Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Supercapacitor News!

Well now, it has been quite a while since I last saw anything of note on the topic of supercapacitors, but it looks like I get a year end gift on the topic. Scientists experimenting with nitrogen doped carbon materials have demonstrated devices with power storage in the same class as lead-acid batteries. Still considerably lower than lithium-ion batteries, but good progress.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mistakes Were Made, Are We Learning Yet?

Whatever your opinion about the subject, you must admit there has been a bunch of media coverage of gun violence and incidents of police killing people this past year. For instance, details from the over-a-year-long investigation into the death of a boy in Chicago at the hands of the police are tragic.
Although the caller specified to the dispatcher that the person in question was possibly a child playing with a toy, that information was not relayed to the officers and the officers responded to the call as an “active shooter” situation, authorities said. 
...
 the toy gun appeared identical to a real weapon, that the 12-year-old looked much older than he was, and that both officers behaved in ways consistent with the Cleveland police’s policies for dealing with an “active shooter” situation. 
... 
it is likely that Tamir — whose size made him look much older and who had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day — either intended to hand it to the officers or to show them it wasn’t a real gun...

Mistakes were obviously made by both sides in this story. The court has determined that the police responded reasonably given the circumstances. And yet... We have created an environment in this country where the default assumption by the police must be one of being in danger. Something has caused this. Probably many somethings. Before anything else can be tackled, we must identify the true root causes of this environment. Words like "gun culture", "police militarization", "war on drugs", and so on may provide clues, or they may be red herrings. I wish I knew how to look into this to pull out some real data, but I'm afraid it's not my field. Instead, I have to add it to my growing list of things where rhetorical extremism chokes off any real discussion.

Like so many issues America faces today, we need reasonable people to work together to identify and enact proper changes, whatever they may be. But reasonable people seem to get shouted out of politics these days. Then again, maybe the reasonable people just don't make the news.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bookworming: 2015 Summary

With a total of merely eleven, I managed to read even fewer things this year than last. And of those, just over half were new to me.

My rating scale:
* I didn't care for it.
** Meh
*** Good for those who like that sort of thing.
**** Just plain good, likely to be read again some time.
***** Destined to be a personal favorite, likely to be read over and over again.

*****
Pattern Recognition, William Gibson

****
Mistborn: The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson
The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson
The Hero of Ages (Mistborn #3), Brandon Sanderson
Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew

***
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
Guilty Pleasures, Laurel K. Hamilton
Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn

**
Uwharrie, Eugene Pfaff, Michael Causey

*
Art Before Breakfast, Danny Gregory
In the Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker

Bookworming: Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn, ***
I am not particularly interested in novels which expand series from other media. Nevertheless, they can be hard to resist for properties one is invested in. I have occasionally wandered down that road over the years for Robotech, Babylon 5, Star Trek, and, as in this case, Star Wars. As one might expect, it has been a very, very mixed bag. Which brings me to the subject of today's review.

Long before "The Force Awakens" there was another what-happened-next Star Wars story. This one started five years after the events of "Return of the Jedi", bringing back the major characters and introducing new ones into the mix. Personally, I think the novel does an excellent job of evoking the trappings of the Star Wars universe without being bound entirely by the differences in storytelling between movies and books. However, the differences do show up. This is a 400 page novel, not a two hour movie, and even though there a several set-piece action scenes, the pacing is quite a bit more languid than one might associate with Star Wars. And as you would expect, there is no introduction to the old characters or their universe. It is also the first in a trilogy, and the usual tropes apply. Still, this is widely hailed as one of the best Star Wars novels, and if that is what you are after, and if you don't mind that it now lives outside the cannon, then give it a go.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Bookworming: Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures, Laurel K. Hamilton, ***
About four years before Buffy started its TV run, another vampire slayer was on the scene. Anita Blake lives in a world where vampires and other supernatural creatures are public knowledge, raises the dead for her day (night) job, and hunts vampires with and for the police on the side. Add in a noir-ish mystery, some splatter horror, and overly sexualized undertones and you have a great basis for a wonderfully fun, exploitation style series. Things didn't really turn out that way in the long run, so I'm going to do this in two parts.

First, the book on its own. Guilty Pleasures makes for a reasonable first novel with the sorts of flaws you would expect from one. The writing is repetitive in places. The main character's reputation relies a little too much on pre-established reputation. (Characters expressing surprise that Anita is The Executioner begins to sound like the "Snake Pliskin, I thought you were dead." line from Escape From New York.) The main villains have the particularly slippery horror combination of way too much power for the protagonist to reasonably be able to deal with and enough arrogance and stupidity to allow her to be lucky at the right times to actually stay alive. All that said, many of the things some might find as flaws, I can see as good use of the tropes of the genres being played with by Hamilton. It was a decent enough read that I continued with the series.

Which brings me to part two, the series as far as I got. The style and tone hold relatively steady for the first five books in the series, though sex gradually becomes a larger focus. (Note that Guilty Pleasures has no actual sex in it.) Once past book five, the books begin to lose the procedural elements and become more about the interactions between Anita and the various, and ever-increasing, supernatural creature groups around her. And those interactions become ever more focused on sex and or violence. By the eighth and ninth books, the series' tone had changed enough that my enjoyment waned and I stopped reading, reportedly just before it swerved completely into erotica territory.

For my tastes, I can't really recommend more than the first five books in the series, and those only if you enjoy the rather grindhouse tone being set.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bookworming: Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, *****
I love a good turn of a phrase, and for my money Gibson is right up there with Douglas Adams in mastery of that art. As a consequence, Gibson novels are not easy reading, and having the internet handy to look up the occasional word would not go amiss. The pace here is even slower than usual for his books, with the central plot circling around a search and the mysteries that crop up because of that search.

That said, Gibson remains a favorite author, and this is my favorite book of his. This review actually comes after my third reading, and I love it now as much as before. It is also possibly his most accessible, keeping to a single, memorable point of view character. And while I put this on the sci-fi shelf, it is very grounded in the essentially-now. If a somewhat languid pace and some complex language aren't going to bother you, then give this one a try. I find it well worth it, and the observational details are second to none.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Automation vs. Capitalism

Since the bursting of the last bubble, the subject of job losses to automation seems to be a continuous background murmur in economic stories. Many of the jobs lost, it is said, are simply gone never to return. A quick search will turn up many, many articles on the subject. And many, many counter articles. I suspect how you respond to the subject will generally fall in line with how you feel about "The Market". But for me, there is a more interesting angle: to whom do the benefits of automation go?

Software, especially, is a good place to see wealth concentration through automation in action. But how much of that is driven by economics and how much of by psychology? (Whether there is really a distinction between the two is a subject for a different time.) Laurie Penny writing for NewStatesman pens (types?) a editorial taking on the subject from an interesting perspective: it isn't the automation that is bad, it's our economic system. Could we, through an offering of a living wage, produce a society where a life of leisure was a possibility for many? Would it produce a whole new underclass of lazy layabouts? Would it produce a burst of creativity and innovation where people are free to pursue their own passion projects? Would it do a little of both, but mostly leave society as it is because large houses, fancy cars, day care, and cable or cell phone bills are expensive? Can market capitalism ever move in a direction where more people work for less hours?

Personally, I think trying to get a living wage in place would be a stretch for a country that can't even agree that universal health care would be a good thing. But that's just my practical side. I would absolutely consider retiring early given the chance, though what I really want is the possibility to work, say, four days a week instead of five. It's a good question to ask: do you have an interest you would spend your time on if you worked less or not at all?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Bookworming: The Hero of Ages

The Hero of Ages (Mistborn #3), Brandon Sanderson, ****
Satisfying ending to the trilogy. Absolutely no a stand-alone book. My review of the first book in the series applies here too.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Watching the Watchers: The Wall Street Journal Invokes the Specter of Marx

"[Lack of influence by shareholders] is perhaps most evident in the preposterous salaries paid, particularly in the U.S. and Britain, to top executives of public companies. If the owners of these companies truly exercised authority over what is theirs, this wouldn’t happen. If these enterprises had grown over the last 20 years at the same rate as pay for the men who run them (it usually still is men), no one would be talking of a crisis of capitalism." 
"But Marx did have an insight about the disproportionate power of the ownership of capital. The owner of capital decides where money goes, whereas the people who sell only their labor lack that power. This makes it hard for society to be shaped in their interests. In recent years, that disproportion has reached destructive levels, so if we don’t want to be a Marxist society, we need to put it right."
–Charles Moore, "The Middle-Class Squeeze", The Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2015

At this point, I really should have had something prepared to look into some of the do-your-own-thing movements going around. Say something about the rise of podcasting in comedy, Kickstarter/Patreon, the pros and cons of Silicon Valley-style startup culture, etc. And then contrast that with restrictive health care situations and other holes in the fabric of U.S. business. But I didn't do that. Maybe some other time.

Meanwhile, go listen to the Planet Money episode about Netflix's hiring and firing practices. Whether you think their approach is brilliant or horrifying may tell you something about which side you will be on should the specter of Marx rear its head in our "modern" times.

If this post was a youtube video, I would end it by asking: Capitalism, are we doing it wrong? If so how do we fix it?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Watching the Watchers: From Above

The U.S. Air Force is in its 24th year of continual combat. Consider for a moment all of the implications of that little fact.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bookworming: In the Dust of This Planet

In the Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker, *
I came to this book via the Radio Lab episode and the True Detective season 1 influence. As such, it may have been built up a bit too much. It is, in my reading, basically a series of similarly themed essays on the subject of a nihilist perspective of horror that goes beyond the human-centered viewpoint. I say "in my reading", because there will undoubtedly be other readings. This is an academic work couched in overly academic styles and verbiage that might make H. P. Lovecraft ask Thacker to dial it back some. It is a good one to read on an e-reader or tablet with word look up available. While the topic may be an interesting one, this is not a book for general audiences. Even horror fans may not find what they are looking here. Scholars of horror or philosophy, perhaps. In his RadioLab interview Thacker jokes about writing books for no one. I'm afraid that in spite of the book's appearance in pop culture, that joke is fairly accurate for most potential readers.

Bookworming: The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson, ****
This is the second book in the Mistborn trilogy. If you liked the first one, I suspect you will like the second one.

Quote of the Moment

"Every aspect of life is a rigorous engagement with the banal. –J. Morgan Puett, The Art Assignment "Scramble Scrabble Dinner"

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Watching the Watchers: Coached vs. Practiced

I will say this about Donald Trump: he makes well coached politicians look like amateurs when re-framing questions. And for those who don't think it is deliberate, here is a relevant quote from his 2009 book The Art of the Deal.
The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.
Hat tip to Evan Osnos for noting the quote in "The New Yorker" article "The Fearful and the Frustrated", August 31, 2015.

Another side note, the The Simpsons episode "Bart to the Future" from back in 2000 had a bit Trump as president.

And of course Trump was a potential presidential candidate for a time in 2012 before bowing out to remain on The Apprentice.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Electronics in a Contact Lens

One of the most fun parts of living in the twenty-first century is having some of the wild science fiction visions of the twentieth century become subjects of real research. Sometimes they even become reality, often in unexpected ways. Today's link from Sergey Brin shows off electronics in a contact lens. I realize the post is basically an informal press release, but it's just a very cool picture.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Because Reasons

It's Friday. This is awesome. #dubsmashwar2015 #TeamCarter. Yes, I used hashtags in a blog post.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Yep, Diseases Scare Me

The flip side of the wish-fulfillment aspects of end-of-the-world stories is the fear scenario on which they are built. In other words, for every survive-the-cataclysm story, there must be a cataclysm. I currently see widespread disease as the most likely real-world apocalypse scenario. Thanks to things like global warming (pardon me, we're calling it climate change now), rapid human travel, and the increasing wealth disparity, pandemic seems to have a certain ring of non-randomness that an asteroid impact just can't manage. As with most such things, the real world is likely to be a bit more subtle about it than a rapid zombie pandemic, but in many ways a slow decay can be even more frightening than a rapid death. Disease itself has heavy involvement in mythology, from the aforementioned zombies, through vampirism, lycanthropy, witches bringing the Black Death, and all the way to being personified as one of The Four Horsemen. There is also a very real link between poverty and disease, which compounds social factors and helps disguise the problem.

So if you are feeling good today, take a deep breath, smile, and enjoy it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sow the Wind, Reap the Electricity

2014 was a good year for wind power generation in the U.S. A now-expired tax credit encouraged building, and falling costs have made it generally cheaper than ever. Development will slow with the expiration of the tax credit, but it appears that long-term continue to look increasingly competitive against natural gas.

Friday, August 7, 2015

On Posting A Lot in One Night After Much Absence

Rule one for my blog: I do not apologize about my blog posting frequency.
Rule two for my blog: I do not apologize about my blog posting frequency.

And yet, it does not escape me that I have posted more in the past couple of days than in the previous couple of months. Part of that is serendipity, but it's mostly deliberate effort. Who knows if I can keep this up? I looked at my saved articles in feedly last night and realized I have stuff going back years that I thought might make post fodder. Maybe it's time to clean some of that out. But my work schedule remains detrimental to other activities, so I make no promises. Just in case anyone was wondering, I do actually know how to schedule the posts to spread out more for times when I do a bunch of things at once like tonight. But I figure, eh, why bother? It's not like I'm driving any traffic here anyway.

Weirded Out By Linguistic Analysis

IBM has this Personality Insights thing that uses linguistic analysis to generate a personality profile based on a person's writings. On a whim, I plugged in the only thing I have written recently that was entirely out of my own brain, and the results were, with maybe one exception, quite accurate.

I think this may be the first time I have legitimately been creeped out by a computer.

For the curious (I know, nobody, say instead for my records), here's what Friend Computer had to say about me:
You are shrewd and skeptical.
You are empathetic: you feel what others feel and are compassionate towards them.
You are independent: you have a strong desire to have time to yourself.
And you are solemn: you are generally serious and do not joke much.
Your choices are driven by a desire for efficiency.
You consider independence to guide a large part of what you do: you like to set your own goals to decide how to best achieve them.
You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done.
 Hat tip to Felicia Day for pointing this one out. (Note: that link could be considered PG-13/NSFW.)

A Bit About Chernobyl

Veritasium visits Chernobyl

I assume anyone with the slightest interest in such things is well aware of Chernobyl now. But I still find it fascinating. The glimpses people give when they visit of a world that has moved on from us. While there is always an element of wish fulfillment at play in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fascination, I think Chernobyl brings out another facet: it puts us in our place. Humanity is both dominant and fragile. We can harness forces that are literally invisible and nearly unimaginable, yet those same forces can kill us very, very easily. That small, poisoned section of Ukraine shows us a parallel world that thankfully never came to pass, and yet some are still drawn to it. I suppose I'm one.

Tune of the Moment

Embedding is disabled for this one, but the tune of the moment is "Good Man" by Devour the Day.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

What Extreme Green Looks Like

Rob Rhinehart, creator of "meal replacement" drink Soylent, has taken reducing his personal power consumption to extreme levels. This lifestyle sounds to me like something from an old science fiction novel. (He basically alludes to that himself when making a comparison to living in space colonies.) Really, this is yet more proof that the sci-fi future is here now, and real sustainability is already possible.

There are several choices he has made that I would not, but I have to admit, if I could find a consistent, nutritious source of pre-made food that would eliminate cooking from my life without drowning me in sodium, I would be all over that. I do require it be recognizable as food and not a series of combined powders, but that's just because I'm not an early adopter. (And I've had quite enough digestive related health issues in my life already, thank you very much.)

A Parable Come to Life

CEO decides to cut his own salary and institute a minimum seventy-thousand dollar salary at his company. The results play out in a way that mirrors the Biblical parable of the workers in the vineyard so exactly, in so many ways that I don't think any further explanation is needed. It does, perhaps, offer an interesting perspective on capital-C capitalism in this country today. And if not that, then maybe it says something about human ego and myopia.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Very Different, Maybe Very the Same

Some time over the last several years, I have come to believe that the culture surrounding sports and sports fans is, in my mind, an echo of the culture found in politics and political ideology. And that in turn bears a close resemblance to the how a lot of religion is done in the U.S. these days. Stay with me here a minute, so I can provide an example:

Let us pretend that there exists a document which is actually made up of a series of documents written at different times. This document concerns a set of beliefs and laws. This document is very old and was originally written at a completely different time in history when society bore little to no resemblance to society today. At various times between now and when the document was written, committees of chosen experts decided what would and what would not be included in the document. Today there are, broadly speaking, two major factions of ideology among followers of the beliefs and laws in the document. One believes that the document is sacrosanct and simply following it will right the ills of society. The other says that while it is good for general guidance, it must be viewed as historical legacy and not all things in it apply today. Around the fringes of those groups are smaller groups who think the document is being used as a lever to keep certain people in power (or oppressed), or that the beliefs and laws described are failures and something better should be devised, and there are those who cite the document as a source of their beliefs when they clearly have no real knowledge of its contents or themes.

Now, am I describing the Bible or the Constitution?

Honestly, I'm really not sure how this makes me feel.

Bookworming: Blind Man's Bluff

Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, ****
Once upon a time, long before Edward Snowden revealed some facets of the extents to which the U.S. intelligence agencies would go to collect said intelligence, there was a forty-plus year period of tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. known as the Cold War. This book contains tales of espionage and surveillance missions undertaken by Navy submarines during that time. There are stories of great courage, extreme danger, illegal activity, bureaucratic incompetence, and the general Cold War paranoia caused by the thankfully-now-inconceivable threat of nuclear war. The book generally tells its stories well. The primary exception is one long chunk of investigative work concerning what could have happened to a particular submarine lost at sea. Unfortunately, though the book leads you to believe one version of events, there is no actual proof on hand, undercutting the too-long section describing the theories.

I actually read this once before, a long time ago. At the time I was very into techno-thrillers, and this book is not unlike those, except these things actually happened. Back then I found it fascinating, if a little slow. Reading it now, I see quite a few more layers. The sacrifices of the men on those boats and those they left behind on the shore. The lies and secrecy that protected the "special projects" programs even from other parts of the government. The book has examples of the human dedication that it took to win the Cold War, and it has examples of the human stupidity that lead to it happening in the first place. And for that, I think I can recommend it to anyone.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ant Man Capsule Review

Ant Man turned out pretty funny. All the actors did good work, but the secondary cast really brought it and nearly stole the show more than once. It is very heavy on the continuity nods. Marvel movie junkies will want to see Avengers 2 before this one, and stay to the end of the credits, though there aren't any big surprises. On the Marvel Cinematic Universe scale, the tone is even sillier than Guardians, and the entertainment value for my tastes puts it firmly in the mid-range above 1st Thor  and Iron Man 2, but behind the big tent poles of Avengers and Cpt. America. I like that they took some time for the set up, because it feels like there was just the right amount of ant antics and big/small fighting without wearing out the gimmick. Yes, this is Marvel going very, very comic book with a movie, and still pulling it off.

A warning for the realism inclined: just don't even worry about it, the physics in this movie lives squarely in the realm of utter nonsense. Consider this your warm up for the future one about a magician. Assuming the talking tree and raccoon didn't already get you settled. Or the two starring a Norse god and his flying hammer. Or the... yeah, you get it.

Friday, July 3, 2015

RPG Settings in My Head

I suspect nearly everyone who enjoys playing role playing games, and almost certainly everyone who referees them, has settings they would like to play in. Or maybe it's just me. In any case, being without a gaming group at the moment, I need to get my set of settings out of my head to free up room for other things. Also it's a fun exercise at a time when my creative side has had most of its juice squeezed out by relentless, difficult, mental work going on at the real job.

1) The Far Realm.
The Eternal Empire is a place of order, serenity, and control. Its holy rule has tamed the wild lands and given all safety, opportunity, and surety of their place in society. But not all people recognize the benefits of this. A few, a very few, people refuse to accept their natural place, or seek to sow chaos in the great realms. Those people are found by the Empire. And since they can not fit into an ordered society, they are deported for their own good. The Empire's mightiest barges risk crossing the Black Sea, carrying the people to the Far Realm.
This one would be stock swords and sorcery with some steam-punk or sci-fi if the players desire. (It could easily go full pulp if desired as well.) Patterned with Dungeons & Dragons (any version) or similar games such as Pathfinder in mind, I originally envisioned this as a setup for a West Marches style exploration campaign. All characters have in their background a reason why the Empire wanted them gone. It could be anything, from being a criminal or revolutionary, to studying the wrong magics, to trying to court the wrong nobleman's daughter. They begin on a deportation barge arriving at the massive iron fortress controls the only harbor and passes through the Stone Wall mountains to the lands of the Far Realm beyond. The barge opening provides a chance for initial social encounter, they are released into the town of Iron Wall in the valley below the Fortress.

2) Unnamed dark fantasy
Our world stands on the brink. Too much of it has been used up. Too many lives lost. Magic tears at its fabric, and from the rends come chaos and things unspeakable. We must continue to fight to hold it together, for the alternative is utter destruction.
Swords and sorcery as slow apocalypse, with horror elements. Pull some of the magic and insanity rules from Call of Cthulhu and derived games, place into a war torn world with dwindling resources. Think of a setting similar to westerns, with an emphasis on bust rather than boom, on its way toward becoming Roland's "moved on" world from The Gunslinger. Sorcerers driven insane seeking powers beyond those of mortal man. Dark cults seeing evil forces as their salvation. Destruction, chaos, and death, all adding to the strain on reality, opening magic portals (rends) to a dark realm (along the lines of Mortal Kombat's Outworld) which bring even greater dangers. I see this setting as more appropriate for a generic rule set such as Savage Worlds, GURPS, or GORE than D&D.

3) Saturday Afternoon at the Movies
In the not-too-distant future, teams of troubleshooters drawn from the best and brightest scientists, soldiers, engineers, and negotiators are formed by the UN to handle the increasingly extreme threats being faced by the world.
This one is B-movie sci-fi pulp in a post-global warming, post limited nuclear exchange, post bio-engineering, post-any-other-bad-sci-fi-movie-plot-device-you-can-think-of world, the UN troubleshooters faces mutant beasts, weather gone mad, callous corporations, and overzealous warriors of all stripes. I pretty much made this one up with Savage Worlds in mind. My original idea for this setting was for a series of stand alone scenarios rather than a full blown recurring-character campaign. I thought it might be a good format for irregular play schedules, varying player count, and all the other inconveniences imposed by actual adult lives.

4) Cyberpunk set in a spin on the Car Wars/Autoduel America setting.
Probably Savage Worlds again, with some additions from Interface Zero. This could easily shade into Saturday Afternoon at the Movies territory, but as envisioned I would try to keep it more toward a noir-ish tone. Autoduel America has some very nice elements as a setting, including a company that will clone you and back up your memories, for a price, political splits from a second civil war, and its own take on a mini-apocalypse that kicked off the return of death-sports and made the country outside of "fortress towns" a rather dangerous place to go without a well armed and armored car. I think it would be a pretty interesting place to set a combat heavy cyberpunk campaign.

I've probably got a space opera setting in me somewhere, but the capsule pitch always comes out as Star Wars without the Force, so I probably need to give it some more thought. In any case, if you made it this far, would you most like to see me expand on any of these? What strange worlds would you like to take a fictional ramble through?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Bookworming: Uwharrie

Uwharrie, Eugene Pfaff, Michael Causey, **
I went into this one thinking it would be a mystery, but it's actually a horror story. While I suspect it would make a pretty decent B-movie, as a novel it never quite gels. There isn't enough characterization to give the jeopardy weight, and not enough actual plot to move the story on its own. It has a few good set pieces and some local color, but I would only recommend it if the jacket blurb sounds like it would be directly in line with your tastes.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Gaming the Steam Sale Game

The summer Steam sale is currently running. This year it comes with its own game that involves clicking (or using an auto-cannon that allows you to not click) to kill an endless stream of monsters. The game itself is the worst kind of web game that's essentially just a Skinner box with increasing numbers as the reward. But because it's a browser game, programmers are generating javascript programs to send clicks or optimize the gold gaining rate by putting you in the optimal place. I find it interesting that programming was an immediate response to being presented with what is essentially an exercise in optimization. I have no idea whether these things would be considered "cheating", but it is a good reminder that the web browser is one of the premier programming platforms right now, and it can be heavily automated.

Monday, May 25, 2015

VIM resource file

I have been using the VIM editor for something north of twenty years now. Even when my "primary" editor has been Visual Studio or SlickEdit, I still use VIM for quick tasks and for diffing (along with the indispensable GNU diff utility). And really, I'm far from a master with it. It occurs to me that reading back over my VIM resource file is almost like a mini personal archaeology of my programming experience. I have the simple stuff from my early days in college, a lot of the GUI movement things came from later when I started into CS more seriously, and then bits and pieces added that reflected what I was doing in my jobs. The editor wars will never really end, though the old text editors are increasingly taking a back seat to IDEs that are better at navigating through large projects or reflect the more complex work flows of modern applications. In the end a useful tool never really stops being useful.

My .vimrc:

"Basic editing behaviors
set showmode      "mode info at the bottom of the screen
set backspace=indent,eol,start "allow full backspace movement
"set autoindent    "regular auto-indent
set smartindent   "a more advanced indenting option
"set cindent       "strict rules based indenting
set columns=95    "preferred window width
set lines=40      "preferred window height
set expandtab     "use spaces instead of tabs
set ruler         "show line and column numbers
set showbreak=<=  "what to print at front of wrapped lines
set showmatch     "blip to matching brackets
set shiftwidth=2  "code indention size

"search behaviors
set nohlsearch "highlights all matches to a search
set incsearch  "search incrementally
"set smartcase  "only be case sensitive if a capital is in the search string
set ignorecase "case insensitive searching

"file behaviors
set directory=c:\windows\temp "set the swap file directory
set wildignore=*.o,*.class "ignore these files when doing filename completion

"status line stuff
"always show the status line
set laststatus=2           "always show the status line
"set statusline=%t\ %h%m%r%=%-12(0x%02.2B\ %b%)\ %c,%l/%L "broken out below
set statusline=%t          "filename (not fully qualified)
set statusline+=\ %h       "help file indicator
set statusline+=%m         "file modified indicator
set statusline+=%r         "file read-only indicator
set statusline+=%=         "shove the rest to the right (left/right separator)
set statusline+=%-12(0x%02.2B\ %b%)
                           "hex value of the character under the cursor padded
                           "  with zeros to min and max of 2 characters long [0x%02.2B]
                           "  followed by decimal value of the character [%b]. All
                           "  of this left justified and padded to min 15 characters
                           "  [%-12( ... %)].
set statusline+=\ %c,%l/%L "column cursor is in

"GUI commands
highlight Normal guibg=Black guifg=White
"set guifont=Consolas:h10:cANSI  "Set the font (***PLATFORM SPECIFIC***)
set guifont=DejaVu_Sans_Mono:h9:cANSI  "Set the font (***PLATFORM SPECIFIC***)

"Color and syntax highlighting stuff
set background=dark "MUST be before other highlighting settings
syntax on           "turns on syntax highlighting
highlight Comment   guifg=#DDA0DD "HTML Plum
highlight Constant  guifg=#FF6347 "HTML Tomato
highlight Statement guifg=#5588FF "A mid-intensity blue
highlight Type      guifg=#5588FF "A mid-intensity blue
highlight PreProc   guifg=#7CFC00 "HTML Lawn Green

"Session stuff
set sessionoptions-=options "Don't save options with the session

"Make the HOME key go to the first non-whitespace character the
" first time it is hit, and then to the first column.
fun! s:SmartHome()
  if col('.') != match(getline('.'), '\S')+1
    norm ^
  else
    :call cursor(line('.'),2)
    norm h
  endif
endfun
inoremap  :call SmartHome()
nnoremap  :call SmartHome()
vnoremap  :call SmartHome()

"Add shortcut keys to move between buffers (not to be confused with
" moving between windows, which is shortcutted below).
" Alias Alt-Up to move to the previous buffer
nmap  :bp!
" Alias Alt-Down to move to the next buffer
nmap  :bn!

"Alter split switching behavior to make me happier
set winminheight=0  "This allows open windows to display as status line only
" Alias Ctrl-Down to move down a window
map  j_
" Alias Ctrl-Up to move up one window
map  k_
" Alias Ctrl-Right to move right one window
map  l
" Alias Ctrl-Left to move left one window
map  h
" Alias Ctrl-h to 'maximize' the window
map  _

" Use specific file type highlighting for files with a given extension.
"au BufRead,BufNewFile *.bob setfiletype cpp

Watching the Watchers: Tracking Makes the Web Worse

Internet privacy is a fairly recent addition to the list of oxymorons like military intelligence and classified advertisement. Privacy issues on the internet interact constantly with monitization attempts, because, the old cliche tells us, if you aren't paying for the product then you are the product. Increasingly, "big data" analytics drive more and more advertising. And for that to be effective, there must be a way of establishing patterns, tying all the movements on the internet together. And of course, there are. Mostly in the form of tracking cookies or javascript snippets that can tell a server where you are. Recent work by Monica Chew and Georgios Kontaxis using the currently-in-development tracking protection feature of the Mozilla Firefox browser to look at the top 200 news sites resulted not only two thirds less cookies than usual on a system but also a better than 40% reduction in average page load times and nearly 40% reduction in data use. Learning the performance of web pages is harmed by tracking and analytics is hardly a surprise, but learning how big that number is surprised me. With the ascendance of mobile and the attendant data caps, the data usage is hardly something to overlook either. And so as commercial interests struggle to make themselves relevant to our personal interests, they add drag into the system. On the other hand, something has to pay the bills for those news sites, because it seems the users sure aren't interested in doing so anymore.

Watching the Watchers: Science, Politics, and Pragmatism on the NC Coast

Coastal regions will see the most direct and immediate impacts of climate change. Here in NC, the extensive, popular coastal region anchors several powerful political forces. Those forces, along with energy producing corporations and development interests, have shifted the actions of the state away from looking at the long-term predictions of scientists. Aljazeera America gives a very nice overview of the situation and how some of the coastal communities and their governments are reacting.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bookworming: Art Before Breakfast

Art Before Breakfast, Danny Gregory, *
A few years ago I read The Creative License and I heartily recommend that book over Art Before Breakfast. If you have any exposure to Gregory's writing before, there is very little new in this book, and far less than the claimed zillions of ideas on hand. If you haven't, this one isn't substantial enough to give you a real taste of his inspirational style. The central message (you can find ten minutes a day to draw something) is a good one, but in my eyes it isn't instructional enough for beginners or deep enough for more serious hobbyists.

Bookworming: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson, ****
The Final Empire is a swords and sorcery novel with a unique take on the sorcery part which uses the framework of a long-form heist. Half of the fun of a heist story is seeing how things are dealt with when everything doesn't go as planned. And this one certainly delivers on that. The primary characters are interesting and well handled. The secondary characters are fleshed out just enough for the story and not much beyond. The world building is solid without taking over, which would have been possible with a world where ash falls from the sky, mists rule the nights, and colorful plants are unknown. Even the enemies are suitably threatening. And perhaps most importantly for the first book in a trilogy, Sanderson created a fully self-contained story. There are plenty of threads left for moving forward, but they are all outside the core of this story. A solid tale well told.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Boy's First Space Opera

"We're off to outer space."

By the mid 1980s, my geek/nerd tendencies were already well formed. My interest in the apocalyptic first manifested as a fascination with volcanoes, with the catastrophic 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens focusing that interest. At the same time Space Shuttle launches were still a new thing that school classes stopped to watch. NASA was taking people into space and bringing them back again, and my young mind was inspired. It was in those years my obsession with space opera began. It was the time of finding Star Trek reruns, Battlestar Galactica after lunch on Sunday, and British sci-fi like Doctor Who and The Tripods on PBS. But those were the effect, not the cause. My beginning started a little earlier.

"We're leaving Mother Earth."

The action cartoons of the early 80s were often built around toy lines, things like GI-Joe, He Man,  and The Transformers.* There were colorful characters fighting crazy exaggerated villains, but the chief factor that all observed (and this even carried over to live action shows like The A-Team) was that nobody ever died. The good guys always won in the end, and the bad guys always managed to get away. GI Joe was especially egregious in this regard, with its tech directly inspired by the real world of cold-war military machines and then pushed into the realm of sci-fi lasers and James Bond-esque plots. All the lasers, missiles, tanks, and so forth never managed to actually kill anyone. Exploding planes were always accompanied by parachuting pilots. A tank taking a direct hit always left enough time for the driver and gunner to bail out before the vehicle exploded. No matter how many times Optimus and Megatron faced off, neither ever really defeated the other. I loved the cartoons anyway, and badgered my parents into getting me the toys too. So maybe that intrinsic lack of consequences would never have bothered my young mind if something entirely new hadn't come along. That something was the first wave of Japanese imports.

"To save the human race."

As I remember it, there was a particular time slot on weekday afternoons on one of the local UHF channels that showed three different shows from Japan. The first one had been on for a while before the other two were added. That was Speed Racer, the cartoon that forever ruined NASCAR for me. The crazy, poorly animated, utterly distinctive madness of jumping, wrecking racing was completely different from the toy tie in shows (though it did sell some Hot Wheels if I am honest). The second was Ultraman, the rubber-suited hero fighting rubber-suited monsters great-great-grandaddy of the Power Rangers, which I will admit I did not like all that much.** Both were unusual enough to hold my eyes, but they ultimately still followed their own formulas. The third show was something else entirely: Star Blazers.

"Our Star Blazers"

By some miracle, I managed to see Star Blazers from the beginning in a time before TV recordings were available. And that was critically important because Star Blazers was a true serial. It is hard to overstate how different that was at the time. The first episode sets the tone, opening on an over-the-shoulder view of a man gazing at a Mars-like red planet with a few wisps of white cloud. The voice-over begins, "I can not bear to see what has become of Earth." Yes, the Earth has been devastated by an implacable enemy firing radioactive asteroids from the vicinity of Pluto. The remnants of Humanity have constructed underground cities to escape the radiation, but every day that radiation creeps deeper, and within a year the planet will be uninhabitable. We quickly learn that the man is Avatar, the Captain of the last remaining space battleship in Earth's fleets, and his tiny fleet is about to go into battle near Pluto against the vastly superior Gamalon forces. If I now refer back to the formula mentioned above where the good guys win and the bad guys loose, then you might get a glimpse of the surprise a child might feel when the Earth fleet gets summarily crushed. The battleship's weapons can not penetrate the armor of the enemy's battleships. While they get in a few missile kills, the battleship hull is holed and its escort ships destroyed. Avatar orders the retreat, but the Captain of the final remaining escort ship disobeys and takes it into battle to buy the flagship time to get away. And that's just the first ten minutes.


The rest of the episode introduces some of the other characters, including Derek Wildstar, the younger brother of the escort ship captain, now angry with Avatar for leaving his brother behind to die, his friend Mark Venture, nurse Nova, IQ-9 the genius robot, and Doctor Sane. Wildstar and Venture retrieve a message capsule from the wreckage of an alien ship on Mars. That capsule contains a message from Starsha, ruler of a distant planet, offering technology that can remove the radiation from Earth and designs for a faster-than-light engine that will give the humans the capability to retrieve it. It closes with Wildstar and Venture unsuccessfully intercepting a Gamelon patrol that seems to be interested in the wreckage of the World War II battleship Yamato, which the evaporation of the oceans has exposed. It will take another episode before the secret of the Yamato is revealed. The Earth forces have built a new space battleship, the Argo, out of and disguised by the hulk of the old ship and fitted it with Starsha's wave motion engine. It takes another episode still before the ship actually launches. And so begins the first serial space opera I ever saw.


While the pattern of the hero's journey is there in many ways, Star Blazers had themes much deeper than any of the adjacent cartoons. In place of the colorful toy characters you see the grief of a young man who lost his parents and the older brother he idolized to war. You see the grief of an old man who survived longer than his daughter and son-in-law. You see the conflict between hatred of an enemy unknown and the openness to learn about that enemy. There is an entire episode in which the crew has one last chance to speak to family on Earth before they go out of range, giving the characters connections and depth unheard of in a child's cartoon.  It introduces a very Japanese tone of honor, including the idea of the honorable enemy. It is a gateway into World War II history, via the ship itself which was in real life the largest battleship ever created, and via the cultural legacy of the only country to ever experience the horror of nuclear bombing. Already not a very covert metaphor, I would learn much later that the original show did not change the name of the battleship, nor give its crew an independent name. The ship and crew were referred to as one, Yamato, a name that can also mean Japan and/or Japanese in general. The entire thing can be read as a post-WWII cultural allegory.*** Is it any wonder that my tastes were changed? Even today, I find that the story, or at least the depth behind the story, holds up for me. Though the cartoon itself has aged, it has aged about as well as any late-70s era space opera for children is likely to. But of course, I am biased. You don't forget your first geek obsession.

Star Blazers is available on youtube (though it seems many of the videos are buggy) through Manga Entertainment, and via Manga Entertainment's Roku channel the last time I checked. My impressions are based on the first two seasons; I never saw the third.

For another's experience read, io9's Charlie Jane Anders's "Star Blazers Got Me Through the Shittiest Year Of My Childhood".

Images used in this article are from Yamato 2199, a recent remake of the original's first season from studios Xebec and AIC. Which is both fairly faithful to the original story (and ship designs) and very beautiful. As far as I can tell they are copyright Voyager Entertainment and used without permission, since I could not find any promotional art. Yamato 2199 is available on (very, very expensive) DVD and Blu-Ray.

*  Notable exceptions to the toy-tie-in rule, including Thundarr the Barbarian and Space Ghost, often came from Hanna-Barbera.
** I'm still not overly fond of the 'kaiju' genre, though like Ultraman I can watch and get some enjoyment from good ones.
*** I believe there are definite parallels to be drawn between the WWII influence on Space Battleship Yamato and the 9-11 influence on the more recent Battlestar Galactica series.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Even after thirty years, the future still belongs to the Mad.


I saw Mad Max: Fury Road this afternoon, and it was superb. Not just the best Mad Max movie ever, but one of the best action movies I have ever seen, period. Max was properly laconic, and properly mad. The bleak landscape was gloriously not monochrome. The aesthetic of metal and chrome was turned to 11. The stunts were super athletic. The heavy use of practical effects really gives it weight. The sets, cars, and other props are proper pieces of artwork. The directing lets you see them all while still making sure you know what's going on during all the action. It was an amazing ride, with astonishing pacing that allowed a surprising amount of character touches, from actors who were totally on point, without ever actually seeming to slow down.

Theron's Furiosa very nearly steals the entire show, and stands confidently as every bit the badass that Max is. For my money, Furiosa has the potential to be for this generation of sci-fi/fantasy kids what Weaver's Ellen Ripley was for mine.

Mad Max and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior were the defining archetype of the post-apocalyptic action movie. Westerns with cars instead of horses, insanity instead of Indians, and gasoline instead of gold, backed by a reversal of the frontier's promise of endless potential to one of endless collapse. Max himself was envisioned as a legendary figure, the movies as stories told about him. Fury Road brings the legend back for a new generation, and this legend has grown in the telling.

Honestly, I don't really even have the skill to properly analyze or describe how magnificent an action movie this was. Instead, I will leave you with a few quotes from better writers than I that capture why I haven't stopped smiling since leaving the theater.

"A myth of the time of steel and petrol, that’s about collapsing back into dark history. ... FURY ROAD doesn’t feel like a modern film. It’s a throwback to classical filmmaking. A scream from the nightmares of the last century." —Warren Ellis

"The peculiar glory of huge physical objects in hard kinetic service to the fantastic." —William Gibson via Twitter.

"You don’t realize just how crappy most action movies are, until you see something like Mad Max: Fury Road... After three previous Mad Max films, Miller understands that the post-apocalyptic story isn’t so much about the collapse of society’s institutions, but about what replaces them — and he’s fascinated by the twisted attempts to create a functioning society in the ruins of our own." —Charlie Jane Anders, io9.com review

Saturday, May 2, 2015

TLDR: Avengers 2 is Great

Star Wars showed the world that movies were able to depict epic fantasy in ways never before imagined. Spider Man (2002) proved that technology had advanced enough that making a good super-hero movie was possible, given good enough writing. The concurrent Lord of the Rings trilogy (ending in 2003) showed that big-budget spectacle genre franchises actually could happen as movies. Also around that time the Harry Potter series kicked off (2001-2011) kicked off, showing that if the writing, acting, special effects, and the magic bit of luck are all there, the audiences will follow a huge multi-year franchise.

Yes, historically, the table was all set for the grand Marvel cinematic universe. But even then, it really should not have worked. A series of movies about B-level characters from power fantasies for kids set in a bunch of disparate genres, from the existential sci-fi horror of The Hulk, to the WWII era war stories of Cpt. America, to the Bourne-esque spy-vs-spy of Shield agents, sounds like a terrible idea. And yet, somehow, The Avengers connected in a big way with people. Personally, I think it was on the strength of the character stories, not on the action (though good) and certainly not relying on nerd nostalgia (though the is plenty of payoff for that).

So after such a great first time out, I went into Avengers 2 with hopes that maybe it would be as good as the first one, but some doubts too. I am happy to report that for my money Avengers 2 was better than Avengers. Perhaps better even than Guardians of the Galaxy, if only because it was more grounded, more serious, and more connected to the universe being built by Marvel. At to have an even larger ensemble than the first, it still managed to get in a bunch of character moments between the action beats. And that, of course, is why it still works so well.

I guess this means I'm in for Ant Man. As nutty as that sounds. And I still ponder one of my favorite speculations: as we now hear the tales of Heracles, Gilgamesh, Shahrazad, Moses, and indeed Thor, in another thousand years, who will the legendary gods and heros of myth be?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Binary to Human Readable

I spend a large chunk of my life reading files created to show what was happening in the applications I work on. These so-called log files are like the computer equivalent of the diary of an obsessive person with no memory. Anyway, every once in a while these logs have data in them that don't correspond to readable characters. And sometimes people forget to take this into account when creating the log files. I'm working with one of those now, and I've had this issue before. After finally tiring of guessing by context what the funky symbols meant, I broke down and wrote this Ruby script.


# A script to convert non-printable binary characters in a file to a
# printable and human readable format.

if ARGV.length != 1
  puts "Usage: ruby convertbintohex.rb filename [> outputfile]\n"
  exit
end

filename = ARGV[0]
File.open(filename, "rb").each_byte do |c|
  # Binary mode has to be in there because Windows
  case (c)
    when 0 then print "[NUL]"
    when 1 then print "[SOH]"
    when 2 then print "[STX]"
    when 3 then print "[ETX]"
    when 4 then print "[EOT]"
    when 5 then print "[ENQ]"
    when 6 then print "[ACK]"
    when 7 then print "[BEL]"
    when 8 then print "[BS]"
    # 9 is HT
    # 10 is LF
    when 11 then print "[VT]"
    when 12 then print "[FF]"
    # 13 is CR
    when 14 then print "[SO]"
    when 15 then print "[SI]"
    when 16 then print "[DLE]"
    when 17 then print "[DC1]"
    when 18 then print "[DC2]"
    when 19 then print "[DC3]"
    when 20 then print "[DC4]"
    when 21 then print "[NAK]"
    when 22 then print "[SYN]"
    when 23 then print "[ETB]"
    when 24 then print "[CAN]"
    when 25 then print "[EM]"
    when 26 then print "[SUB]"
    when 27 then print "[ESC]"
    when 28 then print "[FS]"
    when 29 then print "[GS]"
    when 30 then print "[RS]"
    when 31 then print "[US]"
    when 127 then print "[DEL]"
    # Extended ASCII characters print as hex values
    when 128..255 then print "[#{c.to_s(16)}]"
    else print c.chr # printable ASCII characters
  end
end

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Solar Transition Struggles

As market forces and technological advances bring the solar powered future nearer than ever before, it was inevitable that growing pains would start to appear. The New York Times reports on the issues in Hawaii, where the electric utilities are struggling to adapt to consumer home solar installations. I have a great deal of sympathy for both sides of this situation. Certainly,  I favor a future powered by renewal (preferably non-polluting) sources, and residential solar is clearly a win on that front. But on the other hand, I can sympathize with the folks at the utility dealing with a setup their systems were not designed for. Especially since the electric grid is, when measured on the current industrial timeline, comparatively ancient technology. From a business perspective, utilities have to see supporting consumer solar power as a loose-loose proposition since it facilitates the shrinking of their customer base. Ultimately, this exposes one of the flaws of capitalism as it exists now, the new and better-for-everyone technology is going to be very bad indeed for a bunch of entrenched businesses, and they will have every incentive to oppose them. That said, solar power solves so many problems that its rise is ultimately inevitable, and thus the question becomes, can the utilities pivot enough to become part of the new economy, or will they leave the niche open for newcomers?

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Rhythm and the Code

After years of sitting in cubicles next to people who are on the phone every day, I have reached the point where I can get into the zone while listening to music. Especially when I'm tired, it can actually be easier for me to get the code flow going with a good instrumental tune drowning out the random background. And when a driving piece comes on and the program is just flowing out of my fingertips, it can feel incredible. I'm talking stuff like Ride of the Valkyries or the Airwolf theme. But sometimes I'll be stuck on something, pondering deeply, and one of those comes on and it just feels like the music is taunting me for my lack of progress. It's funny how relative things can be.

Friday, March 20, 2015

It Doesn't Get More Roots Rock Than This

There are many things I wish I knew more about, and once and a while in the vast randomness of the Internet, I actually learn something. Today's something, or someone in this case, is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Among several other forms of music, I'm a fan of rock and roll, the music that grew out of country, folk, blues, and gospel to become the genre we know now as rock. Mostly I think of artists in the 50s and 60s as the roots of rock and roll, folks like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, because I have not pursued the interest much and I spent most of my life getting music from the radio. But of course my ignorance knows no bounds, and it goes back farther than that. In Tharpe's music you can hear those true roots way back in the '40s. And I had never heard of her before. And you know, I'm grateful to have run across her, cause she's right good.



Green Roofs

A quick hit for the evening today, the practice of putting solar panels or plants on the roofs of commercial buildings is gaining momentum in Europe. I think it's a rather interesting trend, and really, not a terribly bad use of otherwise wasted space. Although having worked in two building with leaky roofs, I'm not sure whether a garden on top would help or hinder maintenance needs.

I guess what I'm saying is if you can, don't work in shabbily built ex-factory/warehouse buildings. And greening is a good thing.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Quote of the Moment

We contemplate the ravages of time, and in our imagination we scatter the rubble of the very buildings in which we live over the ground; in that moment solitude and silence prevail around us, we are the sole survivors of an entire nation that is no more. –Denis Diderot, “The Salon of 1767”

Friday, February 27, 2015

Quote of the Moment

"Life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP [live long and prosper]"
The final tweet from Leonard Nimoy, actor, director, and artist.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Snowy Day, Not a Snow Day

Clickety-clack, I keyboard through the day.
Yells and laughs, I can hear children at play.
Drip, drip, drip, the snow refuses to stay.
Quiet sigh, the sun slowly fades away.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lists of How to Interview Programmers Make Me Cranky

The web loves lists. Why? Well, let me give you the top ten reasons... Just kidding.

Once upon a time, an experienced programmer and business owner wrote a set of quick questions that could be used as a smoke test when evaluating prospective jobs to see how many of their basic ducks are in a row. He called it The Joel Test. The beauty of it was its speed. Every question is direct and unambiguous (with the possible exception of number nine).

Many years later another programmer came up with a list of things he likes to see in a potential programmer hire. And then he compared it to The Joel Test, which makes for a good blog headline, but completely undermines what he was trying to do. And so I am going to cast aspersions on that list today because while equating this list to The Joel Test makes for a great blog post headline, I think it completely misses those qualities that make the Joel test useful.

Let me state my beef up front: programming is a large, intellectual field driven by people and interactions between people, and as such programmers can not be successfully evaluated outside the context of specific situations. In other words, quick lists of how to hire good programmers are never generally applicable. Never.

And now on to the unwarranted derision of something produced by someone who is just trying to help.

1) Can you use source control effectively?
I will pause to note the first sentence in the extended description for this question starts, "I hate to use the word effectively..." This is good, because it means that he knows, deep inside, that the answer can only be situational. So instead let us substitute the actual things he wants from the extended text: know more than just how to check out and check in code, know how to compare revisions, handle merges, work in isolation or with other developers, and "You should really be an expert at using whatever source control technology you are using..." (emphasis mine). Now I was fine with the actual list of requirements, right up until the need for expert knowledge. Aside from expert being another meaningless qualifier like effective, nothing about that list is expert knowledge. That list is general knowledge of source control. Expert knowledge is how to use your source control system to manage builds and releases, how to recover from corrupted files, how to administer the server(s) the system runs on, etc. Just drop the qualifiers and ask the question you want to ask: can you use source control?
Yes, I can.

2) Can you solve algorithm type problems?
Oh for the love of, I'm not going to make it through this. What have we said about vague qualifiers? OK, more from the extended description. "Even though most real world problems don’t resemble the type of algorithm problems you are often asked at a job interview, the same types of problems do exist in the real world. In fact, the only way to really recognize them is to have some experience solving those types of problems in general." So you are judging me by whether I've seen the types of problems that I can only recognize if I have seen them before, but don't constitute the majority of my real work? Why are you asking this question again?
OK, sorry you want to know if I can figure out if two strings are anagrams. Would you be upset if I asked you to define anagram? What if I wasn't a native English speaker? Can I show you fizzbuzz instead? Can we discuss the dining habits of allegorical philosophers? Sigh. You can tell if two things are anagrams by counting the occurrences of the letters within them and checking that they are equal. Can we move on to something related to the actual work I will potentially be doing now?

3) Can you program in more than one language or technology?
The example used for outside the comfort zone was switching from C# to Java. Points for at least including the technology stack, because that's what's hard in switching from C# to Java, not the languages.
In my case, yes, I have worked on a product that used six different languages. I have worked on products that were written on one OS and run on another. Two of the languages I programmed on for years I had never used before the first day starting on the product. Languages are not a big deal. Learning the ins and outs of your product or system is the big deal.

4) Do you do something to increase your education or skills every day?
Why do you ask? Are you not going to provide your valuable employee, who you have invested time and money in training for your product and business, the opportunity to stay current on the job and thus apply the fruits of this knowledge and learning to your company? Don't worry, I'm just pulling your leg. Nobody actually does that. In answer to your question, no, I don't do something every day. I have a full-time job. I devote the lions share of my time and my mental energy to that job. Some days, I'm doing well to recover in time for the next unreasonable deadline... er... opportunity to excel. Please don't confuse my profession with my life.

5) Do you name things appropriately?
Again with the vague qualifier. Have you ever heard the aphorism that says, "there are only two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation, naming, and off by one errors"? I name things appropriately for me, and for some of the people I work with. Others communicate in a different way, or view certain problems from a different perspective that results in a different naming pattern. Naming is hard. Naming is subjective. I can not answer this question. If you ask people I have worked with whether I name things appropriately, you will likely get a variety of answers. I suggest you drop this entirely.

6) Can you communicate your ideas effectively?
Can we drop the e-word? It's just weakening your questions. Communications involve two (or more) parties. Results vary based on context, audience, preparation, and interaction level and time. See also the answer to the previous question.

7) Do you understand basic design patterns?
Are you asking me if I have read the book, seen them in action, or are you asking me to check off some buzzwords because you aren't really a technical interviewer?
Yes, singletons and factories everywhere. Facades and their leaky abstractions have been the bane of my existence from time to time. And don't get me started on tracing through publish/subscribe code.

8) Do you know how to debug effectively?
Again with that word. My results vary by defect, of course. I can tell you stories of the ones that got away. But I also worked for years on a system with only minimal (probe style) debugging capabilities and seemed to do fine with it. I once found a messaging defect caused by a vendor provided file with a lower case w instead of an upper case one. Admittedly, that one took weeks to figure out. Does any of this help your decision? Do you perhaps find that my specific examples were of use? Maybe ask for those next time.

9) Do you test your own code?
See how much better the direct question can be. Yes, I do. And I won't say anything else because I've encountered programmers that didn't. But just because I test my own code, doesn't mean I don't want you to run it through QA first. I'm only human.

10) Do you share your knowledge?
Another direct question! You are getting better at this. I try. Writing documentation is really useful for my future self. And sharing knowledge means it is possible to share work, which leads to better loading patterns and less overtime, at least ideally. I also sometimes leads to being asked to train colleagues with less experience or who are in lower cost regions prior to having your job eliminated. But that's just with evil managers. Managers at your company aren't evil are they? Sorry, did I say evil? I meant fiscally responsible. Where were we?

11) Do you use the best tools for your job?
Are you going to allow me to bring my own computer? No? Are you going to provide me the best tools for my job? Yes, I have a series of things like text editors, compression utilities, and image editors that I am familiar with and will use given the need, but they aren't nearly as important as the amount of RAM in my computer, or the process enforced by the revision control system, or the available bandwidth on the network, or the project management overhead, or ... you get the idea.

12) Can you build an actual application?
ruby -e 'puts "Hello, world!"'
Not enough? Then you are going to have to ask a more detailed, more specific question. "Actual application" is going to mean very different things to a client-side web developer, an embedded programmer, an enterprise DBA, a systems programmer, a mobile developer, or a desktop developer. It's a big field. I may have mentioned that earlier. I understand what you are trying to get at here, but trying to make this a generic question just begs for an incomplete answer. How does this relate to the job I am being interviewed for?

Oh well, at least it appears I can still call myself a theoretically hire-able programmer. As long as I don't show any of the attitude presented here in the actual interviews...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Bookworming: Ready Player One

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline, ***
This is a book that will mean the most to a particular audience. I happen to be in that audience, so keep that in mind as I go forward. Ready Player One is an adventure set in an online world in a distopian future. So the central plot is one sci-fi readers or anime watchers will have read/seen before. The characters are sympathetic, if cliched, and the villain as cliched as one could get. There is some surprisingly good writing and world building here, both inside and outside the virtual environment. What ultimately gives the book its flavor is the exhaustive use of geek/nerd culture from the late 70s through 80s. Games, computers, movies and TV, this is an unabashed nostalgia trip. For a certain age and type of person. Yes, I quite enjoyed it. But that was the world I formed in. So it's a solid recommend for fans of old video game (or old video game fans), folks looking for one another coming of age story, or young computer geeks looking for some of their forebearers' history.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Energy and Focus

Mastering life is merely a matter of focus and energy. You see... *yawn*... Sorry, what was I saying?

Watching the Watchers: Davos 2015

The World Economic Forum annual meeting has recently ended. It's always an interesting thing to watch, because it is essentially a networking meeting for a bunch of people who collectively represent a pretty staggering amount of money. I was happy to see that the ascendance of LED lighting got its due, but the reporting seems to be more on the negative side. It seems that in a world which recently learned the top 1% would soon hold 50% of the wealth, there might be some cause to worry about fallout from that discrepancy. So much so that rumors of hedge fund managers buying farms and airstrips in remote areas made the rounds.

OK, I'll admit it, I am mainly picked up on the stories because they had a nice mix of flavors fitting for these parts. As power brokers doing what they do, it earns the watchers tag, but there's a smidgen of green tech in there, seasoned with just a pinch of personal-apocalyptical paranoia.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watching the Watchers: Removing Campaign Donation Restrictions Has the Effect You Expect

In the wake of the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, which gave free speech (First Amendment) protection to political donations by corporations and other business entities, something entirely unremarkable has happened. Donations by organizations not directly affiliated with candidates and donations by entities that do not have to disclose their doners have both doubled. Also, sixty percent of all donations to so-called SuperPACs come from less than two hundred families. Perhaps we should stop calling America a representative republic. Maybe refer to it as a quid pro quo republic instead?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Steam Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved is a console-style light brawler/platformer, elevated past its flaws by story and style.

Visually beautiful and well voice acted, with an engaging story and reasonably fun fight mechanics, Enslaved is almost a great game, but flaws keep it at just very good. It is held back by movement that isn't as smooth or responsive as you want it to be and some odd lapses in user prompting. The game is also fairly short, clocking in at around eight hours. With the price lower now than when first released, the length is not an issue. Extra points for a post-apocalypse rendered in greens rather than browns. Take a few points away for making me chase otherwise pointless orbs for upgrade currency, as they are purely a game-mechanic, pulling you right out of the story flow. Well worth a look if the setting or gameplay sounds interesting to you.

Screenshot via Steam