Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Question of Cellular Telephones

California is considering a law restricting the use of cell phones while driving in some way. I don't know any of the details; I haven't paid very close attention, since i don't have a cell phone. I read a silly column in the paper today where people wrote in describing rude and dangerous behavior of cell-phone users on the road and in other public places.

Of course it isn't the fault of the phones that people use them in obnoxious ways. The phones just give people a choice to act obnoxiously, and people often make poor, or at least selfish, choices. I wouldn't even say that most people make bad choices most of the time, but when even a few people do occasionally in cities the size we have it's very noticeable. It holds up lines at stores, annoys (or amuses) train passengers, or occasionally even causes car accidents.

This is not, of course, a phenomenon unique to the cell phone. Look at the case of papyrus (recurring theme alert!) and the rise of the throw-away society. Cheap transportation and suburban sprawl. Every advance in computer processing power and storage capacity has lead to programmers and users eventually exhausting it and demanding more. Or, as Aaron Sheldon pointed out to me yesterday, the introduction of new Internet addressing standards and the wasteful way that addresses are allocated in the early phase when addresses are plentiful. When we can do something with short-term appeal we tend to do it, not worrying about the consequences of everyone in an entire society doing it, or of even ourselves doing it repeatedly (if a business is always driven by short-term profit-now interests of shareholders and never thinks of the future eventually it'll go down).

I do it: I drive instead of biking to work when my legs are sore. I write things down on little pieces of paper that will be thrown away, and toss out enormous piles of newspaper every few weeks (that is seriously a massive amount of waste, especially considering that the accuracy of the Merc-News is somewhere on the level of Slashdot). I run everything I need now on a four year-old computer, but will I in four more years (if I was stuck on the Windows upgrade treadmill I'd need a DX9 video card and a bigger hard drive just to run Vista)? On my (non-routable) apartment LAN the region behind my secondary NIC in my main computer enjoys a whole 16 addresses when only one computer can be physically connected in its current configuration! And the LAN is only a Class C! Oh no! IP address exhaustion on!

But these aren't really the ones that get me. Every time I give myself the choice to eat a ridiculous amount of cookies I do it. If I have the choice to avoid people as the path of least resistance I'll do it every time (sometimes I'll even come up with good excuses, too). I don't want to feel like I'm forcing myself to be the person I want to be, it should be what I want to do! Perhaps the feeling of force is just the long-term wisdom beating up the short-term desire. But that long-term wisdom needs some beefing up, all over the world, because nine times out of ten it's getting its ass kicked.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"And of course you're a bore, but in that you're not charmless"

Ran at a track that reminded me of Illinois today, the home of the Lincoln Lions [edit: for those that don't know, my elementary school back in Elmhurst was Lincoln, Home of the Lions]. Lincoln being a San José high school. A California Distinguished School, no less! After my first two of the three two-mile repeats I ran I decided that my original goal wasn't ambitious enough and ran the last one 10 seconds faster. But next time I'd better be able to do 'em all that fast, or there's no hope of breaking 35 in the 10k. Did you hear that? ALL HOPE IS LOST!

Actually I ran past this high school once before and there were a bunch more Illinois references on that ran that I don't remember any more.

The title quotation is from the somewhat infamous Velvet Underground song "Some Kinda Love". The really classic line from that song that you've probably seen quoted in at least one person's email sig in your life is, "Put jelly on your shoulder / let us do what you fear most". The song after that one on their self-titled third album is called "Pale Blue Eyes" and drew the complaint from Sterling Morrison, "If I wrote a song like that, I wouldn't make you play it."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

My last post was #13, but this is the cryptic and ominous one

I was planning to write and record songs today and tomorrow.

But instead I have been called to create something in a medium much more familiar to me.

You'll probably never even know about it.

But that's one of the beauties of this particular medium: the composition-performance-audience relationship is very tight.

It's a one-in-a-billion chance that you'll ever know about it, if that.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Cracker Barrel for my heart!

My weekly mood-swing schedule got really messed up by the relay and by Jahnurag Palinsenmond's visit, but I think it's getting back on track now. The familiarity is nice.

Now, onward, to make it through to Wednesday, and everything will be better then.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Vote, vote, vote!

Which processed soy product has the better name?

  1. Tofurkey, the well-known soy-based turkey imitation (as well as brand name for several other similar products)

  2. Soyrizo, a lesser-known attempt at creating vegetarian chorizo

I actually used Soyrizo while cooking today, because recently I was grocery shopping and saw it on the shelf, remembered that I once loosely followed a recipe called "Lola's Lentils" from the side of a bag of lentils that called for chorizo, and wondered what it would taste like with this soyrizo stuff thrown in. Unfortunately I no longer have the original bag of lentils, so my cooking process was totally random, just cooked up a pound of lentils, chopped up and tossed in some random veggies, garlic, spices and this new mystery ingredient. Unfortunately my spices and the soyrizo spices didn't quite mate up very well (should have left out some of the spices and used hot peppers instead... next time...), and so the overall flavor is a bit confusing. But the texture came out well this time and my time-management was spot-on, so I'll call this at least a partial success in the realm of chefery.

I had this funny idea for a song today called "Living in Silicon Valley", which is about how we use technology and suburban sprawl to abstract away our humanity (oh no!). It sounds in my head kind of like "The Big Country" by The Talking Heads (which is the only song that I've ever heard that makes fun of farmers). The first draft words are the follwing:

Living in Silicon Valley, man
Ten hours boredom and a minute of sheer terror
That is, work for a day or so
The flip out when you think you see somebody you know

On the sidewalk
We have cars and phones
Contacts lists and schedules
We see people
When we want to see them
We see people
When we plan to see them

Working in the valley, they say
It's just a few people takin' everyone else along for the ride
That is, it's all nature for the engineering dweebs
But it sure takes some skill to sell so much stuff that nobody needs

We recycle
Entire industries are built
Live and die on this
Want to express yourself
All you need
Is last year's supercomputer

Wanna know why my people they ain't got no success
They ain't dressed for it, they ain't dressed for it
(repeated several times before instrumental outro)

Saturday, August 26, 2006


I ate lots of cookies today. Some of them dipped in White Russian (soy White Russian to be exact, you go with the supplies you have; the flavor is excellent, at least as good as a regular White Russian and maybe better, but it doesn't finish quite right, which is a problem that some soy milk just has in general). It turns out I'm not the only cookie enthusiast that's upgraded the milk'n'cookies routine since coming of legal age, as a Google Image Search reveals. However, I don't really want to rip off this guy's excellent photo because it's on his personal photo site and it just feels creepy. My cookies came from a little clear plastic tub and had almonds and caramel in them. I drank from a little off-white teacup. Use your imagination!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Santa Clara Runner Goes Deaf; news at 10.

Yes, it's true: I have officially gone deaf. How do I know? Well, today I saw something. It was the same thing I saw yesterday: a motorcycle. "But you see motorcycles all the time, Al," you're surely thinking; in fact, here in California there seem to be many more motorcyclists than most places I've been. But what's unusual is that I didn't hear them first.

My first thought upon seeing these bikes and hearing that they were quieter than most of the cars on the road was that they must have mufflers on them. But everyone knows that it's impossible to ride a motorcycle without putting straight pipes on it. Nobody in their right mind would ride a motorcycle for reasons such as low price, good fuel economy and (at least in California) the right to ride between or beside lanes of traffic in traffic jams or at stoplights. All motorcyclists ride for the sole purpose of removing the mufflers and blatting by my apartment at 1AM. Therefore, I'm sad to say, it is certain that my hearing is completely lost.

In unrelated news, I just ran speedwork for the first time in the great state of California. I figured that the high school near my apartment must have a track, and it did, but it was a dirt track and jogging an test lap around it in 80 seconds proved that it was not a full quarter-mile around (it's not that 80s are hard, they're just not quite that easy). So I went over to the college, and couldn't find a track there either, but they had a little park with a jogging path around it and a sign giving its distance as 0.43 miles. Which meant that for my mile interval workout I'd have to do about two laps plus a bit more than a 200 to log a full mile. What I wound up, I'd estimate, was slightly more than a mile and slightly less than 2.5 laps (which would be 1.09 miles). Close enough. Averaged 5:47.25 for four. Woo. My guess is that if I was running actual miles it would have been about 5:25, but I have no idea how accurate their course measurement is, and it really doesn't matter that much. I just like geeking around with numbers while I run. I'll have to run about 5:38-per-mile to run a 35-minute 10k, so I'll have to get used to running that type of fast pace for longer than a mile at a time... next week (or the weekend)! In which maybe I'll find a track.

Um, totally

So please excuse that I've totally forgotten about doing anything new or creative in my life lately, and that I will continue this trend for the future.

I am entirely distracted by running. Screw triathalons for now, and music and writing a new Plan 9 editor that combines the most useful ideas from sam and vi. I am going to find a race sometime in the next few weeks and kick some ass. And in a month I want to run a 35-minute 10k, and then ramp up my distance and try to run an 80-minute half-marathon. Training plan is like this:

  1. Run 5-6 days per week.
  2. Run hills at El Rancho once or twice a week.
  3. Do some segmented running or intervals, averaging 4-5 minutes per hard section, once a week.
  4. Frisbee wednesdays to keep myself good and injured.
  5. Stop food-binging every few days.

I don't know if I'm capable of doing those times, or if I will find the right races to do them... whatever. They should be pretty good goals. I ran a 36-minute 10k a few years ago and I can train better now than then because I have hills to train on... and I'm probably physically stronger than I was then, and time is still on my side at those distances. Frankly, time is probably on my side for any distance I want to train for. Maybe I should work on my mile time after that or maybe even half-mile, just to see if I can force myself to run like my real height instead of several inches shorter. It might also change my physical stature completely. I am getting completely carried away with the life-changing possibilities of speed training! But first, the 10k-through-half-marathon distances, since that's what I'm actually good at.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Question of Papyrus

With John and Dan and Anurag today I visited San José's Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. The way I understand it (please forgive me if my facts are wrong, I don't give a damn) the use of papyrus by the ancient Egyptians was pretty unimportant.

Papyrus helped them keep records. It helped them transfer and advance their knowledge. It gave rise to new forms of expression. But none of that matters. Silly papyrus, it could never give people a better life, they could only get that for and from themselves.

Yesterday (Thursday) or so I nearly fell off a rock formation one hundred or more feet to my death. Well, that's probably a bit melodramatic, I was pretty much in control for the few feet that I was actually sliding down, and I had plenty of stuff to grab onto had I not found what I did. Then getting down was all about caution, patience, sustained focus and tolerance of low-level pain, controlling heart rate and breathing... so basically it was like long-distance running but crazier.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


I went back to the Ultimate game for the first time today since starting my hardcore relay training. Was hoping to bring John, Dan and Anurag with but they were out at Yosemite with my car, so I had to bike it there. There was this new dude there, thought he was God's gift to Frisbee. It's one thing to be good, to know a lot about Ultimate, to have experience. And to share that knowledge is great. I love it when good players teach me things, because I want to improve. But that's not what this guy was doing. He was clearly trying to piss people off and ruin our game, which is not cool. Especially while not hustling on defense and allowing guys to get open and score easily on you. Especially while causing turnovers by making difficult throws to people that weren't ready for the disc.

I just ran a relay race in Colorado, the Wild West Relay. A few times as runners were finishing their legs up I went back to pace them for the last few hundred meters. Would I go back, wait for them, and when they caught up start a full sprint and blow their doors off? The only point of that would be to show off my speed, and it would be a pretty cowardly way to do it, racing someone that's just run several miles. That's what this guy was doing with his throws. Showing off his "discmanship" at the expense of his own teammates. A throw that's not likely to be caught is a bad throw, even if it's perfectly on target.

What's really sad is that after the way he was acting this other dude with a valid suggestion to help me improve my game felt that he had to ask permission and be careful not to criticize me. Honestly, I had made some plays that deserved some constructive criticism, and it's a shame that one guy being a jerk can discourage other good players from giving pointers.

There is a guy that plays with us on Saturdays sometimes that can be pretty harsh on the players that aren't as experienced or don't have the skills he does, such as myself. But he came up to me and apologized after chewing me out once, and told me he was trying to work on anger management and just let himself get out of control. That's OK, and I respect him; it takes courage to admit that, and hard work to improve. He's doing his best, being mature, trying to understand himself. That's what life is all about.

Our Frisbee game is a plural society; different players are there for different reasons, we have many different strengths, weaknesses, styles and levels of experience and skill. Frisbee is something different to us all. We come to compete, do our best, get a workout and enjoy ourselves. We aren't going to force a player out of our game because we don't like him. We are secure in the fact that one jerk can't destroy our game, and when he realizes that he'll walk away, just as he walked away from whatever game he was at before ours.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

DRM, God and Satan

Let's suppose that one day I wanted to listen to some Stairway for some dumbass reason. Maybe a great geetar solo or whatever. As everyone should know by now, Stairway to Heaven has messages from Satan himself embedded backwards in it somewhere. So let's suppose that I set out to find them.

In parallel universe number one I choose a vinyl LP. It is shiny. I reverse the motor in my record player. I place the pin near the middle of the record. I sit back and enjoy.

In parallel universe number two I choose a cassette tape. It is less shiny, but more compact. I fast-forward through the tape, add some resistance to the circuit powering the reverse capstand motor (doing some calculations first), press "play" and then "rewind". I take in the sweet words of Satan.

In parallel universe number three I choose a compact disc. It is really shiny and sort of compact. As a frisbee, it doesn't fly all that well. I use some software based on the CD Paranoia library to capture the raw PCM data to my hard drive, write a short C program to reverse the order of samples in a PCM file of that format, run that program on the captured data and play back the reversed PCM data with aplay or similar. It's a bit of work, but worth it for digital quality.

In parallel universe number four I choose to buy from the Napster subscription service. It lets me download just Stairway! Unprecedented freedom! But wait: it doesn't let me at the sample data. It only gives me "play", "pause", "stop", "skip" and "previous". Short of getting hired at Napster I'm out of luck. Well, sure, there's the "analog hole". It'll be closed soon enough.

What's happened here? I've gained over the years freedom of venue in my listening from the more portable formats and players. In the end they gave me the freedom to download individual songs but took away the freedom to see the actual data of the song. Why did it happen? Because the record companies don't trust me to respect their copyright. That's mildly insulting, but they don't really have any reason to trust me. Good security is almost always deny-by-default, and if they don't know me and my motives personally they can't trust me.

But it goes both ways. To buy from Napster or any other DRM-based system is to put my trust in the company. It's in my interest to play the music that I've purchased, but I can only do that if my interest intersects with theirs. Will this be the case? What if I want to play it on a computer running GNU/Linux, Plan 9 or BSD? They don't care, unless all three OSes go big. What if I get an iPod (it's a stretch, I know) and want to play it on that? Not going to happen. What if I want to play it backwards? Ha! Why should I ever trust that what's in their best interest is going to also be in mine? The fact that it's ever the case is an unreliable coincidence.

So if media companies want my money, they have no choice but to trust me. Because after my experience in parallel universe number four I sure as hell don't trust them.

Curiously, when you think about DRM from the angle of trust, a slightly different case is Apple's iTunes Music Service. It was a response to the success of peer-to-peer file sharing, and has successfully made money competing with free (but often illegal, if the files shared are copyrighted) sources by offering something that to some people is worth the money. That has always been the spin, at least, but that's also what many users say and the general attitude shown by Apple: they've fought the record companies over the right to set their prices, for example, to retain their vision of the service. And what does Apple allow you to do with your iTMS tracks? Burn them to a CD! Unencrypted! They trust you! Or, at least they trust that they can convince your friends to buy the songs themselves on iTunes instead of copying your CD. It's not perfect; transcoding will result in poor quality, but that's an artifact of the original lossy compression rather than the DRM. But Apple doesn't trust you completely: you still have to use their closed-source software to decrypt the files, which locks out people running any OS but supported versions of Windows and MacOS. This gesture of mistrust means that I still would rely on Apple to get at my music the first time, which punts iTMS off of my radar. Also, the lossy compression makes transcoding to some open format for efficient storage and playback on my computers that can't run iTunes painful, which punts it even further.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Two conversations I had recently about vegetarianism

1. As a thinking person I think too much (it beats the alternative)

2. Every time I say anything as if it is certain, I later realize that I was wrong in some important way, usually an error of omission of some sort.

The first recent conversation I had about vegetarianism was the kind that I don't like (which reflects badly on me as a thinking person, that's a story for another day), because it's the kind where I was asked a lot of questions, and I always have good answers ready for questions that people ask me but never the actual ones that they ask me. I think someone equated veganism with such practices as refusing to eat food if it had been prepared in any dish that had ever touched meat, eggs or cheese without going through some kind of cleansing ritual (implying one more sacred than the kind that goes on in the dishwasher). Yeah, I probably embellished that last claim a bit, this engineer calls poetic license. Anyway, I replied, "That's not veganism, that's idiocy," to the agreement of everyone there, but I was wrong, which I realized an embarrasingly-large amount of time later. Not everyone makes a case for their dietary choices in the hyper-rational manner that I do, some people *gasp* use human emotions to guide their sense of right and wrong. It is a good thing that different people use different processes to attack the same problems, because they can come up with very different answers that enlighten us all.

The second conversation was after the WWR with Jessica and made me think a bit, particularly Jessica's observation that when she was a vegetarian she ate a lot more processed and prepackaged foods and wasn't able to cook as much. I've noticed the same thing, but though I enjoy cooking it's not something I'm choosing to focus a lot of time and energy working on right now so I'd probably eat just as many
prepackaged foods if I ate meat. That is, it was a timing issue: I've been vegetarian for about the same interval of time that I've been cooking for myself. But this problem is larger than my coincidence, and on the plane back to San José I thought about it.

Since moving to the valley I've often heard a distinction made between Indian vegetarians and other ones. And there actually is a difference, at least statistically. Many Indian vegetarians refrain from eating meat for religious reasons, and have been vegetarian since birth, whereas most western vegetarians picked it up in college. Vegetarian dishes and the idea of eating vegetarian are passed like other cultural practices from parent to child in the prototypical Indian case. This makes the food "traditional" in the most useful sense of the word. In most of the U.S. this is not true at all.

Because vegetarianism and its food in the U.S. largely doesn't get passed on through families it needs something else. Activist groups (especially in and around colleges), vegan co-ops (shout out to Heather and her old housemates) and authors of vegetarian cookbooks pick up this slack. These things take a bit of time and energy to search out, of course. And the food isn't what you ate as a kid, so it requires an adventureous tongue. Harder still for some is the realization that mash-up of lentils, garlic, nuts, spinach and spices is a mash-up of lentils, garlic, nuts, spinach and spices. It isn't a hamburger at all, except in the sense that it's trying to squeeze itself into an American culinary tradition that it doesn't quite fit.

As an aside, that last sentance really reminds me of the claim that F/OSS doesn't innovate, that it just co-ops the ideas of the dominant COTS of the day in a way that doesn't necessarily fit the OS or its typical style of operation. The rest of this train of thought is left as an excercise for the reader.

Anyway, the other thing about western vegetarianism is somthing I was talking about earlier: the defense of it. When I tell people I'm vegetarian their first reply is typically, "Why?". (And my answer is often, depending on how familiar the asker is with my sense of humor, either, "Because it gives me less choices to make at restaurants," or, "Because it helps me distance myself from people.") I wouldn't probe someone upon their telling me of their religion, for example, or their political views. But maybe this in itself is fine. Vegetarianism in the western mold shouldn't be a choice made once and then followed, the way many people approach religion and even political choices. It is a choice made again at every bite of every meal, every time you order some food. Or in broader settings when you choose clothing and home furnishings. It's not a doctrine, it's a label for a particular set of lifestyle choices. Lots of us treat it like a doctrine and limit our application of the doctrine to where it's most straightforward and absolute. We mutter, "I'm a vegetarian," rather than asserting our choices as our desires, "I don't want meat on my pizza," in hopes that we'll be accepted in the fact-of-life style in which religions are tolerated in plural countries. Come on! This isn't about us personally: our society is doing something that we don't like in some way, for some reason, and we are supposed to be a dynamic vehicle for change, not a sleepy-eyed congregation mumbling the Lord's Prayer!

Also, WWR was awesome. It's late, and I can't tell if my attempt at persuasive wording in that last paragraph was too blatant or just plain bad. To paraphrase the Mountain Goats in a huge stretch, "Oh, this is what the 'Publish Post' button's for".