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You are what you rate

21 May 2018 07:30PM introspectionrants

We live in a hellish dystopia where we rate everything and everyone around us.

Well, not quite yet. But maybe we're getting there.

The technology we use shapes the way we interact with the world. In a world where everything you do is trackable and rateable, the things you choose to keep track of has an outsize influence on the way you see things.

Here's what I track, and why.

Beer

I've been keeping track of the beers I drink since December 2016, when Grace and I went down south with her family. There's a bunch of breweries down that way, and I was still fairly new to drinking beer. While we were down there Grace's brother Michael got me into Untappd, and it completely changed the way I drink.

Untappd is ostensibly a social network, but I don't really use its social features at all. The point of Untappd, for me, is self-discovery.

You see, there are a lot of different kinds of beer, and a lot of names for those kinds of beer. Beer is consumed in social situations, where you need to choose what you want quickly and without a lot of prep. And beer is a thing where if you get the wrong one, it'll completely ruin your experience. If you're part of a social circle which does drink beer, in other words, it's very useful to know what kinds of beers you like.

When I got on Untappd I was learning this the hard way. Keeping track of which varieties and which flavours I liked (and, possibly more importantly, didn't like) is hard. There's so much terminology flying around. Untappd let me aggregate all of that data to look at later, and focus on whether or not I liked the drink, rather than whether or not I'd read the label correctly.

And at the end of that process, I'd give it a rating. Three stars is the threshold for "I'd drink this if you put it in front of me". Four stars is the threshold for "I would actively seek this out again." And I've yet to give out a five, although Four Pines' Honey Green Almond Ale came pretty damn close.

So it's thanks to Untappd that after almost a year I can say pretty confidently what kinds of beer I like. I prefer dark beers to pale beers, malty beers to hoppy beers, and pretty much any other beer to pretty much any IPA. Yes, that means sometimes I gave highly-rated award-winning beers three stars and a "meh just another ipa". Don't @ me.

Books

Books are another matter entirely. I already know what kinds of books I like. The problem was remembering which ones I'd read.

I like to know where the stuff buzzing around my head comes from. There have been so many times that I could remember a quote, or a passage, or a character, or a scene, but not which book it's from. Maybe it's relevant to something I'm writing, maybe I enjoyed it and want to read it again, or maybe I just want to know where it came from so I can safely forget it again. I can't do any of those things if I can't remember the book.

Whatever the reason behind it, remembering the idea but not the source is just about the most frustrating thing in the world.

Now, tracking the books I read doesn't help with that directly, but it does at least tell me where to look. The risk is less of thinking I did read a book I didn't, and more of forgetting I've read one which I have.

So that's why I track them. It doesn't explain why I rate them.

I can tell you just by looking at the title whether or not I enjoyed a book. Maybe if I read hundreds of very similar books a year I'd need to rate them to remember what I thought

Rating is more much about sharing what I thought. And in so doing, making passive recommendations as well - along the vein of "I enjoyed this, and you know how our tastes intersect, so perhaps you might enjoy it too". It's really subjective, but that's where its value is. The aggregated ratings on Goodreads are pretty useless, but one or two ratings from people whose tastes I know well - that's actually very valuable data.

Photos

Before visiting the frozen north, I bought myself a camera. Over the course of that trip I took about two thousand pictures. It was kind of a trial by fire, an exercise in learning on the run. And an essential part of learning is self-reflection, especially if you did a bunch of learning on the road without much downtime.

So I sat down when I got home and catalogued all my photos. Most of them got three stars. That, to me, meant they were competent - they were technically correct, but not particularly interesting. If they were competent and actually good they got four stars, and if they were outstanding - as in, they literally stood out, they got five stars. On the other hand, if there was just one or two things holding them back, they were flawed at two stars, and if they were horribly broken and clearly a mistake, they got one star.

Out of thousands of photos I got just a handful of outstanding ones, and just a few dozen really good ones. Sorting them let me find those, so I could show them off or bury them forever. But it also let me learn from my successes and my mistakes.

So what?

So: Discovering. Remembering. Sharing. Reflecting. Learning. These are all good reasons to rate things. And more importantly, they're all reasons I've chosen to rate things.

What these have in common is that they're not for the world at large, they're for me, and my friends.

This is the problem with something like Uber ratings. Cause under most of these systems - mine, at least, an Uber that gets you from point A to point B with no complications is a 3. A 4 might be friendly and you had a great conversation. A 5 would be if they went out of their way to help, carrying you on their shoulders the last hundred metres or something, I don't know.

Under Uber's system and expectations, 5 is the minimum. If you have less than a five-star rating, you very quickly fall off the platform. The effect this has isn't to bring everyone's standards up to outstanding, it's to lower the value of five stars from 'Outstanding' to 'Acceptable +- some guilt'. To get a four-star rating on Uber you have to do something wrong. To get three stars, you have to completely mess up. One and two stars, as I understand it, are reserved for creepy vibes and non-consensual physical contact respectively.

These ratings aren't useful for you. They're not useful for your friends. They're, arguably, not really that useful for the drivers. But they're very useful for Uber, because they keep the drivers in a state of constant, compliant fear.

Think about the things in your life that you rate. Think about why you do it. Think about where that data goes, and who benefits from it. Are you getting anything out of it? Or are you contributing to a data mill so abstracted from human experience that the only possible incentives it could generate are perverse?

Reflection is a powerful thing. Maybe it's time to reflect on how we apply it.

A Tale of Two Wars.

18 May 2018 06:20PM review

This is not going to go the way you think.

take five everyone - we'll be back shortly.

I don't Infinity War is the cinematic masterpiece everyone seems to think it is. It is competent. They pulled it off. But there's so much about it that fell completely flat.

One is that it completely undoes all the good stuff that came out of Ragnarok. Eyepatch? Gone. Redeemed Loki? Gone. Nomadic Asgardians on a badass spaceship? Gone. Thor moving on from needing Mjolnir? Gone. And that sucks, because I really liked the way Ragnarok set up the future of Thor stories.

Two is that all the big reunion story beats were just completely flubbed. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov should've been this intricate, emotional thing - instead, we got a literal 'hey'. Same for Steve and Bucky. Just a 'sup'. These are characters who care about each other and who have been separated for years and they just completely flattened them.

Three - and this is the kicker - is that it's now blindingly obvious that Marvel's head is buried quite a long way up it's own butt. Don't try and sell us on killing half your characters being brave and emotional and a cliffhanger when we know for a fact that there's a literal magic resurrection stone out there which you're going to spend the next film finding. That robs the character deaths earlier in the film, and in the franchise, of any meaningful weight whatsoever.

Look, I've definitely got a taste in Marvel movies at this point, and that taste is pretty firmly in what you'd call Marvel Cosmic. It's colourful, and not too serious, and has a killer soundtrack. So really... all I want from Marvel going forward is more Guardians of the Galaxy.

Thor can come too, I guess.

join me, and we'll rule the galaxy in moral ambiguity.

I realise I'm a little bit late to The Last Jedi. Mostly, that's because I was really sick when we went to see it, so up until a couple of days ago, I hadn't really processed the last third. But now that I have, I love it.

Star Wars has always been a pulp romance. It's not hard science fiction. It's not a complex political drama. It's basically just feel-good pop entertainment.

The problem is, people want more than that from their entertainment these days. They want Game of Thrones, or House of Cards, or Breaking Bad. Star Wars is from a simpler time - perhaps too simple.

So how do you keep making Star Wars in the 21st century? As that generation grows up, as the world becomes more complex? As their heroes turn out to be flawed, and their problems turn out to be more complex than a villain in a mask and a cape? You can't just keep making Star Wars the way you used to. It just won't work. So what do you do?

Do you burn it all down to the ground, and start again? With shades of grey, and angst, and politics, and complexity? Do you go for the gritty reboot?

Or do you save what you love, instead of fighting what you hate?

Take a moment. Read those last paragraphs again. That's not just a description of the cultural situation, it's a plot synopsis for The Last Jedi.

This film is Rian Johnson saving what we love about Star Wars. At the end of the day, Rey can't be a grey jedi, and remake the galaxy in her image. That would make sense in-universe, sure - and in the current cultural landscape too. But it's not what Star Wars is about.

So we save what we love. We pile it into the Falcon and handball it into the future to fight another day.

Cause at the end of the day, that's what Star Wars is. It's not armies and politics - arguably, that's what the prequels got so wrong. It's a band of plucky rebels out there, fighting the bad guys. Everything else can be - has been - stripped away, leaving us with pure, Star Wars essence.

I can't wait to see where they take this, but it also doesn't matter. Because now we know what the sequel trilogy needs to be. It's not a gritty reboot. It's not a slavish remake. Everything we need is right here.

how do we build a rebellion from this? everything we need is right here.

Check out Movies with Mikey for a very similar take. This movie is meta as heck, and the more I watch it, the more I love it. Don't @ me.

Chasing Aurora

03 February 2018 05:23AM viking-raidtravel

Why do we travel?

When I told work I wouldn't be available from the 27th of December 2017 until the 20th of January 2018, I said - and I quote - "I'll be in the frozen north, chasing the Aurora Borealis." Above everything else, that was what I wanted to see.

The surface of our planet is wrapped around a magnetic core, six sextillion spinning tonnes of iron engine, converting the slow burn of nuclear decay into heat, motion, and a sprawling tangle of magnetic fields.

Separated by six thousand kilometres of rock and metal, and another hundred and fifty million of open space, is our sun. That's a different kind of nuclear engine, one powered by creation rather than decay. Deep inside the sun, two atoms become one - well, one and some change - and that stream of leftover particles is our light, our heat, our solar wind.

Across the gulf of space and through an entire planet's worth of mass, these two engines lock together at our planet's poles. No - that's too mechanical. They dance together. The interaction of the impossibly deep and the unimaginably distant sets the the sky between them on fire.

A pilgrimage to the sublime

Every journey, I would argue, is about looking for something. Seeking something. In this case, I think I was travelling to feel humbled. Maybe even insignificant. To feel awe, and a little dread. Also, arguably, to feel cold. The Northern Lights were my shining example, but they weren't the only big impressive thing I sought out there.

Which is probably for the best, since I didn't see them. Not for lack of trying, either. Every clear night I got, I stayed up past my bedtime. I set alarms for midnight and went outside in subzero temperatures. It was never a sure thing - we were waiting for earth weather and space weather, two notoriously chaotic systems, to align. And this time they didn't.

So does that mean I failed?

I mean, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed. Especially since Lochie stayed up there, and saw them about two weeks after we got home. But that doesn't mean I didn't find that thing I was chasing. I found it in the mountains and the glaciers and the mist-shrouded geothermal vents. I found it in the rugged highlands of Skye and the winding roads threaded through them. I found it in an astonishing variety of waterfalls, lagoons, lochs, and other large bodies of water. I found it in the age of dying ruins and the vitality of living cities.

Travelling To or Travelling From?

Our Viking Raid didn't bring back treasure. It didn't bring back astonishing new discoveries. It didn't even bring back stunning pictures of the Aurora. But it did bring back the most important prize of all: Perspective.

Hold on, let me remove my tongue from my cheek.

Let's not labour under the illusion that this was anything more than a holiday. I've been trying to avoid that word, substituting 'trip' or 'travels' or 'adventure' - but that's what it was. A burning desire to get away from it all and feel dwarfed by the majesty of nature is just as much a holiday as getting away from it all and watching your troubles drift away on the beach. Wrapping it up in the trappings of adventure makes it more palatable, and it's an essential part of the illusion, but it doesn't change the nature of the thing. It's all escapism. This is just escapism with a Romantic twist.

I chased this particular brand of escapism because, after four years in the same job and two degrees at the same university, I wanted to be reminded that the everyday bullshit doesn't matter. Which is absurd. I'm so lucky to be able to do this. I have a job that won't mind me just not showing up during one of our busiest times. I'm lucky to live somewhere education is accessible enough for me to casually pick up another degree. There are people for whom comfortable stability is the thing you chase, and change and 'adventure' is what you desperately want to escape. Everyday bullshit isn't a curse, it's a blessing.

One day, I'd like to travel with purpose. I'd like to travel in a way that I can legitimately call it 'travel', maybe even 'adventure', and not 'holidaying'. I'd like to be making something, or learning something, or discovering something, or sharing something.

Until then, though, comfortable stability plus adventurous holidays is still a pretty freaking awesome thing to be able to do.

This has been Viking Raid. Thank you for joining us.

northern lights over a frozen lake. photo by lochie

The Kit List

03 February 2018 02:55AM viking-raid

This is going to be really interesting for some people, and really boring for others: Here's some of the nerd gear I used while travelling.

I kind of hate taking laptops away with me. They take up a lot of space, they go flat, and you need to drag a whole lot of chargers and adapters and stuff with you to keep them working. Phones are great - they're tiny and so much more capable than they used to be, but for actually making content they're sometimes a little lacking.

I went phone-only this time, and I think I've found a happy, if dorky, medium. That's largely thanks to two bits of gear that let me get text and images into my smartphone as easily, if not more easily, than I would a PC.

Text

Blogging while you're away is tricky for two reasons.

The first is that you're writing much more than usual, so any problems you have with your publishing process are magnified. The second is that the difficulty of finding things like power, internet access, and somewhere to sit still for a bit is also magnified.

I think I've finally found a solution. And it's just about the dorkiest solution possible.

Since the only think I really needed a laptop for is the keyboard, before I left I picked up one of these from eBay.

fold-out bluetooth keyboard

This is a fold-out bluetooth keyboard, which talks to my phone. It's just about full size, and reasonably comfortable to type on. It charges from micro-usb, which means that all of my stuff can use one set of chargers, and not really have to worry about international adaptors. And the whole lot is way lighter and takes up way less space than a laptop, which is always a bonus.

Unfortunately, you look like a complete dweeb when you use it. That part I have yet to solve.

Images

So I kind of got into photography specifically for this trip. I figured that I was going to some of the most beautiful places in the world, and it'd be downright disrespectful to just take photos on my phone. Before I left, I grabbed a Sony RX100 Mark 3. It's smaller and lighter than a DSLR and removes the temptation of buying many shiny lenses. Plus, there was at least one data point indicating that it can do an okay job at astrophotography - which something I'm pretty likely to want to use it for.

It let me do fun things like long-exposure waterfalls and amazing sky photos. The one thing it didn't do is let me photograph the Aurora Borealis. Mostly because we didn't see it.

The Mark 3 has a neat trick too - it can talk to smartphones. You can use your phone as a remote shutter, and you can also use it to grab photos from your SD card. No card readers required. Yesssss.

One last plug: On top of the camera - or rather, underneath it - was a GorillaPod. A friend of mine showed me hers (thank you!), and I ended up getting one for Christmas. These things are everywhere now, but basically as long as you're willing to improvise you can keep your camera still pretty easily for way less bulk than a regular tripod.

gorillapod stuck to a lamp post

I write this stuff while I'm on holiday, and edit it, and post it, mostly for myself. Some people journal - I just do it publicly. And it's nice to be able to point people somewhere when they ask how you're doing or what you're up to - it saves a lot of money on postcards.

If I was travelling just to take photos, I'd probably still bring a laptop, and a hard drive, and hey, maybe a real tripod too. If I was travelling just to write, I'd take a laptop too. But since I'm travelling for... well, other reasons, this is just enough to get by and still do a decent job.

Comparative Museology

31 January 2018 12:00AM viking-raidtravel

I haven't written much about museums this trip. Let's change that.

It's partly because we've been to quite a few of them, and partly because describing what's in a museum isn't super interesting, and partly because I've had just about as many hot takes as one person can have about the nature of museums and written about them in every way imaginable.

So how about this: One thing I learned at each museum. Ready? Go.

a collection of war memorabiliaa plaque, explaining that it was just some random bloke's collection

The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: If you collect enough of something, and put it in a nice box, it becomes art, and might one day be included in your national museum.

The Settlement Exhibition, Reykjavik: Longhouses were built around a hearth, and the size of your hearth is a status symbol. This longhouse has an unusually large hearth, and its occupants were probably proud of it.

The Phallological Museum, Reykjavik: If you collect enough of something, it might become the museum. And the size of your... collection... becomes a status symbol. This museum has an unusually large collection, and its curator is perhaps too proud of it.

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh: Before the installation of the first trans-Pacific cable in the early 1900s telegrams across the Pacific from the US travelled via the trans-Atlantic cable around the entire planet. This either caused, or was caused by, Britain's early dominance in the telegraph industry - I was a little fuzzy on that.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh: Scotland's crown jewels were once locked in a box and forgotten about for like a hundred years until some bloke decided that maybe we should check that they are actually where everyone said they were. Spoiler alert: they were.

Escher in het Palais, The Hague: Perhaps unsurprisingly, M C Escher and Roger Penrose were penpals.

lochie contepmplates a mondrian at the Gementesmuseum

The Gementesmuseum, The Hague: The only time that having bits of art emblazoned on your mug doesn't feel vaguely like a cash-in by the museum is when making their art part of everyday objects was kind of the artist's whole deal.

The Ann Frank House, Amsterdam: Nothing seems to inspire regular people to write and express themselves like the story of a girl who was killed before her work was published. And maybe that's the whole point. Because maybe if enough people write about it, it won't happen again.

Micropia, Amsterdam: Ironically, most modern antibiotics come from bacteria that live in dirt.

grace contemplates an ant colony at Micropia

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