Tuesday, November 30, 2004

what do you mean it can't say 'on'?

Sit back, kiddies, and hear a corporate engineering tale of terror and woe and lack of common-sense turned into an art form. It doesn't really give away the ending to warn you that everything gets Totally Fucked by the end of the story.

While working at a hypothetical engineering company in an alternate universe (NYSE:Tek), I had the misfortune to end up in the most doomed group imaginable. I usually don't tell the story because the reality of the situation is so bizarre that people think I am exaggerating, when in fact I tend to tone down the absurdity because it's just too mind-boggling even for me... I WAS THERE and it sounds like bullshit to me, so hearing it second-hand must just exacerbate that effect.

So: I'm a hardware design engineer, creating the tools that computer chip manufacturers use to verify their new chips work as planned, or more often to figure out just where and why the things don't work as planned. This is a sort of silicon psychology, because if the chip if screwed up and the only way you have of knowing what is going on inside the chip is to ask it, there's no telling what you may find. The trick is to build a system that piggybacks the chip, that contains a functional model of the operations of the chip in question, that insinuates itself into the data-flow and monitors the transactions for anomalies. Once the chip is functioning reasonably well, the system can inject new transactions and observe the chip's responses. Developing, testing, an implementing such systems was my job.

Actually, my job was to argue with marketing department hacks who had either (a) a tenuous grip on reality or (b) a glue-sniffing problem. Possibly both. The ideas these fucktards would come up with (and sell to the customer before verifying with engineering that the idea was even possible) would have been more fitting coming from a special-ed essay contest than supposed professionals. Since the VP of our department, our engineering department, mind you, was a marketroid, these idiots basically had input into every phase of the project. Since their input was invariably stupid, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to explain things like the basic laws of physics that any bipedal organism should already know on a cellular level but these chimps had somehow managed to forget or dismiss as unnecessary abstractions.

One project was nearing completion when what should have been a routine design review turned into an episode of the Twilight Zone. I was showing slides of the final harware design, the placement and labeling of knobs and connectors and and a power switch with a little red LED that showed you when the unit was on, when the Alpha Idiot spoke up:

"That power indicator light is marked 'On'. This implies that if the light is on, the unit is on."

Um... yeah? Isn't that what those little red LEDs are for?

"What if the unit is off?"

Well... (I'm starting to get uncomfortable here, no idea where this is going)... the light is off. See: turn it on, the light goes on, turn it off, the light goes off. (In my head I'm hearing Homer Simpson: "Bed goes up, bed goes down. Bed goes up, bed goes down".) AND on top of that amazing bit of functionality, when the unit is on it also does some nifty things that the customer might find useful, assuming of course that they too aren't stymied by the power light.

The marketroid got a smug look on his face, and delivered the coup de grace, which I'm fairly certain involved the words 'Mr. Smartypants', but seeing as how I called him some rather more incendiary names a short time after I'll leave out all of the honorifics and stick to the point:

"What if the light burns out? And the power is still on? Then that little light of yours isn't just useless, it's actively misleading."

Ignoring the fact that EVERY PIECE OF ELECTRONICS IN THE WORLD has a fucking power indicator light, I calmly pointed out that the projected mean-time-between-failures of a standard red LED is something like ten thousand times as long as the useful lifespan of the device in which it was mounted, and besides the unit was a rather complex piece of electronics that did many useful things besides telling the customer whether or not it was on. Surely the fact that the device was capturing and processing signals would alert the customer to the fact that it was on in the event that the little red light burnt out?

At this point the marketroid starts speaking to me as though I have some sort of learning disability - in addition to his usual contemptuous sneer, he's also begun waving his hands around in the air and speaking slowly, as though to give his ideas more time to get through my thick skull:

"If the light is on... the customer knows the unit is on... but if the light is off, the unit *might* be off... or it might be on... with a burnt out power light. For the safety of both the customer and the sensitive hardware, you can't mark the 'On' position with the word 'On'.


When I regained the ability to speak coherently, which may have been before or after I finished saying some things that ended up on my Permanent Record, I asked the marketing asshole what recommendation he had, since my radical idea of marking the goddam switch 'On' and 'Off' was apparently too wacky to see the light of day.

"The solution is obvious - since what you have marked as the 'Off' position can mean two conflicting things, you can't mark it at all without being misleading. On the other hand, if the light is on the machine is in is a single definite state, so you can mark that side."

So you want me to mark one side 'On', and leave the other side blank?

Now the guy is getting angry, apparently feeling that I am being deliberately obtuse:

"No, damn it! You can't mark it 'On' since it's possible for the unit to be on when the light is not on!"

Umm... ok, I give up. How do you want me to label the indicator light?

"'Not Off'".

My manager thought this was a great idea. Both my manager and the marketroid thought the marketroid was a fucking genius. I thought they were both shitheads, and removed all off the wording from the silkscreen around the switch. Not too long after that, a circuit in my brain turned not off and I removed myself from corporate engineering.

The marketroid got promoted. The manager got laid off. I got migraines and stress-related health issues.

Not that I'm cynical or bitter or anything.

Saturday, November 27, 2004


I need to post something, if for no other reason than to bump that ugly little troll off the top of my webpage.

This week has been splendid...ly fucked, as my physio- and neurochemistry continue to engage in their little modern art project - right now I think my body is going through a Pollock phase, while my mind emulates Picasso. I just woke up 3 hours after eating sleep meds like M&M's until I fell asleep; 6 hours prior to that I had taken my usual dose and felt nothing. **Nothing**. The bottle cautions against taking too much at once (respiratory failure blah blah blah); I take twice the recommended amount and stare at the ceiling all night. Eep - I'm a pill popper. I was warned about people like me.

So Thanksgiving just passed? I celebrated by staying in bed in too much pain to walk, missing yet another chance to see some friends who, despite living only a mile away, I'm lucky to see once a year. I noticed a spate of "Things I'm Thankful For" posts on the various blogs I read, and after a lot of thought I was able to count the things I am thankful for on the fingers of one finger; later I added a few more things, one of which might be you. You know who you are. I hope.

Being the Brilliant Mind that I am, a week from today I embark on a ten day journey across the country... even though I am still recovering from a 3 day trip I got back from a week ago. Apparently I'm either less good at math than I once was, or my rational planning horizon extends no further than day-to-day living. Hey, live for today! I always thought that was a good idea. It never occurred to me I'd be doing so for lack of ability to see farther than the confines of this bed, this room, this day.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

we're screwed

Some pictures are worth a thousand words. According to the Treasury Department, this picture of Alan Greenspan was worth $7,444,122,057,407.69 on 18 November, the most recent date for which the public debt has been posted.

we're screwed

The picture is from last week's banking conference, in which Greenspan warned that (duh) our record-high deficit is going to make other countries less interested in holding dollar-denominated investments.

Friday, November 19, 2004

shine all the buttons

Elvis Costello interviews Joni Mitchell in the November Vanity Fair.

[via waxy.org]

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

born on third base, thought he hit a triple

Julie posted this H.L. Mencken quote that is too good to miss:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts' desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

I can't decide whether to laugh or cry.

Monday, November 15, 2004

well-behaved women do not make history

Rockin Rina's Women of 1970's Punk makes me wonder what the hell else I missed by just a few years... I mean X-Ray Specs and Bow Wow Wow and Lydia Lunch and Diamanda Galas, sure, but over half of the bands listed I've never even heard of.

Punk77 has a section on women in punk as well.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

don't give up hope

Sorry Everybody?

Apologies accepted.

Nice to know there are still a few dozen people in the world that don't detest us.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

how fortunate the man with none

There's about a decade where Factory Records, 4AD, and Beggar's Banquet provided most of the soundtrack of my life: Factory had Joy Division, Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire, and New Order; 4AD had the Birthday Party, Bauhaus (for a short time), Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Lush, Modern English, This Mortal Coil, and the Pixies; Beggar's Banquet had Bauhaus and all of its offspring, John Cale, the Cult, the Fall, Flipper, Gary Numan, Icicle Works, Lydia Lunch... they even had the Ramones for awhile. Many other record companies were putting out good music, but for awhile there these three just couldn't miss.

Of course, this was all long enough ago that most of those bands have had 'Where are they now?' episodes, if anyone remembers them at all. So for those of us who remember those bands, it's nice when they pop up again. The current Pixies tour, for example, is an interesting phenomenon... one half of the audience is twice the age of the other half.

One band I thought I'd never hear from again is Dead Can Dance... turns out I was wrong. They've just announced a tour that will hit the US next September. I suspect the audience will be filled with people like me, who will hear the music not so much as it is but as it was. Sometimes I think the context in which DCD thrived has moved on in everything but memory, but I keep hearing their influence pop up here and there so maybe they've got a little life left in them. I'll let you know after I see the show.

what have I done?

So I've written before about how much I like Califone, and I've probably mentioned the Pixies a few times, and I'm certain I've written about my friend Julie in NY. I've also posted about my unemployment, my chronic illness, and my depression. Until last night, I didn't realize that all of the above items could be combined into what is proving to be, so far, the second most lunatic travel idea I've ever come up with.

Let me 'splain:

Yesterday I started thinking about how I really need to get out of this house. (Many days it would be good just to be able to get out of bed.) Anne-Marie was planning her trip to visit her parents, and the travel idea was planted in my brain. I've long wanted to go to New York to see Julie and her sister Shelley, so what the hell, perfect excuse to get out of the house. I might even enjoy it. So I checked with Julie to make sure she'd be around when I got there, and started looking at plane tickets.

Airline prices aren't too bad right now. The flight from here to New York is only marginally smaller than the width of the continental US, so every flight I could find and afford had at least one lay-over somewhere... and for most flights that somewhere was Chicago.

Califone is from Chicago.


A quick search of the net showed that Califone and The Secret Machines (who I just saw open for Interpol) and Modest Mouse are playing on the 4th of December at the Aragon Ballroom. The following night The Hives and Franz Ferdinand, same place.

Looking over the calender at the Aragon, I saw that the Pixies are playing there all this week. I've been pretty bummed about missing them when they played here, but their visit coincided with Burning Man and sometimes you've just got to make sacrifices, you know? Checking to see where the Pixies were off to next, I found that they were playing the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York the week of 11-18 December, with the 18th being the last day of their tour.


Those shows are all sold out, of course.

Tickets are being scalped at unrealistic prices all over the place, but on eBay I found a guy who had reasonably priced tickets for the night of the 13th. Pour a little more money down the hole, and w000t, I'm taking Julie to see the Pixies.

I just locked down plane tickets to move me hither and yon. (Especially yon.) I've never been to Chicago or New York before. I'm broke and ill and probably going to get my tree-hugging Northwestern ass mugged the minute I get off of the plane, but I'm also going to see a number of awesome bands and some friends I haven't seen in 15 years.

I can hardly wait :)

Friday, November 12, 2004

sanity check

The complete works of H.P. Lovecraft are online. Had he been in a different time and place, he'd be as well-known as Edgar Allan Poe. I spent an unreasonably large amount of my youth cranked up on Jolt Cola and Dominoes Pizza playing all-night sessions of Call Of Cthulhu, a role-playing game based in Lovecraft's world. And a couple of years ago I bought some ugly green naugahyde and sewed up a lovely little stuffed Cthulhu for Anne-Marie.

Lovecraft played a rather strong part in my nightmares for years, but then again I was (cough) a bit chemically altered for many of those years, so it's a wonder I didn't lose my mind altogether. Well, there's always tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

POP goes the GMail

GMail is enabling POP3 access to your account, so you can use the email client of your choice to read your mail. These guys just keep getting cooler. The tinfoil-hat brigade is getting their panties in a bunch over it all, of course - this new feature, like so many other GMail features, doesn't have an obvious benefit for Google (in fact it harms them to some extent, in that you no longer are required to use the ad-laden web interface to read your mail). I strongly suspect that they are data-mining the hell out of every piece of email that is sent, but I also suspect they are doing it in a way that is anonymous and not all that intrusive. Besides, regardless of your email transport mechanism, if you are that concerned about privacy and you aren't using PGP/GnuPG, you're a tard.

The POP3 service hasn't been enabled for all accounts yet; the link above shows how to find out if you're one of the lucky ones.

downhill battle

I mentioned Downhill Battle in the previous post - these guys are fighting the good fight in the music activism (and common sense) arena. They've got an informative site, but they do more than just talk - their labs create free open-source software that make the web more useful and democratic. Power to the people! Well, except for the bozos. Still fuck the bozos.

File-sharing FUD parade

With the flurry of press-releases from the MPAA these past few weeks (in which they announce that there will be a later press-release regarding their lawsuits against individual file-sharers... they've got multiple layers of press-releases that only presage future press-releases, never actually getting to the point where they actually announce the suits), the file-sharing bugaboo has reared its ugly head in the mainstream press once again. Depending on who you listen to, file-sharing is either a truly democratic use of the internet or the hipper more technically-sophisticated horseman of the apocalypse.

As the RIAA has so capably shown in the past few years, there are a few problems with the 'scorched earth' approach to dealing with your customers. First among these is the fact that file-sharing has not impacted the hyper-inflated income of the recording industry in the slightest, except where it has increased sales. (Next time you see headlines about this, read closely - every independent study shows file-sharing to have a neutral or positive effect on music sales, while every industry study shows the exact opposite. Who are you going to believe?) People have always made tapes for each other and lent CDs to friends - the only new factor is the ease with which such trading can be done.

Another significant problem is that the legal process used, founded as it is on the highly defective DMCA, is faulty and inefficient. Using jackboot tactics blew up in the RIAA's face when the jackboot landed on 6-year-olds and 80-year-old women who didn't even know how to use a computer. The technology doesn't create a one-to-one correspondence between IP addresses and actual humans, so assigning culpability is a tricky prospect. So far the recording industry's technique has been to fill the air with lead and let the lawyers sort it out. Apparently The Customer Is Always Right... right in the line of fire.

My own personal experience with file-sharing, hailing from the Napster days, is that of watching my CD collection expand tenfold as I got turned on to music that the music and advertising industries' narrow vision kept off of the airwaves. MP3.com, in the early pre-lawsuit days, turned me on to a number of bands as well - they let you listen to a few songs for free, and if you decided the band didn't suck you could order the CD and hear the rest. The print industry is slowly catching on to this concept as well - publishers are placing texts online, secure in the knowledge that if their product has any merit it is its own best advertising, and having the ability to peruse the materials lets the customers make a more informed choice in their purchases.

Which is the root of the issue, actually - choice, and the efforts of corporations to restrict choice. After all, if you can choose, you can choose to avoid a company altogether, and that affects their bottom-line. Since they view you as sheep feeding at their trough, the very idea that you should have a choice at all is anathema to them.

The music and film industries have reacted with horror every time a new technology comes out - they were so sure that tape-recorders, VCRs, and CD-burners would be their downfall, because they were too fucking stupid to realize that instead of spending their money in court they could be making money by utilizing the new technologies. Once they finally figured each of those technologies out, their profits soared. The film industry makes more money from video and DVD sales than they do from the actual release of the film. I-Tunes' micropayment plan is generating millions of dollars because they give you choice and accessibility and you don't have to spend $20 to get a CD that has the one song you like. In a very real way, every time these industries relax their greed they make more money... but they never learn.

As the situation stands, something must change, and I'm pretty sure it's not going to be the recording industry's mindset. Personally I think cryptographically-secure completely anonymized file-sharing will be the final solution to the problem - if nothing else, it will force the recording industries to come up with more reasonable marketing models, which will once again bring them larger profits. In the meantime, there are some interesting efforts to create technologies that reduce the risk of file-sharing, such as the IM-integrated 'share with your buddies' network envisioned by the folks at Downhill Battle. By restricting your personal exposure to your list of friends, you then gain more secure and anonymous access to their list of friends, and the 'six degrees of separation' principle means that you can essentially connect to anyone with relative safety. It's a trust-based network.

There's a problem with this idea, though: it's been tried before. Drug dealers have used the trust-based network concept for... well, forever, probably. There are two risks: the first is that as the network expands, the likelihood that the trust boundary will contain someone who is either stupid or malign or a planted narc and who will hose the whole thing up increases exponentially. The second problem is a related parallel - even in a one-to-one transaction, if the person you are procuring from is secretly on the side of the law, they are both (a) indemnified from the mutual risk that makes such transactions seem safer and (b) completely incontestably sure that you, who have no such protections, are guilty. Oops.

Until a truly secure and anonymous delivery mechanism is found there will be problems with all such stopgap measures. As much as the technogeek in me admires the technical solutions to this problem, the real solution will come when the recording industries get with the program and adapt to the times. They could take a cue from Cory Doctorow, who is making more money giving his books away than he did selling them.

Whatever happens, this current fusillade of FUD from the MPAA is anachronistic, futile, hostile to their own customers, and entirely in line with the lack of creativity and vision these companies have shown as long as they've been around. I like to create, and I would love to support myself with my creations. But I believe that the way to do this is to be awesome, not litigious. Sure, technically file-sharers are engaging in criminal activity, but the recording industries are being complete asshats, and I think their crimes hurt artists more than the file-sharers do.

So I guess the moral of this story is the usual one on this site: fuck the bozos. Relentlessly.

Obscure Chinese proverbs

When I see white-bread Americans who wouldn't know a non-English word if it bit them on the ass yet have complex Asian ideograms indelibly tattooed on their skin, I always assume the tattoo says something like one of these:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will starve before mastering the skill, thus saving you today's delicious fish.

A door without handles is merely a wall. Or a hole. Or a weird window.

A slave with no master is free, but a master with no slave is lazy and bitter, with a soft, oily body and bad hair, complaining to the dog, who could not care less.

He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever and yet appears much wiser than he who asked five minutes ago.

[via McSweeney's]

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Fuck Ashcroft too.

Ashcroft resigns.

northeast liberal elite?


The next dickwad who says, "It’s your money, not the government's money" is gonna get their ass kicked. Nine of the ten states that get the most federal fucking dollars and pay the least... can you guess? Go on, guess. That’s right, motherfucker, they're red states. And eight of the ten states that receive the least and pay the most? It’s too easy, asshole, they’re blue states. It’s not your money, assholes, it’s fucking our money. What was that Real American Value you were spouting a minute ago? Self reliance? Try this for self reliance: buy your own fucking stop signs, assholes.

...this gravy train is fucking over. Take your liberal-bashing, federal-tax-leaching, confederate-flag-waving, holier-than-thou, hypocritical bullshit and shove it up your ass.

And no, you can't have your fucking convention in New York next time. Fuck off.

Fuck the South.

the wild, the beautiful, and the damned

The official Ultravox website is having a competition where fans can send in covers, remixes, and original songs that sound like they should have been done by Ultravox. Lenka's got a better write-up about it than I could do, so check it out at farkleberries.

It's cool seeing so much current interest in this band, 30 years after they started. I've still got all of their albums... they don't get as much play as much of the rest of my collection, but it's nice to break out the old tunes sometimes. The early John Foxx stuff ('My sex', 'I want to be a machine') has its own feel; the later Midge Ure stuff (pretty much everything) has a different sound but was still quite good for the times. Ultravox was glam rock turned techno, and they were about 10 years ahead of the times. At least it wasn't fucking disco...

a sorry state of affairs

Fortunately some Americans have the good graces to apologize to the world for unleashing The Return Of Fucktard.
Some of us - hopefully most of us - are trying to understand and appreciate the effect our recent election will have on you, the citizens of the rest of the world. As our so-called leaders redouble their efforts to screw you over, please remember that some of us - hopefully most of us - are truly, truly sorry. And we'll say we're sorry, even on the behalf of the ones who aren't.

Even more fortunately there are people in the world who realize that we got fucked again, and don't hold it against us. I've got a feeling we're going to need all the friends we can get during the next four years.



Wednesday, November 03, 2004

remember when?

When I was a child the Cold War was in full swing, and I remember being told horror stories in school about the communists. It was obvious to us children that we had the better deal - after all, we lived in a country that didn't use propaganda on its own people, didn't allow a monolithic fundamentalist group to take over all branches of the government, didn't engage in unnecessary expansionist wars, and didn't lie to us about any of the above... how could they, when we have an elected representative government?

I, perhaps naively, believed those things when I was young. I have learned hard lessons since.

This election was never about Kerry. It was always about whether or not we were willing to surrender even the pretense of being the good guys. It was about whether or not we were going to let fear and ignorance trump our belief in our ideals. We had the chance to make an important statement about the direction this country has been taken in just 4 short years by the Bush regime.

But now, their vision vindicated and their power entrenched in all three branches of the government, this administration (which has been openly scornful of the citizens of this country, has tirelessly fought to reduce civil liberties, and has managed to turn record economic surplus into record deficit while destroying any credibility the US had in the rest of the world) has no reason to restrain itself. No 'checks and balances' are necessary - if indeed they are even still possible when a single party controls all branches of the government.

Remember when the future looked bright, and the US was at the top of its game? Remember when our buildings burned, and these same politicians you just handed the country to said "if this causes us to give up our dream of freedom and democracy, the terrorists have already won"? Remember when, shortly thereafter, these same politicians raped the Constitution and defied every ideal we supposedly stand for?

THAT WAS ONLY THREE YEARS AGO, and now, by the criteria set by these same politicians in the mid-afternoon of the 11th of September, 2001, the terrorists have indeed won. bin Laden and the rest of the terrorists (a formerly diverse group that has been given a singularity of purpose by our response to 9/11) are probably high-fiving each other right now. Their common coin is, after all, terror, and the US voting populace just let fear guide its hand during an election. This administration has shown itself to be incompetent, deceitful, greedy, and short-sighted, and has engaged in its own campaign of terror against the people of the United States, conjuring up bogeymen to keep us too scared to question their acts, and you bought it.

In a way, I guess the democratic process did work yesterday: a fearful and ignorant populace elected a government that capitalizes on fear and ignorance. I find this gives me scant consolation, however, as I look forward into the darkness of the next four years.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

you paid for the whole seat...

but you'll only need the EDGE!!!

Or something.

Plan on spending the night glued to the idiot box watching the dancing monkeys? Comedy Central has an alternate for you: 24 back-to-back showings of the 'Guitar Control' episode of Harvey Birdman.

It's bound to be at least as informative as the wankfest on the other channels.