Mike’s favorite books of 2013

December 6th, 2013 Comments off

Following the tradition I started in 2009, and continued in 2010, 2011 and 2012 I present my annual list of my favorite books I read during the past year. As always, the lists tends towards history, science, and speculative fiction, but hey, it’s my list, so without further ado, and in no particular order…

The Abominable: A Novel by Dan Simmons

This novel starts out slow, and turns into an absolutely intense fight for survival in a harsh environment with stakes as high as they get. The attention to historic detail and the minutiae of 1920s mountain-climbing tech is fascinating.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Bryson could write about watching grass grow and it would be fun. He has much more interesting material here, chronicling one summer in American life, using as his hook Lindbergh’s famous flight. A remarkable look at pop-culture history.

On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

The best writer in science fiction today hits another out of the park with “Steel Breeze,” a story that combines a fight for survival on a massive generational starship, an encounter with a mysterious alien machine intelligence, and the politics of a world where human nature has been changed (or has it?) due to the influence of advanced software.

Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma

A refreshing and entirely new take on World War II, focusing not on the fighting itself, but what happened during the first year after. Of particular note, the author covers the entire world, Asia and Europe, focusing on the themes of vengeance, re-establishment of the rule of law, and the politics and implementation of the occupations.

Doctor Sleep: A Novel by Stephen King

The sequel to “Shining” is much less ‘horror’ then the original (although some old friends do make appearances) and more meditative. This is King, though, and he doesn’t skimp on the plot development or strong characters. A fun read with color villains and great heroes.

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser

Investigative journalist Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) digs into one of the biggest secrets of the atomic age: namely that our weapons were stored and controlled with less attention to security and detail then the average person’s LinkedIn password. An essential history of how we managed these weapons is told through the story of a near-disaster in an Arkansas silo where a nuclear weapon came close to accidental detonation on American soil.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

A teenage boy wakes up alone in a world that is empty and decayed, with no memory of how he got there. This is the hook for a mystery that extends very deeply into the nature of reality, linked to traumatic events in the boy’s family past as he discovers who he is. One of the most unique and fresh takes on this genre in years.

Odds Against Tomorrow: A Novel by Nathaniel Rich

Cross Nate Silver with Rick Grimes, and you might have the protagonist in this literate post-apocalyptic novel. The protagonist is a conflicted math whiz who uses his predictive skill to make himself rich forecasting disasters for insurance companies and other wealthy clients, becoming numb to the world, until he and the woman he cares about experience an apocalypse he himself predicted.

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner

Ostensibly the story of one of two drug-addled screwballs who managed an audacious hijacking in the early 1970s, Koerner’s book more broadly focuses on a history of the so-called “golden age” of hijacking, in the late 60s and early 70s, the age before metal detectors and when hijackers were generally non-violent. Both a history of the hijackers themselves and the story of how the system tried to respond, the book really brings alive that crazy, amazingly innocent (compared to now) era.

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

The premise is simple. The zombie apocalypse happens, and the only folks who are immune are meth addicts, and only if they remain addicted (sobriety means a quick death and turning into a zombie). A mix of delicious zombie gore and musings on the nature of society and addiction, this novel is both comic and touching.

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George

Look around; almost everything in your home or office got there because it travelled on a giant boat from somewhere else. Author Rose George climbs aboard the merchant marine and through her journey throws some light upon this little-known but essential piece of our world’s infrastructure, covering shipboard life, pirates, cargo handling, the the experiences of sailors and captains as they keep the flow of world commerce going.

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt

War is horrible, but it has rules, right? How these rules developed is a little-known story, featuring a very well-known President. Mixing military history, legal theory, and politics, author Witt tells the story about how fallible men tried to make what is essentially an inhumane activity as “humane” as possible.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

There are many histories of Elizabethan England, and most of them cover the the lives of the powerful, and a certain well-known playwright, but what was it like to actually live then? How would you go about daily life, what would actually make you laugh or cry, what might you do to fill your plate and where might you go to shit it out? This is history made real, and short of a time machine, the closest we’ll come to really feeling what it might be like to experience another time.

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov

In recent years there has been a lot of hype about how technology will finally be able to solve various problems that have been plaguing humanity. While no luddite, Evgeny Morozov takes a much needed pin to these balloons of hot air, explaining that technology is not a panacea and by itself cannot fix problems that at their root are not solvable via purely technical means. Sharp and witty, but backed by real thought and depth, this is some of the best writing on this issue I have seen in years.

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

Using the little-known diary of a German executioner as its primary source, the lives of 16th century Germans and their notions of law and justice are examined. This book is fascinating, because for the vast gulf of time, and major changes in legal concepts and morality since then, the humanity of the titular executioner and the people he served have stayed surprisingly constant over time. History at its most interesting.

The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom by Mark S. Weiner

There’s a fundamental difference between two different systems for organizing political life – tribal rule, and rule of law; the latter seems self-evidently much better, but there are strong pulls in human psychology towards the former. A fascinating look at the strengths and weaknesses of both systems, and how they can explain a lot of what we see in the world today; probably the best popular political philosophy book I’ve read in years.

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine

That the South lost the Civil War is obvious, but less obvious is the very specific ways that the Southern “system” was dismantled, socially and politically. Looking at both the debate in the North and the facts on the ground in the South, author Levine brings this turbulent era to life on both sides.

The Secret Lives of Sports Fans by Eric Simons

I am a pretty dedicated fan of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, and my euphoria when they win big and despair when they lose has always tickled my intellectual side – why do I feel this way, how does it affect me psychologically and socially, and is it similar to other “mass euphoria” like religion? This wonderful book demonstrates experimentally some of the deep truths about sports fandom and the inner lives of fans.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is one of the most entertaining science writes out there, and she doesn’t disappoint with this delightful trip down the digestive tract, from the mouth to the, uh, other end. It is rare to find an author who combines the childish fun of a fart joke with some interesting and genuine science, a real winner.

The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

A simple premise – the Earth starts rotating slower, the days start gradually getting longer. In “Age of Miracles” we see how this affects the world, through the eyes of a teenager girl with the usual joys and terrors of adolescence. The changes causes by the slowdown are well thought out and scary. Amongst the best speculative fiction novels I have read in a while.

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Zuk

As someone who is quite sick of pop-evolutionary psychologists saying that we do X or Y because the “cavemen” evolved to do it, or that we should eat this or that for the same reason, this book is a breath of fresh air. Zuk uses real science to show us how evolution really worked on human beings and separates the paleo hype from scientific fact in an engaging and informative style.

Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley

Phone Phreaks were the original hackers, and their story has never been told with as much verve as here. Combining an interesting technical history of the phone system in America with the personal stories of some of the most colorful hackers who explored the system, this book takes us to a more innocent time. The cat and mouse tales practically leap off the page; a real celebration of the spirit of learning and exploring that marks true hacker culture.

The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse by Sam Sheridan

Zombies, meteors, bird flu, alien invasions or whatnot, what would it actually take to survive? Sam Sheridan explores this, taking on the role of an ordinary schlub who decides to learn all the skills of apocalyptic living, ranging from extreme driving, tactical weapons, food preparation, and combat first aid. This is a fun and interesting book, it’s not a boring survival manual – the author’s sense of humor comes through as he concocts ridiculous scenarios but then learns what real-world skills might come in handy.

The Reach of Rome by Alberto Angela

This might be considered the Roman equivalent of “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England” noted above; both books do an amazing job of really giving the reader a feel for life in the past. Where this book differs is that it covers the Roman world more broadly, following the movement of a coin around the Empire, touching on dozens of different people as they go about their lives. It reads like fiction, although everything in the book is based on actual archeology. An amazing trip through time; a day at the chariot races, a trip to a garum factory and a visit to a doctor’s office…real life in the Roman world from patricians down to slaves.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene

If psychology and philosophy had a baby, it would be this book. A great exploration of how humans make moral decisions and how these decisions inform our political and social choices, Greene ends up with a full-throated defense of a form of utilitarianism as the best way for groups of people with different moral views to live in peace.

Categories: Books, reviews Tags:

Seven random pieces of advice for app developers

July 14th, 2013 Comments off

1. Don’t make me create a new account for your app or service. Seriously, I got enough of these damn things. Let me use my Google or Facebook or Twitter account to log in with OAuth. Or, at least make that an option.

2. Write release notes. “Bug fixes” is not a release note. List out the damn bugs. It doesn’t need to be copy and pasted straight from your Jira instance, but give us a little idea just what might have been fixed.

3. Every time an app is released with virtual currency that can be purchased via in-app purchase, God kills a thousand puppies.

4. Make something good and let me pay a fair price for it. No “freemium” bullshit. I bought Coda. I bought Tweetbot. They were expensive (relatively speaking). They were good. They were worth it.

5.Use Apple’s built-in shit. Don’t invent your own UI from scratch, Apple is better at it then you. And use the fucking APIs and OS features that make sense. Seriously, why are there still airlines that don’t use Passbook? And if you want me to share to social networks, use the built-in iOS sharing functionality.

6. Don’t force me into Landscape mode. Ever.

7. Don’t give me shit about jailbreaking my phone. It’s legit not to officially support non-standard phones, but intentionally blocking functionality is petty and insulting.

Categories: Computers Tags:

People are people

January 18th, 2013 Comments off

I read a lot of science fiction (currently finishing Alastair Reynolds’ amazing Blue Remembered Earth) as well as trying to get more into historical fiction. One thing both genres have in common is that people’s lives are really different. The technology is different, the day-to-day minutiae of getting though the day operates in different ways. How people communicate, how they access information, what they do is sometimes quite alien. It’s easy to get distracted by this, especially in science fiction.

“Blue Remembered Earth” is set 150 years in our future, and the technology, and the modes of living it has enabled, are quite stunning. However, I was thinking, imagining people from 150 years ago, in the 1860s, looking at us today. What would they think of our technology, our society?

The gulf is just as great, but all across time, there’s still more in common then different. People still take joy in being with friends, they still fall in love, the cozen and plot, embrace and hate, take a certain satisfaction in a good meal or a good shit, have daily work to get done, eagerly seek news of the wider world, love to tell and hear stories about other people, treasure family bonds, feel eagerness and passion for living, and are adapted to their environment and their social world.

It’s important to remember that. Societies may change (and hopefully improve) but people are people. Humans in the past were not stupid, humans in the future will not be smart. They have been, and will be, in all cases, people.

Categories: History, Life Tags:

My favorite reads from 2012

December 23rd, 2012 1 comment

It’s that time of year, bibliophiles – my list of the best books I have read during the past year. In case you are curious, here are my lists from 2011, 2010, and 2009.

Anyway, onward to 2013, and here’s this year’s list…

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
This is the best book I have read concerning why government in this country is so messed up. The authors have devoted their entire lives studying Congress and they refreshingly call out the current Republican Party’s shenanigans as the main reason the institution is so dysfunctional – all the more searing because these are not liberals or Democrats but rather conservatives writing the book.

Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
I have always loved “big dumb object” sci-fi, the genre where explorers come across a large, mysterious object and explore it (the most famous literary example is Arthur C. Clark’s “Rendezvous with Rama”). “Bowl” is a fresh take on the genre, with a human hibernation ship comes across a massive alien construct that harnesses an entire star as its drive system. Amazing concept of a habitat the size of a solar system and some truly alien intelligences mixed with old-fashioned sci-fi adventure and a sense of wonder. The first of a planned trilogy.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
Why do we use forks int he West while the Chinese use chopsticks? How did the butter knife evolve? What’s with all the ridiculous ways we measure things in cooking? How did the oven evolve? If questions like these interest you, you will find “Consider the Fork” fascinating. A great, accessible cultural history of various aspects of cooking and kitchens.

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body by Frances Ashcroft
Usually when electricity comes in contact with the body, bad things happen, but of course electricity is also necessary for life. Ashcroft explores how electricity works in the human body, and how various processes keeps us alive, and enable us to move, sense, and think. A fascinating exploration of the chemical basis of life – and what can happen when things go wrong.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
This would have been a great book even if Silver would have blown his election predictions, but the fact he was nearly perfect only enhances his reputation, and in his first book, Silver covers the nature of predictions, and how forecasting works across a variety of fields. The book is less about “how to predict” then how to think about concept of predictions and probability, and is just fascinating, thoughtful, and very well-written.

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
On one level, “The Last Policeman” is a well-done police procedural. However, it is much more, as the particular murder the protagonist is trying to solve has occurred against the backdrop of a massive asteroid that is only months away from ending human civilization. This presents a new sub-genre in the otherwise-tired pile of post-apocalyptic novels: the pre-apocalypse, and the thoughtful consideration about how our society would change with the end of the world months away is intriguing, and the dogged detective trying to solve a murder when the entire world is about to be ended is touching and haunting.

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger by Harvey Molotch
Security is always in the news, whether the lastest TSA outrage or another tragic shooting spree. Sadly, the usual way our society reacts to security issues is the way an over-stimulated immune system reacts to peanut particles and pollen – with an “allergic” reaction that usually ends up worse then the original problem. Moloch talks about how security works, and how real security is actually accomplished, focusing both on the obvious areas (airports) and places people don’t think about (bathrooms). This book is must reading for any American concerned with how we react to security threats.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This is the list of best book I have read in 2012, and so “Cloud Atlas” is included even though it came out in 2004. “Cloud Atlas” is a humane big-concept exploration of the human condition across time and space, and the storytelling method, with six stories wrapped in each other, layered like a Russian nesting doll, is both daring and well thought-out, and is one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read.

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David Randall
We all sleep. We all have had problems sleeping. If we’re lucky, occasional mild insomnia, but for some people, it gets a lot worse, none more so then a man who (apparently) murdered his wife while sleepwalking. “Dreamland” explores the physiology of sleep, what is it for, and what kind of crazy things can happen there, including chapters and dreams, sleepwalking, and more, written in a breezy style.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
A terrible disease, spread by mindless biters that has terrified humanity – it’s not the zombie apocalypse, but rabies, and this dread disease has been part of human culture through recorded history, oftentimes turning our most beloved companions into vicious killers. The history of rabies is surprisingly fascinating, giving rise to legends like werewolves, and one of history’s greatest scientific triumphs, the creating of an effective vaccine. Wasik and Murphy tell a great story, best read while curled up next to your dog, of course.

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
“Last Hundred Days” is a (historical) novel about an English academic who is mysteriously granted a position as a lecturer in a Romanian university during the last days of the Ceaușescu regime. Nothing is quite as it seems, and the protagonist is drawn into a vibrant and chaotic world of government officials, spies, dissidents and assorted hangers-on – not everyone being who they appear to be – all the while the regime and society slowly collapse around him, putting the lives of himself and those he cares about at risk.

X-Events: The Collapse of Everything by John Casti
The title doesn’t do this book justice, making it sound like a catalog of disaster or porn for survivalists. “X Events” is neither, but rather an examination of the systems that make both our natural and man-made worlds work, and the various way in which they may collapse. Carefully considering the various possibilities, the author not only describes the various disaster, but talks about the natural of systems, and how the various levels of complexity of (man-made systems) can make them more or less liable to fail.

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King
“Wind” is a book that is an absolute must for fans of Stephen King and the “Dark Tower” series, but even for a newbie, it can be successfully enjoyed as a standalone novel about a boy’s adventure in a fantastical world. In effect two complete stories nested together, “Wind” is fundamentally about a boy learning courage and overcoming doubt while going on a quest. It works.

The Drowned Cities by Paulo Bacigalupi
“Drowned Cities” is more then it seems on the surface. At its most basic level, it is the story of pre-teens struggling to survive in a future Washington, D.C. that has been flooded due to rising sea levels and is fought over by rival militia groups. This adventure story, filled with action and unforgettable scenes, works well enough simply at that level, but on a deeper level, this is a thoughtful book on the nature of war, on human nature, love, and what makes people do horrible things. As a meditation on violence, the book is very memorable, and imagining the horrible, hopeless world of child soldiers, drugs, and despair that exists in places like the Congo transported into what was America leaves an image on the mind that I will not soon forget.

Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter
A straightforward, revelatory telling of the story of Lawrence vs Texas, the Supreme Court case that overturned Bowers vs Hardwick and struck down anti-gay “sodomy” laws in America. Carpenter covers the case from the beginning to the end, including interviewing the original participants in the arrest that triggered the case – the police and those at the scene of the “crime” – followed by the case’s amazing journey, against numerous obstacles both legal and procedural, to actual make it to the Court. Both a gripping legal story, and the tale about how real people made fundamental change in America, this book could not be more timely given the current marriage equality cases that are before the Supreme Court

The Fear Index by Robert Harris
“Fear Index” is the one guilty pleasure on this list, a fun, smart thriller about a ‘quant’ – a computer-driven stock trader and mathematical genius who has built an intelligent system that ends up being a bit too smart. A thrilling, cautionary retelling of the Frankenstein tale for our time.

That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz
Why is “X” gross (poop, rotting food, an ugly person, etc)? It seems obvious, it just is. In the best tradition of popular science writing, Herz explores the actual mechanisms that drive disgust in humans, and what evolutionary pressures might have generated them. What kinds of disgust are inborn, and what have to be learned? Are there cultural difference? A fascinating, well-written, fun – and gross – book.

The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel of North Korea by Adam Johnson
North Korea is a fascinating country, being that it is the last totalitarian communist state on the planet, and mixes oppression with a cult of personality very alien to Americans. “The Orphan Master’s Son” is a story about life in North Korea, specifically the life of one individual, who rises, falls, and rises again to different stations in North Korean life, eventually ending up as apparently a famed general who can challenge the Dear Leader himself. A story of love, violence, and absurdity of life in a dictatorship, told with verve, a sense of adventure, and compassion, and quite possibly the best book I read in 2012.

The End of War by John Horgan
This is a very short book, essentially a long essay on war. Specifically, and optimistically, war as something that is not endemic to humanity and something that can be cured, like a disease. Whether you believe war is inevitable to the human condition or not, Horgan’s book is worth a read for being a clear, concise and well-argued polemic that we do not have to live with war and violence as the price of being human.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Carter
Technically an alternative history, “Impeachment” posits a world where Lincoln survived the assassination attempt only to run aground in a whirl of partisan post-war acrimony, ending in an impeachment trial. Carter’s very well-researched novel puts the reader in the middle of the swirl of life in Washington, with rumors of conspiracy mixing with the courtroom drama of the actual impeachment trial in the Senate. As Lincoln’s defense, rallies, powerful enemies try to bring him down. The ostensible protagonist, a female black legal clerk, has deep connections to the issues at hand that could save Lincoln, or bury him.

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Signs and portents

October 9th, 2012 1 comment

Imagine you care very deeply about a particular football game. You really want your team to win, but you can’t watch the game. You can’t even check on the score. You are close enough to the stadium that you can hear the roar of the crowd (usually) and you have access to a few random stats (but not the actual score, remember). You can see time of possession, and the QB rating for each team’s starting quarterback, and maybe turnovers. That’s it.

That is what it is like watching polls if you are a political junkie. You can get a decent idea of who is winning, but you are not sure, and there’s a lot of margin for error. But, you have an idea, and you kind of can tell the momentum. I think my team (Obama) was winning for while, based on the crowd noise, but it’s gotten very quiet as of late, and I notice we’ve turned it over a couple times in quick succession. But we don’t know the score, and won’t til the game is over in 4 weeks.

For my own mental health I should probably stop poll-watching and reading Nate Silver, but it is somewhat addictive, and frustrating at the same time. Are there really that many people who simply choose to ignore a year’s worth of political campaigning and change their opinion based on a 90 minute debate? Is the unlikeable, tin-eared plutocrat, who made gaffe after gaffe (47%, “severe conservative” “I like to fire people”) suddenly preferable to tired, adult Obama, who ironically has finally moved America into positive ground in unemployment and the economy after 4 years?

This is all the more frustrating because (in theory) Obama was leading for a while. It is a textbook example of loss aversion…I don’t think the frustration would be as bad if the two guys had been tied for months. It hurts more to blow a big lead (or pile of cash) then to lose a game that was close all along (ask any fan – or investor).

Ugh. Just depressing. And I know there is still time for it to turn around, but my confidence in the ability of the American people to make adult choices is not terribly high after seeing the polls (those polls again) seem to indicate that most viewers treated the debate like American Idol.

Categories: Politics Tags:

There’s some things remote control just can’t do

September 16th, 2012 2 comments

I go this evening to remote-control my computer at work using Timbuktu, and I notice something very weird. I can’t move the mouse – I can type just fine, but my mouse movements aren’t being transmitted, and even stranger, the pointer is wiggling slightly.

Bizarre. Figuring it was some software glitch, I restarted the Timbuktu process on my work computer. No dice. I switch from Timbuktu to Apple’s built-in remote control, and I am able to move the mouse, but as soon as I stop moving it, I see the pointer start to randomly jiggle around.

Something is really weird. I check the running processes for anything suspicious. Nothing. OK, maybe it is something in my user’s environment, so I switch to another user on the computer. Still we have the jigglies. At this point, I am pretty certain there is a hardware issue at play. In fact, I am pretty sure what it might be – when I left Friday night, I probably knocked my mouse into a position where the laser was tracking off the edge of some papers or a seam in my desk – so basically it was as if there was a person physically moving my mouse (the reason I was still able to use Apple’s remote control but not Timbuktu is because Timbuktu has logic built in to always give the user of the computer being controlled ‘ownership’ of the mouse if they physically move it; apparently Apple’s remote control doesn’t have this ‘feature’)

I can’t leave my computer in this state; I don’t want it to be unlocked and open for several days while I am away, and furthermore, my LCD displays could be damaged having the same image displayed continuously for days (yeah, LCDs get burn in also). What I needed was some way to remotely tell the Mac to ignore that mouse, act like it was disconnected. Alas, unlike a USB hard drive, there’s no way to “dismount” a mouse. Some Google searching and a browse through USB Prober didn’t come up with any solution. Rebooting wouldn’t work either, since this was a physical issue.

I’d like to think I found some magic solution, but what I did was very low-tech. I drove over to my office, saw that yes indeed the mouse was laying askew against some papers, and moved the damn rodent to a secure position, and drove back home. Problem solved.

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Mythbusters: Sports fandom edition

September 9th, 2012 1 comment

I am a sports fan. My husband’s not. He puts up with me graciously. He is happy for me when my team wins, and graciously will leave me alone when they lose. I was thinking today about some of the common misconceptions and “myths” so to speak about sports fandom that many non-fans might hold. Consider this my own little version of Mythbusters: Sports Fan edition.

Myth: Nothing’s more fun then your team in a close game.

No. No. No. This is probably the biggest misconception non-sports fans have about sports fans. There are a lot of emotions going through me during a close game: stress, frustration, homicidal rage, and bursts of joy mixed with bursts of agony. The exact proportion depends on the type of game. Is my (favored) team choking agains a rival, or underperforming against a team they should dominate? Or alternatively, are they coming back and surging late, which actually can be pretty fun? Usually, though, close games are tense affairs, and are “fun” the way eating a hot pepper (and I like jalepeños) tastes “good” – the pain is an essential part of the process of pleasure.

Corollary: If you don’t care about either team, a close game is awesome.
Especially in the last few minutes, these contests are a joy to watch, especially if an upset is in the making.

Addendum: After its over, a great close win has more “juice” then a blowout
The immense feelings of satisfaction, relief, and euphoria after a close, hard fought win are amazing. I call these “hugging strangers” moments, and they make up for all the stress during a game, and even months or years after the games are over, you can pause, and remember the emotions you felt, and get a bit of that warm fuzzy feeling all over again.
For me, this was the final Kansas-Missouri basketball game, where Kansas came back from being down 19 in the second half to win in overtime (and of course Mario’s Miracle in 2008). For Auburn fans, it was Cam Newton’s comeback against Alabama in the Iron Bowl a couple years ago. Giants fans, remember Super Bowl XLII?

Truth: Genghis Khan said it best: “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” The most fun you can have during the game is when your team is winning big, especially against a rival. If you a fan of the dominant team, it is a pleasure cruise. You can relax, enjoy the conversation with your friends, down a few beers, and take in the show without any stress.

Addendum: Schadenfreude is real, and essential. As Cartman said, “Ohhh, the tears of unfathomable sadness, mmm, yummy yummy you guys!” A great rivalry, with true bitterness, is a lot of fun, and cheering on any misfortune of your rival, even when they are not playing against your team, is a key part of that. How can you tell if it is a real rivalry? If seeing their colors and logo fills you with the same feeling of disgust as, say seeing a stranger’s turd floating in a public toilet, then that’s a real rival. For me as a Kansas fan, the turd is Mizzou. If you are a Yankees fan, it’s probably the Red Sox. Ohio State? Michigan. Every Batman needs his Joker.

Myth: Losing a close game is easier to take then being blown out

“Oh, your guys played well, they almost won!” Ugh. No. A close loss is just a series of agonizing “what ifs” that you replay in your mind ad nauseum. A blowout loss is easier to get over, the difference between pulling that band-aid off one hair at a time and just ripping the thing up. This is even worse in “series” playoffs. 2003 will agonize Cubs fans til the end of time. If they had lost 4 games to 0, would anyone remember?

Corollary: On rare occasions, there really are “moral victories”

It happens. Sometimes the team you root for gets so much further then it had any right to that even after the loss, you are just amazed at the ride. This has only happened a couple times in my life as a sports fan, most recently this year, when a Kansas basketball team that had no business getting so far played its heart out all the way to the national championship game where it lost narrowly to a dominant Kentucky team filled with NBA draft picks. Unlike every other Kansas tournament loss in their history, I was not angry after the final game, just thrilled they made it so far and I got to enjoy the ride.

Addendum: Gallows humor helps deal with the pain of losing.
That is, among your own fans. The difference between an asshole and a comedian might be the animal team logo printed on their shirt. The pain is real too; a really agonizing loss can have me in a funk for days.

Myth: Sports fans are dumb

Somehow, enjoying watching skillful athletes do amazing things with their bodies is considered highly cultured if the athletes are performing a ballet but not if they are performing with a basketball. Human beings who enjoy watching sports cross the spectrum of the human experience just like any other activity, and there is nothing any more or less noble about athletic competition compared with any other type of “non-essential” (i.e. “cultural”) activity humans do. I will happily discuss the Jayhawk basketball team’s rotation next season or football clock-management strategies, but if you get bored we can talk about the socio-political situation in the Roman Empire as it transitioned from the Principate to the Dominate, or statistical models of crowd behavior in panic situations. Or NFL officiating, your choice.

Corollary: Yeah, there are dumb fans too.

There’s dumb people too. They’re the ones that vote for the other guy and root for the other team!

Truth: The social aspect of being a fan is very important

If I were stationed in Antarctica, and was the only Jayhawk fan there, I will still watch games and enjoy the victories, but it wouldn’t be the same. There is an essential social aspect of being a fan, and interacting with other fans is like a catalyst in a chemical reaction. Watching sports socially – with friends at home or in a bar, or at a stadium, is immensely more rewarding then watching by yourself. Sports radio was (and is) driven by this, as is the explosion of Twitter, blogs, and social media among sports fans (and everyone else).

Truth: Nothing is dumber then the tired tropes of how sports fans are portrayed in commercials

There are so many cliches in sports-related commercials, both TV and print. Next time you see a print advertisement featuring a sports theme, check off as many of these cliches as you can.


  • (1) multi-racial and multi-sex group of fans (this is a good thing, but it is also cliche)
  • (2) impeccably groomed (are we watching football or going to a Parade Magazine photo shoot?)
  • (3) in mid-cheer (hey, why not?)
  • (4) sitting on a really clean nice couch (only the best furniture for my friends!)
  • (5) with a couple artfully-placed foodstuffs (no crumbs or dead soldiers anywhere to be seen!)
  • (6) with at least one person holding a ball, representing the sport being watched (I’d forget I was watching a football game if someone didn’t, you know, have an actual football in hand! This is even funnier for baseball…better have that glove on while watching in case Alex Gordon fouls one right through the TV screen into the living room)
  • (7) wearing team colors for both teams (mixed company at home viewing party is about as common as a Loch Ness Monster sighting)
  • The ultimate dumb sports-themed TV ad is that Buffalo Wild Wings series about the football fans so enamored with the awesome environment at their local BWW that they conspire to artificially extend the game they are watching into overtime via various shenanigans. I don’t want the game to go on forever; I want my team to win. As hard as that is to believe, I actually want that more then another order of wings and watered-down American light beer. Ugh.


Do you have any myths related to sports fans that you think I missed? Let me know!

Categories: Sports Tags:

A quick rant

August 21st, 2012 1 comment

It’s been a while since I really let loose, but some really rude idiot was talking sh*t to my mom (on Facebook) because she posted a pro-Obama story, so I responded with this. I think it was one of my better flames, although I am biased:

“There’s certainly room for good people on both sides to respectfully disagree about the important issues of the day, but your post reads like a verbal enema from the diseased backside of a syphilitic whore. If you could perhaps remove your tongue from Romney’s asshole for 30 seconds to gulp down a breath of fresh air, maybe it would clear your dim-witted brain long enough to realize your own idiocy. Then again, maybe pigs will fly.”

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Obama vs Romney: Who wins the presidential spam race

August 1st, 2012 Comments off

I recently signed up to get a free Obama bumper sticker. All good and well, but after doing so, I started to get daily campaign spam from the Obama campaign. Well, technically not spam; after all, I signed up for that bumper sticker and in the small print, sure, I probably agreed to the emails…and in fairness they were easy to unsubscribe to.

This go me thinking, how do the campaigns compete against each other in the all important Electoral Spam College? So, I created two brand new email addresses, one for Obama, and one for Romney. I then went to the front page of each web site and gave them those respective email addresses.

I am very curious how often each campaign sends email in their “default” setting, and what kind of emails they are (call to action, calls for money, or something else). Finally, I am curious if these email accounts will get any true spam. They are brand new accounts on my own domain and will not be used for anything else so they are very unlikely to ever get spam – unless the source is one of the campaigns.

Anyway, stay tuned and I’ll update things here with an ongoing score.

Categories: Politics Tags:

How to distribute the golden ticket

April 25th, 2012 1 comment

The system worked…kind of

WWDC sold out in 2 hours, which was completely expected and shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. You almost certainly got a ticket if you met both of these conditions:

  • Got pre-approval from your boss (or your spouse) to buy tickets when they went on sale. This might be a problem at some companies, but if you knew WWDC was coming and got your manager to sign off on it in advance then you were set.
  • Set up an alerting system to notify you when tickets went on sale. If you relied on Apple’s email, you were out of luck. Mine arrived 4 hours after WWDC sold out. If you were awake and watching Twitter, you were likely fine as well. What about all the sleeping beauties on the West Coast? If WWDC was important to you, you could have signed up for a (free) monitoring solution like Pingdom, which worked great. And yeah, for the past couple weeks, left your ringer on when you go to sleep.
  • If you didn’t meet these two conditions, you probably didn’t get a ticket. Apple only sells 5000 or so, and they are non-transferrable, which kills scalping. You have scarcity in a non-market environment. The result is a lot of disappointed people.

    There are a lot of potential solutions floating around, but they all have problems.

    First of all, one non-solution. WWDC can’t be made bigger or split into multiple conferences. WWDC is put on by working Apple engineers, and these folks’ day jobs are writing actual code for Apple, not putting on multiple conferences each year. As for enlarging the conference, you would lose the direct interaction which is an essential part of the event, and on a practical level, there’s no much larger it could get and remain in San Francisco, even if it took over all of Moscone.

    So let’s assume it will be one conference with 5000 or so attendees. The three most popular ideas for improving the ticketing process all have problems:

  • Let the free market work – in other words, no restrictions on resale. How did this work last time you saw your favorite popular band? I doubt Apple would enjoy seeing massive scalping, or the purchasing of tickets by non-developer speculators for resale. The only plus of a market solution would be that if you really wanted a ticket and money was no object, you’d get one.
  • A lottery – This is both the fairest and most unfair system. Fair because everyone has a shot, and unfair because luck is a cruel mistress and a lottery doesn’t take into account how much a particular developer or company really needs to attend. The element of randomness with a lottery doesn’t lend itself to business planning.
  • An application process – You have to apply to attend and Apple decides who is worthy of coming, based on criteria such as your company, what apps you’ve developed, whether you’ve attended in the past, and so on. This might be more fair for established developers, but we all know how awesome Apple’s App Store curation has been. An opaque system for admitting developers to WWDC would be like applying to some elite college. Even if the acceptance criteria was made public, this system would be unfair to new developers or up-and-comers.
  • So what might an semi-realistic alternative distribution system for WWDC tickets look like?

    There probably isn’t a good one…just keeping things as they have been is probably the way things will muddle through. But, perhaps if we combine aspects of the three alternatives somewhat of a better process could be developed.

    I am thinking of something that combines the lottery and application process.
    Developers would apply in advance for the chance to buy tickets (one application per developer). An application would require membership in one of the paid developer programs, and would cost additional money to apply (which would go towards the ticket cost if you got in and refunded if you didn’t). As part of the process, Apple would see what company you were from and what apps you’ve developed, but this is not a merit-based” application.

    For 4000 or so of the 5000 tickets, Apple would distribute tickets randomly among all applicants. If you “won” you would have a chance to buy a ticket, good for a certain period. You could not resell or transfer a winning ticket; if you can’t go, then you would decline and the ticket would go back into the pool.

    The remaining 1000 or so tickets would be for Apple to use for a “second chance” distribution. These would be for hardship cases – I am thinking of situations where say a large company has 10 applications and doesn’t win a single ticket, they could appeal and perhaps be granted a second chance ticket so at least one of their developers could attend. These second chance tickets would also be available for developers based on merit; you appeal to Apple, “show your work” so to speak and can possibly get a ticket. This wouldn’t be perfect but would give deserving devs who are unlucky a chance to get in. To discourage people skipping the first round, these second chance tickets would be somewhat more expensive.

    Finally, a couple rule adjustments to allow to ticket exchanges would help. Apple should consider allowing unlimited transfer of tickets amongst members of the same company, so multiple folks could attend the conference. Of course, only one person could actually have the badge (and be admitted) at any one time. Finally Apple should allow anyone who can’t attend to return their ticket to Apple for a full refund. Apple could then redistribute the ticket into the general pool. As before, outside transfers for pay (i.e. scalping) wouldn’t be allowed.

    This is not a perfect solution – for one, it is more complicated, adds an arbitrary element to the process (well, more then there already is), and would require a bit of work by Apple, but maybe it is a starting point if changes are to happen. If nothing else, maybe food for thought or conversation. See you at WWDC!

    Categories: Apple Tags: