards atheism in equal measure. Readers recognized some aspects of groups like CFI in the fictional Enlightenment League, and admitted that the barbs pointed at it were pretty accurate. "Despite having a lot of money, the Enlightenment League is pretty ineffective, and what they mostly do is pranks, silly stuff", a reader said.

An interesting dialogue between those groups

While this book is written from an atheist perspective, it is notable that the author does not side with militant atheists. Rather, he lets the three main characters -- the Jesuit priest, the religion-neutral captain, and the atheist Cassie -- have a conversation about God and related matters. One reader said their discussions were one of the enjoyable points of the book. "I thought the priest was interesting, reasonable, the professor. And the captain was interesting too. To me he represented the moderate middle. He wasn't willing to say the didn't believe in God, but he wasn't religious by any means. And then the atheist coming in... I liked the interplay between these 3 individuals, and the way they discussed their beliefs, and that it didn't degrade into awful fighting," she said.

Sympathetic characters and a humanist message

The protagonist, captain Van Horn, who was commissioned to tow the God's body, is probably the most sympathetic character of the book. He has his own deeply felt reasons for wanting to deliver the God's body to its final resting place in the Arctic. They originate in his unfulfilling relationship with his father, a relationship he is still trying and failing to heal. Too many works of satire have left me feeling empty, because there weren't any characters to root for, but this clearly isn't the case here: there are several characters one can easily identify with.

This novel does an excellent job of delivering a humanist message. I really like how it demonstrates the point that whether God existed or not, the civilization would be no different. In the absence of a basis for religion, society is held together by human social and moral norms, which remain the same. The ship crew's brief experiment with giving up those norms ends as a disaster to all of them, and the social order is restored by people's need to cooperate for the sake of their own survival.

Monday, September 17, 2007

eBay as a giant museum

Many words have been spilled on Web 2.0 and how it's supposed to change the world -- from Pulitzer prize-winning pundits to rank-and-file bloggers, everybody seems to have weighed in. Still I haven't read many observations as sharp or fresh as this one from William Gibson. This quote is from William Gibson's interview in Washington Post. Yes, this article is a couple of weeks old, but, as I mentioned before, I'm a leisurely blogger, not a professional one. :-)

"Google is the piece de resistance of weird [stuff] finding," he says. "One of the things I've been doing in the eBay era -- I've become a really keen observer of the rationalization of the world's attic. Every class of human artifact is being sorted and rationalized by this economically driven machine that constantly turns it over and brings it to a higher level of searchability. . . . The tentacles of that operation extend into every flea market and thrift shop and basement and attic in the world. . . .

"Every hair is being numbered -- eBay has every grain of sand. EBay is serving this very, very powerful function which nobody ever intended for it. EBay in the hands of humanity is sorting every last Dick Tracy wrist radio cereal premium sticker that ever existed. It's like some sort of vast unconscious curatorial movement. (emphasis mine -- E.)

"Every toy I had as a child that haunted me, I've been able to see on eBay. [...]

"This is new. People in really small towns can become world-class connoisseurs of something via eBay and Google. This didn't used to be possible. If you are sufficiently obsessive and diligent, you can be a little kid in some town in the backwoods of Tennessee and the world's premier info-monster about some tiny obscure area of stuff. That used to require a city. It no longer does."

The whole article can be found here.

I think I may lobby the FACT reading group coordinator to put Gibson's new book, "Spook Country" on the FACT group candidate list. Even though FACT group on the average didn't like Gibson's earlier novel, "Pattern Recognition", I am quite intrigued by Gibson's perspective.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

LoneStaRG 9

On Labor Day weekend, envious of all those cool people who were either at the WorldCon or at the Burning Man, I had to console myself by going to LoneStaRG, a Mensa regional gathering. I spent half a day there (out of 4 possible total). That was about the right amount of time. There were very few costumes at this year's LoneStaRG, and overall it just wasn't as lively as last year. But our air conditioning at home had gone out that weekend, and LoneStaRG seemed as good a place as any to go to recover from the heat.

When Mensans get together, their collective IQ sometimes takes a hit

I overheard a few funny stories at the LoneStaRG. Somebody said he received an offer for a credit card, co-branded by Mensa, with an 24.99% APR. "Whoever Mensa sold members' addresses to, clearly didn't have a good idea who they were dealing with", said the "lucky" recipient of the offer. Because you know, Mensans are way too ridiculously smart to fall for something like that.

Or are they? I got contradictory impressions of the people at the gathering. Many of them are individually as smart as advertised, and quirky enough to make you scratch your head (in a good way). But... when they get together, it sometimes looks like their collective IQ takes a hit.

You get discussions where 30 people sit around and re-hash the obvious. For example, they may devote 15 minutes to stating and re-stating the idea that symbols in general, and brands specifically, serve as shortcuts for people to make decisions about the world. A symbol stands for something; hence, seeing a symbol, a person makes a rapid decision without having to analyze the phenomenon. So what else is new? Everyone is in violent agreement, and no one offers a different perspective. I don't know about all the group discussions at LoneStaRG, but this one discussion I'm thinking about was very much like this.

So, the quality of group discussions seemed less than the sum of the quality of their contributing minds. But the individual people were often funny.

Stories too good to be true

Somebody told the story of a guy who figured out a unique way to bring his shoes into a foreign country. You see, he found it impossible to buy shoes in his size (13) in that country. No stores had them. He brought some footwear from the US, but when it wore out, he was left in a quandary. He could ask his friends in the US to send him shoes, but then he would have to pay exorbitant tarifs imposed on foreign goods. So he asked friends to mail him two separate packages containing a single shoe each. His host country's customs officers didn't know what to make of a package containing a single shoe, so they let him have it without imposing a tariff. Whether that's believable or not, I can't tell. It sounds a bit too much like one of those apocryphal tales of out-of-the-box thinking, that management books are rife with.

Don Baker's talk on Universal Darwinism

One of the more interesting things at the LoneStaRG was ACA's own Don Baker's presentation "Universal Darwinism: How Computer Science has Validated the Theory of Evolution". It can be summed up in a few sentences thus. Computer simulations can help to study evolution, which is hard to study otherwise, because it occurs very slowly in nature. The benefit flows both ways: the principles of evolution applied to computer science have lead to creation of a class of algorithms called genetic algorithms. I have to admit, I've already heard or read most of the points mentioned in his talk (as is more and more often the case with public science lectures I go to. Is that a downside of ed-joo-ma-cating myself, or what? But it was neat to see them summed up all in one place. The most interesting part of the talk were examples of designs that genetic algorithms have come up with, such as the hemispherical coverage antenna, and the load-bearing truss.

Hemispherical coverage antenna - Don Baker lecture on Universal Darwinism, September 2007 Hemispherical coverage antenna - Don Baker lecture on Universal Darwinism
Load-bearing truss - Don Baker lecture on Universal Darwinism, September 2007 Load-bearing truss - Don Baker lecture on Universal Darwinism
As Don noted, some of those designs seem really non-intuitive; they don't look like anything a human designer could have come up with, but their superiority was confirmed in real-world tests.