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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Name: Elf M. Sternberg
Back November 2014
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Elf M. Sternberg
So, I'm at this café, waiting for my next meeting, and this guy next to me is hacking away at something on his IDE. It takes me a moment to realize I'm looking at something very familiar, and then I tap on his laptop. "What are you running there?" I asked.

"Oh, it's, uh, it's something called Flask."

"No, what OS?"

"Oh. It's Linux Mint."

I turned my laptop toward him. "Mint 15, MATÉ edition," I said. "Emacs and Coffeescript."

He grinned. "Cool. Cinnamon and Emacs. Don't see that much in the open, do you?" he said.

"Flask, huh? I thought I saw something that looked like Django."

"I was working on Django earlier."

We nodded to each other, secret handshake completed. Bros. We went back to hacking.

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Current Mood: amused amused
Current Music: Hans Zimmer, Tornado

The other day I was at a restaurant with a friend of mine for whom specific communication styles is a subject of intense interest. At one point in our conversation the waitress came by and asked if everything was okay. I told her, "You took my knife when you took the salad plate away..." and the waitress shot off before I could finish with, "... could you please bring me another one?"

One of my kids had a fascinating class last year, the FLASH (Family Life And Sexual Health) program offered by King County, and incorporated into not a few schools. Needless to say, my kid aced the class; that's sorta unavoidable given who her parents are. But one of the best things they had in the class was a series of lessons entitled The Consensual Communication Style.

The CCS is basically described as a way of setting the ground for a conversation about getting what you want. It basically consists of a two-sentence mechanism: (1) express a fact or an emotion, and (2) request a change. Of the eight examples, only one was positive: "I like when you hold my hand. Can we hold hands more often in public?" All the rest were negatives: "It makes me uncomfortable when you put your arm around me like that. Can you not do that?" But the basic premise of the material, that you silently formulate a set of possible outcomes, set the ground for a conversation, ask for the best possible outcome and, if rejected, ask for the remaining outcomes, is probably one of the better ways of teaching people how to negotiate for their needs. It's weird to see what the kink community has been teaching its members for the past twenty years starting to show up in other places and with such parallels.

I was oddly jarred to discover that this communication style I'd been practicing was suddenly dysfunctional. It seemed to work pretty much everywhere else. But a service professional is there to anticipate your needs and respond to them even before you get to the "being polite" part of the conversation.

Current Mood: amused amused
Current Music: Logistics, Somersaults


I was hanging out with a friend last night and she said, “I think Facebook is designed to distract you. You go in looking for one thing, but oh, hey, there’s this other thing, and what’s Aunt Marsha up to? Eventually you find yourself spending hours on it.”

What she’s describing is the Gruen Transfer, “the moment someone experiences after entering a shopping mall when, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, lose track of their original intentions.” You enter saying “I came to buy a coat” and leave “Ooh, shoes! Cameras! Necklaces! Smoothies!” that much poorer.  Modern mall architects deliberately go for this effect; their objective is to keep you inside the mall as long as possible, in order to increase retailer’s opportunities to sell to you.

Facebook appears to have hit a Gruen Transfer state completely by A/B testing, which if you think about it, is exactly what A/B testing of ad-driven sites is intended to do: keep your eyeballs in front of the advertiser’s windows for as long as possible. Facebook has just had more time, more money, and more talent to throw at the issue than anyone else.  The objective remains the same: to distract you from your objectives, to encourage an increase in sales.  Your pleasures and interests don’t enter into it.

This may be why Twitter is “experimenting” with their newsfeed.  A/B testing shows them that they could keep your eyeballs on their interests for much longer; the only question remains how corrupt they want to deviate from their original mission.

The most charitable description I can come up with for GamerGate is this:
Over the past several years, games depicting and providing agency and narrative to feminist, queer, minority or disabled characters and players have become much more prevalent in the marketplace. Game review magazines, sensing a new source of attention and income, namely, the women, queers, minorities, and disabled who have been buying games all along, have actively sought out such games in order to review them. Given that reviewers have limited time and money to purchase, play and review games, this rise in the review of such "marginal" gaming must come at the expense of traditional AAA titles. This results in a distortion of the marketplace that some fear will result in the cancellation or scaling back of the expensive blockbuster games that they know and love. Since expensive blockbuster games are perceived as providing the bulk of the funding supporting the pomp and circumstance of events like PAX or E3, the cultural artifacts of traditional gaming are threatened.
Unfortunately, we're not going to have a discussion about whether or not the rise in video game marketing featuring or about someone who is brown, female, gay or disabled actually represents a threat to the gaming industry. I don't think it does, but it would have been a lovely conversation to have.

Current Music: Man of Steel OST, Han's Sketchbook

I can even.

Today, Andrew Sullivan posted a letter from a reader in which a self-described "nerd" discussed his inner misanthrope in a weird cry du croeur about how "being a nerd was not supposed to be a good thing." The letter comes across as deeply angry; angry that the word "nerd" is now not just a topic of popular culture, but has been embraced, extended and, to some degree, extinguished. The complaints he makes are just odd; the deeply weird and wonderful experimental comics of the 70s and 80s are still around. So are surreal video games. So are role-playing games. You don't have to play TSR's latest "It's like Warcraft, but with real human beings"; there's always Pathfinder.

But more than that, I remember being deeply nerdy and yet I never felt that the original creators owed me anything; I always recognized when I might be intruding on someone else's turf. I also remember being excluded, but never exclusionary; my AD&D games were welcome to everyone who knew how to shower and play nice, and if the gender balance wasn't 1:1 it was closer to that than it was to zero. We wanted like-minded people to be there with us, for us; we enjoyed each other's company and affirmed each other's humanity.

Sullivan's writer just can't have the word "nerd." It belongs to me, too. It belongs to everyone, male or female, who deeply loved something so much they wanted every last little detail of it embedded in their brain, so they could turn it over time and again, analyzing every facet of it until it had become a part of them.

The furor only points out that there's a community of men (yes, sadly, it's still almost entirely of men) that doesn't need validation. It needs therapy.

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Current Music: Christopher Beck, Oaken's Sauna


Programmer Zef Hemel recently made a confession, aptly titled I Hate Puzzles. In it, he confesses to a deep loathing for the recruitment come-ons that read “Do you love puzzles?” and even more for recruitment ads that are puzzles. He says, eventually, that he and his wife agreed they don’t understand why people do puzzles. “Sure, if you don’t have anything else to do. We had plenty more useful stuff to do.”

And while I enjoy video games, and especially enjoyed the puzzles within the Portal series, in general I avoid the kind of puzzles found on the average bookshelf or in the average game store window display. Not just jigsaw puzzles, but sudoku, crosswords, the whole gamut of paper-and-pencil puzzling that seems to take up some people’s entire commutes.

Zef then says that he doesn’t care much about algorithms. Algorithms aren’t at the heart of programming: design is. Coming up with a syntax, a domain specific language, an API, that reduces the friction between what another developer wants to acheive and the computer’s capability to achieve, are at the heart of almost all that he does.

And he’s absolutely right.

If I want a word puzzle that’ll increase my vocabulary, I’ll write a fucking novel with my thesaurus and my mind open. I’ll delight in solving the puzzle (yes!) of making sure the characters are three-dimensional, the plot is consistent, the foreshadowing is appropriate, the guns on the mantlepieces have all been fired or elided or revealed to be red herrings. I will hope to make someone else’s day sexier, happier, thoughtful, and delightful.

If I want a brain-teaser, I’ll spend my days trying to understand monads, write tools that let users write tests to a database more efficiently, or (my current unreleased project) write my own goddamn programming language. I will solve not just a puzzle, but a problem. I will hope to make someone else’s day easier, more interesting, and more effective.

I won’t write experimental novels, messing with the structure to produce quasi-lyrical novel-like works, although I admire writers who try that. I don’t have to create new algorithms for my programming language; transducers, scope, homoiconicity, Hindley-Milner, pattern-based dispatch and automatic currying are solved problems; I just want to put those puzzling pieces together in my own idiosyncratic way and hope to learn something about how programming languages work as I do, to make myself a better programmer and to give myself tools for the project after that.

I am a novelist who doesn’t do crosswords. I am a programmer who doesn’t enjoy sudoku. And I don’t do those things because I have much more interesting things to do with my grey matter.

New things.

In the very first Transformers movie, Steven Spielberg kept Michael Bay on a very short leash. The result was a film that, while still full of Bayhem, was at least coherent. In the second film, all the jokes that Bay wasn't allowed on the first came to full fore: robot fart jokes, robot scrotum jokes, an incoherent plotline that involved going to the ends of the Earth, and truly stupid villains. Stung by the poor reviews, the third film was better: Bay kept it reined in and delivered a workmanlike product.

One of the most brutal criticism of the second film involved its visual incoherence in the small. Battles became nothing more than scrambles of chrome and color on the screen, making little sense to the viewer. In the third film, Bay figured out a visual vocabulary for fight scenes that let the viewer understand who was punching whom, and why. It involved a lot of ramping, which Bay was already famous for, but it also involved a lot of heavy artistry about color choices, camera position, contrasting designs, and the like. It was actually impressive, from an animators' point of view, to watch the third film and see how Bayhem and CGI intermingled into a coherent scene. (Again: in the small. Overall, the plot made zero sense.)

Between the third and fourth film, Zack Snyder filmed Man of Steel, which got amazing reviews for its cinematography. And I have to agree with those reviews: as grim and depressing as the script was, the cinematography was kinda amazing: the viewer never lost track of what was happening, even though Snyder never ramped: everything was in real-time and Snyder's genius was in somehow keeping the viewer both informed and, frankly, a little terrified of being a mere human at the mercy of such extraordinary alien forces.

Bay seems to have taken exactly the wrong messages to heart in Transformers: Age of Extinction. He still does a lot of slow-mo, but his battle scene coherence is gone. Set-pieces of battles are edited together and intermingled in ways that either don't make sense or, worse, deprive the viewer of exactly what he came to see. In the first fight scene between Optimus and Megatron (it's no spoiler to say there is one!) they're both trucks (don't ask) hurtling toward each other at full speed. The viewer, informed by the last three movies and all the cartoons and every other movie of its kind, knows what happens next: Optimus and Megatron transform at the last moment, leaping upon each other in a sparks-flying, ear-shattering clash.

Except... they don't. At that very moment you expect the transformation to begin, the camera cuts away to the humans trapped in a car near the battle. Mark Wahlberg and the two teenagers trapped with him are screaming about getting out of the car, getting into the car, something. You hear the clash in the distance. The next cut is a helicopter shot of them running away while at the top of the screen you see Optimus and Megatron slugging it out.

This happens again and again. The huge clashes, the big sparks, are tossed aside in order to close in on Wahlberg and whoever is with him, to show how much danger they're in being involved with these enormous robot things. It's not an accident. It's Bay's new thing.

The Transformers movies are porn films. A tissue of a plot unites a series of battle scenes. Nobody interrupts a porn film to turn the camera on the cat licking itself. Nobody ever went to the first three films to watch Shia La Beouf, and nobody's going to the rest to watch Marky Mark. Transformers 4 marks a failure in the franchise, and I hope whoever takes over for the next one (and yes, there will be a fifth, since it's made over $1bn on $210mn production costs) learns from Bay's mistakes and gives the audience what it wants: hot robot-on-robot action.

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Current Mood: annoyed annoyed

The atheist community has been passing around Pastor Alin's sad little The Misery of Atheism: Who Does an Atheist Thank? blogpost and answering him.

When I first read it, what struck me is this bit:
God has been very gracious to me. I have a wife, I have a house, I have food and a computer, I have a bed and clean water. And when I think on these things I am thankful.
It reminds me of the always-relevant, always-trenchant point made about folks who survive disaster ending their stories with "Thank God." Other, fellow human beings didn't survive. The message that always came across to me was "Thank you, God, for sparing me, unlike those other people." Why didn't God save them? What did they do wrong? Surely not all the sinners were killed, and all the saints preserved, after that plane crash or tornado or tsunami. Pastor Alin is thankful to God for giving him those things, but seems utterly unable to consider what North Koreans, or Somalis, or Guineas suffering with Ebola, should be thankful for.

I'm very thankful, to other human beings. I'm thankful to my wife of 25 years for her love and affection, and for putting up with me. I'm thankful to my employer for seeing my contributions and helping me make them valuable. I'm thankful to my friends for their sometimes fascinating, sometimes vexing contributions to making my life interesting. This week, I'm thankful to my older daughter for making her younger sister's transition to high school so easy and successful. I'm thankful to the younger kid for toughing out that difficult transition. I'm thankful to my parents for giving me a ton of educational opportunities they didn't really understand or appreciate at the time, but which gave me the tools to make it in the 21st century.

That last one has an asterisk beside it. Because my well-being today was contingent upon theirs. And theirs upon their grandparents. And theirs upon a whole host of events, some serendipity, some atrocity, that add up to comfort and wealth and privilege. I'm distressed that we have yet to address our inequality, and ashamed that Pastor Alin shows no interest in the essential humanity of those who aren't with him.

When it comes to privilge, contingency, and humanity, poor Pastor Alin is blind. Motes, beams, eyes and all that. Also: whales. Pastor Alin, like Jonah, would never have gone to Nineveh; he's content to stay in his comfortable home, put distance between himself and suffering, only to rant from afar about the wickedness he sees.

Let us be thankful to Pastor Alin, for being a bad example.

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Current Mood: amused amused

So, falling under the heading of no surprise whatsoever, I've been reading a metric ton of Frozen fanfic, more specifically Elsanna. While I do love fanfic, Sturgeon's Law applies, plus I have my own pecadillos, starting with the simple fact that, given who and what the characters are, I'm not going to read anything IU ("In-Universe").

A lot of the short stories (those of 2000 words or less) are simply pointless; the writers don't know how to pack in the details the way a short story demands. That said, I readily deleted "Cacophony," "Empty Halls," "Something Crazy," and "Closeted" as unreadable. "The Takeover," like "Sorority Sisters," is simply too fast and ridiculous to be believable; the characters fall into trust (much less love) simply because they have to for the sake of the plot, and never question their reaction to one another, so I never finished them.

That said, there are some worth mentioning, not because they're good romances, but because they're among the most compelling illustrations of mental illness I've seen yet. You Are and Elsa is Suffering both show the progression I've noted before; a few chapters of crud, followed by the author hitting his or her stride, followed by a tragically compelling mess of a story. Those two are like having a crazy lover you can't stop seeing; for all the drama and emotional toil, the high points are just amazing.

If you want the best Elsanna story (and you probably don't), Anna Summers, Personal Assistant is probably your best bet. In what has to be the most giggle-inducing scene ever written, Anna discusses safer sex and the author absolutely nails her voice. Hilarity ensues.

Fanfic is a supergenre, and the AU settings necessitated by my restrictive choices enforce all sorts of genre categories that drift far from the original material. (I have yet to see an SFnal Elsanna story. I may have to change that myself.) But if you like to read, fanfic is a way to keep those characters moving forward when no one else will give you more of what you want.

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Current Mood: amused amused

This isn't so much a "bad mood" as a serious squick. This afternoon, after getting off the local light rail, I was climbing the steps up to the parking lot and I bumped into a woman. "Excuse me," I said. I had been reading a book and not paying attention.

"Excuse your fucking ass," she slurred back at me. I heard a rattling, like a marble in a can. As I raised my eyes I saw a large paper bag in her hand with gold tracery around the opening. Then I looked into her face. Random splatters of gold traced around her mouth and up her right cheek.

Jesus. I quickly climbed the stairs faster.

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Current Mood: distressed distressed