Sunday, December 28, 2014

Reading log, 2014

Another year, another list of books.

Far and away the best books in this list are the four making up the series The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. It had been a long time since I had read epic fantasy that felt as enormous as worlds are supposed to be, and as weird.

  • Joe Hill
    NOS4A2 (2013)

  • Albert Camus
    The Stranger (1942)

  • T. C. Boyle
    When the Killing's Done (2011)

  • Leo Frankowski
    Cross Time Engineer (1986)

  • Stanislaw Lem
    Solaris (1961)

  • William Poundstone
    Labyrinths of Reason (1988)

  • Walter Alvarez
    T. Rex and the Crater of Doom (1997)

  • Bill Bryson
    A Walk in the Woods (1998)

  • Gene Wolfe
    The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)

  • Gene Wolfe
    The Claw of the Conciliator (1981)

  • Gene Wolfe
    The Sword of the Lictor (1982)

  • Gene Wolfe
    The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)

  • Philip K. Dick
    The Man in the High Castle (1962)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

I2: Abolish the minimum wage

Despite being well paid for their labor, computer programmers compete with minimum-wage workers. So too does anyone who creates a machine that automates or partially automates a task requiring low-skill labor. For example, tractors and combines destroyed what would now otherwise be millions of low-paying, back-breaking jobs on farms, and self-checkout and online retail eliminate low-skill cashier jobs at stores.

Opponents of the minimum wage say that the minimum wage makes low-skill workers artificially expensive, thereby decreasing the number of low-skill jobs. The other way to say this is that the minimum wage makes automation artificially cheap, thereby encouraging businesses to invest in machinery to do our drudgery.

None of the four debaters in the recent Intelligence Squared debate “Abolish the Minimum Wage” addressed this relationship between wage rates and technological innovation. Instead, both sides argued the usual points we’ve all heard elsewhere. According to the for side, the minimum wage distorts markets by increasing prices and destroying jobs. According to the against side, the evidence doesn’t support the for side’s theory of markets, and morally we would be wrong to allow millions of impoverished people to sink further into poverty.

Even ignoring the technological consequences, I agree with the moral argument and believe it’s wrong to allow markets carte blanch to determine people’s material worth. However, many people believe free markets increase prosperity for everyone—eventually—and to such people the moral argument is on their side—i.e., it’s wrong to hinder markets. Economics being the modern world’s religion, neither side can disprove the other, and this stalemate makes the technological argument stronger. Absent winning arguments on either side, let’s at least invent cool new stuff.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Yesterday I saw the new movie Enemy. Despite the American nationality of its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie is foreign—and artsy—and thus has a limited release, which is a shame because this is the best theater experience I’ve had in years.

In Enemy, Gyllenhaal plays a college history professor who rents a movie on DVD and spots his exact lookalike as one of the actors. He obsesses over the coincidence, eventually tracking down and confronting the doppelgänger, and that’s about all the plot you should know before seeing this movie.

Enemy reminds me of David Lynch’s last movie, Mulholland Drive. Its plot centers around a mystery of identity among people and places that are a little shy of normal, and the movie doesn’t rush to reveal answers. Enemy kept me in awe from the beginning till the end credits, despite me being baffled and on edge and creeped out. Writing this short review makes me want to see it again.

Monday, February 3, 2014


Good thing the weather held for the Super Bowl, otherwise we may not have gotten the boring, lopsided game we deserve. Frankly, I can’t believe it’s the year 2014 and we still allow for any possibility of environmental factors at all. Every year, freakishly, less deserving athletes win a game or two because of events beyond the players' control. When will the madness stop?

Instant review was a step in the right direction, holding us over until we have robot referees that never miss a call. But robots alone won’t eliminate all the drama and excitement. I suppose we could employ a staff of physicists at each game to call “redo” on any play the ball takes a bad hop. I also favor nixing home-field advantage by building a stadium on demand exactly halfway between any two competing teams' cities. Logistics are no concern. We’ll dynamite whatever is in the way—mountains, rivers, grandma’s house. Just think of all the demolition and construction jobs we would create! Nevertheless, great though they be, none of these ideas fully solve the fairness problem, which is that the corporeal world is just too darn messy. The ideal solution is to have the Super Bowl and other games decided by DNA analysis.

By using DNA analysis, athletes would no longer play the game. Instead, each team would have all its players' DNA analyzed, and the league would feed the data into a computer simulation that would determine, more accurately than any real world scenario can, who really deserves to win. Weather, bad officiating, and drunken fans would no longer have unjust effect on the results—nor would injuries, illness, or age. This isn’t just better for the fans; it’s a great deal for the players, too. They would no longer have incentive to torture their bodies with drugs and abuse to compete at a high level. Heck, they wouldn’t even need to train or practice. We could test all babies at birth; the ones with the nucleotides to make them the fastest and strongest would automatically be drafted into the pro leagues, where the best of the best would enjoy winning championships for seventy years or so.

Some people might worry that a computer simulation wouldn’t be exciting, that there’s not much to look at. How foolish! Hollywood has shown that computer graphics are better than the real thing for all scripts. Never again will a camera fail to record the perfect angle or a mike capture a vitriolic curse; each play can be re-rendered infinitely many times. Audibles and taunts will be automatically translated into a hundred languages for a global audience. And don’t forget that the combination of player injury and moral pretense will no longer be limiting factor on the gore and violence of the game, so all those rules nerfing the game will be done away with. I’m looking at you, Roughing the Kicker.

Of course, let’s not be too hasty to virtualize everything about the game. The cheerleaders are best kept in the flesh.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Just Say No to Passive Aggressive Parentheses

An article in the recent New Yorker shows that even well edited writing continues the abuse of parentheses. Here’s the full paragraph, taken from The Financial Page, written by James Surowiecki, titled The Cult of Overwork:

If the benefits of working fewer hours are this clear, why has it been so hard for businesses to embrace the idea? Simple economics certainly plays a role: in some cases, such as law firms that bill by the hour, the system can reward you for working longer, not smarter. And even if a person pulling all-nighters is less productive than a well-rested substitute would be, it’s still cheaper to pay one person to work a hundred hours a week than two people to work fifty hours apiece. (In the case of medicine, residents work long hours not just because it’s good training but also because they’re a cheap source of labor.) On top of this, the productivity of most knowledge workers is much harder to quantify than that of, say, an assembly-line worker. So, as Bob Pozen, a former president of Fidelity Management and the author of “Extreme Productivity,” a book on slashing work hours, told me, “Time becomes an easy metric to measure how productive someone is, even though it doesn’t have any necessary connection to what they achieve.”

Every sentence in the paragraph above, except for the one within the parentheses, is justified—if only by common sense. But then there’s that one-off claim about medical residents being a cheap source of labor. No reason, no evidence. Are we to suppose the sentence gets a free dodge by way of its parentheses? After all, it’s just an aside and not even part of the article’s main text.

No, parentheses, like all punctuation, exist for clarity, not for shielding writers from the responsibility of defending their ideas. Shoving words between a pair of parentheses doesn’t make those words any less important or plain to see. Dear reader, please, please don’t use parentheses for passive aggression. Either leave those claims naked in your prose without special punctuation, or defend them, or don’t commit them to words at all.

By the way, I’ve got nothing against James Surowiecki or The New Yorker. Rather, this post is part of my ongoing crusade against the overuse and misuse of parentheses.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2014 JEC Movie Madness Tournament, round 1

This weekend I went through the list of 1,001 movies to see before you die and made a sublist of all the movies I remember seeing. That's 182 movies. Then I shuffled the order of the sublist without looking (i.e., shuf <movie_list.txt >random_list.txt), and sent it to my helpful wife, who read out the movies in pairs. For each pair, I decided on the spot which of the two is more my favorite. Laura marked the winners, and the result is today's post: round one of the 2014 JEC Movie Madness Tournament.

The tournament is single elimination, and the winners of these first-round match-ups will face off in round two. However, unlike in a typical single-elimination tournament, where the brackets are preset and everyone knows who will play whom in the next round, these tournament rounds will be randomized, preventing me from knowing in advance which movies will face off and thus preventing me from forming opinions in advance. I'm aiming for spur-of-the-moment, kinda.

A bit of commentary before the results: Round one led to some agonizing losses as well as some upsets. It's a shame that the two movies on the list with the most memorable of bicycling scenes paired up against each other, and E.T. missed the cut. Also sadly out are When Harry Met Sally, Network, and Amelie. All three movies would make many of my top-X lists, but all three were unfortunate to compete against powerhouses in the first round. As for upsets, the first-round knockout of Citizen Kane is a shocker, and it lost to a martial arts film!

Here are the results from round one:

Casino (1995) vs The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Titanic (1997) vs The Great Escape (1963)

Fargo (1996) vs The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) vs A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Total Recall (1990) vs Dances with Wolves (1990)

Breaking Away (1979) vs E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

North by Northwest (1959) vs Some Like It Hot (1959)

Bull Durham (1988) vs The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Groundhog Day (1993) vs Rushmore (1998)

Grease (1978) vs Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Full Metal Jacket (1987) vs Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) vs Jurassic Park (1993)

Taxi Driver (1976) vs The Searchers (1956)

Reservoir Dogs (1992) vs When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) vs The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Maltese Falcon (1941) vs Easy Rider (1969)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) vs Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Rain Man (1988) vs Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Casablanca (1942) vs The Matrix (1999)

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) vs Scream (1996)

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) vs Braveheart (1995)

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) vs Clueless (1995)

The Lion King (1994) vs A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Chinatown (1974) vs Alien (1979)

The Third Man (1949) vs Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Magnolia (1999) vs Young Frankenstein (1974)

Pi (1998) vs Heat (1995)

Scarface (1983) vs Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forrest Gump (1994) vs Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Network (1976) vs Fight Club (1999)

Moulin Rouge (2001) vs Rear Window (1954)

The Jerk (1979) vs Double Indemnity (1944)

Rocky (1976) vs Gone With the Wind (1939)

Pretty Woman (1990) vs Toy Story (1995)

Sunset Blvd. (1950) vs Touch of Evil (1958)

Amadeus (1984) vs Apocalypse Now (1979)

Batman (1989) vs O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Rosemary's Baby (1968) vs Star Wars (1977)

Dr. Strangelove (1964) vs Dawn of the Dead (1978)

On the Waterfront (1954) vs The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) vs The Godfather (1972)

8 ½ (1963) vs Dirty Harry (1971)

Beverly Hills Cop (1984) vs Meet the Parents (2000)

Jaws (1975) vs Die Hard (1988)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) vs Big (1988)

Being John Malkovich (1999) vs Blazing Saddles (1974)

The Usual Suspects (1995) vs The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Exorcist (1973) vs American Beauty (1999)

The Player (1992) vs The Sound of Music (1965)

There's Something About Mary (1998) vs West Side Story (1961)

The French Connection (1971) vs A Christmas Story (1983)

Edward Scissorhands (1990) vs Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Natural Born Killers (1994) vs Chicago (2002)

Clerks (1994) vs One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Raising Arizona (1987) vs Ghostbusters (1984)

The Graduate (1967) vs All About Eve (1950)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) vs Blue Velvet (1986)

Aliens (1986) vs Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Cool Hand Luke (1967) vs Goldfinger (1964)

The Sting (1973) vs Gladiator (2000)

Memento (2000) vs The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Naked Gun (1988) vs To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Traffic (2000) vs Mad Max (1979)

The Princess Bride (1987) vs Trainspotting (1996)

Saving Private Ryan (1998) vs Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Gallipoli (1981) vs Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Pulp Fiction (1994) vs The Evil Dead (1982)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) vs Vertigo (1958)

L.A. Confidential (1997) vs Top Gun (1986)

The Seven Samurai (1954) vs The Shining (1980)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) vs Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) vs 12 Angry Men (1957)

The Godfather Part II (1974) vs Amelie (2001)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) vs Goodfellas (1990)

Glory (1989) vs Thelma & Louise (1991)

Blade Runner (1982) vs The Last Picture Show (1971)

An Affair to Remember (1957) vs The Breakfast Club (1985)

Deliverance (1972) vs Roman Holiday (1953)

Gangs of New York (2002) vs Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981)

Back to the Future (1985) vs It Happened One Night (1934)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) vs Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) vs Citizen Kane (1941)

Fantasia (1940) vs Seven (1995)

The Natural (1984) vs Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Rope (1948) vs Airplane! (1980)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) vs Brazil (1985)

Midnight Cowboy (1969) vs Spirited Away (2001)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) vs Mulholland Dr. (2001)

The Terminator (1984) vs This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Carrie (1976) vs Independence Day (1996)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) vs Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)

Round two will take place sometime within the next two weeks.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tuesday ride

Monday night. Tires are pumped up. Lights are snapped on or strapped on, their batteries charged or charging. Ditto GPS. Wallet, keys and such are stowed in the wedge pack beneath the saddle—except for my phone, which is beside the bed and whose alarm will wake me shortly after four-thirty tomorrow morning if I’m not already awake.

The weather forecast approximates as usual the temperature for tomorrow morning’s ride. The real temperature will vary, not just from the forecast but from one minute to the next. In the winter in the Valley, the stillness of the windless night air causes temperature inversion which in turn creates pockets of cold and warm air dotted around the foothills. Collectively, these temperature differentials make comfortable clothing impossible. Further, the warm air sits atop the cold air, so we sweat up the hills and get blasted with cold on the way down. Nothing can be done but to look forward to spring allergies. And to enjoy having the roads to ourselves in these dark mornings.

From here until monsoon season, it gets warmer.

Monday, January 6, 2014

But how? Magic, duh

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but Clarke left out the law's compliment: that any insufficiently edited fantasy book is a lot like advanced science. Pick up a fantasy book and there's a good chance that midway through it, a character will explain the orderly make-believe world better than any physicist can explain ours.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Riddle #8

No more horsing around; it's time for another riddle.

Today's riddle has fifteen letters. The clue is breakfast finger food?

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