What Not to Do in Austin

A potentially far more useful poll than any “best of,” but I’m confused by the pizza category. Frank and Angie’s seemed better than most other pizzas I’ve tried in Austin–most notably the absolute suckage of Double Dave’s. Is there some specific incident, menu item or time period that made them incur the wrath of Austinites? I’d like to know.

Secret Graffiti

peeling back timeThis post reminded me of a scene in this book I’m reading where a building collapses and there’s graffiti on a wall of the neighboring building that could only be read after the collapse. Then, today, I peel back some contact paper on an old bookshelf from my dad’s house, and I find in pencil, under two layers of latex and on top of a layer of oil-based paint, my uncle’s name, probably from when he was about five years old! Can you feel that old synchronicity kicking in?

This is sort of along the lines of what happens in the construction trade, where masons leave their mark in mortar that will later be covered by carpenters and carpenters seal up all manner of crap inside walls and crawlspaces. Heck, even the Apple guys signed the inside of the original Mac where you couldn’t see it unless you had a special tool. The difference now is that, post-millennium, absolutely everything threatens to becomes a time capsule.

How About Some Conspicuous Consumption with Your Conspicuous Consumption?

25-cent hot dog and soda at Fry'sAs if the $39 dual-layer DVD burner and 15-cent DVD blanks weren’t enough of a loss leader, Fry’s today goes back to their roots (at least here in Austin) and offers up a hot dog and soda for 25 cents. And seriously, you and I both know the “limit three per customer” really implies “per times through the line.”

While it’s tempting to invoke the image of Ignatius Reilly and say that Fry’s is enabling the stereotype of geek as overweight slob, I’ll note that invariably and ironically the first item they run out of is Diet Coke. You know, “‘cuz I’m tryin to watch my figure.”

another happy customer loaded down with hot dogs and sodas(The real irony being, and I think maybe Coca-Cola owes Jack Black some money over this, is he says “Now if you could take a Coca-Cola, and just go half Coca-Cola, half Diet Coke…’cuz I’m tryin to watch my figure…Tryin to loose some of the weight” and the Coca-Cola Corporation turns that into a product. This is just like when the Barenaked Ladies invented pre-wrapped bacon and then Hormel [et al] just ran with it! Forget MP3 downloads, these are the intellectual property rights songwriters should be pursuing.)

Q: When Is a "Safe" Not?

backpack "safe," a.k.a. "bomb"A: When you can put it anywhere. Man, Homeland Security (which now includes the cop in the doughnut shop, don’t forget) is going to love this. Articulated hardshell pods cable locked to public infrastructure? Nah, that won’t cause any problems. Clearly there were no Israelis on this design team. They’ve known far longer than us that anything unattended in a public space has to be treated like a bomb.

The scary thing is I know people who would think this is a great solution to the “Dude, I need to ditch my bag for a few hours” dilemma. But for every one of those people I’m sure there are 100 others who would dial 911.

Internet Lite

Yeah, so I’ve been bad at blogging lately. Mostly this is because I haven’t been reading blogs. There’s a direct connection. Real life things don’t make me particularly want to blog, but reading blogs does. Of course once the momentum kicks in then maybe I’ll press on to blog about real-lifey stuff. But normally, if I’m not reading blogs, I’m not writing. This makes sense in a way since it’s only when I’m reading really interesting things that I have any interest in writing.

The problem is, I’m in one of those moods right now where even when I have free time, I don’t want to read blogs. It’s not because I’m bored with them (hell, I’m watching Letterman, and how engaging is that?). The real problem is that I’m not able to keep up with my interests, and that bugs me. It’s tempting to invoke Stephen Covey here and say that my sphere of interest has exceeded my sphere of influence, but truthfully there’s no time in my life when that has not been the case. As far as I’m concerned, having your interests exceed your abilities is kind of the definition of being an interesting person. But I spend a lot of time even one step beyond this condition such that my interest in things exceeds even my interest in them. What I mean is there are a lot of things that I would potentially like to know more about, but I have a frustrating inability to actually take that next step and pursue the interest.

The web provides a really useful example and metaphor for this in the form of links. Blogs are ostensibly lists of links with a little extra, often pithy, meta data on why you should click on them. But how often do you read a blog and not click the links? That’s where I’m at. I’d like to click the links. I’d like to read the books I’ve read reviews of. I’d like to follow every chain to its conclusion or at least some far-off exhaustion point, but there’s too much interesting first-source material for me to go even one level down on everything that catches my interest.

Linking was the aspect of the web that caught my attention and made me think, yeah, this is the shit. Back in the late nineties there were days when I would literally spend eight hours starting from some topic and just drilling down through the links, consuming a huge amount of material, and more often than not actually learning about something new. I’m not sure what happened since then, but that doesn’t happen any more. Maybe there’s more noise in the channel, maybe I’ve developed a more discerning palate, maybe my attention span is shorter, maybe I just can’t sit still for eight hours any more. For whatever reason, I almost never do the concentrated, focused drill down on a topic these days. I read blogs as digests, I use Google for research, usually looking only at top-level hit pages until I find what I need. Once in a while I’ll get sucked into a compelling story (though it’s often on a newspaper or magazine site, so there won’t be outbound links). Sometimes I’ll find a personality I like and read around in an author’s article archive. But what I don’t do is consciously consume linked articles with the intention of integrating them into my own internal semantic web. This leaves me feeling like I’ve absorbed less, learned less, not really gained anything from time spent using the Internet. I guess this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since most people assume it’s all a waste of time anyway. But I feel like I used to get something out of it.

Why You Can’t Hire Me

I was just perusing my long-ignored Monster.com agents and saw that in the last seven days there have been about 10 jobs posted that I’m at least marginally qualified for. Not a single one am I actually interested in. To these companies I say, I would seriously rather go work at Walmart than work for you. One of them was so bad I almost sent an email to that effect. Here are the reasons:

  1. You’re cheap! Man are you cheap. You want to pay a “content management system developer” with 7 to 10 years experience $25-$30 and hour? First of all, web content management has barely been around that long. Second, anyone who has been doing it half that long (and I’ve been doing it twice half that long!) is worth twice that much. And for contract work you really need to take that and double it. Third, this is Austin where commutes and the price of downtown housing double every three years. Get a grip! It’s not so much the money itself as how out of touch with reality this makes you seem as an employer. What you’re basically saying is you want only under-qualified candidates and you want them to come in and have to lie through their teeth to get the job. The fact that they’ll be living in a trailer and commuting two hours a day from Bumfuckville, Texas in a car with no a/c or muffler is just a bonus I guess, huh?
  2. Your coporatespeak, it hurts my eyes! Hey, you want to talk about load-balanced server clustering, I’m fine. You start using terms like “leverage” and “business initiatives” and “market-leading” and you’ve lost me as a viewer. If you’re using this kind of language on me, a technical person you are trying to bring into the inner sanctum, I can only imagine what kind of horseshit you’re shoveling on your clients. Do you people really sit around a table and talk like this? How can you respect yourselves at the end of the day? I guess maybe the Audi and the McMansion help soothe the pain, huh?
  3. You want me to work how much? Full time? Dude, that’s a real buzz kill. Especially since what you really mean is you want me to sit in a small space with poor lighting and worse air circulation for at least 40 hours per week. When things are busy, you expect me to be there more. When things are not busy, you still expect me to be there, and what’s worse you expect me to pretend to be busy! You people just suck, you know that?
  4. You want me to build what? From reading your job description, and the cryptic sentence about your product, and your incredibly-sucky website* I still have no idea what you do, but I have determined that your primary goal is one of the following, or possibly both:
    1. to totally suck
    2. to be utterly evil

    Either way it’s pretty clear that your customers are going to get screwed in the deal. To tell you the truth, I can’t remember the last time I ran across an ad for a company that was doing something interesting and non-evil. Probably these kinds of companies don’t have to run ads on Monster.com. Hey wait! Evil… Monster… there could be something to this!

  5. *Your web site sucks. There’s really no excuse for this. My Monster agents only track web technologies. If you’re trying to hire me, you’re looking for a web developer. If you can’t take the time to sit down and write a couple of pages of content to clearly articulate what it is your company does and if you further can’t spend the $2000 to get a decent web designer to put a pretty and usable face on it, then frankly you’re useless.

Okay, so I think those are the primary reasons. I suppose I could have been more succinct. So here’s my “executive summary:” I won’t work for you because you suck and I don’t.

I wonder if anyone is tracking this. I wonder if somewhere, buried deep in a stack of governments reports, there’s a “Breakdown of New Jobs by Industry Sector and Level of Suckage” report.

Waiting for the Singularity

Someone has finally figured out the real goal over at Google: to create an omniscient AI. Interestingly, I was just thinking about a book I read back in the ’70s called The Adolescence of P-1, the first book I encountered that said AI could happen right here, today, and almost accidentally. I wonder if this book actually inspired a generation of computer geeks. I wonder if they ended up as disillusioned as I when it didn’t actually happen. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: go Google, go!

Folders, Sacrosanct?

So, no less weighty (and, both notably and relevantly, conservative) of a source than The Wall Street Journal has weighed in on the search versus sort paradigm of gmail.

Listen, I grew up on folders. I knew what ../ meant before you were born. I’ve created folders with the best of them. When you’re paying me $100 an hour, I’ll come up with a solution for you that’s so folder-heavy you’ll need to upgrade your server just to keep up. I know how to do it. I learned how to do it. I know the theories and techniques. I’m the most organized guy in the world if someone’s paying me to do it. But in real life, in my day-to-day existence, I simply can’t and won’t do it. I subscribe to a much different metaphor than the filing cabinet: piles, boxes, heaps. I pile stuff up until it becomes an annoyance and then I sweep it into a bigger container. I have folders on my current hard drive that represent the last six computers I’ve owned. I have hundreds of folders marked “desktop cleanup” plus the date. Every year Hitachi puts out a new, faster, more reliable hard drive that for $200 can hold the combined contents of every computer I’ve ever used, so why not?

I’ve tried folders. I’ve tried Outlook rules. That shit just doesn’t work for me. I can’t put in the time. I own a box of manila folders too. It doesn’t mean I actually employ them outside the period of April 1-15 each year. I don’t think in terms of senders and topics; I think in terms of keywords, concepts, snippets. When I need to find something in Outlook, I search. When I need to find something on my hard drive, from somewhere deep in the 300 gigs of data from my last six computers, I search. And in Outlook and on Windows, search sucks. Since I started auto-forwarding every email I receive to gmail 6 months ago, I can find absolutely anything, no matter how obscure, in less than 15 seconds. Gmail thinks like I do. So does Google. Google Desktop search is a little less ready for prime time, a little too web-heavy, but it’s still better than Windows Explorer search. When I heard that Microsoft was bailing on WinFS for Longhorn, I very nearly wept, and I very very nearly sold my Microsoft stock, because if they’re not upgrading the file system, then it’s all just more XP smoke and chrome. What the hell have they been doing for the last four years? Someone needs to tie Bill Gates to a chair and make him watch Star Trek on one of his projector-walls. Dude, nothing on my computer should take 30 seconds. 30 seconds in Pentium 4 time is my entire waking life.

So Google, keep going. Make my computer do the organizing for me. Better yet, make my computer do what it’s supposed to do: work the way I do but a million times faster. Because even my dysfunctional “organization” system would work well at 1,000,000X speed.

Dumber Really is Happier

This week’s top “tool” on Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools list, basically a Magic 8 Ball (only in reverse–it asks the questions) for the 21st century, is barely interesting in itself. What is interesting is that it’s based on a 17-year-old (dare we say, adolescent?) neural net, possibly the most generally and genuinely artificially intelligent thing on the planet. And what’s really interesting is that when they slimmed it down to cram it into this toy, it actually got better at its primary task. To quote from KK:

Because it knows about fewer objects than the web version, it gets confused less often, so its success rate is ironically higher.

To put this in human terms, it basically says, the less you know, the less connections that exist in the brain, the better you focus and the better you are at doing the things you’re good at. There’s a word we have for knowing so much that it makes you bad at everything: neurotic. They lobotomized this thing and it became more functional. Taken as a metaphor, that’s a scary comment on the human condition.