Routing around Facebook damage

The internet was born out of research for the U.S. military on how to create a network which could withstand a nuclear attack. The instructions for how the internet gets your data from your computer in Peoria to a server in San Francisco are still based on that early 1960s research. Recent research shows that the internet has retained this resiliency in the face of network damage.

In December of 1993, John Gilmore famously quipped "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." I don't know if this is the first time that someone has treated a social rule of the internet as being as factual and inviolable as a simple network algorithm, but it's certainly one of the more notable ones. With a large enough mass of users, we can treat all internet users as one organism and make predictions about its behavior.

This is what I thought of today when the Mozilla Corporation released the Facebook Container Extension for Firefox:

This extension helps you control more of your web activity from Facebook by isolating your identity into a separate container. This makes it harder for Facebook to track your activity on other websites via third-party cookies.


When you install this extension it will delete your Facebook cookies and log you out of Facebook. The next time you visit Facebook it will open in a new blue-colored browser tab (aka “container tab”). In that tab you can login to Facebook and use it like you normally would. If you click on a non-Facebook link or navigate to a non-Facebook website in the URL bar, these pages will load outside of the container.

This is fascinating. The internet is starting to treat Facebook as damage and is starting to route around it.


Minneapolis/St. Paul Mini Maker Faire 2017!

Last month I participated in the Minneapolis St. Paul Mini Maker Faire! This was my third year exhibiting. (I have to dig through the archives to find pictures of my previous years exhibits and post those at some point).

This year, after the faire was over, I remembered to do a little video that demonstrated my "analog" synthesizer. Here it is:

I say it's "analog" because I use microcontrollers to emulate analog synthesizer components. The 8 bit VCO/VCA uses an 8 bit micro controller, but it takes in real analog voltages and outputs an audio waveform, effectively compressing a full VCO and VCA into a tiny little board.

I'm working on these as products, and I would love to hear your thoughts during the development process. Write me a comment below with any questions you want answered or ideas you have.





I wish we lived in a more loving world

In a more loving world, the Christian bakers would bake cakes for the gays in order to demonstrate unconditional love, and the gays would avoid going to a Christian baker if they knew it would offend the baker's sensibilities.

(Obligatory position statement: I would bake the cake, no sensibilities offended. And yes I understand that in some states (the deep south, for instance) it would be impossible to avoid offending someone's sensibilities. In a more loving world, everything would all work out.)


Not sure that oblivious is the right word here

My wife claims that I am oblivious to "what needs to be done" in order to have people over to the house.

In the house I grew up in, people coming over is not an Event for which one needs a checklist. People came over, almost every day. Often, entirely unannounced. Sometimes all at once. Pull up another couple chairs, I'll start another pot of coffee.

So my mental model of having people over is quite a bit more... informal than hers is. I'm certainly not oblivious to what my wife thinks needs to be done, do I see the toys on the floor? Yes. Do I think that it matters? Not as much as she does.

Even so, I enthusiastically welcome the checklist. Getting the checklist out where I can see it is much better than having the checklist only exist in her head.

Further reading:
Why Scruffy Hospitality Creates Space for Friendship
How to Host a Crappy Dinner (And See Your Friends More Often)


The balance between writing and production

I was listening to an interview with Louis CK earlier in the week. The interview itself is fairly mediocre, but there was a question and answer session at the end that was very good. The Q&A session is nearly half of the whole video linked below, and I highly recommend it.

I've been thinking about one thing he said in the Q&A session. First, a little background.

Louis CK has a television show on FX called Louie [wiki] [imdb] [official site]. It's a dark comedy, hard to describe, and there is nothing else like it on television. In part, this is because Louis CK is the writer, director, main actor, and editor (!) of the entire series. As such, he has incredible creative control over the whole series (he points out that FX has, legally, the ability to do anything they want to with the series, but he has a verbal agreement that they won't interfere with how the series is made.

In one of the questions, he described his writing process. One of the problems with the modern TV show, is that it is overwritten, for the most part. There is a rough draft, it gets sent over to a team of writers, and perfected, and perfected, and perfected. The issue with that, is that everything is perfected in the same direction. And it lends a sameness to all of the shows on TV these days.

So what he does is write everything, get it out in a rough draft format, and just leave it. He does very little re-writing or script revisions. (One of the things this helps with is keeping that initial spark of an idea intact.)

Then later, during the directing, he is very meticulous about how he deconstructs the script and splits it up into scenes, not just in terms of blocking out the scenes, but also working with the cinematographer to get exactly the right lens for the scene to get the optical effect he wants that scene to have.

It's almost as if the re-write is taking place during the production, but in a more principled, disciplined fashion, because he was the original writer! He's not just going in and rewriting (have you ever rewritten someone else's work? It's hard!), he's working with the script and bringing it to life.

And of course, he does the editing, which is absolutely critical. Editing is what gives a film a fine grained sense of emotional tone. Holding a cut a frame or two too long, or cutting something up a frame or two too short, can just destroy the emotional connection the viewer has with the movie.

Here's a great example of what I mean (although it focuses on physical comedy, which is only one small aspect of what I am talking about.)

To maintain that emotional connection with the viewer, it really is all about every single little detail. Everything matters, even the things you had no idea could possibly matter.


Tommy Chong's Vancouver

I came across this article by Tommy Chong, on how he got started in the entertainment business.

When we were introduced to the club manager, he said “Boys, there are two rules here: you eat in the kitchen, and you don’t mess with the waitresses.” I got the clear idea we weren’t to have sex with the attractive women! As you may gather from his opening warning, we looked like a fearsome punk blues band – and did indeed live the rock-n-roll lifestyle, we five rough Canadian brawlers. “So, where are the waitresses?” popped out of my mouth.

But we were really not right for this club. [...] That gig lasted one night before we were fired, but two of the waitresses, Joanne and Marlene, left with us. The next night, five gangsters came to see us at a Chinese restaurant while our drummer and manager Sonny was out looking for a new gig. Each of these enforcers had a baseball bat in hand and they took positions behind each of us. “We want the girls back.” It was a very tense moment, and clearly a consequence of our flouting the instructions to not mess with the waitresses. They took the two women away in their car, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Moments later, the girls ran back into the restaurant, announced they had hopped out the bruisers’ taxicabs at a stoplight, and had returned to stay with us.

That’s when we decided to get the hell out of there! We left the restaurant and piled everything from the Astoria into our bruised and battered Buick. All of our equipment and six people were stuffed in this sorry excuse for a vehicle, and as we pulled up to a red light, we thought we saw the gangsters inside a cab next to us! ...

Look at all of those things he tried, and did, and failed at, and made happen! It seems the zeitgeist of the present day is you have one big idea, one app, one major, one business model, relentless focus, one career, one specialty. And, I mean, there are people who are the best in the world at what they do, or at least right up there. And focus is important. But there is a time for focus, and a time for action. In the zeitgeist that often gets lost, I feel like there can be too much emphasis on singular focus and not enough emphasis on action.

Another way of putting it. What are you focusing against? Not what are you focusing on, I am not asking that. A lens is a thing in the middle between two other things. The thing that you are focusing on, and the film or digital sensor that is receiving the image. I posit that if the thing you are focusing against is your mind, and not your actions, you can burn a hole in it, metaphorically speaking.

Always keep shipping.

[Related Seth Godin post]

A Conversation with Jackie Chan

I greatly enjoyed this interview with Jackie Chan.

"I cannot think of anyone else who has risked his or her life as much as you have, making films..."
"I don't want to. I have no choice!"
"Was there any one point when you thought that, I might have gone too far?"
"Uh... many, many times."

Don't miss his extended description of how he prepared for and how he felt during his famous helicopter jump stunt:

What is the meaning of life?

As we finished, a young waitress began clearing our table. She stopped to listen to the conversation, and finally sat down, abandoning her work. After a while, when there was a pause, she spoke to the Dalai Lama. "Can I, um, ask a question?" She spoke with complete seriousness. "What is the meaning of life?"

In my entire week with the Dalai Lama, every conceivable question had been asked—except this one. There was a stunned silence at the table.

The Dalai Lama answered. "The meaning of life is happiness." He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her. "Hard question is not 'What is meaning of life?' That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or..." He paused. "Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?" He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a warm smile.

Originally from The Dalai Lama's Ski Trip; this condensed version is courtesy of my November 2014 copy of Readers Digest.

Minnesota State Fair 2014 Food Review

Blue Barn, Corn Fritters: Some reviewers found these to be too blue cheesy, but today I found them to be tasteless! Good sauce though, which is nice because that's the only thing with flavor. If they come back next year, I will give them one more chance, in the hopes of getting to that blue cheese heaven.

San Felipe, Fish Tacos: Been getting these for a few years now, and I have to say, each year they get more disappointing. I won't be getting them again next year.

Some random pizza place in the food building, cheese pizza: Of all the things to eat at the State Fair, my kids wanted a slice of cheese pizza. Three kids, at four dollars a slice. Ugh. Completely forgettable, the kind of pizza you know is going to be mediocre the moment you see it. The kids loved it though.

O'Garas, Pretzel Battered Cheese Curds: Everyone who has reviewed these has said they are really good. I will never know this year because the lines to buy them were impossibly, impossibly long.

Spring Grove Soda Pop: Got the Black Cherry for the first time. It's not too bad but I was expecting something a little less sweet maybe? Next time I will stick with the Lemon Sour, which is, of course, top notch.

Juanita's Fajitas, Steak Fajita: I get these every year. Only down side: messy.

Holy Land, Mediterranean Lemonade: Absolutely amazing. Expensive at four bucks, but totally worth it. Mint + lemonade with just the right amount of slushy ice mixed in, it's heavenly. I'm kind of seriously considering going back tomorrow just to get another one of these. Be warned, it is not a small amount of mint, and it's real mint, not mint flavoring. One of my children found it off putting. The other three could not get enough of it.

Holy Land, Gyro: Horrible, horrible, horrible. Not only was it the worst gyro I have ever had, but it is right up there for the worst food I have ever eaten, period. The lettuce looked like it was yesterday's lettuce, limp, and nearly every piece of it was starting to brown. The sauce was bland, there was no bite or tanginess. On the other hand, at least the sauce wasn't as bland as the meat. I do not know how it is possible to mess up gyro meat. This meat had nearly no flavor, and yet it managed to be unpleasantly salty. Perhaps the pita was okay, but I'll never know, because I ate this gyro with a fork, and I gave up eating before I found the pita.

On the plus side, they advertise their gyro as the biggest one at the State Fair, a fact which I do not doubt. If what you are after is sheer cubic inches rather than taste, perhaps this is the meal for you.

Famous Dave's, Korean BBQ Collar: This was good. Excellent meat. I do not know if this tastes how Korean BBQ is "supposed" to taste, but it's very, very good. The "kimchi" pickles taste nothing like kimchi but are also good in their own right. And quite spicy! The pickles look disappointing; I saw them and thought "dill.... and hot sauce flakes?" But believe me, these pickles are something else entirely. Only caveat: for 7 bucks, not a lot of food. Get an appetizer.

Blue Moon Diner, Sweet Corn Ice Cream: I got this last year and loved it, and then a friend of mine who was with us at the fair threw out my ice cream before I was done with it, because he thought I was finished. Been looking forward to it all year. It lives up to my own mental hype. They put some sweet, crunchy chex/corn garnish on the top which complements the ice cream perfectly. The only down note is that by the very end of the bowl, the saltiness becomes apparent.

Blue Moon Diner, Sno Ribbons: These are new this year, and have been hyped up quite a bit by the various online reviews. Something to keep in mind, they have different flavors every day, each flavor comes with its own garnishes and sauces and fiddly bits they stick on top. Today's flavors were the Arnold Palmer (Meyer Lemon Sno Ribbons with Iced Tea sauce) and some other thing which I have forgotten. That one sounded pretty good but it had rum bananas in it, and since I was sharing it with my kids, I didn't want to take any chances. You know, sometimes when a dessert has rum, it has a little bit of rum, and sometimes it has hic HI HOW ARE YOU amounts of rum in it.

How did they taste? I have no idea. I got the Arnold Palmer snow ribbons, set them down in front of my kids, went back to get the sweet corn ice cream, and by the time I got back, the ribbons were GONE.

Learning the Bass: timing

In a previous post about learning how to play the bass, I alluded to a fundamental problem that I was having. Even more fundamental than not knowing the notes...

I was having a hard time keeping time.

I have gotten better since then. It's still a weak point, but I'm much better than I was.

Back when I played guitar, it wasn't so bad. When I felt myself going off beat, I'd just sync myself up with the drummer and/or the bass player, and then I would go on my merry way. Since I played rhythm, all I had to do was get the strumming hand to go up and down and up and down at approximately the right speed and with the occasional nudge from fellow bandmates, I could stay on beat without too many problems.

But the bass! Just a note. I'm just playing a note, with no strumming hand to keep my time for me. And when I think back a year ago, oh, it was bad, it was so bad I didn't even know how I could possibly start fixing it.

So I am going to share with you a few exercises that I developed that were born out of my frustration at having so many problems with staying on the beat.

Here's the first insight. When playing the bass, you have to get the count in your head. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. Etc. I always thought it was kind of a musical cliche, almost a literary trope. As if people say "one, two, three, four" before a song because it was just tradition! I didn't know there was a utility or meaning to it.

Well there is. As a bass player, it's very important. The things you do on the ONE are different than the kinds of things you do on the FOUR. Knowing where you are in the count is very important to establishing a groove that connects with people on a fundamental level.

So here is the first exercise I came up with. Listening to music, and counting it off in my head. Any music, as long as it is in 4/4 time. I would put the iPod on shuffle and count my way through the playlist.

The idea here is to pay attention to the count, and how it affects the song I am listening to. Get that 1, 2, 3, 4 in my head. At first I had to literally count, as time went on I could do it silently in my head, and now it's starting to be more of a feeling than a literal count (although I still count from time to time when I need to or when I am learning a new song.)

That's the first exercise. Now, I'm going to tell you about The One.

A picture of Keeanu Reeves from The Matrix

No, not that One! I mean the One in the One, Two, Three, Four. When you are playing the bass on a funk song, you got to come in hard on the one. You got to hit that fundamental note. The note you hit is the root note of the chord that the band is playing.

Here, watch this short video to see what I'm talking about:

ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four. That ONE is the anchor of the whole song. (This is funk, of course, other styles of music may have different anchors.)

So now we come to exercise number two. I found a backing track on Youtube. Here's a good one:

This backing track is in D. The whole thing is in D. So I found a D on the fretboard. Second string, fifth fret. I started up the backing track, and I played a D on the ONE.

That's it, that's the whole thing. One song, one note, on the one. The whole point is to slow down and hit that string EXACTLY on the ONE. No other notes. Just count through the song, ONE, two, three, four, and hit that one note on the ONE. I tried to put all of my energy into the timing.

Now, why this? I'll tell you why: it beats the hell out of playing with a metronome. Metronome is just clicks. I can't relate to a metronome. But drums! Drums I can connect with.

Even so, I have to admit, only playing one note on the ONE gets a little boring after about a minute. And by the time the backing track was done, it was kind of a relief.

Then, I played it again. And again. And again. When I thought I couldn't possibly stand it one more time, I played it one more time after that. I used that frustrated bored energy and I focused it on what I was doing: getting that note exactly right.

After a few times through I got a little better. And then a little better. And so on.

Now, I explicitly forbade myself from playing any other notes. At all. Even though I had all kinds of cool notes going through my head, I had no idea how to play them. So I stuck with just one note. The whole point of this exercise anyway is the timing, the sticking to the ONE.

If you try this exercise I would love to hear how it went for you.

When you have reached the point where you want to play other notes, look up the pentatonic minor blues scale. Play any of those notes between the ONE. If you get bored with those notes, try others. There's a whole mess of notes on the fretboard. Try things out and see what sounds good. Try other backing tracks too. Just make sure you get back to the ONE.

BONUS: check out this Bootsy Collins video where he tells the story of James Brown showing him about the importance of the ONE:



Emotional range

On the way home, I stopped at a stoplight. I felt someone watching me, so I turned, and an enormous dog, with big, deep brown eyes was hanging halfway out the window, staring at me. Startled, I stared back. He was so happy, and I wanted to talk to him and be happy with him. I didn't talk to him, but I did stop and stare, glancing at the light every few seconds to see if it turned green.

He stared at me, happy. I stared at him, soaking it in. This went on for a good thirty seconds, and when I say good, it was good, you know what I mean?

The light turned green, I pulled ahead; through the rear view mirror I saw the people in the front seats. The driver was a hip looking guy in his early thirties, wearing glasses and no shirt. He was screaming at the woman in the passenger seat. Yelling, gesturing, upset and angry. The woman stared off into space; distant, wearing a tired, emotionless mask and clearly, emphatically, not listening. The happiest dog in the world was enjoying the breeze—leaning forward as far as he could without falling.

I turned at the next light, and the car drove on: yelling, gesturing, and angry; distant, tired, and emotionless; jowls, tongue, and spit flapping in the wind.

On self censorship

I read this Dan Gillmor article recently about the old blogosphere and it resonated with me.

Before I start sounding like a World War II veteran who has had a few too many, the other thing that I liked about the blogosphere was just how personal it was. Yes, that often meant someone was up in arms or foaming at the mouth about something — often topics that perhaps didn’t justify the level of outrage being displayed (yes, I’m looking at you, Mike) — but there was still that quintessential element of blogging as defined by Winer: namely, the unedited voice of a person, for better or worse.

I keep coming back to that and thinking about it. Unedited.

I think what Dan meant by "unedited" is literally, the lack of an editor. But I have to confess over the past several years I have been editing my own voice. Severely, to the point where the voice is not just edited, it is entirely silent.

I did this for a number of reasons. For one, when I rebooted the weblog a few years ago I decided to make it more technically focused. I intended to split off the "personal" side of the weblog to somewhere else entirely. That never happened. And I think I finally came to the conclusion that it's a dumb idea: I do not want Yet Another Blogging Engine To Upgrade, and furthermore I do not want Yet Another Account On Yet Another Damn Service That Is Selling Me And My Metadata To Advertisers.

The problem with keeping the new weblog technically oriented (or trying to, at any rate) is that sometimes I don't work on technical, makery, interesting things. And then I get out of the habit of writing, so when I do start working on interesting things again, I have a hard time writing about them. I think I'd rather keep up the writing muscle and abandon the tech purity, the ideal that my life is just one awesome maker project after another. It's not. Sometimes all four of my kids get sick at once and I have to spend a week taking care of them.

Second. I have some fairly nuanced views. I do not follow a party line or ideological school of thought. Nearly everything is very much a case-by-case thing. And I do change my mind, so please note that if you are reading this from the future I may feel differently. But the problem with not fitting perfectly into an ideological slot is that I feel like I am always censoring myself. I have good friends on both sides of many ideological issues and I don't want to offend or ruffle any feathers. I'm afraid of being misinterpreted or stereotyped, by both sides. And so I find myself agreeing with my liberal friends where it is safe to do so, and agreeing with my conservative friends when it is safe to do so, like a modern day political Zelig.

Third, I was always afraid of what my employer at the time would think about some of the stuff I was working on. In retrospect, I don't even know why I worried about that.

I'm going to start writing more around here, about things that I am thinking about. There will be a wider range of topics. I may talk about politics, or even (gasp) religion. Just remember that I love all of you, my readers, and I respect you and think you are awesome. May you all live long and happy lives. If we disagree on anything, let us do so in good faith.


Zero to Launch course review

Last summer I was selected to be a beta tester for a new course that Ramit Sethi is launching at IWT. The course is called "Zero to Launch" and it is all about how to start your own online business from absolute scratch. I learned a lot and it was a really intense experience. I made a ton of mistakes. In this post I want to give my review of the ZTL course. (Five word review: awesome, but not for everyone).
Before I even start, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. This is not an advertisement. Nobody is paying me to post this or to write it. If you feel like I am trying to sell you into this course, or if it feels scammy or scummy, then just close this browser tab and move on.

Let me repeat that. If you feel like I am trying to get you to buy into Zero to Launch, and you start feeling a little creepy, like this is a sales pitch or something, I want you to stop reading, close this browser window and DON'T SIGN UP FOR THE COURSE. This is not an ad, I am not trying to sell you anything. Please read the full disclosure at the bottom of the page as well.

If you have ever thought of starting an online business, you probably fall into one or two camps:

1. You know exactly what you want to do, what service you want to provide, and how you want to make and market your products.

2. You love the idea of having your own business, but you really aren't clear on how to start one or how to make it successful.

If you are in camp #1 then ZTL may or may not the right course for you. If you already have very strong ideas about what you want your online business to look like, then you are operating at a serious disadvantage. The very first lesson in ZTL is about how to find and pick the right idea for your business. And then, how to refine it, and get it exactly right. Expect to spend several days just exploring the ramifications of your idea, what is good about it, what is terrible about it, what are all of the things you NEVER thought of in a million years, yet will completely sink you before you even start.

If you have a very rigid idea of what you want your online business to be.... well, wait. Before I even get into that, for one thing, your idea is probably very dumb. ZTL is not some magic fairy dust you can sprinkle on a crummy idea and make it successful. Let me repeat that and make it really clear: if you think this course will let you take any idea you have and turn it into a successful online business, then you have it all wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are a TON of online business ideas out there that are terrible and will never make a dime.

Conversely, if you are flexible about your idea, or if you aren't even sure exactly what your idea should be, then that is a very good place to start from.

Hey, what if you already have an online information product business that is doing okay, but just not doing as well as you would like? In that case I would say you should seriously look ZTL. I mean, you might be one or two small tweaks away from massive success. After all, you are getting people to pay you money. That is a huge first step! I've seen some of the other students in the course go from being dead in the water to skyrocketing after making just a few critical messaging tweaks.

Next, let's talk about motivation. Why do you want to start an online business?

Let me put it this way. Zero to Launch is extremely focused on creating a successful online business. Successful, to Ramit, means you are making a lot of money. I think if you come into this course ready to work, and ready to pay attention, and ready to follow the ZTL system, then I think you will probably make quite a bit of money, hand over fist. But if you are motivated to create an online business for some other reason, like, you just want a nice hobby, and money is not a primary consideration for you, then ZTL probably isn't right for you.

Also, this is very important: this course is not for you if you want to start up your own electronic kit biz, or any other type of e-commerce site dealing with physical goods. What you need to do to create a successful kit biz is different than what you need to do for a successful business selling online courses, there's no way around that.

Overall, my experience with the course was great. I learned quite a bit, yes, but even more importantly, I learned what not to do. Seriously, I've saved myself MONTHS of effort and THOUSANDS of dollars by NOT wasting my time on a bunch of nonsense.

Sadly, I had to pull back from the beta test due to some health related issues in my family. So I don't have any amazing stories of awesome success with happy customers paying me a hefty income stream.

But if you want to see a successful case study, check out my friend James. I helped him create his videos with some technical advice and a little encouragement. (And he got me interested in Organic Chemistry! I call that a win-win!)

Here's the bottom line. Ramit gives away a lot of his material for free. Here, check out this post Ramit made about how to come up with a good online business idea. Check out the main Zero To Launch website. Read the case studies. Watch the videos. Go to the Youtube channel and check out the ZTL videos Ramit has posted. You can get a very good sense of what the course is all about just from what Ramit puts out there, for free. USE YOUR HEAD. Take notes and think about how you can apply anything you've learned to your own situation. Don't just watch it, put some work into it!

Once you have your notes, and you've given it all some good thought, and you put some work into it, ask yourself: how critical is it for me to learn more? When you know that, you'll know if this course is right for you.

[Full disclosure: although I was not paid for beta testing his course or writing this review, as a part of the whole beta testing process I received all of the material for free, and I am getting free access to the final version of the course.]


How to cast on

My mom taught my brother and I how to knit when we were little. It's been about 7-8 years since I picked up a set of needles, and I never was very good at casting on, so I went to Youtube (as one does) to find an instructional video.

I found this one.

It's great, the lady sounds just a smidge cranky that she has to go so slow. BUT it's perfect. I related to this method of casting on because it's very similar to a straight knit stitch (which is really, to be honest, what I do best.)

I used to be able to do all kinds of fun crazy patterns but hooooo that's been 20-25 years since I did anything like that. I started a washcloth just to get back in the swing of things, and I thought I would do a knit two purl two pattern to get things going. OH WOW did I mess it up so bad, I should have taken a picture. My coworker who knows nothing about knitting took a look and said "Oh, that's real bad man." But I just kept plowing through and now I have this big wad of cotton yarn that is, if you squint at it, vaguely rectangular.


How the culture of academia is impeding science

Great interview with one of the founders of modern biology on how the culture of modern academia distorts and impedes scientific progress:

SB: Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it.

But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow.

There’s no exploration any more except in a very few places. You know like someone going off to study Neanderthal bones. Can you see this happening anywhere else? No, you see, because he would need to do something that’s important to advance the aims of the people who fund science.

I think I’ve often divided people into two classes: Catholics and Methodists. Catholics are people who sit on committees and devise huge schemes in order to try to change things, but nothing’s happened. Nothing happens because the committee is a regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre. Now what you’ve got to do is good works in your own parish. That’s a Methodist.

Resting Bitchface Syndrome

You may have heard of Resting Bitchface Syndrome. If you aren't familiar with RBS, some people, when their facial muscles are completely relaxed, look like they are angry, frustrated, or depressed, even when they are relatively happy and content.

When I'm thinking deeply, I have a strong look of disdain on my face. In the more racially mixed areas of Minneapolis, while stopped at a light, when people walk across the crosswalk and make eye contact with me, this becomes a problem. Once I was afraid I was going to get my car smashed up.

A group of black teenagers was crossing the street. I was staring off into the distance thinking about some programming problem from work. I had a slight headache, which only makes the look on my face worse. Suddenly they just stopped in the crosswalk, just staring at me, angry. I didn't really notice at first, because, you know, I'm trying to figure out whether I need to add some additional methods to this data structure or if I can solve my problem without that extra work.

Suddenly I noticed what was going on. Instantly I froze my face. At this point I was making the squinty eyed look of pure disdain, looking right into the eyes of some seriously pissed off black teenagers, who have "can you believe this white motherfucker?" looks on their faces.

They are in front of my car. The light is green. I can't move until they do.

I rolled down my window and leaned out. "Can I help you?" I said in a slightly shaky voice, keeping my eyes squinted and face frozen. The two guys off to the side muttered something I couldn't quite hear. But the guy in the middle is just staring at me, slightly leaning on my car, still pissed.

"You would not believe how bad this fucking headache is." I said, entirely, in retrospect, truthfully.

Puzzlement, then smirks, then huge grins. They all looked at each other and shook their heads. "Take it easy man," the guy in the middle said, and they finished walking across the street.


The Wilson Theory of Weirdness

I have a theory entirely of my own making. It goes like this:

The older you get, the weirder you get. (I want to pause here to note that by "weirder", I mean, generally, non-mainstream. "Weird" is not a pejorative in this essay, it's a simple descriptive term which means "not like everyone else.")

This is because the older you are, the more you have read, the more you have read, the more you know about all kinds of issues facing the world. Environmental issues, economic issues, labor injustices, gay rights, women's rights, men's rights, human rights, animal rights, food safety and nutrition, ocean pollution and overfishing, factory farms, there are so many things to be weird about! And when we read about all of these problems, naturally, we change our minds and attitudes toward the world we live in, giving up this kind of food or that kind of lifestyle, trying desperately to avoid being "part of the problem."

But, here's the key: everyone reads different things. Nobody has time to read it all! And much of it is contradictory anyway. So everyone gets weird in different ways.

For instance, my mom has really bought heavily into the Germ Theory of Disease. So much so, that when she eats french fries, she eats everything except the last bit that touched her hands. She refuses to eat the fry ends! Whereas I am the exact opposite. I think we need to eat lots harmless bacteria to stay healthy. As you can imagine, there are some slight incompatibilities in our approach toward food.

We're both weird about food in completely different, incompatible ways!

But like I said above, because there are so many causes and issues and scientific studies out there, there's far too much bad news to even glance at it all as it comes in, let alone internalize it and let change us. We all pick our battles in the war for Attention. And yet, it's very hard to remember that. Because there are so many things to be weird, non-mainstream, or even neurotic about, I think sometimes that the important thing is to remember that other people are weird and believe different things than you do, and that's okay.

For instance, we were at the state fair a few weeks ago, and my mom got a medium sized cup of french fries. It wasn't until she was almost done with the cup that I looked down and saw all of the fry ends -- piled up on my son's stroller tray, where he was happily chowing down! That, to me, was a real gesture of empathy and respect. "I believe this fry end is harmful, so harmful I will not even put it in my own body and yet, I will feed it to your two year old, because I know that you believe differently."

So now, when I am tempted to say something to someone else, like "Ocean overfishing is such an enormous problem facing the world today, how can you possibly eat that piece of cod?!", I try to remember to pause, stop, and ask the other person what kinds of issues they care about.

Maybe the key to solving some of these big problems isn't to convert everyone over to our own particular kind of weirdness. Maybe the key is finding other people whose weirdness is compatible with our own.


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