Fergus, 2001–2014

Fergus was a one-trick puppy, but it was a doozy, a monster über trick at the 1080 backside cab rodeo flip level. When he noticed strangers on the street he would perk up, assess the situation, make a bee-line for the least dog-loving person in the group, and turn on the dictionary definition of “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” as he wagged his tail, turned in circles, and gazed up adoringly at the humans. Resistance was futile. If I had a dollar for every “aww so cute” it would have put him through Harvard. If the group were outside a restaurant or, better yet, carrying takeout food, winning their interest while the smell of cooking lingered in the air was transcendent canine ecstasy. It never ever got old.

sex and a stick

helllo boys and girls

Around 18,000 years of unnatural selection led to this apex predator of pet affection, an adorable dog. We’ll never know when or where he needed to turn on the charm to survive, or how his winning formula went wrong, before we adopted a scrawny sickly 8-month old mutt off the street whom the SPCA had infelicitously named “S crappy.”

The downside was Fergus had no great loyalty to his ostensible owners. The three times he managed to hop out of the car he took off for the hills like a jackrabbit, knowing he could lure a meal and a new living arrangement without breaking a sweat. We were lucky that each time an interesting smell distracted him long enough so I could tackle him. He was never off-leash on the street again, and even on-leash he’d wander expectantly into stranger’s open doors and garages looking for a new relationship. Depending on the kindness of strangers was his modus operandi, so he was the least grateful dog we’ve adopted.

His charm power meter had limits. At parties, after 45 minutes of showing off I’d find him recumbent and pensive in a corner. I feel the same way (“You can’t expect me to keep up that  level of charm, I’d have a heart attack” — Play It Again, Sam); sometimes we’d curl up together. He was probably wondering what more he had to do for the adoring crowds to lift him onto the dining table in acclamation.

beady eyes, button nose, cotton fur

Steiff bear

beady eyes, button nose, cotton fur


Fergus quickly learned to do the basic dog command repertoire: sit, down, shake, high five, and turn. When we got Nuala, a far smarter angry lesbian bitch, he struggled to keep up. He would “Go to your mat” if he liked the mat in question, but “Fetch the ball! Not the rope, the ball! Not the stuffed toy, get the ball!” ended with him wagging his tail in a transparent “I’m blonde and cute, you can’t expect me to discern the quiddity of objects!”

Fergus B&W

Looks go a long way

The darkness for him was narrow but deep. He was terrified of thunder, and despite how rare thunderstorms are where we live, his brain worked overtime to connect all kinds of events with it. Fireworks displays would make him desperate to find one unsatisfactory hiding place after another, his heart shaking his body from side to side like a rubber ball in a box. But then firecrackers too, so after a single crack he would turn tail and pull on the leash towards home. For the week around the 4th of July we would have to carry him outside. He learned to be scared of balloons that someone might puncture and even bubblewrap that someone might pop, and then any kind of package that might have bubblewrap, so that he would run away from deliveries and presents while Nuala would scrabble at the box hoping it contained treats and toys. The best thing about growing old was he couldn’t hear far-away explosions, but ’til the very end he could smell from a block away whether a party at the park had balloons (please, no further!) or not (yay!)

The narrow gap between our house and the neighbor’s is the only one on a long block, making it the cross-town route for cats with irresponsible owners and urban wildlife – possums, raccoons, skunks. Fergus believed his job was to alert us loudly and often to these interlopers (whereas a burglar would be a welcome opportunity for flirting and adventure). As his eyesight failed, any imagined motion would send him into intruder alert mode.

Epilogue

with Nuala

Here…

Rest In Peace

… and gone (still pretty in pink)


Fergus’ kidney function deteriorated but he soldiered on diminished, with regular subcutaneous fluids from nurse mom. This week he became jaundiced probably due to liver failure, and he stopped eating. Staying at the animal hospital for intravenous fluids was an (expensive) opportunity for him to meet new people, but we were not going to subject him to invasive procedures. After two days with no clear diagnosis, he was still trembling in pain and not eating, with only a slim chance that antibiotics might restore him to, at best, a feeble dog with kidney problems. As his guardians and friends, we chose to kill him. A shot of propofol (the choice of Michael Jackson) and he was at peace, then a shot of barbiturates and he was gone. It’s an awesome terrible power to wield over another, but I fervently hope someone does it to me when I’m near my end. It is utterly inhumane that we don’t extend the same dignity in death to ourselves that we do to our companion animals.

Two weeks ago: an evening stroll, lights ahead, a group of people outside a pizza restaurant (!), and another chance for Fergus to delight strangers and strengthen the bonds between man and animal. It never grew old.

Goodbye my ward, my companion, my true friend.

wuff wuff wuff

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music: Ylvis “Stonehenge” the best comic music video

I was dimly aware of “What the Fox Says,” (now over 240 million views!) but my first exposure to Ylvis was someone mentioning their song “Massachusetts.” It’s light goofy parody, let down by falling back to retro homosexual panic.

I surfed some more. Ylvis make these videos to promote their evening talk show on Norwegian TV. “Someone Like Me” is a one-joke trick, but it’s a killer. “Jan Egeland” yokes the tropes of high-caliber stadium rock to a real-life mid-level U.N. diplomat. They’re all very funny.

But with “Stonehenge” they reach the zenith. Watch, it full-screen, then watch it again.

The parody casts a wide net:

  • tortured cosseted artist
  • Josh Groban precious singing
  • pop stars flailing around trying to rip their clothes off (stripping is hard)
  • non-sequitur jump-cuts between a studio and a daytime shot
  • forced rhymes
  • writhing around on a car
  • emoting on a dark set with a smoke machine

Parody doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Ylvis acknowledges their forebears:

This is all great, but with the call and response with the choir, the video leaps into the stratosphere. Normally the singer asks and the gospel choir responds, instead the choir challenges his commitment. But he’s resolute. Why shouldn’t a guy with a thousand-dollar haircut drive a Civic, a car you can trust? “Never mind the car, let’s talk about the henge!”

It’s a brilliant move. But it’s not Monty Python absurd, the song and video are ruthlessly consistent, and that unity makes it so perfect. This is a man obsessed with one thing. Who the f*** builds a Stonehenge?

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electronics: the return of the VCR!

I don’t pay for cable or satellite TV. I use a cutting-edge technology that delivers dozens of HDTV channels, wirelessly: the technical term for it is “rabbit ears.”

It’s great, but the feature we lost in the transition to all-digital is a box that will record TV programs for later playback. We should have taken our $40 coupon from government during the digital TV transition so that our old VCR would continue to record, but it would be fiddly and confusing and very low-def. It should be a simple job for modern electronics: take the decoded digital broadcast you’re about to show on the TV screen, and compress it and write it to a file just like a digital camera does. Surely there’s a replacement for the old and unloved VCR?cassette stuck in VCR

Sadly, not really. ReplayTV would sell you a box to record TV broadcasts, but they’re more or less out of business. Magnavox and some other companies briefly sold similar boxes, but it seems the market for this is tiny. Tivo can probably do it, but you pay by the month for their program guide. Maybe people are so brainwashed that they don’t realize that the ability to record programs doesn’t have to come in a box from your cable or satellite provider along with a monthly charge.

You can put this together yourself, just buy a digital TV tuner card or USB dongle for your computer and hook it up to software. I looked at using the free MythTV or XBMC software, but all the hardware recommendations for them in A-V forums are for people assembling quad-tuners networked over Ethernet to back-end storage servers accessed from front-end home theater PCs – I just want a box with a record button! At the other end of the scale are hackers using a Raspberry PI or other cheap bare-bones computer board, but there’s dispute whether they’re powerful enough to do it and by the time you add a case, power supply, and remote, it’s not cheap.

product imageThen I found out about the HomeWorx HW-150PVR. It’s an external digital TV tuner like any other, but it has a USB port on the front, and you can plug a USB hard drive into that and press the record button! I ordered one, it’s as flimsy and cheap as you’d expect for only $46, but it does the job. The remote is a confusing mess, but you can fast forward and rewind through commercials up to 16× speed without any tape noises. Like a VCR it has a poor interface to program it to record in the future. (I’m disappointed it doesn’t have a function to flash 12:00 just for old times’ sake.) Unlike a VCR each show you record is a separate file named after the station and time, you can rename these files and delete them, and if you unplug the USB drive the files should be editable and playable on a computer using a media player like VLC. No more hunting through a 180-minute tape for the good bit, or accidentally overwriting stuff.

What’s strange is my TV has a digital TV tuner and a USB port, and similar software for browsing files on an external drive. Why doesn’t Samsung add the simple function to write media files to the USB drive along with its crappy browsers for pictures, music, and movies already on the USB drive?

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computers: William Gibson and brain interfaces

Slashdot breathlessly summarizes a rather weak project combining virtual reality headset and a brainwave reading device with the editorial. Consumer level brain computer interfaces are still primitive these days, but it doesn’t seem too far off that we’ll have virtual reality similar to what William Gibson envisioned in his novels.

But Gibson never really envisioned what the experiments are developing. He imagined all kinds of VR  (cyberspace, simstim, holoporn), and he wrote about all kinds of brain control of things in the real world. But he never envisioned mind control in Virtual Reality itself. You jacked in to cyberspace, a consensual hallucination of a graphic representation of data (which never took off, there’s no “representation” of the net at all when you jump from Slashdot to YouTube), but Gibson explicitly had his hackers typing commands while jacked in: “distant fingers caressing the deck”, “whip moves on those keyboards faster than you could follow”, etc.

Gibson’s Neuromancer follow-up Count Zero is stuffed with profoundly prescient ideas like fully-immersive telepresence and one of the first descriptions of hanging out with people’s avatars in cyberspace, but the closest he comes to a “brain-computer interface” is slotting in a piece of microsoft behind your ear which gives you the knowledge to fly a real plane in physical reality. Similarly, in Spads & Fokkers (his short story with Michael Swanwick) players use a brain interface to control a holographic plane in a videogame: “He fitted the Batang behind his ear after coating the inductor surface with paste, jacked its fiberoptic ribbon into the programmer, … when it was done, a sky-blue Spad darted restlessly through the air a few inches from his face. It almost glowed, it was so real. It had the strange inner life that fanatically detailed museum-grade models often have, but it took all of his concentration to keep it in existence. If his attention wavered at all, it lost focus, fuzzing into a pathetic blur.”

In another comment on the story undefinedreference says You could play a video game or work in a virtual environment while your body is essentially at the gym. Gibson foresaw that too, but “The street finds its own uses for things,” and so Rikki in Burning Chrome is “working three-hour shifts in an approximation of REM sleep, while her body and a bundle of conditioned reflexes took care of business. The customers never got to complain that she was faking it, because those were real orgasms. But she felt them, if she felt them at all, as faint silver flares somewhere out on the edge of sleep.”

Gibson’s ideas are masterful poetic riffs on the future, but they aren’t its operating manual.

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music: not paying for ANYTHING

Google Executive: “You Cannot Devalue Music. It’s Impossible” blathers away about  a pyramid of music fans paying more money towards the top and the industry’s solemn duty to encourage fans to migrate higher. Commenter “WhoCares?” nails the money quote, and I pound the point home:

WhoCares?

Blahblahblahblahblah.

It’s all just crafty rhetoric out of his mouth. Who cares?

Here’s the most telling part of his little self-indulgent pontification : “None of this is new. What’s new is that the casual fans no longer have to buy if they don’t want to.”

EXACTLY. Just stop there, Price. You don’t have to say anything else. That’s all that needs to be said.

Bottom line: Musicians should and must be allowed to say “If you don’t pay, you don’t get to listen.”

That’s what IP is there for. If you break it, you screw artists. Plain and simple.

skierpage

Exactly. There’s always been a free tier of music, where you asked the record store to play a song, or ask a friend to make a copy, or listen to random songs on the radio. Now the legitimate free tier is vast with lots of bands offering free downloads, the Internet Archive offering thousands of live shows for free, etc. It’s a golden age!

But consumers don’t want “Rosemary Krust”s free performances, they want popular professionally-made songs by known artists. They’re all out there cheaper than they’ve ever been, high-quality and DRM-free, on Amazon/Google Play/iTunes; it’s a golden age! But instead consumers search for “<song name> free download” or “watch” entire albums on YouTube, through the magic of technology they get something for nothing, and only Google gets $$$$. It’s disingenuous to call it “don’t care to pay” when you enable and profit from flattening the pyramid into a pancake where everyone but a few die-hard music fans finds whatever they want in the “don’t HAVE to pay” tier, *regardless of the wishes of the artists!*

So ultimately he’s a hypocritical disgusting prick.

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art: the greatest walks away from her canvas

Jhane Barnes leaves menswear

End of an era

This is like Morris Louis, Agnes Martin, or Piet Mondrian putting away their brushes. (And Jhane Barnes is way better at geometric abstraction than every capital ‘A’ artist who’s practiced it.) Jhane Barnes’ blog post is frank and clear, in part she writes:

I can’t maintain the quality I’ve always offered unless I price myself out of the market. In addition, I put long hours into fashion, but too many of those hours go into non-design work, so the intrinsic rewards I’ve always gotten from designing are also diminished.

I can’t afford a Deborah Butterfield sculpture or a Rothko painting, but I and many others have curated a small collection of beautiful things from the best artist in her field. For $200 you can wear a work of art and make yourself and those around you happy. In a world of 7 billion people you would think she could make a go of it.

She’s been designing menswear for decades and showed no sign of slowing down. Check out her current menswear collection; the shirts look good, then you roll over a shirt like Crashpad or Cypher and marvel at the details in close-up.

Looks good

Looks good

it contains multitudes

it contains multitudes



It’s a simple trick that perfectly fits the scale of a human body in relation to other people, and she’s executed it thousands of times at at a consistently high level that is staggering. In the flesh touching the fabric is an added sensory dimension; the design comes from a computer, but it’s a 3-D construction of strands of fiber. Her design work for panels and signage and carpets is pleasing but doesn’t have that multi-resolution feel of revealing more as you get close enough to touch another person, and loses the innovations in weaving she made in partnership with Japanese mills.

What’s depressing is there’s nothing coming out of men’s fashion houses that is remotely on the same level as her work. Check out the ridiculously boring stuff that a big name like Giorgio Armani is selling for more money. Everyone I have ever met wearing a Jhane Barnes shirt loves it, yet far more people get up every day and put on expensive unimaginative designer clothing that is not in any sense a work of art.

I wrote on her Facebook page

Oh nooes! I have 42 of your shirts and some other menswear including a 1984 blouson that started it all. I feel bad that I stopped buying when my cupboard filled up. Your mastery of expression within the constraints of fabric fitted to the male torso is unrivaled, beyond that you are simply one of the greatest geometric abstraction artists of all time. Thanks for 30 years of daily beauty in my life and the world, and best wishes.

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audio: music reproduction in reverse

TheScraper mused in response to Gizmodo’s post about reconstituting an early recording:

I sometimes wonder if current audio recording techniques will ever improve. When we think we’ve hit a brick wall, something else comes around. I remember when I first saw a film on DVD, I was engulfed by a feeling of amazement, thinking that it was the best thing ever; then BluRay came around…

Sadly music reproduction hasn’t just hit a brick wall, it is actively getting worse. But “it” means several things:

  • Recording techniques are unquestionably going downhill. The “breathy singer recorded in her bedroom” music in TV commercials, and Katy Perry 130 digital tracks overlaid on a laptop are both in a different universe from quality recordings made by professionals armed with dozens of microphones and a deep understanding of getting the best sound out of musicians in a custom-built studio room. There’s a reason people sample Led Zep drum breaks.
  • Producing techniques are a disaster. The ridiculous compression introduced by the loudness war wastes the dynamic range of CDs, and producers consciously aim for lowest-common denominator earbuds in noisy environments. (Although Motown was perfecting their recordings for crappy transistor radios, and many of their recordings come staggeringly alive on a good stereo.) Go to Amazon and read reviews from fans sobbing that the 20th anniversary edition of their favorite recording sounds like crap because the re-release producer couldn’t help tweaking the sound mix.
  • Recording formats are fine. Hardly anyone can reliably distinguish high-bit rate 320kBs MP3s from CD. Higher bit-depth and bit-rate recordings are available: a trickle of DVD-Audio and SACD disks continue to be released and you can buy higher-rate digital downloads online at places like www.hdtracks.com. In my opinion the reason to go for vinyl or hi-def digital recording is not that CD or 320kBs MP3 is a bad format, but because the mixes for vinyl and hi-def are less likely to have the life compressed out of them in the %$#@! loudness wars (hear the proof here).

Audiophiles are simultaneously seeking better reproduction of treasured vinyl and the ultimate playback of high-res digital files. But most music recorded nowadays is not recorded or produced in a way to make it worth bothering. If you like any music from the 50s through 80s then try to hear it on a top-notch stereo in a good room, it can be a thrill.

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music: Steve Howe phenomenal guitar work

Yes were boxed in around Tales from Topographic Oceans, repeatedly moving back and forth between pastoral – martial! on long compositions, as you can still hear on the sprawling “Gates of Delirum” on side 1 of their follow-up Relayer. But side 2 they went nuts, veering off into crazy rhythmic shifts on “Sound Chaser” and straight folk meets symphonic overload on “To Be Over.” Maybe it was Patrick Moraz joining, maybe it was the water, but it’s the most eclectic and satisfying side they ever made. You can get both songs, over 18 minutes of music, for only $2 (yet self-entitled whiners still complain about evil music companies to justify piracy).

Throughout Steve Howe is a tireless whirlwind of guitar. Check out just the 90 second from 2:54–4:26:

A beautiful lick, that slide guitar, gorgeous pealing pedal steel lines, a rip-the-strings off flamenco-ish solo, his trademark clattering wail (and some immaculate bass counterpoint from Chris Squire), then he collapses down the neck in a deft jazzy sequence. He owes much to Jeff Beck and Hendrix is beyond all, but Steve Howe is undeniably one of the greatest, and more dextrous in more styles than anyone else. PUT Yes IN THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME!

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buying a new bicycle

After years of service, my Univega bike gave out. The gel seat (long since turned to solid foam) is disintegrating, the wheels can’t be trued any more, the crank grinds in the bottom bracket, the brakes squeal more than they bite.

I need basically the same thing: a decent bike to pedal the streets and hills to work and around the city. It’s tiring to look around on dropped handlebars and I wear regular shoes so I don’t want a road bike; I don’t need heavy mountain bike features like disc brakes, suspension, and knobbly tires; and I want something more efficient than an upright cruiser

For this market, everyone sells “urban” or “hybrid” bikes with oversized aluminum frames, flat handlebars, and decent components for $500-$900. Cannondale Quick, Giant Escape,  Marin Fairfax, Scott Metrix, Specialized Sirrus, Trek 7.x, etc. They all use almost identical Shimano components: Tektro brakes, Acera and Avila gears, etc. I quickly settled on a carbon front fork for a smoother ride, then it was just test rides trying to figure out what was most comfortable and solid. But so much depends on the way the shop adjusted the seat to me and how well they set up the bike. When I commented after test rides some places said “We can adjust those spongy brakes/rattling gears” — set the bike up perfectly before I try it!

2013 specialized Sirrus Elite bicycleI bought a Specialized Sirrus Elite. I added a rear rack and transferred the bell and toe clips from my old bike. The fancier Sirrus Comp with endo bars had fewer gears, and I never tried the full carbon fiber Sirrus Limited at twice the price.

I got tired of test rides before I got to the GT Tachyon and Raleigh Cadent. My one unexpected find was the Novara Express, REI’s in-house brand, which had significantly better components for only $849. Its molded grips have a weird bulge that hurt my hands! I could have swapped out components, but I’m not that kind of bicycle tweaker. The one that got away was the Giant Escape 0, it seemed ideal based on riding the comfortable smooth Escape 1, but no store had one in stock in my size.

Bicycling to work and the shops is great, you should do it and skip the cost and hassle of parking! Away from main roads are quieter streets where you can pedal safer.

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software: TurboTax lameness

After a long break I bought TurboTax to do taxes. Intuit has had 20+ years to get this software right. Let’s see how they’re doing.

Re-enter contact info

I have to enter my name, address, and phone number to register TurboTax. Then TurboTax makes me re-enter this stuff when filling out “Personal Info.” Why not assume the first return I create is for myself?

A browser text field remembers all previous entries so that you get field memory for free… but this sadly isn’t a browser.

Importing confusion

I began by assuming I have to request an extension. But part-way into filling out the form for an extension, it starts asking me (note the ^%$#@! program won’t let me copy and paste text into this blog post, unlike a browser) “Enter Your 2012 Federal Tax Payments”. I’m running Quicken 2011 Deluxe, the info is already in that program. I had to abandon filling out this form to Import from Quicken. TurboTax knows where Quicken is on-disk, it should detect it during installation and offer to import before getting started.

The import from Quicken includes dividend and interest income that Quicken downloaded from from my financial institutions. Some of the dividend information is from an IRA. The IRA money should not be taxed, yet in TurboTax it shows up as dividend income. Why doesn’t the ^%$#@! import from Quicken ask about the tax status of the account? I named it “Rollover IRA“, that should be a clue to say “We imported this information, but let’s see whether it really applies”? So much for trying to save me money.

The left download doesn’t know what the right download did

Meanwhile TurboTax can also contact my financial institution to download tax information. I let it do so and it grabs my 1099 information, very nice. But now I have two sources for the same financial data, “Name of account” from Quicken and “Name of Financial Institution” from TurboTax. Mindblowingly, Quicken and TurboTax have no way to tell each other “this is the same information, don’t count it twice”, even though the same company wrote both download modules! The TurboTax summary screen doesn’t indicate which info came from which import, nor does My Tax Data (it only shows “Import”, but not what kind). There’s no way on the summary screen to say “These two sources of information overlap, guide me what I should do”

Every time I deal with this imported information I click [Edit] to see the details, then when I decide I don’t need it, I need to go Back and [Delete] it. But unlike a browser, this ^%$#@! software does not have a reliable Back button.  I have to click buttons at random to resume my Easy Interview and then click Next and Done a lot to skip ahead to the place I was just at. A browser is a better way to navigate.

It turns out that deleting the import didn’t actually get rid of the information. I had to go into File > Remove Imported Data and choose the Quicken items that conflicted with the Financial Institution import items. and remove them. But this left a bunch of “Untitled” transactions in “Investment Sales Summary”, which I then had to [Delete] by hand.

TurboTax questions don’t match Quicken categories

Quicken has a category for tax refund. But stupidly, it isn’t separated into State Tax refund (1099G) and federal tax refund. So TurboTax gets the combined info for both. And stupidly, TurboTax doesn’t let you drill into the individual payments that it imported from its own sibling product. They should be in a supporting statement where I can copy and paste lines, instead there’s just a summary total from Quicken Deluxe. There are many other places where Quicken’s categories don’t match TurboTax’s questions: medical expenses, property taxes, etc. In every case I have to modify the info from Quicken, add it up again, and then worry if the numbers appear somewhere else in TurboTax. TurboTax can handle individual transactions, e.g. for charitable deductions it creates separate information for each payment in category Charity from Quicken.

Miscellaneous

Whenever I enter a number in Quicken there’s an instant calculator available. In TurboTax there’s no such thing.

To be fair, TurboTax calculated my tax, upgraded butter-smooth to Premier, and is pretty well cross-linked between interview, summaries, and forms. But I expect perfect integration with Quicken 2011 Deluxe, and I didn’t get it.

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