20120417

All-But-Dissertation Blues


To the tune of House of the Rising Sun. And you're lucky I don't have a backing band.

There is a stage in grad school
They call the ABD
It's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And Lord, it's got to me

My adviser was a madman
He taught me pure theory
My committee's full of geniuses
They never will agree

Now the only thing a grad student needs
Is a laptop and caffeine
But there's no way to escape
Being ABD

Oh mothers tell your children
Not to follow me
Waste your lives in irrelevance
Being ABD

Well I got my research interests
And there's nobody to blame
I'm going for a post-doc
To wear that ball and chain

Well, there is a stage in grad school
They call the ABD
It's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And Lord, it's got to me


20120413

Beyond Space Exploration

Predrag Bokšić | perceptron
This past Friday, my good friend and colleague John Carter McKnight organized a little stealth seminar on space travel, and detecting small trends in the social media sphere before they blow up. These days, John does the politics of virtual world, but about a decade ago he was active in the spaceflight movement (blast from the past, eh John?) before the whole thing got swallowed by the invasion of Iraq and America’s imperial mission to search and destroy every bad person on the AfPak border with robots. But he and fellow mad social scientist Kathryn Denning (part of the team that won DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Challenge) had a conversation about the viability of private spaceflight, and the notion that a bunch of tech billionaires (Elon Musk, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Robert Bigelow) have the resources to launch their own space program, and damn government policy or economic rationality! They want to go to space because it’s cool and they have the money.

There are a lot of new actors on the stage, but at the end of the day, the big money is still with the government, either in NASA or the military, and if space flight is really our human destiny, it’s going to need public buy-in. There are major technical challenges to putting large numbers of people in orbit: launch costs are still too damn high, running a closed-cycle life support system is open problem, and zero-gravity is tough on the human body. If this stuff is what you care about, I recommend Project Rho. But I’m not an engineer and I don’t do technical fixes.

My problem with space these days is that the rhetoric and policies are dated bullshit, and rather than try and come up with new justifications, space advocates just double down on same old arguments. For example, let’s take Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent testimony before Congress.

“The only people doing much dreaming back then [late 1950s-early 1970s] were scientists, engineers, and technologists. Their visions of tomorrow derive from their formal training as discoverers. And what inspired them was America’s bold and visible investment on the space frontier.

Exploration of the unknown might not strike everyone as a priority. Yet audacious visions have the power to alter mind-states — to change assumptions of what is possible. When a nation permits itself to dream big, those dreams pervade its citizens’ ambitions. They energize the electorate. During the Apollo era, you didn’t need government programs to convince people that doing science and engineering was good for the country. It was self-evident. And even those not formally trained in technical fields embraced what those fields meant for the collective national future.”


Let me just grab some key words: Dream, ambition, discover, explore, frontier. These are the core rhetorics of the Space Race, and NdGT argues that by refunding NASA and putting these ideals at the center of the national mission, we can inspire the future. The problem with his argument is that it’s causally reversed. These ideas inspired a generation of scientists because they related to the immediate political and cultural concerns of the era.

The ambition of the Space Race was tied up with a competition for national prestige between the USA and USSR. The competition for space demonstrated the technical capabilities necessary to fight a nuclear war to domestic, opposed, and unaligned audiences. More than that, however, the space race transformed the unthinkable 45 minute annihilation of an actual nuclear war into a human drama. As Tom Wolfe explains in the authoritative cultural history of space, The Right Stuff, astronauts were modern knights, champions of democracy who put their courage to the test by riding flaming steeds into orbit.
What it was was a matter of prestige, and prestige only goes so far as a rationale for any activity. Keeping up with the Joneses only makes sense when there are Joneses, and the world of today looks very different than the bipolar geopolitics of the Cold War. China and India are not threats in the same way that the USSR was, and their ability to match 40 year old American accomplishments is not seen as diminishing the prestige of being first. Indeed, if you look at the List of Space Agencies, you’ll see some surprising countries: Greece, Nigeria, Mongolia, Sri Lanka. For these small states, having a space program is prestigious; just launching a satellite is a major accomplishment. A similar logic applies to individuals in the private spaceflight: a successful launch proves their engineering chops, while being one of the very few private astronauts gives unique bragging rights. But as space flight becomes more common, it must become less prestigious.

Second, space flight is heroic only to the extent that it is dangerous. People watched rocket launches because there was a very real chance that the rockets would explode. Space flight, once it became relatively safe, stopped attracting public interest. There are very good human and economic reasons why we want our rockets to be as reliable as possible, (and drawing the crowd that watches NASCAR for the crashes is not exactly a high ambition), but NASA’s zero-risk attitude is anathema to innovation.

In fact, I think there might be an argument that competing against the prestigious missions of the past is one of the things harming NASA. The marginally improved next-gen launcher is discarded in favor of some aspirational, transformation project. Politicians and the public expect a mission to match the heroism and drama of the moon landings, forgetting that much of the heroism and drama was retrospective. Modern space flight is compared to its heroic past, and inevitably found wanting.

The other argument that has to be deconstructed is “exploring the frontier”. You want to explore space: go outside and look up. In the Age of Exploration, people had to sail on ships to other places because the world is curved and you can’t see over the horizon. While there are legitimate disputes about manned spaceflight versus robotic probes, telescopes unarguably tell us more about the universe than any reasonable manned interstellar mission would. On a cosmic scope, space exploration feels less like a journey into the unknown, and more a paddle across the lagoon. Yes, it is dangerous and challenging, but we can see the far shore.

The Age of Exploration rhetoric also ignores the commercial motives of the European explorers, who sailed around the world to trade with, colonize, and conquer native people. Exploration was at its core a human and economic effort. Not until the 18th century and the voyages of James Cook did pure science become part of the motive for exploration.

Space is a great resource for pure science, like telescopes and Earth monitoring satellites, but the economic motive is harder to find. There’s no one to trade with, and the most accessible resource is simply altitude to use for communication and surveillance system. Asteroid mining and other space resource extraction is uneconomic because spaceflight is expensive, and spaceflight is expensive because there’s no economic reason to go space.

Tyson, Elon Musk, and other space-flight advocates hope that one day the economic motives will be self-sustaining, but until then they desire access to public resources and play on national pride, engineering excellence, the value of pure science, and other essentially technological arguments to obtain them. But as declining interested in human space flight shows, people can see through these narrowly constructed rhetorics of pride and exploration.

I think one solution is to increase our tolerance for risk (the hundreds of people volunteering for one-way-to-Mars shows that there's something there), and we need heroes. We would also need to accept that some of them would die, and I'm not sure if we can do that. Another low-hanging economic mission that needs more effort is cleaning up space debris: some orbits are close to unusable, and maintaining the rights to navigate in space is a reasonable extension of the traditional government mission to keep open sea lanes. I’m not sure what is beyond space exploration, but I can say that harping on these same two points is not going to get these people the Mars missions they want.


20120409

Mass Effect 3: The Consequences of Narrative Incoherence

I finally finished Mass Effect 3. It was definitely a slick AAA title, and had a lot of good points, but it also had more than a few rough edges. I really enjoy the high-action space opera of the Mass Effect series, and the willingness of a big studio to make original IP rather than recycle Star Wars yet again. But the most interesting thing about Mass Effect 3 is the huge divergence between professional reviews and user reviews (As of now, on Metacritic it’s 8.9 vs 3.8) Pretty much everybody agrees that Mass Effect 3 is a solid game with some of the best combat in the series, but the ending is even more hated than the ending of Battlestar Galactica. In fact, fan backlash against the ending has been so intense that after a month, Bioware promised to fix it with DLC. There are many plausible explanations for why the ending fell apart, but I think it’s because the game tried to make two contradictory narratives, and could not resolve then. I’ll try to keep this spoiler free until the end, so please read on.

First, some definitions: Narrative is generated by the interactions between the player and the game. Story is what the game says, the cutscenes and dialog. Action is what the game does, the small details of play and plot. And Background is what the game is about, the history and philosophy. This is not a universal model, but it fits ME3, which breaks up shooter sequences with dramatic cutscenes, and supplies a lot of information about the world through text entries in the in-game Codex and War Readiness display.

The story of Mass Effect 3 is about Sacrifice and Standing Together, and it hammers points relentlessly. I think there were about a half-dozen instances where NPC of the mission dies finish the job, or holding off the enemy so Shepard can finish the mission. It’s pretty much The Sands of Iwo Jima in space, with Shepard trying to hold on as friends die all around him. The writers draw liberally from a rich cultural history of war movies here, and while it can be a little schmaltzy in places, it mostly works, and a few pieces are truly exceptional. The game does a good job establishing these characters, their stories, making their sacrifices have emotional impact.

The second side of the story is about building an alliance of all the sentient races in the galaxy to fight the Reapers and save Earth. The ME3 universe is actually a pretty interesting place, with a more complex than average group of humanoid aliens, most of whom have committed horrific war crimes against each other in the past. There are eminently plausible reasons why the galaxy does not unite, even in the face of an existential threat. Here, the writers don’t do as good of job. They’re clearly trying to run with Babylon 5: Season 3, but the dialog options just aren’t good enough to make it seem like failure is an option, or that the stakes matter. Compared to the conversation system in Deus Ex: Human Revolution Mass Effect is clunky and old school. Most problems can be solved by ((Renegade Interrupting)) whichever dignitary is being difficult, which cheapens the story about Standing Together.

As I mentioned, the action in the game is a slick 3rd-person shooter with squad-based tactics and RPG elements. It’s done very well, if the game is mostly running through a corridor from set-piece battle to set-piece battle, but what narrative component of the action says (i.e. what a somebody who didn’t speak English would get out of it) is that Shepard always arrives in the nick of time and saves the day by shooting people in the face.

Mass Effect is a space opera, and both the story and the action support the premise that the right person in the right place at the right time (with a gun) can change history. In fact, to be more explicit about it, the first two games were really a Western in Space, with Shepard as a literal space sheriff travelling from colony to colony defending them against various types of space Injun (Gith, Collectors, Pirates, Slavers, Reapers) as he gather the evidence and allies necessary to confront the villain; It could be subtitled Have Blaster-Will Travel. The Paragon-Renegade morality meter is basically what color hat Shepard wears, whether he’s John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Westerns don’t have the cultural cachet that they used to, but they’re still a good formula for a game, and they go with science-fiction like peanut butter and chocolate. (Star Trek was originally pitched as ‘wagon train in space.’)

The third game abandons that familiar formula to put Shepard in the middle of a full-scale war between humanity and the Reapers, and it’s this third part, the setting, that contradicts the established Mass Effect narrative. The third game opens with the Reapers attacking Earth, blowing through the planetary defenses as if they weren’t even there. Within hours, mankind is reduced to fighting a desperate guerilla war for survival as mile high robotic death machinehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifs stalk through major cities, ‘harvesting’ the population and converting them in zombie footsoldiers. It’s made very clear that the Reapers totally outclass galactic forces, and that only insane suicide attacks have a chance of doing any damage whatsoever. The military is being attrited away to nothing, civil infrastructure has been smashed, millions of people are dying every day, and nobody can do anything to stop the Reapers.

The only way to describe the setting of Mass Effect 3 is ‘Cosmic Nihilism’. Every 50,000 years or so, these gigantic living starships appear and destroy technological civilization, neatly explaining the Fermi paradox, the divergence between the expected frequency of life in the universe and the lack of evidence for life. Mass Effect borrows this device from the Berserker novels by Fred Saberhagen, and Alistair Reynolds’ absolutely bleak Revelation Space series. Derivative as they are they, the Reapers are wonderfully horrifying: invincible, super-intelligent death machines that are not just more powerful than any spaceship humanity can build, but who use ‘indoctrination’ to convert organics to their cause, and who corrupt our very bodies to manufacture zombie soldiers.

The Reapers are a powerful setting element, but they’re also bleak and deprotagonizing. Shepard is reduced from the Only Person Who Can Save the Galaxy to just another soldier in the war. RPGs have trouble getting away from a framework of fetch quests, but where Mass Effect 1 and 2 gave you a plausible way to explore the galaxy at your own pace, ME3 has you zipping from crisis to crisis retrieving the supplies needed the build the Crucible, the experimental super-weapon which is only hope against the Reapers. Meanwhile, the game flinches away from asking what it takes for people without high-end combat armor and an experimental stealth frigate to simply survive the Reapers. The sacrifices you witness and the alliances you build are drained of meaning, because the setting implies that the real action in the Reaper War is playing Sophie’s Choice with entire planets.

All through the game, I was wondering how they were going to square the melodramatic soul of Mass Effect 3 with its nihilistic exterior. Spoilers follow.

The end of the game takes Shepard to Earth, where he leads a final charge of the combined forces of the galaxy against the Reapers to seize control of the Citadel (which has been relocated to Earth) and activate the Crucible, which will end the war. Nobody has any idea if the plan will work, but nobody has any better ideas, since a conventional war on all fronts is a sure loss against the Reapers. Shepard makes it to the Citadel, but is heavily wounded and staggers around armed only with a pistol. He confronts The Illusive Man and a strange AI which is responsible for the Reapers in a philosophical dialog about what man can and can’t control, and the destiny of organic and machine life in the galaxy, before making a three-button choice where Shepard alone determines the fate of the galaxy.

Yeah… We all saw that one coming.


What really bugs me is not that this is a bad ending; it’s just an ending for an entirely different game. The philosophical questions that are raised are interesting questions, and they’re handled in a relatively mature way for a video game. But they’re questions which are peripheral to the story. Shepard doesn’t care about controlling things; Paragon wants to let people make their own decisions and Renegade just wants to do whatever gets the job done. The Illusive Man is obviously insane and corrupted, and has nothing to offer Shepard aside from a change for another ((Renegade Interrupt)), and an unsatisfying one at that. The Reapers actually have an interesting philosophy about preserving a cyclical balance between organic and machine life, and allowing the next generation of organic species to rise and flourish, but these points are only brought up periodically in the game. For something so alien and cool, it deserves more time.

Mass Effect 3 fan endings are a cottage industry now, but if I were to do mine, I’d likely drop the grand war plot and focus on Shepard versus The Illusive Man, and make it so that the personal relationships, the sacrifices, and the way that his crew stands together are what counts in the end. But if you want epic, Professor Phobos at RPG.net knows how to do it right.

Mass Effect 3 was a good game, but it will always be regarded as a seriously flawed finale to the series. The confused ending is understandable, given the conflicting demands of the two narratives, but Bioware choose to bury a minimal ending under random mysticism rather than give us closure. This was a failure of vision and of management, and a major studio should know better.


20120406

Jython and Feedback Fractals in 42 Lines

Python is known for its simple, readable syntax. Java is known for its cross-platform support, including the relatively full-featured swing API for writing graphical user interfaces. Python, however, lacks an attractive built-in cross-platform graphical user interface toolkit, and Java is often criticized for having verbose syntax and clumsy support for closures. The solution? Jython. Jython is an implementation of the Python interpreter on the Java virtual machine. It provides easy access to all of the standard Java libraries, with Python's slick and readable syntax. Thus, it allows you to rapidly develop cross-platform applications with graphical user interfaces. If you already know Python syntax and have worked with the Java swing API before, you can get started immediately. If you don't know Python, you can also get started immediately, the syntax is very easy to pick up. Learning how to work with Swing might take a bit more time.

To demonstrate Jython, here is a small Julia set fractal feedback rendering demo. There are only 42 lines of actual code, and it was genuinely fun to write. This will display a small window that actively renders Julia set animations using the feedback method. The app tracks the mouse position and changes the Julia set parameter accordingly.

#!/usr/bin/env jython

from javax.swing import *
from java.awt import *
from java.awt.image import *
from java.awt.event import *

FUNCTION = lambda z:z**2 # Recurrence ( should be even )
FIELDS = 4 # Field size in complex plane
S = 256 # Buffer size, must be power of 2
CENTER = complex(1,1)*FIELDS*0.5 # Center of plane ( defaults to 0 )
CLIP = S-1 # Used for wrapping buffer coordinates
LEN = S*S # Total buffer size
QUIT = LEN/2 # Amount of buffer to actually compute

def render(source,target,mapping,hue,offx,offy):
'''
Uses the previous frame, along with the cached mapping, to compute the
next frame. Off-screen pixels default to the color given by hue.
offx and offy define a constant shift of the recurrence function
'''
color = Color.getHSBColor(float(hue),1.,1.).RGB
miny,maxy = -offy,S-offy
for i in xrange(QUIT):
(x,y) = mapping[i]
if y>=miny and y<maxy:
c = source.getElem(((x+offx)&CLIP)+((y+offy)*S))
else:
c = color
target.setElem(i,c)
target.setElem(LEN-i-1,c)

def computePoint(x,y):
'''
Sends a point in buffer coordinates through the mapping function,
converting back to buffer coordinates before returning
'''
z = FUNCTION(complex(x,y)/S*FIELDS-CENTER)*S/FIELDS
return int(z.real+0.5)+S,int(z.imag+0.5)

class FractalMouseListener(MouseMotionAdapter):
'''
Updates the constant offset to correspond to the mouse location
'''
def mouseMoved(self,e):
global offx,offy,F
offx,offy = e.x*S/F.width,e.y*S/F.height

# Program start :
# declare two buffers for rendering ( buffer flipping approach )
# extract the dataBuffers underlying the BuffferedImages, for speedy access
# precompute the complex mapping in terms of buffer coordinates
# set the initial offset and to 0

img,buf = BufferedImage(S,S,BufferedImage.TYPE_INT_RGB),BufferedImage(S,S,BufferedImage.TYPE_INT_RGB)
mapping = [computePoint(x,y) for y in xrange(S) for x in xrange(S)]
offx,offy = 0,0
hue = 0.0

# Windowing commands :
# Declare a new Jpanel, and give it our mouse motion listener
# Declare a new JFrame to contain the fractal JPanel, show it

F = JPanel()
F.addMouseMotionListener(FractalMouseListener())
jf = JFrame('Demo',defaultCloseOperation=JFrame.EXIT_ON_CLOSE,contentPane=F,size=(S,S),visible=1)

# Now, as long as the program is running, loop and render frames
# We advance the hue each frame, flip the buffers
# Render the next frame of the fractal and send it to the screen

while 1:
hue = hue + 0.05
img,buf = buf,img
render(img.raster.dataBuffer,buf.raster.dataBuffer,mapping,hue,offx,offy)
F.graphics.drawImage(img,0,0,F.width,F.height,None)


20120405

Simpsons Did It

One of the better post-shark jump episodes of The Simpsons is New Kids on the Blecch, where Bart and the some other boys from school are recruited to join a boy band, The Party Posse. N'SYNC guest stars, and the thing goes totally off the rails when Lisa discovers that Party Posse is actually using subliminal messages to get people to join the navy.


Because I have terrible taste in everything, I kinda like "Drop Da Bomb", which manages a pitch-perfect parody of both boy bands and American bellicosity. (Sorry for the crap quality, yay copyright laws)

So anyway, I'm just wandering around Vimeo when I see:

Yeah, Katy Perry makes a music video about joining the Marines, where she climbs obstacle courses and gets yelled at by drill sergeants and shoots guns and drives tanks and there's martial arts choreography and ow my brain. On the whole, though, it's not that much stranger than any other pop video, just more militaristic. Sure, the idea that there any women as pretty as Katy Perry in the Marines is probably the biggest lie about the USMC ever put to film (that fucking Lava Monster might actually exist, for all we know), but at least it accurately depicts one of the Best Reasons to join the Marines; a bad break up.

So, a particularly parodic episode of The Simpsons becomes an actual thing. Just more evidence that Bruce Sterling has taken over the reality generator. I just wonder what real Marines think of the whole thing...

Fake Edit: Exhaustive investigation on the internet shows that the Terminal Lance guy thinks it 'isn't all that bad'. Other dudes on the internet are torn between boobs, laughably inaccurate, and "I only listen to good music" (which is a grotesque lie).

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.


20120403

Trayvon Martin and Outrageously Bad Decisions

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard about Trayvon Martin, and his death at the hands of George Zimmerman, a Florida “community watch captain.” Trayvon Martin’s tragic death has prompted a national debate about racism in 21st century America, “Stand Your Ground Laws” and the expansion of gun rights, and how biased the LIEberal Media is (Warning: Link to Fox News, go down the rabbit hole at your own risk). In all the heat about hot-button issues and the he-said-she-said arguments about the exact circumstances of events surrounding the shooting, we’ve lost sight of two important issues.

George Zimmerman shooting and killing Trayvon Martin was a human tragedy, but what transforms it from a tragedy to an outrage is that George Zimmerman walked out of police custody without being charged with any sort of crime on the recognizance of a very small group of police officials. We like to believe that the justice system is about finding the truth; that the law looks like 12 Angry Men. But the truth does not exist out in the world, to found and collected like a pebble. In law, as in science, the truth is constructed: A single version of reality emerges from the rhetorical contestation between opposing parties.

We accept how the legal system constructs the truths of innocence or guilt because it combines the technocratic expertise of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges, with the democratic deliberation of a jury of our peers. By and large, we believe that the system works, and in cases where it does not work, we can point to the transparent functioning of the system, and critique how the case diverged from our desire for justice.

In the Trayvon Martin case, justice was constructed by the Sanford Police Department, interpreted according to a relatively new law passed by a vocal and powerful political minority of gun right’s advocates, rather than the broader Common Law understanding of murder and culpability. That a man can walk away from a shooting death, without any sort of judicial inquiry, purely on the recognizance of the police, is outrageous.

The second fact which has been lost is that the reason Trayvon Martin was walking down that street at that time was that he had been suspended from school for 10 days for “possession of a pipe and a baggie which may have contained marijuana.” Some conservative pundits have been using this as evidence that Trayvon Martin was a thug and Zimmerman was right to shoot him, but really: A 17 year-old smoking marijuana? Oh My God! The Horror, the Horror! Call the DEA and Interpol, there’s a dangerous criminal on the loose!

No. What’s outrageous is that we believe that kicking a kid out of school is a reasonable form of discipline. Discipline is supposed to be an act of ‘strict training’, according to Foucault’s reading of 18th century education structures. Suspension teaches a student that misbehavior results in more free time, and upon return to the classroom, a greater degree of confusion. Perhaps the rationale behind suspension is that it is supposed to provide time to reflect on one’s errors, in the manner of the penitentiary (literally a place to be penitent), but this implies an unrealistically optimistic appraisal of teenager’s ability to reflect. The only way in which suspension might be effective is in removing a disruptive student from the population so that others can be educated. But even if that is true, the way that suspension is applied is piecemeal and ineffective.

It’s a undeniable statistical fact that being young, black, and male in America is a very bad idea. Black men are massively over-represented in suspensions, prisons, and ultimately the morgue. A slippery slope leads from a youthful disciplinary violation to lower grades, reduced economic opportunities, and higher crime. Even if Jim Crow is dead and buried, we still absurdly punish people for their skin color rather than their choices. This is morally wrong, and this is a persistent human tragedy, and it is one that we as Americans have accepted and ignored and for far too long. There are no simple solutions here, no easy path to justice.

The death of Trayvon Martin is not the result of a broad cultural problem about which we can wash our hands and say ‘it’s just too big to fix, so sorry.’ Rather, Trayvon Martin is dead and we are angry because of the decisions of smalls group of bureaucrats who have made policy in a way that is easy for them to administer but socially injurious. This is a rightful target for our outrage: the persistent corruption that allows schools to slowly fail ‘problem’ students without consequences, and a police force that protects and serves the interests of the powerful rather than the weak.


20120401

I am at the airport. There is something morbidly comical about advertisements at the security lines. Every inch where attention is captive, even the plastic bins in which one must place shoes, belts, jackets, toothpaste, shampoo, and computers. These are the tar sands of advertising, squeezing a few last seconds from our unconsenting visual systems. It's ok, I suppose, it just feels strange that a government mandated program should seek advertising revenue. It's like having commercials playing on loop at the line in the department of motor vehicles, or having the social security office sponsored buy CocaCola.

Sorry for the spam.