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A Small Rumination on Virtual Reality

Earlier, I tweeted this at an old acquaintance of mine from Second Life, qDot:

@qDot VR in a nutshell: all this extra bandwidth by adding a dimension, and we still haven't figured out how to make it useful beyond porn.

@qDot The translation of the literal to the spacial is still a work in progress. That design problem is still surprisingly underexplored.

Let's unpack what's going on here. qDot and I are both big VR enthusiasts, for entirely different reasons. He's a hardware sort of guy, whereas I spend almost all of my time in software. What I'm saying here is that the spatial design that makes virtual reality actually work is missing from many designs, and that this design space seems, largely, underexplored.

This seems strange to me. The human mind is very good at spatial perception and spatial memory. So much so, that a common strategy of memorizing long strings of digits is to construct a memory palace that spatially organizes specific sets of digits into mnemonic objects or concepts.

It seems equally strange, then, that our common devices continue to use such a flat design. Even as I sit here typing this, I'm using a display model that's nothing more than an extension of the Xerox PARC GUI. Screen rendering is flat and fixed-axis, with the horizontal and vertical corresponding to the boundaries of my monitor. The third axis, depth, is entirely flat, constrained to compositing windows on top of one another in priority order. Depth of field is removed almost entirely.

It's a nice, clean, accessible design that misses out on much of what the brain has to offer in terms of processing power. So, what I really said to qDot above was:

"I think we (as a species) can do this VR thing much better, if we focus on the right spatial design problems."

How, then, does one make existing technologies make sense spatially? The games industry certainly solved it for themselves: look at the jump, for example, between
Super Metroid and Metroid Prime.

This is less of a doing and more of an undoing, however. In those older 2D platformers, we were trained to the 2D abstraction. All the newer 3D games needed was to undo the flatland perspective, while retaining (and in many cases, forward-porting) all of the concepts, art, and lessons learned along the way.

I believe that this is so with the state of computing UI, as well. All we need to do is undo the flatland abstraction, while porting what we've learned along the way. I openly have no idea what form that will take, but I believe, from simple analogy and many, many experiments, that it's entirely practical.

It shouldn't surprise anyone, then, that I'm extremely excited about Google Glass, and to a lesser extent, the Oculus Rift. The primary source of my excitement is in how they change the UI model: from a flatland perspective into an overlay of reality.

This imparts in me a sort of visceral zen that I experienced, to a lesser degree, in Second Life. Even with its clumsy interface, terrible lag, and laundry list of other problems, Second Life provided for me one of the most compelling environments that I could tinker within. The sole reason: it offered me a 3D world that I could constantly alter, allowing me to bring my full mental resources to bear.

I haven't experienced quite this same feeling since then, beyond rare real life operations, working in a CAD tool like Blender, or playing the occasional 3D videogame. I miss it. But, I feel the return of this model is rapidly approaching, and it fills me with joy that others might get to finally experience this.

It seems trite of me, but I believe this small change in UI may profoundly impact how we see the world and see ourselves. That is, provided developers spend the time learning how to express their user interfaces, designs, and concepts in spatially-oriented, idiomatic ways.

Which is why I'm a software sort of dragon. I like abstraction. I enjoy playing around in the virtual ether and sharing my creations. And I just think (nay, hope) that this will let me express myself in ways that I feel are more like me.

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On Energy Vampirism

For the past several months, the concept of laziness has been heavily on my mind. I mean this both within and without, because, for the same set of months, my energy levels have been very erratic.

Previously, I would have just enough time to get my tasks done for work in a given day. I would then switch over to housework (with no commute; I work from home). When it came time to take a break for the evening, I would find myself completely exhausted, unable to participate in the wholesome activities that give my life so much meaning.

Yet, despite all of my energies and efforts towards work and the home on a daily basis, not much seemed to actually be getting done. Work was going well (and I've been treated especially well by my peers, I note). Yet, I found myself increasingly embarrassed by my quality of output. It was certainly acceptable, but my past abilities and attentiveness to detail were clearly starting to slip.

Working on the house seemed literally insurmountable: I would perform quasi-heroic, full-kitchen and full-room cleans on a weekly (sometimes, daily) basis. Yet, the mess piled up again within hours of my efforts. I had not experienced this when living alone, so I surmised that there must be some disparity of labor involved. Yet, try as I might to catalog and communicate this, my energies were too scattered to make much headway, let alone reverse the trend of slipping chores and an unsanitary lifestyle.

It was all quite disheartening. And, for a while, I quietly slipped back into depression. During my more energetic periods, I built personal spaces for myself to recover energy: small, wholesome outposts of activity that I could use to make myself feel good about myself again. And this worked for awhile... until those spaces started to become disrespected or overtaken. I then began hiding in my room, only coming out for personal needs. My housework plummeted, though my work efforts (via my personal laptop) redoubled. I was still exhausted and rapidly burning out, though.

It should be glaringly apparent at this point that this wasn't healthy. And, any time I was away from the house, for business or personal reasons, my energy levels would return to their original, high levels. It thus became abundantly clear that there was an energy leak, and that something needed to be done to make amends.

I fault no one in particular. However, I do fault a very specific form of predatory laziness that all of us experience from time to time. This can have a multitude of causes, but its primary symptom is unmistakable: the taking of someone else's energies and time to maintain one's own comfortable quality of living.

This is usually abstracted away in our lives. Every good and every service inherently has a cost associated with it, and try as we might to reduce disparity, many are unfairly exploited as a result. I am personally for (and will continue to be for) the reduction of human abuses in the professional textile industry, for example. But, this specific drain is at a more personal level.

At this level, three abuses were in play:

1) A seemingly reasonable request that is targeted, primarily, at deferring the cost of an action to another.

2) The repeated assertion that one's efforts are inadequate, so as to keep them hungry and wanting after performing any given task.

3) The assertion that these observations generalize, such that in any other, reasonable scenario, the same observations will also be present.

This is a crippling combination. It is to say that, globally, one is inadequate, such that only through one's infinite effort (as no finite effort will ever be sufficient), that person will be able to progress into a state of adequacy.

This is the sort of logical fallacy that developed within me. I am not the person whom directly made these three assertions. I do not believe these assertions were ever explicitly given to me. But, through the combined statements, actions, and negative space of others as they impacted me, it seemed as if these premises were given by implication. I felt understandably upset and abused. And I wanted to find any way that I could, out.

Psychologically, it's useful to note how such a pattern gains purchase within the brain in the first place. The human mind has very strong recency and primacy biases, and it tries to limit cognitive dissonance whenever possible, usually through dreams and storytelling. Given the information presented to me, the persistent theme became my own inadequacy, through repetition, recency, and because it was the simplest and most compelling story that explained my then-position within the household. My own performance, abilities, desires to recover, and desires to improve all plummeted. I sought escape, primarily in video games, which allowed me to properly distance myself without becoming clinically dissociative. And, through plodding, directed effort, I began to unpack my circumstances and learn how to adapt them to my needs.

One takeaway here is that no one should have to experience this, yet many of us do. At the same time, this pattern isn't one of depression. It is all too common the result of circumstance, which, often unbeknownst to the instigators, causes these patterns of thought to arise. And it is much too common in the employment treadmill, and in how many artists are treated.

Before I continue, I note that I am not wholly blameless. Nor am I the victim of circumstance. It simply took me this long to unpackage and identify my needs accordingly.

What corrected it in my specific instance is a rebalancing of households and household needs. By splitting our joint efforts in two, tasks can now be adequately assessed, communication on how time is spent can open up once again, and calcified processes that had decayed into inefficiency can finally be approached and reorganized. While I once again directly fault no one, I have no qualms about stating that negatively-reinforcing feedback loops bring out the worst in people, and that I am no exception.

In other words: we had a reorg.

The net result is that we're seeing immediate improvements in all of our energy levels. My own battered emotional state, in particular, is recovering rapidly. My productivity and abilities are finally pulling out of their nosedive in quality. And, most importantly of all, I'm starting to feel cheerful and good about myself again.

It isn't perfection. In fact, my goal in writing this out is simply to define it for what it is. All too often, cognitive abuse, be it from others or from oneself, is too quickly labeled and dismissed as an aspect of depression, when other biases and stimuli are in play.

So, where do I go from here? I have a lot of energy again, primarily from ending old patterns, and I intend to devote it to those people and aspects of my life that are wholesome for me. This means that I will not have time for everyone, and in some specific and rare instances, I'll be making cuts.

This does not mean I do not love you. It means that I will be focusing on those aspects that make me feel holistically good again, and I will be directing my efforts accordingly. A cut is simply an acknowledgement that I haven't made that work, yet.

I hope that isn't too alarming. I'd very much like to open myself up again, and in the interests of doing so, this post is public. But this time, I will be more wary of specific predators and predatory behavior patterns, and I'll be tuning myself accordingly.

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Character Respec through Learning

In hindsight, when I rolled my character for this lifetime, I made some pretty good decisions. Among them, starting out with high CON and DEX scores, plus several points invested into INT, did me a lot of good. The downside is, I also took a lot of character-specific disadvantages to compensate, in the hopes that the innate creativity and versatility welded into my character sheet would get me out of the more difficult binds.

Common and semi-irrelevant disadvantages aside (really, who didn't take Fear of Spiders at the first available opportunity?), I'm realizing that Social Aversion and Lack of Empathy have seriously been harming me. These were required to attain high competency in the Video Games and Game Design skill branches, but what I didn't anticipate was the additional penalty to all rolls when determining the intentions of others. Indeed, I completely missed these rolls' full ramifications.

See, I'm not especially bad at what I do. Quite the contrary: given how I've invested my skill points, I run the gamut of competent to relatively (or in rare cases, extremely) good. But, because I cannot determine the intentions of others in conversation, I'm currently the perpetual butt monkey. I read emotions and meaning just fine, but intention, not so well. Unsurprisingly, I'm also flagged as an extremely bad listener, and not for lack of trying to learn, perpetually, over the course of my entire lifetime.

As a result, I ask stupid questions. A lot of stupid questions. An insane number of stupid questions. And the net impact on my friends, my family, and my coworkers is people either don't understand me or build very low respect in my abilities over time, because this communication carries tremendous up-front costs. It also erodes my confidence and weathers the quality of how my work is presented, eventually giving me an (undeserved?) aura of well-meaning incompetence.

It nearly goes without saying that I can't interview competently, either, and that's harmed me at varying intervals for my entire career. Socially, I'm pegged somewhere between jovial-but-incoherent and an intellectual social pariah. Internally, I have anywhere from middling to extremely low self-esteem as a result, and it's only through investing heavily in will saves that I don't fall into a yawning pit of depression from whence I will never emerge.


This situation, to put it bluntly, sucks. I'd like to fix it, because hovering a scant two or three rolls above crippling depression and self-harm isn't a very nice place to be in for even a moment, much less a lifetime.

Other than reading books on the subject and trying to digest several lifetimes worth of qualia and communicated experiences (which I intend to do as soon as feasibly possible), I don't know quite what else I can do to work around or fix this. I do know that it will steadily improve with skill investment (neural enmeshment of ideas in the brain, eventually converging on the desired skills, is Really Cool in general), but I'm terrified that I'll make those wrong rolls before the situation improves, obliterating my progress and leading me down a road from whence I shall not recover. Despite what people seem to think about me, I do care about them, very much in fact, and it would be a crying shame if I were forever lost to them due to the 1 side of a D20.

Compounding my problem is the fact that I'm in a situation where demands on my time are so astronomically high that I cannot easily seek the best help that I desire. I'm lucky if I get a few hours to myself anymore, much less a single day, and that time is spent recovering my energies, reconstructing my internal mental context, and avoiding people. I'm topically aware of the issues underlying my current class of disorder, and I would like to seek someone analytical and professional enough to not dismiss me out of hand or force me to withhold information for fear of bias. After all, being unable to talk about my own beliefs and draconity is actually a big confound, because it's part of the complete story. Transparency of information free of manipulation is also very important to me as a scientist, and I would implicitly distrust any information borne of even the slightest observed social manipulation on my part.

So, I guess I'm otherwise out of ideas. Do you all have any? The low cost solution, in the form of reading and self-practice, is available and something I already intend to pursue. The higher cost solutions, involving professional help that I'm not wholly convinced will help, without high searching costs or straddling the uneasy lines of cognitive biases, isn't nearly as accessible to me at this time. I'm curious if there's some middle ground, some way to get this out of my system and get myself onto the road of recovery, without watching my dreams, ambitions, and pretty much everything I care about continually shattered over critically failing on stubbing my own toes.

I'm not one to complain often about fairness. After all, every outcome has some element or set of elements that, in their composition, led to a perceived lack of fairness in one view or other, despite being part of a more complex and nuanced whole. But, this feels incongruent and so completely wrong relative to the amount of effort that I've put into it. I'm trying, sincerely and honestly trying to better myself, and to put myself in a position where I no longer feel as if my existence and well-being are perpetually endangered by lingering threats and that there's no Plan B. I'm a planner. I'm a security professional. I'm an engineer. I'm a dragon. And dammit, I'm going to build some semblance of security and some small flickering of firelight for those that I care about. That is, quite simply, the person that I am right now.

I just wish that I felt I could anymore. In weathering it all, my abilities to adapt circumstances to help people and change things for the better are what I value the most. I build because, in doing so, I feel that I might be able to keep the darkness out for just one more night. That together, it'll let us see just one more dawn. And that through patience, vigilance, and ingenuity, we might be able to span that out into infinity.

I live for that dawn. I know that, in spite of my best efforts, it won't always be me. But I take comfort that it'll be someone, so much so that it's the message that I've chosen to weave as my purpose in this life.

And, I don't want that spark to go out. So, I ask questions. Incessantly. Because it's what I know works. It's one strategy that's allowed me to see more than one new dawn. But, now I need another one that I'm uniquely incompetent at, and I suppose I'm terrified of the ramifications of failure. Help?

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For your review, a small pen-and-paper game that congealed in the back of my mind during the various holiday festivities:

Consider an arbitrarily large, square board of Connect Four. At the start of play, players are randomly assigned, or may choose to self-assign, a color ("black" or "white") and a direction ("across" or "down"). Starting with white, players alternate placing weighted pieces into the field of play (hereafter, "well"), Connect Four style. During play or once the well is full, its pattern is recorded on a sheet of plain fax paper.

Play then proceeds to the paper representation of the board. Starting with the player that was assigned "across", players alternate filling in the board using words of a single language (with right-left mirroring for nations that require it). The only constraints are:

  • The chosen word must fill the available space in the assigned direction, starting with an edge of the board or a black space and ending with an edge of the board or a black space. Words of length one are allowed. "Words of length zero" are not.

  • When a white square in that region is already filled with a letter, that letter must be used at that location in the chosen word.

  • On a player's assigned turn, instead of filling in a word, that player may instead choose to pass. If they do, they name a set of contiguous white spaces in their direction that isn't already occupied by a word or otherwise filled by play. Each unfilled character in this region receives an asterisk (*) character, which scores no points at the conclusion of play, but works as a wildcard for any letter.

At the end of game, each word is scored using the Scrabble points for each letter. Contiguous regions that do not contain valid words in the official Scrabble dictionary are not considered. Wildcards always score zero points, and words are always scored once, regardless of the number of valid words a contiguous region may create. The player with the most points in their direction wins. If a tie occurs, the game results in a draw.

Because the board is so easy to simulate, all that's required for play is a sheet of fax paper, a pencil, a fair coin (to choose color and direction randomly), and a scoring guide.

Does such a game already exist? For example, this is similar, but not quite an exact match. I'm curious to try playing this and see any variations that arise.

Bonus errata:
  • This is not currently salable by me: it conflicts with many of the patents for Connect Four, Scrabble, and similar properties. It's a fun little thing, though.
  • This game actually scales nicely to multiple players, if you place each of them in one of two opposing teams. Play then proceeds, alternating through the participants of each team.
  • For an individual multiplayer variant, just add a dimension for each player. So, for three players, the game would be played in a cube, for four a hypercube, and so forth. Unfortunately, only professional mathematicians and computer nerds would be likely to play this variation.
  • Play is significantly more challenging if, instead of a square, different shapes are considered vis variants of chess. I leave you to consider the possibilities.

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On Social Networks

Lately, the loud nature of social networks has made me pine for forums again. It's not that social networks are necessarily problematic. But, when compared to the better organizational hygiene of other media, they're sort of this loud, obnoxious younger cousin more prone to kicking his metaphorical feet in the air and throwing a temper tantrum than having a nice, quiet conversation at the dinner table.

I believe this behavior is a side effect of the lower impedance to posting on networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. These networks try their best to stand out of the way of the content, and while that's greatly appreciated, it comes at the expense of organization and durability.

Before I continue, a definition. In the context of this post, a social network is defined as any multi-user conversation engine where the primary organizational model is people. You follow someone, you don't follow someone, and other than reshares from your extended network and a few other knobs (ie, the "volume" slider in Google+), that defines what you see in your stream. By this definition, both LJ and DW are social networks.

This model works surprisingly well. Because specific people are more prone to certain subjects, ideas, tact, and insightfulness than others, being able to eke out a social circle instead of injecting yourself into an existing one is greatly beneficial. Instead of having to appease the prima donnas, trolls, and obnoxiously popular people that often overrun existing fora, you can instead choose to follow or not follow whomever you'd like, to your preferences. Conversation continues, but with the advantage of including only whom you'd like to, reducing noise and faction-driven-politics significantly.

The trouble is, the model still isn't quite right. When this jump was made to people instead of hierarchical organization by community or topic, a lot of useful metadata, contextual information, and definition was lost. There's now this implicit assumption that people read every post, that topic or title definition is unnecessary, and that fewer posts are skimmed or presented overall. To this end, networks like Twitter only reliably provide maybe a day or two worth of scrollback, Google+ organizes its content in a manner that ages posts off extremely quickly, and all three of the above-named primary social networks (Twitter, Facebook, and Google+) expect people to slog through the document summary or full text every time to figure out what the heck is being discussed.

This leads to a lack of idiomaticity -- messages are snapped off so quickly that the mind isn't given a convenient package for recall as in an idiom -- and this causes it to be more expensive for each reader than earlier models. Without expending a large amount of resources generating (and then reconciling) a summary for oneself and others, the information is simply and frustratingly lost, leaving one with a sense of not having done anything productive, despite the time invested having potentially been both useful and insightful for the reader.

But, perhaps most egregiously, context is explicitly discouraged. Because of the low-impedance model for posting and high costs of searching for topics of interest, any attempts to share more than a short summary of a topic or a single link seems unnecessary and wasteful. Because of this rapid-fire expectation, ideas are less enmeshed, content is less durable, and high levels of duplication make discussion feel fractured and disjoint when it should feel smooth, natural, and interconnected.

There are a few good ways to fix this situation. They are:

  1. Where applicable, bring back and encourage idiomatic topic or subject lines.

    Not only will it make posts easier to read, it'll provide a useful data pointer for people trying to discuss or find posts outside of the system (ie, when searching in Google). "Did you read X's latest post" or "did you read that post on Y" is insufficient, because these descriptions aren't uniquely identifiable in time. Likewise, "did you see post 5ab3rf9xbky on Google+" doesn't exactly work.

    As a bonus, put these topics in the URL, like WordPress does it, so people know what they're looking at before the jump through the link. I cannot voice my frustration enough at Twitter's use of t.co, or of link shorteners that fail to let people use a description as a link.

  2. Encourage inclusion of context, by adding a sidebar to similar discussions and related topics.

    StackOverflow does this by providing collated links and potentially related articles to the right of every question, and it significantly improves conversation durability and reduces repetition. It also makes posters feel better about the uniqueness of what they're about to send to all of their peers, because the search for similar topics or entries to reshare has already been done for them.

  3. Promote terseness in reading.

    Don't make me read my entire stream to pick out that one dinner date a friend of mine is running on Friday. Instead, let me collapse everything by subject line or by the type of post and go from there.

    Google+ has the closest to what I want here, with its included calendaring feature. Honing this down to sorting or flagging topics of interest, similar to Google Reader's "Sort by Magic" and Gmail's importance flagging, is where I'd like things to go, here.

I know all of this sounds snobbish, but with the increased expectation that people pay attention to social media, a better organizational model would do well to make these systems less lossy and more durable for all involved. These suggestions are by no means the complete picture of how social networks should look one, five, or ten years out, but they're features that would significantly improve the current experience.

Administrative note: I had this post in the queue for about a day before a discussion on Twitter and a new feature to Google+ forced me to rethink things a bit. These were fortuitous -- both jived well with my thoughts on this topic -- but this may reflect some slightly outdated information.

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The Internet Cat Test

While writing on another topic, I came up with an idea that I feel deserves a post of its own. I call it: the Internet Cat Test.

The formula is, for any given collection of elements:
[Information Content] = 1 - ( [Elements with Cat Photos] / [Size of Collection] )

Yielding: decimal percentages between 0 and 1, where 0 indicates minimal information, 1 indicates maximum information.

While this measure is just applied silliness, what it offers is a heuristic for how information rich a feed is, as an inverse proportion of information to cats. If the majority of content is images that create small, endorphin-rich feedback loops in the brain (ie, pictures of cats), that's far less exciting, mentally stimulating, and rewarding for long-term growth than content that's about just about anything else. Including Advice Animals.

Of course, we can teach computers to identify cats with at least 74.8% accuracy, so relying on meta information to identify cat images isn't strictly necessary. This is nothing more than a simplification of concepts like entropy theory and information density as they apply to the human brain, distilled into a small test you can try at home. Plenty of extension can be made, as we attain a better grasp of how information is encoded within the realms of human psychology and neuroscience.

I'm surely not the first person to observe this, but I figured I'd write it up for humor's sake, because I couldn't find it anywhere else. Happy catting!

Extra Credit: get this accepted as a topic in a major scientific journal.

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Signal boost: Financial Aid Needed

[Trigger Warning: rape.]

A friend of mine is in sincere financial trouble after a client attempted to rape her, temporarily preventing her from being able to work to pay her first month's rent on a new home. She's opening emergency commissions and donations to help cover the gap. Do you think you can help?

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Of Switchboards and Syndication

As an infovore, one of my biggest difficulties is prioritizing the information that I need for daily decision making. I receive and digest about 150 new articles a day from 154 separate news feeds (after several pruning passes). When I balance that against the social overhead of IRC, Email, Twitter, Google Plus, LiveJournal, and Dreamwidth, plus my reading and study buffers, that's a massive undertaking.

It probably comes as no surprise, then, that I simply don't read it all. Instead, I employ several heuristics to help me prioritize, in the form of rules that make reading less choreful and more pleasant to read and respond to.

From a high level, the system is very simple. I deploy two components: one to notify immediately when someone contacts me over any medium (pushing all notifications to my iPhone), and a second that packages up only the important parts and sends them to me each morning. It works quite well, and it deliberately skips the memetic trivia of he-said-she-said-cat-video that bogs down so much of social media.

The best part of the second category is running my own personal newspaper. I make liberal use of Calibre Periodicals and Yahoo Pipes to automatically send things to my Kindle every morning at 8AM, and then carry that around with me and to read over the rest of the day. It's gloriously simple, and it pars things down to just my interests, which I supplement with The News (I use the Seattle Times) in a separate periodical.

For the nosy, here's a selection of what I download daily, ordered by section number:

  • Sythyry's Journal
    Really, can you argue with the musings of a little blue lizard wizard? I certainly can't, and I'm sure xir translator, bard_bloom, would agree. Oh, but this will be switching protagonists soon.

  • LiveJournal Friends Feed
    Public posts from my friends on LJ. Note this version doesn't actually include my account name, but it's obvious if you're reading here!

  • Coding Horror
    Jeff Atwood is simply inspiring and wonderful. If you're even vaguely interested in how computer programming works, read him.

  • Everything2 Cool Archive
    A wonderful little feed from a proto-Wikipedia. E2 continues to provide random inspiration, because its noders are literate, insightful, and surprisingly comprehensive.

  • Fark
    For when I just need to laugh at the world.

  • Slashdot.org
    Bad summaries for tech news start here. Slashdot remains useful for figuring out what the rumor mill is talking about, though http://news.ycombinator.com/ is better if you like the nuts and bolts instead. I keep both.

  • The Consumerist
    Retail and service provider PSAs, with the occasional (and blessedly skippable) cat thread.

  • GrokLaw
    Once dedicated almost exclusively to SCO v. Novell, GrokLaw is still one of the best sources for interesting tech legal news. (Good luck, Samsung. Sincerely.)

  • The Volokh Conspiracy
    And for all other interesting legal happenings in the US, I read here.

  • Daily MTG
    Article feed for the latest happenings with Magic: The Gathering. This is basically a puzzle feed for me, because the metagame is just so combinatorially interesting.

  • Nintendo Life
    I'm also a Nintendo fanboy. My first game console was an NES, so I suppose my experience has been tinted slightly.

  • Futility Closet
    A daily selection of historical curiosities and word or chess puzzles. It's much higher quality than newsprint publications of the same, too.

  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
    It's something like XKCD meets Calvin and Hobbes in a mad toboggan race against killer snowmen. I read XKCD, too, because I'm exposed to it everywhere else.

  • The Old New Thing
    Microsoft's own Raymond Chen ranting about Windows. This is always a special treat, because it illustrates why and how Windows is so Byzantinian. It's just plain interesting.

(Notable bits that are missing: Reddit (I use an official client instead), private entries for LiveJournal (ditto), and Dreamwidth reading (I use the web interface occasionally).

It all ends up nicely syndicated into a Kindle newspaper that I can download from my bedside and start reading in the morning. And I enjoy that; it gives me a start to what's going on in the world, without making me feel overwhelmed.

What do you read daily, and how do you make it work for you? I'm curious.

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Are Soon Parted

Tonight, I lost $2.35 on the streets of San Francisco to what was likely a professional busker.* Surprisingly, I do not regret the transaction at all; as below, it gave me the opportunity to analyze my own social vulnerabilities while paying a professional for his experience.

While returning from a late meal at 11:25PM, a lanky fellow in his late twenties or early thirties approached me wearing a heavy backpack, clean denim jeans, and a dark T-shirt. He initially asked me for bus fare, claiming that he was a lost college student, and repeatedly stating that it wasn't for drug money as he "wasn't a druggie." Despite his plea, I declined his initial request on impulse.

At this point, he thanked me for my time and left in the direction of the route 36 bus that had just appeared on Third and Market, which had just stopped on its northeasternly journey. It was empty, sans the bus driver, and he started to politely tap on the door to hail the driver without sparing a single look back towards me. It was at this point that I decided his story had a chance of being genuine; after all, he had taken many of the right steps to confirm his story and had maintained consistency after being greylisted. At this point, I figured that the cost of a potential miss at philanthropy on my psychological state was higher than the cost of his bus fare, and if I were wrong, it would still make for an excellent story.

After money changed hands, he gave me additional routing information. As the story went, he wished to take "the 30" bus to his house in Monteca, repeatedly stating that he had only been here for 7 days and didn't know any of the routes. Neither did I, but a quick search on Google confirmed the route was correct and had a timetable one block away to take him where he needed to go. At this point, I was given a profuse showing of relief and an impromptu hug (hey, this is San Francisco), and he quickly departed. I smelled no odor of any drugs on him, so at that point, I assumed he was probably clean.

In fact, I would have been completely convinced his story was genuine, until he hailed a pickup truck and could loudly be heard giving his thanks to the driver from across the intersection, plausibly for the same story.

Did I get ripped off? Probably. But it was worth it, to analyze exactly what social engineering was required to trigger compassion over the possibility of physical loss. Either way, he got paid for his trouble, and I left the transaction wiser than before.

* I initially reported $2.25, but I'd forgotten that a dime had slipped into my grasp in my rapid grab for pocket change.

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On Lasting Distractions

Did you know that I've started to play Magic: The Gathering again after an 18-year hiatus? It's true!*

Saving the long conversation for a short sound bite: it's amazing to me that a fantasy card game I played in grade school became a worldwide institution for adults. And now, as something of a self-taught computer scientist, the idea of a combinatorics-based strategy game with a legal computational model makes for fascinating study, which back then, my then-9-year-old self could only begin to fathom.

I wish I'd had the opportunity to study Magic in the interim. It would have been just the clue I needed that, maybe, this whole computer science thing might be right for me.

* Some restrictions apply. Duals of the Planeswalkers doesn't quite count, especially when you play two games and shelve it again for a year.

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