Uncle Trouble

My dad’s older brother, Michael Ward, died on Wednesday. While my dad told me the news yesterday morning, I don’t think it entirely hit me until I saw his obituary, though I had partially processed the idea that the man we knew was largely gone after his massive stroke almost six years ago. Uncle Mike is also the first close relative (i.e. my grandparents and their descendants) of mine who has died in my lifetime, an unusual streak. With that bit of context out of the way, I wanted to share a few memories that I have of him, mostly from when I was a kid.

First up is his mischievous grin, which has something to do with the nickname “Uncle Trouble”. Second, his joking nature, with a touch of sarcastic wit. Third, during family visits, mostly at Christmas or Fourth of July, he always found time to play with us. He taught me to play pool, to play cribbage; he showed me how to shuffle cards properly (with bridging). I suppose that was a mildly corruptive influence? Still a skill I’m glad he taught me.

He was very much into gadgets, and was one of the few grownups I knew in the ’90s who always seemed to have the latest Mac or a nice camera. I remember visiting him once in Chicago, where he was a news director, and being amazed by his TV that could tune 16 stations at once. He was an encourager of my own interest in technology, and was responsible for the infamous Zip Drive photo (by giving me one for Christmas one year). He also played a lot of golf, which somewhat influenced my own interest in the game.

Even after his stroke, I liked sharing pictures with him, and he loved to see them. I ended up returning an old favor by helping him keep his Mac organized and up to date whenever I visited them in DC.

Uncle Mike was always quick to chuckle. I will miss him greatly.

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Posted in Life

End Police Militarization

I sent the following letter to my U.S. Representative (Herrera Buetler) and my U.S. Senators (Cantwell and Murray), asking them to end the transfer of military surplus weapons and equipment to our state and local police forces. I’m planning to write similar letters to my state representatives, and to our county sheriff and city police department to ask them to end the practice here in Washington, Clark County, and/or Vancouver.

If you are concerned by how military-style force has been used by police in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere, I would encourage you to write something similar to your congresscritters.

This Newsweek article is a good overview of one of the sources of military surplus, the Depatment of Defense’s 1033 Program.

(I made slight edits to the text below, including salutation, for each person I sent it to. You are welcome to use the non-personal portions of my text.)

I am writing to request your support of the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, soon to be introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson, which amends the NDAA to end the so-called “1033 Program” that supplies surplus military equipment to police across the country. I also encourage you to support any similar bills which end the practice of providing (either directly, or funding for) military-grade weapons and equipment to our police departments. Their mission is to “protect and serve”; they are not here to conduct a war against our fellow citizens.

While my letter is directly inspired by the images coming out of Ferguson, MO this week, I have been thinking about this issue since the recent ACLU report on the massive surge in the use of SWAT-style tactics and gear in policing over the last decade. I do not believe we need a militarized police to conduct the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror. More and more people are being injured or killed by police officers conducting their duties as if they are at war, and this needs to stop.

Until we recently moved to Vancouver, my wife and I lived in Cambridge and Watertown, MA. Last April, during the final manhunt for the Marathon Bombers, we lived through the lockdown and saw a massive militarized police presence descend on our neighborhoods. Our local Target’s parking lot became part of the command center for this operation. This show of force felt to me fundamentally un-American, visually like something from a military dictatorship. While it may have seemed necessary, in the end Dzokhar Tsarnaev was captured because an observant citizen noticed that the tarp on his boat was loose. If anything we were blessed that no innocents were accidentally injured or killed during the sweep. Even in this terrorism case, the police could have remained police, and not soldiers.

I do not believe our police departments need leftover MRAPs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do their jobs. They do not need to be wearing fatigues or tactical gear, or to be carrying fully automatic weaponry, which only serves to intimidate the very people they are paid to protect. In Ferguson we see such equipment being used to intimidate citizens and journalists, violating First Amendment rights to free assembly and a free press. This is a terrible abuse of state power.

It is not “soft on crime” or “soft on terror” to stop arming our police like they are soldiers; it is a necessary step to end a dangerous encroachment on our fundamental freedoms as citizens. Please help end the militarization of our police.

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Posted in Opinion

The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As you might have heard, our son Theodore was born two weeks ago. Since he is our first child, I naturally wanted to become more knowledgeable about little things like soothing him when he’s upset. We bought this book based on recommendations, and I think it met those expectations. The short summary is that the techniques described in the book work, but it is highly repetitive, and problematic in the way its thesis is presented.

The core concept is the 5 Ses: Swaddle, Shush, Swing, Side, and Suck. You can pretty much get that from the back of the book, and from some general knowledge of baby care. However, there were a few adjustments I learned that really helped:

  • I needed to swaddle more tightly
  • I needed to shush more loudly
  • I needed to swing more vigorously

With those minor changes, I’ve been able to calm him fairly quickly and in some cases even put him completely asleep. It’s worth noting that I am certain we are being helped by his apparent easy temperament. We generally have not needed to change his position to side or stomach holds (he prefers being upright anyway, I think because of womb position). Obviously a feeding works pretty well too, but I can’t help with that yet.

Given that, I think this book could have been much shorter. Mostly I would recommend reading the five core chapters on each S. He’s just very repetitive, which I guess drills things. I think that you can skip every personal anecdote (the stories in bold italics); nearly every one is of the form “My baby wouldn’t stop crying because of X. Dr. Karp showed me how to S, and now they calm themselves!”. They don’t add anything to the learning experience, but maybe they benefit other types of learners?

I had two major problems with the way the techniques were presented, both related to the narrative that American culture lost certain baby soothing techniques over the last 150 years. I think that change is true, and there are probably many factors (smaller family sizes, less intergenerational housing, consumer marketing of baby products, etc.) that have contributed to this shift. That discussion is out of scope for this book, but that didn’t stop Dr. Karp from trying, despite being a pediatrician and not a sociologist, anthropologist, or evolutionary biologist. I also took issue with some non-scientific pandering in the later chapters.

My first issue was in the area of evolutionary biology. Obviously I am not an expert in that field, but I know enough to note his errors regarding the Neanderthal timeline, when humans lived in caves, and being contemporaneous with dinosaurs! His idea that the soothing techniques work because in the womb a calm fetus is less at risk of umbilical cord entanglement sounds believable, but he provides no citations. I realize this isn’t that kind of book, but I’d like at least some justification.

Much more problematic was his presentation of baby care in other cultures. It smacked strongly of Romantic primitivism, perpetuating the stereotype that non-Western cultures are inherently more in tune with the natural world and our bodies’ needs because they don’t have industry and modern medicine so on. Relatedly it treated several examples as cultural monoliths, at one point even implying that Indonesia was a monoculture with a single belief about how babies should be swaddled. These examples annoyed me every time they came up, and were a reminder that the book is written for what seems to be a pretty narrow white middle class American audience.

An additional quick complaint: the chapter on dad’s duties was terrible. First I don’t appreciate the assumption that only moms would read the book, and second, it implied that dads barely help with the baby and are mostly just waiting for the post-partum “all clear” for sex.

Finally, there were some approving comments about non-scientific stuff like homeopathy that I felt didn’t have a place in this book. I figure they were there to pander to an audience looking for more natural solutions to colic?

Overall, a useful book for the basic calming techniques, but one with redundant problematic content that you probably won’t need to refer back to. Grab it from the library and skim it.

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Posted in Book Reviews

How I Live Now

How I Live Now
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a relatively rare example where I decided to read a book based entirely on the trailer for its upcoming movie adaptation. It was a serendipitous opportunity because Rebekah happened to have a copy sitting out at her apartment, so I borrowed it and tore through it quickly on the bus into work. I haven’t reviewed it until now on account of the baby.

This book, better than most YA fiction, captures well the way a teenager thinks. It’s entirely a first-person narrative, but unlike, say, Katniss in The Hunger Games, Daisy does not seem preternaturally mature in her thoughts or her handling of emotions. Her cousin Edmond reminded me a lot of an older Charles Wallace, circa A Swiftly Tilting Planet (one of my absolute favorite books) in the way he was intuitive and possibly even telepathic.

The book’s great strength is that it maintains a lot of mystery. The enemy is never specified, which keeps things more interesting and suspenseful while also capturing the feeling of panic on the part of the kids. I appreciated that a lot. That’s impressive restraint on the part of the author, for a first-time book. (I imagine that the film will, by nature of the third-person medium, specify more, while having less internal angst.)

The ending was sudden and unexpected, which does hurt the book a bit. It felt like maybe some additional plot was cut for length, but maybe I’m wrong? On the other hand it did allow for a time jump ahead to see the consequences of some of the events in the main storyline.

Still, a quick enjoyable YA read that is different from a lot of the other fare out there. I definitely recommend it, and will probably try to see the movie when it comes out.

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Posted in Book Reviews

YOURLS Plugin: Remove YouTube Play Indicator

A few months ago, I set up a self-hosted YOURLS install to handle all of my URL-shortening needs, replacing v.gd. I decided I wanted to be wholly responsible for breaking any links in the future. It’s here, although probably at some point I’ll buy a shorter domain and redirect everything.

Last month, YouTube added a play indicator that modifies the <title> attribute to include U+25B6 BLACK RIGHT-POINTING TRIANGLE. I don’t like this showing up in the title in the YOURLS admin interface. I wrote a quick plugin that strips this out.

Remove YouTube Play Indicator is available on GitHub. Please comment there if you have any issues.

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Posted in Code Projects

Alanna: The First Adventure

Alanna: The First Adventure
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What surprised me most about this book, selected for a YA book club, is that I had never heard of it, any of the other Tortall books, or the author, Tamora Pierce, before. This is strange to me because this sort of literature was right in my wheelhouse as a young reader. I devoured fantasy almost as much as sci-fi in middle school and on. Given how much time I spent in that section of the library, all I can figure is that for whatever reason it wasn’t stocked, or something about the cover art or jacket description at the time made me pass it by. I wonder in part if, because it was published in 1983, it wasn’t yet considered a classic by the time I would have been browsing in the early ’90s.

Given all that, I tried very hard to read this as my younger self, but I wasn’t very successful. I think it has a lot of the classic fantasy tropes, and some interesting takes on them, but fundamentally it’s a coming of age story, and it hews to that pattern pretty closely. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I think I would have enjoyed this more had I read it as a kid. I don’t think it had anything to do with failing to identify with a female protagonist. Looking at other ratings and reviews, it’s clear that this book has a special nostalgic place in many hearts, probably similar to my connection to Tolkien, l’Engle, and other series I read and reread.

I found myself regularly comparing the story to Ender’s Game, in large part because of the amount of time spent “in school”, dealing with bullying and navigating a world while largely controlled by adults. This is of course a typical teen experience, although I don’t remember feeling that way as a young teen. Another parallel (one which I understand is developed further in the later books) is that while Alanna is in school, her sibling is elsewhere, honing his own special talents. I also found myself early on trying to figure out which of her fellow trainees would develop into a romantic interest, because I assumed that would transpire.

In our book club discussion, we focused a lot on the role of religion in this story as compared to other fantasy settings. I think the religious content has a few features common to those others, which I suspect are chosen mostly to avoid offending anyone by seeming too similar to a particular modern religion.

First, it’s non-liturgical: we hear the characters acknowledge the existence of gods, and maybe even give thanks or an oath here or there, but there’s effectively no communal religious practice, at least not one the main characters participate in on a regular basis. Any reference to organized religion is mostly about the political power structures – orders of priests, leaders like bishops, and so on. This is a huge distinction from the day-to-day medieval setting depicted in this book compared to European history. There are some quick asides referring to an order of female warriors that prevent men from entering a temple, but not much beyond that, at least in this first book.

Second, it tends to be highly ecumenical but polytheistic, where a given character probably worships one or more gods, but acknowledges the existence of others (usually in the context of claiming they’re dead/gone/weaker than theirs). We see Alanna’s encounters with the Goddess when she’s using magic, but I wouldn’t describe any of her experiences as worship. I think this is connected to how often the magic systems in fantasy derive power from gods (or at least an elder race with godlike powers), but also again to avoid the perception of an attack on a particular monotheistic religion.

Third, the gendered aspects of the gods and goddesses are usually pretty explicit, often along a sky father/earth mother axis. I don’t know how much of that is tapping into historical nomadic vs. agrarian splits compared to an author trying to make a point about the typically patriarchal power systems in a medieval setting.

We also touched briefly on the religions in other fantasy worlds, like in Narnia and on Arrakis, and the nature of good and evil. One trope talent Alanna had, a sort of child-like insight, was a better sense of who the good guys and bad guys were. To quote Samwise Gamgee, she noticed those that “look fairer but feel fouler”.

This book is probably a good one to have on hand for a young fantasy fan, boy or girl, but as an adult fantasy fan, I wasn’t able to get into it as much as I would have liked. I enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t that immersive. Again I think a big part of that was that Alanna’s school experience (ignoring the fantasy setting) was a typical teen one, but fairly different from my own, growing up in a very nerd-positive environment.

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Posted in Book Reviews

Netflix Ratings Import/Export

Andrle and I each used to have our own Netflix accounts. For a time, after we got married, we kept both; mine was used for disc rentals, and hers for streaming. Eventually we realized we were mostly just streaming, so we canceled my account and went to a single shared account. Sadly, this meant I lost over 1400 movie ratings, since Netflix provides no official way to export. After a while, I gave up on ever getting my ratings back.

Finally, earlier this month, Netflix embraced their role as a household service and added profiles. I decided to pay for a month of streaming and reactivate my old account to see if I could get my ratings out. I found this browser script which, after applying a patch described there, gave me a JSON file containing all of my ratings. This is also a useful backup to have in case Netflix ever goes away (unlikely).

Unfortunately there is still no way to easily import ratings into Netflix, so I wrote a very basic Chrome extension that would read the exported JSON file and click through each movie, rating it. It’s available on GitHub. Make sure to read the instructions included with the code; it’s straightforward but requires some poweruser comfort to follow the steps, since I didn’t bother with an interface. (Incidentally, this is one thing I love about having programming skills – that sense of having more power and control over my own data.)

Obviously it would be nice if various online services practiced across-the-board data liberation (though with Facebook and Twitter adding export, it’s getting better), but hopefully this is one tiny step in helping other nerdy family units transfer their precious Netflix ratings.

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Posted in Code Projects, How-Tos

A Better git-svn Log

This morning, Devon tweeted a great git tip that shows how to create a git alias that produces more readable git logs. I decided I wanted to set this up.

At work, we use a central Subversion repository, but a number of us use git-svn because we prefer git’s various local branch tools for development. I decided that it would be useful to extend this alias to also include the Subversion revision number if the commit has one. Unfortunately, this information (in the form of a Subversion URL) is stored in the commit body by git-svn, which may include other notes added by a developer. git-log exposes this text via the %b format specifier, but since we want to do some post-processing to extract just the revision number, we’ll need to set up a shell alias.

Here’s the final version I’ve added to my ~/.aliases:

alias glog='git log --graph --pretty=format:'"'"'%Cred%h%Creset%C(yellow)%d%Creset %s %Cgreen(%cr) %C(bold blue)<%an>%Creset%Cred%b%Creset'"'"' | perl -e '"'"'$log = do { local $/; <> }; $log =~ s/(>\e\[m\e\[31m)([^\n]*\n\| )*git-svn-id: svn\+ssh:\/\/[^\s\@]*\@(\d+) [0-9A-F-]+\n(\|| ) (\e\[m)/$1 r$3$5/gm; print "$log\n";'"'"' | less -RS'

First you’ll note the weird quote escaping – we want the alias to be single-quoted (no expansion), but we want the arguments to the commands to also be single-quoted. That’s where the '"'"' trick comes in; see this explanation on StackOverflow. The format string is almost identical to Filipe’s solution, except for the addition of the body. The nasty Perl regular expression pulls out the revision number from that while also preserving the ANSI color escape sequences I inserted into the format string. Finally, we pass everything back to less for paging; -R makes sure it interprets the colors correctly, while -S disables line-wrapping.

One unfortunate side effect of adding the post-processing is that you can’t pass the -p option to git log anymore, because Perl needs to read the whole log in for multiline matching (in case a developer had literal newlines in their commit body), and the diffs are large and could get caught in the regex filter.

Hopefully you find this useful!

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Posted in Computers, How-Tos

Instagram-negative

If you were on the media social much shortly before Christmas, you no doubt heard quite the kerfuffle about changes to Instagram’s Terms of Service that would take effect on January 16th, 2013, in part related to Facebook’s purchase of the service earlier last year. While much of this response was overblown, and based on misunderstandings of the relevant legalese, and Instagram later apologized and canceled some of the changes, the folderol was a reminder to me that you can’t really trust a service you’re not paying for for hosting your content under the license you want. Thus, I quit.

Read more ›

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Posted in Code Projects, How-Tos, meta, Opinion

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book I received for Christmas three years ago and hadn’t yet read (hi mom!). The ego and attitude of the narrator initially turned me off, so I went in with kinda low expectations, but with an Aaron Sorkin joke on page four, and some great explicit and implicit Ray Bradbury references, Lieb had me hooked on this simple concept: the lowest-on-the-totem-pole kid in the entire middle school is not at all who he seems.

One thing I really appreciated was the narrative style – I think talking to Andrle about reading and writing has made me more aware of the distinctions. I believe this would be considered “first-person conversational”, because we are listening entirely to the main character’s thoughts as events unfold, his knowledge of events is limited to personal experience (i.e. we are surprised with him), but he regularly breaks the fourth wall to involve the reader in his thoughts about his family and classmates, using constructions such as “Remind me to…”. The narrator is also explicitly aware that we are reading this in a book, referring to pages, images, and chapters as he lays out what story is to come.

Lieb also used two interesting formatting tricks – first, there were visual aids (consisting mostly of oddly photoshopped composite images of events that were being described to or by the main character), and second, there was interesting use of chapter boundaries to pace the narrative, such as very short chapters used to indicate emotional state.

The narrator has a lot of interests that I suspect are more reflective of the author’s tastes (e.g., music) than a realistic middle school boy. This is by no means the most unrealistic thing in the story, so you just have to run with it. As an aside, it helps to have a familiarity with several elements of the James Bond canon, although probably the stuff that gets mocked in Austin Powers is sufficient.

The Bradbury references I mentioned earlier are the only spoilery part of this review. In the early chapters, the students are discussing Fahrenheit 451 in class. Shortly after that, the narrator describes how he’s been fully sentient since before birth. This immediately made me think of the short story “The Small Assassin”, about an infant who apparently causes the accidental deaths of its parents. For a more recent pop culture reference, think Stewie from The Family Guy.

Overall, a funny, quick read that made me chuckle more than once. It has a lot of cliches, but that’s okay… they’ll make you smile. A fair number of nerdy references on top of it all.

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Posted in Book Reviews

Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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