September 2007

Oh, the things we learn on QI:

  • “You know, if you’re an American black youth living in Compton, Watts, various other of those sort of neighborhoods, ghettos, in the worst parts of America, and you shoot someone, in cold blood, and are given the death penalty as a result of it, you will have a longer life than if you don’t. The life-expectancy on the streets is lower than on death row.”
  • “A friend of mine is a camera-man, and he was doing a documentary in Los Angeles, and he became friends with a policeman who he’d been interviewing, and [the policeman] said “Well, come up in my helicopter”, because [my friend] needed aerial shots of LA and it’s very expensive to hire a helicopter for the day. So he went up in this helicopter going over LA and he said “You’ve got a weird, um… Is it your GPS system, the thing that goes ping all the time?” [The policeman] says “No, that’s bullets hitting the bottom of the helicopter.” They have reinforced metal underneath it. [People] see a police helicopter, they just shoot it. It just goes ping-ping-ping all the time.”

Writing up this post, I was conflicted between quoting Stephen Fry or paraphrasing him. When I was first trying to paraphrase, I remembered a very curious incident I read about where an American news-anchor Carol Lin referred to two youths who had been killed in the Paris riots as “African-Americans”, but who were actually French citizens of Tunisian origins.

pho·bi·a – (ˈfoʊbiə) – [foh-bee-uh]
A persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation.

Sure, we’ve all heard of claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces), agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and auroraphobia (fear of Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights). But how about a phobia that affects more people than any other phobias? National Institute of Mental Health estimates that between 8.7% and 18.1% of Americans suffer from phobias. This particular phobia that I am talking about covers a much higher proportion of people. Any guesses? Well, if you know me or have read your fair share of this blog, you should already have a fairly good idea of what I’m going to say.

Religion. Religion is a form of a phobia. What else can you call a fear of eternal punishment at the hands of a non-existent entity? It’s persistent and it sure as hell (pun intended) irrational.

There is a phobia called theophobia that is defined as “fear of gods or religion”, but this seems a tad recursive for me: theophobia is a fear of another phobia. Seems like a specific case of phobophobia (fear of phobias). And, while we’re on the subject of semi-recursive definitions, here’s my favorite example: HURD (Hird of Unix-Replacing Daemons) and HIRD (Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth).

‘Glasshouse’ and ‘Accelerando’ glasshouse.jpg

A few years ago I saw ‘The Magic Flute’ (I think that’s what it was, I could be wrong) and there was a quite enchanting set-piece: large, angled rocks to illustrate a bluffs area and a thin, wiry tree. Something about the setup really struck me. The same could be said of Charles Stross’ ‘Glasshouse’: the set upon which the story plays out is enchanting. The difference between ‘The Magic Flute’ and ‘Glasshouse’ is that the set of the latter is much more interesting than the characters who appear on it. I was impressed with the ‘Flute’ set design, my focus was always on the characters and the story. I’m sorry to say this, but the Glasshouse of ‘Glasshouse’ is more fascinating than Reeve or Sam or Sanni; the universe of both ‘Accelerando‘ and ‘Glasshouse’ are deeper and more interesting than the one-sentence descriptions Stross sees fit to whet our appetites with.


‘Glasshouse’ is a good book. It has an interesting story, its share of surprises, a bit of action, a veritable wealth of quotable descriptions, musings and utterances… but it could have been so much more. Stross has at his disposal a gloriously architectured world in which literally anything is possible, and he barely scratches the surface. Instead of delving into the vast possibilities of the 27th century, nine-tenths of the book (starting on digital page 129 of 1060) are spent inside a ‘simulation’ detailing pre-Singularity human society – the latter half of the 20th century in one of the developed countries. Want a visual example? Imagine a Star Trek movie where the first 10 minutes are spent aboard the ship, and the rest of the film happens in faux-Indianapolis during the 1950’s, with the entire crew forced to abide by the rules and societal norms of the times. That means no phasers, no androids (sorry Data), no spaceships, no inter-racial or same-sex romance (are there same-sex relationships in Star Trek now?) and, please, no talking about any of this – it ruins the realism. iron-sunrise-alt.jpgIt means that Troi spends her days shopping, gossiping with Crusher and trying to get pregnant, while Riker and Picard work in a fake insurance company, shuffling papers across a desk for the sake of appearances. That is exactly what’s happening in the book. Boring? Yeah, somewhat. Why do we have to spend time on a character shopping in a department store when we can explore the underlying concepts of transport- and assembly-gates, brain uploads, habitats orbiting brown dwarfs, achievable immortality, memory-erasing viruses, post-singularity society, humanity’s self-imposed exile from the Solar System, the freedom to be who and what you want to be (Want to be a four-armed woman? OK. Want to be a blue hermaphrodite centaur with chain-mail hauberk and no pants? Fine.), and, last but in no way least, the social implications of everything I have just mentioned. Which do you suppose I would like to read about?!

In this sense, Stross really reminds me of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Sure, Douglas Adams didn’t bother to cover in depth many of the concepts he mentioned, but his work was a comedy long before being science-fiction.

If Stross has a failing, it is his inability to stop writing future-set soap operas. ‘Singularity Sky’, ‘Iron Sunrise’, ‘Accelerando’ and ‘Glasshouse’ all exhibit the same weakness: were the story set in a duller environment, it would be shelved alongside John Grisham and Dan Brown. The only sci-fi element is often-times the setting, and the concepts beneath that are skimmed oh-so-carefully so as not to disturb the giants laying dormant.

‘Singularity Sky’ and ‘Iron Sunrise’

singularity-sky.jpgThe novels are both good, but, as I mentioned above, they barely touch upon the science and instead spend most of the time simply in the fiction end of the pool. There is a fair amount of political intrigue, a bit of romance, some disturbing imagery to illustrate the depravity of the antagonists and the perils of technology and, this is sort of strange, very little shoot-em-up action. What small amount of action scenes Stross does present us with, they’re mostly rather bland and are over entirely too quickly.iron-sunrise.jpg

‘Singularity Sky’ is a story of an out-dated societal model (early Soviet-era Communists) attempting to stop a Singularity. At times the novel hits very close to home, reminding so much of the old country. Overall a good, light read.

‘Iron Sunrise’ is a sequel to ‘Singularity Sky’, only now it has left the Communists and moved on to the Nazis. I’m not kidding: the bad guys are trying to purify humanity, change them to fit a specific mold. They go around referring to each-other using names like “Oberkommando der Wehrmacht”. Like, but not quite: I can’t find the actual names they use, but they are long and contain an insane number of consonants.

Read Stross. I don’t hesitate to recommend anything written by Charles Stross. Sure, I’ll mention that you’ll be getting less science than ‘Rendezvous with Rama’, but it’s certainly more than Heinlein has ever dished out. I guess it’s somewhere in the middle. A very good place to be, actually.

So, there’s a few ideas bouncing around inside my head. I figure a nice bullet list is the best way to get them the hell out.

  • Do you realize that most of the matter on the planet is used to only increase the potential energy in other matter? Tables, chairs, shelves, counter-tops, buildings, carpets, shoes, our skeletons, blah blah blah. Basically, anything made with the express purpose of keeping other stuff off the ground. (To those who have no idea what I’m talking about, potential energy of an object increases if you pick it up, so a table increases the potential energy of a book simply by holding it up.) What an utter waste!
  • China is trying to dictate the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. We’ve long known that they’re a bunch of assholes, but this is a new low. Actually, I’m not sure what’s more ridiculous, a communist state saying that the soul of a religious leader is going to end up in a different kid, or the idea that the current Dalai Lama will be reincarnated as yet-another male in roughly the same geographical location. OK, that could be a bit unfair: applying logic to religion isn’t doing either side any good. So, moving on.
  • I was walking out of a store and saw a car in a parking space at a 90 degree angle. The guy parked across the space instead of along it. Immediately I thought “what an idiot.” Then I saw the handicapped sign hanging on the mirror and started to backtrack. I stopped in time, thankfully. What, handicapped people can’t be idiots? Hell, some of them are probably handicapped because they were idiots in the first place. Who knows, maybe this guy needs to use a chair because he cut his legs off while juggling chainsaws.
  • New Olympic event: toss an object into a cup filled with some liquid, try to empty the cup without knocking it over or breaking it. The liquid can be anything: water, soup, paint, hand soap, etc. The object can likewise be anything: a tennis ball, a pen, a rodent (so long as you don’t piss off PETA), a golf ball, whatever. You can also use a ladder or even a skyscraper as a launching platform. Of course a golf ball thrown from the top of Sears Tower will pretty much obliterate whatever cup you choose. If you manage to even hit the cup. Anyway, the minor difficulties aside, this could be quite a challenge. Of course, the winner will be, year after year, some nerdlinger who ran simulations with a realistic physics model.
  • In “Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne”, the titular character is a detective for the NYPD. Huh? In the first game Max killed some six hundred people. Nevermind that all of them were bad guys, with criminal records and such. A person kills that many people in just two days, there’s bound to be some long-lasting effects. And yet they give him a gun and say “go out there and be good”?
  • According to Guy Rules, if Guy A knows Guy B for more than 5 minutes, Guy B’s girlfriends (current or ex) are forever off-limits. But, what if Guy A knows a girl first, and the only reason he even knowsGuy B is through the girl?
  • “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman is a great book. I’m about a third of the way through, but it’s great so far. Though it reminds me of Niven’s “Rainbow Mars” and Heinlein’s “Number of the Beast”, it’s still incredibly enjoyable.
  • Good night.

There are various forms of English: British English, American English, Russlish, Spanglish, Indian English, Chinese English, bad English (‘The Fifth Element‘). I don’t doubt that there are countless more.

Usually, the variety of the different forms is refreshing and entertaining. In the cases of British, American, Russlish and Chinese, I can even see some of the reasons for the changes, which really adds to the experience. But there is one version of English that I absolutely despise and will likely never grow to like or appreciate: Blog English.

It isn’t the Queen’s English that the blog authors use, no. They have developed their own twisted, crippled and almost-incomprehensible take on the Bard’s native tongue.

Here are two (grammatically) sorry-looking blogs I stumbled upon at random:

I struggle to pinpoint the exact offenses these people have committed. Sure, it’s the use of “their” instead of “they’re” (and vice versa) and the general spelling skill-set equivalent to that of a small rodent with a big substance-abuse problem. But it’s more than that. The blogs are a faithful reproduction of the author’s speech. Typed out. So, you take someone’s verbal diarrhea, type it up, place a pretty pink border around the whole thing and call it a blog. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the blogger: a largely-incoherent, self-important, almost-illiterate ass. And someone decided it would be a good idea to give him a podium. Shudder.


I like PostSecret. It’s a curious experiment that, apparently, has helped quite a few people.

Strangely enough, I think I like the response e-mails Frank posts under the post cards more than the post cards themselves. It must be the concept that the secret these people have is not so strange, that there are people out there who feel the same way. You know, the whole we-are-not-alone angle.

That being said, there are two things that piss me off about PostSecret: the fact that there is no archive of secrets and that Frank removes the response e-mails very quickly. The first thing can be explained by his desire for a regular audience (you have to check the site every week, can’t just look once in a while and catch up with secrets you missed from a month ago) and the ability to publish the secrets in a book form. The second one, I have no explanation for. It hasn’t been a whole day since the new secrets went up and I’ve already seen a number of e-mail responses go up and then quickly disappear. Argh.


This card has an e-mail response underneath it from a fellow spy who lost her boyfriend when he found out about the snooping. That one was a particular gem. Oh, don’t get me started on the mental giants who think that this sort of dishonesty is the key to a healthy relationship.

EDIT: Changed the name/link of this post because I get way too many hits through the search engines because of this.

Introduction to the Goons


Last week, ‘Get Fuzzy’ had a very funny story-arc introducing a pair of goons in the employment of Bucky. I’m not sure what they actually do, aside from hassling Rob, but they’re quite funny. Then, on Friday, this cartoon appeared on the ‘Get Fuzzy’ website. The Chicago Tribune ran an older cartoon, saying that the cartoon below did not meet its standards for taste. I imagine the Tribune was not the only paper to get uppity about ‘Fuzzy’. Was there really a reason? See for yourself.

The offending cartoon 


This week’s story arc (which started on Tuesday) may be dealing with censorship. The first cartoon was printed as is. I suspect that the second one, which was online sometime after midnight today, will also appear. Knowing Darby Conley (the cartoonist behind ‘Get Fuzzy’), this can be a story arc that, in a roundabout way, deals with the censorship issue by throwing caution to the wind and the bird to the newspaper editors.



Tuesday’s comic


Wednesday’s comic

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