Sunday, May 26, 2013

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful.

Keep in mind that, at this point, Pepper has literally just walked out of a deadly and engulfing fire.

And, in case you were worried, don’t fret: yes, Gwynnie’s awesome black sports bra had apparently also been injected with the Extremis virus.


If Pepper Potts is any indicator, one cruel side effect of the Extremis virus is improbably perfect lipstick.— Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) May 25, 2013


Easy, Breezy, Beautiful.

Keep in mind that, at this point, Pepper has literally just walked out of a deadly and engulfing fire.

And, in case you were worried, don’t fret: yes, Gwynnie’s awesome black sports bra had apparently also been injected with the Extremis virus.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013 Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Injustice of a Colorblind Society

I received a reply from Mr. Baldwin, but he has, apparently, chosen to delete it. That was probably for the best, as it was a touch rude, but I’ve spent the better part of the past 24 hours deciding how to respond that that since-deleted reply. I believe I’ve settled on the following thought experiment.

Let’s say you start playing a game with some friends. This is a game you created and roped your friends into against their wills. You make all the rules, at least for the first couple of hours. By that time, you’ve amassed a tremendous amount of wealth and power in the game, but it looks like your reign of terror over the other players is coming to an end. Your mother catches on to your game and tells you to start playing fair—no more rewriting the rules to favor you if things aren’t quite going your way. You sulk for a little while, but finally acquiesce. You work out a set of rules that, were the game starting from scratch, would give your fellow players the same opportunities to advance their place in the game as you, but there’s a catch. You don’t restart the game.

You get to keep all the wealth and power you accumulated and the other players are still as poor and weak as they were  before. Sure, you can’t make their lives any more difficult via rule changes, but you still hold almost all the economic and social power resident in the game. How are the other players supposed to have a fair shot at besting you? That’s just it, they don’t, at least not any time soon. Sure, it’s possible that given enough turns of the game, the other players could claw their way closer and closer to you, but you’re going to be doing everything within the rules to keep them down, and why shouldn’t you, it’s your game?

There’s the rub. It’s not just your game. The moment your brought the other players in, you made it their game too. After another hour, your mom checks in on you again, and insists that you make some allowances to speed up the other players’ gains and even the playing field, because compassion and fair play are values she’s tried to instill in you. You moan and complain, but it doesn’t really matter, at first, because you’ve built up such a lead that it will take hours, yet, for them to catch up.

After an hour or two, you begin to notice that the other players are within about 20% of your position, and their rate of gain is increasing, so you go up to your mom and beg her to let you stop making allowances for the other players. She tells you to buck up, or she’ll just make you start the game over. You only partially listen to her, and begin to pull back on your allowances, starting with little things, and growing bolder as the other players offer little resistance.

Finally, after another hour of play, the other players are within 10% of your position and it might even be possible for you to lose, so you run up the basement stairs and slide the bolt lock to keep your mother out. You then quit making allowances for the other players, and you re-open your lead on them, thanks to your privileged position and the rules you set up that tend to favor the player with the most wealth and power.

Any of that sound familiar to you? If not, there’s probably no hope for us having a meeting of the minds on this issue, but if it does, then here’s my point. Society has been rigged, for the last 300 years, to favor middle-to-upper-class whites (men first, women second). While efforts have been made over the past half-century to correct this (affirmative actions, civil-rights laws, etc.) we are still far from a society of equal opportunity, regardless of skin color (even when we only look at members of the otherwise-same socio-economic class). To declare a colorblind society, where no allowances are made, black or white, would mean the permanent enshrinement of a fundamentally unfair system. Whites would benefit, because the current system favors them, all else being equal, while minorities would continue to suffer under a system that disadvantages them from birth against their white peers.

Sure, it’s possible that, through demographic and economic pressures, the system could still correct itself over time, but any such correction would come much more slowly and exact significantly greater human costs than efforts to actively correct the socio-economic injustices committed over the past three centuries. You may not agree that this is a worthwhile goal, that it was not the present generations who committed those “crimes”, and they are not, therefore, our responsibility to right. If so, then I believe that gives us a measure of your humanity. I, for one, want to win at a fair game, not one tilted in my favor from the start.

There are surely discussions to be had, arguments to be fought over how best to facilitate levelling the playing field, arguments I’m willing and eager to have, but I don’t think anyone can honestly say, after looking at the facts of race and economics in America, that no levelling is necessary. The fact is, we—modern liberals—want, nay dream, of a colorblind society, but we also know that it can’t exist, without that levelling, and act as something more than a crutch to white privilege.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Custom Django Model Field for U.S. SSN Encryption in the Database

Here’s my go at a custom model field that provides transparent encryption/decryption for U.S. Social Security Numbers in Django. Comments sought and sincerely welcomed.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Quick AppleScript to Max Out Your “Chrome For a Cause” Tab Count

Here’s a simple little applescript for running Google Chrome on the Mac who want to max out their daily “Chrome for a Cause" tab count:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Problems of Academic eBooks

(For those of you who follow me on Twitter (@brookstravis), some of this may be a re-hash, but I wanted to address the issue in a longer form than Twitter’s 140-character message limit would allow.)

I want to preface what I am about to say with the fact that I am, by no stretch of the imagination, representative of any substantial part of the human population to whom these issues might be relevant. My thoughts are significantly influenced by two aspects of my personality: I’m a geek, and I suffer from OCD—specifically fear of contamination/germs—which makes using paper books, well, problematic. That said, Why don’t we take a look at some of the plethora of problems in the academic eBook arena.

Problem 1: eBook Adoption Rates

Based on my—notably small—experience, the number of academic, book-form publications available in eBook format is extremely low, especially when we’re talking about books from smaller (often “university”) presses. For example, here’s my booklist for the course I’m taking this fall:

Of those five books, only two of them are available from the Kindle, iBooks, or B&N ebook stores, and it’s only one if you don’t count Hero of Our Time, since it’s available from Project Gutenberg. The other, Companion to Narrative Theory, is available from the Kindle store—though, I’ll have more to say about it’s pricing, later.

The remaining three books have no eBook options, whatsoever. Zip. Nada. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

I think the most salient fact about all three of the non-eBook titles is that they’re published by “university” presses. In all three cases, I could not find any apparent eBook strategy or plans, even for new or future titles, nor explanations or justifications for lack thereof.

Problem 2: eBook Price

Even when there is an eBook edition of an academic book available, the price can be an issue. Whereas in the trade and mass-market areas, Amazon, Apple and B&N have been able to “encourage” prices down (particularly compared to hardback cover prices), this does not appear to be the case with academic publications.

As an example, let’s revisit the one book from my booklist in the previous section that is available in a Kindle edition, Phelan’s Companion to Narrative Theory. The print list price is $52.95, while the Kindle edition price is $41.02. That comes out to an approximately 23% “discount” for the electronic edition. Compare this to the difference between the print list price for Rework (the new book from the founders of 37Signals): 

  • Print list price: $22.00
  • Kindle edition price: $9.99
  • % difference: 55%

(I do want to point out that, yes, the actual price, on Amazon, for the print editions of both of these books is less than the list price, and significantly closer to that of the Kindle edition)

An interesting point of comparison for Companion to Narrative Theory is its actual “digital list price” of $174.95, which I can only assume was originally set in relation to the hardcover list price of $183.95 (which, in and of itself is insane, at least to me). Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that the economics of academic publishing are ridiculously different from the trade and mass-market worlds, but almost $200 for one book—was it hand transcribed by Cistercian monks?

One last example, that will also serve as a bridge into our final problem area, is Adam Roberts’s The History of Science Fiction, from Palgrave Macmillan. The paperback print edition lists for $30, and sells for around $25 on Amazon (as of this writing). However, the only electronic edition (an Adobe Digital Editions PDF version) from is $125, same as the hardcover. So, let’s see that’s a discount of -416%. In the retail world, we call that kind of discount a markup.

Problem 3: Format/Seller Availability

Historically, there were three major formats for commercial eBooks: Adobe Digital Editions (DRM-wrapped PDF), Microsoft LIT, and Mobipocket (now Kindle), all with their own various flavors of Digital Rights Management (DRM), and varying lists of supported reading devices. Today, there is a “new” format named ePub, which has seen adoption by two major new players in the eBook market—Apple (iBooks) and B&N (nook). Both stores wrap the ePub documents in their own flavor of DRM (fairplay in Apple’s case), but the underlying document is (or can be) the same among sellers. The Kindle (neé Mobipocket) format distributed by Amazon is a strong exception to this. The good news is that all three of these new sellers also make hardware and cross-platform software readers, and in Apple’s case, devices that can read all three, thanks to free software add-ons (though the lack of a desktop reader for iBooks is a glaring omission).

Now, as I mentioned in Problem 1, the one book on my list that was available in an electronic version (that wasn’t also public domain) was only in Kindle format. This isn’t a huge problem—for me, at least—as my eBook reader of choice is the iPad/iPhone, so I can read books from any of the major stores, but the book I mentioned at the end of the previous section, Adam Roberts’s The History of Science Fiction, is only available in Adobe Digital Editions, a format that isn’t readable on the iPad or Kindle, and requires Adobe’s Digital Editions software or a supported device (one of which is the nook). Hopefully, Palgrave Macmillan will make a version available for the Kindle or iBooks soon, but I’m less than optimistic about this, for one reason—the existence of the Palgrave Connect service, through which they sell ebook access to academic and other institutional customers, using the same DRM scheme and PDF file format. Something tells me this is a fairly lucrative arrangement, and that a move to the Kindle or iBooks stores would only undermine the positioning of that offering by “forcing” them to lower their per-title pricing.

Well, there’s my limited, in no way authoritative look at the problems facing academic eBooks in summer of 2010. I’m about at the end of my purchasing window for my class this fall, so I doubt any of what I’ve presented here will change in time to effect me, and I’ll just have to suffer through another anxious semester of using paper books (though they will, at least, be new), and simply hope for the day when I can save my nerves (and back) by carrying all my reading material around on my iPad.

(~6,588 characters. Really glad I didn’t try to do this all over twitter!)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010 Friday, May 21, 2010

In Defense of Reasoned, Civil Discourse (oh, and, sadly, Rand Paul)

(The following is based on a comment I left on this blog post)

I want to preface this comment by saying that I disagree with Dr. Paul recently (and not so recently) espoused position on segregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but I have to jump in here and point out that nearly all of the response since his appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC on May 19 ignores the core component position, as I understand it: that legislatively mandated segregation is and ought to be illegal.

My understanding of Dr. Paul’s argument is that absent government support for segregation (active and passive), social and economic pressures would have been sufficient to end “private” segregation in the South. I think he’s wrong, but we’ll never really know, because it was never tried. We went from state-sanctioned/required segregation (including failure to successfully prosecute people who assaulted and murdered de-segregation advocates) to the “public accommodations” component of the Civil Rights Act.

Again, I vehemently disagree with Dr. Paul on this matter, and believe that the public accommodations component of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was absolutely necessary, and, arguably, the most important single part of it. I just want the debate to be over Dr. Paul’s actual position, not some knee-jerk, didn’t-pay-close-enough-attention reaction to it. I think THAT conversation would benefit everyone.

Sunday, April 11, 2010 Thursday, March 11, 2010