Sunday, November 28, 2010

'Something to offer besides waiting to die' or 'why do I live in Bloomington?'

Yesterday on Twitter, @drewmckinney, aka the guy who wrote that cool DrivingBuddy iPhone app, wrote:
He linked to, a handy site where you can find out for example if you are making $50,000 a year in Bloomington IN, how much would you need to make in San Francisco to get by at the same level in terms of housing and so forth? The answer to this question is: $117,735.

These numbers always have to be taken with a grain of salt, and ex-NYC resident @lmcalpin called bullshit on them:
my apt in bklyn wasn't much more $$ than apts downtown here
anyway i've heard people say before that cost of living makes working here attractive compared to either coast
and i think its a bullshit argument and wishful thinking
Fair enough. At this point we turn to blog posts and articles on whether the fact that it's cheap to live in the Midwest is a draw for businesses and talent. The first one was brought to our attention via @benfulton, and was written by Morton Marcus, a retired economics professor whose column appears in Bloomington's Herald-Times sometimes. I like Marcus' work as he seems to me to be non-partisan, in sharp contrast to the regurgitated Cato Institute dreck people from the Indiana Policy Institute serve up in the H-T Op-Ed.

Marcus' article in the Indiana Economic Digest, 'If the brain drain remains open, what's left?' has this to say about the 'It's cheaper to live in the midwest, come work here!' argument:
Housing is cheaper in Indiana because fewer people want to live here and the value of the goods and services we make is lower than in the Golden State. Lower valued outputs lead to lower wages which lead to lower housing prices.
It’s easy to say the problem is a failure of business investment. We could not admit that the failure is a stodgy environment, communities with hardened intellectual arteries, and businesses that feel at home in such places.

Yes, the issue could be the brain morbidity of business and civic management rather than a need for more business tax incentives.
This discussion reminded me of a blog post by Max Beatty summing up September's 'The Combine' Conference in Bloomington. This was a conference in the tradition of SXSW and other tech gatherings organized by tech professionals in Bloomington, including the people from Humanetrix and SproutBox. Max's post is mostly positive, but this excerpt stung, I have to admit:
Then came the first discussion panel titled “More Than Corn.” The panel of Midwest executives did not deliver. I thought they would be up there boasting about how great it is to be part of tech companies in the Midwest and the opportunities that lie ahead. Instead, they never offered any valid arguments beyond the cost of living being lower and being a great place to raise a family. Working for less and settling down is something very few of my friends under 30 are interested in. By the end of it, I was reaffirmed with my decision to leave Indiana. Indiana’s brain drain won’t stop until there’s something to stick around for besides growing old.
I first read this a few months ago, shortly after the conference, and my initial reaction was to be like Ice-T in the middle of a Twitter beef and invite the author to eat a hot bowl of something. I showed restraint, which is good.

After thinking about this again as a result of the Twitter exchange, I believe there were probably two problems there. First, perhaps having the panel was ineffective for this guy because the panel was showing and not telling, in the parlance of writing classes and lyrics by Canadian Rock Gods Rush. The fact that people in Bloomington put together The Combine, SproutBox, Ignite! Bloomington, and (here comes the plug) Bloominglabs shows cool tech things can and do happen in Bloomington. Having a panel where people talk about things like houses being cheaper is more talk, less rock.

I have been thinking about it some more, and the reasons I like and live in Bloomington have very little to do with the cost of living. We had a house on a lake in Martinsville, IN that cost less than our current place, but I was happy to trade that for living in Bloomington. As I think about it some more, I love Bloomington because it's different from the surrounding area. A lot of people refer to it as an 'oasis', and though I don't use that cliche a lot, I have to admit my reasons for sticking around and loving the place have a lot more to do with Bloomington than the Midwest. Morton Marcus nailed it when he referred to 'communities with hardened intellectual arteries'.

So in the end, I think @lmcalpin and the man Morton Marcus are right. The cost-of-living difference, while really nice, is not enough in itself to draw people here. Further, I don't feel compelled to defend 'the Midwest', and I think cities are more important than states (and definitely regions) when one's deciding where to live.

'Cities' by The Talking Heads

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm Thankful

...I've been removed from all the 'Obama iz a seekrit Muslim' mass e-mail lists of relatives and colleagues

...I don't have to fly this Thanksgiving weekend and endure 'gate rape' of myself, my wife and my daughter daughter is so cute and funny dog is both affectionate and ridiculous wife is beautiful, supportive, and funny

...the people I spend the majority of my time with at work are cool

...I seem to have managed to change my running form so I can run w/ less pain

...BloomingLabs continues to be a source of fun and mental stimulation, and I've met cool people there

...I don't live in or commute to Indianapolis

...I have a life where my shitty PowerPoint skillz aren't a problem

...I've given up any pretense of knowing anythin about sports. This gets me out of a lot of really tedious conversations

...I left the 'dream team' cafeteria McLaughlin group to hash things out themselves, and go running at lunch instead daughter abruptly left the 'princess phase' when she turned 7 daughter has awesome Mario Kart skillz wife would never contemplate making a pumple cake or a turducken, except as a joke

...that 'Delocated' show

...I am 90% of the way to not using the word 'issue' instead of 'problem', god I hate when people do that

...that for that brief window in time Mountain Dew Throwback was available to tickle my innards, although 'tickle yore innards' is funnier, but there's not really a funny mispelling of 'my'

...I have more books than I'll ever be able to read

...I have more music than I'll ever be able to listen to

...I internalized Fugazi's 'you are not what you own' message, so I don't have to listen to Fugazi anymore because their mission was accomplished 'douchedar' seems to work pretty well

...Tom Scharpling came back from his hiatus

...Tom Scharpling has retired 'Do It!' as a show opener

...Superchunk released a really great album this year (not grateful they didn't make it here on their tour)

...I live in a country where I'm free to choose which burrito place I go to for lunch

...I won't see commercials on TV featuring smarmy white douchebags wanting me to vote for them for at least a year

...I got a $26 check as my '5 years of service' award

...I managed to put together this list without every item being '...I don't'

...'Comedy Death Ray' will continue to produce new episodes for the forseeable future

...I can stay up as late as I want, because I am a grown-ass man

...even though I can eat whatever I want because I'm a grown-ass man, but have the sense to not eat crap food all the time because I'm a grown-ass man, I still say fuck it and eat chicken wings sometimes because dammit they are delicious

...I live in a universe where people can get book deals based on Tweets

...none of our favorite 80s and 90s celebrities will ever have to get real jobs thanks to reality television and VH-1's 'Wasn't that Awesome?' shows.

...I am mostly resisting the new trend of ending every snippet of e-communication with an exclamation point!

...we don't have flying cars, because after you flew the car once or twice, you'd probably get over the novelty and just leave it in your garage from then on.

...Eddie Pepitone exists (and has a Twitter account)


Monday, November 22, 2010

Neologism Squatting: these words/phrases are mine

Oraclown: clowns who use Oracle. Also, consultants from Oracle.

I Googled this one, and I got a lot of results for a fish called an 'Ora Clown' (MySQL has the porpoise, now Oracle can have the Oraclown). I couldn't find anybody referring to Oracle-ites as Oraclowns, though. Surely somebody has thought of or used this?

Scooby Dieu: the dog god of France. This one is nonsense, but it makes a nice username perhaps. I couldn't find this on the Google, either.

Abbot and Skastello meet Skankenstein: the hacky 'ska band names are funny' joke to end all hacky 'ska band names are funny' jokes. I actually really wish a ska band would take this. There have been longer and more cumbersome band names: '...and you will know us by the Trail of Dead' and 'Scandal Featuring Patty Smythe' come immediately to mind.

That's it for now!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

'___ is like Jazz' No, it's not.

I recall reading one of those 'change or be killed' stories about a guy who got fired from his job (I believe it was a journalism type job). He asked his employer 'Why are you firing me? Aren't I doing a good job? I'm producing a lot!'. His employer answered 'You are great at what you do. The thing is, what you do is like Classical Music, and we need Jazz. We need somebody who can do Jazz.'

Myself, I have this undercurrent of fear of being told '...what you do is like Classical Music, but around here we're more about the Artificial Fart Under The Arm'.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

LoL news scrolling thingy

I recently attended the Mitch Altman/Jimmie Rodgers soldering workshop at Bloominglabs here in town. Both Jimmie and Mitch brought kits to sell, and I bought one of Altman's famous brain machines, and Jimmie's LoL Shield (lots of LEDs, lots of lights, lots of laffs) in the then brand-new extra bright blue.

Once I'd put it together I had to do something with it other than the test pattern and the game of life. There is a pretty nice implementation of Tetris for it - you can use a potentiometer as a paddle to move left and right, and a button to rotate it.

Anyhow, I wanted it to display scrolling messages, and not the hardcoded kind. To that end I first obtained this nice library: guyzmo's LoL shield dynamic banner. If you want to use it, you have to pull the other Charlieplexing.h and .cpp files out of your library files, b/c otherwise you'll have a conflict.

This pretty much reads whatever comes in via serial port over the USB cable connecting yr Arduino to yr computer, and then scrolls the message on the display. This could be adapted to be either wireless or over the internet. Go nuts.

W/ version 1 of this, I noticed weirdness with only getting the latter half of a string when a headline changed. After futzing around, it seemed to be due to a need to 're-init' on the change. So I changed this function in the LolGlyph.cpp file like so (there may be a better way to achieve this end):
void UpdateTextFromSerial() {
int i=0;
char c;
while (Serial.available() > 0 && i < 140) {
c =;
disp[i++] = c;
if (i != 0) {
disp_len = strlen(disp)*6;
disp[i] = '\0';

ScrollLeft_setup(); // this is what I added - SDC


Aside from this, I use the dispfont.pde file in guyzmo's code pretty much as is.

On the computer side, I used the New York Times API, because it's a nice API. If the New York Times is too liberal for you, there are many other ways you could get headlines: scrape RSS feeds, use a different API, whatever.

This piece is really simple. It's in Python, so obviously you will need that.

First file is for grabbing the headlines (

Second file uses the first and communicates w/ the Arduino via pySerial. You may have to install pySerial. It's been a while.

Have fun, and this stuff falls under the WTFPL (as does the original), so do whatever the fuck you want with it.

Here's the exciting git-hub location for this. No guarantees or warantees are explicit or implied. Or however that goes.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Steam-powered cars with the gardens in the back

Some people were arguing on Twitter as to the sucks vs. rules category Steely Dan belong to, and one of the debaters linked to this essay from Donald Fagen about Science Fiction's impact on his youth: The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi.

That Fagen was a sci-fi guy in his youth is not exactly a shocking revelation, especially those who've heard his 1993 solo album Kamakiriad. Leaving behind Steely Dan topics like washed-up drug dealers ('Kid Charlemagne'), old pervs showing dirty movies to kids ('Everyone's Gone To The Movies'), not going back to your old school ('My Old School'), doin' it with the Fez on ('The Fez'), and whatever 'Aja' is about, this album was a concept album, and the story here was that Donald was going on a road trip in his futuristic car, 'The Kamakiri', steam-powered and featuring a garden inside the car. It also had a link to the 'Tripstar' satellite.

It seemed a bit ridiculous at the time, but here it was, 1993, and Donald Fagen anticipated XM radio and steam-punk, as well as the Locavore movement (no shitty road food for Fagen - and nothing's more local than the back of your car).

It was a fun and silly album, with that usual Steely Dan slickness to it, but perhaps overboard with the lightness. The album was lighter and more fragile than balsa wood. From yacht rock to balsa rock. Sadly, the Kamakiri was not to be, although my Prius is not too shabby.

The man himself.

This was hardly the first sci-fi concept album. 1990's 'Sex Packets' from Digital Underground (known today for their wonderful one hit 'The Humpty Dance') was supposedly inspired by a project at NASA to help astronauts who have been in space a long time without doing it. The 'Sex Packets' contained pills which, when taken, would give the astronaut a very realistic wet dream, featuring the girl or girls featured on the packet. The packet could presumably also feature dudes, but the lyrics were very andro and hetero centric.

As William Gibson tells us, 'the street finds its own uses for technology'. Somehow the packets ended up in the hands of drug dealers who sold them to eager fiends.

In this case, the concept doesn't run through the whole album - it really only appears in songs 10-14, most notably 'Packet Man'. Aside from those songs, the album is pretty much all party fun time (Doo Whutcha Like, Humpty Dance), with the legendarily pornographic 'Freaks Of The Industry' thrown in. It's broken down track for track in the book 'Check The Technique', for the curious.

Another hip-hop sci-fi concept album of note is The Infesticons' 1999 album Gun Hill Road. The Infesticons were actually Mike Ladd and many of his underground hip-hop friends, including El-P from Company Flow, the guys from Anti-Pop Consortium, and others. The opening track lays out the story: In the late 80's Poof Na Na convinces his smart friend in high school to build him a set of robots which could turn the Five Boroughs into a 'jiggy man's paradise'. The robots end up stowed and forgotten in his mom's basement, until she discovers them in 2000 and turns them on.

This album really deserves a post of its own - the lyrics are brilliant and it's one of my favorite things ever - I actually get mad when I see it in the used CD bin. Who let this go?

The list of such albums is too long for a low attention span blog post, but of course Dan The Automator's contributions must be mentioned (Dr. Octagon, Deltron 3030). Billy Idol's 'Cyberpunk' serves as a horrible warning as to the dangers of taking on this genre, although Billy was pretty prescient putting his email address on the album cover way before anybody who wasn't a college student or an engineer had email. The sci-fi concept album is still alive and well, most recently represented by Janelle Monae's The Archandroid (Suites II and III, Op. 67, P.O. Box 91978) and nerd-core hip hop is doing more to keep it alive than anyone. As nerds continue to dominate the world and pop culture, there's no sign that it will go away anytime soon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

'I had always heard that building a word processor is one of the hardest things you can ever do as a software engineer.'

So says this guy.

That is probably a good test of a person's aptitude toward software engineering. If you can somehow look past the crushing and pointless dullness of developing yet another word processor and instead groove on the intrinsic challenge of the task, clearly you've found your spot in the world.

Increasingly I am more and more interested in having some kind of concrete (useful or fun) end result, which is why I've gravitated toward the hackerspace world of late.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Second Quarter Report

At the beginning of the year I did a brief post about what seemed like good goals for 2010. This is something lots of people do. I am doing New Year's Resolutions wrong, though, because I followed up 3 months later, and am back to do it again 6 months later. This is turning into the 7up of self-absorbed blogging. Here we go now...

1) Get out of the I.T. ghetto

As mentioned in our last entry, this has been revised a bit. Inspired by actors who take on really shitty movies and TV shows to finance their theater projects, I was motivated to go out and find fun and interesting things to do around town, stuffing my day job into the 'get paid so you can do fun things that don't pay' box . One fun thing has been being part of Bloomington's new hackerspace. We're just about to decide on an official name, which means great t-shirts are not far behind, and we're doing a series of workshops all through July. So essentially, I'm working to live, not living to work, and that's OK.

Additionally, my least favorite person at work quit a few weeks ago, so that's one of those little gifts life gives you sometimes.

2) Write more

This is a big failure. I don't think I've ever written less in my life than I have this year. I do post on Twitter several hundred times a day, and have started a PLOG (personal log - something that's electronic but locked away and private) that I write in every morning. Usually, though, these are one or two sentence blurbs.

3) Find someplace other than Soma to hang out

Actually I think the hangout of choice now is going to be the hackerspace. Since I don't spend much time writing or pretending to do so, I am not spending much time at coffee shops.

4) Go to Disney World

As before, we did this one in March.

5) Learn more about electronics

The hackerspace thing went a long way toward helping me out here. I have learned about OpAmps recently, which are very useful since a lot of times with sensors and such you have a weak signal that you need to boost.

6) Call in to The Best Show on WFMU.

I did actually achieve this goal, although my debut was not what I hoped it might be. A couple weeks ago I called while Paul F. Tompkins and Wally Wackiman were on, which was probably not the best time to make a first call. I made it past call screener Mike, then waited on hold for a couple of minutes.

I noticed while on hold I could barely make out what people were saying. I'm not sure if this was due to nerves, or my phone, or the line. When I got on I did the 'is this me?' rookie mistake. After getting my bearings I suggested Wally (a puppet) make corporate training movies like the Muppets did for IBM before they got famous. Tom and Wally started riffing on that, but again, I couldn't really hear what they were saying, so then eventually I got an opening to talk again and said 'hey you can do this, I bet you get a call from Jiffy Lube tomorrow', or something similarly lame, and Tom said 'I'm not going on this guy's flight of fancy' and hung up.

Actually it was kind of funny, getting hung up on, but the whole thing was very nerve wracking and essentially I turfed out. I may try it again, but will try to actually focus on what's being said, which will probably help a lot.

7) learn to 'hover' on the unicycle.

I don't know about this one. I think I just felt like I had to add more to the list.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

This Book About the Atari 2600 Reminds Us That Programming These Days is Really Candy Ass

I recently read 'Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System'. The book introduces a new field: 'platform studies', which sounds academic and dry, but if you are a technical person, what it is is a nice break from the told and re-told video game mythology those of us who came up in the era of classic video games (roughly the late 70's to the '83 crash) have heard and re-heard: the Pong coin box overflowing, the pizza with a slice missing as Iwatani's inspiration for Pac-Man the truckloads of the hated 'ET: The Extra Terrestrial' cartridges being dumped in a pit in Alamogordo, New Mexico which was then paved over.

Today's programmers, whose 'hello world' programs written in Java require the memory of millions of early 80s Sears Department Stores' Electronic sections full of VCSs have heard stories of the amazing programming feats in the days of old. The Atari 2600 (code name: Stella) featured a whopping 128 bytes of RAM. Not 128M. Not 128K. 128 bytes. You can't even fit a whole Twitter Tweet in there.

'Racing the Beam' gets into the gory details of the platform's design. Of particular interest is the TIA (television interface adapter). Screens were drawn line-by-line (with 192 vertical scan lines), and horizontally the screen was divided into 'color clocks'. 'Racing the beam' refers to the need for code to do all the necessary calculations in these tight time constraints.

Aside from the memory and time constraints, the games were mostly built under tight personnel (usually one person per game) and schedule constraints (although in the chapter about the game 'Adventure', we learn that after a very intense month of prototyping (and essentially laying the groundwork for a whole genre of games), Warren Robinett had to take a month-long vacation to let his brain recover).

How Deep Does It Get?

As I mentioned before, the book does cover the architecture of the system in a block diagram sort of way. While there are no extensive code listings, the chapter on Combat gives a high-level overview of the program's structure and discusses the building blocks for game graphics: 2 hardware sprites, two 'missiles', a 'ball', and a playfied (by default, this was symmetric, so the field could be specified in half the space it would otherwise take).

Brave souls who want to dive deep into Atari 2600 programming can do so now that we have the internet. See the complete disassembly of the Combat code by Nick Bensema and Roger Williams. This is at first horrifying, but after the initial fear I was struck by the thought that this was the product of a single mind, in contrast to the 'product of many minds of varying levels of skill and levels of giving a shit' nature of enterprise software, which can end up being horrifying in its own right, no matter how many new programming wonder-fads and tools are thrown at it.

For all their heroics, the programmers of the Atari 2600 had their share of shame. Tod Frye got some big royalty checks for his 2600 version of Pac Man. He posted them on his office door: whether this was because of social ineptitude or just being an asshole will be debated by platform studies scholars for years. Unfortunately, the game was horrible, as those of us who owned it and played it 3 or 4 times recall. Millions returned the cartridge, other people, like me, just never played it again. I should note that this book does a pretty good job describing the technical reasons the game sucked so bad.

So what is it? Academics? Nostalgia? Geexploitation?

I mentioned at the start of this post how a lot of us have heard the stories of the classic video game era many times. Really great stories stand up to retellings and help pass them along to new generations, who may or may not care. This book does provide a freshness by looking at the 2600 from a technical as well as cultural, historical, and business perspectives. I'd like to read similar books about other great machines of the era, both game machines like the NES and early home computers like the Commodore 64 or the legendary Apple ][. With Maker culture getting people interested in working within the tight constraints of PIC and AVR microcontrollers and the Arduino platform, there's even a practical benefit to looking back at techniques that today's web monkey will have little or no use for.

I'd recommend the book to anybody who loved the Atari 2600 but doesn't want to just take another nostalgia trip down memory lane, or anybody who wants to know how grandpa wrote programs back in the old days.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Not quite destroying Jah work: the least offensive attempts at reggae by non-Jamaicans

Reggae is not for everyone. Unfortunately, over the years it has become associated with dorm room stoners and the likes of Ras Trent of 'Are You There Jah, It's me Ras Trent' fame.

It doesn't really help that people unfamiliar with Jamaican patois only catch a few words and phrases ('Babylon', 'sensimilla', 'Jah', 'Selassie', 'I and I', 'mon', 'ting') and decide that reggae lyrics are written by putting these words in a hat and pulling them out at random.

If those misunderstandings of reggae weren't bad enough, 'reimaginations' of reggae by the likes of Eric Clapton (I Shot The Sheriff) and Guns'n'Roses (Knockin' On Heaven's Door) just rub salt into the wounds.

Reggae is music that took a round-trip from the U.S. to Jamaica and back. Jamaican musicians playing their versions of R&B and 60s pop heard on cheap radios created reggae, and then people like DJ Kool Herc took the sounds and ideas of dub and sound systems to New York City, and hip hop evolved out of that. The Selector became the Hip Hop DJ, and the Reggae DJ became the Hip Hop MC. Remix culture and many genres of electronic music have obvious roots in dub.

This is not a history lesson, though. Instead, let's look at some rare occasions of reggae songs by non reggae artists that weren't complete abominations.

Clash - Police and Thieves

As the Don Letts' 'Punk Rock Movie' showed us, reggae is what punk bands listened to when they were off the clock. I loved the 'sparse instrumental reggae' the Clash played while riding in their bus. Later I'd find out it was actually dub.

The Clash took a stab at a classic reggae track on their debut album. Singer Junior Murvin's reaction to hearing the song was "They have destroyed Jah work!", but as well-meaning attempts at reggae by punk bands go, it's the best.

Police - Walking on the Moon

Sting, who used to be cool once, recorded what you could call bubblegum reggae during the early days of The Police. Sting says Miles Davis collaborator and jazz great Gil Evans once told him he loved the bass line to this song. It's simple but effective, and the lyrics go well with the lightweight music.

Sublime - Santeria

This one's more recent. They get points for talking about a different fringe religion than Rastafarianism here. Unfortunately, taking different drugs than marijuana didn't work out so well for them.

Rush - Vital Signs

Rush is hated by a lot of people who don't understand Rush and are idiots. Back when the band Queen put reactionary 'no synthesizers' labels on their albums, Rush took on the challenge of incorporating them into their sound. They've never shied away from alienating people. This song is the last track on 'Moving Pictures', and it sounds nothing like the rest of the album ('Tom Sawyer', 'Red Barchetta', 'Limelight'). It probably confused a lot of the people who said 'fuck yeah!' when they saw the 'no synthesizers!' label, which is great.

Paul Simon - 'Mother and Child Reunion'

This 1972 song features Jimmy Cliff's backing band, so musically it's the most authentic of the bunch. It's tempting to dismiss this as some form of cultural thievery the way some people dismissed Simon's use of South African musicians and styles on the 'Graceland' album, but whatever the case, it is a great song.

The Orb - 'Towers Of Dub'

Early 90s pranksters and plagiarizers The Orb always had a sense of humor that was welcome in a genre filled with people taking themselves too seriously. This song, with the prank call at the beginning ('If you see Haile Selassie, tell him that Marcus Garvey called, and I'll meet him in Babylon and ting'), the dog barks echoing off to infinity, and the floor-shaking bass line from Jah Wobble, manages to goof on dub and pay tribute at the same time. The Orb kid because they love.

Conclusion: check out 'King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown'.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Wall Street Douchebags are ready to tear up Main Street

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 has really led to an explosion in chain e-mails, one that might suggest the wise investor buy stocks in a company like Cisco whose products are part of the infrastructure of the Internet that keeps our inboxes stuffed with gems about 'Obama is a Secret Muslim, the Angel Of Death Is Nigh', or 'Obamacare mandates taking over kids' summer camps to turn them into death camps for Grandmas', or 'ACORN is going to take your gun and give it to a Mexican with syphilis'.

In this tradition, we have the hate mail (this article refers to it as an 'Angry Class-Warfare Email') from an anonymous trader who is NOT going to be made a scapegoat for the economic meltdown.

Some excerpts:

'Go ahead and continue to take us down, but you're only going to hurt yourselves. What's going to happen when we can't find jobs on the Street anymore? Guess what: We're going to take yours. We get up at 5am & work till 10pm or later. We're used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don't take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don't demand a union. We don't retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill, and when the only thing left to eat is on your dinner plates, we'll eat that.'

This is pretty funny, because around the time of the election, these Libertarian triumph-of-the-will masters of the Universe were threatening to 'go Galt', and withhold their God-given talents from an ungrateful society. Anybody who actually heard this bullshit or bothered to pay attention to it laughed with scorn and derision. 'Oh dear! Who will package toxic loans into opaque instruments to sell to suckers? Whatever will those of us without the Right Stuff for Wall Street do?'

Having been deservedly ignored, now the traders threaten to take our jobs and get up at 5am and work until 10pm or later when most of the people who currently hold these positions can take care of business in 40 hour/week time frames. Of course, management will notice the ex-traders' amazing powers of bladder control when he is able to stay in tedious meetings about new HR policies for hours without demanding a bio break, and he'll end up on top and dominate THE FUCK out of the office supply business in the tri-state area!

Having shorter work hours might mean the trader will have more time to spend with his family, assuming he has one. I am sure he will then parent the shit out of his kids and take the rest of us parents to school. Parenting is, of course, an easy job for women and Nancy-boys, he will tell us.

Which segues nicely into...

'For years teachers and other unionized labor have had us fooled. We were too busy working to notice. Do you really think that we are incapable of teaching 3rd graders and doing landscaping? We're going to take your cushy jobs with tenure and 4 months off a year and whine just like you that we are so-o-o-o underpaid for building the youth of America.'
I'm sure writing this stuff was cathartic for the guy, but a better forum may have been a personal journal. To be fair, writing this post was fun, too. It's possible the letter is even a hoax, but it touches a nerve because there are most definitely people with attitudes like this out there. I sometimes have to talk to and pretend to not be disgusted by some of them. I've seen them in the wild.

For now, I can say with complete confidence that on my things to worry about list, Joe Douchebag here doesn't even rate an honorable mention. Try harder, Joe. Looks like you're going to have to get up earlier than 5am and work later than 10pm at scaring me.


A fun smackdown at Wonkette

At Salon: Wall Street Rage

At the Daily Bail: a response to the email, perhaps, in cardboard sign form

Friday, April 30, 2010

Creation Science and Robotics: A match made in heaven, BY GOD!

I have been wondering recently whether there is a lot of robotics research happening in the world of Creation Science. It seems like a really good fit. If there are answers in Genesis, surely one of them is the answer to the question: how do you make an autonomous entity that will do your dirty work for you (naming all the animals, that sort of thing)? Surely Creation Scientists are not, as their critics claim, merely working backwards from what they've already decided is the truth and trying to arrange cherry-picked scraps of evidence to fit it.

Also, I think we've all seen the list of 500 people who have taken science classes who subscribe to creation science. Robotics is very high on the list of cool and fun science, so surely at LEAST one or two of these people have devoted their lives to emulating God by doing some of their own creating.

Unfortunately, after I downloaded the list from the Dissent From Darwin site, a search for 'robot' or even 'robo' came up with nothing.

Google was kind of my friend in this search. I found a reference to an Ian Juby, the owner of Canada's first Creation Museum (oh, Canada...). Ian is 'a robotics engineer by trade'.

Unfortunately, the trail ran cold on further digging. I was curious to see where Juby had studied, what papers he'd published, or even just messages he'd posted to robotics forums to help enthusiastic newbies out. All I could find was this one. It sounds pretty robotic-y, but you'd think he'd have been a little more active there, or, really anywhere.

Degreewise, I found that 'Ian received a college Diploma in Robotics Engineering from Canadore College, North Bay, Ontario, Canada, in 1989.'

Essentially, all I could find about Ian's career was this quote, from his own site:
The robot itself (remember, I'm a robotics engineer by trade; I know how much intelligence is involved in designing even a simple robot!) requires incredible and precise engineering, design, and intelligence.
Pretty much true, although my daughter and I have done OK with our Lego NXT kit (speaking of which, a kid at Falwell's Liberty University wrote a book about the NXT that's pretty good. Maybe one day he will be the big star of Creation Robotics).

I did considerable digging, and I couldn't really find anything to rank him higher in the robotics community than the cool guy who builds robots at hackerspace and in his basement. That guy will tell you that he is a pharmacist by trade, and it's true, but as a roboticist he is no slouch, not at all.

I may ping Ian and see if he can refer me to some info about his work in the field. Maybe he can do an interview with the people with the people at the Robots Podcast. I really don't want to give up on the idea of a rich and thriving robotics sub-branch of Creation Science, not yet anyway.

And Ian, if you're reading this, I just want to tell you it's OK if you're not a roboticist even though you studied it in school. I was a mathematician back in my school days. I loved math and really immersed myself in it, but today I'm the mathematical version of the guy who was a high school football star 20 years ago, but now gets winded going to the fridge to get a beer. I suppose I could call myself a mathematician, but I'd be lying to myself, and the world. I'd set myself up for all manner of ridicule and pity. Life took a different turn, and that's fine.

Friday, April 23, 2010

More About The Wit of the Staircase

It turns out the French phrase for thinking of something clever too late to use it is 'L’esprit de l’escalier or esprit d'escalier (staircase wit)'.

A classic example of this in popular culture is the Seinfeld episode where George wracks his brains thinking up a riposte to a co-worker's 'the ocean called, they're running out of shrimp', and all he can come up with is 'oh yeah? Well the jerk store called, and they're running out of YOU'.

If the French sounds too pompous for you, or, as in my case, you're not sure how to pronounce it, Wikipedia provides German and Yiddish options:
The German word Treppenwitz and the Yiddish word trepverter are used to express the same idea.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

If You Have a Racist Friend...

Back when I was cycling through all the music subcultures of the past 50 years and I was on the ska chapter (2-Tone ska, not the Don Drummond/Skatalites 60s ska - yet), I of course loved The Specials. I still like The Specials a lot, they're just not in the kind of heavy rotation they were 20 years ago.

They had this song called 'Racist Friend':
If you have a racist friend
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end

Be it your sister
Be it your brother
Be it your cousin or your, uncle or your lover
This was a tall order. I had a racist mentor (about whom more later), and at least a couple racist relatives. I also had friends and acquaintances and classmates and room-mates that were decidedly racist. I felt like the song was giving me a hard time for not having the balls to give every last one of these people the heave-ho.

It really got under my skin because it called my attention to a weakness I sometimes have when it comes to people saying or doing hateful shit. At some point you have to say shut the fuck up, or at least I have no interest in your theories about how Mexicans are destroying the country, and if that doesn't work, not doing business with the person anymore is probably the best course of action.

Easier said than done.

(yes, embedding disabled by request. just click thru, don't be lazy)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Internet: How do I work this?

"Bragging that you're not a blogger is like bragging that you're slow and stupid and probably don't know how to use the Internet that well."
-Jake Dobkin of

This was something I heard on a not so recent episode of WFMU's Too Much Information, the DEAD MEDIA episode. I'm kind of slow (ouch) in mentioning it, but I agree with the sentiment.

On the other side of the news (although it's not really an opposition viewpoint, more a complementary one), we have this celebration of the joy of reading text on paper : You Can't Wrap A Fish In an iPad

..but you can tune a piano. I got nothin'. Carry on with your day now.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

1st Quarter Report: 2010

Previously, I wrote about things I hope to do in 2010.

Now that Q1 of 2010 is over, let's see how I'm doing.

1) Get out of the I.T. ghetto

Pretty much no motion at all on this one. My job continues to be a pointless exercise in futility at a joyless hole (new nickname for my workplace, but if you own a bar in a shitty part of town feel free to use that name), but at least on the 'abandoning your hopes and dreams' scale, it's a couple steps less bad than being a crack addict with hepatitis C.

As far as this goes, my prediction is eventually I'll just get fired and then pursue a much more fulfilling second career. See? I'm an optimist! Stay tuned for updates.

2) Write more

This one started out well, but I fell back into my old not writing ways quickly. I did spend an amazingly long time writing and rehearsing what ended up being a 5-minute presentation for Ignite Bloomington 2 (on the Arduino), and that was really a great exercise in cutting out bullshit and general minimalism (although watch me now, all kinds of superfluous verbiage in this entry). Now that that's over perhaps I can channel the creative energy into less concise writing.

3) Find someplace other than Soma to hang out

Big success here. I was lured into Scholar's Inn Bakehouse on the square by their Twitter account ('free Euros with any purchase!'), and was reminded that in contrast to Soma's basement atmosphere, there's a lot of light and some nice outdoor tables at the Bakehouse, which makes it an ideal springtime hangout. There are comfortable chairs in the back, but they're almost always occupied. The coffee is good, and of course there are the baked goods, too. So I will at the very least add this place to the hang out circuit.

4) Go to Disney World

Done! We went the week of St. Patrick's Day for 3 exhausting days. I got up before 6 every day, which is unheard of for me except for race days. It was actually a lot of fun, and my daughter loved it, so again, big success on this one.

5) Learn More about Electronics

I have been going to the hackerspace meetings and doing more reading, particularly 'Practical Arduino' recently. I need to talk to the super-experienced electronics master there more, though. He was talking about he was going to teach us all about OpAmps but it hasn't happened yet.

6) Call in to the Best Show on WFMU

This one hasn't happened. I have a bad case of 'the wit of the staircase' (le wit l'escalier, I think) w/ the Best Show. I will listen, and then afterwards think 'oh! I should have called in with this story'. Maybe I'll pull it together on this one.

7) Learn to 'hover' on the unicycle

No progress here, although until a couple weeks ago, conditions for unicycling were hardly ideal.

Yours in the pursuit of better living,


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

And Jobs came down from the mountain: some analysts hype the iPad

Lest anyone think age and recent health struggles have in any way attenuated Steve Jobs' famous reality distortion field, check out this quote from this article over on ReadWriteWeb:

Mike Abramsky, RBC Capital Markets:
"With iPad, Apple creates a revolutionary e-reading, browsing, media, gaming experience. Newspapers, Web pages, books 'come alive' with video, animation, color and fullscreen touch." And as for the mixed reaction in the tech community? "Not everyone initially liked the Ten Commandments either -- but they endured." (Source: AppleInsider)
The 10 commandments? Really? Personally I would buy Woz as a Moses figure before I'd buy Jobs in that role. Although on the other hand, it's easy to see Jobs raining down plagues of locusts and turning the water to blood and all of that.

And what's not to like about the 10 Commandments? It's the other laws that make you give up pork and shellfish and not wear cotton/polyester blends that are kind of a drag. If I remember the Bible correctly, mainly it was wandering around in the desert for 40 years that really pissed people off, not the 10 Commandments.

Finally, the 10 Commandments took up 2 tablets. The iPad is only one, although with the touch interface paging through the 10 commandments will be a breeze. The iPad will make the 10 Commandments 'come alive' like Peter Frampton.

Thank you, Moses, I mean Steve Jobs, I mean all the engineers at Apple that worked themselves to death actually designing and creating this.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Freshner!

I have gone on sometimes about the tedium and monotony of my life and job here. That's because this is a blog. Also, under all the griping and kvetching there was hope and optimism, mainly hope and optimism that I wouldn't spend the rest of my life answering calls and emails from mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging idiots incapable of figuring out the simplest things on their own.

I did finally get my wish, and already my life is nothing like it was a year ago. Not only that, I didn't make some lame-ass incremental move, like from a guy who fields moronic questions about databases to a guy who fields soul-crushingly stupid questions about websites. It was something completely unexpected, which was wonderful in a way.

It started one morning when I grabbed my coat and gym bag from the laundry room in the usual daily struggle to get out of the house on time. I didn't really notice it until I got in the car, but there was an overpowering smell, like a very strong chemical banana smell. I had no idea what was going on, but I think one of those plug-in air-fresheners had accidentally exploded all over my coat. It made me woozy and I rolled down the car windows in the sub-zero temperatures.

That didn't really help, and the fumes killed a lot of my brain cells, zapping away a lot of the higher functions that had been lying dormant for years anyway. It was kind of like a Terry Schiavo moment for my intellect. I am sort of sorry not to be able to think about the kind of complex things I never really got to think about at my former job anymore, but now I have a higher purpose.

I had several lost weeks, wandering on the streets in a semi-conscious air-freshening state. I really made the crackhouse I hung out in at my lowest point a lot more livable. Kids on the street started calling me 'The Freshner'. 'He's so Fresh, He's the Freshner, Fresher than the man Hans Messner'. I think they were making fun of me, but they gave up and left me alone because there aren't really any good rhymes for 'Freshner'.

I moved on from the crack house, because my work there was done. I taught the residents a valuable lesson about taking pride in your dwelling space, so that the freshness would live on long after the crack they were smoking there neutralized the effects of my fumes.

My next home was the public library. An elderly librarian noticed my talents and took me under his wing. He told me I had a gift, and I had a responsibility to use this gift to benefit humanity and fight evil, or at least musty dank or generally unpleasant smells. He would also touch me a lot more than I was really comfortable with.

Around this time I was tracked down by my former employer. They called me and laid the sob story on me. They were too cheap to pay anybody anything near the market rate to do my old job. They begged me to come back, ignoring my inability to construct full and grammatically correct sentences and my tendency to space out for a minute or two at random times in the conversation. They were so desperate that I felt sorry for them and agreed to a meeting.

This was a really stupid move, but as I said before, the same chemicals which gave me my new found freshening powers also really fucked up my brain.

Sometimes when a person comes home from a long vacation, they notice the smell of their house, which they are unaware of while living there day after day. This can be disturbing when a strange smell makes itself known. This is exactly what happened when I walked into my old place of employment after being away for so long. When I met with my old colleagues the odor was even more pronounced, and I recognized it as the funk of desperation and failure. I knew what I had to do: I would hide under the conference room table while they conducted interviews. This damning smell would be masked, and candidates would not be scared away. I was NOT going to come back to work for them, though. Not even part time. I'd seen people do that and get suckered into going back to full time gradually.

This plan was successful, and after a handful of interviews a replacement had been found. I had saved the day. Of course, he would pretty much figure out on his own what a horrible mistake he had made in time, but as John Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we're all dead, so cut me a break. As I walked out, never to return, people who had paid me no notice for years asked each other 'who was that man who smells like one of those Renuzit things?' 'Let's call him 'The Freshner!' 'That's a good name for him!'

I am sure there's a question in everyone's mind right now: how am I making any money doing all this? Well, as with social media experts and Internet gurus, I don't actually make any money doing this, I make all my money as a motivational speaker. The freshening activities are brand-building efforts. In these days having your own personal micro-brand is very important.

Next time: The Freshner! negotiates an end to years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and solves NBC's even more intractable 'Leno problem'.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby, is no longer with us

As a kid, my entry point into the Gumby world was via Eddie Murphy's portrayal of Gumby as an aging, bitter show business hack. I was too young to catch the original Gumby show on TV as a kid. Later I rented some videos of the best of Gumby, and I very much enjoyed the claymation and rich imagination of Art Clokey, Gumby's creator. The real Gumby was nothing like the bitter jerk on Saturday Night Live. He was a cute and curious character, loyal to his pony pal Pokey.

Since then I have been a big fan of animation in general, including claymation. While I do love Pixar movies that are made by teams of hundreds using the latest technology, I have a soft spot for animation that seems to be the product of one or perhaps a few imaginative minds, like Gumby or Wallace and Gromit. The relative simplicity and the more down to earth nature of these cartoons has a special charm not found in bigger productions.

Just 2 days ago I was reading an interview with Clokey in a compilation of the writing and comics in WFMU's 'LCD'. Although Clokey was involved with the preachy and much lampooned (see 'Moral Orel') Christian cartoon Davy and Goliath, the man was in fact very open minded:
LCD: We talked a little bit before about if you used psychadelic drugs.

AC: From 1955 through 1966-67, I didn't touch the stuff. Then I got caught up with the Flower Children in San Francisco. I met Alan Watts - we smoked hash together in Japan!

LCD: Did you think that the drug experience would open up your creative powers in some way?

AC: I think it probably loosened up and broadened my imaginative inclinations. Actually, it made me more interested in how Gumby acted, how he acted toward other people.
Gumby also inspired the collective PaperRad, who have done their own Gumby cartoons, and no doubt many of the creators of claymation and animation in general of the last 40 years were inspired in some way by Clokey.

The day after reading the interview with Clokey, I read a post in the Cartoon Brew blog informing readers that Clokey had passed away at 89. While he led about as long a life as any of us can hope for, and was recognized for his talents and skills, as we all hope we will be, I'm still sad to hear about his passing. RIP, Mr. Clokey, and thanks.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

I broke the joke, baybee!

I haven't mentioned it explicitly, but I'm sure some readers have detected the influence of Bob Zany in my posts. You can find his website, a clever parody of late 90s web design, here. Bob is something of a trailblazer, with his 'fix the joke, baybee' being a good example of pre-Twitter and social media crowdsourcing.

This inspired today's feature, 'I broke the joke, baybee!' You readers at home can play along after these examples to get you inspired.

Q: Which way to Carnegie Hall?
A: Practice

My wife, for example...please.

A guy asked me if I wanted a frozen banana. I said sure, but I'm not going to eat it until it thaws out.

A horse walks into a bar. The bartender asks: 'why so glum, chum?'

I would not belong to a club that didn't have me as a member.

Get the idea? Post your broken jokes in the comments!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Free and Worth Every Penny: 'What Matters Now' by Seth Godin

People need help. I know I often do. Lots of us are stuck in schlubby jobs, wage slaves to the man. While we can find some consolation in knowing we are not alone (a report from the Conference Board research group tells us only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their work, and only 51% find their jobs interesting), or can lose ourselves in youTube/Facebook/Twitter reveries of low-to-no productivity, we can also strive and aspire to something greater.

Online personalities like Gary 'Cash in on your Passion' Vaynerchuck and Guy 'I worked on the Mac team in the 80s' Kawasaki, blessed with some sort of genetic high-energy levels and delusional unchecked optimism are out there inspiring us, and thanks to the Internet access most of us have at our shitty jobs, it is easier for these guys to get their messages out than ever.

Seth Godin, motivational speaker, internet personality, and writer of lots of books, recently released the book 'What Matters Now', and it's free! I downloaded it myself, because I am always keen to find free stuff to put on my Kindle.

The book consists of 200-word essays about 'big ideas', so we're already in oxymoron territory right out of the gate. I don't care how your Twitter-Fu is, really great ideas can not be crammed into 200 words. Sometimes a 200 word bite will pique your interest and inspire you to dig further, but most of the essays are about single words (Enough. Productivity. Focus.) It is unlikely somebody is going to get on Amazon and start shopping for 'Focus' books.

There are many hotshots and celebrities of the inspirational/self-help/internet world within: both Vaynerchuck (THNX) and Kawasaki (Evangelism), and even good ole Tom 'In Search of Excellence' Peters (his essay is on Excellence, and every third character is an exclamation point! It's annoying! I get it! You! sound! like! a! fucking! Henry! Rollins! SONG!!!! AAUUUUGGGHHHHHHHH!), and many more. I was somewhat surprised that there's no essay from Oprah, but she is mentioned twice.

Ultimately the book comes off like a lot of feel-good 'Chicken Soup For The Short-Attention Spanned Soul' empty calorie bullshit. I felt like Seth was sharing something personal with me, specifically, he was showing me his high school yearbook and pointing out all the cool and popular people who signed it and wrote cool things in it.

I suppose I shouldn't be so negative and am only hurting myself with my curmudgeonly ways. Actually and sincerely I'm happy all these people have been successful and gotten rich and made it happen for themselves. But as surely as they didn't get rich by writing a lot of checks, most of them got rich by working, not by writing empty fake bullshit, and probably not by reading really vapid value-free garbage, either.

As far as free books go, I like the book of Elric stories Amazon was giving away a few weeks ago a lot better. Believe it or not, when Elric says 'Arioch! My Lord! I give you blood and souls!' it is somehow less corny than every single essay in 'What Matters Now'.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Things I need to do in 2010

Here's the beginning of the year post most of you have probably not even started to read, being as you are a bit burned out by 'end of year' and 'end of decade' retrospectives. If you missed those, the consensus seems to be that the 00's really sucked, although I completely disagree as my daughter was born in the last decade, and this was a decidedly good thing.

New Year's resolutions are somewhat trite and often fail, but there's nothing wrong with the idea of assessing oneself and trying to better yourself in general, so here goes...

1) Get out of the I.T. ghetto

This one is my 'get in shape', the resolution I've made pretty much every year since 1999. Usually all I accomplish is pissing off people in IT who actually enjoy devoting their lives to installing and then upgrading software written by other people, people who may or may not have had serious substance abuse and personality problems when they wrote said software. There is no shortage of really interesting things in the world, and eventually most people get shoved out of IT as they age whether they want that or not, so I'm as hopeful as ever that this will be my year as far as this resolution goes.

2) Write more

I don't think writing is my ticket out of the IT ghetto. It is something I do genuinely enjoy doing when I can motivate myself to do it, so I believe this would be a worthy goal. There's also that whole thing that even if 95% of everything is crap, 5% of 200 posts is twice as much non-crap as 5% of 100 posts. I found this post from 'The Last Psychiatrist' (one of the better blogs I've discovered in the past year) particularly inspiring.

3) Find someplace other than Soma to hang out

I did manage to get a lot of the writing I actually did in 2009 there, and I witnessed or overheard things said by hipsters and/or douchebags that made for some nice tweets there. A couple of days ago I had a really great cappuccino there in a huge bowl of a coffee cup that made me regret and feel embarrassed that I'd ever had a cappuccino in a cardboard cup with a plastic lid on it. I have nothing against the place, it's just that I need to shake up the routine a bit and see if there are other spaces in town which are not geared toward getting some money out of me and then shoving me out the door so more people can come in and spend money.

4) Go to Disney World

I am not a 'Cats in The Cradle' dad. I spend a lot of time with my daughter and enjoy it and appreciate that such time is finite, but on that note, she's not going to be a little kid forever and is probably at prime Disney World age this year.

5) Learn more about electronics

I've had a lot of fun playing with my Arduino last year, but while my programming knowledge is reasonably good, I'm not so strong on the hardware and electronics side.

6) Call in to The Best Show on WFMU.

I need to face my fear of the heave-ho. Also I think Tom is looking for some new blood, so it's a prime time to be a new caller.

7) learn to 'hover' on the unicycle.

I think that's what it calls when you stay in one place. I'm good if I keep moving, but as with the other items, here's another plateau I need to get over.