Pirate Cinema

Pirate Cinema
Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this as part of an ebook Humble Bundle some time ago, and finally got around to reading it. It only took me me three flights to or from Boston to finish it! (This was largely due to finding other activities on the plane, like movies, iPad games, and designing D&D encounters.) That is for me a somewhat unusual context for reading a book, but it’s a good chance to find time to do so.

This is very political fiction; Doctorow has a strong copyleft position that comes out both in the overall plot of the book, and occasionally in multipage lectures conducted in the voice of one of the characters. If you agree with that position, you’ll probably like the story. The main character is famous for his recut films, using the movies of a particular actor to tell new stories; this naturally gets him in trouble with intellectual property authorities, who in this dystopian near future have significant powers. As the popularity of his repurposed art grows, the powers that be in Parliament and Hollywood try to put a stop to his art.

As a quick aside, from someone who strongly believes in Fair Use protections, I would recommend watching Kirby Ferguson’s series Everything is a Remix. It uses several examples (including Star Wars, The Matrix, and Steve Jobs) to demonstrate how art stands on the shoulders of giants even when considered a new work. The films the main character creates are to me clearly transformative works that are new art, so I definitely agree with Doctorow there.

The story is set mostly in London, so there’s a fair bit of British slang throughout. That, combined with the Chaotic to Neutral alignment of most of the characters, did make it a little hard for me to identify with them. The story is mostly interesting; there weren’t really any slow parts. I did find the denouement kinda disappointing; in that regard it reminded me of older Stephenson. It felt like the book very quickly wrapped up the remaining threads after the climax in an unsatisfying way. On the other hand that probably means I wanted to see more from these characters.

This is the first novel of Doctorow’s that I’ve read, though I have tackled a few of his essays online at various points. I didn’t really notice anything distinctive about his style, outside of the political statement underlying the story. I liked it well enough, so I definitely want to read some of his other books.

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OS X 10.10 Yosemite

OS X 10.10 Yosemite: The Ars Technica ReviewOS X 10.10 Yosemite: The Ars Technica Review by John Siracusa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read every one of Siracusa’s epic OS X reviews since 10.5 on. Lately they provide my feature overview before I get around to installing the actual update; this year is no different. One of the best values he brings to these is his history with Macs – he can connect the past and present like few other Apple observers.

This review’s section on Extensions, with callbacks to the Classic era, was interesting because of my own fond and frustrating memories dealing with extension conflicts on System 7 through Mac OS 9. The absolute highlight of this review, and I say this in part as a computer scientist, is his overview of the new Swift programming language, and how it fits into the Apple ecosystem and developer toolchain. The technical detail he gets into with intermediate languages and type systems is fascinating. The future in that regard is particularly exciting, and I hope to find time to work in Swift myself soon.

I read the iBooks version of the review, but I would recommend the Ars Technica web version for a couple of reasons. First, John himself considers that the canonical version. Second, it has better image layout and some dynamic content demonstrating the various interface changes. Third, the reference links provide important context, and are easier to jump out to on the web than leaving the iBooks app on an iPad (especially on a poor A5-powered mini that likes to swap the book out of memory as soon as you open a link in Safari). I read the web version up until last year’s Mavericks review, but now I see that the iBooks experience, while an easy purchase, is an inferior read of (almost) the same content.

Obviously I am a Siracusa fan, so I’m predisposed to like his analytical style, but I also appreciate his Mac cultural references sprinkled throughout, like titling his conclusion using a quote from the “1984” commercial for the original Macintosh. If you are interesting in exactly what you are getting by upgrading your Mac’s operating system this year, read this.

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First Masterpiece

Working exclusively in the app Paper by FiftyThree, Theo is entering his abstract period.

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Trick-or-treat?

After moving to The Couve and finding ourselves living in an apartment complex that seems full of kids, we were expecting to finally get a lot of trick-or-treaters. Sadly, we were mistaken! Now the only way to manage our disappointment is by eating all of this candy.

Read more ›

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My Representative Responds on Police Militarization

A few weeks ago, I wrote my congresscritters regarding the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, expressing a desire to end the transfer of military-grade tactical gear to state and local police departments. I haven’t heard back from my Senators yet, but my Representative, Jaime Herrera Beutler, responded:

Dear Mr. Ward,

Thank you for contacting me about the Department of Defense’s 1033 program and recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. It is an honor to serve as Southwest Washington’s representative in Congress, and your thoughts are important to me.

I share your concerns regarding the militarization of local law enforcement. There is a fine line between keeping our communities safe and utilizing overwhelming, unnecessary force against our citizens.

The Department of Defense operates the 1033 program to provide local law enforcement agencies with the ability to obtain excess equipment and weapons the military no longer requires. As you know, this program has been brought under heavy scrutiny since the killing of Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old from Ferguson, Missouri by a local law enforcement officer.  Since then, we’ve seen footage of officers of St. Louis County law enforcement equipped with body armor, tear gas, and armored vehicles in response to violent protests and riots spurred by the shooting.

The program has been operated by the Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office since 1990, and now over 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies in all 50 states participate. While the 1033 program provides combat equipment, it also supplies office furniture, generators, and copiers which some agencies may be unable to afford.

The use of force by police deserves ongoing scrutiny, and police forces should be accountable to the communities they serve to ensure that all citizens are receiving adequate protection. We’ve seen that the tragic incident and subsequent protests in Ferguson have forced local police forces to consider their posture toward and interaction with their local communities, and I hope this continues.  Law enforcement agencies must judiciously deploy the weapons and equipment they receive. While a proportional response should be used to stop criminals rioting, shooting innocent people, looting, and throwing Molotov cocktails, the excessive use of tactical weapons when simply protecting peaceful protests exercising their First Amendment right is unacceptable. I will continue to monitor the situation in Ferguson as the investigation continues and will work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that the 1033 program is reviewed and properly utilized, with the protection of all citizens as the utmost goal.

Thank you again for contacting me on this important issue. I invite you to visit my website at www.jhb.house.gov for additional information or to sign up to be kept up to date on this important issue. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of assistance.

Sincerely,

Jaime Herrera Beutler

Member of Congress

A few thoughts on this response:

  • She has a valid point which is that this particular program is used for other supplies, which I have no particular objection to; I did not consider that case in my original letter
  • She seems to just be interested in more oversight of the existing 1033 program, and will not support significantly modifying the program or similar programs to prevent the transfer of tactical weapons and gear
  • She seems fine with the use of military equipment by police in the abstract, but agrees that the response in Ferguson was disproportionate… which is at least better than some members of her party’s commentariat
  • She did not address my concerns about SWAT tactics at all, or a militarized policing stance in general, focusing solely on the specific events in Ferguson

I haven’t decided yet if I’ll write back. It does not sound like she will entertain a significant curtailment of this kind of policy. I think the next step for me is to write my state and local reps to discourage them from requisitioning military weapons and vehicles.

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Uncle Trouble

My dad’s older brother, Michael Ward, died on Wednesday. While my dad told me the news yesterday morning, I don’t think it entirely hit me until I saw his obituary, though I had partially processed the idea that the man we knew was largely gone after his massive stroke almost six years ago. Uncle Mike is also the first close relative (i.e. my grandparents and their descendants) of mine who has died in my lifetime, an unusual streak. With that bit of context out of the way, I wanted to share a few memories that I have of him, mostly from when I was a kid.

First up is his mischievous grin, which has something to do with the nickname “Uncle Trouble”. Second, his joking nature, with a touch of sarcastic wit. Third, during family visits, mostly at Christmas or Fourth of July, he always found time to play with us. He taught me to play pool, to play cribbage; he showed me how to shuffle cards properly (with bridging). I suppose that was a mildly corruptive influence? Still a skill I’m glad he taught me.

He was very much into gadgets, and was one of the few grownups I knew in the ’90s who always seemed to have the latest Mac or a nice camera. I remember visiting him once in Chicago, where he was a news director, and being amazed by his TV that could tune 16 stations at once. He was an encourager of my own interest in technology, and was responsible for the infamous Zip Drive photo (by giving me one for Christmas one year). He also played a lot of golf, which somewhat influenced my own interest in the game.

Even after his stroke, I liked sharing pictures with him, and he loved to see them. I ended up returning an old favor by helping him keep his Mac organized and up to date whenever I visited them in DC.

Uncle Mike was always quick to chuckle. I will miss him greatly.

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End Police Militarization

I sent the following letter to my U.S. Representative (Herrera Buetler) and my U.S. Senators (Cantwell and Murray), asking them to end the transfer of military surplus weapons and equipment to our state and local police forces. I’m planning to write similar letters to my state representatives, and to our county sheriff and city police department to ask them to end the practice here in Washington, Clark County, and/or Vancouver.

If you are concerned by how military-style force has been used by police in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere, I would encourage you to write something similar to your congresscritters.

This Newsweek article is a good overview of one of the sources of military surplus, the Depatment of Defense’s 1033 Program.

(I made slight edits to the text below, including salutation, for each person I sent it to. You are welcome to use the non-personal portions of my text.)

I am writing to request your support of the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, soon to be introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson, which amends the NDAA to end the so-called “1033 Program” that supplies surplus military equipment to police across the country. I also encourage you to support any similar bills which end the practice of providing (either directly, or funding for) military-grade weapons and equipment to our police departments. Their mission is to “protect and serve”; they are not here to conduct a war against our fellow citizens.

While my letter is directly inspired by the images coming out of Ferguson, MO this week, I have been thinking about this issue since the recent ACLU report on the massive surge in the use of SWAT-style tactics and gear in policing over the last decade. I do not believe we need a militarized police to conduct the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror. More and more people are being injured or killed by police officers conducting their duties as if they are at war, and this needs to stop.

Until we recently moved to Vancouver, my wife and I lived in Cambridge and Watertown, MA. Last April, during the final manhunt for the Marathon Bombers, we lived through the lockdown and saw a massive militarized police presence descend on our neighborhoods. Our local Target’s parking lot became part of the command center for this operation. This show of force felt to me fundamentally un-American, visually like something from a military dictatorship. While it may have seemed necessary, in the end Dzokhar Tsarnaev was captured because an observant citizen noticed that the tarp on his boat was loose. If anything we were blessed that no innocents were accidentally injured or killed during the sweep. Even in this terrorism case, the police could have remained police, and not soldiers.

I do not believe our police departments need leftover MRAPs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do their jobs. They do not need to be wearing fatigues or tactical gear, or to be carrying fully automatic weaponry, which only serves to intimidate the very people they are paid to protect. In Ferguson we see such equipment being used to intimidate citizens and journalists, violating First Amendment rights to free assembly and a free press. This is a terrible abuse of state power.

It is not “soft on crime” or “soft on terror” to stop arming our police like they are soldiers; it is a necessary step to end a dangerous encroachment on our fundamental freedoms as citizens. Please help end the militarization of our police.

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The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As you might have heard, our son Theodore was born two weeks ago. Since he is our first child, I naturally wanted to become more knowledgeable about little things like soothing him when he’s upset. We bought this book based on recommendations, and I think it met those expectations. The short summary is that the techniques described in the book work, but it is highly repetitive, and problematic in the way its thesis is presented.

The core concept is the 5 Ses: Swaddle, Shush, Swing, Side, and Suck. You can pretty much get that from the back of the book, and from some general knowledge of baby care. However, there were a few adjustments I learned that really helped:

  • I needed to swaddle more tightly
  • I needed to shush more loudly
  • I needed to swing more vigorously

With those minor changes, I’ve been able to calm him fairly quickly and in some cases even put him completely asleep. It’s worth noting that I am certain we are being helped by his apparent easy temperament. We generally have not needed to change his position to side or stomach holds (he prefers being upright anyway, I think because of womb position). Obviously a feeding works pretty well too, but I can’t help with that yet.

Given that, I think this book could have been much shorter. Mostly I would recommend reading the five core chapters on each S. He’s just very repetitive, which I guess drills things. I think that you can skip every personal anecdote (the stories in bold italics); nearly every one is of the form “My baby wouldn’t stop crying because of X. Dr. Karp showed me how to S, and now they calm themselves!”. They don’t add anything to the learning experience, but maybe they benefit other types of learners?

I had two major problems with the way the techniques were presented, both related to the narrative that American culture lost certain baby soothing techniques over the last 150 years. I think that change is true, and there are probably many factors (smaller family sizes, less intergenerational housing, consumer marketing of baby products, etc.) that have contributed to this shift. That discussion is out of scope for this book, but that didn’t stop Dr. Karp from trying, despite being a pediatrician and not a sociologist, anthropologist, or evolutionary biologist. I also took issue with some non-scientific pandering in the later chapters.

My first issue was in the area of evolutionary biology. Obviously I am not an expert in that field, but I know enough to note his errors regarding the Neanderthal timeline, when humans lived in caves, and being contemporaneous with dinosaurs! His idea that the soothing techniques work because in the womb a calm fetus is less at risk of umbilical cord entanglement sounds believable, but he provides no citations. I realize this isn’t that kind of book, but I’d like at least some justification.

Much more problematic was his presentation of baby care in other cultures. It smacked strongly of Romantic primitivism, perpetuating the stereotype that non-Western cultures are inherently more in tune with the natural world and our bodies’ needs because they don’t have industry and modern medicine so on. Relatedly it treated several examples as cultural monoliths, at one point even implying that Indonesia was a monoculture with a single belief about how babies should be swaddled. These examples annoyed me every time they came up, and were a reminder that the book is written for what seems to be a pretty narrow white middle class American audience.

An additional quick complaint: the chapter on dad’s duties was terrible. First I don’t appreciate the assumption that only moms would read the book, and second, it implied that dads barely help with the baby and are mostly just waiting for the post-partum “all clear” for sex.

Finally, there were some approving comments about non-scientific stuff like homeopathy that I felt didn’t have a place in this book. I figure they were there to pander to an audience looking for more natural solutions to colic?

Overall, a useful book for the basic calming techniques, but one with redundant problematic content that you probably won’t need to refer back to. Grab it from the library and skim it.

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How I Live Now

How I Live Now
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a relatively rare example where I decided to read a book based entirely on the trailer for its upcoming movie adaptation. It was a serendipitous opportunity because Rebekah happened to have a copy sitting out at her apartment, so I borrowed it and tore through it quickly on the bus into work. I haven’t reviewed it until now on account of the baby.

This book, better than most YA fiction, captures well the way a teenager thinks. It’s entirely a first-person narrative, but unlike, say, Katniss in The Hunger Games, Daisy does not seem preternaturally mature in her thoughts or her handling of emotions. Her cousin Edmond reminded me a lot of an older Charles Wallace, circa A Swiftly Tilting Planet (one of my absolute favorite books) in the way he was intuitive and possibly even telepathic.

The book’s great strength is that it maintains a lot of mystery. The enemy is never specified, which keeps things more interesting and suspenseful while also capturing the feeling of panic on the part of the kids. I appreciated that a lot. That’s impressive restraint on the part of the author, for a first-time book. (I imagine that the film will, by nature of the third-person medium, specify more, while having less internal angst.)

The ending was sudden and unexpected, which does hurt the book a bit. It felt like maybe some additional plot was cut for length, but maybe I’m wrong? On the other hand it did allow for a time jump ahead to see the consequences of some of the events in the main storyline.

Still, a quick enjoyable YA read that is different from a lot of the other fare out there. I definitely recommend it, and will probably try to see the movie when it comes out.

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YOURLS Plugin: Remove YouTube Play Indicator

A few months ago, I set up a self-hosted YOURLS install to handle all of my URL-shortening needs, replacing v.gd. I decided I wanted to be wholly responsible for breaking any links in the future. It’s here, although probably at some point I’ll buy a shorter domain and redirect everything.

Last month, YouTube added a play indicator that modifies the <title> attribute to include U+25B6 BLACK RIGHT-POINTING TRIANGLE. I don’t like this showing up in the title in the YOURLS admin interface. I wrote a quick plugin that strips this out.

Remove YouTube Play Indicator is available on GitHub. Please comment there if you have any issues.

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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