Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's like asking a Xeriscaper how to grow Kentucky Bluegrass

The wife and I agreed a long time ago, after I had been given some sage advice from a teacher way before we had kids, not to allow video games in the house. They can play them at friends' houses, but not at home.

The few exceptions have all been games you can play on a computer, don't cost over $30, and specifically games that require something other than shooting things. Of the few allowed, "The Sims" has been a perennial favorite of the older MPC1. What's even more cool is that she enjoys creating the world and the houses as much or more than creating the simulated people that populate these worlds. She spent a week building an apartment complex once.

Often, she'll start regaling my lovely wife and me with something that has transpired in the Sim world, and I'm always amused because it's often so … nerdy. Not what she says, mind you, but what happened in the game.

Then it dawned on me: here's a game where the primary goal is social interaction created by a group renowned for being the biggest social maladroits ever to plod the face of the planet - COMPUTER GEEKS!

I've been in IT for almost 20 years now and of the hundreds of IT people I've known and worked with, I can think of exactly two who are good at talking to girls; I include myself in that number and I'm not one of the two. Now, let me qualify that IT geeks are some of my favorite people in the world. They're usually intelligent, kind (once you know what they consider kind), fun to talk to, and the list goes on. But, the vast majority are not the people you'd tap for relationship advice, whether it's friendship or romance.

Yet, here's this whole game created by these very people about that very thing.

One of her buddies got Sims 3 recently, and we don't have a computer powerful enough to play it (nor do we want to re-invest all the money on the new games and extension packs), so she's been limited to playing at her friends. She was belaboring the differences between Sims 2 and 3 in secret hopes I'd be so moved as to buy a new computer for her just so she could play version 3, and she says, "But, even though you can visit other Sims and more places in 3, it's still really hard to make friends."

After I'd pulled myself up from laughing my ass off and rolling on the floor, wiping my eyes and getting my breath back, she said, "You're going to blog this, aren't you?"

Yes, my dear. Yes I am.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


I was mere blocks away when the massacre at Columbine high school occurred. We heard of it over the police band or something, so got wind of it just as the first kids started spilling out of the school.

I recall being deeply frustrated with the media reports at the time because the police had (appropriately) kept a lot of information out of the news, so the hours and hours of local reporting (which you could not escape if you had a TV on) were footage of tear-stained friends and family doing memorial stuff while the news anchor droned banalities, punctuated by the occasional weepy interview about how special someone was.

Yeah, that's pretty harsh, I know. I did and do have sympathy for the victims and their loved ones, but the news managed to be useless and unbearable. If they were in a media blackout, they should've just said so, STFU, and move on to the weather.

When I saw Columbine by Dave Cullen - though I wasn't really stoked about a journey through that particular valley of woe - I picked it up with a sigh and got down to it because I still had so many unanswered questions.

The strength of this book is how thoroughly the psychology of the two evil little motherfuckers is constructed from the diaries and tapes they left behind, augmented with a the insights that psychologists and criminal profilers have from similar cases. If you want to know the mental patch-work of evil human beings, this book will show that to you. Jodi Picoult tried to do that very thing in her Columbine-inspired Nineteen Minutes, but ended up (I feel) just embarrassing herself. (I credit her for trying, though.)

Points of interest (to me, at least):

- The "quiet time" after the initial bloodshed. Once the two little peckers had gunned down several kids in the library and cafeteria, they wandered around not shooting anyone for a 32-minute "quiet period". The author posits that this conforms to typical sociopathic behavior, in that once the initial thrill of the crime is experienced, all the "fun" drains out of it and the sociopath lapses back into boredom and disinterest.

- What happened, specifically, to the two pricks. They blew their heads off at the same time. Good riddance.

- The Cassie Bernall mythology. It was initially reported that one of the attackers pointed his gun at her and asked if she believed in God, when she said yes, he shot her. Well, that didn't happen. In reality, she didn't say anything; the gunman poked his head under the table she was hiding, yelled "peakaboo!", and shot her. (Bless her heart and may she rest in peace.) However Valeen "Val" Schnurr a few tables away had been hit with a shotgun blast and started praying, "Oh my God, oh my God, don't let me die." The attacker turned around and said, "God? Do you believe in God?" She replied, after a pause, "Yes. I believe in God." "Why?" "Because I believe. And my parents brought me up that way." He began to reload but something distracted him and he walked away. (I now find I could have resolved this question just by looking around the web a bit. Yet, this book is authoritative and some of the sites still quibble over details, so I'm glad I've got the info from a reliable source.)

- The days of April 19-20 are becoming pretty big ones in American history. All this happened on those dates:

-- Waco Branch Davidian siege famously ended in flames on the 19th, 1993
-- Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 19, 1995
-- Columbine shooting happened, on April 20, 1999 - the date chosen because of the previous two events on this list, and the fact that it was Hitler's birthday; don't know why they didn't do it on that Monday the 19th
-- Johnson Space Center shooting, April 20th, 2007

And, interestingly (and included by me out of sheer perversity):
-- April 19, 1987 – The Simpsons premieres as a short cartoon on The Tracey Ullman Show (Source: Wikipedia)

Therefore, I'm gonna be jittery on those two days in April henceforth.

Even though I've mentioned it and it's obvious, the book is a grueling, hard read just because of the horror of the event. If it intrigues, gird your mental loins beforehand. If you'd prefer your summer be lightness and mirth, eschew this one.
Academia Decides to Join the Clan

M. Blowhard linked to "feministx," a deeply conflicted young lady (and college student) who's mulling over (among many things) "Human Biodiversity" (aka "HBD", aka "evo-bio") which is the identity-politics code term for, well, a bastard cousin of eugenics, meaning that there is not a movement to improve humans through selective breeding (and killing), but a perceived need to acknowledge that there might be significant enough racial differences that impact human behavior and thus should impact subsequent considerations regarding policy, education, and what have you.

Or, in a nutshell, act as though some racial and ethnic stereotypes are real. Formalize it.

I think most of us - at least folks who value pragmatism - do employ stereotypes a little bit, but I think we do it on a contingency basis, ready to abandon preconceived notions at the slightest reason to do so. A supposed propensity towards something does not equate to that behavior eventually presenting itself; we're complex beings, and our race is (or gender is, or ____ is) merely a component of what might determine our actions or reactions.

However, I think "formalizing" Human Biodiversity as a subject in academia will essentially institutionalize racism and ethnic tension (not to mention sexism).

I have worked jobs covering the gamut, and I have seen NO DIFFERENCE in ability or performance when it comes to race or gender. This includes 5 foot tall, tiny women tossing 60 lb. pieces of luggage into an aircraft's baggage compartment that's 7 feet off the ground.

(Well, I have seen a difference as far as male/female social politics go. Men employ different social politics than women do, and vice versa. But, for the purposes of this post, it's immaterial.)

I also think the folks who are forwarding "Human Biodiversity" as a field of study will dash against the rocks of studies like this where test scores were influenced by how the participants were predisposed to the test. Short version: two groups of Asian women of predetermined equal intelligence were give a math test, but one group was told beforehand that women typically didn't do well on math tests, so try hard, while the other group was told that Asians were better at math than other races. The group who were told they were "just girls" did worse than the group who were told they were braniac Asians.

Another reference to that study notes interesting information regarding a similar study about white guys who golf.

Pretty much sets the Human Biodiversity shite on its ear, methinks.

I also think Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel dropkicks evo-bio through the goalposts of bullshit.

Seems human advantage is directly tied to ecosystem advantages AND a culture's predisposition to other cultures. For instance, Diamond asks why China didn't "conquer the world" but western Europe did; the short answer: Chinese thought they were the height of human accomplishment and culture, so why go hang out with the stinky, slack-jawed idiots that comprise the rest of the world? Ironically, they WERE the height at the time global conquest began, but that very fact and their self-knowledge of it allowed pretty much two whole continents to be overtaken by (stinky) Europeans.

So, the success of various groups of humans is not comparable to the wrens of Galapagos having specialized beaks that allow them to dominate a part of the ecosystem. It's more like, "Hey, these plants here grow really easily. Too bad I don't have more land on which to plant them. There's a whole bunch of new land somewhere? Cool. Sign me up."

About the only (anecdotal) evidence I've ever seen that possibly supports evo-bio was on a recent repackaged "America's Funniest Home Videos" show that featured "the best scares." To a one, anyone of European descent just took a couple steps or just fell the heck over when startled. However, every single person of African descent ran like hell and got completely out of the room/house/dangerous place (or punched the assailant so hard, "danger" was averted). The dearth of Asian representation on that particularly-themed show might speak to some innate stoicism or unflappability. (And, yes, I am kidding about this being some sort of evidence for evo-bio bs.)

When Entertainment Weekly first came out, it was a snarky, helluvah fun read.

Then at some point after one of the big media conglomeration cycles, they moved to not really covering entertainment, but merely being a shill.

I stopped my subscription a few years ago, but while researching something a couple weeks ago I came upon a "get 4 issues free, then cancel" offer, so signed up to see how they are now.

Wow. The decline since is phenomenal. It's about the most content-less magazine I've ever picked up on purpose. Over half the "articles" are just lists of "what's cool!" or "see this!"


Wednesday, July 01, 2009


"Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers,
You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers.
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
Its still rock and roll to me."
- Billy Joel

The first time I heard those lines I knew from experience that they were true. Stereo wars in the college dorm rooms only confirmed this awesome truth.

TLD: Stereo wars occurred when someone would toss their door open and start blasting a song; if this gave offense, or if someone just wanted to out-blare the challenger, they, too, would wing open their door and crank it to 11. Turns out that many huge, expensive speakers can win on a sheer decibel level, but rarely on fidelity, and they tended to suck when turned down very low.

I had this pair of speakers that came with my original JC Penny stereo system I'd purchased in early high school. They sounded better at most volumes (save for learjet takeoff levels) than all the other speakers on the dorm floor. I kept those babies until I literally blew them out - the foam that ringed the speaker cone simply shredded one sad day (a couple decades after I got them).

The replacement set, which I purchased in the late 90s, were close in size and specs. to that old pair, and I still think they sound better than most of the stereos I hear at other's houses.

I used to be somewhat of an audiophile. I didn't get into those bizarre turntables that had the platen made of granite floating on a bed of compressed air suspended from the ceiling on a counterweight treated specifically to dampen vibrations, with the strobe light on the side, replete with a complimentary package of plastic sleeves for your vinyl. However, it did need to sound good, so I popped for a Bang ∧ Olufsen turntable, which I have to this day. Still sounds niiiiiiice.

When I use it.

Which these days is about a much as I use my CD player anymore - say 5 times a month, tops.

Which brings me to my point.

My fidelity preferences these days are completely driven by the media itself and not a general desire for the best representation of the media whenever possible. In other words, the song or movie I want to experience drives where I want to hear it or how I watch it.

In this day of portable music, a new unwritten rule has wafted into the cultural air: Don't inflict your music on me, or even your current song choice - even if I like the artist, because you can keep it to yourself, so please do.

Nearly all of my music listening is done through an MP3 player or a computer. Most of that is in headphones of various quality. About the only time I play music out loud is in my own car on the way to and from work (where I don't have the song selection I do on my MP3 players, which annoys me). A third of the time I try to put something on the stereo at home, someone pipes up and says, "Uh, I don't want to listen to that right now."

So, I've stopped buying CDs altogether because I just convert them immediately to MP3s, and music is now largely a private or mobile event for me. No sitting down and absorbing an LP like the old days.

When it comes to movies, I still want to see big event movies with lotsa special effects on the big screen for the obvious reasons (which boil down to an immersive experience), but for comedies and dramas, I prefer to watch them at home. Most comedies these days are released as emasculated PG-13 squankers to bring in the teenage audience, but come out as an "unrated" (essentially a hard "R") version of the same thing, and the latter is always better.

Also, anymore, when you see a comedy in a theatre, some people seem to get offended if you laugh at something they didn't. I've been glared at for laughing during a movie more than once this year. Some people need to chill the fuck out, methinks. Still, it diminishes the experience. I can laugh my ass of on my couch without reprisal.

Today's dramas often have a load of extras on the DVD, so it's kind of a "meta" experience. I often want to back up or watch a scene again if it intrigued the first time, too. Frinsance, when I watched the fantastic Doubt recently, there were a bunch of extras with the author/director about the history of the piece, his inspiration, the fact parts were filmed at the very Catholic school he attended, and so on. Good stuff.

The moral of the story is I find myself mildly surprised that most of my media consumption is purposely mid-fi or even lo-fi. This dawned on me when a couple other music and movie nuts made the observation out loud that they don't go to movies or buy albums anymore. And it wouldn't be that way if there were no such thing as DVD (because I would still see movies in the theatre if we only had mushy old VHS) and MP3.

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we have them, because the convenience of use - for me - outstrips the loss of fidelity.

But Billy Joel was more prescient than he realized.
Just in case you've never seen it

This is probably one of the funniest bits evar. Robin Williams channels a drunk Scot in the midst of inventing golf: