Thursday, June 09, 2011

I'm the guy who

When I used to run religiously, which if you read my blog you know I used to do, anytime I met a new person in my neighborhood, they'd recognize me and say 'you're the guy who's always running'. I could have been insulted by being reduced from the complex human being with thoughts and feelings and stuff to a guy running the 1.8 mile loop around our neighborhood non-stop like a character in an arcade console's 'attract mode' sequence, but I was OK with it. I kind of liked it. At the time I was always worried I wasn't running enough, but here were people who thought I didn't do anything but run. It really encouraged self-delusions of adequacy.

Most of us, if we're lucky to make enough of an impression on a person that they remember us, are remembered for one or two things we do. Sometimes this is great; often it isn't. Most people chafe at being 'pigeonholed', but it's really just something that happens, and you can't blame people for trying to deal with their own struggles with information overload by remembering you as 'the girl with the grating laugh' or 'the guy at work I discuss 'Mad Men' with'.

I've been hit with a couple different categorizations recently, some I'm happy about, others not so much. One I like is being perceived as 'The Arduino Guy' or 'The Hackerspace Guy' or 'The Robotics Guy'. I like being sent links on Twitter to projects like a t-shirt that tells you if you've got new email in your inbox, or getting questions about what's a good way to teach kids programming. Sure, I do/am other stuff, but if that's the main thing people remember me for, that's cool.

To other people, I'm 'the guy who makes the dumb jokes on Twitter'. I'm OK with that, too.

At work it's a bit of a mixed bag. For years I was 'testing guy', then 'programming guy', then more specifically 'web development guy', but a couple of years back things took an ugly turn and I became 'the Business Objects guy'. That was a dreary nightmare I've only recently woken up from. It was a position supporting entirely too many people, using my years of education to repetitively answer questions about very basic Internet Explorer usage. So on the one hand, it was degrading. On the other hand, since these trivialities ate into time and focus on developing, the end result was rather predictably not up to the kind of quality I'd want to be 'the guy who' was associated with. Horror, despair, and soul corrosion filled days and sleepless nights. I started telling people I was a highway construction flagman. I hated being associated in any way with any of it. I felt like a guy in a movie who was an immigrant from the Ukraine (where he was a mechanical engineer) who was now a Subway Sandwich Artist (which is a perfectly fine job for people without advanced degrees in engineering).

Recently things have taken a turn for the better with a transition into SQL guy a.k.a. data guy. Not everything I do with SQL server is some kind of rocket-science mental challenge, but it's extremely refreshing not to spend the better part of the day trying to help a spoiled white guy with a sense of entitlement figure out where his MSN 'butterfly' went off to. Writing SQL and digging into the internals of what SQL Server's about is interesting and even enjoyable (I even did this on my own time back when I was in the Role Of Which I Will Speak No More). I do care about and take data quality and integrity seriously and have no problem telling people who want to pull up the sewage truck and pump crap data into my database to hold up a minute. People in 'the SQL community' are pretty interesting and even kind of endearingly odd, in contrast to the bloodless consultant/sales types I'd encountered in Business Objects days, who'd cast dreaded spells of Eye-Glazing and Will-to-Live-Sapping on unsuspecting victims.

I am a husband and a father, and these are the two most important roles in my life. In these cases though, things are different, because my daughter doesn't just see me as 'the guy who reads to me at night' or just 'the guy who drops me off at school'. I'm a more complete, full individual in her eyes, as needless to say she is in my eyes. Similarly with my wife, I don't think I am merely the guy who takes out the trash or the guy who keeps forgetting things. I'm fortunate to not be 2-D in everybody's eyes, but I can honestly say that for the most part I'm OK with being known for a small part of what I am or what I do. Past experience has warned me though to be careful as sometimes it's better not to be known or remembered at all than to be known as 'the guy who' does something I want no part of.

Friday, April 22, 2011

No dark sarcasm in the classroom.

It was only a matter of time before we managed to make the jump from glorifying stupidity to villifying education and the people responsible to provide and give the children the educations. 'Is our children learning?', the President Bush asked, and it turn out when he ask that it was meant in the same way the question 'Are you drinking my milk from the fridge?' or 'Are you beating your wife?' might be meant.

Later we saw evelation to celebrity status of the likes of Paris Hilton, Snooky, and the Situations and Paul E.D. Nooki even speaks at colleges now. Unfortunately she do not educate the studence at the universtietes about abstainence, or better yet, counterception, because as Bristle Palin shows, abstininse makes you pregnant.

As recent as a couple-three years ago, people pretend they respect teachers and it a high calling. We say pretend because teachers were not exactly paid a lot, and lets say it's 2007, if you say your a teacher to somebody working in finance, you are lower in thurr eyes than the guy they hired to maw the grass or clean the toylet, but worse to them because they have to acknowledge you existince and they no you see thru their bullshit ennyway.

But yeh, they would say 'wow you are responsible for teaching the children who are the future. We society owe you so much.' This time 'we owe you so much' said ecsactly the way your brother-in-law with a gambling debt would say 'I owe you buddy', you know, incincere because forget about it getting paid.

Fortunitey for these poeple, at least the ones what didn't get turned out on the streets in the big CRASH in 2008, Scot Miler and his thuglodite buddies like New Jerse Governer Chistopher Christophee, Mitch Danial, and Rand Pole concoct a scheme to blame EVERYTHING on the TEACHERS. Teachers they are too high paid! Let's pay them less money! They are killing us with this! We can't pay the rent on these library! Here are a bunch of things to say like: Unions they are like monocles, they have no place in the modern world now! Love it or go to Russia!

They say this in public but when they get together and hangout and have monocle parties like the ladies of the decade before the 80s had tupperwear parties! They are going to be the Monopoly guy, all of them, but the free market has told us their are betters.

Some say its ok u don have to pay so much for educashion. Scot Adam who create the dum cartoon picthures about the nerd in the newspaper and who don't want women to vote nomore wrote artical in the Walls Treat Journell about how collidge is a fraud, too. Scot Adam, he is a genius, so he say look at what genius Scott Adamms is, he take advantage of people cause they are dum, so if you go to collidge and are taken for a sukker by brainiacs like Addums who is your betters, maybe you learn something. Know your place.

Some say the school no need. Cost too much money. Money can buy gas for truck. Money can by boat for boss. Boat boss use to sale far, far away from dum angry peepl that got scrood out of an education and so they got no jobs and can't keep the computers and shit running. Where do electricity come from? No one know. We had to save money, dammit! We don't need know education. lol jbf 80085

Monday, March 14, 2011

Puppy Tweets UNLEASHED!

I'm a hacker type, and recently I've become interested in circuit bending, so I like to make a trip to the Goodwill or other thrift stores from time to time to see if I can find some musical or noisemaking toys that can be 'bent'. Saturday I went with my daughter, and she strongly disapproved of a Barbie guitar I was looking at, so I was out of luck as far as musical toys went.

As is sometimes the case at the Goodwill, we stumbled on something we didn't know existed, marked down to a price that practically demanded we buy it. Specifically, there were about 5 boxes of a product from Mattel (makers of Barbie) called 'PuppyTweets'. They were going for $4.99 (MSRP $29.95)!

I speculated as to why such an amazing product would be on sale for such a low price at the Goodwill. 'Maybe it makes your computer blow up.' I speculated. 'If you're worried about that, you should try it on your work computer instead of your home computer,' my daughter suggested.

PuppyTweets turns your dog into a Twitterbot that doesn't give away iPads or send people to dangerous mystery URLs. In the box we found a pendant that attaches to the dog's collar, containing some sort of motion sensor (to measure your dog's activity) and a microphone (to count barks). The pendant sends signals back to the PuppyTweets receiver, which plugs into a USB port and has an antenna, so I saw some wireless hacking potential there.

We tried PuppyTweets out on our dog @AdaDog, and the results were pretty much what you'd expect from a product that made the trip from retail shelves to Goodwill shelves in a matter of months. Periodically, Ada would send a Tweet that might or might not have anything to do with what she was doing. It was unclear whether the pendant or the receiver had anything to do with anything.

Not being able to leave well enough alone, I dug around a bit in the folders for the code to see what was up. Particularly interesting was the file sessionlog.txt, which appeared to actually be reporting activity and barks back to the receiver:

Sun Mar 13 14:04:15 2011 barkAccum=0 actAccum=0.3
Sun Mar 13 14:06:15 2011 numBarks=0 numActivity=0 lossOfSignal=0 outOfRangeTime=0
Sun Mar 13 14:06:15 2011 barkAccum=0 actAccum=0.26666666666667
Sun Mar 13 14:08:15 2011 numBarks=1 numActivity=3 lossOfSignal=0 outOfRangeTime=0
Sun Mar 13 14:08:15 2011 barkAccum=0.016666666666667 actAccum=0.58333333333333
Sun Mar 13 14:10:15 2011 numBarks=0 numActivity=0 lossOfSignal=0 outOfRangeTime=0
Sun Mar 13 14:10:15 2011 barkAccum=0 actAccum=0.55
Sun Mar 13 14:12:15 2011 numBarks=0 numActivity=0 lossOfSignal=0 outOfRangeTime=0

So presumably if you wanted to, you could check this log and get updates every 2 minutes, and perhaps use this in a DogTwitterBot of your own. Possibly the bot could send Tweets only when the dog barked or moved since the last update. Then people could make fun of you on hack-a-day, for yet another Tweeting thing project, although they might go easy on you since you didn't use an Arduino.

You could also use this to summon the police if your dog is barking a lot.

There are also several text files containing the tweets. The names (activity.txt, bark.txt, sleep.txt) suggest there's some correlation between the data logged by PuppyTweets and your dog's online commentary, but the fact that the Tweets are sent out at seemingly random intervals and don't often seem to have anything to do with what the dog is up to seems to have convinced most Amazon reviewers that PuppyTweets is sort of random and that the pendant is just for show (including the battery).

It is hard to believe that Twitter (who recently angered developers by introducing restrictions on how their API can be used - specifically, telling developers to stop developing client apps because Twitter wants to control the user experience) would lend their name (and logo) to a product of questionable value.

It also makes me sad to think about the story behind the story. Having worked on a couple of big software development projects, I can imagine poor sleep-deprived engineers designing and testing and tweaking the hardware late into the night. I can imagine conference rooms full of corporate management douchebags giving each other PowerPoint Presentations. I imagine the design team meticulously sweating the details of the packaging, copywriters carefully crafting the 539 different tweets PuppyTweets would send out, testing many of them out on Twitter itself. I imagine the software development team and their all-day Googling sessions and their all-night debugging sessions. I see Mattel mathematicians working out the perfect mapping between dog activity and dog tweets. Personally, I have to say the Mattel mathematicians were the weak link here.

I can hardly claim to feel ripped off or wronged for $4.99, and I did get a blog post out of the deal. For now, I am going to have to resume my duties as the actual person behind @AdaDog's twitter account.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mystery Solutions To Famous Problems By Important Mathematicians

I just finished reading 'Uncle Petros & Goldbach's Conjecture: A Novel of Mathematical Obsession', written by Apostolos Doxiadis, part of the team that brought us the wonderful graphic novel 'Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth'.

While Logicomix focuses on the great mathematician Bertrand Russell, his work, and his association with other great mathematicians of the early 20th Century, 'Uncle Petros' is about a more obscure mathematician, and explores his path from early promise to obscurity.

The narrator is fascinated by his somewhat reclusive but kind uncle, labelled rather cruelly by his businessman father and his other uncle as 'one of life's failures'. He learns that his uncle was a promising young mathematician who became so obsessed with proving Goldbach's Conjecture (still unproved as of this writing!) that his career went off the rails.

This 'most favored nephew' develops his own interest in mathematics, and tells his uncle of his plans to become a mathematician. His uncle tells him that very few people can become mathematicians, and that he doubts his nephew has what it takes. His nephew persists, so Petros challenges him to solve this problem over the summer:
Prove that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of 2 primes.
Our narrator struggles with the problem all summer long, but fails. He then finds out what some readers will already have recognized - Uncle Petros asked him to prove Goldbach's Conjecture.

At this point we wouldn't blame him for never wanting to have anything to do with his uncle again, but his interest in mathematics and in his uncle's story persists.

Gradually we learn about Petros' early career: a very useful technique he developed as a Ph.D. student which he dismisses as 'Calculation of the grocery bill variety', his work with the great G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan, and his long and ultimately futile struggle to solve the Conjecture. His isolation and his fear of revealing any of his early results lest his competitors use it to beat him to the proof causes him to miss some great opportunities to publish, and gradually his career disintegrates.

Petros is a fascinating character, flawed but with a wisdom and a sort of contentment with his lot in life, spending his days with gardening and chess. His nephew develops an obsession of his own, trying to get at the true reason Petros ultimately gave up, and to understand the course of Petros' life and career.

In my favorite quote from the book, Petros explains his preference for obscurity over minor but forgettable successes:
'I, Petros Papachristos, never having published anything of value, will go down in mathematical history - or rather will not go down in mathematical history - as having achieved nothing. This suits me fine, you know. I have no regrets. Mediocrity would never have satisfied me. To an ersatz, footnote kind of immortality, I prefer my flowers, my orchard, my chessboard, the conversation I'm having with you today. Total obscurity!'
While I don't agree with that sort of 'all or nothing' thinking, being more of an incremental and a 'set attainable goals' guy like the narrator's father, it is rather romantic in its way and I can respect his attitude. I do very much agree that obscurity is underrated (or at least that's what I tell myself here in this comment-free blog).

Being in the over 40 phase of my life, I find myself reviewing my own past successes and failures, identifying along the way regrets and things I could have done differently, trying to come to an acceptance of the things that didn't go as well as hoped. There's no sense in wallowing in failures or regrets, but I'd also say it's essential to be (sometimes painfully) honest in your assessment of your past and yourself, and that's a lot of what this book is about. There's also a kindness and empathy in the book, the book has, for lack of a better word, 'heart'.

I'd strongly recommend the book (and Logicomix) even to the non-mathematicians. Mathematicians are interesting characters, and while many struggled with mental illness, there was so much more to them as people.

As for my own mathematical pursuits (which fizzled out early) I can say with complete honesty that I have no regrets. In retrospect I can see the value of realizing it wasn't 'in me' to be a great mathematician and changing course, as painful as it was at the time. And for a while, I truly loved math, and it was all I wanted to do, and it was almost all I did. I can understand the appeal and I know there is a joy in being obsessed.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Facebook's Fakeness Makes Us Feel Worse, Comedians' Honesty Makes Us Feel Better

'I see the people happy, so can it happen for me? 'Cos when I have no energy, there's nothing that can move me'
-Kate Bush, 'Sat in Your Lap'
Recently a group of Stanford scientists led by Alex Jordan published an article in the 'Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin' about a tendency people have to overestimate other people's happiness, which usually ends up leading to increased dejection and unhappiness. A good write up can be found on Slate, and there has been considerable discussion since in the blogosphere, Twitt-o-sphere, really all the spheres.

The fact that the research was inspired by one of the less-fulfilling aspects of Facebook triggered much of the discussion:
Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends' reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others' attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. "They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life," he told me.
I have noticed that I tend to have a feeling of emptiness and disappointment after nearly every interaction I have with Facebook, but hadn't thought thought about the underlying reasons for that so much. It does make sense, although I also hate Facebook for other reasons, including the fact that it's 'walled off' from the otherwise more open web, and the occasional feeling of being pressured to 'friend' people I am not really friends with (mainly co-workers or distant relatives I'm not particularly cozy with), which then leads to a pressure to to be fake about how happy you are and how great everything is, which in turn brings everybody down, as science has now proved, because you forget everybody else is frantically trying to fake being happy, too.

This ties in to a broader tendency I've noticed for people to focus on the positive to an absurd and unrealistic degree, almost to the point of seeing any kind of negativity as pathological, and seeing 'negative people' as pariahs to be avoided at all costs. Not to be too negative, but I think this emphasis on 'positivity' is destroying the world. Some examples:
  • Being optimistic that invading a country and establishing a new U.S.-friendly regime and society there will be a 'cakewalk'
  • Thinking home prices will go up forever
  • Not being a gloomy Gus and worrying about energy dependency
  • Believing you are great at multitasking, including texting and driving at the same time
  • Thinking you don't have to pay taxes because you are Wesley Snipes
The list could go on and on.

It is possible the over-optimism is a reaction to the over-pessimism of the 90s. I'm looking at you, Billy Corgan. Billy was only one of the many songwriters in the 90s who'd say some variation on the following in interviews:
People ask why my lyrics are so depressing and negative. When I'm happy, I want to celebrate that I'm happy and have fun, I don't want to write about it.
Kurt Cobain was the patron saint of 90s mope-rock. He became a superstar singing about how crappy life is, and then shot himself in the head with a shotgun.

There are some promising signs that a more balanced view of reality is on the rise in popular culture. A good example is Louis CK's show 'Louie'. Louis is a very talented comedian, and the show is very funny, but at the same time Louis does not in any way shy away from talking about some of the unhappy realities of life after 40, including the gradual decline in health and realization that your best days may be behind you. He deals with really nasty people - a heckler, a kid threatening to beat him up, Nick DiPaolo - but on the other hand he really loves his daughters and finds great fulfillment in his role as their father, and he has the respect of his peers and confidence in his capabilities as a comedian.

Marc Maron's very popular WTF podcast includes Marc's honest observations about his life and life in general, including some things that are real downers like career disappointments and divorce. I've also learned from listening to his show that almost all of my favorite comedians are on medication.

It's strange that comedians (except Kyle 'Be positive at all costs' Cease) are the ones bringing us back to our senses, but somebody needed to do it, and best that it's people who can also make us laugh help us deal with it all.

As for Facebook, I can't quit it (yet), but I take some comfort in the fact that I'm not alone in finding it to be not only a time-suck but a soul-suck, too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I Will Never Eat These Things Again

Today I took my daughter to Target to go grocery shopping while my wife is in London and then Dublin for a week. We went because while we can manage on our own, we decided to get some pre-packaged, easy-to-fix foods (frozen pizza, frozen other things) to get us through the week. You are probably thinking, wow, what a bad Dad, and actually it gets worse. My 7yo daughter decided she wanted to try a microwave meal involving a hot dog (and frozen bun) which had to be prepared in 3 microwaving stages, and yes, I let her try it (she thought it was alright, but didn't eat all of it). If I posted this kind of thing in a parenting web forum, I'd bring down a rain of criticism and misery, which is only one reason why I avoid those places.

We also purchased, and will eat: oatmeal. So back down.

While I was there I saw a package of ramen noodles on sale. It worked out to about 12 cents a pack, and this got me thinking about foods I used to eat which I will never eat again, unless something goes horribly wrong in my life.


I ate these and other Chef Boy-R-Dee canned pasta food products as a kid, and as somebody who just fed his daughter that freeze dried hot-dog bun thing, I'm not in any position to point fingers. I liked those canned meat-product-balls well enough. The Spaghetti-Os thing got out of control in grad school, and I have nobody but myself to blame. On a more-or-less daily basis, I'd take a can of spaghetti-os and a couple pieces of bread (occasionally a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) to the office, and eat that while I graded papers or sweated over problem sets. It was kind of unfortunate that in my early 20s, when my mind and body should have been at their peak fitness and power, I chose to undermine myself in that way. I believe this stopped immediately after I got my M.S. degree. Graduating meant an end to a lot of ruts, including eating these.

Hot Pockets

Jim Gaffigan does a famous bit about Hot Pockets, so it's really impossible to squeeze any more humor value out of them at this point. This post is not about making jokes, though, it's a confession of past sins, so I shall move forward. This habit started when I worked at AT&T and fell in with a group of obsessive runners there. This coincided with a peak in my own obsession with running. Now, years later, I can say it: I didn't really give a shit about what I was doing there outside of the really intense lunch-time runs that I still fondly remember, even the ones in sub-zero temperatures or the speed workouts that took every last bit of energy out of me.

Hot Pockets fit in because I didn't have time to have a proper lunch, and I did have to get work done so I could hang on to the job and keep running. Again, at a time where I was pursuing peak fitness and health, I was undermining myself by eating this garbage. Inevitably I got sick of the taste of them, and when I changed jobs, again, it was a good time to ditch an unhealthy rut I'd gotten myself into. I can't really say enough good things about the mental and physical health benefits of switching jobs (unless you switch to a very shitty job, that is).


This one is also lunch-time-workout related. Our workplace has a fitness center, which is a nice benefit. There's also a cafeteria, which is competent as far as being a corporate cafeteria goes, but after a workout the only thing they have that I feel like eating is salad. The salad bar is kind of unpredictable, and some days there are only 2 or 3 things I'd want to put on the salad besides lettuce. I've gotten pretty tired of salad, to the point where salad has become a combination of two Mitch Hedberg jokes to me:
Rice is great if you're really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.
You can't be like pancakes. You're all happy at first, but then by the end, you're sick of 'em.
I said at the beginning of this post that I will never eat these things again unless something goes horribly wrong, but I would like to think between myself and my wife, we'd be clever enough to find better things to eat even under serious budget constraints. As I saw today after our shopping trip, this kind of food, while convenient, is not necessarily cheap. It's probably safe to say whatever happens, life will be a journey from one kind of food I get sick of to another.

What foods are you never going to eat again? Don't answer in the comments, just say them at your screen like you are talking to your favorite TV pundit. I couldn't stand it if I asked people to comment and nobody did.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

This year, I'll try to be more superficial

There's no point in running it into the ground anymore - my goals for 2010 have been covered and revisited. Overall, I did OK, but it was not the year things really happened for me. In the interest of looking forward, even though that way lies oblivion (it lies the other direction, too, only then I didn't know any better), here's what we'll be going for in 2011, which we've already been in for a week:

  • Cut down Google Reader Usage as much as possible
  • Same with Facebook. Maybe just never use it again. I never feel good after spending time there. Usually I feel more alone and isolated than I did when I started.
  • Same with 99% of the Internet
  • Get books I’m not currently reading and stow them away somewhere, so they don’t mock me and stress me out.
  • Use fewer variations of the same thing at work (e.g., one version control system is enough).
  • Organize the bills/etc. better
  • throw away things I don’t need
  • Don’t work on 50 projects at the same time, mainly at home, I mean. I ought to finish something occasionally
  • R
  • Audio-related electronics (amplifiers, DACs, effects, circuit-bending, noise making).
Stay the course:
  • Spend lots of time with daughter and molding her impressionable young mind and such
  • Spend time with my lovely wife also
  • Continue to weigh 185 +/- 5lbs
  • Continue to not have any major health problems
  • Run
  • Ride the bike
  • Walk the dog, remember to take the time to tell her she is in fact a good dog
  • Maintain wall of detachment between self and people/places/things that won't be named at this time
Also, as per the title:

Be more superficial.

What does this mean? As a ‘back end’ guy (ha), I focus on behind-the-scenes stuff nobody notices (data, monitoring, number crunching, etc). I need to do more bullshit front-end things, dress up the web stuff a bit beyond really stark raw info stuff. I had this realization recently that I spend an awful lot of time doing stuff nobody really sees.

I don't really care about that at work (they pay me, so the sting of being ignored is not so great - in fact, they need to have a big sign printed that the HR department hangs up everywhere reading 'Being Ignored Is Its Own Reward', because that's a true story at that place), but it would be nice to get the occasional notice/recognition elsewhere.

On another superficial note, I really ought to do a better job keeping up with movies and music. It's one thing never to have anything to say when people talk about sports, but I look at peoples' 'My 50 Favorite Movies of the 4th Quarter of 2010' lists, and I feel like I'm totally out touch. Who knows how many comic references I'm missing? I may eventually find nothing funny but wordplay and slapstick. The prospect is horrifying.

Wish me luck, or don't, and have the best 2011 possible.