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Today's homework for Cognitive Studies --

Would Donald Trump pass the Turing Test?


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I'll take it as read that you've heard about how bad things are down in Texas. That's the SCA Kingdom of Ansteorra -- we have a lot of folks down there. An unofficial relief fund has been set up -- details can be found in the EK Gazette.

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Do not make it too easy to send out a marketing email.

This lesson brought to you by today's advertising email from Audible (which I use avidly, and don't mind the ads). The entire content of the ad is, literally, "TBD".

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I usually reserve my scorn for the Republicans these days, but right at the moment I am deeply cranky at the Democrats.

I just got a spam email (that sounds like nothing quite so much as a loud used-car ad) pointing me to this page. Suffice it to say, the Democrats have apparently submitted a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and they are trying to get zillions of signatures on a petition supporting it.

Now don't get me wrong -- Citizens United is a problem, and not a trivial one. The notion of the "corporate person" has taken deep root in American jurisprudence over the years, and this decision demonstrated that there are some real downsides. And while I'm pretty passionate about the first amendment, I also think there's a place for reasonable campaign finance rules: CU swung things a bit too far towards the fundamentalist viewpoint, IMO.

But I am deeply angry with the Democrats for tossing around a constitutional amendment as if it was just another political football. I am especially angry that, after a couple of minutes of looking around, I haven't yet found the proposed text of this damned amendment. It's not on their home page. Hell, it's not even on their "About" page. I'm sure it is out there somewhere, but they are, as far as I can tell, deliberately obfuscating it, and that is a fine way to lose my support. You can't just say, "We made a Constitutional Amendment, and we're on Your Side, so you know it's good!"

One of America's strengths is an exceptionally streamlined constitution. Compared to many countries, it is short, clear and highly focused on principles, rather than fine-grained rules. It is extremely difficult to change, and for good reason: it isn't a legal code, it is an architecture for that code, and the fundamental guidelines that everything else draws from. No, that isn't consistent, and you can certainly argue about whether you agree with all of those guidelines, but by and large it's still an impressive system, and we should be cautious about tinkering with it.

To me, the way the Democrats are handling this is demeaning to the Constitution. This game of screaming, "CU is evil! We must stop it at All Costs! And we aren't going to bother you with the details!" is deeply insulting to the electorate and the country.

Yes, we need a serious, reasoned debate about the influence of money on politics. And yes, that might eventually lead to an amendment. But hysterically insisting that we should sign This Petition Right Now is not the way to do it...

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Mind, I largely agree with the decision, at least for now. But let's not lose sight of the obvious attempt to distract away from more contentious matters...

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Having not done the advance planning needed to procure a pair of the dorky-but-necessary goggles for directly looking at the eclipse, I did the quick-and-dirty version instead: creating a "pinhole camera" by taking two index cards, punching a hole through one with a needle, holding them a couple of inches apart, and adjusting the distance between them until I got reasonable focus.

Quite neat -- while not nearly as spectacular as being in totality no doubt would have been (both my parents and my boss flew to the Carolinas for it today), it provided a good firsthand illustration of the principles as the visible dot in my "camera" went from circle to crescent over about ten minutes or so.

The one negative observation: I am now nearsighted enough that actually observing this now requires taking off my glasses. (Even my bifocals aren't good enough to resolve that level of detail. But at least my eyes are Really Good at Up Close and Tiny nowadays.)

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Spreading the word (h/t to [personal profile] mindways) -- Fatal Encounters is a site doing research that everyone has talked about for decades but ever-so-conveniently not actually performed: how many people are being killed by police, under what circumstances, and how has that been changing over time? In an absence of data, talking heads fill the void with their own assumptions, and that needs to change. So they are building out an as-comprehensive-as-possible searchable database on the subject.

They're currently running a modest IndieGoGo campaign to fund operations for the next six months. It looks to be a good cause, and I've tossed a few dollars into the pot -- check it out...

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In the wake of Charlottesville and the past week, I strongly recommend reading this article in the Guardian, which explores a bit of the ideology of this particular chunk of the far right. The heart of it is a reminder that Nazism is national socialism, and they are making hay with a philosophy that is basically a racist (and inegalitarian) corruption of classic socialism. It's bullshit, but seductive bullshit, now just as it was to Germany in the '30s.

It's a bit skin-crawling to think about (it's a bit hard to come up with a more exact opposite of my own worldview), but we're going to have to understand the enemy if we're going to fight them. And I think it's clear that we are going to have to fight them -- at the very least, this is a dangerous and rising memeset that needs to be opposed now, and vigorously...

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Just finished this interesting article from Yonaton Zunger, which tries to break down the major groupings in American politics, in the context of the rifts we see in the Democratic Party. It's not a bad analysis, and much of it is correct, but I'm particularly struck by the way he lumps most people who don't belong to one of his six major activist groupings into the "Comfortable Middle".

I'm honestly unsure whether he intends that term to be pejorative or not, but he is explicit that:

Unlike the other groups, this group’s most salient feature is that politics is not at the center of their lives.

I see this a lot, and I confess, it gets under my skin, because of the implication that being moderate means being politically passive. And that is bullshit.

I've always had some difficulty summing up my political leanings, but I've gradually come to some variation of "Classical Liberal" (by the European definition of that word, not the American). Or simply "Economist reader".

The term often used in political writing is "Technocrat", although I dislike the connotations there: the word has a flavor of being cold and unempathetic, which misses the point almost completely. My viewpoint is passionate about both social and economic justice -- but on the large scale, recognizing the massive inequities around the world, not just the ones at home.

The "technocrat" term is correct in that it's a viewpoint that is focused on what works, empirically, without the BS economic religions that both the left and right are prone to. It is a passionately globalist viewpoint -- again, because the world works better all around when countries are working together and trading together, not retreating into little nationalist fortresses. But that doesn't imply the sort of ruthlessly (and short-sightedly) Darwinian approach of the Corporatists, mind -- open trading must be paired with deep investment in trade adjustment, education and retraining, something the right wing tries desperately to ignore.

Most importantly, there is nothing passive about it: it's a viewpoint that demands active thought and engagement, understanding that reality is complicated and that overly simplistic solutions will usually backfire, often tragically.

Really, I'm increasingly fond of the term "Radical Moderate". For all that it sounds like a contradiction in terms, it's exactly right, recognizing that the middle ground isn't just a default stance, it's a position to be argued for with every bit of fire and passion one has. And it doesn't mean fuzzy-headed muddle: it just recognizes that the extremes are usually wrong, and that the best position is weighing and balancing the concerns.

Not that either American political party has any damned interest in advocating that viewpoint nowadays. I'm genuinely tempted to see whether the American wing of En Marche! has been created yet...

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I just got this email from Norton:

Hello Norton Customer,

We are sad you decided to stop receiving helpful tips & tricks, security reports, insightful newsletter articles and great discounts. Everybody else that has signed up is benefiting from these great emails.

So why not sign up today? We will not contact you often and you can unsubscribe at any time. If that still does not convince you, maybe our furry friend will.

Yes, it is accompanied by a big picture of a sad-eyed dog.

Seriously, what kind of moron thinks this is a good idea? If I said that I don't want you spamming me, then sending me an email trying to guilt-trip me about that is just going to make me angry.

It's enough to make me seriously consider dropping their products entirely -- not as if there isn't competition in that marketplace. Idiots...

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I've just found myself as the Gaming Track Manager for next year's Arisia, which means I need to assemble a roster of panels, right quick. I have a moderate pile of suggestions so far, but they're of varying quality, and a bit "clumpy" in terms of subjects, so I'd like more ideas for the mix.

My friends have lots of knowledge of the subject, so: here's a request for a little quick brainstorming of suggestions for panels on the subject of Games, broadly defined -- this includes Board/Card Games, Videogames, Tabletop and Live-Action RPG, Game Culture, etc.

Please focus on topics you would like to attend or talk about, not just notions for their own sake. Not all suggestions will be used, but all are welcomed. "Yes, and" comments about other peoples' suggestions are okay, but please don't shoot down other peoples' ideas. Diversity of viewpoints highly encouraged. Feel free to email or direct-message me if you would prefer to make a suggestion privately.


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In the news today are a bunch of obits for director George Romero. Pretty much all of them focus on Night of the Living Dead, and to be fair, it's the work he is best known for.

But let's pause a moment and remember his movie Knightriders -- the closest thing the SCA has to its own motion picture. Legend (maybe true, maybe not; I honestly don't know) has it that Romero happened to attend a particular SCA Crown Tournament, and was swept up by the drama he saw there; his producers weren't thrilled by the idea, and said, "Enh -- maybe if you add motorcycles and a good soundtrack, we'll think about it". So he did.

Knightriders has always been on my personal list of Movies Every SCAdian should see. Not because the club portrayed is the SCA, mind. It very much isn't: it's essentially a traveling RenFaire where they joust on motorcycles. But the feel of the group, I've always thought, reflects the SCA beautifully. You have the folks who are dead-serious about The Dream, who see something better in the ideals of their club. You have the stick-jocks who are here for the sport and the babes. You have the craftsmen who are making it all possible, and, yes, you have the folks who are just here to party. (There's even poor Patricia Tallman, better known for Babylon 5, in her first major role as the token mundane who is enamored by the whole thing but doesn't quite seem to get it.)

The movie gets a bit full of itself at times, and some people mock it mercilessly, but I love it -- not least for Ed Harris (in my favorite of his roles) as King Billy, who is trying desperately to keep his people both safe and united, and to pursue his dreams while everything around him is falling apart. He is a wonderful study in obsession, illustrating both the advantages and problems of having a strong leader.

If you haven't seen it, check it out. It's not the most brilliant movie ever, but it's wonderfully human. For pretty much every character in it, I can say, "Yeah, I know folks just like that". That's one of the higher compliments I can pay a director...

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For the past several months, Lucy Bellwood (author of the delightful nautical graphic novel Baggywrinkles: A Lubber's Guide to Life at Sea) has been posting a series of single-panel comics titled 100 Demon Dialogues. You can find the full series here.

They are little vignettes of conversation between herself and her inner demon, a personification of all the insecurities and doubts that any creative person (really, any person) is prone to. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, frequently thought-provoking, they're one of the better reflections of basic inner life that I've seen.

The series ended today, and the much-demanded Kickstarter opened at the same time. She's collecting the cartoons into a book (both soft and hardcover), and producing a plushie little demon.

There's a fun little cartoon on the Kickstarter page that introduces the project. I'm getting both the book and plushie -- frankly, I had decided that I wanted the collected book even before she announced that she was going to do a Kickstarter for it. I want it for my own personal reflection, but I suspect it may also be an good book for helping kids work through their feelings and understand that grown-ups aren't as secure as all that, so parents may particularly want to give it a look.

Check it out, and spread the word: it looks like it's going to be a great result, from a fine artist who is really hitting her stride...

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Okay, yes -- complaining about how creepy Facebook can be is shooting fish in a barrel.

Still, I was taken aback by the notification I just got there. Un-asked-for, it popped up with, "You last updated your profile 2 weeks ago." Which, on the one hand, is just a statement of fact. But it's a statement loaded with connotation.

Seriously -- why is Facebook telling me this? When I have something I care to say on my Profile, I say it. I don't need reminders -- I certainly don't need automatic, non-opt-in reminders after only two weeks of profile inactivity. And mind you, this isn't saying "you haven't posted" -- I post to FB moderately often. This is saying that I haven't revealed new and updated information about myself.

There's a weird sense that FB is trying to guilt-trip me for not being sufficiently naked: that the system and the audience have the right to know everything that happens in my life, and that if a whole two weeks have gone by without updating my profile, something is clearly wrong.

Yes, it's a little thing. But it's the combination of all those little things that remind me of why I dislike and distrust Facebook...

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Okay, let's get the awkward part out of the way. Sunstone (a 5-volume graphic novel from Image) starts out with, "This is a love story about two BDSM-loving girls".

No, it's not porn.

Well, mostly not. Bear with me.

Our narrator is Lisa, a struggling writer (and novice sub), who works as a barista by day and writes BDSM porn online by night. Her primary series of stories is "Lisbeth", something of a MarySue featuring the title character and Allison, who is based on...

... Ally, a successful game programmer (and moderately experienced domme), who has been Lisa's online penpal for some time now.

The story opens when Lisa finally gets up the nerve to ask to meet Ally in person, and they get together to play out their fantasies a bit. They hit it off really well, and the book follows their evolution from play partners, to best friends, to roommates, to...

... well, that's the hard part. Sunstone isn't porn; it is very much a romance novel, about the difficulty of admitting to your best friend that you've fallen in love with her. It head-on tackles the not-unusual problem of modern society that sex is easy, but romance can be much, much harder.

Now, normally I'm not a huge fan of romance novels -- I've hit a few too many stories that depended on someone being outrageously dumb, or some Terrible External Force Keeping Our Protagonists Apart, or something like that; stuff that I can't really relate to all that well, and which has made me a little cynical about the form.

Sunstone has basically none of that: our heroines are smart and witty, there are basically no antagonists (indeed, pretty much everyone in the story is quite likeable), and nothing horrible happens. Rather, both Lisa and Ally are real, well-rounded people -- but both are smart enough to be horribly prone to over-thinking things, a little bit proud, and insecure enough to be lousy at communicating about the stuff that really matters. In short, they remind me an awful lot of me and many of my friends.

It is pure character study, and most of the content of the five volumes is simply people talking. I credit the author, Stjepan Sejic, for managing to pull that off well enough that I intentionally read the story quite slowly, a few pages a day, just to savor it. (At the end, he confesses how terrifying it all was. He seriously contemplated putting an alien invasion into the middle, just so it would be more in his comfort zone. Fortunately, he thought better of it.)

Now, I should explain that "mostly not" above. While Sunstone is a pure romance novel in structure and style (and quite a sweet one at that), it is a novel about two people who get together over their shared interest -- and their shared interest is BDSM. So bondage is a constant element of the story, and if you get off on beautiful women in leather and vinyl, you'll find plenty of lovely artwork here. There's a moderate amount of nudity, and there is occasional partial porn -- you'll sometimes find yourself three pages into a scene, and just around the time you start going, "Wait, this is getting kind of porn-y", it snaps back to reality as you realize that it has digressed into Lisa's latest story, which she is using to process what's going on in real life. And at times it gets a wee tad didactic about Safe Bondage. Suffice it to say, it's not porn, but it's not SFW either.

There isn't much "will they or won't they" tension to it -- the entire story is told in retrospect, from a viewpoint about five years later, and it's pretty clear that they will wind up together eventually. This is all about the road to getting there: the initial nervousness about meeting, the passion at the start, the settling down to deep and abiding affection, the stumbles, mistakes and fights (including what amounts to some hard-learned lessons about poly), and eventually figuring it out.

It's a delightful journey, and I regret getting to the end -- I've been using it as my end-of-the-day reading, because it pretty much always leaves me feeling good, as few comics do.

Highly recommended, especially if you like romance stories. Not quite High Art, but excellent enough that it's going onto The Shelf, at least for the moment. The story reaches a clear end with Volume 5, although Sejic is by now having enough fun that he is moving on (as often happens in romance universes) to spin-off novels about Lisa and Ally's friends. Check it out...

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Here's a random etymology question; I'm curious whether anybody has any insight.

One thing about the increasingly-interconnected tech community is that I wind up chatting with folks from all over the world on a near-constant basis. (At the Scala eXchange conference in December, my roommates were folks I knew from Finland, Switzerland and Singapore.) It's mostly in English, which makes life easy for me.

But I keep noticing one curious bit of language usage, that comes up constantly in technical discussions -- the use of the word "doubt", specifically usages like "I have a doubt about this feature".

In American and British English, this carries a connotation of roughly, "I don't think this is right, but I'm trying to keep an open mind", but that seems to never be intended in the online conversations: instead, it seems to be a strict synonym for "question", without any of the usual meanings attached to the word "doubt". This confused the heck out of me the first ten or so times I heard it; I'm now used to it, but it still jars the language pedant in me.

Anybody know how or where this arose? I seem to hear this usage mostly from folks in India, but it doesn't seem to be limited to there -- part of what inspired me to ask about this was somebody with an apparently Spanish name using it that way yesterday...

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Looking for recommendations, in case any of my cat-knowledgeable friends have suggestions. My mother lives in Woburn (shortly to move to Burlington). She has a longhair cat who is currently getting rather excessively fuzzy; she hasn't yet found a regular groomer since she moved to these parts from Amherst. PetSmart isn't looking like a great option (due to hours that don't suit her, I gather).

So: anybody have suggestions of a good cat groomer in the area of 128, between 90 and 93ish? Are there any who do housecalls? (I have no idea if that is a thing or not.) Any recommendations welcomed -- thanks...

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Those of you who know Niki know that her great passion is for historical medicine -- whether it's teaching SCA folks about bizarre period cures for the plague or her novella about life in the medical tents of the Revolutionary War, she's all about the topic, and has lots to say about it.

She's just begin a weekly blog, focused on Renaissance Medicine, Saltatio Medica. I've just set up a feed here on Dreamwidth for it, [syndicated profile] saltatiomedica_feed -- that should populate later today. Check it out!

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Sometimes you learn best from lessons of what not to do. In that spirit I forward on The Worst Volume Sliders Possible, a collective tour de force in Bad UX...

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Just came across an article on Ars Technica (yes, I'm behind): The intelligent intersection could banish traffic lights forever. It's neat stuff: basically, a researcher has designed a traffic-control system for autonomous vehicles, and demonstrated that by using such technology we could enormously reduce how often you have to stop at intersections -- not only speeding up travel times, but improving fuel efficiency quite a bit.

All of which is great, but my Security Architect senses are pinging here. This is postulating an external server that talks to the cars on the road and tells them what to do. That is absolutely terrifying if you understand the typical state of Internet-of-Things security.

But let's put a positive spin on this. This system is at least 1-2 decades from deployment as described (since it assumes only autonomous vehicles on the road). We might be able to head off disaster by figuring out the obvious hacks in advance, so they can be designed around.

So here's the challenge: name ways that a hacker could abuse this system, and/or ways to ameliorate those weaknesses.

I'll start with a few obvious ones:

  • Base story: I (the hacker) send out signals spoofing the controller for traffic intersection T, allowing me to cause nightmarish havoc. Possible solution: traffic controllers are listed in some well-known registry, signed with public keys, so that their signals can be authenticated to prevent spoofing.
  • Assuming the above hacking isn't prevented: I time the signals sent to the cars, telling them all to hit the intersection at the same moment. Crash! Solution: as a belt-and-suspenders thing, cars must not completely trust the signal controllers. Their autonomous checks have to override those signals, to prevent crashes.
  • Reverse of the previous: I send out signals telling all the cars, in all directions, that the intersection is currently blocked by opposing traffic. The entire city quickly devolves into gridlock. Solution: good question. I got nothing.

What else? I'm sure we can come up with more nightmarish scenarios, and possible solutions.

Yes, this may seem like overkill to think about now, but history says that, if you don't design the system around abuses, you will hurt forevermore. Security isn't something you add later: it should be baked into the designs from the get-go. (Which is why it accounts for a large fraction of Querki's architecture, despite the fact that we only have a couple hundred users yet...)


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