Thursday, July 29, 2010

Posh Bedbugs

I heard a radio segment today (it was an NPR show, maybe All Things Considered but I might be wrong) on the big bedbug infestation in many American cities. The story made a point that bedbugs are showing up in upscale retailers, luxury hotels, and posh condo high-rises.


1. Bedbugs feed exclusively on blue blood.

2. The host or producers figured it wouldn't be interesting or surprising that bedbugs are also found in non-posh areas of the city. If the problem largely didn't affect the rich it wouldn't be such a big story, and if it was largely isolated to the poor it wouldn't even warrant mention.

So... either bedbugs are elitist or the media is.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A couple famous old court cases

1. So you know how the US government can claim a "State Secrets" privilege in a legal trial and either refuse to provide requested evidence or get an entire case thrown out, without even a judge seeing the evidence, if the government thinks providing the evidence could harm national security? There was a specific case that went to the Supreme Court in the 50s that established this precedent. Upon review of the documents involved after they were released many years later it became clear that they didn't in fact contain sensitive secrets, only information that would have damaged the government's case. I heard of this on This American Life, and it's mentioned on Wikipedia as well. If you're surprised by this I have some real estate and a used car you might be interested in.

I also recently heard about Hugo Chavez' moves towards nationalizing parts of a large grocery chain. Many workers, reportedly, are against the move, as they fear a government takeover would result in worse conditions. There's evidence to support this, and it seems obvious in theory, too. The government plays a large role in regulating labor conditions. Once it owns an enterprise it has a direct interest in that enterprise's success, and that conflicts with its interest in protecting workers. This could work if the regulatory and productive parts of the government were truly independent, but this seems unlikely on this planet.

This is another side of the “State Secrets” coin. It's an obvious conflict of interest for the executive branch to decide what evidence it can simply withhold in cases where it's a party. Seems like minimizing these conflicts would be a good idea. Perhaps if it's not appropriate for judges generally to see evidence that's potentially sensitive there could be a handful of judges cleared to see it. Because they'd need to be cleared by the executive their independence might be somewhat limited but without a direct interest in the executive branch the conflict would be less than it now is.

2. Leopold and Loeb. I was reading some things on the Internet about the Scopes Trial (I should find a good book or two on it... seems like an odd and fascinating spectacle) and came across a reference to one of Darrow's other cases, his defense of this pair that apparently believed themselves Nietzschean über-men and committed a murder to show that they were above the law. But they managed to get caught and their alibis fell apart completely. So much for that.

But they avoided the death penalty, perhaps partly on the strength of a Darrow argument about their psychology, nature, and motivation. Then again, the judge may have just been reluctant to sentence minors to death. One of them was murdered in prison while the other was released on parole, moved to Puerto Rico, and wrote a book.

A few of Nietzsche's ideas either influenced Hitler or were used by Hitler to manipulate people. So there's that. But this case was pre-World War II. Had this murder occurred after that it probably would have looked very different to the public. It wouldn't have been nearly as shocking, and the defendants probably couldn't have got away with showing so little remorse publicly.

As I understand it (which is not all that well) Nietzsche believed democracy would ultimately lead to mediocrity, and that we should orient society instead toward the development of über-men who could really stand above all law and judgment. The “über-man” stood in contrast to “last-man”, representing our self-limiting and, perhaps, primitivist tendencies.

You can see some of these ideas play out on a less dramatic scale in the way people carry out their careers and business, and the way they live with respect to the environment. Some people clearly are living with the idea that they're doing such great work that any of their excesses are justified. Others take a more humble tack and try to reduce their negative impacts. The trouble with the second method is clear — if our overall impact is indeed so negative, why bother to live? Of course, many people don't really consider the idea at all.

One thing I've picked up about our negative responses to things like veganism, environmentalism, etc., when it comes to really making changes in our lives, is that we believe (usually implicitly) that our desires are self-justified. This is something I've probably questioned more than most people have, but seeing as I've moved between Chicago and the Pacific coast three times, mostly in pursuit of fairly personal objectives, I'm not sure what all that pondering has done. I either believe that what I'm to find and do justifies all that burned gas, or I'm pretty inconsistent and hypocritical...

... Yeah, that would be the latter. Incidentally, that's one of the many things “Dear Mr. Burnham” is about. It's a two-minute song, and I could go on for hours and hours about any line in it. You don't want to hear me do that, but the second half of this blog post is one way I could do that regarding the final couplet.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Clickin' ass (Clickin ass!) Clickin' ass is what we do!

Apologies to Fry and Laurie for the title.

So Facebook's user satisfaction rates are terrible yet it's still growing. And nobody likes social games or the companies that run them, but they're raking in the dough. At this point I might make a parallel to many trends in urban development, but it would take a lot of words to do that topic justice, so I'll keep to the point (after noting that, in this survey, airlines and cable TV providers rank at about the same level as Facebook and each continue to move lots of product, probably for very different reasons). You may recall that I quit Facebook recently and even wrote a letter about it. But although leaving Facebook very clearly felt right to me, I don't think my letter really outlined a great case against Facebook. To be honest, I never have had a case against Facebook that was suited to that kind of exposition.

Ian Bogost, on the other hand, made the case right with Cow Clicker: a work of art that brings social gaming into the light, and sheds a bit on social networking as well. His four big points against social games are enframing, compulsion, optionalism, and destroyed time, with some specific discussions about all of these.

Enframing comes from Heidegger, and I've struggled with Heidegger in the past. It's always hard for me to figure just where “enframing” happens. There have long been people that used their social and professional networks mostly as a resource for personal gain. In fact, you could probably find a lot of people that don't even find that the least bit sinister. But Facebook has really made it systematic. South Park's You Have 0 Friends includes a bit where Cartman does a Mad Money spoof on social networks that correlates with this idea. Before there was Twitter, I tweeted in my away messages. Before there was Facebook I collected my friends into the “Bloody Revolution” (the first to join was Andy U. and the last was Jessica; Joe ended it with five words) and sent lots of mass, random emails (I never did recover Episode 3a). I still have copies of all this stuff (except Episode 3a), from the letter I wrote to the DI about pressure to exaggerate to prospective employers (it didn't get published; for some reason I signed it as a Junior in Engineering but with my address from Sophomore year... suspicious...) to the secret blog I kept on my University webspace in the vain hope that someone would run a directory listing and get curious. Facebook doesn't do anything more than all this stupid stuff I used to do, but it somehow does it in a different way, changes the whole nature of it. Not least because Facebook makes money at every turn. Sort of like a hedge fund. Sign a petition to save a tree or break up with your boyfriend, it's all water rolling into the dam for Facebook.

By the way, quote from my secret blog, 15 February 2003: “but it's like i said. i base my self-worth on 3 things: my aim profile, other people's opinion of my taste in music, and being better than my peers.”

Moving on. As far as compulsion goes, again, we've all had compulsions before social networking. Any successful game creates some compulsion in its users to spend time unproductively by playing it. I think of Perl Golf and other programming challenges. They're artificially constructed problems for programmers to solve when there are plenty of real programming problems to solve out in the world. But sometimes at work I randomly think of a possible improvement to my solution and email myself a quick note so as not to waste work time on it. I'm drawn to it as an interesting problem. Bogost claims that social gaming exploits our compulsions, but I think all successful games do that. Social games do so perhaps more effectively, or in a more systematic way at least, but I think that has more to do with enframing than that they've created a different kind of compulsion. As the fourth point, Time Destruction, depends on the second, I think the same holds. To whatever extent social games as a different kind of time-waste than other kinds, it has to do with their enframing of social networks more than anything else.

As for the third point, optionalism, there's an interesting question. Is it that gameplay is so weak as to optional, or is it that something like Farmville is more of a creative space than a game space? Like The Sims or Mario Paint? As a creative space it doesn't allow much expression, but there's precedent for this sort of thing in real-life social settings. Karaoke comes to mind. You sing someone else's song, usually some meaningless top-40 drivel (although my cousin Ryan likes to do What's so Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding, which is awesome), you sing it badly, you wave at your friends, your friends clap, you buy another beer. Farmville is more shallow than that, to be sure. But it's not all that much more shallow.

So to me Bogost's argument really falls to the Heidegger-based idea that social games are different from games that have come before because they enframe our social networks. As social games have laid bare the empty time-waste that games can be it's important for more traditional game designers to come up with an ethical framework that lets them differentiate themseleves, stay out of the muck. It's clear that enframing, that manipulating, social networks makes the compulsive pull of social games stronger. But as a consumer, not a producer, I don't have any interest in differentiating between social and non-social games. I just have an interest in my own time. If I waste time in a traditional game it's no different than if I waste time in a social game. The social game just might be harder to quit.

"This used to be such a great country..."

The title is a line spoken by Mee-Ma in the wedding episode of The (American) Office. Jim has accidentally announced to the whole wedding party that Pam is pregnant, and Mee-Ma, Pam's very “traditional” grandmother, is dismayed.

So, the birth control pill. It allows women to take control/responsibility for birth control, and is very good at preventing pregnancy. On the other hand, it does so by messing with their hormones, which can have really complicated side effects.

I'm not a woman, so it's not a trade-off I've had to consider personally. I've heard that researchers are working on male hormonal birth control, though, and my first impulse is that I wouldn't take it. The value proposition of hormonal birth control for men and women is quite different, because the consequences of unintended pregnancy are so different. Certainly a man should share equally in the responsibility of raising a child he's fathered, but that's not enforced biologically as it is in women. So this urge on my part has a selfish side. It also can come down to a question of values and priorities. Would I risk all the possible side effects of hormonal changes, especially being somewhat physically unusual (I tend to be very sensitive to drugs generally), for the sake of more sexual freedom? It doesn't seem like the right trade-off to me. But clearly it is for a lot of people, especially for women, for whom the trade-off is quite different.

To some traditionalists this seems like a generational question. It reminds me of my parents, who were talking about some political sex scandal a few years ago, and one of them said, "I don't understand it. They risk their whole careers just for sex?" There are definitely people that see people choosing to take various risks for sexual freedom and think it's evidence of changing priorities and values, especially of a decline in morals.

The problem with that idea is that people have always taken risks to have sex. It's not a new thing. We have the technology today to have more sex more safely than in the past, and people probably have more sex as a result. But people have always taken risks for sex. They've risked their careers and they've risked their health in days when death by syphilis was common. If they had the technology to have more safe sex in those days they would have done it. Proud advocates of debauchery alongside those that claimed celibacy. I doubt improvements in sexual technology are the result of changing values. It's possible they've changed values, but more than that, I think they've just given people new ways to express values they already had.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reasons I'm happy today

1. Today's driver of Community Transit Route 120, on the run departing Canyon Park at 5:44 PM. On paper the transfer to the southbound 511 bus at Lynnwood should be a 50-50 proposition (the 120 is scheduled to arrive at 6:18, same as the 511's departure), but I have a 100% success rate with this dude driving. Also, he enunciates clearly when he calls out the stops.

2. Smyrna figs. I don't think I've ever tried fresh figs, but I like to eat dried figs. I've had Mission figs, which are pretty good and tend to be consistent in quality. I've tried Calimyrnas, which can be very good but are not so consistent. And then I just tried Smyrna figs, and they are brilliant.

3. Jess. (dawww).

4. The institution of employer-based health insurance. Or... not.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I need to make a decision...

... Oh, but I'm not good at that. Maybe I'll put it off.

So... last Thanksgiving I was at my grandparents' house in Kalamazoo, and they were trying to get some of their children's things out of their house. One of those things was my dad's old guitar that he hasn't played since he was very young. My dad is not really a musician — any time he tries to lead a group in song (Christmas carols, Happy Birthday, etc.) he hums a pitch, then starts singing in a key seemingly unrelated to the pitch he hummed. I have to say "seemingly" because I think there must be some logic to it — I don't think he's the kind of person that would hum a pitch before starting to sing just because he's seen other people do it, not knowing why. My best guess is that he intends to start on the pitch he hummed, but he always hums a pitch way too high (most songs start at or near their lowest pitch, and he usually hums toward the high end of his comfortable vocal range) and naturally reverts to something more comfortable.

So anyway, my grandparents didn't want the guitar, he didn't want the guitar, and I was just starting to learn guitar, I didn't have one of my own, and I love random free stuff. So I have this guitar. It is a Stella Harmony, the classic beginner guitar of its day, made in a factory in Chicago. I also love old instruments. My clarinet is from the 60s also, but it's the classic professional clarinet of its day, a Buffet R13.

This guitar has some unusual features compared to many of the guitars I see around. It's built on a short scale (24-inch) and has a compact body, to ease handling and playing. This makes it easier for me to take it places, and also makes it quieter than most guitars, which is nice when I'm singing, because I don't have a booming voice. It has a tailpiece, which probably affects the sound in interesting ways, but I like it because it makes re-stringing easier (no push-pins... while re-stringing Jess' guitar before RPM those damn pins made me curse more than any other aspect of the job aside from my own incompetence). It has a twangy, plucky sound, but that could be for a number of reasons. It's just perfect for some songs (this one and, um, this). It also had a floating bridge until I, not knowing that it was supposed to float, glued it down. And this might sound weird, but I really like the way it looks. Which is like this:

Unfortunately the bridge came to me broken, I broke the nut trying to restring it, and I decided I didn't want to have a professional fix it because a minor repair would cost more than the value of the guitar. That's not a rational way to make economic decisions, but I felt it was part of the ethic of getting a free old guitar that I should figure out how to fix minor stuff like that. I made a new notch in the bridge with a letter opener and fixed the nut with some glue. The poor quality of one or both of these repairs may be why the low E string sounds really lousy, but the low strings generally don't sound very good on this instrument. This seriously hampers my ability to play songs like Hiding (electrified version notwithstanding, it sounds good on Jess' acoustic and terrible on mine). Apparently aside from my bad repair, the nut is also “grabby”. This means if you, say, adjust a string up using the tuning pegs, there becomes extra tension on the head-side of the nut, which slowly equalizes, causing the string to slowly get sharper over time. All the strings do this at different rates, so it's hard to keep the guitar precisely in tune. The most effective way to perform fine tuning is to stretch the string on either side of the nut, which is just weird. The tailpiece also affects tuning — any time you tune one string up the others go down slightly, and vice-versa. As far as ease of playing goes, the advantage of the short scale is eaten up by the bulky neck. It's both thicker and wider than any other neck I've seen (it's probably not as wide as a 12-string neck, but that's different), though I bet most cheap acoustic guitars in the 60s had bulky necks.

So I might want to buy a new guitar. But I'm not sure, because I hate buying stuff, and there's so much I like about the old one. It seems silly to have a professional fix and set-up my old one, given its lack of potential and flaws, but that's an option, too. Realistically I'm limited more by my lack of technique than my instrument at this point, so if I get a new guitar I'll have to commit to really learning the instrument.

As in Chicago...

In Seattle the south side is the place to ride.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rockin' the Toxo

A while ago, this article about Toxoplasma Gondii was picked up by Slashdot. There's a somewhat better article at The Economist Toxo seems endlessly fascinating to the Slashdot crowd, and to myself as well. Much of the world's population carries a parasite that may affect their personality and behavior, typically with no physical effects (although, rarely, an infection causes intense physical sickness). According to studies, Toxo increases testosterone in men and correlates with high aggression, dogmatism, and rebellion against authority; women with Toxo tend to be more outgoing and men find them more attractive. Although the parasite reproduces in cat stomachs and is present in cat feces it's almost never contracted through contact with cats. Rather, humans usually pick it up by eating raw or undercooked meat. I've seen different sources quote vastly different numbers for national infection rates, but all cite relatively low rates in Japan, South Korea, the US, and the UK, relatively high rates in France and Germany, and often very high rates in countries with serious public health problems. Because infection rates vary so much among different countries (and probably among cultural groups within them, since people are typically infected through food), Toxo infection could be a simple explanation for many cultural differences.

It reminds me of the day, in my intro-level Psych class in college, that the professor explained why stimulants can be an effective prescription for hyperactivity. The underlying theory is that people's brains are always active, spinning idly, keeping themselves entertained. People that are hyperactive spin less than usual, and require more external stimulation to avoid boredom. The right stimulant makes them spin more, require less external stimulation, and function better in classrooms and offices. What fascinated me more was the other side of the coin. People that "spin" more than usual become very quickly overloaded when there's a lot going on around them. That sounds a lot like me. It could be a simple explanation for a pretty big part of my personality.

Then again, there are lots of simple explanations out there. Our personalities are the result of an unknowable number of factors, and so are national and cultural characteristics. To me, Toxo is fascinating because it raises the question not just of who we are, individually and collectively, but also of what we are. It's a reminder that I have lots of living stuff in me that doesn't carry my DNA, and that it's as much a part of me as the parts that do carry my DNA. But I have to remember that any one of these things is just a small component of the whole and probably can't, by itself, explain very much.