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Elf M. Sternberg
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Elf M. Sternberg
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As I've said before, I'm a firm believer in the red state / blue state dichotomy when it comes to marriage. As eminently described by Jonathan Rauch, the dichotomy is simple:

Red State values are predicated on two assumptions: (1) sex almost always causes babies, and (2) by applying himself, a man can get ahead in this world. The red state response to this environment is to create an idea: Marriage creates adults; that is, since sex causes babies and young people want sex, get them married, get them making children, and get them into the pipeline of providing and raising, i.e. get them into work and motherhood, those ennobling roles for men and women.

Blue State values are predicated on a different set of assumptions: (1) sex doesn't have to create babies at all, and (2) no amount of get-r-done is enough if you don't have the years of education necessary to operate the machinery of a technologically advanced civilization. The response to this is adults create marriages: that is, the task of maturation is a societal and educational one, and once twenty-something have earned the material and social capital necessary to have a stable life, then they can go about having children, often in a multi-disciplinary, shared-responsibilities way.

Early family formation short-circuits this maturation process. Taking on the responsibilities for young children interferes with the education necessary, and consigns those who have young children to the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

My favorite take on this for a long time was Catholic writer Philip Primeau's hand-wringing article about how, yes, he had to admit, blue states not only hewed to their own values successfully, they hewed to red state's values of longer marriages, lower teenage birthrates, lower teenage STD infections, and lower rates of poverty among young adults more successfully than red states did! (Primeau goes on to claim that blue state success is predicated on the "unimaginable tragedy of abortion," but somehow fails to mention that most red states have rates similar to blue states.)

But Ross Douthat may have passed Primeau with his new article, The Imitation of Marriage. Ross admits that the pattern of shared responsibilities, egalitarian roles, longer romantic experimentation, and delayed families will become the norm. Blue state marriages "prepare [young adults] for knowledge work in ways that working class family life do not."

Douthat then whines that this wrecking of the social underpinnings of masculine identity, this creative destruction of the stern paterfamilias, has left a lot of men bereft, and they have reaped "relatively little reward" for doing so.

But what really takes the cake is this:
We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster.
Conspiracies are the refuge of the weak-minded.

I mean, seriously, what he's proposing here is, first, a kind of post-Marxian, post-modern "false consciousness," the classic accusation that secularists and liberals "steal" their moral underpinnings from conservative and Christian America, and that liberals know that if their stated values were to become the norm, America would fall apart. Secondly, he accuses upper-class liberals of, consciously or not, wrecking the lower classes by promulgating their attitudes toward sexuality without a clean and compelling explanation of why or how those attitudes work.

Douthat is edging dangerously close to saying "Democracy doesn't work." As conservative writer Irving Kristol once famously said,
There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.
Douthat is claiming that there are different truths about sex and the technocratic society, and the idea that "liberal" truths should also be true for the common masses is, to Ross, a dangerous experiment.

In fact, what's really failing is the way red states don't keep up; they attempt to mire kids in the red state pattern all the while admitting that there is a different way, a more vibrant way, an urban and liberal way. It's the red states, with their abstinence-only programs and their outright bans on easily accessible birth control, that continue to fail their young adults.

Still, it's nice to see Ross admit that the blue state ideal of marriage works, if only for some people. It'll be even better whet he finally admits that there is no alternative, that the red states have been poisoning their own wells of economic power, and that the blue states are doing all right all along.

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Current Music: Netsky, Eyes Closed

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It occurred to me the other day that some of the very best video games are about site-seeing. Publishing company ID has always been all about the action, but when it came to the Bioshock and Half Life franchises, sometimes the best time was spent just stopping and looking around. Whether walking through Rapture or Columbia or City Seventeen, it's nice to stop and think, "Someone made that. Someone drew that, thought it up, gave it a digital skin."

We don't walk into every building when we walk into a city. Video games are doing a very nice job of saying we don't have to. A lot of it is still weird and fake, especially things like interacting with normal citizens in "live" cities, but it's getting better. These might-have-been places deserve more attention, and I'd like there to be more video games that can sell themselves as both action/adventure pieces and as magnificent virtual museums for places that just aren't. Yet.

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Current Music: Deadmau5, There Might Be Coffee

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This weekend I had a project to write.  I have a huge archive of MP3s left over from the mid-90s through mid-00′s, and they’re a bit of a mess and moving them onto my iPod is always a pain in the neck because they might be inconsistently labeled or have proto-Unicode issues or whatever.  So I decided to write a little command line utility that would help me sanify my files.  Since I’m old-school and organize my songs by album and genre, my tool  would pick the most frequent album and genre names from the ID3 files, while taking in alternative sources for those if they weren’t complete, such as the name of the directory (which also would give artist, if not otherwise available).  It would take the song title from the filename if it weren’t available in ID3.


And I decided to write it in Hy.  Hy is a Lisp parser that produces Python AST, and since the Python VM accepts and executes raw AST, it’s possible to write performant Python using a completely Lisp-like syntax.  Having not written Lisp in many years, this sounded like fun.


You can find the entire source code at my elfsternberg/mp_suggest repository on Github.


I like the feel of this code.  It’s a series of let statements that gets the MP3s and then creates a new list of details (genre, album, artist, title, position), then searches through the command line options and details for genre and album names.  Each let statement creates a new object; it looks mostly like immutable code, although that fantasy is blown by my frequent use of ap-reduce.  Some of the objects created are anonymous functions containing closures, so they’re new functions with pre-created knowledge of things they care about, such as the legal commands and whether or not to override the ID3 title with a modified copy of the filename.


Overall, it doesn’t feel much like Python.  It doesn’t feel like Javascript, either.  It feels most like RistrettoReginald Braithwaite’s version of Coffeescript, chock full of functional declarations rather than procedures.  The threading macros and anaphoric macros are huge time-savers, and the organizational principles of Lisp’s parenthetical syntax gave me plenty of vertical room to work with, a luxury I don’t usually have with Python’s whitespace-delimited syntax.


I’m not sure I’ll ever write in Hy again.  I’m not sure I have a need to; I know I’d never be able to talk my employer into using Hy; they don’t even want to discuss preprocessors for web apps like Haml, Less, or Coffeescript.  I’d love to have something like this that I really enjoyed using for Javascript, but I haven’t found anything beyond Coffeescript that really has lispy expressiveness and pythonic power.  Still, if I were doing more Python at home, Hy is really the language I’d be doing it in.  Hy for Python, Clojure for Java, and Coffeescript for Javascript.  Because Clojurescript is still not good enough.

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There's a new Terminator movie coming out, Terminator: Genisys, and if the trailer is anything to go by, I'm actually eager to see it, because it actually succeeds at something that I didn't see in the last Terminator film, nor did I see in Aliens vs. Predator, nor did I have any glint of in the trailer for the next Jurassic Park film, Jurassic World. Andrew Swann successfully identified the critical element to any reboot or continuation of a long-lived and fraying franchise: nostalgia is a critically important special effect.

The last Terminator film, the latest Jurassic Park film, and the Star Wars "prequel trilogy" (the Anakin Skywalker series) all lacked that critical ingredient, and lacked a meaningful storyline the audience could latch onto. I have no idea if the latest Terminator film has the latter; it's hard to say from a trailer. But it will surely push its aging audience's buttons hard about important scenes in the original, hopefully morphed into something that has depth and impact in our CGI-enhanced world, and given new life by having the context in which those lines are delivered changed to serve a new and interesting plot.

This editor of this trailer surely understood the maxim: "Give the audience exactly what they know they want, only different." Jurassic World looks like its struggling with that. Let's hope the rest of Terminator: Genisys has it nailed.

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Current Music: The Terminator OST, The Terminator Theme

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Quentin Hardy is the "technology culture" writers for the New York Times. He graduated from Columbia with a degree in Journalism, which qualifies him to be a journalist, but not necessarily a mathematician. In a recent review of the new biopic about Alan Turing, Hardy makes a couple of interesting claims about how Hollywood depicts brilliant mathematicians as having a "cold relentlessness." He writes
We lesser mortals, we tell ourselves, feel more authentically, with something essential that they lack. In each of these movies, there is an emotional climax when the hero discovers the limitation of his analytic approach. He is saved, or ruined, in relation to his ability to learn how to feel... At some point in almost every math movie, the hero stares at formulas in the air, bewitched by a world the rest of us can’t see. Then he talks to regular people, and becomes an enchanted, but disconnected, visitor. ... The depiction of all these people, essentially diminishing inner lives almost certainly as rich as our own, signals our ambivalence toward living around computers.
He may be right about how Hollywood makes an emotional crisis the heart of such movies, and he may be right that Hollywood depicts these people as having "diminished inner lives" is essential to the shorthand of the mathematician.

I'm no amazing mathematician. I'm at best an okay programmer. A few years ago, for no reason other than curiousity, I started working my way through an understanding of the Church-Turing Theory, and there were times when, yes, I would stare into the air, enchanted by a world no one around me could see. It wasn't a new world; certainly, hundreds of developers before me, the ones who gave a damn about the theoretical basis of procedural computer science, had all seen similar visions, of how the universe actually works underneath all those layers, the basis of automata and complexity theory and all those wonders.

For the past year, I've been distracted by Category Theory, that terrifyingly new and clever layer on top of of Church-Turing that tells us about declarative computer science, that allows us to say exceptionally precise things about how we want our programs run, such that our tools can actually write much of the error-prone procedural stuff for us. My vocabulary is full of new words like morphism, endofunctor, and the terrifying monad. And all throughout the year, when I've hit on one of those inflection points where I can suddenly see how this thing has been put together, see how we can describe things to computers such that they do our bidding in new and powerful ways, see how the math becomes much more than just arithmetic... yes, I'll stare off into space, enchanted by a world I can't share with very many, disconnected for the time being from the ordinary world.

So, in some regard, Hollywood gets that right. We do see things that are different from ordinary people. We do spare off into space, enchanted by things most people will never see, have no interest in seeing. (For all the angry indifference fans have toward Iron Man 2, Downey's look when he's trying to solve the visualization problem his father left him is absolutely spot on.) And unlike any mystical variations on this theme, when we bring what we've seen back to Earth and apply it, the math works, and the world changes.

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Current Music: Carbon Based Lifeforms, Artificial Island

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The other day, I bumped into one of my old senseis from karate class. I apologized for not renewing my membership, but the elbow injury from the previous year had not resolved well and I wasn't going to go back into the class until I knew I was going to be able to keep hacking at the physical demands of the sport. I mean, I'm 48 years old, and karate is a young man's game.

"That's too bad," he said.

I shrugged and said it was little loss. I was progressing slowly compared to others, I often confused my left and right, and didn't feel like I was going to go far. "Nah," he said. "You would have done fine. You know how to move."

Which I think is very peculiar thing for someone to say. Because if there's one thing I'm painfully aware of, it's that I don't know how to move. I'm often very conscious of the way I walk, adjusting my gait and posture to achieve some efficiency of movement, some appearance of self-containment, some maintenance of the alignment of bones and muscles. I expressed this to him, and he said, "That's my point. Most people don't think twice about walking."

And then it was time to order our lunches and go our separate ways.

I've always thought of myself as ungainly. I bump into stuff a lot, mostly because I have a head full of something other than getting somewhere. But apparently, all of that is because I'm distracted. When I'm fully present, my gait is a deliberate and well-trained thing. I never knew.

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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 Music: Hans Zimmer, Tornado

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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.

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Current Music: Logistics, Somersaults

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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.

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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