Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Review: Astrophysics for People In A Hurry

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

This collection of essays from Neil deGrasse Tyson warmed my heart, but didn’t delight me.  That may say more about me and prejudices – having read Asimov’s math & science essays as a kid – than Tyson’s writing.  He’s writing about interesting stuff.  He’s engaging.  He illustrates difficult concepts with interesting analogies.  He taught me things I didn’t know.  But I still come off more warmed than excited.

If you – or your kids – have any interest in cosmology and astrophysics take a look.  If you want to find out if you have an interest in those things, have a look.

Recommended.

Pro Tip: Only the People can change the Constitution (generally with the help of Congress)

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

When a president or candidate claims to be a protector against or progenitor of changes to the Constitution, do not believe them.

The president’s role in repealing the Second Amendment or preventing its repeal is operationally zero.  The same is true of adding new amendments – e.g., the ERA.

The process is completely contained in Article V.  The tl;dr is: if two thirds of both houses propose an amendment (enough to override a veto, were one even possible, incidentally) and three fourths of the state legislatures or conventions therein approve it, the proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution.  (There’s an alternative way to start the ball rolling, but the 3/4 approval by states always has to happen.)

The chief executive’s only input or output is the ability to shout from the Bully Pulpit. That’s it.

The judicial isn’t involved, either.  It’s just us.

So don’t vote based on that crap.

Review: The Shallows

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

The Shallows is the best kind of polemic: it’s one that gets the facts right and lets the reader get on to disputing the ideas.  And I do dispute the ideas even as I admire the presentation and research that Nicholas Carr has done.

The focus of Carr’s concerns is that today’s information economy is changing the way people approach and process information.  On its face that assertion is true, but Carr’s concern isn’t that people search Google instead of the card catalog; he’s concerned that these tools are changing the layout and function of people’s brains.  This sounds much more dire.  He implies that people are losing their ability to read and interpret long-form arguments and similar hallmarks of the humanist scholar. That has a certain alarmist feel about it, but the facts he marshals in its support are genuine.

His argument that tools change how we think at a biological level hinges on recent research into brain plasticity.  This is the observation that neurological connections rearrange themselves throughout human lifetimes, not just during early brain development. The most dramatic examples of this are people whose brains rearrange themselves after traumatic brain injury to restore or enhance existing brain function.  These are remarkable examples, and worth a look no matter what else you think of Carr’s arguments.  His exposition of these ideas implies that he expects arguments about the efficacy of the phenomenon.  He won’t get them from me.

We do disagree, though. The first point is a bit subtle.  He seems to hold a vaguely dualistic view of the brain and mind.  That is, he seems to believe that the mind is distinct from the brain and uses the brain to think with.  Under this view the various tools are damaging the house his self lives in.

I don’t believe that at all.  I think that the brain the entire manifestation of self and consciousness, modulo the fact that we don’t know how it works and there may be elements of consciousness that reside other places. But it’s all physical.  As a consequence, brain plasticity is unsurprising; every though or memory or impression modifies the organ in some way.  I am surprised by just how widespread the changes can be, but it doesn’t feel to me like modern tools are undermining my thinking equipment.  My interpretation is that the tools and I are adapting to one another.

Philosophical fine points aside, the second point on which we largely disagree is that he believes that the traditional scholarly modes of thought are under siege.  And that this is a loss to society.  Perhaps because I believe that my brain is meeting the tools halfway, this seems non-coercive to me.  I think people who use the information revolution’s tools can change how they use their brains.  I also think that this is neither a one-way street or an binary choice.  I’m comfortable finding a sweet spot here.

All of which is a lot of extra text that underscores the idea that this is a book worth reading, even though I disagree with its conclusions.

Strongly recommended.

Listening List 2017

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

As a companion to my 2017 reading list, here’s the podcasts I listen to and why.

  • NPR’s Up First: This is basically the day’s headlines from Morning Edition.  When I bike to work, it gives me the lay of the news land.
  • Golic and Wingo: The sports equivalent of Up First. This used to be the Mike and Mike feed before ESPN retired that show.  I get a kick out of the younger Golic and the easy jock interactions.
  • His & Hers/SC6: I listen to this solely to get my Jemele Hill and Michael Smith fix.  They have great personal chemistry and they comment so widely on the world within the framework of sports.  Lately they’ve been openly poking their employer’s manipulation of viewers to my great delight.  They were given the wheel of ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter time and they’re driving it like they stole it.  Good fun.
  • Planet Money: I’ve been listening to Planet Money since they began putting them out.  It is consistently a great explanation of economic issues in concrete circumstances, and I recommend it unreservedly.  Even if you don’t generally care about economics, give it a try.
  • This American Life: One of the most respected radio shows/podcasts out there. For me, it earns that respect with every show.  Their investigative reporting is excellent and enlightening.  Beyond recommended; a must.
  • Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me: Peter Sagal and his talent riff on the news with panache every week.  Their guests are from a broad range and interesting.  I like the political ones best.
  • Welcome To Night Vale: A fiction podcast that combines humor, spookiness, and great characters.  Worth it for the throw-aways alone and  the story sneaks up to capture you.  It’s felt a little more aimless recently as the creators are doing more things, but still has many great moments.  Even if you don’t follow it, it’s worth hearing old stories.
  • Awesome Etiquette: I am an etiquette nerd, but I find that the Emily Post folks who produce this (Lizzie and Dan) are much less concerned with the fish fork rules than the relationships that underly the rituals we perform.  It’s a principled approach to etiquette that’s often more an advice column.
  • Dinner Party Download: This was a quirky take on pop culture that spent a lot of time on food, drink, history(!?), and terrible, terrible, terrible jokes.  Rico and Brendan had great chemistry and a great take on the world.  Sadly, this is in the past tense: they’ve moved on to other projects.
  • A Way With Words: A cool show about (English) word usage and origins.
  • Reply All: Reply All is a show about the Internet.  But, really, it’s about many many things that touch the Internet in some way.  The reporting is outstanding and the hosts are charismatic.  This is on a par with This American Life.  A must.
  • ScienceVs: Each episode reviews the scientific studies about some public policy or personal issue.  The host is delightful and the topics are compelling.  Great fun.
  • LA Public Library’s Aloud Series: The Los Angeles Public Library hosts a series of talks from authors, artists, and thinkers (including Q&A) and records them.  The talks cover a fantastic range of topics  from cephalopod intelligence to modern poetry.  I’ve never heard one I didn’t learn something from.
  • The Memory Palace: This is Nate DiMeo’s poetic and indescribable podcast.  There’s some history, some poetry, and some reflection.  Try a few and you’ll see if you like it.  I don’t miss an episode.
  • Here Be Monsters: HBM is another basically indescribable podcast.  It is eerie and enlightening.  Another one where you really have to look for yourself, because it’s beyond my powers.
  • Make Me Smart: This is an extension of Minnesota Public Radio’s excellent Marketplace radio show.  It began pointed at economics and politics – and those still figure prominently – but had branched into its own ongoing conversation.   It is a conversation shared by two world-class journalists (Molly Wood and Kai Ryssdal), so it’s not your run-of-the-mill chat. As all great conversations do, the discussion has developed its own in-jokes and themes (and a book club, that not all great conversations spawn). As with any conversation, it may or may not interest you.  Try enough to get the vibe if you’re interested.
  • Found: Davy Rothbart publishes a zine of objects that people gather from the streets and send him.  The zine is quite a quirky collection of oddments and Rothbart’s live shows have a lo-fi vibe with real entertainment in there.  He uses the podcast to dig deeper into the stories behind the objects and explore longer form performance.  Perhaps my favorite parts are the songs based on the found objects – mostly the texts lists and letters – from the Found Musical.  Yeah, there’s a musical.  It’s a thing.
  • You Must Remember This: Karina Longworth’s exploration of Hollywood’s history is one of the real gems in the podcast world.  She balances diligent research and insightful modern analysis to not only tell a story but help the listener think about its place in the past and future.  I can find her delivery a bit dry, but the content is fantastic. After a few episodes I began hearing more subtle elements of her style.
  • RadioLab: Another blue chip podcast.  I listen to it primarily because it makes me yell at the speakers in ways that make me think.  When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s not, there’s usually something to think about.  And it’s often great.
  • StartUp: This began as a near-real-time history of Alex Blumberg founding Gimlet Media.  That was gripping and exciting, but since then it’s seemed a bit aimless.  I do think that their series on American Apparel’s troubled CEO is top-notch.
  • Below The Ten: Stories from life in South LA.  These are interesting and compelling.  Does not update often.
  • Baseball Tonight: I use this to just keep up with major league baseball.  I let a lot of it wash over me, but that’s possible because of the easy charisma and camaraderie of the hosts and guests.
  • Within The Wires: This is one of the other projects that Night Vale creators are spending time on.  It’s brilliant, funny, creepy, innovative storytelling and I don’t want to spoil it.  A must.
  • Alice Isn’t Dead: Another Night Vale creator’s project.  I find it a more straight-ahead thriller than Within The Wires, but it is very strong.
  • The Hidden History of LA: Short snippets of LA history.  Great if you live in LA.
  • The Pitch: Here’s the pitch: young investors pitch their startup ideas to a set of real investors and these folks report on it.  I thought I’d listen to one or two of these and stop, but it hooked me.  I enjoy assessing the presentation quality and I’ve come to like the repeating investors.
  • The Nod: Gimlet’s stab at exploring Black culture.  I listen to it primarily because I got hooked by host Brittany Luce when she did Sampler.
  • Live From The Poundstone Institute: I picked this up to listen to Paula Poundstone.  Adam Felber was just a bonus. The early few episodes were clunky as the two of them felt their way through the form.  As the show progressed, they developed a chemistry and rhythm that I quite like.  It’s solid and expect it will get stronger; I’ll keep watching.
  • NPR’s Code Switch: NPR’s swing at exploring the crenelations of a multi-ethnic culture.  The show can feel stilted at times, but the reporting and commentary are top notch.  It’s grown on me considerably.  If its niche appeals to you, it is very good.
  • Conversations With People Who Hate Me: The pitch for Conversations is simple: Dylan Marron calls people who screamed hateful things in his YouTube comments section and tries to figure out what ticked them off.  Marron’s execution is unbelievably strong: simultaneously professional, vulnerable, analytic, and compassionate.  And many other adjectives that apply to a bold person experiencing genuine emotion. I can imagine listeners rejecting Marron as the stereotype of an SJW – an observation he might well confirm – but I think he’s much more interesting than any stereotype.  A must.
  • Desert Oracle Radio: I may never know Warren Ellis found this lunatic poet, conspiracy nut, nature conservator, and svengali who broadcasts from the middle of the Mojave, but thank heaven he mentioned it in his newsletter. Listen to one episode and you’ll know if it’s for you.  It’s for me.
  • The Liminal: Another Ellis recommendation.  This is another podcast that I listen to because of the host.  He’s talking about fortean topics with a perspective somewhere between skeptical and accepting.  I’ve heard a lot of the topics and I admire the perspective.
  • Deep State Radio: One more from Ellis. This is a revolving set of foreign policy heavyweights weighing in on the state of the world.  I enjoy the tone and content.  Beyond that, they pay careful attention to gender balance – there are basically always half women foreign policy experts in the conversation. The group’s perspective is strong.
  • The Allusionist: This is another words and language podcast, but with a somewhat wider ambit than A Way With Words. I haven’t been listening to it that long, but I find that she casts an interesting net.
  • Uncivil: Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika report on some of the corners of the Civil War story that you won’t hear from Ken Burns.  It’s well-researched and takes no prisoners with its pro-equality perspective.  The Spin episode will give you a feel for the tone and quality.
  • There Goes The Neighborhood: Collaborative reporting by WNYC and KCRW on gentrification in Brooklyn and Santa Monica.  I learned a bunch, though it’s currently on hiatus.
  • More Perfect: This is the guys from WNYC/RadioLab coming at the US Supreme Court from excellent perspectives.  I probably like it more than RadioLab itself.  Recommended.
  • The Breakfast Club: This is the best of the non-music parts of an NYC-based morning show.  I enjoy hearing the rhythm and perspective of NYC.
  • The Sisterhood: Laurie Penny and her sister talk about feminist issues.  Still finding their feet, but shows promise.  I found their commentary on our robot masters particularly insightful.

Reading List 2017

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

I read 36 books in 2017.  I generally write up a capsule of each as I finish so I don’t have much new to say. Here are the ones I strongly recommended:

And here’s everything I reviewed in 2017.

Enjoy!

Present and Accounted For

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

O Holy Night
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Adeste Fidelis
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Christmas in Hollis
The First Noel
Merry Christmas, Baby.

And The Little Drummer Boy, if and only if you’re Bowie and Crosby.

Fake Radio: a plug

Monday, December 4th, 2017

Fake Radio is putting on It’s A Wonderful Life this Friday night (7 Dec 2017) at the Acme . If you’ve never seen a performance, they’re a loose troup of comedians rooted in improv and voice acting who perform Golden Age radio dramas live. In my experience they bring the right amount of respect for the source material and gleeful snark to their renditions to make the evenings fun while keeping true to the material. They’re good fun. Come out and see them if you get a chance.

Portland folks also get a treat. Or two.

Review: Mexican American Baseball in the San Fernando Valley

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

While there are many things I love about e-books, there are things to learn as well,  I was surprised to find that this was primarily an annotated book of photographs of Mexican american teams and players.  I was hoping for more of a history of the area’s game, a la Fastptich.Once I understood what I had, I was quite pleased with it.  It’s a very well-curated set of images.

The Bomb

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

On the last Sunday of August I was standing next to the grave of Chief Sealth on Bainbridge Island in Washington.  I hadn’t intended to visit the place, but serendipity is like that. A storm had blown through the day before, and a the pines were still whispering about it. Brenda and I were getting ready to head to a pair of friends’ wedding. We were alone at this nexus of history and possibility, commemoration and commencement.  I stood for a while, looking out at the Sound, listening to the wind.  I finally pulled out my phone, dialed a number, and left a message.  “This is Ted Faber. I accept the offer…”

With those words I severed my longstanding employment at ISI.  USC/ISI has employed me for longer than I lived in the town I was born in, and longer than any other job I’ve held.  The decision was a difficult one, but a combination of my earlier decisions and changes to ISI and the research climate in general combined to convince me that is time to do something new.

I’m happy to discuss the details of that decision with people, but the issues were primarily of autonomy and funding.  ISI has always given the most support and autonomy to people who can fund their own research – you eat what you kill.  I have always been more comfortable turning research ideas into prototypes than in evangelizing new areas of work.  That led to me putting myself in a bad position to evangelize when necessary, and support for the roles I chose was on the wane. The specific set of forces that caused that are a bit arcane.

I continue to have great respect for ISI as an institution and especially for the people I was privileged to work with there.  They do top-notch work there from the researchers and students who are blazing new research trails to the project assistants who support that work. I still have many friends there and hope to for years to come.  It saddens me that I cannot continue there, even as I’m excited about my next adventure.

My last day will be 2 October 2015 almost exactly the last day of my 20th year at USC/ISI. The synchronicity of that also appeals to me.

I’ve  chosen to make a fresh start at The Aerospace Corporation. It sits at an interesting space in the national research infrastructure and employs many people I respect and enjoy working with.  The goals and projects of the place are familiar, but the focus different enough that it all looks new.  The place is familiar yet fresh and the work both new and comfortable.  I’m looking forward to setting out on a new journey with my old bones.

If you only have my ISI contact information I’m easy to find on social media, should you want to stay in touch.  Don’t hesitate to friend or follow me.  Come take a journey with me.

Review: Exploding The Phone

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

Phil Lapsley’s Exploding The Phone captures the phone phreaking culture with both solid journalism and with the sort of enthusiasm that brings a story to life. I have long known that phreaking was a foundation for the modern hacking and open source communities, but the scene never came alive for me.  Reading Exploding The Phone was like finding my parents’ high school year book for the first time and realizing that they went through the same things I did.  It was enlightening and warming.

The first few chapters are a little repetitive for my taste.  Lapsley follows several seminal phreakers introduction to the phone system, and those paths are different only in detail.  As a result, the chapters are somewhat repetitive.  I think that Lapsley is trying to give these fellows their due and to introduce the cast for the rest of the chapters, but I would have been happier with one detailed chapter and somehow getting just the differences.

Once the narrative begins to talk about the social scene that phreakers developed around conferencing and connecting to one another inside the phone network, the scene becomes recognizable as a forerunner of modern social networks. That’s the point at which it becomes rich enough to go from academic to exciting for me.

In addition to the social networking of the phreakers, Lapsley brings the stories of the phone company employees and law enforcement officers who collided with them.  These folks shared the phreaker mentality and skill set to different extents, just as such folks do today.  It makes the scene more full and believable.

Overall this is a great view of an legitimately exciting time that is the basis for much modern technology.  Jobs and Wozniak figure prominently, and the path from phreaks to hackers is remarkably clear.

Strongly recommended.