Saturday, January 30, 2010

High Gygaxian

A language preserved only in certain obsolete texts, whose more recent editions, though much clearer and better organized, have been drained of a sense of wonder. What a treat, to grow up reading text like this:
The true splendor of the Vault can be appreciated only by those with infravision, or by use of the roseate lenses or a gem of seeing. The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, an incredibly huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. When properly viewed, the radiation from certain unique minerals give the visual effect of a starry heaven, while near the zenith of this black stone bowl is a huge mass of tumkeoite -- which in its slow decay and transformation to lacofcite sheds a lurid gleam, a ghostly plum-colored light to human eyes, but with ultravision a wholly different sight.

The small "star" nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large "moon" of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermillions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewers' attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.
...and then to actually go there in your imagination and explore it, and do battle with the degenerate denizens of that alien fairyscape. Yes, it's overwrought to the point of ridiculousness. But to read stuff that when you were 10 years old was like entering a whole different universe, one where authors took you seriously. Compare it to the stuff that schools (even my super-cool Montessori school) were offering kids that age.

In everything, I still seek that amazing sense of wonder. I think Avatar did a little bit of that for me, its numerous flaws notwithstanding. I'll forgive a lot if you open up a new imaginative space for me.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Quote of the day

As I once pointed out, messaging, instant and text, has replaced the phone call as the chief means by which teen-agers communicate their woes to other teen-agers—but if messaging had come along first, and the phone call just been announced by Steve Jobs a week ago, can anyone doubt the huge technological leap the phone call would present over the instant message? Real-time conversation! Hear your girlfriend’s every breath and sigh! Escape the tyranny of the keyboard for the roaming realm of the real voice! “Real Speech, Real Time, At Last The Real You,” Steve would say, and we would all be rocking in his wake.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prisoner wants his D&D stuff back...

UPDATE: More at boingboing. UPDATE 2: The Volokh Conspiracy and Sullivan have now posted on this. (But you read it here at Internal Monologue first!) Story seems to have touched a nerve. I think everyone can empathize with a guy in prison for life who has had one of his few sources of richness and pleasure taken away. Punishing people who are already helpless just seems awful, no matter no matter how much they deserve it. Question: does putting people in prison really reduce crime, or does it just push crime into a hole where most of us don't have to deal with it?

...and I say give it to him! Yes, he was convicted of 1st degree murder, but when you take his D&D stuff away, I'm on his side:
MADISON, Wis. - A man serving life in prison for first-degree intentional homicide has lost his legal battle to play Dungeons and Dragons behind bars.

Kevin T. Singer filed a lawsuit against officials at Wisconsin's Waupun prison after a policy was initiated in 2004 to eradicate all Dungeons and Dragons game materials among concerns that playing it promotes gang-related activity.

The 33-year-old Singer is a devoted player of the fantasy role-playing game that involves recruiting others to play as a group. He argued that his First Amendment rights were being violated and demanded that Dungeons and Dragons material confiscated from his cell be returned.

But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the prison's policy was reasonable.
I guess he'll have to switch to some system that doesn't require so much paraphernalia. Here is the comment I left on the story:
As a fellow gamer, I protest this decision and request that the prison discontinue this policy. Dungeons & Dragons is not related to any gang activity outside of prison. If gang activity is a problem at Wapun[oops, spelling] prison, I urge the officials there to find other ways of dealing with it, instead of picking on an often wrongly stigmatized hobby. It's sadly ironic that this is taking place in Wisconsin, the state that gave birth to Dungeons & Dragons almost 40 years ago. Although I think it is just that Singer is in prison for his crime, I don't see why he can't enjoy Dungeons & Dragons while serving. It harms no one and probably provides a healthy and constructive diversion from the routines of prison life.
I would add that I'm going to be extra careful not to commit any crimes while in Wisconsin, lest I end up in Waupun prison and have all my D&D stuff confiscated.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Reverse furries

If the typical furry is a humanoid being with a animal head, then these are sort of reverse furries:

Question: Were the ancient Egyptians furries? I'm not the first one to have pondered this.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

An interesting analysis of a brief sequence of shots in Mad Men

While waiting for the next season, we call mull this over:
No contemporary television show employs a quieter camera than Mad Men. Its disdain for the Law & Order version of cinematic realism that reached its apogee (or nadir) in Cloverfield is palpable: the camera frames scenes from multiple fixed positions and the shots are spliced together at a pace designed to have a soporific effect on anyone born after 1980. The framing and the pacing are a deliberate homage to the films of the period represented on the show. Though it may seem natural to direct a series set in the early 1960s in the same mode Douglas Sirk shot films in the 1960s, it is anything but.

Most films that aim to be realist depict the past in the dominant contemporary realist mode: Saving Private Ryan looks realistic to us because it panders to what we think looks realistic. Had Spielberg directed it in accordance with the realism regnant in 1942 the film would have looked dated. I point out the obvious here only to highlight the deliberateness of the decision to shoot Mad Men like a Sirk film (from the staid framing to the odd lighting and colors so saturated that even the most mundane act acquires the air of a particularly vivid dream). Mad Men is a show that depicts the seedy underbelly of the early 1960s in the style used in the early 1960s to hide its seedy underbelly. (It's not for nothing that it took two decades for critics to get that Sirk was being ironic.) The effect is unsettling: the visuals create the expectation that none of the unseemly stuff will appear on screen and then it does.



Friday, January 22, 2010

Good advice for the Democrats

Pass the damn Senate bill

Would House Democrats please pass the deeply-flawed Senate health care reform bill? We can do some fixes by budget reconciliation later. Don't let one special election against a lackluster candidate send you into some kind of feinting spell tizzy. And if you don't do anything, that will be a horrible moral catastrophe. And if that doesn't motivate you, it will be a horrible political catastrophe for you as well. Your base is already very upset with you. If you let this chance slip away, it will be awful awful awful.

OK, I'm very scared now: SCOTUS 5-4 ruling on Citizens United

If what I'm hearing is correct, I'm very scared of the latest supreme court ruling. Here's digby:
A century of campaign finance law was thrown in the trash today and that is going to be the result. These corporations have virtually unlimited money to spend on this --- ad campaigns are chump change by their standards and well worth every penny if they deliver politicians who will represent them in the congress. The deal is now explicit and it will be very difficult to unseat them if their elections are financed entirely by special interests.
Meteor Blades on DailyKos is similarly gloomy:
With this ruling, the concentrated big media will now be a megaphone for even more of the oligarchs' points of view. As if we weren't already inundated. As if they didn't already have us by the short hairs. As usual, the class war will be blamed not on the guys who started it, but on those who resist.
Here's a brief blurb in The Atlantic's online politics section:

Citizens United Decision: Republicans Like It, Liberals Don't

That seems to be the emerging trend as reactions to the Supreme Court's campaign finance decision roll in. As the pro-business party in U.S. politics, Republicans have held a closer relationship with business than have Democrats; business-backed coalitions like the Chamber of Commerce--through which businesses have channeled their political spending--back Republicans, not Democrats. That's changed a bit since Democrats have come into power, as corporations have started giving more to Dems. Nonetheless...

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) likes the decision.[...]
Seems to me this decision tilts the balance of power in our political system further in favor of those with lots of money, which is not surprising given who is on the bench. This empowerment of the already powerful hardly seems conducive to an increase in human happiness or the strength of our nation. Maybe a coalition of pissed off liberals and anti-corporate populists can fight against this. The Republicans will back it and use it, though. Keep fighting.

American-style mental illness displacing indigenous forms?

Here's a strange idea explored in this New York Times Magazine article: as American ideas about mental illness spread, the symptoms that mentally ill people around the world suffer are actually changing, becoming more like the symptoms Americans suffer. A snippet:
For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.
I wonder how much of this is perceptual (people report more depression once they have a category for it) and how much is actual change in behavior (people are more likely to get depressed when they have a category for it). I know that when I got diagnosed with depression, I quickly started showing even more sypmtoms. (Thankfully I am now almost fully recovered. And I'm sure my therapist and doctor and family telling me I'm more normal makes me exhibit more symptoms of normality.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Yale musical theater admissions propaganda

I once told a friend that going back to Yale felt like visit the set of a movie about my college years. After viewing this, I'll probably feel even more like that. And now my precious college memories have been contaminated by feel-good musical theaterism. Note to prospective Yale students: THE SUN RARELY SHINES THERE (and generally only during spring semester finals). My life at Yale rarely had the feeling of musical theater. Some of it was quite wonderful, but it wasn't musical-theater wonderful. Anyway, if you went to Yale, you might get a kick out of this:

I did feel good that when they were listing all the cool stuff Yale has, they mention "8 Comedy Groups." I was a founding member of one of them (The Fifth Humour).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Yo, Pat Robertson, you're making me look bad!"

A letter to the StarTribune about Pat Robertson's recent comment that Haiti made a pact with the devil (HT: Pablo via email)

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll. You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract. Best, Satan


I knew those Na'vi interface cables were used for sex!

During the movie, I was sure Jake and Neytiri were going to join their interface tendrils. But it never happened. Apparently the scene was deleted from the movie:


He puts his face close to hers. She rubs her cheek against his. He kisses her on the mouth. They explore each other.

Then she pulls back, eyes sparkling.

Kissing is very good. But we have something better.

She pulls him down until they are kneeling, facing each other on the faintly glowing moss.

Neytiri takes the end of her queue and raises it. Jake does the same, with trembling anticipation. The tendrils at the ends move with a life of their own, straining to be joined.

MACRO SHOT — The tendrils INTERTWINE with gentle undulations.

JAKE rocks with the direct contact between his nervous system and hers. The ultimate intimacy.

They come together into a kiss and sink down on the bed of moss, and ripples of light spread out around them.

THE WILLOWS sway, without wind, and the night is alive with pulsing energy as we DISSOLVE TO —

LATER. She is collapsed across his chest. Spent. He strokes her face tenderly.
So, does that mean the Na'vi are having sex with all those animals they ride?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ho, ho, ho! Your Congressional hearing won't work on me!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Realization of the day

I grew up in a light green three-bedroom house with a two-car garage on a moderately busy tree-lined street in a nice, urban, residential neighborhood with a grid street plan and flat terrain, within walking distance of picturesque water and a busy commercial district.

I now live in a light green three-bedroom house with a two-car garage on a slightly busier tree-lined street in a nice, urban, residential neighborhood with a grid street plan and flat terrain, within walking distance of picturesque water and a busy commercial district.

I have exchanged Irving Avenue for Broadway, East Isles in Minneapolis for Otis/Broadway in Alameda, Lake of the Isles for San Francisco Bay, and Hennepin Avenue for Park Street.

Congratulations, Zac, you have reproduced your childhood home as accurately as one can in the Bay Area. This is a good thing, I think. That was a very nice house. Funny though, how we come back to what we know, what we find comfortable and familiar.

What's changed in the last decade?

Click to enlarge. From via Mad Latinist on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Placebos are getting more effective

From Wired:
Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.

It's not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It's as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger.

My pet theories as to why this is happening: Drug companies have spent so much money on advertising, telling us that drugs are capable of making us happy and healthy, that our expectations for them are much higher. This might generate a larger placebo effect. The Wired article mentions this possibility. The other possibility is that we are experiencing more psychological discomfort of the kind amenable to placebo treatment now than were were in the past. Thus, placebo treatments are more effective now than, say, 20 years ago.

(HT: Mad Latinist via Facebook)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Stop airport security theater madness

I just heard on the PBS Newshour that airport hassles are going to
increase. Can we please weigh the enormous costs (both financial and
psychological) against the potential benefits? If terrorists blow up a
plane or two a year, it's really no big deal except to those directly
affected. Some 30,000 people die in auto crashes every year in the
United States, yet there are no calls to lower the speed limit to 40
mph or require breathalyzers to be added to all car ignitions. Stop
the hysteria, please. And when confronted by a new "threat", always
consider the possiblilty that doing nothing and ignoring it may be the
best course of action. Keep calm, carry on.

[I sent this from my iPhone, so please excuse any excessive brevity or
typographical errors.]
--Zachary Drake

Monday, January 04, 2010

Dude, I was totally like this