Thursday, March 30, 2006

Nothing much

I note with interest that while redirects to Google, and loads a lemniscate web page icon and little else, is unregistered. Unregistered! Why this hasn't turned into a hilarious search engine by now is a total mystery.

I took a recent Saturday off and read Ender's Shadow, the sort-of companion volume to multi-platinum bestseller Ender's Game. Ender's Game is about Ender, a child prodigy who wants to go to Battle School and save the world from aliens. Ender's Shadow is about Bean, another child prodigy who was also there and also wanted to save the world. The two books were written twenty years apart, and cover the same timeline and basic plot from two perspectives. Ender's Game won many awards, too, so returning to the same material is a little like recutting Star Wars (oh wait, George Lucas did recut the original trilogy before he went back to the prequels; pride goeth before the fall).

As a book fan, you have to be wondering. Well? Did he (the author) pull it off? Yes and no. Some of the material is a little jarring, almost revisionist when you try to set it next to the old book. The two books had very different themes and tones, which I guess means the author pulled it off. But the first book was grand and poignant in ways that the second book could not copy, because it would have been redundant. On the other hand, the characterization and style were more mature and focused in the second book. It was very interesting reading.

Now in the pipeline: Kids are worth it! Giving your child the gift of inner discipline by Barbara Coloroso. It tries to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of parenting: rigid control and haywire permissiveness. It describes a kind of parenting where parents respect children's dignity and encourage their children to learn to solve problems within their capacity. Pretty good so far.

I also started reading Sin City. It is ultraviolent, and mature readers only. But the stories are gripping noir and the art is amazing.

If a female sewing artist is a seamstress, doesn't that make a male sewing artist a seamster? Is a female truck driver a teamstress or a teamstrix?

I have three, count 'em, three proof-of-concept software projects to do before May. They are, roughly, to hide arbitrary files undetectably in pictures, to evacuate a building as quickly as possible, and to improve Google search.

So if anyone wants me, I'll be in my room.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Room to play

I read a transcript of the Game Developer's Conference yearly rant. It is a lot of inside baseball probably most interesting to those who love computer games and computer game design. Also, swearing alert. And you may not get the jokes unless you've been paying attention to video game current events.

One of the ranters, Frank Lantz, got me thinking, though. Here's what he said, in part:

I think there is a widespread and largely unexamined belief in this community that computer games are evolving towards an infinitely detailed and utterly seamless simulation. That this is their destiny. To evolve to a Star Trek holodeck, a seamless simulation indistinguishable from real experience.

So what's wrong with this? Why does the phrase "the player will be able to go anywhere and do anything" sound like nails on a chalkboard to me? It's based on a very naive and unsophisticated understanding of how simulation, how representation works. You have a thing, a part of the world, and you have a simulation of that. There's a gap in between, the gap is made up by all the differences, the way that this is not this... the immersive fallacy is this idea that computer simulation allows us to close this gap and makes these things identical. But this gap is an essential part of how this representation works, this gap is where the magic happens.

To understand this more deeply, think about a game that allowed you to experience your own 24-hour day in real time. Would a game that allowed you to experience someone else's day be that much better? William Gibson, in Mona Lisa Overdrive (and maybe Count Zero, I forget), imagined just such a system where celebrities live days filled with sex, gourmet food, luxury, and adventure, sponsored by a network; they have bionic eyes so you can see from their point of view, sensors so you can feel what they feel. And no doubt, so you can experience the sorcery of product placement. This is not exactly a game because it's not interactive, but you get the idea: real life is already as interactive as anything can get. We want to be able to concentrate our effort, not feel as dissipated as usual.

The Sims (an extremely popular video game where you control the lives of ordinary people) is very different from this picture. Instead of realism, you get a certain complex, cartoony analogue of suburban life. The actions of the magical dolls you control (or set free to follow their weirds) are restricted by the things that they own, the skills they learn, and the relationships they nurture carefully. You can't use a magic wand or fly or make love with an endless stream of nubile virgins. The reason is obvious; it wouldn't be fun. But there's another, almost equally important reason.

Unless films are in some sense absurd, or about breaking the fourth wall, or they suck, the actors in them stay in character. Same for The Sims, too, which also has a very generic system of personality, founded on character traits. The game in some sense limits the scope of your actions by making some actions (like scrubbing the tub) very boring, or even painful, for a Sim-person to do. Sure, you can make them do it, especially if you think messing with their heads is funny. Even better, you can surround Sims with people they hate, and watch the fireworks.

But you can't make them like it. You have to start over with another character if you want someone to hum while they're scrubbing bubbles and scream if you make them read a book. That said, there is tremendous scope for playing pretend in The Sims. Whether you want to be a single mom with three screaming kids or a misanthrope, every choice is wide open to you. You just have to fill in the imaginative gap, the distance between simulation and reality yourself. I read somewhere that people sometimes imagine elaborate conversations when their Sims talk, which is only possible because the Sims speak foreign languages that don't sound like English.

There is a sort of continuum to control in videogames. If you have too much control, you don't know what to do with it. You break the simulation. If you have too little control, you can't get involved. The game turns into a movie with buttons. The world of the game needs to yield to your pressure, but only so much.

There is a similar continuum for regular art, like the novel. Novels aren't interactive, but they provide a certain imaginative space to play in between what they say and don't say. If the details of description, talk, action are too vague, your creative imagination can't keep up and your eye goes back to the beginning of the paragraph. Have you ever noticed that your dreams end when you come to a stopping point and you don't know what's going to happen next? On the other hand, if the details come too fast and thick, your creative imagination has no work to do, and your eye starts skipping the paragraph.

The gap between the poet and the physicist is wide, as wide as the difference between representation and reality. We all live somewhere in between. We tell our stories, we create our stories. We can't change the world through fiat, but it yields to pressure. We can't fix ourselves only on abstract causes or the concrete stream of consciousness. (It is, however, easy to think of people who veer sharply to one end or the other.) We require fusion of the senses and the mind.

We live for room to play.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Two sf novels about the human race

I recently finished rereading Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Child geniuses train at a special school to command the Earth's space navy to defeat aliens and save the human race. Read it; it won the Hugo and the Nebula (the top two science fiction/fantasy awards) for its qualifying years, 1986. The only parts that feel a bit dated are, first, that the Cold War never ended, and second, two bloggers take over the world (this story was written as if the Internet existed and everyone used it all the time). The physics is also nonsense, but oh well.

I also recently read Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. The Spin makes time pass slowly in close proximity to Earth, scientists try to save the human race from being engulfed by the sun in 40 Earth-years. Read it; this is a newer novel that is up for the Hugo this year. The physics, again is nonsense.

The common thread in these novels is a certain sense of the human race and our Earth as small in the grand scheme of things. Ender's Game plays around with the morality of killing or being killed, and what atrocities we are willing to commit to ensure our survival as individuals and as a species. Spin, on the other hand, emphasizes how the human race is in the grip of forces it can no longer control. In a sense they call into question whether humanity is special, whether our species deserves to go on or to succumb to the inescapable logic of natural selection, natural extinction.

Novels like this can make you feel small as a human being; crushed, or humbled, in the face of time and space. You feel like your story is really insignificant, like the days and years of your three-score and ten are whipping by unstoppably. The present moment is so short, so ephemeral an opportunity to make our mark on existence for good, or evil, or physics.

Monday, March 20, 2006

And speaking of religious tests...

At least the Mormons can only excommunicate you for dissent. In Afghanistan, you can be executed for abandoning Islam:

During the one-day hearing, the defendant confessed that he converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, Mawlavezada said.

"We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law," the judge said. "It is an attack on Islam."


The prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, said he had offered to drop the charges if Rahman converted back to Islam, but he refused.

"He would have been forgiven if he changed back. But he said he was a Christian and would always remain one," Wasi told AP. "We are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against our laws. He must get the death penalty."

It's ironic that the United States got rid of the Taliban (sort of) in order to produce this kind of government in Afghanistan. This guy renounced Islam honestly and it is an enormous offense; now, if he can just renounce Christianity dishonestly, he'll escape with his head. What displeases the Beneficent and Merciful more, lies or Christianity?

If I had to guess about my own religion, I'd say that God wants us to be honest more than he wants us to conform to a certain straitjacket of denominationalism or theology. If there's one thing I've learned about religion in the last five years, it's that the only religion you really hold is the one you live; the only theology you can really believe is the theology of lived belief. Otherwise, religion is just a certain arrangement of strings of characters.

I've seen people play debate games with doctrines as chips. I've played too. The distance between that and the situation of this Afghan guy is enormous, from the playground to the gulag. He is playing for keeps, forever.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Googling self, looking for perfection

::dan lewis:: still gets me nowhere. Too many incredible Dan Lewises out there, I guess. No wonder, since we are so fabulous as a group. However, my USU site and Blogger profile are hits 3 and 4 on ::dan lewis utah:: so I must be doing something right.

Anyway, getting beyond that self-important stuff, I found an unexpected item at Google hit number 2, which is the story of another Dan Lewis who also lived in Logan, Utah, and was also white (okay, so the probabilities of living in Logan and being white are not exactly independent).

Dan Lewis the Second is a former Mormon who became a Protestant minister, now a missionary serving in Mongolia. This page talks about the event that shook his religion up and down: his divorce at 32. Some of it is polemical and may not interest you, but there are a few personal notes about failure in Mormon culture that are kind of interesting.

Here is another picture of perfection from the inside, by an LDS churchmember.

I shouldn't put this subject down without noting that Mormons can't go to the temple to participate in the religion's sacred rituals without a current temple recommend. It is a certificate which is only given out on fulfillment of certain standards of worthiness. These include "obeying the laws of tithing and the Word of Wisdom, fulfilling family responsibilities and avoiding affiliation with dissident groups."

I find that last item the most disturbing of all. Some kinds of dissent are not tolerated; I am not current on which groups will derange your temple recommend. Dissent can disqualify you from doing holy work for God. The implicit message, I think, is that there are loyalty tests in Mormonism. I favor a very squishy orthodoxy, so this would be a deal breaker for me, but I'm sure many satisfied Mormons would disagree.

I hope I haven't portrayed Mormonism unfairly here and I invite correction and disagreement from people in the know.

Music, sweet music

So, I got this new album, Blinders On, by Sean Watkins, one third of unlabelable supergroup Nickel Creek. Nickel Creek breaks genre labels, landing somewhere between art rock and acoustic bluegrass if you had to say. Nickel Creek is made up of twenty-somethings, so it's a little early to make comparisons to the greatest bands of all time, but I've been listening to a lot of Beatles albums lately, and the way the Beatles picked up pop and ran with it is the way Nickel Creek has picked up acoustic music and run. Can't wait for the next one.

Blinders On is Watkins' third solo album. If anything, his symphonic pop is closer to the mainstream than Nickel Creek. Again, it's reminiscent of the later Beatles albums. The production is first-rate and multi-layered. Keyboards and drums are welcome additions on many songs. Strings are used to great effect. Watkins' voice is more confident this time out; if I have one persistent nag, it's Watkins singing his own harmony parts on this record. Don't get me wrong, the singing sounds pretty good across the board, but it reminds me of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" when artists do that.

It's a little strange for me to listen to this album because some of the material appeared in live concerts that are freely available under the band name Watkins Family Hour. I listen more carefully to those tracks because I know the words.

The songs all have their own flavors, though, no two alike. The one that sounds the most bluegrassy of the new ones is a bouncy tune called "No Lighted Windows" about CS Lewis' The Great Divorce. There's a hidden bluegrass instrumental at the end of the album, "Cherokee Shuffle". "Starve Them To Death" and "I'm Sorry" could basically be on commercial radio. Woven throughout are evocative expressions of romance, memory, and things you can't say.

Buy it. Buy it now.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Bible for Dummies

[like me! Once again, I'm responding to a comment on Bad Christian, to answer the following question: "What do you think is the role of scripture as a foundation or basis to our thinking, especially coming from a postmodern perspective?" I don't consider my way of thinking about the Bible particularly postmodern, but who knows.]

Inerrancy (roughly, the belief that the Bible contains no false statements) may be tenable, but it is a bit distracting. Dialogue with non-Christians unfairly reduces to caricatures of Ned Flanders' plaintive wail, "I've done everything the Bible says - even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!" and unproductive Christian responses that sound like wriggling on the hook even when they're just about plausible deniability.

Billy Graham preferred to talk about the Bible as the infallible product of fallible people, in the sense that it may have facial paradoxes, apparent contradictions, or even errors, but the essential message of the New Testament is preserved faithfully and truthfully. The idea is to get beyond this or that error to God's love letter to humanity.

For instance, how do we harmonize the Gospel narratives of the Passion Week? Before you answer, are we supposed to spend our time in dialogue with non-Christians reconciling these narratives, or should we change our focus to God's reconciliation through Christ, whatever narrative tack we take to the essential fact of his crucifixion, resurrection, and redemption? I'm not trying to denigrate apologetics; I just speak from long fruitless experience, wasted time where my friends poked around just such nitpicks of Christianity (of the "who was Cain's wife?" and "what about dinosaurs?" variety) and I tried to meet them there.

So I prefer to start by talking about Jesus and who he was and what he did. I focus on the essentials and feel free to admit the possibility of inconsistencies in order to get back to who Jesus is. If something in the Old Testament becomes an issue, I see it as a change of subject. I view the Bible as a means to get close to Jesus. It was written for no higher purpose. As Shusaku Endo says in the first chapter of his profound A Life of Jesus, "We have never seen his face. We have never heard his voice. ... Yet by reading the Gospels, we are able to bring to mind a lively impression of Jesus, thanks to the people who did get to know him and then were unable to forget him the rest of their lives."

I think a lot of Christians have gotten tripped up in recent years by taking their Bible-reading to Pharisaical extremes. I'm talking about people who substitute proof texts for the complex tapestry of Biblical teaching, who read the Bible not as a means of getting close to Jesus, but as a means to further political ends, who let controversies turn on subtleties of Greek instead of universal Christian truths, who interpret Old Testament events to suit contemporary events with bad analogy and allegory. The danger in seeing the Bible as foundational is bibliolatry in all its heinous forms.

I view focusing through the Bible on Jesus, not on the Bible, as a way to avoid some of these problems. I run more of a risk of internalizing groundless theology and un-Christian ideas, because the opposite of bibliolatry is turning the Bible into an interesting, not-so-relevant piece of history. I really don't want to fall into this opposite error. I don't want to suck the power and life out of the accounts of the people who knew God Incarnate better than anyone who ever lived.

As CS Lewis says, some errors are characteristic of certain ages, and from where I sit, the pendulum has swung far to bibliolatry. That's why I have tried to creatively swing back to a reasonable center.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Points of no return

[Cross-posted to Bad Christian. The original post was about not assimilating into evangelical culture: is it wrong? Is it spiritually immature? Can non-evangelicals find a place in an evangelical church? Warning: Bad Language. The original post is very honest, though, and I recommend it.]

The way I usually think about it is this:

I have felt very uncomfortable with wholehearted commitment to one set of doctrines or denominations. I became a Christian in college and was basically a fundamentalist at first, but even then I was holding a lot back, and the freedom to doubt. Since then I've only become more convinced that humility is the most appropriate response to questions that divide Christians.

Sometimes I wonder if there is a point of no return that I resist. I'm a Christian because I believe Christ came back from the dead and he was God, my God, but I find myself riddled with doubts. I'm open to not being a Christian if I'm ever properly convinced (7 years on, still hasn't happened). I wonder if something could break in me, or change in me, where I wouldn't be open to giving up my Christianity any more. Then, I think, I would be wholeheartedly committed. Would that be better or worse?

Then I ask myself if my abeyance in matters of belief amounts to under-commitment in my Christian life, my personal relationship with God. Sometimes in prayer I feel like I'm speaking to a person, in the room; sometimes it's like calling into the silent, dark void; sometimes my words echo off the walls. I struggle with the same old sins. And I wonder if, or when, something within me is supposed to break and change me irrevocably, or if I am stuck in this half-life. I wonder if it fails Jesus to have the half-life. "You are neither hot nor cold..."

I remind myself of that passage in the Screwtape Letters, though. The devil tells his apprentice, Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Some of my friends might look at me sideways if they knew I felt this way (finally coming around to the original post). I don't hate church, but I feel detached from it at times. I feel guilty about it all, and I feel like there is some gulf between me and these people who have figured something out. I feel like I think things they never would.

But you know, I don't think this makes me spiritually immature or a bad Christian. In my lucid moments, I remember "now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known," and "Now the body is not made up of one part but of many." These are invitations to be bad, to mis-fit and yet to fit.

That won't stop me from being a coward, though.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Svarnik and Byll Internet Phenomenon spreads

Geeky Svarnik and Byll have made it to the big time now. We have a fresh link! For the original viral video of these cancer-stick-fighting heroes, see my post here. All Your Base Are Belong To Us, here we come!

Phase 1, Become Famous Through Blogging, is now complete.

I love the Internet.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Just a quick note

We don't get Sci-Fi Channel so I am a bit behind, but my wife and I just watched the opening miniseries of Battlestar Galactica (about four episodes).

It was frigging awesome.

We might have to buy whole seasons on DVD just to watch it.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Svarnik and Byll hit the Internets!

Well! Here is an exciting follow-up to Svarnik and Byll in Utah, my short send-up of Utah's smoking-fighting dynamic duo. After I posted, I was contacted by the advertising firm responsible for the PSAs, Crowell Advertising.

In short, as an appreciative fan of Byll and Svarnik, I have been offered permission to host and share the 5 television spots. You too can host and share them, on the same two conditions I was given: 1) Credit the firm, Crowell Advertising, wherever these videos are posted; 2) If you do decide to post them, drop a note to Chip Haskell from the firm. He is interested to watch the grassroots spread of the Svarnik and Byll phenomenon. You can also see a couple of the spots on the Crowell Advertising website (if you want to navigate through the Flash to "our work").

I'll host them on my USU website. I don't know that I have any bandwidth cap there, but I guess we'll find out. Internets, I give you... Svarnik and Byll!

The one I posted about last time was "TV Idea". I think you'll agree that it's quite funny, especially for Utah.

Big thanks to Crowell Advertising and Chip Haskell for making these available.

P.S. These are also available in Windows Media format; you might just email Chip Haskell directly, or write me.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A tale of two searches

Google has been notorious for releasing products in Beta. Beta is a software development/marketing term that means a core software product is complete enough to be released to a select group of reviewers and testers. These Beta testers monkey around with the software to achieve many ends: finding errors, ease-of-use and user interface, stress testing, buzz, and so on. You do this just before you release a product to market, on the philosophy that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, who in this case is the software consumer. They don't call it killer app for nothing.

Google News was in Beta for more than three years. I explained to a friend my ideas about how Google is using Beta: lowered expectations (because no Beta is supposed to be perfect), continuous development and feature rollout (more possible with web-served applications like Google Search than desktop applications like Microsoft Word), continuous hype and buzz (Google Widget 221 acquires Sprocket A! stories appear basically every day on Slashdot). Some recent Betas are Google Transit, Google Page Creator, Google Reader, and Google Video.

Anyhow, Microsoft's Google killer is now in Beta. It's called Windows Live, but it felt more like the living dead. It loaded slooooowly because it's a chromed-up web application. And the search results are... interesting. What follows are two web searches; one on Windows Live, one on Google. The search I used was ::letters and papers:: (colons not in the original, no quote marks).

Notice that Microsoft's search puts this blog at number 2, while Google's search puts the book Letters and Papers from Prison first. In fact, this blog hasn't been operating for a year, at least not yet, so I couldn't find myself on the first four or five pages of Google results, which means no one would find this blog with that search. Suspicious... has Microsoft just won another customer?

Ummm. No. I wouldn't use Windows Live for the kind of searching I do: quick, to the point, I needs me my information now. The web page loads too slowly for me to consider it; it does remind me of something else, though. When you sign up for GMail or a GAccount, you get a personal home page with a Google search box and news, weather, highlights and such that you can customize to your heart's content. Google was smart not to make this the de facto gateway to Google Search. I wonder if Windows Live is the de facto gateway to search for Windows Vista.

I also wonder what kind of ranking algorithm Microsoft uses, to put such a new site so near the top of the charts. I smell a rat. Next year, will all the search results go to cleverly tweaked Viagra blogs? Enquiring minds want to know.

If Microsoft wants to beat Google at their own game, this isn't the way to do it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

With the benefit of hindsight

Sarah and I have been reorganizing our house to give me a better office area to work in. We are trying to eliminate all my excuses for not being able to work well on my classes and job. I sit at the computer and feel deranged and unproductive for a long time, then go back to family stuff. It hasn't mattered whether I occupy the RA lab or work at home. So we cleaned out a lot of crap and got rid of my cluttered, cramped desk, in exchange for a beautiful dinner table we had in storage. I think it's made a big difference already.

In the midst of cleaning, I finally resolved to organize my personal papers. It's not too hard. I bought a hundred page protectors and a couple of binders, got out a few mini legal pads, then started annotating my life.

It has become easier with the benefit of hindsight. Now I can throw away papers I can't figure out any more; basically I toss something if I can stare at it for a few minutes without coming up with an insightful annotation tying it into the larger picture. And if I can't remember why it was important, I just let it go. I've been reading names and identifying handwriting that I haven't thought of for ten years. I've gotten to read snapshots of myself that I can't recognize, and memories as vivid as the day I made them.

I've learned, slowly, that I was a real yutz when I was talking to girls in high school; jointly written notes I saved show me talking to Girl A about Girls B and C, then to Girl D about Girls A and E. Sometimes I think it was out of congenial familiarity that they put up with all this careless talk; I can see other times that it annoyed them. And I was completely wrapped up in myself then. Re-visioning myself so clearly has been a pretty wild thing, but honest this time around. It doesn't help that I might as well be a stranger to that other me, at times.

I thank God today that I never sent some of the letters I have reread, as fatuous and puerile and selfish as they are. And then there are a couple I wish I had sent. I avoided living with the consequences of the former by strangling the latter. It was a fearful way to live. I'm also reminded, as if I needed reminding, that I've been writing fragments of poems and stories for a long long time, and that it wouldn't be terrible for me to keep at it. Some of it is real crap, but some of it is still good, which is practically a miracle.

I wonder if this stuff can really acquire a backbone, or even a chronology. If I can't even remember what I was doing in 1997 and sort out the dates, it's not like anyone else can. I wonder if I can take my neatly compartmentalized lives and mush them together again. And I don't just mean emails on my computer, love letters and artifacts and poems and drawings in my papers, four diaries and a few other little books. These papers have certain local attractors, threads of relationships that fit into these old personal narratives I made up and followed faithfully for years. I wonder if all the work will go anywhere, if it will mean anything to anyone but me. After all, I'm going to die, sooner or later, and my memories will wash away in the tide.

The first fifty sheets felt like a well dug into my heart, though, so I guess I'm in for another fifty.