Monday, October 31, 2011

Tired and lonely

Haven't posted much of late. It's possible the world just isn't generating as much material as I'd like, but I doubt that: almost seven billion people (due to be seven billion and change sometime very soon) living their lives can't help but do at least a few things that excite my interest.

It's also possible that, like Howard Beale, I just ran out of bullshit. And yet, low though my opinion is of my opinions, I can't say that they're bullshit. Misguided, perhaps; ill thought out, possibly; but never disingenuous or fake.

No, I think I've hit my midlife crisis. A ridiculous cliche, to be sure, but why should I be exempt from this first-world problem?

Mine takes a slightly unusual form in that it's centered not so much on a desperate effort to hold on to vanishing youth (though there's some of that going on) as on an abrupt realization that I'm not only alone, but lonely.

I've assumed I was something of a rare bird, able to live without a significant other. It was a win all around, inasmuch as the last thing I would have wanted would be to have driven some poor soul nuts coping with my numerous neuroses.

The last couple of weeks, though, I've been going nuts for lack of meaningful human contact. I've seen people socially, but either they aren't terribly close to me or they are close but I haven't been able to carry on a deep, meaningful conversation with them due to peculiarities of circumstance.

One of the upsides of being a passing stranger is that you don't get so close to people that you find yourself sucked into their lives.

That's one of the downsides, too. You have no claim on anyone else.

Another downside is, you don't get any practice at intimacy. Paddling in the shallow end doesn't develop your swimming skills.

What will happen to me? I don't know. I might find someone: that's certainly conceivable. On the other hand, I'd be unwise to bet heavily on that outcome.

One way or another, this will pass. In the meantime, I deem it to be something of a public service not to agonize further about it here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Eulogy for Steve Jobs

Courtesy Daring Fireball, the eulogy for Steve Jobs read at his memorial service by his sister Mona Simpson.
His abiding love for Laurene sustained him. He believed that love happened all the time, everywhere. In that most important way, Steve was never ironic, never cynical, never pessimistic. I try to learn from that, still.
Loving his family doesn't absolve him of responsibility for all too frequently being monstrously indifferent to the feelings of strangers. But he must have been a devoted brother to have inspired a eulogy as touching as Simpson's.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My Obsession Now: Jason Collett, "We All Lose One Another"

It's off a six-and-a-half-year-old album, Idols of Exile, but it's new to me. It combines strains of alternative country, folk, and pop to create an atmosphere similar to my favorite Mojave 3 songs. I've been listening to Collett's meditation on death and life (roughly in that order of lyrical importance) off and on for nearly a month, and have yet to tire of its gentle arrangement or lyrics.
So this is the day of the dead
Bound by love, unbound by flesh

...

This is birth and this is death
All in the same breath
As many have observed, we face our darkest hours alone, and Collett echoes that sentiment (from a slightly different perspective than I've encountered elsewhere) with his chorus, "We all lose one another along the way".

Pretty songs don't have to be happy. (Anyway, happy songs are overrated.)

The Isaacson bio

Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs almost literally has become an overnight success. Much of the credit, morbidly enough, has to be given posthumously to Jobs himself: the timing of his death could not have been more fortuitous, from the standpoint of publisher Simon & Schuster.

Amid the largely flattering reviews, including Janet Maslin's for the New York Times, it was refreshing to read Joe Nocera's opinion piece. Nocera was moved to write about his own reaction to the book because he was puzzled: "I was trying to figure out why 'Steve Jobs,' despite being full of new information about the most compelling businessman of the modern era, was leaving me cold." Nocera concluded that Isaacson simply was too close to Jobs to have the requisite historical perspective for a truly compelling biography.

I haven't read Isaacson's book, and I suspect it will be a long time before I do, if, indeed, I ever bother. (Simon & Schuster may well find that its extensive publicity blitz for the book has backfired among people like me, who believe we've heard or read about all that is worth hearing or reading from Jobs' biography already.) I'll hazard a guess, though, that Nocera is right about Isaacson's lack of perspective -- which, let me add, was all but inevitable given his extensive interaction with Jobs, and should not be held against him as some sort of personal failing.

Isaacson's book may find itself playing the same role vis-à-vis Jobs as James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson plays with respect to Johnson. Boswell's work was considered for a long time to be the last word on Johnson; eventually, though, it became merely another source for more nuanced, more thoroughly researched, and more accurate biographies. It hardly seems possible that Isaacson could have conducted the kind of research necessary to gain a balanced insight on his subject in only two years, but his biography (and perhaps more importantly, the forty-odd interviews he conducted with Jobs himself) will be an important, perhaps a uniquely important, resource for future biographers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Uturuncu

For a few years now I've been kind of worried about the Yellowstone supervolcano. Not that there's anything I (or you) can do about it, but some of us can't help worrying about that which we cannot affect.

But I've moved on. Now I'm worried about Uturuncu in southwest Bolivia.
Researchers realized about five years ago that the area below and around Uturuncu is steadily rising — blowing up like a giant balloon under a wide disc of land some 43 miles (70 kilometers) across. Satellite data revealed the region was inflating by 1 to 2 centimeters (less than an inch) per year and had been doing so for at least 20 years, when satellite observations began.
Now, rationally, it's a bad idea to panic. As noted above, there is absolutely nothing -- I mean nothing -- any of us can do about a supervolcano. (Well, unless you're the President of the United States, who presumably could issue a secret executive order establishing a survival bunker somewhere safe. That's pure speculation, by the way: I have absolutely no evidence that that has happened, although it would certainly make sense to have a survival bunker for more reasons than just surviving a supervolcano.) If a supervolcano erupts, the fallout, literal and otherwise, will be global: there will be no place to hide from it and no way to mitigate its effects (especially its sun-blocking impact) on any significant scale.

But I'll still worry.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Quake of the day, 2011-10-20

Nothing like a quake to liven up your day.

Preliminary magnitude 3.9, centered on the U.C. Berkeley campus. The preliminary magnitude is always subject to change, it should be noted.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

RIM needs a clue

I don't like to kick someone when he's down (well, other than Rupert Murdoch), but honestly, what the hell is RIM, the Blackberry maker, thinking with its offer of free apps as compensation for its recent blackout? (It's not even an unlimited choice of apps, but only from a selected set.)
Vandana Mehra, who works for the World Bank in the Indian capital of New Delhi, thought the free apps were "kind of ludicrous." Her apps tend to crash, and she doesn't use them much.
In response to InformationWeek's article on the subject, "Tom LaSusa" succinctly commented:
Sorry RIM, the damage has been done: A free game of Bejeweled isn't going to rebuild your credibility. Being more up front about what happened -- and working to ensure it won't happen again -- will.
Isn't LaSusa's point blindingly obvious to RIM's management team? If not, shouldn't RIM's board look into replacing them? What is wrong with co-CEOs Mike Lararidis and Jim Balsillie that they've created this public relations fiasco?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The death penalty

I used to have no opinion on the death penalty. I didn't support it, but I didn't oppose others from enacting it if they really wanted to do so.

In recent years, though, the possibility of wrongful conviction turned me against it. It's bad enough to incarcerate someone for a crime he or she didn't commit. It's unforgivable to end an innocent person's life. Fallible human beings have no business exacting the ultimate penalty.

What about the idea that the death penalty deters others from committing crimes? Well, as Louis A. Ruprecht notes in a recent essay in Religion Dispatches, it's far from clear that it actually deters people in the U.S.:
... the deterrent value of any law has to do with the swiftness and certainty of punishment, not the severity of punishment. In the United States, the death penalty will never be either certain or swift. By contrast in China in the early 1980s, where there was no equivalent conception of civil liberty or Constitutional protection, 5000 persons arrested for highway robbery were executed en masse; robbery statistics immediately plummeted.
I have to wonder whether the Chinese criminal statistics were gamed: it's the sort of thing one can do in an authoritarian country. Even if that's the case, though, it doesn't undermine Ruprecht's other point, which is that the death penalty in the U.S. is far more expensive to administer than imprisonment for life. The Constitutional need to afford the wrongfully convicted every possibility for exoneration, a need I think not even the most ardent death penalty advocates would dare to deny, guarantees that the death penalty will remain expensive.

Frankly, if the death penalty had a significant deterrent value, I don't think Texas' death row would be quite so crowded. At present there are 321 inmates on Texas' death row, in spite of 475 executions having been carried out since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Ruprecht's piece gives a comprehensive overview of how the death penalty came to be administered as it is in the U.S. Given the tangled portrait he paints, it's hard to argue with the logic of giving up on the death penalty altogether, because it's clear that the only possible counterargument -- "Damn it, some crimes are just too heinous to let the criminal live" -- is rooted not in any rational assessment of pros and cons, but rather, is rooted purely and only in the desire for vengeance. And while we can understand a single person's need for vengeance driving him or her to take a life in the heat of the moment, no such blind rage ever should animate an entire society. (We generally don't excuse the individual person's moment of rage, either.)

And call me a softie if you will, but I am one of those who believes it's better to let a dozen guilty men go free than to take one innocent man's life.

Taibbi's advice to protesters

Courtesy Daring Fireball, a link to a brief piece by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone giving the Occupy Wall Street protesters advice for five concrete reforms they should demand.

Every single one of his suggested reforms makes great sense to me, but unless the Occupy Wall Street protesters can translate their current attention-grabbing tactics into genuine, demonstrable effects at the ballot box, there's no way Washington will come within a million miles of enacting those reforms.

Why Ritchie mattered

I did a mediocre job of explaining why Dennis Ritchie mattered, and I might even have gotten a couple of things wrong, so do yourself a favor and read Herb Sutter's post to get a fuller and proper understanding. It's relatively short and only mildly technical. (Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link.)

How Hard Can It Be?

Apparently the Web was abuzz about this show's premiere seven months ago, but I only caught it on the National Geographic channel by chance.

I'm not going to do a lengthy review. Suffice to say that unlike Rocket City Rednecks, How Hard Can It Be?'s premiere actually delivers on its promise. It's lighthearted, slightly geeky, and the last five minutes are simply superb. I hope future episodes are as good as this.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

RIP Dennis Ritchie

You won't know who he was unless you're a software developer, and more specifically, not unless you've delved deeper into programming than creating Web pages.

Dennis Ritchie was one of the handful of AT&T engineers who came up with the Unix operating system and the C programming language. Unix took concepts like timesharing from the closed and proprietary world of mainframe computing, and brought them into what turned out to be an early and almost ridiculously successful portable operating system. Much of the portability of Unix was due to its having been written mostly in the C programming language rather than machine-specific assembly language (small pieces that interfaced most closely with the hardware still had to be written in assembly). C would later serve as the inspiration for other languages like Java, not to mention its mutant offspring C++ and Objective C. C also is hugely important in its own right: millions of lines of C code are behind critical software all over the world.

Unix and C were essentially skunkworks projects of no specific use to AT&T. The relatively easy licensing terms made Unix useful to universities for teaching and research. UC Berkeley developed its own Unix variant, the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD). BSD eventually nurtured the development of the now-standard Internet Protocol (IP), the basis of all communication on the Internet. Unix and Ritchie, therefore, are partially responsible for your being able to read these words.

Boing Boing has a report on Ritchie's passing; like other reports I've seen, the source is Ritchie's longtime colleague Rob Pike's Google+ post. The Wikipedia pages on Ritchie, Unix, and C have more information on Ritchie's contributions to computer science.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Achievement

A couple of Sundays ago the New York Times ran an opinion piece by James Atlas about the astonishingly multitalented bunch that tend to become Ivy Leaguers and Rhodes Scholars. The piece is mostly a lament:
Just as the concentration of wealth at the very top reduces wealth at the bottom, the aggressive hoarding of intellectual capital in the most sought-after colleges and universities has curtailed our investment in less prestigious institutions. There’s no curricular trickle-down effect.
However, it reminded me of John Lilly's tribute to Steve Jobs, which made a pretty obvious point that nevertheless is forgotten surprisingly often:
That’s it, I think — that’s the biggest message from Jobs’ life. Don’t try to be like Steve. Don’t try to be like anyone.

Be yourself and work as hard as you can to bring wonderful things into the world. Figure out how you want to contribute and do that, in your own way, on your own terms, as hard as you can, as much as you can, as long as you can.
Attending an Ivy League school can open up a lot of doors. So can attending a junior college. So can finishing high school. So can doing virtually anything, if your eyes and ears are open and you never stop learning, never stop seeking, never stop trying.

The trick is not to let yourself get caught up worrying about what others are doing that you think you ought to be doing. Bear in mind that you probably wouldn't be able to do what they're doing, or you wouldn't like doing it. You need to find your direction. Do what you need to do to make the best life you can. (Just don't go stepping on anyone else to lead that life.)

Life's not fair and resources aren't distributed well. We can and should try to make things better, but in the meantime, don't wait around for that to happen. Make the best of what you are and what you have.

NeXT and Apple

I wasn't going to mention it, but now that Eric Schmidt has brought it up ...
When he [Steve Jobs] came back to Apple, he was able to take the technology he invented at NeXT and sort of slide it underneath the Mac platform. So today, if I dig deep inside my Mac, I can find all of that NeXT technology. Now, this may not be of interest to users, but without the ability to do that the Mac would have died. I was surprised that he was able to do that. But he did it.
A lot of longtime Apple employees like to joke that Apple didn't acquire NeXT, but rather, NeXT acquired Apple. That's how fundamentally NeXTStep and its successor/sibling OpenStep was incorporated into the heart of Mac OS X. That's how fundamentally former NeXT employees became embedded in Apple's corporate fabric, too.

(Link courtesy of Daring Fireball.)

I'm off for a week and look what happens

I went on a little vacation last week. For reasons I won't get into, it did not leave me in the mood to generate new material for this blog.

But I had to acknowledge the passing of Bert Jansch. As with many other important and influential musicians, I can't claim to understand exactly how important or how influential he was. I know people who do understand, though, and he was big in their books, so let's tip our collective hat to him.

And then there was a death that flattened any hope of Jansch's passing being given more than the smallest amount of attention by anyone not personally acquainted with Jansch.

Hundreds if not thousands have weighed in with kind words for Steve Jobs. I can add nothing to their paeans. I merely find it curious that Jobs' death got more attention than anyone else's in recent memory except Ronald Reagan's.

What's even more fascinating is that perfect strangers, people who never met the man, people who aren't even Apple customers, have expressed their shock and sadness. Now, shock I can understand: while a true cynic would have seen his resignation as CEO for what it was (essentially a deathbed act), most of us, I think, have enough empathy for our fellow human beings to have hoped he'd be able to rally and to recover.

But sadness for a corporate executive? I mean, that's what he was, the chief executive officer of a for-profit organization. He wasn't a great humanitarian, he didn't risk his life to save others in burning buildings, he didn't cure cancer -- he sold gadgets. Granted, they're fine gadgets, but they're just gadgets.

I'll admit, I was downcast about his death, too. I just can't put my finger on why. Maybe it was all the news coverage, including Wolf Blitzer's hourlong coverage that managed only to mischaracterize Jobs' contribution to Apple and the company's future without him. It's astonishing that someone as inept as Blitzer is at delivering news still has a job -- and it doesn't reflect well on CNN.

Speaking of coverage, I'm glad the L.A. Times fixed its article on Jobs' "hits and misses" (though in the headline it misleadingly characterized them as "Apple's") to reflect that it was the World Wide Web that had been created on a NeXT computer. The original text of the article claimed, of course, that it had been "the Internet" that had been birthed there. Though it would have been nice for the paper to have acknowledged the error rather than silently correcting it, let's hear it for editors all the same.

On a happier note, felicitations to Dr. Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who shared this year's Nobel Prize in Physics for his observational work demonstrating that the universe will expand forever. I single him out because I once worked at LBNL and would dearly have loved to have worked for him if I had been in the least qualified. Cosmology is a wonderful, if humbling, avocation: there's nothing like looking at the fate of the universe to put things in perspective.