Friday, December 31, 2010

Mad Men, but with nerds

Here are some photos from Bell Labs in the 1960's:

HT: Gregg Favalora on Facebook.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yay filibuster reform

Looks like it might happen. If you want to gum up the Senate, you shouldn't be able to just phone it in. You should have to show up. And lets get rid of things like anonymous individual holds on nominations, too.

Pat Robertson comes out for pot decriminalization

Yes, that Pat Robertson. Let sanity prevail. End the drug war. It won't be perfect. But it will be so much better than the status quo.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Oh Christmas Tree

from xkcd, of course.

Stockings are LIFO.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Quote of the Day: individual mandate hysteria

"Starting in the early 1980s, up through well into 2009, the individual mandate was an eminently respectable Republican position, embraced by conservative policy wonks and leading Republicans. Since then, virtually the whole of the conservative movement has coalesced around the position that the individual mandate is not merely misguided but actually unconstitutional, a fact conservatives somehow overlooked during the previous three decades.

[...]

Conservatism's sudden lurch from supporting (or tolerating) the individual mandate to opposing it as a dagger in the heart of freedom is a phenomenon that merits not intellectual analysis but psychoanalysis."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Can the US Tourism industry save us from TSA madness?

Heard a story on NPR this morning about a domestic tourism lobby group that is seeking to increase the number of foreign visitors to the United States. My thought was, "Thank God there's a moneyed interest with a financial incentive to push back on all the intrusive security measures we're undergoing." I hope it helps.

It cannot be said enough: There will never be perfect security. We will be attacked. Sometimes attackers will succeed. There are tradeoffs between security, appearance of security, convenience, civil rights, and fostering a welcoming atmosphere. I think we are spending way too many resources on the first two.

Pic of the Day

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why are we in Afghanistan? Karzai clearly doesn't want us there

Not that Karzai's desires should necessarily guide US foreign policy, but when you get quotes like this (via Yglesias):

As he [Karzai] spoke, he grew agitated, then enraged. He told them that he now has three "main enemies" - the Taliban, the United States and the international community.

"If I had to choose sides today, I'd choose the Taliban," he fumed.

you have to wonder what the heck we are doing there.

The context of this discussion was Karzai's very understandable desire to go ahead with a ban on private security firms: what head of state wants armed mercenaries controlled by foreigners roaming around their country? I certainly wouldn't.

I just don't see what vital American interest is served by our propping this guy up. Yes, the Taliban would be worse. But would they be worse enough to justify what we're sacrificing and the evils we're inevitably committing in order to prevent them from overthrowing Karzai's government? I would much rather take the money we're spending on Afghanistan and spend it on our own development. Heck, I'd rather give it away to millionaires: at least then it wouldn't be killing anybody.


Quote of the Day

"if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold".

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Writings on "The Wall" (Roger Waters in San Jose Dec 8 2010)

photo from floydwall.com

On Wednesday December 8 I saw Roger Waters and his band perform The Wall at HP Pavillion in San Jose. Here is a "review," which will consist of a number of disjoint thoughts and points in no particular order:
  • Overall the show was excellent. It's the sort of concert that is more than just the album played louder. It is a "show". I'm glad I got to see it.
  • I felt I got my money's worth for the pyrotechnics in the opening number "In the Flesh?" My wife jerked in her seat when the bombastic opening blasted out. Strangely, there were no more fireworks after that. But really you get an entire concert's worth in the first three minutes.
  • The physical Wall itself was used very effectively as a projection screen: at times, it appeared as though the wall was opening, crumbling, transforming, etc. It was huge, dwarfing the performers. They really do build it during the first half of the show. Seeing the crew do it did have a bit of a "Waiting for Guffman" feel to it, though.
  • The singers were really good. Some of the numbers like "The Show Must Go On" really worked better with skilled vocalists. There was an extra verse to "The Show Must Go On" that is not on the album.
  • Roger Waters is not much of a performer. He looks kinda dorky and campy. He certainly doesn't stay "in character". He does not have much charisma. He was having a lot of fun, which is fun to see, but he was not really in character. Pink Floyd the character is certainly not having much fun throughout most of the story.
  • Roger referred a couple times to how "fucked up" he was when he wrote and initially performed this piece. He does seem to be in a better place now. But it raises the question, "If you're in a better place, why are you performing this dark psychodrama you created over thirty years ago?" I felt kind of the same way: I'm not in the same alienated place I was when I was in high school and college, when this album really meant something to me. But yet I went to a great deal of time, effort, and expense to go see this show. In a way, I feel like both Roger and I were having a blast looking back on a darker time in our lives.
  • Along those lines, one of the most strangely resonant numbers was "Mother," during which Waters performed the song along with a vast, ghostly, grainy, black and white projection of himself performing the song at Earl's Court in 1980. The symbolism was awesome: the real Roger Waters, dwarfed by the massive ghost of his own past self three decades ago. It totally worked for me.
  • Because the role of Pink is passed around among different singers, and because Roger isn't much of an actor, the focus was a lot less on the character of Pink Floyd than in the movie. The show also felt a lot less "British" than the album or the movie. The school kids were played by kids from San Jose Boys and Girls clubs, though they did sing in a British accent.
  • The guitarist Dave Kilminster was excellent: though he played the original David Gilmour guitar solos note-for-note, he imbued them with a passion that I felt equalled or exceeded the originals. (I'm thinking of the solo from "Another Brick in the Wall part II" and the two solos in "Comfortably Numb".) Indeed the guitarist was a more compelling performer to watch than Waters himself.
  • The best stadium rock number in the show is "Run Like Hell," and indeed it seems like the finale. (Gilmour Pink Floyd closed their concert in 1994 with "Comfortably Numb"/"Run Like Hell." ) It was totally awesome. Even though plot-wise "The Trial" is necessary, musically it just doesn't stand up as well. The wall collapsing was pretty cool, though. "Outside the Wall" worked well as an epilogue.
  • There were fewer laser and light effects in this show than on Gilmour-led Pink Floyd's Division Bell tour. But the projections onto the wall and the "Mr. Screen" above it provided all the necessary visual splendor.
  • I didn't think the Teacher puppet was all that scary. I think I just don't relate to the idea of teachers as figures of menace and danger. The wife puppet had praying mantis arms, which were cool. Praying mantises are cool. When I'm with my nieces, I like to make my arms into praying mantis arms and pretend I'm eating their brains. This has nothing to do with The Wall.
  • There was no encore. I wasn't expecting one. During "Outside the Wall," Waters took a brief turn playing trumpet, and managed to get most of the notes right.
  • The pre-show music had a lot of Bob Dylan ("Masters of War" ) and John Lennon ("Mother", "Imagine"). I think the pre-show music was chosen to relate to the themes of The Wall.
  • The night of the show was the 30th Anniversary of Lennon's death, and Waters asked for and got a moment of silence. Waters said, "He was a crazy bugger but he brought a lot of light into this world with his music."
  • There was a lot of contemporary liberal politics added to the imagery, some of which felt rather "tacked on" to me. One of the more effective visual updates was during "Bring the Boys Back Home", during which were shown some of those famous viral YouTube clips of children re-uniting with their fathers returning from war.
  • $25 for a program is too much. $45 for a t-shirt is too much. $8.50 for a beer is too much. I didn't pay for any of that stuff. $20 for parking was too much too, but I did pay for that. It seems a bit strained for Waters to be visually attacking corporate culture when being intimate with corporate culture is about the only way one could afford tickets to his show.
  • If The Wall meant anything at all to you, I'd definitely try to see this show. It is an experience. Like the album, it can be overblown, bombastic, self-indugent, meandering, and ugly. But it is a masterpiece of rock-'n'-roll, and there may never be another staging of it like this again.
Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the show.

Quote of the Day

"In Washington, thinking is constrained by the routine experience of being unable to achieve the clearly possible. In Silicon Valley, it's unconstrained by the routine experience of being able to achieve the seemingly impossible."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

D&D Alignment charts for TV show characters

Image from kottke.org

Here's a wonderful occasion for nerdly argument: The blog mightygodking.com is posting D&D alignment charts for various TV shows, with each box filled with a character from the show (using the AD&D through 3.5 alignment system, of course). There's The Wire, Mad Men, Thirty Rock, and others. I think the desire to fill each alignment box produces an artificial constraint, but otherwise the project is wholly admirable (HT: Miguel via Facebook).

To kick off debate, I assert that within the moral universe of The Wire, Omar clearly falls on the "good" portion of the good-evil axis. He has a code of honor, he cares for others, and he's the only person who doesn't swear. He even takes his grandma to church. Yes, he robs people, but "It's all in the game": he preys only upon drug dealers.

And yes, I agree that the current Betty is chaotic evil, but that's just because it seems like the writers hate her at the moment. That makes her uninteresting, which is the worst thing a character can be.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates chimes in on this topic of vital importance.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Storyteller Dice Roller

Jan 23 2013: Wow, after two years I finally fix the crash caused by the sound. New version 1.3 should show up in iTunes store any day now. UPDATE: It's available now! And I made it free!

Feb 2 2011: Five-star review:

Thanks, Scott! Glad it's working for you.

Jan 28 2011: Version 1.2 live in App Store.
Jan 26 2011: Version 1.2 submitted with new interface, mute button.
Jan 25 2011: Coming for version 1.2: New interface look, mute button.

Jan 6 2011: Version 1.1 is available in the App Store! Thanks for the quick turnaround, Apple.
Jan 5 2011: Version 1.1 submitted to App Store.

UPDATE Jan 4 2011: The dual sliders are done and dice pools can now go from 0 (though you hardly need an app to roll zero dice!) through 99. I'm just going to do some testing for stability and then I'll submit the update.

UPDATE Dec 20 2010: Thanks to everyone who has purchased SDR! I'm glad there's interest. I've implemented "rule of 10" functionality where 10's can now be set to generate one success plus another die roll (which SDR does immediately and includes in the total). I'm going to implement a "1s subtract" toggle button [done!] and a dual slider dice pool selector that will allow you to select dice pools from 1 to 99 easily. Then I'll submit the update to the App Store.

Here's a preview of the 1.1 UI and functionality. Notice the "10 again" functionality (the dice pool was set to 4, but 5 dice rolls can be seen at the top of the screen because a "10" was rolled). Notice also that the "1" subtracted a success, because the "1: SUBTRCT" toggle was on.

Storyteller Dice Roller is live! Here's the link to the iTunes App Store:


Storyteller Dice Roller (SDR) is an elegant, streamlined app designed specifically to enhance the experience of Storyteller system tabletop role-playing games such as "Vampire: The Requiem" and "Exalted." With a single touch, SDR will roll up to 99 virtual ten-sided dice, count successes (i.e. how many are higher than a target number), compare the number of successes to a difficulty number, and tell you by how much you succeeded or failed ("Threshold"). Tens can be counted twice, once, or once-and-roll-again ("10 again") and switching between the three modes is a snap. If no successes are rolled, and one or more 1's are rolled, a "botch" is reported. 1's can either subtract from successes or not, depending on your preference. Storyteller Dice Roller is everything you need to stop fumbling with your dice and start enjoying the game.

Compared to other "dice pool" rollers available in the App store, SDR has the following advantages:

•Allows for tens to be counted once, twice, or once-plus-another-die-roll.
•Allows for 1's to subtract from successes, or not.
•All controls are on a single screen for fast access during gameplay.
•NO ADVERTISEMENTS. (...and there was much rejoicing!)
•Elegant interface with a unified look.
•Results displayed in large font that can be read by others at the table.
•Difficulty setting, and report of how much your roll exceeded or fell short.
•Shows raw dice rolls (for the first 20 or so dice) at the top of the screen.
•Dice rolling sound effect tailored to number of dice rolled.
•Audio feedback when sliders are adjusted.
•Mute button to turn sound on/off.

I welcome feedback and comments and would be happy to add new features if there is sufficient demand.

Happy gaming!

NOTE: Storyteller Dice Roller is not an official Storyteller system product and is not affiliated with White Wolf Publishing

Feel free to ask questions/make suggestions in the comments to this post.

Monday, December 06, 2010

What's a bigger commitment: having a child or marriage?

While driving around this early morning with my son, I heard a segment on NPR that made me scratch my head. It was about couples in their twenties who decide to raise a child together, but who do not get married because they feel marriage is too big a commitment at this stage in their lives:

Andrew Felices, 26, and Mellissa Giles, 27, are this new face of the American family. They've been living together since before their son, A.J., was born. He's 2 1/2 now, and he shrieks gleefully as he sprawls on the basement floor with dad, building a train track. The couple bought a cozy condo in Frederick, Md., last summer. A home, a child — but neither is in any rush to tie the knot.

"We're still young," Mellissa says. We're enjoying the time as it is."

I was rather puzzled by this. The implication is that having and raising a child together is less of a commitment than getting married. This is shocking to me. In my moral universe, the sacredness of the obligations one takes on when one decides to create and raise another human being together are much greater than those incurred when one gets married. And it seems to me that the breakup of an unmarried couple who are raising a child together would be much more fraught with difficulties and moral consequences than the divorce of a childless couple.

Now there may be a host of very good reasons why one has a child but does not marry the person one is having a child with. But "not ready to make that big a commitment" seems to me a very strange one. It's like someone who takes out a 30-year mortgage on an expensive house, but gets a month-to-month phone plan because they don't feel they're ready to "commit" to a two-year contract. I'm not sure that's the best analogy, but I think you can get the gist of my bafflement. Once you start raising a child, you can't divorce your child. And that person who you're raising the child with will always be the child's other parent. Do these unmarried parents think that they'll be able to just leave the family if things aren't working out? Yes, there are ways of severing the parent-child bond (adoption, abandonment, CPS taking your kid away). But they strike me a more drastic than divorce, not less.

Now I understand that children can happen unintentionally, whereas marriages (barring intoxication in Reno or shotgun-wielding in-laws) cannot. So one can "find oneself" in a parenting relationship in a way that one doesn't "find oneself" in a marriage (unless you're the narrator in the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime"). But that doesn't change the relative sacredness of the obligations incurred: that child is helpless and utterly dependent on you in a completely different way than your (hopefully) adult spouse.

And the people discussed in the NPR story weren't teenage dropouts who had no control over their lives; the implication of the story was that the decision to have kids but postpone marriage was a conscious one. And that implies it was made within some framework about the relative enormity of those two decisions.

Is my perspective skewed by the fact that I have a low-maintenance wife, but a special needs (i.e. high-maintenance) child? Are there people who really think that they're "ready" for parenthood but not "ready" for marriage? Or am I just a traditionalist because I think the expression:
(levelCommitment(parenthood)) > (levelCommitment(marriage))
evaluates to TRUE if your compiler's moral constants are set within ANSI specifications?

Feel free to comment and discuss. I worry that I may be sounding sanctimonious here. But I really do believe that parenthood should be embarked upon with more circumspection than marriage, not less. Again, there maybe very good reasons not to marry the other parent of your child. But I don't see how "It's too big a step for us right now" can be one of them, when you've already made the great leap.