Sunday, June 9, 2013

Reflections On A High School Graduation

I went to my best friend's (since grade school) son's high school graduation this afternoon.  The ceremony and everything around it gave me pause for reflection.  Here are some of the thoughts I took away from this...

I don't know what the big fuss is about with childhood obesity.  Most of the children I saw at today's graduation looked just fine.  Some could lose a pound or two...but that wasn't any different from when I was going to school over 30 years ago.  Seriously, if this is what our elected officials sees as one of the "most serious epidemics" facing our world today, I think they have their heads screwed-on funny.  It isn't the vending machines or the marketing of soft drinks that is causing nutrition problems in young 'uns today.  The problem is that their parents have poor eating habits themselves, and have passed this along to their kids.  How can we fix the problem?  Fix the parents.  I don't know how you do this though.  You can't legislate-away stupid.  I am not calling parents overtly stupid, but I am saying that some of the lifestyle choices they build their family upon and set an example for their own children may very well be, well, stupid.  Remember parents, kids emulate what you do.  They don't do what you say, they do what you do.

Then I listened to the speeches singing the praises of high school, how it was so much of a family, and how everyone will miss all this as they get older.  I suppose for some people this is true, and perhaps it explains what I see of the comments from my old high school classmates on facebook.  I apologize to my former classmates when I say that I do not miss my high school years.  I don't have a deep and lasting connection with almost everyone I knew (there are a few, and I can count these on one hand).  I don't reflect fondly on my high school years.  It was an awkward time where I felt much more left out than I do now as an adult.  Today I saw picture mosaics that were supposed to represent these fond memories that the class of 2013 would remember ten, twenty, and thirty years or more from now.  It was the same pictures I remember in my yearbook back in the early 1980s.  It was pictures of the school dances, prom, sports events, and maybe a student council or class trip picture thrown in.  Fact is I was never part of this.  Me and most of the people I remember being friends with in high school weren't really part of all this.  I'm not saying this was a conspiracy, but I am saying that these same people who look back fondly on high school are going to be the ones in the various cliques.  The other half, well, sees it as just something that happened before the next phase of life.

I seriously looked back at my high school days to see if I could find something -- anything -- that would evoke fond memories.  I have a few, but they're not really of high school itself...

I remember a girl I knew - her name is June.  I have tried to locate her, and can't find her anymore.  We were on the bus together for the high school "Gifted and Talented Summer Institute."  June was involved with something musical, and I was taking a class about game theory (as close to computer science as they had back then).  I had a wild crush on June, and as nerdy guys do in this situation, I managed to make an ass of myself.  I didn't know it, but June already was seeing someone, but she took the time to talk to me on the phone about all kinds of things, and saw something other than my being an ass.  I'd really like to talk to her again now that I've matured, and just share ideas and stuff again without hormones in the way.

I remember the time I spent with several people sharing ideas about computers and making them come to life.  One of those people was Lenny, my friend who's son graduated today.  Another was Jay, who died back in December.  The third was Howard, who I've tried to revive a friendship with, but his current life and mine seem to be incompatible.  This is another way to say that we've grown apart - he has his life and I have mine.  We were all ahead of our time, and what everyone takes for granted today our little group actually was a big part of laying the foundation for.  We met with our counterparts in the nearby school districts of Babylon, West Babylon, Southampton, and other places on Long Island (the Long Island Computer Users Society, or LICUS) and had our own little social circle - before things like facebook, e-mail (as we know it), and text messaging ever existed.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was no Internet...yet.

As I go back further, all the way to first grade, I recall my friend Lisa.  I remember Lisa giving me a ride home on her bicycle in first grade, and like my later interaction with June, I enjoyed talking to Lisa.  As we got older into third and fourth grade, we too parted company.  I remember Lisa, Norma, Tom, and I (we lived near each other) getting together to ride our bicycles around and just talking about stuff.  Tom and I would talk about how we built stuff in the dirt pile in his back yard, and Lisa and Norma would talk about whatever girls talk about (heck, I don't even remember now).

In third grade there was Jessica and the first sexual experience I didn't know was one or understand until I was an adult.  Jessica didn't like me much anymore by high school (she was a few years behind me) and is now married and my one attempt to contact her to just say hello never received a reply.  Jessica and I lived down the street from one another.

High school, though, really didn't leave me with fond memories.  It didn't leave me with a sense of family.  Unfortunately, perhaps due in part to my own social ineptness, this same feeling followed me straight into college, where I also have a similar lack of fond memories or sense of family.  College seemed a lot like a more difficult extension of high school.

I can't blame my classmates for having a more profound connection with each other than I do.  I really can't.  However, I have to say that I wish they could understand why I don't.  Some of my high school classmates I think did try to make that connection that, if circumstances were different, we may have been friends.  I listen to the chatter on facebook and have come to the realization that most of them haven't changed a whole lot, and somehow it doesn't surprise me that their social life centers around dancing, drinking, and the rumor mill.  Whatever makes them happy is fine by me.

I still have yet to find the kind of social circle that they talk about in the high school graduation speeches.  As I enter the next decade of my life, I am finding it more difficult to make the kind of connections that lead to the kind of lasting memories that they talk about.  I still wonder where my place is in this world.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Arbitrary and Nonsensical

I apologize in advance for repeating this complaint again, but it just seems like it needs to be repeated.

I have not been back to the state of New York in three years to visit my family, and it seemed like it was long past time to do so.  In spite of our differences, I like my immediate family.  However, Austin, Texas is a long way from Long Island, New York.  The only reasonable way to travel is by airplane...and so I did the deed and purchased tickets today to visit my family.

Then I went online to look at the latest rules for air travel.  While things haven't changed too much since I last partook of air travel in 2008, I was reminded why my last few trips have been by car:  The airport security procedures are among the most arbitrary and nonsensical rules and procedures I have ever experienced.  Among them...

Take off your shoes, your belt, and remove everything from your pockets, and anything metal on your person.

It seems that the TSA doesn't really understand what the purpose of these items are, so let me explain:  My shoes are to protect my feet from dirt, fungi, and other shit that is all over the airport floor.  My belt is to help keep my pants up.  I admit that it is more to enhance the stability of my pants these days, as I am horribly overweight, but believe me when I say that a belt is not a fashion accessory - it's a part of my clothing (like my sneakers).  I don't mind putting my wristwatch into my carry-on for scanning, but I don't really like parting with my wallet.  It has money and other things of importance to me that I will need on my journey.  I've been through TSA security lines before, and I can't say they are terribly good about guarding against someone else taking my stuff.  I'll get to that in a moment.

Remove all large electronic devices from your carry-on bag so they can be X-ray scanned.  You should absolutely avoid putting these in your checked baggage.

I have a medical condition called obstructive sleep apnea that requires me to use a CPAP machine - an expensive device the size of a small shoe box that is essentially an air pump.  It blows air into my nose while I sleep through tubing and a mask so I don't stop breathing while I sleep.  That device, by itself, takes-up two-thirds of my carry-on bag.  I then have not one but two netbooks (I would rather bring my laptop, but it's too big after the CPAP...).  "Why two netbooks," you ask?  Well, where I work they will not let me log-into their network with my own netbook (by policy), and I am effectively on-call if a work emergency arises...and I can't really use it for my personal stuff.  This is the reason why I have my own netbook, which allows me to do my own personal computing, like web browsing and stuff.

I explain this because apparently the TSA thinks that people walk into an airplane with nothing other than their own selves and checked baggage containing a pile of clothing in this day and age.  Hello TSA, welcome to 2013.  What do I get to look forward to in your stupid lines?  Well, in addition to placing my sneakers, belt, and everything I would normally carry in my pockets into one of your trays to go through the X-ray machine, I now have to unpack practically everything in my carry-on bag and individually place that into your trays as well.  They remind me to mark my computers with some kind of identification in case someone tries to walk off with them.  Thanks for that reminder.  When Johnny Robber grabs my stuff and is halfway across the airport, it'll be a consolation to me that he has some kind of identification showing who he just ripped-off.  Thankyouverymuch asswipes.

Be careful of what you say.  Any speech that jokes about or is in opposition to our [ridiculous] procedures while you're being scanned will cause further delay and we will search you even more.

So much for the concept of free speech and redress of grievances, as I believe exists somewhere in the Bill of Rights.  Yes, I am aware that there is a time and place for things, and maybe the security line isn't one of them.  However, after enduring this arbitrary and nonsensical process, the best some of us can do to keep our own sanity is to offset it with humor and/or a grumble or two.  I have to wonder if the "people" who came up with these rules are actually some sort of automaton because they clearly aren't rational human beings.

Now enter the probulator so we can scan you for anything you didn't already remove from your person, and if you don't do this or we don't like what we see, we'll pull you aside and give you the same pat-down that we give suspected criminals when they're arrested.

I have nothing further to say about this except that I still have to wonder what I did that made my government treat me as though I were a common criminal.

We do this to make air travel safe.

You do this to make people's lives a living hell, hoping that the acts you make us perform intimidate would-be "terrorists."  Let me give you a little hint:  The people you call "terrorists" laugh at this whole thing.  This is the kind of reaction they were hoping our government would have.  The groups that are responsible for terrorist acts don't like the freedoms we have, and are doing everything in their power to take down our society from the inside. Seriously, if you think your silly stupid security procedures will prevent these people from committing another act of terror, you're sadly underestimating their creativity.  Congratulations:  You've created a fascist, authoritarian system inside of our democratic society, just like the terror groups wanted.

Never mind the myriad taxes and fees that get tacked-onto the cost of an airplane ticket, the special locks you must use on your checked baggage so the TSA can look at that as well, the cost of airport parking for a week, the cost of air travel itself, and the extra hour-and-a-half to two hours before flight departure you now need to get to the airport in order to leave on schedule, and the layovers between flight segments.  It is a terrible day-long beginning and ending to a vacation and visit to see one's family.

To those of you who find this process trivial, I salute your ability to deal with it.  No law-abiding citizen should have to put-up with this kind of treatment, though, and I find it utterly distasteful.

1,900 miles each way is too far for me to drive by myself, particularly with a sleep disorder.  Between the actual hours of driving and the day of exhaustion after each road trip, nearly a whole week is spent in travel alone.  After having done the road trip once and looked into trains and busses, airplane travel is unfortunately the only practical way to go.

I need to see my doctor sometime between now and the day of my trip to see if there are any "happy pills" he can prescribe that will make me oblivious to this ridiculousness.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Discover New Music

I stopped listening to commercial music radio a long time ago.  It used to be that I would listen to the radio and hear something I enjoyed, then would eventually go out and buy the song (or the album if I really liked the artist).  Maybe it's because I've gotten old, but most of what I hear of popular music is a talent wasteland.  Even what would be considered "adult contemporary" is mostly riddled with computer-modified vocals together with computer-generated noise.  You'd think that the Mad Computer Scientist (ie. me) would find this application of technology appealing, but I truly don't.  Actually, consider my reaction about the same as most people would react to walking into a room that smells of ammonia and poop -- irritated senses and the feeling of nausea.

So where in the world does one go to experience something new?

I've found a treasure-trove of talent on YouTube.  Unfortunately there's almost too much to choose from, however, and the artists I've discovered have actually happened almost by accident.  I would look at a video that had one topic, and one of the recommended (related) videos turned out to be someone performing something I enjoyed.  I would explore more from there, and stumble upon some real talent.  This is how I found Sayalessandra (Sayaka Sato), Stephanie Strand, Mary Win, and of course TheUnsungHeroine (Kristina Hu).  I've found it really refreshing to be able to connect with a couple of the artists on facebook and be able to actually give direct praise and feedback about their work.  My recommendation, if you don't care to be a troll, is to keep the feedback positive and constructive.  Keep in mind that these folks are sharing their passion with you.  If you don't like what they do, move on to someone you do like.

Another place to explore new music is none other than amazon.com.  Amazon has a little-known section of their site with free mp3 music.  To get there, go to Amazon's MP3 store (Shop by Department -> MP3s & Cloud Player -> MP3 Music Store), then along the left sidebar under Categories select Free Songs & Special Deals, then along the right side there's a link that says Browse all free songs.  The free song section are usually songs that a rising artist has placed out there to gain interest in their album or other work.  Some of it is junk.  A lot will be music you just won't like.  Usually it's pretty obvious from the album cover or name of the artist or song whether this is a genre you'll find you like.  With some patience, however, some great gems can be found...and with luck, some new music you'll enjoy enough to purchase and support these artists.  I actually downloaded a couple of free songs by Hayley Reardon, and at first I wasn't sure I liked her style.  However, she really has grown on me, and I need to purchase more songs from her albums Hope You're Smiling and Beautiful Simplicity.  This is just one example of an artist I discovered this way.

A lot of people like Pandora and some of the other Internet radio stations.  For a while, I kind of liked these, but I found myself more likely to rediscover some old lost favorites rather than discovering something new.  Yes, I admit, I stick to the style I like yet, but it's nice to hear someone different once in a while.

I realize that living in Austin, Texas (the supposed live music capital of the world) I should be out at some concert.  I'm not one for being out in crowds, though, and frankly I rather enjoy exploring recorded music more.  If live music is your thing, though, that's certainly another avenue for exploration.

So don't feel like you have to stop discovering new music just because you can't bear to listen to the radio anymore, or find the stuff "the kids are all listening to" utterly repulsive.  Hopefully you now know of a few cool places to look for new music.

An unrelated comment...

No doubt you've heard about the bombing that happened during the Boston Marathon.  While my heart goes out to all those who have been injured or worse, I really don't have a lot to add to what has already been said.  I know that after the comments I made in my last posting one may expect I would want to comment, but I don't.  What has happened saddens and depresses me as it exposes the dark side of what it means to be human.  I'm going to spend a few extra moments with my cat instead of saying any more.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Root Of The Problem

"How can you possibly have any compassion for the families of the Sandy Hook victims if you are against stricter gun control legislation?"

If the families of a mass-killing spree can only find a solution to the situation surrounding that massacre by taking to the legal system (government) and outlawing the thing that was used to kill their loved ones, then I must suspend compassion for those families.  I still empathize.  I realize I can't possibly feel the enormity of their grief and that I cannot imagine what it is like to have a loved one lost in a senseless act of violence, I likewise cannot imagine why someone suffering such pain would conclude that the only way to address the problem is to outlaw (or severely restrict) the weapon used as though this is its only use.  I fear that this is only the beginning of the discussion -- there is more at stake than guns.

As I have said before I am not a big fan of guns.  I don't have a gun, and probably never will.  They are not of interest to me.  They are, however, of interest to others in various capacities.  Examples of gun-related activities are gun collecting, target practice, hunting, protection/tools (particularly in rural areas), and law enforcement/military.  There are enthusiasts who enjoy talking about the characteristics of various guns.  None of these activities appeal to me (in fact hunting is something I detest), but they exist for many people...and these people by far are law-abiding, upstanding, compassionate, responsible people.  I can assure you that gun enthusiasts are extremely saddened and shocked by the recent gun-related killing sprees that have occurred recently.

This is the reason why I am frustrated, and in many ways angered, by the response that the Sandy Hook victims' families have taken.  Instead of meeting with gun enthusiasts to look at possible solutions - solutions that may possibly involve the use of guns - they have taken to attack the very thing that gun enthusiasts are enthusiastic about.  It is no surprise that the response to such an attack is negative, and that rational discussion between gun owners and gun victims becomes impossible.  Furthermore, the legal recommendations that are being put on the table with respect to gun control make very little sense when it comes down to preventing violent outbursts.

The reason for the push-back on gun control laws is that they don't work.  For every study presented showing the decline in violent crime as a function of increased gun control, there is another study presented showing the opposite.  Addressing access to guns is not going to prevent another massacre such as what happened at Newtown, Littleton, Aurora, or any of the other shootings.  Will the next massacre after such restrictions be a shooting?  Perhaps, not.  It will just be some other, possibly more violent, possibly more gruesome, and likely a larger target.  In fact, the attention that has been given to all of these shootings will only make it more appealing to those looking to copy, and perhaps outdo, the previous massacre.  In short, a person or group set out to commit an act of violence or domestic terrorism is not going to be turned around because they can't legally get a gun or the size magazine they're looking for.  One only needs to look as far as Timothy McVeigh for an example of this.  What happens when the next malcontent puts some kind of improvised explosive device or other weapon in their locker, or somewhere else in a school?  What then?

This is where the crux of the discussion should take place:  Why are these violent acts happening?  While I don't have any clear-cut answers, I do have some suggestions for places to look.  The first place I suggest looking is within our own society.  We glamorize and sensationalize violent behavior.  In the movies we watch, in the games we play, in our sporting events, reacting violently to something we don't like or is in our way is encouraged and, sometimes, rewarded.  The world today is complex, with a lot of competition between people, always trying to one-up each other.  We're constantly bombarded with messages saying that we should never be content and always trying to get more.  What happens when you can't get more, and it appears that other people are in your way?  How have we instructed our society to react to such frustrations?  What reactions gain the most attention?  If you want to see less violence in our world, we need to show violent behavior as unacceptable.  It won't eliminate violent acts, but will make them so unconscionable that we will tend to deal swiftly and forcefully when such behavior presents itself.  It won't become a controversial talking point for months.

The other place to look is philosophical (which could also be considered societal).  While people tend to come together in times of crisis, they do very little of that in their everyday lives.  My own observation is that many people see other people as a means to an end, and act accordingly.  This dehumanizes humanity, and justifies the taking of a life as a way to make a point.  One need look no further than home improvement contractors to see how many reports of substandard work is performed because they don't see the need to take the same care for their clients that they would do for their own family or friends.  If people act with such disregard for others in the craft they are proficient in, imagine the outcome when they see people generally as being in the way of something they want.  While this isn't a widespread thought pattern, I see it is as a growing trend.  It is a dangerous trend, as well.

Solving these issues is not simple.  It is not something that will change overnight.  I'm not sure how it will change, either.  However, the best I can suggest is that the more people resist falling into the trap of these negative behavior patterns and set a positive example for others, the more likely that will become popular thought.  It won't take place by forcing it upon people by law.  The law may create a bubble of safety in the short-term, but in the long-term it just raises the bar as the behavior has not changed.  People need to see the law as guiding principles for minimum standards of behavior.  The absence of a law against an activity doesn't mean it's a good idea.  It means that one should exercise common sense.

I mentioned earlier that the tighter gun control laws are only the beginning of the issues at stake.  There have already been talks of bans against violent video games, and further tightening security at schools.  I shutter to think about what happens when the next massacre happens through the hacking of a computer system that has controls over the physical environment.  Imagine that someone uses a very powerful computer system to hack a water treatment plant system controller and intentionally programs it to release toxins that causes a large number of people to get sick and die.  What then?  Do we outlaw computers with a CPU speed greater than some arbitrary value, because "nobody should be allowed to have a computer that fast."  "Because the only thing that a computer that fast can do is be used to crack encryption codes."  "Because only the government and military should have computers that fast."  "Because we can't trust that people will use a computer that fast safely."  This may seem nonsensical, but it really isn't.  As we come to depend more and more on computer technology to manage our world it is likely that these very questions will occur and ultimately become legal questions.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Trying this again

Well, I thought I wouldn't be back...but here I am.

It turns out that maybe someone at Google actually heard my rant and at least addressed some of the issues I brought up - the most serious of these was the fact that the posting editor didn't fit the width of my browser as I use it.  Well, for whatever reason, it now is...and the Publish, Save, Preview, and Close buttons are there as well.  I still don't like some of the other changes but this is workable.

So, thank you to the people who took my criticism seriously and resolved these issues.  I appreciate it.  I'm not sure when this all happened, since I really haven't been back here much.

It would probably stand to reason that you're all wondering what has happened in my world since September, 2012?  Reducing these to sound bites...

  1. Time Warner Cable, in an underhanded move to extract more money from its customers, decided to start charging $3.95/month to lease the cable modem.  In response, I purchased my own DOCSIS 3 cable modem (the Motorola SB6141), my wallet got a bit lighter, and there was a little bit of rejoicing.
  2. JC is back with more Mental Shrapnel, and some not-so-happy news.
  3. I discovered a new, amazing, YouTube musician TheUnsungHeroine (http://www.youtube.com/theunsungheroine).  Her real name is Kristina Hu, and she takes pop/techno/dubstep songs and interprets them in a classical solo piano style.  She has provided the soundtrack to my life for the past few months.  Recall that I really have a deep dislike for the anything overtly electronic (see My Musical Journey from August, 2010).  Kristina's re-imagining of the style and performing it as solo piano is simply wonderful.  She is nothing less than genius when it comes to music (as someone I know said, "She hears those songs differently than the rest of us do.").
  4. An old friend from grade school passed away shortly after Christmas.  I had very little recent contact with him as we both kind of went in separate directions, as frequently happens with childhood friends.  He was a brilliant mathematician.  In high school, he laid the foundation for a new set of mathematical properties based on the solution of y=x^x for x in closed form (the solution to the so-called coupled exponentials).  The last e-mail I received from him was in April when he told me of a heart condition he was suffering from, that he didn't feel he would make it through the surgery, and that he wanted to tell me about the math research he was doing in case he didn't make it.  I told him he'd been through tougher things and he'd pull through this.  Sadly, I was wrong.  R.I.P., Jay.  I won't forget you.
  5. It seems that lots of killing sprees seem to be happening.  The world clearly hasn't gotten any better at finding the root causes of these problems than when I wrote about this last (see Gun Control and Other Topics).
As for me ... well, let's not sugar coat things any ... I've been sinking down into depression again.  This is something that I have been and probably will forever be wrestling with (as much as I'd like to think not).  The usual symptoms where things seem hopeless, self-worth feeling pretty worthless, and things that were once enjoyable seem irritating and pointless.  Those who are familiar with the malady will see these as classic symptoms, those who aren't will wonder why one can't just "snap out of it."  The latter will be the folks that should break out google, look up depression, and be happy they're not dealing with it.  Because of this, I'm not sure how much I'll be writing here.  While writing about things helps clarify my thoughts somewhat, as well as help share some of them with others, it has become difficult to write as well...  In any case, this is a start...we'll see where it goes.