Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Men and attractiveness

The theme of the day seems to be the idea that heterosexual women, despite the label, aren't actually attracted to men.

Samhita at Feministing and Jill at Feministe take on this post from Craigslist. It's nothing new, just another in the long line of misogynist screeds about how women don't care about attractiveness, but just want guys with money and power.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and Kyso Kisaen at PunkAssBlog take on Joel Stein's piece on Halloween saying that "neither gender wants men to try to be sexy." (As PunkAssCommenter junk science points out, "Of course they do. They just don't want them to fail at it.")

I've never thought of myself as particularly attractive on a purely physical level; never have been, probably never will be, though the reaction varies quite a bit depending on whose gaze we're talking about. (On the other hand, in a society that frowns on women being open about who they're attracted to, how the hell am I supposed to know?

I think this is one of the places this idea comes from (besides good old wishful thinking): there seems to be much less of a socially forced standard of attractiveness with respect to men's appearances. Women are able to honestly disagree among themselves about who they find attractive without catching too much shit for it; men are supposed to agree that the hottie du jour is highly attractive, and any debate is merely over ranking.

This idea also a pernicious way of taking agency away from women: if women aren't attracted to men, then their choices with regard to relationships and sex are presumably based on other factors. Since we as a society have decided that attraction is a primary component of love (and vice versa), a relationship not based on attraction is presumptively less valid, and so their decision that they're not interested can be disregarded.

Dragging up old debates: keyboard vs. mouse

Reddit turned up some interesting UI articles from Bruce Tognazzini, UI guru at Apple, from the late 80s/early 90s on the keyboard vs. mouse.

Tog's test was as follows:

The test I did I did several years ago, frankly, I entered into for the express purpose of letting cursor keys win, just to prove they could in some cases be faster than the mouse. Using Microsoft Word on a Macintosh, I typed in a paragraph of text, then replaced every instance of an "e" with a vertical bar (|). The test subject's task was to replace every | with an "e." Just to make it even harder, the test subjects, when using the mouse, were forbidden to just drop the cursor to the right of the | and then use the delete key to get rid of it. Instead, they had to actually drag the mouse pointer across the one-pixel width of the character to select it, then press the "e" key to replace it.

Hell, I could've told you that, given your average user, the mouse would easily win. Here's how I suspect the users handle the tasks:

Typical mouse user: Uses mouse in the right hand to select the "|" symbol. Types an "e" with the left hand to replace it. Moves to next.

Typical keyboard user: uses the arrow keys with the right hand to scroll to the "|" symbol. Types delete/backspace and "e" to replace it. Moves to next.

The mouse was approximately twice as fast. I suspect most of the difference had to do with the very simple fact that the narrow text cursor is much tougher to track than the mouse pointer (and consequently usually has a slower "top speed").

Personally, I would have just used the search/replace function myself, as it's at least an order of magnitude faster, but that apparently wasn't the option. Barring that, I'd probably use the mouse for this one, because it's easier to track down those characters visually than either use the arrow keys or the more sophisticated keyboard shortcuts to move the cursor around. (Selection of an individual character is one of those things that a mouse is far superior to a keyboard in, because of the aforementioned ease in locating the cursor/pointer.)

Tog's claim is larger than that example, though - he posits that the mouse is generally faster because it takes around two seconds. Other writers have pointed out that muscle memory significantly reduces the time involved. In my case, I *don't* bother taking two seconds to figure out a keyboard shortcut - if I don't know it immediately, I go to a menu. But I know a *lot* of shortcuts, and if I find myself repeating a task that could be improved with a shortcut, I'll look for/create one. It's a method that works pretty well for me.

The biggest annoyance with my PDA, and why I'm looking to replace it, is how slow input via a touchscreen (which should ideally be as fast as/faster than a mouse) can be. Entering text is a chore no matter how many ingenious methods (handwriting recognition, Dasher, TenGo, Fitaly, etc.) are designed. On top of that, screen estate is at a premium (thank you, stupid Windows Mobile bars), and making buttons big enough to be easily pressed with a stylus means less room for the rest of the application. Give me a keyboard!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Predatory cellphone scamming

From MSNBC: Price for 'premium' text messages? $10,000.

Watching Degrassi and other teen dramas on "The N", I see ads for these services all the time. They offer music, jokes, games, horoscopes, etc., through text messaging. What's not very apparent from the advertising, however, is the cost. Not only do the messages cost more than your typical text message, but the messages are part of a subscription service that will keep billing you until you manage to unsubscribe. There's a bit of fine print on the screen to that effect - though it's really hard to read it on my TV for the brief period it's up - but that's it.

This is not legitimate business. It's predation, plain and simple, and there are too many businesses out there that could easily put a stop to it but don't, because they get a share of the profits. The cell phone companies could allow account holders to opt out of these premium messages, but they don't, because they get a share of the revenue. The cable companies or networks (I'm not sure who the advertising is being bought from) could refuse to sell ads which are meant to scam kids, but they don't want to lose revenue either.

In the various discussions of this, there's generally an attitude out there that the people who get suckered by this deserve to be bilked, because they're (presumably) not as smart as the commenter. It strikes me as very similar to some of the other "social libertarian" attitudes common to (young, white, male) geekdom - that wealth ideally correlates with intelligence, and that the scammer does the world a favor by parting fools from their money.

Maybe this case will mobilize some consumer activists or legislators to get this under control. Or at the very least, I could see a class action suit arising from this.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Now you're thinking about portals.

I've started playing Portal. It's a ridiculously fun platform puzzler that's really well designed (some jumping is tough for me to execute, but failure doesn't usually set me back very far). And there's all sorts of neat little touches (the cake is a lie!) to lend atmosphere to what's pretty much a series of boxy puzzle rooms .

Shamus Young has some speculations on portal physics, building off of his review of the game. Really, this is like the various conundrums about time travel; when you break the laws of physics in one way, there's no reason to expect the rest of it to accommodate that breach. But it's still fun to think about. (I've been wondering why I didn't slice my character in half when I tried walking into the portal's edge, aside from the fact that doing so would make the game fiendishly difficult, because every just-missed jump would result in the character's death.)

The Outsourced Brain

David Brooks writes about how we externalize information, using a GPS to get around and becoming reliant on it for directions. For Brooks, this is a mixed blessing, if not altogether a bad thing. (And yet, so many people disagree, to the point where Apple can have a commercial about using the iPhone to surreptitiously look up an acquaintance's name on her wedding site.)

Where Brooks goes wrong is where he tries to make the leap from using these devices as prosthetic memory to claiming that he's losing his autonomy by relying on recommendation engines to make personal judgments for him. He cites the fact that using the iTunes recommender has resulting in him listening to a lot of music he's never heard of. Again, this is a bad thing? Pre-iPod, I doubt Brooks' aesthetic judgments were entirely his own. He writes of being "one of those people with developed opinions about the Ramones," but why the Ramones, and not some other punk band? Because the Ramones were getting exposure from the mainstream media. (I suspect that's a secondary motivation for Brooks' rant - he's now part of that mainstream media that's waning in power.) Music recommenders like Launchcast and Pandora have clued me into a lot of music I may otherwise never have found, but the decision about what I like is entirely my own, perhaps even more so than when I was limited to choosing among what was on the radio. If Brooks is losing autonomy, it's not the

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon points out that this isn't really anything new, and dates back to Socrates complaining about how writing is a crutch for memory. Similarly but more recently, I recall arguments about whether calculators should be permitted in math classes, and to what extent students should be asked to memorize information rather than work "open book." (I get the impression that the calculators have won, at least in middle and high schools, and the textbooks aren't far behind.)

There are really two sorts of informational issues going on, I think. One is the use of "supplemental memory," ranging from all of the "GTD" cultists on sites like 43 Folders and Lifehacker to microcassette recorders and Post-it notes to pen and paper. This is mostly what Brooks is talking about - using a GPS instead of learning local landmarks, using a calculator instead of long division.

The other issue is that of managing all the information out there - the stuff we go out and find, as opposed to the stuff we produce. This is where most of the fabricated "library war" takes place, with people talking about using Google and Wikipedia as an "exocortex." Personally, I don't bother much with electronic devices to store "my" information (I store phone numbers on my cell, and books to look for on my PDA, but that's about it), but rely to a great extent on the ability of research methods to make me a "15 minute expert" on whatever I'd like to know about.

There's so much scaremongering on both sides here ("Libraries don't have any relevance!" versus "If you use Wikipedia, you're blindly accepting unauthoritative sources!") that it's easy to overlook that it's really a conflict of strawmen - the stodgy librarian who won't touch a computer versus the naive techie who takes everything on the internet as truth. Really, we should know better.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Degrassi of the Dead

This Degrassi Halloween special is made of awesome.


Finally ascended in Kingdom of Loathing. Going for a teetotaler run next.

Friday, October 26, 2007

And now, the fake news

Apparently FEMA decided to fake a press conference, got called on it, and tried to cover their asses:

We pulled questions from those we had been getting from reporters earlier in the day." Despite the very short notice, "we were expecting the press to come," he said, but they didn't. So the staff played reporters for what on TV looked just like the real thing.


If you hold a press conference and people don't show up, you don't have your confederates pretend to be reporters and give you easy propaganda questions. You make a statement that's totally above-board, 100% from your organization. This isn't a matter of "oh, nobody showed up so we had to throw the party ourselves"; this is a case of deliberate misrepresentation. Sadly, all I expect to happen is that there'll be a brief moment of outrage before everyone with the power to do anything about it ignores the story and returns to business as usual.

Webrunner and Prism

Mozilla has a couple programs out that have been getting attention. I'm not sure whether to call them Web browsers or not - what they are.

Webrunner is a stripped-down HTML displayer that has no menu, no address bar, just the HTML canvas.

Prism seems to be a program that automates the creation of these webapps, creating shortcuts to be run in XULRunner. (I'm not sure if there's any difference between the Prism XULRunner and Webrunner.)

There's been some debate out there as to whether these are useful programs to run web-based applications or not. I've given it a quick try with a few sites (Facebook, Meebo, Gmail and Kingdom of Loathing), and it's pretty nice for the sort of "stand alone" sites that otherwise just sit in a tab. I haven't tried it with Google Docs yet, but that could be the killer app for this thing. And Webrunner works great on Xubuntu, where opening Firefox just to check my email is a pain.

There are a couple drawbacks so far, though - no Adblock and no easy way to send off-site links back to Firefox. But it's a good start.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


After Bad Monkeys, I had high hopes for Clifford Chase's Winkie. The premise - a teddy bear arrested for being a terrorist! - was promising. The execution, though, left something to be desired.

There's really three separate stories here. There's the story of Winkie's life as a stuffed animal passed down among a family. It's an interesting perspective, but the family life itself is pretty humdrum. I'm not sure how much of this part was supposed to be biographical/autobiographical, but if you have to name the characters after yourself and your family to make the narrative have meaning, it's not going to work for other people.

There's the story of Winkie coming to life, living out in the woods, and giving birth to, raising, and losing a daughter. Baby Winkie is an impossibly perfect plush madonna that basically gets treated as an object rather than a "person" by everyone involved in the story - even the author. I get the sense that this part was supposed to be some great allegory, but it's far too vague and abstract to make any sense.

And, of course, there's the story of Winkie's arrest and subsequent trial for terrorism. This was the selling point of the book, and the book's strongest point. The trial is appropriately surreal and Kafkaesque, but as satire it falls short because it's lacking in specifics. If I just want a Kafkaesque story about a trial, I'll read "The Trial." But despite the marketing, Winkie isn't about the trial, so much as the Big Great Philosophical Points the author's trying to make.

The whole thing struck me as the sort of navel-gazing you find in a college creative writing class short story, padded (stuffed?) out to novel length. (Being compared to David Sedaris and having a quote from someone in the Magnetic Fields does little to dispel the illusion of pretentiousness.)

I'm not sure how I'd have reacted to Winkie if it were billed more as a story about modern life viewed through the eyes of a teddy bear, rather than as the political satire it wasn't. I probably wouldn't have bothered picking it up (hence the reason for choosing the marketing angle they did), but if I did I might have enjoyed it a bit more.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Health is not a moral imperative

Echidne of the Snakes writes on the conflation of health and morality, specifically as it relates to the "obesity epidemic".

Good health is a right (at least insofar as nobody else has the right to take it from you), but it is not a marker of virtue. Health is not an excuse to take away someone's rights "for their own good." It shouldn't be a source of disapproval, and it especially shouldn't be cited as such when the real disapproval is aesthetic/social. If you've got a problem with the way someone looks, own up to it (and then STFU) rather than pretending it's genuine concern for their health.

A scandal for school

Melissa McEwan has a great analysis of The So-Called Public School Plague, and how the hysteria-generating approach isn't a productive one.

What I most want to know is that, if 90% of the offenses are committed by men, they use a photo of Mary Kay Letourneau to accompany the article? It serves to reinforce all sorts of cultural narratives about sex and education (but not sex education, never that). What's the agenda behind this?

In the comments, "'Fair and Balanced' Dave" notes that the statistics thrown out there included around a third of the cases which didn't involve "young people." Nobody seems sure what this means? Harrassing other teachers? Consensual sex among teachers on school grounds? Being outed? Being pregnant and unmarried?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sports game design issues

Speaking of game design, I read a lot about designing RPGs and strategy games, but not so much about other genres. There's some book from Adobe Press, but that's pretty much it.

What brought this to mind? Power gauges. You know, that interface where you hold down a button, the gauge fills up, and you release the button, and how full the gauge is influences the power of your throw/hit/jump.

If you think about it, it doesn't make sense. When is the last time you actually threw something considerably harder or softer than you intended? Accuracy is the difficult part. (There are some games where high power makes accuracy more difficult; I think this is the way to go.)

Some other sports game-specific issues:
  • In a game based on real athletes, how much of the result should depend on the athlete's skills and how much should depend on the player's? Sim games (where it's all dependent on the athlete) are fun, but a game where Barry Bonds and Julio Lugo are equally capable hitters is just pointless.
  • What should the range of performance be? Should a great player be able to reliably outperform a sport's records?

Assassin's Creed and game AI

There's a gameplay video of an upcoming game called Assassin's Creed. Apparently it's a big deal. I'm only an incidental gamer these days, and this is a game in a genre I don't play for a system I don't own, so I hadn't been following this, but the video is interesting - thought not in the way the designers intended.

I'm not sure about the setting - it appears to be a city in the Middle East around the time of the Crusades, which I half suspect is intended to cause controversy, as you're killing the European crusaders. The folks who complain about games like Grand Theft Auto are going to have a fit if you're playing an Islamic assassin. But the dialogue was so nonspecific that any interesting aspect of that was lost.

I've also heard that the game involves multiple time periods (whether through time travel or multiple characters a la Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, I don't know)

Though I don't typically play shooters or "sneakers," I've played enough to know that this isn't an impressive demo. The gameplay appears to consist of the following elements:

  • Observe "cut scenes" of the figures talking (since you can move around during these, there's an interesting design decision - how do you ensure the player gets all the relevant information he or she needs?)
  • Prince of Persia-style climbing and jumping around.
  • Instantly lethal thrown weapons that apparently never miss. But instead of using these on the actual target, the player jumps down into a crowd of soldiers to kill the leader.
  • Fighting enemies with tactics out of Hercules or Xena - stand around and wait your turn to fight one on one.
Now a game about assassination *could* be interesting. Ideally, it'd engage the moral arguments, and be much more difficult (though a lot of the difficulty is escaping afterward). But this doesn't look to be it; they've gone for the historical-fiction hitman approach instead.

Bad Monkeys

I've just finished Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys, a mere twelve hours after checking it out from the library. (Hey, it's only a little over 200 pages, and I missed my bus home.)

The novel struck me as a cross between Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight and Robert Rankin's Brightonomicon. Which is probably completely unhelpful unless you've got my exact reading habits. Other folks have compared it to Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon, if that helps. (There are explicit parallels to Philip K. Dick that I missed upon reading, but discovered through others' reviews. I'll leave them for you to discover on your own.) It also reminded me of some of the more surreallistically paranoid interactive fiction I've played (specifically, "Little Blue Men").

I'm not sure what to make of the ending - I'm going to keep this spoiler-free. I thought things weren't wrapped up as tightly as they could have been - Ruff took the Philip K. Dick/Alfred Bester tack of having the world unravel, rather than the more Serlingesque (Shyamalanesque?) approach of shining the harsh light of objectivity over the proceedings, a revelation that typically requires you to go back in order to catch all the clues you missed first time around.

This goes onto my list of books that I'd recommend to everyone on the basis of their criminal underexposure, joining Adam Cadre's Ready, Okay!, The Basic Eight, and Ruff's own Set This House In Order.

Next up: Clifford Chase's Winkie.

Friday, October 19, 2007

It's kinda like giving the hitting title to the guy with the most plate appearances.

Marcella Chester at abyss2hope weighs in on the study about feminism and satisfaction in sexual relationships:

So often when people refer to "being good at sex" they really mean "being good at getting the sexual contact they want" and who is better at this than a sexual predator who doesn't let the law or someone else's boundaries get in the way. It should be no surprise however that predators get negative or lackluster responses when they aren't actively manipulating someone. Nowhere on their success metric is the opinion of the person they targetted.

There's certainly immense pressure on men to "be good at getting the sexual contact they want" (not to mention the pressure to want particular forms of sexual contact). And there's certainly the assumption out there that the skills involved in finding a partner (extroversion, attractiveness, etc.) are the skills involved in pleasing a partner, which never made much sense to me.

How do we overcome this idea without sounding like we're whining at being the sexual have-nots (which, okay, I am doing to some degree)?

Oral Sex

This transcript of an Oral Roberts sermon wins the award for most brain-breakingly disturbing thing I've read all week. (And this was in a week with the MRA War.)

Xubuntu 7.10 released

In other Linux news, Xubuntu 7.10 is out. As are Ubuntu 7.10, and presumably Kubuntu, Edubuntu, etc., but I prefer Xubuntu because it's light, clean, and can run on my eight-year-old laptop.

I haven't been able to upgrade my laptop to the new version, though; update-manager keeps giving me error messages. I don't know if there's a bug in the updater or if the servers are just getting hit too hard right now. (I'd use the LiveCD, but the CD-ROM drive doesn't like burned CDs very much.)

A moment of avarice

I know I should be saving everything I can for library school, but this laptop is oh so appealing.

Then there's the Nokia N810, which is more expensive, has a smaller screen (same resolution, though) and has a more unwieldy keyboard, but fits in a pocket. It's like my Axim, only with Linux and a keyboard.

A Modest Proposal: The Thorny Issue of Sexual Consent

PortlyDyke over at Shakesville responds to the same discussion about sex and consent (part of the MRA war comments) I did, in A Modest Proposal: The Thorny Issue of Sexual Consent

Her advice is of a more practical bent than my "big question," but I think both the practical and the abstract moral dimension are vital to discussion of this topic. I still think the question of whether your partner actually wants to have sex with you should always be primary, but the practical advice is necessary so we can best navigate uncertainties and imperfect information.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The big question

Leaping into the ongoing MRA flamewar did manage to get my position on consent distilled into a single pithy question:

Do you believe your partner wants to be having sex with you?

If the answer to that's not "yes," something's wrong.

Unfortunately, it seems for a lot of people the answer isn't "yes," but "I don't care."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Gene blocking birth control

According to BBC News, a form of birth control involving RNA "gene blocking" is on the way.

My reactions:

* Where are all the forms of birth control men have been promised? RISUG, the male pill, etc.

* Would this be reversible? If not, it might not be seen as worth developing.

More at PunkAssBlog.

The Battle of Shakesville, Day 6

Jeff Fecke's post about men's rights activists is up to 1400 comments and still going crazy.

It's led to an interesting back-and-forth between Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and Ampersand at Alas, a Blog:

Amanda: Casting unfair guilt by association on meals ready to eat and magnetic resonance imaging

Amp: Men's Legitimate Complaints

Amanda: But really, what about the menz?

CDC doesn't have to pay MLB for stats

A fantasy baseball company wins a case against Major League Baseball for the right to use statistics without paying for a license. Reports at Baseball Primer and Baseball Musings, with the actual opinion here [PDF]. Personally, I'm a little disappointed they didn't reach the copyright question - ever since I read NBA v. Motorola in law school I've wondered how sports leagues got away with licensing their statistics.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


There's an interesting article at Destructoid about The Endgame Syndrome, or why we abandon games without completing them. (Actually, I tend to abandon most games in the midgame.)

Ann Coulter's site hacked

"I've been participating in a charade for nearly eleven years, now. Quite frankly, I'm sick of it. You have all been a part of a sick joke that I began considering shortly after first getting on the air. At first, it was quite interesting to see how people would react when I would use twisted logic and poorly masked bigotry." The site's down, but there's a discussion at reddit.

Feminism is good for you

Lots of folks in the feminist blogosphere (Pandagon, Feministing, Shakesville, and Hoyden About Town) post about a new study that finds that "having a feminist partner was linked to healthier heterosexual relationships for women," and that "[m]en with feminist partners also reported both more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction." The main reaction: "duh." (Feminism: it's not just the right thing to do, it gets you laid.)

Lifehacker: Ubuntu 7.10RC1

Lifehacker has a screenshot tour of Ubuntu 7.10RC1. Looks nice, except that the computer that could take the most advantage of it is my desktop, which runs XP full-time for gaming and TV recording.

To walk or not to walk

Josh Kalk at The Hardball Times looks at intentional walks this post-season. Of course, walking Ortiz falls into the "sometimes you push the right button and get a bad result" category. Bah.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Vending Machine Murders

qntm reminds you not to rock the vending machine.

On rape and power

Jill at Feministe writes On Rape and Power, focusing on a serial rapist whom two separate juries exonerated (but two others convicted), and how our broken views about sex and sexual assault help this happen. (It also occurs to me that some rape apologist somewhere is going to count those two acquittals as "false accusations.")

IFComp 2007!

I'm about two weeks late with this one, but the 2007 Interactive Fiction Competition is underway.

Obesity as bad as climate risk?

Shapely Prose: Quick Outrage: "Obesity 'as bad as climate risk'". I suppose it's just a coincidence that the announcement comes immediately after Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize.