Saturday, December 17, 2011

Take the stairs, and other impossible health advice

A fire alarm rings at work. You leave your desk and properly evacuate to the parking garage. It turns out to be a drill, and 10 minutes later you are allowed back. You get a brilliant idea: you'll use this disruption to do something good for you health. You'll take the stairs up to the third floor where your office is. And maybe you should try walking up and down the stairs a few times during the day, so your butt won't meld with the chair. You don't quite remember where the stairs are in this building -- you only took them once -- but a building deputy showed them to you.

You go up to the third floor. The stairwell door won't open. It's locked. You swear the last time you tried it, it was unlocked.

You go up to the 4th (top) floor, then to the 2nd floor, and all the stairwell doors are locked. You get down to the first floor, and the door is unlocked, but it opens into a small dead-end hallway with several other nondescript, identical, unlabeled doors. You try one after another, until you find one that opens into a longer hallway, which leads you to the elevators... just in time before your claustrophobia flares up.

This is what happens in corporate America when you try to do something good for your health. It's like that in pretty much any office building. In some buildings, I heard, people are so discouraged from using the stairs, that an alarm would go off if you open the stairwell door! The stairs are to be used strictly as a fire exit.

And yet there is no shortage of health experts who tell us to incorporate small acts of fitness into our daily life, first and foremost by taking the stairs. Also, ride your bicycle to work. Uh-huh. And play Russian roulette with the cars whizzing by, and arrive to your cubicle sweaty, and delight coworkers with your post-workout aroma. None of those experts must have ever worked in corporate America, or lived in a suburb. Next thing they'll tell us to eat cake. :-)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How come xkcd hasn't addressed this?

I often hear that engineers are literal. This typically includes software developers. I hear this even from people who work with engineers all the time -- you'd think they would take a more nuanced view. But perhaps not many people understand what "literal" means. I'm not even talking about the common, oft-ridiculed use of "literally" to mean "figuratively" -- as when somebody tells you "I literally died laughing" (and they don't have chunks of rotten flesh falling off, so they're not Undead).

Figurative, after all, is the opposite of literal. You can also say that the opposite of literal thinking is metaphorical thinking. Apparently most people don't understand how much certain intellectual activity, such as science and engineering, relies on metaphor. As an example, read this article in Wikipedia about Aspect-oriented programming, and show me even one paragraph in it that does NOT contain a metaphor.

The point is: software design, like any design, models real world problems in some kind of abstract conceptual framework. This is only possible if you think in metaphors.

I really think there should be an xkcd cartoon on this.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

When a children's store practices tough love

Some stores must be really, really sick of people stealing their shopping carts. So sick that they put the cart before the horse's customer's safety... or maybe just don't think how anti-theft devices can put customers at risk.

A case in point is an incident my significant other, Ray, termed "The Great Magnetic Shopping Cart Caper". It occurred in Babies'R'Us parking lot in Austin. Here is the email he sent to Babies-R-Us Management.

I would like to humbly express my intense displeasure at the experience of "discovery" I had with the "new" shopping cart system you have deployed at store # 7047, on November 25, 2011 at 2:35 in the afternoon. I began by having a pleasant shopping experience. On this day (the day after Thanksgiving) I parked my car right next to the Babies-R-Us, in the giant, parking area shared with Babies'R-Us's neighbor "Bed Bath and Beyond". I bought $164.51 worth of merchandise in the store, one of the items being a heavy metal "superyard" play-yard enclosure for my 5 month old son. I was able to fit this box perfectly fine in the shopping cart. The shopping cart rolled fine and smooth with my happily purchased merchandise in the store and out the door.

I was happily pushing along my Babies-R-Us shopping cart (full of merchandise) out into the beginning of the parking lot, weaving through the busy high traffic area, where there are cars moving in both directions. You have to get through this narrow car path to get to the parking rows on the other side.

To my sudden and almost fatal surprise, halfway there my cart suddenly locked up, and due to my decent momentum (I'm a man) and being caught off-guard I almost turned over the whole shopping cart and its entire contents on to the pavement.

Very luckily for me, the cars in front and behind me were paying attention and not fiddling with their cell phones, because they screeched their brakes and avoided running into me.

Aerial photograph of Babies'R'Us and Bed, Bath & Beyond parking lot Aerial photograph of Babies'R'Us and Bed, Bath & Beyond parking lot where the incident occurred. Click for a bigger version.

Embarrassingly, I tried moving the cart back-and-forth, side-to-side to get it to move again. Nothing budged. I tried looking down into the wheels, thinking that possibly a rock/piece-of-tape/etc got caught up in the wheel or something.... I found nothing that would explain the wheels not moving.

Since I realized I was blocking all the traffic of the other customers in their cars trying to get my Babies-R-Us cart to move, I resorted to picking up all of my merchandise, including the heavy metal-based item (again, I'm a strong man) and put them down on the nearest curb.

I tried one last time to move the cart - seeing no motion, I drug the empty cart (leaving a big black skid mark from the locked wheel) over to the Babies-R-Us storefront sidewalk.

AND THEN I NOTICED a small sign INSIDE the cart (which was blocked from my reading from the merchandise I purchased), which states that the cart has a new "feature" that will lock the wheel up when trying to go beyond certain lines on the sides of the Babies-R-Us building.

(1) That would have been good to know BEFORE I parked my car, especially since after realizing the smaller area WITHIN the "painted cart-stop lines" out of the whole shopping center's shared parking area was totally full of cars, I would have not shopped at Babies-R-Us that day, and driven on.

(2) Imagine if I wasn't just "some guy" alone with a bunch of paid-for merchandise, trying to push it to my car? Imagine I was instead a mom, cart loaded full of merchandise AND a kid or baby, and the wheel unexpectedly locked on her while she was moving along? Imagine her cart falling over with a baby in it. Imagine a nearby car preoccupied on their phone while a family pushing a Babies-R-Us cart suddenly locked up in front of the car?

I THINK YOU'LL AGREE that the SAFETY of your customers is MORE IMPORTANT than the "prevention of shopping carts moving off too far".

The store immediately neighboring the Babies-R-Us, "Bed Bath and Beyond" had one of their store associates retrieving their carts. He saw my dilemma unfold, and he was so kind as to bring me a "Bed Bath and Beyond" shopping cart in which I put my Babies-R-Us merchandise, an "old-fashioned" cart that pushed... all the way to my car in the parking lot.

After I got the stuff in my car, I walked back into the Babies-R-Us store, and I went to the Customer Service desk.

I tried asking if I could speak with the store manager to explain my experience, but I was told by the associates there that the store manager wasn't available. I told the experience to them. They suggested I describe the complaint online.

I hope my time and effort in trying to help you listen to the safety of your customers does get read, and this letter is not in vain,


Hoping to remain a happy Babies-R-Us customer

So there you are. I guess the children's store is showing by example how to practice "tough love". After all, setting consequences is a common parenting advice. Only in this case it is, step outside the line, get a jolt of reality. No matter if it sends you under the wheels of oncoming car.


UPDATE: A few days after submitting his feedback via Babies'R'Us website, Ray got a canned response from Babies'R'Us customer service, saying that to get help with his problem, he has to write a (paper) letter and mail it to corporate headquarters. The customer service representative did not acknowledge his problem, and did not forward it to supervisors, or to anyone who could have done anything about it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Girls hack Arduino

In all my programming life I never tried communicating in code with real-world objects. But now there is something to make it easy (or at least doable): Arduino. Sharon Cichelli demonstrated it at the All Girl Hack Night in October of 2011. Arduino is a microcontroller that lets you program blinky LED lights, or things that make buzzing alarm sounds, or all sorts of other electronic. It also accepts input from buttons or sensors, or anything that translates a physical action into electric pulse. You can plug things into one of its pins (there are 13 of them, if I recall), and have it "read" electric pulses from those pins, or "write" to them.

"Read" and "write" probably shouldn't be in quotes, because they are the same programming concepts as reading and writing to/from any input/output device. So, to switch on an LED light that's plugged into pin 13, you would digitalWrite(13, HIGH). As with all things digital, the function digitalWrite only recognizes on/off, or in this case, HIGH/LOW values. HIGH means the device plugged into the pin is on, LOW -- off. Simple, right? These basics allow one to sit down and program a primitive blinky light in minutes. The programming language is fairly high level. Its function names, as one can see, resemble human language -- this isn't assembly, where you push bits around with three-letter commands. It enables you to quickly do simple demos, like Sharon Cichelli did. Just as you digitalWrite to a pin to turn a device on, you digitalRead from a pin to recognize, say, a button press. Again, you pass to it the number of a pin into which the button is plugged in.

You write the code in an IDE, and with one mouse click upload it to an Arduino connected to your computer via USB.

Sharon Cichelli dictates the code that Anne types up on the laptop Sharon Cichelli demonstrates Arduino programming.

Arduino programming seems encouragingly simple at first, but as with everything, once you get deeper into it, you discover complexities. In fact, one's lack of electronics background might put brakes on the progress. Having been told that a LED light is plugged into a pin number 13, you (and by you, I mean me) might notice that the light actually has two wires, both plugged into tiny slots. Why are there two wires, and which of them is # 13, you ask. Oh, it's because the light needs to be grounded. The other wire is plugged into the grounding pin, you can ignore it for the purposes of your program. Yes, grounding is something you should have remembered from physics classes, but didn't. Then you digitalWrite to it, and it still doesn't light up -- that's because something is wrong with the hardware, and the circuit does not close as expected. Maybe the light isn't plugged in firmly enough. So, there are two dimensions to debugging Arduino code: a programmatic and an electrical dimension. As if catching just the software bugs wasn't tricky in itself!

Sharon couldn't help but demonstrate troubleshooting techniques, as things malfunctioned. Pins "floated". Still we had enough time to progress to a more advanced part of the lesson: Pulse Width Modulation. If you can only send "on" or "off" signals to a LED, how would you dim the lights, or produce nice, slow fade on / fade off effects? The fading or increase in brightness is caused by flickering very fast between on and off positions. If the light spends more time in the "off" position than "on", it appears to fade; if in on position, it grows brighter. If we graph HIGH and LOW signals versus time, where every HIGH signal is a vertical bar, we'll see that the "width" of the HIGH signal decreases (increases) over time. So that, simply put, is Pulse Width Modulation. Sharon pair-programmed with someone (sitting another person down at her laptop's keyboard, and dictating code to her) to implement the slow fade.

Besides blinking and buzzing things, you can connect Arduino to vibrating things. Erm. I mean, like a mat under a cat food bowl. A vibrating mat would scare off a cat that is afraid of vibration. This was the idea one of the girls had. How do you make a cat lose weight, if you also have a normal-weight cat, and each time one sees the other eating, she will eat too? The goal is to make the fat cat to eat less frequently than the normal-weight cat. So, this girl got an idea to put a vibrating mat under the cats' food bowl, so that when the cat steps on it, her weight would send an input to Arduino, which would trigger the vibration, scaring the cat off. The smaller cat's weight would not trigger this response. And the fat cat's weight would only do it at certain times but not others, otherwise the pudgy feline would never eat.

And if you don't have problematic cats, there is still a wide variety of applications for Halloween costumes, such as blinky eyeballs like Sharon made for her own Halloween costume.

Friday, November 11, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011: The Singularity panel

Singularity is commonly associated with emergence of strong artificial intelligence, and the panelists don't think strong AI is any closer now than it was at the time this topic was discussed on ArmadilloCon panels of the past. Or 30 years ago. Or ever. Singularity is certainly no closer than when Vernor Vinge debated it at ArmadilloCon 2003, or Charles Stross at ArmadilloCon 2006. Moreover, some panelists disagreed whether moderator John Gibbons' question "What do you see as a fundamental block towards strong Artificial Intelligence?" is even the right question to ask. They disagreed whether it is possible to bring an AI into being by programming it.

This was a well-reasoned analysis of common Singularity tropes.

Trope 1: Singularity will come from the emergence of strong AI

Bruce Sterling admits that he used to find the idea of strong AI seductive, but doesn't see any evidence of it emerging any time. More, he doubts whether the products of intelligent mind, such as new ideas or inventions, can be attained computationally. "I know many very intelligent people, and they don't reason stuff out of the first principles," said Bruce Sterling. It certainly doesn't "feel like" creative insights come to us algorithmically. And if flashes of insight can't be simulated by a Turing machine, then they are not achievable by a computer. "Computation is not like human intelligence," says Sterling. "It's like mathematics. You could say, mathematics will one day overtake the human brain! But that would be a category error."

Left to right: authors Alexis Glynn Latner, Adrian Simmons, John Gibbons Left to right: authors Alexis Glynn Latner, Adrian Simmons, John Gibbons at the Singularity panel. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Bruce Sterling thinks collective intelligence is more interesting than artificial intelligence. When you are starting a company, would you hire HAL 9000, an intelligent machine who never sleeps, or a bunch of engineers who use Google, he asks. Google would immediately defeat HAL. He didn't answer another panelist Adrian Simmons' question if it wouldn't be even better to hire a HAL who uses Google.

Then Bruce Sterling left the panel to go help his daughter who was at the other end of town, adding "Real futurists have children!"

Trope 2: Moore's law will inevitably lead to strong AI

Both the panelists and the audience doubted whether the advance of AI has hardly anything to do with Moore's law. We already have extremely powerful computers for extremely complex weather and economic simulations, but you can't speak about their IQ.

Trope 3: Sentient computers care about the existence of humankind one way or another

Would we even want a sentient machine? John Gibbons reminds us that Charles Stross, author of Singularity-themed novels, asked this question in a recent blog post. What do we need a sentient machine for? While we conceivably might want an intelligent computer to run a spaceship on a long mission, like HAL 9000, in general there's not much advantage to sentience in a software program, argued John Gibbons. And it raises a huge batch of ethical questions. Using a genetic algorithm to derive sentient software? You're committing genocide along the way, because you're killing off versions that don't meet your goals.

Left to right: authors Katy Stauber, Marshall Ryan Maresca, and Bruce Sterling Left to right: authors Katy Stauber, Marshall Ryan Maresca, and Bruce Sterling at the Singularity panel. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Even if a sentient AI is benevolent to the humankind, it can't be expected to do what humans would like it to do, Adrian Simmons pointed out. You may ask it how to make better gadgets, but it will instead turn around and ask you personal questions, because it might feel it's human now, and wants to experience a human perspective of the world. (Even that, I should say, is a bit human-centric, if not to say myopic. An AI might not be interested in learning from humans, since by necessity it would develop its own way of learning about the world: else it would not be an AI. It is a common trope in science fiction that a robot or AI yearns to know what it is like to be human, but I think we as humans overestimate our interestingness to the machines. We absolutely can't expect them to take an interest in our problems, let alone serve us. -- E.)

Trope 4: Singularity will come from augmentation of human brain

But machine intelligence is not the only way for Singularity to come about. Bruce Sterling said: increase of a metabolic efficiency of certain regions of the brain (that are dedicated to higher functions), and it will feel like Singularity. Our brain is very inefficient -- the biggest parts of it are dedicated to such functions as walking. So an increase in efficiency of higher reasoning parts of the brain could bring about enormous changes for the humankind. Science fiction has already addressed something similar, such as repurpose visual cortex to do other computations, an audience member pointed out.

Trope 5: Singularity will come from uploading a human personality to a machine

The panelists doubt whether that will ever be possible, because it seems like such a stretch between the chemistry of "wetware" and computational substrate. Here, too, science fiction has shown how horrific unintended consequences of this can be -- case in point is Greg Egan's story "Learning To Be Me".

Trope 6: Singularity will come from the web "waking up"

A person in the audience asked: if we organize semantic connections on the web, will the web "wake up"? John Gibbons reply was what I would have said too: becoming conscious requires a model of self. And it's hard to see how that model of self would emerge simply by organizing semantic connections on the web.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Am I the only one to want this? Linking to any part of an HTML page

Here is a pipe dream. I would like HTML to have ability to link to any paragraph in any web page. I would like to make it so that when the user clicks the link, the page would open with the paragraph of interest at the top of the browser window.

I only know how to do it if some section of a web page has an <a name="xxxxxx"> in it. And if the page I'm linking to isn't created by me, I have no control over placement of <a name>'s in it. But is it possible to link to any element of a page? If not with HTML, then with Javascript or CSS? Can one write a Javascript that, when a user clicks on a link, will bring up the desired element of the page that has loaded? I kind of doubt it, because once a page has loaded in a browser, the scripts of the previous page stop executing, correct?

And I'm pretty sure there is no way to do this if the desired paragraph is not in any uniquely-identifiable HMTL element -- for example, if it only separated from other paragraphs with <br/>

If there is really no way to do this, I wonder if such functionality was never considered by They Who Design HTML? Has nobody ever wanted it? I wish for it when an explanation or example of something I'm writing about is buried deep in some other web page, and I know that my reader, if he/she clicks on the link, is not likely to find it quickly, or to spend much time searching for it.

I suppose one can write a third-party application that would let you mark up snippets of web pages and save them; then you could link to the paragraph on the third party website. It could provide a link to the original article, for those interested in the context. But that's an additional layer of complexity. There may even have been such a service, called iLighter; it allowed you to highlight web pages and save those highlighted snippets on its servers. I know I installed it in one of my web browsers a couple of years ago, but didn't do much with it. I had app fatigue even then (too many new web applications to try), which only got worse since. And iLighter doesn't seem to be around anymore -- I guess not too many people found it useful.

I know, I could write a Javascript that would pop up just the paragraph I want to link to, when the user's mouse hovers over the link to the article. So the user could get just the quote, but read the article for context if they'd like. Of course, this is inefficient, because the quote may change some time in the future, and somehow I would have to become aware of the change (which won't happen unless I monitor that web page every day), and modify my script. So, it's not a real solution.

Friday, October 14, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011: Imagining a future without fossil fuels

Defining the peak oil is not simple

As we may have already reached peak oil, the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, it is timely to have a panel like "Imagining a future without fossil fuels". But before we can ask science fiction writers what will happen once oil production enters inevitable decline, we have to take into account that the definition of peak oil in itself, err, slippery. The question of whether there is a peak oil should be, "peak oil at what price", says Paolo Bacigalupi, whose novel "The Windup Girl" is set in post-fossil-fuel future. At $90/barrel, it becomes profitable to convert shale into oil. So when cheap oil becomes unavailable, people start extracting oil from reserves that were harder to reach. Since petroleum is used for much more than fuel, but also for plastic, fertilizers, and many other things, at some point oil will become too valuable to burn as fuel. We'll have to prioritize what we'll use fossil fuels for -- driving versus plastics, food, or fertilizers.

Matt Cardin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, and David Chang

Matt Cardin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, and David Chang. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

With the tendrils of fossil fuels going into so many things, we should not imagine that a world with a different energy mix will look just like this one, says Matt Cardin. Our supply chains won't look the same. For example, industrial farming will change, because Dow Chemical produceds a lot of fertilizers from petrochemicals, and it will be too expensive to do that.

The question is, does the future have to go apocalyptic?

Will it look like the Little House of the Prairie?

The panelists sure hope the technological society won't go away completely, and we won't have to return to a lifestyle of 19th century farmers. Katy Stauber's mixed visions of the future do include farmhouses, albeit still connected to the internet. That way we could still play World of Warcraft while riding our bikes to power our computers. It seems she doesn't mind returning to pre-technological civilization, as long as enough technology is preserved for us to have some fun.

David Chang, Katy Stauber, and Matthew Bey

David Chang, Katy Stauber, and Matthew Bey. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

David Chang and Paolo Bacigalupi hope that the tools and technology we have these days will make it possible for ordinary people to innovate solutions for post-fossil-fuel future. Bacigalupi has faith in people like a guy down the street from him, who is working on a biogas composter in his garage.

We could save lots of energy just by wasting it less, the audience points out. House builders used to (or still do) put the air conditioning unit in the attic, where it gets 150 degrees in summer. With energy costs rising, they might soon become smarter about that.

What is the next promising power source?

It is solar? Though it's commonly viewed as being cost-ineffective compared to coal, solar power costs about the same as coal, says Jayme Lynn Blaschke. The reason for discrepancy is that when those comparisons are made, commercial solar panels are lumped in with retail, and that drives their cost up. But there isn't such a thing as "retail" coal power.

Is it wind? Jayme was driving on Texas coast and saw four times as many wind turbines as last year. Matthew Bey said he knows a wind power entrepreneur -- a wind wildcatter, as it were -- who invests in this form of energy, and he's not doing it to make the planet green. This investor had a Whataburger franchise before he decided to make money off wind power. So anecdotal evidence shows that the good old free market is starting to see alternative energy as viable.

What are the promising modes of post-fossil-fuel transportation?

Could it be Shweeb, which David Chang describes as a human powered transportation system resembling a bicycle on tracks. You can go long distances on it, because there is little friction.

Could it be buses on stilts, or straddling buses, the kind that have been developed in China? (Here's a New York Times article on that.) While the buses don't do away with fossil-fuel (they are only partially solar-powered), their capacity to carry 40 times as many people as a regular bus should present significant energy savings.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Are most internet ads scam?

This is an example why I will never try to make money off my website and blog by running ads. I saw this on Freethought Blogs website.

'Invention to heal water' ad on Freethought Blogs

Yes, the notion of "healing the water" meshes so well with a scientific approach to the world. And yet the ad selection software (probably run by a third party) keeps putting ads on Freethought Blogs that directly undermine their message. (Even if Freethought Blogs aren't specifically oriented against pseudoscience, it is a big area of scrutiny in the freethought community.) At the very least the ad rotation software needs to be more semantic-aware, to gauge the attitude of the target audience towards the ad. There was a time when New York Times could also benefit from a similar intelligent filter, at least in their Science section; ads for a "quantum healing" change-reality-with-your-thoughts self-help course might not sit well with the audience who wants to read about physics. (I haven't seen those ads on in a while; maybe they got wise to it.)

But if better semantic analysis eliminated every ad promising $$$$/week working from home, or one "weird" tip for a flat belly, would there be any ads left to run?

I'm exaggerating, because I do see ads for useful products, like shoes, handbags and cell phones, or Dell servers and programmer outsourcing firms (I guess data mining algorithms must have concluded I'm a female CTO of some company. I should feel flattered. :-)), but those are no more than 1/3 of all the internet ads I see. It is just me, or is it really true that overwhelming majority of internet ads are snake oil products and scams?

If so, what does it say about the whole business model of advertising-supported websites? Companies that have something valuable to sell don't seem too interested in advertising on the web. And yet many startups count on being able to survive off ad revenue. I wonder if they are being naive about this whole concept (and given the rate at which they go under, they may be) -- unless they count on there always being plenty of idiots to fall for scams. (That may be not a bad assumption, sadly.)

I've seen some too-good-to-be-true ads, e.g. hot stocks and ridiculously cheap car insurance, even on websites of major U.S. newspapers like Washington Post. Is that an indication of just how desperate for cash newspapers are?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Human rights -- one of the societal evils?

I got an interesting discussion going on a couple of my private social media channels about this church sign in Austin, Texas. So I thought it warrants a public blog post, summarizing various people's opinions. Apologies to those who have seen this discussion before. This is the last time I'm posting about it.

Human rights, narcissism, infidelity, materialism, prejudice, hypocricy

When I first saw this sign, my first thought was: are they kidding? Human rights, narcissism, infidelity, materialism, prejudice, hypocricy all grouped together? am I to understand that human rights are a vice on par with with narcissism, infidelity, etc.? What kind of church would be against human rights? Perhaps in their doctrine, humans have no rights except those given by God. So an attempt of humans to establish their own rights is one of the evils of secularism. (I'm really stretching my imagination here.) The church website ( does not make it clearer.

The speculation in my social media streams converged around three possibilities:

(1) it's an unintentionally awkward phrasing, possibly because of a formatting limitation. They couldn't fit "human rights violations" on the sign (without messing up visually), so they put "human rights", because the phrase "human rights" is usually followed by "violations"; thus "violations" can be dropped.

(2) it's a form of trolling... erm, ingenious marketing. Whetting people's appetite by an intentionally cryptic or contradictory statement. Maybe they'll be curious enough to come to the church to find out what it's all about.

(3) this church really counts human rights among the evils of secularism. About half of the people who commented on this photo thought so.

"I couldn't tell if they're for Human Rights or against them, but since they're against the other topics I'm assuming they're against Human Rights too."
"'Human rights' originated after WWII and were defined by a multi-national commission. So Human Rights are an innovation and not given by God in the Bible, therefore they're evil. It doesn't matter that by and large they're corollaries of the "Love your neighbors as yourselves" commandment."

"This page on the church website, You have a part to play, seems to make the point even more strongly. On its web page (which, unlike a sign, does not have formatting limitations), they list all six "issues", including human rights, and says 'In addition, we we will be sponsoring a unique "small group challenge": our small groups will have the opportunity to craft a personal and creative response to these issues, competing for a $250 prize per issue [...]'."

It's probably not (1), because awkward phrasing in a sign could easily be clarified on the website. It may also be (2) and (3) combined. One friend said, "this is a deliberate attempt to confuse people and attract attention, and not a simple failure of parallel rhetorical construction."

Monday, September 12, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011: What You Should Have Read

A bunch of authors, editors, critics and booksellers discuss their science fiction, fantasy and horror picks of the year. Willie Siros usually presents his list of notable genre books that came out in the last year or two, but he forgot the list at home. So he recalled from memory five recent books that left the biggest impression to him. Here they are.

Willie's five most recommended genre books of the year

China Mieville "Embassy Town"

Greg Egan "Clockwork Rocket"

Robert Charles Wilson "Vortex"

Charles Stross "Rule 34"

Gene Wolf "Home Fires"

Willie's less memorable, but still good novels of the year

James Corey (Daniel Abraham's pen name) "Leviathan Wakes"

Greg Bear "Hull Zero Three"

Charles Stross "Scratch Monkey", his very first novel that has been unpublished until now. Willie Siros thinks it was good for Stross' career that his debut novel was "Singularity Sky", and not "Scratch Monkey". But now it has been published by NESFA. (I wonder, then, if this novel is only good in the "look how far this author has come!" sense.)

John Scalzi "Fuzzy Nation"

Rudy Rucker "Jim and the Flims"

Novels that inspired a discussion

Nnedi Okorafor "Who Fears Death"

Elizabeth Bear, Michelle Muenzler, and Willie Siros

Elizabeth Bear, Michelle Muenzler, and Willie Siros. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

This book was highly praised by Michelle Muenzler and Martin Wagner. Martin recalled that one of its critics didn't think the future world in this novel was very well explained, at least not in a typical hard SF fan manner. Martin said that was because the world in which the narrator is living is not very clear to the people living in them. In the post-apocalyptic future Sudan, its inhabitants know only a little bit about our present day from some book, but most of the human history is lost to them. What is interesting is the narrator's personal journey. She is a product of weaponized rape, and an outcast in her society. This enables her to go on a journey she goes on. Martin characterized this book as an interesting hybrid that couples African mysticism with some very contemporary politics.

Willie Siros said that even though Nnedi Okorafor grew up America (she is of Nigerian origin), she has an interesting post-colonial view. He compared her to Ian McDonald, who is having "a lot of fun postulating future Brazil and India"

Hannu Rajaniemi "Quantum Thief"

Thomas M. (Martin) Wagner and Elizabeth Bear

Thomas M. (Martin) Wagner and Elizabeth Bear. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Martin Wagner wasn't quite disappointed by this book, but despite being a wonderful exercise in imagination, it didn't live up to the hype. Elizabeth Bear agreed: among other things, it is an uploaded brain book, a book on skinning reality, on being able to tune your reality in the "I don't like you, so you won't exist for me anymore" sense. But the author doesn't warm the water up for you, he throws you right in. Martin said he was processing the information so much that the story didn't hold any suspense for him. The premise of the book is like nothing he has ever seen: there's a city that walks around the surface of Mars. Time is currency there. After living for a while, its citizens become impersonal drones who work to support the walking city. Despite the imaginative setting, only one scene in the whole story has any heart on it: the hero brings a girl, the secondary protagonist, to a bar where she sings, because it's her hobby. Martin thinks this book had potential, but it will take the author 2-3 books to fully establish emotional connection with the reader.

Elizabeth Bear too said she didn't connect with that book. She felt distanced from the characters. It also does not testify to the author's writerly skills that when we meet a lesbian character for a first time, she is having sex. There are other ways to tell us she's a lesbian, says Elizabeth Bear.

John Scalzi "Fuzzy Nation"

Willie Siros counts this book in his "memorable, but not Top 5" category, but Martin Wagner was extremely impressed by it. Scalzi's take on that world was very faithful to H. Beam Piper (the author who originally thought up the fuzzies), but also uniquely his own. Martin liked a contemporary take on that particular story.

Mary Robinette Kowal "Shades of Milk and Honey" was another debut novel Willie was impressed with, and Martin liked it too. It's a Jane Austen pastiche.

Michelle Muenzler recommends

Darren Bradley "Noise"

Connie Willis "Blackout" and "All Clear" (a two-part novel, 2011 Hugo Award winner)

Michelle's most interesting fantasy books were all by Nightshade this year. "God's War" by Kameron Hurley has an interesting heroine who craps on everything, including herself. "No Hero" by Jonathan Wood is Lovecraft with the sense of humor. Michelle is a really big fan of Jonathan Woods voice. It's classic funny British, and if you ever talk to this author, you'll find he has the same kind of voice. You can imagine him in this book, talking with that voice.

Martha Wells "Cloud Roads". Though Michelle Muenzler strongly dislikes fantasy that has 5 million characters, "Cloud Roads" pulls it off. Every town has a new species. It has an ant culture mixed in with flying creatures. What Martha Wells did with different cultures is really fascinating.

Martin Wagner recommends

A whiteboard with the list of the recommended science fiction, fantasy and horror books of 2010-2011

A whiteboard with the list of the recommended science fiction, fantasy and horror books of 2010-2011. Scott Lynch did the honors of writing it all down. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Joe Abercrombie "The Heroes". It's about how war teaches people who they are. Characters discover that what they wanted out of life wasn't necessarily what they thought. Heroism doesn't mean the same things to the same people. Abercrombie has an amazing way to convey battle scenes. Everything comes from the POV of the person in front of you. It's all filtered through the character you are relating to. It's like the Omaha battle scene in Saving Private Ryan. That's what makes it not just mindless violent fantasy writing.

Stina Leicht "Of Blood and Honey", a novel about a young man who finds out who he is in the times of the Troubles in Ireland. Fantasy elements are so subtly intervowen into this story that for hundreds of pages you don't realize you're reading fantasy. It's Martin's favorite fantasy debut this year.

Dan Abnett "Embedded", a military science fiction novel that appealed to Martin even though he's not a fan of that genre. The main character is a journalist, whose mind is going to piggyback on the mind of a grunt in a battlefield. The problem is, the soldier he's piggybacking on is immediately killed when he gets out in the field. So the journalist's awareness, his consciousness has to take over, and help to bring this soldier home, so he could tell the truth of what's going on out there. Martin described this book as trenchant satire about how politics and media come together to justify what we do at the time of war.

Under the radar book: "Enigmatic Pilot" by Kris Saknussem, whose style Martin compared to Mark Twain.

Elizabeth Bear recommends

Gemma Files "Book of Tongues", a very high grit fantasy western with hexslingers and ancient gods. The characters are terrible human beings who do terrible things for terrible reasons, but they really still care about each other. This keeps it from being a depressing book. And it has interesting worldbuilding.

Genevieve Valentine "Mechanique" is Elizabeth Bear's favorite debut is. It's a novel about a circus of people who had parts of themselves replaced by clocks and machines. Circus performers are competing for the role fo a ringmaster, who committed suicide. It's a wonderfully creepy, atmospheric, surreal little book. Willie Siros agrees that this one was on his list of favorite first novels, with not many lapses into first-time-writer'ness.

Disappointing Books

Martin said he has read two very, very, very long books by Patrick Rothfuss, and still waits for them to be about something. The last 1000-page book was about a kid "who goes here and does some stuff, and goes there and does some stuff, and gets into an argument with his girlfriend, does more stuff and goes home".

Brandon Sanderson "Way of Kings" was a bit disappointing too.

The book that takes a cake in this category (according to Martin) was "Hellhole" by Bryan Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. It has magic aliens.

Willie Siros' most dispaointing book of the year was "Magician King" by Lev Grossman. To tell the truth, Willie was also critical of its predecessor "The Magicians". "You have a magic school, and magicians who graduate, but they don't do anything. They sit around with their trust funds and piddle. Students go off, have adventures, and then give up on anything difficult. What's the point of learning something if you don't do anything that's hard? I didn't like any characters," says Willie. "So I said, OK, I'll see what happens in his Narnia (called Fillory in the book -- E.), where they become a king of an alternate world. And that didn't go anywhere. They haven't learned anything how to survive as an adult."

>Willie was not impressed by George R. R. Martin's long awaited "Dance With Dragons" was very impressive either.

Audience recommends

Several members of the audience recommended these books:

Iain Banks "Surface Detail" has fabulous ideas, fabulous writing, says a guy in the audience.

Alyx Dellamonica "Indigo Springs".

Ian Macdonald "Dervish House" should have won a Hugo, says an audience member.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011: What is Texas Weird, and other gems of wisdom from the writers' workshop

ArmadilloCon writers' workshop followed the familiar agenda from the years before. The unexpected, as always, happened at the time of games and critiques.

The writing game was dreamt up by Scott Lynch at 3 a.m. the night before. Surprisingly (or not), it was one of the more meaningful games compared to previous workshops. (I just can't get into "let's collectively write a story" exercises. If I'm not in a complete control of my story, I stall. This was different.) You had to come up with a 4-sentence a story, or a synopsis thereof. Then an "evil" editor would tell you to make changes to make the story more sellable. You had to make them in 10 minutes. Finally everyone was supposed to read their original story, editor's comments, and the final story out loud. Luckily for me, due to time pressure only 4 or 5 people had to share their works.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Allyson and Jason

Jayme Lynn Blaschke, the "editor" (left), gives sly suggestions how to improve Allyson's and Jason's stories at the writing game. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

The editors were supposed to be intentionally evil: their feedback required the author to throw away his or her precious idea. Let's say you wrote a story where humans, having landed on an alien planet, drilled into its core and found intelligent life there. The editor would praise your hard SF concept, and tell you that the drill actually bore into hell, and it's not aliens there, but demons. Or if your plot is influenced by the physics of a rotating black hole, the editor would say that rotating black holes are so last decade, and you should make it a diamond star (which was on the news recently).

Such an exercise may seem absurd, but its point was to teach us how to write "on demand". An editor can and will ask to make changes, and you have to cooperate even if your muse doesn't. Don't wait for the muse to inspire you, but crank out a product when you're asked to, and don't treat your ideas as sacred.

Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders, and Mark Finn

Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders, and Mark Finn at the critique group. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Later it was time for critiques. I was lucky to be in a group that not only was taught by great critiquers -- Guest of Honor Paolo Bacigalupi, and Mark Finn (who, by the way, has an uncanny ability to come up with plot twists to improve students' stories), but a third pro spontaneously joined our group. It was Pyr editor Lou Anders. I don't know what prompted him to join us, but he speed-read students' stories while the other group members were speaking, and gave critiques on the spot. Speed-reading (which, I presume, is all he does as an editor) made the stories look different to him than they did to other members who gave them more consideration. This was good, because it made the flaws really stand out. He didn't pick up on what other people (including the pros) identified as good parts of my story, but immediately pointed out a major flaw. It is invaluable to know how an editor sees a story.

All three pros not only pointed out what was wrong with the students' works, but gave suggestions how to improve them. That doesn't always happen. It gives me more confidence that maybe this will be the year I will revise my story based on the feedback. (No, I didn't do it the previous years. Bad writer. Bad!)

So what is Texas Weird?

A comment by Mark Finn clarified for me what "Texas Weird" genre is. Brainstorming ways to make one student's story better, he said: "Your opening sentence should be 'The President was holding a closed door meeting with severed heads.'" This would put the story in the Texas Weird genre. It pulls the curtain off the key historical moments and shows us how certain world-changing decisions were made, Mark explained. Yes, a president consulting severed heads might not even be the most unreasonable explanation for some US foreign or domestic policy decisions of recent decades.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011 panels I want to see

Here are the panels I want to see at this year's ArmadilloCon (August 26-28). In square brackets are my comments on why I'm interested in that particular panel. The ones in bold are must-see for me. Well... as must-see as can be after going for a decade to a convention where pretty much all the same people are on panels year after year, and you more or less know what they are going to say. Fortunately, guests of honor can liven things up.


Fr1600SB Welcome to ArmadilloCon
Fri 4:00 PM-5:00 PM Sabine
S. Bobo, B. Denton*, J. Juday, K. Meschke, W. Spencer
Our panelists will talk about the essential elements of sf cons in general and ArmadilloCon in particular. Learn about all the can't-miss events you should attend to get the most out of our con.

[ Brad Denton usually brings barbecue, and Scott Bobo brings martinis, right? ]


Fr1700SB Introduction to SF/F Fandom
Fri 5:00 PM-6:00 PM Sabine
B. Crider, F. Duarte*, A. Jackson, M. Walsh, P. Wells
Learn about all the aspects of organized science fiction fandom. By the end you'll be able to use fannish jargon like filk, BNF, BEM, and more!

[ I have been in science fiction fandom for many years, but haven't participated in an organized way, my on-and-off FACT membership notwithstanding. Maybe I should hear about the wonders of organized fandom.]

Fr1900T Opening Ceremonies
Fri 7:00 PM-7:30 PM Trinity
L. Anders, P. Bacigalupi, E. Bull, F. Duarte, Ma. Finn*, J. Juday, W. Shetterly, C. Siros, V. Villafranca
This formally kicks off the con. Get introduced to the con's major guests. Afterward attend the Meet the Pros party.

Fr1930A Meet the Pros Party
Fri 7:30 PM-9:30 PM Plaza Area
Here's an opportunity to meet your favorite author or artist.

Fr2000T Building a Fictional Society from the Ground Up
Fri 8:00 PM-9:00 PM Trinity
P. Bacigalupi, E. Bear*, A. Latner, A. Marmell, J. Reisman, M. Wells
A discussion of worldbuilding in sf/f.

[ Must attend it because Paolo Bacigalupi, the writer Guest of Honor, is in it. But I've seen so many worldbuilding panels, they occupy a sizeable section of my blog, and they all blur together ].


Fr2000SM How Would an Alien Presence on Earth Affect Our Society?
Fri 8:00 PM-9:00 PM San Marcos
A. Jackson, K. Kimbriel, A. Martinez*, P. Jones, B. Mahoney, B. Yansky
A classic "what if" scenario discussed by a panel of writers and scientists.

[ If only Paolo Bacigalupi was in this one! But at every con there are at least two panels I want to see at the same time. This year, it's "Building a Fictional Society" and this one. ]


Sa1000SA Stump the Panel: Make Up an SF/F Use for an Everyday Object
Sat 10:00 AM-11:00 AM San Antonio
B. Foster, M. Muenzler, J. Nevins*, J. Reisman, F. Summers
The audience supplies the items, and the panel provides the imagination.

[ Maybe? Stump the Panel has been getting less and less funny over the years, and completely fizzled out last year. ]

Sa1100SA Imagining a World without Fossil Fuels
Sat 11:00 AM-Noon San Antonio
P. Bacigalupi, M. Bey, J. Blaschke*, M. Cardin, D. Chang, K. Stauber
Discussing the implications of this all-too-plausible scenario.

[ Well, Paolo Bacigalupi will be in this one, and he has created quite an interesting post fossil-fuel world in "The Windup Girl", so it's worth seeing just for that. ]

Sa1400SA Writing a Strong Female Protagonist
Sat 2:00 PM-3:00 PM San Antonio
A. Allston, E. Bull, A. Downum, J. Kenner*, T. Mallory, M. Wells
The challenges of writing a tough-yet-relatable heroine.

[ Maybe? Very little writing advice seems new to me anymore. But having heard it all doesn't mean I know how to apply it -- that only comes with practice. So perhaps there isn't much point in going to such panels. ]

Sa1600SA What You Should Have Read in 2010-2011
Sat 4:00 PM-5:00 PM San Antonio
E. Bear, M. Muenzler, J. Nevins*, W. Siros, T. Wagner
Our annual rundown of the year's best.

[ I always go to this one, and repost the list on my blog -- in fact, this is one of the very few events when people *ask* for the URL of my blog. ]

Sa1700T Fannish Feud
Sat 5:00 PM-6:00 PM Trinity
L. Anders, P. Bacigalupi, S. Bobo, E. Bull, S. Cupp, F. Duarte, Ma. Finn*, W. Shetterly, V. Villafranca, M. Walsh, P. Wells
Come see our Fans vs. Pros game show event.

[ I have never seen a Fannish Feud -- let's make this a year when I'll finally see one. ]

Sa1900T What is the Next Big Literary Movement in Texas SF/F?
Sat 7:00 PM-8:00 PM Trinity
L. Antonelli, J. Blaschke, R. Eudaly, K. Stauber, D. Webb*, L. Thomas
In the 80s and 90s, Texas writers were intimately involved with the cyberpunk movement. Is there a current movement that's about to sweep up the new crop of Lone Star authors?

[ Maybe? I heard of most Texas SF/F authors, and have checked out the ones that sounded interesting, but perhaps I'll find a new reason to check out some of the rest?

Sa2000T Wiscon and Elizabeth Moon: What Happened and What Can We Learn from It?
Sat 8:00 PM-9:00 PM Trinity
E. Bull*, S. Leicht, S. Lynch, L. Person, C. Rambo, L. Thomas
Elizabeth Moon was invited and announced as Guest of Honor for the 2011 Wiscon, but the invitation was withdrawn following a noteworthy blog post she wrote. What were the issues, and was the situation handled appropriately? How do we avoid similar situations?

[ I didn't find Elizabeth Moon's notorious rant offensive, even though I, as an immigrant, should have been among those who were offended by it. Parts of it, though, rubbed me the wrong way. Honestly, I have long forgotten about it, but mmm... fandom drama! Must hear the juicy details! ]

Sa2200SA Is the Singularity Possible?
Sat 10:00 PM-11:00 PM San Antonio
J. Gibbons*, A. Latner, M. Maresca, A. Simmons, K. Stauber
Hard sf writers such as Vernor Vinge have long speculated that someday machine intelligence will outpace that of humans. Recently some writers including Charles Stross have suggested that this is impossible. Our panelists discuss.

[ While I doubt the panelists will cover ground that wasn't already covered by Vernor Vinge in this ArmadilloCon 2003 panel, or by an AI researcher and a president of the Singularity Institute in this SXSW 2011 panel, still... I simply can't resist anything with S-word in it! ]

Sa2300T Ghost Stories
Sat 11:00 PM-Midnight Trinity
S. Allen, S. Johnson, J. McDermott, N. Southard*, W. Spencer, D. Webb
Want to hear something really scary? Our panelists tell their favorite ghost stories.

[ This should be plain fun. ]


Nothing really must-see until 1 p.m., and then only a couple of panels of mild-to-moderate interest to me.

Su1300SB Harry Potter Movies: A Look Back
Sun 1:00 PM-2:00 PM Sabine
R. Clement-Moore, F. Duarte*, Ma. Finn, J. Kenner
Now that the movies are over, let's discuss the series for a final time and see how it measured up to the books.

[I'm fond of Harry Potter books and movies, so why not?]


Su1300SM Finding Your Voice as a Storyteller
Sun 1:00 PM-2:00 PM San Marcos
N. Barrett, J. Blaschke*, S. Brust, A. Downum, W. Spencer, S. White
The most fun writers to read are those with distinctive narrative voices. How does a writer develop one?

[ Again, I've heard most writing advice, so I'm not sure it's worth it. ]

Su1400SA Writing from a Viewpoint Other than Your Own
Sun 2:00 PM-3:00 PM San Antonio
A. Allston, J. Lansdale, S. Leicht, A. Martinez*, W. Shetterly
How does a writer approach a viewpoint character of a different gender, religion, ethnicity, age, or moral code?

[ This could be very interesting if it goes beyond the obvious and the platitudes. It's just that panels about difficult things (and I think writing a viewpoint character of a different background is very difficult) often doesn't go beyond stating that it's hard and you just have to figure it out yourself. :-) ]

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Tangled up in cords (not umbilical)

Labor and delivery in a modern hospital exposes you to some amusing tech gadgets. There is a computer on wheels by your bed that displays a graph of your baby's (OK, fetus's) heart rate, and a graph of your contractions. Sometimes a nurse comes in to check on you, and pulls up another patient's graphs besides yours -- multitasking, I guess. So you can see how strong or frequent are this other, anonymous patient's contractions, and play an imaginary race against her. Faster! Stronger! Who's going to deliver a baby first?

(And here's a bit of trivia. Semi-reclining in bed is called semi-fowlers in nurse parlance. Sitting up straight in bed is called high fowlers. I know this because the nurse, whenever she came in to check on me, made notes of my position in the computer by the bed. I finally asked her what that meant.)

Baby heart rate and contraction monitors were by far the most annoying aspect of hospital birth. They made my first, pre-induction night the most uncomfortable -- more so than the two postpartum nights. I had to sleep in a hospital gown, on a bed that is designed for delivering babies, not sleep. The whole time I was tethered to the monitors that were placed on my belly and had cables going from them to the computer stand. Whenever I shifted, let alone rolled over on the other side, the monitors slipped off. Then the nurse would come in and mess with them for 10 minutes at a time to reposition them. This happened at least once an hour. I'm surprised I got even one hour of sleep. I finally drifted off early in the morning, and was woken up by the nurse at 6 a.m., who came in to start the induction. Oh, and the evening before I barely talked the nurses into unplugging my IV port from the IV line, to which they had me hooked up most of the evening. The reason? The baby's heart rate seemed too high, so they were giving me fluids. (I don't see a connection here, but I'm not a doctor.)

Going to the bathroom is an ordeal. You have to unplug the cords of the two monitors' and automatic blood pressure cuff, sling them over your shoulder and take them with you to the bathroom. The exercise is pointless -- the monitors will slip off of their fine-tuned positions on your belly, and will have to be readjusted. You might as well take them off, but instead you do as the nurse said, and drag them and the cords with you. You ask for cordless monitors, and the hospital staff brings them to you as soon as they can find some (they only have two cordless monitors on this floor, and they are in use all the time), but that still doesn't do you much good, because you also have to drag the damn IV stand with you to the bathroom! It makes the whole trip only marginally less cumbersome.

The next most annoying thing was a self-adjusting bed in the postpartum room. It makes tiny adjustments to its elevation and angle the whole time you are in it. As soon as you sit down, the bed slightly inflates or elevates the part you're sitting on; sometimes even when you are lying still, the bed will inflate or deflate under you. Those shifts are minuscule, and your position hardly changes at all; only the low whirr of a motor and vibration informs you that the bed is doing something. A nurse explained to me that this is to prevent bed sores -- not that postpartum patients are in much danger of those, but the hospital has just one type of bed, and this is it. And no, these self-adjustments can't be turned off. In two days I still didn't get used to them enough to ignore them. It's as if this inanimate thing is constantly annoyed by your presence and squirms to get out from under you. :-) It's hard not to take it personally. It makes you wonder if we really want "smart houses" in our future. Maybe I'll be just as happy with "dumb" furniture that's not aware of my presence.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How wishlists are like orthodox rituals

First, I'll grumble about wishlists a bit. There should be a way to group items with AND, OR, and NOT operators. For example, I want bag A, or bag B, or bag C, all of which look very similar, but not all three. But in addition to those bags I also might like a wallet, which is assigned an equally high priority in my list. So my wishlist clause would be (Bag A OR Bag B OR Bag C) AND (Wallet D OR Wallet E).

Overthinking much? Maybe that's why I'm the least fun person to get gifts for. Knowing how to want the right kind of presents is an art I have never mastered. By right kind I mean the kind that easily lend themselves to dropping hints. Isn't that how Miss Manners claims it should be done? A lady gushes about the beauty of a particular object, and her significant other, family or friends are make note of that. That's how they get ideas for what to get her for birthdays and holidays.

And of course, the items should be in the right price range for the significant other, family, etc.

But what if the items you truly crave are so specific that a mere hint would not suffice -- the exact make and model is needed? What if, indeed, dropping a mere hint could lead to a gift-giving disaster, where the giver spends a chunk of cash on a product that differs from your object of desire in small, crucial detail? What if it's an iPad when you wanted an Android tablet? Or it has a touchscreen keyboard when you need a physical one?

In a world of increasing customization, where advertising industry pushes products "as unique as you are", it's getting harder to be satisfied by things that were supposed to please everyone in a certain demographic category: perfume, a journal with handcrafted covers, a DVD of a popular movie. I myself have been guilty of wanting rather idiosyncratic products: a wallet that would double as a handbag and a waistpack; an MP3 player that would record radio programs AND play audiobooks. Those things do exist but they are not easy to find. And if they lack one of these functions, I'd rather not have them at all than let them rot in the back of the closet.

So I made up a wishlist. makes it so easy. Not only it sells everything under the Sun, but if another online store has an item Amazon doesn't sell, you can still add it to your Amazon wishlist via a Firefox extension. (I haven't installed it and can't vouch for how it works.) Great -- you made it easy on your nearest-and-dearest. But how is it different from them handing you a wad of cash and telling you to go buy what you want? There is no surprise in it -- and in my old-fashioned notions, surprise is a key element of gift-giving. Perhaps technology that lets you have your wishes fulfilled so precisely could also help you restore the element of surprise. Maybe wishlists could have some kind of "random" feature, that would let the gift-giver pick a random element from category A, B, or C. But isn't this just building a layer of meaningless ritual to soften the ruthless practicality of the transaction? Isn't it akin to Orthodox Jews keeping hallway lights on all night on Sabbath, because they're not allowed to operate light switches? Or programming elevators to stop on every floor, because they're not allowed to push buttons? Or connecting two houses with a string so they could bring something to a neighbor's house, because then the two houses are considered to be "under one roof? (Is carrying stuff on Sabbath permitted under the same roof, but not outside? It boggles the mind too much to even seek logic in this.) Similarly with wishlists -- once they destroy the spirit of gift-giving, trying to reintroduce it would be just as artificial.

As they say on Twitter, #firstworldproblems.

Friday, June 03, 2011

I need my own Facebook filtering system

Anyone who uses Facebook has been occasionally or continuously annoyed by the ranking system Facebook uses to decide which posts to display to you. "Top News" posts are completely random. Often they are the ones most commented on, but some have no comments.

"Most Recent" does not by default display all the posts from all your friends either. Facebook has some algorithm for "determining" what posts you would most like to see. It's funny how it considers game and gift notifications or places' check-ins must-see news. So anything of actual interest gets lost in the trivia of who's having lunch where, and who sent somebody hearts or flowers.

Unfortunately, even if Facebook implemented a different ranking system to separate wheat from chaff, most people still wouldn't be satisfied because each of us have a different idea what is important. (One exception may be that no one likes to see game or app notifications.) Maybe you want to see someone's cookie recipes, but not their political rants. Check-ins into places are noise, unless it's someone whose whereabouts you temporarily (or permanently) want to know. Not necessarily a crush -- maybe it's a person at the same conference you're at, who knows all the best parties.

What does "show me more like this" mean?

One way to implement such a system would be to allow you to rank your friends posts by desirability. The ranking system could be similar to show/don't show me more posts like this. (Your thumbs up or thumbs down rating would not be seen by your friends, of course, to avoid unnecessary drama.) The question is, what exactly "like this" means? What criteria should Facebook infer from your like or dislike? If the rating system was anything like Pandora's the last time I listened to it (I gave up 2 years ago), it would be irrelevant, because "lead female vocal, acoustic piano, and minor key" does not begin to capture what I like in a song; it's more of a mix of elusive qualities relating to the progression of the chords.

So how should we tell Facebook what we are looking for in a post? Perhaps each user could have their own taxonomy of tags to apply to other people's Facebook posts. The taxonomy could use semantic web methods to enable powerful sentiment analysis (how you feel about a particular person, event or organization, such as this Evri API). After a user has tagged a sufficient number of posts, Facebook would have learned what is relevant to him or her, and would tag the posts before the user does, so as to filter out the posts the user doesn't want to see.

Of course, even if somebody came up with such a system, Facebook probably wouldn't want to deploy it. Many people suspect that Facebook wants to have control over what posts you see, while giving you a minimal illusion that you have a choice. After all, according to the famous quote, you are not Facebook's customer, you are its product. Its customers are advertisers, and they might decide what posts they want us to see. A filtering system that bypasses their wishes would have to be implemented by a third-party application. Even then, I'm not sure Facebook would allow it into its ecosystem. But it doesn't even have to be a Facebook app, it could be a browser add-on that would accomplish all this with Javascript. Kind of like Adblock, which blocks ads in a web page. That way Facebook would have no control over it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

You want to attend this conference? Become an optimization expert!

Imagine a conference so big, so sprawling, that navigating it requires you to draw multiple decision trees and redraw them on the fly as needed. Why? The conference is spread out across a convention center the size of four city blocks, several neighborhood hotels, as well as some hotels a few miles away. Just walking from one room in the conference center to another takes 5 minutes; a walk to a neighborhood hotel takes 10 minutes, and to a faraway one, as much as half an hour.

And when you get to your destination, you discover that the organizers picked too small a room for the panel, and there's a line to get in the door*. You can only get in if someone leaves, and no one is going to leave because they are as interested in the panel as you. The speakers don't use a microphone, so you can't hear a single word from outside the door.

Imagine all this, and -- that's right! -- you'll get SXSW.

People wait to take an escalator down from the 4th floor of Austin Convention Center

To get an idea of just how many people were at SXSWi, consider that this amorphous line is just the people waiting to take an escalator down from the 4th floor of Austin Convention Center (and some getting off the escalator in the opposite direction). More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Congratulations, you have walked 10 minutes for nothing. It's time to pull out your handy decision tree. Say node A represents your preferred panel. It is linked to nodes B, C, etc., that designate the next most interesting panels to go to in case panel A is full. Each node is assigned a weight according to its desirability. The edges that connect the panel-nodes in turn should be weighted according to walking times required to get from building X to building Y. And if you want to make the problem more realistic, you could make those weights depend on pedicab availability, or your willingness to pay for a pedicab, as well as a probability that the free sponsored shuttle will be waiting outside the hotel at that moment. Then voila! Solve the optimization problem, and you know where to go next!

Is there an app for that? I don't know, I still don't have a smartphone. (That alone should disqualify me from SXSW attendance, I suppose.) I know SXSW has an official app, but I doubt it solves optimization problems. If it doesn't, should I spawn yet another clone to write such an app (joining the league of all my clones in parallel universes that are writing other applications I've dreamed up, while I'm toiling at my job)? Then, and perhaps only then, I would have a real reason to come here again. After all, as everybody says, the real purpose of going to SXSW Interactive is to schmooze with other entrepreneurs and wannabes. Panels be damned.

Cloaking geeky topics in cutesy terms

Maybe panels should be damned. Most panels were for internet marketers, since that's what most SXSWi attendees are, and marketing is not that interesting to me. Software developer panels were dominated by mobile development, a perennial hot topic; unfortunately, I haven't done any mobile development and I don't know if I'll ever get a chance to do it where I could get paid for it. There was a good presentation on the basics of semantic web -- a loose set of methodologies that let us mark up the meaning of the text, instead of just its structure, in an HTML-like way. This allows computers extract meaning from texts they "read". The panel would have been even better if it hadn't tried to hard to achieve mainstream appeal by drawing parallels between semantic web and dating. But even renaming Linked Data Principles "The Bro Code", and urging people to "get your data a date" (i.e. link it to other data on the web) did not attract more than 10 people into the room. What the presenters did right, though, was to illustrate the notion of a semantic triple as something we routinely create in our daily lives when we fill out forms. This, and not sketchy dating analogies, would make the concept of semantic web more interesting to people.

A patient information form illustrates a semantic triple A patient information form illustrates a semantic triple. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.
A triple: the person filling out the form is the subject, field labels are predicates, what you put in the blanks are objects An subject-predicate-object triple: the person filling out the form is the subject, field labels are predicates, what you put in the blanks are objects. Thus by filling out a patient information form you are creating triples such as {Joe Schmoe, Home Address, 1000 Main Street} or {Joe Schmoe, Date of Birth, 1/1/1900}.

General interest panels on emerging technology, such as gesture interfaces, or "internet of things" weren't all that worthwhile to me because I read a lot on those topics, and the presentations didn't add anything to my knowledge. The curse of being ed-yoo-ma-cated.

So after a while I lost motivation to pick the best panels and brave the crowds to get to them. Instead I spent big chunks of time just milling around the convention center, parties, and satellite events, not going anywhere, and cursing myself for wasting the time I'm paying for with my own precious future time, that is to say, those volunteer hours I'm obligated to put in. Speaking of which...

Volunteering shows its dark side

After I had an easy time volunteering at SXSW in 2011, I expected something similar this year. Yet volunteering showed its sharp claws this time. As before, I spent most of my time at Film Venue. Most Film Venue volunteers perform a vague function of "line management", which is to say, they stand around and see that the audience lines up in an orderly fashion: one line for SXSW film badge holders, another for film pass holders, and yet another for those with individual tickets. Most movies don't get a lot of audience, so there isn't much standing around to be done. However, on my first day the theater manager told us to take our positions an hour and a half before the movie started. We were supposed to stand at attention the whole time. Needless to say, standing on your feet while 6 months pregnant isn't a picnic. It's also excruciatingly boring. I would rather have spent that time moving furniture (well, lightweight furniture) than standing still. So I went to the theater manager and told her I couldn't do this while pregnant. She said she didn't realize my condition (what, did she think I carried a basketball under my shirt?), and told me to go home for the day. The next day the management agreed to transfer me to another theater where I got a desk job. For the rest of my volunteering week, I sat at a desk and answered customers' questions. That was much better.

All in all, I should try coming here one day as a wannabe turn-your-side-project-into-a-startup entrepreneur. I heard those people get the most out of SXSWi. Until then... I don't know.


* That was the case with "Agile Self-Development" panel. Having been introduced to agile software development concepts at my recent job, I was curious how this would apply to self-development. Should I hold daily scrum meetings among multiple facets of my personality?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

SXSW 2011: People as Peripherals: The Future of Gesture Interfaces

"People as Peripherals". The title of this speech conveys unease about a future where humans are little more than input devices for our computer overlords. Not surprisingly, presenter Lee Shupp segued from gesture interfaces to brain implants, and from there to technological Singularity.

At the first glance, there is neither much to fear, nor great promise to expect from such gesture interfaces as Kinect, a Microsoft game console. Current interfaces suffer from the case of "gorilla arms": you have to wave your arms vigorously in big, sweeping gestures to make yourself understood to the machine. You are also limited by a small square of space where you need to stand so the computer would capture your gestures correctly. Even so, it's all too often inaccurate, if Kinect is any indication. It's a long way from here to detecting micro-gestures, such as subtle finger movements.

Lee Shupp Lee Shupp speaks about gestural interfaces, brain interfaces and Singularity. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Not unlike at a science fiction convention, the audience pointed out plenty of other problems gesture interfaces will have to solve before they are seamlessly integrated into our lives. How would a gesture-driven plane cockpit respond if a pilot sneezes? How would such interfaces adjust for body language differences between cultures? For example, in many oriental cultures it's considered extremely rude to point your foot to anyone. Never mind the bugs -- the potential of well-implemented gesture interfaces can be equally disturbing. A guy in the audience expressed a wish for an interface that would understand sign language. He can sign much faster than type, and he'd like to "text" while driving without raising his hands from the wheel. (I sure hope for the sake of the humanity that his wish won't come true.)

But before we can even make sensors that understand sign language, there are more basic problems to be solved. As a person in the audience pointed out, current interfaces require that you come to them. You are supposed to stand in front of the machine and wave your arms at it. That doesn't integrate well with our daily lives. However, I saw this Technology Review article, Talking to the Wall, about an experimental technology that lets you turn any wall in a building into a touch-sensitive surface. Now that surely has a few killer apps in it.

Lee Shupp's vision of transhumans Lee Shupp's vision of transhumans. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Brain interfaces are still in a rudimentary stage too, says Lee Shupp. So far brain implants haven't done much more than allowed people control a cursor on the computer. There are serious obstacles to their adoption. To connect a brain to a machine you have to drill holes in the skull, and sending thought commands requires concentration, which is hard for humans to achieve in the multitasking world. Finally, Shupp says, if people can't read people, how can computers? For that matter, if computers can read our brain signals, does that mean we can't lie anymore? To the guy who asked that last question, Shupp recommended "The Truth Machine" by James Halperin, a SF novel where this is addressed.

Despite these nontrivial problems, he believes brain implants will take off. Already 80000 people worldwide have them. An informal survey of the room shows that most people here think we will be using brain interfaces in 50 years. At some point brain implants will likely augment our intelligence, and we'll on the road to Singularity. And then, if this slide correctly reflects Shupp's vision of transhumans, we will spend our time with our brains plugged in directly into simulated medieval worlds. Swords: the original gestural interfaces. ;-)

(Tangentially related, here is another take on Singularity, where the original popularizer of the concept, Vernor Vinge, discusses the concept with several science fiction writers.)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Smartphone dilemmas

I often feel a need, even an urgency, for a smart phone. Usually it comes up in situations when it would be impolite, impractical or too conspicuous to break out a laptop (such as standing in line in a store -- can't type very well cradling the laptop with one arm, plus there's no WiFi), but a smartphone would be socially acceptable, especially as everyone else is playing with them. Those 5-10 minute snippets would be enough for me to write another paragraph of a story, a blog post, or a Facebook comment. But that would depend on a good keyboard. The matter of keyboard is what kept me in analysis-paralysis stage about a smart phone purchase. Ever since my AT&T Tilt, a Windows phone, died 2-3 years ago, I've been at loss of what to get next. Not because I miss it, but because I saw how unsatisfying a phone can be even when it looks great "on paper". It had a slide-out keyboard, but the keys were so tiny and what's worse, so closely spaced (there were no gaps between them), that typing was near impossible. If the keys are further apart (even if they are tiny), it is easier to type. Such is the keyboard on G2 (a.k.a the Google phone), which is high on my candidates list. But lately I also tried some touch screen keyboards, and they are not so bad, especially on phones with larger screens. But how would I know which of them is best for my purposes? Unlike most smart phone users, I intend to do quite a bit of writing on those keyboards. "Playing around" with a device does not give you a good idea what it's like to type on it for longer periods of time. So what is the solution? To buy one and discover that it doesn't work for me? Physical-vs-onscreen-keyboard is one of my dilemmas.

Another issue is, should I wait until mid-July when I'll be eligible for an upgrade at AT&T, my current carrier, which will enable me to buy a smartphone for a fraction of a price? Or should I buy a phone at full price? They can be damn expensive. Or should I switch to another carrier, such as T-Mobile, which is the only one that has G2? Then I could buy a G2 at a discount with a 2-year contract. But my monthly data plan would cost more than if I bought it at full price, without a contract. So after 2 years, buying it at full price would have paid off. And if I stay with AT&T, will it turn out that the only kind of phone I can get cheaply is a refurbished one? My Tilt was refurbished, and it died after 10 months, long past its warranty. So if another refurbished phone dies on me, I will need a new phone again, and won't qualify for an upgrade.

All of this gives me so much headache that I throw up my hands and give up.

Monday, April 11, 2011

SXSW 2011: The Singularity: Humanity's Huge Techno Challenge

Will supercomputing intelligences outsmart human-level intelligence? "The Singularity: Humanity's Huge Techno Challenge" panel claimed to dissect the very core of the Singularity, if and when it will occur, and what we can expect to happen. The question was debated by Doug Lenat, founder of an artificial intelligence project CYC, Michael Vassar, president of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Natasha Vita-More, vice chair of Humanity +.

Technological Singularity is considered to be a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so rapid that it makes the future impossible to predict. It is commonly thought that such event would happen if superhuman intelligence was created. For starters, Doug Lenat gave an overview of possible scenarios of how technological singularity would happen, or why it wouldn't happen. He lists these forces driving us towards creation of superhuman intelligence: demand for competitive, cutting edge software applications (commercial and government); demand for personal assistants, such as SIRI, but enhanced; demand for "smarter" AI in games; mass vetting of errorful learned knowledge, such as in Wikipedia. And the forces that may preclude Singularity? Large enterprises can stay on top in other ways than being technologically competitive; humans, too, may be satisfied with bread and circuits, immersing themselves in games to distract them from pressing realities. Also, Singularity may not happen if some event or trend kills all the advanced technology: an energy crisis, neo-luddite backlash, or AI's merciful suicide (say, AI realizes it's a threat to humanity, and kills itself). Then there are pick-your-favorite doomsday scenarios, such as grey goo, wherein nanobots multiplying out of control munch up all the matter on Earth.

Doug Lenat speaks about forces pushing us towards Singularity Doug Lenat speaks about forces pushing us towards Singularity. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Which is more likely -- that the Singularity will happen, or that some forces will prevent it from happening? How dangerous will it be for us, humans? How compatible it will be with our continuing existence?

As one would expect from a president of Singularity institute, Michael Vassar seems to think Singularity is likely, and that we would get there much sooner if we planned technology more deliberately than we do. "The more you study history, the more you'll see that we don't do very much deliberation. And the little that we do, really goes a very long way," he says. For millenia, technology was evolving in a random, unplanned way, similar to biological evolution. About 300 years ago humans started thinking more deliberately. (I don't know where Vassar gets this number -- Industrial Revolution started 200 rather than 300 years ago.) Automating the kind of human thought that can be well performed by machines, and combining it with the kind of thought that's not easy to automate, may lead us to a very rapid technological acceleration. But to close the gap between machine and human intelligence, we need to build a very good understanding of human intelligence. At some point in history humanity discovered scientific method, which is a very rudimentary understanding of how reasoning works. It allowed us to build institutions that will shape the future, the way no other institutions have been able to, says Vassar.

As to us being able to control whether nonhuman superintelligences will help us or cause our extinction, Vassar is not too optimistic. "Ray Kurzweil thinks we can get emerging superhuman intelligences to slow down. But we, humans, don't have a good track record of getting potentially dangerous trends to slow down."

Michael Vassar, Dougt Lenat, and Natasha Vita-More on the Singularity panel at SXSW 2011 Michael Vassar, Dougt Lenat, and Natasha Vita-More. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

In every panel on Singularity, you'll get people who understand that Singularity may happen entirely without the humans' control, and then you'll get those who view Singularity only as a tool for progress, especially social progress, and have no interest in it otherwise. This was the case, for example, at the Singularity panel at ArmadilloCon 2003, when one writer said, if Singularity isn't going to enforce social justice, it's not going to happen. I got an impression that Natasha Vita-More is in the second camp. She spoke about how advancing technologies need to solve aging, healthcare, and social problems, especially those that still needlessly exist in the third world, as if technology will only do what we need it to do. She did not address the possibility that Singularity might take off without our control or influence.

She started by saying: "The Singularity is presumed to be an event that happens to us rather than an opportunity to boost human cognitive abilities. The very same technology that proposes to build superintelligences could also dramatically enhance human cognition. Rather than looking at the Singularity as a fait accompli birthing of superintelligences that might foster human extinction risk, an alternative theory forms an intervention between human and technology. [...] The Singularity needs smart design to solve problems." According to her, humans would achieve that by "evolving at the speed of technology", in other words, cyborgizing themselves.

Humans may have to deliberately redesign their brains and bodies to keep up or merge with the machines, but it still does not preclude the chance that Singularity might not come about by our design. If nonhuman superintelligences evolve, what incentive would they have to merge with humans? Why carry around flesh bodies, even engineered with excessive strength, resilience, or longevity? I'm reminded of what Bruce Sterling said on another occasion about trying to fit new technology into a conceptual framework of old technology: it would be like putting a papier-mache horse head on the hood of your car.

Doug Lenat disagrees that integration of our physical bodies with machines is necessary or sufficient for Singularity to happen. He would focus on not dramatic cyborgization, but just the information technology. Having information processing apliances that amplify our brain power would change us the same way that 100 years ago electrical devices amplifed our muscles. We travelled farther than our legs would carry us, we communicated farther than we could shout -- it changed our lives in fundamental ways and never changed back. Approaching Singularity, we'll see appliances amplifying our minds the same way. The society will amplify as well, become smarter in general, and will be able to solve the problems that Natasha Vita-More was talking about. At the same time, he doesn't think technology is a panacea for that. "When technology automated a number of things that were done manually before, social stratification only increased."

Michael Vassar goes even further: "We have technologies to solve most social problems today. But what we don't have is ability to engage ourselves in solving the problems we don't care about."

Somebody in the audience asked: "do you think a consciousness that exists outside human body (e.g. in a machine) can be spontaneously generated?" Michael Vassar replied: "I don't know what you mean by spontaneously generated, but I think, not likely. Consciousness would not be generated without a great deal of design." Doug Lenat thought this question was too vague. In a limited sense of consciousness, programs are conscious. You can interrogate CYC (Lenat's AI project) programs about their goals or methods, so they do have some self-reflection built into them. But it's probably nothing like what a human observer would perceive as consciousness. To answer this question, a better definition of consciousness is needed.

Also, in the future we will each have many avatars doing many different things, says Doug Lenat. Mental aids will direct our attention to where it's most needed at the moment. In that sense, each person's consciousness will exist everywhere.

Another question from the audience. "To be truly creative, you have to unplug yourself from technology often enough. So how would uploaded brains do that? Would inability to do that kill their creativity?"

Michael Vassar. "If I was an uploaded or enhanced being, I would be able to unplug myself much better. I would not only unplug from my laptop or the internet, but even from my visual cortex."

And here is another take on Singularity, where the original popularizer of the concept, Vernor Vinge, discusses the concept with several science fiction writers.