Archive for February, 2011


February 28, 2011 6 comments

This evening I was trying to type the name of some company into the notepad on my iPod.  The infernal device kept “correcting” me and it took five or six tries to get it to finally accept the word I was trying to input.

Quite some time ago I learned to type on my sister’s Olympia manual typewriter.  It was a purely mechanical contraption with no brain of its own; the user was expected to have one of those.  Today I do most of my typing in a text editor – Notepad++ in Windows and Gedit in Linux.   They’re simple and powerful; an improvement on a typewriter instead of a bastardization of it.

After I got home it occurred to me that “auto-correct” in one form or another is woven into the fabric of our culture – so completely that it is nearly impossible to speak of some things, and correspondingly difficult to think clearly or dispassionately about them.  Mostly those things are ideas that would interfere with the way things are now.  You might not think the lack of something could be a solid barrier, but lack of imagination certainly can block thought.

Auto-correct is learned early, in school, as a way of keeping us away from the unfamiliar.

Back when one of my sons was in about the fourth grade, a student teacher asked him what book he had just read.  “Dolphin Island”, he said.
“Oh, did you mean; Island of the Blue Dolphins?”, asked the teacher.
“No, I meant Dolphin Island,” said my son.
“I think the title is Island of the Blue Dolphins”, said the teacher.

(This actually went on for a while.  I think MrsDoF had to call the student teacher and inform her that there are more books with “dolphin” in the title than just the one she had heard of.  And that a fourth-grader might actually read one of them.)

Maybe this is why I get so furious when a machine “corrects” my typing.  I like my misspellings and malapropisms, thank you very much.  They’re mine, so back off.

And in any case, my son was right; he had read Dolphin Island.

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40 years after Watson…

February 20, 2011 4 comments

A familiar voice called into Harry Bertram’s earpiece; “Harry, it’s time to take your medication.”

The man’s suit was rumpled, but his tie was neatly set.  His shoes needed a shine, and yesterday’s 5-o’clock shadow was darkening. Over his shoulder was a small, battered canvas bag.  He stopped walking, reached into his bag and pulled out his phone.  The screen-side camera recognized him, and a cartoon image of a man’s face appeared on screen.

“Why don’t you just come down here and make me?”, asked Harry.

The cartoon spoke.  “You know very well I can’t do that,” said the voice.  “I’m a computer bolted to the floor twenty stories up in an office building.  But I could let your parole officer know you weren’t taking your meds.  Wouldn’t it be simpler for you to just take them?”

He smiled. “Oh, it is, and I will.  I just like yanking your chain.”

“I know.  That’s what I’m here for.”

Harry flipped open the stand on his phone, and set it on a newspaper box.  He took a bottle of pills out of his bag, showed the label to the phone and extracted one pill, which he also showed to the phone.  Then he took the pill, and a swig from his water bottle.  He stowed everything, flipped the phone closed and sat down on a bench.  In ten minutes a bus would come by, and Harry would get on.

“You satisfied, Kermit?”, he asked.

“Yes.  Thank you for taking your medication.  Our conversations are much more enjoyable when you take them.”

“Y’know, Kermit,” he said, “you’re my best friend.”

A woman passing on the sidewalk glanced in Harry’s direction, noted the glowing earpiece, and continued on.  Almost everyone wore some kind of earpiece; it had become an indispensable tool of modern life.  She thought his clothes were a bit unkempt for how expensive they were.  Probably from a second-hand store.

“How’s that, Harry?” asked the voice.

“You never get bothered by anything I say.  You make sure I have a place to sleep, and something to eat, and that I take my meds.  You find work for me, and get me to it on time.  You keep me out of jail.  I’d be lost without you.”

“I am programmed to assist you, Harry; to keep you from harm, and to make sure you don’t harm anyone else.”

“Yeah.  I just said that.”

“You’re welcome, Harry.  I enjoy my work.  I sometimes wonder if enjoyment feels the same to a computer and a human.”

“I guess we’ll never know, Kermit.  But you really saved my butt when those punks tried to rough me up.”

“It’s lucky there was a police car only a block away.  It was a simple matter to alert them to your predicament.”

“Anyway, thanks.”

Harry waited in silence for the bus.  In his parents’ generation, it might have seemed strange to be friends with a computer.  But the city had figured out that an unlimited ComputerCoach account was cheaper and more effective for homeless people and parolees, than any peevish and overworked social worker could be.

The computer never missed a detail, it never gave up and equally important it was never judgmental or condescending.  It would engage in talk-therapy; it would look after the client’s health.  It would help them find lunch, an apartment, or a couch for the apartment.

Compared to the round of emergency-room visits, arrests, incarcerations and  ineffective monitoring programs, the coach was practically a miracle.  It cut waste, cut crime, and made the streets easier for everyone.  It had transformed thousands of lives.

Like most computing advances, this one had begun in games.  In forty years it had gone from visiting a game show to helping people navigate everyday life.  Even, blurring the lines of friendship between carbon and silicon minds.

A bus pulled up to the stop and Harry got on.  He was due for the night shift at…

(See, this is where the story breaks down.  What will unskilled people do, when machine intelligence can handle the jobs they perform now?  What kind of work will Harry be able to find?  Think of fifty things unskilled people do now, and ask yourself if a computer or a robot will be able to do them in forty years.  I hope that’s just a failure of imagination on my part.)

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IBM Watson-Jeopardy Challenge party

February 16, 2011 4 comments

The viewing party took place at the Castle Theater here today – the largest such event in the country outside of New York City.  The event was sold out with a waiting list and standing-room filled.

IBM Watson-Jeopardy challenge 16 February 2011, at the Castle Theater in Bloomington, IL

IBM Watson-Jeopardy challenge 16 February 2011, at the Castle Theater in Bloomington, IL

More pictures beginning here.

It was pretty amazing to see a computer figure out word puns and double-entendres.   This had nothing to do with the number of cores involved or even the gigantitude of the database, by the way.  It was a big supercomputer to be sure, but the clever part was the machine making some kind of functional sense from the tangle of concepts we call language.

On the other hand, if you took Watson and put it in the head of a Terminator, it would be very easy to defeat.  For now.  Certainly there was no danger of this thing becoming sentient and taking over the world.

The IBM engineer talked a little bit about potential applications in medical and education fields.  Would you tell a computer things you wouldn’t tell a nurse?  Might the computer be able to figure out things that a human doctor or nurse would be too habituated to spot?  How about a virtual teacher who could give your child 100% attention?


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gravel outlines

February 10, 2011 1 comment

I love found art. These outlines on Milner Plaza were done with the tiny pea gravel from a cigarette ash pedestal:

Body outlines on Milner plaza

Body outlines on Milner plaza

But here’s the deal, mysterious artists: these outlines stayed there until university facilities’ workers had to come sweep them up for you and put them back in the ashtray. Next time you want to work in a temporary medium gathered from a public facility, do your art, let it be for an evening, but then sweep it up yourself. Either that or use natural materials, ‘K?

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Breaking Bad, season 1

February 9, 2011 1 comment

First episode is available online. You know, just a taste for free.

It’s common for science fiction authors to go to great lengths to make their stories scientifically accurate – right up to the point where the story requires something that goes beyond science and a suspension of disbelief is necessary.  Smart authors know that the reader’s road is paved that way.  But if the story is rife with obvious inaccuracies, then the turning point often becomes the breaking point.

Something similar happens in pure dramatic tales; a character’s motivation is akin to scientific accuracy in an SF story.  If their reasons for doing things make emotional sense all along, it’s easy to bridge the gap when they do that awful thing that doesn’t.  The exception is the irrational character who almost never makes sense – but at least then they are consistently nonsensical.

For Christmas my son gave me the first season of the award-winning AMC series, Breaking Bad, and I just started watching it.  This is some truly great storytelling – a horrifying premise, and first-rate writing and acting.  The main character, Walter White, is a high school chemistry teacher in trouble.  His son has cerebral palsy, and his young wife is pregnant, when he learns that he has terminal lung cancer.  He needs money fast, and when he learns how much money can be made from cooking crystal meth, he seeks out an old student whom he has learned is part of that culture.

There are complications, not least that he lives in New Mexico, where a high school teacher’s HMO might not cover the kind of elite cancer treatment he needs. He will have to figure out how to cover up where the money comes from.  Another problem is that he really has no idea how to interact with people in a very violent and suspicious drug culture, especially when they find out that his brother-in-law is a Drug Enforcement Agency cop.

Being a brilliant chemist, he produces the purest crystal meth anyone has ever seen. His brother-in-law, seeing a sample, tells his team; “We have a new kingpin in town.”  White will become a DEA priority, while attracting the attention of dangerous competitors who couldn’t possibly make a product as good as his.

It isn’t clear why he is teaching high school instead of heading a corporate research department.  Something went wrong, somewhere.  His old grad-school friend has become super-wealthy; he can spend more on a party than White will need for all his cancer treatments.  But when his friend offers to pay for the treatments, he refuses to accept.  So he is allowing his wife to believe that his old friend is paying for the treatments, his old friend to believe that his insurance will cover it after all, while he gets the money himself by cooking crystal meth.

That’s a lot of lying and a lot of participation in a life-destroying industry for a guy who has any normal moral compass at all – and his life so far indicates that he does have one.  Even when a distributor becomes a threat to his family, and his options pretty much dwindle down to 1) “killing the guy”, he agonizes over the decision.  He just isn’t wired for moral nihilism.  Or any practice at the Olympic levels of duplicity that will be needed.

In a less well-told story, you’d lose the signal here.  It wouldn’t be believable.  And it is quite a few shades darker than my usual fare.  But this is some seriously addictive glass-grade drama, yo.  I gots to smoke the whole bag myself – to find out how this otherwise good guy got there from here.  And maybe watch season 2 when I’m done.

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Tool caddy from dishwasher silverware holder

February 5, 2011 2 comments

When you see somebody throw out an old dishwasher, stop and grab the silverware carrier:

Tool caddy from dishwasher silverware carrier

Tool caddy from dishwasher silverware carrier

Cut some little pieces of cardboard or foam core for the bottom of each compartment, so tools don’t slip through when you pick it up.  You can also customize the compartments.  The one at lower-right has a spray-can lid in it to hold on to miscellaneous small items like little files.

The two center compartments have extra dividers in them made out of foam core.  I put some copper wire through the top of the foam core and wrapped it around the plastic to hold it in place.

The one at upper-right is full of that vinyl plastic board they make political yard signs out of.  (See, elections are good for something.) It has little channels in it so you just cut a bunch of pieces and stick in there for organizing tiny screwdrivers.

I put a tin can in the one at upper-left to give it extra depth. The center was perfect for straddling with a set of precision pliers, and other dividers hold tweezers.  Carry handles make it easy to move around.  There’s a small tape measure clipped to the side.

I don’t know who first thought of doing this but I saw one somewhere and thought it was pretty nifty. Now I have a half-dozen of them scattered around my garage and downstairs area.  One holds specialized bicycle tools.  (I attached a wider base to that one so it wouldn’t tip over.) This one holds my most commonly-used precision-assembly tools.  I suppose you could customize them for sewing tools or almost anything. In a pinch you could even use one for silverware.

Top view

Top view

Vinyl sign board cut into strips

Side view

Some other time: three cool organizing things you can swipe from a discarded fridge.

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Rape in the news

February 5, 2011 2 comments

Lately rape has been in the news as our new Republican congress has moved to cut funding for abortions even in cases of rape or incest.  Ever the humanitarians, however, they did offer an exception; they would fund an abortion in cases of “forcible rape”.   At last report that provision has been removed – I guess they’ll just keep hammering the left side of the Overton window until they can move it where they want it.

So I’ve been pondering the issue of redefining rape, and following it on Twitter under the hash tag #DearJohn, which refers to our Speaker John Boehner, that well-tanned soulless simulacrum of a human being as he supported the effort.  I couldn’t help wondering what life was like at his college fraternity.  But it’s been an interesting week and I just couldn’t get my thoughts together on the thing.  Fortunately three of my favorite bloggers certainly have and I commend their reflections to you:

Les at Stupid Evil Bastard uses the example of a web comic in Thoughts on “Rape Humor and Rape Culture”.

I find myself pausing to consider: Am I a rape apologist because I didn’t have a problem with the PA comic? I consider rape to be vile and repulsive. An act I have trouble fathoming how someone could commit on another human being. I believe rapists should be treated as the predators they are and punished accordingly. I have similar beliefs and feelings in regards to torture, murder, and any of a number of other heinous acts. Does the fact that I sometimes find amusement in jokes about torture or murder make me an apologist for those terrible crimes? If I am to accept the reasoning of Mellisa then it must be so.

So what, then, should I think of this bit by The Daily Show on the Republican attempt to redefine rape to eliminate taxpayer funded abortions…

Dave  at ***Dave Does The Blog asks; When is threatening rape something the good guys do?

I’ve become more sensitive to this over the last few years, not through any personal experience but just because it was pointed out enough times that the above literary usage of prison rape, particularly for laughs, is not only callous, but actually counter-productive to solving what is a very real problem. Just as the problem of other types of rape are hindered by a “rape culture” that accepts that rape happens, it’s not so bad, it’s a joke punchline, “lie back and think of England,” “well, you know she probably enjoyed it a bit, too” kind of crap, so too the media acceptance of prison rape as humorous and/or karmic justice is, itself, perpetuating the problem.

Dana at En Tequila Es Verdad, herself a rape survivor, dismantles GOP Priorities; Redefining Rape.

I cannot begin to describe how angry these fucktards make me.  They won’t understand, anyway.  Men can get raped, true – but they can never be impregnated by their attacker.  They don’t have to face that particular hell.  And the chances of them being raped in the first place is so vanishingly small that they can’t imagine the fear and the trauma women live with.

I would like to explain it to them.  I’d like to sit down in a room with all 173 co-sponsors and describe to them in minute detail everything that happened the morning I woke to a rapist at my door.  You know, it’s been nearly twenty years, and I still get sick to my stomach, my hands still sweat and shake, thinking about it.  And I’m one of the lucky ones.

My only contribution to these thoughtful (and in places heart-wrenching) expositions is this: Boehner and the Republicans are not the real problem; a voting majority elected them.  They are the highly visible business end of an anti-human culture that says, in effect, that mercy is a weakness and ignorance is strength.  And I’m not quoting Orwell or anything here; they have the Truth, and they don’t know and they don’t want to know anything else.  They’re not interested in walking a mile in anyone’s shoes but their own because empathy, that civilization-building accomplishment of brain evolution, is what they specifically want to starve out from all public life.  Never mind that it is the sinew that connects community and progress, that it makes us stronger than we could ever hope to be individually.  Never mind that, in the end, that to scorn human weakness while insisting on personal privilege is a fair thumbnail sketch of oppression.  Where it leads depends on how far we’re willing to let it go.

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Surgery that I wasn’t looking forward to – UPDATES

February 3, 2011 16 comments

(Previous title: “That thing I’m not looking forward to happens tomorrow”)

8:00 am Friday, they’ll be removing one of my front teeth, cutting away the gums, carving out some degraded bone, assessing level of embedded infection, and grafting in some bone from some unfortunate critter.  Afterward, I’ll have a nonfunctional “cosmetic” fake tooth supported by fitted plastic.  (Not entirely cosmetic; it will allow me to talk normally)

In a few months, if all goes well, a titanium anchor, then some time after that, a new, functional tooth.

This may be an echo of the accident I had 6 years ago. Broke 4 teeth at the time, plus my scapula and generally bloodied and unconscious.  Regained consciousness in the ER.

Insurance won’t cover anesthesia; that $500 is on me.  I’m sorry, but I just can’t face this with local.  I have a serious case of the jitters.

It isn’t really anesthesia; it’s “twilight sedation”.   The milk of amnesia.


  • Diane keeps saying; “Your face is so swollen!  It’s more swollen than before!”  I love you too, dear.
  • Bone invasion was much more extensive than they thought, reaching farther up toward the nose and also back into the palate.  They wound up putting in more bone than expected and we’re looking at 6 months instead of 3 before we can see about putting in an anchor implant.
  • Some things don’t add up and it’s worrisome.  Doctor said symptoms didn’t mesh with what they found and he isn’t sure what that was, so he is sending it to a University of Kentucky lab for identification.  He’s been doing this long enough to have seen everything so it’s like he didn’t want to say what he thought it was.
  • Next time doctor says “something for pain” I should make them specify.  Stronger is better.
  • DAY TWO: Pain abated, swelling quite extraordinary.  Consistent with other surgeries I have had, but on my face.  Trying to figure out how to remove/reinsert the prosthesis.
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