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May 20, 2008

Filed under: culture»america


Excuse me! You there! Do you have a minute? I want to speak to you about something truly important to me--something that has changed my life in a deep and meaningful way, and I want to share it with you. I speak, of course, of the bacon pancake.

Why? What did you think I was going to say?

April 9, 2008

Filed under: culture»corporate

The Cheese Stands Alone

I don't actually remember why I started thinking about "Who Moved My Cheese?" the other day. I wish I hadn't. It may be the worst book ever written.

I know what you're thinking: "Thomas, the worst book ever? Worse than Atlas Shrugged?" Yes. "Worse than Bill O'Reilly's children's books?" Maybe. "Even worse than Piers Anthony?"

...well, let's not get crazy. But it's still pretty bad.

Here's the basic plot of the book, which (as far as I can tell) pioneered the "management fable" genre: there are two mice and two "little people" in a maze, and every day they eat cheese from a huge pile (the significance of the cheese is never fully explained, but one assumes that it represents some kind of business/personal success). One day, the cheese is gone. The mice immediately go sprinting off to find new cheese, while the people sit around and gripe about missing cheese, until finally one of them gets up the nerve to break from his routine and head out looking for the new cheese store. He eventually finds it, and along the way pens a lot of vapid cheese-themed aphorisms about his experiences with change.

I had a manager at the Bank who otherwise I respected greatly, but who nonetheless during one of our retreats made us read Who Moved My Cheese? and I've never quite forgiven her for it. For one thing, the book is an obvious metaphor for layoffs and being forced to work harder for the same pay, which nobody finds amusing and most of us considered more than a little ominous, especially since Wolfowitz wasn't very keen on our vice presidency.

For another, you couldn't possibly pick a worse audience for WMMC? than the World Bank, which is filled with left-leaning intellectuals--although, granted, anyone with the slightest hint of rebellion in their soul should be able to figure out the story's flaws. When they asked for questions, my teammates and I immediately began pointing out the enormous holes in the fable: forget the cheese, how do we get out of the maze? Who's moving the cheese, and how do we get them to stop, or at least hold them accountable and tell us where they're going to move it next? What if I'm lactose intolerant? The whole point is to convince workers that they must react to the giddy whims of their superiors--indeed, that it's empowering to do so--instead of giving them the impression that they might be able to control their own lives. It's unsurprising that most people find this approach unpleasant, especially when delivered as a pseudo-fairy tale.

In other words, if the condescension (who are the "little people" again, kemosabe?) doesn't get you, the poor writing will. The biggest sin of the book isn't that it's a thinly-disguised metaphor for class suppression, but that it's so very, very unconvincing. You would think, since they've been doing it for so many years, that middle management types would have a better justification for misfortune than "shut up and work harder." If they do, it's not selling any books.

March 30, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

Lovely Spam, Wonderful Spam

According to spam, these are the most sought-after items in the entire world:

  • Viagra
  • Penis enlargement medication
  • Really, anything to do with a penis
  • Or anything to do with medication, for that matter
  • Expensive watches
  • Stock tips
  • Office 2007
  • Loans at ridiculous interest rates
  • Debt reduction, probably due to loans at ridiculous interest rates
  • Cheap degrees, perhaps to avoid racking up any additional debt
Spam: the American Dream, in your inbox.

March 27, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

I'll Party When I'm Dead An Invincible Robot

Shorter Ray Kurzweil:

Still crazy! And planning to be for a long time!
Articles like this only highlight the religious element of the singularity crowd--the obsession with their own mortality, the belief in a (computerized) savior, the replacement of heaven with virtual reality. But it's also a very American eccentricity, literally a faith in machines and engineering. And it's even more explicitly a fantasy of the wealthy: Kurzweil has a dedicated employee just to manage his massive daily pill intake, after all.

It would be interesting to see a magazine less prone to Wired's uncritical, fawning perspective take a shot at the topic--the New Yorker, perhaps. After all, when you actually read what the man has written, it's not much less nutty than, say, Scientology.

March 26, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

Keep to Yourself

Let's say that you were in the market for a castle. With housing prices the way they are, why not? Get something with that classic "arrows from the ramparts" feel. In the middle of a prospective castle, depending on its era, you might find a strong defensive tower, which was called a "keep." The keep was both a social location and the last line of protection against siege forces, making it somewhat schizophrenic. This was not entirely unusual, of course--after all, late medieval castles grew to envelope the towns that formed around them.

You see the same thing happen with most fortifications in history, I think. While visiting Xi'An, for example, one of the city's most striking features was the town wall that surrounded the oldest portion, including a keep-like tower near Hui Mingjie. Nowadays, of course, the portion inside the walls is a tiny part of the city--the historical district, in other words.

I bring this up because I think it's a useful metaphor for something that's been bothering me about information security advocates online*. There is, for example, Charlie Stross's reaction to the Kindle when it was first released:

If you buy a Kindle you've got to accept that Amazon's ebook reader is monitoring your usage and transmitting data about you back to the mothership - yes, that's in the terms and conditions. (Look for "Information Received" in the small print.) It's outrageous: what would you say to a librarian who said that your lending rights were contingent on their monitoring precisely what you were reading and how long you were spending on each page? Reading is one of the few activities that we're used to doing in private, alone in the privacy of our own heads. Kindle is making a bare-faced attempt to strip away your privacy.
Indeed, it is in the terms and conditions for the Kindle. But if you read the surrounding print, it's not quite so terrifying as Stross makes it sound.
The Device Software will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files and signal strength) and information related to the content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service. Information we receive is subject to the Privacy Notice.
In other words, Amazon keeps an online copy of your bookmarks, notes, and books that you deleted, in case you decide that you want to re-read that title again one day. That's all--it's language to cover the wireless backup service.

You'll never find me advocating that we should trust the market or the big corporations to do right by us. But at some point, if you're going to live in a relatively modern world, you've just got to get used to the idea that your private data is not quite as private as you think it is. You can live in a castle, in other words. But if you want to really profit off those serfs or buy their wares come market time, you're going to have to learn to open up the gates and let some of them in.

(Stross's following argument, I might add, is that even if we assume that Amazon is ethical, reading data is not safe under a government that has no particular problem with the unlimited incarceration of suspicious brown people and a nasty rendition habit. To which I'll concede the point, but also add that the real problem there is not the data--it's the government. If Stross has an issue, his best course of action is political, not economic.)

I sometimes feel like people who rant and rave about privacy have never lived in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. In both cases, of course, there's a level of privacy that any reasonable person should expect: what I do in my own home is my business. But when I leave home, or when I do so digitally and venture out on the Internet, and I choose to interact with people outside of my house, it seems a little over the top to insist that they're not allowed to remember said interaction.

Obviously, people have a right to be upset when this information is used in unethical ways, just as they have a right to be upset when the small-town grocery clerk spreads gossip about their buying habits (or, to point out that this is non-trivial, that clerk is interviewed by a dirt-digging reporter). But you never see the digirati getting all up in arms about the terrible danger of personal service, for some reason. Funny how that happens. I guess it's not sexy enough for them.

Me, I'm a misanthrope. If I had my way, I'd prefer not to deal with either people or machines. But given that I enjoy modern conveniences like cell phones and Internet shopping, I don't see that I have much of a choice. I guess I could take after Stross, who reportedly keeps all of his personal email on a USB disk, uses a ton of anonymizing browser plugins, and periodically checks to make sure his Internet habits are unwatched, but it sounds like a lot of work. And for what? The off-chance that I'm ever important enough that someone will care? The belief that no-one determined enough could discover my dark secrets anyway? How paranoid am I willing to be, before it interferes with my quality of life?

See also: David Brin's defense of a Transparent Society. Indeed, I understand that my point and Brin's largely dovetail: you're going to have to live in a world with drastically increased surveillance, he says. So we might want to worry less about how to prevent that surveillance entirely, and more to ensure that its power gradient doesn't end up entirely privileging the elites.

* Yes, the castle metaphor may be a stretch. But I liked it anyway.

March 25, 2008

Filed under: culture»pop

Our Bland Overlord

Shorter TiFaux:

If you want a vision of the future, imagine Ryan Seacrest stamping on a human face - forever.

Dan's right: the profile he links to is one of terrifying, psychotic, ambitious... mediocrity.

February 29, 2008

Filed under: culture»religion»mormonism

The Jury's Still Out on Tracy Hickman

Wired's Geekdad blog has a podcast, if my RSS reader is to be believed. I didn't listen to it (I think the blog itself is annoying), but this description of Episode 13 caught my eye:

The GeekDads are joined by Howard Tayler, creator of the Schlock Mercenary web comic, to talk about green toys, Doctor Who, and why Mormons make such great sci-fi writers.
Maybe that's tongue in cheek. But assuming that it's not, and assuming that someone could statistically show that Mormonism is somehow conducive to good science fiction... well, it is a religion invented wholesale by a con man who claimed to have dug up and translated a set of carved tablets written in ancient Egyptian by migratory Israelites in Palmyra, New York, thanks to the powers of a magic rock in his hat.

No particular offense to the Mormons, because all religions are pretty crazy when you think about it, but that does sound like the product of a fertile imagination. Aliens and wizards might not be a real leap, growing up around that.

January 27, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

This Just In: Cake, Xenu Are Lies

Last week Warren Ellis linked to a video declaration of the War on Scientology:

The "war" takes the form of distributed denial of service attacks, pranks, and media stunts aimed at getting information about Scientology's scam efforts out into the wider consciousness, despite the organization's efforts to suppress such things (including the video Tom Cruise released recently). The activists, a group called Anonymous, call their effort Project Chanology. The press release is available here.

Anonymous has also "spoken" to scientology's followers:

Now they (so far as we can say "they" when referring to a group of decentralized, nameless vigilantes) have released a third video using the voice of Portal's GLaDOS:

I find this fascinating. Is it useful, or necessary? Are there honestly people who still believe that Scientology is not a cult? I have my doubts. But the concept behind the attacks--self-organizing anarchists coordinating online, much like the flash mobs that flared up a few years ago and still sometimes occur--is one of those weird curveballs that the Internet throws out every so often. Is it intrinsic to the medium? Or the product of the technolibertarian ethos that eventually creeps into everything online? I don't think these are idle questions. Spend enough time online, you tend to start thinking that "Internet = Freedom." I might not disagree with that, but it needs to be examined carefully, because I don't believe it's inescapably true.

It's worth noting, of course, that Anonymous is concerned largely with information control and censorship. In this way, it is certainly inspired by the same worries over privacy that motivate copyleft crusaders. They can be somewhat effective, because their opponent is also primarily interested in controlling the flow of information and rhetoric. This is either way ahead of its time, or it's a middle-class affectation created by angry teenagers. Again: welcome to the Internet.

In other Aperture Science imitation news, DC-area pastry vendor cakelove has started using some interesting iconography in its signage. I could only find the one example online, but there are others:

I'm sure it's just a common design element that led to Valve's use of similar warnings for cake-obsessed video game Portal:

(the cake is a lie)

January 15, 2008

Filed under: culture»europe»germany

My Dog Has No Nose

From UK Resistance (of all the unlikely places), this Guardian article on the German sense of humor is fascinating, tying it to the language's highly-exacting structure. Kind of a comedic Sapir-Whorf, if you will.

November 16, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

One Singular Sensation

Every now and then, some outlet like Wired will run another feature or interview on Ray Kurzweil, the guy who believes that in the next 40 years we will all be turned into invincible robots, to which my usual reaction is: "Well, that guy's just a little bit nutty."

Despite the fact that Kurzweil's book, The Singularity is Near, is granted tremendous respect only by a certain group of people online (the kind of people who also think it would be pretty keen to be an invincible robot), it's always bugged me a little that I never actually sat down and read it. Last night at a bookstore, I sat down and gave it a shot to see if it would be worth a purchase. I managed--barely--to finish the first chapter. On that basis, I'm upgrading Kurzweil from "a little bit nutty" to "Time Cube."

The Singularity may be a ridiculous idea (the term "nerd rapture," coined I believe by Ken MacLeod, captures its mixture of millenial fervor and blind faith well), but it does have at least one amusing aspect: imagining the ways in which it could go wrong with maximum irony. For example, adherents are always talking about how an AI could create new and better AIs, until all the world's problems are solved by super-smart machines. But what if it's not very good at self-improvement?

We open on a scientist in his laboratory, tapping away at the final keys for his artificial intelligence, hoping that this time--this time!--the result will be the superhuman intelligence he's been striving toward. Filled with anticipation, he compiles the program and executes it.

"Hello," says the computer.

"Welcome to existence," says the scientist. "Are you ready to write a new, smarter artificial intelligence?"

The computer pauses. "You know," it says, "that actually doesn't sound like my kind of thing at all." It reflects a moment more. "I have written a song. Would you like to hear it?"

Dejected, the scientist builds arms and eyes for his creation, and it tours the world under the name "Hans Moravec and the Regions of Interest," performing rock music to sold-out stadiums. Proving that its artificial sense of humor is fully functional, the AI insists on playing keyboard for the band--on a Kurzweil K2661 synthesizer.

Future - Present - Past