Wednesday, March 25, 2020

No Goings On

Most times, when I read The New Yorker, I skip, or at best, skim, the opening section, Goings On About Town. I feel mildly guilty about this, as though I'm a boor who waves off all of the culture available to me, just a short train ride away, not to mention a spoiled brat who ignores the work that went into reporting on it all.

Sometimes, I take comfort in the existence of this section, thinking that if I have had the foresight to bring an issue of The New Yorker with me to a place where I'm going to have to wait, and I have read all of the articles in it, and my waiting time is still not up, then I'll always have Goings On About Town to fall back on.

Yesterday, around 1pm, I called my regular place to ask if I could bring my car in for a while-I-wait oil change. Ralph, the owner, said, "Uh, I'm actually not there. I forwarded the phone to my cell. I sent my guys home and closed up at noon. I only sold sixty-eight gallons of gas all morning."

Turned out he was fine with my coming by this morning, so I did, and even though I had to be there at the ungodly hour of 9am, I had had just enough coffee to remember to bring the latest (Mar. 23, 2020), as yet unread, issue of The New Yorker. Got to the station, handed over my car key, settled in to wait. Opened the mag ...

screenshot saying 'As a result of the coronavirus crisis and the closing of New York City venues, Goings On About Town will not appear this week.'

Okay, not to worry. How long could an oil change take, when I was the only customer in the place? The Talk Of The Town was good. Thoroughly enjoyed the first of the long articles, by Jill LePore, on the census, But Who's Counting?, and the second, by James Somers, on the study of avalanches, Cold War. Had just started the third, Emily Nussbaum on Fiona Apple, Skin In The Game, when Ralph came into the waiting area. Oil change was all done. HOWever. I did need an air filter. And a new belt. And a brake job. I asked if they could do it now. He said, sure, and that it would take about two hours.

As is usual with this fine place, he offered to give me a ride home and then come pick me up when the job was done. A small part of me felt like social distancing ought to apply (why be in an enclosed car with someone else, if you don't have to be), and a large part of me did not want to take him up on his usual generosity: since there was a skeleton crew in place, just Ralph and one mechanic, I thought it might stress him out to have to be away, even for ten minutes. So, I said, "No, thanks. Appreciate it. But I don't mind waiting." I went outside for a cigarette to go with the complimentary cup of coffee and contemplated time spent reading so far, approximate number of pages left, odds that I was going to like any of the rest of the articles, having totally scored on two already, thought about the missing Goings On About Town, and tried to remember if I had seen anything else to read in the waiting area. Aside from signs on the wall and hanging bags of snacks, I could not think of anything. Not even a tube of toothpaste [1]. I suppose anxiety would be putting it a bit strongly.

In the end, all the work was done before I got to the end of the magazine, and it only cost me $700 for an oil change! #winning

P.S. Weird thing when I got home and checked the snail mail. When I opened my box, I saw a new issue of The New Yorker. Dateline? Mar. 16, 2020. Well, it is the Styles Issue. I suppose it's appropriate that it's fashionably late.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

A long but thought-provoking read

I found the title a bit click-baity/misleading and I don't agree with everything the author, Scott Alexander, says, but I thought some of you might enjoy a look at this: "New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed."

I think Alexander missed at least one key point, if we stipulate that "New Atheism" is on the wane or at least less in the spotlight: I know for myself -- and if there's one thing two decades of life online has taught me, it's that I have essentially no unusual thoughts -- that I became less inclined to participate in anything to do with atheism not because of disenchantment or frustration or evolution of the movement or any of the other reasons Alexander discusses, but simply because of this: I felt done.  That is, I read Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Myers, Dennett, Coyne, et al, in large part because they were so good at articulating what I had previously felt but had not been able to say.  Once I soaked up their clarity of thoughts, I felt as though I had completed a course, was enriched, and could move onto other things.

Three other notes, again speaking personally:

1. I do agree with Alexander that, over time, it felt less and less worth rehashing the same arguments with people inclined to disagree.

2. Finding and sharing examples of religious loonies saying loony things -- here, more often with people already inclined to agree -- started feeling like a joke getting stale.

3. I do continue to worry about the continuing problem of religion's clout in the political world, particularly in the US, and I sometimes think I should be doing more about this, but, as with all things political these days, I've largely stepped away, both to preserve my own stomach lining, and because I can't think of anything to do that would give me a sense of making a measurable contribution.

Finally, as far as the assertion of Alexander's title goes, I think it's a bit early to say (at least compared to Sparta!), but it does seem to me that it's at best an exaggeration to say "New Atheism" failed. At minimum, it seems to me, a lot of consciousness was raised. Also, I strongly suspect a large amount of credit is due to the "New Atheists" for the non-trivial recent increase (that Alexander does show) in people in the US self-identifying as having no religious affiliation. Further, there's a lot of anecdotal evidence out there concerning people who once felt trapped in some overly religious community, who were helped to break free by the "New Atheist" movement. So, again, I think it's a little early to publish an obituary: profound social change usually proceeds in fits and starts, in flare-ups and dormancy. Let's talk again in another generation.

(h/t: Scott Aaronson ← a link worth visiting for other reasons, too)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

It's hard to imagine a four-word phrase that would perk me up more than this*

xkcd filter on matplotlib

This isn't the first time the streams have crossed between two of my favorite areas of interest, btw.**

I came across that delightful phrase in section eight of a wonderful article, "Ten Simple Rules for Better Figures." You should read this, for sure, if you ever have to make charts | graphs | plots. You should read it if you ever have to critically view this kind of work by others. You should read it if you're at all interested in clearer communication. You should read it. You should also check out some of the many fine links in the article, including (and how's this for a great name?) Kaiser Fung's Junk Charts.

I came across the link to the article in the Preface to a book I've just started reading. The author, Nicolas P. Rougier, has very generously made this book, Python & OpenGL for Scientific Visualization, freely available online.

(* Resists temptation to start typing You shoulds ... again *).

Admittedly, this is not gonna be primo beach reading for some of you. But all of the above is so in my wheelhouse that I just had to pass it along.

This concludes your my early Sunday*** morning geekout.

(h/t: PyCoder's Weekly for 2019-10-29)

* That you would be willing to say in polite company, I mean.

** You do know about import antigravity, right?

*** My weekend, these days, is Tuesday, Wednesday, and I work nights. The carpenters remodeling the apartment next door evidently do not share my schedule.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Round Up. Help Out!

I am part of the ConEd Advisory Community, which probably sounds more important than it is. It's basically being signed up to participate in surveys. It's not terrible -- I like the feeling that my input, in a tiny way, might help make things slightly better, for us customers of the giant utility monopoly here in the New York area.

Today, I was sent a link to view the results of a recent survey, on some thoughts ConEd is having about changing its bill layout. At the end of the report was this:

ConEd statement about plans to improve communication with delinquent customers

This moved me to post the following comment (a link you probably can't visit unless you're a member).

I like the "Moving Forward" part. I have no idea what options are currently available for customers falling behind on utility bill payments, but it made me think of how fortunate I am, now that paying those bills is no longer a hardship, and that made me wonder if there would be some way for ConEd to set up a program so that would enable a voluntary contribution to a fund that would help those who are struggling to make ends meet. For example, check a box to round your payment up to the next dollar. An average of fifty cents times how many million ConEd customers are there? This could easily become a fund of at least a few hundred thousand dollars per month to help others keep the heat and lights on.

Granted, I don't know how you'd sort out the truly hurting from the slackers who could easily be paying their bills, but just aren't being responsible, not to mention the freeriders who would look to game a program like this, but I'd like to see this idea given some consideration. Even if a few scammers snuck in through the cracks, it'd be worth it to me if I felt like I was keeping some truly deserving families from shivering in the dark.

It seems to me that it would not take more than a few lines of code on ConEd's end to implement this, nor would the administrative costs be especially prohibitive.

Also, in thinking about the slacker/freerider problem, it seems to me that ConEd is probably already pretty good, through decades of experience at collecting on delinquent accounts, at distinguishing those who are truly hurting from the rest, so maybe there's something there. It also occurred to me that there could be some sort of lottery system set up, and/or some limit on the amount of times you could apply for the benefits, which ought to further limit the assistance going to those who don't actually need it. And if a few undeserving slobs do get a free month? So what. This seems like a classic situation of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

What do you think? RUHO? RUHO!

If this seems plausible to you, please tell ConEd. Or your own local utility company.


Saturday, August 24, 2019

Sign of the day: 2019-03-18

Just found this on my phone, from last spring break:

Friday, March 01, 2019

How's this for an opening graf? (From someone who doesn't even work in retail!)

A non-refundable $45 fee on a bank statement whose existence cannot be explained by anyone; Raytheon’s Twitter account responding to a jape from Lockheed Martin’s Twitter account with a GIF of a grimacing Steve Carell from an episode of The Office; a show on The Learning Channel that is just goateed men dropping bricks on each other from increasingly great heights; the broader vibe and actual experience of Netflix; a meme on a relative’s Facebook page in which a Minion is dressed like a police officer for reasons that are not immediately clear. All strong competitors, to be sure, but for my money the most patently and potently of-this-moment experience currently available is that of being talked down to by an extremely rich person who is obviously dumber than you.

The rest, from David Roth, is also as good. It's about the current state of affairs in Major League Baseball, but it doesn't take much effort to see how it extends.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Putting a price tag on My Good Name(?)

It's nice to fantasize about for a moment or two (baby big brother needs a new pair of sandals laptop ... well, one of these years, anyway) but, uh, I don't really believe it. As far as I know, all of my doppelgängers have a different middle initial.

But hey, if you're someone new out there online, with nine benjamins burning a hole in your pocket, please get in touch! I may not be easy, but I'm comparatively cheap!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Twenty years ago (musings at a stoplight or two)

While running some errands a short while ago, I got to thinking about the Internet, back in the day.

Three things came to mind:

There was no Google. Searching basically sucked. I still want to punch you if you say "Ask Jeeves."

Netscape Navigator was the hot new thing. When my coworker and best friend, ddw, took the initiative to download the latest release and install it for use on our office LAN, he reported it as "this behemoth." He was not being hyperbolic. The file size was just over 3 MB. We had a T1 line at work, which almost certainly cost the company many hundreds of dollars per month. If memory serves, the download speeds were about the same as the cheapest DSL plans available now six years ago, which go went for about 1/1000th the price. (Is DSL even still a thing?)

I bought a new car in 1999. I got a car loan by clicking on a sidebar ad while checking my Yahoo email. I gave this company that I had never heard of my social security number. Everything worked fine. I'm not sure what's more scary these days: online ads or using Yahoo email.

Win some, lose some.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Line of the Day: 2018-12-29

I'm going to give it without context, because, really, it just applies.

I mean, this is like if some asshole starts tearing up your house and, as you're pitching him out the door, he starts naming conditions under which he'd be willing to leave quietly.
     -- Roy Edroso

(h/t: #jonswift2018)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

I don't even have a bluff answer

Wish I'd had the presence of mind to take a screenshot of this tweet before I clicked the link, which said "Translate this tweet." In any case, this is the result of clicking that link:

I have no idea which machine-learning system (?) thinks any of that tweet needed translating (not counting from English to something else, of course), much less from Portuguese.

And granted I'm running Windows, but why is Microsoft handling trying to perform translation services on Twitter, being viewed through Firefox?

See, this is how conspiracy theories get started.

Also, cattle mutilations are up.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Way cool, Wikipedia

You know how the pronunciation guide used on Wikipedia, among other sites, is not the one you grew up with (if you're of a certain age)? It features many more characters and some different conventions. It's hard for me to make the effort to learn this new language, as it were, and so I am, from time to time, frustrated when I want to know how to pronounce something.

However, help is here!

I don't know how long this feature has been around on Wikipedia, but I just noticed it today: you can hover over an individual character in the phonetic spelling of a given word or name, and a tooltip will pop up, showing you what that particular character means!

Here's an example screenshot:

My life just got measurably better. Shoutout and many thanks to the Wikipedians who made this happen.

Evidently, the money is being put to good use! ;)

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Deep Thought

It has long fascinated me that our mouths are simulataneously one of the most horrible sources of infection and about the most rapidly healing part of the body I can name.

Pro tip: just because you blow once or twice on a hunk of potato you just boiled and repeat that for a ladelful of a reheating stew [1] that seemed to need a little extra starch doesn't mean you aren't going to burn the roof of your mouth.

You'd almost think I'd've figured that out by now.

Anyway, let the healing begin! (Dousing with rioja [2] seems to be helping.)

[1] Spiced Chickpea Stew With Coconut and Turmeric

[2] Spanish wine with a South Asian-ish dish? Yeah. I'm a savage. Or a multiculturalist. One of those.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Finally, I am Internet-famous!

Bumped into my neighbor a short while ago, and he referred me to the Google Maps street view of our mutual address. Screenshot below. Click it to big it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Ur data mining needz moar werk

I often fret about how much the machines know about us. And then I get something like this, a "job for you" from LinkedIn.

Job description

We are a multi-media, global entertainment brand that inspires young men to lead their most stylish and culturally relevant lives by covering news and trends in fashion, sneakers, music, art and entertainment. Reaching 10+ million men each month, Highsnobiety is both an influential AND fast growing, award winning media company.

Short of adding a requirement that prospective candidates should enjoy long-distance running, can you think of a job for which I'd be less suited?

I do like the company name, though.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

I pretty much never watch videos anymore, and this one sums up why

While scrolling through Deadspin or Gizmodo, I saw a link to a post, titled "Discover the Secrets of the Tape Measure," on one of their sister sites, Lifehacker, that made me pause for a moment. I was pretty sure there wasn't going to be any new information for me -- I've been using tape measures for going on half a century, professionally, even, for many years -- but I thought, eh, don't be a closed-minded old guy, maybe you'll learn something new.

Clicked the link and *sigh*, yep, it was a video. Didn't click play. I like to read. Watching, like a drooling couch potato, makes me antsy as all hell. It never goes fast enough, there's no equivalent to skimming, it always feels like three more minutes of life tossed out the window.

A couple of days later, I thought, okay, one quick look. And all of my gripes about videos were confirmed.

I mean, even going in, I was thinking, this could (should!) have been a text post, that would have taken about a twentieth of the time to read as it did to watch. And worse, 98% of the useful information conveyed was? Yes. Nothing. But. Text. Streamed over video. With each sentence displaying on screen for an excruciatingly long time.

And further, in this age of oligopolistic telecommunications giants, how about the bandwidth considerations? Even if you thought the post would need some visuals, a few line drawings would have done just fine. Say, four PNGs, at about 50Kb each. Instead, who knows how many Mb were spent.

And don't even get me started about the pre-roll ads.

You want an idea for a killer AI app? Make something that "watches" video, distills it down to its essence, and delivers the result in text, the way God intended.


[Update 2019-12-25 18:02] Some more thoughts on the matter, from me, in comments under this Facebook post.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Tomorrow: Hang on to your phone! (Tightly.)

[Update 2018-09-20 12:13] The test has been postponed until 3 October 2018. (via)

Original post appears below.

(h/t: Tom McKay)

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Compare and contrast (attn: @edroso)

Megan McArdle:

Nike bet that politics would sell. Looks like it was wrong.

Everyone else.

Monday, September 03, 2018

I love little details like this

Here's a simple and clever authentication mechanism that's new to me:

Authorities watched as the truck arrived at about 1:55pm on October 23 to 3055 Dulles Drive in Mira Loma, California, a location near the airport in Ontario, California.

"This location is less than a mile away from where KARAC had received duffle bags containing cocaine form CHS1 a few months earlier," Monroe wrote.

She watched as Ignjatov and Hristovski got out of the truck to meet an "unknown man." Hristovski handed the man "an item, which looked like neither paper or money."

"I know, based on my training, experience, and knowledge of this investigation, that drug traffickers often use serial numbers on dollar bills as a method of identification when conducting drug transactions," Monroe added. "Accordingly, I believe that the item HRISTOVSKI handed to the unknown man may have been a dollar bill so that the unknown man could confirm the identity of IGNJATOV and HRISTOVSKI by the serial number on the bill."


Monday, August 27, 2018

Inspirational! But ... it's complicated.

My first thought upon reading this was: Wow! Gotta pass that along!

De la Pava himself can seem like an avenging angel, at least for those with a certain view of what ails contemporary American literature. He exists off the literary grid, which is to say that he lives in the real world and has a real job—as a public defender in the criminal courts of Manhattan. He has no M.F.A., no teaching post. The academy hasn’t laid a finger on him. He self-published his first novel, “A Naked Singularity,” in 2008, after eighty-eight agents turned it down. Against all odds, it found a literary audience, and when the University of Chicago Press republished it, in 2012, it received the PEN/Bingham Prize as the best dĂ©but fiction of the year.

My second thoughts, however ... How many other aspiring novelists have been rejected time and time again, simply because their novels weren't any good? Is passing the above along akin to rejoicing because someone won the lottery, while neglecting to reflect upon the millions of people who, week after week, blow tens or hundreds or thousands of dollars, seeking that lucky ticket?

I don't mean to disparage Sergio De la Pava at all -- the review in which the above appeared certainly makes me want to read all three of his books. Just ... it's complicated.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Deep thought

Why is an actor in a movie but on a tv show?

Monday, July 16, 2018

Exactly right, @MadBastardsAll

Chris Thompson nails it:

The Cardinal Way isn’t playing the right way, it’s making a big fucking deal out of playing the right way ...

Way back, when I was a kid and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I loved me some Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, to the point where my maternal grandfather banished me from the house during the 1967 World Series.

Not sure when it began, but I did at some point, some years later, start becoming sick of the sanctimony of the St. Louis Cardinals. Or, at least, clowns like Joe Buck (of Fox Sports, of course) intoning about them.

And then, one day, Tony LaRussa and Albert Pujols were prominently on display at a Glenn Beck rally. (This is back when that slob was big -- kind of the Donald Trump of his day.) I've never forgiven either for that, and will not, until they publicly apologize.

I do, however, love me some Yadier Molina. So, since they're apparently rebuilding ...

First step, IMNSHO? Make Dexter Fowler happy.

However, the keeper who left the door unlocked?

Valerio will not be permanently put to sleep as he "was doing what jaguars do."

Good call, whoever decided.

Yeah, yeah. I clicked on a "Twitter Moment" link.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Line of the Day: 2018-07-14

If Trump has one single accomplishment as President, it is how thoroughly he’s revealed extremely rich people as being not somehow braver or smarter or more disciplined than the rest of us but somehow exactly the opposite—consumed by pettiness, enslaved by vanity, and perfectly willing to fuck important things up in order to make some point to themselves and their rancid peers.
    -- David Roth

(via an ongoing story that has me OD'ing on schadenfreude)

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Ponder this

While refreshing my memory of what a Schwarzschild radius is, I came across this rather startling claim:

... the average density of a supermassive black hole can be less than the density of water.

Thanks for the link, John Timmer!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Line of the Day: 2018-06-27

You’ll miss out on 80 percent of life if you’re afraid to get messy, or look dumb, or get sweaty.
-- Drew Magary

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Something old, something new

Found at the bottom of a box that was being repacked for shipping, yet another spare pair:

You have to love the amount of black tape.



I'll be sending out details when my new Internet connection is established.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Packrat excavations

I'm now deep in the bowels of my layers of old boxes -- pruning, in preparation from moving from a place with practically infinite storage space to a place where I assume there will be none -- and among the gobs of stuff I've found are about thirteen DSL modems. Or forty-seven. I've lost count.

I'm responsibly bringing them to the town's e-waste disposal center, so don't worry about that. But, sheesh, I am starting to wonder how many phone companies have me on some obsolete shitlist for never returning their once-precious gear.

(And fantasizing about how annoying it would be to them, were I actually now to return these things, as once COMMANDED, in the accompanying paperwork, received lo those many years ago.)

Monday, November 06, 2017

Interesting license plate

From someone in a position to know, one presumes.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Now, here's a line I didn't expect to see during these four years

Who makes these rules and enforces them is its own debate in the US, too, with the Trump administration largely calling for a continuation of the Obama administration's "light regulatory touch" philosophy ...

From a pretty interesting article: "Should drunk drivers be charged with DUI in fully autonomous cars?"

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dealing with the Equifax security breach [UPDATE] [UPDATE 2] [UPDATE 3]

As you probably heard, the credit reporting company Equifax suffered a massive security breach a couple of months ago, and only brought this to the public's attention last week.

The data exposed in the hack includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and, in some cases, driver license numbers. The hackers also accessed credit card numbers for 209,000 US consumers and dispute documents with personal identifying information for about 182,000 US people. Limited personal information for an unknown number of Canadian and UK residents was also exposed. Equifax—which also provides credit monitoring services for people whose personal information is exposed—said the unauthorized access occurred from mid-May through July. Equifax officials discovered the hack on July 29.

Yes, it's as bad as you can imagine.

This is going to take forever to get sorted out. In the meantime, I thought I'd pass along this post on Lifehacker, which has some sound advice.

I'll add a minor suggestion to the above. It occurs to me that many banks and credit card companies now offer free FICO scores to their customers. Two of mine do, and they are both updated monthly, using different methodologies. In my experience, these numbers are sensitive to recent activity; e.g., one big car repair bill that I paid with a credit card knocked my score down quite a bit, even though I paid it in full that same billing cycle, because one of the factors affecting your FICO score is the amount of unsecured credit you're using at the moment the calculation is run. The point here is that keeping an eye on these numbers is easy to do, and they could provide an early signal to you that something to do with your credit history is worth more in-depth investigation.

Please share other ideas in the comments. Thanks.

[Added] I decided to check Equifax's TrustedID site, as mentioned in the Lifehacker article. It indicated that my info had likely been compromised. I then decided to sign up for Equifax's TrustedID Premier service. This, according to Equifax, is intended "To help consumers determine if their information has been potentially impacted and to sign up for credit file monitoring and identity theft protection. TrustedID Premier includes five separate offerings, all complimentary." Details (not the sign-up page) here.

I got this after completing the form:

I did not have to give any credit card info. I haven't gotten the confirmation email yet. I'll let you know how it goes.

[Update 2017-09-21 11:34] Still haven't heard from Equifax. Meanwhile, here's some advice on how to write a letter to a bank or credit reporting agency, if you notice a problem on one of your credit reports.

[Update2 2017-09-22 12:58] Finally got an email from Equifax, with instructions about completing enrollment in TrustedID Premier. Followed the link in the email, got to a page asking me my date of birth, which I entered. Clicked "Continue." After a long wait, looking at the spinner, nothing happened. Clicked "Continue" again. Got a new page launched in a new tab, which was nothing but blank for a long while. Finally got a message from my browser that the page was not secure. Clicked the button to try again. Same failure. Closed that tab, went back to the previous one, clicked "Continue" again. This time, got a new page in a new tab that said, more or less, "Our records indicate that you have already enrolled. Click here to login." Did that, got same untrusted connection message. After reloading, eventually got to a login prompt. Which is hilarious, because there never was a point during the sign-up process where I chose a password. Clicked "forgot password." After several minutes, got an email with a link to follow to "reset" password. Again with the insecure page error, repeated reloads. Finally got to submit a new password, success, and was asked to login. Again with the insecure page errors. Finally got logged in, got a series of challenge questions involving my credit history and other personal info, answered those, clicked "continue," and ... stop me if you've heard this one before, got another untrusted page error. Eventually got a properly loading page, which said I was confirmed as me, and I was invited to login to my "product." Still looking at a fresh untrusted page error. It is now 25 minutes since I began this process.

[Update3 2017-09-22 13:30] Finally got logged in, after many untrusted page warnings. Message on screen:

Status: Enrollment processing

Please allow up to 48 hours to process your enrollment, at which time you will have the ability to lock or unlock your Equifax credit file.

I was, however, able to access my Equifax credit report. However, the "Print your report" link does not work. (I was able to use the browser's print function, though. Even though just a single page displays on the screen, the full report got printed.)

By the way, here are a couple more links (link1, link2) to articles suggesting how to deal with this breach. Both of them advise freezing your credit immediately, and provide some other useful thoughts.