Role Model

When I was growing up, people often asked me who my “role model” was.  Saying “I don’t have one” would lead to strange looks or awkward conversations, so I would typically say “Bill Gates” or “Wade Boggs” or some other easy answer.  Those weren’t lies, I did admire certain facets of these people, but I certainly never emulated them.  A few years ago, decades past the point where people ask me that question, I realized I finally have an answer.

I’ve been lucky enough to have several great dogs in my life, all of whom have been very unique, but Stella is, unexpectedly, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a role model. I admire, and try to emulate, how much she lives in the moment.  Her ability to grasp the excitement, or the mystery, or even just the simple peace of any given moment is amazing.  Even at 6 years old, she takes every minute as a new adventure.  I am not, nor will I ever be nearly as effusive as she is, but I do find myself noticing and appreciating the immediate moment even more.

As I observe this furry creature living her life, I’ve collected a some rules that she seems to live by, and that perhaps we all should too:

  • If something bothers you, bark at it.
  • If someone bothers you, leave them alone.
  • There is no such thing as too many hugs.
  • Do not eat when you you’re not hungry.
  • Do not sleep where you don’t want to.
  • Do not be alone when you can cuddle.
  • Do not care how ridiculous you look when you’re comfortable.
  • You don’t have to be happy about it, but share your toys.

Metahobbyism

I’ve been on a bit of an organizing kick lately, the source of which is a mystery, but the net effect of which I’m very happy with. As I sort things into labeled bins and ask myself if I will ever use something again or how much it costs to replace it, the number of hobbies I’ve found evidence of keeps adding up. I am starting to think that my main hobby is trying new hobbies!

Here are all of the activities I have come across, in no particular order.  Some of these I’ve spent mere hours on, others have entailed thousands of hours:

  • Collectible card gaming
  • Furniture making
  • Paper making
  • Cooking
  • Board gaming
  • Miniatures gaming
  • Computer building
  • Barbeque/Smoking
  • Novel writing
  • Blacksmithing
  • General photography
  • Macro photography
  • Portrait photography
  • Camping
  • Wood carving
  • Wood turning
  • Home theater
  • Programming
  • DIY/House Renovation
  • Pen making
  • Miniatures painting
  • Model scenery construction
  • Paper crafts
  • Electronics/Soldering
  • Chemistry
  • Piano
  • Harmonica
  • Saxophone
  • Beer brewing
  • Baseball
  • Softball
  • Fantasy sports
  • Reading
  • Gardening
  • Exercise
  • Home automation
  • Wood burning
  • Golf
  • Poker
  • UX Design
  • Freshwater aquariums
  • Game design

TV in 2015

I think most people, including myself sometimes, watch too much TV, but I don’t think the right amount of TV is zero.  We really are in a golden age for the artform and with the putrefaction of the film industry, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying it in limited quantities.  My thoughts on some current and recent shows:

American Ninja Warrior

This show has been on for a while but I had never even attempted to watch it because it has a terrible name.  I caught part of an episode last year and realized it was not some campy parody of a Japanese game show but something else entirely.  If you’re not familiar, it is a relatively simple concept.  Contestants run an obstacle course with the primary goal being to finish the course and the secondary goal being time.  The twist here is that the course is incredibly hard.  Most people fail.  They don’t get any practice and if they make one mistake they are done.  In this age of coddling and positive reinforcement this show takes us back to the days when video games didn’t have save files, when the 10th best hitter on the baseball team rode the bench all season, and cars would explode in minor accidents if they didn’t impale you on the steering wheel first.  It reminds us how satisfying hard work can be and there is no doubt that the frustration and happiness of the contestants is real.

Hannibal

Recently cancelled, hopefully to be picked up elsewhere, I am surprised it even made it this far.  It is a very dark, very deliberate, very long story.  The imagery, music, and sounds are often vague and pretentious, but they are always detailed and highly crafted if not beautiful.  And with all due respect to Anthony Hopkins, Mads Mikkelsen is amazing as Hannibal Lecter.  I recently watched a bit of Silence of the Lambs and Hopkins’ take on the role is almost clownish.

Halt and Catch Fire

A couples romance where the main conflict driver is entrepreneurship.  The show captures what feels like a very authentic bleakness about 1980’s Texas.  After two seasons, the writing has become a bit aimless but the characters are authentic and the acting is very good.

Mr. Robot

This show is brand new, but the pilot was amazing.  If someone said they were going to do a mashup of Dexter and Fight Club and maybe throw a teeny bit of Sherlock Holmes (Elementary-style) in, I don’t know what I’d expect but this show pulls that off.  The pilot could have easily been tweaked into a good movie and is one of the best I’ve ever seen.  The rest of season one was not as good but more sustainable, and has maintained the thriller aspect.  Christian Slater is television poison, but he has a limited role that doesn’t leverage his usually hamminess, so we’ll see if the curse can be reversed here.

52 Word Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller pulled off an impressive feat with Mad Max: Fury Road. After a 30 year hiatus, he managed to craft a movie that is better in every conceivable way than the previous 3 installments. It’s everything an action movie should be: fun, fresh, relentless, uncompromising, and extreme but, perhaps most surprisingly, not dumb.

Monty Hall Problem

A classic brain teaser is the Monty Hall Problem. It fools people with a basic understanding of probability (i.e. most of us), and even after a good amount of consternation seems unintuitive. If complex mathematical formulas don’t convince you, then you’ll likely have to see it actually happen to believe it, as I did.

I came across it again today, and I was unhappy with the idea that this remained a difficult hurdle for my brain to jump, even though at this point I know the answer.  I came up with the following explanation that I think is as simple as it gets, so if it still sticks in your craw as it did mine, perhaps this will help.

If you never switch:

  • 1/3 of time you pick right door, and win.
  • 2/3 of time you pick wrong door, and lose.

(1/3 * 1) + (2/3 * 0) = 1/3

So if you never switch, you will win 1/3 of the time.

If you always switch:

  • 1/3 of time you pick right door, Monty will open either of the empty doors, and then you will open the other empty door, and lose.
  • 2/3 of time you pick an empty door, Monty will open the other empty door, and then you will open the door with the prize and win.

(1/3 * 0) + (2/3 * 1) = 2/3

If you always switch, you will win 2/3 of the time.

Diagrams and formulas aside, the phrase “the other empty door” is what made it come together for me.

Driverless Cars

I completely agree with the headline of this blog post, but not with the overall sentiment.  Driverless cars are going to change the world, and for the better.  I’m not sure how much they will do so in my lifetime, it’s hard to believe that anyone born before 1985 or so is going to completely trust them.

The car insurance industry will cease to exist. These cars aren’t going to crash. Even if there are hold-outs that drive themselves, insurance would be so expensive they couldn’t afford it, as no one else would need it.

These cars will crash.  For as long as humans are allowed to drive, they will be causing accidents, hitting other driverless cars and each other.  There are also a number of causes of accidents that are still going to happen, such as those involving wildlife or severe weather or mechanical failure.  The robocars will handle these situations far better than humans, but they will still happen, and people will still be injured and killed as a result.

If the cars don’t crash, then the auto collision repair / auto body industry goes away. The car industry also shrinks as people don’t have to replace cars as often.

The car industry will likely shrink over time, just as any other technology-driven industry as.  They will be forced to evolve to new products.  This will happen slowly enough that if they’re properly managed, they should be able to shrink through attrition.

Long-haul truck driving will cease to exist. Think how much money trucking companies will save if they don’t have to pay drivers or collision and liability insurance. That’s about 3 million jobs in the States. Shipping of goods will be much cheaper.  On that note, no more bus drivers, taxi drivers, limo drivers.

This is definitely true.  I bear no ill will towards professional drivers but I think we can find jobs that are more rewarding for people than driving goods or passengers from point A to point B, and often drive back to A with an empty truck.  Trucks also account for the vast majority of road wear, a single tractor trailer can do as much damage to a road as nearly 10,000 normal cars.  The main reason we load so much weight onto a truck is so you only need one driver.  It will be more efficient to send smaller loads by robotruck, as they can be better targeted (think one truck per state rather than one truck per region), which will result in smaller trucks.

Meter maids. Gone. Why spend $20 on parking when you can just send the car back home? There goes $40 million in parking revenue to the City of Vancouver by the way.

Considering much of that revenue is probably supporting the collection of that revenue (meter maids, infrastructure, towing, courts,etc.) I don’t think this is a net loss.  Also, fewer parking spots means more pleasant streets with less traffic problems.

Many in cities will get rid of their cars altogether and simply use RoboTaxis. They will be much cheaper than current taxis due to no need for insurance (taxi insurance costs upwards of $20,000/year), no drivers, and no need for taxi medallions (which can cost half a million in Vancouver). You hit a button on your iPhone, and your car is there in a few minutes.  Think how devastating that would be to the car industry. People use their cars less than 10% of the time. Imagine if everyone in your city used a RoboTaxi instead, at say 60% utilization. That’s 84% fewer cars required.

Absolutely!

No more deaths or injuries from drinking and driving. MADD disappears. The judicial system, prisons, and hospital industry shrink due to the lack of car accidents.

Let us hope that we don’t see MADD exhibit the Shirky Principle (“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”) and simply fades away to an irrelevance we can all agree is a success.

Car sharing companies like Zip, Modo, Car2Go are all gone. Or, one of them morphs into a robo-taxi company.

I think they will definitely be robotaxis, but there will also be a need for specialty cars like pickups.  We may even see an increased diversity of car designs available for rental where you can have a special grocery-mobile sent over, or a van with 12 seats, or one with extra entertainment options for your long trips, and so on.

Safety features in cars disappear (as they are no longer needed), and cars will become relatively cheaper.

Very unlikely, as people buy fewer cars and use them less frequently the prices will go up accordingly.  We’ll also probably require, through legislation, even more safety features, simply because of an inherent distrust of the technology.

I’m  really hoping that robocars are a reality within the next 30-40 years when I will be at the point where I shouldn’t be driving any more, and I’m happy to see that we actually seem on track to do that.

Reasonable Design

I’m always trying new productivity/task/project software, in the hope that someone will write the one I need before I do.  The latest one is Action Method, by Behance.  It’s not very useful to people with more than a handful of tasks (i.e. everyone), but that’s not the purpose of this post.  After failing to find it’s value, I read through the FAQ and found this gem:

Why are there only 3 colors for my Action Steps?

We thought about including more colors. But then one of our early Beta  testers said it best: “If 3 colors are enough to safely drive a car  [traffic lights], they should be enough to organize  yourself.” (Thanks, Jordan!) Sometimes, simplicity is best.

This is a terrible way to design software, and an even more terrible way to explain it to users.  Driving a car has nothing to do with accomplishing or organizing your workload.  Not even in a “well now that I think of it” way, it’s just plain irrelevant.   If that’s your reasoning, why aren’t the colors red, green, and yellow (they are blue, orange and gray)? Should all of the buttons on the site be round because the wheels are round?  Should all of the text be white on green because that’s good enough for highway signage?

I’m being silly here, but the point is that when you have to make a decision like this, be mindful of the reasoning behind it.  Rationalizing an arbitrary choice with a trite and irrelevant explanation might sound cute, and it’s a standard design cop-out, so avoid it.  Perhaps 3 colors is the right answer here, which could be for any number of valid reasons:

  • 90% of people never use all 3.
  • User testing showed that 3 was easier than 5 or 7 or 16 million.
  • It’s an intentional design goal that colors don’t proliferate because people end up confusing themselves on advanced projects.
  • It looks ugly (I’m guessing this is the actual reason)

Or maybe, since this is in the frequently asked questions, 3 isn’t the right answer at all, regardless of traffic engineering standards.

Amazon Showrooms

Amazon caught a lot of heat over this past holiday season over some improvements to its shopping app.  It made it easier than ever to find out that you probably don’t need to buy that blender at Sears, when you can get it for 30% less on Amazon and don’t even have to carry it home.  There were cries that small businesses can’t compete with this and would all be dead soon.

There is nothing at Best Buy or Barnes & Noble that you can’t get on Amazon (or many other online stores).  It’s rare that it will not be cheaper online, even during a sale (which typically just brings the price down to a normal online price).  Is it sustainable to have a store where I can go and hold something, and then order it from somewhere else?  No.  Should we feel bad for the big box stores?  No.  Should we feel bad for the shopkeeper who sells a particular niche at a high markup without adding value?  No.

Stores that only sell commodity products are a recent innovation to take advantage of a temporary imbalance.  They will eventually go the way of dodos, video rental stores, and record labels.  We’re still going to have a few, because there are enough “need it now” purchases to sustain the Targets and Wal-Marts, and we’ll probably still have a few high-end ones where excellent service matters like Nordstrom, but most of the stores out there are turning into showrooms.

What if Amazon bought BJs?

(BJs is a consumer warehouse/bulk goods store, like Costco and others).  My Prime membership takes the place of my BJs membership.  Instead of walking around with a giant shopping cart and driving home with mass quantities of things, I simply browse the aisles for products I like.   When I see one, I scan it with my phone, and it’s on my doorstep the next day.  There are a few people on staff that might help, and there’s a hotline to specialists that understand the products and can answer my questions.  No need for a massive loading-dock infrastructure, or inventory control, or 50′ tall ceilings to heat, or many of the other overhead expenses that yield the current retail markups.

What about the little guy?

I’d like to see our shops go back to actually making things and/or adding value.  Custom products, not “regional dealers”.  There will definitely be less of them, but this will make more space and lower rents for the people who just want a spot where they can sell their craft, or for people to provide useful services instead of distribution.

Logging Like it’s 2011

Earlier this year I revisited how I was logging things in Java, and decided I would try a hybrid approach.  I’m reporting back to say that it’s been successful. There are basically two ways I do it now:

Use java.util.Logging for libraries

It turns out that there’s nothing actually wrong with JUL aside from its limitations in terms of configuration.  It has different names than the Ceki Gülcü loggers (warning() instead of warn(), finest() instead of trace(), etc.) but otherwise works the same.  The configuration side of things I can’t even speak do as I haven’t had to configure it, I never use the actual JUL output.

Use Logback for applications

As suspected, Logback is basically just a new version of Log4J.  It’s got some niceties like MDCInsertingServletFilter that means I don’t have to write that filter myself anymore, and it’s supposedly faster and more stable, so there’s no reason I can see not to use it.  I also like that it has a format for condensing class names without completely losing the package names, so it goes from “com.efsavage.application.servlet.LoginServlet” to “c.e.a.s.LoginServlet” instead of just “LoginServlet”.

Why use two?

I like the fact that my libraries have zero logging dependencies and configuration, so I can always pop them into another app without adding baggage or conflicts or much additional configuration.  I can upgrade the logger in one application without having to deal with version conflicts of my other apps and having to do classpath exclusions and that type of nastiness.

Tip

If you do it this way, and you see your JUL logging showing up twice, you can edit the default logging config in your JDK installation, or if you prefer to leave that untouched as I do, try this (via Java Bits):

java.util.logging.Logger rootLogger = LogManager.getLogManager().getLogger("");
Handler[] handlers = rootLogger.getHandlers();
for (int i = 0; i < handlers.length; i++) {
rootLogger.removeHandler(handlers[i]);
}
SLF4JBridgeHandler.install();

This basically yankts out the default logger and let’s SLF4J do it’s thing alone.  In a webapp you’ll probably throw this in your context listener or startup servlet where you previously did your log4j config.