Pink Floyd on Nintendo

>> 30 April 2010

For the rare individuals out there who find themselves lamenting the fact that Pink Floyd isn't weird enough for their tastes, I have good news for you! Some one with entirely too much free time has re-created the entire Dark Side Of The Moon album on an 8-bit synthesizer (the same technology that gave us the incredible music of the original Nintendo games). The results are pretty amazing. I have embedded the videos for your convenience, but for uninterrupted listening, visit the YouTube page and turn on the play-list feature.



>> 26 April 2010

Hatetris is a Tetris variant that purposefully makes the game as difficult as possible. The pieces don't descend automatically (you have to press the down arrow to move the block down, one row at a time), but this doesn't make the game any easier. Every turn, the game performs a series of calculations and gives you the piece with the lowest probability of completing a line. It is, in a word, frustrating. You can play it online here.

My best score is 4. Leave your best score in the comments section!


Where (When) Would You Go In A Time Machine?

>> 24 April 2010

Recently, I received a forwarded email that suggested that right now, in the year 2010, the world is worse than it has ever been. The email claimed that currently, people are more evil than they have ever been, and that things are only getting worse. As evidence for this claim, the email mentioned Roe v. Wade, the legalization of gay marriage in some parts of the US, the secularization of Europe, the fact that evolution is taught in science classes, the USA's military entanglements, and the spread of AIDS in Africa. There were other demonstrations (it was a long email with large letters and multi-colored fonts), but I'll leave them out for now.

Obviously, not everyone agrees with the claims made in this email (myself included); however, the email did make me start thinking about when would have been the best time to be alive. So, here's a little thought-experiment that I would like to conduct with the readers of this blog: Imagine that you have a device (a sort of time machine) that can transport you to any time in the history of the world. Unfortunately, the device has some limitations:

  1. You will have to be born in your new time period, and you will have to experience childhood, etc. In other words, infant mortality rate matters!
  2. You cannot choose where you will be born. The location of your birth will be random, although it will be weighted by population density. In other words, you will be more likely to be born in India, where there are many people, than in Iceland, where there are few. But then again, you could luck out and get Iceland!
  3. You cannot choose the circumstances of your life. Your race, gender, physical appearance, general health, intellectual capacity, etc. will be determined randomly, with the probabilities weighted by frequency of actual occurrence.
  4. You will not know anything which was unknown in the time that you choose. For example, if you choose to live in a time before the development of the germ theory of disease, you will think that diseases are caused by witches or evil spirits or an imbalance between the four humors.
(Readers of John Rawls will recognize these conditions as being a rough approximation of 'The Original Position,' which is a philosophical concept that Rawls thought should be used when making moral decisions. In practice, the people who make the rules are the ones who have the power to enforce the rules to their benefit. The people who cut the pie also get to choose which slice they want to take. Rawls suggests that a rule is fair only if we would agree to it without knowing what our lot in life would be. For instance, we would not agree to allow slavery if there was a possibility that we ourselves might be born into conditions of slavery. In other words, the people who cut the pie should do so as if they didn't know which slice they will get.)

I sometimes feel a little bit nostalgic about the 1990s, the time of my childhood. Things seem like they were simpler (and maybe more innocent) then, although I think this is probably a product of the fact that I was a kid during this time. There was crime and violence in the 1990s. People had abortions and got divorces and contracted AIDS in the 1990s. I was just too young to really notice it. Really, when everything is considered, I can't think of any time that I would rather be alive.

Questions for Discussion:
  1. If you could use this time machine, in what year would you choose to be born?
  2. Why did you pick this year?
  3. What is the best-case scenario for you in your chosen year?
  4. What is the worst-case scenario for you in your chosen year?


Old Man Blog?

>> 21 April 2010

So, I recently completed a minor redesign of the blog (removed left-side column Twitter-feed, changed header, etc.), but apparently, my efforts didn't go nearly far enough. I submit, for your consideration the following online conversation that I had with Rochelle.

Rochelle: I really think you should ask mary to design something for you
me: maybe i will ask mary to redesign my blog.
     do you not like the design it has now?
Rochelle: it's okay, but i think you should hear her out. it kind of looks like an old man blog now
     who's out of touch with reality
me: WHAT?!
Rochelle: that's my honest opinion
     What does that mean?
     like a guy who doesn't know how to use a cell phone?
Rochelle: kind of
me: ouch
Rochelle: plus all the book reviews...
me: I am posting everything you say on my blog

Initially, I had two principle criteria for the design of this blog: 1) that it be simple and 2) uncluttered. But now I have added a third criterion: 3) that it not look like the blog of an old man who is out of touch with reality and complains about technology.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What do you think? Does this look like the blog of an old man who is out of touch with reality?
  2. If so, what should be done to change this?
  3. Mary, what do you think?
  4. Do you even see the blog layout? I read most blogs in Google Reader, so I rarely see the actual blog.


Book Review: Freakonomics

>> 20 April 2010

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Revised and Expanded Edition) Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How much money do drug dealers really earn? Does your first name affect your employment prospects? Does your real estate agent really care about how much money your house sells for? When are sumo wrestlers most likely to lose a match on purpose? If you have ever asked yourself any of these questions, then Freakonomics is right for you! Even if you've never asked yourself these questions, it's still probably worth reading.

Each chapter of the book examines a different question of this nature, basing the examination on the premise that conventional wisdom might not always be supported by the data. Several months after reading this book, you will probably forget most of the details and most of the specific case studies; however, the core ideas - that conventional wisdom is not always correct and that it is difficult to predict all of the effects that a certain action will cause - are interesting, although hardly ground-breaking.

In some ways, Freakonomics is a perfect example of the sort of book that you would expect to find written in the age of Twitter and YouTube. There is nothing in this book that will challenge you or take a great deal of effort to understand (both due to the clarity of the writing and the tremendous variety of subject material). It is a book that invites you to be entertained with facts and unfamiliar ideas. If it doesn't change your life, then it will at least entertain you for a few hours. If you are dying to learn about the nuts and bolts of economics, there are probably better books out there for you. For anyone else, I'd recommend Freakonomics

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Book Review: The Lovely Bones

>> 19 April 2010

The Lovely Bones The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have put off writing a review of this novel for several months, in part because I'm still not entirely sure what I think about it. Perhaps my expectations had been shaped by seeing previews for the film (I haven't seen the actual movie), which made me think that I was about to read a gripping supernatural murder mystery. For the first fifty-or-so pages, that's what I got: a murder mystery narrated by the victim from her vantage point in the afterlife. The murder mystery gets wrapped up fairly quickly, and the bulk of the novel tells the story of the surviving family and the way that they deal with the grief of losing their daughter/sister/friend.

The characters were fairly believable and complex, but they also felt sort of anonymous. They could have been taken from the pages of any short story in The New Yorker, or Atlantic. Perhaps this is more indicative of my boredom with self-proclaimed 'literary fiction' than it is of the quality of the novel, but the only character who didn't seem like a ghost was the one who was actually dead! All of the others - the grandmother who drinks too much but is fiercely loyal to her family, the mother who feels stifled by her domesticity, the father who blames himself for the loss of his daughter, the creepy serial killer who builds doll houses - seemed like reflections of characters that I had encountered before.

The ending of the novel was satisfying, but somehow it didn't feel earned. It was like that author decided that the characters had suffered enough, so now it was time to balance out the karmic scale and make them happy again. The German philosopher Hegel is credit with saying: "To be free is nothing; to become free is everything." This concept might apply here as well. It is nice that the characters are able to recover from the emotional trauma of the loss of their daughter/sister/friend, but I guess I never felt like they did anything to earn their new happiness. I think that most people would accept the truism that 'Time heals all wounds.' I never doubted that eventually things would get better for the survivors, so it isn't very surprising when they eventually do. I don't know if bad things happen unexpectedly and it takes time to get over them is really an idea that demands a book to hash out.

Overall, you could do a lot worse than The Lovely Bones but I don't think it will be a book that you want to read over and over.

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Book Review: Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

>> 13 April 2010

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I read Cormac McCarthy's grim masterpiece, Blood Meridian, I thought that its depiction of violence and depravity during the raids against the Apache's was surely an overblown act of literary excess. Sadly, after reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee it became clear that in the fictional account by Cormac McCarthy, that the violence against the Indians had been toned down.

Each chapter of Dee Brown's book - told largely from the perspective of the Native Americans - takes place in a different region of the country. The Apache in Arizona, Texas, and Mexico; The Utes in Colorado and New Mexico; The Nez Perce in the Pacific Northwest; The Arapaho and Cheyenne of the Great Plains; The mighty Sioux, who, under the leadership of warriors like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, for thirty-five years waged a successful war against the United States Army until the Massacre at Wounded Knee broke their will to fight.

With each tribe and in each region of the country, the story is woefully familiar: It begins when valuable natural resources are discovered on Native American land and government agents are sent out to negotiate with the Indians for the rights to this land. They force the Indians to sign a treaty that guarantees that the Indians will be given land and supplies in exchange for their compliance. The supplies are never given, and soon, when the westward-bound Americans discover more wealth on the new Indian land, the Indians are forced (sometimes literally at gunpoint) to sign a new contract, ceding their new land and agreeing to relocate to ever smaller reservations. Eventually, in despair, the Indians fight back and attack the soldiers who have been sent to enforce the illegal treaties that the Chiefs have been forced to sign. In retaliation, US soldiers attack the Indian villages, burning houses, slaughtering ponies and livestock, murdering men, women, and children, and dismembering the corpses for souvenirs. This violence provokes further violence, until (as was the case with some of the Apache tribes) no restraint or clemency is shown by either side.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee is certainly not an cheery book; however, I think it is one that is worth reading. Looking back, it is easy to see who was in the wrong. We all know that, if we had lived in those times, we would respected the Indians, in the same way that we all know that we would not have had slaves in the antebellum south. Or the way that we would all have protested for civil rights if we had been old enough. This book reminds us of how easy it can be for people to let their own agendas, ambitions, and prejudices lead them down a cruel path.

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