Wednesday Links -- 16 September 2015

Here's some of the stuff I've read about this week that's worth a comment or two.

Television used to have a lot more "dark background, leather chair foreground, casual highbrow discussion prefaced by classical music" shows than I thought. See, for example, the format of William F. Buckley's Firing Line. But also this show, Nightcap: Conversations on the Arts and Letters, on the Alpha Repertory Television Service (ARTS). (It shared a channel with Nickelodeon!) This episode, moderated by Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin, is a discussion between Isaac "reigning SF grandmaster" Asimov, Gene "just having finished the Book of the New Sun" Wolfe, and Harlan "the original grumpy cat" Ellison, on what science fiction really means. For thirty minutes. Holy shit.


More than just hoarding (though there's a bit of a hoarding tendency; why own two copies in the same format of Rat Fink and Boo-Boo? Though it does look incredible), this article on physical-media collectors and the "premature death of physical media" points out the massive trophic loss as media goes from film to VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray—and not just from neglecting crap!

Meanwhile, let's pray this never makes it to any media, physical, digital, or otherwise: Nickelodeon Is Talking About an "Avengers-style" Nicktoons Movie

In lies, damn lies, and vaginas news: Ashley Madison tried very hard to convince people that it wasn't scamming anyone using fake-female bots; Louisiana lawmakers seem to think that dentists can do what Planned Parenthood does; and the executives overseeing the remake of Carrie (many of which, notably, were married with children) couldn't bring themselves to utter the word "vagina" when discussing the director's suggestion for a better ending scene.

Because I hate to pass up critique of Silicon Valley silliness: The New York Times has a good op-ed about "the Internet of Way Too Many Things", whose opening serves as a nice anecdotal summary of the whole piece:
At a design conference recently, I was introduced to Leeo, a new product that I initially understood to be a reboot of something really in need of a redesign: the smoke detector. As the designer explained his process, I quickly came to understand that Leeo was nothing of the sort. It was a gadget, a night light that “listens” for your smoke detector to go off and then calls your smartphone to let you know your house might be on fire.

So, to “improve” a $20 smoke alarm, the designer opted to add a $99 night light and a several-hundred-dollar smartphone.

This is not good design.
Preach, sister. In other "stop and think about your tech life" op-eds, see this one in the Harvard Business Review from the founder of the LibriVox public-domain-audiobook project... who was spending so much time online that he didn't have time to read more than a couple books per year. And in the inverse case, tech person Paul Graham has written some thought-provoking pieces, but this one ain't it: Hiring is obsolete, he wrote (and explained to the graduating class at UCLA) in 2005. Young ingenues ubermenschen should just found startups and hope to get bought out instead, since they're obviously more valuable than stodgy oldsters think: "Why go work as an ordinary employee for a big company, when you could start a startup and make them buy it to get you?" Can we blame him somewhat for Deus-vult-ing the startup-just-to-get-noticed-by-investors-or-Google gold-rush?

Meanwhile in the Valley, Harper's looks at the burgeoning New Rationalist community in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. The writer seems to take a certain tone of "this is sorta like the hippie cult movements of the 70s" disdain towards the whole thing; but since I did buy a copy of Rationality From A.I. to Zombies and plan to read all of it in due time, and more or less agree with the Effective Altruism movement, it's fascinating to see who else glommed on to it, and how they think about things. One thing William McAskill said during his visit to the Seattle EA group was that the EA community at Oxford was much less "start-uppy" than the one in the Bay Area. The Harper's piece is more evidence that the Bay Area is no place for sober thinking about high-minded ideals.

Streets With No Game: Colin Ellard is an environmental psychologist who claims that bad urban planning leads to poor health outcomes, specifically because "Boring cityscapes increase sadness, addiction and disease-related stress." The way he describes the study he did... well, I'm not so convinced on the causal chain there. But there's definitely something to be said about how street facades effect pedestrians; for example, downtown Seattle (block-length office tower plazas) feels more austere and sterile than Wallingford, Fremont, or Capitol Hill. See also this post at Urban Kchoze about "modelitis," or the thoroughly modern tendency to build cities from an aerial view rather than a pedestrian view, resulting in really ugly and unusable public spaces.

Brooklyn Bar Menu Generator: "Have you recently purchased a bar in Brooklyn, but are completely bereft of original ideas? Firstly, congratulations on joining the thriving Brooklyn bar scene! Secondly, relax! You can use this handy tool to generate a name and menu for your fine establishment – absolutely no imagination necessary!" Example:

"Pan-seared anchovy bombs" sounds like something Guy Fieri would inflict on Brooklyn.


What should be, maybe not the last word, but the next to last word, on the anti-gay American Taliban county clerk: Stupidity, Not Religion, Put Kim Davis In Jail—I would add that someone should talk to Stephen King because apparently his characters are manifesting in the real world...

Libertarian writer has a characteristically un-libertarian insight: The Re-Feudalization of the Modern World—it's as if property-obsessed corporations don't have consumers' best interests in mind!

Libertarian writer has a stereotypically libertarian "insight": What the TSA Could Learn From Disney, But Won't—seriously, should the TSA also have costumed mascots as well?

It's expensive to be poor in America, as the Economist demonstrates. But something something if they could just boostrap above those ridiculous fees!

Skeptics have always fought pseudoscientists, quacks, and charlatans, but they've also fought their own inner cynicism: A Rope of Sand

Music of the week: Math proofs, rendered into MIDI format. They sound surprisingly artful, which shouldn't be that surprising, since mathematical proofs also have structure.