September 21, 2017

The Republicans ran for years on the promise to repeal Obamacare, but, once in office, the implications of doing just that are unpopular with a majority of Americans, including the voters who granted them a dominant position in the government. Why is that?

Let’s guess!

First, given gerrymandering and how it can help a minority voting block win, I bet the fact that Republicans are dominant in government is not a reflection of the views of a majority of Americans, even in red states.

Second, could be that people who vote for Republicans vote for the 1950s era “limited government” and “personal responsibility” the party might once have stood for and the Obamacare repeal plank in the overall platform was incidental in their consideration.

Third, could also be that politics has become, for many, about team loyalty that the last thing anyone wants to do is switch teams, no matter what that team advocates in the moment. The win is far more important than the marketing material in the front office.

Finally, maybe a lot of folks who voted for these guys over and over since 2010 really do want to repeal the Obamacare mentioned in campaign rhetoric and have only just realized that the benefits they’re currently experiencing actually are Obamacare.

I suspect that the drive to repeal is more about reducing taxes for the people who can afford to donate a lot of money to political campaigns. That’s the root of this country’s refusal to solve health care problems.

While your average office holder would probably welcome dropping the whole issue, I bet, they’ve got to keep trying not because they won elections based on the promise, but because they’ve won elections based on the donations.

September 10, 2017

I enjoy watching James Spader’s pretentious and vicious mayhem on The Blacklist (on Netflix) as much as anyone, but something about the show seems old fashioned. It has a serialized story arc — which is modern — and plenty of episodic, monster-of-the-week plots — which isn’t — except that each monster contributes to the season arc. Maybe the dated sense I get from the show is one of balance. The overall story arc involving Spader’s protection of his daughter-not-daughter Elizabeth proceeds too slowly and the irony that he is the ultimate cause of her need for protection remains static: the same note over four seasons, even if details or shadowy nemeses change. The monster-of-the-week challenges are fun, but each victory doesn’t add up to an overall change in circumstances. Spader is shady, but we’re never really sure why he does what he does or what his end-game is. Elizabeth goes along with things, maintaining a tension between the desire for a normal life and the excitement of being an FBI agent, but she’s no longer the central character outside of the amount of screen presence she gets. She doesn’t drive the plot; she’s the Macguffin. At its heart, the show is episodic story-telling masquerading as serialized story-telling. I’ve gotten used to the over-the-top Spader performance, his constant name-dropping and so on. I kind of like it. An old fashioned show. Why not?

September 1, 2017

Syl Anagist. I mentioned the idea about what the fear of reaping-what-you-sow does to some people in my last post. She captures it beautifully, and, in context, aptly.

“But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them—even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.” From: N.K. Jemisin. “The Stone Sky.”

You really should be reading her books. All of them.

I’m not sure where I first encountered this idea. Definitely in school. Probably a literature class. It’s the psychology of the South.

August 19, 2017

All this white nationalism stuff. So-called white culture is what it is because of non-white culture both for good reasons (art, philosophy, science, commerce and genes) and bad (slavery, exploitation, war). And what is white culture? England, but not Italy? Germany, but not Poland? Denmark, but not Russia? The US, but not Mexico (which seems far more European than the US)? Is America an ethnic group in danger of being erased, or a set of aspirational ideals to which many paths lead? And what does culture have to do with skin color, or your grandparents’ heritage? Can you even answer that? Is the culture so fragile it can’t handle diversity? If so, then good riddance. It’s inevitable. Nothing survives for long behind a wall. And all the ethnic groups around these days are fairly new, on a historical scale. Nothing is permanent. Used to be obvious that religious diversity would destroy the state — until it was obvious it wouldn’t. There’s a lot of desire to conserve some sort of ethnic identity out there (any identity), but that desire has always lead to wars, civil wars, genocide, slavery, all-but-slavery, and, ultimately, if unchecked, the destruction of the group trying so desperately to conserve itself. Ethnic diversity won’t destroy anything unless you decide to use what power you have to create the violence against others that you fear they’ll eventually use against you. In other words, all this racist (I mean, nationalist) stuff is absurd on its face, and fundamentally, unreasoned.

July 26, 2017

Recent leak from the White House:

The people live in fear of him, constantly telling him how everything he does is “good,” since he banishes anyone thinking unhappy thoughts into the otherworldly cornfield from which there is no return.

Via.

July 14, 2017

I wasn’t around racist people growing up and really didn’t understand what the slurs were until I was taught racism in high school in order to learn how not to be racist. Maybe some of my classmates inherited a lot of prejudice, and maybe those attitudes were obvious, especially to the objects of that prejudice: but I was unaware. That kind of thing was a TV trope.

All the places I’ve lived have been majority white, so much so that I didn’t notice. I knew two people of color in my high school — fellow band geeks. I went to college in Oregon and North Texas. Nearly everyone in my dorm, or apartment building, or classes were white. In grad school, things were no better. A few people of recent hispanic heritage in Oregon. A black woman colleague I hung out with at a coffee shop in North Texas.

Silent racism was all around me in subtle ways: me getting in to apartments or dorms without anticipating constant micro-aggressions, me getting in to grad school when others didn’t, me being trusted with teaching fellowships and financial aid while others weren’t, me avoiding a traffic ticket after the officer heard about a suspicious black male over the scratchy police radio. Or, me hanging out with Angela, completely unaware of the looks she might have been getting while I blithely enjoyed her remarks about slip stream fiction.

Privilege walks you to the front of the line, sure, but it also makes you forget it’s there.

June 28, 2017

You used to go home at lunch to take care of the dog. This was your part of the division of labor between you and your wife. She works at the blood bank. You walked the dog in the middle of the day. Fed him. Watched a ½ hour of YouTube while he slept next to you. Then the dog died. Now you don’t go home for lunch anymore. You take your breaks at the Starbucks near the office. Most of your colleagues hate the place for the bad coffee or the bad taste. You agree but you like being where your colleagues aren’t. They’re good people. Nice enough. But you’re the cranky database guy. No one listens to the database guy. You’re cranky and snarky, like all the other database guys before you. Colleagues tolerate bitter snark from the database guy because anything is better than having to take over for him. Those who do turn bitter and snarky. You’re aloof, you figure, to protect them from your toxic nature. Every now and then, as you flick through web pages, sipping burnt coffee, you think maybe you should try to be popular. Ask after peoples’ lives. Set a picture of your wife and son on your desk. Or at least the dog. Chat about pleasant things in a hopeful way. Have a story to tell about your weekend. You’ve tried in the past but you never keep it up. You feel annoying and badgering. And then people want to ask after you and your family and your interests and it’s too much. There’s work to be done and when the pressure’s on, you’d rather shut up and get to it. The Database Guy / 2

June 27, 2017

New Star Trek series will abandon Gene Roddenberry’s cardinal rule (arstechnica.com, Annalee Newitz):

After decades of complaints about these constraints from producers, Star Trek: Discovery showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg have decided to abandon Utopia for something they consider a little more realistic. On this streaming series, debuting on CBS All Access this September, our protagonists won’t always be nice. Their behavior won’t be worthy of emulation, and their conflicts will get out of control.

And:

“The thing we’re taking from Roddenberry is how we solve those conflicts,” Harberts told Entertainment Weekly. “So we do have our characters in conflict, we do have them struggling with each other, but it’s about how they find a solution and work through their problems.”

And finally:

There will be a seasonal arc, with character-driven plotlines.

Looks like I’ll get my wish.

June 26, 2017

The Database Guy: No matter what you are hired for, you always end up being the database guy because there’s always a database and you have the experience (having always been the database guy) and Slough Security is no different. Forty-five years old. If you want to write a mobile app or a network service or a web application or anything with a user interface beyond the how-to you write at the top of maintenance scripts, you have to do it on your own time. We hired you with the understanding that you’d help out on public facing web applications, but we’ve got this data crisis brewing. Thanks for flexing.

June 21, 2017

You can imagine stories built around just about any routine job. Nurse, for instance. He might be having issues at home which lead him to become obsessed with a particular enigmatic patient, or the patient might be an old school friend who no longer remembers him, or there might be something supernatural going on, with patients, staff, the emergency room. Even piano tuners or locksmiths have potential, not so much in the tuning or smithing, but in the fact that a character has to go out to do those jobs, enter strange places, meet odd people, see difficult situations, real, imagined or projected. In liberal arts classes, the shorthand for a boring, mundane life devoid of joy (i.e., not a liberal arts major) was that of an accountant. But you can imagine any number of stories around such a character. Who knows what’s hidden in the ledgers and how much trouble, moral, physical, even accidental, an accountant might get into just by trying to be good at his job? Thematically, an accountant appreciates an orderly structure to things. Throw the guy into something disorderly and the story writes itself. The one profession you can’t figure out for story telling is computer programming. Culturally, “coders” get a lot of credit because of all the rags-to-riches mythologies told about start-ups on and about the Internet. But, really, a software developer types text into a piece of software (like writers, an equally glamorous-until-you-look-at-it and dramatically inert profession), runs a few commands that turn that text into other software. Writing software is as dramatically interesting as solving someone else’s made-up word problems, thus hacker movie-magic, like cracking the NSA in 30 seconds while a detonator counts down, or inventing an AI capable of fine distinctions, childlike innocence and moral empathy. Microserfs was fun to read, but that was about the culture of software before it became cliché and bureaucratized. You bet it remains the best that can be done with the profession. When you yourself try to come up something, anything, you just see characters sit at their desks typing, at best, and at worst, getting in to esoteric arguments that appear to everyone else as pointless and scholastic as tabs vs spaces. Satire is only as good as the importance of its target. You could go the accountant route, with “computer programmer” representing a character’s boring nature, then put him in some other story. Or you could go the workplace, office-politics or office-romance route, though if you do that, the fact that your character is a programmer is incidental. Maybe you bend the laws a little? A programmer starts getting interesting text messages from outside. A code for the locked door down in the parking garage. He’s been hearing noises behind it late at night when he stumbles to his car. Through that door, down a tunnel morphing into rough-hewn mine-shafts to a silent room, and then a voice, and a hallucination, and instructions. The programmer follows them — because, why not? — as if he himself has become a thing being programmed and all of this leads to an office floor arranged in a labyrinth, a mysterious stranger, who — you don’t know. Text editors and compilers are out of the picture. They will not feed into the resolution, or the revelation, or the epiphany, or the end of the story. Your guy could be anyone with a computer, which, really, means anyone. Better to start with a piano tuner.

June 20, 2017

Sometimes what you need to do is create a few extra calendars and fill just about every hour of the day with a label hinting at a purpose, a reason, a motivation: reasons to move from one moment to the next. Lunch. Dinner. Yard work. Computer stuff. Piano practice. Dog walk. You draw rectangles to block time. You think of the need for this as the kind of floor sweeping Buddhist monks do. To purify the mind, you must purify the environment, or in your case, time. You think: structured time is the only kind of purpose you have access to. It’s enough, you tell yourself.

June 19, 2017

Reasons to get an iPad Pro over a new laptop? iOS 11. Faster and larger than my old iPad Mini. The 2010 MacBook Air needs a Retina screen and better performance. Watch videos while cooking and eating over the sink. Write non-markup documents using OmniGraffle for diagrams with the new drag/drop stuff. OmniOutliner in a side bar for notes. Use the pencil for meeting notes: polite to participants who see a keyboard as indifference and lack of attention. Collaborate on whiteboard-style line/box drawings at non-office meetings. Pay better attention while pencilling. Quick notes while watching TV. Sheet music while playing the piano: nice to download a lot of simple pieces to practice neglected sight reading. Teacher can mark up PDFs, too. Markup PDFs and music and pictures much more easily than with a mouse. Cumbersome enough to require shorter email replies. Document scanner would be great for music or other docs, maybe a replacement for the ScanSnap if it does PDFs and OCR? Reading or video watching while on the treadmill — more pleasant with a bigger screen. Use a browser and a private repo on Github to talk over code fragments. Quick edit on remote servers with an ssh terminal emulation app. Hedge against complacency. Painting and drawing for pleasure.

June 16, 2017

You’d love to see a Star Trek series in which the theme arises organically out of plot and characters rather than starting with a social-issue-of-the-day, mashing characters and plots to fit. A series based on the characters over time, on their specific problems, personalities, goals, desires, histories, mistakes and relationships. You’d love to see (maybe only) under represented actors on the show, but within the story itself, you want people broader and deeper than their types, not fungible chess pieces (with quirks) that can be slotted into any number of allegories. You’d have to ditch the episodic nature of previous series opting for a season-long external challenge difficult enough to bring out the internal tensions, to see them develop and resolve over a year. You don’t need another drama telling you that racism is bad or that stealing is not nice (though sometimes necessary) or that a too-fixed dedication to any one principle leads to absurd cultural distortions, to human misery. You don’t want to be told diversity is a good thing. You want to discover it in action. You want to feel it.

June 14, 2017

There’s not really much you can do on Twitter other than inform people of your wares or your outrages. If you have no wares, the outrages will do. Misery loves company. It feels better to know you’re not alone in your discontent. The resulting exhaustion is something like contentedness. So, that’s what you do. Toss a few comments in the stream, expecting nothing, not even a gentle ripple reaching the shore. Yet another idle moment. Yet another next thing.

June 13, 2017

An iPad is not for me. While I might enjoy using it casually, it’s a no go for the web and server-side software I write. My phone lets me send messages, send mail, read news, feeds, check balances and pay bills. What I have is a large Retina screen with a computer attached. I could use an updated laptop at meetings for demos, or to take notes and, given it’s there, write software or research papers on the couch or at cafés. The keyboard matters. A programmer’s editor. Compilers. Browsers. If I didn’t write (software is, basically, writing), I’m not sure I’d need any computer other than due to a lifelong interest in them. In the past, I’d not let such considerations deter me. Get the neat thing, then see how it works its way into the pleasant areas of life. Add a keyboard cover with that iPad, say, and an Apple Pencil. Why not? Maintaining the status quo is always the most reasonable answer to any dilemma, but where’s the joy in that? Spend a little money, find new dilemmas. An iPad Pro is exactly for me.

June 12, 2017

A bureaucracy is a fascinating technology. For ordinary citizens, it’s frustrating because it’s almost impossible to talk to anyone who has any actual responsibility when you encounter a problem. It’s a great device for insulating policy makers from the people who experience casual frustration due to the policies. The result is that a bureaus’ purview is generally stable over the long haul because change requires long term tenacity beyond what any given low-grade irritation is worth to a person. A non-corrupt bureaucracy is momentarily irritating for any given individual at any given time, but over all, comfortable (because stable) for the vast majority of people for whom the bureau’s consistent functioning has become background radiation.

An additional aspect is that a bureaucracy is so stable it acts as a hedge against a failure elsewhere in the system. It removes the kind of disruption we can experience when a single-point-of-failure fails.

For instance, even if the President is incapacitated, you can still renew your drivers license, get your build permit, or send your children to school. All those policies and procedures at the DMV allow the clerks to handle all your needs regardless of whether or not the chain of command is present or even sane. This feeds in to the frustration we all feel that authority is everywhere present, but nowhere visible. Abstract policies and procedures are running the show, not fickle human beings. How can you appeal to or be granted mercy by a policy? You can’t unless the chance for a waiver has been built in to the policy itself.

I can think of two ways to destroy a bureaucracy. One is revolution in which all laws are thrown out and those in power start over. Another is through financial starvation and policy reversals from above. For instance, there would be many more unlicensed drivers if the DMV was forced to reduce their offices to one per state. The EPA would not be nearly as frustrating to an industrialist if an Executive Order redefined pollution to allow for the dumping toxic chemicals into the water or the air or our food. This kind of destruction could be quickly achieved, but that draws a lot of attention. Better to engage a long, slow process of chipping away at budgets and purviews until the gutted bureau seems nearly useless and arbitrary.

It’s hard to see how this second kind of destruction wouldn’t eventually lead to the first.

June 11, 2017

Merlin’s remarks on Do By Friday 29 about the augmented reality demos at WWDC are right in agreeing that augmented reality isn’t all that interesting as an interaction model (not as revolutionary as keyboard/mouse and touch were) but is important in what it represents: the ability of our personal machines to be contextually aware of our environment, to do things as a result of that awareness, from suggesting routes through terrain, places to eat, warnings about upcoming trouble spots, or even remembering where you left your wallet and keys and parked e-bike. Gaming is a good test case even if just for getting a handle on the necessary raw compute power. The point about modeling a table well enough to place a simulated object on it which adjusts as you move is not the simulated object itself so much as that particular table, where it is, what’s on it and what you can extrapolate from there.

June 10, 2017

Watched Doctor Strange the other day. Enjoyable enough.

The geometric, kalidoscopic special effects reminded me a lot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Neat, but extraneous. For me, The Matrix remains the master class on bent reality improving every aspect of a film.

The character journey for the doctor is to start as an arrogant (though well-meaning), selfish genius and end as a person who puts his talents toward non-selfish ends. “It’s not about him.”

For some reason, this just didn’t have the emotional impact the plot suggests it should. The doctor gains insight, but the result is a clever solution to the film’s major threat. The doctor will help others on a much wider scale than before, sure, but that kind of helping never seemed to be his primary motivation in the first place. His new mission seems, ultimately, impersonal.

In Captain America, Steve Rogers starts out idealistic, well-meaning, and generally concerned for others but has no means to act. He’s given those means (the super serum) and the rest of the movie is him dealing with how complicated it is to do the right thing — to be the person he’s always been — due to the bureaucratic and complex milieu in which he lives. (Mirrors how we all move from idealistic youth to a more nuanced adulthood.) His idealism is tempered by damned-if-you-do-or-don’t reality, but it’s still there and you love him for it.

Tempered arrogance is not nearly as engaging as tempered idealism. Perhaps that’s why animé is so appealing. The innocent is helped by the arrogant cool-guy’s skill, while the cool-guy is reminded that his skills are empty without the purpose the innocent provides.

June 3, 2017

Trump should not be president for all the usual reasons, sure, but also because he’s a terrible administrator of the federal government. Terrible. It’s reasonable to expect an Obama or a Clinton to require that all federal buildings be energy self-sufficient by 2020 (for example), using federal policy and procedures to set precedents and do the right thing in a way that minimizes the impact on the campaign-contributing energy companies.

There’s no reason for Congress to oppose such policies as part of their scorched-earth legislative ethos: there are many more interesting chimeras they can use to fan the fires of unthinking, vote-winning anger.

I can’t imagine Trump or those he surrounds himself with thinking anything like this. It’s not that they don’t believe in government, it’s that they’re not interested in it at all.

June 2, 2017

Seems like Trump has ended up doing the traditional conservative thing of devolving important issues “to the states”. Normally that phrase is a code word for refusing to prevent racism or to prevent rampant corruption by those who have power over those who have none, but in this case, it’s dealing with climate change. A few states, and corporations, have taken up the challenge, or have at least made pledges. Climate change mitigation is not a culture war issue, nor is it bad for business, or the economy, or corporatist profits. Aside from the fact that participation is the right thing to do, these pledges read like back-handed votes of no-confidence in the current leadership. The proof will be when a red state joins in.

June 2, 2017

You don’t need the Apple Watch for telling time, but you use it for that because it’s there and the old habits return after a while. You love the stand feature because you’re convinced it keeps you from getting cramps sitting too long at your desk, accomplishing that one more thing. And you have those activity circles. “At least I can do that,” you tell yourself.

You practice the piano. The timer gently taps your wrist when it expires. Ten minutes for this, five for that, move on to the next thing.

Move on.

June 1, 2017

When it’s too much, you muffle Trump, Trump’s, Kushner, Kushner’s, Spicer, Ivanka, covfefe, Russia, to a stream of bricks — hidden commentary coming through in waves.

A frog jumps in a pond.

June 1, 2017

I wrote some blog software to learn a few new technologies. Kinda fun. Kinda dumb. In this particular case, I was also interested in a kind of minimalist “micro blog” aesthetic. So, we’ll see how that goes.

Blog software is a good use case for learning new things:

  • Authentication
  • Database
  • Post UI
  • Post Rendering
  • In-browser client and static pages
  • Customization vs open source on github
  • Configuration
  • Run on super constrained cloud servers
  • Multi-file source code project management

A much more complicated hello world that forces you to deal with the things the underlying technology isn’t especially good at.

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