Sat, 10 Dec 2011

To all my Pastafarian friends

— SjG @ 10:14 am

Merry ChriFSMas!


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Fri, 9 Dec 2011

DSL and Red Herrings

— SjG @ 6:33 pm

On Wednesday, December 7th, at 8:15 AM Pacific Standard Time, the Internet died.

That is to say, the DSL at home went down. No packets in, no packets out. Out in my “machine room,” the modem blinked its lights in a baleful hey I’m trying to sync dance. The usual tricks failed: rebooting, power cycling, yelling obscenities. From work, I could tracert down to what looked like one hop from my system, so I figured it was another blade needing a reboot in the local Covad DSLAM.

I called my ISP’s tech support, and, after the requisite delays, got escalated to a Tier 2 guy who walked me through more tests. He could see my modem, he said, when he did the line test, but it wasn’t syncing. I didn’t realize that that was possible, but I guess it’s not too surprising that one could test a circuit for connectivity on the physical level rather than the network level (as I try to remember the TCP/IP 5- or 7-layer reference model). The Tier 2 guy said that, at this point, it looked like interference on the copper lines in my house. To test, he had me plug the DSL modem into another phone jack in another part of the house. Lo and behold, it worked! I took the modem back out to my machine room, and the sync failed.

Problem isolated! I had originally done the phone wiring out to the machine room myself when we moved into the house in 2000, using two of the wires in a spare Cat-5 cable and a crimped-on 6P2C (“RJ-11”) connector. I figured that the easiest place to start would be to replace the connector, so I lopped off the old one, crimped on a new one, and tested. Voila! it worked. Great Moral Victory, etc.

On Friday, December 9th, at 8:15 AM Pacific Standard Time, the Internet died.

WTF? The DSL at home was down again. The modem would keep its I’m a well-adjusted, happily-synced modem lights lit for about ten seconds, then fall into sync-seeking mode again. What was it about 8:15 AM? That was an hour or so after the door to the machine room was opened to the outside (the cat lives in there along with the machines). The door doesn’t impinge on the phone wire at all. Could there be a temperature component to the problem? Hm. The litterbox is right up against the wall where the conduit passes. Was Quackie micturating on the circuit? No evidence to support this theory could be found. What, then? Alas, it looked like I’d have to attack the phone wiring again.

This time, I went out to where the wires enter the house. I opened the access box, and made sure the connectors were properly attached. I cleaned everything up, and went to test. No luck. But now, the modem wouldn’t sync on any jack in the house.

So it was back out to the access box, and removing all of the connections. There were a few phone lines connected that go to unused jacks in the house. Maybe degradation of copper or oxidation in one of those jacks was enough to cause my problem. So I used my connection tester, and mapped all of the lines. I disconnected two unused jacks. I neatly redid the connectors for all of the active phone lines, and put it all back together. I went back in and tested. Hey! I’ve got sync! But when I plugged a computer in to test that I was getting a good connection, the LAN circuit of the modem dropped, and it went back to trying to sync. Crap.

Next, I ran an extension cord out to where the phone lines come into the house. I opened the access box, removed all the connectors, and patched the modem directly into the incoming phone line. Hey! I’ve got sync! But once again when I plugged a computer in to the LAN circuit, the modem dropped the LAN connection and lost sync. At this point, my suspicion was that the modem itself was failing somehow.

OK, time to call tech support again.

This time, I get an agent who listens patiently to my diatribe and all of the problem symptoms without saying anything. When I let him get a word in edgewise, he starts his script at the very beginning. “What kind of modem are you using?”

“It’s a D-Link 2320b”

“And what lights are lit?”

I launch into a long description of the sync/no-sync dance sequence.

“Please tell me exactly what lights are lit and what color they are.”

This, of course, is ridiculous, since the power and status lights have red LEDs and the LAN, USB, and sync lights have green LEDs, but I play along.

“The power light is red? It should be green.”

At this point, I am doing everything I can to avoid sighing with disgust, cursing the idiot, or flinging my phone. He asks me to plug the modem into the power supply from my router (without asking make/model or any other details). I verify for myself that they’re both 12VDC devices, and do as he asks.

“What color is the power light?” he asks me again.

It’s still red, of course. The modem is doing its I’m desperately trying to start up and get synced dance, and it gets momentary sync. Then the power light changed from red to green. And the modem stayed in sync.

Once I had recovered my composure, thanked tech support, and closed the ticket, I checked the modem power supply. It was putting out 7.4VDC (although I didn’t test it under load). It was rated for 12VDC. I was flabbergasted that it lit any LEDs at all when operating at 60% voltage, much less tried to sync.

Grabbing a 12VDC wall-wart from the box of spares, I put everything back together, and the Internet lives again!

For now, anyway…

Fri, 25 Nov 2011

Eggshell brownies

— SjG @ 9:50 am

After seeing an article where they showed brownies baked in egg shells (via BoingBoing), I thought it would be a good thing to try for a family gathering. Thus began a haphazard adventure in baking…

Final verdict: a lot of work, interesting results, probably won’t be doing again.

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Wed, 23 Nov 2011

YA Fiction

— SjG @ 10:02 am

As much as I like some of the new crop of young adult fiction, I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon isn’t just rooted in publishers being squeamish and authors being lazy. The category allows — no, encourages — writers to be less nuanced, paint with broader strokes, and, of course, avoid sexuality altogether.

Then again, the YA Fiction phenomenon may simply be symptomatic of “non-young adults” non-reading.

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Sun, 20 Nov 2011

The Magic of New Things

— SjG @ 9:26 am

We humans appear to be programmed for scarcity. We lust for high energy foods — sugars, fats, refined carbohydrates — even when we’re not hungry. Just thinking about donuts may be sufficient to trigger a rewarding brain chemistry reaction1. Similarly, we tend to gather possessions — often far more than we need. We don’t dispose of old, unused possessions because we’re sure we may need them some day. And we’ll often acquire things we don’t need because we anticipate they will be more difficult to obtain in the future. We don’t need them now, but there is the possibility that we will need them at some later time. As advertisers have learned, a quick way to make someone want something is to give the impression that the opportunity to have it is limited: buy now! So we do.

There is an obvious (and possibly even correct) evolution-based argument for the behaviors of scarcity. If a species spends 200,000 years struggling to survive in a minimal environment, those who hoard or are gluttonous may well have a survival advantage over those who don’t or aren’t. A few calories here or there could be the difference between life or death. An animal pelt could make the difference between freezing to death and surviving.

It turns out that there may be corollary programming that motivates us to seek out new and novel things. When we encounter new stimuli, we receive a short-duration boost of some of the same “reward” brain chemicals as we do from food or sex2. Again, a series of questionable evolutionary explanations can explain this: those who explore are more likely to discover untapped resources and thereby have a selective advantage, or perhaps those who try new things may discover new uses for already identified resources3.

So now we fast forward to our time of relative abundance. Modern society has exploited this set of unpatched vulnerabilities in our brain chemistry, and combined our programming for accumulation and our programming for novelty to create a consumer culture4. The fashion industry tells us we need new, novel shoes, while the computer industry tells us we need to upgrade to the latest versions of everything. We need to add new music to our collections every week, and try the latest McProcessedMeat sandwich, see new movies, learn the latest dance, and so on. Every Christmas, there’s the hot new toy that everyone needs to get, whether it was a Hula hoop, a Magic 8 Ball, a pet rock, Beanie Babies, Tickle-me Elmos, Cabbage Patch Kids, or a Furby.

Even outside of obsessive consumer culture, we’re fascinated by new things, especially if they fit into some familiar framework. There’s something tremendously exciting about receiving an unexpected letter or a package in the mail, often amplified if we can identify the sender. It can trigger the anticipation response, the accumulation response, and the novelty response all at once. What’s more, even virtual items evoke a similar emotional reaction: an email from a friend, or an incoming SMS or incoming instant message.

The Internet is rife with sources for these novelty and accumulation dopamine-hits. We subscribe addictively to news feeds. Countless companies like Facebook and Twitter capitalize on our desire for a stream of new-but-familiar snippets of information from and about our friends. Online games allow us to accumulate virtual goods (points, badges, titles, Linden Dollars, ISK) while we explore new environments. Our smart phones let us download new apps, and notify us daily of updates to our existing collection.

All of this finally brings me to my actual point, which involves the creative process. Why do people get such pleasure from creating new things? Perhaps the sense of satisfaction from making things is a combination of the reward-impulses discussed above. After all, when you make something, you end up with some increment over what you had before. This keys into the stockpiling instinct. What’s more, as you make things, you are provided with stream of exciting new things (especially as your skill level increases). Part of the act of creation is discovery5, which speaks directly to our desire for novelty.

Of course there are many additional reasons to create. There’s the need to express emotion. There’s the cultural status as an artist (or the absurd title “Maker”6). There is the struggle against boredom, or distraction from problems. There is simple necessity, in the case of inventions, followed by indolence (if necessity is the mother of invention, surely laziness is the father). Still, with the possible exception of inventions, I would argue that the desire to create in response to those reasons is rooted in the brain chemistry surrounding the magic of new things.

1 Well, in any case, anticipation of food (or other pleasures) are associated with release of “happy” brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamines.

2 I’m oversimplifying, as usual, but there is evidence that suggests that novel situations (and even the anticipation of novelty) both give us a lift.

3 It’s worth noting that these arguments have simple counter-arguments. Those who explore new places may be more likely to discover new resources, but they’re also more likely to be eaten by a hitherto unknown monster or contract a disease for which no prior immunity exists. The fun thing about evolution-based explanations is that they’re often simple, convincing, and wrong.

4 I’m sure someone will point out the US-centricity of these ideas, and I don’t deny it. While anecdotally, I’ve observed similar behaviors in people in places where I’ve traveled (including places which have significantly different cultures), I freely admit that I see things through the lens of my US culture. It’s also worth noting that in an environment of relative abundance, the tendencies encouraged by consumer culture can kill us, whether via obesity or being buried alive under our hoarded collections of National Geographic magazine and Royal Wedding commemorative plates.

5 As artist and teacher Penny Longpre once told me, “the difference between an artist and an amateur is that an artist knows which mistakes to keep.” Artists often refer to the paint or the clay having some kind of volition — a mind of its own. I think this is really the same thing. Whether it’s unintentional details or a result of the characteristics of the material, unexpected elements provide ideas during the creation process, which can then lead the work into new directions.

6 I’m overly sensitive to this self-congratulatory bit of culture. I’m not sure why every generation seems to think it has single-handedly invented music, sex, and everything else. The octogenarian down the street was no less creative in crafting his model railroad just because he didn’t call himself a “Maker,” and his wife was no less innovative when it came to improvising implements around the house even though she didn’t use the “DIY” acronym. People are resourceful and adaptive, and don’t need self-aggrandizing labels to legitimize their accomplishments.

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