Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.

Editorials

Diversion and Distraction of the Gaming Kind: Ingress

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Those who know me, who have played games with me anyway, can tell you I don’t like to be restricted by a small board. For example, I dislike chess because I find the board too small and crowded. I think I may have found the game that really suits my personality, Ingress.

Ingress is an augmented reality game (really an overlay of Google maps created by Google’s Niantic Labs) that uses the real world as it’s game board and an Android smart phone as it’s interface. Nominally the point of the game is to link portals that appear at notable locations to create fields that either control (for the Enlightened/Green/ Frogs team) or protect (for the Resistance/Blue/Smurfs team) the population using/from the influence of XM, or exotic matter. Control of territory by way of insurgent warfare sounds very strategic, and it is, but the true heart of the game is logistic. To me this is the future of gaming.

Maybe I’ll find time to post about some of my Ingress adventures, if I stop playing long enough.

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The 2011-2012 Jericho Award

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Jericho Award, that honor is bestowed, by me, upon the best new show of the season (starting in the summer and ending with the close of the spring finales) that was cancelled. Not very prestigious I’ll admit, but since it is awarded to the show that I like the most, I would like to think that it serves to point out an injustice or two.

This season has a few shows to nominate. I didn’t really like all of them all that well, but I did watch all of their episodes. There are other shows that failed after their first season, but for one reason or another, I didn’t watch them. You may think they are much better but if I don’t watch them they don’t get nominations.

And The Nominees Are:

The River

For all of the times that I rolled my eyes at the rampant stupidity of the people on the Magus the show really hooked me with the first episode and finished just as strong. Granted, in between there were a lot of moments where it was kind of painful. I think the weakest point was with writing that had to be, well, convoluted in order to get the group to go in a certain direction or down a particular path. On the whole I didn’t think the show had more than a season in it based on its premise but after the finale I could see potential. I also liked how it ended with a soft cliffhanger. Maybe it will get picked up by TNT or Syfy, but I doubt it. Too expensive. Not enough cult following.

Alcatraz

In spite of never being a Lost fan (I only watched the first season and that on DVD) I really enjoyed this show. The back and forth between the two timelines to tell the story and bit-by-bit reveal new aspects to the mystery worked for me. If anything I think the end of the first season was too ambitious and may have killed its chances of getting picked up by a cable network like Syfy, though it would still suffer from fewer problems than some other shows. I really though FOX would have brought this one back. Oh well.

The Finder

Ok, I don’t watch Bones so I don’t really understand the tie-in beyond being in the same narrative universe, but I am a sucker for quirky detective stories. This one was about as quirky as it gets. To tell the truth, I was a big fan of Walter logic and the ensemble cast really worked and was interesting. Each of the characters seemed to really effortlessly bring their particular skill-set to the table, though Walter was the one to tie them all together. If there are any of the nominated shows that I think should be picked up on cable it is this one. Personally, I think it is a natural fit for USA or A&E. Both of those networks already have quirky detective shows in Psych and The Glades (respectively) but I don’t think another would hurt either of them and may actually help to pull audience from one to the other.

Terra Nova

Ok, to be honest I didn’t like this show, but since I did watch all of the episodes I decided to include it with this season’s nominees. Honestly, the premise was weak. The plot was contrived. The special effects were gratuitous. The writing was tortuous. The acting was weak (I know, I already said weak but it fits here too). I am appalled that this is the show that is getting the most traction for a bid to go to cable. Seriously? I know Terra Nova had fans, but I just don’t understand what people see in this show.

And The Winner Is…:

Well, I am really tempted to declare a tie, but I think the show that I am going to miss the most is The Finder (whose potential Jericho-mate is Alcatraz). Both of these shows were solid all the way through and seeing as how they were on the same network, and that House is coming to an end, I don’t see why FOX would want to discard both of them while keeping the terminally stupid Touch. I could only stand two episodes of that piece of garbage.

Like I said, winning the Jericho Award is kind of ignominous. The reall winners this year are the shows that I watched that did get picked up for another season and that deserve a look from those of you who missed them. Here they are in no particular order (probably missing a few too):

  • Person of Interest
  • Hell on Wheels
  • Alphas
  • Grimm
  • Homeland

The State of Distraction: February 1, 2012

I’m going to try something new. Maybe it will start a conversation. Maybe it will only happen once. Maybe it will alleviate some boredom…

The purpose of The State of Distraction is to throw out some things that may be of interest that may not get their own posts or that I may not get around to posting about.

We will see how it goes.

Books:

I just got done with Ghost in the Wires the autobiography / memoir of Kevin Mitnick. I liked it as much as The Art of Deception and The Art of Intrusion (both are must-reads on the 5GW bookshelf). I might get around to doing a more complete post about this one but in short I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in security or cyber-security.

I’m currently reading Storm Front by Jim Butcher. I’ve heard a lot about how good The Dresden Files are but never picked up the novels. So far I am enjoying it quite a bit and I will probably end up reading the series, though I probably won’t post reviews about them. Storm Front came out in 2000 after all so there isn’t much new there to talk about. My local library seems to have all of the books available and I already have Fool Moon waiting on deck. I might have to make it a point to go back and read up on series that I didn’t read because they were already a couple of books in before I noticed them. Suggestions would be great.

Wines:

Of the wines I’ve been sampling lately a couple have stood out from the rest. One is the S.I.P. certified (a classification that goes beyond the organic tag) 2009 Carmel Road Pinot Noir from Monterey California. It has a nice, rich cherry / plum flavor and a beautiful black tea-like character. It also has very nice structure and balance and is worth looking for.

Another winner is a Spanish Rioja, the 2005 Marques de Murrieta Reserva. This is a wine at its peak right now showing a wonderful glowing garnet (going brickish) color, and a nice fruit / earth / wood balance with a delicious finish.

Whiskey:

Most recently I’ve been drinking (rī)¹ and it is delicious. I have lately been kind of developing a taste for high-rye bourbon and straight rye whiskey. I guess something about that extra spicy character and extra touch of heat appeals to my palate. This one is exceptionally complex with layers of nuanced flavor. My preferred way to enjoy this one is in a Glencairn glass with no ice.

Other Diversions:

Who couldn’t be diverted by the Presidential primaries right now. It looks like it is coming down to Mit and Newt (though Mit has the upper hand I would say). As an independent moderate (if I can be called anything except cynical) I really should like Mit, but he seems like a weaksauce politician to me who will do anything to get a vote. Newt appeals to me (I hate to admit) because he seems more like a political animal rather than a politician. I acknowledge his strategic ability but I have doubts about his ability to lead. I guess if you show me a real leader with the ability to deliberately improve the position domestic and international position of my country beyond the next election’s time frame, then I’ll vote for that candidate. It’s pretty much that simple for me, I just don’t see that guy on the ticket.


On the Bookshelf: The New Cool by Neal Bascomb

The New Cool

A Visionary Teacher. His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts.

by Neal Bascomb

I am not quite sure how exactly I would describe The New Cool. On one hand it is a book that explores the potential future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education. On the other hand, it is a story about a high-school sports team that, even though they are relative underdogs, manage to come through and triumph in the face of adversity.

 I guess the best I can say is “Welcome to the world of competitive high school robotics.”

The New Cool follows Team 1717 of the engineering academy at Dos Pueblos High School, a.k.a. the D’Penguineers, during the 2009 FIRST Robotics competition from the unveiling of the game their robot would have to play that season, through the development and building process, to the FIRST robotics competitions that pit robot against robot.

The 2009 FIRST game, Lunacy, is pretty intriguing and was probably a lot of fun to play. The first video is an animated description of the game. The second is a bit of the flavor of the competition from the Team 1717 point of view.

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At the risk of an editorial digression I would have to say that there are points of this book that I really liked and other points where I felt it was very much lacking.

Likes:

As a story about what could, and should, be the model for education in today’s modern world The New Cool is a fantastic read. This is what education should be about, more than just trying to stuff as many facts and figures into a kid’s head so they can take some sort of standardized test, but real and practical learning that lets students develop skills that are important in life and in a career. The New Cool demonstrates that these kids are involved and excited about this competition and really invest in the work that makes it possible. More importantly they have a teacher and mentors that provide real, practical, applications for learning. Nobody is standing over the teacher’s shoulder to judge if the students are learning enough according to an arbitrary standard. That the kids are learning is evident by their failures and their successes. Yes, you learn from both.

The New Cool is a story about vision in education. It is a story about the dedication of a good teacher. Most of all it is a powerful story about kids who want to do something to learn.

Dislikes:

Ok, as far as the story itself went The New Cool lacks an engagement with the characters. There are so many players doing so many different things that there really isn’t room to really get into the trials and tribulations that the students have to overcome. Even those the story follows most closely come off pretty flat. Underscoring this is that these are pretty privileged kids. For the most part, these are kids who have smart parents who are encouraging and involved with their children’s education. If there is a lesson missed in The New Cool it is that the involvement and encouragement of parents goes just as far as that of a teachers, perhaps farther. One chapter in The New Cool does follow a kid from a bad neighborhood, with little encouragement who does make the effort to participate In FIRST with a team called 2Train, but we never really hear back from him. Granted, unlike Team 1717, 2Train is a FIRST Team without a lot of resources that probably didn’t make it very far in the competition, but really, to participate at all and learn by trying, doing, failing and/or succeeding is just as much a victory as going to the robotics championship and that is something that deserves to be highlighted.

Dislikes aside The New Cool is certainly a book worth picking up for its forward-looking story about vision in education.

Ok, a brief editorial digression:

I wish that this really was the trend in education, but I fear it is very much against the tide of the tyranny of standardized tests and the blaming of teachers for kids who aren’t learning. A teacher can teach, but they can’t make a student learn if the kid isn’t at all engaged or interested in the material. FIRST is great for STEM education, but programs just as innovative as FIRST need to be developed for other subjects outside of STEM.

That’s the kind of vision needed in education.


(De)Motivational Poster: Two Weeks Notice?

No, I didn’t quit my job, but I was inspired by someone who just did (and good for her)!

Nobody should have to work someplace that makes them that unhappy. Moreover, when you are professional enough to give the courtesy of two weeks notice your employer should have the courtesy of treating you in a similar professional manner for those two weeks. Then again, if they were that professional and considerate you probably wouldn’t be leaving in the first place, would you.

(hat tip: Roger)


Diversion and Distraction of the Educational Kind: John Hunter and the World Peace Game

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Also, the trailer for the film made about this extraordinary teacher and the World Peace Game. 

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An Editorial Digression:

Teachers like John Hunter are the reason why students get excited about going to school, because they know when to teach and when to get out of the way of the student’s learning. It is through this kind of interactive engagement that education becomes fun and ultimately applicable to the real world, exactly what the educational system is supposed to be about. When this kind of engagement is absent, and teaching is about shoving information at a student and hoping enough of it sticks long enough to pass the standardized test, school becomes just another chore to be endured and does very little to prepare a student for life’s challenges.

Another inspiring story along the same lines is a book I recently finished called The New Cool by Neal Bascomb (my review is forthcoming  my review is here)  about a just as inspiring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focused high-school teacher, and his student’s efforts in the FIRST robotics competition.


John Robb Asks: Why Work?

John Robb

From Global Guerillas:

QUOTES: Why Work?

Re:  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs  “Everything from that second tier to the capstone, they (Internet Types) can get at a cost that rounds down to zero, if they so choose.”  David Wong at Cracked (the humor site).

Poor folk love their cellphones!”  Bruce Sterling.  Connectivity = Poverty.  

Bruce Sterling on Favela chic: “You have lost everything material, no job or prospects, but you are wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

For most kids today in developed economies, the question is: why should I work (any more than I have to) if most of what makes me happy is nearly free?  

Connectivity = poverty will grow until:  an economic system that truly leverages and aligns with social connectivity is built.  Once that social economy is built…  watch out.  

From Twitter:

What would an economy look like if all of the rewards for success, after physical needs were met, were delivered by the social graph?

 

I have gone back and forth on this issue. When you get down to it, there really isn’t any reason for an individual, a couple, even a family (in the nuclear sense) to do something like buy a home or a car or anything else that is lasting and long-term. With the service economy and the migratory nature of employment, why would anyone want to be tied to a particular geographic area. Additionally, the added, one-off / emergency, costs of owning a home or a car are the sort of thing that can break those struggling just to get by. Let the lessor bear that burden. It wasn’t like that for the Boomers. They had careers with single companies, or companies that clustered in limited geographic areas. They also weren’t saddled with student / credit card debt before they even really entered the workforce. Using this Minimal-Needs model you sacrifice the long-term to take advantage of mobility and opportunity. In a way, if you embrace the physical and economic diffusion of the service economy and the on-demand marketplace you can maximize the ability to find the most optimal and minimal living situation for your needs while maintaining your ties to your family and friends using the connectivity of the network.

In a sense I even agree with this. In spite of the nearsightedness I’ve argued for it before. For many people it even makes total sense. John Robb then takes it a step farther and is, as usual, at his provocative best.

According to Robb’s argument, until the “social economy” comes into being people will be working just hard enough to meet the needs of the bottom two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, getting poor in the process. Rent, don’t buy! Do just enough to be comfortable while you chat on your smart phone or bank virtual money in an MMORPG. Everything above the second level on the pyramid can be found, for free, via networked connectivity. Success doesn’t need to come from the paycheck in your bank account. You can get the same respect and approval from the equipment you outfit your World of Warcraft character with. You don’t need to have a palatial home or a rewarding career, you just need a group of vibrant friends on Facebook who often respond to and  “like” your status updates and links or retweet you on Twitter to affirm your personal self-worth. Connectivity can legitimately be your only venue to socially interact with people, not just those you have intimate connections to that you don’t want to lose touch with or that you are no longer geographically close to.

Actually, no. That sort of social engagement is incredibly shallow. At best it generates envy, not respect. It isn’t healthy. No offense at all intended to most of my Facebook friends and blog friends, but I don’t know you (John Robb included). I share ideas with you. I argue with you about various points of mutual interest, but you don’t have anything to do with my personal level of self-worth. I read your posts because your ideas interest me. I tell you when I agree with you and I tell you why I don’t. I hope that you do the same for me. If you don’t it isn’t going to affect my own self worth. That comes from within me, not from anyone else. I’m putting these ideas out to exercise my own mind and to expand and shape my own world-view. Essentially, there is no intimacy in those sorts of networked interactions. They may be rewarding in some way, but they occur on a completely superficial level. Those things on that pyramid that are above the second tier cannot be bought or given. They must be earned internally because they are generated by the individual’s own self-image and desire. That’s why it is so hard to get to the top of that pyramid. Even the belonging of friends and family and the respect of peers must be mirrored by an individual’s unselfish belonging to their friends and family and reciprocal and unselfish respect they have for their peers.

The main problem with an economy based upon this Minimal-Needs mentality and completely virtual social organization is that it doesn’t actually create anything. There is no value added. Nothing lasting is built. Nothing except the minimum is required, and if it can be made for free it will be. This is a possible pit-trap for the Maker Revolution. At best you have novelty that quickly fades because it becomes immediately ubiquitous. In an economy like this things that are essentially free aren’t worth anything. If things aren’t valued or don’t have any value to build on, just consumed, there isn’t an incentive to build anything of value.


More Tales of the Sysadmin

Recommended Reading from WIRED’s Danger Room:

Afghan Government MIA at American-Backed Farm

“SHALIZAR, Afghanistan — The rows on the farm were neat and parallel, just as they should appear: red tomatoes that started out as Iranian seeds; bulbous watermelons ripening on the vine; even peanuts. Peanuts aren’t typically a crop grown in Afghanistan, but they’re cultivated here in almost 20 rows. It’s an apparent tribute to the peanut farmer and Virginia National Guard officer who’s sponsoring this Kapisa Province agricultural project.

Only one thing was missing: the Afghan government’s agricultural chief for the province, who was supposed to inspect the crops. And it’s for his benefit that the farm is around in the first place. Consider it another example of how America’s costly counterinsurgency formula lacks a central ingredient: an interested, functional host-nation government.

The farm is the project of the Agribusiness Development Team attached to Task Force Wolverine, the brigade-sized unit responsible for security in Bamiyan, Panjshir and Parwan provinces. The ADTs are a fairly recent initiative that bring around ten groups of National Guardsmen — in this case, 64 reservists, mostly from Kentucky — with farming experience to advise and mentor Afghan provincial officials in agricultural production techniques.”

An Editorial Digression

I’ve discussed before the role of the Agribusiness Development Teams as a sort of Sysadmin in Miniature. Really there should also be Infrastructure Development Teams, Economic Development Teams, and Educational Development Teams among others (though all of these point toward something larger than a military-centric approach. Hello USAID, State Department, anybody?). The type of counterinsurgency effort of the ADTs, especially in the very agriculturally based areas of Afghanistan, should be one of the most effective ways to curb violence and give the people of the region a very tangible stake in the future of the country. Kapisa Province, should be a prime location for this sort of project. It is close to the potential market of Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest city, cultural hub, and as the entry point for most foreign investment, economic center. It is sad how a project that seems to have so much potential can be almost sabotaged through the negligence or disinterest of one person.

The lesson seems to be that the bottom-up approach to counterinsurgency is much more effective than a top-down approach. It makes sense. In states like Iraq and Afghanistan, the people were kept in line with a strong hand regardless of whether it is secular or religious in nature. Fear is the motivator for compliance and that carries over to the insurgency. First, there is the fear that the invader will be worse (in other words: ‘the devil you know’ argument). Second, that the insurgency is among the people making the threat even more immediate. It will take a long while working at the grass-roots of the population to show them that they can have the power (the farm, the vote, the lifestyle) and prosper, that Afghanistan is their country, that they are not serfs toiling for their masters in the capital. Even more vitally important, that the power they develop cannot, and should not, be taken away from them if they follow the rules of the society. A top-down approach in a failed state with a bribery and corruption problem just wastes resources and continues the narrative that power is relegated to the few of the elite, the gatekeepers, and not the many of the people who are ‘the state’.

Essentially, empowerment of the people is what I see as the role of the Sysadmin in the reconstruction of failed states and the ‘shrinking of the Gap’. Yes, the Sysadmin brings technical, logistical, political and economic expertise of the Core into the Gap. They get the lights on. They establish a communications network. They improve irrigation and roads. With the help of the population the bring the standards of living up to a point where the population can begin to interact with the wider world around them. Depending upon the situation this may take a very long time, decades, even generations. The Sysadmin is in for the long-term but the Sysadmin is not the stakeholder. For the stakeholders, the population, the job is never done and when they decide to stand up for themselves the job of the Sysadmin is to get out of the way.


Zenpundit on ‘The Big Picture’

A great post by the Zenpundit:

The Big Picture – The Nexus Between Education and Grand Strategy

“Is it reasonable to educate people in a way where all subjects are disconnected from one another, prioritizing narrow specialization, emphasizing accumulating facts over understanding principles, rewarding the “right answer” instead of the “best question”, demanding conformity instead of curiosity and then expect our leaders to be visionaries and adaptively creative statesmen who think in strategic terms?

Why would our societal orientation in complex, dynamic, fast moving situations be good when our educational system trains people only to think through simplified, linear, sequential problems? Strategic thinkers need to be able to see “the big picture” and handle uncertainty, or they cannot be said to be strategic thinkers.”

I think the problem in many ways goes even deeper. How much has a focus on the minimum required effort, intellectual instant gratification and a lack of any kind of emphasis or training in long-term thinking affected the very culture of the United States and contributed to a range of problems from obesity and political apathy to over-spending and the credit crisis.

How we teach becomes how we learn, and how we learn becomes how we think. We teach to the test. We learn the minimum required to reach the minimum standard. We think no farther than the next chapter, the next test, the next evaluation, the next paycheck, the next credit card payment. We have stopped thinking about year five much less year twenty five of a thirty year mortgage, and the same thinking horizon applies to health and political decision making. It isn’t about intelligence. There are many very smart people out there who are very good, very fast, thinkers, and if we have gained any kind of skill in dealing with “complex, dynamic, fast moving situations” it is only because we are in a constant state of flux, constantly in crisis mode, and constantly trying to squeeze advantage at best and survival at minimum, out of the bad situations we constantly find ourselves in. That takes skill and inventiveness, but not everyone is that quick, innovative or lucky. However, long-term, strategic, thinking in advance of a crisis could have prevented those situations from ever adversely impacting us or even turned them into opportunities to further our goals.


The Homeowner Stability Initiative: Positive or Negative.

The prevailing wisdom of economists is that the collapse of the housing bubble is the main contributor to the current downturn in the economy. It is no surprise that the Homeowner Stability Initiative is a big ($75 billion big) portion of the $787 billion Recovery and Reinvestment economic stimulus plan (a.k.a. The Bailout). However, the fear is that money, tax dollars borrowed from our children and grandchildren, will be used not to aid those who through no fault of their own have been victimized by predatory lenders, terrible misfortunes and the out-of-control speculation of others, but to reward those buyers who did not ‘beware,’ purchased homes they could not afford, and acted without thought about what may happen to their home investment in the short term much less in the long.

That is why statements like this make my skin crawl:

“The plan also offers financial incentives for lenders to reduce the mortgage payments of as many as 4 million homeowners who are at risk of losing their homes. Under the $75 billion Homeowner Stability Initiative, lenders would cut mortgage payments to no more than 31 percent of the borrower’s income.”

I’m not saying that people in real need shouldn’t be helped, but the thought of even one person who through greed or stupidity gets to call a ‘do-over’ when the rest of us  who acted with forethought and invested wisely (actually our children and grandchildren) get to pay the price for it makes my blood boil.

That said, President Obama did at the end of his speech explaining the Initiative Wednesday sound the note that everyone needs to hear:

“Our housing crisis was born of eroding home values, but it was also an erosion of our common values, and in some case, common sense.  It was brought about by big banks that traded in risky mortgages in return for profits that were literally too good to be true; by lenders who knowingly took advantage of homebuyers; by homebuyers who knowingly borrowed too much from lenders; by speculators who gambled on ever-rising prices; and by leaders in our nation’s capital who failed to act amidst a deepening crisis.  (Applause.) 

So solving this crisis will require more than resources; it will require all of us to step back and take responsibility.  Government has to take responsibility for setting rules of the road that are fair and fairly enforced.  Banks and lenders must be held accountable for ending the practices that got us into this crisis in the first place.  And each of us, as individuals, have to take responsibility for their own actions.  That means all of us have to learn to live within our means again and not assume that — (applause) — and not assume that housing prices are going to go up 20, 30, 40 percent every year. 

Those core values of common sense and responsibility, those are the values that have defined this nation.  Those are the values that have given substance to our faith in the American Dream.  Those are the values we have to restore now at this defining moment.”

 

 

Though not the message that was picked up by the media, acting with common sense and responsibility is the key point that needs to be drilled into every single one of us. For too long many Americans have lived well beyond their means. They think too much in the ‘now,’ and ignore the ‘future’ and the consequences their actions may bring not only to themselves but to those around them. They buy their homes and their cars not based on what they can afford, but by how much they can borrow, then make up the difference with credit cards and other forms of easy credit. They save too little and when they stumble financially or are economically jostled by a market downturn, the dangerous debt they juggle can slip from their grasp. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are good as long as we pay for them and we learn from them. All too often, when you don’t have to pay you end up making the same mistake again. It sounds harsh to say that these people need to fail, but their failure is their responsibility and not that of future taxpayers.

(hat tip: TDAXP)