The Absolutely Wurtz History of the World

I would be remiss in my duty to the Prime Directive of the Internet –that being to forward all time-sucking memes, videos, and articles t0 everyone I can– if I were not to make sure you knew about Bill Wurtz‘ latest project: a 20-minute entertainingly off-the-wall history of the entire world.

Be warned: the narrator is irreverent to all peoples, religions, and himself. He also tends to swear.

New Legal Precedent in Gerrymandering

As that rare group of regular readers knows, eliminating gerrymandering and related cockamamie contrivances to prevent people from voting is near and dear to my heart.

As explained by German Lopez in Vox, the Supreme Court has recently ruled in a redistricting case in North Carolina in a way that may help combat cockamamie efforts in the future.

The VHS Tapes We Left Behind

Growing up a cinemaniac, there are, quite naturally, a number of actors and directors and screenwriters I would like to meet. However, I daresay I would not shake the hand of any of them so vigorously as I would the hand of film historian and critic, Leonard Maltin.

Maltin’s indispensable and always entertaining movie guide was a fixture in our household. Not only did we get each annual edition, but we held on to the old ones, noting the films that were added and removed… and occasionally the edits to the various capsule reviews. Prior to the Internet, this was an invaluable resource for all sorts of films, including knowing whether they were available on VHS, DVD, or even laserdisc.

Time marches on, of course, and the guide bowed out in 2014, as the print reference guide just wasn’t the go-to reference for a generation raised on checking for info online. I made the switch too. So did Leonard Maltin: he’s found new ways to talk about films and introduce people to all sorts of cinema they might not otherwise learn about.

But it’s in that spirit of wistful remembrance that he writes about the energy put into various VHS movie collections… and how many of the offerings coming out on DVD or Blu-ray are not nearly as artful, comprehensive — or even exist!

I imagine many of us have a treasured film or series that has yet to make the leap to a more modern format.

Feel free to mention any collections of films you’d like to see break out of the “only available in VHS” in the comments.

What’s in a Name? (Internet Age Edition)

Any name factors into one’s identity whether it’s unusual or common. Not having visited Scandinavia, I’ve only ever met one other Bjorn in person. Names are fascinating, arbitrary things. So what do you make of someone who has the same name as you?

Julie Beck, the recipient of an uncommon yet not unique name, details her quest in The Atlantic to find all the other Julie Becks in the United States. Perhaps because a name is so personal by design, we always seek to find commonalities with someone with the same name — even if there are none. In many ways, I wouldn’t know: there’s too few of us Bjorns over here.

The article also introduced me to the site HowManyofMe, which –be warned– will occupy more than a few minutes of your time as you start plugging in names of family and friends. That inevitably lead to Google searches.

Therefore, I will soon inform various family members of their doppelgangers’ exploits. I may be the only Bjorn Munson in the U.S. though. I’m sure there’s more Munsons and, more properly, Amundsens, back in the old country.

And as it happens, I like Bjorn Amundsen’s cinematography.

Aubrey de Grey and the Efforts to Engineer Away Aging

Sean Illing has an interview in Vox with biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey about his work on tackling aging.

Aubrey de Grey, whose prodigious beard is dwarfed by his prodigious research ambitions, famously believes that combating aging is an engineering problem. In other words, medical therapies can be developed and can be worked on now given our current scientific understanding of aging damage.

I remember first learning about the work of Dr. de Grey when he and others set up the Methuselah Foundation a little over a decade ago. While Methuselah still continues its work, de Grey has since co-founded another research foundation. They are actively working on what they term seven different categories of aging “damage” presumably trying to mitigate or outright reverse what we know of as aging.

It’s hard not to read about these goals and think of the countless times aging and immortality have been brought up in works of fantasy and science fiction. Once again, we seem to be living in a science fiction future already — though the possibility of living in a dystopia or even a Robert Ludlum techno-thriller also seems to be in the cards (maybe linked to an international conspiracy dating back to World War II!).

I have to confess, one of the reasons I like to check back on the work of de Grey, et al –besides the fact that I find the prospects both fascinating and frightening– is that I can’t be ignorant of what science fiction is becoming science fact in this area. I mean, if I’m writing stories about future humans, it might be good to know how soon we may reasonably become post-human. One of the conceits in Rogue Tyger is that all the humans in the Imperium are, to a certain extent, transhuman. The idea is that we humans wouldn’t be able to regularly cross the big black of space without some improvements to combat cosmic radiation, prolonged weightlessness, and so on. Not coincidentally, this means that most of the humans age normally, but live well past 100 Earth years old. A 150-year old human would be viewed how we might view an 80-90 year old today.

Of course, the modest increases in human lifespans I was thinking of are nothing compared to what the SENS Research Foundation is after. And before we even get to reversing aging damage, there’s a host of other questions about genetic engineering that might be in our very near future. Check out this interview with Michael Bess in Vox — also by Sean Illing. I don’t know about you, but it’s enough to just explain to my kids about why the sky is blue, let alone potential massive changes in how humans love.

Guess I better get to writing that fiction while it’s still charming fiction.

Tuesday Tale of Terror: Living Without a Cell Phone!

I have a long, long list of articles I save to read later… and eventually, later becomes “now.”

Alan Levinovitz has a piece in Vox from March 2016 that is sure to chill certain technophiles to the bone: going through modern life without a cell phone.

Missing a friend’s birthday party was my final impetus to get a cell phone originally. My confusion about the location would have been solved with a two minute phone call or a couple of texts. Using a cell phone to actually alert emergency responders a few years later rather cemented its utility. And now, the smartphone is for me what it is for so many people: a handy pocket computer/digital assistant/reference guide.

What I like about Levinovitz’s article is that it is not a holier-than-thou screed against mobile phones, but a use case in how someone gets by in the modern world without a smartphone… or any cell phone at all. It makes one think about how much the normalization of cell phone use is really necessary.

And if that doesn’t work, you can always research if cell phones are going to kill you.

God Still Loves, Man Still Kills

Alex Abad-Santos has a couple of interviews in Vox with the creators of God Loves, Man Kills, the seminal X-Men graphic novel that debuted 35 years ago. For many avid comic readers at the time –including myself– this was an eye-opening paradigm shift in what stories “comics” could tell.

(For ardent comic/graphic novel historians raising their hands to point out the work of Will Eisner, I was too young to read A Contract with God when it came out in ’78 and only learned about it and its follow-ups in the 90s).

While I dislike the conceit of mixing the two interviews so they could be misconstrued as one joint interview –and I hope this doesn’t become a norm– both writer Chris Claremont and artist Brent Anderson have several great insights into the work and their approach to storytelling in general.

One of my favorite quotes:

“Comics produced through avoidance of the real world are hardly satisfactory on any meaningful artistic level.” ~Brent Anderson

The whole piece is well worth a read.

Recommended Reading: The Fate of Google Books

The saying goes that you know you’re a book lover when you still get upset thinking about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. As many as 400,00 scrolls and whatever wisdom they contained have long since been ashes.

What to feel then, about a modern day collection of knowledge that not burned, but nevertheless hidden away?

James Somers has a long-form article in The Atlantic that tells the tale of Google Books: the catalysts behind its creation and its seeming demise. It raises interesting questions about copyright and the free dissemination of knowledge. (The title is a bit click-bait-esque though).

For comparison, Google Books boasts about 25 million volumes, compared to the Library of Congress’ almost 24 million catalogued books. I would imagine there must be crossover.

I’m also pretty sure there’s several million books I wouldn’t want to read –outdated computer software guides alone probably take up the shelf space of seven Costcos– but it sure is interesting to think about.

The Computer has Reached a Verdict

When I talk about automation with people, I often like to point out how the scope of automation now appears to encompass what knowledge workers do.

Indeed, from what I’ve read, various implementations of automation, algorithms, and artificial intelligence are already coming into play in both the legal and healthcare sectors of the economy. In other words, well beyond traditional notions of automation, which usually involve manufacturing and factory work.

While I had heard of algorithms being used to help do legal and medical “triage” of cases, I hadn’t heard of algorithms used in sentencing… but apparently they are, as Jason Tashea details in his recent article in Wired.

As hinted with my gerrymandering post earlier this week, I think it’s a good idea to figure out how our government is reaching certain decisions and what said decisions are based on. I’d really rather read about dystopian futures than live in them.

The “Efficiency Gap” and Gerrymandering

As mentioned in a post last month, I’m very interested in addressing gerrymandering, the political practice of dividing up voting districts in a way that would befuddle the designers of Tetris.

Last month, I highlighted Brian Olson’s algorithm to make voting districts more compact. However, in this article by Erica Klarreich, she suggests that a district’s compactness is not the sole criterion for gerrymandering and talks more about ways to address the problem. Hopefully, this means there’s more examples of quantitative methods that can be used. Yes, this won’t convince people who are already convinced they’ll do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo (which, in gerrymandered terms, is spelled “uqat us sto”), However, it aids in making their efforts look more ridiculous, which always helps.

Update on Virginia efforts:
In both another example of the straightforward language used by Richmond Sunlight and yet another object lesson in reading information even more closely, SJ231, the transmogrified bill to try and be sort of bipartisan in how Virginia does redistricting, has failed. In fact, it had failed when I wrote the original post, but I didn’t realize it. When I looked up the information on the official government system, it looked like it had passed, but it really had been “passed by indefinitely” which is legalese for “successfully killed.”

Time to focus on the 2017 Virginia elections…