Spaceman and Girl

The other day my little sister had her first professional modeling job. It was a photo shoot for a print ad for Microsoft Encarta. They shot the whole thing in the Powell street BART station, and the roles in the shoot were: Spaceman #1, Spaceman #2, Spaceman #3… and Girl. I think we’re all going to have to trust that those ad wizards at Microsoft know what they’re doing.

Anyway, I’m naturally very proud of Sarah, and it looks like she will soon be appearing in a major Magazine Near You. As for how my life is going, I got a flat tire last night. Maybe there’s only so much karma to go around in one family?

I had been talking about blogs recently, and I thought I would mention one here that I really like: Good Morning Silicon Valley, by John Paczkowski of the San Jose Mercury News. It’s one of those “mostly-links” blogs — the commentary is essentially the titles and the links themselves. I have to give Paczkowski some credit for creativity in this department. You would think he would get bored — after all, how many variations are there on saying, “Company X lays off Y people”? Well, let us count the ways:

  • IBM layoffs actually “job resource action”
  • HP messes with Texas
  • Reason for leaving last job: “workforce rebalancing”
  • It’s raining SBC employees
  • 7,000+ careers to be claimed in freak IBM workforce rebalancing
  • 1,100+ Genuity employees released into wild
  • 2,000 JDSU employees to adapt to challenging marketplace
  • Sun to 1,000 employees: “What color is your parachute?”
  • Third prize is: you’re fired
  • Worldcom to declare employee surplus

And that’s just in the last couple of months.

Not A Condo Association

In my previous entry, I made a throwaway reference to “blogging community standards.” I just want to make a clarification: I believe in no such thing.

First, “standards”. Some people believe that to “properly” blog, one must link copiously to other bloggers and provide permanent links to all your entries. For example, recently some blowhards decided to give Andrew Sullivan a hard time for violating these precepts. Sullivan had no time for such nonsense:

But can I say a word about the notion of a “blogging community” to which we allegedly owe obligations, deference and respect? Phooey. The reason I’m a blogger is because I’m a pesky individualist who simply wants to write what I think and have a great interaction with readers in real time. Every time I hear the word “community,” my bullshit detector goes off. And when I hear about “obligations to the community” blah blah blah, I wanna retch. I have nothing but respect for my fellow bloggers. I read them; I’ve encouraged others to blog; I link whenever I find something I find interesting; I believe in the genre; I’ve lost lucrative jobs for the medium. But please don’t start creating some sort of community of bloggers, and calling us on our dues. This is the Wild Web, buddy, not a condo association. Don’t tread on me.

Some blogs are totally link-happy, with just a few sentences of commentary. Some blogs are essay or journal-oriented, and have maybe one or two links at best. Some blogs, like this one, are somewhere in the middle. Is any one style better than any other? I think not.

Second, “community”. If there really is a “blogosphere” out there, its sole unifying characteristic is the compulsion to rip to shreds any article that dares criticize the blogging phenomenon even a little bit. Several months ago I was monitoring two groups of bloggers: a somewhat lefty group centered around Silicon Valley programmers such as Dave Winer, and a somewhat righty group, the “Warbloggers”, centered around people such as Glenn Reynolds. To my great amusement, neither group seemed to be aware of the other. In fact, at one point both groups were having simultaneous conversations on the question, “Where are all the [right-wing|left-wing] bloggers?” Each group even proposed its own theories on why their superior, cutting-edge ideology made them more hip to the whole blogging phenomenon.

Here’s the deal. At best, the “blogosphere” is fractured into thousands of subcommunities, because people don’t link randomly; they link to blogs that they like. There are political blogs, blogs about science fiction writing, blogs about the Macintosh, blogs that are entirely about personal sexual confessions (and God help you if you find yourself dating one of those people). All of these communities reinforce each other and tend to shunt away blogs that are not of interest. And you know what? That’s the way it should be. As for imposing your local community standards on everybody else… well, I believe there’s a Supreme Court case revolving around that very issue, but that’s another story.

Cheerful Troglodytes

You have to love the folks at the Weekly Standard and the National Review. They are so gleefully troglodytic. You can always count on them for an explanation of why we should nuke Iraq (summary: hey, you’ve got to get those bunkers somehow), a lecture on the danger of democracy (summary: the opinion of the people changes over time, and sometimes they start to dislike things that the author of the article likes), and even the occasional whine about gays being “freakish and disgusting”, disguised as a “Yuletide olive branch” (summary: have a Merry Christmas, fags!)

However, my favorite example of mainstream rightwingers run amok is “The Case for the Empire“:

Palpatine believes that the political order must be manipulated to produce peace and stability. When he mutters, “There is no civility, there is only politics,” we see that at heart, he’s an esoteric Straussian…

…the important thing to recognize is that the Empire is not committing random acts of terror. It is engaged in a fight for the survival of its regime against a violent group of rebels who are committed to its destruction.

Aside from glossing over the destruction of the planet Alderaan (well, they were harboring rebels — probably) and an unfortunate analogy between Emperor Palpatine and the “relatively benign” Pinochet (lucky for Pinochet — when your civilian murder rate only rises into the tens-of-thousands, you get downgraded from “genocidal fascist” to “relatively benign”), it’s not a bad article. That is, “not bad” in the sense of “not bad for the traffic to your website.” It seems these days nobody is too conservative and stodgy to pick up on the time-honored Salon strategy of baiting the Slashdot and weblog geeks. Heck, this geek fell for it.

I can’t help myself, really. I know perfectly well that anyone who spends any time reading “blogs” or journals will stumble across links like the “Case for the Empire”. But herdlike, I follow the rest of the “blogging community” (whatever that is). And usually I’m a week too late, which is a mortal (or at least a venal) sin in some blogging circles.

Nevertheless, although I sometimes fall short of blogging community standards, and I occasionally read more right-wing diatribes at one sitting than is healthy, please don’t worry about my immortal soul or anything like that. I’m not turning to the dark side any time soon. After all, I use a Mac, and as the show 24 has taught us this season, the Mac users are always the good guys. So there.

Posted in SF

Prodigy Whine

We had ourselves a wee little earthquake earlier this week. It started out as a 5.2, but it’s since been downgraded to a 4.9. Either way it was about two magnitudes too small to relieve any significant fault stress and make “the Big One” less likely… but it was kind of cute, as quakes go.

So at 11:30pm last night, I found myself waiting in line for a midnight showing of Star Wars, Episode II. I had not been very enthusiastic about the Attack of the Clones in the first place, but Nancy was very insistent that we see it. So there we all were: Me, her, Pat, Sam, Sue, and Nancy’s dad. Nancy’s mom, however, was missing. I do not want to shirk my duty in pointing out that Nancy lost her disabled and elderly mother in the crowd.

But I digress. Here’s a quick take on the movie, with only one very indirect spoiler:

  • Special effects and scenery: superb
  • Dialogue: adequate to wretched
  • Future Dark Lord of the Sith Anakin Skywalker: pouty and whiny
  • Interesing hint of moral ambiguity regarding the bad guy: raised, and then casually thrown away

Lucas has always been a prodigy with technology… and the few interviews I’ve seen with him make him seem like an awfully nice, sincere guy… but why oh why can’t he write? Or trust others to do it for him? Very frustrating.

In Other News: Shari, a friend from my MOTWM class, set me a note about Jonathan Safran Foer, a young Jewish writer whose last name differs from mine by only one consonant. Foer has just published his debut novel, he’s three years younger than me, he’s getting rave reviews from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Kirkus Reviews, and he can apparently get away with referring to Nietzche multiple times when talking about his own writing.

But heck, forget Foer — at 24, he’s all washed up, isn’t he? If you want a real prodigy, there’s Aaron Swartz. Aaron is the member of several web standards committees, he co-authored RSS1.0, and he writes clearly and concisely (with a wicked sense of humor). And he’s fifteen years old.

On the other hand, things are going quite well for me these days. For example, at Tuesday Night Poker, this old man won ten dollars this week. I even got a natural Royal Flush in a seven-card stud hand. Unfortunately, as Page points out, I’m still seventy dollars in the hole, lifetime.

Well, that which does not kill you makes you stronger… or something like that.

Take That, Hallmark

Dad is off in Europe on business, so Sarah and I took Mom out to dinner for Mother’s Day.

Mom: Thank you very much for buying me dinner.

Me: Well, I can’t exactly have you buy us dinner on Mother’s Day — even if it is a silly holiday that was made up by the greeting-card companies.

Mom: Well, you two sure put a stick in the eye of the greeting-card companies, seeing as neither of you got me a card.

Well, I did revamp the front page of her website today, so hopefully I’m not in too much hot water.

In other news, my Mac is coming along nicely. Most of my files are transferred and converted over, even my emails. Due to numerous hard drive cleansings, I had emails in .pst format (Outlook), .mbx format (Outlook Express 4), and .dbx format (Outlook Express 6). Considering that these Microsoft formats are not even compatible with each other on the PC (let alone compatible with Apple Mail on the Mac) I am surprised it was possible at all. But after hours of scouring the net and filtering out unbelievable quantities of misinformation, I finally figured it out. Maybe I should write down the process for posterity.

Edit, from April 2003: Boy, I wish I had written down the process for posterity.

I’m still getting the hang of Mac — still saying, “Oh, the File menu is at the top of the screen, not the top of the window,” things like that. But overall, I like the user interface quite a bit. I even like “the Dock”, which is a little strip where you can put shortcuts to your programs and files. Some people disagree with me on that one, though. For example, Andrew Orlowski says in The Register:

Like an unloved Liberian-registered container ship full of nuclear waste, the Dock is making its lonely way across the screen, being bounced from port to port. It was at the bottom, now it’s on the left, and hopefully soon it will run out of locations to take its foul cargo and slither out of our consciousness forever; only to live on as a ‘do you remember…?’ tech trivia question, like the DEC Rainbow or Microsoft’s 8-bit MSX games console.

Anyway, now that my PC is growing even more useless (if that can be believed), it is time to break it down for parts. I offered the motherboard and chip “real cheap” to J.C. Flores, but he politely turned me down. Damn. That J.C. was always a sharp one. Well, anyone who wants an overheating, unstable 1.4 GHz Athlon on an Asus A7A with 256MB DDR RAM, let me know. Operators are standing by.

Armchair Quarterbacks

So Mom pointed out a typo in the previous entry (thanks Ma!) Anyway, while I was looking over that entry, I realized that I had mischaracterized the power crisis. The entry mentioned hooking up Enron employees to little turbines “in order to repay Californians for the mess they caused last year,” but now I realize that the “they” was a bit glib. Clearly, we Californians played our own part in causing the mess. As SJ Merc columnist Dan Gilmor points out (sorry, Nancy, I still read Gilmor every once in a while):

If you go on vacation, leave your back door unlocked and put up a sign that says “No one’s home,” you should not be surprised when other folks take advantage of your stupidity and rob you blind. Unhappy, yes, but not surprised.

Yet everyone is shocked, shocked that the energy wheeler-dealers at Enron took advantage of California’s lame attempt at electricity deregulation. Imagine that: The sharpies manipulated prices after the state all but issued an engraved invitation.

Frankly, I blame myself. After all, I was a voter back in the mid-90s, when Gov. Wilson and his cabal of state legislators were concocting this deal. Imagine if, in 1994, I had attended one of those “townhall meetings” that were all the rage back then:

Me: Excuse me, Ms. Candidate?

Ms. Candidate: Yes, young man?

Me: Do you promise not to wait patiently until the electorate is distracted with sexy political issues like Prop. 187… and then meet in a backroom with a select group of energy industry lobbyists in order to craft some extraordinarily stupid legislation that will screw your constituents for years to come?

Ms. Candidate: I promise not to do that.

Me: Well, alrighty then.

Hey Dan — where were all these pithy comments about “leaving the door unlocked” back when it counted, in 1995? Sure, there was heat and noise on both sides (“Deregulation sux!!” “No, deregulation rulez!!!”). But I don’t recall anybody taking the time to analyze the bill and say, “You know, we could deregulate our power market… but this bill happens to be a really stupid way to do it, and here’s why.” Is anyone aware of any pre-2000 newspaper article or editorial that carefully analyzed the bill and spotted its flaws? Send them to me. (Please note: articles that are simply hysterical anti-deregulation screeds do not count.)


An anonymous reader writes with a suggestion for a punishment for Enron employees: make them serve time on treadmills that are hooked up to little turbines, in order to repay Californians for the mess they caused last year.

Now that’s the kind of innovative, dynamic thinking that we need these days. However, while the idea is on the right track, it’s a bit… inefficient. I mean, how much power can you get out of a fat, sweating, Houston energy trader anyway? No, for a truly clean and efficient energy solution, I think we would need to mulch the employees and use them as biomass fuel. Get some power back and lighten up the job market a bit to boot.

Speaking of Thinking Different, I stopped by the Apple Store in Palo Alto this evening. By some bizarre coincidence, Charlie Clouser (the synth player for Nine Inch Nails) was giving a presentation on how he uses his Mac to do professional songwriting and remixing. He took us through a song he developed for the band Opiate for the Masses. I didn’t understand any of the technical jargon, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. As he constructed the song in the synthesizer program, Reason, he showed us that the CPU usage was negligible, no matter how many effects he piled on. He also claimed that most electronic artists could record an entire album with Reason and Ableton alone. In fact, according to Clouser, there is no sonic reason to use expensive dedicated equipment — the only thing that the “traditional” method gives you is better ergonomics and a few extra features for the hard-core professional.

I wonder if he’s right? Well, unfortunately, I don’t have hundreds of dollars to drop on the software — never mind my tin ear.

Patchouli-wearing Dim Bulbs

Via Thudfactor, I discovered the following editorial by Paul Farhi: When the Blue Chips Are Down, in Gov We Trust. (The article also appeared in the Washington Post, but the Post doesn’t freely archive their content, so they get no linky love from me):

Let us now praise slothful, inefficient, bloated government. Let us now rejoice in the glory of your trillions of tax dollars at work. Drop what you’re doing and hug a GS-14.

The point of the article is pretty simple: government screws up, but so does private industry. About as obvious a point as one could make… and yet somehow it always seems to get missed in all those breathless articles in the biz/tech mags.

For some reason I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days, ever since the “Smoking Gun” memos in the Enron case came to light. Here we have Enron’s own lawyers admitting that they resold power among their own subsidiaries to provoke a crisis and drive up prices, and that they routed power out of congested areas in order to off-load less power than their contract required. Remember that vast criminal conspiracy that we suspected last year? In the immortal words of Lily Von Shtupp, “It’s twue! It’s twue!”

Not that I expect any apologies from the insufferable Cato Institute for calling us Californians a bunch of “dim bulbs” and “whiners”. Nor do I expect recompense for the hours I wasted last year listening to pundits smugly informing us that gee, if only we would get out of our hot tubs and learn how to deregulate our markets the right way, we would be out of this mess in a jiffy. (Never mind that despite the power crisis and the tech recession, California has overtaken France to become the the fifth largest economy in the world… but what do we patchouli-wearing dim bulbs know about business anyway?) And I’m pretty sure nobody, least of all any of those “poor ex-Enron employees” is going to refund a penny of the extra dough I had to shell out last year on my utility bill. But honestly, who cares about a few hundred bucks? What price vindication, I ask you?

Mellowing With Age

Well, I’m back from the reunion. It was a lot more fun than I had imagined. Attendance was not too shabby: 43 out of about 140 graduating seniors, or around 30%.

Some of the highlights:

  • Rooming with Russ
  • Seeing Tom Donnelly in action once again, teaching Quantum seminar
  • Sanam Lang with Katy, Sonia, Brian C., Steve, Dave, …
  • Media Studio
  • Brunching with Eric, Susan, Jessica, and Ashley (ok, so they have nothing to do with Mudd…)
  • “Cutting class” to go see Spider-Man with Derrick, Dinesh, Brad, Brian G., Beavis, Matt…
  • Dave’s cheerful recitation of his job woes in Kansas
  • Brian G.’s proposal of marriage to Sherry and/or Holly
  • Learning that Hal Van Ryswyk is “Five foot fifteen inches” tall, and that Art Benjamin’s five-year-old daughter “is like, doing closed-form integrals at this point.”
  • Beers with April, Seth, Kristine, Kristine’s husband who I cannot possibly remember the name of even though he seemed awfully nice and told several funny jokes… and many others…

The first thing that struck me was that nobody had changed much at all, physically. Same clothes, hair, body shape. Nobody had gotten fat or gone bald. Craig Meyer actually got thinner, Lord knows how.

The second thing that struck me was that everyone had really changed a lot, psychologically. Most of the people I spoke with seemed to be really comfortable in their own skins. The people who used to be painfully shy had learned to speak in public. The people who used to be… well, a bit off the deep end… had learned to harness their manic energy for Good, not Evil.

So I came away feeling really, really happy for everyone. Some people were still on the fast track. Some people were unemployed and loving it. Everyone was very, very cool. Not everyone had found their niche in life yet… but everyone seemed to be OK.

Either that, or anti-psychotics and anti-depressants have come a long way in the last five years.

Media Studio

For the last thirty years, Harvey Mudd has had a class called, “Media Studio“. The purpose of Media Studio is to help scientists and engineers use technology to uncover their artistic sides. Every year Media Studio culminates in a public show that, by now, has become encrusted with traditions. These range from jokes the emcees are supposed to tell (“The Rope Joke!” “Razzle and Dazzle!”) to recitations of the privations endured to produce the media projects (“We’ve gotten three hours of sleep this week!”) to… interesting diversions (“The Pickle Trick!”).

Now, in the Days Of Yore, the technology consisted of a weird slide projector that had nine slide carousels. You could synchronize the slide show with music or voice. You could also do various tricks like fading in, splitting the screen, and and displaying slides in rapid succession. Primitive stuff.

The best shows were usually the silly ones. For example, there was the “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” spoof that had park rangers sneaking around Claremont, anesthetizing various residents and “taking them away to a new hab-i-tat.” There was also “Penguin-Man” (written long before the rise of Linux), wherein our hero is bitten by a radioactive penguin and acquires the appropriate superpowers (the ability to survive when locked in a freezer, the ability to instantly change from street clothes into a tuxedo). Aside from these occasional demented works of genius, most of the shows were, to put it gently, pretty lame. But in a good way.

Anyway, two years ago the college got a huge grant that enabled them to switch everything over to digital video. New G4 Macs, Final Cut Pro, the works. Sounds good at first… but the new technology comes with its own set of problems.

For one thing, the old technology masked bad acting. Media Studio projects always starred students and professors — non-actors. That was OK, because the old system involved shooting still photos and adding voiceovers. This allowed the mind to fill in the gaps, so acting ability was almost irrelevant. But with digital video, everything’s out in the open. For example, one of this year’s shows revolved around a woman who was supposed to be a serious runner, an athlete. Unfortunately, when this particular person ran, she didn’t look very athletic at all. With the old slide-projector system, we would have seen just a few still shots of her running, which would have conveyed the idea just fine.

For another thing, the new format encourages computer animation. Computer animation is cool… but it is a serious technical challenge to implement, and I think that the focus on getting the code to render makes it hard to focus on telling an actual story. For example, there was a piece that was about some starfighters battling in outer space. The guy who did it spent the entire year working on it. The piece was maybe at the level of the animation in Babylon 5 — pretty darn impressive for just one kid with a desktop. However, when the audience asked the student about the story behind the space battle, he said, “Well… there’s these organic-looking ships, probably the bad guys, and these metallic-looking ships, probably the good guys… and they’re fighting over this warp gate.”

The student spent a year working on this, and that’s all he had for his story? I don’t know whether to be astounded by his technical proficiency, or just profoundly depressed.

I suppose the jury’s still out on Media Studio 2.0. But so far it doesn’t look good… and to cap things off, the emcee forgot to tell the Rope Joke this year. I just don’t know what they’re teaching the kids these days.