Media: Computer Computational Science

There’s a cool article ( on Software Design Checkers in the new Scientific American; as anyone who’s worked in a production environment knows, there are few things shittier than trying to get work done and being hampered by your software.


Role Playing

There’s an interview ( with Ken Rolston of Bethesda up at some random website I’ve never heard of. It’s always nice to find someone’s an RPG true believer.

“Rolston: I had once dreamed that roleplaying games would transform culture. I expected roleplaying games to take their place alongside literature, drama, and cinema. It didn’t happen that way, perhaps just because it is so much more work for users to produce a narrative than to consume one — or perhaps because crafting narratives as a hobbyist is of interest only to a limited number of people. I’m only a little disappointed, though. For a small number of people, roleplaying games have become a uniquely satisfying pastime, perhaps even occasionally a vehicle for exploring the human condition.”

I think people who play role playing games and take them seriously know what he’s talking about; there’s a feeling you sometimes get when you’re like, “whoa, there’s something powerful going on here.” It’s that feeling that keeps you coming back, that makes me hope I’m still playing when I’m three times my age.

I enjoy computer role-playing games well enough, but even my favorites don’t come close to a good session of PnP role playing. The older you get and the more experiences you have, it gets harder to enjoy a computer role-playing game– no matter how sandboxy its sandbox. Your experiences, who you are, what you believe– these things just make PnP playing richer and better. It’s amazing stuff. If you’re in the club, you know what I’m talking about.

Even so, I think Rolston is unrealistic in his expectations. Things that are popular are either crass and undemanding, or fads. People make meaning for themselves apart from the whirl of popular culture.

maybe this is weird…

But I’m sort of annoyed that Wired runs a story every couple of weeks about how the iPod is the hi-fi giant-killer, how haughty vinyl purists are being brought low by the mighty iPod. (Current article here (,70901-0.html))

First off, the only people who are really downing the iPod are snobs. The iPod is a nice piece of technology, maybe the best thing Apple has made. But it’s not a substitute for a good hi-fi rig. Especially out of the box– those iPod headphones are gross. More than that, though, an iPod is still a digital source, which means you have to throw a bunch of money at it to get it to sound anywhere near as good as a low-end turntable.

I’m actually curious how lossless compression on an iPod sounds compared to a good CD player, say the Musical Fidelity A5 (about which I have dreams on a regular basis). (There’s that apocryphal story about the confounded audiophiles, but I want to hear it for myself) I’m pragmatic, and if I can get good sound out of an iPod, then great. But it seems really stupid to spend a bunch of money tricking out your iPod when you can just buy a good CD player.

I think it’s the spirit of the articles that really bugs me. It’s this nasty levelling attitude– that my iPod is just as good as your rig and you’re a snob and a fool for listening to vinyl and investing in stereo equipment.

It doesn’t bother me at all if you want to listen to your iPod (or hook it up to your Bose speakers) and that’s the furthest you want to go with music and sound. But I am more picky about that sort of thing, and I resent these articles popping up on my Wired RSS feed all the fucking time.

Media: Illegal Immegration

The difference between Charles Krauthammer and George Will is that George Will says what everyone is already thinking, and Krauthammer gives you new stuff to think about. The conclusions he draws are completely bizarre on occasion, but he’s working with big, interesting ideas and doing novel things.

In talking about immigration, you have two competing (Republican) ideological priorities: being pro-business and enforcing the rule of law. Much of the illegal immigrant debate comes down to people shouting back and forth: “business!” “rule of law!” “business!” “rule of law!” You can wheel-barrow in a lot of evidence to support one or the other (well, rule of law people usually cite poll data, which is inconclusive and contradictory in this case anyway), but you’re still just trying to shore up your main tenet.

Krauthammer ( throws another concept in this week, that it’s our government’s prerogative to regulate immigration, and that it’s bad to just let immigration happen and get out of the way. I don’t know if that does anything for anyone else, but that really makes a lot of sense to me, and isn’t obviously “rule of law!”, this gut reaction against ‘law-breakers’.

Lindsay Graham said something similar on Meet the Press (transcript/podcast available here (, that we should “give people a chance to be part of the American dream– under our conditions, not theirs.”

The converse of this is that we aren’t letting enough really talented people in at the high end to come for school and work here; but that’s another story.

The Condoleezza Rice part of Meet the Press was pretty blah; she just repeated the standard administration line on wiretapping and record-keeping. I’ve been thinking recently that at a technical level, you’d have to monitor calls in some fashion to be able to tap the ones out of the country. The fact that phone companies have just handed everything over to them is scary, but the fact that the NSA has this massive information dump from the phone companies seems technically crude. There should be a way to figure out the calls you want to tap without retaining call information for a billion innocent people. Also, there’s an interesting Nation article on the history of wiretapping here (

The Charlie Norwood/Lindsay Graham part was really good, though. You can just see competing notions of government in action when they talk; they think they’re talking about policy, but Rep. Norwood is like, “I’m from the House of Representatives, and it’s my responsibility to be accountable to my constituents” and Sen. Graham leans back and says, “Well I’m from the Senate, and it’s my job to step back from the clamour of the street and give reasoned counsel.”

At any rate, the Meet the Press episode gave me hope that maybe the Republican party will figure out how to govern effectively again and get some movement on immigration.

Falling off 2

I was writing this thing about Snoop, responding to the lameness of him in Mimi’s ‘Say Something’ (a good song, I think), and then I realized that Tom Breihan already did ( “Snoop Dogg is old. He’s not the same kid who turned up out of nowhere on “Deep Cover”. He no longer possesses that menacing lean, that cool, dangerous charisma, that effortless way of just rapping through the beat like he was always a part of it and it was always a part of him. These days, he’s that haggard-looking, vaguely creepy middle-ager who was in Starsky & Hutch, the “P.I.M.P.” video, and some pornos. He’s always hanging out with that pimp bishop guy. He says “wizzle wizzle” a lot. He comes out with an album every couple of years, and no one pays any attention because Dr. Dre doesn’t have anything to do with it.”


Odo; Trek Humanism

I was just watching the DS9 episode ‘The Abandoned’, and it’s great how Odo makes a 180-degree switch, from a hardcore disciplinarian to being some hippie weirdo. It’s really great.

More interesting is the line drawn in this episode. For the most part, Star Trek is willing to have a liberal and sometimes reductive view of species difference. There are definitely counter-examples, but much of Trek chooses to emphasize humanoid commonalities rather than difference. (In line with the rest of Star Trek’s concerns, earlier TNG and DS9 are more optimistic and the worldview becomes steadily more pessimistic) A lot of early Star Trek has this sunny humanism, this oh-isn’t-that-funny take on species difference. Humanoid variety is seen as benign, differences are vestigial attachments, and religion seldom and fleetingly interferes with the happy workings of the secular world. Even violence, in the case of the Klingons, is largely ceremonial. You might call this The Roddenberry Vision.

But there’s a caveat to this. Humanoid difference can be dangerous or threatening if there has been tampering with nature’s design. The jem’hadar and the borg are reviled because they are genetically violent (through no fault of their own) and cybernetically degraded. This is a really weird distinction to make, and it interestingly mirrors the prime directive.

Calling it nature’s design, is fair, I think. The underlying faith is that, left to itself, a given population/race/species will evolve to realize the benefits of liberalism. And if they don’t, they’ll only be hurting themselves, e.g. the weak Cardassians and Romulans.

I think Star Trek is willing to largely eschew racial/species essentialism. I’m unclear whether the case with the young jem’hadar is an exception, or whether Star Trek has a prevailing belief in genetic essentialism. If the latter is true, one wonders whether the 24th century has found a solution for the human(oid?) male gender’s predilection for violence, and whether making an effort to correct that would be compatible with the Roddenberry Vision.

Falling off

The conventional wisdom is that one of the things that sets Jay-Z apart is that unlike most rappers, he’s never fallen off.

I was thinking last night, though, that that’s not entirely accurate. Everyone has their favorite Jay-Z album, but ‘In My Lifetime’ is just not up to par. If you like his later poppier stuff (as I emphatically do) you can say that ‘In My Lifetime’ was a necessary transition, but it’s not a great album. The production is weak, the rhymes are off– it just doesn’t work. And unlike ‘Hard Knock Life’ or ‘Blueprint 2′ (not without their crufty moments) ‘In My Lifetime’ only has a couple really good songs.

This isn’t to deny that Jay-Z has been remarkably consistent– he has. But there’s a point in everyone’s career where you think, ‘Teaming up with Puff worked really great for Biggie– why don’t I do that?’ It’s to Jay-Z’s credit that he realized it wasn’t really working, and he fixed it.

But no matter how you try to write it off, it’s still a failure. I guess the best way to think about ‘In My Lifetime’ is as a clear example of Jay-Z’s reach exceeding his grasp. In some way that only confirms his greatness.