Google+ is Boring

26 July, 2011 at 11:58 am

Sorry. It just is. I have had it now for a couple of weeks, and I just couldn’t care less. I don’t really even pay attention to the notifications in my Gmail inbox when they appear. I like the circles, and my interest in the site ends with that feature.

 

And when I do log in, I never spend more than a few minutes there. It could be because most of the people I interact with regularly are only on Facebook. It could be because it just feels like another, less robust version of Facebook. It could be because I have massive ADD and don’t need another social networking site to check.

 

I don’t know what it is. It just doesn’t click for me. And it would appear that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

 

I’m not ready to count it out yet. I think Google+ will stick around. But a Facebook replacement? No way.

Comment Moderation

21 July, 2011 at 5:20 pm

With trepidation, I’m turning it off. Don’t come in here all spammy spamerson and ruin it for everyone else.

 

 

Seriously. I’m not even kidding.

Haiku Wednesday – Robots

20 July, 2011 at 4:22 pm

I’ve never really written Haikus. About a month ago, we had an informal competition in my office to write the best Haiku about our association. I won. And I only used 4 syllables on the last line. And I wrote it five seconds before they started reading the entries.

 

Haikus are easy. Wednesdays are boring. I decided to combine the two, and I even spared you the alliterative gem that could have been “Haiku Hump Day.” Mostly because I hate the phrase, “Hump Day.”

 

Today’s theme is: robots. Here’s mine. Leave yours in the comments.

 

Skin of steel, clanking

Warmth exudes through laser eyes

Love does not compute

 

 

This robot does not exude warmth through his laser eyes...

This robot does not exude warmth through his laser eyes...

Why Arresting “Anonymous” Hackers Will Only Thin the Cyber-Herd

19 July, 2011 at 3:59 pm

The reports have been trickling in all day. FBI agents across the country are raiding homes and bringing in suspected members of the hacking group known as “Anonymous.” No word yet on how many actual arrests have been made, and only one suspect has been publicly named so far.

 

What I suspect Federal authorities will soon discover is that they are dealing with a very sophisticated mob of highly intelligent people who are utterly without scruples. Many members of the group taken as individuals are no doubt as non-threatening as your friendly neighborhood code-monkey. They’re gamers. Monty Python fans. Pop culture connoisseurs. Avid readers. Highly skilled – though while some will have capitalized on this to a great degree, a number of others are likely slackers. These latter are the Best Buy employees that sneer at you quietly as you ask inept questions about USB Hard Drives and willingly pay bloated retail prices for what they buy from Newegg.com, or through gray market suppliers. I’d venture to guess that with the exception of those that have studied the martial arts in conjunction with avid anime obsessions, or perhaps those who’ve learned actual swordplay in the context of LARPing, few members of the group have ever felt personally powerful in their entire lives.

 

And that’s what makes them dangerous. Because as a distributed collective, they function on the Internet with god-like power.

 

 

I’ve never known that power personally, but I always hoped I’d have a chance. I remember as a teen, back in the 1990s, when I first plugged in a modem and saw what it could do. I slipped into the bitstream at 2400kbps and started pulling down phone numbers for local BBSes. I can’t remember where I found my first number. Probably got it off of CompuServe. I’d spend my evenings tying up my family’s phone lines dialing up, playing Legend of the Red Dragon, and downloading games like Kingdom of Kroz and Castle Wolfenstein 3D and the original Doom. I installed a tagline generator that inserted witty one-liners like “Where We Operate at a 90 Degree Angle to Reality” at random at the end of my posts. I cut my teeth in online Catholic apologetics against a particularly acerbic British atheist known online only as Fox, but whom I later met in real life and found to be a very nice guy during my one-and-only guest stint on Mad Trivia Party. He even gave me a ride home.

 

I also poked around hacking and phreaking texts, read anti-authoritarian classics like Jolly Roger’s Cookbook and thought that the Hacker Manifesto was one of the coolest things ever put on virtual paper. I received my certificate proving that I was one of the first 200 Internet users in Broome County, NY when Spectra.net came online in 1994. (I should have kept that certificate. My kids will wonder some day about what the world was like before the Internet…) By the time I read about the exploits of Kevin Mitnick in the 1995 book CYBERPUNK: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, I felt like I knew my way around the dark corners of cyberspace a little bit.  I knew there was a future in fighting cybercrime, and I thought about how awesome it would be to be in on it.

 

But I was lazy and undisciplined. I couldn’t make myself even learn how to program in BASIC, despite having a book aimed at teaching kids to do just that. I never bothered with HTML until I was in college, and then I relied on WYSIWYG editors. I had too strict of a moral code to be a hacker, and not enough motivation to lay the foundations for a career in cybercrimes enforcement, so I did nothing. But I remember the dream. I remember reading Neuromancer again and again, not really getting it but knowing what it represented. I remember how awesome it felt, thinking about how you could exist in a world outside the system and nobody else knew who you were or where you were or how to stop you. How you could fight against anyone that way, no matter how powerful. You could cruise through the darkness of cyberspace at the speed of data – which was always increasing – doing whatever you wanted. It was intoxicating.

 

These people in Anonymous, they knew these feelings too. And the ones that are getting picked off right now, they’re probably the lazy ones. The slackers. The ones like me, who never had the discipline to really see it through. Who took shortcuts and didn’t cover their trails. Who wrote sloppy code. But there are so many more out there, and they are more careful. Smarter. Better trained. They probably work for cybersecurity firms themselves, and know all too well how the establishment thinks and how to break through. The FBI is just thinning the herd.

 

I’m not rooting for Anonymous, and I pretty much never root for the Federal Government. But I think a war is brewing, and it’s not going to end any time soon. The FBI is going to be their next target, because they think in terms of hitting back twice as hard. The Internet makes a hacker feel invincible. It’s maybe the only time he feels like that. Probably not in life, probably not with women, probably not in his job. But you can’t underestimate how much not feeling that power in every other part of their lives will motivate these guys. They think of themselves in terms of David and Goliath. Or Robin Hood. Or, as the mask they often don show, as V.

 

And they believe they can win.

How High Can You Stack ‘Em?

15 July, 2011 at 11:25 am

We’ve made offers on at least half a dozen homes in the last three months. D.C. area housing sales are defying the trends that define housing in the rest of the U.S. We have a genuine seller’s market on our hands, with competitive bidding, contracts being written on houses site unseen, and full asking price (or more) being met without flinching. I heard on the radio the other day that June has been the busiest for home sales in this area in 6 years. I believe it.

 

Which brings me to our current predicament. We qualify for a certain price range, and we need a certain amount of house and yard to accommodate the size of our family. If we were to create a Venn diagram (and who doesn’t love making those?!) we would find that the overlap between the two would be very, very small.

 

Where they do overlap is coincidentally where just about the hottest sales activity seems to be happening. We’ve made offers on at least half a dozen places. A number of these have been short sales, and we’ve offered less than asking by approximately the exact difference between asking and what we are qualified for.

 

We have thus far been largely unsuccessful. We get outbid, out financed, out downpayment-ed, or something. Every time. The margin of error we’re facing with most houses is about a $30,000 – $50,000 price difference. Not particularly substantial in the grand scheme of things, but enough that we’re missing out on the “let’s settle down here and never move again” houses and instead looking at the “let’s buy this one and hope the market doesn’t get any worse, at least, so we can move to something more suitable in five years or so” houses.

 

I’d like to take this opportunity to state that I really don’t want to hear about renting. We’ve rented for most of our married life, and we’ve moved about 7 times in 8 years. Rent hikes, idiot landlords, massively energy inefficient properties (I will NEVER do oil heat again!), ludicrous commutes, nice houses that are way too small – they’ve run the gamut, and we’ve been nomads because of it. And at the present moment, rent for a house of the size we need is almost exactly the same as a mortgage payment on an equivalent-sized house, tax included. You do the math.

 

Which brings us to the present moment. After nearly four months of constant searching, we’ve seen everything on the market in the area where we want to live to maintain reasonable access to parish/homeschool coop or diocesan school/work/extracurricular activities/shopping/etc. No stone is unturned.

 

Which means that we’re looking at a townhome. We have one in our sights and have a counter-offer on the table that we could sign today. Upsides? It’s big enough, nicely laid out, in a good area, close to woods, a small lake, a community pool, a state park, a shopping center we already frequent, closer to work than many we’ve looked at, for a price we can definitely afford. Downsides? No real yard to speak of (a small grassy patch with a slightly less small grass patch behind it leading to a big fence separating subdivision from road) an otherwise nice view of said state park marred by a large set of power lines directly parallel to the back deck, about one less room than we really need (home office), and it’s a townhome. Which means it’s four floors and lots of stairs, piled on top of the neighbors, no privacy to speak of, no place to really garden, and not the country home we’d hoped to settle down in. It’s transitional, but workable. Assuming we don’t get stuck in it after the currency collapses or they start billing us all directly for the national debt or there are food riots or some such.

 

We have an outlier – a bank owned home that’s nice, big, on land, and went to auction twice already at far less than we offered (and even farther less than the current asking price on the open market) with no bids received. We have no idea if the bank will take our offer. It’s sort of last ditch.

 

We’ve got to make a decision on the townhome within 24 hours or we’ll probably lose it. The big bank-owned home is telling us we’ll hear back in 3 to 6 days on whether they’ll even accept our offer. Decisions, decisions.

 

I always wanted my kids to have what I had growing up. Room to grow, trees to climb, shrubs to play in, the peace and serenity of rural living. It’s looking instead like we’ll probably be playing a game of “How High Can You Stack ‘Em?”

Karmic Homebuying

14 July, 2011 at 8:38 am

Last week, we went out to look at a house in the country. It was on 6 acres, heavily wooded, and as we drove up the long, winding driveway, one of the trees lining the way had fallen across the road, blocking it entirely. I got out of the car to see if I could move it. I was able to slide it aside just enough that we could drive around it. We went on with our home viewing as normal once the owner arrived.

 

The house was nice. It needed a good bit of work, but it was a decent enough place. The entire master bathroom was gutted, and it would be a big project. There were patches of drywall ripped clean in otherwise finished rooms. The inside felt substantially smaller than the advertised square footage. All in all, though, a workable place to live. Cozy even.

 

As we were getting ready to leave, my wife volunteered my help to the owner. Her husband was not around (Jamie sensed a divorce might have been in the works) and the tree needed to be cut up and taken out of the road. I hadn’t so much as touched a chain saw in over a decade, but I had at least used one before. She gratefully accepted.

 

I managed to get the thing running after a good five or ten minutes of priming, choking, throttling, pulling, and general coaxing. I walked back down the driveway to the trouble spot and went to work. Two cuts and I had manageable logs that could be thrown into the woods. The Realtor who was with us mumbled something about “not even remembering what poison ivy looks like” as he helped me toss off the lumber. I laughed and told him that I didn’t either, it’d been so long since I’d been around any.

 

We went home that night and wrote the offer.  We whittled down the asking price a good bit, considering all the work we’d have to do, and where our budget was. The house was also a 45 mile drive from my office, and probably another 15 miles to D.C. A long hike that would cost me extra in gas and tolls over the long term. The offer was a little on the low side, but fair, especially considering that the house was a short sale.

 

They didn’t take the offer.

 

I did get poison ivy. Right on the back of my knees, in that sensitive spot that not only itches worse than elsewhere, but has a tendency to spread the rash when you bend your legs and compress the blisters. It’s itching right now.  And burning. I’m not doing a very good job not thinking about it.

 

I said something this morning to my wife about how uncomfortable it was, and how “No good deed goes unpunished.” She scolded me and reminded me that it was a good deed all the same. Our oldest daughter suggested that perhaps the Devil had his hand in it, punishing my good deed so I’d be disinclined to do another. She probably had a point. She’s been doing volunteer work all week through the parish, and the improvement in her attitude and willingness to help out at home is making me proud. The best I could do, though, was grumble something begrudgingly before heading off to the shower.

 

Damn, this itches. And I don’t even get to be grumpy about it.

“I Like What Procrastination Says About Me”

13 July, 2011 at 6:25 pm

I don’t know who Justin Kownacki is. I do know that his name sounds vaguely Slavic, he lives in Baltimore, and he does some sort of social media consulting. I also know that he appears to be fairly smart. Smart people often say things that make me smarter, so I sometimes listen to what they say.

 

Justin posted something last month about “The Real Reason I Tweet So Much.” I just read it. It’s one of those smart things I was talking about:

 

Lately, I’ve been trying to understand why it’s so easy for me to diverge from my own best laid plans.  Why is it so common for me to start the day with a completely reasonable to-do list, only to spend the next hour devouring links from MediaBistro?  And I think I’ve figured out a few of the reasons why I willfully neglect my own better judgment.

Social media interaction is a quick, cheap win.

Yes, I could spend hours writing well-researched blog posts, or months creating original videos, or years building self-sufficient startups, or… I could tweet something and see if someone else retweets it.  And sure, the emotional spike I receive from seeing that retweet is microscopic compared to the charge I would get from landing a new client or launching a new business… but that tiny buzz is also immediate.

And if I feel it enough in a day, I can almost convince myself I accomplished something.

Ah yes. I know the feeling all-too-well. It’s not unlike the feeling of accomplishment I used to get playing video games. In real life, I was a directionless schlub who couldn’t find a path to success if it was marked with neon arrows. In a game, though, I was a hero. The best driver. The sharpest shooter. The brilliant strategist. Simulated successes achieved on a “moderate” difficulty setting were far more satisfying than real successes earned through good old fashioned boring, time-consuming hard work.

Social media is a lot like that. A pithy comment gets liked, retweeted, or responded to. A blog post gets comments from people telling me how much they loved (or hated) what I wrote. Heck, just today, I’ve checked my WordPress stats no less than a dozen times. In fact, I just did it again. After almost a year of inactivity, I got 73 hits today. 73 hits after more than eight months of flatline. Doesn’t that make me cool?

Nope. But it feels that way.

Justin goes on:

I like what procrastination says about me.

Actually, that’s not true.  What I really like is the illusion that I can waste large chunks of my workday and still somehow be successful in the end.  Allowing myself to get distracted is my subconscious way of pretending I’m immortal, and convincing myself that spending today ___ is completely fine because I’ll have a whole new day to make up for it tomorrow… and the next day… and the next day…

What’s sobering for me to realize is that, by this rationale, I’m actually more interested in always having a second chance than I am in getting something done right the first time.  I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’m pretty sure I don’t like the implications.  (And I’m the one implying them.)

 

Bingo.

 

There are days when I just write off accomplishing anything. Those are usually the days when by noon or one o’ clock, I’ve done little more than read 20 articles or blogs, responded to two or three e-mails (tops), watched at least three videos online, and peppered Twitter with the distilled wisdom/humor/insight I’ve gleaned from my digital foraging.

 

About a month ago, I tried to form a mantra for evaluating my working life. “Is what I’m doing making me money? If it’s not, why am I doing it?” Of course, money’s not everything. But when you have five kids and their stay-at-home mom depending on you to grease the wheels of housing, food, education, transportation, culture, and entertainment, you’d best deliver.

 

And yet there are plenty of days when this mantra doesn’t work. I tune it out. There might be something worth reading on Mashable. I just need one more cup of coffee. After I take that trip to the rest room, I can get comfy and get working. Wait, who just IMed me?

 

Real work can easily be replaced by empty busyness. You’re tired at the end of the day, but you have nothing to show for it. Except maybe the 37 Facebook notifications in your inbox.

 

Now that I’m blogging again, feel free to remind me of this little pearl of wisdom. I’ll make it easy by sharing it with you on Twitter.

Dear Netflix

13 July, 2011 at 10:58 am

I like your service. Always have. But I’m not getting a lot of mileage out of the DVDs, since I always forget to return them. I’ve had How To Train Your Dragon sitting on top of my Blu-Ray player for at least 6 months. 6 months. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great movie. But I don’t need it for that long.

 

I’ll grant you that I got distracted by Netflix Instant. Firefly, Better off Ted, Pushing Up Daisiesthese were all great shows, even if they all got cancelled right as they were gaining momentum. Outsourced was more entertaining than I expected. I’m impressed that you got Iron Man 2 up there. Granted, it happened a year after I watched it. Three times. But nice work getting a real movie.

 

The bottom line is that I have over 200 titles in my Instant Queue, and I never watch them. I want to be interested in them, but they’re just not that exciting. I bet nearly 100 of them are documentaries. I like documentaries, but really, who has time to watch seven variations on Food, Inc.? And I’m not really watching both seasons of Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex. It’s good sci-fi, but it’s Anime. And it’s kind of boring. I mean, I’ve had it in my queue for three years.

 

I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve begun seeing other movies. It was destined to happen. There are easier ways to get new movies than waiting for my discs to come in the mail. And if I’m watching a series and it’s not on your instant service, forget it. I pay for 1 DVD at a time! At the rate I return DVDs, multi-disc series would take me longer to watch than the original broadcast run of the show.

 

The Internet provides me with the entertainment I seek. Sure, I visit some less than reputable sites, virtual speakeasies in the darker corners of the Web. They advertise electronic cigarettes and stock photos of busty Russian women who really want to meet me, and sure, I occasionally come away from the experience with a virus or two. All part of the game. But I get the content I’m already paying you for without having to go through your arcane distribution system. I can fire up my copy of Bit Torrent and have the movie I just put at the top of my Queue faster than you can get it in a little red envelope. I never have to send back scratched discs, or chase my kids around asking what they did with the return mailer.

 

I’m not a pirate. I don’t keep this stuff forever – who has the terabytes for that? I don’t sell it or share it. I just want a movie rental system that works as fast as the rest of my tech. And I keep paying you so I feel better about the fact that I’m paying somebody, somewhere, for producing the fine entertainment that I’m watching. I’m not in this to gyp anybody.

 

You, on the other hand, are apparently in this to gyp me. $17.98 a month for the meager selection of conspiracy documentaries, eighties sitcoms, zombie/stripper movies, and independent GLBT melodramas? Plus one disc at a time from your real catalog, if I can remember what a post office is or where to find one? Please. I will pay you MORE than $17.98 a month if you’ll just give me a real selection of watchable shows on Instant. I want to give you my money. Look – it’s right here, hanging out of my pocket. It’s going to fall on the floor. It’s calling your name: “NET-FLIIIIIIX! NET-FLIIIIIIIIIIX!”

 

But you can’t have it. Not until you give me what you want. You don’t get to charge me more but not give me more. We already have Obamacare.

 

You don’t get to take more of my money. Except, wait, did you just add Ip Man 2 to Instant? I kind of wanted to see that. I mean Ip Man wasn’t bad, as kung fu movies go. Maybe I won’t cancel you yet. I still need to send back How To Train Your Dragon or you’ll charge me for the disc.

 

Maybe I’ll cancel after that.

 

 

Perishable Skills

13 July, 2011 at 8:30 am

In 2009 Jamie and I got certified to carry concealed weapons. The instructor warned us that shooting is a perishable skill. It isn’t like riding a bike. “Go shooting at least once a month,” he said, “or you’ll lose your accuracy.”

Shooting isn’t the only perishable skill.

Creativity is perishable. Stop using it on a daily basis and it will recede into the dark corners of your mind. Optimism is perishable. I’ve never been an optimist. I tried it for a while, though, and it started to stick. I started seeing my way toward the solutions to problems instead of just seeing the problems. Even in the midst of some really hard times, I was able to keep a grasp on hope. It made me a better man. Then things got a little better for a time – at least in the ways that were important to me – and I didn’t notice the way other things were getting worse. I stopped exercising the optimism muscle and next thing I knew I was becoming a cynical bastard again. Anger nudged joy back out. I stopped seeing solutions. This is death for anyone who wants to have a job doing anything other than washing dishes. Or anyone with a family. A positive outlook is not optional in life unless you aspire to be unsuccessful and unhappy.

Creativity and optimism are also kissing cousins. Each works better when you have the other.

Writing is also a perishable skill. Sort of. For me, writing is a bit like riding a bike. I never forget how to do it. I just forget how to do it well. Writing every day makes you a better writer. There is no substitute for that, any more than there’s a substitute for doing the cardio for a healthier heart. You have to put in the time.

I’m going to be writing every day. Maybe I’ll start doing cardio, too.

 

Burn It All Down

12 July, 2011 at 8:01 pm

I don’t know if it’s a healthy impulse. It’s one I have more often these days. When confronted with encroaching chaos I am a raging pyromaniac. When faced with corruption my fingers twitch, craving a lit match. When epic stupidity rears its ugly head, burn baby, burn.

The cleansing fire needn’t be actual. Destroying unworkable systems, though, especially those which hem you in – that’s satisfying.

I’ve been reading James Altucher lately. That guy knows how to sling a tale. (Cracking open the RSS feed of a good storyteller is one of the best remedies to a nearly two years’ long case of writer’s block.) When he talks about dealing with crappy people, I think he mostly gets it right. Except that some crappy people just won’t be ignored. Sometimes you can’t. You have to work with them, you have to live with them, you have to pay their fines or listen to their sermons or suffer their incessant self-aggrandizement during meetings and conference calls. Sometimes there’s no choice but to smile and pretend you don’t want to set their world ablaze.

Sometimes the fact that you have five kids and live in someone’s basement and want to find a place to call home more than you’ve ever wanted anything means you just have to deal.

Sometimes I think that’s why God invented alcohol. Even though I know that’s how the crappy people win.

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