Thursday, March 31, 2005

Blogging and the Doogie Howser Connection

Remember how cool you thought it would be if YOU were a 16 year old doctor? Yeah, I felt the same way. I was prodded as a ten year old by the yet latent calling of my budding genius luring me to greatness at every turn by the little nerd that could -- Doogie Howser, M.D.

I was kinda new to computers as a ten year old, and I had really just used them to play games like "Crickety Manor" and "Math Munchers" on an Apple IIe. I also thought it was neat that you could "draw" on the screen by arranging ascii characters and learning the "secrets" of pushing the control keys to make really wacky looking icons.

But Doogie, he didn't play games. He was a 16 year old doctor thinking about sex and life and death. He used his computer for adult things, like writing in a journal, and organizing his thoughts.

I wondered at the time exactly what program he might have been using to scrawl that nice white text on a blue background like that... I mean, at the time, there was no such program to do that... it was all Hollywood. (You know with their fancy Blue monitors, and White text! How glamorous! Surely only a 16 year old doctor could afford that kind of gear.)

I thought of starting a journal of the hand written variety, but the idea was cheesy to me after a week or so, and I felt guilty doing it. If only I had a computer with that blue screen and white text, I'd be able to do it, and not feel guilty about it. I was certain that I would write religiously if I could only acquire that setup. I wouldn't feel ashamed of my Computer Journal. Not like my silly pencil scrawled musings that I was even embarassed to re-read.

Writing your thoughts daily on an electronic medium seemed so incredibly romantic to me at the time, I think the impression it left on me is still felt today.

So, all of this affinity I have for pixelated self expression simply can't be unique. I mean, I wasn't the only ten year old who watched Doogie and wanted to be just like him (without all of the gross blood and such of course!) One can't help but make the jump from wanting to be like Doogie to wanting their own electronic blue screen with white text to record only a precious few of their most mature and introspective lessons of the day.

But alas, there were not blue screens and white text to be had by the masses at that time. We all had to wait.

Then along comes the world wide web. People instantly feel the desire to express their innermost personal thoughts for all of the world to see. And thus, the personal homepage is born. Yes, it's great, just like Doogie right?

Well, ok, you have to add a few <tags> here and there, but it's real life, not a tv show? Hmm?

Around 1996 (97?) I had learned to program with some proficiency, and I somehow stumbled on my old emotions about the Blue Screen and White Text, with absolutely nothing else on the screen, and I thought... "I'm going to be the man to unleash the thing on the whole world! And finally give people what they want!" So I wrote a simple program that accepted input in the form of White Text on a Blue Screen (with of course, nothing else on it) that was able to save the output into HTML format. GREAT! I actually wrote a few "entries" this way, and posted them online only to be flamed into humiliation by "pros" who had already been using the internet for "3 years now." I don't think I realized at the time that all I really wanted was to be like Doogie. Damnit!

Well I know that since I am not the only one who had this deep rooted emotion about being exposed via electronic writing to the entire world as the genius I really am, there must have been millions of others who balked at homepages in the same way that I did.

Sure enough, personal home pages were classified as "gushy spam" most of the time and we all used the net for stuff like AIM and IRC until something better came along.

And then... one day... with the help of Al Gore (?)... BLOGS appeared on the scene. They caught on like wild fire, because now finally! all of the Doogie fans could do what he did! Freedom from all of the nagging mature and wise comments that were just WELLING UP INSIDE OF US ALL OF THESE YEARS, we blog. Or so goes the theory.

Bet you didn't know the real reason that Blogs are such a buzzword these days, did you? (And you thought it was about that news anchor guy, who said that silly stuff!)

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

How I got to be such a Geek

It all started because I lived out in the middle of nowhere. I had nothing to do but stare at a computer screen. I learned to write simple programs in AppleSoft BASIC when I was 10 in "Challenge Class" (as it was called in those days) in elementary school.

I learned to write text programs, and some HLIN VLIN graphics, but I couldn't afford a computer of my own. I found a used Commodore VIC20 at a garage sale and I FINALLY had something to program. It came complete with Tape drive, but didn't have the ritzy graphics caps that Applesoft did. Didn't bother me a bit.

I bought a used mac 512K for $50 in 1992, and my neighbor who was a CS prof at the local university died of lukemia, and his family gave me all of his books and programs. Sad that it took such an incident, but the lot included an MS-BASIC interpreter, a pascal compiler, LightSpeed C and Mac Assembler. I joined APDA (Apple Programmer and Developers Association) as a 12 year old, and bought the series of Inside Macintosh books. I checked out a few books on Pascal and C from the local library, and took myself for a test drive in those languages too. I settled on C, and I wrote my first series of games. A popup shooter (arcade style) and a space invaders clone (Which I might add was a lot more fun than space invaders because there were more weapons and bonuses and stuff) I learned blitted graphics, and my final mac Enterprise was a black and white clone of the game Dragon Warrior cross bred with the Legend of Zelda. By this time I was 14, and System 7 for the Mac was out. To me, it was the holy grail, but I still couldn't run it. Never made it that far. My parents bought me a 486 and I ran qbasic. I made a zork-like game, an evolution simulator, and by this time, I was seriously hooked on computers.

When I was fifteen, I began ripping apart my computer and adding parts. I got a job at the local bank holding company working three hours a day as a help desk technician, and then moved up to full time in the summer. By the time I was 19, I was in college working on a degree for CS, and I got an internship at a DoD contractor, where I stayed for two more years as an intern, and eventually was hired. I still do a lot of development work (especially web development) on the side for fun, but most of my real life interaction with computers is as a Sysadmin.

Soon after I began my internship, a fellow CS major of mine introduced me to Slackware Linux. It was a match made in heaven, and all of my beloved C programming skills flooded back to me. I eventually saw Redhat evolve into the dominant disto, took it up, and I'm still following with the Fedora series. In the meantime, I've learned PERL, Java, C++, and the various Microsoft pervesions of them in the .NET platform.

A contest/school project in my senior year of college exposed me to my first round of embedded programming. I learned how to wire circuits and code for microcontrollers (MC8H11 and BS2) and I've started myself a hobby of robotics.

I've always been very proud of the fact that I've had my hands in every facet of computing, from the text based early days, to wiring circuits, to the opcodes and operands I used to do some RTOS raw coding. And I have only recently discovered MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) and I'm hooked. Techie by day, gamer by night, I live with my beautiful wife, and we're expecting a baby in June. I hope that I don't seem like such a geek to my kids. It's going to take all that I have to not force my geekliness on them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Techno-Privacy and the Lack Thereof

Today you go online, use a pseudonym, and say what you want. You go to the store, and pay for groceries with something you pull out of your wallet. You cruise merrily along the highway, slowing down when you think you may run into a cop. Sometimes you step out of the room at work to take a private phone call.

Oh glorious days these are! With sender ID on the horizon, you can no longer flame your favorite blogger with anonymity. The technology at first promises to authenticate the sender's server, to aide in the filtering of spam. The next step is to authenticate the sender by name, or other registered information. Another step, and they have your home address tagged somewhere in a database that can be retrieved when cross referenced by your email address. Still, finding you isn't really a simple business.

The government implements a database of drivers license information now. They use this to track you, along with a SSN, when you fill out paperwork, or try to buy liquor. Now they are adding facial geometry metrics into the database, so that the picture on the front of the card can be used to identify you, and you alone. This way, nobody can steal it, change the picture, and pretend they're you. Great! The next step is the use of this facial geometry to recognize faces on security cameras to catch bank robbers, or validate access to restricted areas in government buildings. Combine this with public area video cameras, like they have in London, and they will be able to personally identify anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.

Throw another database in, and they can track your movements. First they use it in court cases to prove people did or did not do what they said they did. Then, private investigators use it to catch women having affairs with their bosses. Soon, companies track this information from public information sources to better target their advertising based on the actual habits of their customers.

Cars get all sorts of telemetry built into them like the Black Box that helps us recover information from a plane crash. These computers are linked to a central database so that roadside services like OnStar(TM) can unlock your doors for you. Five years later, this information is subpoenaed by the government when funds are low to nab speeders for EVERY single infraction. The onboard navigation system queries a national database to find which road you need to take to grandma's house, and happens to make a log entry of your request. Now, your exact route is known, and not only that, but how often you drive it, to someone other than you.

You can see where I'm going with this. Little by little, inch by inch, convenience after convenience and technology eventually envelops us in a blanket of information. Information available to the government, hackers, marketers, educators, employers, and even the kid next door. It happens slowly, piece by piece, each interval seemingly insignificant, until you look back five years and realize that you lived in a totally different world!

Today, you can gripe about the government's ability to tap your phone line, or the way a stalker can look up your white page phone number is a few key strokes, but tomorrow, it's the thought police. Like it or not, that's where we're going. All of us. Don't try running off into the woods, or you'll end up like Ted Kaczinsky. I'm certainly not inspired by that one.

We have two options now: innovate and be a part of this technological wave, paying off the mortgage as we go, or be run over by the freight train that all of this evil techno garble is riding on.

Unless we decide to give up computers, and adding electronic convenience to our lives, we are just going to have to live with it. We can stage all of the revolutions and protests we like, but sooner or later, it's still going to get us. Technology and human knowledge are doubling faster and faster according to the law (LAW not local regulation) of increasing returns. This is clearly a race that people can not come from behind and win. You have to be in it starting now. Live it, breathe it, and push its limits. You simply (and literally) can't afford not to. The economy is going global, and taking privacy with it. No use whining about it.

Friday, October 01, 2004


What is a Nookyoolar weapon anyway?

Friday, August 13, 2004

Little Green Men

With the recent discovery of extra-solar planetetary systems, and their relative strangeness in comparison to our own, a new debate is ignited. I guess I'd better start at the beginning.

As one article on details, the other planetary systems that scientists have been able to identify bear almost no resemblence to the solar system we call home. To discover these other planets, scientists are using a technique that that employs measurments of the radial velocity of other stars. This technique is only accurate enough to find stars with planets at least as massive as Jupiter, and the measurements are only effective around stars similar in mass to our own Sun. The technique basically works becuase big planets exert their own gravity on the host stars and pull them slightly out of their normal trajectory around the center of the galaxy.

If you're still not following me, I'll try to simplify. Stars left to their own means would have a calculable trajectory as they orbit around the galactic center, unless something massive is 'jerking them around' along the way. Our own Sun is no different. Instead of the center of mass of our solar system lying at the core of the sun, it's slightly off kilter, indicating the effect of the other objects, primarily Jupiter, in orbit around it. Scientists simply look for 'jerky' orbits of other star systems, and infer that something at least the size of Jupiter is bullying them. Smaller planets simply don't have the mass to pull their stars off course enough to us to be able to measure and thusly we can only find the big ones.

Not only does this allow for us to determine that they have planets, but the speed of this 'jerking' from end to end allows the siderial period (the 'year' length) of the planet to be calculated.

Naturally, scientists assumed that since Jupiter takes about twelve earth years to orbit our sun, that we would find a bunch of other ones with similar properties. As it turns out, the sidereal periods of known extrasolar planets are nothing like our own Jupiter's -- infact they vary from as short as nine days, to several earth years.

That means that though there are many planetary systems out there, not that many of them are likely to harbor life in the forms that we know it. If they orbit their stars to fast, or too closely, the conditions wouldn't line up to make earthlike life.

What about other kinds of life? Like maybe... beings of energy? We wouldn't even know them if we saw them -- and perhaps we have already, and looked past them!

Ignoring the recognition problem, other civilizations may exist, and they may build vast empires spanning galaxies and last for millions of years... But even millions of years is a short time, relatively speaking. Planets are always forming and being destroyed. Say another hundred million civilizations did exist, and that they lasted for 10 times the length of the human race, and eventually die out. The chances of these civilizations, assuming they are evenly distributed in the universe, ever meeting one and other are still statistically insignificant.

So, to sum up my own thoughts: It would be nearly impossible for humans to be the only civilized creatures in the universe throughout its entire existence. But, the chances of any co-existing with us, let alone close enough to us for us to find them before we inevitably perish in the void, are slim to none. Effectively we are alone on this blue planet, even though realistically we probably are not unique. Hitchhiker's Guide anyone?

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Get Ready for the Old People Stuff

Go ahead. Finish setting up that Bittorrent session. You may want to sit down for this. As you go about your daily business, think about how lucky you are to be a member of the modern american mainstream. SUV's, internet, chilli dogs, and oh yes, the promise of social security.

You don't know it yet, but your life is about to dramatically change within the next few years. After World War II, the good ol' boys came home from the war to their (hopefully) sex-starved wives to make the next generation of little soldiers. Thus, a population explosion overtook the US in the decade that follows. The "Baby-Boomers" were born into a world that Hitler created, and they would one day rule.

Nobody could have imagined the impact they would have on the nation. They are still, 50-some years later, the largest section of the US population, and the target of most brands of television and radio advertising.

We are currently teetering on the brink of the retirement revolution of the boomer masses. As most of the so call boomers round the corner on 58, 59... soon hitting 65, you will see a massive influx of ads for "old people stuff" on TV.

That's right, you can expect that 2 out of every 3 commercials will be for stuff like The Independence or even Depend (which incendentally is no longer named 'DependS'

It's already started. Look how many commericals you see on Discovery or ABC for Follicare or disposable hearing aids that you can't see! (Amazing!) Yes that's right! The people in that picture could be YOUR parents! I'm sure the next time you're over for Thanksgiving dinner they'll see the commercials, and pretend not to be paying attention -- but you'll know that they're really hanging on Ed McMahan's every word when he discourses on life insurance costs. They really are more interested than they'd like to admit when they see commercials for the Hoveround , which just so happens to be 'the brand name product,' not just some cheap ass store brand of mobile scooter.

All I can say is get used to it. Until we as a country can pick up the pace, 'getting it on wit' eachother', or what you may call it to produce the next 'boom', we're in for an older, grumpier, consumer experience.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Not Enough Noise

A couple of fellow geeks from back in my high school days have been putting together a great website which is both amusing and thought provoking (agreed with more emphasis on the former.) has a repository of humously written masterpieces fit for publication in The Onion itself. Mr. Parsely, with a master's in Library Sciences, and a deadpan textual delivery style, shows his geekly true colors, and makes me proud to be able to say that we are acquaintences with such works as The League of Remarkable Individuals and his political satire simultaneously poking fun at the Ralph Nader and George W Bush campaigns, while managing to pull a few punches at the various graph and chart happy pollsters (Note: this article is still funny even if you're a Bush or Nader fan.) He takes a walk on the weird side occasionally, as is illustrated by his dabblings in the Snood Porn industry where his popularity is unmatched. How sharp is your IKEA Knowledge?

The more slice of life observational musings of Zedd encourage the casual viewer to take another look at common man nuances that are essentially funny, and go too often overlooked by the average jaded internet-class American. Take a look at how rural Pennsylvanians make clever use of their vending machine resources to feed their ever present need to fish. Zedd provides the equivelant of Blog-space one-liners, with such feature as Most Requested Buddy Icons

The site is not only amusing, but also provides the occasional time-saving public service to readers (or non-readers, as the case may be.) These guys aren't getting enough public attention, and I believe that the quality of their work deserves it. Do them, and yourself, a favor by visiting and make sure they know that they are appreciated. It's people like these who make the internet worth surfing.