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April 22 2016

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Arcane Bullshit
Learning arcane bullshit from the 80s can break your computer, but if you're willing to wade through arcane bullshit from programmers in the 90s and 2000s, you can break everyone else's computers, too.

April 20 2016

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Laws of Physics
The laws of physics are fun to try to understand, but as an organism with incredibly delicate eyes who evolved in a world full of sharp objects, I have an awful lot of trust in biology's calibration of my flinch reflex.

April 19 2016


Upgraded to Lightspeed.

It’s not often you get a second chance, after your writing’s hit the market.

You predicate a whole subspecies on a genetic glitch that, as it turns out, only occurs in males. A character dramatically closes her eyes while wearing corneal overlays that prevent the closing of eyes. You use a friend’s name as a placeholder for a violent borderline personality in one of your novels, fully intending to swap it out it before it goes to press— then totally forget about it until you receive an email from said friend, wondering what he ever did to piss you off.


Where Version 1.0 appeared.

Where Version 1.0 appeared.

Once in a blue moon, though, you get a do-over. And I am pleased to announce that as of this past midnight, the eZine Lightspeed has reposted my story “Collateral”, which originally appeared in Neil Clarke’s cyborg anthology Upgraded. And they didn’t just reprint it; they let me upgrade it in its own right.

Not that I didn’t like the original “Collateral”, mind you. It played with some interesting ideas about ethics vs. morality, collateral damage, the culpability of augmentation. But while the themes were solid, the execution was a bit lacking. A gun on the mantelpiece got used in the last act (which is exactly what’s supposed to happen with guns on mantelpieces), but it was also introduced in the last act— which made part of the climax look kind of shoehorned and contrived. I always wanted to take another run at that story, but deadlines are deadlines and the ship sailed.

When John Adams approached me for the reprint rights, I asked if I could take that second run— and he said Sure. (He even agreed that it would improve the story.) So what you’ll find over at Lightspeed is "Collateral, the Director’s Cut": same story, same payoff, but you notice the critical gun a lot earlier in the story. The payoff unfolds more organically now. Plus, the need to relocate that element also gave me the opportunity to tune up some dialog, coax a little more tension out of the exchanges between Becker and Sabrie.

V1.2. I do not know why this woman is literally tossing her cookies, but I can only hope the rest of you react more favorably.

V1.2. I do not know why this woman is literally tossing her cookies. I can only hope the rest of you react more favorably.

It’s not a radically different story, by any means. But I think it’s a better one. I’m grateful to Lightspeed for letting me tune it up.

I’m also grateful that they threw their “Author Spotlight” on me in the same issue. Interviewer Sandra Odell hit me with a nice mix of questions, ranging from the familiar (who do you like to read) to some finely-focussed probing into the specifics of this particular story (the manipulation of identity to military and propagandistic ends). About the only thing she got wrong was her allegation that I write “fully realized and complex” characters, but I corrected her on that score.

Anyway, check it out. If you’ve already read the story, see if you can spot the differences. If you haven’t, I hope you like it.

Also I really like the author pic they used.

April 18 2016

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No, a hydroplane doesn't land on water--that's an aquaplane. A hydroplane is a plane that gets electric power from an onboard water reservoir with a tiny dam and turbines.

April 15 2016

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I figured that now that society has collapsed, I wouldn't need to wear clothes anymore, but apparently that violates some weird rule of quantum gravity.

April 13 2016

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There was a schism in 2007, when a sect advocating OpenOffice created a fork of Sunday.xlsx and maintained it independently for several months. The efforts to reconcile the conflicting schedules led to the reinvention, within the cells of the spreadsheet, of modern version control.
Reposted bylokiastela

April 11 2016

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Brain Upload
I just spent 20 minutes deciding whether to start an email with 'Hi' or 'Hey', so I think it transferred correctly.

April 09 2016

VR was grounded in conventions that reinforced the worldview of (male) engineers, the military and the gaming industry. These included striving for realism, a point-and-shoot-or-grab interface, and emphasis on achieving domination and control. To use the medium/technology differently, that is, for my own purposes, such conventions had to be subverted, or at least circumvented. In other words, the technology had to be “turned”.
— Char Davies, talking about the creation of Osmose in 1994

April 08 2016

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City Talk Pages
I don't think the Lakeshore Air Crash Museum really belongs under 'Tourist Attractions.' It's not a museum--it's just an area near the Lake Festival Laser Show where a lot of planes have crashed.

April 07 2016


Adaptive Management and the Walking Dead

According to Rule 34, someone, somewhere finds this hot.

According to Rule 34, someone somewhere thinks this is really hot.

So. Another year, another season of The Walking Dead. Not the worst time to weigh in, now that the Season finale is behind us. An even better time would have been a few days back, but I was busy getting cowified and I’m still in the medicated recovery phase. Basically there isn’t enough bone between my maxilla and the overlaying sinus to properly anchor the titanium Terminator Tooth that has to ultimately go in there. So back on Tuesday they implanted in my face a lattice of bone fragments grown from bovine stem cells. Over the next few months my own osteoblasts will crawl all over that scaffolding; by the time they’re done there’ll be enough new bone up there to anchor the CN Tower.

In the meantime it hurts, and it’s puffy and swollen, and my tongue can’t keep from poking the stitches. On the plus side, the new tusk seems to be coming in fine.




Although we cancelled our cable years ago, television is a time-honored tradition at the Magic Bungalow. It’s not only our primary technique for educating the pones, it’s also the only time we ever get to see them. Fortunately, thanks to television, we get to see them a lot: we’ve shared everything from Breaking Bad to BSG to Game of Thrones on that bed (with occasional retro forays into Buffy and The Prisoner). Each series contributes its own educational insights. The Sarah Connor Chronicles introduces Turing Tests and the Singularity; Breaking Bad lays out the essential concepts of small business management; Buffy’s subtle progressive analysis teaches us that feminism consists of being a hot cheerleader with superpowers who teams up with a hot lesbian with superpowers who together triumph over the world’s assholes by beating the living shit out of them.

Only one of thse pones still likes The Walking Dead.  Guess which.

Only one of these pones still likes The Walking Dead. Guess which.

One show the four of us watched religiously was The Walking Dead; we’d climb onto Big Green every Monday to watch Ian Anderson’s son-in-law lead his merry band of survivors through a postapocalyptic zombie-infested hellscape where no one, curiously, ever used the word “zombie”. It was a glorious time, a family time, until the Meez decided it was too predictable and dropped out. “It never changes,” she said. “They wander around until they find some place to settle down and they start off thinking it’s wonderful. Then the wonderful place turns out to be horrible, and it gets bombed or burned to the ground or something, and they just go back to wandering around again.”

Let us chalk up to coincidence the fact that the Meez came to this conclusion about the same time she discovered sex and started holing up down in the Ponearium with her boyfriend. Let’s take her critique at face value. Her sister does not share that opinion (which is not to say that Micropone doesn’t have her own criticisms; her observation, for example, that by now the survivors should all be living in Ewok-like treehouse communities because Walkers can’t climb is particularly astute). Micro owns the graphic novels. Micro was on the edge of her seat waiting for the season finale (although, like many of you, she was pissed at the coyness of that final scene. I was fine with the cliffhanger; I just didn’t like the pacing of the scene that led up to it.)

Everybody's a critic.

Everybody’s a critic.

So: one show, two pones, two opposing opinions. The Meez isn’t alone in hers; a lot of folks have grown disillusioned with TWD over the years. The second season was especially trying for many: I remember one person who, afterward, facebooked that the prospect of watching Season 3 was like having an abusive boyfriend promise he wouldn’t beat you again if you just gave him another chance. (This person markets herself as a Serious Feminist; you can imagine the visceral revulsion a mere TV show would have to instill, to drive her to jokes about domestic violence). And complaints about the relentless, grinding sameness of seasonal arcs are laughably easy to find: Googling “The Walking Dead” with “repetitive” just got me 166,000 hits.

If you listen carefully, you'll actually pick out a few Walking Dead references in the lyrics.

If you listen carefully, you’ll actually pick out a few Walking Dead references in the lyrics.

I think all these people are wrong. And not just because I can’t watch an episode without thinking Wow, that guy is married to Ian Anderson’s daughter. He probably hangs out with Ian Anderson at Christmas. I wonder what they talk about. I wonder if he ever asked whether the “sleeping flies” lyric in A Passion Play was a nod to Shakespeare. I regarded the pacing of Season Two— all those motionless episodes spent on Herschel’s farm— not as a boring snoozefest, but as a deliberate slow burn that made the final climactic payoff all the more devastating. And I think those who complain about the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of Sanctuary-found-Sanctuary-Lost are completely missing the point. It’s almost as though they think The Walking Dead is a show about zombies or something.

It’s not, of course. It never has been, any more than The Road was about asteroid impacts. The Walking Dead is about lifeboat ethics— about what people are willing to do, to sacrifice, to stay alive. It’s a monte-carlo exercise in adaptive management: knock back the population, seed the survivors, set the clock running and observe the results. The scenario doesn’t have to change so long as the people do; in fact, the very point of the exercise is lost if the scenario does change. The point is to see how different people react to a common apocalypse.

There are as many different answers to that as there are survivors left in the world. You could be a complete wuss, an overweight schoolteacher with no skills and no hope— until you become the world’s best cosplayer, presenting yourself as a black-ops scientist with vital intel Who Must Be Protected At All Costs. You could be a military hard-ass with all the survival skills in the world, lacking the will to do anything but put a gun in your mouth— until some overweight dweeb tells you about a “mission” that gives you a reason to go on living. You could be the well-meaning survivors who try to establish a refuge for your fellow humans, only to see your loved ones brutally killed when marauders show up at the table you welcomed them to; if you survive that experience, you could well decide to be the butchers next time around, and not the cattle. You could decide to enforce a Darwinian regime where the tech remains relatively high but the consequences of not pulling your weight are— draconian…

Or you could just carve a big W into your forehead and go native.

"I wanna show you the new world, Carl." Uh, okay. Just hope 3D movies aren't a big part of it, though.

“I wanna show you the new world, Carl.” Uh, okay. Let’s just hope 3D movies aren’t a big part of it.

It doesn’t matter whether you set it in Terminus or Woodbury, Alexandria or Grady Memorial Hospital. It’s like Stephen Jay Gould’s metaphor for the irreproducibility of evolution: you can rewind the tape, start at the same point, and go off in entirely different and endlessly fascinating directions. (Here’s a new direction for you: The Bobbing Dead, the upcoming second season of the WD spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. Survivors on yachts, safe from zombie depredations until bacterial methane bloats enough walkers to let them float out to sea after the escapees. Tell me you saw that coming.)

Even when the characters stay the same, they change. Look at Ian Anderson’s Son-In-Law. Look at Carol Peletier, perhaps the most awesome character in an ensemble made of awesome. One begins the gauntlet as a career cop: the idea of rules, of recourse to the law is built into his DNA. Carol starts off as a mousy middle-aged battered wife; she knows with every thrown punch, with every “accidental” fall down the stairs, that there’s no cavalry coming over the hill. She knew it years before the apocalypse ever got off the ground.

So who fares better? The police officer— trained in the use of force and firearms, with years of experience under his belt— hears spectral voices from dead telephones. He wanders the forest in the grip of hallucinations. He veers between blood-eyed preemptive murder and a bucolic desire to farm tomatoes.

Meanwhile, Carol— in slow, irreversible ratchets— turns to steel. She leaves trolly paradoxes in the dust while everyone else is still wittering on about morality and the sanctity of human life. She makes the hard calls, kills the vectors and burns the bodies to protect the very people who cast her out for her heartlessness. She keeps a grim distance, surviving alone on her own wits; comes back in the nick of time to save, yet again, the people who’d have killed her if they knew what she’d done for them.

She doesn’t like it. Rick snarls that it’s Us or Them when he pulls the trigger, but Carol only grits her teeth. She wishes it were different. She pleads with her victims to walk away, before she guns them down. And in so doing, she confirms again the insight Rick Grimes shared with his fellow survivors a season or two back, a line that turns the entire premise of the series inside out: “We are the walking dead.”

And I haven’t even mentioned Michonne, or Daryl, Herschel or that glorious understated moment when Governor brushes his undead daughter’s hair…

So, yes. I come down firmly on Micropone’s side, and shake my head at her sister and all those others who complain about needless repetition and pointless deaths— as though the very pointlessness of most death isn’t a point in and of itself. To paraphrase someone whose name I’ve forgotten, most of us don’t get to be Mad Max; most of us just end up as one of those skulls piled up in the background.

There’s no drama in the center of one’s comfort zone, no excitement to be had in watching someone snarf Dorritos on a couch. Drama works by pushing people away from that center, towards their limits. Apocalyptic drama pushes to the limits of all of Humanity.

The Walking Dead goes even further. It actively raises the very issue of whether retaining one’s Humanity is even a good thing.

It’s a question worth asking. More than once.

April 06 2016

4645 126c
Conspiracy theory: There's no such thing as corn. Those fields you see are just the stalks of a fungus that's controlling our brains to make us want to spread it.

April 04 2016


March 30 2016


Of Mice, and Men, and Magneto.

So lookee here (or here, for popsci coverage). Researchers out of the University of Virginia have successfully controlled behavior in mice— possibly instilled True Happiness, although it’s impossible to be sure about another being’s inner emotional state— using controlled magnetic fields. By hacking into the reward centers of the rodent brain they induced the little guys to assemble on command, drew them to any spot where critical lines of force brought down the rapture. (It’s a little like the “wirehead” tech that Louis Wu became addicted to in Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. Only wireless.) Faster than drugs, deeper than optogenetics, more precise than that run-of-the-mill transcranial magnetic stimulation that induces night terrors and “sensed presence”, the new technique represents “the first demonstration of bona fide magnetic control of the nervous system.”

A new view of mice and men.

Meet Magneto2.0

Wheeler et al rhapsodize about the benefits such methods will ultimately confer. A real boon to research, they say. A way to “better understand neural development, function and pathology.”

Meanwhile the US government is doing its damnedest to force the whole tech industry to break its own encryption. (Don’t breathe easy just because the spooks have backed off on the Apple case; they’ve already got their legal judgment and their cracked iPhone. Remember those heartfelt, wide-eyed assurances that we only want to look inside this one, tewwowist phone, how could anyone object to weakening the security on this single, solitary tewwowist phone? Just kidding! The DOJ have served notice that henceforth the entire tech industry is their bitch and can be commanded to unlock anything at any time, with or without cooperation from “the relevant parties”.)

I don’t know if anyone has drawn a line between these two developments, between happy mice and gloating spooks. To me, that line is drawn in neon.

It’s probably too early to worry about the Magneto tech just yet. It doesn’t work on any old field mouse; the critters have to be genetically tweaked beforehand, their very brain cells reshaped for increased sensitivity to magnetic fields. They had to retcon a whole new set of switches to control ion channels in the brain. The same invasive molecular reconstruction would have to be performed on people before evil government agencies could take over our nervous systems. Relieved sigh, right?

Then again, why wouldn’t evil government agencies just go right ahead and mandate such measures in the name of Security?


Our watchers employ a wonderful sort of doublethink to extend their reach: they pretend that nothing has changed, then grab more power by arguing that everything has. Why, we’ve always been able to tap people’s phones, or tail them, or bug their apartments: how is sifting through email and using face-recognition algos any different?

The fallacy, of course, is the ease with which one can indiscriminately surveil millions today, versus yesterday’s difficulty in targeting high-value suspects and following them around town in a van with fake FTD logos on the side. Governments and spooks want you to believe that a fishing rod equals a drift net, and they’re hoping you won’t notice that 99% of their haul is by-catch.

Trust him.

Trust him.

Of course, they’re just as ready to exploit the opposite rationale: OMG terrorists and child molesters are everywhere exploiting webcams and end-to-end encryption in ways that have never been done before! We need more power to combat this unprecedented and existential threat! The problem with that being— as I’ve argued before— that the moment you accept mass online surveillance because horrible things happen to innocent children on the Internet, you pretty much have to let Big Brother install cameras in private bathrooms and bedrooms because horrible things happen to innocent children there, too. I’d be tempted to call it “Mission Creep”, were it not for the fact that mission creep is something that happens inadvertently and this whole panopticon project is so damn deliberate.

We can already see it happening with the ambulatory computers we drive around in. A Rand report from last year— on a workshop  exploring the use of future tech by law enforcement— stirred up a blizzard of online commentary thanks to a scenario about Law Enforcement remotely commandeering driverless vehicles. Workshop participants apparently regarded such interfaces as “low” priority”. Still. We’re talking about people who reserve the right to Stingray your cell phone conversations and read your emails without a warrant. We’re talking about people who can prevent you, without explanation or recourse, from getting on an airplane to go visit your mum. People who seem curiously immune to indictment no matter how many unarmed black people they kill. It’s difficult to imagine such folks walking away from the power to remote-control your car from the comfort of their dashboards. Hell, thanks to OnStar, they’ve been remotely shutting down drivered vehicles since 2009. And how can we stop suspected terrorists from flying, yet draw the line at ground-based travel? Does anyone honestly think that evildoers never drive to the scene of their evil deeds?

Of course, evildoers sometimes walk, too.


Come on in. If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear.

Come on in. If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.

You can see where I’m going with this.

One line in particular jumped out at me while reading Wheeler et al: their description of Magneto2.0 as “a prototype for a class of magnetogenetic remote controlled actuators.” They targeted the striatum— a central element of the brain’s reward system— but they could have just as easily gone after the motor strip, provoked a case of alien-paw syndrome instead of a dopamine high. A few years down the road, they might be able to run the motor systems of those mice as easily as the LAPD runs other people’s self-driving 2022 Teslas.

Of course, if you were going to scale up to humans you’d need to tweak our genes first. That’s not as big a barrier as you might think, it’s not like you have to raise the new flesh from embryos or anything.  Wheeler and his buddies used adult mice, injected their customized genes directly into the brain using a virus as a carrier.

And if we can’t handle the inoculation of a few million North Americans, what the hell is all that vaccination infrastructure for?

Evildoers fly to their targets, so we keep them from flying. If they ride overland to their targets we take control of their vehicles, keep them from riding; it’s the same thing. If they walk to their targets— if they disobey a lawful command, try to run— well, how can we stop suspected terrorists from driving, yet draw the line at arms and legs?

Police have always had the right to immobilize suspects, tackle them physically, restrain them. For the good of society.

It’s the same thing, right?

William Gibson was right. The street finds its own uses for things.

Of course, so does the state.

It would not behoove us to forget that.

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Jack and Jill
Jill and Jack / began to frack. / The oil boosts their town. / But fractures make / the bedrock shake / and Jack came tumbling down.

March 27 2016


March 26 2016


Pizza Bird

Pizza Bird

My boyfriend recently took a flight on a plane with wifi, and while he was up there, wistfully asked if I could send him a pizza. I jokingly sent him a photo of a parrot holding a pizza slice in its beak. Obviously, my boyfriend had to go without pizza until he landed at JFK. But this raised the question: could a bird deliver a standard 20" New York-style cheese pizza in a box? And if so, what kind of bird would it take?

—Tina Nguyen

A bird could, possibly, deliver a pizza to a house. Delivering it to an airliner is a lot harder.

A 20-inch pizza weighs about 1.8 kg.[1]Citation: I just ordered a pizza to check. I usually steer clear of experimental science in these articles, but am willing to make an exception when it involves eating a bunch of pizza. That's about 100 times the weight of a sparrow, so we're definitely going to need a large bird. There are all sorts of birds bigger than our pizza, including eagles, swans, cranes, pelicans, and albatrosses. However, some of them would do better at pizza delivery than others. To see why, let's take a look at wing shapes.

Birds have different types of wings depending on what kind of flying they need to do. Of all the types of wings, the ones best suited for pizza delivery are probably the relatively short-and-broad kind found on many soaring hawks and eagles.[2]Long, thin wings, like those of a gull or albatross, are more aerodynamically efficient in many ways. However, these wings are harder to flap, which makes it difficult for these birds to accelerate quickly. Albatrosses require long "runways" to build up speed before they can lift off.[3]Here's a live feed of some baby albatrosses nesting in Hawaii. These wings are good for taking off while carrying a heavy load, which is of course necessary for pizza delivery.

The largest birds of prey in North America[4]Not counting the California condor, which isn't very good at the kind of hard flapping required to lift heavy loads. And anyway, there are only a few hundred of them in the world—up from 22 in the early 1990's—so someone would definitely notice if you took some for pizza delivery. are the bald eagles[5]Here's a live feed of a bald eagle nest in the US National Arboretum. and golden eagles, which weigh about 4 or 5 kilograms when fully grown. The famous viral video of a golden eagle snatching a toddler is fake, but eagles have been seen to lift some awfully heavy things. Last year, photographer Alex Lamine saw a bald eagle in Georgia carrying a 12-pound (5.4 kg) tree branch, presumably to add to its gigantic nest. The eagle dropped the branch before making it back to the nest, but it definitely proved the bird was capable of flying—at least briefly—while carrying a load equal to its own body weight.

As a general rule, though, birds of prey won't try to pick up more than about half of their own weight. This means a half-kilogram peregrine falcon[6]Here's a live feed of a peregrine falcon nest box in Arizona. couldn't pick up our 2-kilogram pizza. A 5-kilogram eagle, on the other hand, probably could.

However, picking up a pizza is one thing, but what about delivering it to an airliner?

Soaring birds like vultures—and eagles—can ride thermals[7]Thermals, warm columns of rising air, are a phenomenon familiar to both glider pilots and fans of the Animorphs book series. to extreme heights. In tropical regions, where the sunlight-powered thermals are strongest, planes have encountered[8]😞 soaring Rüppell's vultures at altitudes of over 10 kilometers. That's high enough to reach a cruising airliner—but, unfortunately, this kind of soaring flight requires ideal flying conditions. "Having a pizza strapped to you" is definitely not that.

So a bird could potentially carry a pizza, but it couldn't fly up to an airliner with it. That's just as well, because there's one more major problem you'd face: Speed.

Whether or not a bird can fly as high as an airliner, it definitely can't fly as fast. Even if the person in the plane managed to get the emergency door open, they'd have to find a way to grab the pizza.

If you tip a pizza box too far, the cheese runs off one side. This critical angle varies from pizza to pizza and depends greatly on temperature, but let's suppose it's about 45°. That angle tells us that a pizza can handle a maximum sideways acceleration of about 1g.[9]Assuming you've managed to keep the pizza warm at those high altitudes—because what kind of a monster delivers a cold pizza? To accelerate up to an airliner cruising speed of 500 mph, we'll need the acceleration to happen over a distance of over a mile. In other words, we'd need a mile-long mechanism trailing behind the plane to gently reel in the pizza.

But wait—those calculations assume sideways acceleration. Pizzas—like humans—handle "face-first" acceleration best. If the pizza were rotated during the handoff, it could survive a much greater acceleration, allowing the grabbing mechanism to be smaller.

What kind of face-first acceleration can a pizza survive before it spreads out to fill the bottom of the box? I haven't found any data on that, but if anyone wants to try to sneak a pizza into a centrifuge, go for it. Be sure to take pictures!

All in all, if you're in a plane and feel the urge to order a pizza, it's probably easier to just wait until you land. Then, if you really want, you can try to get a bird to deliver it.

But don't be surprised if some slices go missing along the way.

March 25 2016

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Captain Speaking
Oh dang, you have to pay? Hey, has anyone else paid already? If so, can I borrow your phone for a sec?

March 23 2016

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Tire Swing
If we find one of those tire dumps, the next time he tries to get his truck back we can just retreat and let him have it.

March 21 2016

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Estimating Time
Corollary to Hofstadter's Law: Every minute you spend thinking about Hofstadter's Law is a minute you're NOT WORKING AND WILL NEVER FINISH! PAAAAAANIIIIIIC!

March 18 2016

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I looked up "insanity" in like 10 different dictionaries and none of them said anything like that. Neither did the DSM-4. But I'll keep looking. Maybe it's in the DSM-5!
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