19/04/2014 : Phrase of the day

‘Doubt-mongering’. Courtesy Skeptical Science.

The balance of evidence is crushing? No one in their right mind would consider your version of events remotely plausible?

Mess with the consensus. Doubt-monger. Claim it’s technically possible reality could be otherwise, notwithstanding the dramatic dearth of supporting evidence. Use the epistemological rigor of those who’ve been judging your account of events unlikely against them. Remind them: it could theoretically be otherwise, even if there’s no particular reason to imagine it actually is. I mean, this could be the Matrix or some damned thing.
A friend of mine once told me this joke about a rich man and his son. The very wealthy father just wants to give his son everything—a yacht, his own race track, whatever—but the kid has these peculiar tastes…

The son just wants purple and pink polka dot ping pong balls. And this is part of the fun of the joke, of course. That phrase. It’s fun just to say. But the appeal of that rhythm, that alliteration, that’s really just the beginning of the thing.

Thing is, you want to tell the joke right, you drag it out. You start with the kid at, say, five, then you go through birthday after birthday as he grows to adulthood, and each time the father asks the son what he wants, declaring grandiosely that he can have anything, anything at all, and each time the son answers with the same maddeningly peculiar request…

And each time the father can’t deal with this, gives his son the next completely insane gift instead. You want purple and pink what? My boy, you just don’t get it. You can have anything. Here… How ‘bout your own Central American republic?

When telling this one, embellishment, improvisation, and invention are the names of the game, naturally, and you can adapt the joke on the fly to fit your audience. Amongst children, maybe toss in an entire amusement park for the son’s eighth birthday. Amongst adults, introduce an entire brothel, at his disposal for a month, for his eighteenth, whatever fits the mood of the room…

The punchline is a cruel joke on the typical human brain. Spoiler alert, but it’s an old joke, anyway: the rich man gives the kid some appropriately potentially dangerous gift—a race car, an F-18, whatever—and things go horribly wrong, and the son flies into a cliff or something, and now he’s lying there, dying, his distraught father realizing this is it, he’s not going to make it. And allow me to deliver the punchline in standard fashion:

‘Son,’ says the rich man, ‘I’m terribly sorry. I guess I just never understood you. I feel terrible that I didn’t try harder. But please, just tell me, now, why on Earth you wanted, of all things, purple and pink polka dot ping pong balls?’

‘Because…’ gasps the son, dramatically, with his dying breath… ‘Because…’

… and then he dies.

(Pause for effect…)

Like I said. Kinda cruel.

Humans tend to prefer narratives that end. Closure’s nice, generally.

They like, even, ideally, morals, points, purposes. The protagonist just going out to war, shooting some folk, coming home, watching some TV, having no particular reflection on any of this, neither learning from it nor being marked by it, this tends to leave us cold. We don’t even consider that a story, so much…

They like motives, too. Scheming villains are great, because they give you someone to blame. And deaths, especially, are somehow supposed to mean something, to be for something. Note that in Hollywood, generally there’s a buildup to those, and swelling music. Story tellers do occasionally give us the agonizingly sudden and pointless death, with similar hanging, unanswered questions to the one in that joke—there are a few moments in Joss Whedon’s Serenity in particular come to mind, among others. But for every one of those, there are a dozen with the soundtrack and the moral and the meaning, and you just know the villain responsible will get his, just as dramatically, before we’re done…

All this coming to mind watching the coverage of a jet that disappeared, en route from Malaysia. And I got to thinking how seductive narrative is. A good story—even if not particularly true—it has legs a more pointless truth never will. And see also one of the standard subjects of this blog: teleology is generally not a thing—there is no such animal in this universe—but people do get so attached to it. Gets around dealing too directly with a universe that’s always telling you a version of that joke, really. It’s an odd thing, seen from the right angle—and I do encourage people to find that angle—that somehow people get the notion they and apparently their sexual and dietary habits are the center of and so terribly important to this vast existence. But it’s also a very human cognitive sinkhole, doing just that. Works out, given that peculiar fantasy, at least to a recognizable story.

About that jet: if you’ve read the coverage, you already know: there are a million conjectures, some more outlandish than others. We’ve got the more embarrassing pundits introducing ‘paranormal’ events, black holes, what have you. At the less bizarre end of the spectrum, it’s a lot of hijackings and terror and the flight crew in on it, possibly politically motivated…

The funny thing: pilots watching this from the ground have pointed out: the less crazy stuff—the not actually completely silly stuff—say, the hijacking gone wrong—yes, it could have gone like that, but you don’t really need all that to explain it. Yes, it’s a puzzling thing, at first blush, but there are mechanical failures that could wind up pretty much this way. Depressurize the cabin, fill it with smoke—things that do happen on occasion to aircraft, quite without villains—and you can wind up with a turn onto a preprogrammed bailout waypoint, followed by unconscious and then dead crew and passengers, and a long flight to nowhere, until the engines exhaust the fuel…

Could be, either way. But either way I get to thinking: it’s no wonder what gets the headlines, it’s no wonder the imagination runs wild. We just don’t like those more pointless, unmotivated endings. Or worse, no ending at all, if they don’t even find the black box in our lifetimes. Listen, people died. Or we’re pretty sure they did. Can’t we please have the whole, standard package—the narrative, the motive, the ending… Never mind we knew no one on that jet ourselves; we want closure. Maybe not with quite the agonizing intensity the families of the missing will need it, but we want it, all the same.

I get to wondering likewise if the seduction of narrative has its costs, even beyond the obvious ones—the unlikely stories that happen to fit nicely into the grooves in our brains, and tell us pretty lies we swallow that much more readily, the gods with purposes you were born to fulfill. Like young boys in every era going to war imagining: this has got drama, so it must have some point. And even if I do die, there will be swelling music, and someone swearing they will avenge me; my sacrifice will be beautifully lit, artfully lamented, and they will find the villain, and he will get his.

18/03/2014 : At long last

So I landed some six or seven backside ones over park kickers Sunday morning. Including over one marked medium. And I’m pretty sure, from here, I’m going to be able to keep doing that consistently, now. Finally. There’s this ‘clicked’ thing seems to have happened, I think.

It feels like a pretty big milestone, actually. For all that technically I landed one of these last February, there was a long, dry period after that.

I’m not really sure why. Could have been a few things. First, that first one, it really does look in retrospect the technique that got me there was far less than ideal, and it’s likely that landing was as much about luck as anything else. And the leg injury, maybe that was another. It did seem to make a lot of things a bit more difficult. And a lot of other practical things made working on the things complicated either way. For all that I do get a fair bit of time on the mountain (yes, this is an understatement), not all of that is time I can realistically be on the kickers. And even when you can be, the things can get crowded. Seems so especially this season. Possibly the relative attention given to the newer sports at this year’s Olympics has brought out the crowds—dunno. I’m not entirely complaining—it’s nice to see people out there—but it does cut down on productive practice time.

Whatever it was, I seemed to have developed a block for a while, too. Couldn’t make myself spin them even when I could get onto the jumps—I kept bailing on them, just before the lip. It’s a bit odd—I really hadn’t had any particularly bad falls trying this in quite a while.

Anyway. I got there all the same. Worked like mad on doing them everywhere else for a while, to build confidence and muscle memory—popped them off the flat endlessly, started taking them off naturally forming hip-jumpish things (Tremblant, annoyingly, has very few of these deliberately built up in parks; they really are useful as a step toward stuff like this), and off natural ledges, so on. Got to the point where I was pretty sure I could do them with my eyes closed (as it’s a backside, you’re kinda doing it not looking, regardless, so this is actually pretty much an essential thing), where I figured my feet would pretty much know what to do almost however the board came down, then finally managed to get through that block, got them happening off the shaped jumps.

My secret, for what it’s worth, at the end, was all about focusing on just turning the shoulders. I’ve honestly no idea how much use that will be to anyone else, though. It’s very possible my a-little-older-than-your-average-park-denizen’s body’s relatively touchy requirements about landings has made my approach to this a little peculiar. Like I wrote somewhere else, I have to be a little more careful than a teen or twentysomething to land right, every time, once the jumps get to a certain size. So by the time the upper body became the key, I’d already practiced the hell out of every other aspect of the things. But anyway, yeah, at the end, it was just shoulders. Just focus on turning those where you know they need to be. The rest is now all just going to happen now if you do that, anyway.

It’s a good feeling, actually, getting through something that required that kind of push, getting through a wall like that. I figure it’s one thing to have no fear, quite another to know how to work through it, and do the thing anyway…

And I do think I’m gonna work toward doing 360s, now. Seems at this point—though it may or may not be hubris—it really shouldn’t be a big thing, from here. They do generally say taking the backside especially through that extra rotation is a relatively easy thing, once you do get yourself spinning that way. It’s even alleged to be easier than the one, in some ways—as the landing’s generally less challenging, not being switch. And, generally, if you can do your frontside ones cab (which I can) and can do the backside, the notion is, you’ve got all the pieces, anyway. Just a matter of going a little higher, and putting them together.

So we may see about that, then.

12/03/2014 : Cosmos

… the new one, it looks like it’s starting out pretty nicely.

Canadian viewers can get it here. US viewers, here.

As to my giving you any kind of review beyond that very short capsule, umm…

Well, full (if odd) disclosure: I never actually watched the original. Save the occasional excerpt, here and there…

I never watched it. But I did quite love it. As I read the book. A few times. Have a few copies around here, including one of the lovely large-format photo-heavy coffee-tableish ones.

So, listen, about this new one: I’m probably the wrong guy to ask. There are a few problems, there.

First, the truth is, as you might be able to work out from that whole never-even-watched-the-original thing, television has never really been my strongest medium anyway. Oh, I can grasp the value of it—visuals are good for things like scale, especially—the history of the universe compressed into a calendar year works nicely, when you can see the calendar, I guess. And zooming out and out from the Earth to the Oort cloud to the local cluster and finally the large-scale universe, apart from the pure cool factor, again, it’s a very visual thing.

But it’s funny. I can say about this version, yet again, what I find myself saying about so much film: the best production is never quite going to match what your imagination can do from text. And I keep watching even this lovely 21st century CGI reworking and thinking, yeah, pretty, but listen, I think my own renderer did much better graphics. And never mind it began as television, and the text I read was technically the derivative thereof. I think I’d still have to take the book, as my first choice, over the original or whatever this one becomes.

Second, I do think, like a lot of people will tell you, that Cosmos was influential for me, but I think, for me, how it was influential is a little off what I think I hear so many of them describe. As I’m pretty sure I didn’t get to read it until I was into my twenties, already doing a degree in Biology, already knew a fair bit about the general picture of the world it described. So, while it was a revelation for me, that revelation wasn’t quite what it showed of the universe, but that other people out there found that universe as lovely, as fascinating—that there were even people out there that got downright rhapsodic about it, and could even get on television, doing that. Which listen, when you’ve come from a small town and are just recently out of high school, and have seen a fairly blatant and even sometimes downright hostile anti-intellectualism shot all through that experience and much of the larger culture, yeah, it was incredibly refreshing, seeing someone else getting that excited about supernovae. And it did put it all together so elegantly, which was a nice thing, too. Convenient to have the large view so neatly wrapped up.

Third, even the new stuff they’ve been able to bring into this one—there’s a great—if very brief—segment on orphan exoplanets—is stuff I’ve generally been keeping track of already. So all I’m really getting out of that is some nice new visuals. But I guess others’ mileage may vary, there.

So all I’ve really got is: if you haven’t read or seen the original, you probably want to see this one. And you may well find you love it, as much as people did the original. Seems to have much of that wide-eyed wonder it had, and that’s promising…

… and if you haven’t generally been keeping up at least at the pop sci level on the larger discoveries of the natural sciences over the past few decades, there will be new stuff in there for you, even if you did see or read the original*. So, again, could be pretty awesome.

All finally to say: even if I am, for whichever peculiar reasons, a poor test audience, yes, I’m very glad they did this thing. May it inspire as many as did the original. And I think it’s very likely it will.

* Fun fact: Sagan did, in fact, live to see the earliest detections of exoplanets—including the first detection of one orbiting a main sequence star—51 Pegasi b, in 1995. Which is, also, a nice thing, though I can’t help but wish he’d also lived to see the riches in the databases now.

02/03/2014 : Raining from the skies

One Heather Havrilesky had this thing in the Times magazine the other day. A commentary on the marketing, of, of all things, The Lego Movie

I’d say it’s very worth a read.

A little context/a little disclosure: we’re a very Lego household ourselves. Got the several thousand piece sets and multiple PS3 games to prove it. Little guy especially quite loves them; his sister is at a slightly lesser pitch of commitment to the whole deal, perhaps, of late. Me, I’ve really no particular beef with that product line in particular. But then, this isn’t quite about that.

This is more about the larger picture. About marketing. Then about PR, writ a little larger..

And oddly, also about epistemology. And cynicism.

Bear with me. For, yes, it really is.

Getting back to the movie, the hype, and Havrilesky’s take: she notes, quite accurately, I’d say, a certain pattern within a lot of contemporary brand advertising. There’s a deliberately self-aware, self-referential ‘yes, we know this is just advertising, and yes, we know it’s kinda bullshit, and so do you’ vibe that pervades the whole message delivered. The brand advertiser is saying, on camera, quite happily, that yes, this is a commercial, yes, we’re just flogging product, yes, we’ll pretty much say anything, however silly, to get you to buy our stuff.

… and now that’s properly established, here’s today’s bullshit, enjoy, you equally self-aware, obviously very savvy chlid of these cynical times, you…

Or, as Havrilesky would have it:
Branding may have finally reached its Mannerist phase. Where the old-fashioned brand earnestly embraced a core message that verged on religious doctrine (Apple’s “Think Different,” Nike’s “Just Do It”), the new brand is aggressively self-aware, exaggerated and self-referential to the point of collapsing in on itself; rather than imbuing the product with magical qualities, it embraces and undercuts those qualities in one swift gesture. The effect is to subvert consumer prejudices and preconceptions and make us forget that we’re caught in a commerce-focused undertow.
… yeah, about right, I’d say. Or even: they don’t so much care if you forget or do not. They probably effectively know—the way a lot of institutions that have had to develop persuasive systems over the years effectively do—and see as my standard signature example especially religions—that it doesn’t actually matter if their target audience knows it’s being sold a line. What’s important to coerce is not the belief, but the behaviour. Get people to do whatever, and a) that’s kinda the point anyway, and b) they’ll generally construct post-hoc rationalizations for that behaviour, on their own, anyway. So you don’t need to convince people your god is real: you have to convince them it’s less trouble to say they do, immerse them sufficiently in the rituals and the community, and the belief will, eventually, follow. And no, it doesn’t at all hurt if you nod, in your marketing material for your colourful plastic bricks, to your audience’s presumed sophistication in the face of your marketing department’s don’t-particularly-care attitude to any kind of ultimate truth about, well, anything whatsoever, let alone, perhaps, your product’s actual value to them. This is quite beside the point. If you can put the product up there, light it well enough, and keep them looking at it, that’s much of the job, right there, done…

… and yes, just in case this is new to you, about that post hoc justification: brains really do quite readily work that way. It may seem a mite reversed to you, but that’s because the ‘you’ that’s thinking that is the tiny conscious part of a much larger and largely unconscious system that does, indeed, run post hoc at the drop of a hat. Which is also why a lot of people in this world, including some incredibly manipulative jerks, know the trick to getting people to like you isn’t being nice to them: it’s getting them to do things for you. Talk them into this, one way or another, and they’re very likely to convince themselves, after the fact, that this was a reasonable thing to do, as, well, they like you. But, perhaps, I digress. As is customary.

So yes, it all comes back to oldish ground around here. I’d like to do more with this, always do. But busy, you know how it is. May or may not, kinda had to at least point to it in passing. Oh, but one more thing I’d like to pull out from Havrilesky, long as I’m doing this much:
There’s no more drinking or not drinking the Kool-Aid, in other words. The Kool-Aid is raining from the skies and seeping into the groundwater.
… I think that’s actually a pretty accurate description of our culture, right now. There’s a certain pan-cynicism about it, for want of a proper term, too, I think, owing to the sheer ubuiquity of it, the totality of our immersion, and this, too, is one of the reasons that peculiar meta-marketing Havrilesky’s noticed is a perfectly viable strategy, here…

And I wonder again what it’s doing to us, how unique this may be to our era, how pronounced it may be in this era, versus others. It does, for what it’s worth, look to me as something of a growing attitude, and one growing steadily more toxic: it’s all lies and manipulation, anyway. Everyone’s on the make, everyone’s got a line. Truth? Please, child, let’s not be naive. Can’t know that, technically, exactly, so why even bother trying? Sounds like work, and there’s all these lines, just lying here, delivered to our door. We’re are cynics, we are sophisticates, we are children of this age…

So look: just pick the line you like, like everyone else does.

22/02/2014 : Don't look down

So I spent another day mostly practising doing 180s off the hop. All four. And all four are coming along. It was an icy, sketchy day, after a freezing rain, a lot of trails closed, maybe not the best day for it, okay. But dammit, y’know, it is what I do…

It’s actually been a bit of a rough season for this stuff, for me. Busy at work, I think, is part of it. And that calf muscle tear back in the summer may be complicating things. I’m not sure, but oddly, my easiest jump—that old standby frontside from regular—suddenly isn’t quite so effortless, anymore, and I really am beginning to suspect it’s something about that leg being less able to kick hard to set it up. And what seems especially suspicious it is: once harder jumps—both my backside to switch and frontside from switch, especially—seem easier than ever…

May or may not be. Like I said, hard to say. I’m getting around it, anyway. And have been getting back to the gym, finally, to firm things up; let’s hope that helps. But anyway, in very related: it’s a funny thing. I was doing so many jumps today, stringing so many together, and focusing so much on the technique, brain all on edge and stance and center of gravity, I occasionally again got confused about just which way I ride.

No, this isn’t the first time, exactly, this has happened. But the really odd thing about it this time: several of the times I did that, the moment I noticed I was actually riding switch, I’d caught myself in the middle of really riding hard. Leaning forward, pumping the turns, forcing myself up onto edges, the better to get some speed toward whichever little hummock I was going to use to assist in takeoff for the next jump. And the thought that went through my head each time I caught myself was something like: ‘Wait a minute… How could that even be? I’m not even that good in switch. This is switch, right… Ummm… Geez… Yeah, it is…’

Which points to something, that, okay, I guess we already knew. Still, it was still such a peculiar revelation, at the time…

The thing is: apparently, I can actually ride this way, way better than I realize I can. My body is so practised, now, it’s perfectly capable. And this is almost a ‘well, duh’ thing, at this point, considering how much mileage it’s now had…

But it only really does that so well if the part of me that still doesn’t quite get that doesn’t get in the way. As in: if I don’t worry about it, if I don’t even think about it. If I don’t actually realize I’m riding switch, there isn’t that big red warning light glowing brightly somewhere in the back of my brain. So I just relax and do it. And it turns out, yeah, it’s really no problem, then. It’s another of those peculiar things we already know about the conscious and unconscious brain, and this peculiar observation that, frequently—and for certain tasks, especially, and especially stuff in the sorta ‘muscle memory’ category—if you ask someone exactly how they’re doing something suitably difficult, suddenly, they can’t. Stopping to think about it does not at all help with a lot of this stuff has to be burned down into automatic circuits…

And yes, I guess, again, I technically knew this already. But it does come home a little more vividly, when you notice it at the moment you’re zipping down a sheet of ice… And in that moment, you’re also kinda thinking, umm… and I kinda wish I hadn’t noticed, just at this second…

… additional pop culture reference: the coyote only falls from the sky after he looks down. Gravity somehow doesn’t quite get around to it until then. And this is a bit like my ‘why the hell did I look down?’ moment…

(/It also gets me thinking: if only I can somehow briefly forget that I’ve never actually landed a 360.)

15/02/2014 : In unrelated...

15/02/2014 : Ode to Zig Zag

So the great thing about riding with someone you really know, and you really know they know their shit, is you can come screaming down that lovely suicide icy double black together like it ain’t no thang. Sure, there’s a rope and a sign at the top saying hazards, and there’s ice and there’s moguls and the faint of heart figure they’re hallucinating that there’s even anyone in there, today, let alone anyone ripping through it like that…

… but whatever. You live this stuff. Your edges are sharp enough you could shave with ‘em, and not only are you going to do this thing, you’re going to do it with panache. The moguls aren’t going to mess with you: the moguls are more like, oh, shit, here they come, and these two, they clearly mean business…

… and you do all that, and it’s carve carve carve slice carve all the way to the end, the powder flying off in high arcs at each turn, and it’s heaven at face-peeling velocities, and then it starts to level out, as you come into the merge where the mere black comes in above you, and you flash across that in front of such mere mortals as reside in such places like listen, you’ll only ever know we were here because your instruments register the red shift…

… but as does happen, there’s this momentary hiccup in the rhythm, and you cut in a little shorter on the zig than you usually do, she’s a tiny bit longer on the zag then you figured she would be, and the interplay of hummock and declivity is such that there’s few options, and so you sail through there anyway, and the board catches the tails of her skis ever so briefly, but at mach whatever this is, this inevitably means drama…

… and the drama is this sorta supersonic Nollie: she’s fine, but you, the nose of your board snags and catches and presses into the snow, and now you’re still flying, but now even claiming you have some token contact with the ground is no longer a plausible story. No, it’s full somersault into the powder at the edge, and, for about a microsecond before you land, you’re thinking, shit, if there’s a stump in there, I’m going to be properly impaled on it…

… but there isn’t. And the powder explosion, you’re later told, could probably have been seen from orbit…

… and so you’re alive, and laughing, together. And seriously: you’d do it again. Assuming, again, no stump to land on.

But next time, someone promise me you’ll get it on video.

(/And yes, my firstborn and I have now crossed off Zig Zag, on our annual ‘do all the runs each year’ tour. In, yes, somewhat more memorable fashion than usual. And well past halfway, now.)

05/02/2014 : Also known as..

the mad scientists’ ‘to do’ list

Yeah, got nothin’. Or little. Work going well. But being able to write much outside code these days just isn’t on, probably won’t be for a bit. And what little non-work/non-household time I have is going into this La Pérouse/OCR-semi-automatic-error-correction thing…

Yes, my life is 18th century texts, pattern recognition software, and optimizing cryptographic stacks. Let’s call it an experiment—see if I come out of this actually capable of communicating in any way whatsoever with 21st century human beings.

01/02/2014 : Sleep face down...

on a goods train heading south in the rain

No particular reason. Came up on shuffle. And seemed somehow à propos.