Supersonic Man

May 3, 2016

top science fiction writers

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 1:33 pm

Who would be my picks for the top ten or so science fiction writers of all time?  Let’s take an initial stab:

(the inarguable immortals)
H.G. Wells
Olaf Stapledon
Philip K. Dick
Ursula K. LeGuin

Arthur C. Clarke
Frederik Pohl
Alfred Bester
Cordwainer Smith
Kurt Vonnegut
Frank Herbert
John Brunner
Roger Zelazny
Greg Bear
Octavia Butler
Vernor Vinge
Kim Stanley Robinson

(tempting, but probably not justifiable)
R.A. Lafferty
Greg Egan

(ought to read more before rejecting)
Bruce Sterling
Doris Lessing

Names I will definitely not be listing include Asimov and Heinlein… and also Sturgeon and Bradbury.

April 21, 2016

precious substances

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 6:38 am

Are there any substances that are worth a million dollars a kilogram?  I don’t just mean stuff that costs a thousand dollars a gram — I mean stuff which it it possible to buy a whole kilogram of.

There are various radioisotopes that cost way over a kilobuck a gram to buy, but often they cost nearly as much to get rid of as they do to obtain, so it’s far from clear that they count as a precious commodity, and collecting a whole kilogram would generally be impossible.  There are rare biological substances with such costs, but these are often scarcely available in whole grams, let alone kilos.  There are materials available by the kilogram at enormous cost, such as moon rocks, but once obtained, it’s not clear that a resale market exists.  Works of art and rare stamps are this valuable, but the value doesn’t relate to their weight.

What’s the most expensive stuff that’s actually traded by weight in kilograms?

A kilo of gold is about $40,000, and if you’re wealthy enough, you can obtain it by the ton.  Platinum is similar, and so are rhodium and iridium.  Rare earths such as europium don’t cost nearly as much.

A gram of cocaine might go for hundreds in some difficult markets, but at the source a whole kilo costs less than $1000. What about LSD? Now we’re getting somewhere: because dosages are so small, prices per gram do reach four digits. And that’s considered a wholesale price! But I’ve heard that people do sometimes make it by the whole kilogram, and it sure doesn’t cost all that much for materials. All these drugs have prices that go very nonlinear as the batch size decreases.

How about gemstones? Cut diamonds cost a lot, but uncut ones might not, depending on size. Abrasive diamond grit costs a few thousand a kilo as far as I can tell, but fat crystals which can be cut go for a lot more. Pricing depends on personally assessing each batch, maybe each rock in the batch, and then haggling — you can’t just get a bag of rocks for a fixed price. But if you average it out, what might the price of a kilo of large rough diamonds be? Hard to say, but if they’re around two carats rough, and of gemstone quality (after selecting for size, most would still be rejected as too yellow or too full of inclusions), yeah, it would be seven digits. I suppose such trades might be made routinely in the gemstone business, but as far as I can tell, they don’t batch them together all that much.

There are gemstones much rarer than diamond, but they don’t have well developed markets. Taaffeite and painite are both rare and precious… but I don’t think it’s possible to buy a kilogram.

Some perfume ingredients are notoriously expensive.  Ambergris, sometimes called “floating gold”, goes for $20,000 to $50,000 a kg, but orris butter (made from iris roots) and oud resin (produced when an aquilaria tree is fighting a bacterial infection) can sometimes fetch much higher prices.  Mind you, that’s only for the best grades.  I’ve heard of some fanatics paying $100,000 to $300,000 a kilogram for particular batches.  But that still doesn’t quite hit our mark.

What about pharmaceuticals? Some are very costly indeed. Soliris, for instance, has a retail price somewhere around $12,000 a gram. The ones with the most shockingly high prices are made in very small batches because they treat diseases that only a few people have, so I doubt they have kilogram availability. But some on a second tier might still be pretty expensive.

One drug which doesn’t have US approval yet is Acthar, which stacks up as follows: daily dosage (as prepared for subcutaneous injection) is a gram or more and costs about $800 retail, and annual sales are nearly $800 million, meaning annual production is at least a ton. A pharmacy chain might well buy a kilogram at a time, but I don’t know what the wholesale price would be. It might be half a million or more? I gather that the profit margins nade by retailers such as pharmacies are typically under 20%.

The most infuriating high-cost pharmaceutical might be Harvoni for hepatitis C, a contagious disease with millions of untreated sufferers. A complete course is around 40 grams at a US price of $2,500 a gram. They’re making a lot of it now — at least a ton a year — but that’s still far short of enough for all those who need it. (And since the company wants to maintain a long term market for it, maybe it’s not in their interest to make enough for everybody… since it actually is a cure, treating everybody who has the infection would wipe out their supply of customers.)

So there’s our winning substance, I guess — available in heavy quantities at a wholesale price that must be at least a million dollars a kilogram.

Meanwhile, in India, where they have chosen to disregard other countries’ drug-patent laws, they make it for $25 a gram retail.

March 28, 2016

some fatuous computer industry predictions

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 11:15 am

I think I’ll call some trends in where the computer industry is going to go in the coming years. And yes, these are pulled straight from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

  • Is Windows going to start dying off?  Yes, but it will be very slow.  Home use will disappear before office use.
  • What will replace it?  A windowed variant of Android, or something Android-compatible, which doesn’t even exist yet.
  • Will that be Google’s planned merger of Android with ChromeOS?  Maybe, but I think it may be more likely to come from an independent outfit.  And if it’s advertised as being half Android and half ChromeOS, it’ll really be 90% Android.
  • Will ARM architecture replace Intel ’86 architecture?  Yes, but only temporarily.
  • Then what will win out in the long term?  Something designed for massive parallelism, like a GPU.  I predict that in The Future, when comparing the size and power of different computers, the main stat that will be quoted is the number of kilocores.
  • Will these cores be similar to full-blown processors such as an ARM core, or will they be more basic and stripped-down like a GPU core?  I think the trend may be from the former toward the latter — quantity over quality.
  • Will we still be using Android variants when things get into kilocore country?  Nah, something fundamentally more advanced will replace the whole current idea of desktop-like interfaces.
  • Will neural networks be important?  Maybe.  They’ll remain a specialized minority of architectures, but I think as the massively parallel architecture evolves toward having more cores and less in each core, it will converge toward neural-net architecture and then replace it.
  • What about software?  I think it will be stored in portable binary format and adapted to individual architectures with JIT compilation and/or automatic local optimizers.  The actual coding of highly parallel algorithms will rarely be done by hand, and will usually depend heavily on automated assistance.
  • What about quantum computing?  It’s impossible to tell how big an impact it will have.  It’s essentially a form of analog computing, and as such may be confined to niche specialties… but you never know: it could end up beating conventional computing at its own game and become much more general-purpose.  If this happens, the need for automated assistance in coding goes double.
  • Will we eventually use computers through direct brain interfaces?  Yes, but progress toward that will be frustratingly slow and gradual.
  • Will these new architectures lead to Artificial Intelligence?  Yes, though in a quite limited sense for the shorter term.  See this article for how I think that will go.
  • Does this mean that a computer will take your job?  It sure does, and it’s going to be a very difficult social challenge to adapt to.  See this further article.

March 23, 2016


Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 7:45 pm

I grew up sort of unconsciously assuming that there were fairly straightforward rules, fairly consistently applied, for how to turn a place name into the term for the people who live there. Once I actually looked, it turned out I had not appreciated how complex and inconsistent it is. I think it was during the 2000 election controversy, when people on TV kept talking about “Floridians”, that it sunk in for me that there’s no requirement for similar sounding place names to be consistent: it could just as easily be “Floridan” and “Nevadian” as the other way around.

I think I will now inventory the demonyms for people who live in the US states and territories, according to what rule they empirically seem to have used. And I’ll throw in Canadian provinces and Australian states too.

Global rule to apply before other rules: if the place name is a plural, convert it to singular before looking for a rule to apply below.
Cases following this rule: Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, Northwest Territories.
Exceptions: none.

First rule: if the place name ends in “ia”, just add “n”.
Cases following this rule: California, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, South Australia, Western Australia, Tazmania, Victoria.
Exception: District of Columbia (people just say “Washingtonian”).

Second rule: if the place name ends in “a” but not in “ia”, just add “n”.
Cases: Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Samoa, Alberta, Manitoba. (Also, America.)
Exceptions: see next rule.

Third rule: if the place name ends in “a” but not in “ia”, and you don’t want to follow the second rule, you can replace the “a” with “ian”.
Cases: Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, North and South Carolina. (And Canada.)
Remaining exceptions: none.

Fourth rule: if the place name ends in an “ee” sound, add “an”.
Cases: Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Northwest Territories.
Minor exceptions: Kentucky (the “y” is replaced with “i”), Tennessee (the last “e” is dropped), Northern Territories (just “Territorian” with no “Northern”).
Real exception: Australian Capitol Territory (similarly to D.C., it gets covered by “Canberran”).

Fifth rule: if it ends in a vowel sound not covered above, replace that vowel (and any silent letter following it) with “an”.
Cases: Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Ontario, Puerto Rico.
Exceptions: see next rule.

Sixth rule: if it ends in a vowel sound not covered in the first four rules, and you don’t want to follow the fifth rule, add “an” without removing anything.
Cases: Idaho, Ohio.
Remaining exception: Utah (it’s “Utahn”).

Seventh rule: if it ends with “as”, replace the “s” with “n”.
Cases: Kansas, Texas.
Exceptions: none.

Eighth rule: if it ends in a plosive or unvoiced consonant sound, but not with “as”, add “er”.
Cases: Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Queensland. (Also, New Zealand.)
Minor exceptions: Connecticutt (the last “t” is dropped), Quebec (any of “Quebecker” or “Quebecer” or “Québécois”).
Real exception: Nunavut (“Nunavummiuq”).

Ninth rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, add “ian”, or just “an” if the last letter is a silent “e”.
Cases: Delaware, Oregon, Washington, Labrador, Saskatchewan.
Exceptions: see next rule. Also, Michigan can follow this rule, but it’s optional, as it has two competing official demonyms.

Tenth rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, and you don’t want to follow the ninth rule, add “ite”, after dropping any silent “e” at the end.
Cases: New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming (most people pronounce this nonplosively).
Remaining exceptions: see next rule.

Eleventh rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, and you don’t want to follow the ninth rule or the tenth rule, add “er”, or just “r” if the last letter is a silent “e”
Cases: Maine, Yukon.
Remaining exceptions: Michigan (the second official demonym adds “der”), Guam (“Chamorro”), New South Wales (“New South Welshman”).

I’ve restricted this list to English-speaking nations, but I excluded the British Isles themselves: the adjectival forms “English”, “Scottish”, “Irish”, and “Welsh” have their own rule, and for added inconvenience “Englishman”/”Scotsman”/”Irishman”/”Welshman” are gendered. “Briton” doesn’t fit with anything else. And I wouldn’t know where to begin with smaller regions such as Middlesex or Yorkshire or Cork. Given the existence of a case like “Manx”, I don’t even want to look.

And once we get into nonanglophonic areas of the world, anything can happen, even if sticking to Englishized names.

February 9, 2016


Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 11:45 am

Battery technology is going to be extremely important to our future.  If someone just came up with a rechargeable battery that improved the energy density of lithium-ion cells by a factor of, say, about six, the effects would be tremendous.  It wouldn’t just suddenly make the electric car really competitive with fossil-fuel powered cars, it could pretty near wipe out small internal combustion engines altogether.  Motor scooters, lawnmowers, maybe even chainsaws would go electric, as would heavy trucks and buses.  The reduction of air pollution would be dramatic.  Vacuum cleaners would start going cordless.  Laptop computers could start being as powerful as desktops.

We could build robots that could walk around for longer than fifteen minutes before needing to plug themselves in.  We could make strength-enhancing exoskeletons.  All kinds of high powered portable doodads.

Also, the economics of shifting from fossil fuels to renewables would become a lot more attractive than they already are.

February 8, 2016


Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 1:00 pm

I’ve always been fascinated by the hymn (if such it is) “Jerusalem”, or “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time”, by William Blake and Hubert Parry.  In the British Isles, particularly in England (where it’s almost become an unofficial national anthem), it’s inescapable, but here in the States we’re not often exposed to it.  In my younger days I would catch glimpses of it, you might say — a fragment of a verse stuck into an episode of Monty Python, for instance.  And it always seemed to have a magic about it — some quality that other such songs did not possess.  That effect starts with William Blake’s words, which are an odd mix of religion, patriotism, and activism which sound like an inspiring call to arms, but which still mystify us as to exactly what we’re being called to do:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

I didn’t get the full blast effect of it as a work of music until I bought a copy of the canonical prog-rock album Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  Their version of Jerusalem was their lead single for the album (it almost had to be, as it was about the only track that was short enough to fit on a 7″).  Even in its original form, it’s very catchy and singable and yet, at the same time, kind of strange and modernistic.  It has the same odd mix of simplicity and mystery that I find in the words.

I recently learned the story of how the music came to be written, and it’s a more interesting tale than you might expect.  It was commissioned in 1916, when the Poet Laureate of the UK, Robert Bridges, joined up with an organization called Fight for Right, which was — there may be fairer and more nuanced ways of putting this, but I don’t feel like bothering — a pro-war group.  Bridges saw how badly the public was reacting to the demoralizing horror of endless trench warfare, and decided that what the people needed was a song that would help brace their spirits and inspire them to be cheerful about making further sacrifices.  (Of course, this is easy to call for when it’s the common man who does the sacrificing.  Also, Bridges was highly religious, and so believed that such sacrifices could be balanced in the afterlife.)  He combed through some collections of poems and hit upon the above stanzas by William Blake, which at that time were little known, because Blake wrote them in a totally offhand way, as part of the preface to a much longer work (Milton, a Poem).  Bridges thought these words would function well for inspiring a lot of can-do spirit to aid Britain’s victory.  They just needed music — a tune which people could sing in groups.

The composer he approached was Sir Hubert Parry, a name which today is little remembered aside from this one work, though he was a major influence on a number of people who are much better known, such as Elgar and Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Parry had substantial misgivings about becoming involved with Fight for Right, but didn’t want to disappoint Bridges, or those who were looking forward to performing the work’s premiere.

He originally wrote it for unison voices and pipe organ.  He made it into two verses of eight lines each, with a four bar instrumental bit at each end and between the two verses.  It sounds a lot like a church hymn, and indeed some refer to it explicitly as a hymn, though some argue it doesn’t quite qualify as one on the strictest technical grounds.  He used three-four time, which seems an odd choice given that the meter of the text is a very four-square iambic tetrameter.  This results in a melodic line that flows through graceful curves where someone else might have made a clunking march.  It also results in an unexpected separation between the bar lines and the emphasized syllables, creating a sort of loose syncopation.  This aspect makes it a little trickier to learn and sing along to than you think at first listen — you feel like you’ve got it, and then find you’re off beat.  Aside from that, the melody is simple and easy, though the organ chords are fairly sophisticated.

Between the rhythmic freedom and the varying chord progressions, the music strikes a quite interesting tension between tradition and modernity.  If you don’t know when it was written, it can be quite difficult to guess its actual age.

As originally conceived, it would be performed with a soprano soloist singing the first verse and massed voices singing the second, but this is rarely done.  Here is a typical performance of his original scoring.

Fifteen months later, Parry backed out, and said he could no longer support Fight for Right.  But that didn’t hurt the song at all — Bridges had chosen better than he knew, and by picking lyrics which managed to combine inspiration with obscurity, and discontent with patriotism, he’d managed to create a song which could be taken up by any political cause, left or right or center, as long as it was English.  And the first group which asked if they could use the song, now that Fight for Right was done with it, was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  Parry was delighted — he and his wife liked suffragism a whole lot better than warcraft.  He didn’t just grant permission to use the hymn for their cause, he gave them ownership of the copyright!  And if that wasn’t enough, he also threw in a scoring for full orchestra.  (Edward Elgar redid it for even fuller orchestra a few years later — it’s this version which is typically used in concert settings.)

Sadly, the flu pandemic of 1918 claimed Parry’s life.  After suffrage was won and the N.U.W.S.S. broke up, his estate passed the copyright to another women’s organization, which kept it until it went public domain in 1968.

Despite that, activist groups of all stripes made fairly free use of the song, including all three political parties.  It’s also used not infrequently in church as an actual hymn, and audience singalongs are routine even in settings that are neither political nor religious — particularly at the conclusion of an annual summer concert series known as “the Proms”.

The Emerson, Lake, and Palmer version was recorded shortly after the public-domaining, but as a single to sell the album, it failed — largely because the BBC decided, for some poorly articulated reason, that it was inappropriate to turn the song into rocknroll, and declared it not suitable to play on the radio.  Their version substantially elaborates Parry’s music, most notably by stretching the three-four rhythm back to four-four (with occasional exceptions).  This does surprisingly little violence to the melody.  The rhythmic fluidity noted above allows it to adapt to this change almost unaffected, just by stretching some long notes a bit longer.  Their intent is clearly to show off the music, rather than to lay any claim to the text, and maybe it’s that which irked the squares — all that God and Country stuff shouldn’t be taken so lightly, perhaps.

Speaking of the text brings us back to Blake.  What did he actually mean by it?  First off, what’s all this about God making a visit to the English countryside?  Well that part, at least, is easy enough to answer, and it’s another bit of culture which is apparently ubiquitous in the UK but little known in the states.  See, there’s an apocryphal story, or at least a folk belief, that Jesus of Nazareth visited the British Isles in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, who in this version was said to be a tin merchant.  (Tin was the main resource for which the Romans colonized Britain.)  Blake doesn’t endorse the tale, but just asks if maybe it were true, and this is the basis for the first half of the poem.

In the second half, he vows to strive and battle for his goal, which is to build Jerusalem in England.  Building Jerusalem is the one idea that unites the two verses.  He doesn’t mean the literal city, of course.  Apparently it was a commonplace (and in some traditions still is) to use the name “Jerusalem” loosely to refer to a righteous and Godly society on Earth, as opposed to the sinful or secular morass that we experience in real life.  The legend of Jesus’s visit is apparently used to make this dream of a new Jerusalem seem achievable, by suggesting that it had a precedent.

This leaves one oddity in the lyrics: “Among these dark Satanic Mills”.  (Parry, or perhaps Bridges, softened that line a bit by changing “these” to “those”.  EL&P changed it back.)  Given that the English environment is otherwise painted as bucolic, the natural tendency is to hear this line as referring to the smoke and blight of the early industrial revolution.  But this is not the only place William Blake used that term, and it’s apparent to readers of Blake that he meant something else, though he was never exactly clear on what.  He apparently meant something in the general ballpark of: those social institutions which train people’s minds into obedience and conformity and ungodliness.  And some say that what he meant more specifically was… the Church of England.

If so, that would explain why he wouldn’t spell it out.  It wasn’t safe.  I used to think, because it was the consensus I heard from those who were supposed to know, that Blake was a kook nutcase who saw visions and wrote in a private symbolic code because he wasn’t able to share the same world as the people around him.  That remains a common way for him to be depicted.  But another reason for his symbolic obscurity becomes apparent when you learn that in 1803, he was arrested on charges of sedition.  The case went nowhere, but still, it’s a clear reminder that having revolutionary sympathies, as he did, was not a safe thing to express in public.

What this makes me wonder is, how many other radicals and idealists are there in history, who we remember now only as kooks and cranks and crazies?  How many times have those who seemed to be speaking visions of madness actually been speaking of reform and revolution, in times when such ideas could not be spoken openly?

One item which comes to mind, when asking that question, is the granddaddy of all kooky visionary texts, the Book of Revelations.  To my eye, verse 13:18, the one which states the number of the beast, is saying that he’s talking in a coded way about real people — names a reader at the time would recognize.

Can you imagine what a different religion Christianity would be if the early councils had placed that book in the Apocrypha instead of in the New Testament?  One kind of wonders why they didn’t — there’s nothing else like it included.  It’s been a magnet for the real kooks and crazies, and on the opposite side, those who insist that everything in the Bible is absolutely literal, rather than at all symbolic, have ended up producing almost the same effect.  Much of the worst stuff that’s gone wrong in the name of Christ might have gone quite a bit differently without that one book.

To return to the song…  I have sometimes dreamed that I might, at some point, manage to write a protest song which has some enduring value, and which could enter the canon of popular tunes which people pull out when it’s time to stand up for what they believe in.  A song which has a memorable and singable melody with some element of beauty, which can benefit from instrumental accompaniment but in no way requires it, and whose lyrics invite people to add their own verses.  Such a song would not be about any one issue, but about the generalities that apply to most any protest issue, such as the eternal conflict between equality and privilege, between liberty and authority — the inevitable opposition that arises between the ordinary populace and the few with power.

If I ever manage to create a song that has any success with such aims, I’ll have to credit “Jerusalem” as its primary inspiration.

December 19, 2015

A historical timeline of the word “nerd”

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 4:22 pm

An expanded version of this post has been moved to my website.  This is just an early draft — the official version is quite a bit longer, and has pictures.

Note that the “previous post” button below this post doesn’t work.  This is due to an outright bug in WordPress — maybe more than one.  I found this post to be difficult to compose, due to both the website and their mobile app misbehaving.  That’s one reason new material rarely gets written in this blog, and in the cases where it does, why it doesn’t remain here. (more…)

December 13, 2015

A missing piece in the puzzle of misogyny?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:41 am

A year or two ago there was a lot of discussion about misogyny among video gamers, due to a stink raised over something called “gamergate”.  This turned out to be only the most visible of a large number of cases of a certain core part of “gamer culture” being agressively hostile to women — a syndrome that also seems to rub off on some related cultural areas such as comic book fandom.  I recently ran into some people discussing this, and one of them mocked these gamers as being afraid to catch cooties.  And with a little distance from the original furor, that made me realize something. It’s a bit speculative, but I think it’s something that will eventually need society’s attention.

But first, a broader question.  Where does evil come from?  When dealing with random individuals who commit evil acts on their own, there are many answers and many schools of belief which advocate one answer over another.  But when people commit evil in groups, things become much clearer.  If you look at history’s big acts of mass evil, such as the Nazi holocaust, or the genocides in Armenia or Rwanda — when you look at mass atrocities down the ages, from medieval witch burning to American slavery to the latest horrors perpetrated by ISIS or Boko Haram — it’s clear how evil spreads.  It isn’t about baleful supernatural influences, it isn’t about people being born bad, and it isn’t about early childhod trauma: evil of this kind is cultural.  And that doesn’t just mean the culture people were raised with, but the ephemeral culture of the current zeitgeist. In a lot of the more virulent phases of mass evil, the whole thing burns itself out in less than a generation.  That means the people who commit these horrors were talked into it as adults.  They were persuaded to be evil.  Of course, some rotten people only need the slightest encouragement, but plenty more who aren’t that bad will also join in if subjected to long term campaigns of propaganda.  As human beings, we are extremely prone to allowing our moral compasses to be calibrated by what the society around us defines as normal.

So culture matters.  Culture has a huge influence on whether people behave positively or negatively.  Not that this is any excuse for the individuals involved, of course — once you’re an adult and have developed independent thought, you bear complete moral responsibility for whether or not you choose to embrace the negative side of whatever propaganda you’re being fed.  Even if you grow up acculturated to hate from infancy, to earn any forgiveness for acting on it as an adult is still a tough job and far from automatic.

So yeah, the fact that abusive misogyny is so widespread in gaming is a matter of culture.  Mocking insults passed back and forth between people who are pretending to kill each other is to be expected, of course, but that doesn’t account for the special virulence aimed at women, or for how lots of women have found gaming much more bearable if they hide behind a male persona.  (There’s plenty of anti-gay denigration too, of course.)  There’s something way beyond friendly ribbing going on when women connected to the game industry, such as Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu, receive repeated death threats when they speak out.  Clearly the people involved in this hateful behavior have created a culture in which people encourage and normalize acting this way.  Which, again, is no excuse for the individual gamer who allows themselves to be persuaded by it; nobody guilty of, say, mailing some woman violent threats accompanied by a photochopped image of herself being raped by Duke Nukem, is deserving of any level of sympathy or support more comforting than a knuckle sandwich. But maybe there are underlying aspects of the situation where a more compassionate view is possible.

It doesn’t help that the game industry panders to this culture as much as it does, for instance by sexualizing such a large percentage of female in-game characters. As in the porn business, the tastes that rule are not those of the majority of the audience, but of the hardcore few who spend the most money. Pandering is profitable.

Was this culture passed down from old-school traditional sexism? It doesn’t seem to have been. Old adages about women belonging in the kitchen or the man being the head of the house are largely absent, except as taunts. It used to be that it was easy to conflate misogyny with patriarchy, but nowadays patriarchal ideology is nearly dead, while misogyny is very much alive. (It may even be on the rise — I’m not sure, but it didn’t seem this bad a decade ago.) As a result, those misogynists who feel the need for an ideological framework are nowadays trying to cobble together a new one using odd bits from sociobiology and pickup-artist jargon. The result, commonly known as “red pill” philosophy, is remarkable more for extreme cynicism than for coherency. It makes Biblical patriarchy seem humane and uplifting by comparison.

When seeing hate like this, we might debate or theorize all day about where it comes from, without reaching any consensus. But there’s a related phenomenon going on which might get us a little closer to seeing what’s what, which is more visible in the comic book arena: the protests against the menace of “fake geek girls”. A number of comic book (and related) fans, and even some creators, have taken to denigrating women who hang around their scene, particularly those who like to dress up a la Adrianne Curry, as being “fake geeks”. Similar terms come up in gaming. The way they describe this supposed fakery makes the girls sound like dangerous predators out to rob the real fans of a precious resource… namely, their attention. Yeah, the sinister plot of pretending to be a comix fan is all done for male attention! And it must be stopped before more true geeks are victimized.

What’s up with that? Normally, if persons of hotness start being fascinated by your interests, most of us would consider that to be good luck, not a threat. What is being threatened? Clearly some of it could be that attractiveness is scary, as this particular line of criticism often seems to skip past the women who are being plain and drab. (Some women have reported that in gamer circles, you have to “dress down” to be taken seriously in face-to-face conversations.)

But why the focus on authenticity? Why the implicit assertion that these cosplayers and so forth are not just doing fandom wrong in some way, but are fundamentally unqualified to participate at all? Why the presumption that by default, they just don’t belong?

To me this reaction really does seem consistent with a theory that the true threat is cooties.

What does “cooties” mean? Originally the term referred to skin parasites, particularly pediculus humanus capitis, the head louse. But now, among preteen boys, it commonly refers to a metaphorical state of contamination arising from contact with girls (or, sometimes, other persons or groups that kids want to shun). The desire of six- to twelve-year-old boys to keep away from girls, and vice versa, seems to be remarkably consistent and durable across cultures. It seems to be not a cultural artifact, but a genuine instinct.

The theory, as far as I know, is that normal childhood development is supposed to have a swing toward attraction to the opposite sex at puberty, coming after an anti-attraction in the preceding period which helps prevent things from getting started earlier than they should. But of course “normal” is just a short way of saying that exceptions are everywhere. The biological systems involved in these changes operate very loosely. Look how often the “attraction to the opposite sex” part ends up working out differently — and that’s the bit that’s going to have the least freedom to vary, as it’s essential for propagation. The other parts that aren’t as critical can vary even more easily. For instance, lots of people report having fallen into crushes on the opposite sex at very young ages where it isn’t supposed to happen.

As an engineer type whose job skills are about getting complicated systems to work dependably, my instincts are fairly good for noticing which bits of a plan are the ones where it’s vulnerable to going off the rails. And in this theoretical plan for how puberty is supposed to work, where I see the biggest vulnerability is in this zigzag reversal of attraction. It could go off course in about four different ways. And if it can, it probably does, more often than we realize.

If we are all programmed with an inborn instinct to avoid the opposite sex, what would happen if it sometimes failed to be temporary — if sometimes it doesn’t deactivate when it’s supposed to? We’d end up with an invisible minority of people who might, in many cases, be sexually attracted to the opposite sex, yet nevertheless don’t enjoy their presence or company and prefer to hang out with their own gender. And, well… when you put it like that, you of course recognize that such people are commonplace, and always have been. To switch the focus briefly from nerds to jocks, we’ve seen plenty of them deride those who they deem overly woman-friendly as “pussyfied” or “whipped”, and heard phrases such as “bros before hos”. And women expressing similar sentiments in terms of sisterhood and the like are well known also. The only new thought here is the notion that maybe this has a common biological basis rather than just being due to some personal psychological quirk, or to being turned off by bad experiences. For women, the bad-experience factors may make it rather impossible to separate out any influence of temperament, but for men there at least superficially appear to be plenty of examples that can’t be ascribed to negative experience.

I think it’s quite possible that we have an unrecognized minority of persons who have a built-in aversion to mixed company, over which they have no choice — persons who can never quite feel comfortable being around the opposite sex all the time, however they try.

It used to be that society accomodated such a temperament pretty well. Almost every culture has been well supplied — sometimes to excess — with areas of daily life in which men and women are kept apart into separate areas and activities. That is, until recently. Our modern culture, in the last couple of generations, has become one where such separation is no longer a normal part of life. And we see this as progress, and in most ways that view is undoubtedly correct. For most of us, it’s a clear improvement.

But what if the remaining areas of single-sex grouping are not just remnants of patriarchy, but persist in order to fulfill an unmet need? What if there’s a significant subset of the populace which, unlike me and probably unlike you, would be genuinely healthier and happier if they could spend more time in the company of only their own gender? Such opportunities are now scarce, and continuing to shrink. Women-only groups are mostly still acceptable enough to create privately, as long as they stay small, but men-only groups are socially difficult because of the appearance (and sometimes more than just the appearance) of patriarchal privilege.

Even a couple of generations ago, it wasn’t that hard to find ways to keep male company. From wealthy private clubs to hunting and fishing trips, from joining the military to careers involving manual skills and hazardous conditions, those who wanted such a thing could have it. But now, where can they go?

Such men might be driven to try to create informal all-male spaces wherever the find an attractive opportunity to do so, and to instinctively (if perhaps inarticulately) try to defend such spaces, and resent any and all non-male intrusions there.

I can see why gaming — at least, the subset of “serious” gaming that’s focused on gritty, high-realism combat action — would seem like a natural spot for this. There are now just as many women as men participating in gaming overall, but that’s fairly recent, and probably not true in the so-called hardcore games.

Maybe some areas of life that can’t be segregated for men only, like gaming, would have a lot less trouble if we were to reopen some other areas that can be. Maybe someday, when sexism is over, there’ll be a recognition of a need for some people to still have single-sex spaces. Can we bring some of that back today, and if so, would it help? Maybe, maybe not. If tried today, maybe opening up something like that might help “drain the swamp”, and ease the pressure that leads people to turn hostile. Maybe it would allow some people who don’t want cooties to calm down and not act like jerks about it. But on the other hand, in today’s culture it might just create a new breeding ground for even more virulent sexism. I don’t know what would happen. I just know that if there really is an unmet instinctive need here, then trying to educate it away will never succeed.

March 12, 2015


Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 8:16 pm

Well I guess there’s one category of post I can still put here: nerd notes that none of my friends care about.  These may end up being little more than notes to myself.

I’ve been looking at the Javascript property window.devicePixelRatio.  It’s a way to compensate for the way that browsers more and more often separate the definition of a CSS “px” from a physical device pixel.  It started with Apple’s “retina” iPhones, which had twice the pixel density but didn’t want to display web pages half as big because of it.  So they set up the browser so that one “px” would be two physical pixels.  As phone displays got denser, a bunch of other manufacturers followed suit: on my HTC One, for instance, it’s three physical pixels per “px”.  And this value is reflected in the Javascript API with the property window.devicePixelRatio.

So far, no problem — everybody gets a display that works pretty well on their mobile device regardless of its density.  Where things get awkward is when this comes back to the desktop browser.  Chrome and Firefox now support devicePixelRatio in Javascript.  But unlike the mobile browsers, the value is changeable: it varies depending on the zoom selected by the user, whereas on a phone, zooming means just changing your area of view over a layout that mostly remains fixed.  In Chrome, it starts as 1.0, but if you hit ctrl-plus, it becomes 1.1, then 1.25, then 1.5, then 1.75, and so on.  In Firefox, it goes from 1.0 to 1.25 to 1.5 to 1.76470589 (don’t ask me to explain that last one).

What bugs me is that Firefox does not start out at 1.0.  Since a year or two ago, they take the initial ratio from the host operating system’s monitor pixel density setting, which in Windows is controlled by the desktop text size setting.  When you pick “smaller”, the ratio is 1.0, for “medium” it’s 1.25, and for “larger” it’s 1.5… and like a lot of people, I use “medium”.  So Firefox starts out at 125% zoom on every website, unless you install an add-on to change that behavior.

And mostly, this larger zoom is a good thing.  It makes the website look about the size it was intended to look.  But there’s one situation where this zoom ratio is bad, and that’s when viewing images at full size.  See, the browser has to resize the image in much the same way that you’d do in a program like Photoshop, and if you’ve messed around with resizing in such programs, you’ve likely noticed that the results are worst when the amount of change in size is small.  Cut a picture to half size or blow it up triple, and the results are no worse than you’d expect, but magnify or shrink it just a little and you get a ton of extra blurriness.  (Or pixelated graininess, depending on the type of size-changing you select.)  This is because changing sizes by a small ratio, such as 1.25, combines the imprecision of both formats.  Each image’s pixelization process involves a roundoff error in where a given picture detail is located, and resizing adds together the roundoff error of both scales.  When you change by a large ratio, the amount of detail in the picture is nearly identical to what you could see in the smaller of the two sizes, but with a small fractional ratio, the result is not much better than half as sharp as it would be if it were created originally in either of the two sizes.

So, when my website hosts large images and I don’t want them fuzzified, I’d like to find a way to fool browsers into showing the image at exactly a 1.0 pixel ratio, if it’s attempting to use an awkward ratio like 1.25.  If the ratio gets to 1.5 or higher, fine, resize it, but if you’re trying to resize it a little bit, I’d much rather have 1.0.  That’s why I’m investigating window.devicePixelRatio: so I can make a Javascript hack that will change the sizing of images so that, should I so desire, they look their best and sharpest rather than looking correctly proportioned to the text and stuff around them.  Sometimes the proportion doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, IE 10 also looks at the Windows desktop size setting, and starts out with an initial zoom of 125%… but it does not support the devicePixelRatio property.  So for now, if I make such a fix, it’ll basically be for Firefox only.

…Unless, that is, I make a separate CSS media query for each individual pixel ratio.  There probably aren’t that many to be found out in the wild: 1.1, 1.25, and 1.33 are probably about it for common cases.  But on the other hand, I don’t want these rules to snap in and out of action as the user zooms through the different ratios. JavaScript would be better because it could change the picture’s size once, and then any zooming done after that has no unexpected effect.

February 19, 2015

reactionless drives

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 8:37 am

This post has been promoted to a permanent location on my website, here.

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