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Wednesday, October 19th, 2016
1:19 pm - The Six Levels Of Pancakes
This idea feels vaguely familiar, so I'm probably being redundant, but I made up this list yesterday and I think it's cute, so here you go:

Level 1: You eat a pancake. Delicious! You realize you like pancakes a lot. Perhaps you could get a job making pancakes.

Level 2: You work really, really hard in your own kitchen, and produce one lopsided pancake. You treasure it. Soon you'll be a pro! The kitchen is a mess.

Level 3: You can make pancakes every day. You have the recipe and the ingredients memorized. The kitchen is clean. Time to get that job!

Level 4: The kitchen in the restaurant is different, but you get used to it. The customers want a variety of pancakes, so you learn different recipes. Mistakes are made. Orders get sent back. It's a struggle but you learn every day.

Level 5: You're working in a big kitchen now, coordinating with other chefs. You produce many pancakes every day. You can't treasure every pancake - in fact, you realize that pancakes are extremely disposable. Many of them end up in the trash before customers even see them. Efficiency matters. You upgrade the kitchen. Wisdom accumulates. You write a pancake recipe book. You can't tell what a pro is any more, but you know you're at least competent.

Level 6: People are trying to hire you to remodel their kitchens and train their staff in the art of pancakes. You have some ideas for really weird pancakes that would change the course of pancake cuisine. Other people start calling you a pro. You're torn between opening your own restaurant, and retiring from pancakes completely.

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Tuesday, October 18th, 2016
2:48 pm - How do I become a "Software Architect"?
A while ago I realized that I can actually speak as someone who has played this role before. So when I found the above question on Quora, I wrote an answer:

Your best path to an architect position is to work your way up into it.

I say that because to really succeed in the architect position you need to know four things:
  1. What works and what doesn’t in terms of design, and how to draw out and clarify the needs of the group you are designing for.
  2. What is easy to implement and what is hard, so you can design something that fits within your customer’s timeframe, AND so you can tell who below you is bull***tting you and who’s making real progress, and actually be CORRECT on both fronts. The consequences for being wrong are ugly. You don’t want to get into an argument with a project manager about how long your design “should” take to implement - you will lose that argument, almost by definition.
  3. What components to choose for a given situation (frameworks, development workflows, what’s compatible, what’s maintainable, what has a future, what you should insist on, what you can compromise on)
  4. How to earn and keep the respect of the developers and managers whose roadmap, and work hours, you are laying out.
The best way to learn all these things at once is to take a development job that also has the need, and the room, for a good software architect. Then, if your ideas are good, and you can responsibly expand your work to contribute design ideas as well as implementation, you can change the shape of your role.

With hard work and good ideas, and a good disposition, you will find that you have become de-facto lead programmer on one or more projects, and are making major design decisions.

Whether you choose to expand that role at your current employer (if there is room), or jump to another that is explicitly looking for an architect role, is up to you. But having risen to that skillset organically, you will be very well prepared to succeed either way.

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Monday, October 10th, 2016
4:56 pm - Something's rotten in patents
To invent a novel gene sequence, scientists rearrange the data that codes for collections of enzymes and promoters and other elements, often combining sequences taken from other organisms. As far as I know, no scientist has yet invented a sequence from whole cloth that happens to assemble an enzyme to catalyze a brand new reaction - only discovered them in currently living or newly bred organisms and collected them for use elsewhere.

No one can patent the process that turns genes into enzymes into metabolic activity into behavior, because that all clearly existed way before any scientist thought to examine it. With that being the case, why do patents on genes get to include this mechanism in their description of what makes them "novel"?

Compare it to the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg could patent that device, no problem. But say he sticks the letters into a particular arrangement inside the press, so it only generates a particular page of print. Does his patent now cover the words on the paper? The arrangement of words itself? If someone else invented another device - a slide projector for example - and projected the same words onto a wall, would they be disqualified for a patent because it's the same words, even though the mechanism for making them appear is totally different?

How is this different from Monsanto, or anyone else, claiming patent rights to a copy of the gene sequence inside some creature they assembled from parts in their lab? Aren't they claiming patent rights to the arrangement of words - the output that emerges from the device - rather than something novel in the device itself?

I'm a software programmer by trade. I can't patent my work, and I understand why. Nevertheless I can assert copyright, and take people to court for infringement if they violate my license. Why does Monsanto get to patent their sequences, just for being inside a different mechanism - a biological one?

("Because otherwise they wouldn't have a business model" Is not a valid reason.)

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Friday, October 7th, 2016
12:59 pm - Here's the breakdown:
Version 1.1!

* One of those pulp magazines you see at the checkout counter with Brangelina all over it: Yahoo.
* Almost all of what happens here, you are too old to understand, or care about: Snapchat.
* A city just off a major highway, populated by a horde of doppelgängers, built from stolen parts. A creepy attempt to ensnare the living. Wander in by accident and they will start following you everywhere. One of them even looks suspiciously like you: Google Plus.
* Exactly what you would expect, if you gave everyone, from the very helpful to the very very deranged, their own television studio: YouTube.
* The electronic version of the Ganges river. Vile, upsetting, infectious garbage floating past you endlessly, mixed in with cute cats and dogs accidentally doing stuff. A surprising amount of it has been tainted by corporations upstream. Nevertheless, you have somehow convinced yourself it is important and refreshing to bathe in this every day, because the rest of your family does too. Answer: Facebook.
* The schizoaffective version of Facebook: Twitter.
* What you get when you turn impotent rage inside out and stomp on it: Vine. Solid gold. Mixed-race friend groups doing 7-second parodies and shitting themselves laughing is a greater force for worldwide peace than every shame crusade or triumphant, preaching manifesto slime-trailing itself across Facebook in a dumptruck of 'likes'. Yes! A greater force, for it normalizes perceptions. (Also it's just funny: )
* The rest of the internet doesn't exist. You are safe there, ... mostly.
* Except Google will find you. I lied.

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Tuesday, October 4th, 2016
4:14 pm - A pattern emerges. This has shaped my adult life.
Friend Doug: We got along well, both had a subversive energy. We would run around and make jokes and wrestle. One day along at my house we wrestled on the tile floor and I knocked his head hard on the tile by accident. "Oh I'm gonna kill you for that!" he shouted. I got up and ran from him and hid. He went looking for me, saying he was going to get me. I was afraid of what he would do, so I got a huge knife from the kitchen and sat with it on my lap. He found me and asked about the knife. I said I was protecting myself. We sat in a stalemate for half an hour or so before his parents arrived. I never saw him again - which was okay with me because I was suddenly afraid of him. In retrospect it was probably ended by his parents. If he told them the story I can fully understand that being our last play date.

I had a goofy friend named Isaiah. We got along well - loved to build lego spaceships and fly them around, make stupid poop and dick jokes, yell stuff into a tape recorder, and so on. One day his dad decided to rent a movie and order pizza, and we would all watch it together in the living room. The movie was a horror film called The Re-Animator, and though Isaiah laughed at the cheezy effects, I was terrified by them, so much so that I cried and said I wanted to go home. My bewildered parents picked me up, and they talked with his parents, and everyone agreed it was just an unfortunate mis-judgement. I had nightmares and didn't sleep well for quite a while after that. I was so embarrassed by my reaction to something Isaiah thought was harmless, that I couldn't bear to see him again. Isaiah never judged me, of course - the embarrassment was in my own head - but it was too much for me to get over.

At a birthday party for my friend David, with a group of kids including my friend Todd. David and I got along fabulously when we hung out alone, but when others were around he was careful to maintain a "cool" persona because he was very aware of the pecking order. Todd had a mean streak; sometimes he made nasty jokes about his friends just to set them against each other. That was his response to the pecking order. Maybe it was learned from his parents: His mother was meek and gentle, his father was a seven-foot-tall ogre of a man with a loud voice, who demanded that Todd call him "sir" and would dress him down in front of his friends. Anyway, at the birthday party Todd said something nasty to me, and my friend David laughed, and I cried and said it wasn't funny and punched David, then ran into the house. That incident ended our friendship. I was angry at David for what I saw as a betrayal. We hung out a few times after that but all the enthusiasm was gone. He acted "cool" out of self-defense, and I couldn't relax around him any more either.

When I hung out with Todd one-on-one, he forgot about the pecking order and was a good friend. We had fun playing video games, tromping around in the forest playing army games, catching lizards and bugs, making jokes, and so on. But one day he threw a birthday sleepover party. We all had fun running around late into the night, but after I fell asleep in my sleeping bag I woke up, in a daze, to find someone holding my arm out and dipping my hand in a bowl of water. The theory was that if you put a sleeping person's fingers in water they would pee in their bed. Just another of those dumb kid pranks. But I was livid. I knocked the water over, got upright in my sleeping bag, and shoved Todd away. He laughed at me, and kept laughing at me as I chased him around the darkened living room calling him an asshole. Eventually we all settled back down to sleep again, but the next day as I was being picked up, I decided that I would never hang out with Todd again. Another friendship, with its good and bad parts, ended because of a traumatic incident I couldn't get past.

As much as I might claim to be interested in getting people to play nice, I must still admit that when it comes to dealing with huge mistakes that can derail a relationship, I'm a lightweight. I can talk the talk of forgiveness and understanding, but in a community of imperfect people, I am far too absolute with my own trust. My whole conversation style is about moving people towards my inner circle by sharing feelings and finding common ground - but if you hurt me, it takes delicate work, and authentic contriteness, to avoid being shoved permanently back out to arm's length. And, to people who don't need precise communication, or don't revisit past events, that makes me "high maintenance", and a pain in the ass. I can truly see their point. It's a good one.

This is a formula for many things, but mostly, it is a formula for loneliness.

My only long-lasting relationships have been with people who almost never - or just plain never - make those mistakes. And there have been plenty of times, with every friend I had growing up, where I made stupid mistakes - insults, aggressions, snap judgements - and was forgiven for them without deserving it. For all of my high school years I was an unpredictable, domineering jackass. Now as an adult, I've moved away from the jackass behavior, but that same absolutist sense of judgement still haunts me. Plus, a major thing working against this is my genuine enjoyment of quiet time alone.

I am the architect of my fate. Thank goodness I can still learn to be a better architect.

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Monday, September 19th, 2016
5:40 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 19: Like A Regular Odyssey, But In Space
Death And The Senator, 1961

An overly-long and very heavily dramatic story with the tiniest scrap of science in the fiction. Not at all worth the read. I have just one vaguely interesting comment: The story hinges on the discovery that living in zero-gravity has amazing health benefits, and may even help cure advanced heart disease ... but in the long years since 1961, we've discovered exactly the opposite: Linger in space, and your health will only decline. In fact, unless you take strenuous measures to emulate the burden of gravity, your health will plummet.

The Secret, 1963

The plot hinges on the supposed health benefits of low gravity, in the same way as Clarke's "Death And The Senator", except this time it's scientists on the moon living an extra 100 years, and trying to keep the secret of their extended life from the rest of the population back on Earth, so they don't trigger a stampede. I get the impression that Clarke was pretty well convinced of the truth to this idea, and was probably shocked to learn how much the body atrophies out in space.

It is a pretty counterintuitive idea. Shouldn't less gravity equal less "stress", and therefore equal longer life? Perhaps, if you forget the fact that the body is working really hard, all the time, just to keep you alive, and will eagerly cut whatever corners it can.

Before Eden, 1961

Venus didn't turn out this way, but whatever. Clarke tells the story of team of explorers reaching the south pole of Venus, through terrain similar to Death Valley (but even more death-y), and finding a large, extremely hot lake, and an alien life form nearby. The alien is plant-like, flowing over the ground, and looks like an enormous transparent Persian rug when they shine their lamps on it. A pretty fascinating sight.

But in a nasty twist, the scientists leave behind some trash buried under a pile of stones, and the alien consumes it, and becomes infected with Earth-style bacteria. In a matter of months the entire population of aliens - representing all complex life on Venus - is exterminated by the infection. It's a riff on War Of The Worlds: The humans come in peace, and bring their nasty germs along by accident. Kablam!

Fun fact: The surface of Venus is actually about 860 degrees Fahrenheit on average. I don't think there are any bacteria known on Earth that can survive that; not even thermophiles. (The toughest one I know of can take up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit.) 860 degrees is hot enough to melt lead.

Global warming: It's no joke!

Crusade, 1968

A strange story told from the perspective of a sentient being the size of a planet, floating in the vast darkness between two galaxies. The being decides to search for intelligent life within each galaxy, and spends millions of years methodically constructing probes and pitching them into the collective gravity well of the stars on either side, then examining the feedback.

The first thing it learns: Galaxies are hot. Stars are really hot. Duh. So it engineers the probes to be more heat resistant, a step at a time. The next thing it learns: One galaxy is completely devoid of intelligent life. No signals are found anywhere. The other galaxy is teeming with life, and flooded with communications, which the being sets about unraveling.

The being is confounded to discover a kind of intelligent life that it hadn't expected: Extremely hot self-contained creatures, with extremely limited senses and very poor computing power, that disintegrate after unbelievably short lifespans. How could such ridiculous things even organize themselves, let alone explore space? Eww, they're all tiny and sloppy, and they have sex and stuff. Eeeeeww.

Then, scattered among them, are more familiar beings. The reader recognizes them as supercomputers and artificial intelligences constructed by humans. The sentient planet, recognizing these beings as more like itself, and obviously superior to the gross hot critters swarming around them, concludes that the supercomputers have been enslaved by the humans, and ... many years later, the stars in the galaxy start winking out, as the alien robots built by the sentient planet invade to rescue their brethren. Bam! Surprise revolution!

Far-fetched, but short enough and silly enough to be worthwhile.

The Light Of Darkness, 1964

This story immediately reminded me of his earlier tale, "A Slight Case Of Sunstroke". Let's inventory the connections:

1. It takes place in an exotic third-world (to Clarke) location on Earth.
2. It involves the military.
3. It's about taking revenge on a bad man in a position of power.
4. The plan for revenge uses trigonometry and electromagnetic waves.
5. It's written as a confession, after the plan has been successfully executed.

This time, instead of a bunch of highly reflective playbills in a stadium, it's a high-power radio transmitter. Instead of immolating a man with sunlight, he is blinded by radiation. And this time, instead of inspiring me to do some basic math to see if the plan was feasible, I just had to shrug my shoulders, because Clarke doesn't supply enough numbers to plug in to his scenario for testing.

Alas, a forgettable story. And the audio version is flawed for another reason: The performer attempts to render the whole thing in a fake-ass South African accent that only makes Clarke's own Racefail™ proclivities stand out.

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Tuesday, September 6th, 2016
11:30 am - WTF
In 2014, 3/4 of a billion pain pills were prescribed by doctors in Ohio. That's nearly 65 pills for every man, woman, and child in the state.

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Friday, September 2nd, 2016
9:51 pm - Western Desert, parts 5-8
I was invited to post this on the Ambient Nights website as a guest mixer, but with the site under construction for the last two years and other work stacking up behind it, it's time to get this out on the internet.

This is mix 2 of a musical triptych about starting over - searching for lost identity. (Mix one is here.)

The idea for the particular sound came to me when I was bicycling through the high desert of eastern Oregon in 2009.

I was out by myself in a vast hot space, filled with clean air and shimmering light, with the epic scale of nature and geology laid bare around me. It was brutally inhospitable and deeply comforting and intimate at the same time, and an environment well-suited for self-assessment. It was also scattered with the detritus of older stories, of pioneering settlers and farmers, who engaged directly with this raw landscape to establish a new life and independence for themselves. Those stories wove into my personal thoughts as I traveled, making my little bike trip feel like its own epic expedition into the western frontier.

A few years later I wanted to return to that feeling, and began searching for a way to encapsulate it in music. It was very difficult to find things that were differentiated enough to have character, while still fitting within the mental space I had staked out. Eventually I ended up with a patchwork of heroic - and somewhat corny - Western movie soundtracks, hallucinatory ambient sounds, local background noise from wind and animals, and languid, seductive steel guitar. I wanted something long: A soundscape with different parts telling a loose story, each brief enough to have structure but also long enough to get lost in - to let the mind wander - and use it to meditate on a theme.

That theme is, succinctly: Starting over with nothing.

Parts 5-8 are combined into a one-hour mix:

Part 5: Karma
Part 6: Heat Visions
Part 7: Second Oasis
Part 8: Moving On

Here's an Apple Lossless (ALAC) version, in 24-bit, for all you audiophile types like me. (614mb)
Here's an AAC version, suitable for playing in iPods and almost all other modern music players. (133mb)
Here's an MP3 version, suitable for digital players new, old, and ancient. (111mb)

The cover photo was taken by my father during a trip down the Baja peninsula 40 years ago.

You can click here for the tracklist ... or just skip this link and listen to it without knowing what's in store for you. :)

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Monday, August 29th, 2016
3:40 pm - Back doors and encryption
In physical communications, the level of personal privacy and ease of interception form an inverse relationship, and we all instinctively understand this. A shout is less private than a whisper. A wave in a crowd is less private than a touch on your shoulder. Skywriting is not at all private. An unvoiced thought is the most private of all.

These days we make personal communications on devices that operate on a level beyond the basic physical one we all know. We are also beyond the "very directed form of shouting" that the telephone and radio started out as, and into something else. These new devices are things that we use in ways that feel private - tapping silently on them with fingers, speaking into them behind closed doors, turning off the display when we're not looking at it - but that feeling of physical privacy is, of course, an illusion. Almost everything we do on the device relies on sending data over a wireless network that we cannot see, but reaches all the way around the Earth and up into space. That network also has a memory, extending back some unknown span of time into the past. Clearly the ease of interception may not match the level of privacy we instinctively expect.

The best tool we have (among many) to impose privacy on these devices, is encryption. We leverage encryption to make these communications secure the way we expect them to be, the way they often seem to be to novice users already. But by making these devices harder to tap into, are we also making a the world a more dangerous place?

The government is already allowed to force a phone company to tap into the communications of a person using its network, by convincing a judge that the act is necessary to pursue a case. End-to-end encryption of the content passing over the network denies them this ability. Should the government be allowed to sabotage end-to-end encryption? Can the government make a case that a truly secure communications network cannot be allowed to exist?

How does the argument change when the government wants to have access not just to real-time communications, but to a data store containing your movements, your financial records, private communication between you and your spouse, photographs and video of you and your family, and so on? This is the kind of back door that the government wants to carve into the smartphone of every citizen. Is it a natural extension of a wire tap, or is it an overreach?

Let's take it a step beyond. If a technology exists that provides selective access to the most private parts of your being, should you be denied the ability to completely control that access, for the sake of law enforcement?

Suppose that 50 years from now, we come up with a solid-state machine about the size of a peanut that can be surgically implanted in your skull, deriving all its power from blood flow or body movement or something, and it is able to detect your very thoughts, and transcribe them into signals and send them to the people of your choice. Suppose this device uses end-to-end encryption methods the way Apple uses them to encrypt its iMessage chat service now. The system, as designed, would be effectively impossible to tap by government officials, or criminals. It would be telepathy, made real. It would fundamentally change the human experience.

Our current society, collectively, would only go for a technology like this if it was extremely secure, and most of us wouldn't go for it at all. It's probably the idea of it being surgically attached that makes it the most scary. But we carry smartphones around all day, every day, and even sleep next to them at night, so how long before society changes, and a product like this goes from scary, to coveted?

Now suppose we all buy these devices, convinced of their security, and after we've been walking around with them for a number of years, the government demands changes to the software inside them to make them less secure, so they can tap directly into the minds of suspected criminals. Every device would be altered, including the one in your own head.

At that point, all it would take is one corrupt or sloppy government official leaking the toolkit onto the internet*, and your very thoughts - and no doubt the history of your thoughts - would be subject to eavesdropping, from foreign government agents, all the way down to jilted ex-boyfriends.

(* This has happened already, at least once, with government-owned router and smartphone hacking tools. )

Yes, it would be very convenient to tap into the brain of a suspected murderer or kidnapper or suicide bomber or warlord. Likewise it would be very convenient for them, to tap into everyone else. Imagine the hell they could create.

If your objections are ignored and the software is changed, what are you going to do? Your social and working life, even your identity, is thoroughly dependent on this device. It would be very hard to abandon. Plus, the device is surgically embedded. You might not even know for sure that it's off!

Let's look at this hypothetical situation from another angle: What if encryption wasn't an issue?

What if the battle over encryption was somehow rendered irrelevant, and the government could tap into anything, anywhere? Is there a level of privacy, a form of personal space, that is sacred enough that eavesdropping would be fundamentally wrong, even if the government could do it? Assuming it has the tech, should law enforcement be able to get a warrant to tap in to the thoughts of a private citizen without their knowledge, if they were a suspected terrorist? If so, what about passive surveillance? Should law enforcement be allowed to mass-harvest the thoughts of every citizen and crunch them for patterns, to root out suspected criminals and deviants, without any prior authorization such as a warrant?

The government is already engaged in mass-surveillance activities with internet data*, and fighting to weaken encryption in order to expand that surveillance. Have they already crossed the line of acceptability? How close to the ultimate privacy of an unvoiced thought will government surveillance be allowed to get before it is considered universally wrong?

(* e.g. PRISM. )

Or will we ever get to that point, if the transition happens slowly enough?

Or, what about the more insidious scenario: Will we voluntarily submit to this filtering and see it as "proof of innocence", and begin to assume that anyone who does not voluntarily submit is not trustworthy, and perhaps a criminal?

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Friday, August 26th, 2016
6:30 pm - Why people age out of online blogging
Two very important related factors:
The valuation of privacy, and the devaluation of history.

Example 1:

You're an adult with a career now. You mind your online presence much more closely. Also, it's much much harder to be anonymous on the internet, now that search engines can correlate almost everything you do and show those correlations to other people. Why risk it?

Example 2:

You've gone through a relationship transition. All the memories, even the positive ones, revolving around your old spouse and their family and your friends, are now a potential source of jealousy, negativity, or embarrassment.

Either way, the solution is to wipe old things out of public view, and thoroughly sanitize anything you place in public later.

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Saturday, August 20th, 2016
4:26 pm - Thinking about this thing called cultural appropriation
(Revised August 26)

I grew up in the 80's and 90's. I loved logic puzzles, pixel art, absurdist humor, chat rooms, techno music, programming, electronics, and swordfights (real and virtual.) The label 'geek' sailed in and planted itself on me somewhere along the way, and I wore it with pride.

Around the year 2000, in my home town of Santa Cruz, it became fashionable among young teenagers to "dress like a geek", deliberately looking shy and awkward, wearing aggressively mismatched clothing, even wearing glasses when their vision was perfectly normal. This phenomenon annoyed me whenever I thought about it, but mostly I didn't think about it, because I was busy being a college student. Looking geeky has since dropped out of the spectrum of things young people think about, which is crowded with other things now.

But it turns out that was a harbinger of something much bigger: Thanks to the internet and now the smartphone revolution, large chunks of the culture I used to consider my own have been taken up by totally unrelated groups, in mind-boggling numbers, all over the planet in the last 20 years. Almost all of the time I consider this to be a kind of victory, a validation of how worthwhile my own interests were, even when they were unpopular. I'm glad for it. But some of these unrelated groups twist geek culture in ways that annoy me, or take it places that I find repulsive.

There's a term that's become popular in communities of socially sensitive people, called "cultural appropriation". When I came across it recently, a couple of interesting questions about geek culture came up in my mind, and I'd like to try and work through them here. The first question was: Have I and my fellow geeks been subject to cultural appropriation?

No, I don't think so, for at least two reasons: One, geeks are not an ethnic group. They do not represent a subset of humanity with a shared origin or appearance - they can come from anywhere, and be any color, shape, or gender. (They are often stereotyped as white people, but that's only a stereotype.) They're not an oppressed group, either. The old "jock bullies versus sensitive nerds" thing was in play in the 80's, but that's about it, and that ain't much.

And two, it is often acknowledged that geek culture itself consists largely of elements appropriated from somewhere else. They say that originality is the art of concealing your source - and geek culture has never been interested in that, and its subsequent radiation all over the world has only made those sources more apparent. Now those original inspirations are finding even more attention, and more genuine attention than when geeks were drawn to them merely for being exotic.

But the pull of the exotic for its own sake will always be with us in popular culture, no matter how much the wiser and more socially sensitive among us may wish to exterminate it.

And that thought led me to the second question, the one that I find more interesting: Is geek culture itself inherently more prone to commit "cultural appropriation"? Is the messy, half-coherent community formed around computers, card games, avatars, anime, science fiction, fantasy, and alternative (anti-organized-religion) spirituality, inherently more likely to co-opt superficial traits and ideas from an actively oppressed people's culture and parody them, cheapening that culture in the eyes of others while also reinforcing it as alien, or pretentious?

Recently I witnessed an online fracas over a phenomenon in Burning Man where white people (the term "white people" is always close at hand in these scandals) are assembling and wearing headdresses made of feathers that often look very much like ceremonial Native American materials, because -- well, some inane reason, I don't know. Then they wear these to a big rave in the desert, on formerly Native American lands. To me, and to plenty of righteous online commentators, that's almost hilariously distasteful, and a pretty clear-cut example of cultural appropriation. (But, I find Burning Man itself distasteful, so perhaps I'm just not the target audience, eh?)

On the other hand, I immediately saw my own behavior reflected in it: Six years ago I took LED strips, lexan, DC converters, and a lithium-iron battery, and strapped it all to my bicycle helmet and created a light-up mohawk for riding at night in San Jose Bike Party. A photograph of me wearing it appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. All the feedback I ever got from it was positive, including multiple requests to build more and sell them. But I have to wonder... Was I being a huge hypocrite? Was that a headdress or wasn't it?

Some people see cultural appropriation as equivalent to racism or sexism. (If you want quotes, google will provide.) But this is even more fractious than those because it has a more subjective, personal angle to it. There are lots of young people at Burning Man who don't think about Native American issues at all -- it never enters their minds. They go on Etsy looking for a costume, pick something that looks cool, and that's it. One could try to make the case that a headdress looks cool because it is loosely associated with (in their minds) an exotic midwest spirituality that they have some vague admiration for, but let's be honest here: A headdress looks cool, in itself, without any story behind it at all. In scientific terms, this is more likely a case of convergent evolution, than some kind of theft. It's also art, and art is not inherently restrained by dignity or respect or even common sense. The fact that you can find headgear made up of steel wire, plastic, chunks of baseball cap, spraypaint, and LEDs on the same search is informative. On the other hand, some of these are proudly labeled by their own creators: "Native American headdress." (Well that's a giveaway, isn't it.)

Adding to the confusion, take an instance of cultural appropriation and stretch it out over a few generations so the source is obscured, and it becomes culture, like the mohawk hairstyle. Are punks wearing it because they appropriated it from the Pawnee, or because they appropriated it from Iron Age Irishmen? Or for their own reasons, independent of those? I confess that I made mine because it looked cool, and because it had an association with subversive punk culture. Was I engaged in second-hand cultural appropriation? As a self-identified sensitive person, exactly how much guilt, if any, should I feel about this? Should I destroy the mohawk helmet? Or continue to wear and enjoy it?

This leads me to an interesting thought: Now that our world is an order of magnitude more interconnected, perhaps it is far easier to see cultural appropriation than it ever was before, because it is far easier to straddle the border between two groups: The group that lays an original claim to something - a mode of dress or a ritual or even a phrase (like "spirit animal") - and values it highly, and includes it in a rich history -- and the group that is using the thing flippantly, without respect or thought, as an accessory or an affect, and may not have any concern for - or awareness of - the first group at all. Now, both groups can see each other. Now, people can go out to some random patch of the internet, and bump into something that looks cool and exotic, and pick it up and mess around with it in their bicycle gang or cocktail party, and post pictures of their exploits back onto the internet. And likewise, people can go online and see something hideous taking place with materials or symbols they revere - without even leaving their house - and get furious about it. And let the flame war begin, and let's all choose a side, and spread the word, et cetera.

So let me apply that thought to the question: Are geeks more likely to be "cultural appropriators"?

Yes and no. I think that when geeks are young, we were/are more likely to build our identity from exotic things, because a common thread in geekdom is a need to feed the imagination by reaching beyond one's stifling environment -- often the stifling environment of middle-class American suburbia. But on the other hand, being sensitive souls in defiance of conformity, we are more likely to take cultural appropriation seriously, and pursuant to that, are more likely to accuse other people, including each other, of cultural appropriation, and demonize the targets of our wrath in a way that shuts down discussion.

Putting it metaphorically, I think geekdom is acting like a dog with fleas chewing on its own leg. I think this is why so many people have become fed up with it and are ditching the label - and the forums, and the scene, and the conventions, and the crusades - because they are left feeling weak from compassion fatigue. And if they are their own worst enemy, liking things that reinforce a sense of the alien in other groups - subtly racist science fiction, free expression that is cultural appropriation in disguise, a spirituality that tries to synthesize the best of established religions and invites abuse from all of them - all in the quest for identity ... why should geeks try to silence those internal and external critics, when they can disengage and walk away? Let them argue and apply nasty labels - the weather outside is peaceful.

Or, perhaps more insidious - why not continue to do it but close the doors to outside (online) observers, effectively rebuilding the walls of separation that existed before - perhaps the same walls that led to the cultural appropriation in the first place?

When I was a geeky kid I was fascinated by all kinds of exotic things, and as I grew up I retained that curiosity. I have taken many of the things that I thought were novel when I was young, and connected with their deeper roots as an adult. That has colored my vision. That has made me aware of the acts of cheapening and appropriation that continue all around me. For me, the lesson is, I need to see these acts through the understanding lens I use for my younger self. I know my own culture was an exercise in hybridization and borrowing, but nevertheless, it felt real and personal to me, and was a basis for my community. If I'd been told, "you don't get this thing; it's mine," I would have resisted, and I would have felt right in resisting. Who is anyone to tell me what I can and cannot like, or think, or wear? I was already in a state of rebellion with my immediate surroundings, in a way that felt important and real. However, if I'd been told, "what you're doing is causing harm to others," and been given an explanation, that would have been different. Best of all would be an invitation to learn more, to get involved, and to make up my own mind.

Knowing this, I instinctively bridle at accusations of cultural appropriation when they sound self-righteous. When we assume that a given people's right to a given mode of expression is self-evident, and that the people who don't respect it, or immediately see it, are only ever acting in bad faith, we give those people a reason to disengage (and keep wearing their headdresses at Burning Man) leaving us to fester in our echo-chamber. We need to take what we know about how geek culture originated in massive appropriation, about how we never identified as "the oppressor" even as we were constructing it, but how we would voluntarily change if given a reason, and pay it forward.

(One interesting way to consider the problem is to compare it to the trouble the United States and China are having reinforcing each others' patents. How do they find compromise? Can they?)

So no, I am not taking an unreservedly sympathetic stance towards those who accuse others of cultural appropriation. Including those who do it by proxy, in order to defend someone else. Cultural appropriation is a battle over modes of expression. It is tangled up in First Amendment concepts of free speech and religion, of integration versus multiculturalism, of intellectual property versus art. I think "why" is an okay question to ask. I also think that a person's culture - even if someone else thinks it was appropriated - can feel very personal and important to them, and that some people who are "cultural appropriators" are deserving of sympathy when they are told that the thing they identify with is not actually theirs. Starting out by calling them assholes is unfair, and probably counterproductive. I believe there is a middle ground that needs to be held, using different words, or the same arguments will repeat, as they are prone to on the internet, and the same walls will stay up, or be constructed anew as we all filter out the side that we can't relate to.

I think that for me, the anonymous online battles are just not worth it. There is not enough dignity, and there is not enough connection with real world activities - in fact it seems like there is a deliberate detachment from it, as if writing an angry rant - or even an essay like this one - was an adequate substitute for action. I have no illusions about how little effect these words have. I know my online journal is not important; I just use it to try to organize my thoughts. But I don't need any witch hunts, or shame campaigns, and I'm all full up on righteous indignation.

Perhaps the real lesson for me here is, discussing anything political on the internet is a fool's errand. Why am I even talking about the soul of geekdom as a collective anyway, when at best it's like a herd of cats? Perhaps it's all a massive illusion. Perhaps I should just stick to making jokes.

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Tuesday, August 16th, 2016
11:57 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 18: Arthur, Arthur, Arthur!
Saturn Rising, 1961

This story employs a character type that has been pretty common in sci-fi: The self-made zillionaire industrialist who personally finances a huge scientific breakthrough. Very popular for sci-fi writers because it's an easy character to write, and an easy way to get a bunch of scientists into a workshop, hammering doggedly at a problem with no concern about the expense. Just reaching back into my recent reading list, there are zillionaire industrialist characters in "Proxima" by Stephen Baxter, "The Light Of Other Days" by Baxter and Clarke, "Contact" by Carl Sagan ... and now, here.

I guess the archetype seemed fresher back in 1961, because there isn't much else to this story. It's pretty much just "rich guy finances vacation spots on Saturn's moons", as told from the point of view of a pilot that he consults with a few times. Pretty dull.

Also, Clarke admits in the introduction that his predictions about the environment on Saturn's moon Titan were way off: Any building on the surface would not have a view of Saturn rising, because it would be permanently submerged in clouds! Oh well.

The Last Command, 1965

A brief us-versus-the-Russkies tale delivered in the form of a "Last Command" from a war-ravaged earth to a military base on the moon. The twist ending falls into your brain about two paragraphs in, and the story just can't make itself short enough for the waiting to be worthwhile.

The Shining Ones, 1962

It took me a while to decide whether to spoil this story so I could more fully discuss it, or just give a summary. Then I realized that there have been such excellent adaptations of this story, in literature and cinema, that simply comparing it to the works it inspired would also spoil it - and possibly the other works as well. So I feel like my hands are tied either way. I guess the best point I can make is, if you've read Rendezvous with Rama and its sequels, this story is an interesting blueprint of Clarke's vision for the aliens in those novels. I look forward to seeing them on the big screen if Morgan Freeman's project ever gets enough traction.

The Food Of The Gods, 1964

A quaint little tale about the way food culture might change in the far future. When all food is synthesized from machines, the idea of eating animals - or even plants - may seem barbaric. I can't help pointing out that in the time since this story we've discovered that food - and our own digestion - is a whole lot more complicated than anyone would have guessed, and now it seems crazy to believe that a mechanical device could synthesize a better bowl of salad from scratch more quickly and more efficiently than a farmer could grow it with soil and sunlight. Especially if the farmer is a modern farmer using genetically-engineered crops. Millions of years of relentless optimization creates a pretty high bar for chemists to clear!

On the other hand, it's worth considering the secondary point Clarke makes in the story: A good way to synthesize appealing food might be essential when humans move off-planet, because soil and properly-filtered sunlight are pretty rare in space, and even if you launch the soil up there it's a huge pain keeping it viable for long.

An Ape About The House, 1962

I had low expectations for this story going in, based on the title. How insightful could a tale about a trained primate be, if it was written 50 years ago? I pictured three scenarios: First, Clarke could oversell the natural abilities of primates to make some kind of comment on the callousness of animal treatment in the 60's. "Hey, who solved professor Farnsworth's equation that he left on the blackboard last Friday? Oh my goodness, it was Mr Bananas! We've all been so wrong about you!!" I wouldn't buy it, and the story would annoy me. Second, Clarke could undersell his primates, making them into sullen brutes, and then introduce some fanciful medical technology - an implant, or a helmet, or something - that makes them hyper-intelligent. No doubt he'd spend most of this story describing how the humans had to destroy the apes or risk enslavement. A version of Planet Of The Apes six years ahead of the film, perhaps. Also not compelling.

Or third, Clarke could get his treatment of primates spot-on, and we could all learn a Very Important Lesson about treating our close evolutionary cousins with respect and empathy. This scenario would probably end on a sad note, since it couldn't help pointing out how terrible we've been at learning this lesson in the real world - with poaching, habitat destruction, abuse and exploitation by zoos and circuses, and so on. Not exactly a fun read.

But instead, Clarke found a personal angle that was more amusing than I expected. His story revolves around a genetically augmented version of an ape, in the future, that a well-to-do household employs as a housekeeper. There are still some edgy questions about slavery and personhood to grapple with, but they get muddled by the genetic tinkering. The ape's "owners" treat her almost exactly like a 20th-century household would treat a slow but disciplined maid. She is granted humanity - but not quite autonomy.

The head of the household, a rather shallow woman who seems to live to throw dinner parties and one-up the other neighborhood wives (Clarke uses his hatred of women like garnish around a meal), has the ape doing basic household chores at first, but eventually she decides to play a trick on one of her socialite competitors, and uses her housekeeper as the means. Her competitor likes to paint, and often shows off the paintings at gallery events. The woman has some painting skills of her own, so she decides to mock her competitor by holding her own gallery event, and claiming that all the art was actually painted by her primate housekeeper. To make the scenario seem real, she teaches the ape how to sit in front of an easel and slap paint onto it with a brush, and then brings her socialite friends over to see "the artist in action".

Everyone buys it, and the word gets around, and her competitor is thoroughly humiliated. Seems like an easy victory, and the end of the story, except one day while the woman is out, her competitor sneaks over to her house, locates the ape, and commands her to do a painting on the spot so she can see the proof with her own eyes. The ape dutifully sits down at the easel and starts messing around. To everyone's surprise, the resulting artwork is quite good - better than the woman or her socialite competitor - and the story ends with another gallery showing, this time heavily attended, and filled with authentic paintings from the world-famous artist ape.

Cute, humanizing without being preachy, and mercifully short. Well played, Clarke. It could have been worse.

The Wind From The Sun a.k.a. Sun Jammer, 1964

The prosaic title hides the juvenile origins of this story, in a 1960's magazine aimed at teenagers, no doubt filled with other gee-whiz adventure stories uncluttered by boring adult crap like philosophy and romance. A rich inventor builds a solar sail, and flies it in a race against other solar sails, on a route around the Earth and out past the moon. He's got some friendly competition from a Russian cosmonaut who has his own modular sail design. The Russian discards pieces of his sail at key moments in the race to try and overtake our hero, and it's neck-and-neck until an unexpected solar flare endangers them both, forcing them into a draw.

I listened to this while coasting across town on my recumbent at night. It was like a too-serious episode of "Wacky Races". Couldn't hold my attention. In fact, when the comparison came to mind, I went to Wikipedia to find a link about "Wacky Races", and ended up reading about that cartoon and its spinoffs for longer than it took me to read "The Wind From The Sun" in the first place! Oh Jimmy Wales, you rogue!

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11:05 pm - Top ten most influential: Games 2

As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

The next three:Collapse )

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Monday, August 15th, 2016
11:16 pm - Why does one political party seem to be the party of obstructionism, fear, and regression?
Rachel Maddow said this back in 2012 when Obama was re-elected:

And now, four years later, here we are with Trump. It's very frustrating to see one of the two major parties put up a circus clown as applicant for a job that demands gravitas and sophistication. Democracy suffers in a two-party system, and that suffering is compounded when one of the parties seems so dysfunctional that it can't even make a decent counterbalance to the other.

But to understand how we got here it's worth pointing out that Obama only beat McCain by 3.9% of the popular vote in 2008, and only beat Romney by 2% of the popular vote in 2012. Two percent! Let that sink in for a moment; I'll wait.

I live near San Francisco. Around here it's possible to spend an entire week roving around the city chatting people up and never meet a single Republican. (They're around, but they mostly keep their mouths shut and keep to themselves.)

People around here talk about a lot of good ideas, and know a lot about the good ideas and good policy that are embedded in the Democratic party, but they also freely mix that information with conveniently selected stories and references that demonize and parody the Republican party. As a result it's easy to get a very skewed impression of what the voting membership of the Republican party actually cares about, and/or listens to. Those people are not crazy. It's just that the party system that was supposed to serve them betrayed them worse than it betrayed the Democrats.

Around here the Democratic party also suffered an internal version of this when Bernie and Hillary supporters went diving at each others' throats for most of an entire year. We have the benefit of watching the dust settle and forming a more sensible - and factual - impression of the winner now. But we also need to keep in mind that the same thing is happening for Republicans. The party gave them a long parade of people, and they rejected each one, almost one at a time, until the one left was the one least interested in pandering to - or even being subject to the control of - or even listening to - the party officials. This was a pretty big "screw you" to their own party, intentional or not, but now that the process is done and the dust is settling, is it any wonder that they're starting to lose interest in their "screw you" candidate?

If Trump loses as big as we all think he will, perhaps this will be the decade that the Republican party finally (finally!) ditches the things that have stopped working for it: Courting huge, rich donors, goading religious conservatives into politics, and drumming up nostalgia for whitebread 50's post-war America. If they rebuild their platform into something that befits the 21st century it will be a really huge help for democracy in this country.

In that case, bless Trump for being the clown too big for the clown car, and crashing it into the telephone pole of progress.

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Friday, August 5th, 2016
7:23 pm - Birkel body owner's manual:
(For nephews (and niece) - think of this as one half of a map, to help you as you learn about yourself.)

* Watch the movie The Court Jester with Danny Kaye.  It's great fun.  Now, think of yourself as a mashed-together combination of Danny Kaye's wily, crowd-pleasing romantic, and Sir Griswold, his hulking, iron-chested rival who can punch clear through a shield.  You are lucky!
* We tend to be introverts, with complicated inner lives.  We're not necessarily made to thrive in public positions of power, but are a huge asset to the leaders we choose to be of service to.
* We also have a genetic predisposition to some form of ADHD, probably the inattentive subtype, as well as some form of cyclical depression.  Hopefully it will be mild for you - but it might not be.  Search for the coping mechanisms that work for you.  Practice them.  This will not be a fair or easy burden, but bearing it will make your life more meaningful, more varied, more valuable.
* Very are very responsive to exercise, and do best when we get a lot of it.  I mean a lot of it.  Every Birkel is potentially a world-class athlete.
* We like to sweat a lot, and we tend to have oily skin.  This is embarrassing as a teenager, but it pays dividends later on - with care, we'll look like we're 25 when we're 35, and 55 when we're 70.
* The most important factor in avoiding illness (after getting enough sleep of course) is keeping our core well insulated.  We have long shallow torsos, which bleed away heat if we don't take care to add an extra shirt, a base layer, a sweater, or a jacket when it gets cold.
* We're pretty cancer-resistant relative to other folks.  Barring accident, and with care, we can expect to live at least 80 years.  (If I could point to one external physical reason for this, it would be our legs.  Those big chunks of muscle and bone are the equivalent of a camel's humps for our immune and circulatory systems.)
* Our Achilles Heel seems to be a very aggressive immune system.  It can lead to mysterious or chronic allergic reactions, and we have a family history of thyroid issues.
* We have well-constructed lungs.  Try sleeping near someone from another family and notice how you breathe at almost _half_ the rate of most other people.  On the other hand we react more intensely to air-pollution, smoky rooms, allergens, et cetera.  We feel it impairing us and we don't like it!
* If you're a guy, you'll start to lose your hair way too early.  Wear a hat, and try not to let it bug you.  You'll still be plenty handsome.  (The hat is for sun protection.  If you decide a shaved head is your look, keeping the skin on the top of your head young will be essential!)
* If you're a girl, you'll probably be envious of petite women.  As you grow up, you'll realize all the advantages of your shape, and the envy will fade.
* We don't seem to have very good night vision, but we don't tend to need glasses either.
* We're not the loudest singers, but we've got very good pitch and rhythm.
* Our adult teeth often end up larger than our jaw.  You'll probably need braces, and probably need a few wisdom teeth extracted. 
* We get a nice set of bacteria in us when we're young.  Years later if we're dealing with an infection, we should try to avoid wide-spectrum antibiotics.
* Watch for thyroid problems when you reach your mid-30's.  A yearly blood test is a good idea.

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Friday, July 29th, 2016
12:01 pm - A thought about sexism in this presidential race.
I'm still wrestling with the question of how much of the rhetoric in this presidential race is inspired by garden variety sexism.

Eight years ago when Palin ran as a VP pick, it was hugely energizing to the GOP base, but her credentials were so questionable that a backlash started almost immediately. It was clear to Democrats, and eventually clear to almost everyone, that she was chosen because she was a relatively young and pretty woman who was enough of an outsider that the GOP could control her. When she went off-reservation and started spilling her own crazy ideas, we all had fun shouting "I told you so!"

Now we have presidential candidate Hillary who is pushing 70. She's not trending online as a MILF, she's not winking in debates, she's not an outsider that people can project their hopes of revolution onto, and yet ... again ... we have a backlash of people saying "She's just popular because she's a woman."

With Palin it was, "If she wasn't a woman, you'd recognize her as a know-nothing lunatic." With Clinton it's, "If she wasn't a woman, you'd recognize her as corrupt and criminal and evil."

Now, to me, this is apples and oranges, because I think Palin is a know-nothing lunatic, whereas I don't consider Clinton to be criminal or evil, and not particularly corrupt. But what I'm wondering is, how much of the "corrupt and criminal and evil" narrative arose simply because people wanted something to tack on to the end of "If she wasn't a woman..."?

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Thursday, July 28th, 2016
5:13 pm - Top ten most influential: Games 1

As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

Top ten games, the first four:Collapse )

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Wednesday, July 27th, 2016
12:10 pm - Talking paleontology
Me:When you were talking to Kirk, I remember him asking you about a theory - what was it? Something about fins versus humps? Or was that another conversation? Also, what's the kind and species of the bone we found in the wall? I've forgotten.
My Nephew:Well, we talked about the Jack Bailey theory of Spinosaurus having a hump, and how it doesn't seem like it would make sense in an aquatic creature, but I also talked about that with Rob, who supports the theory cause of the bone shapes. As for the bone, it is most likely to be from a dromeosaurus.
Me:Thanks dude! Yeah, a hump in an aquatic creature doesn’t make a lot of sense.
My Nephew:You are most welcome. That's what Kirk thought too, and the geochemistry supports at least semi-aquaticness
Me:OTOH I wonder if it created a flexable surface that changed the surface/volume ratio and acted like a swim bladder...
My Nephew:Hmmm.... I don't think that they would stay underwater long enough to need that. It's more like a crocodile than anything
Me:Ahah. Hmm. I wonder what predators a crocodile would need to scare away with a hump?
My Nephew:Umm.... Yeah.. It was the largest carnivore in it ecosystem, and a sail would be just as effective at scaring stuff
Me:Would a hump make sense for food storage?
My Nephew:Well, camels' humps aren't really supported by bone. I'm not sure how good something like a bison is at storing food
Me:Yeah they’re just, like, *splat*
My Nephew:To put it in the scientific terminology, yes
Me:Like the worst dish of ice cream ever, with hair on it
My Nephew:And skin and blood! Don't forget skin and blood!

(Fun fact: My nephew just turned 14 last month. Look out, world!)

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Tuesday, July 12th, 2016
1:11 pm - What makes a good coder?
In a couple of job interviews I've been asked, "what makes you a good computer programmer" and I've been delighted to reply with, "well, it's basically this: I'm lazy, stubborn, and suspicious."

Then I go on to explain that being lazy motivates me to automate things so I only need to do them once, being stubborn motivates me to solve difficult problems because I hate giving up, and being suspicious motivates me to write tests and verify things, catching errors that would otherwise be totally baffling. From my worst traits emerged some of my best ones. How much time did I lose, as a young person, believing I was a lost cause? I can't tell; it's all gone a bit fuzzy now that I'm 40. But more than I needed to, I assume.

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Sunday, June 26th, 2016
5:08 pm - Last night's dream

I dreamed that I was wandering in a dark redwood forest, and I came upon a house. There was a family living inside - a mother and two daughters.

There was also a young man there, who wasn’t related to the family. He was living in the basement.

The mother approached me and said that they wanted to get rid of the man, because he was being very aggressive to the youngest daughter. Threatening to sexually assault and murder her. They told him to leave but he wouldn’t come out of the basement.

She said they were all afraid of him because he was turning into some kind of monster.

So I went over to the basement door, and just as I was about to open it, the young man opened it. He had on a big black trenchcoat that covered everything except his head, which was pale and very round.

He pushed past me and started looming over the youngest daughter, threatening her with a knife.

I went over to the wall and picked up a fireplace poker, then ran at the guy and stabbed him through the stomach, pinning him to the wall. But the trenchcoat deflated like there was nothing in it, and his head detached from the coat and floated towards me like a balloon.

I grabbed it out of the air and realized it was made of rubber. Inside were a bunch of tiny vials of powder, like a collection of spices. I ran to the bathroom with the head, tore it open, and emptied the vials into the toilet one by one. He was trying to cast some kind of spell on the household, but I ruined it by flushing away the reagents.

When I ran back to the living room, the man was there again, wearing another trenchcoat. He was standing close to the daughter and appeared to be pleading or bargaining with her. There was no threat in his posture. I don’t remember any of the words.

I tore the fireplace poker out of the wall and brandished it at him. He picked up a metal bar that was leaning nearby and held it as though we were going to have a swordfight. His form was terrible. The expression on his face was more like curiosity than anger. So I made a pretend-swing at him, very slow. Then another. He mirrored my movements. He thought I was teaching him how to swordfight.

I noticed that his arms and hands were misshapen, and covered with cuts. His head was lumpy too, like he was a mutant, or suffering from some weird disease. I felt sorry for him. I decided I didn't want to fight him, but just then the other daughter came running into the room and stabbed him in the chest with a huge knife.

He collapsed on the floor and died. Then the mother and her daughters gathered around his body and dragged it outside into the woods, leaving it by the side of the road.

After that I stood around talking to the mother. I can't remember the exact conversation, but I remember asking her where the guy had come from, and she said he was from the house a little ways down the road.

Then she said something like, "now we'll have to find a replacement," and looked at me with a big toothy grin.

That was when I realized that the young man had not been haunting their basement. He had been imprisoned there. The family had grown tired of experimenting on him and abusing him - twisting his mind and body - and they used me to kill him off.

The mother took a step towards me and raised her hands up in the air as if she was going to cast a curse. I realized I was still holding the fireplace poker, and I swing it down directly on her head. CRACK!

It punctured a hole in the top of her skull, and blood came pouring out. When I tore the poker free, a chunk of her hair was tangled around it. Her arms were still raised. She laughed crazily. I swung the poker again - CRACK! And again. She stumbled in her advance. I hit her one more time and the poker got stuck. So I let go of it, turned around, and ran up the road.

I ran so fast I began floating up into the air, into the trees. Behind me the woman tore the poker away from her skull, then turned around and began walking back to her house, laughing the entire time. Her daughters stood there watching, their faces expressionless, as though this was no more eventful than a visit from the postman.

"See you soon!" she shrieked back at me.

Then between her and me I saw a transparent, skeletal figure come rising up out of the ground. It stretched like a funhouse mirror, and shot up into the trees above me.

Then I realized that since I was floating in the air, perhaps I was no longer in my own body. Perhaps this was the beginning of some curse or spell. Perhaps things were about to get a lot worse. "What if this keeps going," I thought, "and gets so bad that I actually die in my sleep, and get stuck here in these woods forever?"

I thought to myself "NO" and, BANG, my eyes shot open and I was instantly fully awake. The end.

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