Here is a picture of a cat, being adorable.
I am considering doing a thing where I try to post a picture, every Friday afternoon, which was taken the previous week. As with all of my projects which involve regular updates, take this with a few tablespoons of salt.
Until next time, ladies and gents.
Simplicio: The problem is not the tool, it’s the monkey.
Salviati: No, the problem is the tool too. Tools are never value-neutral.
From a discussion on Facebook back in September regarding smartphones. Names changed to protect the guilty, and lest I misrepresent their ideas. In later discussion with Mr. Salviati, he revealed that the specific reason he hates smartphones is because they disconnect people from each other. He dislikes tablets and laptops for similar reasons, though not nearly so much due to the fact that they can’t really be carried around in one’s pocket.
I was going to write a puerile, ranty, and self-righteous article when I first saw the above discussion, but it got filed away in my drafts. I’ve returned to it due to a circumstance which prompted me to make the following observation on Twitter:
Specifically, I wish that my laptop was more like my phone in that it had a cellular internet connexion and a longer battery life, and I wish that my phone was more like my laptop in that it ran a general-purpose operating system and had a real keyboard. Though each of those sentiments might be the converse of the other; I suspect that if the former were satisfied, my desire for the latter would evaporate, or at least be vastly reduced.
This suspicion arises from the circumstances under which the above tweet was produced. I had been studying the
gmpxx.h file from the GMP distribution in an effort to understand the techniques used therein, and had been obliged to move to a different location for some reason—probably to catch a bus or get dinner. En route, I had taken out my smartphone and was checking my email or some other tic, when it occurred to me that it’d be pretty great if I could read the file on my phone. Of course, that’d require me to download and extract a tarball, then view the appropriate file in some editor. At least one of those steps is somewhat impractical on an iPhone, and so I composed the above tweet to vent my feelings to the world.
Then again, if the laptop were constructed with the same sort of mobile usage in mind as the smartphone, it would be easier for me to have simply used that, but it would be worse at doing the task in question. If the phone were designed with the same sort of general-purpose application in mind as the laptop, it probably wouldn’t be a particularly good phone. This is, incidentally, why I don’t own a tablet.1
Tools aren’t value-neutral. This expresses itself in multiple ways in the above anecdote. Had I not had a smartphone, I wouldn’t have had the expectation that I could do computer things with it. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have had it out to engage in whatever mindless time-waster I was using it for. The time could have instead been occupied by some meaningful consideration, rather than seeing what new and earthshaking things Wil Wheaton has to say on Twitter. The values considered in the design of the tool influence not only what one can do with it, but what one does do with it, what one expects to do with it, and in what contexts one uses it. Smartphones are small, and ostensibly telephones, making them acceptable to have in many contexts where overt computer usage would be totally unacceptable. It’s ironic that societal norms allow us to stand around at parties, messing around on our phones and not interacting with people, while discouraging us from reading a book instead2. Both of them are contrary to the spirit of the occasion, but at least the latter is arguably constructive, and can even serve as a conversation-starter.
The idea that smartphones suppress meaningful thought and human connexion is hardly a novel one, nor even an unpopular one. On the contrary, it’s quite a trendy position to hold, particularly among owners of flip phones and Nokias. In fact, I am in many ways disqualified from holding this position without being hypocritical by owning an iPhone. Which is fine, since I don’t hold that position. My thesis is that smartphones can suppress meaningful thought and human connexion if used without thinking. They can also be used in productive ways, and can be useful to own. However, the values that they are built with—hence the values that people require from them—hence once again the values they are built with, are not conducive to such usage, in a positive feedback loop of inane Facebook statuses and “sent from my iPhone” email responses from stressed smartphone users who are now expected to be on top of their email at all times.
There are two places that this loop can be broken. It could be broken by the manufacturer, but that is not in their best interests; the device might not live up to the expectations generated by previous iterations, which could hurt the manufacturer’s profits. It would be a risky proposition, at the very least.
The other place that the loop could be broken is on our end. It would involve two things. Firstly, we smartphone owners need to be thoughtful in our use of our phones. Secondly, we need to change the social norms surrounding smartphones. The best part about this is that not only can the second self-propagate, begetting the first along the way, but that non-smartphone-owners can join in. Act with the expectation that those around you are not going to check Twitter or text while talking to you. Don’t send emails and texts with the expectation that they’ll be responded to instantly.
Until next time, ladies and gents.
I finally got a hold of a copy of The Sandman: Overture #1, a continuation by the excellent Neil Gaiman of his earlier comic book series The Sandman. I am quite excited about this new series, since the original Sandman series ended in 1996. (I was three years old, and hadn’t even moved to the States. I wouldn’t encounter The Sandman, or anything else by Gaiman, for another fifteen years or so.)
As for the issue itself, it’s a good start. I eagerly anticipate the next issue (in… January, I understand). The art is lovely, the cover is classic, and the ending left me with my jaw hanging slightly slack. I want—-no, need—-that last fold-out as a poster.
I am going to have to say, though, don’t try to read Overture until you’ve read the original Sandman series1. You’ll be super-confused; the new series basically assumes that you’ve read the original, despite being a prequel.
The only thing I’m sad about is that as a prequel, it’s the first Corinthian who shows up. The first Corinthian is super creepy and unpleasant, and was one of my least favourite characters. (My brain spent most of that storyline just yelling.) The second Corinthian is also super creepy, but is a pretty chill dude, and was one of my favourite characters.
Right, that’s all I have to say for now. Cheers.
Regarding to the “posting links regularly” thing I mentioned in the last post, I need to make a remark:
Okay, now that that’s over with, I can get down to business.
First, I promised links, so here are some links with which to entertain yourself after (or, if you prefer, before, or even instead of) reading whatever swathes of rambling prose I disgorge onto here.
- Man vs. Machine. — a game in which you try to be a random number generator, and the computer tries to guess what number you’ll pick next. I have gotten past 100 while remaining ahead of the computer (i.e. it would do better if it guessed randomly). I haven’t gotten a chance to look at how it works yet, but I’d be interested to know how successful some of you guys are at impersonating an RNG. If you play, post how well you do in the comments. Or email me or tweet me or something.
- the sierpinski triangle page to end most sierpinski triangle pages ™ — more about Sierpinski triangles than you ever thought you might have wanted to know.
Now, onto some actual meat. And by “meat”, I mean a rambling blog post that I will probably regret later.
Since I last posted, I have finished my second year in undergrad (halfway there, woo), started a new job, stopped that job, started my third year, moved into a non-dorm house, and spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the cat on Facebook.
The government shut down, and summarily reopened. I had approximately four major thoughts about this, and I was going to do a fairly vitriolic post about them, but instead I will sum them up here:
- NASA is shut down and JPL is incommunicado because their press stuff has to be vetted by NASA. This sucks.
- What do you mean, Congress is still getting paid?
- What do you mean, NSF-funded researchers have to quit working?
- Wow, some of my friends have really frustrating and misguided opinions about this whole thing.
I somehow managed to survive without getting into any major arguments, though. I think there is an opinionated and damning1 article related to #4 hidden in my draft posts2, and I intend for it to stay there.
The title is referencing the fact that most of my classes this semester are writing-related, which means that most of my late nights and all-nighters have also been writing-related. The situation isn’t going to change much next semester, with two maths classes, two English classes, two PEs, and a psychology class. And the big assignment for one of those maths classes is a writing assignment. Dear friends majoring in engineering: I am living the liberal-arts dream right now. Nyah nyah nyah. Lots of love, Jon.
Of course, one of those classes next semester is Real Analysis II, and considering the drubbing I took in Real I, I might be laughing on the other side of my face in a few months.
The title is also referencing something I recently saw somewhere about people who call themselves writers, but do not actually write. I have been actually writing, so I am safe (for the moment, at least). I have a spot of flash fiction which I did for a class which I rather like. Once I have it cleaned up a bit more, I will post it here. I am also going to be writing a longer story, which I will also post here once it is in presentable form. So fear not, gentle reader! There is actual content coming down the pipes.
On a different tack, I have been keeping a close eye on the development of the Rust language. If it pans out, it could become one of my new favourite languages, and replace C in my toolbox. There is a lot of steam behind it, and it has a niche which it has a good chance of filling nicely, in my opinion. My only concern is that I periodically see posts on the mailing list where someone has gotten wrapped around the axle while trying to work with the safe memory system. I don’t know if that is due to an inherent problem with the language, or whether it is similar to the problems encountered by Haskell newbies, in that sometimes you have to think a little differently to get things done.
Speaking of programming, IEEEXtreme 7.0 was last weekend, which probably deserves a whole post to itself, which can wait until after they publish the final results. Mercifully, they allowed languages other than C, C++ and Java this time around, and as such I used Python 23 for all but one of my solutions. The exception was a problem which involved a lot of arithmetic, and so I used C++ to solve it. More on that in a later post.
Before I finish, I would like to point you at some books, music, games, etc. which I have run across since I last posted:
- My current favourite game is Kerbal Space Program, which involves building rockets and launching them to other planets and moons, with levels of success ranging all the way from “exploding on the launchpad” to actually succeeding, more or less, in what you set out to do.
- I am also super excited for Starbound, which is vaguely like Terraria but in space and more RPG-ish. I understand Terraria actually got a big update recently, but I have not yet had a chance to play with it. Starbound is supposed to enter beta soon.
- Also anticipating Transistor, which is by the same guys who made Bastion. This is, in my opinion, reason enough to anticipate a game. If you have not yet played Bastion, you ought to go do so at the earliest opportunity.
- Five Iron Frenzy is coming out with a new album, Engine of a Million Plots, soon. I will probably make a big fuss about this when it comes out.
- You should go read The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, by J. R. R. Tolkien.
I have a few more books I would like to recommend, but I need to finish them up first, and they probably deserve their own post. The new Sandman series has just started, so expect4 something about that when I finish it. I just saw Ender’s Game, which was quite a good film. If you liked the book, you should definitely go see it. I have some things to say about it as well, but again, they can wait for a little bit.
Until next time.
Today marks 50 years until first contact with the Vulcan.
I finally got around to reading an article which turned out to be one of the better analyses of the social media phenomenon. I call it an analysis because it doesn’t say “social media is a Bad Thing”, like a lot of the more sensational article-writers (including myself, at times) do. It talks more about how some patterns of social media are Bad Things, which is more constructive since it can lead to ways to fix those patterns.
Bad Catholic published a guest post with perhaps the single best explanation of the Catholic obsession with the Virgin Mary that I’ve ever read.
And finally, I’ve decided that I am going to start posting digests (like this one) with links to interesting articles and some remarks on them.