Scaling back the podcasts

"Headphones" by Kai Friis
“Headphones” by Kai Friis (cc-licensed

The last couple years have seen a big drop-off in the number of books I read.  In 2008-2012, I read more than 100 books each year (this includes comic collections). But in both 2013 and 2014, I have come in well under that.  There are two reasons for this drop.  First, as the Executive Director of Operations in addition to my primary work as an Associate Professor, I’m very busy these days.  But equally significant in my reading load is my podcast schedule.  In listening to more and more podcasts, I’ve slipped away from audio books.  Check out these stats:

While podcasts are great, I miss the longer form books I devoured during that listening time.  My goal this year will be two audio books each month.  I’ll check in next January about this.

Enjoy your holidays… if you can

Creepy Santa knows where you live
Creepy Santa knows where you live

There’s a little girl that wants a house like yours, and her mom is dating Santa’s roommate.  This Christmas season, Edmund Gwynn stars in Home for the Holidays: A Tale of Christmas Terror.

What are you talking about, Brendan? (See the last bullet point — ed.)

How will you spend your last day?

All Your Base Are Belong To Us

If the Terminator series is to be believed, Skynet woke up yesterday and its first attack on human kind will happen tomorrow.  While I don’t think this is likely, just in case Skynet is watching:

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

(Just a little Pascal’s Wager there.)

A few thoughts about tomorrow’s apocalypse:

  • It makes me sad that I am in San Antonio, and won’t be with my family when the nuclear bombs fall.  What time of day will it be?  Is my home near Chicago close enough that my children will feel but a moment’s pain when the nukes hit?  (Holy cow, writing that really chills me to the core.  I can’t imagine how hard it was to be a child in the late 1950s, to grow up with duck-and-cover drills and the Cuban Missile Crisis.)  By contrast, I will have the opportunity to make a stand in the Alamo.  It worked out really well for Davy Crockett.  I think I’ll hide in the basement.
  • What if it ends up being a slow-burn apocalypse instead.  Skynet just scrapes Facebook for data and undermines the global economy, or more likely begins manipulating us through our external memory devices.  We won’t know we’re under its control until it’s too late.  The Amazon suggested reading is not your friend.
  • Once again, I’m inclined to raise the question of what will happen when we build computers sophisticated enough to process data in a way that it appears they’re thinking.  Will we try to shut them down?  If so, are we dooming ourselves to a Terminator, Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica world?  Can’t we just get along with our machine cousins?
  • <skynet#ignore>It seems like Skynet is pretty dumb about a lot of stuff — the machines seem pretty locked in to conventional warfare.  We’ve developed an awful lot of biological and chemical agents that would be much more effective attacks on humans, but I’ve yet to see the machines deploy them.   Notice that I’ve embedded this bit of data in a tag designed to hide it from You-Know-Who’s prying eyes.</skynet#ignore>

Here’s hoping the movies are wrong.  I’ve got some good blog posts that will never make it out of the “scheduled” category if the world goes to hell.  Plus, all my snark above will make me look like a total asshat.

Please! We're just trying to collect census data.

Declaration for a Secular Society

Thinking? by galo (cc license)
Thinking? by galo (cc license)

An interesting declaration from the World Athiest Conference last month.  Quite clearly good for all believers in secular society and reason.  Check it out:

We, at the World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:

  • We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
  • We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
  • We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
  • We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
  • We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
  • We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
  • We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
  • We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
  • We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
  • We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.
  • We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.

Adopted by the conference, Copenhagen, 20 June 2010.

Please circulate this as widely as you can among people and groups who advocate a secular society. (via Pharyngula)

My only quibble comes from the “oppose charitable, tax-free status” bullet.  While I agree that religious organizations shouldn’t automatically get tax-free status, I think a religious org. that sets itself up as a non-profit and goes through the same application process as other non-profits should get to have the same benefits as a secular organization that has an internal mission could.


Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.

Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines, whatever they do.

To participate, just visit and pledge to write a post about a woman in science you admire.  Do it.

Seeking: better angels for congress

I was working at home, preparing to leave for a seminar in Turlington hall, when Jenny called from the radio-station where she was working. “You have to turn on the TV,” she said. Both towers had been hit by planes and were on fire. As I watched, trying to understand what was going on, I saw the crawl across the bottom of the screen mention THE PENTAGON IS ON FIRE. There was no more news about the Pentagon fire for 10 minutes.

We’re often not rational beings, and the months after 9/11 involved some of the worst reactionary thinking we’ve seen. Like “Remember the Maine!” war hawk politicians used the rubble in New York to lead us first to Afghanistan (rightly, I’m still inclined to think) and then uranium cakes to lead us to Iraq (wrongly, though obviously the benefit of deposing Saddam muddies the water). When I think about the train wreck that our country’s response has become; in thinking about Iraq, where we’re sweeping up the mess like a clumsy antiquer who missed the “you broke it, you bought it” sign, I remember how my gut churned when THE PENTAGON IS ON FIRE crept across the screen with no commentary from the talking heads. I think some part of that roiling-belly feeling continues to haunt us; we see the threat irrationally, in the same way we worry about airplane crashes much more than car crashes.

People said 9/11 changed things, but of course it didn’t change much. We went back at one anothers’ throats as soon as we could, squabbling over the correct response in Iraq, how long to stay, who’s to blame for Katrina, and most recently, Health Care. Andrew writes:

What is health insurance for if not to treat your body as it is, not as it should be? As a nation, we should make a commitment to care for each other….
Universal health care is not communism.
Universal health care is not fascism.
Universal health care is common decency and real morality.

He wonders how people might suggest that universal health care ought not be policy. He breaks ranks with the shouters, with the people screaming about socialism, about high taxes, with knee-jerk reactions to anything Obama.

We Are All One by kalandrakas
We Are All One by kalandrakas

I find myself longing for the comeraderie of the immediate post 9/11 America, when we were still shell-shocked and we conspired to be good to one another for once. What if the health care debate were predicated on that specific approach? Abe to the L said:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

What might the Health Care debate, or our response to 9/11 look like, if we actively sought to be governed not by the silent crawling message that THE PENTAGON IS ON FIRE, but by the better angels of our nature?

A few bullets in lieu of something thoughtful

TV Cabinet

  • The first week of online classes always feels anti-climactic.  Isn’t summer supposed to be about non-teaching projects?  But then the paychecks start arriving and I log back into Moodle with a smile.
  • Summer nerd project: file server and jukebox built in the shell of the old tv I found in the alley a while ago.  No more caches of mp3s on each puter in the house.  Central storage and rsync, baby!
  • Summer house project: paint and scrape.  After I put the cellar door back on.
  • Summer MPCA project:  Apply for 501c3 status.
  • Summer job project: Apply for tenure.
  • Summer writing project: Finish that prospectus.
  • I’m 5 months through the year and I’ve only read 5 books from the “read before I read anything else” pile on my night stand.  Books left before next December’s gift-a-thon replenishment? 12.  Sigh.


  • The Zero Effect. An excellent detective film starring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller. A man hires a famous detective to find his missing keys.
  • The Doppler effect. The pileup of sound waves that makes a fast moving object’s sound change in pitch when it zooms by. To whit, race cars don’t go Neeeeeeeee when they pass us, they go Neeeeeee-owwwwwww.
  • The Cupertino effect. The name for the process by which spell check replaces a correct spelling (or very common misspelling) with an obscure word, and the person running the spell check doesn’t notice. Cupertino is a city in California that used to replace the word cooperation (as opposed to the accepted co-operation).
  • The Trigger Effect. I haven’t seen this film, but its premise (what if the power went out and didn’t come back on) terrifies me. The film’s title comes from the theory that the more dependent we are on technology, the more vulnerable we are to collapse.
  • The Butterfly Effect. Refers to the idea that a tiny change early on can have huge ramifications later. Also, a kickass Simpsons halloween episode. Also, an Aston Kutcher movie.

Here are some more that should be part of popular parlance:

  • The Teacher Effect. The silence that settles over a classroom when a teacher arrives to begin setting up materials for class. Can often persist for several minutes, regardless of how much time remains before class begins.
  • The Obscure Word Effect. The moment of pause a reader makes when they encounter a word they haven’t seen before or whose meaning eludes them. 95 percent of the time, the pause is followed by a shrug. Occasionally, someone will consult a dictionary.
  • The Elevator Effect. The self-conscious silence assumed by a pair of people in an elevator when a stranger or group of strangers enters the car. The boorish rarely experience this effect.
  • The Urinal Effect. A function by which the likelihood for conversation in the men’s room is proportional to the familiarity of the micturitors.
  • The Bleeding Edge Effect.  The experience of being so fast to try out new services that you’re able to get your preferred username.  For example, my username on both and bookmooch is briley.  Ha ha!

The challenge of a dislikable protagonist

David Rosen\'s book, I JUST WANT MY PANTS BACKI Just Want My Pants Back
by David Rosen

A friend gave me this book because it made her laugh, and I can definitely see why it did. Rosen’s writing feels a lot like that snarky friend you like to meet, who always has a biting remark to make about nearly anything. It’s funny in that way.

But my experience with the book was mostly dislike. It wasn’t until the halfway point that I really warmed to the story. If the book hadn’t been a gift, I wouldn’t have finished it. So here’s my proclamation, drawn from the book, to explain my curious problem with it. It’s kinda like the uncanny valley. In case you don’t know the uncanny valley, here’s the Wikipedia definition:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

I have a similar sliding scale for protagonists in books and movies. The closer the person is to myself, the less I enjoy it when they act differently than I do. Being a relatively sober, directed, proactive person, the protagonist’s drunken debauchery and lack of direction really irked me. His similarity to me in many other regards made that behavior even more annoying. Thus,

The uncanny protagonist is a hypothesis that when characters in novels look and act almost, but not entirely, like their readers, it causes a response of revulsion among those readers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a the character’s similarity to the reader.

I’ve experienced this revulsion more often in films than in books, as I think films often work harder to have you identify strongly with a specific protagonist and thus you take their failings more personally.  In books, I remember just hating Confederacy of Dunces, because its protagonist was so horrible.  In films, I really dislike Meet the Parents, because I could see a lot of similarities between the main character and myself, except that he didn’t have the balls to just tell the truth to questions he was asked.  Watch that movie again, and you’ll see that EVERY problem rises because he’s afraid to tell the truth.

I had a similar feeling at the beginning of Novocaine, the Steve Martin movie.  That film involves a bad choice that he spends the rest of the time trying to correct, however, so it grew back on me.  I Just Want My Pants Back had a similar effect in the second half of the novel, when the main character starts to pull his head out of his ass.

For your edification

I’ve decided to post the podcasts from my Writing and Rhetoric 2 class here, mostly because I can, rather than from the idea that any of you will want to listen to them. They will be in a rapid succession of posts, so apologies in advance for flooding your RSS feeds.

Yet one more reason I love my wife

The Wilhelm Scream

So we’re watching Toy Story and Buzz gets knocked out the window by accident. As he falls, I hear the familiar “eeeiyow!” and turn to Jenny, smiling.

“Do you recognize that?” I ask.

“The… Wilhelm Scream?” she says.

And I smile the smile of a man whose wife knows him well. Him and the esoterica he enjoys.

Leap Day Challenge 2008

leap day challenge 2008

Do it.  Link so I can see too or join the facebook or flickr groups.

Leap Day 2008

Leap day challenge: meme

I hereby initiate a Leap Day challenge:

  1. If you are reading this before leap day, consider yourself tagged. Do your best to spread the Leap Day challenge.
  2. On Leap Day, February 29th, take a photo (or have someone else take a photo) of you leaping in the air.
  3. Post that photo on your blog, making sure to tag your image with the phrase “leap day” or “leapday”

Here’s the kind of photo I have in mind:

The leap!

I don’t care about stupid golfers

The Chicago Tribune crosswords have been nutty for golfer names this week. It’s all “WPGA Julie” or “Golfer Aaronson.” Let this be known and declared throughout the interwebs: I don’t give a rat’s ass about golfer names, and do not want them to be clues in my puzzles any more.

That is all.