Friday, July 31, 2009


Have you ever noticed that the people who talk the most about revolution are some of the least in need of one? I hear people complaining about taxes, threatening revolution. Or gun control, saying we need a revolution. And ya know what, the people who are really poor in this country, really getting shit on, I don't hear from them. And they're the ones who need a freaking revolution. If you're rich enough to be paying a lot of taxes, you are probably one of the people that gets revolted against, not one of the revolters. Most of the people I see in the NRA don't look like poor oppressed masses to me. Why revolt when you're making enough money to own 100 guns? What are you bitching about?

I've heard this from both sides of the political divide, too. I had this friend in college who was awesome, and very left. Actually, he was a Marxist. And he would talk about the revolution. So one day I asked him why he was so eager for the masses to rise up and kill us. We were both white, both middle to upper middle class, both certainly benefiting from the capitalist society more than the Marxist masses. He actually seemed a bit taken aback. He said we'd be the inteligentia. I just didn't see people approaching he and I to be the intelligentia. But who knows, maybe I'm wrong.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for change. Truly. I think things need to change, in lots of ways. Now I may be totally off base here but I just think that praying for revolution is a stupid, stupid thing. I think people who say these things have never thought about what a revolution would mean. What any freaking war means, much less a civil war. I think revolution is an utter failure of every side of a debate and to be avoided at almost any cost, and I hope it is never necessary and never occurs.

Veering away on a tangent, I think it would be fascinating to study revolutions, though. To try to figure out when and why they occur and if they've ever involved revolts against things like, oh, I don't know, gun contorl laws or health care policy. There is probably some really awesome book on the topic that does just that - goes through history and examines revolutions in a succinct and useful way. If there isn't there should be. And if there is, let me know what it is!

Bureaucracies are just weird.

Shifter here.

First, just have to comment that bureaucracy is one of the hardest damn words on the plant to spell. I mean it sucks. I try and try, and I can't even get it close enough to have a spell checker know what I am getting at. I keep trying beauracracy, which is way, way off, but doesn't look that much worse than bureaucracy.

It's only fitting that we should give it an odd spelling, though, because the damn things are just as odd. I have to admit that bureaucracy is a brilliant invention. I know that sounds weird, but how on earth is someone supposed to coordinate huge groups of people doing disparate things with massive amounts of input and output, resources and products, all in some vaguely common direction? Bureaucracy lets you do that. That doesn't mean it doesn't suck, but it lets you do that. So I admit that. Given.

But, at the same time, it does suck. Here are just a few tiny examples. A few years ago someone in my organization, on the national level, screwed up and took home a laptop with vast amounts of private information about a few million customers. Not bright, granted. Then he lost the lap top. It was stolen, and it was unencrypted, and it was a mess. The bureaucracy had to act. First, it implemented a series of mandatory trainings in which the tens of thousands of employees, across the country, had to listen to how it was a bad idea to take home private information about customers on unencrypted lap tops. Never mind that the rank and file boobs, like myself, who had to take these trainings don't even have access to millions of customer accounts at a time and so could never even take home that information if, for some godforsaken reason, we'd want to. It would be stupid for us to have that kind of access. And we don't. The kinds of people who do have that access probably didn't have to take the freaking training. Too high up, if you see what I mean. Second, it implemented a series of progressively more and more draconian bans on any means of moving data off of the facilities. You weren't allowed to take laptops home unless they were superencrypted. You weren't allowed to email anything that might contain private data. There were rumors of removing all writable disk drives from all pcs (like CD-R's or DVD-R's) so no data could be transmitted that way. You could not take ANY information off site, even if that information had NO private data involved whatsoever. If it was a bunch of random zeros and ones, with no ties to any single person, you weren't supposed to take it off site. And you could not, under any circumstances, use a thumb drive. The guards had orders to shoot thumb drives on site.

Now this last provision had a lot of us, those of us who do research, mostly, up in arms. You see, I could care less about emailing private information. I don't own an organization laptop because of the kind of draconian crap I'm talking about here. And who needs to burn DVDs on a routine basis. But thumb drives? Well, those matter. Thumb drives were INCREDIBLY useful. With a thumb drive, this cheap little bit of plastic, metal, and silicon, you could have entire file structures full of your projects available at work, at home, or on the road. If you de-identified any of your data (which is a good practice anyway) there was zero risk for loss of privacy to customers. Without thumb drives, working from home, or on the road, became vastly more difficult and time consuming. But rather than saying "don't put identifiable information on thumb drives" they simply said "don't use them."

So we all had a fit. I mean it was close to anarchy. If you want to laugh, watch a bunch of eggheads in a crowded staff meeting getting mad at all the facility heads because they can't have their thumbdrives. Marx would have loved it. So the local bureaucracy came up with an alternative. Encrypted thumb drives! Yes, these puppies would encrypt the information stored on them so that if you lost the thumb drive, no harm done! Brilliant!

Except! Except that 1) you had to have software installed on a pc before it could access the drive, 2) our pc's were set up so that we couldn't install the software, we had to have IRM do it, 3) if you installed the software on your home pc it tended to conflict with other software, and 4) 2 weeks after getting the damn thing it got some bug that wiped the data off of it. This went over well. I gave up, utterly, on it for about 2 years. I started emailing files back and forth from my work to my office every night to get work done. Sometimes I couldn't get stuff done because the right files were in the wrong place. I got so frustrated with this that 4 months ago I finally called IRM and asked them to reset my damn encrypted thumb drive so I could try it again. They informed me that those drives were no longer supported by the organization and I should turn it in, and that I was out of luck. My head exploded, just a bit, and I soldiered on.

So here's the weird part though. Two days ago I called someone to ask if I could use an effective, logical, and extremely efficient procedure to move large amounts of data off their server in an encrypted fashion. Isn't a terrabyte external hard drive a better medium than 450 damn DVDs? I was told no, of course not. The exact words were "that would be nice, wouldn't it." But it was not approved by the ISO, would never be approved by the ISO, and so could not happen. Period. But then, off handedly, they mentioned that there are these new thumb drives that are approved. I had never heard of them. Almost afraid, I asked if I could get one. They said only if I had one of the old ones. I said I did. Two days later I had a brand spanking new Ironkey thumbdrive. And the freaking thing works. It is, I kid you not, waterproof, tamperproof, approved for use in military operations, and encased in metal. It costs 2-3x what a normal thumb drive does, but it's got onboard hardware encryption so it can run even on our freaking pcs. I loves it.

So, 2 years of pain, yelling, misery, until I'm beat into the ground, hopeless, and then a reprieve! A new thumb drive. Still have to waste about 60 man-hours of my staffs labor on an archaic data encryption and transport project, but I've got a thumb drive. And the bureaucracy churns on.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Noah = twisted

Have you ever wondered why Christians tell the tale of Noah to all the little kids? It's like one of the number 1 kid stories from the bible. Why? It's not really a great story for kids. I mean, sure, it has animals and stuff, and boats, and I guess those are both kid things. But it also has the destruction of all life on the planet except for the two elephants, two tigers, two mosquitos, two aardvarks, two geckos, and 2 giraffes on the boat. That's really very grim. It's like the biggest holocaust in the entire bible, and it's a favorite kid story. And it doesn't really put god in that good of a light, does it? He got so mad at everyone for screwing up that he decided to kill everyone except his favorite. And he rewarded that favorite by making him work his ass off and spend a bunch of time in a big wooden boat that is packed with fighting animals and, presumably, an inordinate amount of animal doodie. I mean I hear a story like that and I'm kind of like, wow, what a dick! But they hear it and say "what a wonderful story to teach our kids about the lord!" Werid weird weird. Chapter 2 should be the 7 plagues of Egypt - still more light story telling for the child in all of us.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Maybe I Miss Walking a Little Less

When I worked at my old company, my friends and I often walked the Manhattan Bridge instead of walking the Brooklyn Bridge. It was loud because of the subway, but it had way fewer people on it, so you had a little more elbow room.

No wonder.

Learning a Foreign Language

For reasons I won't go into, I've recently decided to give learning a foreign language another whirl.  I had always sort of wanted to resurrect my French and try to breathe some life into it, but this time around I'm trying to learn Italian.  And no, it's not because I saw "Under the Tuscan Sun" one too many times, although I have seen it way too often. 
Learning a language may well be easier now than ever before.  The software that is available is mind-blowing.  When I took French, the height of listening to native French speakers was to watch Robert et Mireille on PBS.  Robert et Mireille had conversations about shopping.  Mireille never wore a bra.  You can see that the important stuff really sank in.  It was fine, but it wasn't exactly a unique and varied tapestry of native speech.  Plus, unless you deliberately recorded every episode, you wouldn't have the opportunity to run it back and listen to something again.
I'm using software from my library, called "Tell Me More," by a company called Auralog.  The principle is somewhat like Rosetta Stone, in that it's a multimedia program, but I've never used Rosetta Stone.  I went with this partly because I could get it from the library (although I ended up buying my own copy to get some added features) and partly because I anticipate needing extra help with pronunciation, and this program seemed to offer a lot of opportunities to practice and compare your pronunciation with that of "native speakers."  (I say that in quotes because I can only imagine what you'd learn comparing your pronunciation to a random native speaker of English.)
It's fantastic.  On almost all the screens, you have the opportunity to pause and point at any Italian word.  You can hear someone say it, you can attempt to pronounce it, and if it's a verb, you can access the conjugation for it.  It's great for trying to figure out how to say new things, and it's a good way to try to intensify the language learning experience by focusing on the things you don't understand.  So far the biggest barrier to correct pronunciation seems to be the reluctance to move my face in the ways that will produce the sound.  In many cases it seems like the only way to produce a particular phoneme is by moving my mouth in a way that feels like I'm making a funny face.  Looking back, this was my biggest problem with French, as well, because the minute I started pronouncing things clearly, I had the Monty Python Holy Grail knights in my head.  ("Silly English kuuuuuuneeggits")  But having the immediate feedback helps a lot.  I'm hoping that I'll do better with Italian than I did with French because there's so much more opportunity to do things outside of "class exercises."
Now if I could just train my computer to understand that if I plug the headset in, I want to use it, that would be awesome.


Partly because it's the summer, and there seem to be relatively few summer series vying for my attention, I've recently gotten engrossed in Dexter.  I was always sort of intrigued by it, but like other series for cable, I simply ignored it because I'm not willing to pay for a premium channel.  But Netflix offered it free (with my Netflix subscription) in my instant view queue, and since I had been vaguely interested before, I decided to give it a try.
The premise is that Dexter is a serial killer.  When Dexter is small, his foster father Harry spies the hallmarks of a psychopath and goes to extraordinary lengths to teach Dexter to control his compulsion to kill.  Since Harry takes it as a given that Dexter will kill, this has the effect of making Dexter a compulsive vigilante, and the child grows up to become (what else?) a forensic scientist specializing in blood spatter analysis.  (Work with your strengths, eh?) 
The show uses this premise to explore a variety of philosophical problems--the question of nature versus nurture, whether anyone is definitively incapable of good, what makes someone good, what makes someone crazy (there's a somewhat scientific set of criteria for this, but then there's also just the "that bitch is crazy" definition), what makes someone a real friend, and a host of specific ethical dilemmas.  What's the true essence of compassion?  If you don't feel anything for a person, but you act toward them as a compassionate person would, and your intentions are good, is that compassion?  Or without the feeling is it all counterfeit?  There's a pinocchio aspect of the story that I'm always a sucker for.  (If you liked Data in The Next Generation or Angel or Spike in Buffy, then the character of Dexter is right up your alley, although the morals of Dexter are, by design, far murkier than those of either the Star Trek universe or the Buffyverse.)
And of course, at the center of it all is the question of whether Dexter is really a psychopath.  He tells us over and over that he doesn't have any feelings, that he experiences no remorse or compassion or empathy, but it seems impossible for him to have the problems and relationships he experiences without them.  Did Harry take a normal kid and just screw him up?  If so, was it an accident, or is there something we don't know about Harry?  Or is Dexter just that good at pretending to be human?
It's very good, and it would be a great basis for a "Dexter and Philosophy" book--I hope one is in the works.  The other characters are real gems, too--the show really enjoys drawing round characters, sometimes fleshing out a character with breathtaking economy even as his or her execution approaches.  It's a fascinating show and I've really enjoyed getting caught up with it.  Now I just have to settle in for the very long wait for Season 4, since I'm still not interested in paying for a premium channel.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

This Charming Man

Don't you just hate it when your beach read turns out to be a somewhat depressing and truthful novel about rape, domestic abuse, and alcoholism, leavened only by surprisingly fun passages about cross-dressing potato farmers? Yeah, me too.

Reluctantly, I have to let go of Marian Keyes the reliable producer of smart-but-sugary fiction and make room for Marian Keyes the mature writer. The end is a bit of a letdown--it falls back into the familiar ending that makes you want to fall asleep in the hot sand and smear the final page with Coppertone. But the good stuff is there, and not always pretty. Be warned--the Charming Man is no Daniel Cleaver. He's the real deal.

Excuse me while I go drown my sorrows in sugar and something light and fluffy.

X3: Reunion

I was glancing over at the Time Wasters section of the blog and realized it is hopelessly out of date. I need to update it, so it will be in date, I suppose. For example, I no longer play Fallen Sword (it has gone gently into that good night - amazing how addictive a relatively simplistic game can be) and haven't become the Master of Orion in months now. Other Time Wasters took their place, including Hinterlands. I blogged about Hinterlands, and then had to stop playing it, because it was becoming too much of a Time Waster. I'm pretty sure I also mentioned Fallout 3, which was a Time Waster until I beat it and uninstalled it. Good game, really, but by the time I beat it I couldn't wait to get it off my hard drive so I could go on to something else.

So the latest potential Time Waster, emphasis on the word potential, is X3: Reunion. This is a space sim in the tradition of Elite (for those who are steeped in the lore of the good old days of early PCs) or Freelancer (for those who are not). Yes, it's in that tradition, but bigger, much, much bigger. And infinitely more complex. In Elite and Freelancer you can shoot down bad guys, steal their stuff, sell it, become a merchant, do different kind of missions, buy new ships, put on cool new weapons, and so on. In short, you're kind of a space Privateer (I forgot to mention Wing Commander: Privateer, which is also in that tradition). Space Rangers, more recently also has that aspect to it. (I think I play too many games!). But in X3, you can ALSO build up a fleet of trading ships, buy space stations to manufacture goods, set up trade routes, become a bounty hunter, become a smuggler, hunt aliens, hunt pirates, purchase and captain capital class ships, set up your own defense platforms, and on and on and on. You can also design your own campaigns and edit the game with scripts. At least, I think you can do all these awesome things. I wouldn't know because I can't figure the @#$! thing out. The documentation I got was minimal, and even the more extensive documentation in earlier printings of the game could barely scratch the surface of it. The interface is damnably complicated and unintuitive, requiring you to go through many different menus to do things you have to do frequently. As an example, figuring out how to speed the game up when you're on the frequent long hauls across a star system longing to get to the action is not covered in any of the documentation, and when you do figure it out it helps only a little bit. Combat is fun but not fun enough, and the time it takes to get to where you actually have enough resources to even start doing any of the stuff I have outlined above is, well, far more time than I've had so far.

X3 came out a few years ago and I couldn't wait for it to get cheap so I could buy it. I bought it, installed it, booted it up, and then pulled my hair out for hours trying to figure it out. Now let's be clear - I have played a lot of games in my day. A lot. And I've done a fair amount of work on computers in various ways, as a user and a second rate programmer. If I can't figure out a game, something is amiss. So I played it for a few weeks and then retired it. But lately I've had an urge to tackle the learning curve again, to really master this @#!#, because the rewards look so enticing. This is like my dream space sim! It's got everything I want in a space sim! Except for playability and fun.

So, will I stick with it? To be honest it's doubtful. When I was younger and had much more time, and patience, I absolutely would have stayed with it and would have mastered it and I think loved it. But I just don't have the time and interest to do that anymore. Not when Real Life has so much stuff to do, and when there are so many other games sitting on my shelf waiting to be played that won't have a 2 week learning curve before I can start enjoying them. But I'll try it out a few more hours, just to see. If a sudden lightbulb of insight appears over my head, and I start loving it, I'll let you know.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Anyone who's ever spent a lot of time watching Monty Python knows that it can ruin your life. Examples are numerous but I'll pick just two. First, if you happen to watch a lot of Monty Python you may find yourself reciting certain passages from the movies at parties while drunk. This is guaranteed to get you a laugh or two, but also guaranteed to make certain you do not get a date with anyone at the party. Or anyone who knows anyone at that party. Laugh = good, no date = life ruined. Not that this has ever happened to me! No, never.

Second example. Say you've seen Life of Brian a few too many times. Then say you start watching Rome, that cool series on HBO. Well if you've seen Life of Brian a mere, say, 10 times you're bound to remember the empewah of Wome who spoke wif somfing of a wifp. Actually it wasn't a wifp, he just couldn't say his r's or l's. As in, "Citizens of Jewusawem! Wome is youw fwiend!" So if you do recall that you'll never be able to say to your wife "Let's go watch an episode of Rome." No, indeed. As you've guessed, my wife and I are quite fond of watching Wome.

I think LIfe of Brian said it best: Tewwific wace, the Womans. Tewwific!


Shifter here.

Well, I finished Freakanomics. My apologies for not putting the book in the side bar there, I just forgot. I'm also no longer reading The Hero of Ages, but I imagine you'll all survive my inaccuracies for the moment. This post is about Freakanomics.

Overall I'd have to say it was a very enjoyable read. It was also surprisingly easy. I can see why it's sold so well. It's got some surprising and thought provoking content by an obviously very bright pair of authors who make it very easy to follow. Their arguments are indeed novel, and they pull out some interesting data to back up their ideas. I'd say it was definitely worth the read, and the price at Half Price Books.

So there's your quick look. Now let's go a bit more in depth. The authors start the book by saying there is no unifying theme in the chapters that follow, and they are entirely accurate. They cover all kinds of !@#$. From how people name their kids (and the effect of a kid's name on their life) to how to catch a cheating 3rd grade teacher to what is the effect of abortion laws on national crime statistics. In between are tidbits on the death penalty and a very interesting piece on the economy and life style of honest to goodness real crack dealers. Who, by the way, sound really different than the ones you see on TV. Go figure. So who among us would read that list and not say "cool! There's some stuff in there that interests me!" And it does, it does! On the other hand, their promise not to have a theme has one small problem - there's no theme! It's like a reader's digest of micro-economic theory and analysis. So when you finish you're kind of like "what did I just read??" To that extent I would have to say that I preferred the Logic of Life book. It was very similar in applying microeconomic principles, which essentially means using the assumption that people do things for incentives, to everyday situations. But it was organized around a basic idea (namely, that people do things for incentives, and that this rational principle leads to some seemingly irrational behavior). While Logic was not as sparkling as Freak, it was more satisfying at least in that respect.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Freak, though, is that Levitt (one of the authors) is a published and well known economist. By "published" I mean academically published - he does analyses that stand up to peer review and are accepted or at least debated by people who Should Know This Stuff. He sounds like he could be one of those freaking geniuses. I've met about 2 people in my life who I'd put in that category, and I bet he's right up there. So there are all these references to what look to be really interesting papers, which I'm actually considering tracking down. I'm obviously not an economist but I can read stats well enough to follow a fair bit, I think. I suspect the papers may be as interesting in some regards as the book.

Just as with Logic, I found Freak to be full of a huge amount of post-hockery. Meaning that you have no hypothesis, you find a bunch of data, then you create your explanation based on the data. In my field this is a Bad Thing and journal editors will rip your academic throat out for doing it too much. But the more I think of it the more I think that economics, at least as it's practiced by these guys, must operate by entirely different principles. When it comes to real world behavior they, even more than people in my field, can't do experiments. They can barely even try. So all they really can do is study large amounts of data and then guess at what it means. They can make a guess from one set of data, then check another set of data to see if their guess holds up, which isn't a bad way to do it. But it's not quite the same as formulating a hypothesis and then running an experiment to see how it holds up. On the other hand, most of my reseearch is survey research, which generates data but doesn't do any expermental manipulation, so you can make the same argument about my stuff. But you wouldn't do that to me, would you??

As I write this, I'm remembering that Logic referred to some actual experiments that had some interesting results. By experiments, I mean situations in which you put people into controlled settings where you were able to have one set behave under one set of circumstances and another behave under a different set of circumstances. If you've randomly assigned people to your groups, and your groups end up acting very differently from each other, you can conclude it was due to the circumstances that you imposed. But I digress. The thing is while Logic had a few references to such experiments (some of which were by economists, but most weren't), Freak didn't touch them. So it seems the kins of analysis that Levitt and his co-author do are more oriented to the "real world" and thus noncontrolled data.

So there you have it! My rambling, rather uninformative opinion about Freakanomics. It's a good read and it should get an extra point or two for it's cool name. Freak out.

In Pursuit of the Common Good

It was the original title that attracted me to this book: Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good. It just had the ring of devil-may-care do-goodery about it, the heart of the Butch Cassidy character in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." You know the guy--the scoundrel with a heart of gold. I'd be surprised if the book isn't required reading for some MBA program somewhere. If it isn't, it should be.

It's what being an entrepreneur was supposed to be before everybody was one. It's about the innovation that comes from not knowing the rules, knowing that you don't know the rules, and wanting to get shit done anyway. It's the story of how Paul Newman and A E Hotchner grew the Newman's Own charity empire out of homemade salad dressing.

It's also entertaining, at least until you get to the stage where each Hole in the Wall children's camp is described in loving detail--after a while the similarities in their tales drown out their miraculous individuality. It's a pity, but it's not enough to take the wind out of the book's sails--there's still plenty to inspire whatever tender-hearted miscreant is lurking under your healthy 21st-century cynicism.

Warning--may cause you to pick up an extra Newman's Own item at the store. Why look at that! A book that lives up to its title!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bad breath?

I have a question, dear imaginary readers, that I'm afraid you'll be unable to answer.

The question is this: Do I stink?

I ask because in the past 2 weeks I have had 4 people approach me to say that they are leaving my team at work or trying to leave my team. At least 3 of these people will be successful. My team is about 15 people right now, so I'm looking at about a 20% reduction in force at a time when the Big Cheeses upstairs will not hire anyone to replace anyone else. To them, of course, this is a Good Thing. People leave, we don't replace them, and the budget looks better. My team, on the other hand, looks lots and lots worse.

So I'm wondering about causes for this sudden diaspora away from my group, and one hypothesis to be considered is that I emit a fowl odor that is unpleasant and drives others away from my presence. I do shower, and brush my teeth, and I seldom smell myself, but perhaps I'm just used to it. I'll be watching to see if daisies wilt as I walk by, birds and bugs drop from the sky in a daze, and so forth. If any odors transmit over the internet as you read this be sure to let me know. If this is what's going on, perhaps a change in career is in order. I could hire myself out as riot control - a kind of walking tear gas canister. Or I may have a future as an exterminator. It's always nice to have a new talent, after all.

Monday, July 20, 2009

My Stroke of Insight

About a year ago on Fresh Air, I heard Terry Gross's interview with Jill Bolte Taylor, a neurological researcher who suffered a stroke that required her to relearn thousands of life skills, and, in many important ways, to relearn who she was.  The interview was fascinating, and Bolte Taylor is stunningly articulate--far more articulate than most people who haven't had a stroke.  Her recovery and her ability to convey the feeling of having key parts of her brain go "offline" were remarkable, and I committed her book's title (My Stroke of Insight) to memory...and totally failed to follow up and get the book.  A month or two ago, they replayed the segment and still I failed to follow through. 
Last week, in an effort to get free access to language software that I'm hoping will help me to learn Italian, I stopped by my local library to apply for a card.  I really only wanted the card--work has been so hectic lately that I really haven't been reading anything, and although I miss reading, I just didn't see myself making time for it, especially when I was about to allocate some of my precious free time to trying to learn a foreign language.  But I'm a book person.  so when the librarian told me that even though I didn't have my card yet, I was allowed to check out five items, I had to take a look.
I breezed through the fiction section and chose a couple of titles, but I really had only one thing in mind--I had to get this book. 
I was surprised by how much of the book had been conveyed in the interview.  But Bolte Taylor's experience is the kind that inspires philosophical questions about what it means to be human and what our identity is made of.  For anyone who knows a stroke victim (my friend's mom recently had a stroke, so my interest was somewhat revitalized because of that), there is also a list of recommendations for recovery that look very helpful.  Check out the link above for Terry Gross's interview, and for an excerpt from the book.
Reading the book was such a great experience that I think I might have to make time for a little more reading, even though it seems like a lot to fit in.  I'm hoping that blogging about it will help me stick to my goals.  (Because, you know, that's helped so much with staying in shape.  Yeah, you just knew I couldn't get through a whole blog entry without sarcasm, didn't you.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ah, Technology

We just installed a new program at work, and part of the program gives our vendors the opportunity to send invoices via e-mail. The box we set up had an autoreply of the type that I'm sure you're aware of. "Thanks for your e-mail. Someone will get back to you in 3-5 business days" or something like that.

The only problem is that the mailbox from which one of the vendors sent the e-mail has such an autoreply as well. So now the boxes are autoreplying to each other about 45 times an hour. "Thank you for your e-mail." "No, no, thank you for your e-mail." "No, I insist. Thank you for your e-mail." And so on.

It was finally straightened out yesterday. I have no idea how many extraneous e-mails ended up being sent. But it was just one of those things that makes you thankful for a television show like "The Office" or "Better Off Ted." Because you can come home from a day like that and think, "See, I'm not alone. Lots of people work in a constant barrage of absurd suggestions and lunatic execution."

It's only a matter of time before our office has an octochicken.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ever wish you could hear that TV themesong one more time?

I enjoyed this too much not to post it here. I'm stealing this, as usual, from Bill Harris's Dubious Quality blog. It's a website with the theme songs to most of the TV shows I can even remotely remember, and a bunch I never heard of. It did not have Thunder in Paradise (Hulk Hogan's very own version of Knight Rider, but with a talking, very manly boat instead of an effeminate corvette) or MST 3K (boo!), but it had every other damn thing I could think of. If you want to blow some time, check it out. My favorite for the moment, by the way, was X files, followed closely by Dr. Who. Never really watched either one much, but I dig the theme songs.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Running post ... second this week!

Wow, today has been an incredibly mixed day, and it's been a very mixed week to boot. But let's talk about the run this morning. I got up at 5 and went out, which is the usual for weekday runs, but today I had an extra half hour because of some training at work (long story). So I decided to do a 10 miler instead of the ususal 7. This was partly because I could, and partly because I missed my run yesterday and also ate enough food for two hippopotomi so I thought I should get in some miles.

So why am I blogging about a measly 10 mile run? Well, cause it was one of those rare peak running experiences that makes me really love this stuff. I can't do it justice, I really can't, in words but I'll try to get it down.

I went out slow, and I was in the zone. For some people being in the zone means you're just flying, optimal performance, blasting out the pace. F*&k that. For me being in the zone means I'm running and not thinking about running. Not worrying about it! I'm not worried about fast or slow, hard or easy, up or down, I'm just moving. I get a hill, and I just run up it. Then I run down it. I notice it but only a little, it just registers as "I just ran up a hill." My body is doing it on its own - it adjusts speed and effort and I don't have to think "Now how am I going to take this hill?" or "How's my time on this mile?" cause I'm in the zone. It's not the fastest I can go but it is the best place to be on a run. Any run. For me, anyway.

So I'm zoning along, and I detour off my normal course to run around this little lake (I live around a lot of lakes) so I can get the 10 miles in. As I'm rounding the lake I turn a corner and the sun is right over the horizon, blasting this light across this stand of chest-high grass between me and the lake so the green grass has gold highlights and sunbeams shooting between and on top of it. There's a cool breeze in my face, and in the distance to the left in the sky I can see storm clouds rolling in but they're a good 30 minutes out, so right now it's sun. But it's not hot, and it's not still - it's moving air and incredible light and it's alive and it's gorgeous. It was really an indescribable experience, as you can tell by my utter failure to describe it. But at that moment my whole body felt tingly (I sh*t you not, it was tingly) and I felt like I could run forever and all I could think was "thank you thank you thank you" and I didn't even know who I was thankful to but just thankful for that moment, those seconds, however long they lasted. In those seconds all of the stuff that is on my mind all the time simply wasn't, and all the worries and hangups and desires and dreams that make me me just weren't, and I was just there between strides and breaths going into the wind. It was such a relief. And I knew that moment would be fleeting and had a stab of regret that I was wasting any thought during those seconds to worrying about when they would end, but I also thought "I'll get better with practice." What I meant, behind those words, was that the more I have experiences like that, the more I'll hopefully be able to just enjoy them without worrying about their end. Just live in the few seconds I've got.

I guess I spent about 4 seconds like that, then gradually I was just back in the run - still in the zone but not there, where I had been. The rest of the run was good, really good, and I spent a lot of it trying to figure out how I could describe what I had just felt. And this is what I came up with. If I wasn't running, there is no way, none, that I would have been up at that time, at that lake, in that state, seeing the sun, just at that time. I wouldn't have had that experience. And my day and my week and my self would have been poorer for it. If all running ever does is get me off my ass and outside for seconds like that, it's not a bad deal, it's really not. I don't think for a second that experiences like that are restricted to running, I'm sure we've all got many ways of having them. But for me, this is one of them. Nuff said.

I Do Love Me a Flowchart

Sorry, guys, can't embed the pic without it being gargantuan and eating the entire blog. But BoingBoing can. And it's a very funny flowchart.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

And sometimes you win one...

Shifter here. I just got good news. This grant that I and a colleague submitted a few months ago has been funded. It's a tiny grant, one of the smallest I've gone after, and won't pay me any money or do much for my career in and of itself. But it's fun, and if it works will set us up to do even more fun, cool stuff. In fact, if it works out and we stick with it, I could be doing research on a topic I love and that has been almost unresearched since it's inception. It would make me very happy. We wrote the proposal in about 10 days, which was insane, so it was a lot of work but it paid off this time. As easy as it is to complain in these web pages, it's worth noting when something cool happens too.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Patrick Rothfuss Fans

I'm not sure if this is possible. I'm not sure if there are Patrick Rothfuss fans reading this blog who are not also checking his blog regularly. It would just be weird. But since I'm all about using my imagination in this blog, imagining the readership, as I imagine you all know, I could, potentially, imagine a reader here who hadn't checked his blog. And if there was a Patrick Rothfuss fan reading this who had not checked his blog lately, said reader would be grateful to me for pointing out that Mr. Rothfuss has an extended interview linked to on his blog and it's probably worth watching if you are, in fact, a PR fan. I found it interesting enough to miss a bit of sleep over, if nothing else. And it's always nice to see what a skilled writer talks like, if you know what I mean. I very much enjoy what he writes like, so the question is always there - does he talk that well? Don't look to me for answers, check it out yerselves.

Oh, and if I were to imagine readers who did not know who PR is, he's a fantasy author of one, count it, one book. That book, Name of the Wind, happens to rock. And he's a very amusing blog writer. So he rocks, at least moderately. And there you have it.

Running report

Well, it's been quite some time so it's time for another fun filled running report.

It's been a while because running has been filled with suckage to some degree since the marathon. I haven't wanted to whine too much, and if you can't say something non-whiny, don't say anything at all. Speaking of which, did I ever tell you that my wife used to wear a purplish red nail polish called "Wine with everything?" It was actually quite pretty, and it was even better because it was easy to make fun of: "Are you wearing 'Always Whining' tonight?" "I really like that 'Whine at everything'" and so on. She doesn't wear it anymore, but I don't think it's my fault. But I digress, endlessly.

So, after the marathon I thought I'd just jump right back into 20-30 mile weeks and go from there, with the idea of being ready for a marathon coming up 4 weeks from now. Only my body wasn't cooperating. It wasn't that I was injured, I was just really tired. Every time I went out I felt like I was running twice as far as I was. And it didn't help that the marathon was at the start of True Summer here in the Only Sometimes Frozen North. True Summer starts whenever we have a blast of 90+ weather, with some humidity, and when it hits it stays for a while. It's here now. Recalling the human salt lick thing, and the sweats like 3 normal men and a gorilla thing, you can guess how much I just love to run in the heat. So now I'm running very tired, and very hot, and it was just not working. I was pooping out on long runs that just weren't that long. One time I walked a good few miles of a 15 mile run, and a few weeks later I gave up and called for a ride at mile 8 of a 10 mile run. I realized perhaps I needed to rest. Which I hate, but my body wasn't taking no for an answer. It got to the point where I did only 7 miles one week. And the only time that happens is when I'm injured. Or now.

Well, as you can see, not much to report on for most of that time. This past week, after a lot of going downhill, I decided to try to get back in the saddle. Monday and Wednesday I did 7 miles each, at a respectable pace, went out at lunch on Friday and did just 4.5 (too hot) and then yesterday I went out for 13.1. I had tried to do that twice before this and bombed out both times, but this time I made it, and did it at a decent pace (1:55). The weather was good, which helped a lot, and I tried very hard to keep the pace reasonable. Part of my problem is that I keep wanting to run like I"m in great shape and, relatively speaking, I'm not at the moment. So now I've got to work my way back up the ladder to where I'm doing the 20 milers and then I'll be set for the next marathon.

When I told some running buddies about my post-marathon running they just laughed. I know, I know, you're supposed to take a full month of reduced running after a marathon but I just thought I would not need that this time. In the past I've gone just a week or two and then been back at it, but I think I just really took a lot out in that May marathon. When I tried that this time, the results were as I've described. Grrr. So a humbler, slower me is taking to the trails now. I'm just incredibly relieved to be able to get at least some distance in. There, now you're all updated and can sleep better knowing the running career of Shifter is plodding along.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ummm, yeah

Well, here's the "official" word on the musicals I saw in London. Ben Brantley from the New York times offers his opinion of the "Send in the Clowns" thing from A Little Night Music:
When Hannah Waddingham — the tall, endearingly awkward actress playing the disorganized actress Desiree — sings “Send In the Clowns,” you feel privy to a private and privileged conversation. I wouldn’t swap those few quiet moments of song for three hours of dancing nuns or drag queens.

Sorry, no. I'd rather have the drag queens. I would have traded the too-long Night Music for a night with Roger Allam in drag any day.

Chacun a son gout.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pink Is For Girls

Since I linked to a whole boatload of insane and annoying comments, I feel I need to right my blogging karma (even though it's a sin against blogging to comment on comments) by linking to this smart and funny set of Jezebel comments on Memorex's new "look, we made it pink so girls will buy it" line. I especially like the suggestion that "Pause" be renamed, "Wait, my friend and I have to pee" and the general homage to Sarah Haskins (who deserves homage every day of the week anyway).

Thursday, July 09, 2009


Not as in the place, as in the HBO series that you can get off of Netflix.

I figure of Katy gets to post about running, I get to post about TV shows other than Dr. Horrible. Yup, we're diversifying!

After the GAUDY HORROR that was Michael Jackson's ceremony (I didn't actually see it, I just had to throw that in there to see if I can get some hate comments. Just remember all you imaginary haters out there - we moderate our comments ;o) it is probably appropriate to list something cool to watch. And imaginary readers, Rome is it. I've now watched 5 episodes and liked 4 of them a lot and one of them a fair bit. Now, it's entirely possible that you could watch episodes 6, 7, 8, 8, 10, 11, 12, and 300 and find that it just sucks so I'm not making any promises for the whole series but what I've seen so far is promising! It's got reasonably complex characters, what I consider to be reasonably good acting, and a reasonably involved plot. All very reasonable. I hesitate to use superlatives because, well, I'm really not the accomplished TV watcher or critic, so I'll leave the "exceptional" and "wonderful" and "amazing" to wiser bloggers than myself. But I'm liking it, and if you're bored and have Netflix, check it out!

What's it about, you ask? Well, Rome. Duh. And Romans. Julius Ceaser, Mark Antony, the big wigs but also two soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Varenus (I almost said Lucius Malfoy just there - wrong genre and medium) who get caught up in all the grand empire scale drama. They're both, again, reasonably complex and enjoyable. I really haven't seen enough of it to give you a great idea of the plot other than "reasonably complex" so you'll just have to settle for that.

Oh, by the way, I found the spell check feature on blogger and I promise to try to use it. I hate reading my own posts because I keep finding all those typos you guys are wincing at.

Late to the Party

I confess to being a little relieved that we can go back to getting some real news now that the Michael Jackson memorial is over.  I'm not sure what I thought of Jackson or his music--my very first introduction to it was seeing the Thriller video in Health class in middle school.  (Why would they show Thriller in Health class????  I have no idea, although I have a vague memory of it introducing sex education, which is in itself a frightening thought.  I'm sure that like every new trend in music, adults assumed it was promoting sex.)  As you can imagine, it was a confusing introduction, and I've really never gotten over it.  I neither loved nor hated any of the music and I never really knew what to think of Michael himself.
As a regular reader of JP's Tuned In blog on the Time Magazine website, I read his piece on the memorial.  I read it promptly, didn't glance at the comments, and moved on.  I thought it was typical of JP--circumspect, rational, insightful, and respectful.  
Today, I read JP's post about the new format Time has, in its infinite wisdom, applied to his blog.  One of the commenters said that if commenters could post video, it would drive more traffic to JP's blog, not that he needed it after the MJ hooplah.  I had been completely unaware of the hooplah, but went back to take a gander.  JP's use of the word "gaudy" in his blog writeup of the memorial generated lots of evil comments.  People called him racist, ugly (physically ugly--in as much detail as they could muster), and hateful.  Many, many, many people demanded that he be fired.  A lot of people made unkind comments about how many people would show up at JP's funeral, and a few of those went so far as to hope that someone made snarky comments about JP's funeral when the time came.  (Note to these people--if JP is buried in a gold-plated coffin, then you'll definitely get your wish.  But somehow I think it's unlikely.)  Lots of people thought the blog post was an article, and nearly all the commenters agreed that it was disgraceful.  Almost all of them were grief-addled diatribes that seemed to think that anything short of unadulterated praise was racist and Michael-hating.  But I think this comment sums it up for me:
In fact, it was a simple gold coffin - no embellishments, sedated flowers (I've seen more at nearly ALL funerals I have attended), and the service was extremely tasteful and understated.
Wow.  I think I'm going to print that up and post it in my cube.  Attention, Time readers.  We've now reached the point where someone can say "it was a simple gold coffin" with no trace of irony.  No embellishments...APART FROM THE GOLD PLATING. 
The next time I'm a little worried about wearing my new cocktail ring with jeans and a sweater, I will just look at this comment and say to myself, "It may be 5 carats of brightly colored, not-so-precious stone, but it's tasteful and understated."  And then I'll leave the house. 
I think I finally get the sequined glove.  Thanks, Jackie2000.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

I love used bookstores!

I went to Barnes and Noble the other day to spend my Fathers' Day gift card. And spent it I did, on some good stuff. But there was other stuff I saw, and didn't buy, because I knew I could find it at the local Half Price Book store. That's a chain around here that sells used books. Used books stores rock. So this evening I took my girls and we raided Half Price Books. I got two hardbacks, three paperbacks, and a DVD and they got six books and the whole thing came to about $50. It would have cost about $150 at B&N, so Half Price more than lived up to its name. The problem with places like that is it's so tempting to buy just one more book because it's so cheap and sometimes you get crap you won't enjoy. But usually I do enjoy it, and I just freaking love books, so there ya have it. A little slice of heaven in a strip mall. Half Price Books. I got couple more econ "lite" books so I'll let you guys know how they compare to the Logic of Everyday Life book I blogged about a while back. Not sure why, but I'm on an economics kick at the moment. Go figure!

A new time waster

You're going to think this is why I haven't been blogging. But it's not, well at least not much. The reason I haven't been blogging is I've had a tiny slice of Katey's life lately with huge deadlines and no time to meet them. But this was why I wasn't posting before those deadlines. I wrote it and forgot to post it, so here you go...

I didn't need this. I really did not. I have plenty of time wasters, and not enough time. And then I have non-time wasters that take time, things like sleep, and eating, and family, and work. So there is only so much wasting to be done. But like it or not, I've got a new one. Meet Hinterlands.

Hinterlands is a small studio game for Windows (no Linux, damnit) that uses a new twist on an old paradigm. Ever since Diablo, point and click "Action RPG's" have had a sometimes huge place in the market. You see a monster, you click it, you attack it, it dies, you get loot. Sounds dumb but it's incredibly fun and incredibly addictive. Witness, for example, the success of Diablo, Diablo II, the Diablo II expansions, Sacred, Sacred II, Fate, and the undoubted success of Blizzard's upcoming Diablo III. Fate, by the way, is an awesome little game that managed to take all the cool elements of Diablo and make them even simpler but just as entertaining and addicting. But I digress. Hinterlands, as you may have guessed, is a variant on these games.

In Hinterlands you play a character who does indeed run around, point and click and kill bad guys. The difference is that you also manage a growing town of followers who can either work in the town or come adventuring with you. If they adventure with you they gain levels, fight, and use items just as you do. If they stay in the town they do one of two things. They either produce food, provide services, and generally make the town a bigger and better place or they produce items that you can use on your adventures (like better weapons, potions, or magic items). What each follower does depends on their profession and how much you develop them in their profession. For example, a craftsman starts building wooden shields and leather armor but, if you upgrade them to a smithy and then a weaponsmith, they end up making enchanted swords and pikes. Upgrades cost money and require resources, which you have to get by clearing out parts of the overland adventuring map. The game ends when you've cleared the whole map, and you get a score based on speed, the size of your town, your resources, your renown, and so forth. Unlike most point and click Action RPGs Hinterlands games sessions are designed to be self contained - you play a game of 1-3 hours and then the character is retired (when the map is cleared) and you can start over. So it's an RPG "lite".

If it sounds complex, it really isnt' when you play it. The problem is that it's one of those games you sit down to play and just don't stop. I was up til 2am the other day (a weekend day though, so I"m not that bad) playing it. So this definitely goes under the Time Waster category. If you're interested, it's available via download or at Best Buy (and I assume elsewhere) - it's $20.

Monday, July 06, 2009

A Post About Running - NOT by Shifter!

I registered for a 3.5 mile run/walk today.  It's something that my company is doing, although they aren't paying for it (natch).  I don't really care, as long as I have some incentive to get in shape.  I'm not concerned, because I can easily walk 3.5 miles, but it would be nice to be able to run a fair bit of it.  I'm working my way towards running for 10 minutes at a time, which may not seem like much, but it's a big deal for someone like me.
When I lived and worked in Brooklyn, I had gotten to the point where I was walking a lot every week.  I felt pretty good about myself, but when I went to see the cardiologist, he was less enthusiastic.  Don't get me wrong--he's a great guy and he was generally very encouraging.  He told me I was doing a lot of things right, but he basically said that in the time I was spending walking I could be doing a lot better for my heart, and that the first step was do move on to a more challenging activity--something I suspect any personal trainer would have urged me to do a long time ago.
And it was clear my body needed it.  Because even though I could walk 10 or 15 miles with relatively little difficulty, running for 3 minutes left me gasping and hurting.  I kept at it, and I had worked up to running almost the whole width of Prospect Park (and felt pretty darn proud of myself) by the time I got this job.
But it's way easier to stay fit when you don't have a job.  You can make yourself healthy meals, and it's easy to find time to exercise.  Since I've started this job, and particularly since I've been working these punishing hours, I've had a hard time "finding time" to do either.  I'm hoping that this minor milestone will give me the motivation I need to make time for healthy meal planning and workouts.  Wish me luck....

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Surfing Should Be Disabled at 2 a.m.

Then again, this was a very funny quiz:

Biography Channel Dead Soulmate Celebrity Search

Apparently my soulmates are Leonardo Da Vinci, Edgar Allen Poe, or Ernest Shackleton. Then again, maybe I should take the quiz again when I'm actually awake.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Why do we worship deadlines?

If there is an idol that competes with television in our society, I think it is the deadline.  Why is doing something on time so much more important than doing it right?
I ask merely because I have been killing myself to meet an unrealistic deadline with no resources for quite some time, now, and people are simply unwilling to let the deadline go.  And at this point I'm almost not even stressed about it, because I've reached the bottom of my personal reserve of resources.  I have called in favors.  I have leveraged developers who work hours I don't work so that progress is made pretty much 24 hours a day.  So if it happens, it happens.  If not, not.
But even knowing that we have tried everything and that now there is nothing we can do, there is still this unholy resistance to pushing out the delivery time.  The ship has sailed.  It's not going to happen.  A realistic observer would have known it was never going to happen.  Surely the thing to do at this stage is to inform people that it will change.  But they continue pretending that it's possible we could hit the headline.
Meanwhile everything on the project has been done half-assed.  I hate to speak for the developers, but I know at least one of them would say that he hates the code he wrote for this project.  I know the testing was half-assed.  I know my documentation is half-assed.  I know the migration of the data has been half-assed.  All because a) the date we chose conflicted with a much larger project that sucked all the resources out of the corporate atmosphere, leaving us light-headed, starving, and drinking our own urine (metaphorically speaking) and b) we would not move the date, even when it became clear that we could never meet it given the resources we had.
I have a deadline of my own.  I am leaving at 4:30 today.  I don't care if they're done.  I have a cable appointment.  Is the cable appointment more important than this project?  No.  But I can't count the things I've given up for this project, among them my health, my sanity, and my sense of proportion.  So today, I'm not giving up cable.  It's like a reverse lent for the deadline god.