Monthly Archives: January 2012

How To Get Real News

Here’s something you may not know: TIME actually publishes four different versions of its magazine, for the U.S., European, Asian, and South Pacific markets. Sometimes the covers are all the same. And sometimes they’re different.

Now, here’s an eye-opener: check out these TIME magazine covers for the October 24, 2011 issue.

One of these things is not like the others...

Screenshot from TIME's official website.

The covers for Europe, Asia, and South Pacific all say the same thing: “WHY THE U.S. WILL NEVER SAVE AFGHANISTAN.” Hm…seems like an issue that might concern their U.S. market, right? But the American cover doesn’t even mention Afghanistan. It’s a story about “the return of the silent majority” in the U.S., along with headlines about Occupy Wall Street, and why George Clooney isn’t running for President. (I’m going to guess, because he’s an actor. Not that it stopped Ronald Reagan.)

The message is clear. The rest of the world can handle the truth about the international stage. Americans would prefer to stay wrapped in their bubble.

Now, this isn’t entirely fair to TIME. The very next issue has a story about China’s economy on the U.S. cover, while the rest of the world gets an inside look at the animated movie Tintin. And there’s no question that TIME does cover substantial, international issues, which is why I subscribe to it. But scrolling through their archive, you find enough cases like the one I highlighted above, that you start to get a little worried.

Are Americans blinded by a veil of ignorance about the rest of the world?

Frankly: yes.

Go to ABCNews.com and look at the top headlines. I’ll do it right now. Here’s a sampling:

  • America’s Top Ten Trashiest Spring Break Destinations
  • Who’ll Win Oscar? Nominee Scorecard
  • 7 Oscar-Worthy Animals
  • Celine Dion’s Onstage ‘Oops’
  • Nixon Clarifies Bisexuality Comments
  • Beware of ‘Fake’ Shopping Sales
  • Baltic Mystery Object: Millennium Falcon?
  • The Car of the Future?
  • WATCH: Super Bowl Ads Preview

Even slightly more substantial stories, like “Rick Santorum Says Daughter Is ‘Out of the Woods'” and “[Ron] Paul’s Nevada Strategy Called ‘Odd,'” focus more on the theatrics and maneuvering of the campaigns than on the real debate about which (if any) of these people are qualified to be the most powerful human being on the planet.

Americans talk a lot about the comparative quality of their various news sources, but the debate tends to focus on conservative vs. liberal bias, Fox News vs. NPR. I think we miss the bigger issue with our news: it is myopic, focusing us inward, shutting out all the rest of the world except for what happens to be most entertaining, most graphic, most shiny right now.

So what’s the solution?

Well, personally, I get my news from several websites. I read MSNBC.com, which does have some “fluff,” but overall does a pretty decent job of covering real stories, both inside and outside the U.S.

But more importantly, I also read two other, less “mainstream” news sites: Radio Liberty and Al Jazeera. The former is funded by the U.S. government, and the latter by the Qatari government, so you do have to watch for bias – but they’re different biases, and they seem to agree with each other pretty well in spite of all that. They talk about international issues, political unrest in countries you wouldn’t otherwise hear about, the state of democracy in the world, and what the world really thinks about American power.

Besides those, I also subscribe to TIME, which (as I said) has a lot of great content in spite of the cover thing. And I listen to NPR on the radio while I’m driving, whose program “All Things Considered” does a remarkable job of living up to its ambitious name.

Do you think American news has a problem? Where do you get your news?

Batman the Compassionate

I make this look *good.*

I’m still playing Batman: Arkham City on the PC. I’ve long since beaten the game, and now I’m chasing down side quests in pursuit of 100% completion. After countless hours, it hasn’t yet stopped being fun.

As I’ve said before, Arkham‘s main strength is that it really does make you feel like Batman as you play. And the mind of the Batman is a pretty cool place to hang out. It gets you thinking about who he is – and what he is.

After all, who’s tougher than Batman? Who’s darker, grittier? He’s seen it all: the very depths of human depravity. Hell, he lives in the underworld. And he owns it. Nobody, but nobody, messes with the Dark Knight.

Yet this fierce darkness, this supreme mastery of combat, this obsession with his personal quest, are only part of what defines him. He’s defined equally, if not more so, by another aspect of his character: compassion.

And not just compassion for the innocent people he’s saving, but compassion even for the bad guys, the thugs and the supervillains. Though he’s driven by the murder of his parents, he is not – like the Punisher – out for revenge. He’s violent but nonlethal, using the minimum necessary force, sending his enemies back to prison over and over when their death would be so much easier. He isn’t just fighting on the opposite side. He’s fighting a different kind of war.

I find this dual aspect of his nature, this idea of hardness and kindness at once, very striking. I think many people believe that kindness is a form of weakness, that to care about your enemies is to coddle them. Certainly, in this age of political theater and fearmongering, the kindness-as-weakness trope is often implied if not outright stated. I think it’s important to see this idea for exactly what it is: a lie.

Batman is fictional (blasphemy, I know!) but the philosophy isn’t. Hallowed names like Gandhi and Martin Luther King are revered for the same reason. We admire them not just for their absolute conviction and steel resolve (which both men followed all the way to death), but for their self-restraint, their insistence on hating no one, not even the ones they fought.

If you’re a Christian, this is part of your doctrine. If you’re an atheist, this is common sense. Hate begets hate.

What have you learned from watching heroes – super or otherwise?

Friday Links

First, a quick announcement: I’ve changed up the sidebar, getting rid of some redundant stuff and adding some new stuff (like a tag cloud). I’ve also made it easier to follow the blog. Let me know what you think!

On to the links…

As you know, Microsoft has released a new text adventure game, this time with the unusual title of Visual Studio 2010. Ars Technica has a review.

The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that police do, in fact, need a warrant to attach a GPS device to your car. Kind of sad that there was even a debate about this, but the fact that all nine justices agreed is encouraging.

A nice opinion piece (from CNN, even!) about how broken the current campaign system is, and how there’s actually some hope for fixing it.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, one of the funniest things I’ve seen all week: Every PowerPoint Presentation Ever.

Got any links to share? Post ‘em in the comments.

Have a great weekend.

Forty-Minute Story #2

The first time I did this was fun, so let’s try it again. I’ve got less than forty minutes to write this story, start to finish, before I have to go to work. And, go!

* * *

The sound of the fires of the storm, the sound of the winds and the fires of the storm, surges and sighs in its familiar rhythm as I stride across the village square. I am a sun, and the fires circle me, small blazing planets each one of them. I have not been to this village before, but villages are all the same. They all know how to burn.

They have mostly gone, these people, fled to other places as they mostly do. Only a few screams remain and these are distant, receding on my periphery. Villages are all the same. I would stop if I could the fury of the fires, the way they wash away markets and homes, recede, and then like the tides surge back again in the pull of my gravities.

I would stop if I could. The fires obey me. But I obey another, and his gravities tug me to his orbit, and I have my storms and he has me. And the villages, they burn.

They are all the same. But not this one.

The opposite of fire is not ice nor water nor earth nor wind nor leaf but dark, and the deeping dark grows silently in the village square, not surging or sighing but only existing, being the absence of the light of the fires of the storm. The dark like the fire has its masters and orbits, and I know that tonight is the night I will die.

They call them shadows, these creatures that eat the fire, but they are wrong. A shadow is what appears when you stand before a fire.

When a fire goes out there is only dark.

I smile and sigh and make myself ready at the heart of the winds and the fires of the storm.

Russia, France, What the Hell?

Short on time this morning so I’ll make it quick.

Over the weekend, Russia signed a $500 million deal to supply Syria with weapons. This would be the same Syria that’s already murdered over 5,000 of its own people in the past year, for the crime of wanting democracy. Apparently Putin watched the videos of the Syrian military shooting civilians and said, “You know what those soldiers need? More bullets.” Thanks for that one, Vlad.

France (along with Britain and the U.S.) condemned the sale, even as it took steps to restrict freedoms inside its own borders. The French Senate recently passed a bill making it a crime for any French citizen to deny the occurrence of the Armenian genocide, which happened in World War I. There’s no question that the genocide is a historical fact, but wrapping its memory in a law that tears away at free speech is a bitter irony, not to mention idiotic.

What the hell, France? You’re supposed to be one of the good guys.

Robotic Close Encounters

The 12-second video below shows my Lego robot in action.

As you can see, it’s a pretty simple program. The robot (whom I’ve dubbed “Procyon”) moves forward until he gets close to something, then backs up, turns, and keeps going.

A few things to point out:

1. I am not remote-controlling him. Procyon is doing this “on his own,” so to speak.

2. The program governing his behavior actually runs on my PC and controls him wirelessly via Bluetooth. As I described earlier, I’m using a third-party library to bypass Lego’s proprietary programming language and write code in C++.

3. Procyon can tell when he’s close to something by checking his ultrasonic sensor, which is that light gray T-shaped piece mounted on the front. Essentially, he navigates with echolocation, the same thing bats and whales use.

4. Although the behavior is pretty simple, programming it did present some challenges. The biggest challenge is that, when I send a signal like “Turn your wheels backward 720 degrees,” there’s no way to say “Wait for that command to finish before moving on with the program.” (At least, not that I’ve found yet.) I’ve got a workaround for now, but I’ll need to come up with a more robust solution as I get into more complex programs.

5. I haven’t yet given Procyon even a hint of real artificial intelligence, but that is my eventual goal.

But AI for Procyon – even a very simple, stripped-down model like the one I plan to start with – is still a long way off.

In the meantime, what other cool stuff could I program him to do?

Hallway Eye Contact Syndrome (HECS)

Picture this. You’re walking down a hallway. Suddenly you notice someone else, someone you know, off in the distance…walking toward you.

I know, right? Disaster.

When someone is far away it’s no problem, because the two of you can easily pretend like you don’t see each other. When someone is close it’s no problem, because you can throw out some little greeting and be on your way. But anyone walking toward you will inevitably reach the intermediate zone between “far away” and “close,” a zone of supreme awkwardness, where you are near enough that some form of interaction seems required, yet far enough away that you can’t start talking yet.

This is the realm of Hallway Eye Contact Syndrome, or HECS.

You’re playing a dangerous game, and you know it. If you make eye contact, you’ll have to offer some kind of weird long-distance greeting, like a wave or a shout or a nod. Neither of you wants that, of course. So you both start looking around, searching for other things that could plausibly interest you (“oh my, our floors have carpet, when did they put that in?”) while trying to avoid walking into a wall. But you know, just as they do, this game can’t last forever. Sooner or later, one of you will have to break, decide that you’ve entered the Communication Zone, and offer a greeting. By the time it finally happens, the awkwardness has grown so intense that you don’t even care anymore – you just want it to be over.

HECS isn’t so bad if you don’t know the person at all, because then you can pretty much pretend they don’t exist without seeming rude. It’s also not so bad if it’s a close friend, because then you can do something goofy in the intermediate zone, like an exaggerated wave, and it works out okay. As before, the danger lies in the middle – with people who aren’t friends, but are good enough acquaintances that you have to greet them.

And of course, the fewer people in the hallway, the worse it is. If it’s just you and them? Forget it. You might as well turn down a side hall now.

For some people, HECS is only an occasional hazard, a few seconds of awkwardness per month. But those of us working in office buildings aren’t so lucky. All the conditions are ripe: long uncrowded hallways, lots of people that are acquaintances but not really friends, and a constant stream of reasons to be up walking around.

I’m telling you, it’s brutal.

Do you suffer from HECS? What strategies have you found for dealing with it? Share your tactics with fellow patients!

Friday Links

North Korea just launched an official English-language “news” site, and it’s every bit as crazy as you would imagine.

A good piece over at the Washington Post about the Marines who urinated on the bodies of their enemies: “We Are All Guilty of Dehumanizing the Enemy.”

NPR reports on MAGFest, an event for people who love video game music – especially when it’s performed live. As a guy who still gets shivers when he hears the name Nobuo Uematsu, I would love to go to this sometime.

This next one’s pretty geeky, but I know we’ve got a few in this crowd so I’ll throw it out there: Visual Studio Achievements. Yes, it gives you Xbox-style Achievements for doing stuff in Visual Studio. And yes, it’s a real thing.

Purple.com – sometimes you just gotta have some purple.

My mom sent me this one to remind me: PUNCTUATION SAVES LIVES.

Freedom House, a group that tracks democracy and civil liberties around the world, calls 2011 a ‘year of hope.’ They cite the progress so far with the Arab Spring. Their latest ranking classifies 87 countries as “free,” representing 43% of the world’s population.

A very cool video of Earth, as seen from the International Space Station.

Finally, I have to share something that made me laugh this week. A co-worker at my day job printed this out and set it on my desk, where I found it the next morning. He seems to think Mr. Data and myself may have a common goal in life. (Click to enlarge.)

All those processors, and he still can't use contractions...

And that’s that. As always, if you have any links to share, leave ‘em in the comments. Feel free to link to your own website, too!

Have a great weekend.

Song of the LARK

I sleep with it, and it vibrates. The Lego robot's going to be jealous!

Hey look, I got a new toy.

Here’s the problem I was having. My wife has to get up around 7:00 to get to work by 8. I, on the other hand, get up at the ungodly hour of 5:30, which gives me time to write my blog post and still be at work by 7.

I was using my cell phone’s alarm clock feature – in vibrate mode – to wake me up. The motor in the phone was so loud I could set it on the night stand and the sound alone would wake me. In fact, it would wake Betsy, too.

An hour and a half early.

You see the problem.

The concept of the LARK is simple: you wear a wristband to bed, and it wakes you up by vibrating – quietly, so you’re woken by touch, not sound. You can sneak out of bed so your wife keeps sleeping.

We’ve been on this new routine for almost two weeks now. The verdict? It works. I wake up, Betsy sleeps. Mission accomplished.

That said, it has some drawbacks:

  • The LARK wristband inexplicably requires you to download an iPhone app to set your alarm, which means you have to have an iPhone (or iPad). Why they would narrow their target audience so drastically is beyond me.
  • The app also has some trouble connecting to the wristband. It often tells you to hook up the wristband to the docking/charging station so it can connect, even though the wristband is already docked. Often you actually have to remove the wristband from the dock to make it work. It’s fine once you figure out the quirks, but this is something they easily could’ve fixed. (Fortunately, the wristband alarm will go off even if the connection is broken.)
  • The vibration is quieter than my phone’s, quiet enough that it gets the job done, but it’s still very much audible. I could imagine it waking someone if they were a light sleeper.
  • The damn thing costs a hundred dollars. Yeah, there are cheaper products out there that do the same thing, but they all had serious problems. (One wristband had buttons on the band itself, and if you accidentally hit the wrong button while sleeping, it could turn the alarm off!)

The LARK app has some other features, too: it’ll track your sleeping statistics and even (at an extra cost) act as a sleeping “coach,” provided you care enough to set up a username and password. I do not.

So. Money well spent? I’d say so. But for as much money as I did spend, you’d think they could’ve worked out some of those issues.

(Official site is here.)

What’s your wake-up situation? Do you have any kind of unusual alarm or system? Have you ever had the same problem I did, and if so, what did you do?

A Forty-Minute Story

Thanks, everyone, for the comments and suggestions on yesterday’s post about how I’ve fallen out of love with writing (at least temporarily). A lot of the comments revolved around a common theme: don’t worry so much, and get back to what you really love about writing!

Jo Eberhardt put it like this:

But stop being so hard on yourself; stop trying to create something great. Sit down and write a poem about a buzzard waiting for a cowboy to die, or an ode to toilet paper, or a plan to take over the world using only a radish, a jar of pickles, and a paintbrush.

In that spirit, I’ve decided to write a story – right now, in the forty minutes I have before work, with minimal time to worry or revise.

And, go!

* * *

Rain slashed the concrete, soaking me under my windbreaker, rattling everywhere like the end of the world. The street was deserted – almost. I could just see him through the storm, electric eyes shining blue.

“Mark!” I called.

An old joke: ‘Mark’ was short for ‘Automaton Mark VII,’ an absurdly retro name for the highest-tech gadget in the world. He had laughed at that joke before, a human-sounding noise I could never quite unravel.

But he didn’t laugh now. He just watched me, long arms at his sides. Waiting.

“Mark!” I advanced, one slow step at a time, shivering as the water seeped through my tennis shoes. “Come home, buddy. This thing with Sharon, I’m sorry, it isn’t going to work. She doesn’t love you, Mark, she loves the spotlight. Loves having her face on magazine covers with headlines about the first interspecies romance. You have to let it go. I really am sorry.”

Too direct. I swallowed. I was terrible at this kind of thing: delicate words, broken feelings. Six years at BU had taught me to pick apart themes in medieval Asian poetry, but not to do anything useful in particular – except spend my dad’s money, on the highest-tech gadgets in the world.

Even so, I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned Sharon. Not yet.

Mark’s answer was clear in spite of the rain. His mouth moved, but the sound came from somewhere in his chest. His voice didn’t sound robotic at all – whatever that means – it just had an unplaceable accent, like he was from some nonexistent country between Sweden and Iran.

“I’ve already broken it off with Sharon.”

I blinked. “Then why…”

“I never said I loved her.”

He crossed the distance between us in long, swift strides. His plastic white face was neutral as always, a mask hiding God knows what, but he put his hand on my shoulder.

That was new.

“Yes, you did. You said – “

“I said I was in love.” The blue lamps dimmed in his eyes, a deliberate but mystifying gesture. “I didn’t say it was with her.”

The hand fell away. He was gone before I could answer.

I swore and ran under the awning of a nearby tavern, trying to get warm.

* * *

Well, that was fun. Obviously it’s not very polished due to the time crunch, but I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll try this again sometime.