Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

Fear of Success

Posted by Trixter on December 19, 2016

When I have an exceptionally good idea, I think about it endlessly until it gets fleshed out and fully realized inside my head.  This is fun.  I like to work on these projects every night as a way to get to sleep.  It rarely results in actual sleep, but at least I have something to think about during bouts of insomnia.

The problem with this is that it leads to obsessing over the implementation of the idea, to the point where it manifests in a really unhealthy way.  When I coded some of my best demos, I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning multiple nights in a row to take advantage of the +2 INT bonus you get from hyperfocusing without distractions.  This led to being inefficient at work, being short with my family, and occasionally getting sick.  When I was fleshing out MobyGames with Brian Hirt, I spent every moment of my free time working on it for nearly two years, which damaged my relationship with my wife and my young children.

I’ve reconciled with my family for that period in our lives, but ever since then, I’ve been very careful about how I spend my time fleshing out my ideas.  If it looks like I’ll have enough pockets of free time that don’t impact anyone that needs me, or said project doesn’t require intense focus, only then can I actually work on a project.  This is a balancing act.  It took several planets to align for 8088 MPH to happen, complicated by not just my own time, but the time of everyone involved.  I’m amazed we pulled it off.  I’m also positively thrilled we pulled it off.

I have a new idea that is just begging to get out of my head and into the real world.  It’s a project that has an audience of thousands — not the largest audience, but it will make a real impact with that audience and save them thousands of hours of time, and that’s enough to make converting this idea into a concrete project.  It will require me to learn a new programming language, adopt community programming practices, use collaborative platforms, and will overall be a positive learning experience.

But, it will require a large amount of discipline, focus, and study.  So I’m afraid to start, because I know once I start, I won’t be able to stop.  I’m afraid of causing collateral damage by being unavailable to those around me.

So, I haven’t started.

Posted in Programming, Sociology | 3 Comments »

I’m right, you’re wrong, and it doesn’t matter

Posted by Trixter on December 5, 2016

(20161208 Update: Since writing this opinion piece, I have learned that what I was feeling but not able to articulate very clearly was the “Death of Expertise”: The notion that modern collaboration platforms and social media have eroded the division between laymen and specialists.  After reading this piece, you may want to read Tom Nichol’s piece on the same subject.)

I used to think that being an archivist automatically granted credentials to be a historian.  I’m not sure that’s true any more.  It’s not that I can’t perform the same job; I’m known for performing extensive dives into subjects I am considered an expert on.  Rather, I now think it is impossible for any historian to do an effective job, because history no longer matters.

Stop screaming and let me explain.  Of course the concept of “history” matters, but only as a concept.  The reality in recent years has turned out to be something else entirely: People simply don’t care to benefit from it.  Humans have a survival instinct that has evolved from protection of the body to protection of the mind, and people don’t want to be told anything that can upset or inconvenience them.  Mentally harmful information is rejected, and whichever population has greater numbers gets to define history.  Because the general population greatly outnumbers all professional historians worldwide, guess which group defines truth?  Not historians.

Facts no longer matter.  Everyone has an agenda.  Before written records, information was passed down orally from generation to generation.  Natural mutation of information inevitably occurred, but sometimes it was helped along by tribal leaders with ideologies to push.  When written record was invented, purging or alteration of records was invented shortly thereafter.  So, the modern era of perfect audio and video recording exists — will that save us?  No, because people will either claim what they are ingesting has been subjectively edited, or subjectively produced, or will choose their own interpretation of what the speaker said (or meant to say).  Facts have now become opinions; just like assholes, everyone has one.

Do you think written or digital archives will save history?  Will digitally-signed binary information solve arguments or advance the sciences?  Will it steer us away from war, mental illness, or famine?  It hasn’t, so far.  I think our ability to (mis-)interpret data is more powerful and widespread than we care to think about.  I have spent hundreds of man-hours extracting and creating metadata for various archival efforts, and I think most archivists have done the same.  How useful is that information if people are incapable of interpreting it, or worse, capable of doubting its authenticity despite indisputably-documented provenance?

Have you ever had an argument with someone online over certain facts about an object, something that is physical and present and obvious?  I have.  Writing about it, then taking photos of it, then shooting live video of it for the benefit of the other person still didn’t set them straight about the facts.  I resorted to physically sending them the object — surely this would clear up any misconception, yes?  They thought I sent them an altered version of said object.  I gave up.  I give up.

If you’ve read this far, and you’re familiar with the type of information I traffic in both above and below ground, you’re probably worried that this is my Raze Manifesto; that the last image anyone will ever see of me is of my silhouette walking away from a giant smoking hole in the ground as decades of archival work burn into ash.  If you’re concerned, don’t be.  I’ll continue to do what I do in the manner I’ve always done it.  But from now on, I’ll do so without any belief that the work is important or valid.  I will archive, document, research, and rescue for my own satisfaction and entertainment, not for the greater good — because there is no greater good to be had from this work.  If you want to charge that windmill, knock yourself out, but don’t pretend for a single second that you’re changing the world.  The world is changing every second without any regard to the past, as it always has, as it always will.  A mountain of data ignored is just as useful as a mountain of data destroyed.

I sometimes wish I were not a subject matter expert in the few, narrow fields I derive enjoyment from.  For once, I would love to enjoy something with the bliss that comes with ignorance.  I think this is why some people long to return to their youth, to return to a time when they lived in bliss.  That desire, I believe, is what creates archivists:  We are desperate to preserve everything that made us happy, in the hope that it will still make us happy; that interest in our time period and its products will matter somehow, and provide some form of validation.

I don’t seek validation much these days.  Seeking closure is probably more productive anyway.

I wonder if there is a specialized psychiatric discipline for treating disillusioned historians.

Posted in Sociology | 4 Comments »

Sleeping in a Mall

Posted by Trixter on December 12, 2012

Just now, watching some 80’s music videos, it dawned on me that today — the second Wednesday of December — is the 25th anniversary of the time I slept overnight in a shopping mall.  I keep meaning to write about that night, but keep losing interest… but today being the 25th anniversary of that night is too much of a coincidence to pass up, so here goes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Family, Sociology | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Anthropomorphising Computers

Posted by Trixter on December 4, 2012

A recent comment on a Slashdot story actually got me to laugh out loud at work enough to attract some attention, and that’s pretty rare for me (laughing at something I see on the internet).  What got me to laugh?  Human characterization of a computer.  It makes me laugh because I do the same thing — I give machines personalities when I think about or work with them.  (To those researching autism spectrum disorders, you might want to scribble something in your notebook right about now.)

Most people trying to comprehend what this is like would probably imagine something flamboyant and animated, such as Eric Schwartz’s tribute to the Amiga.  While such characterizations are creative and nice, that’s not what gets me laughing.  What does it for me is a computer that acts like a fallible human.  Here’s the post that got me laughing, paraphrased slightly (for the uninitiated, ext4 is a method of storing files in a Linux system, and the context is an application “talking” to the operating system):

I don’t quite trust ext4 for writes.

app: Hey, can you write this data out to
ext4: DONE!
app: Uhh, that wasn’t long enough to actually write the data.
ext4: Sure it was! I’m super faGRRRRRRRRRRRRRst at writing too.
app: Wait — did you just cache that write and report it written, but then not actually write it to disk until 30 seconds later?
ext4: Yeah, so?

I routinely do this sometimes when dealing with a unix server that is hurting, such as having so many spawned threads due to an unforseen condition that there are several times more threads running than there are CPUs to handle them.  I imagine each CPU as a juggler frantically trying to keep 20 pins in the air at once, sweating profusely, and calling out to the other CPUs for help only to have them yell back they are just as screwed as he is.

Does anyone else do this, or is it just me?

Posted in Sociology, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

You couldn’t be a total idiot

Posted by Trixter on July 9, 2012

One of the things I miss about the first decade of personal computing was that nearly every computer enthusiast you met  — on BBSes, in computer stores, etc. — was pretty good at using them.  Early personal computing meant you couldn’t be a total idiot and still use a computer, unlike today.  So if you met someone who used computers enough and liked doing so, chances are they were not an idiot.

I think it’s amazing how much of a commodity personal computers have become.  Last year, my then 2-yr-old nephew could navigate an ipad without any help, even though he wasn’t talking yet.  My 12-yr-old son has a typical smartphone, which means he can send sound, images, and data to anyone in the entire world no matter where he is — that’s stuff I used to watch on Star Trek, and now it’s reality!  That’s both pretty damn scary and pretty awesome.  But I think what’s missing is the element of discovery, of natural intellectual curiosity, trying to figure out what the machine can do, why and how it does what it does, and how to push it farther.  That’s what I miss about the early days, and is probably why I have 27 old computers stuffed into my crawlspace, with 1 or 2 in regular circulation.

I feel like that intellectual-curiosity-for-tech has been lost from the general public in the last 10-15 years.  Maybe I’m wrong and it never existed at all, and I was just lucky enough to always be surrounded by people who were interested in computers in my youth.

A month ago, the newly-unearthed M.U.L.E. for the PC (more on that in a later post) got hours of use as my 12-yr-old and his friend played several games.  Because we didn’t have the manual at the time, there was much experimentation and probing on what keys to press and how the game mechanics worked.  A few months ago, they did the same thing playing 2-player simultaneous Zyll, where they poked and prodded every square inch of the game to try to see what made it tick (and when I surprised them with a dot-matrix-printed Zyll FAQ after they’d played for a few hours, they just about lost their shit).

My point is that they were really into it, and I can’t help but wonder why they aren’t into much neater tech they own that has vastly more power and flexibility.  I never see them as enthusiastic around their xbox or iphone as they were playing these old games and trying to figure out how to drive them.  They might be enthusiastic about the game they’re playing or the people they’re playing with, but never the machine itself.

Why is that?  Does a device lose all interest once it has been through commoditization?

Posted in Sociology, Technology, Vintage Computing | 6 Comments »

I grow tired of the technologically ignorant

Posted by Trixter on February 29, 2012

(This post is overly subjective, more opinionated than my usual efforts, and contains some cussing.  Consider yourself warned.)

I am sick and tired of people who shun technology and progress under the guise of “I’m an old tech veteran, I’ve been working with technology for 30 years, and the new stuff is crap compared to the old stuff.”  People who defend this viewpoint are idiots.  I’m not talking about audiophiles or other self-delusional “prosumers”; I’m talking about people who have worked a tech trade or had hands-on access to technology for many years and think that their perceptions trump reality.  It’s a perverse combination of technology and anti-intellectualism — a form of hipsterism for the over-40 set.

I was prompted to cover this by a recent post on why widescreen monitors are a rip-off (which I will not link to because I truly enjoy the other 99% of this person’s blog, and linking to it would imply that I don’t like him or his site), but the underlying irritation of the entire mindset has been percolating for many years.  Viewpoints that drive me crazy include:

Widescreen monitors don’t make any sense

People think that widescreen monitors are stupid on laptops because most people use laptops for text work, and since text is more comfortable to read in columns, wide columns are harder to read.  This mindset has had the doubly idiotic result of making people think that websites need to be column-limited.  I just love going to a website and having the text squished into a 640-pixel-wide column with 75% of the screen unused.  Don’t like how narrow columns look on a widescreen monitor?  Use the extra space however you want — put up two web pages side by side, or simply don’t look at the unused space.  It’s people like these that also complain that 4:3 video has black bars on either side of it when viewed on a widescreen TV.  It’s called pillarboxing, you idiot, and it’s there to prevent your movie from looking like a funhouse mirror.

Widescreen monitors have made modern laptops better.  A widescreen laptop monitor allows the keyboard to be wider without the depth of the laptop getting too high (to support the height of a 4:3 monitor).  Having a decent keyboard on a laptop used to be impossible without clever wacky engineering tricks; now it is.  Widescreen monitors made ultra-small netbooks possible, so if you’re reading this on a netbook but somehow still disagree with me, you’re a hypocrite.

Analog audio is better than digital

There are entire websites (and wikipedia pages) dedicated to this, usually under the guise of “vinyl is better than CD”.  Most opinions on this subject were formed when analog audio had several decades of mature mastering and production processes, and digital was brand-new (for example vinyl vs. CD in 1983).  Early efforts to put things on CD resulted in some less-than-stellar A/D conversion, which created a type of distortion that most people weren’t used to hearing.  People formed opinions then that have perservered more than 25 years later, even though the technology has gotten much better and all of the early mastering problems have long since been corrected.

People who think vinyl sounds better than CD have nostalgia blinders on.  They bought an album in their youth, played it endlessly, loved it.  Then they buy the same album on CD decades later and condemn the entire format as inferior because it sounds different.  Want to know why it sounds different?  It has a wider frequency range, lacks rumble, lacks hiss, sounds exactly the same after 10+ playbacks, and was remastered with better technology and mixing conditions under the guidance and approval of the original artist when he wasn’t coked or drunk or stoned out of his mind.  People like Pete Townsend, Neil Young and Geddy Lee not only approve of the latest digital technology but are actively utilizing it and going through great pains to remaster their classic albums with it.  People are missing the point that it is the mastering and digital compression that causes issues, not the technology itself.  Neil Young recently spoke at a conference where he damned digital music, but not because it is digital — rather, because it is delivered differently than the artists intended.  Neil Young would like nothing better than for everyone to be able to listen to his music at 24/192.  Can’t do that on vinyl, bitches.

Even people who write about the loudness war get it wrong, despite that it’s an easy concept to understand.  Massive dynamic compression drowns out subtle details and can add distortion, which is horrible — but it is not exclusive to digital audio, nor caused by it.  One author correctly notes that massive dynamic compression butchers mixes, but then subtlety implies that all CDs that “clip” have distorted audio.  Digital audio “clips” only if you drive the signal beyond its digital limits.  If you took an audio waveform and normalized it such that the highest peak reached exactly the highest value, it is “positioned at maximum volume”, not clipped.  Nothing is lost (to be fair, nothing is gained either).

The problem is the mastering and production process, not the technology.  Which segues nicely into:

“I will never buy Blu-ray”

The only valid argument against Blu-ray is that it is harder to make a backup copy of the content.  It is indeed harder than it is for DVD, or laserdisc, or videotape.  That is it.  All other arguments are beyond moronic.  Even the cheapest possible 1080p HDTV viewing setup has five times the resolution of DVD and lacks signal degradation in the output path.  If you view a Blu-ray and can’t tell the difference between it and DVD, you have either a shitty viewing setup, a shitty Blu-ray, or a shitty visual cortex.

Someone recently tried to argue with me that DVDs have the same or better picture than Blu-ray and used Robocop as an example.  The comparison was weighted, as they were comparing the $9 Blu-ray that MGM belched out when Blu-ray was only a year old to the Criterion DVD treatment.  I own both, so I checked them out and I agree that the DVD has better color tonality throughout the film.  However, the Blu-ray thoroughly stomped the DVD in every single other area, most obviously resolution.  So much picture detail is added by the increase in resolution that I actually prefer it despite the lack of Criterion oversight.

The real problem, as previously stated, is how the mastering and preproduction process was handled.  Even with new 2012 DVD releases, you can still see the “loudness war” video equivalent of digital ringing, which used to be an accident but was later introduced on purpose as part of a misguided “sharpening” step.  Listen up:  Any sharpening filter added to any signal doesn’t make things sharper; it makes them appear sharper by overlaying a high-frequency permutation signal over the original content, which increases the acutance.  Quality is actually lost when you do this, as the high-frequency info obscures actual picture detail.

This is another example of perception vs. reality, which not coincidentally also segues into:

“Computing was better in the old days”

I love retrocomputing as a hobby.  I think about it nearly every day; this blog was partially created to talk about vintage computing.  But even I wouldn’t say that things were better in the old days.  People who say this don’t realize they are really trying to say something else.  For example, people who say that “BBSes were better than web forums are today” are actually referring to the sociological fact that, when you communicated with people on a BBS, you were communicating with people who met a minimum level of technical competence — because, if they hadn’t, they would have been too stupid to access a BBS, let alone be proficient with a computer.  The overall technological quality level of everyone you met on a BBS in the 1980s was higher than other places, like a laundromat or a bar.  What such people fail to consider is that modern web boards, while having a higher quotient of trolls and B1FFs, are open to the entire world.  The massive scale of humanity you can encounter on even a tiny niche topic is levels of magnitude higher than it used to be.  The sheer scale of information and interaction you can now achieve is staggering, and completely outweighs any minor niggle that you have to deal with 3 or 4 more asshats per day now.

Here’s another example:  “Computer games were better back in the old days.”  This is wrong.  The proper thing to say is that “Some computer game genres were better back in the old days.”  I can get behind that.  For example, graphics were so terrible (or non-existent!) at the birth of computer gaming that entire industries sprang up focusing on narrative.  For such genres (mainly adventure games), several times more effort was put into the story than other genres.  As technology and audiences changed over time, such genres morphed and combined until they no longer resembled their origins.  That doesn’t mean modern games are terrible; it just means that you need to shop around to get what you’re looking for your entertainment.  Don’t play Uncharted 2 expecting a fantastic story with engaging narrative.  (Dialog, maybe, not not narrative.)  Heck, some genres are genuinely awesome today compared to 30 years ago.  For example, Portal and Portal 2 are technically puzzle games, but the storytelling in them — despite never interacting directly with a human — is among the very best I’ve ever encountered.

About the only argument that does work involves the complexity of older computers — they were simpler, and you could study them intensely until you could very nearly understand every single circuit of the board, nuance of the video hardware, and opcode of the CPU.  Today, a complete understanding of a computer is no longer possible, which probably explains why Arduino sets and Raspberry Pi are getting so much attention.


I have no conclusion.  Stop being an old-fogey anti-intellectual technophobe, you ignorant hipster fuck.

Posted in Digital Video, Entertainment, Sociology, Technology, Vintage Computing | 10 Comments »


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.”

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 »

Chapter Three, In Which He Went Anyway

Posted by Trixter on November 28, 2009

A great reason to go to a reunion is to catch up with old friends and see how everyone is doing.  A bad reason would be to despair over missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the sole reason it comes along once in a lifetime.  I went to my high school reunion for the latter reason, and lack the words to express how overjoyed I was that it led to the former.

I love the phrase “time heals all wounds”, despite how hackneyed and worn it is.  It represents what I keep forgetting:  The older everyone gets, the more level the playing field gets.  There are people I have met in my professional career that would have never given me a second thought in high school (think “computer nerd meet-cutes head cheerleader”), and every time we interact, my inner nerd simply cannot get over the fact that we are interacting.  It never ceases to amaze me how normally everyone can get along despite dissimilar backgrounds.

There were a few snags; my cell phone broke this afternoon so I had nothing to take pictures with, and there were two people from the high school radio station that I started to talk to but couldn’t because my ears were shot and I just couldn’t understand them.  But those were secondary concerns compared to the best discovery of the evening: Viewing myself through other people’s eyes.  We imagine the worst for ourselves, about ourselves, and yet the simplest things can completely turn your entire perspective on life around when you hear things like:

“I wanted to tell you how much your writing influenced me and shaped my own writing.”  (It did?)

“I found people to talk to here tonight, and I wasn’t a part of anywhere near the number of clubs and organizations you were in.”  (I was?)

“I just wanted to let you know how much I admired your character.”  (My what?)

“You need to come over next time [we have a party]; you’d really get along with all the people who come.”  (I would?)

I still find it somewhat hard to believe.  But I’m starting to.

It’s humbling, and wonderful.

Posted in Sociology, Uncategorized | 7 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 »