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!