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Monday, April 15, 2013

Vanilla VISA Gift Card Considered Harmful

I did it to myself: I was in a rush and I bought a $100 "Vanilla VISA Gift Card". In December I'd been a victim of credit card fraud (nothing extremely painful, but enough of a hassle that I want to avoid having it happen again) so I had the genius idea of buying a "one-shot" credit card to use for an internet subscription service. I know what you're thinking, but no, it was not pr0n. My first experience with these things -- and my oh my it was a learning experience.

This is a Vanilla VISA Gift Card: the ideal gift for
someone you don't like.

Turns out that there are numerous restrictions on the use of these stupid gift cards: you can't use them for international purchases, you can't use them to fund a PayPal account, you can't use them for a subscription, etc. It was like everything that would motivate a sane person to buy one of these damn things was against the rules.

I was reminded of "Itchy & Scratchy Money" from The Simpsons: "It works
just like regular money, but it's, er...'fun'." D'oh!

How I Got Out Of Vanilla VISA Hell

I found I was able to use the card to buy things at the local Walgreens. Big whoop. Then I got smart: I bought an Amazon Gift card for exactly $78.24 (the balance that was left on the card) and then used it to pay for an Amazon order: you redeem your Amazon gift card, that money gets applied to the total - let's say it's $100 - and the excess balance of $21.76 gets charged to the (real) credit card of your choice.

Like I said: 'a "learning" experience.' Actually, I really did learn some useful stuff about BitCoin. But that's another post.

I like BitCoin. VISA and Mastercard and PayPal can go suck it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

Broadway, Here I Come!

Roberta has taken a liking to the television show Smash -- which is, I think, the result of my having said "it would be a boring world if everyone liked the same things" one too many times, and now God is having a chuckle at my expense. Which I'm okay with, really, because when it comes to humor, I'll take mine black, with a heaping helping of irony on the side.

So ... she likes it. I think they named the show the way they did because it's a painful attempt to "smash" every Broadway / musical / show-biz cliché, trope, bromide, and banality in existence into a single narrative.

But that's okay. I've long since mastered the ability to selectively tune out almost any television content and focus on my reading or computer or whatnot. But there is a small part of my subconscious that is always paying attention, and every so often it will kick me and say "hey, check this out!" Which is how I became aware of the song Broadway, Here I Come!, written by Joe Iconis. Which is sorta like stopping by the Owens family's garage sale and seeing Mr. Belvedere's Fabergé egg sitting there with a sticker that says "$5".

Anyhow -- if you haven't already listened to the song in the clip above, you really should. The lyrics are below. Yeah, it's kinda sick, but -- I like it like that!

Broadway, Here I Come!

by Joe Iconis

Will I remain the same, or will it change a little bit
Will I feel broken or totally complete

Will I retain my name when I'm the biggest hugest hit
Or will I blend in with the rest of the street

The people all are pointing
I bet they'd never guess
That the saint that they're anointing
Is frightened of the mess

But even though I fear it
I'm playing all my cards
Baby, you are gonna hear it
When I give them my regards

I'm falling, baby, through the sky, through the sky
I'm falling, baby, through the sky
It's my calling, baby, don't you cry, don't you cry
I'm falling down through the sky

And I refuse to go numb
Oh, Broadway here I come
Broadway, here I come
Broadway, here I come
Broadway, Broadway, here I come
Here I come!

And the last thing I hear
As the impact grows near
Is it a scream or a cheer?
Well, never mind, I'll never find out
'Cause Broadway, I am here!

Who Were Your Best Teachers And Why?

[This began as a response to Dr. Pratap Chillakanti (CEO of Lensoo) who asked the question "who were your best teachers and why?" on the LinkedIn 'MediaX at Stanford' group. My response is apparently a couple thousand characters too long, so I'm posting it here instead of there]

I have been lucky to have several really good teachers during the course of my life.

The one that stands out most is Dr. Dan Gajski, who taught the intro Logic Design class at my college. He was extremely knowledgeable about the topic at hand, but with every class he would always dispense a certain amount of "wisdom": not just the technical stuff, but he'd talk about larger things in life: one's career, how to get along with people and co-workers, etc. He eventually became my thesis advisor in graduate school and working with him was a wonderful and educational experience in itself: he was always trying to do things to make the class new and fresh and fun.

But -- as much as I wish I could say "his secret was ..." and give you a nice list of surefire ways to make any teacher a great teacher, I can't. Part of his success was, frankly, that the man had a great deal of personal charisma. And beyond that, he *liked* teaching, and it was important to him that his students learned something from him -- whether it be a lesson about logic design, life, or career.

I also learned quite a bit about public speaking from Dr. G. Effective use of humor was one thing he did very well: nothing elaborate, nothing planned: it was mostly that hard-to-define ability to know your audience well enough that you could ad-lib a joke and get laughs. Note that I said "effective use of humor" -- it wasn't an hour of non-stop giggles. But he used some humor to make the class fun and interesting. And if there is one single lesson I learned from him, it's that if you can make a topic fun and interesting to someone, they will learn it.

I had a number of TAs who were quite good teachers -- heck, I like to think *I* was a good teacher when I was a TA. I think a lot of it hinged on the newness of the experience of teaching. I can see how teaching the same calculus class year after year might grind one down. That said, the three TAs who taught my first three semesters of Calculus were very, very good.

I had a Physics prof -- I can't remember his name -- but he was quite good at conducting interesting experiments in front of a large audience. His "specialty" was assembling compelling demos and then explaining the math and physics behind them -- later in life I came to realize just how *difficult* a task that is.

I had a Literature professor named Phil Reinecker who led a simple but extremely effective class according to the plan: read one book every week; write a two page book report on the book; discuss the book in class; and at the end of the class get together and talk about what we'd learned. No tests. Phil had an easy-going personality -- today we might call him a "slacker" -- but he was quite intelligent and always had an interesting question or insight to share when we did classroom discussion. He was genuinely interested in the books that he was teaching, and his interest was infectious.

(Looking back over the years, the classes I took to satisfy my Humanities requirements left me with some of the most enduring and rewarding knowledge of my college career)

I took Theory Of Computation with Dr. Edward Reingold and it was one of the more challenging classes of my college experience. Dr. Reingold was not an especially friendly man (at least not to undergraduates) but he had a certain intensity about him and a genuine interest in the material he was teaching. Imagine a hardcore mathematics version of Kingsfield's Contracts class. To the best of my knowledge Dr. Reingold never made anyone throw up, but he had that same ineffable quality of intelligence and unapproachability that nonetheless can motivate a student to learn and succeed.

I took an intro Psych class on Learning and Memory with Dr. Charles Hopkins, who holds PhDs in Electrical Engineering and Psychology, so he was definitely "working below his level" teaching a bunch of freshmen and sophomores about the basics of pavlovian and operant conditioning. But he was obviously enjoying himself. A dapper, articulate, and well-dressed gentleman with a handlebar mustache, he would have been at home in almost any Merchant-Ivory production you could name. But - if there's a constant theme in this entire monologue, it's this -- he was having a good time, and made a great effort to help us understand the material. Occasionally he would spice up the material with stories of his own experiences, or once -- he was quite familiar with various memory techniques -- he had everyone in the room give him a word (we're talking 100+ words) and then he paused for a moment, and recited the words back to us. And then he recited them back to us in backwards order. Neat stuff.

And -- I took an Archeology class with Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr, who really made the subject come alive. He had performed quite a bit of active field work and had many, many engrossing stories to tell, which enhanced the classroom experience quite a bit.

I'll end with the most extreme example of a *lousy* teacher that I've ever had. I don't remember this fellow's name and never got his "story": he was a professor in the Math department and seemed a classic example of someone who was somehow being *forced* to teach a class. To say that he was a "grumpy old man" is to perhaps call up an image of Walter Matthau or Jack Lemon, which would be completely wrong, because this guy was not possessed of a rough exterior surrounding a heart of gold: he was a mean, sour guy who hated teaching and hated the students. His teaching strategy was to assign homework to the entire class, and then by rotation assign 6 or 8 homework problems to individual students who were to arrive early to class and write their solution up on the chalkboard. The actual class consisted of said students describing their solution to the class, with Professor Sourpuss correcting any errors. To this day, I can't believe I paid money for that class. There's a theme here, too, one which I won't expand upon except to say that he was not the only professor who, for whatever reason, seemed to actively dislike students.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Spring Cleaning

Look what I found!

In case this isn't ringing any bells: this qualifies as a "notable historical document." The January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics ... well, hell, I just looked and Wikipedia has a page devoted to this issue, here's a quote:

Popular Electronics, January 1975, Volume 7 Number 1.

Ziff Davis Publishing Company. Publisher: Edgar W. Hopper, Editor: Arthur P. Salsberg, Technical Editor: Leslie Solomon, Associate Editor: Alexander W. Burawa.

This is the most famous issue of Popular Electronics. The feature story is the "Altair 8800 Minicomputer, Part 1" by H. Edward Roberts and William Yates. (Part 2 was in February.) The Altair 8800 computer on the cover is just a mock-up but it launched the home computer revolution. The authors hoped to sell a few hundred machines but sold thousands the first year.

The complete kit included an Intel 8080 microprocessor, 256 bytes of RAM, a front panel with light and switches, a metal case and an 8 amp power supply for $397. Fully assembled it was $498.

Popular Electronics was published a full month before the cover date and subscribers got their issue in the middle of the previous month. According to the copyright records, the January 1975 issue was published on November 29, 1974 ...

And, of course, Wikipedia also has nice article all about the Altair 8800, too.

I have a friend who is working on a media project about the history of computing, so I just dropped him an email in case he can use this somehow. If not ... I guess I'll just put it in a plastic bag (along with my mint-condition original edition of Ricky Jay's Cards As Weapons) and keep it somewhere safe in for my (as yet hypothetical) grand-children.

Celebrity Public Apologies

Yet another of my big pet peeves these days is the "Celebrity Public Apology". We've all seen it: some movie star or politician or musician says or does something that causes "outrage" and then a couple of days later they make a public apology.

There are a couple of reasons that I really hate this kind of behavior:

  1. It's not a sincere apology. It's just someone trying to save their reputation and / or career by attempting to "take back" something they said.

  2. It exposes the "apologizer" as a shallow person with no backbone who is desperately attempting to save themselves. I see them and think "I would never trust this person. If they lack the integrity to back up their own words, then I surely never want them ever backing *me*".

For example:

  • In 2003, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told a London audience that she was ashamed that George W Bush was from Texas. Not long after, she issued an apology: "As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect." Lame, Natalie, very lame. I've never been a fan of the Dixie Chicks, but now I know I will never be a fan of the Dixie Chicks.

  • In 2011, Rep. Anthony Weiner got caught texting naughty pics of himself in the course of a phone-sex relationship he was having. After a week of constant skewering by the news media, he -- wait for it -- issued an apology. Whatever small respect I had the for the man just evaporated. If instead he had said: "Yes, I did it. I lied because, hey, that's what people do when some 'investigator' starts prying into personal matters that are none of their goddamn business" I would probably have a Weiner bumpersticker on my car. And I don't even live in New York.

I could go on, but this kind of thing depresses me, so I won't.

In contrast, look at Rick Santorum. I loathe his politics, and especially his stance on homosexuality. But to the best of my knowledge, he has never apologized for any of his anti-gay rhetoric. There's a lot to loathe about Rick Santorum, but I have to admire the man for standing his ground. If -- in some impossibly contrived situation I can't even imagine -- he looked me in the eye and said "I got your back", I would trust him. Even if it's in the service of a cause I don't favor, integrity is integrity.

Of course, this is only a symptom of a larger issue: for a country that makes such a big deal out of the importance of "diversity" and "the freedom to speak one's mind", an American doesn't have to step very far away from the consensus opinion before people start lobbing bricks through their window. I'm reminded of how Bill Maher, not long after 9/11 -- on a television show called Politically Incorrect, oh the irony -- made the comment:

We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.

As a result, he got fired and his show got cancelled. He offered a semi-apology, stating that he didn't mean to imply that the US military forces were cowards -- I'm maybe halfway okay with that, because I don't believe it was at all his intent to say "the US military are cowards". But to his credit, I don't think he ever apologized for the central point of his statement, which was basically "the 9/11 terrorists had some big balls on them". And, I mean, they did: it doesn't matter which side you're on, if you volunteer for a suicide mission and carry it out, you have Big Balls. Am I a terrible person for saying that? Should I preface it with a disclaimer, ala "I really hate those 9/11 terrorists, but I have to admit they had big balls"? Does that make it 'better'?

I guess what annoys me most is when someone says something true, yet gets condemned for it -- often for an extremely stupid reason. The grandaddy of all such incidents is probably the case of David Howard: in 1999, Howard used the word "niggardly" in reference to a budget. You know the punchline: people took it as a racial slur, Howard lost his job, etc. Or, to put it another way, Howard lost his job because people who were too stupid to know the meaning of a word got upset. The then-chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond, said "You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people's lack of understanding" and "David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back — and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them." I think that this helps to highlight that this wasn't some kind of "race issue". It was a "stupidity issue".

[For the record: with the exception of Rick Santorum, I'm never been either a supporter or a detractor of any of the people I mention as examples]