Why I am heartened by the failure of the bailout bill

Posted on September 30th, 2008 — permalink

Congress defeated the $700×10^9 bailout bill championed by George Bush. The media are portraying this as a disaster, quoting financial advisors saying that this is a “financial 9/11″ and that boy oh boy are we screwed.

On the other hand, I have to admit on some levels I’m happy to see this. Why?

First of all, this isn’t the financial 9/11. The financial 9/11 was when all the major banks said, “Guys? We’re dead. Please bail us out so our execs can enjoy their golden parachutes without the guilt of a destroyed economy all around us.” What did Congress do after 9/11? Well, too quickly they passed the PATRIOT bill, overwhelmingly voting “yes” because the American people were demanding that we Do Something… even though many (most?) of those voting “yes” on it hadn’t had a chance to know what was in it, never mind think about the implications of it. And the PATRIOT bill was a huge step in dismantling a lot of the basic protections we have against living in a surveillance state.

When there is a crisis, there’s always a push to pass legislation, to Do Something, right away. Sometimes we’re lucky and what is done makes sense. More often, it’s thrashing about in a “ZOMG” reaction. Sometimes, if they are prepared, those with an agenda can push across legislation that would never have been pushed across when calmer heads were able to prevail. This is what happened with the PATRIOT act. According to reports, there’s an oppressive cyberregulation bill waiting in the wings for the “Internet 9/11″ to provide the public sentiment that will allow that to push across.

Probably we need to do something fast to prevent our economy from very quickly imploding. But I’m very nervous about the fast response. I’d like to see us do something right. I’d like to see us recognize that just a bailout without a philosophical shift in the attitudes that led us to this mess would be a huge mistake. I’d like to see us recognize that we’ve done an experiment with deregulation of huge, gigantic companies, and for those who were in favor of such things (which included, at least at times, me) to recognize that, yeah, those ideas have now been shown to be wrong, and sticking to them in spite of the evidence is not rational.

We need more than a band-aid. Yeah, quick action may be needed to keep ourselves out of a horrible depression for the next few years. But we need to think about the next several years, the next few decades, or, heaven forbid, even the next century or two. What we really don’t need is a knee-jerk reaction.. and I fear that that is exactly what the $700B bailout is.

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Astrophysics in Second Life : 7D mapping of the Galaxy with SDSS

Posted on September 27th, 2008 — permalink

Yesterday (Friday Sep. 26), MICA heard its first Journal Club of the academic year. (We’ve had these before, but it was very slow over the summer.) The talk was Mario Juric from IAS Princeton, talking about mapping density, velocity, and metallicity as a function of spatial position within the Milky Way galaxy, using photometric data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

click for larger image
click for a larger image

There were a few conclusions that came out of this. First, unsurprising to anybody who’s read anything about the structure of the Milky Way, the disk and the halo really are completely separate components. The disk appears to have a vertical (i.e. perpendictular to the plan) gradient of metallicity, whereas the halo has a constant (and lower) metallicity distribution. Some density outliers from the smooth background are there, which were known previously, including the Monocerous Tidal Stream discovered by my friend and one-time collaborator Heidi Newberg

However, there were also some surprises. There’s basically no gradient of metallicity radially along the disk. I had previously been under the impression that the disk had a metallicity gradient, with higher metallicities towards the center. One caveat to this: the data does not include the very center of the plane of the disk, so there may well still be a metallicity gradient within the plane.



My deepest emtion

Posted on September 26th, 2008 — permalink

I think is fear.

It’s only natural, of course, living in the USA, because our government currently gets us to agree to do things by tapping into our fear.  But I’m talking about something more personal.  And, it may not really be “fear” as much as “worry”.  The whole “what if” thing.

At the most base level, it’s probably the same “what if” so many people share, and some people much more directly than myself.  “What if I lose my job?”  Then I can’t pay for the house.  I can’t pay for health insurance, which my wife and I need (literally in my wife’s case) to survive.  I know that the stress of that situation would be killer.  I lived for a few years in academia with the near-certain knowledge that I was going to lose my job, and knew the time when it would happen.

Nowadays, I like my job, I like the people I’m working with, I like the day-by-day work of it.  I’m a happier person.  But underneath all of that is my fear.  And, when I see something, or do something stupid, that makes me think that the worry underneath perhaps isn’t as completely irrational as it usually is, it gets very hard, at least for a short period of time, to carry on like a rational human being.

Worrying about the future has always been a week point for me.  Before my academia-induced depression turned to basic out-and-out despair, it usually manifested itself as worrying, worrying that would take over my brain and freeze me up from being able to do other things.  It still comes back sometimes.  And then I kick myself for having done the stupid thing that led me to think that perhaps I really had something to worry about, or for blowing something that I observed out of proportion.

It is kind of sad, though, that all of us in our society, in or out of academia, spend our lives in fear that we have to hang on to whatever income-earning activies we have or else we’re going to be in trouble, unable to meet our responsibilities, unable to survive.  That at the base there isn’t a drive to make the world a better place, an appreciation of beauty, a wonderful curiosity, but rather simple personal fear that the bottom is going to drop out and we’re going to be in trouble.  No wonder we’re such an on-the-edge society!

Although, truth to tell, I suspect it was worse through most of human history.

All very sad.


Virtual Starry Night : can a derivative work be original and creative?

Posted on September 25th, 2008 — permalink

Oh, yes. Oh, yes it can.

Watch this:

YouTube — Watch the World

Gave me chills. An amazing piece of work, all the more so because it’s based on a classic piece of artwork which isn’t the sort of thing that you would think would translate well into a 3d environment with crisp rendering.

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Living La Vida Ludic

Posted on September 24th, 2008 — permalink

I was at SLCC a couple of weeks ago. One thing I noticed was that most of the most interesting and exciting stuff going on was related to education. Some of that was self-filtering– that’s where I went– but there’s no denying there was quite an education buzz.

One of my favorite talks was given by Barry Joseph of Global Kids, and was entitled Why second Life Can’t Tip: the Power and Perils of Living La Vida Ludic. I suspect that the whole not-tipping business was in the title to get people to want to come to the talk, but I have to admit that I found that part of the talk less interesting, and perhaps even borderline irrelevant.

However, the concept of La Vida Ludic is something that really grabbed me, partly because I hadn’t seen it layed out clearly and definitively before… yet, in the concepts, I recognized something in the way that I live my life.

Briefly speaking, “ludic” is derived from a latin (I think) word for games. As such, “La Vida Ludic” is the “game life”, or “playing at life.” Barry Joseph talks about how in our culture, we tend to have a very strict separation between work and play. One great example he gave was elemetary school. There’s a place for work– the classroom– and a place for play– recess. If you try to play in the work context, you get in trouble (he showed an image of a kid sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap). Likewise, if you try to work in the play context, you also get in trouble (other kids harass for being a nerd and bringing boring work stuff into the play environment).

He went on to describe Global Kids’ way of educating kids leaning heavily on work in Second Life, and showed how a lot of the activites they do have serious mixing of work and play… and yet, because of that mixing, the learning may perhaps be stronger than it would have if we were too serious to be willing to include play in it.

I think I have long lived, or tried to live, my life with the philosophy that my work should feel like play. This is why I majored in physics when I was in college; I was going to major in engineering, but physics was just more fun to me. As I became a professional astronomer, I also picked up a hobby as an amateur astronomer. (I didn’t do any telescope observing before my last couple years of college, and only got my amateur telescope after graduating from college.) I’ve always wanted to be doing something that I enjoyed doing, so that at least some fraction of my work would feel like play. (I know it’s inevitable that some of work won’t… but, then again, some of my play (hobbies, etc.) feels like drudgery too!))

One of the reasons moving to Linden as a system engineer was appealing to me was that sometimes I would use adminstering my machines and writing code as a way of procrastinating “real work” when I was an astronomer. Mind you, this was still real work, as it was stuff that needed to be done, but I was more of a computer nerd than one really needs to be as an astronomer. Just as I enjoyed playing with data, as I enjoyed playing with the science in my classes and going on stage to teach, I also enjoyed playing around with computers.

A few months ago, I was at a “MoonLab” meeting in-world (”MoonLab” being the “lab” where those of us who are remote work). Some people were saying how they’ve set aside specific workspace in their homes– some computers dedicated to working, and when they’re at that computer, they’re “at work”. They have other comptuers they play with. To me, this has always seemed unnatural. First of all, maintaining all those extra computers seems like a lot of effort, not to mention costing space. But, beyond that, it just seems unnatural to me.

I’ve long mixed work and play, in my mind, with my time, and in my approach to life. And, it feels more human, more natural, to me to do it this way. When I’ve heard IT policies that strictly prohibit personal use of work comptuers, I think, are these people in touch with real people? I was told that once at LBNL, you weren’t allowed to make even local personal calls from desk phones; you had to go out to a payphone. Hello? Not only is that dehumanizing, it’s inefficient (people spend more time making their local calls). (When I was there, LBNL had a more human personal use policy for comptuers– do as thou wilt as long as (a) you don’t do anything naughty (e.g. porn), and (b) you don’t put an undue load on LBNL resources.) On the flip side, before I moved the Supernova Cosmology Project database from a very creaky and problematic flat file system to a PostGreSQL database, I installed and played with PostGreSQL on my machine at home to understand how it worked. I’ve done data reduction and work on my own computers. To force myself to keep it all separate would be especially hard now that I work from home, but was unnatural even when I worked at LBNL or Vanderbilt.

In Joseph’s talk, he talked about how doing things in Second Life naturally leads to a Ludic life. After all, Second Life does use technology that you primarily see only in a gaming environment. Many people are still under the misapprehension that Second Life is in fact a game. But even though it’s not, there’s no doubt that there are playful aspects to it. I sometimes go around as a dinosaur…. Sometime soon I’ll post some photos I’ve taken here of work meetings, and the morphologies with which people show up to those meetings.

The sad thing is, our culture and legal system is fundamentally hostile to the ludic life. I suppose I could write some fraction of my computer, laptop, office space, etc., off of my taxes, but I never will do so… for to do so legally, I would have to strictly use it for work and not also play, and that would put more of a damper on my lifestyle than any tax break I would get would be worth. I got into trouble because the first time I did a play in-world, I billed myself as Prospero Linden– figuring that since we’re all encouraged to be in-world and interact in-world, this could only be good press. Besides, it was just me doing stuff. But, alas, I got reprimanded for that, because it’s a work account and when I’m using it I’m representing the lab. And they’re right; the business could be held responsible for things I do in that form… but, unfortunately, it also means that one has to keep one’s work and one’s play separate.