Blogs are so eh

Things I think I’ve learned today:

  • Blogs are so yesterday, man. It’s probably the medium and platform I’ve chosen – I don’t use Medium, for example, although I have an account there – and I don’t publish often enough, or with enough direct focus, to really attract users, because I’m really not trying to build a popular platform. But at the same time, my pride is hurt just a little that traffic is so low.
  • Crawler4j makes it really easy to write a working web spider in Java – or, in my case, Kotlin. Looked into scrapy for a bit, but couldn’t figure out why what should have been a trivial recipe was so hard to find, switched to Kotlin because I really just needed to make progress. Progress was made. Scrapy’s probably fine – maybe the information I was looking for was out there, right in front of my face, and I couldn’t recognize it, but that didn’t help me make the progress I needed.
  • Had a good example of pragmatism in action show up yesterday, too. We issued a pull request for a migration, and one of our developers pointed out a number of situations in the new codebase that could have been problematic. I asked him to demonstrate the errors (or potential errors) with tests so we could validate them, but he wasn’t sure how much effort would be involved in writing those tests… so we progressed with the merge. I think we made the right choice; he’s not wrong in his observations (we might have introduced errors with the new changes) but without validation, we can’t know, and we’d be chasing ghosts. We made notes that the code might be problematic, and we’re going to watch for problems that come from it.
  • Aaron’s Thinking Putty is cooler than it should be.

Python docs, more on wget

Things I have learned today:

  • Python has a lot of modules that are documented well enough to make you cry. Other modules are documented so poorly that it will make you cry. Why am I using GNU parallel? Because creating a bounded threadpool in Python, a task that seems like it should be pretty straightforward, was documented so confusingly for me that I just ended up using the command line instead.
  • wget is a surprisingly easy way to hammer your CPU; run eighteen simultaneous processes and watch the CPU bleed. Great fun for all! (If you can’t guess: parallel is being used to fix this.)
  • I will be fascinated when I learn Gutenberg well enough to leverage it. It’s supposed to be like Medium’s editor, and I suppose it is; I don’t like Medium’s editor either.
  • The best and worst thing about programs to allow you to play Solitaire is how easy it is to play a new game; you end up not valuing a given hand, because if it gets difficult… redeal. That means you lose some hands you could win (“eh, too hard”) and means that you also don’t really value winning as much as you used to, because you can play so many hands so quickly.
  • I find no irony or contradiction in appreciating the Avett Brothers alongside Rush and Yes and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and Weather Report, but I expect others to be surprised at my choices in music. I think other people think I am easily pigeonholed, and maybe I am, but not along the lines of music genres… I think.
  • I ache when my friends ache. Sometimes I wish I did not, but I think the world would be much, much sadder for me if I couldn’t share others’ pain.
  • GNU parallel uses perl. This is amusing. It works; it’s great; it’s still amusing.
  • I like jokes that don’t have victims, generally speaking, but I have no problem using a few specific people as the targets of jokes… Paul Finebaum comes to mind. Give us a rest, Paul. We know you like the SEC.
  • Other people whose voices I could do without: Stephen A. Smith; Sean Hannity; Tucker Carlson. By the way, Tucker, not that you’ll ever read this, but…
  • YES, diversity is a good thing, and while we can argue about specific granularity and I have no problem conceding that there has to be a certain amount of homogeneity in value systems, only a total moron would dare argue seriously that cultural diversity, in and of itself, is a Bad Thing. Shut up, you knob. I appreciate that you use a cannon where a scalpel is better suited, and I hope you know that this is what you’re doing (and therefore you’re being obtuse on purpose) but every now and then it’s good to remember that nuance is A Thing To Use.
  • I decided I was going to try to publish one of these a day, and that streak lasted for ONE DAY.

GNU Parallel, wget, Avett Brothers

Things I have learned today:

  • GNU Parallel is actually pretty nice. It will take some time to get used to how it applies the command line and interpolates the actual command to run, but the documentation is pretty thorough and my needs as of right now are pretty light.
  • That said, parallel --bibtex is annoying… and necessary. (Otherwise it demands you cite parallel in your … paper. Which I’m not producing.)
  • wget is much, much, much faster with the -nv option than without.
  • My middle son can appreciate the Avett Brothers‘ talent, but doesn’t really care for them much. No hard feelings, kid.
  • I don’t care for WordPress’ Gutenberg editor much yet.

Reaching across the divides

I need to remember to reach across the divides that exist between myself and others as often as possible, paying attention to the important things and ignoring the little differences being used to keep us apart.

I’m on Facebook and other social mediums, and because I despise most extremist forms of expression, it’s easy for me to find myself separated from others based on politics, for example. It’s not that people necessarily hold nothing but extreme beliefs, politically, it’s that Facebook and other social media tend to exaggerate expressions, such that the ones that get propagated are more extreme than the ones that you see more rarely.

It’s the dopamine rush, you know? It’s a lot easier to like and share “Donald Trump is pure evil!11!1” than it is to share that you think Donald Trump could have done something more elegantly, or that you don’t understand why he didn’t… do something else. The extreme form gets more reactions, which feeds the dopamine addiction, which means you now have a feedback loop that encourages more extremist memes, in tone and in number, and so the cycle continues.

I hate that crap. I am guilty of it myself, to be sure, but I try to restrain myself because it’s such an awful way to portray yourself to others, and it’s awful to see.

But… you know, the thing is, the people who end up looking like political wackos are human, too. Regardless of their affection for dopamine, they have real needs that transcend reaction.

I need to remember that it’s okay to say “Happy Birthday” to someone who looks like they occupy the far right. I need to remember to offer condolences when someone on the far left suffers a loss in their family.

Their position on the political spectrum – even if it’s not exaggerated – has no bearing on whether they’re human or not, and thus has no bearing on whether I should reach out to them.

I should.

Hope, 2018

One of the things I’m most afraid of, watching all the screeching and shrieking over petty politics, along with true horror, is that I’ll forget that redemption is possible.

We look at all the people committing violent acts over political differences… and compare them to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And we see them as having the same value. We would rather advocate violent resistance to our political opponents – not our political enemies, but those fools who have the audacity to simply not be members of whatever Party we prefer – than slow down, and think, and remember that we’re all human, we all bleed, we all die the same way and with the same horror and fear.

I recently rerecorded “Hope,” a song I wrote a long time ago – probably during Bill Clinton’s presidency – and I simply cannot help but hear my own words in my head:

When the supplicants of power
Start to sing a new song
They've got the words right
But the tune is all wrong

They've got all the phrases
They've got what it takes
They look like the lamb
With the heart of the snake

   I'm tired of hoping past the edge of hope
   For a world that needs no redemption
   Tired of pushing more than I can
   For the clean edge of justice
   Tired of closing my eyes, closing my heart
   Not seeing calamity before me
   Tired of trying to be innocent
   And so I hate

We look around and see destruction
Caused within and caused without
We might survive distortion
But truth is killed by doubt

Our lives are only messages
Written large upon our souls
What we rescind, receive, acknowledge
Is what the future is told

Managing Social Capital

There are a lot of authors who talk about managing social capital, especially in terms of relationships… but from what I can see, most people fail to apply the rules of social capital beyond personal relationships, even if they’re wise enough to manage how they interact with their significant others.

It also turns out that I and a friend of mine actually worked out a form of social capital back when we were ne’er-do-wells in an office together, and it occurred to me that our description of social capital was actually a pretty apt way of seeing it, even though it was really more of a joke at the time.

First off, what is social capital? From a paper on social capital from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:

Lyda Hanifan referred to social capital as “those tangible assets [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit”.

In other words, when you give something to someone else, you build up your social capital with that person. Likewise, when you take something from someone else, you lose capital with that person.

The more that you contribute, or give, to them, the more likely they are to contribute or give to you. Likewise, the more that you exhaust your social capital, the less likely they are to respond positively to you.

Willard Harley describes it in terms of a “love bank,” mostly because he was describing relationships: when you do something your significant other likes or wants, you “deposit” into your balance, and when you do something your partner does not like, you debit your balance… and when it reaches zero, you might lose your partner.

That’s all well and good, I suppose, and I find the metaphor pretty accurate. But I’d like to present mine, nonetheless, because mine includes the idea of severity.

The way I see it, you have different grades of contribution. You can do something that builds your social capital a lot, or you can do something that detracts from it a little.

And because I came up with this idea when I was generally going without something to eat, I thought of it in terms of food.

First off, let’s think of the positive aspect. There are three denominations of points: brownie points, pie points, and cake points.

A brownie point is a small thing. Hold the door open for someone to walk through? Well, that’s a nice thing, but it’s small… you can probably consider yourself to have earned a brownie point with that person, unless they’re crazy-stupid with some oddball political philosophy that sees you holding the door as some kind of power play over women or men or … whatever.

(Social capital, like most other things, still involves the eye of the beholder.)

But … what if it’s raining, and the person is holding grocery bags, and you go out of your way to open the door, possibly even — gasp! — inconveniencing yourself to do so? Surely that transcends mere brownie points!

And it probably does. I’d think this was worth ten brownie points, but that’s a lot of brownies to carry around — let’s call it the next denomination up, the “pie point.”

So ten brownie points is one pie point, so far. But imagine there’s another level up from the pie points; if you earn a lot of brownie points, well, that adds up to a lot of pie points; that’s still unwieldy, so let’s say that ten pie points adds up to something even more magical, something used only in representation form, like the $1000 bill — the “cake point.”

Earning a cake point sounds pretty tough, and it probably is. Most people who have cake points have done so by earning one brownie point at a time, like filling a bucket using dewdrops.

One might earn a cake point with your kids, for example, by surprising them with a new iPhone, perhaps, or with tickets to that show they didn’t think were available any more, but these are very rare events and, truthfully, probably aren’t actually cake points; they’re more likely to be two or three pie points. (After all, gratitude is fleeting; “Sure, you got me an iPhone, but then you took me to McDonald’s, and that counters that stupid toy!”)

Now… the negatives. What’s the opposite of a brownie point? You can’t just say “I’m taking away a brownie point,” because that implies that there are brownie points to take away, and one assumes neutrality before anything else. So negatives work the same way as positives, just with different things… and in my case, they’re actually not very representative, but they’re the best I could come up with in my misspent youth.

They are, in order: okra points! Onion points! And worst of all… Brussels Sprouts points!

Now, please recognize: I’m a child of the South. Truth is, I love okra done properly, and since I’m in the Southern United States, it’s easy to find okra done well. Likewise, if I’m grilling a hot dog, you can bet your pie points that I’m slappin’ some onions on that puppy, so to speak. And while finding Brussels sprouts done well is a bit harder than finding good okra, well, that can be done, too.

But the analogies still hold up pretty well: an okra point is generally perceived as a mild offense. Forget to hold the door for the lady who was seven steps behind you? Well, okay, in today’s feminist world, that’s a very minor offense indeed, but chances are you did just earn yourself an okra point — which counters one of your brownie points, if you have any.

Watch as the door closes on the poor lady holding a wet grocery bag in the rain? You cad! You probably just earned a slather of okra points for yourself… maybe even an onion point.

And… ghosting that girl who you decided you really didn’t care for all that much after all? (Why did she have to be a Patriots fan?) … I’m sorry, but it really doesn’t matter what your reasons might be: you probably did just earn yourself a Brussels sprout.

(Sad truth: it’s a lot easier to earn onion points than pie points, and it’s also far easier to earn a Brussels sprout than it is to earn a cake. BTW, Suze, I am sorry.)

So how does this apply? It’s really a fairly comical way to think about how you interact with people. When you ask a question that serves yourself, well, you’re really asking something from someone else: they get a brownie point for answering, you get an okra point for infringing. You want few negative points and as many positive points as you can manage to earn.

(It’s safe to assume you actually don’t start off with a neutral balance: you probably start off with five brownie points that you either increase or negate immediately.)

But if you want to be consistently liked, answered, interacted with… it’s worth thinking about how your social capital is actually being managed (and what horks off the people with whom you talk) — keep track of your okra, your pies, your onions — if only to keep yourself on track so that the people around you keep wanting to give you what you want and need.

(Reposted from Medium because I don’t have the ability to keep track of every freaking social platform out there.)

Rush After Signals: What Happened?

On Facebook, a user in a Rush fan page asked if anyone else found Rush after Signals difficult to enjoy. There’s been a lot of commentary on the topic, much of it not really useful to me; most of it is dissent or agreement, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they don’t add anything to shed light on why Rush’ “golden era” ended at Signals.

There have, however, been a few comments that I think might add up to something.

A common statement was that their long-time producer, Terry Brown, parted ways with them. (I found writing that sentence to be kinda funny, because Brown and Rush worked together for less than a decade: 1974-1982.)

I think this has merit, but isn’t quite as direct a discriminator as people make it seem. For example, I’ve made it a point to listen to other albums and bands produced by Terry Brown, and while they sound good, they don’t have the essential something that Rush had while working with him. It might be, of course, that it was the combination of Rush and Terry Brown, and taken in isolation, neither combined with their new partners quite the same way.

Another common refrain was in the sound of the albums. Rush always morphed their sound from album to album throughout their entire career (settling down some after Vapor Trails), and there’s some merit here, too, but complaints seem to center in two areas.

One complaint is in the use of synthesizers. Signals was dominated heavily by synthesizers; there were songs were they were less prominent than in others, but even in the “less dominant” synthesizer songs, they were used to greater effect than in nearly every song up to that point. The guitar was buried in the mix (not intentionally, but the synthesizers’ sonic range was so great that they pretty much wiped everything else out in their path – including the guitars and drums).

However, later albums, spanning the entire synth era, actually largely corrected the problem of dominance. Grace Under Pressure, the album after Signals, used synthesizers heavily as well, but the guitar actually presented melodic and rhythmic elements again – and that was a trend that continued through the next two albums after Grace Under Pressure, too (“Power Windows” and “Hold Your Fire.”) After Hold Your Fire, the compositional elements changed again, where the synths contributed but were no longer used as prominently – and eventually Rush would record albums that didn’t use any synthesizers, but those albums aren’t called out as a “return to the golden era of Rush,” so I don’t think the synthesizers are the core aspect of the complaint about Rush after Signals anyway.

(It wouldn’t even make sense if they were – it would mean that these people didn’t like Rush after Moving Pictures, not Signals, as synths dominated the heck out of Signals.)

Another thought is in Alex Lifeson’s guitar tone. For Signals, he shifted to a largely single-coil sound, preferring Stratocasters and Stratocaster-style tones; thinner, brighter, often more digital sounds that were easier to isolate in the mix so that the guitars weren’t buried by the synthesizers. Hearing Rush in concert, with a chunkier, bigger sound, makes a lot of the songs recorded with the Stratocasters sound “better,” as a common statement.

I can agree with the sentiment; there are a lot of songs from the post-Signals era that I like from the albums, that simply come alive in concert. However, I don’t think this is “the answer,” for the same reason I don’t think that synthesizers deserve the blame: Lifeson actually went back to a bigger guitar sound for a few albums (and often chose a tone to fit individual songs); those albums aren’t beloved because of Lifeson’s tonal choices.

The same goes for Geddy’s bass – he went from a distorted Rickenbacker and Jazz tone on Signals to a much brighter, thinner sound first with a Steinberger headless bass on Grace Under Pressure, switching to a Wal for Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, Presto, and Roll the Bones, finally switching back to the Jazz (and sticking with it) for Counterparts and subsequent albums. But like Lifeson’s guitar tone, while I think this might contribute, it’s not all of it – otherwise people would have rallied around Counterparts. (“I liked Rush up through Signals, but they lost me until Counterparts,” for example. And there are people who say that, surely, but it’s not a common sentiment.)

I’ve posited before that I actually think it’s the songwriting – the mechanisms of composition and the mode of the lyrics.

Lyrically, Rush tended to be introspective for a long time; after Signals, though, they wrote ballads (stories) differently, and had more of an edge where they dictated modes of thought. They went from “you can choose a ready guide, but I will choose free will” to a more-challenging “I don’t have faith in faith, you can call me faithless.” It became more about the band and less about the being, which is a slight but important difference.

Musically, the compositions were dominated by computer. In the “Golden Era,” the writing was done informally, two or three guys jamming and building a song organically. Then Geddy Lee discovered software, and started preserving ideas on computer (using Finale, I think, but my memory might be faulty and I don’t think it’s important enough to look up.) The writing process turned into a matter of jamming and getting a few good ideas, then spending time preserving those ideas in a reusable form in the computer, then selecting ideas for each song and building tracks from those ideas; often, those ideas were overlaid completely by the process of recording.

I think that’s the actual crux of the different sound: the actual mode of composition made the music feel slightly less “alive.” It felt less joyful, for the most part, with a few exceptions here and there.

Does that mean it’s bad music? — Gosh, no! Late Rush is perhaps not as stunning as some of their early output – particularly in the “golden era,” where it seemed that everything they did was just right. But there are still stunning songs! The Pass, The Garden, Driven, Alien Shore, Mission… there are multiple songs on every album that you could call out as being excellent and just as good as any of the songs in the golden era, dependent on taste, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rush was, thankfully, always consistent in their pursuit of quality, and I think they achieved it at a very high level for their entire career.