Thursday, December 31, 2009

This revolution will be televised

While singing christmas carols this winter, I saw something I've not seen before: audiences where half the people are recording my performance.

Privacy means something different in the 21st century, where you can Google someone in the blink of an eye and instantly find what used to take days to find. And not only can you find out someone's address and phone number, you can see pictures and even videos of them.

Even if they aren't posting the pictures themselves. I was performing in a public place. But it wouldn't be hard to take some pictures of me in private places, including very private places. As digital gets cheaper, it's revolutionizing how we live.

And we can watch each other all the time if we want.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I fell down one time

I got hit by a car in the snowstorm: Snowpocalypse 2009.

It was going 15 miles an hour, and the only injury is a bruised knee from falling over when it hit me, but it's still startling. Especially given that my instinct was to push against it to slow it down. I should have dodged. Although using my arms to break my "fall" did help. But I wish I'd reacted smarter.

Again: I'm fine. Worst thing was I got wet.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ninja robots

I wish the robots at OMSI did something like this. It's exactly what robots are good at.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The future will be a little creepy

When all the muffins and sausages are packed by robots, our factories will be kind of weird. And awesome.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Authentic Comics

From the glorious Cat and Girl, two comics about authenticity:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

ASCAP have a long history of being bastards

I'm a big fan of Lawrence Lessig, super copyright lawyer. He worked for years to make the system fairer and more balanced - it's way too much in favor of the big corporations right now. Back in the day you could only copyright something for 30 years - can you imagine the amazing art that would be created if we could remix anything from before 1980?

Anyway, here's a presentation he gave at TED I really enjoy. But I'm a huge copyright nerd.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Is Science Real?

I just read a series of blog posts by some guy about science and culture. He's summarizing a book by a French philosopher of science named Bruno Latour, who makes a distinction between Science and Research.

The basic thrust of Latour's ideas (as summarized by Some Guy) is that scientists are not objective observers of Reality, but exist in society constructing their own subjective reality. And if he didn't use the word reality, (and maybe that's Some Guy's language, not Latour's) I'd be on board. I think it's obviously true that scientists are biased and discover things that confirm their biases. It took a long time for the dangers of asbestos to become known. When it was put in every building in the nation, science was a wonder machine of discovery. Then we became aware of the possibility that some of these new discoveries could poison us, and we started looking for new patterns, and they showed up. We ignored those clues before, as well as the people who tried to warn us, because they didn't fit into the dominant cultural paradigm.

That's all true. But that doesn't change the underlying reality. Asbestos WAS harmful all along. We didn't construct a new REALITY by figuring out the danger. We revised our BELIEFS about reality. Our CULTURE changed, not reality itself.

When astronomers recategorized Pluto as a dwarf planet, the ball of rock and ice we call Pluto didn't change in the slightest. It kept orbiting the sun and its "moon" just the same as it has done for billions of years. There is a new socially constructed concept of what that means, but it does not change the actual facts.

I think it is valuable to point out that scientists are deeply fallible, and easily prone to ignoring significant evidence. And it's important to cultivate humility - knowledge that our discoveries go only as far as our technology allows. I often scoff at people who didn't take basic sanitary steps in hospitals before the discovery of microbes, but I should remember that before the microscope allowed us to detect disease organisms, it would have been quite the leap of faith to suspect that tiny invisible things in the air or water caused diseases. We WILL look just as foolish 100 years from now - it would serve us well to remember that.

But that point acknowledged, science does have the advantage of answering to reality. It may take a long time for our culture and our technology to sort it out, but I believe the facts will eventually be revealed. If science is a total cultural construction with no connection to reality, then there's no reason to prefer it to any other culturally constructed set of beliefs. And that means that we should teach Creationism and the Flying Spaghetti Monster in "Science" class.

But we should not go that way. Other ways of finding meaning in the world are good and valuable. Art and religion make us better people in ways science cannot. But science DOES answer to reality in a way religion never will. Science is a human enterprise, and full of human flaws and frailty. But it's got something special that must not be abandoned. As They Might Be Giants put it, Science Is Real.

Friday, December 18, 2009


The New York Times' Western correspondent wrote a post today about bias against the West. He had me at Ore-uh-GUN. (I was saddened when I heard They Might Be Giants in concert persist in mispronouncing my home state, years after I'd heard an entire Portland audience correct them - causing them to nod in shame.)

Oregon and California may have enabled the voters to pass lots of tax cuts and mandatory spending measures, putting our legislatures in impossible situations making them responsible for massive cuts in schools and police without giving them the power to actually fix the system. But we're cool.

I suppose I shouldn't get too aggrieved. The Times is probably about to print another story about how all the restaurants in Portland are made of gold, and how we're all skinny from riding our bicycles everywhere to our supercool rock concerts. And then all their unemployed college students will move here and boost our unemployment rate back up above Michigan's.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I've been killing mice lately.

There have been several mice living near my office. I found a bunch of their poop on my desk. That was gross.

Emptying traps into the garbage - disposing of dead mice - is also gross. I'm sad that they had to die. Definitely sad that glue traps were how they were caught. It's sad to imagine them stuck on the glue, dying slowly. A snap trap that breaks their neck seems much more humane. But they haven't set off any of the half-dozen of those that I set. Even the ones baited with peanut butter.

I had little choice. I tried removing the food supply (not that there was much) and they didn't go away. I realize it's cold and wintry. But I draw the line at things that poop on my desk.

Yes, if you poop on my desk I might have to kill you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I Deny your Reality, and Substitute my Own

Our banks were totally out of line, taking completely unnecessary risks, and nearly destroyed our economic system. Thousands and thousands of people have lost their jobs, and it could be years before we recover.

So who do Republicans blame? The goverment. Because it turns out we are in a
post-fact society. Our elected politicians are so committed to their ideas that reality can't shake them from it.

Most of us, in fact, are this way. We ignore unpleasant and inconvenient truths when they don't support things we like. I wish I had an answer apart from being frustrated with human nature and feeling like our society is rotting away.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chappy Channukah!

I thought that an LED menorah, or the droidel were the nerdiest possible ways to celebrate Hannukah.

Until I saw the best menorah ever. I'm still in shock from how awesome it is.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Motorcycle assembly stop motion

This makes me tempted to try to show a sweater knitting itself.

Maybe I should start by trying just a scarf. For a mouse.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sexism is alive and well

The National Organization of Women is fighting to block a tax on cosmetic surgery. Because while it would be nice if women's pay didn't correlate with their looks, it does. Which raises the question of where feminism has gone.

It seems clear to me, mirrored by our presidential choices, that sexism is still widely acceptable in our culture, while racism is taboo. Yes, there's plenty of racism in our nation. Yes, there are lots of racists. But President George W. Bush had only black secretaries of state. He did give speeches at segregated colleges, and made other winking gestures towards racism, but could not openly say he thought black people were inferior.

But it's open to discussion whether women should have careers or be mothers. If you're the president of Harvard, it'll get you fired to suggest that women are inherently inferior, but a large portion of our society believes that it's God's will that men be in charge of their wives. Medicine, the workplace and the political world are all defined in male terms of success and worth and value.

I think one factor in gender being harder to crack than race is that gender is partly biological. While there appear to be physical racial traits, genetics has revealed race to be an illusion - constructed totally by society to reinforce political power structures. While there is a huge social dimension to gender identity, there is also the fact that men and women are different. Not only in our genitals and statistically in our musculature, but there are real differences in the ways we think and what we find interesting and valuable.

Conservatives can see those differences and use them as an excuse to keep women down. Liberals can fear them as a barrier to equality. But I hope that one day we'll see it as part of the rich diversity that is us. And we'll value and respect women for qualities that aren't physical.