13 December 2009

Tentative link to new blog site.

I've finished setting up my new blog on the Dangerous Cuteness main server. You can find it at http://blog.dangerouscuteness.com/.

12 December 2009

Coffee, Cigarettes, Whiskey, and the Web is moving!

I've made a spot on my regular server for this blog, and imported all the old posts so that they'll remain persistent. Link soon.

05 December 2009

A real estate annoyance or six.

I've started looking for a new place to live again, and I'm still infected with the notion that I could afford to buy a place. I'm sitting on a couple of things before I get together the financial part of the deal but for now I'm looking at places. The whole process annoys me as much as it stresses me out, which is a lot. Here are some reasons.

Are you sure that's "uptown"?
This is probably never going to die, and it's probably been there since well before Craigslist, but it's still really annoying. I search by neighbourhood a lot, because I know neighbourhoods (Chicago is, after all, a city of neighbourhoods, so I'm told), and I know which ones I'd like to live in and which ones are undesirable to me for one reason or another. Don't try to bait and switch me by labeling something further north than Foster and further west than California as "uptown". That's not uptown, that's the middle of nowhere and dangerously close to being nowhere at all. I'm not even sure which neighbourhood that would be, but it's not Uptown and actually not even within easy walking distance of Uptown's centre. That means it should not show up in my search for "uptown".

WTF does that even mean? It's a condo, it's for sale, it's listed in the "Real Estate - By Owner" category... can I pick it up for just two C-notes? Really? What're the assessments, like $10/mo? If you're not comfortable listing the actual price then don't list the property online and go through a broker or someone who's capable of that level of subtlety. Listing a property for less than a grand when it's obviously more is annoying at best and dishonest at worst. If you meant to put a "K" at the end of that but didn't, it still shouldn't be showing up in searches for sub-$150K real estate (not that that's what I was searching for).

For the love of God please proofread your posts!
This goes for anybody who's selling anything whether it be on eBay or on Craigslist or in a real-world forum like a newspaper's classified advertisements. Accuracy in writing reflects precision in thought, and no matter how intelligent you are it makes you look silly if you just toss off some quick copy without even glancing at it twice or—heaven forbid!—actually reading it aloud to yourself before submitting. I am not a grammar nazi by any means, and I forgive a lot of poor grammar and poor spelling in forums and comment sections because I know it's casual writing that's one-off and not really expected to be held up to any sort of standard. If you're selling something though, you need to hold my attention and describe the item you're selling in coherent enough writing that I feel confident handing money off to you in exchange for it. Otherwise it could've just been your cat jumping on the keyboard or something.

Unless what you're typing is an elaborate acronym for something or it's a single word you want to emphasize and you don't have access to italics or bold face font, don't capitalize it. Ever. This is a rule. All-caps text reaches the trifecta of being difficult to read, offensive to the eyes, and rude (in online forums, all-caps reads like yelling). If I load a page where the entire description is in all-caps, I just move on. There's no more reason to continue reading it than there is to try to piece together the ravings of a madman. Why bother?

Nobody cares what "market value" is.
I really couldn't care any less if a place is "$40K below market value!!1" because I'm the market in this case. If I purchase it at the price listed, that's the market value, 'cause that's the price it sold for in the market, of which I as a consumer am a component. Don't try to hustle me by making the implication that its value will somehow jump by five figures in the near future and you're just getting rid of it because you want to give the world a good deal.

So there's just a handful of things... and with writing them I have successfully procrastinated away the time I had set aside for looking for a new place today :D. Don't worry, space cadets, I'll be back at it later.

17 October 2009

A sleepless life.

Okay so... I'm sure most people either know this or have figured it out about me, but I have a sleep disorder. I stay up really really really late at night and I sleep really really really late in the day; it's kind of like being perpetually jetlagged a few hours. I didn't always know this though. It took decades to figure it out.

The first time I remember having trouble sleeping was when I was living in Athens, in the smallest bedroom of my parents' house, at least a decade ago. I took the bus to school and this was during this bizarre period in Athens' schools where, in an effort to relieve the disparity between the demographics of the schools, buses would travel all the way across town to get to you. For those who haven't lived in the South let me explain. Because of the fact that black folks and white folks lived in different parts of town there was a huge imbalance between the schools, almost as if they were still segregated. My middle school was on Baxter Street, right next to the public library, the catholic hospital (at which my mother worked at the time), and the primarily black part of town (for y'all Athenians, I went to Clarke Middle School, near Rocksprings). What I'm getting at here is that I had to wake up super-early to get to the bus to get me to school on time. Ridiculous, I know, but whatever.

I had to wake up very early, and still I had trouble going to sleep at night. After a while I would miss entire nights, staying up all night reading, sometimes for a couple of nights in a row. I started to lose focus during the day, my grades weren't as great, and I started to forget things more. I started to fall asleep in class. Constantly. I saw a doctor who thought it was insomnia.

The doctor prescribed something. I don't remember what it was. The first night, it worked, beautifully. It was amazing, the best sleep I'd had since I could remember. I was at my father's house, in my room that was obviously a garage that had been finished, with shag carpet. The next night, the prescription didn't work quite as well though I did sleep, and over time the pills lost their effect. I found myself still laying in bed awake late at night, long periods of extreme boredom punctuated occasionally by this feeling of dread when I happened to glance at my alarm clock. That alarm clock was brutal. Watching the minutes tick by without even the slightest hint of sleepiness, stressed me out. It was hard to tell if the thought of sleeping at that point didn't cause me performance anxiety, some kind of psychosomatic thing.

I started to get headaches. My doctor at the time likened them to cluster migraines or cluster headaches or something, and said that they shouldn't happen to a boy my age; the usual demographic for such things, he explained, was women in their 30s. Very helpful. I'd like to think I started to doubt his competence at this point but I'm not sure if I did or not. After all, I did keep going to him for medical advice.

Another medication, this time a mild antidepressant combined with a drug that thins blood and lowers blood pressure. This one worked for a while, several months, but caused me to look—and feel—kind of stoned all day. If I stood up too fast I got lightheaded. It was still excruciating to wake up in the morning and concentration still took extraordinary effort for me. I started drinking more coffee. A lot more. Most mornings I had a thermos on me filled with über-strong oolong tea, which I'd found made me less jittery. I was getting by at this point with less than four hours of sleep a night, catching up on the weekends by sleeping for ten to twelve hours at a stretch.

After a while the most magical thing happened. I went to college and suddenly I could schedule my own classes. My first quarter I had one 8am class I couldn't avoid taking (it was an intro programming class), but luckily it was a subject I already knew pretty well and I managed to get by without showing up every day, even though I did try very hard not to skip it. Overall, I slept better. Staying up late was common, being in the computer science program, and I mostly scheduled my classes in the afternoon. In a couple of cases I put off taking a class for a quarter, and took something else, because it was only offered early in the morning but would be later in the day the next quarter. At this point I felt alright. I was able to live my life just fine even though I stayed up very late, and I was at college so everybody was staying up late. I was the last one to leave every party, every show, and I still had time at night to get my schoolwork done, but I slept very late. It wasn't a big deal until...

...I slept through two midterms. In a row. In the same class. I don't think I need to explain that I failed the shit out of that class. This was brutal for a variety of reasons, not the last of which being it was a class I could have easily tested out of and that it was my first F ever. I got berated by my advisor and I took a lot of shit from my family. It sucked. I'd settled into the idea that I was just making irresponsible choices, that I chose to stay up late and couldn't get it together. I was convinced that all these things were my fault.

After college I moved here, in Chicago, and started work at a local ad agency as a web developer. Having to come in at 9am, I started to have trouble again. Those same patterns from high school, the lethargy, the coffee drinking bordering on outright caffeine abuse, the repeated sleeping through alarm clocks. That last one was a serious problem. It was while freelancing at this same ad agency earlier in the year that I slept through my alarms two days in a row, much to my extreme professional embarrassment, and it was at that point that I did what any sensible jewish boy would do.

I called my mom. I had missed a couple of hours of work and I worried that my employers might be pissed about that. My mom tried to cheer me up and then we signed off and I walked back upstairs. Meanwhile, in Saint Louis, my mom started googling sleep disorders.

By the time I talked to her later that night, when I got home, she'd come up with something that sounded identical to my symptoms, Delayed Circadian Rhythm Disorder. After a long dry spell in my work, I had noticed that when left to my own devices I sleep perfectly, but from around five or six in the morning until around noon. I sleep at around the same time every night and can wake up every noon spontaneously (i.e., without an alarm clock) at around the same time. Also, my body has a particularly low core temperature (94.1°F or so), which had always been mysterious. It seemed to fit.

It took me until a week and some change ago before I had insurance and the time to go visit a sleep specialist. Not too surprisingly, when I outlined the symptoms I was experiencing, he concluded I have Delayed Circadian Rhythm Disorder. After taking one month while working and one month while not working to document my sleep patterns I wasn't surprised, but in a way it was like I'd just found out. I started to think more seriously than I'd allowed myself earlier in the year about how this was going to continue to adversely affect my life. But for a couple of excruciating methods that aren't even permanent, there's no treatment for it, and there's no pharmaceutical that affects it. So I'm stuck being this way.

It's a disability, but I don't want to think of it that way. This is my mutant superpower I was born with. Like Batman, I own the night, and that's kinda neat. Now I just need to figure out how I can hold down a decent job living like this. Depressing as the diagnosis is, now that I know what I'm dealing with I feel more optimistic overall. And with that, it's 3:30am and I've still got some other stuff I wanted to do before bed. Sleep tight, space cadets.

12 September 2009

Just then, something very mysterious happened.

Earlier today I was working on a website at work that had severe performance issues in Internet Explorer. The site has a healthy amount of Javascript, a significant portion of which was actually written to overcome various bizarre shortcomings of IE6. For example, IE6 doesn't support the ":hover" pseudoclass for any element that isn't a link, which frankly is absurd, because it almost seems deliberately omitted, since somewhere they would have to check if the element was a link or not. Anyways so every page of this site was taking as much as 35 seconds to fully initialize and run all of the startup Javascript code. This, needless to say, was disconcerting for me, and I tried in vain to optimize my code.

Just then, something very mysterious happened. I reloaded the page, blinked, and it was initialized. Everything was fine. I had written some code to time the hardest parts of the Javascript code, and where these were reading 35ish seconds before the entire page was now loading in less than a second—still nowhere near on par with modern browser performance but quite tolerable. I was ecstatic even though by all outward appearances it appeared as though my little Javascripts had been touched by the Flying Spaghetti Monster Himself somehow, and this was a little alarming to me. At this point my surprise turned to incredulity when I checked the changes to my files; there were none. I had added a superfluous semicolon to one function but when I removed the semicolon the performance was the same. The website had unexpectedly made a 7,000% speedup, and I was mighty suspicious of this. I had a colleague confirm it and he couldn't. The site was just as slow as ever on his machine. I was nonplussed, to say the least.

Which brings me to the point of this little entry. Internet Explorer 6 is eightish years old, as obsolete as a program can be when so many people still use it. That number is diminishing rapidly, but Microsoft recently announced they will continue to support it until 2014. This is terrible news for web developers, because IE6 provides what I would generously call an inferiour web experience by today's standards. It's two versions behind now that IE8 is stable, and it's really showing its age. Yet, because so many corporate users have to use IE6 at their job, it's still vital to make sure any website I build works in IE6. I get that. But what if we change what it means for the website to "work"?

Here's what I propose. Every user, no matter what browser they're using from Chrome to IE6 to godforsaken lynx, should be able to read and view all content, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they need to be able to see animations or transition effects or fun stuff like that. It's extremely difficult to get these kinds of things to work well in IE6, and rather than burn up so many man-hours trying to make the experience exactly identical, I believe it would be more beneficial to only assure that IE6 users can view all the content. If the styles are messed up and the website looks terrible, that's obviously a huge problem, but if clicking that photo gallery link opens an iframe instead of fading the page to a lightbox, I don't think that's necessarily the end of the world. In circumstances where you have a browser as inefficient as IE6 is, particularly at manipulating the content of web pages, you have to use a very light touch lest you introduce too much latency. So my idea is to produce the CSS and Javascript in such a way that semantic data is preserved, but the site experience degrades gracefully along with the age of the browser. IE8, Firefox, and Chrome users may get super fancy animated transitions between elements on the page, and various interactive things, but IE6 users will get just the page and its contents, laid out statically to be just as useful if not as delightful.

The moral of this story is that IE6 users have the crappiest browser still in use in the world. Absent real user testing I can't know this but I imagine by now they're accustomed to the web looking strange. Build your site in such a way that it's still usable to IE6 users, even if that means generating a different experience for them. Alright. Time to relax, space cadets; I'll talk to y'all later.

31 May 2009

Newly-scanned black and whites up on my Flickr

I just stashed a whole bunch of black and white photos from my college years on my Flickr page . I've decided over the past few days since getting my fancypants new camera that I really miss photography. I dunno if it'll ever be the same though....

I started taking pictures probably around sixth grade but always loved any opportunity to futz around with a camera for as far back as I can remember. In high school I took graphic arts classes and had access to a darkroom so I took a lot of photographs, but I took many of my best photos in college. The Iron Heritage set is a product of that.

The set contains black and white photographs of objects steeped in history but largely forgotten except for the odd tourist in Athens, GA. All the objects photographed in the set were forged in the Athens iron and machineworks, now nonexistent, and are so integrated into the landscape of Athens as to be difficult to really appreciate. My favourite of them all is the Iron Horse, found off a highway just outside of Athens, literally mere meters away from the centre of Nowhere. The horse is so majestic and powerful, even in its abstracted form, you can't help but pause even if you're driving by, slowing down just a little to try to take it in. Go ahead and slow down, there's nobody behind you for miles. It's easy to pass though, going 60mph down the road. I stopped and had a closer look. The horse struck me as painfully lonely, not only because of its isolation but because of its origin. It was a sculpture created by one of the art school faculty that was so hated by the rest of the campus that it was defaced nearly constantly and had to be removed from campus permanently so as not to cause a riot. So unappreciated and so solemn, it just seems very alone in that field.

The double-barreled cannon, not yet uploaded as of this blog, is another favourite, if only because it's such a ridiculous story. The double-barreled cannon, conceived in the times of the Civil War—or, as it is known in the South, The War of Northern Aggression—was invented by two Athenians for the war effort. The idea was that two cannon balls could be linked with a chain and loaded into the barrels, with the chain presumably hanging down in a loop in front. This would create a pants-shittingly terrifying projectile that would mow the enemy down. Its only recorded victim, who died during the first test-firing, was a cow far far away from the intended trajectory. What the brilliant inventors had forgotten to consider is that cannon loads are inconsistent at best, and even two fuses can't be guaranteed to burn down at the same speed, so one barrel fired noticeably earlier than the other, causing that cannonball to swing in an arc towards the other barrel, which fired soon thereafter, breaking the chain. One cannonball was the harbinger of a cow's demise and the other was never seen nor heard from ever again. Presumably during this test phrases like "Lawd a'merceh!" and "I do declare!" were heard. What gets me is the sheer chutzpah Athens has for proudly displaying this example of engineering gone horribly wrong; it's right in front of City Hall where everyone can see it.

The arches and fence around the main UGA quad are also pretty fascinating. They're a landmark, so much so that they're incorporated into Athens's official city seal. The city is absolutely flooded with photos of them that all look exactly the same. Every other wedding photograph taken in Athens is the happy couple posing on the Broad Street side of the arches, on the steps, with the camera facing through the arches towards the quad. It's understandable, I guess; the quad, being all green and filled with trees and classical greek architecture, is pretty photogenic. I get it. I just didn't want my photo of the arches to be typical, so I shot it at night from the quad looking out through the bushes onto Broad Street. What resulted is, I think, a more honest take on the arches, as I portrayed them as real things existing in a real city, not existing in some fairyland.

I'll upload some more tomorrow, as well as some old photographs from my grandfather (including some of middle school me... I probably won't be publishing those). Enjoy, space cadets!

19 May 2009

Thoughts of the Bay and my father.

I've been in the bay area for the past week and change, and I'm leaving tomorrow. I make it a point not to give into the temptation to change the time zone on my computer unless I move permanently somewhere, so my clock says "3.01am" right now; this is the time my body is supposed to think it is I guess. Last week's jetlag is a distant memory now so I'm wide awake, yet again. So maybe I can blog myself to sleep tonight.

I met an amazing pool player at the Jury Room in Santa Cruz earlier. He was very drunk but still somehow managed to mop the floor with me and my two companions, as well as the guy who played before us. He'd lost his father, age 85, to pancreatic cancer recently. I related, since I lost mine five years ago to colon cancer (five years exactly this past cinco de mayo). I felt for him, since there's no reason to believe that losing a parent when you're 60 should be that much easier than losing one when you're 20. Cancer, truly, has earned its place on my shit list.

I bring this up not just because of this chance meeting, but because earlier in the week I attended my first baseball game ever without my dad. I've never been into sports really, and baseball particularly is an acquired taste I think, but I have the fondest memories of those games we'd attended together. One in particular stands out. It was my dad's night for custody of me—my parents having been divorced since I was in 4th grade or so—and he was very, very late picking me up from school. I was in 8th grade and already in a shitty mood just existing at that point, so my dad's tardiness wasn't a welcome addition to the scene. I was pretty pissed, sitting around outside my middle school which, by the way, was in the absolute middle of nowhere.

Anyways my dad rolls up and asks if I want to go see a ball game in Atlanta. A new team had recently been created, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and they were playing against the Braves at Turner Field. The game itself wasn't memorable enough to stick in my mind but for one embarrassing moment. The Diamondbacks, as I said, were still a new team, and they lacked cohesion still. They didn't have that vital unspoken coordination, when a pop fly ball is headed for the empty space between two outfielders and the shortstop, to instantly decide who should catch it. Apparently, they also had great focus and were keeping their eyes on the ball only, because all three players collided, got beaned with the ball, and let an easy out turn into a double base hit as they fell over, dusted themselves off, then threw the ball back infield. In my extremely limited experience of the sport, it was the most hilarious baseball moment I have ever witnessed to this day.

I remember my evil bitch of a stepmom saying that my dad watched sports so he'd have something to talk about with people, because he was so great at relating to people unlike him, but that was pure horseshit. My dad loved baseball enough to have books on the topic, enough to have signed photographs of a pre-steroids Roger Clemens and a pretty solid collection of baseball cards. He loved baseball enough to yell at me when I wasn't paying enough attention at games. My dad didn't bother to instill in me love for any sport except baseball.

I can't help but imagine that baseball is a very different thing than it was when he was a wee lad. Turner Field's construction was really the turning point for the Braves where they became just the Yankees of the South, overpaid babies who weren't even from Georgia anyway. So what's the point? The Cubs aren't all from Chicago, you know. The very idea that an entire baseball franchise could transplant to another city is just antithetical to the entire purpose of the game, and, furthermore, the purpose behind being a fan. If the Cubs moved to another city could anyone in Chicago still be a fan? Or would we all have to become (god forbid!!!) Sox fans?

I'm too rational about these things though, because I'm not a sports fan anyway. I can relate to a more basic love of the game like my dad had, though, because I'm really not that dissimilar to him at all (I see him every time I look in the mirror).

Every cinco de mayo I feel like I should write something, say something, do something to remember him, but I remember him all the time, in little conversations and little anecdotes like that one, memories I have always in my back pocket ready for easy reference. It's not that simple though. You can't just schedule all your grief for two days a year (the other: 8 July, his birthday). I have to wait for a moment I can bring it all back and make it all make sense, like the first baseball game I've been to without him.

I realized that, but I didn't feel sad at the game at all. Rather, I just had a great time with my friends, drinking beer, smoking really excellent ganja, eating cheap hot dogs, drinking more beer, shooting the proverbial shit, making fun of Coale 'cause the Royals were getting shellacked something fierce by the A's, and thinking to myself that I understand what my father dug so much about baseball. There really is nothing like it, and no other sport compares. So just like ever I hope my father would be proud of me and what I'm doing. At the very least I think he'd be happy I can still enjoy a ball game without him, and even happier that I was thinking of him in the process.

Sleep tight, space cadets.

12 May 2009

The saddest thing you'll read today

I don't remember how but I recently (today) got to reading Conservapedia and, more specifically, articles on other sites about Conservapedia. For those not in the know, Conservapedia is an attempt by far right-wing nutjobs to create their own alternative reality where Darwin's theory of natural selection is contentiously debated in the scientific community (spoiler alert: it's not, and is supported by an abundance of fossil and geological evidence as well as decades upon decades of good research) and where, apparently, homosexuality is an incredibly important subject. I'm not even joking. There are scores of articles just on homosexuality as it regards to nearly everything else (including smoking habits... yeah I don't get it either).

The saddest thing you'll read all day though is the talk page for a now-deleted article on the Pacific Northwest Arboreal Octopus. For those who don't know, the Pacific Northwest Arboreal Octopus was an internet prank from the olden days, back in the late 90s. I vaguely remember fooling some friends of mine with it then. This in itself wouldn't be particularly noteworthy, as apparently Conservapedia is vandalized often enough one single incident could barely be worth noting, but for the fact that it stayed on Conservapedia for some time.

Now, of course, Wikipedia gets vandalized too. Constantly. But those edits get cleared in minutes, not months. Same with Conservapedia; for the most part it looks like when people vandalize articles they get reverted promptly. The PNAO article didn't go away though. At this point they could have said they just didn't notice it, and with 20,000 or so pages on the site it's totally possible they didn't. But no. Instead, there is that talk page, where Andy Schlafly (Aschlafly) tries to play it off like it was a joke that totally fooled all the bloggers that were making fun of them for it.

So... what's the joke? If the joke is that we (the liberal-biased reality around them) thought it was a real article, then I don't get it. If Conservapedia is supposed to be "The trustworthy encyclopedia" then why would it have joke entries at all, however hilarious they might be? If instead it is meant to be a parody of environmentalism, then I still don't get it. As environmentalism satire it falls terribly flat, particularly since the joke isn't even original (as mentioned before, it appeared in 1998). He says "I can't deny being amused by thousands of liberal bloggers trying to ridicule Conservapedia based on a joke about themselves" but how is this a joke about Conservapedia, unless the joke really is that Conservapedia's editors are too stupid to notice that there's no such thing as a Pacific Northwest Arboreal Octopus and the very notion of one's existence is ludicrous? 'Cause if that's the joke, then I think it's pretty hilarious, but I don't think Andy Schlafly should really be the one laughing.

My advice to Andy would be to listen to Dpbsmith up top there. The better reaction would be to just claim you never got around to deleting it before, not to try to play it off like it's some joke the entire rest of the Internet failed to "get" when really it's obvious that you're the one with the egg on your face. Nice try, but you fail. Miserably.

Stay smart, space cadets.

26 April 2009

What the fuck happened in the past eight years?

I am absolutely furious about this torture thing. Really. When did we stop being a nation that gives a shit and turn into this current one, which is apparently A-OK with war crimes, blatant human rights abuses, and violent, despicable activity by our previous administration?

Torture, no matter who is on the business end of it, should infuriate anyone who has a human soul, and I say right here and right now that if you think it's okay to torture people—even after it has been proven time and time again not only to be illegal, not only to be immoral, but also to be wholly ineffective for the garnering of any usable intelligence—you are not human, you are disgusting, you have no soul. I'm serious. The very idea that this issue is even being debated just turns my stomach. If the Bush administration had extensive proof that their techniques worked and provided actionable intelligence in adequate time to save many innocent lives (spoiler alert: they haven't, and I doubt they will be able to provide any that isn't made up just like every other lie of the Bush administration), I might waffle on this, but the vast preponderance of evidence contradicts this notion.

People like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh disgust me greatly. They are subhuman and should be despised. They do not deserve our attention. They only deserve psychiatric help, as I believe they are both in desperate need of it. I saw Glenn Beck speaking on his show in his pouty, derisive voice, mocking those of us who have more than a single gramme of compassion in our hearts, saying that he doesn't think waterboarding is torture. Know what, Glenn? Nobody gives  a fuck what you think, because we already have hundreds of years of history, including the Japanese in WWII, Chinese communist forces in North Korea during the Korean war, even the fucking Spanish Inquisition (bet you weren't expecting that, asshole; nobody ever does), who were all called torturers because of their use of waterboarding. As Paul Begala averred to Ari Fleischer, who is also rapidly climbing my shit list, we hanged Japanese soldiers who waterboarded our POWs. We didn't do it because we won the war; we did it because what they did was morally reprehensible and if nothing was done about it justice would never be served.

A recurring theme in the opinions written about this: we are a nation of laws, not men, or political parties. I would express exactly the same disgust if it had been Democrats in charge, and if we find out that there were some who knew about this and gave it their blessing I say let's go after them too. No one who was in favour of this, who pretended it was legal, who covered it up, or who otherwise condoned it should be spared from justice that is as bipartisan as it is brutal. Seriously. When did we become a country that condones this kind of behaviour no matter how golden the intentions? Not in my name, assholes.

Let's hang 'em high, space cadets.

25 April 2009

A stormy harbinger of Spring's arrival in Chicago.

One of my earliest childhood memories that I can recall was a thunderstorm, or maybe several, in Macomb, IL. We lived in a big house with a front porch large enough for multiple rocking chairs, and it was covered by an overhang such that you could sit and watch a storm go by. In retrospect it sounds very peaceful but at the time I was about 2 or 3 years old and terrified of thunder. My parents and our neighbours were out on the porch watching the storm and I remember being torn between being safe from the thunderstorm in the house, but alone, and being outside with the thunderstorm but being with my parents. I'd have to ask my mom to be sure but I think I remember running between the house and the porch every time there was a lightning strike.

It's funny thinking about it now, since my usual reaction to thunderstorms nowadays is to want to be out in them. I always like having a window open so I can hear them. The window next to me right now is cracked just enough so that my living room is filled with the storm's sounds.

Sometimes I lament that I'm no longer scared of thunderstorms, because now that I'm all grown up I have grownup things to be scared of, like economic meltdowns, nuclear war, and the icecapades. Sigh, loss of innocence, and all that. Stay dry, space cadets.

05 April 2009

An unexpected snowstorm ... in April

Yeah. It's snowing outside, like a motherfucker no less, and it's April. I am so over this Chicago weather. I miss the bay area tons times like this. If you're somewhere where it's nice outside, go out and play a little, for me, space cadets.

02 April 2009

A most fascinating coincidence

Went to Dollop earlier to meet up with Sarah. I got a text from the illustrious Chris Coté saying that a friend of his had recognized me in a photo on his friend's Flickr photostream. Apparently she'd been taken by the adorableness of my wee laptop and took a picture.

This sequence of events, from the photo being taken to me receiving the text message from Chris, couldn't have taken more than 20 minutes. I am awed by this, because each element is so commonplace now. The 21st century is, I've got to say, pretty bitchin'.

Creep on, space cadets.

30 March 2009

Another Sleepless Night

It's 7am on a Monday and I am bored as hell. By far the most unbearable part of not being able to sleep like normal people is that, at the best of times, I have a couple of hours a night where I am painfully aware of the rest of the world sleeping. My buddy list slowly decays over the course of the evening as my friends across the world go to sleep, and I'm left here wondering what to do.

Let me back up. I haven't slept normally (i.e., in the way I believe other people my age sleep) since I can remember. According to my mom it's been since birth but I don't know if that's true. I know for sure I started having trouble in elementary school and it got significantly worse in middle school and the start of high school. I remember going through many pharmaceutical and homeopathic solutions throughout that time but very few worked. In my early adolescence I had severe insomnia, sometimes lasting for days on end, that seemed to be calmed down by a combination of antidepressant and blood-thinning drugs. Unfortunately, as a side effect, I lived every day in a half-asleep daze and would faint if I stood up too quickly. Fun times. Moving to California for college and escaping the right-wing cesspool of ignorance that is the deep South helped a lot, but I was still up late at night for no reason.

Throughout college I had tons of issues, too. Two classes, at least, I failed because I slept through some lectures and tests. I accepted, at the time, the conventional common-sense wisdom that I was a fuck-up and that my sleep problems were my fault. I'd spent most of my life having grown-ups tell me that, so I believed it. There had to be some personality flaw in me or lack of discipline that I was failing to overcome. It was a hard feeling to shake, and I guess I can't really blame anyone for that, because the truth is just so much weirder than that.

In starting my career here in Chicago, I started with a nine-to-five job at an ad agency. I loved the agency I was working at, loved the people there, liked the work I was doing and took a lot of pride in it, but couldn't for the life of me wake up early enough to get there on time. I don't know to what extent my punctuality was a problem but I'd been spoken to about it a couple of times. The next full-time job after that, I specified later hours and got them, but later on my hours were one of the reasons given for firing me. 

When I had the chance to work mostly from home for several months on end, I noticed that I was sleeping a full eight hours a night, between the hours of 5am and 1pm—whereas beforehand I had become accustomed to less than six hours a night due to my working schedule. After a few months like this, I worked at the same ad agency again for a few weeks (sharp-eyed readers will note my exasperated blog posts about issues I was having with that project). I overslept two days in a row and freaked out. Something was really wrong if, after more than a week on a nine-to-five schedule I couldn't adjust. So, I did what any nice jewish boy would do in circumstances such as these: I called my mom. Much to my surprise and delight, my mom spent half the day researching and came up with a lesser-known sleep disorder, discovered in the 1980s, the symptoms of which matched my own so perfectly I was taken aback to find out it existed. 

Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder is essentially like being permanently jetlagged by a few hours. Brunch time feels like dawn to me, and it doesn't really ever feel like bedtime until the sun's almost ready to rise. Also, occasionally I just don't sleep at all (not sleeping last night is what prompted me to write this entry). Also, apparently, DSPD is the reason why my body temperature and blood pressure are both lower than normal on average (rock steady right around 95°F and typically in the neighbourhood of 100/45, respectively). 

I fear I've been kind of obnoxious and overly expositional about it, but honestly I think if people understood how significant this discovery was for me they'd understand. It was a welcome revelation to find out that not only am I not the only one but there are actually many people with the same disorder—about 3 in every 2,000 people on average. Okay so that's still very rare (about 1/6th of 1%) but it's 3 in 2,000 more than I thought there were. It was a wonderful feeling of weight being lifted from my shoulders, the vague possibility that many of these incidents in my past weren't really my fault. My body chemistry is just fundamentally different from normal.

But there were a couple of more ominous implications to the discovery. Most troubling to me was the thought that, while it was nice to know that it's not my fault I can't sleep normally, there is very little that I can do to fix that. While there are some treatments available they're more like coping procedures than real treatments—just ways for you to kind of hack your sleep mechanisms into working for a little while at a time. For this reason it's a bona fide disability, recognized for the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Again, that's lovely, because it means if I need to I can always get the right hours at work, but this too is disconcerting as any special or different treatment at work isn't necessarily a good thing. 

Really a huge part of the problem is that I fear a lot of people think it's fake. This is understandable, I guess, since people rarely see me stay up late at night; they only see me wake up super-late and it's easy enough to assume I'm just lazy. I also get "Oh you're just a night person; I'm a night person too" from people who stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning every night, as if that's remotely the same thing. You can totally stay up that late and still hold down a full-time job. It is significantly harder to do that when your body refuses to sleep before 4am. Believe me: I've been trying to work around this since I was 10 years old. In high school my sleep issues and my frustrating inability to overcome them brought me as close as I've ever come to the brink of suicide (which, if anyone's keeping score, wasn't very close but it's as close as I've ever come).

People always have helpful tips for how to sleep, and believe me I love hearing them, but none of them work on me. I know people are only speaking from their own experience so I can't really blame them, but really my experience with sleep is just fundamentally different than theirs. Just so we get this out of the way right here and right now, I have tried all of the following with limited or no results: acupuncture, melatonin supplements, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, over-the-counter drugs, booze, nyquil, changes in exercise, changes in diet, changes in caffeine intake, homeopathy, herbal remedies (including valerian root), and meditation. There's still some treatments specifically for DSPD that I haven't tried (see also: light therapy, freerunning sleep), so I'll be experimenting with those during my time off work. On the whole though it's pretty discouraging, and the wikipedia article on the subject doesn't exactly inspire confidence (best tip from the article: get a job as a cab driver or bartender; thanks, wikipedia!). My goal for this year is to work out a coping strategy that will hold for a couple of months at a time so that I can still do my work. I need a better coping strategy for late-night boredom, too, I think.

Wish me luck, space cadets.

09 March 2009

Not as Many IE Woes?

Mattie had a look at my web app I've been working on in his virtual machine and it ran just fine. Now, on the whole, this is very good news, because it means I don't have to be as concerned about IE6 users. At the same time, though, it also means that I've basically wasted half the time I've spent optimizing and that I've committed a cardinal sin of programming: optimizing prematurely. Even though I believe that it's understandable I didn't run around the office trying it out on everybody's virtual machine, I still feel pretty foolish having not asked a single coworker to have a look when I discovered something anomalous. Live and learn, I guess.

I didn't get content until today anyway so it all works out. I stayed a little late tonight getting the first block of it into the layout, but when I merged my files with another developer's our versions were in conflict. After a cursory attempt to rectify the conflict I decided to go home. I had already attained Last Developer Standing status for the day and I needed Fred around to do the merge anyway. Tomorrow, then. Wish me luck, space cadets.

25 February 2009

Internet Explorer 6: The Cancer of the Internet

For the past few weeks I've been working on a project at my former employers, VSA Partners. I've been working on a pretty complicated web application, a sort of live search for product lines where you can drag sliders to specify the attributes you'd like. Very cool, and it works absolutely beautifully in Firefox 2/3, Safari/WebKit/KHTML 2/3, and Google Chrome, not surprisingly. Its performance is by far and away the best in the nightly build of Webkit and Google Chrome, again not surprisingly because those are essentially the same browser and existing on the bleeding edge of browser technology. So far, so good. Internet Explorer even runs it tolerably well, with a 2.5 second lag when the page is first loaded and a 0.24 second lag between user interface interactions; resetting all the controls to their original state takes 2.3 seconds.

And then there's fucking Internet Explorer 6, rubbing its shittiness in our faces much to our collective shame and chagrin.

For this project, I knew that IE6 would be a major bump, so I did my homework on it. I read all the Microsoft Developer Network articles on the subject (and yes, there are MSDN articles specifically about workarounds to IE's craptacularness), the not-so-swift Javascript execution in Internet Explorer. In particular there is a nice three-part article series on there about some of the specific sore spots in IE6's performance. I read up and then applied what I had learned to my code. The result was slow and steady performance improvement over the course of a few days, but overall an abject failure. But, this failure doesn't belong to me; I'm not going to claim it, as tempting as it is for me to believe this is my fault. This particular failure sits quietly and slovenly on the shoulders of Microsoft. Internet Explorer 6, according to W3schools (source: http://www.w3schools.com/browsers/browsers_stats.asp), is still used by about one in every five internet users. This means that, as a web developer and designer, if I ever create anything that can't run or looks terrible in IE6, I've automatically lost one in every five people, 'cause let's face it, those people aren't upgrading anytime soon. Internet Explorer versions 6 and 7 make up 44.2% of internet users.

A little bit of background for those who aren't technically inclined (and for those who are but love reading about Microsoft's many failures). Internet Explorer 6 is notoriously difficult to develop web sites for because it has poor or nonexistent support for many of the new standards that are supposed to make web development simpler. Internet Explorer's rendering of web sites hearkens back to an earlier, more innocent time, when there were no massive javascript applications, when web sites were simple, god-fearing websites and IE6 was all you needed. Times are very different now. With the rise of web applications moving the heavy lifting of making the web work over to the client side, the fastest browser wins, and accurately rendering XHTML code to web pages is fundamental—obviously—to the viability of a browser as a platform. In short, web browsers are now expected to be platforms similar to an operating system. As it happens those two tasks, rendering code accurately and executing javascript code swiftly, are the two things at which Internet Explorer is the absolute worst.

In the case of IE6 I don't think it's fair to poke fun at its javascript interpreter. As I said above it was a different time, and javascript really hadn't come into its own yet. It was rarely if ever used for anything move involved than overcoming the shortcomings of CSS and XHTML code. But nowadays we write whole applications in Javascript and skin them with XHTML/CSS, so IE6's relevance to our present-day world is waning fast. Its javascript interpreter may be apples to today's browsers' oranges, but that still doesn't make reliance on it a forgivable offense. Even since I've been writing them web applications have exploded in popularity and scope. As I've positioned myself to specialize in their design and development, I feel pretty good about this. But there's just one problem... IE6.

In a modern web browser I have access to all the new innovations in browser technology over the past decade, but in IE6 I am stuck in the last century. Yes, that's right, Internet Explorer was released in 2001 and, but for security and aesthetic changes, hasn't changed much. Internet Explorer 6 is still the sorrow of the internet, and something tells me those 18% aren't going to upgrade soon. So... I have an idea.

Fuck 'em. That's right. Fuck 'em. They're using a browser that came out before the dot-com crash; they shouldn't be expecting the internet to behave the same for them. At this point I think it's okay to say, Yes I will look at it in IE6 and if there's a quick fix I can apply I'll do it but I will not burn hours and hours tweaking it. Overall this will mean less money in the short term but it will mean better productivity, more websites launching on time, and the betterment of the internet in general.

Once we stop caring about IE6, it's no big deal to write javascript that futzes with the layout of the page (IE6 is notoriously terrible at manipulating DOM objects), or to write elegantly simple CSS layouts, or to write heavyweight application suites. It'll be a better world and when the IE6 users are finally forced inevitably to upgrade, the rest of the world's web will be ready for them. They'll arrive with fanfare to a beautiful and useful web populated by tools that are as easy to use as they are powerful. I'll be here at the bleeding edge... waiting. Come join me, space cadets.

25 January 2009

the chatterböxen story

I have just launched the beta of Chatterböxen, my ephemeral, anonymous chat program (with tightened-up graphics). Chatterböxen began as a simple attempt to create an AJAX chat with jQuery, but quickly evolved into the current look and feel, with words and phrases floating in a bright white space.

I developed the very first incarnation while I was working at VSA a couple of years ago, and wrote it in PHP with a MySQL backend to store the messages. This was fun to show to a few friends by hardly efficient enough for the big-time, and it was also extremely buggy and susceptible to hacker attacks. I showed it to some coworkers and a few friends and then shelved it.

As part of my new years resolution to bring all of my side projects online, I began working on chatterböxen again a few weeks ago, as a ruby on rails project. It was very effective and easy to write that way, but it was too bulky. Rails is a wonderful framework for a lot of different kinds of website, but it's far too complicated for something like this. I had just learned about the Sinatra framework, which runs with Rack and a few other libraries to produce super simple, one-file web applications. I'd seen a blog implemented with Sinatra in less than a couple hundred lines and I was intrigued.

Rewriting Chatterböxen in Sinatra turned out only to take a single afternoon, ajax bells and whistles and all. A few further refinements, and now I am officially announcing that it is in beta and y'all should all go look at it and poke around for a few minutes. Within the next day or two I should have an improved backend solution implemented, and an FAQ on the site for people who are confused or having issues. Also, there is a facebook page! Despite my own reservations about it, this is a thing and it is happening. Go check it out, space cadets.

11 January 2009

a curious computer science problem

I was discussing linguistics with my esteemed colleague and close friend Alex English earlier when I stumbled upon a very interesting computer science problem: the generation of grammatically-correct, semantically meaningful palindromes. The minute I typed my message about it I regretted it, because my immediate impression was that this is an extremely difficult problem.

We have to sort of reign it in just a little and make the problem more generic, too. So, let's say that we have one language P, a subset of a more generally-defined language comprised of only those recognizable phrases which are palindromes. It's fairly easy to arbitrarily generate phrases from a given grammar and lexicon but doing so in such a way that it remains a palindrome is somewhat challenging, but doing so in such a way that it remains syntactically correct is what we're interested in here.

Consider the following simple grammar:
S -> A
A -> x A
| x
This grammar only generates strings of x's, so of course it only generates palindromes, and it can also generate arbitrarily-long strings. This is a patently ridiculous grammar but it does demonstrate one issue: how do you prove that your grammar even has a maximum-length palindrome? Consider the following grammar:
S -> A
A -> x y A
| x y
That grammar produces an infinite number of phrases, none of them palindromes. How complicated is it to prove the existence or nonexistence of palindromes in a well-defined language?

Because it reminds me of some aspects of the Busy Beaver Problem, perhaps a version of the Busy Beaver Problem for push-down automata. If anyone's heard of it or better yet a proof of its complexity, let me know.

Thinking too much as always. Sleep tight, space cadets.

08 January 2009

2008: a retrospective

I'm looking forward to 2009 mostly because I'm glad to see 2008 be finished forever. The politics and the economics of 2008 were just about the worst I've seen in my lifetime. The 2008 primary—at least on the Democrats' side—got super messy. I was behind Obama from the very start because I live in Chicago and that's just how we do; we support our own. Even before his campaign I was impressed with his rhetorical skills, and I agreed with a lot of his politics as well. I disliked Hillary because I saw that since the Clinton presidency she'd been working towards occupying that seat herself, but it always seemed to me that it was for her own glorification that she did it. Sure she would probably do a good job, but that would mean that for my entire lifetime every US president will have been from one of two families, and that just seemed wrong to me.

Meanwhile I got laid off from my job last summer, which didn't surprise me but it still pissed me off. I didn't mind because I really saw Fave as a company adrift. Working there was like living out someone else's mid-life crisis. The owners were amiable and well-meaning enough but at the same time they were two men completely out of their league who, though they had surrounded themselves with people who knew what they were doing, often refused to listen. It angered me but I knew that I would fare better than they would in the long run, so I struck out on my own freelancing and pretty immediately got snatched up by an agency. I've made it to 2009 just fine but I hear interesting rumours coming from Fave lately.

The presidential election last year produced a curious mixture of feelings for me. On the one hand I felt so very proud of this country and, in a way, this city, when Obama won the nomination and especially when it started to look like he was going to win. The Republican side just made me feel ashamed for this country. In the 2008 election we saw that the Republican party has become a party of only three issues: abortion, gay marriage, and teaching evolution in schools. The 2008 presidential campaign was the ugliest I've seen in my entire life and I've been paying attention for a long time. To me my choice was clear and it had to be Obama, because to me he represented everything I liked about America, particularly the notion that you really can raise yourself up from poverty to Presidency here. Having up 'til then lived a life dominated by Bushes and Clintons (except a couple of years where there was a Reagan, but I was like two years old whatever), I had never gotten to witness that happening. John McCain, married to a trophy wife he ditched his old wife for when she got in an accident, son of a wealthy admiral, just did not give me that same impression. He never seemed like he knew what I, as a member of the middle class, go through on a day to day basis to make ends meet. But the real show-stopper there was his bewildering choice of Sarah Palin, a virtual unknown from Alaska whose uncouth "you betcha!" perkiness made me cringe visibly. It was at that point that I almost felt like it was McCain's way of bowing out. When he picked her for VP, it seemed like he was throwing the fight. A sort of dejectedness settled over the McCain camp and it really seemed that by the time election night rolled around, they had long given up.

Speaking of which election night was an amazing night for me. It's rare that you come upon a moment in history and in your life that you think afterwards, I will remember this forever. I think that I will, too. I was in Grant Park and I witnessed first-hand the election of the United States' first President of any colour besides white as all hell. That alone was reason to be excited, but in addition the election of Barack Obama meant the possibility we could break free from the kind of divisive, fear-based politics of 2000–2008. That's really the one thing I will miss the least about 2008: the bullshit fearmongering. I'm not saying that all the Fox News anchors are out of a job just yet, but I think we are about to see a major change in how the White House views the world and the American people.

One of the horrors of 2008 continues still: the economy. In 2008 we saw a house of cards forever on the precipice of implosion finally fall, and I suspect most of the people who built it up knew how fragile it was. In the interest of furthering the interest of a "free" market, the powers that be left the rest of us out in the cold. As a consequence of losing my job at Fave and also the beginnings of the economic downturn, I lost a mortgage on a condo I was planning to buy. In the end I think that was a good thing because I wouldn't want to be saddled with a huge mortgage at a time like this anyway, but it still sucked. I'm seeing more friends than ever getting laid off, and the more I think about it, the more I realize we're gonna be feeling this for a while. This isn't an ordinary recession at all. It feels like a depression. Here's to 2009 being better I guess.

Keep hope alive, space cadets.