{Epecho } spacer

[Tuesday, May 04, 2004]


I go, Hugo, we all go

Not being registered for Noreascon (since I have no frickin' clue how I'd afford it), I don't get to vote for the Hugos this year. But that doesn't mean I don't get to bitch about the nominations and winners.

I shouldn't sound off about the Best Novel nominees until I have the one that I haven't read under my belt (Blind Lake, for the record). Omissions first: where the heck is Quicksilver? (yeah, "it's not really SF", okay, fine, it still deserved to be on the list) Where's Alastair Reynolds' Redemption Ark? I don't see any grievous sins of commission this year. With Humans I have the same kvetch as I had about Hominids last year; it was fun, but ultimately just didn't seem like Hugo timber. Singularity Sky I liked, though it didn't quite live up to the Strossolatry I'd been hearing up until I picked it up. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations, but it just wasn't mindblowing like I'd been led to expect; and the characters did spend a hell of a long time on that damn ship, which didn't advance the action.

posted 6:58 PM |

[Thursday, March 25, 2004]


World's Tastiest Oxymoron Department

I'd quite forgotten that Long John Silver's promised America free giant shrimp if the Exploration rovers found conclusive evidence of water on Mars. Well, their standards of proof are reasonable enough to follow through, on May 10th. When I will probably not be anywhere in the United States. Still, I will look southward and contemplate our neighbours eating free crustaceans on account of Science, and this will please me no end.

posted 3:27 PM |

[Tuesday, March 23, 2004]


Winter journeys

".. if you have the desire for knowledge, and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say 'What is the use?' For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg."
-Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic 1910-13, final paragraph

posted 2:40 PM |

[Monday, March 22, 2004]


Bag o' links

In lieu of anything creative.

  • "When one first arrives here, one may believe the Soup tastes like ass. That is not so, my child."
  • "...Spirit and Opportunity, my favorite Martian robots ever. I love those 400-pound, plutonium-heated smoopy-poopies. I want to invite them out for a really great dinner at an expensive restaurant and forget about all the bad things the government has ever done."
  • Yasser "After all, I am a Semite myself" Arafat gives The Passion of the Christ two thumbs up. Hanan Ashrawi equivocates.
  • "I don't know why anyone would ever steal a movie. Unless of course it's to avoid this commercial which we now play in front of every single movie you could possibly go to, telling you you're bad for stealing even though you just spent $11 to see some movie and instead you have to sit there and listen to me whine at you and accuse you of being a thief." RealVideo stream; thanks, BoingBoing!
  • "Very soon, one of your deadbeat buds is going to walk down the aisle herself. Maybe she’ll even wed someone in your circle. The guest list for their reception will be similar to yours, and all your friends, older and wiser now, will happily take their seats around the ballroom, testing the fire marshal’s occupancy limits. The drinks will be strong, the decorations bright, the bride beautiful, the bonfires ablaze. And just when the guests are at their most vulnerable – drunk and giddy and lined up in rows for the Electric Slide, you and your husband can kick in the door and go Grendel on their asses."
  • Big Dead Place, a site by disgruntled Antarcticans for (I suspect) other people considering becoming Antarcticans, offers an All-John-Carpenter's-"The Thing" Film Review Section
That is all.
posted 2:10 PM |

[Thursday, March 18, 2004]


The design of everyday bling

I posted the link to OK/Cancel, an online comic strip about user interface design and designers, while they were in the midst of using one of our age's more painfully unfunny "comic" devices: recasting some mundane situation in hip-hop style and lingo -- or at least, what they imagine to be the lingo*. I don't have the knowledge to say they're wrong, but subcultural dialects are even more idiomatically unforgiving than ordinary ones. This is related, I think, to the mistaken belief that rapping is easy because it's not singing. Actually it seems difficult to me, because I've heard any number of people chant rhythmic verse in what they like to think is a bad-ass manner, with lots of arm waving, and yet they don't sound like Chuck D. (Just to emphasize that this isn't a racial distinction, they don't sound much like the Beastie Boys either.) Pausing between verses to make explosive vocal noises does not help. At all. I don't know what nuances of phrasing, rhythm, emphasis, and intonation these people are missing, but they clearly exist, and learning them takes a certain amount of either innate talent or skill, and being good at them doubtless takes both. Possibly if North American education still involved a lot of poetry recitation, we would realize this at an early age, just from noticing that some people made the same poem sound fascinating and others made it sound somnolent. (This would, however, require the setting of interesting poems to recite, not a notable feature of my own education.)

Long story short, if you went and looked at OK/Cancel when they were in the midst of all that, browse through the archives, because there are some funny and clever strips there.

[*] The perceptive reader will note that I've actually done this myself in the title of the posting. I plead somewhat guilty, but using a slang word out-of-context for the sake of punfulness seems like a lesser offence. I'll do community service, honest.

posted 12:58 PM |

[Sunday, March 14, 2004]


Pentagon destroys all robots!

See the sad story here. As usual, I find myself at war 'tween "Robots! Robots are so cool! Robot endurance races in the desert even cooler!" and "Tsk tsk, military uses of computer science bad or at least depressing."

posted 10:15 AM |

[Tuesday, February 24, 2004]


A somewhat frivolous exercise in mechanism design

Ryan Bigge has a post (scroll down to February 20th, the direct link doesn't quite seem to work) savaging Kevin Smith for giving an expensive lecture. His anger is understandable, but not, I think, entirely justified; let me ramble for a little about why not.

Facts: the ticket price is $47.50. It's at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto; a quick Google tells me that the capacity there is about 2,600. I'll say right upfront that there's no way I'm paying $47.50 for an evening with Kevin Smith. Not a dis: I thought Dogma was plenty funny, and he's obviously a clever and funny guy. But his take on things is only of limited interest to me. Bigge says

Kevin Smith is very wealthy. If he were not rich, then I could perhaps-maybe understand the ridiculous fee, but what are you thinking man? Do you realize the extent to which you are alienating your fanbase by charging that kind of money?
Let's consider this situation, though. Kevin Smith is very wealthy because a lot of people go to see his movies. Not only that, he has a cult status; people who like his work tend to like it a lot. I'd actually hazard a guess that more than 2,600 people in the Greater Toronto Area would really, really like to go hear him speak, maybe even get a chance to ask questions. I'd guess a lot more than 2,600 people would really like that. Kevin Smith is a scarce resource.

Who gets a sliver of Kevin on the evening of March 12th? It's a social choice problem: we seek to maximize collective utility.

Now, if Kevin Smith were a necessity, like clean water or health-care, the fair options are limited to:

  • Devoting common resources to providing more Kevin; enough so that everybody who needs some gets some. This might degrade the quality some: perhaps it's in a bigger hall, he does several shorter lectures, he's hoarse, worn out, and in a crappy mood by the time he's finished giving as many lectures as needed to satisfy everyone.
  • If we can't, by hook or by crook, obtain enough Kevin to make everybody happy, then we need at least to satisfy a secondary criterion and make sure the decision is absolutely fair, and doesn't discriminate on grounds of, say, income. As with health-care (in Canada), waving a wad of bills doesn't get you ahead in the queue. Since -- unlike medicine -- there is no profession and academic discipline devoted to assessing the comparative needs of individuals for a lecture by Kevin Smith, allowing ticket-distributors to make judgement calls simply opens the door to corruption. First-come, first-serve it is.
Now, first-come first-serve (plus medical judgement calls, but let's not factor those in right now) works OK in health-care because there is basically total information; as soon as you become sick or injured, you are aware of the need for medical attention. Also, by claiming medical attention, you are using a certain amount of a resource for a certain length of time; once they're done with you, that resource is available for someone else. They've had to wait, but with reasonable triage this is just an inconvenience. Contrast this state of affairs with the lecture, and the two first-come, first-serve alternatives there:
  • Advance reservations starting at a set date: Fanboy X finds out a month in advance, is not a huge Kevin Smith fan but thinks it's a cool thing, and puts his name down for a ticket; Fanboy Y doesn't hear until 3 days ahead, and the tickets are gone. He is a huge fan, and is devastated. Those who find out earlier are preferred.
  • No advance reservation, doors open a certain amount of time in advance. Under these assumptions, we get a huge lineup, which rewards those with the spare time to devote to a lineup.
Neither of these "fairer" alternatives is very satisfying, is it? If Mr. Smith were a necessity, then we would have, collectively, to hold our noses and go with one of them as being still less repugnant than discriminating by income. But since he's not... well, a high but not insane ticket price doesn't sound so bad: low enough so that anybody who really wants to go can scrape it together, though certainly at some opportunity cost, and high enough to dissuade the casual "Yeah, I'm not too into him, but what the heck" ticket buyers. (Now, of course, this depends crucially on there not being too many bored rich kids for whom $47.50 is pocket change snarfing up the tickets. For them, I have no rational remedy, except maybe a good swift kick in the arse.)

posted 6:17 PM |

The spine of my country

I missed it, but apparently Margaret Wente took it on herself recently to savage Adrienne Clarkson (Canada's Governor-General, for my readers abroad) and her husband John Ralston Saul for spending public money in the course of their job of representing the country. The Master of Massey College delivered this magisterial rebuke today:

And what a joke are all those frigid little countries like Iceland that the Governor-General goes on and on about? What on earth do we have to learn from a speck on the map like Finland, stuck by the whims of history and geography right next door to a behemoth of a country that is constantly on the verge of overwhelming its economy and culture?

And why doesn't the Governor-General's husband just shut up? Who on earth wants to hear his ruminations on citizenship or Canada's ridiculous place in the world? In Ms. Wente's worldview, we are almost as stupid a little country as those other stupid little countries, with our very own stupid little vice-regal couple going on and on about our stupid vast and empty acres of northland, buzzing as it does with all those irritating and stupid little mosquitoes and stupid little writers...

As it happens, Molly Ivins, one of the best things about Texas, is interested in Saul's ruminations on citizenship. The article she cites isn't available online, I don't think, but the 2000 LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture text is well worth a read. Some bonehead in my neighbourhood has a bumper sticker with a silhouette of a rifle and the words "Our Rights Weren't Won With a Handshake"; here Saul recounts a truer story:

When the Chateau Clique and their allies came out into the streets of Montréal on the night on April 25th 1849 and burnt down the Parliament of Canada, the government responded with moderation. Everywhere else in the West, governments automatically responded to such situations with rifles and cannon. The Executive Council - the cabinet - met on the 27th in the midst of the ongoing disorder and ratified a report which would explain their policy. It stated that the proper mode of preserving order is by strengthening the Civil Authorities. And that the Council deprecate the employment of the Military to suppress such disturbances...

It was one of those perfectly existential moments. Here was a fragile half colony/half country, which already has two languages, as well as many ethnic groups and religions - without even taking into account the aboriginal role as a founding pillar of the society. In 19th century terms it was a powder keg. The government's response would cause this place either to slip down the European/American road towards impossible oppositions, outright violence and a centralized monolithic model. Or the ministers would have to discover another way.

Somehow, LaFontaine and Baldwin reached down into their own ethics and imaginations and decided upon an original and much criticized response. The Imperial government in London, for example, was furious that the streets had not been cleared with volleys of rifle fire. The great western historian W.L. Morton put it that the reformers had decided not to answer defiance with defiance, but to have moderate conduct shame arrogant violence.

posted 11:30 AM |