that's what I'm saying.

interesting overview article on memetics.

it is also what Charles Stross is saying, although the book that talks about it, Accelerando, is not his best work. Atrocity Archives is better, imo.

that is all.

abstraction layers


choosing abstraction layers is at the heart of programming, science, systems engineering, and design.

Call a concept a box. Take a few related boxes (concepts), put them in a bigger box. Give that box a name. (Grouping two boxes together means you think of them at the same time.) Repeat until you have a few boxes. Now you can put those boxes in bigger boxes, and so on. You can group the boxes however you like. You can fit any number of boxes into a bigger box, as long as you can think of a name for the bigger box.

Some groupings will make it easier to think about some problems, and harder to think about others. Large systems will have hundreds or thousands of small boxes, or more.* Choosing how to group the boxes, and how to name them, is a skill that can be improved.

(In programming terms, it's a system of pointers used to increase efficiency when working with large objects, and also to work around the limited registers in the human brain.)

*My favorite example of a large system with a ridiculous number of basic concepts is U.S. Law. It's also organized pretty poorly, which is why we need to pay bright, highly trained people lots of money just to understand it and report back. They are called lawyers.

web graffiti

Here's an application I want. It's possible today, and it could be a browser plugin, or a web service. (It probably would need to be both to get popular.) I guess it's a lot like and other aggregators, but the idea is to get rid of the concept of the aggregator as a separate site, and instead make it a view on the existing content of the internet.

So, you can make notes on any page, have a friend network, select network depth, and see notes on any page left by others, it's all persistent online, you can switch between public and private notes, and there's auto/community moderation. In effect, a wiki/tagging/social-networking view on the web (which is currently being done), viewable as a HUD on the web itself (which I have not yet seen).

Let me example you. This is what your browser would look like:

So you'd go to some restaurant's site, and there'd be notes left there by ppls. The restaurant did not have to do anything to subscribe, and in fact has no control over the notes, (other than through the community moderation features) If your friends left notes, you'll see those highlighted. You can turn off all notes with a click, if they're obscuring content, or you can turn individual notes on/off, and move them around.

Key features:
  • Make notes on any page
  • notes are stored per user and per url
  • view notes that have been left on the page, by you
  • view notes that have been left on the page by others
  • subscribe to other ppls notes
  • block other ppls notes
  • make notes private
  • have a friends list
  • make notes viewable by friends only
  • follow graffiti links
  • automatically create and strengthen graffiti links
  • when viewing, grow or shrink the network depth automatically so that you have interesting content but no information overload
  • easily turn on/off all graffiti content
  • all graffiti content stored on a graffiti server
  • graffiti is accessible from any modern browser, with plugin support for popular browsers.
I'm sure someone is working on this right now.

dwarf fortress

I am addicted to this game. I cannot recommend this game.

It has a terrible user interface, cryptic graphics, a vertical learning curve, an extremely unfriendly user interface, a niche theme, and most of all, obsessive, overbearing, OVERWHELMING COMPLEXITY.

And yet, this game tells very compelling stories. It tells stories of simple, ambitious, emotional, hardworking dwarves, out to build themselves a new life. It reminds me most of The Oregon Trail, which I loved on the Apple IIe in elementary school. You gather your dwarves together, pick your starting skills and equipment, pick your destination on the world map, and strike out.

You then arrive, and dig your way into the mountain. Traders and more immigrants arrive as your fortress grows in size. All your dwarves have emotions and you need to keep them happy while they work. Eventually the goblins attack too. You can draft a military, or build siege weapons, or moats, or magma moats. You can build traps. You can build waterwheels and windmills to power complicated pumps and machinery. You can (and should) make individual bedrooms and tombs for your dwarves, in addition to meeting rooms, statue gardens, and dining halls. You can build a dwarven civilization from the ground up, in excruciatingly believable detail.

As a small example, in order to forge a sword, you need to do these things:
-have a dwarf with a pick mine some stone and haul it back.
-build a woodburning furnace (this uses some stone)
-have a dwarf with an axe chop down some trees and haul the logs back.
-use the furnace to turn logs into coal (this uses the logs you got)
-locate a source of ore, like copper ore, somewhere on the map.
-mine the ore and haul it back.
-build a smelter (this uses some stone)
-use the smelter to smelt the ore into metal bars (this uses up some coal)
-have an anvil (you can't build one without a forge, so bring it with you)
-build a metalsmith's forge (this uses the anvil, and some more stone)
-use the forge to forge the sword (uses up the metal bar and more coal)
In addition, for every step that requires a dwarf to do something, there is an associated skill, and the higher that skill is, the faster/better the job gets done. Dwarfs can train up their skills by doing the associated tasks. This is what I mean when I say "excruciatingly believable detail" and "obsessive, overbearing, overwhelming complexity."

So, my question is, why do I care? Why do I put myself through this?

I don't have a great answer, except that this game pushes a lot of specific buttons for me.


-It's a massive society simulator, and it takes its subject seriously. Growing up, I always wanted to make such a game, with a fully simulated ecosystem and emotional and interacting citizens. Dwarf Fortress does a pretty good job with this.

-It tells funny stories. The dwarves do a lot of wacky stuff, but they're generally easy for me to empathize with. They need alcohol to get through the working day. Sometimes they're struck by moods and go into fits where they take over a workshop and work like mad to produce some crazy artifact, or go insane if they can't find the materials they need. The dwarves remember the events that occur and record them in engravings all over your fortress, which you can look at.

-I like building things.

-I've always enjoyed thinking about starting up society from scratch, it's one of my favorite thought experiments. It's all in here, from farming to mining to leatherworking to weaving to engineering to leisure.

-I really empathize with the dwarves, and I try hard to keep them alive, well fed, and happy.

I don't know, what can I say. It's a game that I should have no interest in. It totally fails to meet my user interface standards, it's from a genre (Dungeon Siege) and medium (ASCII art games) that I routinely ignore, and I can't even mention it in polite company, because it's too goddamn nerdy, and I CAN'T PUT IT DOWN. Go figure.

Reflecting some more, this game reminds me a lot of X-COM, which I also absolutely loved, and Civilization, which I played quite a bit. It also has hints of Might and Magic, The Incredible Machine, Lemmings, and, as noted, Oregon Trail.

In conclusion, I wish I knew why I find this game so compelling that I am willing, even forced, to put up with it's bullshit. Because if I knew, I would bottle it, put it in a mass-market game, and sell it for a ton of money, and then use the money to build my castle. :-D

public motivations

So, the US Military wants to shoot down a spy satellite as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. They will use a component of the Missile Defense system to do it. Their public rationale is that the satellite might be dangerous when it lands, as it contains a tank of toxic hydrazine gas, and shooting it down first will seriously diminish the (already tiny) risk posed by this gas.

Now, this rationale is pretty flimsy.

The Satellite is not that big, the amount of gas is very small, the odds of it hitting anyone are minuscule, etc., etc.. read the article if you don't believe me.

The real rationale is almost certainly something like, "Hey guys, let's see if our expensive new Missile Defense System can hit a live target!"

I don't really have a problem with this. I mean, it would be nice to know if it works, right? But what sortof chews me is that they come up with this bogus line to feed the public. And it bothers me for two reasons.

Reason 1. Have a little respect for us, guys. This public reason was obviously a load of hooey, to me, before I read this article. I am not being a conspiracy theorist here, the "conspiracy" is in plain sight: some people want to (publicly) test their missile so they can get more funding for it. Fine. Just say so, don't trot out this line about protecting life and dangerous hydrazine.

Reason 2. The execution of this line of propaganda is pretty half-hearted, but this is exactly the same way that the US was bamboozled into war with Iraq. (See: conflation of Iraq and Al Queda, Saddam WMD, etc etc etc. ) So, there's a broad pattern of the government, and especially the military, hiding its real motivations, and getting into the propaganda game.

Obscuring the motivations for shooting down this satellite just seems petty, a knee-jerk, automatic propaganda response. No-one really cares, in the grand scheme, why you want to shoot it down, no-one's going to protest much, or stop you, but you lie about your motives anyway, out of habit. Which implies that, when we consider your motivations on more weighty matters, you are demonstrably untrustable.

Weak Sauce, is what I am saying.

on atheism--also, we are still monkeys

Last night I saw a dude down on 3rd Street with a slide projector and a microphone. He was arguing that atheism is philosophically absurd, and morally untenable, and that macro-evolution is unproven, and such. It made my blood boil a bit, but I didn't go over to yell at him, because I didn't want to validate him, and I also didn't want to waste my time.

But I think an interesting point is raised, which is a little bit orthogonal to our specific cultural differences. I know from personal experience that many atheists are perfectly ordinary and ethical (I would also say moral) people. They function well in society, they don't go around murdering people or stealing, even when they can get away with it. So my anecdotal personal experience seems to refute the claim that atheism leads to anarchy. Maybe I've constructed a straw man here, but indulge me. The point is this: I think that moral behavior is more a function of human nature than it is of the presence of a ideological moral framework.

So, when someone has to make a moral decision, say, whether or not to steal something, I don't believe they generally consult their ideology*, I believe they consult their animal emotions. I think that's the main reason that most atheists don't end up in jail. Importantly, I think that's the same reason that most Christians don't end up in jail. People are social animals, we have an innate emotional need to be loved, and when our loved-ones feel good, we feel good too. For ordinary decisions we don't ask "what would Jesus do?" or "What will make the best society?" Mostly we act out of habit, or on our social and emotional intuition.

So while I think it's possible, and maybe even important, to derive a moral framework without relying on religion (see first post), I think an equally important realization is that our moral ideologies interact with our day to day lives only rarely**. Still, it's nice to have one when some street preacher is metaphorically calling you a piece of dysfunctional shit.

* Here I use ideology to mean their logical construction of morality founded on some fundamental faith.
** Similarly, algebra is a very basic mathematical tool, but I almost never use it, and I wrangle logic for a living. Forget about calculus. What is with that?

buyer's, or blogger's, remorse

After I wrote my first post here, I immediately regretted the title of this blog. It's too big. However, I'm not changing it. It's too late now, and I will just have to learn to live with it.

this room has only ever seen the light of the pickle

[I just gotta write this down while it's fresh. So to speak.]

"Empty your pockets please. Cellphone, matches, PDA, camera, keys, everything."

I tried to convey my skepticism with a raised eyebrow. This was clearly some sort of a scam, or at the very least a prank, but the old man steadfastly refused to recognize my appeal. He simply held out a gray plastic basket for my things. After a few seconds of silence I started to get uncomfortable, so with an inward sigh I started going through my pockets. Camera, cellphone, wallet, keyring, coins.

"Do you need my belt buckle too?"

"No, I trust you. But we have to do this, you know."

I did not. He slid the basket into a cubbyhole in the wall next to the vault-like door. Then he patted himself down, and put his cell-phone in another basket, in another cubbyhole. He picked a strange device off of a hook on the other side of the door. It had a bulky handle like a flashlight, but instead of a bulb and lens it had this funny hook and clamp, with a screw at the top. An unpleasant looking device, but this time I fought down the eyebrow. It wasn't going to get me anywhere, anyway. One thing I had picked up for certain in my visit to the castle at the end of Mount Shadow Manor Lane*, and that was that the people here didn't much care what you thought of their ways. They were blissfully indifferent to both your cynicism and your common sense.

He levered open the lid of a large mason jar that stood to the left of the door. It opened with a slow, wet, "thwup." It was dark down here, and we had come down fifty steps on a spiral staircase to reach this level. (I had counted the steps. I had also noticed that the staircase wound clockwise as we were headed down, so that we were always turning right.) The mason jar was crusted over on the inside with salt, but I was unsurprised when he picked up a pair of tongs and pulled out a large pickle. That was, after all, why we were here.

The old man shook the pickle off, and then inserted one end of it into the device he held. He used the screw on the hook to press down and hold the pickle firmly in place, pierced at each end. It was a very fast motion, and the pickle-torch was ready to go in a matter of seconds. He flipped a switch on the handle and the pickle glowed with a faint greenish yellow light**. He nodded and handed it me carefully, so that it didn't drip on my sleeve.

He briskly pulled a second torch from the wall and inserted a second pickle, then he closed the mason jar. Now that we each held a pickle torch, he started to turn the large wheel on the steel door that I had been staring at since we had arrived at the bottom of the stairs.

"Point of interest. This next room is a working airlock that we salvaged from a decommissioned missile silo in Kansas, and installed here. One door cannot open while the other is open. The doors are airtight, and so of course they block all light as well. There are no windows or lights inside the airlock, other than these." The door creaked open with a nearly imperceptible hiss of equalizing air pressure, and swung open. It was indeed dark inside.

The airlock was a small metal room. We stepped inside, and my guide closed the door behind us. As the light from outside was sealed off we were bathed in the dim green glow of our pickle torches. If I had been a claustrophobic person, this would have been the time. He turned the inner wheel on the door until there was a click, and then he moved across the room to the other door to start opening it.

"We installed the airlock and the electrical circuit facing a bear rock wall. Since the installation of the airlock, only this form of illumination has been permitted inside. So the entire chamber you are about to see was excavated under this light, and has never been exposed to any other illumination."

"Never." I didn't even bother with the question mark at the end of that one.


What do you keep in a room that has only ever seen the electric light of the pickle? You keep an immense golden chandelier, with three tiers of gloriously glowing pickled cucumbers, obviously. You keep a small crop of sickly-looking genetically modified low-light cucumbers, apparently. You keep a family of mice in a large cage. They haven't seen the sun for six generations, but they seem very happy otherwise. There's a tank of seamonkeys next to them. You keep a giant glass tank of brine, too, and you keep a book with drawings and plans. Construction isn't complete here. There's an unfinished mosaic on the floor, and work on another tunnel is in progress. The plantation, the mice, and the tank of brine all have an unsettled look to them, under the shimmery yellow-green glow, as if they're not quite in their final places, as if this particular arrangement is only temporary.

"The work continues, as you can see."

* It's important that you understand that this is not a made-up street. It is real and deadly serious.
**It's important that you understand that this is not a made-up source of illumination. It is real and deadly serious.