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Elf M. Sternberg
This weekend Omaha hosted a Get Out The Vote event at our house. The people who showed up were mostly older than 40, many of them in retirement – as those are the people who usually have the time to campaign on behalf of the future. The GOtV practice of the day involved using a piece of web-based software to divvy up a district into different subsectors, the better to allocate doorbelling activities and other face-to-face forms of campaigning.

Since it was going to be practice with a web-based technology, everyone had to bring a laptop. One person brought a laptop that did not have wifi; another brought one with a crap battery and forgot her power supply.

We couldn't find the universal power supply, so Omaha ended up loaning our two tech-poorer folks a pair of tablets, which worked well enough for the purposes of the exercise. Some people did remember their power supplies, so we dug out a spare power block with six outlets.

Omaha told them the name of our network, then said, "Make sure you connect to the guest network. That'll let you get to the Internet." They were entirely stunned that we even had a guest network, much less that it could support ten people all using it at once. When we pointed out that the router is already supporting an average of four devices per person (desktop, laptop, phone, tablet), plus miscellaneous e-readers, console game systems, television receivers, and a few smart devices, the conclusion was that our house was very geeky.

I don't know. I don't think my house is particularly geeky; I compare it to people who are much nerdier than I am, who have their own in-house Active Directory subnets and X10 everywhere. I just have a standard cable connection and a (admittedly, top o' the line for two years ago) cable modem and router. Once you have one of those and it's fairly stable, everything else just works, most of the time.

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Last night I bought the second (or third) Blake Snyder book on plot and genre, Save The Cat Strikes Back, and in chapter one, while he's describing his "one line" plot descriptions, we come across this gem:

On the verge of returning to Earth after another routine mission, a rules-obsessed warrant officer lets an unknown alien species onto the ship; but when the creature kills one member of the crew and begins to grow in power, she must do what is right rather than what she's been told or else all on board will meet the same deadly fate. (Alien)
I read that and was flabbergasted: Dude, did you even watch the movie?

It isn't Ripley who lets the alien into the ship. Ash lets the alien into the ship. The whole idea of the "rules-obsessed officer" breaking quarantine is anathema to an essential tension within the plot. The entire point of the film is that Ripley was right to begin with. Ripley foreshadows the doom that comes to the Nostromo. Her words have weight. That's why she survives. That was a standard trope at the time, the girl who adheres to the rules is the survivor, and Ripley always followed the rules, down to her last log entry.

The best thing James Cameron ever did with Ripley's character in the sequel is make her a risk-taking rule-breaker. Because the moral values conflict between "saving Kane when you have everything to lose" and "saving Newt when you have nothing else to lose" is incredibly powerful and valuable and instructive, and this facile plot description completely takes away that sharpness of that contrast.

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Futurism is always a difficult subject. In 2015, I think it's time to go back to 2001 and review the British Telecomm Technology Timeline, published in December of 2001, although nominally started significantly before then, and so no yet fully aware of just how much 9/11 and other events would curtail some developments yet accelerate others.

The *Timeline* is broken up into sections, and is meant to show how the advance of technology would strike the energy sector, or entertaiment, or education, or telecommunication. Some of the sections are tech-specific, such as "how will CPU/memory/networking advance?"

The first thing to see is that the *Timeline* is heavily wired. The impact of things like 4G and LTE were still a few years out. The iPhone would not be released until 2007. The societal impact of having on always-on, readily available two-way multi-mode communications device with a programmable presentation layer (apps, Javascript in the browser, phonegap, notifications) is completely missed in this document.

This blindspot extends to things like the spread the Internet. By 2015, "75% of the civilized world will have Internet access." In reality, there are very few places left in the world that don't have Internet access.

The speed of AI was completely wrong. By now, 25% of our celebrities were supposed to be completely synthentic, with both voice and appearance being managed by a team of animators. Machines were supposed to be so advanced as to "need lesiure time" themselves. Pets did get chipped, but we don't use satellites to track them. "Smart" Barbie is ten years ovedue. And I'm still writing software rather than training AIs how to extrude it. AIs should already be getting PhDs, and brain implants will eliminate all need for formal education in two years.

The health section is equally silly. I still can't send an orgasm by email! We don't yet have an Orgasmatron! We haven't successfully replaced lungs and kidneys, but we're getting there with the liver. Remote surgeries are a thing, and the digital tagging of all patients in hospital is just now getting underway. BT says that apps for your brain are still 15 years out.

Sadly, the notion that police forces would be completely privatized has borne out.

I don't think we'll ever actually need space-based solar collection systems. We're going to do just fine with ground-based systems.

Japan hasn't started building its deep, underground mega-city "hives." They need to get on that.

BT thought too much that people were anxious about biology and would prefer an artificial existence: artificial pets, artificial plants, and entire ecosystem that has replaced our biologicial siblings with extruded duplicates looked preferable to the *Timeline*. The same detail covers the robotics section; robot guides for the blind, robot pets, robot gardeners were all supposed to be commonplace among the middle class by now.

Holodeck meeting rooms, 3D TVs without glasses, most towns having a "ghost copy" of themselves in "cyberspace" (because, of course, we want to double the amount of attention we spend on our home towns), video surveillance of neighbors becomes a social problem. The amount of solid state storage space in your computer was supposed to be 100GB by now; I have 750GB in this machine.

On the other hand, biosensors tracking your health minute by minute are only two years out. If Apple or Samsung figure out the oxygen and glucose monitoring in their watches, we'll be there. Google glasses was supposed to have happened in 2004.

The policing and war section is so naive. ID cards won't ever be replaced by biomonitoring; the purpose of ID cards is to remind the bearer of his or her responsibilities. But biomonitoring is in wide use to track you anyway. Drones are commonplace, so they got that right. The cracking of public key cryptography "within seconds" was supposed to have happened in 2006.

We haven't gone to Mars, we aren't colonizing the Moon, we haven't launched a 100M mirror telescope, we aren't about to produce, store, and use antimatter. Sad. We're five years behind automatic cars, "road trains" never became a thing except in Australia, and all the "assisted driving" features are way, way overdue. Things like ride sharing and the way the automation of driving leads to reduced car ownership don't begin to factor in here.

Under wildcards, there are some fun ones: There *is* a (small) third-world exodus that some claim is threatening global stability. The stock market *could* crash at any moment. We *do* have people hijacking computers for ransom, although it's a much smaller criminal issue than BT thought it would be.

All in all, the *Timeline* is a look at the hopes and fears of people in the year 2000. It's predicitions are often hilariously SF-informed, or poorly considered in light of other predictions in the document. It's a good attempt at science fiction, but that's about it.
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People seem genuinely perplexed by this report about how forcing a more capitalist consumption pattern to health care has led to sick people getting even more sick while consuming even less health care.

The scenario is one of low deductibles vs. high deductibles. Economists expected the patients with high deductibles to seek out competitive medical providers on the assumption that they would want to save money. The punchline to the study is that both groups actually had the same out-of-pocket expenses, since the high-deductibles group were being compensated with an employer-sponsored health savings account.

I don't see why this is a surprise. People are genuinely aware of how much "money" they have, even when it's in an HSA and isn't really "theirs" in a long-term sense, and are reluctant to spend it if they don't have to. This reluctance can even change the definition of "have to" upward.

But more importantly, nobody buys health care the way one shops for other things. Most people have an innate sense of what their weekly food budget looks like. They know the rhythms of income and expenditure on a monthly basis for rent and gas. They learn what it means at an annual pace to pay taxes, refresh their wardrobes, fix up their cars.

But one thing we know is that as we get older, we get sicker. And we have *no experience* to guide us. We can look at other people's numbers all day, but we have no innate feel for the problem ourselves. So we hoard money "just in case this is the year it all falls apart." This is the year cancer raises its fatal head, or a mangling car accident happens in the last fiscal week, or whatever.

This is why I'm for a single-payer system. It keeps people healthy.

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Current Music: Alex Theory, Southeast

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Omaha, Kouryou-chan and I all went out to the 5th Avenue Theater to watch Waterfall, a play about the way Thailand and Japan interacted before and after World War II, all told through the lens of an ambitious young Thai named Noppon who joins the Thai civil service before the war and travels with the Thai ambassador to Japan. The ambassador has a beautiful, much younger, and American wife; their relationship is one of distinct differences in age and culture, and Noppon is just the man to come into that tension and make things horribly worse. Noppon loves all things American and is instantly attracted to this woman, and his actions drive a deep wedge between a husband and wife who desperately love each other but don't know how to communicate and connect.

Waterfall debuted in Los Angeles but was reworked heavily for the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle. The 5th Avenue script is also the script for the Broadway-announced version now currently doing its casting call. If this is the script, well, I don't have high hopes for it.

The acting at the 5th Avenue was amazing, and the set production is visually lush and gorgeous. With one exception, the play uses only a few pieces of furniture amongst a shifting array of screens onto which settings are projected; it's this projection technology that steals a lot of the show, as it's beautiful and convincing and almost makes you want to suspend your disbelief.

This story is handed to the audience as a trumph of one man finding his way in the world and awakening to the possibilities of love and maturity, while suffering heartbreaks along the way. The various songs that are critical of America's cultural and political influence in Japan and Thailand before and after WW2 would have been heavy-handed and possibly seditious in the 1950s, but now they seem trite and obvious to the lefty-leaning audiences in LA, Seattle and New York who will see this play. The brilliant sets and costuming allow the producers to play with racist stereotypes and put the "exoticism of the East" up for display while at the same time dissing anyone who "appropriates with the eye" these same displays.

It doesn't succeed. Overall, it's the character of Noppon who annoys me more than anything else. Played with good cheer by Thai pop (would that be T-pop?) star Bie Sukrit, an actor for whom English is a second language depicting a character for whom English is a second language, Noppon comes across as highly motivated but not terribly bright. His choices are driven by poor principles and the expectation that, as a man, he can get away with those poor choices while the women around him suffer in either silence or ignorance. He betrays his boss, lies by omission to his lover, both of whom die at theatrically convenient moments, and walks into a heroic middle age unselfconscious of the pain left in his wake.

I wanted to like Waterfall. I was dazzled by the production values. But a good play must have a central, guiding theme from beginning to end. If Waterfall has one, it's once we no longer find admirable.

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Current Mood: pensive pensive
Current Music: Phil Collins, In The Air Tonight

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The challenge of the day is to write The First Thing You Saw On The Internet, in which Lauren Modery writes about falling deeply in love with X-Files Fanfic. To be fair to her readers, Lauren points out that X-Files fanfic wasn't really the first thing she saw; the first thing she saw was Alta Vista's home page, but things get awkward and sticky from there, in a very good way.

The first thing I saw on the Internet wasn't fanfic, and it wasn't X-Files. It was 1991, and I went specifically looking for erotica. The first thing I found was, Cthulhu consume me first, a Brady Bunch sex story. It wasn't even fanfic. It was a nasty piece of work, but what made it all the worse was that I'd been a literary erotica reader for years already when the Internet became available to me. I'd read The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, and The Happy Hooker, and just about everything else I could get my hands on; I'd even started to find the racier romance, like Bertrice Small and Catherine Coulter (at least, before she went mainstream). And this awful piece of trash, this A Very Brady Sex Story, was so horribly written, with so many grammatical and spelling errors, that I couldn't even enjoy it.

Part of that may have been because I wasn't at all familiar with The Brady Bunch as a series, and had no idea why it may have been funny that Marsha was being banged by the family dog.

I was actually so upset by the tragic quality of the story that I chose to write my own. The rest is pretty much history.

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I've just finished the add-on adventure, Scorchers, for Id Software's game Rage, and I'm even more deeply annoyed by the unnecessary sexism in the add-on that Id somehow avoided in the original adventure.

It isn't just that Sarah is poorly dressed for combat. It's that she knows it. It's that she comments on it: "Well, it's not much for a firefight, but maybe it'll distract the bad guys a little." Immediately after this, Sarah is kidnapped by members of the Scorcher bandit clan.

As with any such game, it's a stupid firefight from then on. Kill the bad guys in one room, move on; kill the bad guys in the next room, move on. A silly puzzle, a boss battle. It's not much of a game, really. Eventually, you defeat the baddest boss and rescue Sarah, who takes you to...

The Trophy Room. I'm not kidding. Your "headquarters" is the town of Wellspring. Some of the doors there were locked, and now two have been opened with this additional content: the casino where this adventure began, and "The Trophy Room," a little place where all the various bits and pieces of memorabilia you've picked up along the way are collected in niches and bookshelves.

Including Sarah. Who delivers lines like, "Hey, come back and see me anytime." She's always in the Trophy Room. Later, when you revisit, she's lying on the bed and delivers lines like "When are you going to show me your BFG?"

Good grief. It's like the writers of the DLC said to themselves, "Hey, we somehow forgot to be sexist goddamn pigs in the original, let's make up for it! You know what this game needs? A woman the main character can claim as his own!"

I can't claim this is the most horrible example in all of video games. This is no God of War. But Id was doing so well up to this point, and there was no reason at all to sex it up now.

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I won’t reveal where or when I got this question, but it always amused me.  At the time, I answered it using Underscore and Coffeescript, which the interviewers allowed I was going to have access to… but here’s a pure ES6 solution.

The problem, simply stated, was “write a function that sums two polynomial equations and prints the results.”  They defined the format for the input this way:

// 5x^4 + 4x^2 + 7 
// 3x^2 + 9x - 7
var e1 = [{x: 4, c: 5}, {x: 2, c: 4}, {x: 0, c: 7}];
var e2 = [{x: 2, c: 3}, {x: 1, c: 9}, {x: 0, c: -7}];

They were kind enough to let me code on my keyboard.  My answer is rather dramatic.

// Reduce any list of equations into an array of maps of exponent:coefficient
var eqns = [e1, e2].map((a) => a.reduce((m, t) => { m[t.x] = t.c; return m; }, new Object(null)));

// Find the largest exponent among all the equations
var maxe = Math.max.apply(null, eqns.map((a) => Math.max.apply(null, Object.keys(a))));

// For the range (maxe ... 0), for all equations, sum all the coefficients of that exponent, 
// filter out the zeros, sort highest to lowest, create string representations, and print.
        Array.from(new Array(maxe + 1), (x,i) => i)
        .map((exp) => [exp, eqns.reduce(((memo, eqn) => memo + (eqn.hasOwnProperty(exp) ? eqn[exp] : 0)), 0)])
        .filter((e) => e[1] != 0)
        .sort((e) => e[0])
        .map((e) => e[1] + (e[0] > 1 ? 'x^' + e[0] : (e[0] == 1 ? 'x' : '')))
        .join(' + '));

The interviewer just stared at it, and stared at it, and said, “I’ve never seen anyone solve that in three lines.  Or that fast.”

I shrugged.  “It’s a straightforward map/reduce of the relationship between exponents and coefficients, removing any factors that had a coefficient of zero.  This seemed the least buggy way to do it.  The riskiest part of this equation is the mapping back to string representation.  The nice feature of this function is that if we generalize the first line over an arguments array, it works for any number of equations, not just two.”

He agreed.  They ultimately didn’t hire me.  I had a friend there, and he said, “They really liked you, but it was pretty clear you were already bored where you were and moving from one infrastructure job to another wasn’t going to change that.”  Sad but true.


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I've spoken often of my love for *Illuminatus!*, the book that I discovered at 13 that made me realize life was worth living, if only because life was ridiculous and therefore not too worthy of angsting over. One of the best lessons from that book is Korzybski's "The Map Is Not The Territory." Robert Anton Wilson (pbuh) taught us all just how true that was with examples that, while silly, were also so plausible that they couldn't help but illuminate.

It's also possible to confuse the *mapper* with the territory. In many styles of meditation, what we seek is to understand how we shape the world, how the world shapes us, and to pick and choose from the many possible shifting shapes we may adopt to better fit the world around us. When we succumb to fatalism, when we insist there's no changing "fate's design," we are confusing the territory with ourselves.

Meditation taxonomy calls this "experiential fusion." The purpose of many meditations, some explicitly but almost all of them implicitly, is to separate the map-*maker* from the territory, to make us aware that we are not mere subjects of nature but agents in our own right, agents within our own skin, able to pre-decide how we'll react to stresses and disasters.

It is also okay to allow this fusion at times. Watching a movie or reading a book, it's acceptable to let this fusion happen, to become one with the storytelling, to feel it deeply. We've developed incredible cognitive vocabularies for maintaining a sense of self and other while deeply identifying with others, and learning this is part of the basis of compassion-based meditations. Strengthening that reflex, however, in a conscious and vital way, is as important as strengthening one's muscles and bones for the long haul that is life.

When we separate who we are from the world enough to make choices, then we start to exercise the only real form of free will we actually possess.

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I really have to get back into meditation. It's been too long, and while I've been able to keep up the workout and yoga, meditation has fallen by the wayside. Which is a pity because I've recently read a fascinating meta-study on the kinds of meditation. It seems there are five kinds of meditation, and when I remember to practice them, I've only been practicing two of them.

There is attentional meditation, in which the attention is brought back to a single point. Open-monitoring attentional meditation is Zazen, the most common of Zen practices, and involves not concentrating on any single thing, but maintaining a specific state of mind, a state in which awareness of metacognitive states is paramount, and maintaining that state is the point of the practice. And it is practice, and it takes effort.

On the other hand, there's cultivation of attention, which is expanding one's power to concentrate on a single subject with power. In the Greek and Roman traditions, this is pneuma, and is the practice most recommended by the Stoics. It's a difficult practice, and it involves expanding one's power to accomplish one's goals without invoking burnout.

These attentional meditations exist to strengthen your own self-awareness, and to help you regulate your reactions to events. It's not meant to suppress emotions, but instead to help you cultivate the best emotions, the most joyous emotions.

Stoicism also has a values meditation, called the premeditatio malorum, in which you think about how you will react if something horrible happens-- the house burns down, a family member dies, you lose a limb, or worse. The idea is to both concentrate the mind on enjoying what you have now, and telling others how much you appreciate them, and planning in the theater of the mind for how to react most effectively to disaster, such that you can regain equilibrium quickly.

Theravadan loving-kindness meditation (the kind practiced by the Dalai Lama) is surprisingly enough in the same family of values meditations. These are considered constructive meditations, in that your role is to contemplate how you fit into the world, and how best to help those around you. Both have the same basic premise, though: "You were not put on this Earth to procrastinate."

The last is deconstructive. The purpose of this, which often happens as a side-effect of attentional meditations as well, is to help you understand how your own mind works. Dzogchen's been getting a lot of attention recently, and it's main purpose is to emphasize the Buddhist insight that there is no "I" in each of us, no little man inside our head who is "me" in a concrete, atomic sense; you are a mass of impulses, emotions, moods, biochemistries, and sensations, all vaguely moving in the same direction.

There's a lot more to say about this paper. But I'll leave it at this for now.

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