Randall Munroe in Limerick

They carry him back to their village and worship him as their god

You might expect someone who thinks so much and so deeply about mathematics and science to be socially uncomfortable with the normal humans, but Randall Munroe is an engaging and amusing speaker – both in front of a lecture theatre audience and over dinner later.

This was at Skycon’12, a really good weekend conference put on by the University of Limerick‘s computer society. Other speakers included Mark Shuttleworth, creator of Ubuntu Linux, and…

OK, how many people have I lost already? I need to remember that not everyone is immersed in Geek culture, even now. Randall Munroe is hugely famous; possibly the second most famous person I’ve met. After Colonel Sanders.

But he’s not… TV famous, for want of a better term. Not public property.

I spend much of my social life in a world where everyone but everyone knows who Randall Munroe is. That world is congruent with the other one – you’ll find XKCD fans in every country of every continent – but it is still a shadow world. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Geek culture is mainstream now, what with everyone being on Facebook and all, but really most people just hang around the gateway to the other realm.

And so he can have literally millions of fans – of which I am certainly one – yet still speak at an obscure conference in a small city, and have a quiet dinner after with friendly and only slightly overawed strangers. If you’re going to be famous, I think that may be the way to do it.

Definitely not Frank McCourt’s Limerick.

Take A Load Off

Homicide Stats Barchart
On the face of it, there’s a strong correlation between gun availability and homicide rates. Click for sources and more detailed statistics

Well I might have expected that would get a reaction… In brief, yesterday I argued that the genie is out of the bottle on US gun control and the only way to reduce shooting sprees is to end the easy availability of  ammunition.

I may as well have said it would be more sensible for everyone to go round without pants.

Mostly the comments turned up in more private forums like Facebook, so I will edit for anonymity – as well as to make things flow a little more conversationally. I think we covered some pros and cons of the idea in worthwhile detail though, and I’d like to bring that to you. Especially as coincidentally (I hope) it’s a year today since the Norwegian massacre.

As a means to the end of controlling the supply I suggested people be required to return empty shell cases when they purchase fresh ammunition.

(For no clear reason, I’m referring to commenters as “callers”.)

Caller A – I am afraid you’re ignoring both the ready availability of ammo, at least in common calibers, and the availability of load-your-own technology.

Caller B – And that shell casings aren’t always recoverable, especially small caliber ones like .22. They don’t land neatly in a pile when you eject them, and where people hunt or target shoot in rural areas, there are tall grass and brush and gullies and so on.

Actually I am taking this into account. Yes, people who already have large amounts of ammunition would be able to bypass the system by refilling it. It’s not really relevant because they could achieve the same end more simply by only ever purchasing their legal quota at any one time. This measure in itself isn’t aimed at taking excess or illegal ammunition out of circulation, (though be accounting for all that is held legally, it would help to that end), but at stymieing people who decide they’re going to need a really large amount of ammunition quickly.

Caller B, there would need to be some leeway for attrition as you point out. Obviously shell cases are far more likely to be lost during actual hunting than range firing, so some evidence that hunting took place might be required – perhaps witnesses. Alternatively there are spent case catcher devices available for some types of weapon. [I see that as an issue of fine-tuning legislation, rather than a problem with the principle.]

Caller B – I realize you’re trying to address a current issue but there are already means of taking guns away from people who shouldn’t have them. And this is a state level issue as well. The Constitution is federal but each state determines the level of gun control (what kind, open carry, concealed, etc), and a county might have broad discretion depending on what judge is signing your pistol permit.

There are already laws in place where you can remove guns from people who should no longer have them, for example federal law prohibits gun ownership by anyone subject to an order of protection, or convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. State law prohibits ownership by convicted felons, certain misdemeanors, those found to have a drug/alcohol problem, those with certain mental illnesses, etc. Guns can safely be removed from people, too, and are all the time. It’s not like every gun owner comes to the door locked and loaded. You’re making a jump to an extreme situation without considering all the existing laws and details that would prevent that.

Sometimes, tragically, people who shouldn’t have guns get them anyway. Bad things happen. That does not mean the system is entirely broken and extreme action needs to be taken. It may mean parts of other systems are broken, like that which supports and identifies people with serious mental illness or drug problems.

I question if these other parts of the system can be really fixed – if we’ll ever be able to reliably identify people likely to go insane and start shooting before the fact. Not at least without incredibly intrusive and illiberal measures. My idea is off the top of my head and sure to have its faults, but I think it’s really not so extreme. I’m working on the assumption that current gun ownership controls are indeed fairly comprehensive, and that extending them would come at huge political cost for very little effect. My thinking is that the only measure likely to reduce spontaneous acts of mass murder, carried out as is so often the case by people previously unknown to law enforcement, is to put a severe kink in the amount of ammunition you can obtain at short notice.

(And it could be argued too that as a matter of interstate commerce, the ammunition supply is clearly the purlieu of federal government.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should be restricted to a day’s supply or whatever. Individuals in good standing – this might be a matter for local law – with established sports or even security needs (and the facilities to hold it securely) might be licensed to keep considerably more.

The idea is intrusive to a degree, yes. There would have to be searches occasionally, if there were grounds to suspect people were hiding ammo. It makes the amount of ammunition in a person’s possession a matter of public interest. But (a) perhaps it should be and (b), I think this would be seriously less intrusive than any other possible pre-emptive measure.

Caller B – So you’re OK with being intrusive on people buying ammo in some arbitrary amount somebody considers excessive, but not OK with being intrusive on people with mental illness?

Yes. Because it would be an incredibly intrusive process to find out who was mentally ill. Especially in a way that could actually identify those liable to murder, if that were even possible. Not to mention the enormous problems it raises around the presumption of innocence. Regulating how much ammunition an already-licensed gun owner possesses is hardly comparable.

Caller BI think the system that treats mentally ill persons can be fixed IF (and only if) we put the money into it that it deserves.

Also: possibly, just possibly, we can’t make perfect systems for anything. Possibly, sometimes, tragedies happen and there was nothing that could have been done to prevent that. A person hell bent on mass murder will find a way to accomplish his goals. A person hell bent on suicide will find a way to do that. I’m not saying I don’t value people’s lives but band-aid solutions that affect everyone don’t actually solve the underlying problems that individual desperate or violent people have. I simply don’t think that a law restricting ammo purchases or possession is going to stop anyone. One brick of .22 ammo–the standard box size–has about 500 rounds in it. One box of .40 cal has 50 rounds. One box is all it would take to kill 50 people, if I’m a good shot.

I think the argument that some people will kill or commit suicide no matter what you do is invalid. Yes they will – but the harder the means are to come by, the less likely they are to attempt or to succeed at mass murder. Explosives and (the ammunition for) firearms are the surest means to killing a lot of random people. It isn’t seen as problematic to put some fairly steep restrictions on access to explosives.

Caller A – I also have a minor unrelated quibble with charts that one occasionally sees comparing gun deaths in different countries and in the US. The other countries usually include ex Canada, but I’d like to see them include places like South Africa and Brazil. I don’t think Americans are the shootin’est people out there, and it’s not because we can’t get guns. Similarly, pro-gun freedom types like to look at the UK, which has a higher overall violent crime rate (unless they fibbed about that, would have to look). They use this to argue that gun laws don’t prevent violence. To me, it argues that prevalence of violence is socially and culturally based. I shudder to think what a Saturday night in Glasgow would be like if everyone had a concealed handgun.

I have heard the argument that there’s a higher violent crime rate in the UK than the US, but I am extremely dubious – especially in the light of these figures, which put the US murder rate at over four times the UK one. I suspect it’s the result of different definitions being used. If there is anything in it at all, it may be that there are higher rates in the UK for violent crimes other than homicide – simply because the chances of surviving an assault not involving a gun are much better!

The US is definitely not the shootin’est place in the world, not by a considerable distance, so that is one thing to get in perspective. China and Venezuela are quite comparable. Brazil and South Africa have far, far higher murder rates. Jamaica is just insane. But are these comparable countries? Placed alongside other wealthy democracies where the rule of law runs and there is no serious internal security issue, the US is roughly twice as murderous as its nearest rival (which is, oddly, Luxembourg). Twice. And if, as above, we compare it to the countries most of us are familiar with, that are arguably the most similar in cultural values, the murder rate is strikingly higher in the US. This seems to correlate very strongly with the civilian gun possession rate.

Interestingly though, it doesn’t seem to account for all of it. There are two non-gun homicides per 100,000 people in the US, compared to about one in the other English-speaking countries. Americans are therefore more likely to commit murder in general, for reasons we might go into some other time. This muddies the picture somewhat, but it remains clear that this is only one part of a much larger difference in homicide rates. It seems indisputable then that American murder would be reduced if guns – or as I argue, ammunition – were less readily available.

Good Bad Photography (1)

Hipster

Lomography – the use of a uniquely crappy camera to take charmingly distorted pictures – was perhaps the last cry of film photography as a fashionable medium. It was soon overtaken by apps that could achieve similar effects and more, such as Hipstamatic for the iPhone. Developers quickly realised that with its ability to run software, a smartphone could be much more than an ordinary digital camera. Now, a photo is hardly a photo without an extreme colour cast and dark corners.

Then social networking got involved. Some may think the combination limited; after all, uploading images is just a subset of what Facebook or Google+ can do, and Flickr has had similar facilities for ages now without ever setting the world on fire. But on the other hand Pinterest – sharing other people’s pictures yet – has become the biggest social network after Facebook and Twitter, so it’s perhaps in the light of this that Instagram, one of the most successful free social/photography apps, was snapped up by Facebook on almost the same day that it became available for Android. For one billion dollars.

Oops, you blinked.

Networking is not so important to me, but I would like a good Lomo-style app to take fashionably bad photographs. I am impressed by how affecting these effects can be. The one above uses Hipster, an established Instagram-like app for Android. It’s OK, it has some interesting effects. But not many, and the tools seem a little limited. Very comparable to Instagram really, but with one big difference: The results are… unsquare. It leaves the images in widescreen ratio, not the cute square format that’s so key to the retro feel, and so far I’ve found no way to change that.

I don’t think this will be the one for me then. Look out for more trials to come.

Correction:

In my rush to find nice effects I completely overlooked the actual intention of Hipster. Though it’s similar to Instagram in most respects, its intention is to create postcard-like images automatically bearing the location they were taken, which I assume they scrape off Google Maps. Hence the wide format. I hadn’t realised this at first because the picture I took above was a long way from any landmark. If I had been, its name would’ve appeared in the black area on the left up there.

There’s a different font to suit each effect, and I suppose it achieves its goal; they do look like postcards. Unfortunately to me they mostly look like tastelessly effects-laden postcards from the 80s. Which is either insufficiently retro, or excessively ironic.

Similarly too, but not as tasteful as, Hipstamatic

Good Bad Photography (1)

Hipster

Lomography – the use of a uniquely crappy camera to take charmingly distorted pictures – was perhaps the last cry of film photography as a fashionable medium. It was soon overtaken by apps that could achieve similar effects and more, such as Hipstamatic for the iPhone. Developers quickly realised that with its ability to run software, a smartphone could be much more than an ordinary digital camera. Now, a photo is hardly a photo without an extreme colour cast and dark corners.

Then social networking got involved. Some may think the combination limited; after all, uploading images is just a subset of what Facebook or Google+ can do, and Flickr has had similar facilities for ages now without ever setting the world on fire. But on the other hand Pinterest – sharing other people’s pictures yet – has become the biggest social network after Facebook and Twitter, so it’s perhaps in the light of this that Instagram, one of the most successful free social/photography apps, was snapped up by Facebook on almost the same day that it became available for Android. For one billion dollars.

Oops, you blinked.

Networking is not so important to me, but I would like a good Lomo-style app to take fashionably bad photographs. I am impressed by how affecting these effects can be. The one above uses Hipster, an established Instagram-like app for Android. It’s OK, it has some interesting effects. But not many, and the tools seem a little limited. Very comparable to Instagram really, but with one big difference: The results are… unsquare. It leaves the images in widescreen ratio, not the cute square format that’s so key to the retro feel, and so far I’ve found no way to change that.

I don’t think this will be the one for me then. Look out for more trials to come.

Correction:

In my rush to find nice effects I completely overlooked the actual intention of Hipster. Though it’s similar to Instagram in most respects, its intention is to create postcard-like images automatically bearing the location they were taken, which I assume they scrape off Google Maps. Hence the wide format. I hadn’t realised this at first because the picture I took above was a long way from any landmark. If I had been, its name would’ve appeared in the black area on the left up there.

There’s a different font to suit each effect, and I suppose it achieves its goal; they do look like postcards. Unfortunately to me they mostly look like tastelessly effects-laden postcards from the 80s. Which is either insufficiently retro, or excessively ironic.

Similarly too, but not as tasteful as, Hipstamatic

There Are Two Ways To Do This, And Your Way Isn’t One Of Them

SONY DSC-TX5
Sony made the camera she’s holding. No it isn’t very relevant, but I was getting nothing else except pictures of old videotape players. (Photo credit: cattias.photos)

Sony Corporation has just filed a record loss of $6.4 billion. How does anyone lose that much money? Particularly, how does one of the biggest makers of electronics, movies and music lose that much money? Maybe it’s piracy. After all when they lobby governments for new media-control legislation, record companies talk as if every download is a loss of a sale. Perhaps they’re actually putting that on their balance sheet now.

OK, the real reasons are probably more complicated. Sony is a complicated company. (Did you know it has a financial services arm?) But I think this in itself causes much of their problems. Making the content and the equipment to play it on is a strategy born of the format wars. Sony’s technically superior Betamax design lost out to VHS, in part because its rivals had better deals for film distribution. So when it came to the the battle between Blu-Ray and HD DVD, Sony was better prepared; it now owns about one sixth of Hollywood.

But format is now irrelevant, an anachronism. Sony won a war over a wasteland.

The makers of audio and video equipment are, to put it crudely, on our side. They know we don’t want the machines we buy hobbled to suit Big Entertainment. So hardware makers quietly let slip the codes that region-unlock their DVD players, Apple decides to sell only DRM-free music through iTunes, so on. But as a maker of both content and equipment, Sony is a house divided against itself. The most notorious example: the day one of the world’s bigger PC builders also became a distributor of malware. If you bought music from them, they returned the favour by taking control of your PC. I haven’t bought a Sony product since.

They must choose now. Only by getting out of entertainment production – an industry already past its best days anyway – will they be able to return to doing what they always did best: Shiny things.

The Silent Heads Of Easter Island

Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter Island
It's Got To Be A Metaphor For Something

A friend alerted me to this via Facebook today – The famous “Easter Island heads” are not just heads. They were whole bodies, buried up to their necks. Previously thought to be merely enigmatic and mysterious, this discovery demonstrates them to be more accurately described as madder than a cat flap.

But I do you wrong. Among people who actually pay attention, it was always well-known that these figures were whole bodies. The ones that seemed to be only heads were the exception rather than the rule, but are better known to the rest of us for two reasons. Firstly, they are striking and fascinating just sticking out of the ground like that. It’s one of the great images.

Secondly though, by the time cameras got to Easter Island all the free-standing ones had been knocked over. This seems to have been caused by conflict among the islanders. You know how it goes. Someone pushes one of yours over, you push over one of theirs, before you know it the only statues left vertical on the whole island are the ones that were buried upright.

But why were they carved and erected in the first place – and why did they stop? No one really knows, but one popular explanation was given in the comments to the article linked above, by a person calling themselves “I am the Birdman”. Being lazy, I will quote it in its entirety here:

The most likely theory is that they were carved as “tombstones” of sorts, a memorial to the person. And of course, the next man’s idol must be bigger. They also wore hats and had bright white eyes with pupils adhered to them. And if I remember correctly, that still non-ciphered language is called Rongo-Dongo¹. Sadly, it was the construction of these statues that did in the civilization. In order to roll them into place they needed logs, and in doing so, they completely decimated every tree on the island. No trees, no wood, no fire, no shelter, havoc, and then no more people. It’s sad really. Watch the movie 180 degrees South for a better animation of this.

Excessive pointless consumption leading to ecological devastation and thus the collapse of a civilization – a perfect parable for the errors of our times.

So perfect in fact that it couldn’t possibly be true. People do do entirely mad things occasionally of course, especially for religious purposes, but it seems more likely that deforestation was caused by rats and other species introduced by boats from other parts of Polynesia. (The coming of rats to Hawaii caused similar ecological upheaval.) The people and culture of the island was then upset even further by visits from various European explorers, missionaries, and finally slave traders, all bringing alien ideas and alien diseases with them.

So Easter Island is not a great metaphor for what happens to a planet when people consume excessively and without forethought. It’s a much better one though for what happens to a planet when it’s invaded by aliens. We’d better hope that doesn’t happen as well.

 

  1. They didn’t remember correctly. It’s called Rongorongo. If it is a true written language rather than some  simpler memory-aid or calendar system, and if it was not inspired by contact with another culture, it is one of perhaps only four instances of writing being invented independently.

The Guardian Monster

London Underground roundel logo
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Oh the Guardian, that normally well-regarded major UK newspaper, has had a ****ing brilliant idea. You see, if you read a story in the online version of the paper, you can share it on Facebook using their app.

Actually if you are logged into Facebook – even in another browser window you’ve forgotten is still open – it automatically posts the article you’re reading. It does say when you install it that the app will share what you read, but I don’t think the casual user will immediately realise this means “without even asking”. I certainly bloody didn’t.

So at long last, the Guardian has managed to fully automate the process of having someone reading over your shoulder. In this way online readers all over the world can partake of the authentic crowded London tube experience.

But that’s not even the worst part. The link it posts doesn’t actually go to the article, it – yes – offers to install the app. So you accept because you want to read the story. All your friends will then see what you’ve read and install the app so they can read it, which will tell all their friends what they’ve read… This thing is going to spread exactly like a virus.

Indeed the figures seem to be bearing that out. Two weeks ago, after being out only a month, they had their millionth install. At that rate we have about one week left to enjoy Facebook before it collapses under the sheer weight of Guardian links.