misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Fantastic Contraption

Fantastic Contraption

This is a most amazingly addictive game. You build machines. Machines! Simple machines that do things. Amazing things. All in service of getting an object to a target area. Once you’ve struggled your own way through the various levels (fun and frustrating at times), you can see some of the incredible things that others have created with simple tools. Eventually, you will realize that it is 4 in the morning and you should have gone to bed a long, long time ago.

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Blogroll: Mind Hacks

Today I’d like to direct your attention to a blog that I’m adding to our blogroll: Mind Hacks is one of my favorite blogs. It provides short, accessible, and insightful commentary on new developments in psychology and neuroscience. Much like the HRSFANS blog, it often provides links to longer articles, in both popular science and original scientific research. For the truly dedicated, following all of these links could provide you with a lifetime of reading material. But I what I particularly appreciate are the pithy summaries that accompany each link, so that, even if you don’t read the original article, the Mind Hacks post itself will leave you with a better appreciation of some interesting topic.

A couple recent posts are great examples of the range of topics that the blog covers:
“Symbol of remembrance triggers mass false memory” covers two experiments that demonstrate how surprisingly poor our memories are, and how susceptible we are to the power of suggestion in creating false memories. These findings are both at the core of the neurobiological study of memory, and immediately interesting for their implications about our everyday lives.

For the historically inclined, “Rendered frantic, crazy by unbroken concentration” discusses an 18th-century book which claims that excessive reading is dangerous, as it requires too much concentration. The blog post contrasts that claim with current fears that computers are causing us to lose our ability to concentrate, pointing out that there is no more evidence for the latter claim than there was for the former.

If you find these topics interesting, or if you want to learn about more funny tricks that our minds play on us, I highly recommend that you check out Mind Hacks!


My civic obligation–the Great Game of Mafia

Hello, I just got back from 11 days of being at the beck and call of the Suffolk Superior Court. Specifically, 1 day of jury impanelment, 4+ days of evidence, and 4 full days of deliberations. And a couple times we got to leave early.

Yes: jury duty! This was my first summons, and I was very excited. Even throughout the real trial (hearing the evidence) I kept jumping in my seat thinking, “This is really happening!” Deliberations, however, were both much more and much less than I had expected. More time, certainly, but less histrionics; more conversation, and less changing of minds; more philosophy, but less idealism. In essence, these deliberations comprised the greatest game of Mafia I have played since 1998.

It was a civil case, breach of contract. That’s all I’ve been telling people for the past more than two weeks, and somehow I don’t feel like giving more specifics even now that I am allowed to. Let’s just say that we made sure everybody got shafted. To some extent, that includes every member of this jury.

And yet I’m so happy about having had this experience.  And I even can’t wait until the next time I’m eligible to be called (probably after I move away from Boston, as it happens).  I want to do it all again–new facts, new evidence, new people, new chance!  New chance for each of us to keep some more of our ideals.

Today nerves and patience started fraying.  I came in hoping that we could step away from the content of our issues and focus more on the procedures.  That’s something I learned about myself (partially in contrast to some of my juror-colleagues) yesterday: I am process-oriented as opposed to goal-oriented.  My opinion fluxuated over the course of the deliberations.  I voted “yes,” “no,” and several rounds of “maybe.”  And that was how I felt it should be, because the important part to me was the collective ‘wisdom’ of the group, the trends.  I’m not saying I voted majority for the sake of majority, but rather that I trusted that, if we kept our heads as clear and calm as possible and honored the flow of information and interpretation, that we would come up with an answer that was greater (and possibly different) from the simple sum of our individual opinions.  On the final day of deliberations some of the others laid it straight on the table that they knew what they knew and that they were not going to change.  I was disappointed with that concept, though I didn’t put it in those terms to them.  Given what everyone else knew/believed/interpreted, how could I be cetain that what I “knew” was what was?

The verdict we eventually delivered was explicitly (and only half justifiably) a compromise.  We needed 11 of 13 jurors to agree before we could go back to the courtroom, and we got that exactly (i.e. the group minus the people who held firm).  We told each other that this was what the parties to the lawsuit would have expected–and gotten–anyway.  Maybe not that dollar figure, but something less than what the plaintiff asked for, and more than what the defendant wanted to settle for.

So it goes.  And now that I’ve had a night to sleep it over (after an evening of zombie-shuffling about post-courthouse) I can say again it was really cool.  So don’t assume you want to “get out of” jury duty next time you get summonsed!

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The Future of Companies

A lot of science fiction deals with how our future economic world will be structured–from libertarian autonomous corporations (Jennifer Government or Snow Crash) to a single global government entity (Star Trek). Given our current economic climate, I thought I’d share a couple of recent thoughts in those directions.

First is an idea that I find quite appealing: the open company. Now, many of you will protest that open source companies are old news; heck, Red Hat has been public for almost ten years now. But this is something new: the idea of running a company not about open source products, but running the company as if it were an open source project. Essentially, this means that anyone can contribute whatever they feel motivated to, and be paid using a peer-rating system. It sounds pretty idealistic: the idea that in the future, we can literally just create whatever value is of interest to us and get paid appropriately. And it may only work when most of the output is intangible. But I think it’s a fascinating notion, and Alexander Stigson, creator of the E Text Editor, says he’s actively moving his company to become an open company. I’m really excited to see how that turns out.

Second, a link to a recent post by Tim O’Reilly, on books that have shaped the way he thinks. I think it’s interesting not just because he cites Dune as one of his influences, but also because he cites Rissa Kerguelen, by F.M. Busby, as

[a] science-fiction book I read at about the time I was starting my company, and that influenced me deeply. One key idea is the role of entrepreneurship as a “subversive force.” In a world dominated by large companies, it is the smaller companies that keep freedom alive, with economics at least one of the battlegrounds. This book gave me the courage to submerge myself in the details of a fundamentally trivial business (technical writing) and to let go of my earlier hopes of writing deep books that would change the world.

I think it’s important to remember that new ideas can be subversive; that both startups and science fiction are often about pursuing new ideas; and that new ideas have the potential to change the world.

Finally, on that note, I thought I’d add a quick link to the NationStates site, a free sort-of-game from the author of Jennifer Government. Enjoy!

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Swing dancing in the Jungle Book

It’s nothing new, but this clip from the Jungle Book might brighten your day a bit:

If you’re interested in film or music history, you’ll also enjoy this brief clip describing the recording of this song.

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Don’t Keep Calm and Carry On

Apparently (so says The Guardian), there’s a popular new poster in the UK, which reads, “Keep Calm and Carry On”. This poster was originally made during World War II, in case of a German invasion. Recently rediscovered, people are supposedly thronging to it (on the order of thousands), in an age where people want some security and comfort.

As you might imagine, I’m not a huge fan of this idea. Instead, what really appeals to me is this response poster from Matt Jones: “Get Excited and Make Things”! I think that we all have some (reasonable) tendency to simply enjoy things in fandom, but I think that we do better when we take it further and expand upon what others have done, when the things we love inspire us to new things. Don’t just be a passive observer and rely on someone else to take care of everything: take an active, positive role in creating something new! Get Excited and Make Things!

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Calvin and Hobbes

I feel like I shouldn’t need to preface this, because everyone should know Calvin and Hobbes already. But for those who don’t, it’s one of the best comic strips of all time, drawn by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995 (and rerunning on the web at If you’ve somehow never seen it before, you’re missing out. I don’t really have words for how much I love Calvin and Hobbes.

Anyway, I was recently debating with a friend how Calvin and Hobbes ended, and came across this interesting collection of post-series takes on Calvin and Hobbes. The last one is the fake Calvin and Hobbes ending that broke my friend’s heart (and temporarily mine, before I came home to confirm that it was false). If you need a boost after seeing it, you can find the real final strip here.

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People of Color in SF

A friend of mine pointed out that the 12th Annual People of Color in SF Carnival is seeking submissions now–they’re looking for weblinks, blog entries, and the like. They’ll then weave them together to give a sense of what the present conversation is when thinking about race in SF/F. You can check out the call here or see an example here. It seems pretty cool, and it’s already pointed me to a new webcomic (Magellan, for those who are interested in superheroes). So if you know of any links related to the theme (or wanted to write one for, send them to mvelazqu AT umd DOT edu by 2/27/09.


This month’s theme focuses on the role PoC characters have in the products of our fandom — as accessories, as absences, and as convenient plot devices. This issue of absence is particularly important — what does it do to fic to have the “real” experiences of PoC constantly referred to but never there? What does it mean that series like Xmen or [Harry Potter] draw on specific histories of race and violence, but do this without themselves referring to racism or anti-Semitism in text? Here, we’re focusing will be on science-fiction and fantasy, speculative fiction, and other types of mediated imagery, including webcomics and movies.

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Sixth Senses

I love our posthuman future. I want a heads-up display that tells me what I’m looking at, a radar sense of objects around me, and an internet hookup in my brain. In the meantime, I’m interested in smaller mechanical ways to give additional senses.

The classic example of this, for me, is a magnet in your finger which gives you a sense of metal and electricity. I don’t remember hearing anything about it in the years since the WIRED article, though, and the most recent information I could find was in BMEZine about how they needed better sheaths for the magnets before it would really be safe. Does anyone else know how our posthuman future is progressing?

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Fun with road signs

This takes five seconds to read and will make you laugh, unless you work for the highway patrol.

(via Ben Goldacre)


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