Tuesday, October 31

dreamsequence

So I'm at another academic conference, except this one is also sort of a talent show and film festival. The presenters include a bunch of my friends and acquaintances from highschool and college, along with a bunch of actors, musicians, and minor celebrities. We're in a big auditorium in the middle of some kind of shopping mall complex. At one point, the members of Tool are discussing a paper they co-authored, followed by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in a kind of hybrid Good Will Hunting / View Askew mode. Matt Damon has slides. Then my friend John is presenting on a panel with George Lucas, and George is being a complete bastard, making all these you only wish you were as much of a scholar as me sorts of comments. Finally I have had enough, and in the middle of things I stand up and tell him off. God dammit, George, I say, no one wants to hear it. Your last three movies sucked, and we all know it, and this auteur pose of yours is just insulting. Shut the hell up. There is this shocked silence, and then the crowd goes kind of nuts. Much to my surprise, George Lucas hangs his head in shame. It's the end of the day anyway, so the conference pretty much breaks up at this point. John shows me the diagrams for the research model he was trying to explain, something involving robots, deception, and the imputation of malicious intent. It's full of the kind of mathematical symbols that you really need something like TeX to render gracefully, except that interspersed with this there are a bunch of little multicolored figures that resemble sprites from a Japanese NES RPG or maybe an early id Software sidescroller like Commander Keen. I stare at it for a while in frustrated incomprehension. Eventually someone points out that it's time to start drinking, and everyone is headed for various parties. I've promised to meet this girl in a warehouse attached to the mall to do shots of something or another, but when I head that direction, I find that the warehouse is swarming with off-duty cops and there are (cop?) bouncers at the door. When I explain where I'm headed, they wave me through and say Don't worry about it man, we're just here to catch our friend's band.

Wednesday, October 25

deep down, everybody just wants to be indie as fuck

So I'm driving home from Boulder at midnight, looking for something to hate on AM radio. As usual, it's not hard to find. This time it's the local news station guy with a late-night talk radio show. You know the one. There are probably half a dozen of his clones in any sizable market.

So local news station guy is in the let's-go-to-the-phones phase of a rap music is not real music segment. (Again, you know the one, because I swear this is one of the Six Proven Fearless Cultural Critic Moves they teach these guys every year at some special secret convention.) And so they go to the phones, to an individual we'll call Jim in Greeley. Jim doesn't like rap music. In fact, Jim wants us to know that the production of rap music is in no way a creative act. For Jim, it is clear, the people who make rap music are like Sauron: unable to create new life, they are capable only of perverting true art into a twisted mockery of its former self.

Jim in Greeley is culturally retarded, and I've heard most of his blithering before. I grew up in Nebraska, after all. What comes next, however, surprises me: Jim starts referencing, as the salvation of music, a bunch of bands that, until recently, would have been classed as indie rock in the you probably haven't heard of this sense. Is this a put-on? Not as far as I can tell. He also mentions Jet, and gets most of the other names at least partially wrong.

Now, I love me some indie rock, but Jim's faith in the ability of that Death Cab band and their cohorts to lead us out of the dark ages of hip-hop is somewhere between a touch dim and utterly cretinous. If music is actually a bloody war for mindshare between numbingly broad meta-genres, then bands made up of white guys playing instruments are doomed.

(To his sort-of credit, after perfunctorily agreeing with Jim's rap-is-worthless bit, local news station guy goes off for a while about how we're not living in the dark ages, we're just living in a time when people can express their musical preferences more fully: There's a bigger, more diverse market, and lots of new distribution technology. Ok, so news station guy is smarter than the audience he's baiting. No one is surprised. I switch the radio off.)

Today, I'm still not quite sure what to make of Jim in Greeley. I doubt there's anything that profound going on with the indie rock thing (other than the observations you could make about the mainstreaming of anything), but it has gotten me thinking about the mindset. In the real world, and despite the worst that the overlords of broadcasting and retail can do, music is not a Hobbesian war of all against all. Nor will blood start leaking out your ears if you manage to encompass an appreciation of both OutKast and Aerosmith, or Sage Francis and Doc Watson, or 50 Cent and the Indigo Girls — whatever. So what is going on with the substantial population of predominantly white males in the mid-20s to 30s age range who are actually angered by the idea that rhyming over samples/beats might be a creative act?

Is it just aesthetic tribalism? Or a proxy for simple racism which is squelched in most areas of expression? This seems like the easiest guess, in a way, but it's almost too facile to be the whole picture. So hip-hop is dominated by black and brown people, sure, but so is (was?) roots reggae. You don't hear these guys railing about how Bob Marley represents a yawning cultural void, or at least I don't think you do.

Probably I'm just complicating things, when what's actually going on is that people are just mired in their established preferences and interpreting them as moral imperatives.

Saturday, October 21

wherein i attend an academic conference

So I'm standing in the worst bar on O Street (recent ex-Lincolnites get two guesses, and the first one doesn't count), and this bouncer taps me on the shoulder, says hey man, you can't wear the stocking cap inside. I stare for a while, and he must assume that I am drunk rather than slowly deciding whether I care enough to get thrown out of the joint, because he only repeats himself, apologetically. Eventually I take off the stocking cap. I will spend the rest of the weekend daydreaming about a brick through the front door.

A concerted effort is underway to further Pasteurize downtown. The theater building that used to house Kens for Pens is a gaping, jumbled hole. They're building a coffeeshop in the Amigos parking lot. Meanwhile the bum count at the corner of 14th & P has quadrupled.

Later: I'm standing in John Hibbing's house, lecturing James Fowler on what Linux distribution he should use. Eventually, we're in the Starlite, drinking ginger beer and vodka out of copper cups. I have heartburn from the drinks, and I am talking about Nebraska football, and I completely do not give a shit about Nebraska football. I want a cigarette, and no one is going to offer me one, because smoking is now an affair to be conducted in private, standing in the cold just outside the bar.

Later: We're in the Czech Capital of the U.S.A. to catch Shawn's gig and for Levi to show off his most recent mandolin. The smoking is still legal here, but CarolAnn is unquietly dying of asthma across the table. Guilt wrestles with my self-destructive impulses and wins, though not decisively enough to prevent the (draft) Busch Lite. I try to explain to John that his research design is like an inverted Turing test, about which I am wrong. Shawn plays a song about Winfield titled eight hours of whiskey and a shot of sleep. It is great.

Flashback to September: Stone sober and depressed as hell after at least eight hours of drinking, I sit in the booth at the downtown Winfield donut franchise while David, deranged by too much guitar and half a bottle of Jameson, punches me repeatedly in the arm. John stares morosely into his coffee.

Tuesday, October 17

And out my window it's snowing.

the one about the real problem of networked text communication

Just the other day:

<Alan> while we're at it brennen, let's just fuse all forms of online communication into one big system that is a blog, a wiki, a chat server and an email server.

after all, one could argue that these forms all forked via a now rather arbitrary discretization along the axes of realtime-ness and access control. i.e. 2-way chat is like fast email. blog is like email readable to the world. wiki is like blog organized by idea space instead, of by idea time. wiki is like an open-invite chat room except not real-time.

The history is more complicated, but conceptually this is exactly right, isn't it? Access control is interesting, but it's the realtime-ness that I want to address, because I think the cognitive costs and risks of text communication are carried on this axis. I'll explain why in a second, but first —

When and how did you learn your first programming language? Because I suspect that if it was before the web ruled the world, and if you were more or less self-taught, and if it was in a context where you had to deal with user input in realtime, that this analogy is going to make a lot more sense.

My first programming language was Microsoft's QBasic, which came bundled with MS-DOS for years and years. The reason I learned QBasic was that I wanted to make games. And in the process of making games, one of the very first tricks I learned was to write a loop and trap input from the keyboard. The program sits and hums, doing whatever it is that makes your game go 'round, checking the same spot for input over and over 'til it finds a keypress waiting for some kind of response. Here is a truncated real-world example from when I was around 15:

DO

ptime! = TIMER: WHILE ptime! = TIMER: WEND' Pause

K$ = INKEY$
IF LEN(K$) = 2 THEN
SELECT CASE ASC(RIGHT$(K$, 1))
CASE 59 'F1
IF Rock1Exist = 0 THEN
newRock
END IF
END SELECT
ELSEIF LEN(K$) = 1 THEN
SELECT CASE ASC(K$)
CASE 27: quit = 1
END SELECT
END IF

LOOP UNTIL quit > 0
'End of main program loop.

Dijkstra may have had a point about BASIC.

The other night I found myself sitting at the computer, cycling between a set of input streams: Two email accounts, about two dozen site feeds, and reddit. I was aware of this, but I didn't stop until I was exhausted and could barely focus on the screen. I was mirroring the process of those old games: Iterating over the state of external inputs, making some occasional response to a change, and then resuming the iteration. This is a familiar pattern, and not one I'm fond of.

I want to argue that a process like this is a defining thing about almost all of the ways we communicate over the network, and further that the way this process emerges determines the human impact of a given protocol, be it the US Mail or IRC.

Here is a rough continuum of message protocols, arranged from most to least realtime:

  • face to face conversation
  • telephone, VOIP
  • full-duplex radio
  • half-duplex radio
  • talk(1)
  • IRC
  • instant messaging
  • cellphone text messages
  • Usenet
  • email, voice mail, fax
  • web
    • wiki, weblog comments, message boards
    • social bookmarking
    • weblogs
    • semi-static documents, file collections
  • snail mail

The first thing you probably notice is that there are problems here. The ordering is arbitrary, based on things like my notion that Usenet and IRC feel more realtime than email and IM because they're more crowded. The ordering seems flawed because access control and scale are really important, and because much of what makes a medium more or less realtime are usage conventions. Wiki, for example, could slide to almost any point on the list depending on implementation and user culture. Various elements of the web are hard to place, until you start looking at individual services and sites. Even that wouldn't be enough for something like Wikipedia. Permanence is another important quality I'm not taking into account.

I'll leave all that aside for the moment, because my point isn't that you can construct a rigorous hierarchy. It's just that there's a shared pattern for most of these protocols, starting somewhere around the level of talk(1). Messages are passed in discrete chunks, starting with single characters and scaling up to various kinds of documents. Users begin by either reading the available messages, or passing messages in, and then wait for new input to act on.

talk and IM protocols which mimic its keystroke-at-time message passing are very close to realtime systems as long as both parties to a conversation are actively involved. There are pauses, but they're something like what you get in a face-to-face interaction while people process what's been said. (It's important that the pauses don't carry things like body language, but more about that later.) In fact, since on-screen composition of the message is visible to all, talk(1) can feel more realtime than speech, or at least more temporally confused. As in a voice conversation with bad lag or one-way-at-a-time constraints, users have to develop a social protocol for back-and-forth signaling.

Once the message chunks become larger and the lag time between messages greater, we see the real ramifications of those pauses. Let's suppose that in a single conversation between two people across a relatively realtime protocol, you can expect to spend half of your engaged time reading a message or composing a new one, and the rest waiting for the next message from the other party. This is not so bad, right? Useful multitasking is next to impossible, but you can always shuffle songs around, drink a beer, and surf desultorily in the meanwhile.

So what happens in the real world, where:

  • parties to discussion are asynchronously/asymmetrically interested/committed
  • much message passing is closer to broadcast than discussion
  • most people are parties to multiple discussions across multiple protocols and cultures at varying degrees of realtime-ness, and interested in multiple broadcast message streams (popular blogs, news sites, etc.)
  • the perception of social interaction and the discovery of novelty are both literally addictive
  • people like me have compulsive tendencies
  • good message composition is hard

I think that what happens is you get lots of people acting like input trapping routines over a range of I/O streams.

Another way to look at this is that since good message composition is harder than waiting for new messages, most people idle, and cheaply composed (usually cheaply interesting) messages proliferate, thus reinforcing the tendency to cycle through your potential sources of new messages.

No one's on AIM? Maybe there's a new story on Slashdot. No? Maybe Ralph has some new links to CGI pictures of dinosaurs fighting robot tanks up on his blog. No? Well, have I gotten any email yet? Dammit, maybe somebody responded to that blog post about strains of indigenous mesoamerican popcorn? Nope. Well, I might as well see if Jack's on AIM yet...

Monday, October 16

Back from the Hendricks conference (symposium?) in Lincoln, several thoughts to log, as I get the time...

a heuristic for exchanging money for goods & services

Most people regularly engage in transactions where at least one party has some incentive to lie. In a great many transactions, it would be crippling to assume that people are lying to an extent which will harm you, because trust costs less than suspicion. In others, suspicion is irrelevant: I know the bum on the corner is lying to me, but it hasn't got much to do with the decision I make about the 56 cents in my pocket.

But: In any exchange where the cost to you is substantial, and regardless of your domain-specific knowledge: if you feel like you are getting ripped off, you are probably right.

Based on experience, the one practical issue I can see with this is that if you're being an asshole, you are probably wrong (or you might be right and deserve it anyway). Which brings us to what I feel is a fairly good general principle: Don't be an asshole.

Monday, October 9

Ripping, just a little, on Steven Pinker. Much of which is kind of reflexive, but there's quite a bit of meat in this:

Jesus wept. To begin with, Virginia Woolf did not write, In or about December 1910, human nature changed. What she wrote was On or about December 1910 human character changed. The sentence appears in an essay called Character in Fiction, which attacks the realist novelists of the time for treating character as entirely a product of outer circumstance of environment and social class. These novelists look at people's clothes, their jobs, their houses, Woolf says, but never . . . at life, never at human nature. Modernist fiction, on the other hand, because it presents character from the inside, shows how persistent personality is, and how impervious to circumstance. Woolf, in short, was a Pinkerite.

I come to this by way of noticing friendly connections between Steve Sailer & Pinker, and wondering to myself just how much of a book (The Blank Slate) I've quoted favorably I ever really thought enough about. Some of what Pinker has to say is, I think, fairly hard to contest: Lots of people have a reflexive horror of understanding human biology as it pertains to human behavior as anything more than a black box. But I think a lot of Pinker's ideological/aesthetic axe grinding is more explicit and suspect than it seemed at the time, and it gets me to wondering about the whole framework. Similar thoughts on, frex, evolutionary psych in general.

Increasingly, I get to realizing that I don't have a grasp on much.

Meanwhile, I'm reading Field Day, by Matt Hern, which so far is a sympathetic and compelling take on radical education. On which topic more later.

Later on Pinker: Also this review, by Simon Blackburn, which is a more impressive critique:

Locke wanted only to deny innate ideas and innate knowledge, not innate powers or tendencies, nor innate limitations, nor innate cognitive and emotional capacities. This may sound like a mere historical quibble, but it arouses a powerful doubt about Pinkers diagnosis of modernity. If Locke did not hold the doctrine of the blank slate, then Leibniz and Hume and Kant, not to mention the massed ranks of churchmen declaiming about human depravity and Freudians declaiming about the nature of men and women, most certainly did not hold it either. And then its status as a central and unsalutary determinant of modern thought looks a little shaky.

A least, it's more impressive until he comes to the well-known meta-study of studies of violence by Haejung Paik and George Comstock, which found in 1994 that media violence affects young peoples chance of being violent about as much as smoking affects the chance of lung cancer., at which I have to take exception because it sounds like such hyperbolic bullshit.

I also suspect, without knowing quite enough to say, that Blackburn falls down on his criticism of the modular mind, and in the bit about desiring to reproduce vs. desiring sexual gratification. There's no need, after all, to assert that people want to fuck because they want to make babies—it's probably only necessary to demonstrate that wanting to fuck tends to make for more babies. is like supposing that even sodomites and foot fetishists are secretly trying to reproduce — well, no it's not.

Anyway it's good from there on out.

I am going to bed.

Sunday, October 8

So it looks like I'll be hanging out in Lincoln this coming weekend. Some academic types I used to chill with are in town for a conference. Something about retrofitting political science to tell better just-so stories, I think.

I jest, of course. Sort of.

People from Nebraska should write me a damn e-mail1 and maybe I'll drop by.

1 Again, I jest. I am the Worst Correspondent on Earth.

saturday, october 7

on pearl street the other day
i told a democratic party activist i don't
really vote; i was curious what he'd say
i thought his spiel was pretty decent
at least up to the point where he asked
me for money
he was passionate anyway
there is something to be said for
passion which knows its talking points
it makes for good salesmanship

not all that much later, a substantial
fraction of the democratic members of the
house and senate voted
for the military commissions act of 2006
putting a seal on the moral and
intellectual bankruptcy of their party,
and its status as an enabling foil for
the gang of murderers, thugs, and profiteers
who currently sit on the corporate
board of the united states of america.

take back our country, the earnest
20-somethings in the blue shirts with
the clipboards say — it sure
presumes a hell of a lot, doesn't it?
take what back, and from whom?

who is this we you keep
talking about?

Friday, October 6

New in October from the UNP includes the first legit English text of The Meteor Hunt, by Jules Verne. I remember Gary (my then boss & general press overlord) handing me this on a floppy to send out for review. It's been just long enough since I was there that the things I handled as big stacks of manuscript are starting to appear, as if by magic, in the form of real books.

It's not that I had any impact on these projects, being but a minor cog in the bureaucratic machine, but I think you feel some kind of ownership regardless. You start to pull for the one about the Canadian indigenous documentary filmmaker, or the desert history with all the first person stuff. You want them to take corporeal form and go out in the world and do good things.

Wednesday, October 4

ware

Open question: What would it take to make the crude, ad hoc p1k3 backend into a generalized package which someone might conceivably download, install, and configure in a few relatively painless steps?

Offhand, I think a rough first release would require the following things:

  • Integration of the Atom feed into the main Perl script.
  • Improved navigation of entries: An option to display unobtrusive 'next', 'previous', and 'up' links, plus some link tags in the header for the browsers that pay attention to that stuff.
  • Improved navigation between the wiki and weblog namespaces.
  • Easy configuration of all the important site-specific options.
  • An upgrade path non-destructive of existing configurations.
  • Documentation.

After that, the things that would make it really usable would be:

  • Inclusion of a web-based editor and file manager for weblog fragments, with quick shortcuts for creating the right files.
  • Use of arbitrary markup (such as that provided by the wiki, or plugins like Textile) for entries, instead of raw HTML.
  • ...or a way to specify flavors of output, so that the script could gracefully produce (for most entry fragments) Atom, or plaintext, or PDF output by way of TeX.
  • Tighter overall integration with the wiki.
  • Adapting the wiki (likely to still be Wala.pm) to cope with edit collisions, and to use a little smarter markup, and possibly to use a linking convention that bugs me less than CamelCase.
  • Thinking seriously about whether there's a better way than date-based organization of fragments.

'cause, you know, the world needs more blogging software.

Tuesday, October 3

resume class

I moved my resume over to LaTeX last night, using Daniel Burrows's resume class. I wanted to change a couple of his design choices - specifically by getting rid of the rules near the top of the page, italicizing titles rather than bolding, and using Computer Modern instead of Times. This all turned out to be trivial as long as I wasn't worried about correctness (the fonts, in particular, may have issues).

Here's my result (pdf). Here are resume_brennen.cls, and resume_brennen.tex as an example, in case anyone finds this useful.

You'll also need the PGF package for this to work. Under Debian (and presumably Ubuntu) PGF is available with apt-get install pgf.