Archive for June, 2014

Answer Them on the Field

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014


I’m not a big sports fan – my favorite “sports” to participate in are martial arts, my favorite sports to watch are sumo and baseball (though I can watch football with my family in a pinch), and of the real sports I’ve played, I prefer basketball – perhaps that’s because it’s the only sport in which I’ve scored an official goal.

My entire basketball career consisted of two seasons of grade school play, which I only dimly recall. I wasn’t a dedicated player – I was in grade school, and hadn’t yet learned the value of practice – and in official games I only got on court a handful of times. Actually, I only remember being on court once, but that one time, I got the ball, and took a shot.

I don’t remember the outcome of that shot. We were playing, I got the ball, I was in position, I took the shot, the game continued, we all ran to the other side of the court. Reviewing that sequence of events later, it’s clear what happened – if you know the rules of basketball – but at the time I didn’t think about it. I was told later that I not only got the ball and took the shot, I scored a goal.

That amazes me to this day – I still don’t quite believe it, and if one of my old grade school buddies told me that the onlookers were mistaken, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. But the onlookers told me that I did score – and if it was my only shot in the only game I played in, I have the weird experience of my crappy basketball career having a field goal percentage of 100%.

But I did play other sports, notably soccer. So at some level I’ve got the tiniest sliver of interest in the game, which is perhaps why I picked up something from all the World Cup coverage going on – in particular, a story of a black athlete booed by fans in the stands, and his coach telling him to be strong, to show character, and as for the people who were his critics:

We will answer them on the field of play.

I love that sentiment. I took it to mean that there may be people who hate you for who you are, where you are from, or for other things about yourself you cannot change – but you should not answer those criticisms; instead you should focus on conducting yourself at the highest level in your chosen work, and let that performance speak for itself.

I did some digging, and apparently this is an old phrase – I found references to similar phraseology dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s (back when the word “soccer” was still remembered as a contraction of “AsSOCiation Football”). The closest I could find to an exact quote was the following news article, which is not from the same event, but had the same idea:

We have told the youngster to be strong because we know they (Bosso supporters) are going to boo him. I have told him that playing for Dynamos has always been associated with pressure. I have told him he will be against thousands of supporters and he cannot answer them all by reacting to what they will be saying from the stands. He should just answer them on the field of play. I have told him to be strong, to show character.

This matters for many reasons, but it’s particularly relevant to me because of the ideas of people who I care about – some of whom are quite willing to critique others based on features they cannot change, and others of whom have called into question the whole project of focusing on people’s important similarities, rather than their obvious differences.

Now, I could take on those criticisms directly, and one day I will – but for now, I’m not. I am willing to discuss ideas, but I don’t want to dispute someone’s ideas if I haven’t taken the time to express the ideas I have of my own. Regardless of the merits of their position, clearly a person who says what they think is doing a better job of communicating than the one who doesn’t.

It’s hard even to write this article, because there are things I want to communicate that are based on ideas I have that themselves need so much explanation that it would derail everything I’m writing to express them. So I’m going to continue to do what I said I was going to do earlier: rather than arguing, I’m going to be strong, to show character, and express my own ideas clearly.

It’s likely that I won’t have a 100% field goal percentage in this endeavor. I’m not the Hemingway type, willing to throw 99 pages in the wastebasket to get to that one good page – you can’t be a blogger with that attitude. Instead, I believe in working hard, trying frequently, getting your ideas out there, acknowledging your mistakes, learning from them, and moving forward.

As for my – as for our – critics, for the time being, we shall not even acknowledge them. That isn’t to say that their criticism isn’t important, nor is it even to imply that the criticism is wrong. It is instead to acknowledge that if someone has criticized your behavior, the answer is not to defend yourself – but to instead prove them wrong by example

We shall answer them on the field.

-the Centaur

Pictured: My good friend Nathan Vargas, showing us, his friends, a proof of his competence in his chosen field of play. This will all become much more clear later.

There’s Always a Line

Saturday, June 14th, 2014


I’m a regular at many places – restaurants, cafes, bookstores. I’m a regular because I like good ruts – where you find something that works, like going to a good restaurant, with healthy food and clean tables suitable for working on your laptop, and located near your house and next to the bank and pet food store. When I find a good rut, I stick to it, so I hit the same places a lot.

And I’m friendly to the staff at these places, because I admire my father, who could be friendly to anyone, and because I’m a follower of Jesus, and I interpret his teachings to mean that everyone you meet is a person, and is just as valuable a person as you yourself are, and that you should treat them as you wish you should be treated.

So I get to know the staff, and often become friends with them. So while waiting for my food at Aqui Blossom Valley, one of my favorite restaurants (because it has healthy food and clean tables and … oh, heck, it’s the one I was talking about above, interpolate that description), I saw one of the staff, a busser turned part-time bartender, and walked over to say hello.

We talked for a while, and I asked if he wanted to become a full-time bartender. He hesitated a moment, then said yes. He said that bartending is faster paced than bussing tables, but unlike bussing, everything you need to do is right there at your workstation. There’s no circling the restaurant, then the kitchen, then the storeroom, then the restroom: it’s all right there.

Yes, but sometimes the line gets long, I said. And then my eponymous friend behind the counter said something interesting:

There’s always a line.

The line at the bar at Aqui can get intense on the evenings and weekends, easily a dozen people deep. But in his training, the bartender said that his trainers warned him that there would always be a line – and that he should do his best to ignore it. They told him to work at his own pace, because if you hurry up to get ahead, you’ll screw up and fall behind.

Early on in his training, he said, he would see the line stack up and tried to pick up the pace so he could get ahead. But when he did so, he found himself forgetting ingredients, ending up short, or mixing up the order. On one occasion, his shadow trainer looked at the drink, shook his head, and said “Pour it out and start over.”

From then on, he worked at his own pace, focusing on the order at hand, and it’s worked better for him.

There’s a lot of wisdom here. First, in the staff of Aqui, who train people for their positions, who shadow them to provide advice, and instruct them in how their jobs really work to be efficient, rather than trying to create the perception of efficiency by ordering the staff to rush and then screaming at them when they fall behind, as happens at so many other less successful restaurants.

But I perhaps I paid attention to that lesson because I’m a professional in the software industry – and, in my mind, a professor-in-training, learning how software really works so that one day I can go back to academia and help train the next generation to be better software engineers – and I’m always analyzing workplace environments and what makes them work … or not.

But the lesson that “There’s always a line” is more general. You always have a line of tasks stacked up in front of you: each day you need to get up, dress, breathe, drink, eat, excrete, and sleep, and you have a thousand other tasks besides. You never stop wearing clothes or eating or excreting, so you’ll always need to make sure you have laundry, good food and toilet paper.

But for any more complex tasks, there’s usually a right way and a wrong way to do it. When you’re a novice, you may fumble around, but once you become expert, there’s a system. You may improve the system, you may try to perfect it – but if you get in a hurry and you skip steps, you can make mistakes, and be far worse off than you started with.

Software is particularly vulnerable to this – mistakes found early in the process, say when you decide what you want, can be easy to fix, just by changing direction. Once a design is started it gets harder to fix mistakes, and even harder when there’s code. By the time you get to deployment, the costs skyrocket: according to NASA, mistakes in operation can be 1500 times as expensive.

I guess they would know. NASA lost a third of a billion dollars to a software glitch, when the Mars Climate Orbiter, which had inadequately tested software mixing English System and Metric units, misjudged its altitude – and even though the error was noticed in advance and a team met to discuss it, they skipped the course correction maneuver, causing the Orbiter to crash.

So remember: there will always be a line. Hurrying up to get ahead can lead to mistakes, which can put you behind … or, hey, lead to your fiery death on re-entry, and the ignominious legacy of being used forevermore as a warning and example to others of how not to conduct your business.

So ignore the line, take your time, and get it right.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the bar at Aqui, not yet open … so not yet having a line. ;-D

Don’t Put Things off Too Long

Friday, June 13th, 2014


Recently I wanted to write a blogpost. A blogger I read put up an interesting article, and I wanted to respond. But I rapidly found that there were so many concepts that I take for granted that the article would be incomprehensible without them. I had four bad choices: go ahead and make the article incomprehensible, make it so long it’s unreadable, write many blogposts explaining the ideas, which would make the final post no longer timely, or don’t blog it at all.

I went for #4, for now, because I realized something else recently: don’t put things off too long. That may seem contradictory, but in the case of the blogpost, I’d already put things off too long, and had lost the opportunity. So rather than scramble to recapture the opportunity, I decided to write about the lesson I’d learned about not putting things off.

I knew this lesson already because I had one friend whose father worked his whole life saving money, but then got too physically sick and mentally enfeebled to enjoy the bounty he’d prepared for his family. Then again, when I moved out of my condominium in Atlanta, another friend pointed out I’d made the classic rookie mistake: renovating the house on the move out to sell it … meaning the new owners got the benefit of the renovations, leaving me having lived there for years in a place I wasn’t happy with.

The right time to fix up your place is when you move into it: identify the problems that you have and fix them. If you’re going to spend a lot of money fixing up your place, you should enjoy it; don’t get suckered into spending a lot of money on renovations in the hope it will raise the price of the house. Unless it’s a big bathroom or kitchen remodel, it won’t.

There are a lot of reasons me and my wife didn’t fix up our place when we moved in, mostly having to do us expecting to move within a few years and that not happening because of the financial crash. We actually started the process of renovation, put up some crown molding and such, but then put it on hold … and the holding pattern continued for seven to eight years.

But, recently, we had the opportunity for me to move closer to work. We considered it, then decided not to. With the money we saved from not moving (down payment on new house, plus megabucks to ship all my junk) we considered renovating the bathroom. The cost for what we wanted was literally triple what we expected, so we decided to hold off on that too.

With the money saved for the move that we hadn’t spent, we realized we could easily fix many of the small woes in the house. I won’t go into all of them, but we’ve been systematically updating the house on a small scale – fixing up broken fixtures, replacing older equipment, planting plants, and so on. The most recent expenditure: a new umbrella for the back patio.

That seems like a small thing, but when we bought the house, it had a wooden trellis over the whole back patio, but it was destroyed before we moved in, in a freak rainstorm while the house was being tented for termites. A tree that shaded the patio had to come down because it was destroying the neighbor’s fence. So for most of the time we’ve lived there, the patio has never had adequate shade, and has effectively been unusable, leading me to spend many a day on the front porch.

The front porch is nice, but you should be able to use your patio. When we renovated it, we decided to stay cheap: a free table, cheap but very comfortable made-in-the-USA metal chairs and, rather than plunking a lot on a new trellis, we decided to get a simple fold-away patio umbrella. I put it up, winched it out … and found that the back porch completely changed.

You can see the result up there, but it’s hard to describe how it felt. The umbrella, while not seeming so large, actually covers the patio on its shorter length. The patio became inviting again. I had to work from home, so I dragged my laptop outside, sat under the umbrella, and coded while a sequence of cats hopped up into my lap, wanting attention.


The cost of the whole project was under five hundred dollars, about a quarter of the cost of replacing the trellis.

We could have done this eight years ago.

Congratulations. We just lost eight years of enjoyment we could have had in our back yard because we were indecisive in the name of saving an amount of money which, while not trivial to most people, was in the larger scheme of mortgages and cars and computers and phones and even the trellis project itself, was a mere pittance.

So don’t put things off too long, is what I’m saying. You may find yourself having missed out on years of enjoyment, as we did with our back porch, or you may find yourself unable to take advantage of an opportunity, as in the case of my blogpost. Yes, be frugal, be busy, be a good use of your time, but for goodness sake, if you have an idea, execute on it.

You’ll thank yourself later.

-the Centaur

Making a Mac Useful, Part 2: Why an New iMac?

Sunday, June 1st, 2014


Ok, why an iMac? Why Mac OS X at all? “Because they’re easy to use?” After looking at my list of “prep my Mac” todos, I say to that … ha!

However, despite that, I find Macs are just about the easiest to use of the mainstream operating systems (the others being Windows and Linux), but I’ve been computing for a long time and have acquired many quirks – or, more charitably, special needs. Some of those needs are just my druthers on how I want the computer to run, and other needs are vital parts of my workflow for which, if the computer doesn’t do its job, I literally have to go find another machine to get the job done. And I don’t like doing that – so I’ll spend a week or two beating a machine into shape if it means I can flip the thing open for two or three years and just have it do exactly what I want.

Well, then, why not beat a Windows machine into shape? For the record, I find Windows slightly more usable than Macs – no joke, and I’ve been using both for decades – but Macs are more reliable, more internally consistent, and most importantly, better integrated with UNIX. I’m a web and research software developer, and the standard OS in my part of the world is the UNIX variant called Linux – but Linux isn’t very reliable when running other software I need, like Microsoft Word, Photoshop or Starcraft. Alternatives like Cygwin make Windows more UNIX-friendly, but barely; whereas Mac OS X is built on top of UNIX.

That leads me, inexorably, to the Mac. As I said before, other alternative operating systems, like ChromeOS or Android or iOS, don’t run the software I need for work work, writing work, or pleasure – and cloud alternatives like Google Docs simply don’t count as they lack required features or – wait, why I am I even defending this? Microsoft Word runs on Mac and Windows. Photoshop runs on Mac and Windows. Alternatives to these programs are largely a joke, and that’s coming from someone who uses them – a lot. (I’m using Google Docs to write this note, in fact, and I’m also familiar with and use OpenOffice). If you can’t run Word or Photoshop well, reliably, you can’t play. And that leads me to Mac and Windows. And UNIX, inexorably, pushed me to the Mac.

For my personal use, I need a computer I can easily carry around with me that has at least a half-terabyte hard drive (to hold ALL my relevant files), a good processor, lots of RAM, and a decent-sized keyboard and screen, all in a lightweight package that won’t throw out my back when I put it in a bag. That led me to a maxed-out 13 inch MacBook Air, and it’s served me well.

But for my central home server, the computer to which the primary house printer is attached, I need something more. I need a much larger hard drive – a terabyte or more – so the computer can simultaneously serve as the Dropbox / Google Drive remote backup of my laptop computer, and also have more than enough space left over to hold archives and mirrors of my older computers and copies of my wife’s computer files. Something zippy, good for both game playing and programming and especially Photoshop / Illustrator, so the computer could serve as an editing bay for my comic book art.

I briefly considered the new Mac Pros, which are gorgeous machines. But when I buy a desktop PC, I do my very best to “max it out” so that the machine will last as long as possible. A maxed out Mac Pro with screen came in at something like ten thousand dollars – enough to buy a new maxed out iMac, a new Windows 8 touchscreen PC for my wife, a new backup solution, a storage shed out back, and some very nice dinners at Alexander’s restaurant.

Now, there are drawbacks. iMacs aren’t really expandable. They’re also a bit behind the times, UX-wise: iMacs don’t have touchscreens. That’s a shame, but, on the other hand, it isn’t particular to iMacs: Apple overall isn’t really ready to support touch screens yet. There’s a claim that they’re not useful yet, but I have a Windows 8 laptop as well, and I’ve used a Chrome Pixel and an ASUS Transformer Prime, and I can tell you that you get used to the idea that you can manipulate objects on screen really damn fast. However, that means if you want a touchscreen, you’re going to have to get a Windows 8 machine or an Android machine (yes, you can get full-sized – I mean, 19 inch – Android all-in-one PCs [ ], but I cannot yet find a full-sized Chrome OS touchscreen PC). Honestly, I’d rather have the applications that I want at this point, so Mac OS X is my only choice for now.

So an iMac it is: Microsoft applications, a UNIX base, and a price that fits.

Next up: the physical setup.

-the Centaur

Pictured: an Apple iMac 27 inch, a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 keyboard, and a towel serving as an ersatz cat bed, sans cat.

Making a Mac Useful, Part 1: Why Are You Hitting Yourself?

Sunday, June 1st, 2014


OK. This is going to be a deep dive, and it may take some time: I’m going to review the unbelievable list of tasks necessary to make a Mac OS X system usable for my daily work.

Now, this isn’t particular to Macs, nor even particular to desktop systems. Usually, when I get a new desktop or laptop or tablet or phone, I’m up and running in a few hours – sometimes, a few minutes – but for the next several weeks, I find myself cursing as I realize yet another program or setting hasn’t propagated over to the new machine.

That wouldn’t be much of a problem … except I do most of these tasks when I first get a machine, and I don’t update my machines often. I update phones roughly once a year, and laptops twice every few years – twice, since my work MacBook Pro and my home MacBook Air get refreshed on around the same schedule. While it’s easy to remember to toss a half dozen apps onto a phone and tweak a few settings when you get it, the more complex configuration tasks for a desktop operating system, sometimes involving multiple steps and research, are something that slowly evaporate from my memory over two or three years.

This is the kind of problem that the Chrome OS by Google is designed to solve: a system which ties all your configurations to your account, so if you toss your laptop into a wood chipper, you can get a new one and pick up literally where you left off. Unfortunately, a browser only operating system really doesn’t work for me. I am primarily a producer, not a consumer, and my daily work environment is filled with programs like Word and Excel and Photoshop and Illustrator and Acrobat and Ecto and Python and Bash and J and Aquamacs and Vi and Eclipse and MAMP and Gimp and so on and so forth.

So I’m more than willing to put up with this once or twice every two or three years. Hopefully, by blogging about it, I’ll get a better grip on the process, and so next time, it will be easier.

SO I got me a new Macbook Air with a half-terabyte hard drive, and planned to make this tiny aluminum wedge into my primary computer, replacing both my old MacBook Pro “server” and my MacBook Air mobile writing computer. I began configuring it, writing the list of tasks down, expecting it to take a page or so.


That list rapidly spiraled out of control, so I never started that blogpost, even though I got the new MacBook Air configured so well it did indeed become my primary machine. I carry it everywhere, use it for everything – well, almost everything. It was missing only one critical feature: a connected printer – natch, it is a lightweight laptop.

I do have a Canon MX870 multifunction printer-scanner-copier hooked up to my old MacBook Pro, but that MacBook Pro was getting so long in the tooth that I was afraid to turn it on, and when I did so Chrome complained that it couldn’t update because my OS was unsupported and Apple complained that the OS was out of date and my neighbors complained because every time I moved the mouse their TV flickered. So, I decided to bite the bullet and replace it, ultimately with a shiny new iMac.

Which brought me back to this list.

Now that I’m doing this process twice, in close succession, I have the opportunity to find out what’s really necessary, and can see where I’ve missed steps. I’ve broken this list into two parts – one very, very long document in which I am documenting, for my own wordy gratification, ALL the tasks that I have to do to make this new Mac useful to me, and then this series of bite-sized articles, which breaks that apart into small logical chunks. By the time I’m done, I’m guessing there will probably be a dozen articles in this series on Macs alone – not counting setting up Windows boxes, or phones, or the work I’ve had to do on my development environments.

To some, this might seem not just a deep dive, but off the deep end. But there’s a dual method to this madness.

First, having this information on the Internet makes it searchable. Many a time I’ve followed a set of directions related to some computing task and found them nearly useless, and only by piecing together clues from half a dozen different pages online have I been able to, somehow, adapt a solution to the problem. (I have no idea where I might have picked up that problem-solving strategy).


But often the information is not available at all. Even doing this blogpost on the new computer required doing several tasks which were simply not documented anywhere. That’s a blogpost for another time, but hopefully, putting this information up there will help change that.

The second reason for documenting this so thoroughly is to put, on record, how difficult it is to use even the easiest of the modern desktop computer operating systems (again, excluding Chrome OS, which does not (yet) compete in feature parity with standard desktop operating systems). I’m a computer scientist with a PhD in Artificial Intelligence who currently works with four different operating systems, and I’ve got thirty-five years experience working with dozens of different kinds of computers – and if I have trouble with some of these tasks, what hope does a non-specialist have of fixing their brand new shiny money-burner when it decides to become non-functioning, or, more insidiously, simply fails to work as expected, in some subtle and hard to debug way? As my wife says, there’s no hope: she claims the typical user needs to hire someone to help them out, and that’s why the Geek Squad does so well.

Maybe she’s right. But, I hope by putting some of this information out there, I either help some poor shmoe just like me solve their problem … or convince an operating system designer to start thinking energetically about how to make the problem just go away.

-the Centaur

Next up: why pick a (new) iMac?