news – Open Source Mechanic blog cat /dev/random | strings | grep "For being ignorant to whom it goes I writ at random, very doubtfully" Tue, 10 May 2016 21:50:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 VR Empathy Machine links UN dignitaries with Syrian Refugees Sat, 28 Nov 2015 10:47:06 +0000 “My name is Sidra. I am 12 years old… I have lived here in the Zaatari camp in Jordan for the last year and a half.” Filmmaker Chris Milk took his empathy machine to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to help us see and feel more about the lives of these vulnerable people.

Originally published in Green Prophet

The Statistics of Disaster

Each day, something terrible happens somewhere in this world. Families and communities are torn apart and thrown together in unfamiliar ways. Strangers who had found one another just barely tolerable become fellow humans, grieving needing and helping one another to survive.

The mechanical details of each tragedy are broadcast to the world via live satellite. While survivors are still struggling to breath, observers are consumed with the statistics of disaster. A category 5 hurricane, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake, the killers were quiet men who kept to themselves. The death toll was 404.

Do we need more emotional bandwith?

These facts spark our most primitive emotions first because these require the fewest bits of information. We fear that this tragedy might happen to us or we grow angry and seek to punish the real or imagined cause. Our despair grows as these darker motions consume us.

Empathy is a more complex emotion. According to a Princeton and Dukemigrant_mother_1936_syrian_refugee_2015 University study entitled, “Brain’s Social Network Implicated in Dehumanizing Others,” by Rick Nauert, MRI scans show that there is a part of the human brain associated with empathy. But prejudice, racism and socioeconomic status can turn off this empathic part of a person’s brain and enable one associated with disgust. Might this empathy gap explain why people tend to shun war refugees at the same time as they spend millions of dollars per day on wars?

Empathy seems to require more communication bandwidth. Sometimes it requires direct contact with loved-ones in the faraway land or a memories of a time when we ourselves also lived through such a tragedy. Music, photography and visual arts can also trigger empathy. Functional MRI studies have found that literature literally helps us get inside the minds of others by activating the same regions in our brain that tell us the story of who we are.

Whatever the cause for the connection, some people are able to feel deeply for the victims of disaster. Their empathy expands to with the scale of the disaster. The may lose sleep, grow physically sick or fall into a depression. Or they might feel compelled to do something, anything to try to fix whatever it is that is broken with the world, with the focus on the needs of the victims rather than the punishment of the cause.

Film and Virtual Reality as empathy machines

clouds_finalThe late film critic Roger Ebert considered empathy to be the most essential quality of a civilization, “We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Filmmaker Chris Milk is using Virtual Reality(VR) technology to increase our emotional bandwidth beyond what was possible in movies. VR technology has been with us for decades but it has been refined and its cost has dropped dramatically. Occulus rift, Google Cardboard and other VR devices will be hot sellers in the coming year. But Chris Milk didn’t wait. He shot “Clouds over Sidra” at Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.


This was the first Virtual reality film ever made for the United Nations. Chris explains that unlike film where the viewer is looking through a window frame, this technology takes the viewer through the frame so that they experience what it is like to be in the room with Sidra and sitting next to her in her school. The project gave UN dignitaries in Geneva Switzerland and it did seem to make a difference in their perceptions. Maybe it will for each of us. Try it yourself by downloading Google Play, VRSE and viewing “Clouds over Sidra” on VRSE, Google Cardboard or other virtual reality devices. Otherwise click like and share for a bit of virtual empathy.

Photos from Chris Milk’s “Clouds over Sidra” at VRSE.

Photo of Migrant mother (1936) by Dorthy Lange.

Photo of Syrian refugee woman(2015) by Washington Post

Thanks also to my Lebanese-American cousin Mud for her thoughtful piece on emotional responses to disasters, Laurie Balbo who works with Studio Syria and Collateral Repair; Gael at Dar al Yasmin for giving my family some non-virtual reality experience with Syrian refugees to help us imagine them not as anonymous faraway strangers, but as human beings.

The LoFi warmth of vinyl and vacuum tubes is back Sun, 04 Jan 2015 17:44:06 +0000 Dark_Side_of_the_Moon
Mike every instrument and record with every channel turned up to 11, remove all mid-level and midrange sounds, compress the $(&* out of it to MP3. Stream that over a lossy protocol and then compress and stream that over lossy bluetooth to a final analog stage designed in ignorance of the past 100 years of analog design. Play through tinny piezoelectric monaural speakers which peak at the now-removed midrange frequencies. Yes, we’ve finally downgraded HiFi audio to what it was in 1960. Should we be surprised vinyl is making a comeback?

Take no prisoners ‘justice’ claims another victim in the US Tue, 15 Jan 2013 01:06:42 +0000 Aaron Swartz helped create the RSS technology which made blogs, podcasts, facebook and twitter possible. He also created Reddit. He made some mistakes, one of his biggest might look something like this:

wget -r http://www.{website containing scientific journals of tax-funded research}/*

Wget and curl are tools used by web developers, researchers and internet archivists. Similar tools are used by Microsoft’s Bing , the internet archive and Google every day to find, cache and index websites. These tools automate browser “save as” for every _public_ file on the website. Yes I used the word public intentionally because curl and wget are not magic hacking tools. They simply automate what your or I or great-grandma Moses could do with their web browser.

But if the site has no security (for example, a simple robots.txt file or CAPCHA can help distinguish scripts from browsers), the above wget command might download millions of files.  So the US federal prosecutor pushed for a 30 year sentence and up to $1,000,000 fine and ultimately drove Aaron Swartz to suicide. This is just the latest example of what I call a take no prisoners approach  which has corrupted the US justice system.

Academic and free information activist Lawrence Lessig put it well in his article entitled, Prosecutor as Bully:

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House…  Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time.

You hit the nail on the head Mr. Lessig. It’s what I’ve called take no prisoners justice. I’ve seen lives ruined or severely damaged when the US justice system turns a correctable mistake into scorched earth.  One of my most gentle and intelligent friends could not be faulted for never wanting to again set foot in the US after a minor traffic accident almost destroyed his family. It’s the sort of thing you might expect from totalitarian states. I don’t believe the US has yet sunk to that level, but in order to prevent this we need to know how dangerously near we are to the edge.

O’Reilly’s Beautiful Testing book coming soon! Tue, 20 Oct 2009 14:05:32 +0000 Emily Chen and I coauthored a chapter in an O’Reilly book entitled “Beautiful Testing” which was edited by Adam Goucher and Tim Riley.

Successful software depends as much on scrupulous testing as it does on solid architecture or elegant code. Beautiful Testing offers 23 essays from 27 leading testers and developers that illustrate the qualities and techniques that make testing an art. Through personal anecdotes, you’ll learn how each of these professionals developed ideas of beauty in testing a wide range of products — valuable knowledge that you can apply to your own projects.

The bound version should be available in bookstores in the next few days. The electronic version is already available here:

Malahide rail viaduct before and after photos Mon, 24 Aug 2009 20:38:12 +0000 Here is a clearer before and after photo. Both were taken from exactly the same spot (with in a couple of feet), with exactly the same kid’s telescope/lens adapter.

Taken on 5 Oct, 2008

Taken on 5 Oct, 2008

Taken on 24 August, 2009

Taken on 24 August, 2009

Taken on 5 October 2008

Taken on 5 October 2008

Taken 24 Aug, 2009

Taken 24 Aug, 2009

Irish rail line collapses in Malahide’s broadmeadows estuary Sat, 22 Aug 2009 15:40:11 +0000 A railway viaduct very near my home collapsed into the broadmeadows estuary. We’re very fortunate that the train which crossed only seconds before the collapse made it across safely. The underlying piers the viaduct is built upon dates back to the mid 19th century. Yesterdays tides were approximately 15 feet high, which is stronger than usual. High tide was at about 1 in the afternoon and lowest tide was shortly after the collapse. These photos show how it appeared before, in October 2008 and just after the incident on 21 August 2009. I wonder if there is a better way of monitoring the erosion under such structures. Underwater cameras? Laser interferometry?

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