General posts about art and culture topics.

Art And Culture

These are items of general artistic or cultural interest... usually involving monkeys, bananas, music videos, or all three.

Daylight Savings Time... Again?!?!

It's tough explaining why we have Daylight Savings Time... it's really tough explaining why we have it to a grumpy 4-month old who wants to keep napping... it's really, really tough explaining why we have it the same week it snows in Seattle fer crying out loud... Frankly, I think we should do away with it, and C. P. G. Grey agrees with me:

He's not alone... several academic studies have shown that daylight savings time wastes money and kills people. People use light bulbs less, but air conditioning more, so energy savings is non-existent. Also, there's a higher incident of car crashes, accidents, and heart attacks because everybody is sleepy and stressed out.

I'm for getting rid of it... how about you?

PowerPoint Tips from South Park

PowerPoint is a necessary evil... everybody is expected to give presentations in it, but few people are good at it. They cram too much information into one slide, and pack them full of data that might better go in a report. Presentations work best when used to persuade, it's an awkward tool when you try to educate. There's a reason PowerPoint was banned by the Pentagon:

"PowerPoint is dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control" -- Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster

But alas... we're still stuck with PowerPoint... so we should probably make the best of it!

One of the ways to make PowerPoint presentations more compelling is to tell a story... unfortunately, most people are pretty bad at telling stories as well. There's an entire industry created around corporate storytelling that trains people how to engage your audience with a full-fledged story... but there's an even simpler approach. The creators of South Park stumbled on a formula that they still use to assemble stories:

These same rules can apply to making a PowerPoint presentation flow like a story.

You initially assemble your main points -- which is usually the hard part. Then, when assembling your points to tell a story, try to transition between your points with the word "therefore," or the word "but." Like so:

  • Slide 1
  • therefore...
  • Slide 2
  • but...
  • Slide 3
  • therefore...
  • Slide 4
  • but...

Simple, no? You'll be surprised how much better your presentations will "flow" from one point to the next with this method.

Naturally, not all presentations can fit into this pattern... for example, "Top 10" presentations flow numerically from one point to another... so if people doze off they can pick up the next chunk at the start. Also, there may be times where the dreaded "and then" transition is needed, such as when a point needs to be communicated over several slides.

Nevertheless, if you try hard to use better transitions, your story will be more compelling, and PowerPoint will be one notch less evil.

Happy Halloween!

Hat tip Andrew Sullivan. Enjoy yourselves, uber geeks ;-)

For more fun, check out my experiments with programming a robot cylon pumpkin.

The World's Oldest Computer

Sometimes people ask me, "what does your company's logo mean?" When I founded Bezzotech 4 years back, I wanted a symbol that says "high-tech and new", but also something that says "old school rocks!"

After a bit of thinking, I realized the answer was simple. There was only one appropriate symbol, the computer invented by the ancient Greeks: the astrolabe.

An astrolabe is essentially an analog calculator. You would set it according to your latitude, and point the rule at a well known object in the sky: the sun, the moon, the north start, etc. Depending on what you picked, you could calculate the time of day, the time of year, or your location. It could be used for things as simple as calculating when to plant your crops, or as complex as a geographic survey of an entire city. Advanced ones had charts on the back to help with math calculations, and conversions.

It was originally invented in Greece in approximately 150 BC, and spread quickly through Europe and the Middle East... They aren't very common today, but 2000 years ago they had approximately the "cool factor" of the iPhone. One Persian astronomer wrote a book on the 1000 different uses of an Astrolabe. Technically, the astrolabe has more apps than the Google phone...

You can make a simple astrolabe using paper or wood... but of course the most beautiful ones are made from brass. In the old days, an educated person would not only know how to use an astrolabe, but they could build one as well. This presentation from the TED conference covers how it was used, and how amazingly resourceful our predecessors were with them:

So what do you think? Does my logo look like an astrolabe, or is it just a cool gear thingie?

Twitter is Sooooooo 18th Century...

Just in case you think that Twitter is cutting edge, the good people at the Wall Street Journal are here to set you straight... On their blog they interviewed Cornell professor Lee Humphreys, who did an analysis of the striking similarities between Twitter and 18th century diaries.

Personal journals were not always about writing long prose about everything you did that day... most of them contained very short one-sentence updates:

"Before the end of the 19th century, diaries weren’t considered private or introspective. Instead, people wrote semi-public diaries that were often shared among faraway family members and others. And space was at a premium; by the mid-1800s, popular “pocket diaries” were only about 2 inches by 4 inches and were intended to be more mobile than earlier books."

Take for example somebody I just started following recently: John Quincy Adams. Yep... son of John Adams and the sixth president of the USA, John Quincy is up on Twitter. The Massachusetts Historical Society is taking his personal diary verbatim and placing it up on Twitter... 200 years to the day AFTER he originally wrote them, and most of them fit into the 140-character limit just fine! Call me nerdy, but that's pretty cool.

One of my favorite lines from the article is this:

Dr. Humphreys said the research serves as a good reminder that not everything in new media is entirely new. "It’s helpful to put things into historical context," Dr. Humphreys said. "It’s amazing how much human nature hasn’t really changed all that much."

Too true... when Twitter first came out I thought it was a silly concept... why would I Tweet when I could Blog? The point it, despite the number of blogs out there, not many people enjoy writing... but everybody like keeping up-to-date with friends.

But of course, that's what Facebook is for ;-)

Let it go, this too shall pass...

I couldn't resist... this latest video from OK GO is as amazing as their other ones...

Publishing is Dead...

Or is it?

The Origin Of Bex: Now Available On Netflix

I'm frequently asked where I got the nickname "Bex." Back in 2008 I finally put the matter to rest by explaining the origin of "Bex".

The quick story is this: a while back I saw a British TV show with a character named "Bexley," thought it was a cool name, and started using "Bex" as one of my (many) internet aliases. When I went to college, there were too many "Brians" in my dorm, so they decided I needed a nickname... one of my geekier dorm-mates asked me what I used for internet aliases, I mentioned them, and they liked "Bex" the best.

The rest, as they say, is history...

The TV show in question is Red Dwarf, which is a something of a sci-fi cult comedy... I was recently surprised to see that Red Dwarf is available via NetFlix-On-Demand! If you have NetFlix, and about 20 minutes to spare, you might want to watch the television episode that spawned my nickname. And maybe a few more episodes, if you care to...

The show is well written, if not a bit quirky... but, if you're a frequent reader of my blog, you probably have the sense of humor necessary to find it charming ;-)

The Best Fairy Tale Ever

Once upon a time, a guy asked a girl, "Will you marry me?"

The girl said, "NO!"

And the guy lived happily ever after and rode motorcycles and went fishing and hunting and played golf a lot and drank beer and scotch and had money in the bank and left the toilet seat up and farted whenever he wanted.

The End!

(Hat tip, Shelia and Michelle...)

How Software Engineers Think...

A Software Engineer, a Hardware Engineer, and a Departmental Manager were on their way to a meeting in Switzerland. They were driving down a steep mountain road when suddenly the brakes on the car failed. The car careened almost out of control down the road, bouncing off the crash barriers, until it miraculously ground to a halt scraping along the mountainside. The car's occupants, shaken but unhurt, now had a problem: They were stuck half way down a mountain in a car with no brakes. What were they to do?

"I know," said the Departmental Manager. "Let's have a meeting, propose a Vision, formulate a Mission Statement, define some Goals, and by a process of Continuous Improvement find a solution to the Critical Problems, and be on our way."

"No, no," said the Hardware Engineer. "That will take far too long, and besides, that method has never worked before. I've got my Swiss Army knife with me, and in no time at all I can strip down the car's breaking system, isolate the fault, fix it, and we'll be on our way."

"Well," said the Software Engineer, "before we do anything, I think we should push the car up back up the road and see if it happens again..."

HA!

(Hat tip Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg)

caption contest...

wtf_pictures-macho-macho-t1

words fail me... other than: the internet has EVERYTHING.

It has to be said...

This has GOT to be a joke...

The W3C -- my absolutely positively most favorite standards body ever -- has just come up with an XML namespace for emotions! I must say that I fully support this specification... who on earth would ever want to type something as confusing and ambiguous as this:

    ;-)

When we can do The Right Thing™ and use XML instead:

    <emotionml xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2008/11/emotionml">
        <emotion>
            <category set="everydayEmotions" name="Amusement" />
            <intensity value="0.7" />
        </emotion>
    </emotionml>

Ugh... If this were released on April 1st instead of November 20th, I would have been amused. But now I'm just plain sad. As Wearehug said, "It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish W3C specs from Onion articles."

(Hat Tip Aristotle)

Is The Roth IRA a Total Con?

I've been reading a lot about economics and finance lately... Retirement planning gets a lot more complex when you run your own business! In any event, I've learned several things that made me highly skeptical about commonly held advice about retirement savings plans. In particular, I now believe that nobody should ever invest in a Roth IRA. This probably goes against what a lot of financial planners say, but I have my reasons.

Why? First, lets go over the differences:

  • Traditional IRA: This is a pretty good deal... these let you purchase mutual funds of stocks and bonds, and take a tax deduction when doing so. Your money grows tax-free while its in the fund. At age 59.5, you can take money out of the fund without penalty, and you pay federal taxes on it as income.
  • Roth IRA: This is a relatively new idea... identical to the Traditional IRA, except for two things. First, you cannot take a tax deduction when you put money into it. However, since you paid taxes up-front, you can take money out of the fund, and not pay taxes on it! Wow, sounds pretty good, huh?

For example... let's assume some dude named Bob Lemonjello is 30 years old, and puts in $5,000 per year into a IRA. This is the current maximum Bob can put into his account. We could assume a reasonable 8% growth over the next 30 years, yielding a total of about $610,000 by retirement. If Bob did this as a traditional IRA, that $5000 would be tax-deductible every year... saving him about $50,000 in taxes before he retires. Not bad... but when Bob takes out money from your IRA, it will be taxed... so the government will probably get $150,000 of his nest egg.

If Bob instead did this as a Roth, he wouldn't get a tax deduction, so he'd wind up paying approximately an extra $50,000 in taxes during his working years... but then he has $610,000 of tax-free cash! Woo hoo! The government can't touch a dime of that! Even better, he could have a traditional IRA, then do a rollover immediately before retirement. Sure, he'll have to pay $50,000 in back taxes when doing the roll-over, but for that $50,000 investment, he gets to avoid paying any taxes on his $610,000 nest egg!

Bwa ha ha ha ha!!! Bob is free... FREEEEEEEEEE!!!

I have one question: does anybody actually believe that the future US government would let Bob keep his Roth money, and not make him pay any taxes on it? Does anybody actually believe that the US government will never change the tax laws, and that they will sit idly, and not demand a piece of that easy money?

Reality time: Roth IRAs and Roth 401Ks are amazing tax-free investments, which have become wildly popular amongst people in every tax bracket... which is exactly why future governments will not keep their promises.

Let me remind you... until 1983, Social Security benefits were considered tax-free income... then Ronald Regan signed a law which made half the recipients pay taxes on their benefits! Bill Clinton later boosted it, so that 85% of Social Security recipients pay some kind of income tax. Face facts... When a government wants money, it will find clever ways to tax you. They will be called "Roth Withdrawal Fees," or "Conditional Rollover Fees," or just plain "We got all the guns! Gimme Gimme Gimme!"

The entire benefit of the Roth IRA rests on the belief that the government won't change the tax laws. I for one have zero faith that the government will keep their promises about the Roth. If you want the sure thing, go for a Traditional IRA. This has an immediate tax deduction at exactly the moment when you are in a high tax bracket, along with tax deferred growth. You'll pay taxes when you take money out, but in retirement you'll almost certainly be in a lower tax bracket.

So what do you think? Will the US Government keep it promises? If the tax laws change, will a Roth IRA be worse than a Traditional IRA?

How Bad Web Security Makes It Easy To Rick-Roll

You've probably heard about the technique of Rick Rolling... its basically the web version of the oh-so-mature "made you look" game. You tell people that a link goes to some interesting info, when if fact the link goes to a YouTube video of Rick Astley singing "Never Gonna Give You Up." It's also lead to the trend of live Rick Rolling, in where you trick somebody to look at the lyrics of the song... like what happened during the 2008 Vice Presidential Debates.

Well, now people are so suspicious of YouTube links, they won't click on them anymore. So the answer is to raise the bar a little. My technique is to use open redirects from legitimate websites to hide links to YouTube!

For example... see the link below to Yelp.com? Where do you think it goes? Cut and paste it into a browser URL to see where it actually goes:

http://www.yelp.com/redir?storeId=&url=%68%74%74%70%3a%2f%2f%77%77%77%2e%79%6f%75%74%75%62%65%2e%63%6f%6d%2f%77%61%74%63%68%3f%76%3d%59%75%5f%6d%6f%69%61%2d%6f%56%49

It looks like a link to Yelp.com, which is a restaurant review site... but with a little URL magic, you can force Yelp to annoy people. Naturally, once Yelp catches wind of this, they will shut down the open redirect pretty fast, so you have to keep looking for more. The technique is pretty simple:

  • Find a large/important site that links frequently to small/unimportant sites... such sites usually have open redirects.
  • Poke around and see if you can spot any URLs that look like they might be redirects... the URLs might have parameters like url=http://example.com, redirect=example.com, or something similar.
  • Copy one of these redirect URLs into your address bar
  • In the site URL, replace the redirect URL parameter with a Rick Rolling URL -- such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yu_moia-oVI -- and see if the site redirects to YouTube.
  • For advanced Rick-Rolling, you might want to disguise the link to YouTube by URL encoding it. Use the form below to obfuscate a URL parameter:
Normal Text:
URL Encoded Text:

You may now Rick-Roll with impunity...

Why do these open redirects exist? Simple: to prevent SPAM blogs. This problem was big on Amazon.com, because at first they allowed people to submit links in comments. However, that meant that folks could link back to SPAM sites from Amazon.com. This is bad enough, but when Google noticed that Amazon linked to a site, its page rank and "relevance" would increase... meaning those awful SPAM sites would have a higher rank in Google search results. There were many proposals to combat this problem... but the only one that completely solves it is to do a redirect from Amazon.com itself.

This does help the battle against SPAM, but unless you do it right its a major security hole... people would see a link that goes to Amazon.com, then click on it, but then get hijacked to an evil site. The URLs look completely legit, and they bypass most SPAM/SCAM filters. These are particularly useful for people who use the phishing technique to steal bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and the like. Back in 2006 I found these security holes on Google, Amazon, MSN, and AOL. I alerted them all to the bug; some of them fixed it... however more sites every day make this same error. I'm hoping that broadcasting this technique to Rick Rollers might do some good... that way, Rick Rollers will find these security holes on new sites before hackers, cracker, and phishers do.

Basically, I'm betting that the annoying outnumber the evil... Let's hope I'm right...

Haiku of the day...

Collaboration?
Not in my cubicle, dude.
Better luck next time.

--Denise Harry

(Hat Tip: Infonomics)

Want to Know What New Words Have Been Added To The Dictionary? Meh.

Meh indeed...

You know the phrase... The universal sign of such tremendous apathy, that you don't even care enough to say a real word... Until now, that is, because in 2009 "meh" will officially be in the dictionary.

Hurray! New words being born! A chance to celebrate!

Of course, the linguistic circle of life dictates that other words must die so new ones can be born... As others have noted, two unfortunate deaths include "anticipate" and "irony". The former being used in place of "expect," and thus losing its individual meaning, and becoming a dead word. Irony, of course, has been misused in place of "coincidence" and "odd" for so dang long I'm surprised when somebody actually uses it correctly...

Example... Assume some guy named Turd Ferguson is a college football player. He's exceptionally good, and is drafted to be in the NFL. However, in his very first game, he gets tackled hard, breaks his knee, and ends his career. That's not irony: that just sucks.

Next, assume Turd has a son: Turd Ferguson Junior... who is also an exceptional football player, and who also winds up n the NFL. However, in Junior's very first game, he too is tackled hard, he too breaks his knee, he too ends his career. That's not irony: that's just coincidence.

Now... assume that instead of getting hurt in his first game, Junior tackles somebody named Mikey... Mikey breaks his leg, and Mikey ends his career. NOW its ironic! It would be even more ironic if Mikey's father was the man who initially broke Turd Ferguson Senior's knee twenty years ago...

But does anybody care about the proper use of "irony?"

Meh.

My Blog's Personality: INTJ

There's a new website out there called Typealyzer that offers free personality tests for your blog. It appears to be based on the popular Myers-Briggs personality test, and it tries to analyze your writing style to determine the "type" of blogger you are.

I've taken Meyers-Briggs numerous times, and I'm almost always an ENFP: Extroverted, iNtuitive, Feeler, Perceiver... It may sound bizarre for a computer geek to be extroverted (not introverted), and a feeler (not a thinker), but it's not uncommon. In fact, software is one of the recommended careers for ENFPs, probably because we excel in the constantly shifting landscape of technology and project requirements ;-)

Strangely, however, my blog's personality is INTJ! Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinker, Judger. I don't know if this reflects poorly on the Typealyzer test, or if it means that "Blogger-Bex" is less fun and more judgmental than "Real-World-Bex"...

Perhaps its because I write on very INTJ topics, like science and technology... As you might have noticed, I tag all my posts with different topics. You can use the drop-down list of topics on the left to filter this blog based on those topics. Curious, I decided to ask Typalizer what's my blog's personality if I filter it to only specific topics?

The results were close to what I'd expect... all 14 topics fell into just four personality types:

Huh... not quite sure how to take that last one...

Again, not a single one of these topics reflected the personality type that I have in real life... that might be because I try to keep this blog professional, so it mainly reflects my logical/analytical side, since I think that's what my audience wants. I have to lock my extroverted, humanity-loving side in the trunk while I write... lest I lose readership.

So, what's your blog's personality?

(Hat tip Garrick Van Buren)

Apparently, there's some sort of election going on...

I had no idea...

Some of my fellow bloggers have said who they intend to votes for... about 2 years ago I had very few strong opinions on the matter. My personal motto is "never vote for an incumbent," so I was leaning Democratic. Although I had no strong dislike of either of the Republican front runners. McCain was decent, Romney was a bit odd but proved himself a competent administrator, and Ron Paul was a hoot.

Two things made me eventually side with Obama. First, was a 2007 article by (gay Republican and 2-time Bush voter) Andrew Sullivan. He made the very strong case that Obama genuinely would help us move past the culture wars of the 60s, since by his very birth (date, race, country, age) it was impossible for him to take sides on the most divisive issues. He also made the strong case that nothing would improve relations abroad more than Obama -- both with former allies, and amongst states leaning towards "rogue" status... As Sullivan says:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Talk about cognitive dissonance...

That made me lean Obama... but the thing that really cinched it was his Yes We Can speech... although the remix was better. The line that hit home was this:

This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.

This was the central argument behind pretty much every one of the Founding Fathers... if you've read as many books on the subject as I have, you'd realize that the history of the USA is highly unlikely... and those who talk about inevitability, superiority, or destiny, just don't get it. The only thing that ever held us together was the drive forward, the American Dream, to make a "more perfect union." Those who make demands just because "America is #1" will only lead us to lose touch with that dream, and lead us to chaos.

Does Obama lie? Yes; he's a politician, and lies are his weapons. Are his ideas so different than anybody else? No; he surrounds himself with the same advisers as other politicians. The difference is his temperament, and his unique perspective. He views the world in a totally different way than most people do... And I think that's exactly what we need right now.

But that's just my opinion, maybe I'm wrong.

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