Hello again from 53.5° north latitude. Summer seems to have arrived but fall will be here later this week with temperatures forecasted to fall below freezing in a few days. Plus it is getting too dark to read in the car while the kids are at their various activities during the weeknights. Time to get out the winter bike.
Let's get on with it, shall we?
Podcast - Radiolab series on "G"
Radiolab is a great show, but I'm sure you know that already. Earlier this summer, they had a six-part series called G. G is the symbol for intelligence, and boy, would it be great if it was as easy to quantify and articulate a person's intelligence as a one letter moniker might imply. The six episodes did a nice job of outlining how hard intelligence is to define, let alone quantify. Here are some highlights I took away from the series. (Links to the six episodes here - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
Reading Pile, aka Musings on What it Means to Have an Opinion:
I find it interesting how the reading pile organically seems to organize around themes. Earlier this year, the theme was around capitalism, captured by a half dozen or so posts referencing the topic. In the last few weeks, the themes that have surfaced are around humanism and disconnecting, I mentioned "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari above and quoted from it two weeks ago. I powered it through it on the weekend and came away with all sorts of conflicting thoughts. Are humans really the apex of life on Earth? Are we nothing more than algorithmic cogs in a machine to process information? If we admit that our human fallibility limits our ability to make the best choices, should we concede our decision-making to more advanced algorithms that are external from our bodies? In other words, should we allow some Internet behemoth to tell us what is best?
Harari's "Homo Deus" was published in 2015, so it predates the 2016 US election, and all of the revelations about Russian interference in the election. Knowing that, the following excerpt from Harari is particularly harrowing:
On a more sinister note, the same study (from Facebook) implies that in future US presidential elections Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, identify the 32,417 voters who still haven't made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook obtain this priceless political data? We provide it for free.
Humanism is founded on the idea that all humans are equally valuable and that humans should be allowed to make their own individual choices because they truly know what is best for them. Harari repeatedly mentions the notions that the voter knows best, and the consumer knows best.
If humans all have a perfect inner self that knows best, then humanism is the need to ensure that the inner self is fed and actualized. However, if that inner self is not immune to external influence, then the inner self is not perfect but malleable and corruptible. We know from Lanier's book mentioned last week, that social media uses what understanding of psychology and physiology to influence our behaviors and create addictions. We also now know from the Mueller investigation that the algorithms feeding what we see in social media are corruptible. Assuming we do have a true inner self, then we need to find a way to ensure that true inner self is free from influence. Again, see the reference to Lanier last week.
My friend Trent has the opinion that if Amazon, Tidal, Spotify or any other algorithm-driven cloud service can help him find more of what he likes, then of course he is in favor. Learn from my likes, purchases, and actions, and give me more of that. But if that is how I find my next book or music, then how much of that is because of what I already wanted, and how much of that is because of what I was told to like? Then again, what's the difference between Trent or Tidal telling me about a new band? In one case, there are a million voices steering me toward something. In the other, there is only a single voice, but even that single voice is itself influenced by millions of other voices.
In the end, I think it comes down to trusting my ability to decide and knowing all of the influences on my decision-making process. I am beginning to think I have a much better ability to do that if I am not solely reacting to a stream of notifications and feeds, but then again, that thought is influenced by the stream of information that I am currently consuming.
Bring Your Dice To Work Day:
Wednesday lunch hour. Boss fight. We have a plan. We draw out the boss. We attack without mercy. The foot soldiers fall. The boss gets hammered. We grab the box. Success! But wait! I am playing the rogue and I need to stealth away. No worries, I say. I have a +7 on Stealth. Easy peasy. Rolled a 1.
That is the beauty of dice rolls in an RPG. There is no reason why we shouldn't succeed based on our plan and coordination. We have the numbers and skills to overpower, plus we have the ability to trick and deceive, to intimidate and confuse. We will prevail. The failed dice roll probably won't change the ultimate outcome, but it is easy to argue that it make the outcome more memorable. If I would have said "oh hey, let's say I slip and fall 'cause that will add some serious suspense", it would not have had any impact. Contrived emotion and scripted action sounds like a bad television show. Rolling a 1 in that moment makes for a wonderfully memorable experience. The heart-dropping feeling, the laughs from my friends after my muttered f-bomb, the jokes after how the fighter, the barbarian, and the cleric all succeeded buy my rogue failed. All that makes for a much better memory.
The memories are also accentuated by the random comments that stick with the party. We dragged an NPC out from under a gelatinous cube a few sessions ago. His legs were covered by the cube, and he took some pretty significant damage (3d6). We weren't sure if he would live but we used a healing spell on him and ultimately gained an ally. He was unconscious for a while so we couldn't get a name, so there was an offhand comment about "Legless Jack". The name stuck. The DM could have had a name for him, but we as players never asked for it since he will forever be Legless Jack to us.
Here's to more memories coming from the shared storytelling medium of an RPG.
Only one new beer this week. The Surround Sound DIPA from Collective Arts was another fine beer from the brewery that is steadily becoming my favorite. (Sorry Blindman and Alley Kat!) This was a hazy, citrusy beer with a nice bit of pine, and great balance all around. Submitting that to Untappd earned me the I Believe in IPA (Level 23) badge.
A few new words this week, and one repeat offender.
[ ab-joo r, -jur ]
Hello from 53.5° north. It was another amazingly intense week, with meetings, deliverables, and reviews conspiring to consume the days faster than I care to acknowledge as we approach the launch of our new system in November. The work is good, maybe even great to be honest, and the support I get from the organization is amazing. It's just the sheer intensity of the hours that leaves me spent by the end of the day each Friday. But as I am fond of saying, if the worst thing that happens to me any day is that I have too much work, it is still a pretty good day.
We spent most of the weekend at a family reunion. The common ancestors were my wife's mother's father's parents, so my daughter's great-great-grandparents. It wasn't a huge amount of people, 60 maybe, but it was a good time. We went to Vermilion, which I was the only one of our family that had ever been there. On the way home, we stopped to see the pysanka in Vegreville, and the ... sausage ... in Mundare. It was good to connect with a bunch of family, and it resparked a lifelong interest in genealogy. And we got to see ... the sausage. (I mean, seriously, what is up with that? ) Plus, we got some seriously good Lobby Waffles at the hotel.
This week's reading pile was focused on finishing "A Choice of Gods" by Clifford Simak. Who is Clifford Simak, you ask? If you don't know, then you are in the same situation as me. As the Wikipedia entry on Simak indicates, he was a masterful science fiction author, and was the third individual named as a Grand Master of Science Fiction after Robert Heinlein and Jack Williamson (again, who?).
Reading science fiction from 1972 caused me some trepidation because the science could have been simplistic, naive or outdated. However, this was a story about human transcendence and the meaning of our relationship with our planet. It just also happened to have some robots and deal with travel into space. It was pretty clear that Simak deserved the accolades and the title of Grand Master since this story was incredibly readable 47 years after release.
I was struck by Simak's empathy to the "Indians", as he called him. Their desire for a life connected to nature was never seen as a weakness or a sign of inferiority. Rather, it was a choice to be connected to the earth and to nature as partners and not owners. The Indians were able to reconnect with nature after the Disappearance of most of the human race, and they were clearly better off for it.
We had only a few hundred years of the white man’s way and they had been far from good years. We never fitted in, we never had a chance to. It was a relief to shuck off all of it and go back to the flowers, the trees, the clouds, the seasons and the weather, the running water, the creatures of the woods and prairies—to make them a part of us again, more a part of us than they’d ever been before. We learned something from the whites, that we can’t deny—we’d have been stupid if we hadn’t. And we used these white man’s ways to make the old way of life an even better life."
Simak also offers a subtle commentary on the human need for technology that seems like it was written for today and not 1972.
But we no longer are a technological race. We lost technology when we lost the manpower and the knowledge and the machines broke down and there was no one to start them up again and no energy to run them. We don’t mourn that lost technology, as I think you know. At one time we might have, but not any longer. It would be a bother now. We have become competent observers and we gain our satisfaction from our observations, achieving minor triumphs when we are able to reach some solid understanding. Knowing is the goal, not the using. We aren’t users. We have somehow risen above using. We can rest content to see resources lying idle; we might even think it shameful to try to use or harness them."
And later, a less subtle commentary on technology:
A technological civilization is never satisfied. It is based on profit and progress, its own brand of progress. It must expand or die. You might make promises and be sincere in the making of them; you might intend to keep them, but you wouldn’t and you couldn’t.”
Knowing is the goal. That is a pretty remarkable sentence of a mere four words.
I'm really happy I read this story, and really happy I have discovered a great author. Some of Simak's earlier works are available at Project Gutenberg, if you are so inclined. I know I am.
The Freakonomics episode "How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War" was quite thought-provoking. The thread was from World War I, to the creation of the supermarket, to World War II, to industrialized meat production, to consumerism as a vital propaganda tool against the Soviets, but then with a less laudable outcome of obesity and even to the use of corn to create ethanol for vehicles. There is a great quote in the episode about the need to "make agriculture green" which is ironic, funny, and depressing all at once.
Finally, some good news on the new music front. The Tidal weekly mixes are really starting to bring in some great music, and it is easy to get down a real rabbit hole for hours on end. Last week, I came across "A Song For Our Grandfathers" by Future Islands, which is probably my favorite song of 2019. I am playing it endlessly. So much good music, so little time.
It was a busy week for new beers. I found a collaboration pack from Parallel 49 that had a number of unusual offerings. There was a habanero peach gose (a very surprising combo), a brut made with yuzu citrus that was quite good, and one brewed with gin botanicals that I wasn't really a fan of. In addition, I had the West Coast Pale Ale from Granville, which was also citrusy without being overpowering. That added two badges on Untappd - Fields of Gold (Level 4) and The Great White North (Level 85).
All of the new words this week came from "A Choice of Gods", with the exception of horchata which came from a Vampire Weekend song.
canted (past tense) · canted (past participle)
Happy long weekend from 53.5° north latitude. It is amazing how much work can fit into a five day work week. Looking back at the week, there were so many things going on, it is surprising that anything got done at all. Having the ability to focus on a single task at a time seems like such a luxury, such a foreign concept. I wonder if anybody really works like that anymore, or if they ever did. The hyper-specialization in the Industrial Revolution would be a clear example of focus, and similarly before that with a more agrarian society, but has a knowledge worker ever had the ability to focus? It is something work exploring.
I did have the ability to focus on one task most of Saturday this week, as I hauled five loads of sod and dirt to the Ecostation. Driving back and forth, burning probably close to half a tank of gas, I was able to plow through a bunch of podcasts, plus I took the train to work two days this week, so I had some time there as well. That is probably the most time I have ever devoted to podcasts in a single week, and there were lots of interesting tidbits as a result.
You can't take everything with you as you move through life" --David Letterman
That referred to the bad stuff in life, like regret, shame, and pain. It was a good reminder that you have to move on if you want to make amends with the past and be a better person in the future.
I don't know Maron he has always been this good at interviewing people, but I suppose after 1000+ interviews, you hone your skills.
The last of the great interviews was from Longform. The episode I listened to this week was an interview with David Epstein on the arguments for and against specialization at a young age and Epstein's book "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World". I really like Longform as I find the hosts are fantastic interviewers. Casual and relaxed, yet deep enough to hit the important points. As a comparator, listen to the EconTalk interview with Epstein to really see the difference a good interviewer can make.
Rounding out the podcasts was the History of Rome podcast, a monumental series that started way back in 2010, and another Freakonomics episode. I plowed through the first four episodes of History of Rome and I can totally see myself finishing all 179 episodes. Episode 2 had an interesting quote: "Might might not make right, but it will make a 1000 year civilization." The Freakonmics episode was "How to Change Your Mind" and the most interesting point was that people fail to differentiate between what they know and what others know. Following this through, there is a difference between the brain (trapped in your skull) and the mind (which is a collective and social construct of the people in your network).
The other book finished this week was "Zeroes" by Chuck Wendig. This was my first reading from Wendig after following him on Twitter for the last couple years. I enjoyed this book. It reminded me of "Daemon" by Daniel Suarez, but maybe not quite as good. Or maybe it wasn't as good since it really reminded me of a book I had read previously. Anyway, it was a good book, worth the read, and certainly good enough to continue to search out more from Wendig.
The Long and Slow Death of Google+:
I came across this article from January about how Google shuttered Google+ earlier this year. There is a good summary of the issue in the API and the decision to accelerate the shutdown as a result of that issue. However, the really interesting part of the article was the summary of why Google+ was created and a question as to whether or not Google even cares that Google+ was ultimately a failure.
Here's the thing...Google still got what they came for. More of your data.
With Google+, Google was able to understand more about you as a Google user. Your profile, address, likes, dislikes, friends, foes, etc. In 2011 maybe we thought that information about us was a fair trade for the ability to communicate with our friends. Maybe we didn't care, or maybe we didn't even think about it. But now in 2019, more of us do think about those tradeoffs, even if that number is still the vast minority of people. I wonder if I will sign up for the next big platform after Twitter. I doubt it.
This blog, even if no one reads it, is my response to microblogging like Twitter or Instagram, and is based on the need to say what I want to say in a way I want to say it. If I want to write 1,000 words about the podcasts I listened to, then that's what I'll do, but not with ads inserted by some algorithm. If there is content I want others to know about, then I'll post it here. Do I need to collect entire profile data sets of everyone that reads what I write? What would I do with that? I'm not an advertising platform like Google or Facebook, so I have no need for that. I suppose at some point the need to pay for the infrastructure becomes enough of an impetus to start to look for ways to "monetize". However, maybe the old tip jar model from years gone by or the patron model that is popular these days will be enough. Even if that ever becomes the case, I still can't see what benefit either I or my readers would get from them sharing a full profile of their personal information with me.
The wisdom of South Park is relevant once again, this time as I resurrected the "Blame Canada" scene while listening to an episode of the Indicator podcast from Planet Money. The episode in particular was from May 23 and was titled "Canada's Tariff Hangover". The episode was about the ending of the trade war and tariffs imposed by the US on Canada and vice versa, and in particular about a small business in Ottawa that was particularly impacted by the tariffs imposed on Magic: The Gathering cards coming in from the US. Near the end of the episode, the hosts drawing the conclusion that the small business owner should be upset with the Canadian government for imposing the retaliatory tariffs. To quote from the transcript:
... the Canadian government is what ended up causing Dave all this harm, if you think about it, because it was Canada's retaliation that imposed those tariffs on Magic cards in the first place. So it kind of shows you that when a country's government retaliates, it can end up really hurting some of its own people."
Trade wars are damaging to both sides. That's why they are called trade wars, and not trade parties, or trade fun-things. And yes, there were damages to Canadian business by the increased tariffs. However, to call out the Canadian government for the particular damage to this one store conveniently omits the fact that the Canadian tariffs were retaliations, meaning of course that they were in response to the opening tariff salvo imposed on Canada by the US.
Blame Canada, indeed.
BYDTWD, or How Much Meta is Too Much Meta?:
In our weekly D&D lunch hour session this week, our PCs encountered some weird elf-spider hybrid who was clearly thousands of years old. In talking to the DM after the session, his inspiration for a lot of this setting is a riff on the drow spider queen, Lolth. However, it isn't the same Lolth that we would see in the Drizzt books or in other canon material in books, game supplements or in computer RPGs.
This is something that is hard for me to wrap my head around. How much should I read about Forgotten Realms if the DM is not going to adhere to what I have read? Sure there is a Nashkel, but it isn't exactly the same as the Nashkel I know from Baldur's Gate. Does the information I know from the game help or hinder me as a player? Am I going to make a bad decision because Quinemin the PC knows a different world from Robert the player? Understanding the world the PC is in is important so that role playing is better, and so that better decisions are made. I just don't know if I am actually going to make better decisions because my context is inconsistent with the actual environment. Or maybe the DM doesn't have the world completely figured out and therefore my knowledge will help guide the game in a good way. Or maybe I should just stop thinking so hard and just play the game.
There were a few items of note this week - Podcasts, Tidal, Pencils, Beers, and a Zombie musical.
Podcasts: Old guy syndrome hit with a vengeance this week, and I didn't cycle to work on Thursday or Friday. That has the nice plus of allowing me to listen to a podcast or two during the commute. I synced up the podcast app (79 episodes!) and listened to the Longform Podcast interview with Christie Aschwanden. People who excel at long form interviews are clearly underappreciated.
Tidal: First, I'm back on with a streaming music plan, this time with Tidal. After the disappointment of losing my playlists, songs, and recommendations after Microsoft cancelled Groove (fka Xbox Music), I spent nearly 18 months without a streaming subscription. At first, I didn't notice the loss, but over time it became obvious that I wasn't finding new music. The last true new discovery was via my friend Trent and his recommendation of the hat-wearing, Danish blues guitarist, Thorbjørn Risager. But that was well over a year ago, and I wanted to find something to give me artists like Bombay Bicycle Club, Frightened Rabbit, and Broken Records magically appearing in my stream. I wasn't keen on Spotify after hearing Allan Cross's analysis of their business model a couple years ago, and options seemed limited beyond Google and Apple.
Along comes Tidal, with an option to stream lossless FLAC level music or even MQA instead of more prosaic MP3 quality. For now, I went with a Premium (non-FLAC, non-MQA) family account and if I buy a good DAC and some better speakers for my home office, I'll probably upgrade to the HiFi (FLAC or MQA) level. Tidal Premium Family is less expensive than two yearly Groove subscriptions were, so that's a plus. The real test will be with the recommendations it gives me. After a week, it is still recommending Nicky Jam and Flume.
Pencils: Ever wondered what is the difference between an HB, a 2H, and a #2 pencil? Wonder no more.
New beers this week: Three new beers. Two local and one from Scotland. First, Old Jake's from Alley Kat. Dry from the hallertau, a fair bit of spice, and tasty. (3.75 / 5.0) Second, Saturday brunch at Situation for huevos rancheros paired with their Clean Bite DIPA. Definitely a sipper at 8.2%. (4.0 / 5.0) Finally, Gunpowder IPA from Innis & Gunn. The Scottish brewery is still my favourite outside of Alberta. (3.75 / 5.0)
Beer stats: 534 unique beers logged on Untappd, and Saturday was my fourth anniversary on Untappd. That comes out to a new beer every 2.74 days for four years.
A zombie musical?: Zombie comedies are a great movie genre. Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Warm Bodies immediately come to mind. With those in mind, Anna and the Apocalypse seemed like a sure bet and for the most part it was. It was a bit darker than I expected it to be, but hey, it does have "apocalypse" in the title. For some added fun, listen to the upbeat song half way through the credits. Great stuff.