The video games merit badge

The Boy Scouts now have a video games merit badge. This seems a seminal event in victory of electronic media for the attention of our youth over the actual real world. Of course, for today’s youth (or I’m sure past generations had such an entertainment existed), video games are irresistible. The organization is reinventing its “program delivery method” and increased retention is a top priority, and it’s hard to think of more popular merit badge (perhaps chocolate eating, or visiting Disneyland merit badges). Notably, the web site devotes its first (leftmost) link to the marketing section.

It’s hard to understand how playing video games develops scouting’s core values. Taste in games and issues of simulated violence aside, I find the reset button an objectionable feature of video games as it relates to character building. Courage and perseverance are hardly fostered when should the game take a turn for the worse the push of a button gets you back for a fresh start. Of course the merit badge activity makes a point of parental involvement and age-appropriate games but you know for the typical kid this takes the fun out of it.

If any institution would be pushing back against video games, I would have thought it would be the Scouts. (I don’t think the Luddites are organized.) Aside from poverty and disability, when was the last child born in this country who never played video games?

Impressive engineering

The very best engineering finds innovative ways to do something in a simple, elegant, and surprisingly original way. To see something that’s done at great cost and complexity and think of a completely new way to do it for a tiny fraction of the cost and effort is a unique satisfaction for the engineer who can pull it off.

Project Icarus is just such an achievement. At MIT they took photos from an altitude of nearly 100,000 feet (not quite into space, proper) for under a $150 investment. Photos are here.

A very nice touch to the project is that by keeping the weight of their device to a minimum they did not need to get FAA permission for the flight: it was actually legal.

Freshman senator art

Al Franken draws a very respectable map of the fifty US states from memory [1:20 video]. No doubt, it took some practice and a degree of skill at drawing, but one can’t help but wonder how most national politicians would do at even being able to name all fifty states.

(The linked video is sped-up without the accompanying banter, there are several other renditions with audio available by searching for “Franken map.”)

While we are considering our politicians displaying their handicraft at art, why not have them (voluntarily) take SAT tests as well? By no means do I suggest that the highest score is most qualified, but if these tests are good enough to rank the academic abilities of students they should be good input for voters assessing the mental faculties of people for public office. General knowledge, a grasp of math, history, science, and language skills are all important prerequisites to public service.

District Nine

District Nine tells the all too familiar story of discrimination and oppression by the majority in an near-future human/alien (as in extraterrestrial aliens) context, set in Johannesburg it so happens. For fear of spoiling it I’ll just say it’s the best movie I’ve seen in recent memory, with cautionary note that it isn’t for the squeamish. Great original story, good acting/direction, strong screenplay, decent special effects, with nice dose of humor and insight, filmed as a faux documentary. Otherwise, go see it!

Making sense of the nonsense

I’ve certainly been puzzled for some weeks about all the hubbub over healthcare reform – not that it’s controversial, but that the debate and tactics have strayed so far afield. This opinion piece gives some historical perspective that helps understand, and also highlights how are much-changed media pour gasoline on the fire of the crazies rather than bring discussion back to reality.

… the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and … elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

The promise of the article is that the strategy is old but the media’s handling has changed completely. Formerly, these emotional tantrums were labeled as “extremist” and dismissed out of hand. Now in the age of “fair and balanced” reporting the most outrageous characters get the coverage. Well informed and reasoned discussion is boring and hardly sells. Given all the media exposure to baseless claims about “death panels” for example, today what does it take to be labeled as extreme?

Lying about Lying

Errol Morris reveals illusive truths in his essay, Seven Lies About Lying.

In Seven Lies About Lying (part 1, part 2, warning: pop-ups) Errol Morris analyzes lying with expert commentary by Ricky Jay. It’s a rather long and dense read but raises some excellent points on this paradoxical subject. He very convincingly shows how traditional views on lying are pretty much all wrong.

His conclusions are good reminders of how slippery truth can be:

  1. Lies are not the opposite of the truth.
  2. Lies are not the same as falsehoods.
  3. It is not hard to lie consistently.
  4. Lying cannot be justified.
  5. Lying is not usually punished.
  6. Lying is not always avoidable.
  7. Lying does not threaten the truth.

This last point includes what I thought was his best insight:

… the real problem is not lies but people believing them.
If people weren’t so ridiculously credulous, lying would be a far more risky enterprise.

Privacy versus software bugs … d’oh!

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently launched a nice service that monitors the legal terms of service and privacy policies of prominent web sites and tracks changes that may impact their users. These documents are universally “subject to change without notice” so having an RSS feed lets customers know when changes happen as they are made. If you are the sort of person who actually reads these documents you can just follow the alterations.

[Note: the rest gets technical.] At some point this service got configured to track what appears to be a test document, and so long as this document doesn’t change there is no effect. Last night access permission to that test document changed, becoming no longer available. The web server in turn duly refused to service it (to a request presumably from itself), returning an HTTP 403 error. This, in turn, was interpreted as a change in the policy to now read “403 Forbidden” (a most unusual and terse privacy policy) and was reported to the feed. Ironically, in a commonplace programming oversight, the error also showed debugging information including the name of the file access was forbidden for, which includes the programmer’s user account name (a common first name I won’t copy here). Does this bug in a very well intentioned effort to protect our privacy violate the privacy policy of the EFF in publicly disclosing the programmer’s name?

Mainstream media

The press is supposed to ensure fair and open exchange of information and opinions, but in recent times it seems to be serving a contrary purposes – information filtering and message control. Paul Krugman uses his excellent blog at the country’s biggest newspaper to make this point in very direct terms. Simply put, by doggedly choosing representatives of certain viewpoints and ignoring others media easily defines what “mainstream” is rather than present it.

Another tactic frequently used is given one position on an issue they will present a competing viewpoint in opposition, spouting misinformation and flawed arguments, as if the two were equally valid and reasonable.

Trickery like this turns the media into a tool to perpetuate an agenda – all the more effective because it operates within a system of democratic rules. It’s a level playing field, but but one where individuals cannot begin to compete with concentrated wealth and power.

An innovative business model for journalism

According to Politico, the publisher of the Washington Post was planning to sell access to elite government officials and its reporters and editors to lobbyists. The event is now canceled after a flier leaked offering to deliver the paper’s “health care reporting and editorial staff.” Blame fell on the marketing department for “misrepresenting” the event but they didn’t say how the marketeers could completely disregard consideration of issues like journalistic integrity. Points for imaginative monetization but this can’t be the way to save the foundering newspaper business model.

Once again, people we would like to trust display jaw-dropping gall – are they abusing our trust, or ignorant, or incompetent? Somehow by leaving the details vague these things fade away. One wonders if at a planning meeting a junior person timidly asked about the ethical aspect of this effort, or questioned if this idea might be misconstrued possibly …

By way of a footnote just to how what an environment of commercialism news reporting exists within, I noted an odd double underlining of the word “administration” in the Politico piece lead: an ad pops up offering healthcare insurance.

Update: The publisher has issued a resounding apology letter to readers. Apparently despite policy against selling access off the record, that’s what almost happened. Blame is squarely placed on “the flier” as if it somehow emerged on its own and caused a terrible misunderstanding.

The audacity of bankers

Bill Moyers Journal often has terrific guests who say things one doesn’t hear on mainstream media, but William K. Black was all this and more.

Well, the way that you do it is to make really bad loans, because they pay better. Then you grow extremely rapidly, in other words, you’re a Ponzi-like scheme. … It also makes it inevitable that there’s going to be a disaster down the road.

All of those checks and balances report to the CEO, so if the CEO goes bad, all of the checks and balances are easily overcome. And the art form is not simply to defeat those internal controls, but to suborn them, to turn them into your greatest allies. And the bonus programs are exactly how you do that.

Geithner is publicly saying that it’s going to take $2 trillion — a trillion is a thousand billion — $2 trillion taxpayer dollars to deal with this problem. But they’re allowing all the banks to report that they’re not only solvent, but fully capitalized. Both statements can’t be true. It can’t be that they need $2 trillion, because they have masses losses, and that they’re fine.

The April 6 interview is a good read and makes a very compelling case that isn’t very complicated at all. Yet the media loves to portray the financial situation as highly complex and technical, supporting the view that the people who made the mess are the only ones who can possibly comprehend it … very convenient for them, isn’t it?

Timeless universe

I note without really understanding an interesting new model where time is an emergent property rather than a fundamental feature of physics.

It is not reality that has a time flow, but our very approximate knowledge of reality. Time is the effect of our ignorance.

Time is so deeply fundamental to human experience that conceiving of reality otherwise seems beyond our capability to directly grapple with such a concept. We can consider anything with sufficient degrees of abstraction, increasingly distancing our thinking from that actual reality it attempts to represent.

Whether or not this new model will prove to have merit, it’s wonderful to see after so much research in fundamental physics for so many years that human imagination still concocts new ideas.

The university journalism model

Juan Cole suggests journalism at universities as an alternative to traditional print media that seems to be struggling to find a viable business model. His excellent Informed Comment blog provides excellent coverage on Middle East news and commentary not well covered in the mainstream media.

I like the idea a lot: news is very much a form of continuing public education. Universities have large scale funding and traditions of academic freedom and openness are ideal to the task of informing.