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May 10th, 2013


01:57 am - Cherry Spice Nut Torte (Gluten Free) + GF baking notes
Yesterday, teaotter wrote a charming short piece of fluffy fan-fiction which involved a character making a cherry spice cake.  I'd never had or even heard of such a cake, and so my first impulse was to make one (particularly since it sounded delicious).  However, there were some considerations that I needed to keep in mind.

I can eat gluten, but my partner amberite is, and since teaotter doesn't eat sweets all that often, most of the time I make a cake or pie, I try to make it gluten free, so I don't end up eating it all myself.  In the past several years of doing this (and also regularly making wheat flour desserts), I realized several facts about gluten free baking.

The first is that if you are making a cake, IMHO most gluten free flours (typically made from rice, oat, tapioca, or gods help you chickpea (shudder) flour) deeply suck - their texture is odd and a bit rubbery, and to me they don't taste nearly as good as wheat flour. However, from my PoV as someone who can eat wheat w/o harm, baked goods made with almond flour can be delicious.

The second is that traditional recipes are always best.  You can find almond flour recipes on "paleo-diet" sites, but avoid most of them - either the people making them don't care that the results are completely soggy and structureless, or they make odd sacrifices to eldritch paleo-diet gods and so manage to actually create something worth eating using these dubious recipes.

As a general rule, if a cake or muffin recipe using almond flour doesn't use at least 5 separated eggs, where the beaten egg whites are used as the main form of levening, don't make it. However, I did find this lovely gluten-free pie crust recipe. IME, home-made gluten-free pie crusts made with alternative grains have textures ranging from rock to shoe leather.  However, this almond flour pie crust is awesome.  I add spices and vanilla as appropriate, and the result is better than any wheat flour pie crust I've ever had. Add 1/3 coconut flour for citrus pies, or 1/2 cup of ground pecans (grind with a Mouli grater) for pumpkin or pecan pie for even more deliciousness. This vegan almond flour pie crust sounds like it would also work, but I haven't tried it. However, that's about it for non-traditional recipes. I love this lemon almond cake (to be completely honest, I mix and matched it with this very similar recipe, and use a food processor on the lemons)

However, for making a more standard cake, like the one below, I use as a base this this excellent walnut torte recipe, I typically reduce the eggs from 8 to 6, and use 6 oz of nuts - either all almond flour or at least half almond flour and half finely ground (with a mouli grater) pecans or walnuts, elminate the breadcrumbs, and bake it all in an 8" or 9" removeable rim pan, and the three times I've done this have all been excellent.

Here's the recipeCollapse )

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May 1st, 2013


02:22 am - Music & New Vocabulary
Becca and I went to see John Fullbright in concert tonight. I wasn't all that familiar with his work before, but I very much enjoyed myself. His music sits at the crossroads of folk, country, and blues, and at various times sounded like everything from Tom Waits, to early Jackson Brown, to 50s rock. Fullbright described his music as "Americana Music", a term I was previously unfamiliar with, and described it was what people call your music when you wear a fedora and play a guitar (he's also quite good on keyboard). Here's and excellent and nifty video of his recent song Gawd Above.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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April 17th, 2013


08:39 pm - Musing on The Female Man by Joanna Russ
I just finished an old SF classic – Joanna Russ' The Female Man (I highly recommend the linked Wikipedia article if you haven't read the book or haven't read it for a long time). I had never read it before, and reading it was both interesting and odd. Like most good SF, it's social commentary. It was well written and engaging and clearly New Wave SF, where playing with language and PoV was new to SF and was used with good effect. However, it also seriously shows its age. It was written in 1970, when Second Wave feminism was still relatively new. Now, society has changed, and in many (but definitely not all) ways it feels like a historical artifact.

One of the protagonists (Joanna) is from something much like our world in 1970, another (Jeannine) is from a 1970 where the Great Depression never ended and gender roles and expectations similarly did not change much from the 1930s. My own reading about Joanna's world and her difficulties and attitudes felt very much like Joanna's reaction to Jeannine's world and attitudes - a reminder of how bad things used to be, but also as a reminder that we are still far from equality.

In some ways, reading this book felt a bit like when I attempted to reread LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness (1969) a decade or so ago. I loved that book when I first read it long ago, but when I reread it, I had a great deal of trouble getting past the fact that the protagonist was clearly supposed to be a clueless everyman who was supposed to be at least somewhat sympathetic (if also possessed of attitudes he would unlearn in the course of the book), but came across far more as a misogynist jerk of the sort now typically only found as the protagonist in works created by extreme reactionaries. There's a long way to go towards gender equality, but books like these also serve to remind me that we have also come a very long way already. In many ways, while both novels are good, they also now feel fairly archaic.

I was especially struck by a passage written from Joanna's PoV: click for quoteCollapse )This works as a slightly exaggerated vision of the 1960s US, but it looks a whole lot less like the modern US. In 1970, women were 9.7% of the nation's doctors and just 4.9% of its lawyers, according to Census data., now the numbers are around 1/3 of each, which a strong age bias, and around one sixth of the Army and the Navy is now female. Even more strikingly, two income heterosexual married couples are now more than three times as common than ones where only the man works, and perhaps more importantly, "In relationships where one partner earned at least 60 percent of the household income, women were the bigger earner only about 4 percent of the time in 1969, she says; now, women are the big earner in 25 percent to 30 percent of those relationships.". We're far from gender equality, but perhaps equally far from the US (and in fact the entire developed world) of 1970.

Of course, our societies have also changed in ways that showcase how some of the attitudes found in The Female Man are exceedingly problematic. Specifically, this is also a book I would not recommend to any of the many trans people I know. In the sections on Jael's dystopian world, in the continent ruled by men, the only women were transwomen, and their depiction was fairly horrific in ways that went well beyond a condemnation of the dystopian gender attitudes of that world. In reading it, I felt rather strongly that the reader was seeing Russ' attitudes towards transwomen, and that felt both disturbing and sad, especially that we are now living in an era where (at least in the US) trans people are (at best) in roughly the same situation that women were at in 1970.

As a sidenote, I had never read The Female Man before, but I remember reading Russ' 1972 Hugo and Nebula winning short story "When It Changed" in Again, Dangerous Visions. I reread it after finishing The Female Man, and just like when I first read it, was unhappy with how inevitable the loss of that way of life seemed with recontact with men, that ending reveals some assumptions that are thankfully perhaps somewhat less common now than then. I rather prefer Tiptree's literary response to that story – "Huston, Huston, Do You Read" (which won a Hugo and a Nebula in 1976).
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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March 18th, 2013


10:15 pm - Race, Class, and Justice
I've been reading about the various completely justified anger about the media's treatment of the conviction of the two rapists in the Steubenville Ohio case, where CNN and various other news stations showed a disturbing amount of sympathy for the rapists. That's all an exceedingly important discussion that is all about how the mass media is a major part of rape culture. However, this case also reminded me of another high-profile case, the 1989 Central Park jogger_case. In that case, 5 young men were arrested and convicted of the assault.

Of course, there are also some major differences in these two cases. Yes, the 1989 case was a more serious crime – the victim almost died from the beating she sustained. However, the other differences are also worth noting. The "Central Park 5" were a bit younger than the two Steubenville rapists, ranging in age from 14 to 16. Also, instead of a year or two of juvenile detention, they all served between 6 and 14 years adult maximum security prisons – they were tried and convicted as adults, despite one of them being only 14.

There are two other crucial differences between the two cases, the "Central Park 5" were all poor black and latino kids, while the two Steubenville rapists were middle class boys, one white, one black, and both playing college football. Also, unlike the two boys in Steubenville, none of the "Central Park 5" were guilty. Instead, their convictions were based on coerced confessions and rushed trials, while the actual criminal was a white man who was eventually convicted on DNA evidence in 2002. I remember some of the publicity around the 1989 case, and any sort of sympathy for the 5 kids where were arrested was distinctly absent from the mass media. So based on flimsy evidence, 5 young men between the ages of 14 and 16 were put in maximum security prison for years for a crime they didn't commit, while two white rapists who were 16 & 17 were tried and convicted as juveniles for a crime they did commit and for which there was abundant evidence. Remember this the next time anyone claims that the US has moved beyond racism, that class doesn't matter any sort of similar nonsense.

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03:09 am - Amusing Visual Images
teaotter is seriously into BPAL perfume, and talks about her perfumes regularly. One of the ingredients in some of them is Oud. Because it's pronounced the same, every time she says Oud, I see (an Ood from Dr. Who) It makes me giggle most of the time.
Current Mood: amusedamused

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March 1st, 2013


01:49 am - The coming end of (human) science
Six and a half years ago, I made this post about the limits of human knowledge and the end of science, because eventually we would reach the limits of our understanding. I didn't think of another stranger option, one that is in the very earliest stages of happening now.
Then, two years ago, Hod Lipson and Michael Schmidt announced the first stirrings of robotic thinking. Lipson, a computer science professor at Cornell, and Schmidt, then a graduate student in Lipson’s lab, created a computer program that, given a raft of data from physical systems, can describe the natural laws that apply to that system. When they fed their software the motion-capture coordinates of a swinging double pendulum, the machine pondered the data for a couple days, then spat out the Hamiltonian equation describing the motion of such a system—an equation that represents the physical law known as conservation of energy. Their software needed no prior knowledge to discover this law. It wasn’t familiar with gravity, energy, geometry, or anything else. It simply did what human scientists have done since the time of Newton. It looked at the world, came up with theories about how it works, tested them, and then produced a law.

Lipson and Schmidt called their program Eureqa, and they made it available for free on the Web. It has since yielded several new discoveries in a range of fields, discovering scientific laws that we’d never known. Lipson and Schmidt recently worked with Gurol Suel, a molecular biophysicist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, to look at the dynamics of a bacterium cell. Given data about several different biological functions within the cell, the computer did something mind-blowing. “We found this really beautiful, elegant equation that described how the cell worked, and that tended to hold true over all of our new experiments,” Schmidt says. There was only one problem: The humans had no idea why the equation worked, or what underlying scientific principle it suggested. It was, Schmidt says, as if they’d consulted an oracle
Now, things like this are an extreme rarity, a mathematic proof here, a discovery about bacteria there... However, both computers and software will be noticably better in 5 years, and quite a bit better in 10 or 15 years. Already, in a test of 500 patients, software similar to Waston was better at diagnosing these patients than human doctors.

Once again I'm, thinking of Charle's Stross excellent recent novel Rule 34. In the novel, there were no conscious AIs, but computers were still increasingly taking control of human lives. We're not there yet, but once again, I suspect that 2020 and beyond will be amazing in a host of exceedingly subtle but profound ways. Such is modern life and modern technology.

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February 5th, 2013


12:26 am - Musings on RPG Work and on Kickstarter
I'm slowly moving forward on getting my outline for Aeon ready, while also doing other work (or mostly not doing other work, because I'm spending far too much time on an outline that will literally be 10% the length of the final book), but I just got another assignment with a similar due date to my first, and so it's time to get down to work.

In any case, I just realized that all of the projects I've worked on in the last six months are having a Kickstarter, and I just found out that the latest one I got hired on will have an extra-wonderful (at least to me) stretch goal - if they make more than X amount, the authors get paid more - needless to say, you folks will hear more than a bit about this when the Kickstarter goes live, which won't be for at least a month and a half.

The degree to which Kickstarter and sites like it have revitalized tabletop gaming is quite impressive. I hope that this is a model that continues, both because I personally like the sort of things it produces and also because I suspect that this is going to be much of the future of gaming. Many years ago, back in the late 90s, I remember talking with several other people in the RPG industry about alternative publishing, and we all concluded that the ideal method would be a method of distributed patronage. I imagined some sort of subscription model, but Kickstarter is clearly what works now, and it works impressively well.
Current Mood: busybusy

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January 28th, 2013


12:55 am - Not Unexpected News From Egypt
PORT SAID, Egypt — President Mohamed Morsi declared a state of emergency and a curfew in three major cities on Sunday, as escalating violence in the streets threatened his government and Egypt’s democracy.

By imposing a one-month state of emergency in Suez, Ismailia and here in Port Said, where the police have lost all control, Mr. Morsi’s declaration chose to use one of the most despised weapons of former President Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy. Under Mubarak-era laws left in effect by the country’s new Constitution, a state of emergency suspends the ordinary judicial process and most civil rights. It gives the president and the police extraordinary powers.


At this point, I'm betting things have turned a corner in Egypt and that Morsi won't be in charge of Egypt in a year (likely less). The Muslim Brotherhood (which Morsi is the head of) didn't get involved in the Muslim Spring riots against Mubarak until near the end, and I'm betting the people who were involved early take poorly to these actions. Given that Morsi is definitely proving to be of the "Meet the new thug, same as the old thug" school of politics, I wish the people of Egypt well and hope they overthrow Morsi and actually manage to elect someone who isn't a would-be tyrant.

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12:45 am - Swamp Pawn Ghosts – Musings on Bizarre TV
teaotter & I were watching a cooking show before she went to bed, and then she looked at what was on other channels. One show caught my eye – I didn't watch it, I was merely awestruck by its existence – it was called Swamp Pawn. There are now all manner of shows for bored white collar workers about unusual jobs - Swamp Loggers, Storage Wars, and several involving pawn shops… Swamps and pawn shops for some reason seem especially common, and so this show is the perfect exemplar of this form of TV – all shall bow down before the mediocre might of Swamp Pawn.

I then mentioned this to amberite who wondered whether it was about a pawn shop in a swamp or about selling items found in a swamp to a pawn shop. [[1]] Alice also suggested that an even more perfect show would be Swamp Pawn Ghosts [[2]], and then wondered if that would be a show about a haunted pawn shop or about pawning ghosts found in a swamp – I vote for the second.

In many ways, US TV has gotten like the rest of the US culture - far less uniform than it was 20+ years ago. Over the past decade I've watched a number of truly excellent shows, many of which have been among the best shows I've ever seen on TV, while I've also been careful to avoid some of the most bizarre and terrible-sounding shows I've ever heard of.

[[1]] Note: I have no interest in learning the actual answer to this question, speculating is far more enjoyable.

[[2]] The number of terrible-looking ghost-hunting shows is shockingly large.
Current Mood: amusedamused

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December 18th, 2012


02:53 am - Food Allergy Bullet Dodged
I think I can now safely say that I'm not suddenly allergic to corn. A few weeks ago, I started getting acne on my face, which was both odd and annoying and my face also itched. Then, I got more - lots more. The only change I noticed before this was that I'd started eating Captain Crunch cereal, I stopped and the problem got better, but then I had corn for dinner several nights later and it got much worse again - approximately 3 hours after I finished dinner. This was repeated a few days later when I had something with a cornmeal crust. So, I read on-line about corn allergies, and found that acne was a common reaction to corn allergies. Simply no eating corn, only helped a small amount. Then, I cut corn derivatives out of everything I ingested (this is insanely difficult in the US - even the benadryl I was taking to try to stop the iching had cornstarch as its first ingredient). My face slowly started getting better, but I was still having some new minor problems as well as everything taking a long time to heal. By this point, I didn't want to go out much, since I looked horrid.

So, at my partners' urging, I made an appointment with my doctor and went in last Monday. She took one look at my face, listened to what I had to say, and said that while corn might have had some role in triggering it, what I had was tinea barbae. So, I got some anti-fungal pills, and it cleared up quite rapidly. Then last Thursday, I began introducing corn derivatives back into my diet - caramel color, corn syrup, and corn starch all seem perfectly find and caused no problems. I'm betting that something in the Captain Crunch cereal made the fungus very happy indeed, and that I might be wise to avoid actual corn and cornmeal for a while. I am exceedingly pleased at this turn of events - one food allergy is more than sufficient.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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December 17th, 2012


01:05 am - Waiting For A Miracle – Near Future SF Of The 1950s-1970s
I recently read John Brunner's 1963 novella "Listen! The Stars!" (expanded to the short novel The Stardroppers in 1972, and realized something about SF of that era. From WWII to the dawn of cyberpunk, there were several large subgenres of SF – one of the big ones was space opera – vast sprawling star empires and republics with faster than light travel, anti-gravity, and often huge space battles. Also, when you looked at the backstory of most of them, there was a global nuclear war that had destroyed most of Earth. You get in in authors ranging from H. Beam Piper and Andre Norton, to Isaac Asimov and Poul Anderson. Most of these novels were quite optimistic compared to much modern SF, but first Earth's population had to largely blow itself to pieces and then people learned at least a modicum of sense. There were exceptions – I don't remember any nuclear wars in James Blish's more space operaish works, but there weren't all that many exceptions.

The situation becomes even more interesting when you look at near future SF of that era. Most of it was also pretty darn optimistic. You get a spate of eco-doom novels & stories from the mid 60s to the late 70s, but there was also a bunch of fiction that wasn't quite to big on gloom, cannibalism, and toxin breathing mutants.

However, almost all of the optimistic novels shared one common feature – a miracle. This miracle can take many forms – a few years ago I wrote about one such form - magic peace drugs, like those found in Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar or Fritz Leiber's The Green Millennium. However, that's not the only option. Poul Anderson has force shields created by humans working with Martians in Shield, Brunner has alien broadcasts that teach vast psychic powers in "Listen! The Stars!" and drastic intelligent enhancement in The Stone That Never Came Down, Clifford Simak uses everything from alien flowers in All Flesh is Grass, to a psychic peace projector in Way Station.

In all cases, the basic situation is the same, humanity is either likely or certain to destroy itself (or at least remain locked in a seemingly endless cycle of wars) until the aliens arrive or people discover some wonderful natural or alien macguffin that in some way eliminates the threat of nuclear war. Suddenly, all those optimistic stories looked a bit different to me. I remembered how likely many people though nuclear war actually was, and that these are basically stories where the only happy ending humanity could find to the Cold War and the post-nuclear world was some sort of miracle that would save us from ourselves.

It's a bit odd reading these novels now – we made it, not only wasn't there a nuclear war, but overall war has been headed out of fashion ever since WWII. It's fascinating reading all of those novels about how people were saved by alien intervention or a chance discovery, as I sit here in a world where people simply made the choice simply not to have a civilization-ending war. As a quote about nuclear war from a movie of the later days of the Cold War goes - "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?" and all on our own, we didn't play.

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November 5th, 2012


04:17 am - AJ's Craft Sale
My beloved amberite is selling jewelry and other crafts to make ends meet. Here's a link to her page about what she's selling, much of which is awesome.
Current Mood: hopefulhopeful

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September 4th, 2012


01:46 am - A history lesson by a politician I respect
It's rare for pretty much anyone other than labor organizers and progressive historians to talk about the history of the US labor movement, but here's an excellent description of an incident from 1920 that's well worth reading about. The Battle of Blair Mountain WV recounted by ex (and hopefully future) Representative Alan Grayson, which he terms "The Second Civil War".

Incidents like this is why unions are important, a fact far too many people in the US have forgotten. Some through lack of experience, others because a number powerful and wealthy people want to eliminate unions. Grayson ends his story with a question well worth considering "Now let me ask you one thing: had you ever heard of this landmark event in American history, the Battle of Blair Mountain, before you read this? And if not, then why not? Think about that."
Current Mood: busybusy

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August 27th, 2012


03:44 am - Fascinating Article on Norwegian Justice
Here's a fascinating article on justice and prisons in Norway, focusing on the treatment of mass-murderer Anders Breivik The article correctly points out how humane the prison system is there, how very different it is from the hideous US prison system, and also how it is vastly more effective at preventing repeat offenders, despite prison terms being shorter. The only disturbing thing about the article is that it was written by someone utterly monstrous. The author writes:
Norwegian-style restorative justice subverts those human desires for justice and fairness, which does seem to have found success in reducing crime's cost to society. Proponents, such as University of Oslo professor Thomas Mathiesen, say it's better for society overall because it isn't about "revenge, but sober, dignified treatment." But is the retributive-style (like the US justice and prison system) need for justice and fairness really only about "revenge," or is it something more important than that? The retributive approach absolutely has its pitfalls -- the American system's heavy emphasis on punishment has a history of leading it to horrific excess and abuse -- but at least it's meant to be just.
I have a very simple answer to the question: "But is the retributive-style need for justice and fairness really only about "revenge,'" or is it something more important than that? It's clearly and primarily about punishment aka revenge. That's what the death penalty is all about, and that's what the entire US prison system is all about. From my PoV, anyone who can look at a prison system that is clearly both far more humane and far more effective and feel that the fact that it isn't hideously draconian in some way "subverts those human desires for justice and fairness" is a sick and nasty person – I have great difficulty imagining how someone can think like that and vastly wished that more people didn't. In large part, I think this is evidence of how sick US culture is – with our emphasis on violence, competition, financial success at all costs, and punishment, far too many people see the sort of nasty and brutal attitudes these ideas encourage as in some way "natural" or preferable to a more human system. Comments like that make me feel like an alien in the nation of my birth.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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August 26th, 2012


08:25 pm - Awesome Birthday!
I'm in Hawaii – I'm currently in Honolulu, because it's easier for my parents to fly home from there, but yesterday, on my birthday I was on the island of Hawaii. My parents took Becca and I to Hawaii for my birthday (and because they remain evil, Alice was not invited). We stayed at a lovely Hotel a few miles outside of Hilo on Thursday and Friday night, and then came to Hilo for the tour of the Hawaii Volcano National Park that we went on yesterday. It was spectacular, made even better by having a guide who was a retired park ranger who had worked in the Volcano Park since 1972. We saw lava tubes, amazing volcanic landscapes, and a smoking caldera full of lava. During the day, it was merely full of smoke, but as the sun went down, the glow became visible – I could see the glow of magma, and got a number of pictures. Here's what I think is the best:
Volcano Glow
Hilo was lovely (and IMHO vastly more interesting than Kona, which from what I read is uber-touristy and noted only for hot and dry beaches (which hold no interest for me). Hilo had excellent food, amazingly lush scenery nearby, and was closer to the volcanoes. The only downside is that Becca and I both miss Alice a great deal, but we'll be home in 2 days. In any case, I've always loved fire and the images of volcanoes that I've seen, and the volcano park was incredible.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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June 18th, 2012


03:33 am - Gaming News Related To Me
At long last, Eldritch Skies is available as a printed book, either a $40 hardcover book or a $30 softcover book. I'm excited and hope this seriously increases sales (on average, for RPGs print book sales are several times PDF sales). Spread the word to anyone who you think might be interested.

Also Chaosium Inc., the company that makes Call of Cthulhu, BRP and several other wonderful games is taking part in a competition for some sort of quarter million dollar small business award. They need 250 votes to get through the first stage and it looks like anyone on Facebook can vote – they currently have 226 votes. In addition to producing games I like, they are also a company I work for, and people I respect, so please vote for them.

The information that voters need is:

Name of Business: Chaosium Inc.

State: California

City: Hayward
Current Mood: hopefulhopeful

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June 14th, 2012


03:26 am - Swiftkey keyboard oddness
So, I read the most recent xkcd, and being intigued by keyboard a learning markov chain generator that could learn from my lj (I turned it into an RSS feed and linked it to Swiftkey), and so I put Swiftkey on my phone. Then, like in the comic, I hit space to effectively allow it to create its own messages. Here's one I just got - "I am a beautiful person. I am baffled that this is a bad thing." It ended there, since after the period, it just kept going with additional periods. (...) I'm both entranced and a bit creeped out by this, I've seen spambot generated emails a whole lot less comprehensible and I didn't type a single character myself, I just let it autoinsert words of its own choosing. It's also an excellent keyboard for texting. In any case, I wonder what thinks like predictive text will look like in a decade...

Edit: I also started a sentance with "The" and let it go from there, and got "The cat and the robot have different conditions of the most appealing utopias that I've been a while..."
Current Mood: amusedamused

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June 10th, 2012


01:54 am - Bandits - a fun, charming, and wonderful film.
Several months ago, siderea made a post asking for recommendations for media with fictional depictions of polyamory that are actually well done. One of the recommendations was a fairly recent film I'd never heard of - Bandits (2001), with Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett. teaotter and I sat down to watch it tonight, and were soon joined by amberite. It was impresively quirky, funny, and quite good. The three protagonists were impressizely bizarre individuals and the result was excellent light fun that wasn't stupid and which also didn't gloss over the fact that polyamory is complex.

While it's quite different from the wonderful romance film Simply Irresistable (1999), with Sarah Michelle Geller & Sean Patrick Flanery, both are quirky films that are well outside the range of typically Hollywood films with romances in them, and both are vastly better than most of their somewhat mediocre reviews.

To many films that have anything to do with romance end with me upset due to it being offensive, or simply deeply alien to my experience in a rather horrifying fashion. It's rare to find one that leaves me with a smile on my face, and both of these managed that very well indeed.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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June 9th, 2012


04:45 pm - Musings on Cultural Blindness
Here's an article purporting to help explain why people in the US are so resistant to believing in evolutionThe article begins:
Last week, Gallup announced the results of their latest survey on Americans and evolution. The numbers were a stark blow to high-school science teachers everywhere: forty-six per cent of adults said they believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” Only fifteen per cent agreed with the statement that humans had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.

What’s most remarkable about these numbers is their stability: these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question, thirty years ago. In 1982, forty-four per cent of Americans held strictly creationist views, a statistically insignificant difference from 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans that believe in biological evolution has only increased by four percentage points over the last twenty years.

Such poll data raises questions: Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in? What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?
It then goes on to claim that much of the reason is that the problem is people come equipped with natural instincts that are contradicted by science but are difficult to let go of. It's an interesting theory, which is also obvious nonsense, especially wrt belief in evolution. Sure, most of the US population doesn't believe in evolution, but according to this theory, the same should be true elsewhere. And yet, in Britain the numbers are rather different:

Half of British adults do not believe in evolution, with at least 22% preferring the theories of creationism or intelligent design to explain how the world came about, according to a survey.

The poll found that 25% of Britons believe Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is "definitely true", with another quarter saying it is "probably true".
Certainly not encouraging numbers, but almost twice as many people in Britain accept evolution and half as many creationism. Then, you go a bit further afield and look at the table on page 12 of this PDF (Fig. S1), where the number of people in Denmark who don't believe in evolution is literally half the number in Britain and it's also clear from reading more about these studies that even more in Europe than the US, older people are more likely to disbelieve evolution.

I found both the UK and the Europe data in a 5 minute Google search. What annoys me about this article the most is how common this sort of belief is – the idea that what is true in one nation or culture (especially if it's constant over a time period of more than a generation) is in some way innate to humanity (or perhaps, it's that even more dubious and fraught word "natural").

This sort of limited and inherently flawed thinking is behind most articles on evolutionary psychology as well as a whole lot of similar foolishness, and these days it's so easy to refute. Amusingly, in one sense, this error proves a portion of the author's point – people make mistakes, not because science contradicts people's intuitions, but because other people and places do. In large part, because these intuitions are all culturally based. The US is filled with a truly horrifying number of Christian religious zealots, but the number of such people is far lower in Europe and the presence of such people and the cultural attitudes that both foster their existence and that they produce clearly has a large effect on belief in evolution (as well as on belief in various other ideas). Culture matters, and it matters in vast ways that can easily be invisible to many people.

My favorite example of cultural blindness remains perfect pitch. until recently people in the US believed that only 1 in 10,000 people had perfect pitch and that it was some sort of rare and special genetic quirk, then they looked at people who spoke Chinese or other tonal languages, and found it to be quite common. Perfect pitch is quite rare – but only among native speakers of non-tonal languages who don't receive extensive musical education as children. Similarly, I remember various books of my youth purporting to show that humans "won the evolutionary race" because they were more violent than other apes, which in addition to later evidence of primate aggression being discovered, it's also clear that cultural factors can reduce the level of human violence by a factor of almost two orders of magnitude.
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June 8th, 2012


10:54 pm - Musings On The Future We Imagined & The One We Got
Here's an interesting (if also quite problematic) article about the problematic difference between visions of the future and the reality of the future.

The focus of the article is that modern corporate capitalism sold out the future and decreased innovation. One of the primary bits of evidence is that visions of the future from the late 19th and earth 20th century looked a moderate amount like the actual 1950s & 60s:

" Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television—and that was pretty much what they got. If it wasn’t unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, then why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?"

Thinking about this article, I find an interesting mixture of wisdom and utter cluelessness. The two most obvious being problems moon bases (and other off-world habitats) and flying cars.

The first is hard, inherently dangerous (swift death waits just outside every wall), and expensive – it didn't happen because you need strong incentives to convince people to do anything that is expensive, especially if it's also quite dangerous. Building a moon colony needs more reasons behind it beyond "It's really cool", a fact that fans of off-world colonization have wrestled unsuccessfully with for the last 40 years.

The second is quite simply an obviously bad idea. Without fully automatic cars that are exceedingly reliable, every flying car and jet pack is a horrible accident waiting to happen. Not only is flying inherently harder than driving, but engine failure or drunken idiocy results in impressively deadly crashes. In addition to being more deadly (a car losing power or control may be able to simply coast to the edge of the road, the same thing happening to a flying car is quite bad), accidents could result in flying cars ending up in the sides of apartment buildings or plummeting down on top of houses or hospitals. W/o total computer control, which could take away control from every driver about to do anything dangerous, I'd vote against any attempt to create flying cars.

OTOH, there also may be some truth in this article – while automation has become quite impressive in the past 40 years, people in the developed world have replaced some labor with automation and a whole lot more with poorly paid labor in the developing world. I rather suspect that if there had been better laws governing that sort of thing (mandating better wages, environmental, & safety standards in developing world factories making goods for sale in the developed world) we'd have more and better automation in factories in the developed world. Also, I suspect that we'd have far better batteries for electric cars if the oil and gas lobby hadn't been so powerful in the 80s and 90s.

That said, I also see a lot of impressive developments going on today – no, as the author mentioned sequencing the human genome didn't result in instant cures for diseases, but various gene therapies ( for both medical uses and athletic enhancement ) are in the early stages of testing or even use, and vaccines for cancer & for parkinson's disease are currently in development.

We have probes around most world in the solar system, which isn't bad at all. Also occasionally I see articles that utterly blow me away, such as this bizarre piece about artificially evolving proteins to create unusual materials - it seems like bizarre SF, and it happening today.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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