Monday, March 24, 2014

Encyclopedia Britannica lives - at least on iOS

As a kid I wanted to read the encyclopedia - from A to Z. We couldn’t afford an encyclopedia though, so I had to make do with the dictionary [3]. 

So when Britannica, which had more or less skipped the CD era [1], went on the web I was an early customer [2]. They struggled technically though, and by 2006 I dropped my subscription. After 2008 I mostly forgot about them.

It turns out they’re still around, supposedly making money [7] and still charging a $70 subscription for access to most articles (current news topics are often free). That’s a bit steep, especially since a link from our kids school gives me full access to the “High School” version. [5] (Alas, my ancient Britannica Dashboard widget [4] can’t be configured to use that URL.)

On the other hand, the iOS app subscription is only $15/year, and all devices for the purchaser’s Apple ID can use the subscription. On my kid’s parental controlled iPhones the entire content is accessible without authentication needed [8].

So I signed up [6]. For now I’m an EB subscriber/user again; hope they last a few more years.

see also

- fn -

[1] MacKiev World Book, by the way, is $30 on the App Store. I bought the DVD for $40 in 2012 - but I have to confess kids have not used it as much as I’d hoped.

[2] According to a 2005 post of mine, I used to prefer 1990s Britannica’s manually maintained index of web sites to Yahoo’s. This was back in the Alta Vista era. I know I was a paying customer from at least 2001-2006 - at about $70 a year.

[3] Much later I bought a complete set of the 1911 Edition. That is very cool browsing.

[4] Mavericks lets me assign multiple desktops to my secondary vertical display, so that’s where my Dashboard sits. When I want to park a doc in that display I swipe Dashboard away.

[5] I wonder if the school is supposed to post that redirect publicly. I don’t want to get them in trouble, so you’ll have to explore on your own. I can’t see any difference between High School version and public version.

[6] Auto-renews. Note you can manage these subscriptions from your iPhone - go Settings - Store and then Apple ID and tap around.

[7] Given the amount of broken stuff on their web site that can’t be a ton of money.

[8] I found some links that would take me to the web; those opened in Safari and were blocked. So no obvious backdoor.

Monday, March 17, 2014

What you sign up for when you pay Virgin Mobile Canada for phone services

I've once again gone through the tricky process of setting up a Virgin Mobile Canada prepaid account on an unlocked AT&T iPhone. This time I paid more attention to the contract I signed. It was remarkable what rights I've given Virgin Mobile:
... Unless you decline or withdraw your consent at a later date, you agree that Virgin Mobile, Bell Mobility, Bell Canada, Bell ExpressVu, Bell Media, Bell Aliant, The Source and their affiliates may .... send you communications by any means, including electronically ... products and services of our third party marketing partners
(b) Telemarketing and Automatic Dialers: Unless you decline or withdraw your consent at a later date, you agree that Virgin Mobile may contact you by phone at your mobile number (and/or at any other contact numbers which you provide from time to time), and using automated dialing and/or announcing devices, to inform you of new offers and promotions, including but not limited to telemarketing messages. If you do not wish to receive such communications or allow the use of your information for these purposes, please call 1-866-580-3625 to change your preferences. 
... for further information or to block premium short code messages.
So in addition to paying for these services, we also agree to be spammed, texted, and telemarketed to. If you provide your landline number when asked for contact information [1] needed to verify the account, then that's fair game for telemarketing as well.

And the carriers wonder why we hate them ... (ok, so they don't wonder.)

[1] I didn't, and I gave them my Yahoo pure-spam(r) account. But I still need to turn off the texting spam and the telemarketing on the mobile number. Some of this may not be legal in the US, Canada is not famed for consumer protection.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Late revelation -- Doom of the Face

I have the face of a Disney villain.

This came to me as a slowly unfolding personal revelation after reading Emily Matchar’s humorous essay on “Bitchy Resting Face” …

Memoirs of an Un-Smiling Woman - Emily Matchar June 2013

… I struggle with what comedic YouTube-ers Broken People recently termed “Bitchy Resting Face" (hereafter known as BRF). Their PSA-style video introduces us to the plight of women who look sad or pissed off for no reason. Women whose boyfriends always ask them "what's wrong?" Women whose apparent unfriendliness earns raised eyebrows from store clerks. Women who just look, well, bitchy. Even though they’re not…

… My eyes, naturally almond-shaped, can look as if I'm narrowing them in suspicion. My mouth, when not actively smiling, settles into a rather grim line…

… At one of my first jobs, a more senior co-worker pulled me aside to ask why I looked so unhappy. "If you're having an issue, this office is a safe space for you to talk," he said.

I wasn't having an issue. I was just thinking about getting a cup of coffee…

… BRF, I've discovered, has its advantages. I've traveled the world solo, and very rarely been bothered. While female friends with more friendly, open faces report the standard street harassment - cat calls, men badgering them for dates, butt pinching - I float along in my own bitch-face bubble…

… I live in Hong Kong, one of the densest cities on earth, where turning your face into a blank mask is simply a tool of urban survival…

The first person I thought of while reading Emily’s story was a female friend and colleague who I’d once thought of as unhappy and disapproving. When she smiled it was a great pleasure; which is probably why her friends and colleagues often looked for ways to make her smile. Because, despite the first impressions, she was and is a kind, thoughtful and compassionate person.

Orwell and Lincoln were wrong, we don’t get the faces we deserve — at least not entirely. But I’ll get to that part.

The second person I thought of was me, and over the course of a few weeks I enjoyed the agreeable experience of having another piece of the puzzle of mortal existence fall into place. Of course this was not entirely good news, and it would have been better to have figured this out twenty years ago, but solving the puzzle of life is a hobby of mine. After 50 new discoveries are rare, so I particularly appreciated this one.

Of course I’m a guy, so I can’t call it BRF. I’ll have to call it VRF - for villainous resting face (ARF is not quite right - I think I look stern, harsh and disapproving rather than angry). Close set narrow and sunken eyes, small mouth and weak chin, post-CrossFit lean and hungry … yeah, kinda scary. Villainous. No wonder airport security always looks twice.

I wasn’t always this way. As a young adult I was a magnet for cult recruiters — innocent and gullible (though I was neither - faces mislead). Now, though I’m less harsh than my childhood self, no cultist would give me a second look. Over the years photos show my face changing, much as the NYT described.

Faces, as we know, bring a certain kind of destiny. Many a (sometimes disastrous) political career has been made by a strong jaw. There are few lean, beaky and weak jawed faces running publicly traded corporations or nations (Tyler?). So there’s something to be said for knowing one’s face — denial has its advantages, but I prefer to see things as they are.

Of course “seeing things as they are” is the kind of thing we villains do. We make the hard choices others avoid, walk the shadows that must be walked, accept the responsibility for the greater good, grasp the … 

Hmm. Maybe I do deserve this face. Truth to tell, I do have some villainous henchman potential, and the usual weathered and worn experiences.

Deserved or not, we must either adjust to our faces or get plastic surgery (My Emily would laugh at that one — and then have me committed). Emily Matchar moved to Hong Kong, where her face worked for her. In my case there’s something to be said for teleconferences and working remotely. I do better as the Vizier and Henchman in the corporate shadows than as the face of the company. If I go the entrepreneurial route I would need a money-raising partner or avoid VCs and banks. When I lead teams I have to opt for “stern but fair” rather than “noble and true”. When I talk I have to find ways to laugh or smile — hopefully without the maniacal bit. That’s especially true with my kids — they tell me my “mildly disapproving look” is the glare of doom. 

If I have to find a job … well, the interview is a bit of an uphill battle. Not quite sure what to do about that.

On the bright side, solicitors leave my doorstep quickly.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

I need a word for the willful failure of reason

Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is a brain dump of his research career and speculations about mind. The Wikipedia description isn't bad ...

... dichotomy between two modes of thought : System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book delineates cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking, starting with Kahneman's own research on loss aversion. From framing choices to substitution, the book highlights several decades of academic research to suggest that people place too much confidence in human judgment...

The thing I like about Kahneman's framework is that it explains how smart people can do "dumb' things. System 1, for example, correlates well with IQ test results; people with a strong System 1 answer quickly and correctly. System 1 is snappy, fun, and easy. It's snap judgment and gut instinct.

System 2 though, System 2 is hard work. It takes time to train it. System 2 is graphics software without hardware acceleration; it's no fun.

Both Systems can give correct answers, but while Kahneman recognizes the power of System 1, his true love is the plodding logic of System 2. One of the more interesting chapters of the book is a rough heuristic for making predictions using System 1 instinct adjusted by Systems 2 logic.

For what it's worth, I think of myself as having a reasonable System 1, but a really good System 2.

Which brings me to the word I want; a word for people who have a strong System 1 but a weak System 2. I want a word for the Paul Ryans and GWBs of the world.

The word isn't "dumb" or "stupid". It's a word for a character flaw rather than a cognitive limitation, a word for someone who has the power to reason well but chooses not to practice it. It's a word for willful intellectual laziness.

Anyone have a good word? A knowledge of Latin might help...

How could we create an evidence-based classification of disorders of the mind?

The software/hardware metaphor is usually considered as misleading as every other model of mind we've come up with.

I don't agree. My guess is it's an unusually good model -- one rooted in the physics of computation. Anything sufficiently complex can compute, which is, souls aside, the same as running a mind...

... in an alternative abstract universe closely related to the one described by the Navier-Stokes equations, it is possible for a body of fluid to form a sort of computer, which can build a self-replicating fluid robot ...

... A central insight of computer science is that, whenever a physical phenomenon is complex enough, it should be possible to use it to build a universal computer ...

Our minds have emerged to run on our desperately hacked and half-broken brains - in hundreds if not tens of thousands of years. In evolutionary terms that's insanely fast (and did it really never happen before?). Minds route around damage and adapt, as much as they can, to both adolescent transformation and adult senescence; they run and run until they slowly fade like a degraded hologram. It's no wonder minds are so diverse.

When that diversity intersects with the peculiar demands of our technocentric world we get "Traits that Reduce Relative Economic Productivity" -- and we get poverty and suffering. We get disease, and so we need names.

We need names because our minds can't reason with pure patterns -- we're not that smart. With names we can do studies, make predictions, select and test treatments.

Names are treacherous though. Once our minds create a category, it frames  our thinking. We choose a path, and it becomes the only path. It might be a good path for a time, but eventually we have to start over. Over the past ten years researchers and psychiatrists have realized that our old "DSM" categories are obsolete.

So how could we start over? One approach, informed by the history of early 20th century medicine, is to classify disorders by underlying physiology. That's where terms like 'connectopathy' come from, and why we try to define mind disorders by gene patterns.

We need to do that, but lately I've wondered if it's the wrong direction. If minds really are somewhat independent of the substrate brain, then we may find that disorders of the substrate only loosely predict the outcomes of the mind. Very similar physiological disorders, for example, might produce disabling delusions in one mind and mere idiosyncrasies in another.

So maybe we need another way to attach labels to patterns of mind. One way to do this would be to create a catalogue of testable traits for things like belief-persistence, anxiety-response, digit-span, trauma-persistence, novelty-seeking, obsessiveness, pattern-formation and the like. My guess is that we could identify 25-50 that would span traits that are currently loosely associated with both normal variation and TRREPs like low IQ, schizophrenia, and autism. Run those tests a range of humanity, then do cluster analysis and name the clusters.

Then start from there.

 See also:

Why geezers hit the gym (warning - for mature audiences only)

Today's CrossFit workout was open 14.2. With low weights and bands I sort of got through part of the 3rd round. The world record is over 21 rounds - without accommodations of course.

I don't think I'm gonna win the CrossFit games. Worse, at my age, the future trend is not positive.

So why do we newly-old folk do this kind of thing? 

I can only speak for Emily and me - and Judith Warner I suppose. We know the mean "ideal" human lifespan is about 88, and we know that the 2-3 years preceding death are often very difficult. A few years ago I figured, based on my current age and health and family history, that 85 was a pretty good target. 

A target, not a goal. A goal is something to exceed, a target is something to hit. Hitting that target, adjusted downwards over time by illness and chance, is my plan for dying well like my dog rather than badly like most Americans.

When I hit that target I won't be doing chest-to-bar, or overhead squat, or even running. Years before I'll have dropped out of CrossFit. Maybe I'll still be walking, swimming, and shuffling xc skies on artificial snow. The trick, which I'm working on, is figuring out how to die about then. Maybe I'll celebrate my 85th with some base jumping.

That's about 30 years from now, and 30 years doesn't feel very long at all. It's gonna go fast.

Which is why we do crazy stuff now -- because that door is closing. It's the way we play the great game.

See also: