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Internet Detox: Results

Posted by Trixter on October 31, 2012

October’s lifehacking experiment is over! I’m back online and trying not to salivate.

There’s a lot to update here, so I’ll start with the summary conclusions first, then work my way down to the statistics, and finally end this post with entries from my daily log that I recorded as the experiment progressed.  If you only have one minute to read this, you’ll get the meaty bits first.

Conclusions

I gained two major personal insights as a result of this experiment.  The first was that I am my own worst enemy.  Much of the email that would take up my time was actually opted-in by me: Sale notifications, new things on ebay I might like, forum replies, etc. Over the next few days I am going to take a hard look at what I’m receiving and pare it down. I’m not completely to blame; over 1000 emails were spam that got through my filters, so I’ll have to look into more filtering beyond what I already have (I currently use spamassassin, greylisting, and bayesian filtering in my MUA).

The second insight was the discovery that I have more nervous energy than I realized, and am more anxious than I should be. As I get older, I lack the ability to keep it in check.  I find aging interesting from the standpoint of an engineer:  While the amplitude of my mood swings has decreased over the years, the frequency has increased.  I used to deal with anxiety using programming, action games, IRC, web browsing, email, online communities, etc. to distract me.  With most of those removed this past month, I turned to other avenues such as nervous eating (I gained two pounds) and snapping at my family during particularly low periods. :-(

The solution, I think, is not to go back on the sauce completely, but regulate it. Work smarter, not harder.  Keep doing email, but only useful email — all these automated notifications and alerts simply must go away.  Keep reading news, but pare down my newsfeed to just the bare essentials (sorry woot-offs, don’t let the door hit you on the way out).  And I’m giving serious thought to having some days (like the weekend) be “no-internet” days.

Did I get more meaningful things done in my free time, or did I just find other ways to waste it? Both meaningful (programming) and meaningless (tv, movies) activities increased at roughly the same amount.  Did I spend more time with family? A bit more, but there was no significant change.  Did I get around to reading Neuromancer? Nope. In fact, I didn’t read any books at all, other than technical information on FAT12/FAT16, and “The Pro Audio Spectrum” book sent to me by my good friend Mike Melanson.  Did I miss facebook? Not one bit. Did facebook miss me? Not really :-) but that doesn’t bother me either.  Was I inundated with spam? Despite my predictions, spam did not increase exponentially as the spambots received confirmation that  I was a real person through my vacation message auto-replies. MAILER DAEMON bounces were less than 6% of the email I received.

Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. I also brainstormed at least 12 more month-long experiments to try, half of which deal with my physical health and the other half with my mental health. (I’ll stay online for those, I promise!)

Experiment Statistics

Health: Weight gained/lost: +2 pounds :-(

Email:

  • For the month of October, I received 5690 emails, 3913 (69%) of which were obvious spam. Over 1000 more were non-obvious spam — spamassassin didn’t catch them, and neither did the bayesian filtering I have in my MUA.
  • Of the remaining 1777 emails, 8 of the top 10 senders were services that I signed up for — voluntary spam!  Those 8 were: ebay.com, kickstarter.com, paypal.com, (my bank).com, netflix.com, (another bank).com, vintage-computer.com, and linkedin.com.
  • I received 174 emails from other things like hobbyist mailing lists and groups — stuff I want to keep on top of, but things that I now realize a daily or weekly summary would suffice.
  • I received around 35 personal or truly important emails during the entire month out of all 5690, roughly 1 per day.

RSS feed: Received over 1200 news articles, 1000 of them daily tech news. I will be paring 25% of those down.  I’m also not sure if I’m going to read them all to catch up.

Movies watched:

TV Shows/Miniseries watched:

Games played:

Notable activities performed:

  • Performed firmware and BIOS update to my XTCfv2 prototype.
  • Significantly rewrote 8088flex player – 60fps sustained is now possible! (if the bandwidth is there).  I’ll blog about that later.
  • Digitized and edited more found footage from my VHS tapes.
  • Took my kids to a comic book store and bought them some yu-gi-oh cards; they played games with each other afterwards.
  • Took Sam out to dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings, just him and Dad.
  • Wrote a deleted data recovery program for FAT12 and FAT16 filesystems.  I’ll blog about that later.

Daily Log

Day 0:

I prepared by configuring and testing vacation messages for both my home-grown traditional mbox mailbox that has been servicing @oldskool.org for eons, as well as the gmail address I alternately use. I then moved my entire inbox (about 100 items still unread, that may be a lifehack for another month) to a separate folder so that I had a clear delineation of what I had to empty before going back to my old inbox. I wanted to watch some new seasons of shows with my kids in October, so at the 11th hour I ordered some DVDs from Amazon. I turned off Data Network Mode on my phone so that it wouldn’t be constantly trying to check email and update news unless I was at home on wifi where I could ignore it a little easier. I also removed the news widgets (rss aggregator, youtube channels, facebook, twitter) from my phone’s home screens so I wouldn’t be distracted by them. Finally, I made sure all of my podcast subscriptions were current and downloaded to my phone for listening (I don’t consider this a cheat as I used to listen to the radio and mixtapes on a portable cassette player two decades ago).

Day 1:

Exceptions started on the first day, when I needed to access some online benefit information for work, and the only way to do that was over the public internet. But the experiment wasn’t to cut out all internet usage, it was to cut out all unnecessary distractions and wasted time, so I felt these that acceptable. Another exception was because I wanted to keep a log for this experiment in a file, not a paper notebook, so I allowed myself to ssh to my home server from wherever I was so I could record new info into the log. Again, I don’t feel this was against the spirit of the experiment; I could keep a paper notebook log, but I can’t stand writing longhand.

Already on the first day I had to catch myself; I had just finished watching a documentary on The Weavers and wanted to learn a little more about them, so reflexively I started to pull up wikipedia. I was halfway through typing “Weavers” before I mentally slapped my hand and closed the browser. Later that day I wanted to confirm an artist’s tour dates, and I struggled with the decision to designate that as an exception because I honestly couldn’t tell if there was any other way to look that information up other than the artist’s website. I caved and spent about 90 seconds confirming the artists’s tour dates. (Speaking of which, how did people look up tour dates before the internet? I’m serious, I really want to know. Other than posters plastered up at local venues, and maybe a fanzine or fan club newsletter, I can’t figure out how people knew when and where to catch a show.)

I also quickly made an exception for work-related conversation. When someone asks you about the new Nook tablet or Galaxy Note II or some other tech news as part of interoffice chit chat, answering “I have no idea, I’m on an internet sabbatical” does not improve comradery among coworkers. That kind of response is less “social scientist” and more “antisocial hipster douchebag”. So whenever that came up, I allowed myself a few minutes to get familiar with what they were talking about. This policy was in addition to the previous exception that anything specifically work-related was ok (dictionary, reference material, vendor tech support forum, etc.) Lifehacking experiments cease to be fun when they screw with my ability to provide for my family, so I didn’t feel it was cheating making these exceptions.

Other first-day oddities included a high sense of anxiety — I was picking at my fingers all day, something I do when I’m nervous — as well as getting a song stuck in my head for several hours (and I hadn’t even listened to the song, just thought about it for a few seconds). I’m not convinced these behaviors were related to the experiment, however; correlation != causation.

Day 2:

I peeked at my email to make sure delivery and vacation messages were still working. 420+ emails, 99% of them appear to be spam. Scanned subjects and didn’t look like I was missing anything important. Total time: 90 seconds.

Told co-workers about my experiment at lunch; they were not impressed. In fact, we only talked about it for a minute and then moved on.

Added another exception for my weather app widget on my phone’s home screen. I would normally turn on the radio, read a newspaper, or just stick my head out the window to determine the weather, and I only glance at the app once a day, so I don’t consider leaving the weather app enabled a “cheat”.

Same song from day 1 still stuck in my head.

Day 3:

Peeked at email again for another 90 seconds just to make sure it was working ok. So far so good. Almost 800 emails, but most are spam. (I have an effective spam filtering strategy with multiple components, but a portion of it is bayesian filtering on the part of my MUA and since I’m not running my MUA, the spam is still in my inbox.)

Finally cracked and had my first real “infraction”: I overheard someone mention spending $300 on Halotherapy which sounded suspiciously like woo-woo junk science. Curiosity burned me up  so much that I just had to confirm if I was right or not. (I was.)  Total time spent online: 2 minutes.

I think my nervous-energy mind is having trouble adjusting to this new schedule, as I have come back to this log four times today to update it and the day is only half over. I continue to pick at my fingers. I may need to find some other way of releasing anxiety.

Same song from day 1 still stuck in my head!!

Day 4:

Watched 45 minutes of the 2012 Presidential Debate on my phone using a justification that I now can’t recall. I think I tried to justify it using some sort of scheduled VHS tape analogy. I think I messed up royally here. The only mitigating factor is that I watched all 45 minutes contiguously, calmly, and gave it my full attention.  Unfortunately, now I don’t want to vote for either of them.

Drowning out the stuck song in my head using a dance/electro/hiNRG/techno playlist on shuffle.

Day 6:

Got online to go directly to ebay to handle some auction sales. (This was an exception that I agreed on before I started the experiment, because it’s not worth borking my ebay feedback rating and deny people merch just because I’m doing an experiment.)  Once done, did not feel the need to go browsing or check email.

Day 7:

While seeing a matinee, saw a poster for Taken 2. Hadn’t even realized it was being made, let alone in theaters! Went to Roger Ebert’s online reviews to check out a review, which I justified as being no different than picking up the paper to do the same.

Matinee was Looper. It was good — not great, just good. The best thing about the movie was watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt do his best to look and act like Bruce Willis. Prosthetics were involved.

Day 8:

Coworker mentioned to me that Jellybean might actually work on my craptastic Epic 4g and pointed me to http://get.cm/?device=epicmtd . Now my phone is burning a hole in my pocket until the end of the month!

Day 9:

Completely and utterly fell off the wagon when I ran into a programming problem and couldn’t find the answer. Searched the ‘net for 2 hours before concluding that I could probably figure out the problem myself if I just think about it for a while. Gotta get back up on the horse!

Day 11:

I was stumped by a programming problem and couldn’t resist the urge to ask someone online for help. If I was asking any random person I would probably have been able to resist, but the Internet is the great equalizer, so it was very easy for me to perform the equivalent of asking Chekov advice on how to write a play. That’s pretty hard to resist. (The advice I got back was extremely helpful; it was worth it.)

Day 12:

Watched a documentary on the Zodiac killer with Melissa; took both boys to a comic book store to get some more Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and Max discovered Magic: The Gathering and is now 50+ cards down that rabbit hole.

Day 13:

Measured my weight and was shocked to learn that I had actually gained half a pound instead of losing weight like I thought I would during this experiment.

Did three loads of laundry, which is about 2.5 more loads than I do in a week.

Day 14:

Did 4 loads of laundry in the breaks between programming sessions.

Day 16:

Halfway point achieved! Max told me he was impressed I made it this far.  :)

Not having to check email constantly is a huge win IMO, although I feel somewhat guilty,  like I am avoiding responsibility or something.

It has been effortless to resist the pull of facebook and twitter; it  just seems like so much noise, noise, noise, noise . I miss cracked.com the most, as I usually read it in bed as part of my falling asleep ritual. I am compensating with tv shows instead. I should probably be reading  a book or something (or nothing!)

Day 17:

I bricked my phone trying to flash it. Because the USB port is broken on it, there is no way to flash a recovery image to it — so I am going to be without my phone for about 3 days. This should get interesting.

Day 19:

Got phone back, and found that I didn’t really miss it.

Noticed that I don’t seem to miss my email at all. In fact, it’s kind of a relief. The first two weeks I felt like I was shirking some sort of responsibility, but now it just seems like a burden has been lifted. It’s a shame it can’t last.

First real fallout of not checking email found today: My NAS dropped a drive on the 13th, and I never saw the error because I wasn’t checking email which is where I have the errors sent. This morning, it dropped another drive and I lost the entire NAS. It’s backed up, but I could have prevented the upcoming week of rebuilding and restoring if I had just replaced that drive on the 13th.

Day 20:

Was able to recover the NAS without resorting to backups. ZFS ROX DA HOUSE Y’ALL

Day 24:

Over the last week, my willpower has eroded to the point where I’m using the Internet about 10 minutes a day. I needed some questions answered for my programming project, so I have been on Usenet to get help. I’ve also visted IMDB to look up trivia for movies or shows I’d just watched. This is still a far cry from where I used to be (at least an hour every night) but I still feel sheepish.

Day 28:

Spent most of the weekend finishing up programming a data recovery utility for FAT12/FAT16 filesystems.  Was extremely calming, relaxing. I wish I’d programmed it 25 years ago though, since I built two novel functions into it that no other recovery utility of the 1980s had. I could have made a lot of money back then.

Day 29:

I don’t miss my email at all, but I’ll need to deal with it soon, so I broke my rules for about 10 minutes to research how best to gather statistics from mbox files and grab some source tarballs. I ran October’s email through the excellent MailListStat program.  The results are somewhat what I feared: I appear to be my own worst enemy. Most of the email I’ve received I signed myself up for. Information overload. I will be correcting that in a big way in November!

Next?

Stay tuned for November’s lifehacking experiment: My health!

Posted in Lifehacks | 7 Comments »

October Lifehacking: Internet Detox

Posted by Trixter on September 29, 2012

The month of October marks the 20th anniversary of when I first obtained internet access (thanks Brian!) and started accessing the internet at least once every single day.  Back then it was mostly FTP transfers and Usenet reading; my first email address came a year later, and I didn’t fall into the IRC trap until a year after that (and gave up IRC somewhat for good in 1999, as my IRC addiction was affecting my job).  Despite being connected to the world at 9600 baud back then, I used the ‘net for at least something every single day, and that hasn’t changed in 20 years.

Actually…  I don’t recall using the internet on my wedding day, honeymoon, and during the birth of my children.  But the ‘net and I definitely have a five nines relationship.

A few days ago, I came across a 3-article summary on slashdot on how smartphones have banished boredom, and whether or not that’s a good thing.  It got me thinking about how I spend the majority of my free time — or rather, how I tend to waste most of it — so I decided to try a little experiment:  I will go on an internet sabbatical for one month, specifically the entire month of October. Absolutely no voluntary internet access whatsoever (I’m sure my internet-connected devices will continue on their merry autonomous way without me).  The rules I am imposing on myself are as follows:

  • No web access
  • No reading or responding to email
  • No browsing social network feeds (twitter, facebook, google+) in any capacity (smartphone or PC)
  • No Netflix streaming access

To avoid too much disruption, there are a few exceptions to the above.  I will check email/web Saturday October 6th because I have an ebay auction ongoing, and will need to send the winning bidder their merch.  Also, I will allow myself web access at work if I need it to perform my job duties, or at home if I need to respond to something time-sensitive (like enrolling for work health benefits, etc.).  And if Melissa wants to watch a movie on Netflix with me, obviously I will oblige.  But otherwise, that’s it.  I’ll slap a vacation message on my email addresses and come back a month later, but no kidding I am actually thinking about taking small vacation, last night I contacted obx rentals so I can get prepared ahead of time even tho they always take care of everything.

Lack of internet access doesn’t mean I’m sequestering myself from society.  If you need to get a hold of me, please call or text me — you know, like before the internet was popular.  I’ll have my cell phone on me at all times.

I’ve never done anything like this before and have many questions.  Will I spend more time with my family?  Will I get more sleep?  Will I finally read Neuromancer?  Will I spend more time playing games?  Will it affect my weight?  Will it affect my work performance?  Will it affect my anxiety?

I’ll come back with answers in November.  See you then!

Posted in Lifehacks | 6 Comments »

Collections

Posted by Trixter on January 18, 2012

Now that MindCandy is out the door, I’ve had time to return to some of my more favorite pastimes, like retrocomputing.  Perodically the topic of conversation in a retrocomputing forum turns inward as people ask: Why do we collect old computers?  Why dedicate space, power, and time to restoring and using slow, impractical machines when better ones exist?  I think the question can be expanded to all collectors:  Why does anyone collect anything?  Why go through the trouble of gathering up material items?  Why do we assign personal value to inanimate objects, or derive comfort from them?

I think I can sum it up in three words:  Fear of death.

Everybody needs a coping mechanism for dealing with the inevitability of death.  Social interaction, religion, family, blind ignorance, sex, drugs, and various causes (environmental, human rights) are the most common, but there are people for whom none of those apply.  I believe these people turn to anything that gives them comfort, or used to give them comfort.  Ventriloquists collect ventriloquist dummies, maybe because they remind the owner of receiving adoration on stage.  Housewives collect porcelain dolls to glorify their memories of youth.  Christopher Dennis has an extensive collection of Superman memorabilia because the image of Superman is what keeps him alive.  But you don’t have to be down on your luck or unhappy to have a collection; just look at Jay Leno or Steve Martin.

For those who grew up using early computers to better themselves or others, it’s not inconceivable that such objects would give them comfort.  I am one of those people, so I have a collection of computers.  It is modest by most hard-core retrocomputist standards; I have around 30, and many are duplicates for parts.  But I definitely spend otherwise productive time hauling them out, getting them working, running old favorites (or new discoveries) on them, and writing software for them.  It reminds me of a time when I was the technological wunderkid, and had control over my environment — you tell a computer to do something, and it actually does it.  When I “retrocompute”, I have something pleasant to occupy my thoughts, and I gain a sense of accomplishment and completion.

Some collectors in my hobby look at their crawlspace, storage space, shed, or warehouse and wonder how their collection got so big and how they’ll ever get rid of it.  I think the answer is to recognize your collection for what it is:  A coping mechanism.  It should not have any more value beyond that.  Your collection is not a replacement for people.  Your collection is not more important than your job, your marriage, or your kids.  Once you realize that, you can start letting it go.  Maybe only one piece at a time… maybe never all of it completely.  But you can let go.

Posted in Lifehacks, Sociology | 4 Comments »

Walking the road to dead

Posted by Trixter on August 1, 2011

As of this very minute, I am 40 years old.  Barring any unforeseen disease or accident, my life is essentially half over.

So, how’s my driving?

Directly after graduating high school, my senior class went to a party thrown by the school in a rented skating rink masquerading as a giant dance hall.  Despite being less than 5 miles away from the graduation ceremony, some teens were showing up drunk, something I hadn’t ever seen before.  Some arrived with JBF hair, something else I hadn’t seen before.  And when the party was over at 2am, everybody went to a Lake Michigan beach about 2 miles away where the party continued (under the watchful eye of police who had been given “incentive” by wealthy township parents to watch over the party without arresting anyone) with much alcohol and the occasional disappear into the bushes.  I imbibed of neither, being a completely sheltered and, at that moment, shocked virgin.  Midway through the second party, I asked a similarly-sheltered friend, “I thought only 10% of our class had sex and did drugs; what the hell is going on?”  “Where have YOU been?” he replied.  “Your percentages are inverted.” He then explained to me how some of our friends were able to convince www.vaporizervendor.com to provide some free drug paraphernalia.

I vowed a few things that morning:

  • I would stop contemplating suicide
  • If I was still a virgin by New Year’s Eve 1999, I would commit suicide
  • I would give alcohol a chance

I’m happy to report that I was no longer a virgin less than a year later, having met my soulmate in college.  21 years, 16 marriage anniversaries, and two children later, things simply couldn’t be better.  For anyone who thinks that there is nobody out there for them, I say this:  Get out more.  Someone, somewhere, really wants to meet you, and you really want to meet them.

What about that alcohol vow?  I’ve had so few drinks in my life that I can remember every single one of them, and to prove it, here goes:  A Miller Light at a party when I was 16, a small glass of everclear punch at a frat party when I was 19, rum and coke at my bachelor party, Malibu rum and coke at a company party, a Corona at a company outing, a Bud Light after a successful day of running the MobyGames booth at Classic Gaming Expo 2004, a glass of salmiakki at Pilgrimage 2004, another one at Block Party 2009, three different types of spirits at Whiskeyfest Chicago 2010, about 10 beers over an 18 month period at a recent company, two “rum barrels” at same said company’s outing, two shots of something unidentifiable yet quite strong while leaving said company, and a Malibu rum and coke at a recent wedding.  That’s everything.  I think that’s enough to say I’ve given alcohol a chance, and I still really fucking hate it.  Every one of them has burned on the way down.  Every single one.  I don’t understand the appeal of a substance that directly attacks you as you imbibe.  “Well, you didn’t drink enough!” I hear someone shout in the back of the room.  Maybe not, but if I wanted to get relaxed and/or euphoric, I would rather just go to a demoparty or get sleep-deprived (or, as is usual for demoparties, both simultaneously).  You know what really lifts me?  Watching something so goddamn funny that tears stream down my face from all the laughing.  I can’t believe being drunk is better than that.

As a physical specimen, I could have gone better.  I was born with one foot turned 80 degrees towards the other.  I inherited terrible eyes from both my parents; one was cross-eyed with astigmatism, and the other quite nearsighted, so naturally I got all three of those and am legally blind without my glasses.  My eyes are so bad, in fact, that I don’t qualify for LASIK (the best it could do for me is reduce my prescription, two eye doctors have told me; no point in doing it if I still have to wear glasses!).  I’ve never had any natural athletic ability.  Every September is hell thanks to hayfever allergies.  But it’s not all bad; innovative eye training at a young age almost completely cured my crossed eyes without surgery (and earned me a Speak’n’Spell as a reward), and a leg brace worn until I was three corrected the foot.  I shot up to 6 feet 2 inches by age 16, where I remain.  My weight is a problem, but I’ve started running again and it’s something I have control over and hope to be in good shape in four months.  Heck, I still have all my hair.  I could have turned out a lot worse.

I’ve experienced a lot of heartache my first 40 years.  I’ve been beaten up on a regular basis, nearly got kicked out of high school for ditching class, was kicked out of college for the same thing, washed out of a physical labor job after only two days, and blew a shot at a potentially high-earning new career by screwing up a managerial position.  I’ve also CAUSED a lot of heartache, by being pretentious and rude to people who didn’t deserve it, treating every member of my immediate family badly or disrespectfully at least once, dumping my first girlfriend in a truly horrific way, acting unprofessionally in front of customers, and even stealing (in both the plagiarism and retail sense).  I’ve nearly doubled my high-school graduation weight.  Early in my career, I was known (and treated) as “the smartest kid in the room”, something I’ve lost due to age and time and has resulted in some depression.  I’ve even lost a few friendships along the way.  Deservedly, I am cursed with extremely detailed memories of every single one of these events.

Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of good things happen to me as well, some by chance, and others by my own doing.  I met my wonderful wife, who I somehow convinced to put up with me and gave me two wonderful children.  I made some considered and crafty career choices that kept me fulfilled with how I earn a living, something I’m especially proud of given that I never completed college.  I’ve personally witnessed the birth (and death, in some cases) of home computers, music videos, the space shuttle, digital media, the internet, the web, the fall of the Berlin wall, cell phones, the bicentennial, and of course video games.  The day I was born, astronauts from Apollo 15 first took the lunar rover out for a spin.  I’ve started a few projects that I am well-known for in certain small circles, including one that wildly outgrew what I could give it and continues to survive without me.  I even gained approval and acceptance from a small group of underground creative hackers, which tickles me.

If I had to go back and live my life again, I’d do it all exactly the same.  Cliché or not, I really would, since deviating from the course would put me somewhere else entirely today, and I’m not sure I want that.  If I hadn’t gotten picked on and beat up so much as a youth, I probably wouldn’t have turned to computers and music for solace and comfort.  (And believe me, computers pretty much saved my life.)  If I hadn’t done so poorly in high school, I wouldn’t have picked Monmouth College to attend (the only nice college that would take me based on my ACT scores and not my GPA) and I wouldn’t have met my wife, and consequently had our children.  If I hadn’t flunked out of college, I wouldn’t have had the career path that led to where I am today; I probably would have graduated with a liberal arts degree with a specialization in computer science, and gotten work in a local rural town doing mediocre application programming.  And so on.

No, really – I really would do it all over again.  Want one last example?  High school.  Most people never want to revisit high school.  Me, I wish I could do some of this stuff ten times over:

Today on the train ride into work, I sat across the aisle from a large mid-40’s guy with unkempt shaggy balding hair 2 inches too long, black sneakers worn with blue jeans, an 80’s hair-metal black t-shirt one size too small, and a dirty no-name mp3 player that he was using to listen to uncomfortably loud metal on his cheap earbuds.  Think Brian Posehn but without the personality and success.  His music was so loud that I could make out the lyrics, and my initial impulse was to ask him to turn it down.  But as I kept glancing over, I saw he was really rocking out to what he was listening to, in his confined sitting-in-a-train-seat way.  This loser had nothing but his cheap metal, which was enough.  I opted not to bother him; let him have his moment, something nice to sustain him for the rest of his inevitably crappy day at a crappy job.  I mention this to illustrate two things:  The first is this attitude I have, something I’ve gained with age and did not have 20 years ago — patience, forgiveness, empathy, consideration.  The second is how tiny changes early in life could have turned me into this guy.  It’s in these moments that I’m actually glad I’m older.

Every six months, one aspect of your life gets much easier, while something else gets much, much harder.  I can live with those odds for the second half.

Posted in Lifehacks, Sociology | 4 Comments »

If you’re gonna screw up, do it while you’re young

Posted by Trixter on December 28, 2010

I’ve been quiet for a while due to dealing with changes in my professional life.  I normally don’t talk about work in my personal blog because I don’t want to misrepresent my current or former employers — when you have a family to support, you don’t shit where you eat.  But I owe a lot of people an explanation as to where I’ve been for roughly 18 months, so I’ll summarize:  I took a job in the trading industry, and while it had some awesome positives, it was the wrong environment for me and I was very unhappy there. The last four months in particular had me so depressed that I broke through the “eat to fill the pain” stage to the “stopped eating entirely” stage and started losing weight and sleep.  I started to doubt myself and my abilities, worrying that I wouldn’t be able to earn a living for much longer. After an ultimatum at work, I put myself on the market and 5 weeks later I accepted a positon in a large commercial industry. And I’m a lot happier — not because of leaving the trading job, but because I was able to recognize a bad fit, was willing to crawl out of my emotional hole, and rebooted my situation.  (The Winston Groom quote seemed appropriate, hence the title of this post.)

I also got a spiffy new Samsung Galaxy S variant (Epic 4G) which has data access no matter where I am (2g/3g/4g/wifi) and has a slide-out keyboard and other bells and whistles, so I have no excuse not to update the blog once in a while, even from a moving commuter train.  Which, guess what, I’m doing right now!

Posted in Family, Lifehacks | 7 Comments »

If you focus your energy like a laser, you can do anything!

Posted by Trixter on December 13, 2009

It has taken me decades to understand my own behavior.  Saving you the lengthy self-analysis, I can sum up most of my actions as a reaction to negative stimuli.  No control over my social environment?  Learn to program computers, who always do what I say.  Can’t afford games?  Get a job at the local software store, then learn to crack and courier warez.  And so on.  Most of my hobbies can be traced to events like this.

So what happens when the negative stimulus is gone?  It depends on the hobby.  I don’t pirate (new) games; like movies, I can now afford to purchase or rent them.  I’ve stopped collecting hardware and software because I no longer have a need for the comfort and security that familiar things bring.  As I get older, I find I am finally able to let go of everything that gave me short-term benefits but led to longer-term detriment (collecting software is easy; collecting hardware takes up a ton of space!)

Finally, some of my championed causes have come to fruition and matured:  MobyGames remains the only organized, normalized database of computer and videogames, run by many volunteers.  MindCandy 1 and 2 have taken a small slice of hidden skill and wit and preserved it forever.  DOSBOX exists, and does a (nearly) fantastic job of making DOS games playable, and my efforts combined with others have gotten the games out there.  I’ve made some of my friends laugh with my programming ideas.  That’s a lot of personal accomplishment for someone who has to put family first and work first, and I’m happy thus far.

So.  The time has arrived to shore up and buttress the hobbies.  Here’s the Trixter 5-year pledge, to me as much as to you, in order of project start date:

  1. Finish up MindCandy 3.  Four hours of home theater showcase material on tasty Blu-ray (DVD too).  It’s 80% done and should be ready by March or April.
  2. Complete The Oldskool PC Benchmark, a project I’ve been tossing around for a while.  I’m unhappy that no PC emulator is cycle-exact for any model, not even known fixed targets like the 5150/5160, so this benchmark should help emulator authors get that taken care of.  It will maintain a database of systems that have been tested, so that users and authors of emulators can target a specific model to run programs in.  As each system I own is benchmarked, it will be donated back into the collector community, save for a handful of machines that I need for further development work (see below).
  3. Gutting and rewriting MONOTONE.  Adding features people actually need (like volume and frequency envelopes, or an interface that doesn’t suck ass) as well as a few only I need, like flexible hardware routing.  Remember, kids: You’re never going to wow the pants off of people unless you can drive seven(*) completely different soundcard technologies all at the same time.
  4. Bootable diskette PCjr demo, using the PCjr’s enhanced graphics and sound.  Hopefully presented at a euro party.  You best step aside, son.
  5. Build the Soundcard Museum, another project I’ve been tossing around for quite a while.  (Now you see why MONOTONE enhancements came before this.)  This will take up many months of free time, but I promise it will be worth it for the soundcard otaku.
  6. …and that’s it.  I have nothing else planned.  If they’ll have me, I’ll return to working at MobyGames, with maybe another MindCandy project in the works, if the project doesn’t run out of money.

And between all of these projects, I will play longform games that I’ve been meaning to get to (Mass Effect, Red Faction: Guerrilla, Fallout 3, etc.).  Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

A keyboard exclusively for programming in binary

Air-cooled coding keyboard for professional use

(*) It is technically possible to put a Sound Blaster 1.0/1.5 (CMS+Adlib), Bank Street Music Writer card (essentially a PC Mockingboard), LAPC-1, IBM Music Feature Card, and SCC-1 into a Tandy 1000-series computer if you take the cover and metal frontplate off to allow room for the full-length cards and configure the LAPC-1 and SCC-1 so that they don’t share the same port and IRQ.   That’s six technologies — the seventh is the Tandy 1000 itself, with its SN76496 3-voice squawker.  If I had a 5161 expansion unit for the 5160, I could become more evil — it adds 7 additional ISA slots to the 7 already in the 5160.  I’d lose the 3-voice Tandy, but the additional slots would allow for adding up to three more IBM Music feature cards and an additional Sound Blaster Pro 2.0, and maybe even an additional SCC-1 (I’d have to check what settings it supports).  But I don’t have a 5161; they’re ludicrously difficult to find complete.  And besides, once you have two SCC-1s in a machine, what is the point of driving anything else?

Posted in Demoscene, Digital Video, Gaming, Lifehacks, MindCandy, MobyGames, Programming, Vintage Computing | 11 Comments »

Hello Again Everybody

Posted by Trixter on November 15, 2009

Exactly one year ago, I attempted to change my entire life to get ready for my 20th-year New Trier Class of ’89 high school reunion.  Brought on by conflicting emotions of wanting to be accepted and faint memories of truly good times, my head was swimming in thoughts like:

“I’m at a good place in my life right now, so I wouldn’t feel ashamed to attend.”

“Some of my old friends will be there, and it will be great to catch up.”

“Hey, I still have all my hair and none of it is gray; maybe if I lose a few pounds I can look closer to how people remember me.”

I can already sense what you’re thinking, and you’re right, but I went ahead with the plan anyway.  I joined Weight Watchers, and worked up the courage to look for a new job that would advance my career while being rewarding at the same time.  Lost 30 pounds.  Got the new job.  Mission accomplished.  Well, the reunion is right around the corner — and I will not be attending.  Why?

While I have some genuinely fond memories of both high school and the friends I met there, it became increasingly clear towards the end (this is the obvious part) that, 20 years later, I was still chasing feelings of inadequacy.  New Trier was (and might still be) one of the most competitive public schools in America, with more than 80% of students scoring well above the national average during the time I went there.   (The top 1/4th of my class had a weighted GPA of 3.9, and the top 1/10th had a weighted GPA of 4.6 which sounds impossible until you realize their entire coursework consisted of AP classes.)  It was one of the largest suburban public schools of the time, with a total student population of nearly 3800 when I attended.  My graduating class was over 800 students, nearly all of them grossly better than I was in almost every area of academia.  And in my head, then and now, I was trying to be accepted by everyone I personally knew, usually failing at the same time.  That’s not healthy.

I asked friends for advice on whether or not I should attend, and got good advice.  When asking ‘shouldn’t I go to catch up with old friends, etc.?’ the responses were along the lines of “Isn’t that what facebook is for?” or “You knew them for four years, then didn’t talk to them for twenty; why do you want to go again?” or “My reunion consisted of all the jocks and cheerleaders hanging out with each other while a few people sat alone at tables — just like high school!!”, etc.  The most humbling reply was from a friend who lives within driving distance:  “You don’t need a reunion to catch up with me; stop by any time.”

They’re all correct.  You can never go back, and in my case, I shouldn’t want to go back.  Still, in my head, it stings.

Many of my fellow classmates have gone in enviable directions.  Without naming names(*):

  • Our class valedictorian (and a friend of mine) went to Harvard and then scored in the financial industry in the 1990s
  • My first girlfriend became a Rhodes scholar and got her doctorate in a literary field and now lives in the UK
  • One friend who was always a better programmer than me leapfrogged me entirely by becoming an electrical engineer who also did low-level interfaces for embedded systems (some medical, I believe)
  • Another friend got her masters in environmental engineering and is now a director at a California water company, championing water quality
  • One of my oldest friends (even before we attended high school) entered one of the most selfless professions and became an educator (say what you want, that takes dedication and cajones)
  • My senior prom date got her doctorate in a musical field and has composed and performed music heard by hundreds of thousands people
  • One ludicrously talented composer and performer made the leap to Hollywood and married a brilliant mathematician (and actress)

…and the list goes on.  Compared to them, I could feel like a failure.

But I’ve done well too, in my own way.  There is a dumb yet succinct saying that goes “The only person who can make you angry is you.”  It took me a long time to realize that applies to how you feel good about yourself as well.  So here’s where I bring the reunion to me, and tell any fellow Trevians who happen to catch this blog post how I’ve been doing:

So that’s me since high school in a nutshell.  Nice to see you again.

In honor of the positive times I had at New Trier, I’ve done two things.  First, I’ve uploaded some photos of me during that time with friends to facebook, and I’ve tried to tag them where possible.  (They should be viewable even if you don’t have a facebook account.)  Secondly, and of substantially more interest to my typical nerdly blog readers, I’ve made available a transcription of the New Trier High School Fight Song played at every home game — as rendered by Music Construction Set running on a Tandy 1000 in loving 3-voice dampened square waves.  Seriously.

Hey, I’ve still got my hair.  That’s gotta count for something.

Jim, seperated by 20 years

Jim and Jim^2, separated by 20 years

Whoa — is it me, or did it just get fatter in here?

(*) Names available upon request

Posted in Family, Lifehacks, Sociology, Uncategorized | 15 Comments »

Supercharging The Free Time

Posted by Trixter on July 23, 2009

One month ago, I started work at my new job, a trading firm in Chicago. I live in the western suburbs, so I have to take a train in to the city. The train ride is only 35 minutes each way, but due to a bus hookup that I have to make, as well as my scheduled working hours (trading hours), I spend a little over an hour on the homebound train. All told, I spend 1h45m sitting still on a train each day. This is time I used to spend computing, which is why people haven’t heard from me in a while. 

With a new job comes some new pay, so I considered it an investment for my sanity to purchase a laptop for the train. All the time I spent waiting to arrive home can now be spent working on projects and answering email. For someone who commutes so much, and has The Combine™ at home to crunch HD video (more on The Combine™ later), I initially thought that I would grab a tiny Dell notebook; they have a supremely tiny 9” model for $300 that can run for hours on fumes. Less to carry, good enough for syncing email for offline review, and I could even surf if I had to (via USB tether to my smartphone). They even come with a choice of shipping with Ubuntu.

The only problem with that idea is that the #1 project I have to focus on, with a deadline no less, is MindCandy volume 3. MC3 poses some significant challenges for me:

  • We have no dedicated DVD/Blu-ray author this time around (Jeremy is working full-time for Futuremark/Sony), which means I have to author it myself
  • The footage is a mixture of 720p (main program) and 1080p (special features)
  • The combined footage (special features + main program) is over 15 hours long
  • We don’t have any graphical artist for the motion menus, which means I have to design/create/render them myself (if you want to volunteer then by all means please contact me!)

MC3 post-production is essentially a one-man show, as you can see above. And with over 2 hours a day LESS free time, I am understandably nervous about getting it done before the end of the year, as is traditional so that you can snag it as a holiday gift. So, I have to work on the project on the train, which means the laptop would have to run Adobe CS4… and would have to play back HD video, including 1080p… and be able to render 3D graphics for the menu work… and it would have to hold at least 300G of low-res proxy footage video data (the real video footage is over 2 terabytes). So the tiny notebook idea was out.

Hey kids, how do you take a normal laptop and turn it into a Blu-ray production powerhouse?

  • Install nothing less than a Core 2 Duo
  • Replace the 720p LCD with a 1920×1080 LED-backlit full-gamut RGB screen
  • Put in a 500G hard drive
  • Upgrade the RAM to 4G
  • Swap out the DVD burner for a Blu-ray reader
  • Shame the embedded Intel video controller and install a Radeon HD 4570 with 512M dedicated video RAM
  • More power means more juice, so toss the 6-cell battery and install the 9-cell model

So that’s exactly what I did, taking a Dell Studio 15 that normally goes for $750 and injecting it with all of the above, then applying a magical 25%-off-anything-with-an-obscene-cost coupon. Final damage was around $1200. Yay Dell credit!

Here I am, laptop the size of a planet, and all I’ve done is write a blog post.

Man, this thing is heavy.

Posted in Digital Video, Lifehacks, MindCandy, Technology | 5 Comments »

Wave Of Change

Posted by Trixter on May 26, 2009

This year has been, by far, the year that almost everything has changed for every member of the family, drastically.  There’s a lot I could talk about, and a lot that I can’t at the moment, but one thing that caught me completely off-guard was the death of the Chicago smooth jazz station WNUA Friday morning.  At 9:55am, WNUA became an automated Spanish-language pop station, ending a 22-year run.

Before you start looking at me quizzically, let me clarify that I am not a rabid fanboy of smooth jazz.  I dislike that term; I figure “adult contemporary jazz” might be a better name since there’s very little jazz in “smooth jazz”.  But WNUA represented something very important to me that saved me from myself, and that was the station that inspired it:  KTWV, also known as The Wave.  And for those of you wondering what the point of this little ramble is, I’ll spare you the suspense:  Both of these stations, mostly The Wave, prevented my teenage suicide.  That, and The Wave was a neat experiment in radio that we’ll never see again.

Now the background.

Try to imagine 1987.  Try to remember contemporary media of that time like thirtysomething, Miami Vice, and Bright Lights Big City (and Alive from Off Center if you knew where to look).  Pop culture was just starting to drop out of the New Wave, skinny ties, Patrick Nagel, Memphis furniture phase.   The hip computers to own were the Macintosh, Amiga, and Apple IIgs.  This was the world I grew up in as a teenager.

I turned sixteen in that world, along with all of the angst and depression that goes with that age, no matter how shallow and unimportant the time was. Fully convinced that I would amount to nothing and never find love, I would spend hours in my room, depressed about the world and my future.  I would play long-running, moody computer adventure games into the wee hours.  It got so bad sometimes that computing couldn’t keep my mind off of it, and I became depressed, so incredibly distraught, that I considered (and, on one occasion, attempted) suicide.  Technically, I wasn’t alone in the world, but our family was strained due to financial problems and I’d just broken up with my first girlfriend (quite badly on my part, I’m ashamed to admit), so it felt like I was alone.  How much of this was hormone/development-related, I couldn’t tell you, because I was at the center of it.  But it was real, to me.

491848

One of the things that helped me keep it together was The Wave, a Chicago radio station running under the call letters WTWV.  The Wave was a New Age radio station with a small broadcasting radius; on a clear day, it came in really well.  I would put it on my boombox and record any songs onto cassette tape that I enjoyed while I was computing; eventually, I amassed quite a few tapes that helped my mood on days when reception was bad.  It was a legal relaxant.  Mental bubblegum that diverted my head away from suicidal thoughts.

The Wave, Circa 1987

The Wave, formerly WPPN in Chicago, was actually a satellite-fed KTWV from Los Angeles, formed on Valentine’s Day in 1987.  New Age was (and still is, in what I guess is now called “World Fusion”) a strange “hip” new format that most major markets were giving a try because it was the fastest growing music genre for young urban 30-something baby boomers.  They imported it where they couldn’t create it.  WTWV was our local repeater, on 106.7.  I found it quite by accident, simply scanning the dial one day, as 106.7 until that time had been a thrash metal Z-Rock affiliate.

If you ask me today if I like new age music, I’ll say what I’d say about techno, or thrash metal, or (heaven forbid) country:  I like it if it’s goodGood = composed brilliantly and performed at least adequately (and not the other way around).  Not much of New Age is good, at least not to me, but it was what I needed at the time.  The type of music that KTWV/WTWV played encompassed all sorts of stuff, like Acoustic Alchemy, Shadowfax, and Special EFX.  You’d also hear from artists like O’Hearn, Ciani, Hearns, Harriss, Lanz, Arkenstone, Vollenweider, Cusco, Osamu, etc.   I don’t listen to this music today; my musical tastes shifted violently when I went to college, but that’s another story altogether.  I still listen to my old tapes about once every eight years, though, for nostalgic warm fuzzies.

The music wasn’t the only “edgy” thing about the station; the way of presenting the format was too.  The Wave wasn’t big on talking — there were no DJs.  Other than vocal songs, the only ways you’d hear someone using language was during three types of elements:

The way they announced the time deserves special attention: It was very cleverly done, and was sometimes funny in a dry, thirtysomething sort of way.  They would play a little 60 to 90-second sketch, and whenever someone announced the time (only once in the sketch) a “beep” would go off.  It was pretty accurate; even though the time synchronization “beep” was mentioned at different points in each sketch, you could still adjust your watch to it.

goodbyeWNUA, the station whose format change prompted this little essay, was essentially a copycat.  The troubled station (which had gone through four different callsign and format changes in five years) decided to try New Age after a regular short evening show of the music proved to grab as much listeners as the entire broadcast day.  (This occured about six months after The Wave was playing in the area.)  They had almost exactly the same music lineup, the same variations-on-a-theme singing of the call letters, a similar pop art logo (pictured at right, although the “smooth jazz” lettering was added later as they mutated formats), and no DJs.  They even renamed the station in the call letters WNUA for “NU Age”.

Like all fads, it passed.  In 1989, both stations weren’t doing well with an all New Age lineup any more, so both stations slowly altered their formats towards contemporary jazz, then added vocalists, then older midtempo pop.  While WNUA survived another 20 years, WTWV was slower to adjust and, with worse ratings, was dropped completely without warning from the Chicagoland area, sold to Salem Media (an ancestor of today’s Salem Communications).  Back then, I always wondered why I barely heard commercials on The Wave; in hindsight, it’s because they were never able to get any advertisers.

In retrospect, I’m glad I was spared the slow transformation to what the original KTWV is today, which is smooth jazz.  Those first two years, the ones that held my interest and streamlined my thoughts, were an innovative experiment in what was probably the last era radio could be experimental.  I was very sad to see The Wave go, even though I didn’t need it anymore.  After the sale to Salem Media, 106.7 quickly and predictably became right-wing fundamentalist bible-thumping homophobic antichoice hate talk in the guise of “Family Radio” WYLL.  (I guess that sold well, because they had a chance to upgrade the transmitter after the format change; the 50kW transmitter is located in Des Plaines, and for those who lived anywhere in the north or northwest Chicagoland suburban area, you got treated to this stuff full blast when you skimmed past it on the dial.  Today, it’s a spanish language station — just like WNUA became on Friday.) So the Wave disappeared from the midwest, and WNUA slowly transmogrified their format into “smooth jazz”, dropping new-agey stuff in favor of Basia and Kenny G.  They used to have a syndicated show of New Age on Sunday nights called Mystical Starstreams (ugh), but I don’t know how long that lasted.

I don’t know why I feel like I’ve lost something; my need for radio has been dead for a while, as the signal to noise ratio is through the floor (pun not intended).  To paraphrase Steve Jobs:  When you’re young, you look at [radio] and think, “there’s a conspiracy.  The networks have conspired to dumb us down.” But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. (Which is a far more depressing thought.)

Besides, the last decade has completely changed the way people discover and acquire media.  The only reason I listened to the radio Friday was because I was driving my 16-yr-old car that only has a radio. When that car dies, I’ll have a personal media player, online music stores, and free open content to browse through, probably all while driving in said new car.  The entire world of media is open to me, and everyone.

But I still have my tapes.


UPDATE: I’m elated to report that Chicago still has a Smooth Jazz option — the people behind WNUA started up on another spot on the dial, and they even kept the musical callsigns that don’t directly mention “W” “N” “U” “A” (because they’re WLFM now).

Posted in Lifehacks | 6 Comments »

DietHacking

Posted by Trixter on May 6, 2009

“You have an unhealthy relationship with food,” Jason remarked, somewhat casually, after witnessing the satisfaction I got from eating a particularly crisp batch of crinkle-cut french fries.  And he was right.  But, just like an addict, I have everything under control.  No, really, I do.

As John Walker hammers home 2^37 times in The Hacker’s Diet, weight loss is incredibly easy.  Just consume less energy than your body requires to function, and your body will take what it needs from your fat stores.  It really is that easy — it’s staying on track that’s the tough part.  The longer I stay on Weight Watchers, the more weight I lose (down to 213 — only 2 more pounds to my 10% goal), but I’ve had to resort to some mental hacking to keep things interesting.

For one thing, the Weight Watchers “points” values are a slightly skewed calculation of (calories/50)=number of “points”.  The actual formula, which somehow inexplicably got patented, is this:

weight-watchers-points-form

In the above, r represents fiber.  So up to 4 grams of dietary fiber are subtracted from the calculation.  What does this mean?  It means that you can essentially stuff your gaping maw with Fiber One cereal every hour of the day and, unless your stomach is the size of a large pumpkin, will never hit your points for the day.

More fun can be had by skipping a meal — yes, exactly what they tell you not to do.  I find that I can have a single yogurt for breakfast, then a lean lunch of grilled chicken and steamed veggies, and then I can eat pretty much whatever the hell I want for dinner.  This is not recommended and certainly not the most healthy way to diet.  It is, however, the most fun.  By front-loading all of my points toward a single meal, I get to revisit my young adulthood by making the trek to the best burger/dog joint in the entire world:  Superdawg.  Unhealthy front-loading means I get to enjoy a Supercheesie with a chocolate malt and still be under my points for the day:

Supercheesie and Chocolate Malt

Remember kids, it’s not a true Supercheesie unless the relish is NEON GREEN:

Inside a Supercheesie

In addition to being one of the worst ways you can eat, front-loading is also the hardest to stay focused on.  I find that if I’m hungry — not a “I need food to live” hungry, but rather an “I’m anxious and want to calm myself down with food” hungry — I can just chug diet cokes until that feeling goes away.  No, I’m not a role model.

“You have an unhealthy relationship with food.” Yeah, well, I have no other vices. Maybe if I take up drinking, smoking, or drugs, I’ll stop coveting guilty-pleasure-food.

Posted in Lifehacks, Weight Loss | 7 Comments »