Saturday, July 21, 2012

Remembrance of a Tough, Brilliant, But Challenging Person

I thought this was quite the remembrance in UChicago's alumni magazine. It's written by Jay Mulberry, AB 1963, and I hope he doesn't mind the re-posting. It's innocuously stuck in the back of the magazine along with all the other class updates. I can't find a copy to link-to online, so I'll post it here:

Mel Thurman came to Chicago in 1959 as a poor boy from St. Louis. Th excitement of learning from great teachers and late night conversations in Hitchcock Hall were a revelation to him, and he remained devoted to the University, it being, after his family, the greatest influence on his life. Mel was a brilliant student of anthropology and a protege of Lewis Binford, who arranged for him to do field study in Nubia and South Dakota while an undergraduate. He received his PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1973 with his dissertation, "The Delaware Indians, a Study in Ethnohistory." For the next 30 years Mel was known as one of the preeminent authorities on the early history of North American Indians.

Those who knew Mel well remember him as incredibly hard working. He mastered several different areas of anthropology and wrote two novels as well as a study of the cinematic work of Terrence Malick. At the end of his life, he was a recognized authority on both the French influence in colonial America and the place of prophetic religions in world history. No one who knew Mel doubted that his ideas were built on the detailed analysis of thousands of documents studied in hundreds of libraries throughout the country. But those who knew Mel also saw another side.

Mel had a seeming compulsion to destroy his professional relationships and thus his chances to attain eminence and position. Beginning with his career as an instructor at Princeton, he systematically offended and abused nearly every scholar in his field until he was forced to live outside academia and support himself as an independent scholar. Much worse, in 1995 his wife, Barbara, perished in an awful automobile crash. She had been both his love and his source of stability; her loss left him emotionally unmoored.

For the last decade, Mel lived in extreme poverty in Ste. Genevieve, MO, frequently ill and nearly deaf. But Mel always cared more about ideas than his physical circumstances, and he continued thinking, working, and writing until the end. In a decrepit car he traveled back and forth across the country, studying what remained to be studied and collecting books and articles that remained to be read. how he did this with resources that could hardly maintain a life is a mystery, but survival had always been one of his skills, and he had learned to live with poverty in boyhood. He was too unwell to give the paper on "Ethnohistoric Analysis of Photographs of Native Americans" that was scheduled for the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in January.

Mel died in Tucson, AZ, on April 4, leaving behind his two beloved children, Tanya and John. Although he had alienated most of his professional peers over the years, they, along with the devoted friends who remain, recognize that in him they have known someone very special -- a American original.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dark Souls

If one were to go back and play old NES games like Contra or Kid Icarus, I think the nostalgia would be overwhelmed at some point by the cruelty inherent in these older games. There's no saving. There's little room for mistakes. And if you fail over the course of many hours of play, you start over. Who has the time or patience to deal with that kind of thing today? Who would pay money to experience that again?

The makers of Dark Souls apparently thought somebody would. The game has no pause button. There's very little instruction or story. The game is cruel, and when you die, you lose all of your souls, the game's currency. When you go to checkpoints and heal, all of the enemies in the game respawn.

One might think Dark Souls is just a needless nostalgia play, but they only adopt old gaming rules when they support the game's goal: give the player constant stakes. Give them a strong incentive to take care. Make them fearful to fail and jubilant at success. They hit that mark perfectly. I'm no gaming expert (I died 30+ times in the first few hours of play and nearly gave up), and even I have found the game incredibly rewarding. Fromsoft basically made a deal with the player: deal with our hurdles, and we'll reward you with incredible rewards in detail, feel, loot, and fun.

This is an incredible bet for a gaming studio; I can think of no other recent game that attempts to make this deal with the player. But after two excellent games in this vein (Dark Souls' spiritual predecessor is a game called Demon Souls and is similar), I think we may see a resurgence of the high-stakes game. Jaded players need stakes, whether they realize it or not. Here's to more stress and more rewards in gaming's future.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Public Internet Fora

Cross-posting my G+ post here, as it was blog-length. The First Circuit decision I reference is covered here.


I'd like to see a law student comment comparing the recent decision linked to below to the arguments in defense of BART's cell shutdown. Clearly the 1st Circuit feels the 1st Amendment protects the ability of a person to film and post police activity via cell phone in a public square. The means of posting for any near-term journalistic purpose is an internet connection.

Some things for the student to consider: does it matter that a cell shutdown delays, but doesn't permanently enjoin, the communication of the speech? Must the government have a security concern, or can they stop immediate broadcasting arbitrarily?

I'll jumpstart the comment by providing some early thoughts. What comes to mind for me is the doctrine of a semi-public or private forum's transformation into a public forum based upon access. We tend to think of this caselaw as being about physical grounds - the military base, when opened for 1 day for a public parade, becomes a public forum and folks can bring anti-military posters on the grounds for that day only.

Similarly, when the BART folks decided to create cell service in BART stations, they unintentionally made such stations a "public internet forum," if not a public physical forum. This is why we shouldn't conflate BART's ability, for safety reasons, to control protests in BART stations, with their ability to control the non-physical public forum created by internet access.

I'd thus like to propose that BART may be able to make a valid constitutional argument that the physical forum of a BART station can be closed for security reasons if viable alternative physical fora for speech are available. But they cannot constitutionally invoke a security-based argument for closing a public internet forum except in the most extreme of circumstances (ex. specific knowledge of a cell phone bomb trigger in the area). Once the government decides to provide internet access and create a public internet forum, an individual should have the right to invoke a right like the one seen the case below (use a cell phone to record officers in public), and not have the means of speech dissemination inhibited by the government. Closing the internet public forum and delaying the speech dissemination is unconstitutional except in instances of immediate, specific, and deadly security concerns. Physical-space-based concerns, such as overcrowding, simply aren't valid for public internet fora.

Now I need a law student to make my normative argument about public internet fora into something grounded in some actual cases beyond the one below. :) If someone does it, I'll look forward to reading it!

By the way, I also recommend my former boss Nicole Wong's thoughts on this matter.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Google+ Invites

I'm posting a lot of nonsense there. If you'd like to join, but haven't received an invite, use this link and you'll get one.

Monday, July 04, 2011


The product I've been working on for half-past forever, Google+, is finally public. This product long caused me to state in vague terms what I did at Google. I'm very happy to no longer say "I still do Google Earth," or "I do ads stuff," when probed on my daily activities.

Check it out at Sign-ups are opening from time to time, so keep plugging away if you're interested.