Monday, August 27, 2012

Armstrong in Color

Would have been fun to watch this live. Still, it's fascinating watching this on YouTube 43 years later.

And speaking of Armstrong, here's a funny bit at in which the author discusses how journalists tried to decipher Armstrong's famous "one small step for man" line. The takeaway: "Forget history, we had to deal with editors." That made me laugh out loud.

I Thought You Were the Roh-butt

(Go to 2:20)

There’s a good chance that if you read a lot of news online, you’ve read something written by a robot.

Well, an algorithm, at least, devoid of camshafts and gears and servos but certainly able to imitate the styles of Ring Lardner, Mike Royko and other distinctive writers, if the folks at Narrative Science and Wired reporter Steven Levy (who swears he’s not a robot) are to be believe.

The Chicago-based company is already using algorithms, coached by “meta-writers” in human form who help them with nuance and slant – at least in the beginning – to write stories on Little League games and some aspects of financial news, where the algorithms can draw on vast databases of statistics and numbers with which to craft play-by-play narratives.

Read more about it in levy’s Wired Gadget Lab post here.

Flesh and blood news reporters have nothing to worry about, per Levy – at least not yet:
[Narrative Science CEO Kristain] Hammond assures me I have nothing to worry about. This robonews tsunami, he insists, will not wash away the remaining human reporters who still collect paychecks. Instead the universe of newswriting will expand dramatically, as computers mine vast troves of data to produce ultracheap, totally readable accounts of events, trends, and developments that no journalist is currently covering.
This service could be a boon to local newsrooms, already stretched thin and unable to cover Little League and other kiddie sports. But if parents keyed in stats from the games via their smartphones and Narrative Science computers were tied into that information and the local newspaper bought the stories, local news could offer on the cheap stories that their readers want.

Such technology could tap into markets not touched by traditional media: Hammond envisions his algorithms giving play-by-play of World of Warcraft sessions, in which “players could get a recap after a big raid that would read as if an embedded journalist had accompanied their guild,” Levy reports. Try getting your local paper to do that on anything more than a one-off feature story basis.

It’s a weird world we’re going to live in.

There’s another side to the coin, of course.

Such technology could be vexing to, for example, college writing instructors (of which I am one) if it fell into nefarious hands. Why pay a flesh-and-blood ghost writer if an algorithm will write your essays for you?

Internet Learnding of the Day: This kind of thing was foretold, rather snarkily, by Roald Dahl, of all writers. Pretty amusing stuff, this.

And a bit scary. Spoilers ahead:

But on the whole, it was a satisfactory beginning. This last year — the first full year of the machine's operation — it was estimated that at least one half of all the novels and stories published in the English language were produced by Adolph Knipe upon the Great Automatic Grammatizator.

Does this surprise you?

I doubt it.

And worse is yet to come. Today, as the secret spreads, many more are hurrying to tie up with Mr. Knipe. And all the time things get worse for those who hesitate to sign their names.

This very moment, as I sit here listening to the crying of my nine starving children in the other room, I can feel my own hand creeping closer and closer to that golden contract that lies over on the other side of the desk.

Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Moonwalk One

There are still dreamers.

There are still builders.

There are still those who would dare to do what appears impossible, on deadlines that seem too strict and with technology that is built by the lowest bidder.

Maybe things seem small today. Maybe there are those hwo think we aren't reaching as far as we used to, that the will is gone, that the desire has faded.

They are wrong. It's little things, like money, priorities, politics, bickering. The big things -- physics, electronics, propulsion, psychology, the limits of men -- are ready. It's the little things that stop us today from repeating what was done in the past, what limits us from reaching further into the future.

Thank you, Mr. Armstrong, for what you did. You worked hard. You were in the right profession at the right time. You studied and became stronger both body and mind and, for a while, showed us a future when, like Miss Pickerell, we anticipated that soon anyone could go to the Moon, into outer space, to one of the colonies established by man, with only a minimum of effort.

Our time may yet come.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Joby Manuel, Message Received

Received the following email in one of my inboxes today:


PLEASE SEND 1000 trillion $

and a laptop.

MR Joby Manuel,
c/o Mr. T.A.Emmanuel & Mrs. Ammini Emmanuel
Bunglow Lane,
Ponevazhi Road,


My place is 3 to 5 minutes
walking distance from St Xavier's church, ponepalli,
I stay next to Rose Village.

You can also reach me through ponnevazhi Road, My house is the last one on the left side of Bunglow lane.

It’s nice to see email scammers simply taking the direct approach these days. His mailing address is far longer than his simple demand for a gigantic wad of cash and a computer. Gotta appreciate that moxie.

But you know what, buddy, if I’m going to send you $1,000 trillion, you’re going to buy your own laptop.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Make Mine Freedom

So my eyes popped open right about 8:29 into this. So how do we learn to work together? We stop listening to those who would rather divide us and then sit on the sidelines and watch the blood flow, for starters.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Before I came, I read many books on space and space exploration. But I am no engineer -- outside of a skill with tools -- no physicist nor mathematician. So most of the technical stuff I read escaped my grasp.

I did learn enough to dig with a laser, knowing that hot light would melt and seal and make my refuges air tight. I did learn about mechanical air locks, and I became skilled on the lathe.

But of the books I read, only two came with me.

First came the denizens of Square Toe County, where it is possible for the portly proprietor of a local diner and a scientifically-minded spinster to travel to the Moon and back, hitching a ride on a rocket blasting off from the local spaceport. That from an era where it was assumed that anyone would be capable and allowed to travel on the regular milk runs to the colonies far above.

Second came the girl and her dog, who with a caluclator and microwave oven found the tesseract that took them into space without ticket or training or special equipment. There they found occupants of a planet generally aware of an alien in their midst but also generally preoccupied with theor own affairs to fuss overmuch about otherworldy visitors.

That is the space I know. That is the space I envision.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Always Keep Cooking

Rama II: Needs More Apes

It’s taken me nearly 225 pages of Arthur C. Clarke/Gentry Lee’s Rama II to figure out what it is about the book in general that’s rubbing me the wrong way. Here it is:

It’s not science fiction.

At first I thought it was a division between the hard sci-fi that Clarke is known for and the softer version of the genre that’s increased in popularity since the 1970s. You have all the classic elements of soft sci-fi: The touchy-feely with the characters, their inner ponderings, the confusing shifts of narrative tone.

But it’s not that this is soft sci-fi.

It’s that it’s not really sci-fi at all.

Oh, it takes place in Rama II, twin of the anticipated triplets of the first enigmatic spacecraft to sail through the solar system. But it’s not science fiction. It’s science verisimilitude. And for that, I’ve got to blame, well, Gentry Lee.

This is the first Lee book I’ve read, and if it’s indicative of what he writes in general, I won’t be reading any more. He’s taken this not from a scientist’s perspective, nor even from a writer’s perspective, but from an engineering/management perspective and in creating an exciting (I use the term loosely) soap-operatic story filled with dramatic deaths (three so far, completely inconsistent with what Clarke wrote and envisioned in Rendezvous with Rama) that makes this read more like a softie Michael Crichton written-for-Hollywood story than an engaging scientific tale written by a hard sci-fi writer who knows what he’s doing.

Clarke obviously let himself be taken for a ride on this one, which is a pity. (Seems I’m not the only one to think so; Wikipedia’s entry on the books contain a mild rebuke.) Other reviewers are equally disdainful – and, ironically, use some of the same words I have to describe the book. I write this review before I read any other reviews. I promise.)

Lee is too intent in letting us share in the inter-Cosmonaut intrigue than with the mystery of Rama – he tosses in a death or two just to heighten Rama’s mystery, where in the original, Clarke didn’t have to kill off a single astronaut to do so (he put some in peril, but it was more the peril brought on by mankind’s own self-destructive tendencies, as Scott Meyer puts it in his excellent comic, than malevolence on the part of Rama, its biots, or its creators) Lee relies on death as the ONLY plot device to show that Rama II is, indeed, as mysterious as its precedent. That’s cheap writing, in my view.

There are other books in the Rama universe, all written by Lee. I will not be reading them. I like my sci-fi to come with mystery; I don’t need to know everything. Today’s penchant to fill in the backstory is, in my view, annoying. Hoping Peter Jackson et al don’t ruin The Hobbit doing that very thing. Which it sounds like they’re doing, turning a much simpler children’s tale into three, count ‘em, three movies.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Writer's Revenge

Nationalize Facebook? Hardly.

Everyone has something they hate about Facebook.

Whether it’s the privacy settings the company constantly seems to mess up on, the invasive barrage of advertising, the threat of in-post advertising if we happen to mention a product – any product – whether it’s in a positive or negative light, potential for hate or frustration exist.

The company is notorious for keeping user data even after the user has deleted it, for leading users down the garden path to an illusion of privacy, touting ad campaigns on its site that aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and making user-related changes without actually consulting the user beforehand.

They’re also, according to Phillip N. Howard, writing for, hindering researchers’ access to user information and generally making it icky for anyone outside the company to get a look at the data the company itself is a bit nonchalant with inside its own walls.

His answer: Nationalize it.

Have the US government – a bastion of truth and righteousness which never gets up to nefarious mischief – take it over. Or at least regulate it like a public utility. Here’s the core of his argument:

By “nationalizing Facebook,” I mean public ownership and at least a majority share at first. When nationalizing the company restores the public trust, that controlling interest could be reduced. There are three very good reasons for this drastic step: It could fix the company’s woeful privacy practices, allow the social network to fulfill its true potential for providing social good, and force it to put its valuable data to work on significant social problems.
Let’s get the slippery slope argument out of the way right away so we can move on to something more constructive. George Orwell’s (you knew his name was going to come up) government in 1984 would be all for this kind of nationalization. Sure, they’re spying on us already via the internet and traffic cameras, if the more wild conspiracy theories are to be believed. Let’s just hand them the key to the henhouse as well as the hens. That’ll solve everything.

Now back off the slippery slope.

Mr. Norman seems to think that a government controlling interest in Facebook would open up its data for “social good.” He defines part of the “social good” as medical research. Now if he thinks the government has all the rights to turn over data like this – or any kind of data, for that matter – to medical researchers, he’s obviously never heard of HIPAA, which puts strict privacy measures on health care providers. They can’t share their information willy-nilly, lest they violate HIPAA’s privacy statue. So unless Mr. Norman wants to nationalize health care – and he probably does – and nullify HIPAA’s privacy statute, he’s not going to achieve the “social good” of medical research he envisions by nationalizing a social network which, the last time I checked, isn’t rife with people’s vital statistics.

Sure, researchers could glean some information from Facebook – looking at pictures of, say, fat people, or listen in on people discussing fast food, drug or alcohol abuse, etc. They could also turn to the US Census Bureau and other public entities which already offer similar information.

He looks at other goods as well.

Facebook, for example, doesn’t allow pseudonyms. If you’re, say, a rebel in Syria and you want to use Facebook to communicate with other revolutionaries, you have to use your real name – and then Mr. Assad drops a big bomb on your house.

Last time I checked, Facebook – despite Mr. Norman’s contention – isn’t a monopoly. There are plenty of ways revolutionaries – and ordinary citizens – can use the internet in a way that’s much more private than Facebook. Facebook may be ubiquitous and popular, but it’s hardly the single option out there. The Green Revolution in Iran tried successfully – at least to a point – to use Twitter as a communication tool until the government of Iran – which has a nationalized internet policy – shut them down. (Sorry; back on the slippery slope again.)

Mr. Norman contends that a US government interest in Facebook and the allowance of pseudonyms would allow revolutionaries to freely communicate on the social network and have a modicum of protection from the government that controls the information. To that I say ha ha. Even HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Syria and Iran aren’t suddenly going to respect Facebook because the US government owns a part of it. Israel, after all, owns a part of the Fertile Crescent, and we see how well respected that country is in Syria and Iran these days. Or any day.

You want cooperation from Facebook on social good, Mr. Norman? I hardly think a government takeover will do the job – not to mention the number of Facebook users and privacy advocates and business leaders and other such people who would absolutely go bonkers at the idea of the government getting their hands on more information, more commerce, and such. (And this is being said by a guy who wouldn’t mind seeing a national health care option and would seriously investigate taking it, if it made financial sense, so I’m not the knuckle-dragging conservative you might suspect.)

Mr. Norman cites the BBC as an example of a government-controlled information service that does the public good. He conveniently leaves out the fact that to use that public good, residents of England must pay an annual licensing fee of $192 per color television and $64 per black and white television in order to partake of that public good. Can you see Facebook users paying to use the service, if it were a public entity doing social good? Maybe some would. But the majority would bail in seconds. I know I would. I already pay to use an ISP -- government-regulated, mind you -- but I'm not about to pay to use popular websites.

No, Mr. Norman doesn't say the government would make us pay to use Facebook if they owned it. But as part owner -- taking on the expenses as well as the "social good" the site could provide -- the money would have to come from somewhere. Given the backlash against advertising on Facebook and the government's prelidiction to tax as well as regulate, well, you can see we're back on that slippery slope again. So sorry.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Few Updates

Today's offering, a smattering of updates:

Smoke. It's getting tougher to breathe and it's already hard to see outside. Fires burning in central Idaho are sending their smoke our way, leaving the air with that taint of barbecued pine and a fug that's blocking my view of the Big Southern butte out at work and the Iona foothills at home. We had a thunderstorm blow through late last week that cleared the smoke out for a few hours, but it's back with reinforcements. And it's nasty. I'm sitting in an air-conditioned trailer right now and I can taste the smoke on my tongue. Can't wait to go home, where the smoke is a little bit thinner.

Layoff Watch. Sounds like layoffs are coming again this October, with technical writers on the list. We'll see what happens. There are only two tech writers here at RWMC. Maybe we'll be spared. Or the subs (including me) will get the boot and a reshuffling will occur. So that means I'm back in job-applying mode. Just today applied for a tech writing job at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah. Where I applied before. Where the trend is to hire new tech writers they can get for cheap and then have to replace year after year. Maybe I could help them break that trend. Maybe I'll flap my arms and fly to the moon.

Sprinkler System. The back yard was officially done, though it's looking more and more like I may have to put in another line because of some dry spots. That may have to wait until next summer, as I've still got most of the front yard to bury. Good news is I noticed the dry spots in the front yard before I buried, so I was able to put in another line and extra sprinklers before the pipes got buried.

Scouting. Michelle's only got one more week of Wood Badge to go, then she's done with her summer Scouting. I think that's a good thing. Though she is talking about doing it all over again next summer. Guess I'll be looking for another summer project. The fences do need replacing . . .  That is if the layoff thing comes out in my favor, that is.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Conventional Thinking -- Alive and Well

Like Charlie Brown – who read about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the comic strip inferred in this photo – I’m fascinated with failure.

Reading right now about the failure of a Texas savings and loan, one that was steered into the ditch by greed. In the book, James O’Shea’s DAISY CHAIN, we meet a lot of unsavory characters. But one of them says something pretty apropos about Washington, DC, per Shea:
[Durward] Curlee [consultant to Don Dixon, CEO of failed Texas S&L Vernon Savings] recognized almost immediately that Washington was a company town. “Conventional thinking – not conventional wisdom – but conventional thinking dominates the place,” said Curlee. “And where does conventional thinking come from – from the staffs, the think tanks, the study groups, those kind of things. I figured it would take four years for an idea to gestate into conventional thinking. So you hire yourself a think tank and buy a study on what you want to do. It [the idea] gets into the agency, then to the staff, people start talking about it and it gets in the press, and then everyone thinks, ‘Okay, that’s it.’”
Conventional Thinking in this case is pejorative. It’s picking up whatever solution happens to be floating around at the moment, whether anyone is sure it’ll work or not, or whether or not there’s something better to do if we’d just think about things a bit.

It’s the herd mentality.

It’s thinking that the “success” of the automobile and banking industry bailouts ought to be repeated.

It is, as Dilbert puts it here, exactly the same thing as not having a strategy.

It’s certainly something I need to move away from.

It's time to go after the cheese that's been moved. Don't know where it's been moved to, but I'm goig to find it. That goes especially for my writing. Need to think nonconventionally -- avoid some of the traps I've seen new authors fall into (settling for mediocrity being the biggie, followeed only by falling into the template for your genre).

Stream of Consciousness POV

Someone wants me to make a political statement. Say that I favor some point of view that she does.

I forget which point of view.

“But it would mean a lot to us,” she said in the voice transcription she sent me. “The colony on Iapetus could be a thought leader for the entire solar system.”

The colony on Iapetus – myself, the scarecrow, and two cactus plants I’ve named Billy and Bubba – thought about the issue at hand; the issue I don’t remember.

Slowly I turned it over in my head.

What came to mind?

Niagara Falls.

Slowly I turn. Slowly I turn. Step by step.

I have views. I have views on many issues. But to represent the colony of Iapetus on a view, that is heady business.

Slowly I turn.

I had to walk out to the regio, where the scarecrow stood, to ask it the imponderable question. I had to walk out. Step by step.

As I walked I could hear the falls.

I visited the falls once. I stood, leaning on the rail, watching the rushing water, hearing it fall. It went where gravity wished it to go, and took some of the underlying bedrock with it. It did not ask the rock what it thought of leaving; it just worked on the rock until it left. Step by step. That is what I fear. Erosion.

Water gushed through the windows of the Alamo, tearing it slowly to pieces. In the weak gravity, the water gushed slowly, with more globular motions than on Earth. Sometimes, a globule wandered so slowly it did not splatter when it hit a surface, rather it bounced like a rubber ball, moire curves of light scattering shadows of ripples on the rock and hills of dust.

The scarecrow gave no answer.

Or maybe it did. But I could not hear it over the rush of Niagara Falls.

Slowly I turned. Step by step I walked back to my refuge.

Oddly, I longed for a bowler hat.

“I’d like a bowler hat,” I told the woman in reply.

She duly sent a bowler.

Slowly I turned. Step by step.

Bowler in place, squashed a bit by the helmet, again I walked out to the scarecrow on the regio. The rushing water had not washed it away, nor even cleaned the dust from the creases in the old space suit it wore. Here and there were tracks of the killdeer, who ran at my approach, keening their call, luring me from their nests in the dusty cracks and rocks.

Niagara Falls had not washed them away.

I thanked the woman for the bowler.

Her point of view, I forgot. If Billy and Bubba remembered, they did not say.

The Buckminster fullerene of Iapetus has no points of view, I finally told her. Points of view flow slowly on the surface like water and sink into the dust to gurgle and fuss beneath the surface and where it goes, I do not know. The killdeer refuse to tell.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Social Gaming, Part II

When some sort of glitch caused most of my livestock and about half the businesses in my town to reset to the point they would not produce food nor profit for more than 14,000 days -- for those of you counting, that's 38 1/3 years; I'd be a little old corporal by the time they were ready -- I decided it was time to part company with Oregon Trail: American Settler, on my Kindle Fire.

I've written about this game before, and of my mixed feelings on its addictive power and drive to push me into social gaming. I never spent a penny on this app nor in it, though the opportunities to buy virtual goods are limitless. I just never saw the point -- a bit of patience and a lot of time got me just about everything I wanted, and what I couldn't get I decided I didn't need. And when the glitch appeared, well, at first I was selling off the affected, blighted cattle and businesses and replacing them, but then I figured, meh, just pull the plug.

I think it also helped that I left my Kindle Fire at camp with my wife for a week, leaving me to find other things to do to fill the little idle minutes when I used to fire it up. Now that it's back and the game is gone, well, I'm sure I'll find other uses and distractions. But the biggie is gone.

The discovery of Sim City Social on Facebook may also have helped a smidge.

What makes that worse, one of my Facebook friends is also a fan of the game. She's sent virtual seagulls to poop all over my city. I, in turn, visited her parks and engaged in some pick-pocketing. Other shenanigans have also ensued in the week I discovered the game and we discovered our mutual obsession.

(fair use)

Though I have switched addictions -- and thankfully there's no companion app available for the Kindle -- I still don't see myself spending any cash in-game. The patience strategy may pay off, especially as squeakier wheels than I engage the publishers in drives to make things more open to freeloaders like myself.

Why am I freeloading if I get enjoyment out of the game? Well, bcause they're offering it as a free platform, hoping sometime in the future some gamers will pay for the extras.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What is it Like?

NOTE: A bit of Kindle babbling from earlier today, for one of the writing projects I've got on the stove at the moment:

People ask me what it’s like, being a hermit on a tiny moon ten million miles distant from the next bit of company. I tell them to imagine an ant.

The ant wandering in search of food finds a piece of popcorn on the basement floor. The ant is happy. It goes back to the colony, laying a chemical trail and brings others to the food following the trail he laid.

A human sees the popcorn crawling with ants pulls a face and gingerly picks up the food and throws it away.

The ants following the trail arrive to find a few confused ants and no food. The ants that were there swear the food was there but was taken away mysteriously along with some of their compatriots. Most of the new ants do not believe but a few detect the residue of the popcorn on the carpet and believe but don't have much to show tor their faith.

Some of the ants, old and new, remain moving in a spiral around the spot where the food had been, searching for more while others scoff and wander off, some to the colony others in search of more food.

I then tell them to forget those ants and think about the ants taken away on the popcorn.
That is what it feels like.
The ants on the popcorn have no idea where they’re going, nor what force is carrying them along. They do not know how to get back. There is no trail for them to follow. They have food but no colony with which food they may replenish.
They have no idea where they are going nor who is taking them nor when they will stop. Some fall off and disappear, their screams too faint to be heard. Some are crushed by the force that bears them away.

Soon only one ant is left on the popcorn.

To the ant, the popcorn comes to rest in an alien place where no trails lead home. There are ghosts of trails in the chemicals that the first ant and the other ants left as they circumnavigated the popcorn, but all trails are circular and lead the ant back to the beginning of another that takes just a slightly different track around the tiny planet which has become the ant’s home because there is nowhere else to go and no way to get there if there was another place. Space is no longer bent and the popcorn becomes the center of the ant’s universe.

The ant is pre-Copernican.



That is what it is like.

It is as a human served by science but cut off from it. To be served by humanity but forever alone, visited only by the voices you hear on the radio and the voices you carry in your head.

Faith is all you have left. Faith that Copernicus and Newton and Einstein and God have not forgotten you exist.

That is what it is like to be the Hermit of Iapetus.

And that is, of course, what it is like to be human.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I Hate These Words! Stay Away from these Words!

I present, for your perusal, a list of words I hate:

Poultry. As with most of the words I hate, the hate has no basis in rationality. Really, I should love this word, as it is closely related to poltroon, a word I highly favor. But there's something about poultry that bugs me. It's a catch-all word that just isn't descriptive enough. Talk about ducks. Or chickens. Or whatever. Just don't talk about poultry. Leaves me cold.

Appreciative. This is a perfectly acceptable noun. But why do I have to be a noun when I can express a verb? I appreciate what you did, versus I'm appreciative of what you did. The noun form, even worse than poultry, leaves me clammy. Appreciative sounds like a man falling down the stairs.

Bully. Used in the proper Teddy Roosevelt sense, I'm fine with this word. But used in the schoolyard sense, well, makes me hate the user's tiny little guts. Why? It's overused. It's the latest buzzword and has gone from meaning the effectual cvreep in the school playground to anyone and everything you don't happen to agree with. Some kid in England, for example, was called a bully for berating -- on Twitter, no less -- an Olympic athlete's performance. Every time I hear the word now, all I can think is of another tempest in a teapot. Once you've co-opted a word that meant something specific to mean everything under the sun, you've diluted the value and impact of that word.

Progressive. Progressive for whom, I have to ask.