Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ching chang wing wong

From the time I realized that, "Ching chang, wing wong," was not exactly authentic Chinese, I wondered what noises children in other lands used to make fun of the noises we USians used to impart meaning to one another.


This song was written in 1972, by the Italian singer Adriano Celentano, and is supposed to sound like English. The thing is, it does! Now I wonder if I recorded my hit single Ching Chong Wing Wong, and released it in China, would I get a bunch of letters saying (after a trip through Babel Fish) "Great song! But in the end what you say? I do not understand!"*

The answer is no, no I would not.

(Via BoingBoing)

*(Lame, normally double Babeling gives much more amusing results.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

That's Racist!

It continues to amaze and depress me how terrible thoughts and opinions seem to be so deeply rooted in our culture.
Even if there were studies that showed children of a homosexual marriage were worse off than other children (which there are not), this would be an inappropriate metric to determine whether or not that couple should be granted the legal rights of marriage, but only, perhaps, a consideration in adoption.
As for children from previous marriages, we do not remove children from poor households or from single parents, where they are demonstrated to perform more poorly, emotionally and mentally. So why should that affect our decision to allow two men or two women to derive the civil benefits of a certain legal status?

The fetishistic power of simple words in the hands of idiots also depresses me:
It is very simple, either "marriage' is a legal status, and thus we are obligated by morality, ethics, the law and our constitution to extend it equally to all people of our nation; or it is not a legal status, has no civil benefits, and is purely a religious status, which any given church may choose or not choose to bestow based on their criteria (race, creed, sex, age, orientation, etc).

Monday, June 29, 2009


The spirit is willing but the will is decidedly unspirited. One of these days I'll be a real blogger, blaging on the blagosphere from my dirigible.
Until then, this!

Earlier today I saw a fascinating video about the human blind-spot:

God is such an awesome designer, he decided to have our optical nerves bore up through the base layer of the retina, then splay out it's layer of nervous tissue, and grow the optical receptor cells pointing downward, meaning they catch light after it's already bounced off of the back wall of the eye ball.
Now, evilutionists may point out that there's an entirely logical progression to this structure along well studied evolutionary pathways; that these even expose some of the reasons for it to sport the structure it has today; and that only an incompetent would actually design an eye from the ground up to work like that for humans; but, um....

Okay, okay, I'll stop taking the easy potshots at creationists now, and return to the original tangent.

(After this one: when it becomes possible to have my selfness extracted from its current meat matrix and installed in a body of my design, would you all still be my friends if I had a smooth visor where my eyes, forehead, and temples are now, concealing some sort of multiple aperture or plenoptic lightfeild camera? That or maybe just gave myself mantis shrimp eyes.)

So because the nerve has to punch all the way through the retina before spreading its tendrils, there are no optical receptors in that small spot.
You'd think you'd notice when, however small, there's a pair of circles of your field of vision to which you are truly, literally blind.

Humans are blind to a lot of things though:

Kinda trippy but not interesting right?
Open this picture in a program with a color picker (The GIMP, Photoshop, etc), or use a stand alone color picker program.
Pick the green spiral and the blue one.
No, you didn't mis-aim (unless you did and got the magenta or the orange). Both spirals, blue and green, are the exact same color.

The point that this video and the image really brings home, at least to me, is that the information we receive from our senses is heavily filtered well before it gets to our higher level consciousness.
And being a very meta-cognitive sort (why do I think so much about why I think about the things I'm thinkin' of?), I start to wonder what else our brain does this kind of filtering to. Is this really just an artifact of how our brain processes visual information? (Well, yes.) Is it something to be amused by, and then pass up as a mere trick, an optical illusion? (I don't think so.)
Maybe this is simply my bias, short circuiting those mental circuits I've attempted to build, to use to evaluate the world logically. But every time I see an optical illusion, it connects, in my mind, to all of the magical thinking humans participate in, through time and around the world. A belief in the supernatural, in philosophies unsupported by evidence, in policies that foster a result directly counter to the aims that built them. It's all based on humanity's ability to filter the information they receive, to alter it at a level that they're completely unconscious of. The things we think rewire our brains as we think them. Deep tracks worn on crackling neurons with the continuous application of self-feeding networks of varying voltage.
The executive center of our brains isn't "designed" to apply rigorous, logical thought to the information it receives. It isn't "designed" to come up with the best solution to complex social issues that decide our quality of life.
The human brain evolved because it was a powerful tool for feeding a tribe of pre-humans enough to raise another generation. What gazelles do before they run away from, or are felled by, your rocks, and what the ones you don't eat do, that doesn't matter. It doesn't really affect the pre-human's ability to catch and eat it, so why not believe they gallop across the sea at night. (Or, as Aristotle thought, that birds hibernate under swamps and seas during the winter).

I can only see one path out of this morass. Or rather, one way to find that path. Measure, measure, measure. Nail the world down with facts, trap the structures and inter-relations with chains of words. Remove our conceptions of the world from our flawed psyches, and we can begin to see things as they really are. Step back, and appreciate the glory of the world exposed in a way unique, so far as we can tell, to humanity. Examine yourself with rigor, ask your friends to help (help me?), find the discontinuities, and create rules to reduce the impact of perceptual or cognitive error on your life. Shine a light in the dark corners of existence, and when our flaws are exposed, sadness and suffering can be reduced to the lowest level mathematically possible.

Of course, I could be wrong. Humans are fallible after all.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ben Goldacre (whom you should be reading regularly, if you are not already) has written an interesting piece today. He does that voodooscience that he does so well, and talks about reality. In this case, the reality often obfuscated by deliberately fuzzy thinking on the part of record industry mouthpieces.
A big part of Ben's job is heaping scorn on lazy and credulous journalists. And this is a doozy. Apparently, piracy of music costs the UK's recording industry 10% of the Gross Domestic Product. You would think that as this number were bandied about that if mystic fairies came from beyond the veil and abolished music piracy forever, the entire economy of Britain probably wouldn't suddenly regear itself into a mechanism designed to feed money to recording companies.
(One of the biggest obstacles to rational thought is wishful thinking. Keep that in mind.)

Or concurrently, you'd think they might realize that music albums are ludicrously expensive, what with about 70% of their cost being overhead that goes to the production companies. Raise your hand if you think any of these journalists took the numbers as an impetus to explore the world of mass market music. Why do we pay so much for musically jejune preprocessed garbage? What alternatives we could explore? what might be looming on the horizon?
Put your hands down.

As a whole, the heaviest downloaders of music do so because they love music, and are also among the heaviest purchasers of music. There's a rising tide of "amateur" music artists, who love creating music more than anything. The Internet is creating a place for these groups to come together, one where the greedy siphon of middlemen have no place. I'd be scared too, were I the recording industry. But this is just undignified.

Monday, May 18, 2009

That Which Is Is All There Is

I love learning. Every new quantum of information adds a new dimension of depth to my understanding of the world. Sometimes a new idea is so powerful I feel it physically. A chain of connections, revelations and insight crackles through my body. The sensation is quite literally orgasmic.

I hope you'll all forgive me for taking a moment to argue against a scarecrow that hasn't made it to Oz yet. But there exists this attitude, here and there, that science is something cold or passionless. That it robs the romance from all the beautiful things in the world.
I think, taking my first paragraph in context, you will see why this view quite stupefies me.

When I stand deep in the woods, and inhale the rich scents of leaf mold, and listen to the raucous peaceful business of life going on all around me, I am filled with a visceral pleasure; a strong sense of belonging and peace.
Tell me, why would that feeling be aught but strengthened by the understanding of my place in this ecosystem?
I know (for certain values of know) the physics, chemistry, and biology of the trees and the sun and the wind. I know about the creatures that surround me, and I know about the millions of years that put them there, and what the niche they've adapted to is. I even understand the neuro-biology that makes me so happy to be there.

I ask again: if the rainbow is beautiful, why are the quantum physics of refraction anything but awe-inspiring?

And there's always more to learn. I barely knew anything last year. Now, with increasing education, I am exposed to whole new vistas, the contours of which describe in elegant geometry exactly how little I know. It is an ever-full cup from which I could never tire of drinking.

And so I find another object of inquiry: we've all experienced the exultant heights and bitter valleys of love. Ah, amore, that most elusive and poignant emotion of the human cornucopia.

It doesn't surprise me that some would balk at turning the piercing gaze of science to the state of love. It feels as an invasion of our deepest privacy. There's nothing more intensely personal than love.
It's also a little distressing to think that our decisions and motivations are the product of more than some kind of "pure" thought. It makes us feel less like perfectly rational, ideal game theory actors.
Furthermore, it's as if a bit of selfness is stolen away. Is love still so important when it is "just" some chemical and neurological interactions?
And I can only respond, both to my own quivering heart, and to the doubts of others, that nothing has changed: knowledge can only bring us the why. It will change nothing about what is. You are no less in love for understanding why that state exists in your mind.

"To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right." —Confucius

So hopefully you can see why I was so excited at an interesting coincidence of articles recently.
I'd been reading about relationships. This is a representative sample. Think about their impact on my life. What kind of relationship I wanted, why I wanted that, and how I should go about it. One thing that ran through my mind was why sex, a physical act, should be so important to my emotional well-being. Whether that held true for other boys, or for women, and to what degree.
I'm also reading a book, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. It's an older book, but still has a lot of interesting insight into the human condition, as a big ol' ape with a uniquely ginormous frontal lobe jury-rigged to a matryoshka of more primitive ganglia stacked on each other.
And finally, this.
I can't say that strongly enough. THIS.

Now, before I get too excited, it is my duty to warn you that this is just conjecture. They emphasis in the article that this is preliminary research. Data collection. They're only now forming testable hypotheses.
But oh my stars it's incredible.
Just half-way through I felt struck by the sensation I described at the beginning here. Arched back, rushing sound in my ears and all.
I hope I'm not overselling this, but it's as if a handful of disparate bits of my life have finally caught fast and gelled into an intricate net of understanding that touches every corner of my existence.

One particular caveat I want to make note of before pressing on: the article makes a lot of reference to specific chemicals and their effects on our emotions. While many of these are pretty unambiguously proven, I advise a healthy dose of caution to any offer of a single hormone or neuro-transmitter as the sole source of any specific behavior or emotion.
My primary source for this caution is the serotonin hypothesis (essentially the theory that serotonin is the primary mood regulation chemical), which was, in essence, conjured whole-clothe from the rectums of anti-depressant pharmaceutical companies.

Forgive me as I reiterate some of the article while talking about the connections it's formed for me.

The article describes a group using a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine to scan the brains of people in various states of love. This machine analyses in three dimensions, in real time, blood flow inside the brain. Subjects are asked to look at a screen with certain pictures, or to think of certain things. Synapses involved in that kind of thinking fire more in greater density, and more blood is drawn to that section. The fMRI measures this blood flow, hopefully telling us what parts of the brain are involved in what kind of thinking. There are some criticisms here. That researchers are finding patterns that don't exist in what is essentially noise. But cross-referenced with other neuro-biological data, and with a large enough sample group, it seems to promise some stunning insights into the functioning of the human mind.

In high school I had a conjecture. I knew at the time it was flawed, and since then have always wondered what it was missing.
"Is love more than just a really strong friendship, plus attraction?"
And two highly respected doctors Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown have started work on a hypothesis that says "yes".
(PS: isn't it wonderful that there are more women in science every day? I'll have to write on that sometime soon.)

What was I missing? Perhaps it's so obvious that I feel silly even saying it.
That's it.

"But Robert, isn't that a tautology, 'romance is romance'?" I'll pretend you're asking.
Well, you see, perhaps we've been putting the cart before the horse.
We think perhaps we desire to settle down with that one special lady or one special guy (or a couple special someones?) because we're in love. But truly, we're in love because we want to settle down.
I'll try and explain.
When you're in love, your sex drive fires up. I don't think that needs much more explanation. So does the attachment system, which is basically the same stuff that makes you happy to be with friends, to talk with them and make them happy.
(It's even a little related to the instincts that make you love and want to protect both your body, and your possessions. Which says something interesting about materialism: our brain literally treats our possessions as similar to the way we treat parts of our body. Just, you know, without direct nervous system connections.)
Thirdly, this instinct, the missing branch. The two researchers have labeled a network of parts of the brain the "romance system." This system is the one that really makes what we call love. The heady, literally-cocaine-like rush when you see or hear or smell the recipient of your ardent desire. It is responsible for the "pair bonding" instinct. The interesting thing is that while ours is slightly extended, it's basically the exact same system we see in almost anywhere we see pair-bonding in the mammal family tree.

Which is where The Naked Ape comes in. Old as it is, it still walks through the logical progression of how pair-bonding became a fixture of human life. Through biology. The shared ancestor of chimps and humans was probably pretty similar to today's chimp. Humans are the descendants of the offshoot that left Eden the forest, and the other branch had no need to change. In the forest, these apes roamed their territory in small groups, eating and resting wherever they felt like it. Males would always be around to respond to any challenges for mating rights.
But on the Serengeti, this didn't work anymore. From our ape heritage, women needed to take care of children. And to get enough food to survive, men had to leave on multi-day hunting excursions. Cooperation in a hunting was mandatory. Although we eventually learned endurance, like wolves, especially early on, the only way to get prey was to work together. Competition for mating rights had no more place in the new world. Especially not when they started picking up elk thighbones, and gaining the power to kill with a blow. Another structure that died out were alpha males and harems. Even "lesser" men had to have a franchise in the future of the group, or there wasn't enough reason for them to cooperate. Pair-bonding, or love, gave them this franchise. A guarentee of passing on his genes. This is why the popular use of Darwinian always pisses me off. Humanity is one of the most cooperative species on the planet, and that's what makes us the most powerful species on the planet.
Furthermore, any male ape that would only share meat with his own children had a distinct genetic advantage. Genes that promoted either more or less altruistic behavior were at a disadvantage.
Thus, the ancient mammal instinct of pair-bonding was pulled from inactive duty by mutation and kept in service by selection.
Another part of why I love science so is the way that as better and more complete theories develop, everything begins to connect together. Ends meet and the structure as a whole is reinforced.
Pair-bonding was also heavily connected to sex. An the article says, they've only studied men so far. And furthermore, even a specific subset of them. But so far we've shown a lot of connections, ones that aren't present in many other animals, between our "romance system" and our sexual one. I really can't wait until Fisher and Brown have studied how women are wired. But everything in this article, discerned from the mental shape of love, is supported by the observational, anthropological and zoological data encoded in the forty year old book, the Naked Ape. And that one can definitely tell you: breaking down the mating habits of our proto-chimp ancestors took some unique solutions. And I'm sure you'll all agree with me that what they stumbled on, a complex cocktail of pleasure and affection chemicals released by sex, was a damn good one.

Some interesting factoids:
Semen literally contains pheromones that strengthen the romance system in women. An amusing, but groundless speculation: this could be why many guys like it when their partner swallows.
A bit of the reason we like doggie style may simply be mechanical; ie, how the friction occurs. But another part may be the "lordosis" posture. A vast majority of female mammals, to indicate that they're ready for mating, will raise their hips towards their mate, and look back over their shoulder. This apparently still jabs a poker into the most primitive, instinctual parts of our brain, branding "Iz tiem for sex now?" right down to our neurons.

Now, I keep saying pair-bonding, but that's not necessarily accurate. We apes come from a pretty hedonistic free-for-all sexual mannerism background. Pull an old behavior from your butt, clean it off, and staple it on, it's not going to completely supplant the old one. (Especially when some degree of variability is a pro-adaptive trait). While monogamy was adaptive enough, I'd imagine that polyamory would be a useful enough trait to have some biological basis in the here and now.
Of course, I'm sure there are a lot of reasons for non-monogamous behavior. But I'd be really fascinated to see a study of self-identified polygamous and polyamorous individuals. There's a lot of focus on it being purely about sex, about jabbing that sexual impulse reward button. Though this is just a guess, I'd be willing to bet that in most of them, those same connections exist between the sex and romance centers.

And that's another reason people don't like science poking into the boudoir. It's challenging. If reality challenges your prejudices, what are you going to do?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Entitlement Culture

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that the entitlement culture is a big part of what's wrong with today's world, largely in how it ties into education and anti-intellectualism.
I really truly want for every child to understand how marvelous they are, and what great things they are surely capable of. What I do not want, is to achieve this by breeding a generation of under-achieving couch potatoes because they've been told every steaming loaf they pinch off is the best thing since sliced bread.
Perhaps I'm generalizing too broadly, but it feels as if every time I turn on the TV, I'm beset by images of horrible idiots who can't seem to realize their own stupidity, because anyone calling them on their stupid decisions is being hurtful and vicious.
In this world, through a looking glass but slightly dim, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Criticism of which, or pointing out how poorly it meshes with reality, is equivalent to quashing their First amendment rights.

Well, this rant is now only barely connected to what inspired it, so I'll just leave you this letter response from Neil Gaiman to a fan. The fan had emailed Gaiman about how upset he was that George RR Martin had, gasp, a life outside of providing this fan the next book.
Honestly, I feel that Gaiman was a little harsh considering the man's message by itself.
But who knows, maybe it's just that I'm not an author (despite all my wishing really really hard!), and this kind of entitlement is simply so grating even a whiff of it needs to be excoriated instantly.
But it includes some very important advice, that I think all of you need to take to heart right now, and forever more:
"George Martin is not your bitch"

Well, unless maybe you're Neil Gaiman (I feel an RPS coming on!).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ergonomics and you

Man blogging consistently is harder than I thought it'd be. T__T
So here I'm going to repost something I wrote a while ago, but updated, and with references included. Maybe it'll get the juices flowing again.

As a philologist, I enjoy breaking down the words we use, both rarely and every day. Perhaps in examining the roots and history of why we speak the way we do, there is meaning, or even understanding, to be divined.
Like many of our technical terms, ergonomics comes from Latin. Ergo- refers to work. -Nomy is an interesting component, meaning something like law, or management. -Ics is a very dense little particle. It means the entire field of study; of art and science and knowledge.
A rough translation is "human engineering", which may explain my predilection for the field. :P
The best efforts of humanity are found in our efforts to better ourselves and our world.

Meta-lingual-discussion aside, I know I'm not the only one that spends a lot of time at their computer, so I thought a little guide to workspace ergonomics would be a useful post.

Starting off is the fact that while our knees, hips, and spines were good enough for our ancestors to survive, procreate, and provide enough for their children to grow up and repeat the cycle, selective pressure didn't give a crap if they would do so without giving us chronic pain into our dotage. Thus, they're all a bit fragile, and we need to take care of them if we want a comfortable middle and old age.

First things first, I recognize that few, if any of you, are going to run out and implement all of these suggestions immediately, but I'm putting this up as food for thought, a reference to check back on if you need to, and something to keep in mind if you get the chance to reorganize your work space.

Sit down work doesn't affect our knees so much, but humanity evolved legs in a world without chairs, so our spines and hips are a bit at a loss as to what to do with them.
Remember when you were goofing off in class, and kept tilting your chair back on two legs, tossing pencils at the ceiling or whatever? You thought you were just bored, but apparently we were unconsciously adopting the ideal sitting posture. If you spend more than a half-hour at a time working at your computer, You want your chair to support a 90° angle between legs and torso, and you want your torso tipped back about 35–45°. This way, the weight of your body is more evenly distributed, and you derive the maximum benefit from any lumbar and shoulder support the chair has.
However, you also want your feet on the floor, otherwise the weight of your legs is pressing your hamstrings right into the edge of your chair, which is a recipe for discomfort, and in extreme cases, even damage.

stick figure diagram
As you can see by my masterful art skills, there are pixels.

You also want to spend most of your time sitting perfectly evenly, shoulders, spine, and hips all aligned. Lateral stress on the spine can cause soreness in the back and hips. Arms should hang neutrally from the shoulders, ie, you shouldn't feel any stress or effort in your shoulders to keep your arms in position. Your medial plane should bisect your keyboard between the G and H keys (or I and D on Dvorak), and the exact middle of your monitor.
Now, craning your neck downward isn't, generally, good for you. Your spine forms a far-back fulcrum for all of your head's weight to wrench on. But here, you're leaned back, with your head straight up and down. The weight of your head is distributed into the head, neck, or shoulder rest, and you end up with even less weight on your spine than when sitting upright.
But if your chair lacks a headrest, this position might fatigue your neck muscles. This is a good time to point out another important ergonomic tip: switch positions. Though what I'm outlining is the best biomechanical posture, static pressure still has the potential to kink muscles, blood vessels, and nerves.
Of course, the best way to do this is to get up and take a quick walk every so often. But short of that, sit up straighter, or lean further back or pull one leg up, do something to change the forces affecting your body, and give pressure points a chance to recover.

Speaking of pressure points, viscoelastic memory foam is some nice stuff. It may not have been developed specifically for NASA, but they sure saw the benefits. The stuff that you now find in Tempurpedic mattresses was actually developed in Sweden, for hospitals. It is ironic (actually ironic too), that hospitals are one of the worst places to be when you're sick. Think about it, your immune system has been compromised, so let's stick you in a building with a lot of people carrying infectious diseases? Yay?
One of the features that used to compound this problem were bedsores. When you literally can't move, those pressure points get to be a serious problem. As in moisture builds up, making it a lovely environment for bacteria, which infest the skin, making raw patches, which continued pressure causes to become open wounds. Memory foam was created to alleviate pressure points completely, which is what makes it such a good material for beds, pillows, and yes, high end chairs. (You don't often see memory foam in chairs because you need a much higher density foam—ie, expensive—than that in mattresses, where your weight is more spread out, and pillows, where there's not much weight.)

So that's sitting. How about typing? Tendinitis and/or tendinosis of the wrists/forearms/hands is something most of us in this modern world deal with regularly. It happens because certain small movements, repeated over and over, can damage and possibly inflame tendons.
As a note, the carpal tunnel syndrome happens when pressure builds up in a small channel within your wrist. The pressure affects the thick nerve that controls your hand, and this causes general shooting pains through the hands, wrists, and forearms. For obvious reasons, tendinitis (inflammation of tendons) of the tendons in the actual carpal tunnel can cause the carpal tunnel syndrome. But while the picture painted by modern medical science is a touch murky, as far as I can find, it's generally believed that only certain twisting motions will cause an inflammation there. Basically, writing, painting and typing inflame or damage other tendons.
The midline of your keyboard should obviously be even with the medial plane of your body. Obviously, if your arms are angled in, your wrists need to be angled back out to put everything in the right position for typing. One wrist curved more than the other is obviously going to be under more strain. This is exaggerated on smaller laptop keyboards. Ergonomic keyboards are split so that your wrist doesn't need to bend at all. But if your keyboard is at the right height/position, the arrangement of the keys and of your fingers should not put a significant medial bend in the wrist. Still, couldn't hurt. Plus some of us have different length fingers than others.

You want your hands to be slightly higher than the elbows. If your fingers are on the home row, this position gives your fingers the a very neutral amount of curvature. Thus you require only minimal extension or flexion to hit the keys above and below. When you need to hit a key to the side (enter, backspace, tab, tilde, etc) try and do it with fingers and elbows, rather than wrist.

Mouse position is very important. Listen up WoWees. It's very very easy to try and sling your mouse around with your wrist. That's bad. Don't do that. Please.
With the keyboard in the right position, the best place for your mouse is on a slightly inclined tray right above your numpad. This lets you hold the mouse with zero wrist flexion, and move it smoothly from the elbow, which is ideal. I know that this is pretty hard to arrange. In fact, I've only seen one or two commercial products that allow you to follow this advice from the "famous" University of Georgia ergonomics study. But don't despair yet. Laptop users actually have a slight advantage here, in that they can just put their mouse pad where they need it. Left-hand mousers actually have it even easier! Just prop your mouse up immediately to the left of any regular keyboard, and you're good to go. If none of these are options, a slightly angled out, tilted up mouse-pad platform just to the right of your keyboard is the next best bet.
But whatever you do, don't rest your wrist or arm on anything, and move your mouse from the elbow, not the wrist.
On that note, remember that your keyboard and mouse are the parts of your computer you have real, direct interaction with. And furthermore, they sure don't go obsolete the way the internal components do. Get a good quality keyboard, and it'll last you decades. The IBM Model M clicky keyboard has a solid, tactile click that helps you put in only the amount of force you need, instead of grinding down on a plastic dome. Others have expounded upon their value, so I'll leave it at that.
Similar advice applies to your monitor, speakers/headphones, mouse, and something very few people consider in much detail: the mouse-pad. I'm not expecting to gain many converts to the world of expensive rigid plastic mouse-pads. A mouse sliding easily with the smallest possible impetus is a joy few know.

And finally, viewing.
Lighting is important, but it's pretty basic: minimize reflections and contrast.
If there's something reflected in your monitor, your eyes won't be sure what to focus on. They'll end up rapidly switching between what's on the screen, and what's reflected in it, and that's a recipe for eye fatigue. Similarly, if your monitor is dim, and the area behind it bright, or vice versa, you're (somewhat literally!) looking at eyestrain. You also really don't want any direct sources of illumination in your peripheral vision, as the rod cells in your eyes
This means that ideally, everything behind your screen is lit by indirect light to exactly the same illumination as the screen, and everything in front of it is perfect matte black.
For the real world, I recommend a torchiere (ceiling directed standing lamp), or maybe a lamp behind your monitor (credit Jessica), half-closed blinds, and an otherwise dim room. Modern CFLs are recommended for their energy savings and cool white light. If there's a significant amount of light reflecting off of or coming from you or the scenery behind you, and there's absolutely no way to move your monitor... you're screwed. Curl up and die.

Your forehead should be even with monitor's top bezel, allowing your eyes to cover everything in one sweep (you look down more naturally than up). You should be far enough back that you don't need to move your head at all, nor your eyes much, to see any part of the screen.

As for the screen setting itself, if you have a CRT, make damn sure it's set to a refresh rate higher than 75Hz. Anything less and you'll be lucky to avoid splitting headaches.
For both, your "contrast" setting should usually be at max, and the brightness at the lowest possible level where you can only just barely distinguish between black and the gray one standard step above it.

Set "contrast" to 100, decrease brightness to zero, then step it up until you can tell them apart.

This is recommended in a quite a few places, for text especially, and most games (I remember that Half-Life actually had a calibration screen that instructed you in this set-up). I think some artists prefer a little less contrast and more brightness for color fidelity? I don't have any references, but if it's that important to you, get a good monitor color calibrator, and follow its software's instructions.

Thank you. I hope this leads to a little less occupational stress for someone, somewhere. Please tell me if I've missed anything, or you have an issue with any part of this advice.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

√(evil)? what about the √(good)?

Tell me if you've heard this one before: "Religion and spirituality is where morality comes from." Basically, implying that the entirely visibly beneficial actions and logically sound beliefs of most sane individuals must have some supernatural basis.
Part of this saw is the idea that creationists reject evolution because coming from monkeys [sic] means we're no better than monkeys! There's nowhere for morality to come from!
Which I find so very hilarious for two reasons: one is because so many other primate societies are far nicer and more peaceable than ours. The other is that actually, herd behavior is precisely where our instinctual morals come from.

The monkey/ape confusion is just sad.

Even more sad is the idea that religion is inherently more moral.

My selection bias is showing. Obviously the news about religion that comes to my attention is generally going to be the kind that incites attention: the outrageous and extreme.

I don't have a problem with religious or spiritual people. I was a deist for a long time. My beef is with error, calumny, and irrectitude.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Jr

Today (heh, only just barely, as I'm posting this near midnight) was the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.
I think you'll agree with me that that's an event worth celebrating. I also hope you'll spare a thought for the many unsung heroes of the struggle to create a better world.

I read his letter from a Birmingham jail earlier today, and found myself very moved. It's really worth at least skimming through. It's actually somewhat uplifting, seeing how far we've come. Although I found myself thinking "Man, I wish I'd done something that productive in jail...."

Here is a YouTube link to one of his most famous speeches too.

Prejudice and discrimination of any sort is inherently counter to the best interests of humanity at large. Xenophobia is a deeply ingrained part of our neuro-psychological make-up, yet examples of overcoming this limitation abound. A heterogeneous society is strongest, it's diverse sociological and genetic make-up allowing it to weather the broadest range of physical and idealogical disaster; allowing the most evolution and advancement.
Thus I think it's important that we continue to advance in a societal revolution, overturning social norms that create the rigid paradigm that allows such destructive behavior, such as sexism, racism, and other expressions of xenophobia to continue.

Lobby your politicians, your mayors, senators, congressmen and school boards to revolutionize our education system. Education is a self-renewing resource. The more and better educated our citizens are, the more people there will be to educate each successive generation. Don't bother trying to impose "tolerance" from the outside, but teach rationality, and that horse will drink all the water it needs.

Heh, I think you can tell this is something I feel passionately about.
The world can be better than it is now. Let us stand on the shoulders of giants, giants such as Martin Luther King Jr, and continue our climb higher.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Recently Deflowered Mind

I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what I could say about this.

Edit: I fixed the link. It went down for some reason.

Also, Jesse, I'm so happy for you, and you have all of my support.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Robert Talks About Some Books

So I started that "Read 50 Books in a Year" last year in September. Being an 80 minute bus ride from my school campus, I made some pretty good headway into it.

I'm gonna talk briefly about the books I read during that challenge, and some others I've read since. This might actually have to turn into a series of posts. Since I'll mostly only be able to say, "This was cool" or "Eh," this probably won't tell you much aside from the kind of books I like. But there's the off chance you'll skim through and find something you'd like to pick up. If this happens even once, it'll all have been worth it.

I've linked to Powell's Book Store if they have the book, Amazon otherwise, but —assuming you live here— don't forget about Multnomah County Library. I'm a big fan of libraries, mostly because I'm poor, but also because I almost never reread books anyways.

Maybe someday I'll become some big-shot blog guy, and I'll come back and change these all to Amazon Affiliate links.

Starship Troopers
One of the most interesting observations on reading this book was noticing how very very different it was from the movie. So of course, I looked it up. Turns out, the movie was about half-way through production before they realized how similar it was to the book, Starship Troopers, and, in a fantastic lesson about making lemonade from lemons, licensed the rights rather than be sued.
To make a proper movie about the book you'd have to change a few things. More people need to die (oh, gee, you mean people pass on during war time? Thanks for letting us now Heinlein!). There needs to be more sexism: despite powered god damn armor, women aren't in the terrine shock troops, and Rico often drifts off into musings about his protector complex for the sainted inhabitants of womandom. Really, that's a persistent theme: Rico drifting into la la land and telling you about it. The movie would be seventy percent long shots of Rico sitting there, as his voice-over begins a thoughtful philosophy lesson (about corporal punishment, stratocracy, or how much the modern historic US armed forces sucked), which would fade in to just Robert Heinlein talking to you as it went on.
Later this week, look for "Old Man's War" which has some interesting comparisons.

The Colour of Magic
The Light Fantastic
Equal Rites
If I need to say anything about Terry Prachet's work, you have either been living under a rock for your entire life, or are not worthy of continued breath.
That said, it's really interesting to go all the way back to the beginning and watch his work evolve as you read through. None of these are my most favorite Discworld books, but they're all worth reading.
I'd be pretty surprised if you didn't know that Terry Pratchett is a sterling, shining author of some of the best fantasy parody out there. He's also probably contracted early onset Alzheimer's :(
Please, let's all cross our fingers for some of the new therapies that've been developed recently (even if one of them requires weekly injections into the spinal column...).
What I've always most enjoyed about the Discworld series is that even while it's poking fun at the absurdities of fantasy, it does so in a loving way that never turns farcical or grotesque.

A Wizard of Earthsea
Some of these books I'd read before, but the last time was years and years ago, so it was a bit like unearthing buried treasure to find some of the gems like A Wizard of Earthsea.
Ursula K Le Guin's writing has that poetic and mythic flair that differentiates fantasy escapism potboilers from fantastic literature.
I know a lot of people disagree with me on the subject of Tolkien's work. I found the world fascinating, but the books wouldn't have held my interest without the sublime poetry of the words.
For me, Wizard of Earthsea is much the same. But please, don't let that throw you off. Though it has that same artistic quality, Le Guin's writing is a uniquely wonderful experience.

Blood Music
Greg Bear writes some interesting hard-ish Sci-Fi. Aside from Blood Music, I've started two of his other books, Forge of God and Legacy. I quite enjoy the themes and ideas of his work, and he's far from a terrible writer, but he lacks that certain quality that makes the best authors so engaging.
Blood Music is a bit difficult to describe without giving away the plot. It really feels like a fascinating idea that's had a bit of narrative hung off it, rather than a fully fleshed out tale. Do read if you're interested in the possibilities of future bio- and nano-technology.

Tad Williams is also the author of the Memory, Sorrow, & Thorn trilogy, as well as the cyberpunk Otherland series. Otherland's first book, "City of Golden Shadow" took too long to start for me, so I think that says something about it. However, Memory, Sorrow, & Thorn is very nearly everything I think a high fantasy novel should be, so I was really looking forward to Shadowmarch.
I was a bit disappointed, but maybe my expectations were too high? It comes off as a decent but not superlative fantasy tale. The fae creatures want to take their land back, and at the same time, the empire south of the sea wants to take some land period. What's a small highlands kingdom with a kidnapped king to do?
What with the strange mystical enemies to the north, complex multi-sided wars, constant political strife, and more than one viewpoint character, comparisons with A Song of Ice and Fire are inevitable. I'll spare you the suspense and just tell you that Shadowmarch loses, but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. I'm heartily in favor of more fantasy books putting a strong focus on political conflict instead of trotting out the same dusty old clich├ęs.
I'll probably pick up the next one one of these days, and if you're a fantasy fan that needs something to kill time during a bus ride, maybe you should too.

Wizard's Bane
Wizardry Recompiled
Hmm. I think today's post may have to end on a low note.
Honestly, I'm not sure I would've read these if they weren't available free on the Internet. They have their moments, but it just doesn't follow through on the execution.
Your brand of fantasy escapism is obviously a pretty personal choice. For myself, real people pulled into the world of fantasy has always been a bit of a turn off. I think it dilutes the purity of the experience for me.
But I liked the unique touch here. A programmer whose knowledge of algorithms, abstraction and automation gives him an interesting edge over the hidebound wizards. Still, when one of the linchpins of the story (how the "Wiz" does his magical thang) is so poorly defined and inconsistently treated, the books burns through their goodwill rather quickly.
These are another relatively light fun read, but probably not worth your time, unless you're dying to read anything.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Internets is serious business.

So I've noticed this phenomenon, it occurs when people, particularly on the Internet, decide to have an intelligent, rational discussion about their beliefs in certain matters.

Yes, this does end in fire.

Typically, these individuals people have quite unremarkable and moderate opinions, which they will go on to state in relative terms to one another, and then continue into what some would call a "full and frank exchange of views".

It often happens that these people's positions are markedly similar to one another's (though don't try to tell them that!). Now, of course there are real differences of opinion here, but they're typically obscured by the way they're stated. Mostly, we state things in relative terms, but apply them to differing baselines.

Give me leave to tell a little story.
Alice and Bob are arguing about welfare affirmative-action Iraq abortion gun-control net-neutrality the price of apples.

Alice says, "I think apples are too expensive."
Bob says, "Apples should cost something."
They aren't specific and never say, "I think the apple should be two dollars," (we'll say it's three right now) which they both believe.
Bob is arguing against people who think apples should be free, and paid for with fairy dust.
Alice is arguing against people who want to jack the price of the apple up even further, to line their fat Corporate greed holes.
But they both think they're arguing at each other.

Then, this cross talk will also obscure other, real issues. (Bob, for instance, thinks genetically modified apples may not be safe, whereas Alice believes that in this particular instance the modifications are well understood. Both of these positions will be discussed, not in terms of the actual information of them, but as part of a larger position into which both are walling the other into caricatures of.)

There are complicating factors. For instance, Carol, who things apples should be one fifty, and Dave who thinks apples are fine at their current price. But Bob feels like a dick with nothing to say if he can only say "Um, one-fifty is too cheap," so it requires him to "demonize" Carol, and portray her as the communist she's not. (And vice versa.)

And of course, don't forget Eve, who really does think three bucks is too cheap for an apple, and Fred, who doesn't really think apples should be free, but says he does because he likes being a dick.

Now... I'm sure that while reading this, you've realized, quite correctly, that there's nothing particularly Earth shattering about this revelation. But I've written it all down because the fascinating ability of humans to store information externally can give rise to interesting insights.
Sure, it's obvious that there are a lot of people out there that think different than you do. Equally obviously, these people are wrong. But the next time you become upset with someone, or even find yourself nodding along to what they're saying, take a minute to figure out whether those words mean what you think they do. With perspective, a lot of disagreements disappear.

Thursday, January 1, 2009