Sunday, December 14, 2008

BYBS: An Audience

I recently embarked on another abuse of the English language. That is, I started writing another story. This one is called "Evening" and is a spoof of the "Harry Potter" series as well as the movie "Twilight." I had attempted to write this story before, but stopped when I found that I didn't like the premise as much as I thought I would.

I'll hopefully do better this time because I'm writing for an audience, or specifically Tanis who has encouraged me to keep at this whole writing thing. Hence by blessing for the week is having an audience who is willing to read the stuff I write.

This neatly allows me to both creating another page in said story while creating a BYBS entry at the same time. What's more, I even have another idea for next week. Which I will write. I wont put it off. Honest.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

BYBS: Things I Haven't Achieved

Sometimes I complain about how I haven't managed to achieve everything I've wanted to. OK, maybe I spend a lot of time complaining. In BYBS form, therefore, I came up with a list of things that I'm glad I haven't done:

  • Become a drug addict.
  • Become a drug dealer.
  • Flunked out of college.
  • Screwed over a friend.
  • Killed anyone.
  • Started a war.
  • Bilked people out of large amounts of money (a la Enron).

Now mind you, I have cheated at Monopoly. And then there was that geography test and ... oh never mind.

The thing about BYBS (at least for me) is how you look at the world. The world doesn't change, just my way of looking at it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

BYBS: Thanksgiving Edition!

I came up with a special BYBS entry, it being Thanksgiving and all. VYSW will be back next week...at least in theory.

As anyone who read too many comic books in their formative years, I'm a bit nervous about saying "life is great!" since that is the time that the writers choose to drop a 10 ton safe on the character as a reward for saying such a thing. However, I'm also a rather negative person so I find it rather therapeutic to force myself to look on the bright side. Therefore here are some things in my life I think of as blessings:

  • A person who, despite the mountain of evidence, seems love to me.

    When I gaze into her loving eyes, she will sometimes mutter about some "term of contract" or "once my time is up, I'm outta here!" I really don't know what she means, but I'm sure it will become clear one day.

  • Health which is relatively free of serious illness. Health is rather like air and water: when you have them, it nothing special; but when you don't boy are they important!

    Now mind you, there are some who liken the author to some sort of pestilence, or maybe even several at once, but nobody has died from exposure to me. Yet.

  • People who seem to like me.

    True, not enough for them to want to play "Clue" or other board games, and not because I cheat! I deny that completely! But we still seem to get along.

  • A job which, while I take great pains to bitch and moan about, at least keeps me off the streets and out of trouble.

    Some coworkers have said things to make me suspect that the state has some sort of "deal" whereby "special" people such as myself get employment and the hosting company gets a tax break, but there is no evidence of this. Honest.

So there's my Blather-n-Rants special Thanksgiving entry! I figure I should quit while I'm ahead. Furthermore, rather than becoming negative, I'll save some of the more amusing ideas about holidays for a VYSW. Till then, avoid gnomes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

BYBS: Meaning in the Clouds

Consider clouds or oil on water. Some people will try to say that "it looks like a continent" or "the cloud looks like an elephant." The interesting thing to me is not so much whether some milk in a coffee cup looks a tree so much as that people strive for meaning in things have none.

This led me to wonder what other sorts of things we assign meaning to. Seeing as I have something of a shortage of ideas these days, I think I'll leave that for another posting...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

VYSW: What I Do for a Living

VYSW!

Vent Your Spleen Wednesday

It's not always easy to explain my job to people.

As a person who has worked in the field of all things computer, people sometimes ask me "how do the damn things work?" My answer is that they don't.

I spend a huge amount of time working on some ridiculously simple aspect of a program, only to be told that what I have done is broken. You see if you hop on one foot, rub your tummy, whistle and operate the mouse with your foot it turns out that what you have done does not actually work. Such arguments are constructed by strange and evil people called testers, who will go on to explain that this odd group of one-foot-hopping people are the majority of our customers.

Now mind you, this is on a good day.

Most of the time, all someone has to do is just glare at something I'm working on and it will break.

Other times the entire goal will be insane, like creating what amounts to an underwater barbeque grill. At the end of the process, the same group of fools who insisted on this in the first place will look at you like you are crazy and ask "whose idea was this?"

I've tried to come up with a short description of my job for non-computer people after one friend asked me "what is it that you do?" I usually find myself blathering on about .NET or Java only to discover that whoever asked me is now asleep. After much time and effort, I've come up with a short explanation that still manages to capture the essence of what is going on:

I bang my head against a wall until I make a hole that I can crawl through.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

BYBS: A Profound Event

Something profound happened the other day and I missed it.

I was voting in the election and when I cast my ballot, the race of the candidates did not factor into my decision. I was more wrapped up in the issues at hand, whether the candidates could be trusted, etc.

When I listened to the coverage of the election today, I discovered that the race of the president-elect had made a huge difference to some people. They spoke about how they were proud of their country, and that it was amazing to have gone from 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, to 2008, where Barack Obama was elected president.

Reflecting on it, I realized how it could be so meaningful. This is after all, the country that had the Rodney King beating and riots. This was where Howard Beach happened. This is the country where Martin Luther King was killed.

That my country could have changed does not mean that the problem is gone. But it is a sign that just because we may have a past that includes racism, does not mean it will be our future. We can change.

* * *

Just to reassure everyone, VYSW will be back next Wednesday :-)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

VYSW: Nukewrap

VYSW!

Vent Your Spleen Wednesday

The thing that really ticks me off is traffic and those damn drivers who...oh...I already blogged about that.

Alrighty, what drives me nuts are those stupid stat-counters that inevitably fail when you...fooie, did that one too.

Nothing can match the feeling when I turn on the radio only to find...sigh.

Nukewrap! I haven't blogged about that yet!

OK, you know that hard, plastic wrapping around some computer stuff like headphones that you have to practically take a hack-saw to in order to open? I hate that stuff. Not only is it ridiculously hard to remove, not only do I often times cut myself on an edge, but when I finally do get the thing open, it always renders the item in "non-salable condition" so that I can't return it.

I'm sure there's some smug SOB, sitting in a lab somewhere, being very pleased with himself over having had invented the stuff. I just want this guy to be put in a box made of the stuff. I'd want the cell to have some air holes of course. Wouldn't want him to suffocate, oh no! I'd want him to be in there a long, long time...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

BYBS: Adaptability

Adaptability is one of those things that I know about intellectually, but that I don't think actually applies to me. Specifically, when I started on a more healthy diet a few years back I did not expect my tastes to change the way they did.

When I stopped eating as much red meat and added more fruits and vegetables to my diet, I was about as happy as a condemned man. The odd thing was that over the course of a year or so I found that not only did I not miss meat but that I came to like the stuff I was eating.

Me? Enjoying the taste of oatmeal? And looking forward to eating beans? Something is clearly wrong. The true absurdity of my situation struck home when last Friday someone offered me some chocolate and I turned it down. Strange. Very un-whatever-like.

I'll write more later. Right now I need to go get some oatmeal...with cod liver oil.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

VYSW: NPR Membership Drives

VYSW!

Vent Your Spleen Wednesday

Like everyone this time of year, I look forwards the Fall and the change of colors in the trees...who am I fooling? I look forward to getting an hour back with Daylight Savings time.

OK, best to start again.

One of the things that really ticks me off is turning on the damn radio and getting an NPR fundraiser. I realize this is public radio and needs the dough after a rather long period of (ahem) leadership in various funding areas, but the sheer tenacity of these people is just...annoying.

To add insult to injury a while back I donated a vast (OK, rather large) sum of money to my local public radio and my reward? I still get to listen to them. Sometimes I wish I were extremely wealthy just so that I could pay for a day of programming where the local announcers have to wear gags.

Ah well...there's always next year.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

BYBS: Ian M. Banks

I recently started reading Iain Banks and have been pleasantly surprised. I've read his Player of Games, a bit of On the Use of Weapons and right now I'm reading The Algebraist. So far I think Player was the best read, but I haven't finished Algebraist yet so you never know.

The books I've been reading by Banks have had a "Space Opera" style to them. That is, planet hopping human beans off on some epic quest of epic-ness. They usually have a backdrop of some gigantic, ancient, over-reaching organization that is vastly older than, and presumably superior to, humanity.

I can quickly become bored with a story in that sort of setting: the character's goals are obviously unimportant in the larger scheme of things, so to keep my interest, the author needs to make an interesting story or characters or whatever. Player achieved this by mixing the description of a game and using it as a metaphor for a society.

As the title may indicate, Player of Games is about a person who is a master of various sorts of games. These are "big, serious" games like chess (as opposed to something along the lines of "go fish"). He is able to quickly master just about any game, no matter how alien or convoluted, but has become bored recently due to a lack of challenge.

The huge, ancient galaxy-spanning society (called "the Culture") is trying to find a less violent way of dealing with a smaller, aggressive empire society. Put another way, they want to find a cheaper alternative to an all-out war.

The shadowy rulers of the Culture feel that a particular tournament holds the key to subjugating the empire with less violence than would be required: if the Culture can demonstrate their superiority by winning the tournament then the empire types may well let a more protracted, far more devastating conflict slide. This is where the big, galaxy-spanning Culture meets the individual protagonist to bring things to a more personal level.

The player starts off feeling rather ambivalent about the empire but he becomes more involved because of the game he is asked to compete in. Partially because of the simple challenge to compete, and partially because of the depth and complexity of the game, he becomes more absorbed with the situation to the point where it becomes almost an obsession. It turns out that the game is an excellent allegory for the greater society of the Empire: in order to succeed, one must create temporary alliances, duplicitous relationships which are to be used and then discarded when no longer useful.

I found the crass, calculating nature of the interaction between the Culture and the empire to be especially relevant to the world of today, with its collapsing international markets and where expedience trumps morals on a regular basis. There are additional details, like how the Player cheats to try and win an especially important achievement and the nature of AIs in the Culture. All this combined to create a story that kept me occupied for a while.

Right now is a very stressful time for me. It is very much a blessing to be able to put my mind in neutral because if it were in drive I'd start heading for the nearest ditch.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

VYSW: Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!

VYSW!

Vent Your Spleen Wednesday

Many companies think that they can improve matters by making their employees afraid; specifically by firing people and then pointing out that there are still more people left that they can remove.

This does not make a whole lot of sense to me because I cannot stay scared indefinitely. When I'm scared, my heart beats, I sweat, etc. but only for a little bit. The more I'm exposed to the cause of the fear, the less scary it gets. When it comes in the form of a company's constant attempts at intimidation, it ends up fading into the background for me. In my experience, the people around me rarely stay scared either.

I've also seen fear sabotage productivity. When I personally feel threatened, I am less inclined to help people around me. At one place I saw a group that was relatively productive systematically destroyed by its less productive brethren. I've heard coworkers remark that you always want a bit of "deadwood" in your group so that, when the yearly "Christmas Bonus" comes around, you have someone that is more likely to get the axe then you are.

Trying to scare people into working harder doesn't strike me as a very good idea. But as the creator of the Dilbert comic strip remarked, if nature ran on the same principals as business, you'd see a bunch of mountain gorillas being led by an "alpha" squirrel. And mind you, it wouldn't be the most skilled squirrel…it would be the one that nobody else wanted to hang with.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

BYBS: Ozark

A while back I had asked Ozark, the person who created the "Mind Flayed" webcomic, for an exchange: I'd write a short story about their characters if they would draw me a picture for one of my short stories. Recently I was saying hello the other day when they mentioned this and the result was the following pic:

This is "Grandpa Sith" from the story Deathtalker 2 – a silly yarn set in the Star Wars universe. For the curious, I wrote "Tentacle Luuuuv" in exchange. Hence my BYBS for the week is the opportunity to exchange art thanks to ye web.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

VYSW: Aggressive Drivers

VYSW!

Vent Your Spleen Wednesday

A major factor in the stress of driving for me are those drivers who seem to pounce on any opportunity to get cut in front of me. And what does this idiot get? 1 car length. Often times even that gain is erased since the other guy ends up at the next stop light or slow-down anyways.

The worst of the worst are the ones who seem to be racing someone else. It always seems like there are at least two of these clowns, dodging in and out of traffic.

If these fools were only risking their own lives it would be bad enough, but they're risking my life too.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

BYBS: Sleepy Weekends

This weekend has been especially sleepy for some reason. While one can argue about whether spending a weekend this way is really a blessing or not, my own opinion is definite: it's a blessing.

It's so nice to just rest as much as you want to once in a while, especially when you spend a good deal of your time…stressed. Part of it is the rest itself and part of it, for me at least, is the sheer decadence that comes from feeling like I can rest whenever I feel like it.

Now mind you, the whole stress business starts up again on Monday, but for now at least I shall rest.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

VYSW: Blogrolling.com!

VYSW!

Vent Your Spleen Wednesday

And my very first VYSW post is about, of course, blogrolling.com --- the annoying twerp of a place that I first turned to in order to manage my blogroll!

In the midst of trying to launch a meme, the damn blogrolling site decides to be difficult. It times out, it decides to ignore commands...I'd say a bit about blogspot and how their editor works but I'm saving that for another post.

Well, I can't say that I'm surprised but I am annoyed. And in only the way that someone who is getting free code and whatnot can be!

There, now I feel better. At least a little.

Monday, September 29, 2008

VYSW

Vent Your Spleen Wednesday

What is VYSW?

VYSW is shorthand for "Vent Your Spleen Wednesday." The phrase "Vent Your Spleen" means to bitch, moan, rant, complain or otherwise commiserate about something that just really upsets you, whatever that may be. The purpose for the author of this particular meme is twofold:
  1. It gives the author another reason to write.
  2. It brings the "rant" portion of "blather and rants" back to the fore.
  3. There is no reason #3

JOIN ZE REVOLUTION!

Be on the avant-garde of the blogosphere by joining us grumpy, whining never-do-wells:

  1. Join the blogroll!
  2. (Proudly) Display the logo!
  3. Rant about pointless issues!

Join the Blogroll!

Send me an email if you want to join up and soon your blog will be renowned and marked with great black splotches on all internet registries. The first hundred people will get...um...well, nothing much, but sign up anyway.

Display the Logo!

For those who want a prepackaged blob-o-code...I'm working on it. Come back shortly >.<

Post Loud and Annoying Rants!

All that's left for you to do is to babble on about any topic that the voices tell you about. What do you mean you don't hear them?

Alright, for those of you who lack...inspiration just turn on the TV and watch the news for 5min. You could just spout off about how you hate commercials, the sky's the limit!

Sign up Now

So what's the delay? Remember that the people who sign up first will be remembered the longest, though maybe that's not a good thing. Anyhow, enjoy.

BYBS: Imagination

Dibbler: "The world is full of little people with big dreams!"

Victor: "What, you mean like dwarfs and gnomes and so on?"

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Speaking personally, imagination has greatly enriched my life.

In the mornings, I don't climb into my car to go sit in traffic for 20 to 40 minutes, I'm strapping into the Bandersnatch, my high-performance, interplanetary transport. While in the real world, I may be pushing down the accelerator, I'm actually going to full, 3G burn on the primary rockets, slamming me back into the seats as I take off.

I get to work either way mind you.

While the boss in the real world may be droning on and on about some tired aspect of the current system design, I can be a new, high performance chipset architecture which utilizes a simple yet powerful instruction set, including programmable DMA controllers. Their simple, unifying command set make both embedded and system applications a snap to work with.

The meeting schleps to a halt in the requisite 30 minutes. The people shuffle out.

But Lance Bigdeal, world leader, has completed yet another Important World Meeting. Lance has managed to secure a deal between Iran and the rest of the world. The sometimes isolated Middle Eastern country will gain "pebble bed" reactor technology which will solve its power generation issues without gaining an industry that could too easily be turned towards the creation of weapons. The Middle East is saved!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

BYBS: The Force of Self

one of the worst results of being a slave and being forced to do things is that when there is no one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself.

C.S. Lewis, "The Horse and His Boy"

The above quote pertains to a situation where some people were being chased by another group and were debating how much farther to go. One part thought they should keep going, while another part was in favor of resting. Long story short, they end up resting and the group chasing them catches up.

Speaking for myself, I can't say that I have ever really learned how to force myself. Being a rebellious sort who bristles at the first sign of authority, I have found myself in the situation where I need to be forced to do something but I am unwilling to accept such instruction.

College was a prime example of this: I needed to study, but there was this interesting movie or some people in the room next to mine were having this interesting discussion, etc.

There are some areas that I manage to find the willpower. Exercise and dieting are examples here. With these situations, I feel like it was that I outsmarted myself rather than showed some great reserve of willpower.

I'm also a big fan of the notion that things like this can be learned. Anyone have some examples from their own lives?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

BYBS: The System of Life

One of the things that fascinates me about life is that there are so many examples of species that work together.

For example, if you took the DNA from a termite and created a clone, you would end up with an animal that would starve to death.   Termites cannot digest wood without the help of some microorganisms.  Note the use of the plural.  The microorganisms themselves rely on other microorganisms in order to process the plant material.

The termite and the microorganisms depend on plants, or more specifically dead plants, in order to survive.  Once they have been digested, that material is fed back into the whole cycle.  Life is a system of organisms. Examining one in isolation does not tell the whole story.

Another aspect of life is that it is not static – there is no "balance" as such.  Species are in constant threat from other species such as predators, or other species competing for the same resources that they use.  Then there is the environment as a whole, which is in a constant state of flux. 

For example, it is believed that a key component of the human cell, called the mitochondrion started out considerably different then they are today.  The mitochondria seen in other organisms function in basically the same role, but in human cells it appears to be simpler and more focused on producing energy.  The containing cell, in turn, has taken over some of the tasks that the ancestral mitochondrion performed.

The water changes, but the river remains the same.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

BYBS: Algae Farms

An algae farm near Rio Hondo, Texas

The picture is an aerial photo (from Google Maps for the curious) of an algae farm near the border with Mexico. The farm is operated by a company called PetroSun to produce biodeisel, a product that can be used in place of regular diesel fuel.

I like things like algae farms this because they show that humanity is clever. It shows that our collective ingenuity can be put to uses other than blowing each other to bits. It gives me hope when I hear news stories about how we squander what we have and then fight over what's left.

While such approaches are theoretically feasible, it still remains to be proven whether or not something like a algae far will actually work in a commercial endeavor. If it works out, it could show another step towards a better future.

Such endeavors are not free of problems, however. Such a farm displaces natural eco-systems. In order to produce enough fuel to satisfy America's hunger for energy, somewhere between 10,000 to 1,000,000 square kilometers would be required. The farm pictured here is around 10 square km --- between 1,000 to 100,000 more of them would be needed.

On the other hand, maybe we'll reduce the amount of energy we use, thus reducing the amount of land needed. Maybe several sources will be used instead of just algae. Maybe none of this will happen.

In the mean time, I'm content to see this as a sign of hope.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

BYBS: CherryTV.com

Cherrytv.com is a site that talks about sexuality from a woman's perspective.  Most of their content takes the form of videos from round-table style discussions of topics like:

  • Achieving an orgasm during penetrative sex.
  • Communicating with your partner
  • Benefits of masturbation

Now all this might sound like ye basic porn site, especially when I mention the word "video," but this is not the case.  

The clips take the form of a bunch of women sitting around a table and talking.  What's more, some of the women might not be considered "attractive" in popular culture.  OMG, one of them is FAT!  A couple of them are older!  What's going on here?!

This highlights one of the things I love about this site: the indivuduals in their round tables look like regular people.  When I stagger around the supermarket I don't see a bunch of super-models.  I see old women, young women, fat women, slim women, etc.  When I see a bunch of these people talking about sex the message I come away with is that sex is normal.  All kinds of people experience it.  With "normal" media I come away with the impression that the only people who have sex are incredibly attractive 20-somethings.

The topics being discussed are in the same "it's not that remarkable" style.  This can lead to weird juxtapositions, like seeing a rather older woman talk about her favorite position, but it also leads to the belief that sex is something normal.

The assumption that sex is normal is another feeling that permeates the site.  Seeing women of different ages and "attractiveness" talk about sex - their worries, the things they like, etc. - makes them seem more, well, human.  A typical porn site, by contrast, objectifies all the actors - male and female - to the point that they may as well be Martians.

The site is billed as being from and for the feminine perspective.  I mean the tag line of "Juicy Talk for Women" kinda spells it out.  I guess if CTV becomes popular they can create another site for men.  Till then, the site will have to be satisfied with the huge topic of women's sexuality.

I consider this a blessing because I like the message that comes through every article or clip: sex is normal.  Don't be ashamed of your sexuality.  This is a human experience - it's not limited to the super-perfect (for people who are "normal") or perverts (for those who aren't "normal").  The net has so much of the other kind of message that CherryTV is a nice change of pace.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

BYBS: A Moderately Sane Country

I'm glad I live in a country that is basically sane. This is not to say that the USA does not have its share of nut cases and wackos. Or that said crazies are even kept from holding public office or from, say, running a major company. I'm just glad that that they don't run things all the time.

For an example of garden variety insanity, take a look at our healthcare system. I think the idea of people taking care of each other is a good thing. The way that we spend effort and resources, usually during the last 5 years of a person's life, is pretty crazy.  But let's not forget that 30 to 50% of those resources are wasted on health insurance companies. 

For those of you who don't believe that last bit check this out: Here are examples of 4 countries that have better health care for all their citizens at equal to or less cost than what the USA pays.

But these are examples of relatively mild insanity.  A country-wide equivalent to a twitch or a phobia.  For full-bore psychosis, you need to look elsewhere.  Afghanistan under the Taliban or North Korea under Kim Jung Il.  The countries show that, yes, there are places out there that are even worse than us.

At one point a friend of mine who comes from another country proudly showed me a copy of some magazine whose cover showed Ken Lay, the infamous leader of Enron. He beamed at me and said something along the lines of "Your country is run by crooks!" I pointed out that sometimes, the crooks in my country are caught.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nothing. Everything.

A long while back, I heard one of those zen-ish sorts of statements that stuck with me. It ran something like this:

Want everything, have nothing. Want nothing, have everything.

This cryptic statement came with an explanation. The idea is that you never have everything that you want. If you keep wanting, then eventually what you have seems like nothing.

Therefore, if you want nothing, you have the same thing you would get if you wanted everything.

Personally, I think that is not really true. For a while I basically had what I wanted, and things were more or less fine. Then it went away and things sucked. I could very easily go back to having what I wanted and be more or less content.

This all sounds confusing and disorganized because it is confusing and disorganized. I apologize for that, but I really wanted to create another blog entry. I haven't posted one in two weeks and I have grown rather fond of my little corner of the web.

Ah well.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

BYBS: 10 More Things I Like About You

This is a continuation of a previous BYBS posting that takes a more outward look than inward. Rather than blather about myself or how I see someone as being a blessing for me, I thought I would talk about things that I like about other bloggers/commenters/etc.

  • The one: who can be awfully determined, has a memory that would make an elephant blink, and and has a postive outlook that I envy.
  • Shay: who writes in the hopes of making a better world.
  • The Blue Panther: who came up with the idea for BYBS. I also admire his relentlessly positive attitude.
  • Sandy: I don't pretend to understand how she manages to visit so many sites and still remain so thoughtful. I also like the way that she can look at the world and see it a different, more beautiful way.
  • MsDemmie: who maintains a positive outlook on life in spite of some very trying times.
  • Paulie: whose eyes see beauty and who shares that vision with others.
  • Cybercelt: who shows that you can come at blogging and writing from very different perspectives.
  • Steve: I admire his willingness to share his thoughts with the rest of the world and to think about how that world responds to him.
  • NREL: an organization that is working towards a better world.
  • Roger Z., JRR, Greg B., Vernor and a host of other writers both living and kaput. They have the ability to share a dream or an idea that make the world a bit brighter.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

BYBS: Podcasts

I like listening to stuff while I drive to work. Over the years, I've found myself gravitating to National Public Radio (NPR). Not sure if they are particularly objective - they are sometimes branded a "tool" of (insert affiliation here) by (insert other organization here), but they have interesting topics and shows. The most important thing for me is that NPR does not have an endless stream of commercials. Instead, they tend to have endless, whining fund raisers.

Podcasts to the rescue! By listening to a Podcast, I can skip most (but not all) of the regular drivel I would otherwise have to endure. Furthermore, when someone mumbles or otherwise makes their utterance incomprehensible, I can backup and listen to said spot again. Furthermore, I can skip blather that I don't care about. Finally, podcasts are free.

Apple, the company I love to hate less than Microsoft, deserves a lot of credit for helping the world of podcasts. In particular the combination of the I-Pod and the I-Tunes service created a place where podcasts of all types could come together for people to search. Apple also made subscribing to a podcast quick and easy.

There are many other ways that Apple really made online music a reality, as well as hindering it, but I don't care so much about the world of for sale content. I'm also hard up for ideas to blog about, so I'm going to save that topic for another post.

A few of the podcasts that I recommend:

  • NPR: Fresh Air (depends on topic)
  • NPR: 7PM News Summary (depressing)
  • Science Talk: The Podcast of Scientific American
  • NPR: Sound Medicine (annoying musical interludes)
  • News Hour with Jim Lehre (depressing)
  • NPR: Driveway Moments (depends on topic)
  • InfoWorld Daily
  • Java Posse (on their good days)
  • NPR: Technology Podcast
  • General Psychology Lectures

Another nice aspect is the lack of obvious gnomish influence. Yes, I understand that you can't see them. No, the fact that I can see the little buggers does not make me insane...but it's not a good sign.

Anyhow, enjoy :-)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What's all this "Singularity" stuff?

The short answer:

The Singularity is the idea that humanity, using technology, will become gods/super-powerful/whatever.

I don't think this will happen because I believe there are limits to what science/technology can do and because I think that humanity will run out of motivation before we even reach that limit.

The long answer:

The way I understand it, the idea of a technological singularity is that advances in technology have been coming faster and faster for the last 200 years. If the pace of increase continues, then advances will come so quickly as to be simultaneous – humanity will achieve in a week what used to take 10 years.

At that point, humans will effectively become gods: immortal, all-knowing and all-powerful.

The big problem(s) that I see with such theories are:

  • Unlimited technology
  • Motivation

Unlimited Technology

Inherent to the idea of a technological singularity is the notion that technology is infinite. I don't think there's any reason why this has to be the case. In my own field of computers, for example, there are definite limits to what you can and cannot do. Mind you, the limits may be ridiculous, like taking the total energy in the universe and feeding it into a big-honkin computer, but there are limits. From classical physics: force = mass times acceleration, at least at the level that you and I are familiar with.

So, if technology is limited, or at least limited in some areas, then it may well be the case that humanity can reach that limit very rapidly, but then very rapidly stop increasing. The question is: where is that limit? I think it is well short of what most people would consider "godhood."

Around the year 1900, there seemed to be the same belief that mankind would suddenly develop vast powers, using steam engines or electricity, but it didn't happen. In fact, we have many of the same problems we did then: war, disease, governments, etc.

What's worse is that some of the basic technologies like trains, batteries and fuel cells are the very same that we are looking at right now.

Motivation

One of the driving forces behind technological advancement is a motivation to advance. But if you can transcend your limitations, especially with respect to intelligence, then why have motivation at all?

Looking at this from a different perspective, we assume that we will always be motivated. What if this is not the case? At some point, the pace of advance would slow, maybe even reverse.

This is not quite as crazy as it sounds. For example, the Japanese went through a period where they actively suppressed development of guns and firearms. As I understand it, this was because the samurai did not like the idea that some clown could learn how to utterly defeat them in the course of an afternoon (i.e. learn how to shoot someone), while it took years to learn how to be effective with a sword.

Then there was the Dark Ages in Europe where the pace of advancement slowed, or even went backwards.

So just to sum up, I don't think technology and science are unlimited. I also don't think that motivation is a given in all cases. In particular, don't believe that we can assume a motivation for science/technology to fuel unlimited advancement.

P.S. This blurb ignores the whole possibility of AIs "taking over" style of thing. If anybody is actually curious, I can babble on about that too :-)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Vernor Vinge

The author of several popular "hard" science fiction novels, Venor Vinge is responsible for many happy hours spent reading and daydreaming. The theme of a "technological singularity" runs through many of his works. The technological singularity, or simple "The Singularity" is the notion that, if scientific advances keep coming at a faster and faster pace, then eventually you reach a point where advances are essentially simultaneous. At that point it's hard to say what happens, but in his books, races in that situation seem to "ascend," vanishing from the world of mortals. In 1993 Vinge is quoted as saying:

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.
Given that this is 2008, that means that we have 15 years to go. At that point he will be 79, so that still gives his books a decent amount of time to sell :-) Some of the ideas that I found interesting about Vinge's works are:
  • The timespans involved: Marooned in Real Time for example takes place over the course of 50 million years.
  • The approaches he takes to super-human intelligence: rather than out-and-out replacement, his works gravitate towards gradual enchancement.
  • The notion of The Singularity.
At the end of the day, it is just reading a book or daydreaming. A far more rewarding activity would be to do something like going out and living. But, as silly activities go, I find it enjoyable :-)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

BYBS: The Aquatic Species Program

According to the US Dept of Energy, it's possible to grow fuel like farmers grow rice.

From the late 70's to mid 90's, a study called "The Aquatic Species Program" was conducted to investigate and optimize growing fuels. The outcome was that you could use algae and ponds to grow all the fuel you need.

The basic problem with the approach was that, at the time, it was twice as expensive as buying oil. Now mind you, this was back in the mid 90's - ten plus years ago. As the report noted, the price of oil had been decreasing for the last 20 years. Now that we are in the first decade of 2000, with the economies of China and India heating up, it looks like the price for oil is going to be increasing for the foreseeable future.

The good news is that this will reduce, though not eliminate, the problem of global warming from greenhouse gasses. Furthermore, it can be hoped that some of the poorer countries of the world now have something that they can trade with the richer countries - biofuel. The kinds of "farms" that the DOE came up with are what amount to great big rice paddies.

What's more, these farms do not need pure or even fresh water. Indeed, one of the potential applications for this approach was water treatment, since at the time of the report, it did not look like the fuel aspect was going to pan out.

The various countries that have large oil resources from fossil fuels can be balanced by countries that have large agricultural spaces. If the oil countries cut production, the agricultural countries can increase production.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

BYBS: Borrowing the Will of the Ball

The 1990 movie "Awakenings," is about the experiences that Dr. Oliver Sacks has with people suffering from a rare type of catatonia. He discovers that they are able of responding to their environments in rather odd ways. For example, if he holds a tennis ball in front of their eyes and drops it, the catatonic patient will catch it before it hits the ground.

He describes this behavior as "borrowing the will of the ball."

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the members talk about a "Higher Power." They admit that they have no power over alcohol; how it is stronger then they are. They try and try, but are unable to avoid drinking; and when they do, they usually keep drinking until they pass out.

An alcoholic who manages to stay sober presents something of a mystery. Since the alcoholic admits that they do not have the willpower to stay sober, something else must be responsible. AA members refer to this as the person's "Higher Power." A Higher Power is often regarded as God or similar agency.

I thought about all this when I noticed that this week I had managed to stick to my gnome-inspired diet for the whole week. At the same time, I exercised every day. Most days for 60 minutes. 60 wonderful, joyous, happy minutes. As I will admit to anyone within earshot, I do not have the willpower to do this. But if I don't, then what is responsible?

In my habit of coining phrases for the mundane, I've decided to call this "borrowing the will of the ball;" thus paying homage back to Dr. Sacks. I have to admit that calling it a Higher Power sounds much cooler, but I'm afraid that AA members will beat me up if I do. Some of them are probably gnomez too.

My blessing for the week is the will… at least until I lose my fear of gnomez. Crafty little buggers…and they're always smiling.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

BYBS: Silly Achievement

Recently, I finally released a piece-of-crap application that I've been working on for a while. The name, what it does, etc. is not really important. What is important is that it involves gnomez…female gnomez…hehe, hehehe, hehehehehehe.

What am I saying?!!

I was trying to communicate that it's nice to have finally created a release. While it's not the world's greatest achievement or even that interesting an application, it is something that I've wanted to do for a while.

Furthermore, it provides an example of a milestone. Ever since I read the Blue Panther BYBS post on milestones, I've been unable to comment on his blog because I couldn't think of any milestone in my life that did not involve a sign like "abandon hope all ye who enter here."

Of course now that I've completed this Major Life Goal™ it means that I have no excuse for not cleaning up the basement. I guess you have to try and focus on the good aspects…

So break out the champagne! Jump up and down! Hug a gnome! Alright, the gnome is probably going too far, but it's still worth writing about :-)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

BYBS: Learning

In a previous post, I mentioned that exams were an experience in pain. I guess that is a specific example of the maxim: "With pain comes suffering." Hmm… that doesn't seem quite right. I know! It was actually "With suffering comes resentment!" No…that's not quite right either. Perhaps it was "The ends justify the means?" "Sometimes to save something you have to destroy it?"

OK, it was "With pain comes growth." Yes, that was it. Or more specifically, I have found with learning comes growth. Often times pain as well, but that's not exactly what I'm writing this entry about.

The ability to learn, to understand something I could not understand before, or do something I could not do before is an ability I regard as near-miraculous. It is one of the things that mark living creatures. It is one of the things that I think of as necessary for intelligence.

For someone like me, it is a big part of spirituality.

In particular the ability to learn from mistakes is an important aspect of spiritual growth. It is often times hard for me to admit mistakes. "I was wrong" is something I do not like to say, even to myself. This is partially because it seems to happen a lot, and partially because it is not something that I hear from a lot of people.

But being able to do something that I could not do before opens up a whole new world. The person I thought I was may not be correct; limitations I thought I had may no longer apply; other possibilities that I thought were closed may now be open. That part is a truly wonderful experience.

I am not a real big fan of effort or pain. But I have to admit, the cost of effort and pain are temporary. The opportunities of learning are…

Sunday, May 18, 2008

BYBS: Respect for the Beast

A long time friend of mine had a cat named "La Bete" which he said was French for "the Beast."

Many years ago, he and I found a sick bird. We put it in a shoebox and attempted to nurse it back to health. At least until the cat found it.

"Why did it kill the bird?! I mean it has all the food it wants, but nonetheless it killed the poor thing!"

In retrospect, I could have rephrased the question: "What else would you expect the cat to do?"

As I'm fond of telling people, cats are obligate predators: their teeth and digestive tracts are not set up for plants. The cells of a cat are able to directly use protein for energy in more ways that those of an omnivore. When fed largely carbohydrates (i.e., dry cat food), they have a tendency to develop diabetes.

With an animal like that, hunting is not a matter of choice - it is "hard wired."

To coin a phrase, a cat is a beast.

Realizing this and planning around it gives me a measure of control. I can rage about how the cat should not kill a bird I found…or I can ask the next door neighbor to take care of it. I can lecture the cat about how it should moderate how much food it eats…but it would probably work better if I feed it wet cat food.

Understanding and planning around the nature of a cat is what I mean by "respecting the beast." What I find remarkable is that I can be rational about a cat, but I still find myself trying to change what I cannot in other situations.

"Why don't I exercise more?!!" Well, I've tried to change all my life by "reasoning" with myself with no success. On the other hand, putting on a good movie or DVD only when I exercise actually seems to work.

"I really should not buy junk food when I go to the supermarket!!" I tell myself that a lot, but making sure that I don't go shopping when I'm hungry has actually resulted in lost weight.

Looking around, I see a lot of other situations where this logic applies…

Sunday, May 11, 2008

BYBS: Roles & the Internet

More specifically, I'm referring to taking on a persona or playing a role on the internet or a computer game. This also applies to things like discussion groups, chat rooms, etc.

Social Psychology/Sociology has quite a few studies and theories regarding roles. What I think the internet and computer games brought to the table is the notion of a "virtual role." Things like "massively multi-player online role-playing games" are social in nature with real (or real enough) people using them. In this context, people can take on a role and then walk away from it.

This aspect has interesting ramifications in that people can therefore act like total freaks, fools, saints, devils, etc. in short, they can attempt to take on whatever role they want to. This allows one to experiment with different roles in social contexts without real danger, though there are social consequences in the online world too.

The ability to experiment with roles is not itself new, but the ability to do so in a situation where one's physical aspects may not be the same as those of the role is at least newish. Someone who thinks that they are unattractive can play the role of an attractive person. Someone who is physically weak can play the role of a strong person. Someone with a stutter can speak perfectly.

With these blessings, however, come several curses. In the case of taking on roles in this setting, you have hecklers, rabble rousers, etc. Furthermore there are the people who want to stay with their online role instead of making real-world changes.

I regard the ability of being able to experiment with negative roles to be valuable as well. How do people really react to what amounts to a criminal? Do these bad guys always get punished? Are there benefits to being "good?"

I'm usually in favor of knowledge, so I come down on the "blessing" side of the equation. What do you think?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

BYBS: Experience with Finals

Being the outstanding student that I am not, one of the things that featured largely in my thought was the notion of final exams. To be more precise the fear of final exams.

I was never sure what other people's excuses were regarding studying, but I seemed to have a neurotic tendency to avoid doing it. I really don't understand why: was it fear of failure? Laziness? The only thing I know for sure is that I would not do the work and instead lived in a state of permanent fear regarding the tests.

The tests themselves were usually an exercise in pain. Each would consist of an hour or two that demonstrated my lack of knowledge and laziness. Once complete, the dread of having to take one was replaced by the dread of what sort of grade I had gotten. Usually, by some miracle, I managed to do OK, which meant that I would graduate onto the next layer of pain.

Now I face yet another final. Unlike the previous ones, I have no fear of it. Before I needed to prepare for the exam; this time there is no preparation required. It used to be that you actually had to arrive at the place of torture to perform the test. With this one, the test comes to you. Previous tests required a clear state of mind to be successful; this test has no such requirement.

The only strange thing about this test is that, unlike previous exams, the people around me are terrified whereas I am almost looking forward to it.

One of the benefits of having gone through a lot of tests I suppose.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

BYBS: Cyrano De Bergerac

If you haven't seen this movie (1990, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau), then beg/borrow/steal a copy. A warning: the original dialog is French with English subtitles. I don't speak or understand French (at all), so no idea what the English dialog may be like.

It is a superb and very entertaining movie. To my untrained eye, the sets are very much in keeping with the period, the characters appropriately foppish or serious as the situation requires, Roxanne is beautiful and Cyrano's nose truly epic.

The movie has the themes of love, desire, longing and regret, but it also has heroism and redemption. Furthermore it has the theme of compassion, especially in the way that Cyrano deals with situations in which he is put. For example, a mortally wounded Christian (the man that Roxanne thinks is writing all those wonderful letters) believes that Roxanne does not love her because he did not write the letters. As he is passing, Cyrano tells him "I have told her all and it is you she loves."

Be warned that it is a tragedy (I guess the bit above sort of gives it away), so no Hollywood-esque ending for this movie, but I find it much more satisfying than what another movie from around the same time. I'm referring to "Roxanne" with Steve Martin. Roxanne is a comedy/romance that takes the same plot and brings it into a more contemporary setting. Roxanne is not so much "bad" as just seeing it next to Cyrano highlights how "good" the French version is.

Anyhow, movies like that, to which my blackened and cynical spirit respond, are truly blessings to me. It reminds me that yes there is love, even if it is an ideal.

= = = = = = = =

* = Finding the copyright holder for the poster was ridiculously difficult. Even sites that displayed it did not indicate who said holder is. What I listed is my best guess, but if anyone actually knows, please drop me a line.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

BYBS: Loss

I was reading through some other people's blogs and I was struck by the sadness that I saw expressed there over loss. I was trying to think of how loss could be a blessing, and I had a hard time coming up with anything.

So my thoughts naturally turned to something that people everywhere think about at this time of year.

Taxes

OK, so only the people in the USA associate taxes with this time of the year. These other people can contemplate how their lack of taxes is a blessing.

Personally, I'm counting my lack of having to deal with any more forms, publications, instructions, statements, more forms, designations, specifications, and all the stuff in between.

Yes, it is a great loss, having to see all these fiends go…er…I meant friends, yes, that's what I meant to say. At any rate, such things are a great loss. To know that all those people who might have been thinking of me, will now turn to other things.

But then I know that, when this time of year comes around again, that my friends will once again think of me.

And once again, I will look forwards to my loss.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

BYBS: Glorfindel

After reading CyberCelt's BYBS posting, I felt inspired enough to write up my BYBS for the week. Here is my friend, Glorfindel:

I wish I could claim credit for the pic, but it was taken by a friend named Jim.

At any rate, this was taken when Glor was still alive. Unfortunately, he passed away quite a few years ago (sharp eyed people may notice the World Trade Center in the background).

He was a very good friend in times both good and bad. He also had some strange habits like putting his cat food in his water, bounding up to scratching posts from across the room and sleeping in my underwear drawer.

Like most cats, he showed a great deal of latitude towards humans, and was willing to deal with them on either his terms, or what he wanted. He also had quite sharp claws, so it paid to be flexible when working with him as well :-)

I miss him a great deal, but as a previous post pointed out, one cannot keep tomorrow from coming by trying to hang onto today. Instead I'm just glad he was willing to accept my company for a time.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

BYBS: The Raw Power of Ignorance

Last week, in addition to making a cryptic statement about what "living in the now" means, I made an uncharacteristically sound decision: I waited, I contemplated and I researched instead of taking action immediately. As it turned out, this was a good move.

I won't bore you with the details but, assuming the USA does not completely dissolve in this latest "financial crisis," it involves the world of low finance. Basically I'm trying to ensure that, when it comes time to retire, I have a nice cardboard box to call my own and some reasonable tasting cat food to eat.

So this guy was trying to get me to buy into some whack-a-doodle mutual fund and left a few key details like "yeah there's this little fee you pay when you get into it that (gosh) you don't have to pay if you invest with anyone else." And "sure this compares well to some index, but for some strange reason the usual standard for comparison is left out of the analysis."

Being the highly informed, well-education person that I am, I had no clue. At all.

But with the power of the phrase "I am clueless!" comes the freedom to learn something. So off to the internet I went and researched the stuff. For several tedious hours. I asked around and proclaimed my ill-informed state to anyone that would listen. And then I listened. And I learned.

I wont claim that I have turned over a new leaf, or that this is the opening of a new chapter in my life…mostly because I doubt I would get away with it. But I did learn something this week. Thanks to being clueless.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

BYBS: Today

Yesterday I realized something about today: I wasn't living it.

While I might value today, or the past, if I don't let it go, I cannot experience today.

This was of course, yesterday. Which makes tomorrow today. That sort of sounds confusing, but, oh well.

At any rate, I decided to let today be today and let yesterday be yesterday. So here I am. Today.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

BYBS: Science News

Science News is a weekly publication about (wait for it) news in the scientific community! I'm a fan of this sort of thing because it's usually good news. So much of the news I hear is about very bad things: how people are being killed in places like Iraq or Darfur, how the US leads the developed world in infant mortality, our elected officials have approved yet another abomination, etc. News about a scientific development, even when it's about something like global warming, demonstrates that we're smart, that we can work together, how there's hope.

I like Science News in particular because it's short, timely and approachable. Unlike Scientific American, the thing is about 15 pages long. If we're only counting article pages, then it's down to 8 to 10 page. If you read every single page in an issue it would probably take 2 hours, tops. If you're like me, and just read the stuff that sounds interesting, it takes less than an hour.

Science News is also about recent developments. Its articles are about stuff that's happening now, as opposed to things that happened a year ago. The articles are written for a general audience. Everyone's work is gibberish to most other people, so the writers make no assumptions about the reader.

The icing on the cake is that, as a not for profit, many of the articles are available for free on the web. www.sciencenews.org is where you can take a look if you are interested.

I tells ya, life doesn't get much better than this :-)

Notes:

Sunday, March 02, 2008

BYBS: Sanity

For a good part of my life I was convinced I was going to die in a nuclear war. The US and the USSR had thousands of weapons pointed at each other. One misstep, one mistake could cause the end of the world.

To me, this was humanity's ultimate demonstration of stupidity, paranoia and insanity. It was what was wrong with us. Why we deserved to become extinct.

But then something happened. More specifically nothing happened. Even more specifically, the US and the USSR did not obliterate each other.

I'm not sure how this affected anyone else, but for me, it was a life changing event. I was so used to being cynical, so set in the belief that there was no hope, that nothing could be changed. The knowledge that we as a race could avoid the choice of destruction for any reason was an option that simply did not exist in my world.

This was something whose benefits I still feel today. The more obvious is that I'm alive, but the more subtle is that now I'm not quite so cynical about people. I give them the benefit of the doubt. I have hope.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

BYBS: Luck

Most of the time, I don't consider myself to be very lucky, but compared to some people I'm familiar with I've hit the lottery, made it big, retired, etc. For all my bitching and moaning, I've been incredibly fortunate.

I have a friend who is a single mother. She's in her early twenties, has a crappy job, etc. She was recently injured and is in great deal of pain when she moves. The web is filled with blogs about people whose situations are similar.

It's when I read about stuff like that and meet the people behind them that the reality sets in for me. I'm living in a fantasy, they are living in reality. The reality where you are 4 flat tires away from bankruptcy. The reality where you'd better not loose your job or you could literally be on the street.

While I can take credit for some of my situation, the fact of the matter is that I got lucky. I got lucky in that I was born into a family who were doing well financially, and who cared about me. I got lucky in the opportunities of my life. I got incredibly lucky when I found my wife.

I don't believe that this is a result of having been good in a previous life and I don't believe that I'm chosen by some super natural being. There are simply too many examples of people suffering due to nature, circumstances, etc. for me to accept that.

I do believe that I've been lucky.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Runaway Story

I try to be short and to the point, I really do, but this story is getting away from me. Currently, I'm looking at 16 to 30 pages plus 8 to 16 more that I haven't edited and there's still a lot of stuff I need to write. My goal is to keep the story below 30 pages.

It's times like this that I look back fondly on the days when I had writer's block.

I would sit there, literally all night, write out a sentence, decided it sucked, throw it away, and start over again. If I was lucky, I managed to write one page, but usually I ended up with nothing.

These days I plop down in the chair and force myself to write about a page, and then reward myself with some quality time on World of Warcraft. I realize that it still probably stinks, but hey, I still get to play WoW. After about a month and a half of this I have 30 to 45 pages to work with.

Then the dreaded editing process starts.

The goal is to shrink the story down 30 pages or less. Cut out all the fluff and drivel (well most of it anyways), so that what's left is just the essentials.

At least that's the theory.

The reality is that I'm faced with 30 to 45 pages of drivel that I can try to splice together into something comprehensible. This prospect alone is enough to get me to shuffle off and spend lots of quality time with WoW in order to avoid it.

So, the good news is that I don't have anywhere near the problem with writer's block that I used to. The bad news is that now I have editor's block.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

BYBS: Exercise

A device that bears a striking resemblance to a to torture rack.

This posting is about how much I love exercise!

Lies.

The fact is that I think exercise sucks. It's boring. It's difficult to get my lazy butt to do it. At times it can be painful. I pretty much hate exercise.

As the picture above shows, this is about that wonderful, exciting thing called "Cardio-Vascular" exercise. The stuff where you plod, plod, plod and sweat, sweat, sweat in order to get in 30min or whatever your goal is.

But wait – there's more! An extra blessing you can get is a heart rate monitor. This gadget will monitor your heart rate and inform you when you are cheating and not working hard enough.

That way you can work harder. Isn't that nice?

I do like the benefits though:

  • Weight control – you burn calories while exercising and but also when not exercising. This is due to increased muscle mass. Honest. For Sure.
  • Cardio – your heart is in much better shape than if you don't exercise. You'll live longer. In fact, all the extra time you'll live will be spent exercising.
  • Overall health – exercise is associated with all kinds of other aspects of health, from a better immune system to improved mental outlook. I know I feel much better after I exercise...dammit.

On the last point I think that the improved mental outlook comes from realizing that any moment you spend not exercising is a good one. If you see someone smiling in a meeting, it's probably because they think "Yes, this meeting is a boring waste of time, but it could be worse…I could be exercising!"