Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

October 24 Bucket o' Links: Really Awesome Things Edition

This week's links are related by all being really aweseome, or...something? I should really have words with the version of me that comes up with BoL titles at some point.

In any case, this week has a lot of things I'm planning to write more about soon -- namely, 3 (after I see it in theaters), 4 (tomorrow), 5 (in November), and 6 (at some point); look for them on this blog!


The only thing I have to say about #GamerGate is: Felicia Day, who is a person you know of if you were a nerd who grew up with the internet, has a really nice post on her own blog entitled "The Only Thing I Have to Say about Gamer Gate". For those of you less plugged into the internet gaming community, #GamerGate is more or less a whole lot of uproar by some sexist gamers who are angry that it's not okay in this day and age to be a sexist gamer. Writes Day:

"I have not said many public things about Gamer Gate. I hav tried to leave it alone, aside from a few @ replies on Twitter that journalists have decided to use in their articles, siding me against the hashtag. Why have I remained mostly silent?

Self-protection and fear.



More at her blog; I'm not going to steal her thunder.

Epilogue: After some trolls, in response to her post, issued public threats against Day and published her address, phone number, and other personal information online, she wrote on Facebook:

I posted this essay yesterday afternoon on Tumblr. Yes, personal information was leaked shortly after, but the better thing to concentrate on is that the majority of replies were overwhelmingly kind and supportive on social media. It gives me hope we can heal the world of games a bit. It needs it.


In less serious gaming news, here's Xander Mobus, the announcer from Super Smash Bros., singing the Pokémon Theme, and it's every bit as awesome as you could have dreamed it was if you were a nerd whose biggest complaint against his childhood is that he didn't personally own a copy of Super Smash Bros.:


And if that made you seriously nerd out, I suggest you sit down before this next one. Wired has a piece on the visual effects in Christopher Nolan's upcoming movie Interstellar entitled "Wrinkles in Spacetime: The Warped Astrophysics of Interstellar".

Promo image for Interstellar, depicting a small moon near a supermassive black hole

Apparently, when Christopher Nolan wrote a supermassive black hole into his plot, he actually got on the phone with an astophysicist and asked what a black hole looks like. Because, well, he's Christopher Nolan, and when Christopher Nolan needs a black hole in his movie, he gets on the phone with Kip Thorne, who is, according to Wikipedia: "one of the world's leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein's general theory of relativity" in order to make sure it looks scientifically accurate:

"So he asked [Kip] Thorne to generate equations that would guide their effects software the way physics governs the real world. They started with wormholes. If light around a wormhole wouldn't behave classically—that is, travel in a straight line—what would it do? How could that be described mathematically?

Thorne sent his answers to Franklin in the form of heavily researched memos. Pages long, deeply sourced, and covered in equations, they were more like scientific journal articles than anything else. Franklin's team wrote new rendering software based on these equations and spun up a wormhole. The result was extraordinary. It was like a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in spacetime. 'Science fiction always wants to dress things up, like it's never happy with the ordinary universe,' he says. 'What we were getting out of the software was compelling straight off.' "

And then, not content with making up some novel fake-but-apparently-mathematically-sound physics for how light behaves around a wormhole, Nolan's VFX produced almost a petabyte of rendering data faithfully computing the gravitational lensing effect, by which light rays are bent into hyperbolic orbits by through spacetime contorted by gravity. Apparently, according to Thorne, they actually got it right:

"Why, of course. That's what it would do."

tl;dr the depiction of black holes in Christopher Nolan movies is more accurate than the the thing Google shows you when you search "black holes".


Related by way of cool storytelling about humans, earth, space, and what space and earth mean for humans: Raymond Arnold is again planning a Secular Solstice event in New York, this year on December 20, and is currently $831 from being funded on Kickstarter for an event that is looking to be hugely better than last years (which was itself awesome -- I had a three-part writeup here ten months ago).
Promo image: 'Brighter than Today: A Secular Solstice'
From Arnold himself:

[The secular/atheist/humanist community is wonderful,] but...when the holiday season comes around, it still feels like something's missing. What we don't have is a holiday that really has a strong narrative, with beautiful music that doesn't feel like a joke, that isn't an ironic holiday, that connects us with something cosmic and intimate.


I want to fix that. I want us to come together and create something beautiful. I want us to establish traditions that endure through the ages.

I need your help.

This year's event, like last year's, is funded through Kickstarter, and, as I mentioned, is-- oops, now it's $714 away. Anyway, if you want to take a bus to NYC with me after finals for a beautiful evening of storytelling, communal singing, and celebrating just how far humanity's come since "winter" had a prominent place on the list of our predators, buy a ticket by pledging $25 on Kickstarter. You won't regret it.


I'm not going to even try to make this transition: Cafe has a fantastic profile of Will MacAskill, cofounder of Giving What We Can, who's pledged to donate everything he earns above $35,000 a year (inflation-adjusted) to "organizations working effectively towards reducing global suffering":

MacAskill seems like a person who has just discovered some kind of cheat-code for the universe. And to be honest—while it's clearly impossible from a few interactions with someone to really get a measure of their innermost emotional state—one of MacAskill's notable features is that he seems to have attained a quiet, personal satisfaction and a sort of inner peace and confidence that I don't believe would be possible to fake. I came into the interview expecting to feel that, by devoting so few of my resources to altruism, I was doing something morally shaky; I came away just feeling that I might be missing out.

The piece is fantastic throughout, and basically you should go read it. I don't know MacAskill except through reading things he's written on the internet, but by all accounts, he's an infectiously nice human being who's found a place in the world making the world a better place. Would that we all could be so lucky...


This isn't new, but MacAskill also cofounded GWWC's sister organization, 80,000 Hours, which offers free one-on-one help to people looking to use their career to make the world better. I'll defer details to what they say on their own site:

Who is it for?
We aim to speak to the people we can help the most to have a positive impact. Ideal candidates–those we believe will get the most out of a coaching relationship with us–are:

  • Want to make a big difference.
  • Open to many ways of making a difference – rather than start from a specific passion, they care about where they have the most power to make people better off.
  • Favor strategic, data-driven approaches to making decisions.
  • Willing to dedicate time to the coaching process and thinking about their career.
  • Familiar with our basic ideas and existing relevant research (see our getting started page for an overview, and search our blog for relevant topics).
  • Willing to provide feedback and recommendations on how we’re doing. We’re serious about improving and need your help to do so.

We help with questions like:

  • I have an offer from company A and company B, which one should I take?
  • Which cause should I aim to work within?
  • What types of jobs should I apply for after I graduate?
  • Note that our expertise doesn’t cover the process of how to apply for jobs, market yourself and general self-development. We recommend combining our service with conventional, professional career coaching.

One of these days, I'll sign up for career coaching myself. (Actually, I'm kicking myself for not having done it at the beginning of freshman year, mostly because I forgot, and ) Anyway, people helping people figure out how to make the world better is a cool thing; if you're on board, you can get some advice on how to do so, and everyone wins.


Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world of at-least-in-name public service, Cornell rolls out a "$150-million, 10-year initiative for community engagement and public service-related coursework", which includes a coming requirement that "all undergraduate students will participate in community-engaged coursework by 2025". Cornell's own press announcement includes a lot of good-sounding words:

"[This] initiative will transform education at Cornell. Community-engaged learning is a specific kind of experiential learning, one in which students, faculty and staff collaborate with diverse stakeholders in communities to address the pressing social problems and issues that plague us all,” Skorton said. “Students [will] also learn from the expertise in the community about global issues."

Meanwhile, it is the opinion of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences Standing Committee on Public Service (wait...that's a thing?) that such a system would not be good, at least at Harvard, but no actual arguments against the statement "Resolved: Add a public service requirement to Harvard College graduation requirements." made it into the Crimson article reporting on the FAS symposium where the matter was discussed.

Fortunately, the Crimson Editorial Staff have published a staff editorial, which does provide, y'know, reasons why a requirement to do good isn't necessarily good:

While we recognize the importance of public service, we support the FAS Committee’s stand against mandating public service. Requiring such activities is not the best way to foster in students a love and appreciation for service to their community. People need to take their own initiative, to get involved because they believe it is important and meaningful.


Harvard should allow students to pave their own paths and embrace the endeavors about which they are most passionate. At the end of the day, Harvard is a liberal arts academic institution, and its course requirements should reflect this desire to expand students’ intellectual opportunities without unnecessarily restraining or shaping their academic passions.

At the end of the day, I'm more or less in agreement with the Crimson Staff here -- even if I think that more Harvard students should seek out opportunities for altruism (and I do!), forcing it upon us like an extra Gen Ed requirement hardly seems the way to convince anyone that this is a thing we should do voluntarily when no one's threatening to take our diploma away if we fail to comply.