If you read no other Quick Take today, read this one and do me a tremendous favor. My housemate Alex (co-creator of those philosophy t-shirts) has been nominated for “Best Viral Song/Video about DC” by Express Night Out. Can you all pop over and vote for his “The Ballad of Pepco” under the DC Life tab?
Here’s the background: Pepco is the utility company for the DC area, and it’s terrible. We had a lot of blackouts this summer, some of which went on for days with few progress updates. So Alex wrote new lyrics to “The Ballad of Joe Hill” to comfort us in our time of literal darkness. Here’s an excerpt:
I dreamed I saw Pepco last night
Driving down my street.
“Thank God!” said I, “Our power’s down.”
“It never died,” said he…
“It never died,” said he.
Says I “No, you don’t understand
The lights have all gone out!
The food’s now bad. We’re going mad
From heat without a doubt…
From heat without a doubt.”
Says he “You’re not upon our map;
The grid shows you’re just fine.”
Says I “But look out on our street.
There’s a down-ed power line…
There’s a down-ed power line.”
“You can’t just leave us stranded here
With no good end in sight!
Didn’t you prep and plan for this –
For setting things a-right…
For setting things a-right?”
“Well there’s your fatal flaw,” said he,
“Now let me put you wise.
We’re such a bad utility, yet
You assume we’re organized…
You assume we’re organized?”
I’d feel really bad for the Quick Take that had to follow that, but, luckily, The Atlantic has an interview up with Randal Monroe (the creator of xkcd). They end up talking about his new “What if?” project, where every Tuesday he gives an illustrated answer to a weird physics problem (What if you pitched a baseball at close to the speed of light? What if all the rain in a storm fell in one giant drop? etc).
Pardon me while I melt into a puddle of squee.
“What I like doing is finding the places in those questions where normal people — or, people who have less spare time than I do — think, “This is stupid,” and stop. I think the really cool and compelling thing about math and physics is that it opens up entry to all these hypotheticals — or at least, it gives you the language to talk about them. But at the same time, if a scenario is completely disconnected from reality, it’s not all that interesting. So I like the questions that come back around to something in real life.
And the great thing with this is that once someone asks me something good, I can’t not figure out the answer, you know? I get really serious, and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and work on that. One of the questions I recently answered was, “What if, when it rains, the rain came down in one drop?” And I was like, “Well, how big would that drop be?” I know a little bit about meteorology, and then, before I knew it, I had spent four hours working out the answer.”
Shortly after I started my freshman year, I made three good friends when we all agreed to dress up a ninjas and attack Richard Stallman when he came to speak on campus. In the picture on Wikipedia, I’m the ninja with upraised arms.
UPDATE: Nick drew my attention to another delightful Monroe interview.
I feel obliged to let you know about all interesting Turing Test related stories I come across, so here’s a heads up that a group of programmers managed to write NPCs for a video game that were as likely as real humans to be judged as humans.
The complex gameplay and 3-D environments of “Unreal Tournament 2004” require that bots mimic humans in a number of ways, including moving around in 3-D space, engaging in chaotic combat against multiple opponents and reasoning about the best strategy at any given point in the game. Even displays of distinctively human irrational behavior can, in some cases, be emulated.
“People tend to tenaciously pursue specific opponents without regard for optimality,” said Schrum. “When humans have a grudge, they’ll chase after an enemy even when it’s not in their interests. We can mimic that behavior.”
Remember when I was blogging about Hanna Rosin and her “thank goodness hookup culture saves women from the constraints of affection” article? Well, Cowbirds in Love seems to have taken her argument delightfully far past it’s natural conclusion.
Alyssa Rosenberg has an excellent post up comparing Ms Magazine’s original cover with this week’s 40th anniversary cover (both of which feature Wonder Woman). Here’s her read on the original:
The billboard calls for “Peace & Justice In ’72,” rather than making specific feminist demands. She’s in a landscape where the war in Vietnam and the blasted landscape it’s produced are in danger of intruding on the American main street, and Wonder Woman rushes to catch a war plane before it crashes, perhaps into that schoolbus. In this reading, feminism is part of a much larger left movement, but the implication is also that it has a larger role to play. The cover lines may be about paid housework and body hair, but Wonder Woman, as the personification of feminism, is solving not just any problems she might have as a super-powered lady, but the problems of everyone else. This was a time when people still talked about misogyny as a root cause of war, something that seems awfully distant from our mainstream political discourse now.
Now that I’m following Escher Girls, the first thing I thought when I saw the new drawing was “Wonder Woman’s breasts are larger, her hair is straightened, and her expression is more blankly pretty. Grump!”
But if you want to kvetch about media representation of comic book heroes that sell everyone short, you’ll probably like David Denby’s “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies” in The New Republic.
[S]patial integrity is just about gone from big movies. What Wyler and his editors did—matching body movement from one shot to the next—is rarely attempted now. Hardly anyone thinks it important. The most common method of editing in big movies now is to lay one furiously active shot on top of another, and often with only a general relation in space or body movement between the two. The continuous whirl of movement distracts us from noticing the uncertain or slovenly fit between shots. The camera moves, the actors move: in Moulin Rouge, the camera swings wildly over masses of men in the nightclub, Nicole Kidman flings herself around her boudoir like a rag doll. The digital fight at the end of The Avengers takes place in a completely artificial environment, a vacuum in which gravity has been abandoned; continuity is not even an issue. If the constant buffoonishness of action in all sorts of big movies leaves one both over-stimulated and unsatisfied—cheated without knowing why—then part of the reason is that the terrain hasn’t been sewn together. You have been deprived of that loving inner possession of the movie that causes you to play it over and over in your head.
Auughh! This! I hate seeing an action movie and not being able to understand the logic of fights. I couldn’t see what Batman was doing better the second time he fought Bane and Denby’s right that there was no sense of how well the Avengers were doing strategically for most of the battle, just a bunch of set pieces.
This is why I’m really worried for the Ender’s Game movie. Those fight’s are fast in the books, but the narration means they don’t enfold in real time and we get a chance to understand how clever Ender and Bean are. I’m really worried the movie won’t be able to give us that sense of awe.
For all that the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes movies are awful, they did a nice job with the fight scenes.
To paraphrase Peggy Noonan: the most moving part of a fight is its logic.
So since we were talking about Ender’s Game, let’s close out the week with a link about gifted children and problematic ways of assessing them. Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke, inspired by the Stuyvesant cheating scandal, set out three possible solutions to the problem he defines as follows:
The NYT article suggests that skilled, systematic cheaters often rationalize their behavior by arguing either that everyone does it (which Hayes would argue is a structural inevitability in social hierarchies that justify stratification via meritocratic distinction) or that cheating is the only way to temporarily distinguish oneself amid uniform excellence, and when you’re done with the test, the class, the moment, you will have earned your place in a college or a job and can prove your genuine merit. As Hayes notes, that moment never comes, the cheater is never at rest, at home, able to show their true quality independent of silly tests and bullshit obstacles. The whole of life becomes a bullshit obstacle, and the search for the edge, the advantage, the trick becomes perpetual. Which doesn’t just hollow out the person, it contributes to the entire socioeconomic system dropping into an ever-accelerating pursuit of short-term gain at the cost of long-term sustainability.
The first problem with narrowly setting out to foil cheaters is that if students or employees no longer believe that tests measure anything important, simple anti-cheating techniques become another petty annoyance–particularly if they think that the testers or bosses are using tests as a crude rationing device or screening mechanism, a way to avoid grappling with difficult or nuanced evaluations. Simple tricks are equally simply defeated, and each one of them just increases the sense that testing is a sadistic and cynical exercise.
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