Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar 3d

Lynnea and I saw Avatar last night. So many people had raved about it as the greatest film of our time that I decided to prepare myself for either a terrific movie or a tremendous disappointment.

I think it was around the time that the grizzled marine in a huge mecha suit was knife fighting with the sexy blue alien babe riding on some kind of tiger-monster, that I said to myself "Boy, James Cameron really knows how to pander to nerds, doesn't he? I'm surprised there weren't ninjas in this scene too."

Also, at some point in the middle I whispered, "This is what I want World of Warcraft to be like in the future." In other words, you step into a cryo chamber of some sort, and then you mind control some fantasy character while feeling what is happening to your other body. Obviously these would be simulated sensations, not controlling a real physical entity. But Lynnea pointed out that this is a nerdy gamer's biggest fantasy, right down to what it turns out the main character can do at the very end. (I will not reveal what it is so as not to spoil the movie, but if you apply two seconds of thought to what a "nerdy gamer's biggest fantasy" would be, other than the naughty stuff, I'm sure you can guess it.)

Anyway, I did come away with a very strong certainty that James Cameron does, in fact, play World of Warcraft. And I'm not the only one to notice that the similarities are uncanny. The Na'vi are basically night elves, and if they work hard and become extra powerful then they get to purchase their epic flying mount when they reach level 70.

Let me not say that I didn't enjoy the movie. It was fantastic eye candy, especially if you pay extra to see it in Digital 3D, which we did. The effects were great, and seeing the paralyzed marine enjoying his new powerful body was fun to watch. And stuff blew up, which is always a plus in a huge blockbuster. Maybe it's in my nature to be a bit cynical and find it corny, but that's how James Cameron rolls, right? I mean, I actually liked Titanic, historical inaccuracies and weepy moments and all.

So I'm giving this a thumbs up, this was a good and crazy picture. I'm not willing to say, as Ebert did, that this is a Star Wars for our time. But then, I didn't even think Star Wars was a Star Wars for our time. I don't dress up for conventions, I don't think it is a movie that defined my childhood, it was simply a good flick where fun stuff happened. In the same spirit, I'll give Avatar four out of five stars, maybe four and a half if I'm in a good mood. It was super corny and the whole angle with the Na'vi as Native Americans was a bit heavy handed. But still a cool experience.

There will be fetish conventions based around this, you mark my words. I'll be skipping them. :)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It's a party! Of tea!

There is now an official Tea Party in Florida, or perhaps I should say there is a Tea Party party. Right? I mean, if it was just "The Tea Party," that would imply that it is a party primarily concerned with tea, whereas this is actually a party that sprung from tea parties.

Needless to say, I think this is awesome. It's like the Republican party's version of what Ralph Nader was for the Democratic party in 2000, only 10 times worse because they actually have significant traction (as compared to Nader's ability to spoil with 0.38% of the vote).

Until last week, many towns in New York's 23rd district had not had a Democratic representative since the 1850's. The current rep was a moderate Republican named Dede Scozzafava. Upset by her failure to be conservative enough, the political activist group Fox News, spearheaded by "tea party" pusher Glenn Beck, helped to promote the much righter wing Doug Hoffman as a challenger to Scozzafava.

Long story short, Scozzafava dropped out of the race but then flipped Fox News the middle finger by endorsing Bill Owens, the Democrat in the race. And that's how the district got its brand new Democratic representative, who went on to vote for the new health care bill.

So I wish the Tea Party party much luck in replicating their great success far and wide as they attempt to eliminate more Republicans who are not far enough to the right. In fact, I am so cheered by this development that I think somebody should throw a Tea Party party party.

Monday, November 09, 2009

I attempt to invent a joke

Don't hate me, I'm just trying it out...

Frodo Baggins is chatting with Treebeard. He says, "You know, I've always wondered. You ents are basically walking trees, right? I'm just curious, do you, ah... bear fruit?"

Treebeard responds, "Yes, actually, we do sprout fruit seasonally. In fact, I've got a sample right here."

Frodo takes the fruit, which looks very much like an apple, and says "Wow. Is it edible?" Treebeard assures him that it is, so Frodo talks a big bite. "Wow!" he cries. "This is the best thing I've ever eaten! Why, if I could take some of this back to the Shire, I could make a fortune!"

Treebeard says, "Well, we ents have no use for the fruit, so we just toss the stuff on a communal pile after it's ripe. You're welcome to take as much as you like."

Excited, Frodo grabs up an armload and hauls it back to his hovel. For days he tests out various concoctions to maximize the flavor, until he finally settles on a blend of juice mixed with special hobbit spices that tastes fantastic.

He rushes out to find somebody to test it on, and runs into Aragorn. "Hey!" he cries. "You have to try this stuff!" Aragorn takes a tentative sip. "That's not bad," he says thoughtfully. "What is it?"

Frodo says enthusiastically "It comes from the fruit of ents! I haven't settled on a price yet, but if you offer me something of value, I could give you a whole jug right now!"

Hearing that, Aragorn whips out his sword and points it directly at Frodo's throat. "Sorry Frodo, but I'm going to have to place you under arrest."

"What? Arrest?" says Frodo, surprised and frightened. "Whatever for???"

Aragorn replies... "For ent cider trading."

End note: In the interest of full disclosure, you can blame Kingdom of Loathing for the punchline. I just thought it needed a longer setup.

Friday, November 06, 2009

This one goes out to all my high school friends

Hey guys, remember back in the 80's when you used to listen to the radio, and hear old fogeys play music from the 50's, and reminisce about the good old days, and you would laugh about how out of touch they were? Yeah, good times.

This morning as I drove to work, I heard the guys on the local morning show rocking out to Van Halen, Aerosmith, and music from Rocky and Top Gun. Then in between each song they would talk about the 80's and laugh amongst themselves.

So my first thought was: "Ha ha, listen to those guys talk longingly about the music of days gone by. They sound OLD." My second thought was: "Man, this music is awesome. I sure do miss it."

This is a couple of months too early, but welcome to the two thousand tensies! If you were born in the 1970's like me, this will be the fifth decade you have witnessed. Enjoying yourself?

I used to own a whole bunch of Bloom County books, and I remember a plot sequence where Binkley had a dream about his future as a middle aged man. The year in his dream was... somewhere around 1996. Face it folks, we're now living in The World of Tomorrow!!!

I'm tagging this in a note to all my Facebook friends who went to high school with me. If you have been on my list but we haven't talked in a while, feel free to leave a comment on this post or the FB link and let the old gang know how you're doing.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Odds and ends 3: Politics

The main podcasts I've been listening to in the car are audio captures Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, since I don't have time to watch them -- or, indeed, the Daily Show -- most days of the week.

So anyway Congress is infuriating me at the moment. I keep starting to write a post, then deciding I don't have enough to cobble together except little one liners. Also, many things I think have already been eloquently expressed elsewhere. But it's odds and ends day, so here are a few things I think.

The health care issue is a bit personal for me. I was not receiving health care when I worked as a consultant for Motive, and there was a brief period when I simply wasn't covered. I tried to replace my old job-based coverage with private coverage from Blue Cross, but I discovered to my dismay that they would not accept me because I have an -- extremely minor! -- history of high blood pressure. No joke, they didn't try to take me on at inflated rates, they just said... sorry, look elsewhere.

I admit that there were other avenues I could have pursued more aggressively, but I got a bit apathetic and didn't follow them up. I got Ben insured and that was the most important thing. Now that my job is covering me again, it's become moot.

But anyway, I think this highlights the fact that the insurance industry does not provide insurance, which is to say, spreading risk around a diverse pool of people. Their response to attempts at "reform" has been to threaten to raise rates, which only highlights the critical need for more competition. Hence the public option, which at this point looks likely to be presented in some form, but very watered down.

Now in the first place, I do not ever want to hear any more press or whiny Congressman saying "Everything we do requires 60 votes!" There is no rule that says they have to get 60 votes. The rule is that you need at least 40 people who will not filibuster, and 50 votes.

Now filibustering is a very different action from voting against something, but you'd never know that from the press. Remember how Congress worked until 2006, when Democrats were actually in the minority? Every time a Dem even dared to breathe the word "filibuster," Republicans would scream and moan about "obstructionists", and wring their hands and talk about the need for a "nuclear option" which would eliminate the barely-Constitutional practice of filibustering once and for all. And Democrats caved. Every time.

I don't know how filibustering suddenly went from "horrible miscarriage of justice" to "this is the way we do things on every vote as a matter of course!" Freaking hypocrites.

Democrats absolutely have enough votes to pass whatever legislation they want, never mind bipartisanship. The problem is that not only are Democrats still scared of their own shadows, as they still insist on eliminating everything useful about health care reform in their haste to capitulate to President Snowe (as Grayson put it). If they had any party unity there could be no filibuster possible. But now Joe Lieberman, of the prestigious Connecticut for Lieberman party, wants to join the filibuster.

Hey, anybody remember why it was important that Lieberman defeat his primary opponent, Ned Lamont? It's because:

"What I’m saying to the people of Connecticut, I can do more for you and your families to get something done to make health care affordable, to get universal health insurance."

Lieberman argued that Lamont was SO liberal that he would hurt the Democrats' credibility enough to be a liability on the important issues. Issues like universal health insurance. Whew! I'm glad we dodged that bullet, so now we have Joe Lieberman fighting for us on that subject!

What's astounding is that Joe Lieberman still holds a key chairmanship position within the Democratic party, even though he is not a Democrat. Reid insisted at the time, and probably continues to say, that we need to do whatever we can to make Lieberman happy so that he will continue to stand with Democrats instead of jumping ship and doing something ridiculous like, say, filibustering against his own former party.

How's that strategy working out, guys?

Odds and ends 2: Family matters

So with the commute it is suddenly, and depressingly, a lot more difficult to stay in regular contact with my son. I used to take him home with me twice during the week, helping with his homework and then bringing him to school in the mornings, as well as keeping him every other weekend.

Weekends are still open (though I need to sleep more when they arrive). However, the most I can muster is to drive to Ginny's apartment in time to read Ben a bedtime story occasionally. We're currently on Taran Wanderer, fourth book in the Prydain series. Even though this book is a bit of a "one-off" from the rest of the series, it may well be my favorite. Along with plenty of action scenes and great villains (Yay Morda! Yay Dorath!) a lot of it is about Taran's character growth. The book is also very introspective, introducing some camouflaged philosophy about earning the respect of others rather than declaring that you are entitled to it by right of birth. There are many players in the book who are brazen hypocrites with a puffed up self image, and Taran makes quite a few of his own stumbling mistakes in judgment, but by the end of the book he's learned to see the difference much better. I think it is a great time for Ben to be hearing this stuff.

But I digress. To her credit, Ginny is very supportive of my sticking out this job. It's tougher on her to be Ben's overseer most of the time, and frankly I don't want to just be "weekend fun dad." But she agrees that sticking out the job is important to my career. She says that she can handle the homework support job, and -- while we've had our differences about education in the past -- this is backed up by the fact that Ben is still doing excellent work in school. I met with his first grade teacher Mr. Gray, who was just bubbling with enthusiasm about Ben as a student. Makes me proud.

So to work with this new arrangement, I will probably be shifting to 2 out of 3 weekends. This will play some havoc with my involvement in the ACA, but I think that can be resolved and I still love to do the shows.

Lynnea and I went to her cousin's wedding in Philadelphia. I met a lot of her family, and for the most part they are very nice. Her parents and I, while having some perspectives in common, don't see eye to eye on religion. We had some conversations about the shows that I do and the fact that they are perceived as offensive to some people. When I host this Sunday, I may spend some time discussing offensiveness if time allows. I will not discuss the family with my blog, although if you are a close friend you may have already heard more details on the discussion.

In any case, the wedding was enjoyable, and the cousin's family is full of talented musicians who played classical music very well. The reception was loads of fun, with great food and an open bar which I cautiously partook of. ;)

Performed in a concert the weekend before. We did Handel and Haydn with a new director, Ryan Heller. The concert was a smashing success, according to Lynnea, Ryan, and many of the chorus members and their friends in the audience. Ryan is very funny, enthusiastic, and good to work with.

Lynnea and I will be trick or treating with Ben this weekend. Ben will be Iron Man, and I finally figured out my own costume. I'm going to be Vinpricent. I have a huge sword, some spiky shoulder pads, and a breast plate. I'm not really sure how much +strength and hit rating the plastic equipment I bought will provide, so I might need to gem it heavily.

One more post coming.

Odds and ends 1: Job situation and techie goodness

Haven't posted anything in a few weeks, and that always makes me uneasy, so here come a few of those "whatever springs to mind" posts in case some people I haven't spoken to need to be filled in.

I have a new job. In San Antonio. The commute is long and dreary. Lots of quality time spent with podcasts, however. The job itself is for a simply massive behemoth of a company which is involved with providing banking and insurance services for military veterans. The money is solid and I have full benefits again, although when you price out weekly gas mileage, wear and tear costs on the car, and eating out more often than I'd like, the value of the salary drops considerably.

Also, my official title is "senior developer," and the hiring manager specifically said that this job is training me up to be lead developer on some new projects after six months. So, as much as I hate commuting, I think this was an important move that will give me some more exposure to leading web technologies, while also giving me leadership experience that my career needs.

Lynnea and I are considering getting a place slightly south of Austin, which would work well for her also since she works downtown. This step would not only shorten both of our daily drives, but also mark the "moving in together" rite of passage. Needless to say, we would not take such a step if our relationship status was not fabulous.

I bought a new laptop. The laptop I bought for school in late 2006 gave up the ghost long ago, and I haven't had a working one since I worked at McLane and was allowed to take home my work PC. My desktop is about four years old, which qualifies it not as a dinosaur but more of a trilobite. Sure, it's been tricked out with more RAM and extra hard disk space, but it still creaks with age.

The new laptop arrived on Monday, and... well, DROOL. It was actually a budget item, only running $800. However, the specs (see this item) are still a massive jump forward from what I've had before. It has a dedicated graphics card with 1 GB of dedicated RAM, 4 GB of conventional RAM, 320 GB of hard disk, and Windows 7, about which I currently have no complaints.

Of course I can ramble about how important it will be for getting Serious Work done, but you'd know I'm lying, right? Web surfing and games, baby! World of Warcraft runs smoothly in every environment with the graphics settings cranked up to "high" (though I have not been brave enough to try it on "ultra" yet). Left 4 Dead runs smoothly at full res. The box warmed up a bit after a couple hours of gaming, but it wasn't even uncomfortable enough to remove from my lap while sitting on the comfy couch.

I haven't installed Eclipse yet, but I plan to do some recreational programming with it as well, I swear.

Basically the reason I decided I need this NOW is because I'm planning to save myself some hours of driving time and rent a hotel room once or twice a week. I get home very late and go to bed as soon as I can, while Lynnea works odd hours that bring her home at 11. So frankly, we'd "see" more of each other online if I could stay up a bit later due to not getting up so awfully early.

More to follow...

Friday, October 09, 2009

Don't throw me in the briar patch

Random: Tonight I heard an interview discussing the very serious possibility that Sarah Palin could win the 2012 Republican primaries for president. So lemme say this from the bottom of my heart...

Dear conservative friends: Please, please, please. Whatever you do, DON'T make Sarah Palin win the primaries. I think of all the possible candidates, she is the one we liberals most fear will defeat Barack Obama in the next presidential race. I'm begging you! Don't vote for her!

This is not reverse psychology at all! Would I lie to you?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Family gaming

Warning: Gaming post. If you play World of Warcraft or a similar game, you might find it cute and heartwarming. If you don't, you will likely get lost in nerd terminology pretty quickly. You have been warned.

On Saturday, I ran a Warcraft dungeon called Razorfen Kraul with Ben, Lynnea, and my mom. We have been doing this off and on, once every 2-4 weeks or so, for several months. Ben (who is seven) started playing the game a long time ago, but only dabbled with it until he finally brought a particular character, a druid, all the way up to level 16 because he loved playing in animal forms.

That's when the fun started, because I had been explaining to him about dungeon fighting and he wanted to try it. I was hesitant to take this step, because Ben has kind of a short attention span, and I didn't want to ruin the fun of any strangers we might add to our group. But when I ran the idea by Lynnea and mom, they were both willing to join us, and I know them to be very kind and patient with Ben. Normally dungeons are done in groups of five, but the other three of us had characters that were higher levels than Ben, so we thought we might be able to handle it.

So I promised we'd try a dungeon that weekend, and I drilled three rules into his head repeatedly:
1. The tank (me) is the leader. Stay BEHIND the tank at all times. Do not wander off on your own, under any circumstances.
2. Attack only what I am attacking. (For you non-WoW players, this is important because tanks have to work to force individual opponents to attack them, and not the more lightly armored and vulnerable players.)
3. Be nice to everybody. Say thank you. Congratulate them when they get something good.

I repeated these rules, and made him repeat them back to me, many times throughout the week.

We ran the Deadmines dungeon. To everyone's surprise, it went off successfully. It took us two trips on separate occasions to beat VanCleef. But even on the first trip, what was amazing was that Ben followed directions. Oh, I think he had to be reminded of the rules a few times, but he always apologized for his mistakes and corrected them. And more importantly, we all had fun.

That was a few months ago. Now our team of four is more experienced in dungeoning together, we're all in the range of 25-30, and we still try to team up on a semi-regular basis. We've done some character switching, and at this point we have gotten into a nice groove with a very good mix of characters. You can click on our names below to see their current information.
  • Russell: Maddow. My character is still the tank, although I let Ben try tanking in bear form one time. She is a female human protection warrior who is named and styled after a certain TV and radio host.
  • Lynnea: Geighdayr. She is our healer. Her character is a male human holy priest. It's pronounced, um, "gaydar."
  • Ben: Siaindiss. Damage dealer. He's a male night elf feral druid. He used to specialize in spell attacks, but since he reached level 20 and learned to transform into a cat, he's been a feral-focused melee fighter. The named is pronounced "see-AIN-dis"; the random name generator picked it for him and he decided how to say it.
  • Sheryl: Gleeful. She is a female gnome warlock who takes care of our long range spell casting damage.
So the four of us ran Razorfen Kraul this weekend. It's a lesser known dungeon in the horde-controlled Barrens, that few alliance characters ever bother visiting.

It was a long, tough instance. It's populated by pig-men who have an annoying tendency to run away and gather reinforcements when they are injured. As a result, we had a lot of difficult fights that turned out to be much longer than we anticipated, and required a lot of split second decisions by everyone.

We went into it mostly blind, without reading a guide on WoWWiki. I just kept an eye on the dungeon map and guessed which way to go. We had to backtrack a few times.

Ben saved the day on more than one occasion. As a druid, he can temporarily turn into a bear and substitute tanking if I die, or turn into an elf and substitute healing if Lynnea dies. He won't necessarily think to do this on his own, but if we shout instructions then he'll remember. Both changes kept the team from wiping out at different times. I think we all died twice in several hours of play.

Three of us play from the same house, while mom is on a long distance connection from Santa Fe. She and I keep in voice contact during gameplay over Ventrilo.

Anyway, we all had fun, and all gained multiple levels before calling it an afternoon. We didn't quite reach the last boss, but we all felt we had seen plenty of RFK.

Now we're high enough to do Gnomeregan, so that's coming up next time.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Political thuggery

As you may have heard, Republicans are being encouraged to show up at town hall meetings, especially those hosted by Democrats, and shout them down about public health care. If you haven't heard it, get informed with this recent commentary and then come back.

There's a memo that's gone around that incited this stuff. In it, participants are urged to bring in questions that have been written for them, yell at the speaker, and disrupt any effort to answer the questions.

I'm actually quite in favor of political activism, but this isn't conversation -- it's intimidation.

I don't have a lot to add to the story, but I'd like to point out the stark contrast between this and another recent story about a "protest."

PZ Myers plans a trip to the creationism museum with around 200 fans. The museum fears a disruption, and PZ responds to their concerns by writing a very stern message to all participants:

You will not be disruptive. This is an information gathering mission that will make you a better informed individual to criticize bad ideas. Do not interfere with other visitors' ability to examine the place. Ask questions only where appropriate. Collect questions that you can ask of any of the real scientists who will be in our group. Do not get into loud arguments. If a discussion starts getting angry on either side I want you to be the ones to back off.

Remember, if you are calm, civil, and well-behaved, and you tour the "museum", we win. If you are calm, civil, and well-behaved, and the security guards throw you out because they don't like the fact that you're an atheist, we win. If you are angry, rude, and cause trouble that gives them a reasonable excuse to throw you out, we lose, and I will be very pissed off at you.

I think the difference speaks for itself.

Friday, July 31, 2009

A farewell to Air America Radio

Last week, despite deep regret, I canceled my subscription to Air America Radio. I have been a paying customer for many years now, giving about $11 each month for the privilege of downloading my favorite shows as podcasts. I finally decided that Air America no longer carries anything I want to listen to.

I think I heard nearly every episode of the Al Franken Show (previous "The O'Franken Factor" for a year) without missing any. I occasionally caught up on the Majority Report because I was a fan of Janeane Garofalo, and I subscribed to Randi Rhodes as well although she never fully clicked for me.

They've made a number of changes to their content over the years, some of them bad decisions and some of them not really their fault. First Franken quit to run for Senate (congratulations again, Al!), and I had to pick a replacement for my most listened-to show. I settled on listening to the Majority Report more. Even though Janeane quit to go back into acting, I discovered that Sam Seder had a bigger talent for commentary anyway. I listened faithfully to Sam until the AAR management decided he wasn't worthy to have a daily show. First they relegated him to a weekly show, and then they eventually dropped him for a while.

So I reluctantly switched to Randi Rhodes, even though she's generally too screechy and not thoughtful enough for my taste. As a bonus, Sam Seder often filled her shoes when she was on vacation. During this period I also added Thom Hartmann to my rotation, as well as Rachel Maddow, who was doing weekly news updates.

Randi Rhodes threw a temper tantrum at Air America and they fired her. Thom Hartmann took the prime time slot. Rachel Maddow got picked up for daily episodes. I listened to both on a semi-regular basis until Hartmann decided to leave AAR for unspecified reasons. Rachel became my main show, until she started dividing her time between radio and her new MSNBC show, which I also love.

At this point, I've found that I can get Thom Hartmann for free, as well as the audio of Rachel's TV show. There's simply no one else left on Air America that I really care to listen to. So, while I didn't mind spending money to support entertainment and politics that I like, I've dropped my subscription.

I remember when Air America launched, conservatives predicted immediate failure. Air America has not exactly failed, but I do think it has sort of petered out. At the same time, however, I think you could also call them a massive success based on the tangible accomplishments that they contributed to. Let me list them.

  1. Al Franken winning the senate by the skin of his teeth. There is no question in my mind that his popularity and name recognition were mostly due to his tenure as radio host. Thanks to that, we now have not only one more liberal Senator, but a really sincere and passionate liberal. That's notable.
  2. Liberal commentators on TV. Rachel Maddow, who has long been my favorite current AAR host, obviously gets to have her hour on TV thanks to her very excellent radio hosting creds. To a lesser extent, I think Keith Olbermann owes a great debt to Air America for blazing the trail and legitimizing liberal voices on talk radio.
  3. The 2006 election. Credit goes to a lot of people for flipping the house and senate, but I think Air America played no small part. Basically, I think that the political shift happened in large part thanks to grassroots donations encouraged by Daily Kos, and liberal outrage that was voiced regularly on the radio. In effect, hearing similar opinions helps to give liberals a better feeling of moral authority, which was lost temporarily when Bush went on his rampage after 9/11.
  4. While we're at it, let's remember that this trend continued and bolstered Obama's overwhelming electoral college numbers.
On the whole, I feel like Air America Radio has been a valuable asset with a limited lifespan. They blazed a trail that needed some blazing when it launched in 2003. Now perhaps it's no longer necessary for an all-liberal radio station to exist, as many of the authors, columnists, and hosts that I associated with AAR have gone mainstream. That's a track record to be proud of.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Weird insight into Fox News philosophy

An American soldier goes missing, turns up as a prisoner in a Taliban propaganda video. Then Fox News "analyst" Ralph Peters publicly states that the soldier is probably a deserter, and "the Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills." Here's Rachel Maddow discussing the situation.

As far as anyone can tell, Ralph Peters' "source" is his butt, from which he pulled this "inside" information that the soldier abandoned his unit.

Why go to all this trouble to slander a captured soldier? What's the point? Personally, I think it's because Peters' form of conservatism shares qualities with karma and "The Secret." On a basic level, it is the belief that everyone deserves what they get. Are you poor? It's because you did something bad in another life. Got cancer? It's because you "wanted" cancer. Are you a prisoner of a murderous dictatorship in a foreign country? Well, I don't know exactly what you did, but somehow you must deserve it.

I suspect that people such as the odious Michelle Malkin are willing to believe Peters because it makes them feel better. It's very sad if a soldier is in enemy hands and possibly facing execution. But if you can convince yourself that he OUGHT to be executed, well then, problem solved.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is there anything the internet doesn't have??

When Keryn and I were kids, my parents used to take us to Colorado every year for summer camp. When we were picked up, we'd usually go to Denver, where there was a yearly Gilbert and Sullivan festival, and also a melodrama. Many fond memories.

After the melodrama performers did their play, they would often use the second half of the show to perform short skits, songs, and audience participation activities. One year, they performed a song where each singer played a part in a brass band. That was the only time I have ever heard that song before.

This morning my sister was humming the song, and I immediately recognized it. I joked "I bet I'm the only person in the world who would recognize what you're singing." She replied "Well, maybe it's on YouTube."

Joking aside: it is.

Turns out that the melodrama performers were ripping off (excuse me, I believe the polite term is "homage") a very excellent number from the Dick Van Dyke show. And now I get to hear it again.

For good measure, it also turns out that evil muppet genius Jim Henson also performed a version of this song.

Oh wait, wait, last minute addition. This is our Colorado melodrama troupe. Not the same players after all these years, but definitely the same group.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cronkite, Ender's Game, and decentralization of news

Walter Cronkite died last week. I was six years old when he retired as the anchor of CBS news, but I remember him vividly. He was on our black and white TV all the time in the late 70's, and to me he was what news looked like: A white haired guy with a mustache, looking like Captain Kangaroo and speaking in a reassuringly solid bass voice.

I did not live through many of the events that made him famous. The Vietnam War, the assassination of Kennedy, and the moon landing were all before my time. I'm hearing a lot of background information about how he has become the voice that was most closely associated with the news of these events. As one of the most prominent news anchors in the world, it seems like he almost WAS what the news was. "That's the way it is" was his sign off.

It reminds me of an aspect of Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game, which I'm rereading once again, this time with my girlfriend Lynnea. Despite my usual observation that Orson Scott Card has been gradually turning into a lunatic over the past decade or so, good old Past Orson has got some great fiction behind him.

In many ways, Card's book is surprisingly prescient when it comes to technology. First written as a short story in 1977 before being novelized in 1985, it accurately describes email and the internet as a pervasive influence in the futuristic students' lives. The lingo isn't quite right, of course, but the general idea is pretty spot-on.

On the other hand some of it rings false -- really embarrassingly false. I'm focusing in particular on the subplot of Ender's brother and sister, Peter and Valentine. Little geniuses at the ages of 13 and 10 respectively, they decide to become influential political commentators by hiding their identities and writing articles and debates on "the news nets." They assume the identities of "Locke" and "Demosthenes" and, as planned, become famous bloggers (though this term isn't used, of course) to whom everyone listens. In short, it seems like they are trying to become the Walter Cronkites of their generation.

Which, to me, makes no sense. Because whether you think this is good or bad, I don't think that Walter Cronkite can really exist anymore in this post-internet world. Cronkite was a central voice of authority partly because everyone watched TV news, and there were three major networks at the time, and only an hour of major news per network per night. In this arena of scant competition, it's not surprising that one news anchor could become "the most trusted man in America."

Now there is not only network news, but many cable news networks that are devoted to covering stories around the clock. There are tens of thousands of political blogs, many of them individually influential in their own way. While there are news celebrities of a sort, none of them are watched by a simple majority of people in America.

Also, people are tending to pay attention to the news coverage that meshes with what they think. Some of us read lefty blogs like Daily Kos and Balloon Juice while listening to Thom Hartmann and watching Rachel Maddow. And then others watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. It's like there aren't just multiple sources of news; for some people, it almost seems as if there are multiple different kinds of reality.

Figuratively, of course. There's only one kind of reality, but most people filter their reality through the outlets from which they choose to receive it. Orson Scott Card's kids tried to rule the world by becoming the filter that controls the greatest market share of reality. Going a few steps further, George Orwell wrote 1984 laced with the fear that one group would squelch all others in monopolizing the way that people receive their information.

Something really different is happening to media instead. I think it's less frightening, but it's a lot weirder. While media companies may be consolidating, TV and newspaper sales are actually losing their monopolies on people's opinions, replaced instead by a million Lockes and Demosthenes(es?), who all want you to listen to their version of "the way it is."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pet peeve: this metaphor sucks

Today's Paul Krugman column says:

Is America on its way to becoming a boiled frog?

I’m referring, of course, to the proverbial frog that, placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the danger it’s in and is boiled alive. Real frogs will, in fact, jump out of the pot — but never mind. The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time.

Why? Why is it a useful analogy? It only confuses the issue to spread the urban legend that frogs won't jump out of boiling water, and then say "Okay actually they will, but the analogy stands."

At least Krugman has the presence of mind to point out that it's an urban legend... most people quote the frog legend as if it were true. But frankly, by repeating the urban legend you're reinforcing the false story and increasing the likelihood of cementing it as a true story, by people who miss the instant retraction.

Here's a better idea: somebody ought to find a new metaphor to describe a person who doesn't notice they're in trouble as their situation gradually changes. If you can't think of one, then maybe metaphors just aren't the way to go here, because they muddle the issue rather than clarify it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gold mania

Via the Freakonomics blog I just learned that there's a racket going on in Germany where they have vending machines that sell gold coins and bars at 30% above the current market rate. Brilliant!

When economic times get tough, the tough think of creative new ways to steal from the fearful. I've been noticing with much bemusement how full show-length advertisements on Christian radio loudly exhort their listeners to buy gold, and before that I've been fascinated by a precious metal pyramid scheme known as "Liberty Dollars."

Now this one... you really have to stand and goggle in awe at the sheer unmitigated chutzpah of a company whose business model provides a service that is so utterly worthless, and which displays so much naked greed.

Let me explain this again. Gold is an investment. Maybe it's a good investment right now, and maybe it's a bad one, but that's not the point. The point is that [edit: for most people] gold has no other value than as decoration or investment, and it's a really freaking bad investment if you have to pay 30% overhead up front.

Vending machines are for impulse buys. If you are walking past a vending machine in an airport and you see a candy bar for $1.50, and you say "Hmmm, a candy bar sounds mighty tasty right now" then to you at that moment, the candy bar is worth $1.50. Never mind that the same candy bar would cost you half as much or less if you bought it from a store. It has utility value to you.

Gold doesn't have has very limited utility value, and if you buy an investment with impulse dollars at a 30% markup, you are beyond stupid. Go home, do some freaking research, and buy it from a reputable vendor who will charge you 1-3% up front. You don't have to own the gold RIGHT NOW THIS INSTANT. I mean, if you're in an airport at the exact moment when The End Of The World As We Know It hits, maybe you could make a case for raiding the gold vending machine. But if that's the case, I think you might want to focus a little more on fleeing for your life at that point.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Replay [Book, ***]

I haven't read a lot of fiction in the last few years. During the two years I've been in grad school I had to put most recreational reading on hold, and since then I've mostly read either more technical books, or nonfiction about politics or philosophy. I decided that this is something I miss in my life, so I recently raided the Round Rock Library and checked out two books. Replay by Ken Grimwood is something I browsed in a bookstore a few months ago and found interesting enough to put on my mental wish list. Dune by Frank Herbert is a book that everyone praises but I have somehow not gotten around to yet. I finished the first, so here's my review.

Replay predates the movie Groundhog Day by a few years, and uses a similar high concept. I love that movie, as I love most sci-fi that involves time travel or other creative reorganizations of time. As in Groundhog Day, Replay involves a main character trapped in an unexplained time loop. Unlike Groundhog Day, where the scope of the loop is one day, the book has its character reliving 25 years of his life.

It opens with the death of the main character, Jeff. Trapped in a loveless and childless marriage and an unfulfilling job, Jeff experiences a heart attack at the age of 43 in 1988, keels over, and awakes to find himself trapped in the past, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that the next leap will be the leap home. Oh, wrong story. But you get the idea.

Jeff lives his life about five times that are noteworthy. As Bill Murray did, Jeff goes through various stages in his attempt to come to grips with what's happening. He uses his knowledge of the future to become insanely rich. Then he tries to fulfill himself with a better committed relationship, which works out pretty well but is entirely erased on the next round. Then he spirals into hedonism and drug abuse, then finally meets a kindred spirit who understands what he's going through. Then they try to save the world.

Unlike Groundhog Day, a fair amount of time is devoted to speculating about the real cause of the time loop, but the effort is largely wasted because they never come to anything resembling a conclusion. In fact, the whole book didn't feel like it had much of a conclusion. Jeff wanders from one life to the next and does a whole lot of stuff, and makes some effort to throw out philosophical thoughts about the implications. But the book just ends, and nothing that happened seems all that significant. Jeff's learned something, I suppose. And there's a one-off epilogue that seems to try to make it feel more significant, but didn't much work for me.

Replay was still an enjoyable read. Ultimately it's simply about a whole bunch of stuff happening, and the stuff is interesting to read about. I don't feel like I got a greater message out of it in the end, so I'll categorize this as a good diversion. It does make you think about what you would do with multiple lives, though.

*** (out of 5)

Music and patriotism

I've been a bad blogger lately. It's been well over a month since I've written a proper post either here or on Castles of Air. Partly that's because I've had abundant life stress on multiple fronts, which I don't really want to go into here. But I think it's a good time for me to update various things that have interested me lately.

I have a chorus concert coming up tomorrow evening. The music selection is better than it has been in a while, so if you live in Austin and like music, there are worse ways you could spend your evening tomorrow night than buying a ticket and attending.

The lineup is:
W.A. Mozart, Missa Brevis
Leonard Bernstein, Chichester Psalms
Haydn, Te Deum
Frank Tichelli, Earth Song
Randall Stroope, Homeland

The last two obviously aren't as well known as the other three. Both of them are a lot more musically simplistic but very emotional sounding. The Tichelli strikes me thematically as sort of a hippy song -- "The shattered earth cries out in vain..." and "Music and singing have been my refuge" and ends with "I'll see peace." It's corny but the music is actually quite nice. And there's a giant PowerPoint presentation over our heads, with pictures of people crying or enjoying themselves, and sunsets and rainbows and things.

Now, the last one, the Stroope, is interesting. It is set to the tune of "Jupiter" in Holst's The Planets. You can hear the original performed here, or a high school chorus singing Stroope here. It does seem to be very much geared towards a high school group, fairly lacking in subtlety and also very patriotic.

Now, typically blunt patriotism turns me off. I like the way Ambrose Bierce described it in The Devil's Dictionary: "In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first." It's not that there's anything wrong with being proud of your country, and inspired to make it as good as possible. It's just that naked worship of country, as in "My country right or wrong" or "Why do you hate America?" rubs me the wrong way, just as all blind faith would.

But while rehearsing this piece, I've found myself getting choked up a few times. When I analyzed this feeling, I noticed I'm actually feeling more real patriotism than I have in a long time. I don't feel that the country is being run perfectly, but I think that policy is again being driven by people who care a bit about research and results more than ideology. Feels good.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Please format your arguments properly

I enjoy reading email arguments, but they are hard to read if you don't format them the right way.  I was going to email this advice as instruction to a friend, but it occurred to me that I should blog it so I never have to write it a second time.

Normally people do not indent their own replies when answering. Instead, they leave the other person's replies indented (with the leading character, like ">" or a vertical line, left in the post) and move the response to the left margin.

The advantage of this system, if both parties stick to it, is that older replies get more indented. It looks like this:

> > > I told you, I'm not allowed to argue unless you've paid.
> >
> > I just paid!
> No you didn't.

I did!

> > And anyway, that was never five minutes just now!
> It most certainly was.

No it was not!

If you are looking for a particular level of the conversation, or only new comments, you can easily see where you are by scanning the text. Try it. (In the above conversation, "I just paid" and "And anyway..." were part of the same email.)

Some people reply to a post by leaving everything at the same indentation level, but setting their replies in a different color, like blue or red.  This is fine in principle, as long as there is only one round in the exchange. If it goes longer, then you either have to pick different colors, or else leave everything the same color.  If you use the same color, it can become impossible to separate the old red text from the new red text.  If you don't use the same color, it forces the reader to check back and figure out which color goes with which message.  Needless to say, this can become impossibly confusing in a long exchange.

I hope this helps.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ayn Rand's weird obsession with a killer

As much as I have come to dislike Ayn Rand, I was initially hesitant to believe this story about her idolization of a murderer. But it seems pretty well sourced.

As revealed in a book of Rand's journals, when she was about 23 she wrote of her admiration for a fellow named William Hickman, who was executed by hanging in 1928. Rand quoted Hickman saying "What is good for me is right," while stating her feeling that this was "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard."

Why was Hickman executed? Well, long story short, it turns out that he kidnapped the twelve year old daughter of a wealthy banker, and sent several taunting ransom notes over the next several days. When the father finally paid the ransom, Hickman returned the girl.

In pieces. He took the money, threw the upper half of her body in the street, and drove away. He then eluded capture for about a week before being taken, tried, convicted, and executed.

Needless to say, Hickman became a deeply unpopular guy... but in recounting the incident, Rand said that the public's hatred was "because of the man who committed the crime and not because of the crime he committed."

She went on to say: "The first thing that impresses me about the case is the ferocious rage of a whole society against one man. No matter what the man did, there is always something loathsome in the 'virtuous' indignation and mass-hatred of the 'majority.'... It is repulsive to see all these beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives, virtuously condemning a criminal..."

Um, no. Most people don't have worse skeletons in their closet than murdering a little girl, chopping her into pieces, and throwing those pieces at the distraught parent. And it's not loathsome to hate a guy who would do that. I don't know about you, but to suggest that public outrage over a genuinely outrageous act is somehow wrong indicates an extremely backwards ethical system to me.

Also interesting to me is where Rand idolizes his, er, "unconventional" lifestyle choice by denouncing a typical life thus: "What had society to offer him? A wretched, insane family as the ideal home, a Y.M.C.A. club as social honor, and a bank-page job as ambition and career..."

To me this suggests nothing so much as one of those hideous Christian sermons where the preacher proceeds to ridicule and dismiss anything that might serve as contributing value and meaning to a person's life outside the religion. You know... "Human relationships aren't reliable; your friends will abandon you. You'll work for 40 hours a week at a soul crushing job that will leave you feeling empty until you retire, impoverished and alone..." Etc. Nothing gives your life meaning, of course, except Jesus Christ.

It's a profoundly negative message, because many people DO find satisfaction and fulfillment in careers, relationships, hobbies, and other worldly pursuits. But religions do their best to rip that satisfaction away and leave people feeling like they'll be miserable without the current product being sold. I was just reading a few chapters of "The Conquest of Happiness" by Bertrand Russell, in which he praised the possession of a zest for life, finding joy in even the trivial things that you like doing.

Rand's worship of her perceived "superman" always seems to have come at the cost of a certain overall contempt for most of mankind -- who, it seems, are constantly being portrayed as deserving to die in a train wreck, or have their kids murdered by superior men.

Friday, March 13, 2009

From Russell the Blogger

Just a random observation: lately I've grown very fond of referring to people in conversations as "[First name] the [Occupation]".  I started doing it ironically when Joe the Plumber was a running political joke.  But now I'm starting to like it. It's useful shorthand for referencing someone who is not known to the audience; it establishes both their name and function.  That way I almost never need to answer followup questions about who I'm talking about and why.

Thus, people at work are "Susanne the Analyst," "Gary the Boss," "Yolanda the Carpooler," etc.  Then I've got Elliott the Contractor, Dan the Financial Adviser, Calvin the Friend of Ben, and so on.

By the way, be sure to check out my recent post about Ayn the Author.  ;)

Oh please don't go

I just read a great story about people who want to "Go John Galt" (like in the book Atlas Shrugged) but appear to be completely unclear of the concept.

None of the people Dr. Helen interviews is actually Going Galt. More to the point, neither is Dr. Helen. She claims to be "mulling over ways that she can "go Galt". Allow me to help her out (along with Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds, et al.) To Go Galt, she should:

(a) Identify those things that she does that are genuinely creative and productive. If there aren't any, then the fact that it will be difficult for her to Go Galt is the least of her problems.

(b) Refuse to do those things in any way that allows society at large, as opposed to a small circle of like-minded individualists, to benefit from them.

It really is that simple. If she and the other bloggers who are calling on people to "Go Galt" don't do this, the only explanations are that they don't have the guts to do what they are encouraging others to do, or that they recognize that nothing they do counts as creative or productive, or that they just aren't thinking about what they write.

This is great comedy, see. At least in Atlas Shrugged, the people who packed up and left society were people who actually did stuff. They made steel, they ran railroads, they were engineers and inventors and manufacturers.

The people who are now saying "Let's leave and they'll all be sorry!" aren't even successful in Randian terms. They're pundits, untalented entertainers, professional bloggers, belief-tank chairmen, and people who make a living by shuffling small green pieces of paper around from one place to another.

Having such people withdraw from society is an empty threat. It's Douglas Adams' B-Ark. For those of you unfamiliar with this story, the planet of Golgafrincham got rid of a useless segment of their population by telling them that the planet was about to be destroyed. They led people to believe that the A-Ark would contain the scientists, inventors, artists, and thinkers; the C-Ark would contain the laborers; and the B-Ark would contain everyone else, such as insurance salesmen and management consultants.

There was no catastrophe. The people supposedly going on A and C arks stayed home, while the B-ark was programmed to crash land.

The people who now fantasize about "going Galt" have an inflated sense of their own importance to society, and few would be upset if they ran off to a similar fate.


While searching for references on this post, I discovered a post from yesterday by someone who had already made exactly the same connection.  I thought about killing this post, but hey, great minds think alike.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The targets of my shameless fanboyism

When I got to thinking about posts I could write on Castles of Air, I got to pondering cool stuff that I like.  There aren't a huge number of things that reduce me to shameless fanboy praise; normally I tend to be critical of even things I like.  However, there are certain topics where, if someone brings them up, I can't help jumping in and waxing poetic about their sheer awesomeness.  In no particular order except for my stream of consciousness, they are:
  • Joss Whedon
  • George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire
  • Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach
  • Douglas Adams
  • Back to the Future
  • Blizzard Entertainment
  • Valve Software
  • The Internet
  • Web 2.0
  • Senator Al Franken
  • PZ Myers
  • Star Control II
  • Steve Meretzky's A Mind Forever Voyaging
  • Richard Feynman
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic
  • Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime
  • Jon Stewart
  • Most books by Ken Follett
  • Jim Henson
  • Chuck Jones
  • W.A. Mozart
  • Gilbert & Sullivan
  • Rachel Maddow
  • Portable music devices + Podcasts
...I think that about does it.

Actually there are quite a lot of them, I guess.


    I'm trying not to neglect this blog entirely, so here's a few tidbits for you.

    Latest posts on Castles of Air:
    Also: Response to Chuck Colson at the Atheist Experience (roughly 8 months in the making)

    What's up with me:

    I am getting my house ready to sell.  It's mostly painted, and my contractor is working on redoing some of the floors this weekend.  We had a garage sale this weekend, in which I sold much stuff which originally cost thousands of dollars altogether for 1, 5, or 10 bucks each.  It was, um, not fun.  Hard work and kind of demoralizing, but the end result (besides a couple hundred bucks to pay the contractor) is that most of the loose stuff that was in my house is now largely gone, organized, or ready to sell to Half Price Books or Craig's List bargain hunters.  I guess it's a little liberating.

    I'm still holding onto my job in Temple and even sort of liking it.  The work is very purpose-driven at the moment: we have a laundry list of short feature requests from a client, and we're working through these with the intent of making them happy, as well as preparing to show off the improvements to a bunch of other buyers.  I feel valued professionally, which is a good feeling.  That will be confirmed if I get hired full-time in April.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009

    My newest blog

    I've let this blog stagnate for a while, mainly because I've been extremely busy working on the Atheist Experience blog a lot.

    Now I've got a new blog which I would like to hype.  I just wrote my second post on Castles of Air, which is dedicated to issues focusing on software development.  This is intended to be my professional blog.  I want to keep it separate from the other two blogs, because I would like to be able to show it to professional colleagues without worrying about mixing in my feelings about politics or religion.

    This will probably make me post here even less often, since programming and other nerdy stuff were topics that I used to discuss on Kazim's Korner.  However, since my professional blog has no followers yet, I will make a habit of putting a link from here to each post that I make on Castles of Air.  But don't rely I hope that will help to improve traffic flow of both this blog and CoA.  The other blog is of course a nerdy endeavor, but computers are everywhere in our lives, and even non-programmers might be interested in looking inside the process.

    My first two posts:

    Friday, January 23, 2009

    Fish in a barrel: another look at Conservapedia

    In my estimation, the sort of far-right people who are drawn to something like Conservapedia, similar to Christian homeschoolers, are characterized mainly by a resentment of authoritative knowledge. The whole notion that some people know more than other people about stuff, unless the source is a personal revelation from a higher power, is anathema. This permeates everything they think about. The media is a vast conspiracy to bring down good, decent men like GWB. Scientists are priests of Satan whose primary goal is to undermine God's word. Public schools are instruments of evil to get to your kids. The entire frakkin' world is run from the shadows by Scary Foreigner George Soros, or minions laying the groundwork for Antichrist -- the two of which are not mutually exclusive. Etc.

    Nobody except a trusted religious leader has the right to tell you what to think. Evidence that stands in contradiction to your point of view can be safely disregarded, because the people with the authority of being educated wield awesome power and they are thoroughly skilled at trying to trick you. The only way to avoid falling under their sway is to skip straight to your faith, so you can bypass learning things.

    Wikipedia may be kind of a mess, but my observation is that most prominent articles tend to converge to a consensus over time. This is because Wikipedia has smart standards in place requiring credible sources and authorizing the deletion of agreed nonsense. It's not perfect, but the major articles on scientific and historical topics tend to be a mostly reliable starting point to learn the subject.

    Conservapedia was started explicitly because they hate that consensus. Consensus without a divine authority means that The Conspiracy now controls it. It doesn't mean that there are "right" answers that can be determined through analysis; it means that the evil people who are everywhere have managed to crowd out dissent.

    So on those occasions when I've read articles on Conservapedia, it hasn't surprised me at all to find that the text of the articles were a patchwork of contradictory opinions, while the comments sections were all flame wars. There's no way to resolve these flame wars, because their opinions are guided by their faith.

    Here's a perfect illustration: the discussion page for Evolution.

    "After much debate, the Conservapedia Panel has finished reviewing the Theory of Evolution page. We have determined that the article will remain protected indefinitely, to protect it from inevitable vandalism. We have decided that the article will not be changed in any major way. However, we agree that the article lacks an adequate, concise explanation of the Theory of Evolution."

    Oh sure, the page fails to actually convey any useful information, but who gives a damn? The Panel Has Spoken. As much as they are opposed to Authority, they still love Authoritarianism, because their faith guides them to The Truth. Lower on this page, you'll find a hilarious discussion about the main picture at the top of the evolution page, which was Hitler. It's Godwin's Law invoked without a trace of irony. The "reasonable" contributions to this discussion came from those who objected that, sure, obviously evolution caused the holocaust, but wouldn't a picture of Darwin be slightly more representative?

    I read their evolution page in the early days of Conservapedia, and it was obvious what was going on: There were a small minority of people who, though conservative, accepted mainstream science; they got in pissing matches with the swarms of young earthers, old earthers, and intelligent designers, all of whom also disagree with each other. Without a reliable reference to go back to, the only standard is who can be the most persistent pain in the ass about making their preferred changes stick.

    So now the guy with the biggest stick, the Conservapedia Panel, decides that they should just go ahead and trump all the arguments only by declaring fiat victory -- even while they're admitting that the final product fails to even adequately explain the subject.

    But you want to know something even funnier? If you go back to the front page, you'll find that Evolution was selected as their Article of the Year. That's actually the best thing they have.

    This is not the Bush Administration

    The White House has a blog.

    With a guy who's a technology expert.

    They're using it to, like, communicate stuff.

    About policy.

    It's been updated several times already in the few days it's been up.

    And they're encouraging feedback.


    Tuesday, January 13, 2009

    Comedy of coding errors

    Nerd alert. You will probably enjoy this post if and only if you are a fellow programmer.

    There's a fair amount of horrible legacy code here at my new company. It is nobody's fault -- apparently it was written by an intern at another company, then bought by my company. Which is great, because I can loudly ridicule this code without fear of offending anyone. My cubicle-mate is the senior Java developer. Together, the two of us ARE the entire Java team right now; other people here are coding a little bit of Java, but we're the experts and the commerce project is owned exclusively by us.

    I ran into a beautifully horrifying bit of code today. First it gathers a list of objects from a table. Then it iterates over each object, seeing whether the object is "authorized"... and then it removes the object from the array. Not only is this inefficient to begin with -- they should have just filtered out the unauthorized objects in the original query -- but they keep rearranging the entire array every time an object is removed. Like this:

    1 2 3 4 5
    (object 2 is unauthorized)
    1 3 4 5

    Obviously this runs in O(n^2) time, when it could easily run in O(n) time just by adding a second array.

    Wait, it gets worse. I'm trying to fix it, and I realize the same code that kicks out unauthorized objects appears to be in there TWICE... it's iterating over the array twice and doing approximately the same thing each time. I don't know why, but it appears to have something to do with the magic number "50" that keeps showing up in the code. As in:

    for (all items) {
    if (curItem < 50) {
    do one thing
    for (all items) {
    if (curItem > 50) {
    do almost the same thing, but slightly different

    Dear God, WHY? What does 50 mean? I don't know, the code doesn't give me a clue. You would think 50 is something arbitrary like the number of items displayed per page, but no... only 12 items are displayed per page. ARGH ARGH ARGH ARGH ARGH.

    The bright side is that I don't think I've actually had to solve a genuine programming logic puzzle in like this for many months -- I can't remember a single example at DMi. This is fun! When I'm done, the code will run much faster. And there's probably hundreds of examples of this crummy design lurking around, waiting to be fixed.

    Yay job security!

    Wednesday, January 07, 2009

    A compressed big update

    "Let me esplain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up." - Inigo Montoya

    There are some things I haven't aired out on this blog because I don't like to use this as a forum for complaining. But now that there's a surprising amount of good news, I'm back with some updates.

    After getting my Master's in December, I got laid off not once, but twice. When my contract-to-hire came up on six months at Digital Motorworks, I was told that there was a hiring freeze. They extended my contract hoping to pick me up in December, but then the economy crashed.

    I spent a bit over two months unemployed, and it was somewhat scary. I started a new job Monday, though. It's an interesting company, privately owned by one of the few hundred richest men in America. He personally works in the office, (and manages the pro baseball team that he also owns) but I haven't met him yet.

    The job has its ups and downs. I'm doing Java Enterprise development, which is something I've wanted to do a lot more of. So far I really like the people I work with directly, and I've already started solving a number of problems after just two days. The work promises to be fairly exciting in a nerdy kind of way, as I may get a lot of creative control over a large commercial web application. And the pay's better than what I was making before.

    On the other hand, the office is a remarkably conservative environment. It's the first place I've ever worked as a programmer where there has been a dress code -- business casual, no jeans allowed any day of the week. There's a long commute, but I was issued a fairly awesome high end company laptop on the first day and allowed to take it home. It's said that after I've worked for about a month or so, I'll get to telecommute most days. The senior developer on my team of two also lives in Austin, so we might carpool or get together locally.

    Many of the other techies are fairly affable, including my boss. The building is also populated by an awful lot of ex-military guys, as the bulk of the business is about managing military supply chains. (My division is much smaller, and our software app handles commercial retail).

    Also, as I obliquely mentioned in my wedding speech, Ginny and I are divorcing. It's on good terms. We had some tension for a while, but I think that situation has eased up a lot since both Ginny and I got employed. Ginny even told me she got a promotion yesterday, which is great news. Ben is handling it well, he's doing excellently in school and is coping gracefully with being in day care for the first time. He's an incredible reader. I hope I'm not overstepping my bounds if I say I think both Ginny and I now see our change as a mutually agreeable one. We've both had dates, which is a fun hobby to be taking up again, but... well, a gentlemen doesn't tell.

    Actually, he does, frequently, but not on this blog. If you're one of the select circle who gets to know my private life, you've probably already heard. If not, it's none of your business. ;)

    Yesterday was probably the best day I've had in months -- I'm working, it's fulfilling, I'm social. I'm hosting the TV show once a month instead of cohosting. Also, as you might imagine, I enjoy most political news these days. Al Franken appears to have won his race, although there may still be some legal squabbles. Barack Obama will be president in under two weeks. Yay!