Category Archives: technical-ity

Your author is a lifelong nerd and decades-long computer mechanic. Expect swearing.


Required Online Etiquette for Businesses 101

We make a lot of fuss about when a commenter or blogger is violating some spoken or unspoken rule of conduct, but MAN do we let companies off the hook for some obvious things that are just terribly rude and inconsiderate!  Here are some of the worst, IMO:

  • If you take an order / allow sign up online, you must allow canceling an order or unsubscribing online.  Giving someone a convenient way to give you money and making them switch to a less convenient one to get it back is just pure shady.  And don't give me shit about how it costs *you* more money somehow — no it doesn't.  If you have the infra to take an order, you have it to cancel one, and if you won't cancel it the same way you took it, you're just a jerk.
  • If you allow customers to deal with you online, and they contact you online, do not ever ever call them, but most especially do not call them a) during business hours, when you know damn well you're interrupting their work, or b) over any simple or easy question that could easily be resolved by using the email address you almost certainly have.  We know it's rude when you call to ask a company a question and the next day a door-to-door salesman shows up uninvited at your house; why don't we ream companies for forcing conversations onto the phone for no good reason?  My phone is on in case people who know me want to use it to reach me, thank you; and even they know better than to call me when I'm working unless it's important.
  • Your security measures should be as obnoxious as needed and no more; if in doubt, let your customers pick the level of protection they want. If one more little retail site forces me to create a hardened 16-digit two-factor-auth password, I'm going to seriously slap a techie.  (Might be any techie, so look out.)
  • And for gods' sakes treat online customer service like customer service.  It's fine if Billy Teenpunk turns into a raging shithead when given a difficult email to answer, but he's not being paid to do it.  The number of snide, terse, flippant, or outright rude online exhanges I've been subjected to from various companies is truly shocking.  You know you'd fire any employee who acted like that to a customer's face…so what's the deal?  Not paying attention, perhaps?  THEN SELL YOUR COMPUTERS and stick to business you're actually willing to do the work for.

…Yes, I'm having a tough day, but come on, all of that needed to be said.  ;)

Here's to relaxing times later!  (It's underwater hockey night!  That usually beats all the tension out of me pretty well.)


What you need, when you need it

When I started training Iron Palm, my sifu gave me a stout canvas bag, sewn permanently shut, stamped with Chinese characters in faded blue on one corner.  It was full of…mung beans.

mung beans

Yup.  Mung beans.

Now, beans are a good "starter filler" for this kind of conditioning — from there, it moves up to gravel, and then steel shot; and it's hard to explain why, but the beans do feel a bit softer.  (I've done a little on the gravel bag too.)  But why mung beans?  Just because they're cheap, or a good size, or something?

Nope, turns out it's cooler than that — mung beans are healthy and used as good food and medicine for many things, but the powder is often put into poultices to help reduce swelling and heal injured tissue.  As you smack this bag, you pulverize the beans just a little — you can see the powder puff out, in the right light — and simultaneously rub it deep into your skin.  It's a punching-bag that makes its own medicine.

It's a punching-bag that makes its own medicine.

So there you have it:  Technology without ingenuity can spit out crap products all day long, but ingenuity only needs canvas and beans to make a badass piece of tech.  


(The image up top is of the dent I left in the bag, practicing.  I just like the texture.)



A call to keyboards

Bruce Schneier in the Guardian

"The NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. We engineers built the internet – and now we have to fix it. Government and industry have betrayed the internet, and us. This is not the internet the world needs, or the internet its creators envisioned. We need to take it back. And by we, I mean the engineering community. Yes, this is primarily a political problem, a policy matter that requires political intervention. But this is also an engineering problem, and there are several things engineers can – and should – do."

As a user and/or builder of the 'Net, would you get behind engineers' efforts to fix it?

Haul it on over

So, I think it's time for an overhaul here.  

I created this site in something like 2006 or '7, mostly to provide a place for the polyphasic information I was amassing, but because I'm a compulsive writer anyway, I knew it would wind up serving as a spot for general bloggage, content, and Writing.  

And so it has, resulting in exactly the kind of mess you'd expect that to cause.  ;)

Well, the Second Edition is out, and future plans for polyphasic stuff are much more in-depth and really deserve a space of their Actual Own — things like talks, travel, and studies shouldn't be just tagged posts that sit amid the morass of my general effluvience.

Of course, said effluvience needs a spot.  

But Writing, actual fiction and experimentation and poetry and such, needs its own spot now too.  I'm finally starting to take it more seriously, and to improve my skills to the point where doing it as more than just One Big Constant Exercise And Worship makes sense.  

Oh yeah, and I also do other things and collect other links and whatnot that might be helpful — this is more properly Presence than Effluvience, but it means that having room for other sub-categories of content that doesn't involve tangling them all up in A Blog makes good sense.

SO.  Here's my thinking so far:

-  I need a front page that sorta somewhat-accurately says "HI THIS IS ME, HERE ARE THE REASONS YOU MIGHT BE HERE".  This needs a descriptive, simple, sensical domain name. 

-  I need subpages with their own subdomains for polyphasic sleep, fiction and nonfiction writing, a blog, and potentially a lot of other things.  I like subdomains.

-  I need a dead simple and flexible design.  I like the theme I use here, but at the very least I need to unclutter it, and possibly replace it.  Wordpress I have no complaints with, and in all reality knowing how to use it probably saves me so much time versus learning something else that "upgrading" there likely isn't worth it.  (The best, and best-looking, "canned" websites are, I think, done in Twitter Bootstrap — it's what I often use for business clients.  But it's not anywhere near as easy to update as WP, and the built-in analytics and plugins are kinda worth their weight in gold.)

SO.  Apologies up front if any future changes cause annoyance for any future readers, AND OF COURSE I'm interested in any opinions or comments people have about the coming overhaul.



Scream, clap, laugh, win: Humor makes a great molotov cocktail

Luke McKinney's new article — a follow-up to his infamous piece on "straight white male" being sexuality's lowest difficulty setting (you may remember John Scalzi's still-famous article expanding that idea) – on 5 Gamer Comments That Give Straight White Guys a Bad Name had me screaming and clapping while simultaneously laughing coffee out my nose.

As Scalzi points out in his blog today, this IS written on, so it's got a marvelous left-handedness where you know that some of the people being called assholes in this article — in lovely metaphor-laden smackdown style — are going to be reading and commenting on it…and boy, do they.  I've stayed off the comment thread myself, mostly because all I really want to say is fuck yes, Luke.  Way to hit a second home-run just to prove you can! 

…It's really impossible to pick a "best" part of this to quote, but…

"People want to bang you = easy life" is the worst sexual equation since David Carradine's work with knot theory.


But seriously?  I think it's incredibly important that topics like this one be handled with loud, raucous, stabby humor whenever possible.  It's hard to speak accurate truth to power, sure; but it's even harder to make power hear it, and those people who can take truths and wrap them in you-can't-ignore-me linguistic molotov cocktails are treasures of humanity.  It's precisely why comedians and satirists are so vitally important to every movement, and I'm chest-burstingly proud that the No More Forced Pregnancies-related movements have voices like Luke (and Scalzi) on their side.  <3!

Give Me A DRM-Free World

Lulu Blog » Living in a DRM-Free World.

Count me among the authors who feel that DRM did nothing to benefit us, and who're frankly relieved that it's on the way out.

Has the book been torrented?  Yup.  Does this upset me?  HELL no.

Think of it this way:  The Internet is the biggest communications medium in the world.  If you were an author and you went to the biggest public library in existence, where everyone was talking about and handing around books 24/7, and you found that yours hadn't been mentioned or shared at all, what would you think?  That it must suck, right?  

As an author, or really any kind of artist, you get attention and money and rewards for your work when people like it and tell other people about it.  Being that they're talking to each other in the real world, they have a much better idea how much of your work should be shared, and what should be said about it, to interest the person in front of them, than you and a zillion marketers could ever have.  If they think loaning a copy to their friend is the best way to make you a new fan — or that thumbing through it themselves is the best way to determine if they want to be your fan — then who the heck are you to argue?  

It's a sort of Taoist truth of sales:  Let people do their thing, and only intervene when needed.  I intervene, usually by being nice about it, when I run into someone who's borrowed by not bought my book, and almost always they turn into a buyer.  If I intervened by being a jerk, or prevented them from getting ahold of my work in the first place, guess what they'd be?  Yeah, not a fan, for sure.

Fortunately we're not alone, we authors-who-pay-attention; as this article demonstrates, publishers like Tor and distributors like Lulu are catching on that penalizing readers – especially penalizing all readers for something a tiny percentage of them do — is just plain stupid, and a world without DRM is hopefully right around the corner.


The Sun-God Narrows His Eyes

Here's a great find recommended to me (and all polyphasic sleepers) by one of my co-presenters at Penguicon, the very well-mannered and well-researched Neil Funk.

I've used it for several weeks now and WOW, what a difference.  F.lux runs in the background, and on my machine uses next to no resources and has never caused any conflict or problems.

What it does is adjust the "temperature" of the colors on your screen — making them look less blue and more orange.  You tell it a "daytime" and a "night-time" setting, and it switches them at sunset and sunrise automatically.

Two things:  Bluer light makes your eyes more tired.  And temperature is something that you adjust to remarkably quickly — within a day, I had to try to see the difference; and after a week I turned f.lux off and found the resulting color blinding and unbearable.

My eyes have been less tired by a good measure overall since I got this software, and I'm calling it a great find for polyphasers everywhere!

f.lux: software to make your life better.

Tech Unions Now

"Contracting" in tech is a bullshit arrangement almost entirely skewed to favor the employer.

A true (independent) contractor arrangement requires tons of freedom on the contractor side — for example, they can't tell you where you work from, or what hours — only what they need done and to what standards.

Real "contracting" is also a *negotiated contract* that usually includes things like agreements about how much notice will be given in the case of termination — completely different from that BS they call an "at will" arrangement.

Since the IRS requires that level of freedom if you're paying your own taxes, employers get around this by taxing you as an employee but putting you "on a contract" that you usually get no say in negotiating, which gives them all the benefits of having an employee without you getting any of the benefits of actual employment.

In essence, you're yolked like an employee — required to work times and durations that make job-hunting nearly impossible, chained to one location unless you can beg for some WFH time as a "perk", etc. — except you get the (often) lesser benefits and total lack of job-security that contractors get (and worse IMO, since a real independent contractor can line up other work while they're employed much more easily than someone stuck on 9-5).

Plus you're making employee pay, not contractor pay, which is always higher to compensate for the lack of stability and fringe benefits. Fringe benefits which, of course, are less and less meaningful every year — we're all paying more for health care, getting less (if anything) for bonuses and retirement, and never mind cushy things like transportation, leaves of absence or meals (which may sound luxurious for tech now, but weren't all that uncommon for office-workers decades ago).

And while *technically* your status as a "contractor" lets you terminate your employment at-will, with no notice etc., the professional expectation you work under is that of an employee — if you did just walk and leave everyone hanging, it would reflect very badly on you professionally if it got around.  Whereas, of course, the company gets the full benefit of at-will:  they could lock you out of the building after you leave today for no reason and with no notice, and suffer not a whit. So even where the arrangement is "fair on paper", it's not in reality, because employers have gotten such amazing free reign to cherry-pick which parts of the employee and contractor arrangements they like.

(Whew.  I've wanted to say those things for *years*, and it finally occurred to me that I can now.  And that I'm sick of seeing my friends get screwed, and my home profession gutted by bean-counters.)

If things are random but all good, is it still random?

(A:  Nothing is truly random.  ;)

Devoting a post to the ton of small wonderful things I've run across this week!

  • MyFitnessPal:  I've been looking for a simple app/site to help me track basic calories-in-calories-out forEVER, it seems — and this one finally has everything I need!  Simple interface, comprehensive database of food and exercises, and it's free.  I've found that I do SO much better with an app like this around — without it, I'm liable to either overindulge in high-calorie food because I have no concept of what I've burned off in exercise today; or for the same reason, fall several hundred calories short of anything reasonable and feel like crap.  Tracking takes maybe a total of ten minutes a day, and it keeps me in healthy limits with hardly any other trying at all.  I've really missed it since DailyBurn began to suck, so finding this one is a huge win!
  •  A simple site just for remote-friendly computer jobs?  YES PLEASE!  I wish it were bigger, but hey, at least someone thought of it finally.
  • Twitter Bootstrap:  I've come to love HTML5 anyway, but as someone who's *not a designer* and often called-upon to "just throw up a simple page for…", Twitter Bootstrap has totally saved my bacon.  I can make a clean, simple, and VERY professional-looking site in almost no time, now…it doesn't free me from hiring a designer when one's needed (and why would I want to? the designers I know are pretty awesome), but it is a big improvement for those of us lower on the web-development food-chain who still have to do it sometimes.  (If moving this site wouldn't be such a pain, I'd be considering it — but I have enough to do, heh.)
  • The Magic Work Cycle:  I mentioned this briefly before, but hoooooly wow is it awesome.  It's like sticking a firehose into your flagging motivation's tender bits, pulling out a starter pistol, and gesturing meaningfully.  I was having trouble getting "real work" done, what with so much of it and *also* so much else going on, but thanks to this thing (and the helpful website-companion here), I'm getting *crazy* amounts of stuff done, and not feeling overworked at all.  It's very, very simple:  You work 30 minutes, then you play 30 minutes.  Play is anything you wait it to be that isn't work.  The built-in deadlines and context-switching keep you focused, motivated and from getting stuck.  Simple and brilliant = WIN WIN WIN.
  • The song "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield:  This is an old song and you've probably heard it — I hadn't, because for decades I couldn't bear music that wasn't in some way angry, and this is the pick-me-up song of the century.  It's goofy and it doesn't care, just like that friend you (hopefully) have who makes everyone feel great and doesn't care if that's not hardcore or "cool".  It's all over YouTube, it breaks the usual popular music laws by having competent and meaningful lyrics, and if you need a smile or a boost, I highly recommend it!

OK, playtime is almost up (seriously, magic work cycle FTW), so I'm outie — OH, but one last thing; I saw a proof of the new cover of the Second Edition!  Hopefully I can post it here soon, but for now I'll just say o.O!

The Drone Problem: Restriction Can’t Make Technology Less Scary

Drones.  It's a huge topic, but this article by the ACLU does a great job with its major points and substantive links-for-more-info.  (That's also a real, researched article; and this is a blog post; so compare accordingly.)

My own take on drones — which are little remote-controlled (or even self-controlled, to various degrees) flying machines that surveil and otherwise interact with people by proxy for their owners — isn't one I come across in my reading all that often, so I wanted to get it written down.  I actually developed this opinion as a result of researching and planning one of the novels I've tried to write*.

We live in a technological world.  In a technological world, one value matters above all:  Who has that technology?

There's often an argument made that technology should be restricted, and it's often phrased as though putting a "NO" label on some technology will stop it from happening.  In fact, all it does is limit who will have it.  People are like crows — they spread knowledge once they have it, and all disallowing it does is limit its use to the people who are willing to do disallowed things

And while criminals are scary, they also usually don't have the kind of resources that the other major group of people who are willing to do disallowed things does — that group of people being, of course, the ones with authority, who share with criminals the perception that they won't be punished for violating the rules.  Technology takes resources, and what drug-dealers, sex offenders, or burglars could do with permission to use drones pales, I think, in comparison to the havoc a government or a police-force could wreak with the same ability.  

The thing is, if you restrict drone technology (as a whole, I mean; not just "making it illegal for anybody to put a laser-gun on one" type of restriction), you:

  • make it impossible for law-abiding citizens and citizen groups to use it.  
  • You may make it more difficult for criminals to use it.  
  • You will make it at best only marginally more difficult for governments and police to use it — especially since technology is global, but restrictions are not; even perfect compliance with US law by US government and police agencies (which, come on, hahahaha) — still doesn't protect US citizens from Russian, North Korean, Saudi, or other drones.  

The law-abiding citizens, the ones who need and deserve protection from the misuse of technologies — and drones are definitely a technology that can easily be horribly misused — are not only not well-served by restrictions; arguably they're the ones most hindered by them.

So who and what can protect law-abiding US citizens from rampant surveillance by, and even attack from, drones, whether piloted by our own police, homegrown (or corporate!) mafia, our own increasingly overzealous government, or agencies aligned with unfriendly countries and foreign criminals?  

The answer is pretty clear, isn't it?  Other law-abiding citizens.  Specifically, ones who understand the technology, and can create it, improve it, and keep it and ways to circumvent it safely IN the hands of the people who a) are least likely to hurt others with it and b) need it to protect themselves from abuses by it.

Who can invent, create, spread and use the technology to protect innocent people from unlawful surveillance and attack?

Who can ensure that the information captured by surveillance technology is fair and honest, and that its capture wasn't in violation of civil rights laws?

Who can make sure that the people with money and power and willingness to break the rules are held accountable for their actions, by making sure they're just as surveilled as everyone else?

Yeah.  PEOPLE can.  Makers can.  Students can.  Garage-DIYers and kids and hobbyists and private engineers can.  Those are the people who can and will put drone technology to use to protect the innocent, to enforce the constitution, to catch the criminals — both the low and highbrow kind — and to defend themselves and their neighbors from the many threats that drones can pose if they're controlled exclusively by the wrong kind of people.  

(The argument will be made:  But it's the authority-figures' jobs to protect innocent people.  Citizens should just never think about it, and leave it in the hands of their cops and their lawmakers and all will be well.  And while I personally find it hard to justify that response with a straight-faced answer, I will give this one anyway:  The argument so often made to citizens is that if we have nothing to hide, then we won't object to being surveilled.  That argument goes both ways and then some, since the cops and the lawmakers are being paid by the people to work for the people — what should they ever have, or be allowed, to hide?  Their rights to privacy are not only the same as everyone else's, but less, since the rest of us aren't working publicly-accountable jobs.  And ditto for anything else that they're allowed to use drones to do to the citizenry; I fail to see why the citizenry shouldn't be allowed to do the same things right back.)

Police-states.  War and invasion.  Criminal overlords.  Corruption and fear.  Corporations have no interest in preventing such things — there's no money in it, plain and simple — and governments only care insofar as it's not their own power being usurped.  (Neither of those are judgments; they're just facts about how corporations and governments work.)  But people care.  People care about their neighborhoods, about their bosses, about the police who pull them over and the adults minding their kids and the gangs on their streets and the judges running their courts.  People are the ones who will use those drones to watch the people who need watching, especially as those people gain ever more power to watch the people, and to remote-control their interactions via little helicopters.

The little helicopters are coming — no, they're here — and trying to outlaw them or stop them is just stupid; it's a reaction based on fear and all it will accomplish is to make the reality of things much worse.  What needs to happen, and quickly, is to protect the right of the people to build, keep, and use those copters, because it's from law-abiding citizens that all the good uses for them will come.  

And there are such good uses!  Even beyond watching the watchers and protecting the innocent from abuse by authorities and criminals.  I think that, like the telephone, which in the early days was thought to be a useless or frivolous-at-best invention, the really cool uses for the drones have barely begun to percolate through the makerspaces, and could change the whole world vastly for the better when the technology gets more momentum.

Think of a world where only authority-figures and criminals could use telephones.  (Actually, that'd be a cool sci-fi dystopia, hmm.)  Think of how much power they'd have that ordinary law-abiding citizens were prevented from using…think about if gangs could call their dealers, and corrupt politicians could call their lobbyists, and terrorists could call their bosses, but it was illegal for you to call your neighbors for help or call the media to give them a tip.  That's the level of power differential we risk if the fear-based gut-reaction to the little helicopters is allowed to take over, and regulations and restrictions come into play that prevent engineers and makers and schoolkids from using and making drones.  And this may seem like a premature warning to some people, but on that you'll just have to trust me — it isn't.  The technology is in the wild-and-wooly state now, where the materials are cheap enough that most people can use them, and the people with a lot of resources are just starting to use the bloody hell out of them, and for more and more extreme things.  Restrictions on what governments can do, in warfare, in surveillance operations, etc. are definitely coming; and the danger — the biggest danger, if you ask me — is that the next step will be to restrict the citizenry from having and using the technology, using fear-based arguments about nameless "bad guys" who might do bad things.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be rules (and if you're such a simplistic thinker that you figured I was, um, why are you even reading this?).  There are rules for using telephones, and obviously-bad things that nobody is allowed to do with them; and that makes sense.  It's access to the technology that needs to be protected from restrictions.

Remember, then, that what enables unfairly bad technology is unfairly huge resources:  And in that arena, it's the big corporations and the governments that we'd better worry about.  As long as the rest of the field is open, the criminal element won't have any real advantage over the law-abiding citizens (and will, in fact, have several important disadvantages, which are apparent enough with a little thought that I won't go into them here).  And remember that criminality is, among those with the usual amount of resources, not the norm:  Other things get done with technology at a far higher rate than criminal things, even if the media is terrible at accurately portraying that ratio.  

If regular, awesome people can build and use their little helicopters, both to protect themselves and their rights, and for all the cool shit regular awesome people typically think of, then I think drones could be the beginning of a seriously awesome revolution.


*I'm always trying to write novels, and sometimes finishing them and throwing them out — my dream is to one day write one of them to my satisfaction!  I have three stories that really need to happen eventually, and one of them concerns the drone/privacy revolution and the fight over who gets access to that technology, and what they use it for.