Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong and consider myself a Taoist. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. I eat gluten-free vegan meals. For the rest you'll have to read my blog.
Nerds!December 13, 2013
I just saw the musical Nerds. I loved it. Every nerd in Philadelphia should see it. It runs through the end of December. Since I haven’t read a detailed review or plot summary written by a nerd I thought I would do that now. If you don’t want to read spoilers then just go and buy a ticket.
It all started a few months ago when a group called Art Reach helped with an audio described musical called Noises Off. Trish, the woman who does the touch tours, invited me. We also went with her husband and her blind daughter Katie. We ate a homely meal at a beautiful farmhouse restaurant. We had a good time, but the musical had a fast pace, rather like an episode of Fawlty Towers, and I left feeling happy but confused.
Recently I saw another woman from Art Reach. We started talking about musicals, and I said I wished that they would make a musical about something cool, like time traveling robots or something. She said that in fact a musical about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates plays at a local theatre. This sounded right up my alley so Is tarted asking around. Trish’s husband Andy runs Awfully Nice Tours, and lent the theater company a Segway for them to use as a prop, so they comped him some tickets. Because of everyone’s generosity I got to go for free.
We arrived at the Suzanne Roberts theater early. They let us drink in the theater, so we got some wine and headed in. We sat way up high, but it didn’t matter thanks to the wonderful acoustics. Music quietly played while they got ready, and I noticed the Shire theme from the Lord of the Rings, something a nerd would recognize. Nice touch. They also had some visual gags going, loading jokes. Trish read some from the program including the scenes, so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect, and it sounded good.
It began and I felt immediately transfixed. The plot makes no attempt at historical accuracy. It makes up for this however by getting the feelings of the events, companies, and people absolutely right. It also has a serious message.
- Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak meet Bill Gates and Paul Alan at the Homebrew computer club in 1975. Of course, in real life only the two Steves went to Homebrew, but that doesn’t matter now. Gates worries about fitting in, while Jobs worries about getting some pot to roll a joint. They present their rival machines, and the Steves win the competition with their computer with a screen. They get a coupon to a pizza place and a free hamster. Every time Jobs has an acid vision of the future, the Macintosh startup sound plays. A nerdy girl wearing braces which pick up AM radio stations hits on Bill Gates with suggestive chess metaphors, but he rejects her, and tries to pick up Sally, the organizer of the club, but she in turn rejects him. Jobs then overtly hits on her and she accepts his advances.
Bill Gates sings a sad song about feeling like just a nerd and getting picked on by jocks. He’d say “Please don’t hurt me” but they did. Steve Jobs sings a psychedelic rock song about how the revolution stars with one. Not two, just one. Sally interrupts them and buys the first Apple after Jobs wows her with a presentation with the 2001 theme playing in the background. Bill Gates goes to IBM. Female employees sing a company song. The president of IBM, John Watson, fires one of them for singing “It’s the happiest place on Earth” off key, then begins his meeting with Gates. Whenever anyone says IBM the company’s menacing chords play, and Watson sings a song instructing Bill Gates how to stay one step ahead of the competition. This involves stepping on everyone then kicking them to the curb.
Jobs goes to the Paulo Alto Research Center (PARC) to date Sally, but instead falls in love with all the new ideas he sees, such as a printer, a computer network, and of course the mouse. They fall in love while going on a walk in the PARC and she tells him to steal the ideas while Woz plays the sax badly. Gates tries to sing an inspiring song with mixed metaphors. You do whatever it takes. In this case, this means buying an operating system from the perpetually wrong Tim Patterson on the cheap and reprogramming it. A coffee chain wanted to buy it, but Tim turned them down – who would want to pay four dollars for a cup of coffee?
Gates says they’d better go back to IBM to give them the operating system. “No need, we followed you.” says Watson accompanied by another menacing chord. Watson tells Gates to have a nice life and laughs. Gates retorts with a laugh and menacing chords of his own. The chords begin clashing and interfering with their conversation, but it doesn’t matter. In one of the truer bits of dialog, Gates explains that while the industry concentrates on building the best machine, he will sell the software that makes it all run. “It costs nothing! And I can charge whatever I want! It’s called software, and it’s the genius of Microsoft! Mic-ro-soft!”
Next, we go to the 1984 worldwide computer convention. Myrtle, the nerdy girl, again tries to hit on Gates and again he rejects her, even after her mention of having the Kama Sutra read by Leonard Nimoy. Jobs shows up with Sally and mistakes Gates for a valet. Sally agrees to park his car: “It’s in the handicapped zone.”
Gates and Alan present MSDOS, and sing the song that made me laugh the most. He says that the whole presentation runs on DOS, and you just have to type c:\runmusicalpresentation. As a nerd I have to nitpick and point out that MSDOS filenames could only have eight characters and no spaces. An eight-bit drum track starts playing. I remember those sounds well, so it really made it extra funny for me. The two of them start to wrap over it:
DOS is amazing, it’s one of a kind
DOS is cool, it will blow your brain
DOS is incredible, DOS is fun,
DOS can be enjoyed by everybody.
DOS is powerful, no bugs at all!
[The computer beeps and the drum track starts to stutter]
DOS can –
[The track stops with a final beep]
Error 453? I thought we debugged this? Well can we reboot it? Just give me a sec – Suddenly, an Apple sign comes down, and Steve Jobs sings a hard rock song about the Macintosh, clearly blowing away the competition. He reprises the line: Because the revolution starts with one.
Gates laments the presentation. “Steve Jobs gets the girl and we go home with our disks in our hand!” He asks: “Where are all the DOS groupies?” Alan suggests Myrtle, but Gates again rejects her, and tries to show him what cool means with an equation, something nerdy in itself. Gates says “I want to see less nerd and more action.” The two of them start yelling “Nerd action!” while slapping each other in a very gay way. This puts Gates over the top, and he realizes that he has to learn how to become cool.
The Steves go to Time Magazine, and Jobs monopolizes the interview, but “forgets” where he got the idea for the mouse. When the reporter challenges him that employees feel unhappy and say Jobs has a messianic complex, he asks “Who said that? I’ll smite them!” Jobs asks about getting on the cover or perhaps a centerfold. “Once you go Mac you never go back.”
Sally confronts Jobs about his attitude, then the two girls sing a sad song about their loves. Jobs calls Sally. “I realize I haven’t made time for you and – hold on I’ve got another call.” He goes to the other line and hears nothing, as ominous music plays. Suddenly Bill Gates appears.
Jobs worries he has come to bust him for drugs, but Gates wants his secrets, and ties Jobs to a chair. After hitting Jobs in the face, Jobs confesses everything, and tells Gates all about the graphical user interface. Gates rips it all off to make Windows. He then forces alcohol down Jobs’ throat, putting him to sleep. The next day Woz revives Jobs and feels furious when Jobs tells him what happened. Jobs decides to leave and start his own company, but Woz will not join him. “Let him have our secrets! What’s he gonna do with them anyway?” A gangster rap song then plays, proclaiming the praises of Windows. Again, they did a great job capturing the feeling of the Mac’s true coolness versus Windows fake coolness. And that ended act one.
Act two picks up twenty laters after the Homebrew Computer Club, in 1995, and everything runs Windows. Everyone feels down and out in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs lives in a cardboard box. Woz can’t find his hamster. Sally feels worried about the state of the world. Paul Alan wants to play basketball. Myrtle has founded a startup but still hasn’t found a guy. John Watson has become a crack addict. It can’t get any worse.
Microsoft has begun converting the world to Windows by force. They inject a Mac user at the creative writing department at Swarthmore with the Microsoft virus. I loved the local reference, since I lived in Swarthmore for much of my life. A helicopter lands and they inject Steve Jobs. He feels his creative urge slipping away and decides to reach out to God by emailing email@example.com. He asks if God has abandoned him just like his parents and by Apple. He feels he can call God “G” because they have a lot in common. He gets an immediate reply – from a mailer daemon. He curses the demon and officially signs out after closing and force quitting his open apps.
At Microsoft, Bill Gates asks for an acquisition report. They own 76% of everything. The head of Netscape arrives, and Gates prepares to take over yet another company. He feels shocked when Myrtle walks in. She has lost the headgear and become a fashionable woman. He tries to impress her by telling her to name anything. She replies that she wants a traditional Italian clown. Gates hits a buzzer and sure enough in walks a traditional Italian clown, complete with accordion. He tasers the clown. Myrtle considered the demonstration impressive and terrifying.
Myrtle tells Bill to give it to her straight, and they sing a ridiculous tango about feeling the urge to merge, with plenty of innuendo. After the song he confesses his true goal of crushing everything in his path. “Before I was a pawn, but now I’m the king and I’m inviting you to be my queen.” he says smugly. Myrtle would rather drink wine and watch Titanic. Gates says he has Celine Dion locked in a dungeon, but she starts to leave.
He threatens that if she walks out the door he will copy her browser and build it into Windows. Myrtle says that she’ll sue the pants off of him, and he promptly removes them. She leaves. “Hey, at least you took your pants off, that’s progress.” chides Paul Alan. Gates orders him to copy her browser.
Paul considers it immoral and illegal. He wants to play in the NBA, especially now that he owns a basketball team. He leaves Gates as well. In a rage, Gates orders the Paultron 3000 sent in. A robot with a discordant voice enters and they sing a duet, the song Gates sang before about doing whatever it takes. The robot’s voice locks up in the middle of the performance.
Meanwhile, Woz has to revive Jobs from the Microsoft virus. “Shutting down in 30 seconds.” “Abort, retry, fail.” Woz calls Apple tech support. A man from India answers and introduces himself as “…Derek.” A hilarious tech support dialog ensues.
“Is your friend turned on?” “I don’t think so. I hope not.” “Would you turn your friend on?” “How am I supposed to do that?” “Can you take off the front panel, blow on his motherboard, then reach around the back and flip the switch?”
Woz refuses. Derek tells him to perform a reboot by taking off his friend’s boots then putting them back on. He then admits he doesn’t know what to do. Suddenly Woz hears a crash over the phone. Microsoft has broken in and have injected him too.
As a last resort, Woz hooks up a device to Jobs’ heart in an attempt to install anti-virus software. He sees the spinning busy indicator on the screen and realizes it will take a while. Jobs has a near death experience in which he sees a ghost who looks and sounds like Sally, but who identifies herself as Oracle. She sings a inspirational song telling him to think different, and instructs him to return to where it all began – at the Homebrew Computer Club. There he will find a group of nerds uniting to stop Bill Gates. “May your life be brief and fruitful.”
At the United Nerds convention, Myrtle doesn’t know the password, and the guard challenges her with a security question and a CAPTCHA. Everyone has a different idea about what to do. Myrtle, who now uses the handle IHeartJohnnyDepp27, believes the internet will become the future. The perpetually wrong Tim Patterson believes people won’t want to search the internet, and would rather go to libraries. He turned down 50% of a search engine company called doogle or google or poogle or something.
Another girl envisions the internet as a big long tube, sort of like Ted Stevens, and sees people putting themselves online, and calls it a you-tube. Her first video shocks everyone. “Hi, I’m Tom Watson and I’m addicted to crack.” he announces, mistaking the event for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The traditional Italian clown talks of how Gates hurt him. “He hit me with a taser. I said hey! Don’t taser me bro!” They all fall into discord, when Steve Jobs makes his triumphant appearance.
He says that they have a common enemy blinded by greed, and he knows because he became blinded too. He admits that Woz invented the first personal computer. “You did it, Woz.” “We did it, Steve.” says Woz, and everyone says awww.
Jobs goes on and says that he misses Sally. She ended up making eco-friendly hooded burlap muumuus. He says he would apologize. A girl wearing an eco-friendly hooded burlap muumuu says she would ask how she would know he doesn’t just feed her more lies. He asks Sally to forgive him, but she says not yet. She does feel ready to fight back though, and says that they just have to think different, reminding Steve of his experience with Oracle.
Steve Jobs asks people what they like more than everything. One girl likes pictures of kittens. A guy likes the music of William Shatner. The clown would buy a tangerine-colored computer. Jobs has a vision of Angry Birds. Jobs suggests a class action lawsuit. They sing the song about how all it takes is just one, but this time each nerd brings their own talents into the mix.
The final scene takes place in the supreme court. The judge reads the charges, and Gates pleads guilty – guilty of making people’s lives easier. He offers the court a simple choice: either step into the ring with the richest man in the world, or he can just give them a bunch of money and they can all go home. The judge bangs his gavel, the closing music begins to play, and the curtain starts to come down.
Suddenly, Jobs storms in, and orders the audience to stay in their seats. He invokes the full release clause of the inventor’s constitution of 1593, meaning both parties have to release everything in their pipeline to wipe out the other from the annals of history. Thomas Edison last used it against some guy named Tesla. They then do a combination song and rap to bring the technology up to date. The iMac goes up against Windows and Internet Explorer. Jobs releases the iPod. Microsoft releases the Zune to an underwhelming response. Jobs wins that round.
Jobs has Pixar, Microsoft has the XBox. Bill Gates wins that round. Jobs releases the iPhone. He asks Siri if Bill Gates blows donkeys and she says yes. She doesn’t say that in real life, I checked. Gates introduces bing.com. Jobs releases the iPad. Jobs wins that round and apparently the contest.
Gates pulls out a plastic light saber, but has to hum to power it. He then says “I am a billionaire. You don’t think I can’t create a real light saber? Watch!” He then chops off the clown’s arm. Jobs pleads with Gates: “Please don’t hurt me.” Those words come back to Gates from his youth and from the beginning of the musical. He realizes what he has become.
Myrtle speaks to Bill, and remembers the shy kid who stood next to her at the Homebrew club. Gates replies that he is just a nerd and they fall in love. He tells Paul that he doesn’t blame hi for leaving and tells him to follow his dreams in the NBA. He sends the clown outside to a limo with a biogeneticist who can repair his arm before flying him home back to his family. He apologizes to Tim for ripping him off and offers a position at Microsoft. He gives Sally a check for eighty billion dollars and lets her run his foundation, sort of like Melinda. He gives Woz his hamster. He gives his fancy car to Charity. He asks Myrtle to go out and she says “Let’s merge all night long.”
Steve Jobs asks Sally to take him back. First she says no, then after a second she says yes. Woz clears his throat and says they should hang out. “I think that you’re a genius.” he sings. “I think that you are right.” replies Jobs, but gives Woz a new leather jacket.
And now we have come to the end. SteveJobs releases the iPhone and stock piles billions of dollars for Apple. Bill Gates leaves Microsoft and spends his money fighting malaria and polio. “Not saying one’s better than the other.” comments Gates. Steve Jobs floats into the cloud and gives God a $10 gift card to the Apple Store. Gates says that they both started off as nerds, feeling passionate about something most people didn’t understand, but we triumphed, and those that didn’t understand it saw the world change around them, and came to embrace the thing we had loved. And finally we were accepted, right guys? “Yeah?” I yelled out hesitantly. The musical ends with the entire cast singing “Yes we are not just nerds.” Beautiful! After that the cast came into the audience while singing a parody called Down and Nerdy, of course.
For me, the speeches at the end really made the musical. Despite all the silliness, they made a valid point. Nobody understood what we did before computers became popular. We did social networking twenty years ago, though we didn’t call it that. To this day I have not had as much fun with a computer as when I ran a bulletin board system. And everyone else really did see the world change around them. Now the jocks check their sports scores on their iPhones, and everyone has a stupid Facebook account. I also really enjoyed how at the beginning, Jobs sang that the revolution begins with one, largely referring to himself, but at the end each nerd had a unique skill to contribute, and all the revolutions of one united into something bigger and stronger than any of them. It reminds me of my experiences with the Philly tech scene, especially Indy Hall. Alone we can’t do much, but when we come together we can achieve all kinds of wild things!
I can not reiterate this enough. If you enjoy my blog then you have to see this musical. It stops playing in Philadelphia at the end of the month, so perhaps it will come to your city after that. It deserves to go to Broadway, or so say my theatre-going friends. It me laugh and feel inspired, and I know it will do the same for you. We are not just nerds!
Touch Tours in the APDecember 03, 2013
This summer I trained to become an assistant docent conducting touch tours at the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then we have had the tours every monday, and will end on the 16th. By the end we will have had around 350 guests, and used something like 1500 hand wipes.
We have now appeared in the Associated Press! Last week a photographer and a reporter came and went on the touch tour, and interviewed some of us afterward. They wrote an amazing article completed with captioned descriptions. They also made a wonderful video. I thank them for featuring me in both.
These tours have broken ground, and this publicity helps. Museums can no longer say that they can’t do a program like this, or that they wouldn’t have enough interest. We have enjoyed tremendous success and look forward to doing ancient Rome next year. I have to say, a few months ago I never thought I would have appeared in the AP for helping create a touch tour in a museum. Thank Goddess I went on that audio described sunset sail on the Delaware river and met Trish!
Ignite PhillyDecember 03, 2013
I’ve had so much going on, I finally had time to write an article about the speech I gave at Ignite Philly. Adam Teterus, one of the organizers of the event and point man at Indy Hall, first came up with the idea of doing a talk about how a blind person experiences Philly. We recorded some audio and I edited together a five-minute soundscape in Audacity. Adam also had the idea that people should close their eyes for the whole five minutes, so I made some sarcastic slides. The whole thing went very well, and since then I have recorded a studio version which will appear on WHYY.
We made the whole thing over two or so weeks. I recorded a few hours of audio around my home and at Indy Hall. Adam and I also walked around the block, recording any random city sounds. It gave me a lot to work with and I finally had a five minute piece.
I made a recording of the audio. It has more of the banter, and me downing an entire bottle of water. Zack Seward made a high quality recording taken directly from the mixing board. For those who must see the video, you can watch it on YouTube, but it has horrible audio. Technically Philly also wrote a great article.
I came up with the slides over a weekend. Of course I had to have some generic jokes chiding the viewer for looking. I threw in some plugs for Indy Hall and Philly. I also put in a few quotes from the Secret of the Golden Flower, and various Discordian texts! For the curious, they read as follows.
Close your eyes!
If you can read this you’re cheating.
It’s better with your eyes closed.
This text is a distraction.
If a screen displays a message that you do not see does it still exist?
Nothing to see here.
Imagine if you couldn’t read this.
Accessibility helps everyone.
Visit Indy Hall! www.indyhall.com
I love Philadelphia!
Philadelphia had the first computer.
Philadelphia: great tech, great beer.
Make a medicine out of the illness.
Use action to attain non-action.
Omnia quia sunt lumina sunt. All things that are are light.
Did you know that you have a lopsided pineal gland?
Sit upright in a comfortable position, make your breath silent, and put your attention between your eyes.
Turn on your inner vision.
Austin Seraphin www.austinseraphin.com
Last Wednesday, Zack invited me to WHYY and I got to live a childhood dream. Sitting in the broadcasting booth felt so right. We recorded a wonderful studio version of the talk, as well as some interview footage. My radio debute will happen in a few weeks and I feel very excited. I would never have thought of this if not for Adam, who came up with the idea. Score another for Indy Hall and for Discordia!
My First Poetry ReadingOctober 16, 2013
I sit here in my home away from home.
I sit on a chair and listen to the loud crowd and louder music.
I sit in wonder as poets take the stage.
Usually I come here to work or play.
Today I come here to listen.
A woman reads about the pain of autism and I think of technology.
A man reads about life and the city and some other funny things I half forget.
A woman reads a meditation on mercy and I want some wine.
I can smell it in the air, mixed with perfume and rain,
And the rain continues as it has for the past two days.
It rains on cars passing by the open door.
It rains on friends in conversation about something I can’t hear.
It rains on an empty street in the old city.
It rains as voices ebb and flow like water.
It rains and I hear the sound of poetry and the poetry of nature.
Now let us dance and find release.
Now let us eat heavy macaroons and drink light wine .
Now let us discuss heavy topics in the light rain.
Now let us network and exchange business cards.
Now let us go and come again.
I wrote this poem after attending the first Red Sofa Salon poetry readings at Indy Hall. Rather than write a blog article I figured I’d try my hand at writing a poem. I did it as sort of a respectful parody of the style I heard that night. At first I didn’t know what I thought of it, but I let it sit for a few days and I actually think it turned out well. I accomplished what I set out to do, so feel good about that. I hope you enjoyed it. I have also made a recording of me reading it. Can a poem have a hyperlink?
Fear and Loathing in the Nickel CityOctober 04, 2013
Recently, I attended the Nickel City Ruby conference, in Buffalo, New York. I went with Alex Kaplan of Neomind Labs. We gave speeches, had Buffalo wings, saw Niagara falls, and went to a concert. I also released a new version of motion-accessibility, opening up iOS development to the blind. We had a great time.
I met Nick Quaranto in Belgium. We both gave speeches. He also does a lot of work with RubyGems, and has written a lot of tutorials. I see his name all over the place.
When we got back to the States I followed him on Twitter so knew he had started planning a Ruby conference. I half paid attention, but didn’t know if I should go. Eventually he asked if I would consider speaking and I quickly submitted a proposal. It got accepted and I began thinking about the logistics, like exactly how I would get there and go everywhere I needed to. I had no idea what to do.
Indy Hall had their Fourth of July barbecue. I tweeted that people should come down. Alex responded and said he’d come by. I met him when his company, Neomind Labs, had a barbecue of their own. He showed up and we started talking. I told him I had just gotten accepted to speak at Nickel City Ruby. He excitedly asked if he could go, and just like that everything effortlessly worked out. I had my ride! Instead of taking a crappy plane flight I would drive up with a friend. Wonderful!
Now I had to actually prepare my speech. I realized that the event would happen right before the Equinox. I had spent the summer working on the motion-accessibility console, a text-based way for a blind iOS developer to interact with a running application. I got this great idea that on the Equinox I would release this wonderful new thing that would make things equal in a sense, and I would present it at Nickel City Ruby. It seemed pretty grand, but would I pull it off?
I worked on the code. iOS 7 came out and caused a few wrinkles. I kept working. I also restructured the speech to feature a demonstration of the console. I had things mostly ready to give a preview at the Philly Accessibility Forum. It went over well, which encouraged me. I finished the code the night before I left, but still had no documentation. I felt very satisfied with it though.
We started our journey at 09:30 A.M. on Thursday the 19th. We stopped at Whole Foods to pick up some healthy food. We had no idea if we could get anything good there. It turned out we didn’t have to worry.
Along the way we stopped and had lunch in a peaceful park. We enjoyed this little calm break. Later we had to stop for 45 minutes when we encountered an accident. Finally we arrived at the Budget Inn, our incredibly cramped home for the next four days. We immediately started making jokes and references to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “We can’t stop here! This is bat country!” Despite the no smoking sign, it clearly smelled of cigarette smoke. At least I didn’t need to worry about going outside for a pipe. I logged onto the wifi, but had some problems. “Yeah well, the password is budget.” said Alex.
We had to make it by 06:30 for the speaker’s dinner. We made it just in time. We sat at the table with Nick and chatted. I had two glasses of wine. Unfortunately I failed to take into account the fact that they gave me big full glasses of wine, as opposed to the little glasses which I fill about 2/3 of the way.
We moved on to Ignite Buffalo, an event where speakers give five-minute talks. We have them here in Philly. We missed the talks, but made it for the after party. I tried a local beer called Roosevelt Red. It tasted sweet. They like the sweeter beers up there such as red and brown ales. We realized that they go better with the cold. I got into a conversation about numbers stations, the subject of a talk.
Finally the time came to go. I had things to do! I felt pretty intoxicated as we got back to the room, and I still had code to document! Somehow I did it, and six or so hours before I had to get up and speak about it I had published version 2.0 of motion-accessibility. Fear and Loathing! I meditated and went to sleep, praying to Goddess to get me through this.
I woke up. I had such a headache. I showered and put on my suit. The word hangover entered my mind like a whisper. Had something happened last night? Oh dear, the big glasses of wine and that sweet beer. And oh yes, I had released some code or something.
We made it to the conference and registered. Suddenly Nick got on the microphone and yelled “HHHHEEEEEELLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOO Buffalo!!!!!!” The burst of feedback which accompanied his voice sent a beam of pain through my head. I had to get out. I needed breakfast.
Someone said we should go upstairs to the cafe, which sounded easy, but they didn’t have any breakfast food. A local recommended a diner. I thanked him profusely and we headed off. Buffalo does not make a good city to have a hangover, not that any city does. I heard some loud jackhammers and construction noises. Finally we arrived. We ate American food in an American diner while listening to American eighties music. It felt very zen. I began to feel better. French toast and home fries made a good choice.
We made it back in time to hear a talk about RubyGems. RubyGems rocks. I had used it the previous night in fact. Then came a heavy talk about developers and depression. Greg made a great point that the software industry seeks out people with these traits – a weird sleeping schedule, thoughts of grandiosity, and social isolation. He read the text of Apple’s Think Different ad. He pointed to Aaron Swartz and Alan Turin as examples, both of whom committed suicide. Heavy.
Later I came up with a good metaphor to explain depression to programmers. Have you ever had a bug in your debugging code? It will drive you mad! You will go over the logic again and again, and it seems sound. Then with a shock you realize that the code works, but the code which displays its output doesn’t. Depression works just like that. The brain gives you fault information. Fix the underlying problem and it goes away.
They broke for lunch. This worked out well, since we had just eaten. We went to Sue’s Delhi and I got some good vegetarian food. We ate in the park and relaxed. I would give my speech next.
We got back and I talked to Nick. I had totally forgotten about the slides. My friend Adriano had made them for my Belgium speech, but a lot of it still worked. Nick agreed to run them and just work with them. I felt so grateful it had worked out at the last minute.
I gave the speech and it went well. You can listen to it here. You can watch the video on Confreaks or on Youtube. I had worked so hard and the code behaved as it should. I felt so happy the live demonstration went well. I had done it!
I zoned out for the remaining talks. Someone gave one on apprenticeship. A girl talked about the impostor syndrome. Some programmers consistently underrate their abilities. They say things like “I was just lucky.” “I’m not that smart.” or “I’m not a good programmer.” In reality they do just fine. Programming involves regular failure. She contrasted it with the opposite, people who overrate their abilities. They think of themselves as hot shit. We’ve all known people like that. She said to focus on your successes, build a community, and to avoid hostile geniuses. Fake it till you make it! “The secret of life is to pretend to know what you are doing.”
I contrasted this conference with the RubyMotion conference. That one had pure tech material. This one had some “softer” topics. I found this interesting to thin about. A lot of people must have these issues. In talking to people later, a lot of them found these talks the most valuable.
A talk about Ruby and science followed. He talked about some open genome projects. Next came a more technical talk about GIT and Github, another thing I love and had used the night before. I took some good notes about merge strategies and some other useful features. Very good. Finally came the keynote.
We felt hungry and wanted a good meal. I had asked Nick for some places to get vegan wings. He suggested a restaurant called Merge and a bar ominously called Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar. Someone said Merge had a more posh feel and Duke’s felt more like a bar. Posh sounded good. Why someone would want to name their bar after the Bohemian Grove ceremony would have to wait. We had a great meal of spiced squash soup, spring rolls, and Korean grilled portobello.
We talked over dinner. Alex had started thinking about giving a lightning talk the next day about marketing technology. I didn’t know this before we left, but Alex doesn’t program, he works in sales. He hasn’t even read Pickaxe! I found this rather funny.
We talked about the way developers think. We will work for weeks doing things which make a difference but with no visible change and nobody will notice. Then we will make some stupid change, updating an image for example, and users will go nuts over it and thank us for this great thing we have done. If a client asks a developer if they can guarantee that a certain error will never happen again we will say no, because we honestly can’t. Developers deal with unknowns.
The time to order dessert had come. Alex asked how much I wanted. I said I didn’t know, it depends on the size of the dessert. I’ve had brownie sundaes that barely feel like enough and ones that could easily feed three people. He said a developer would say just that. As it turned out the sundae had a small size and the cobbler a large size, proving my point.
After our amazing meal we headed to the after party, sponsored by Github. they had also sponsored the RubyMotion after party. I talked to a bunch of people, including some cool girls from New York, and a guy from India. He goes to the same talk my Indian friends I met in Belgium go to, and assured me if I submitted a talk it would get approved. He described Goa as like Hawaii but with Indian food. That sounds just about right! A girl told me about a RubyMotion conference in New York City at the end of the month. Greg and I also talked about our respective speeches. He said: “I just have to say, you are by far the best dressed person at this conference.” I felt good.
Eventually we headed back to the crappy hotel. Alex worked on his talk. I turned on Beavis and Butt-head. “Clients are just like Beavis and Butt-head. They’re like, huhhuhh that was cool.” I observed. We felt tired and good.
We woke up and considered our options. The diner we went to didn’t open on Saturdays, so we had to find another place. We read reviews while sitting in our hotel room. One diner had a comment: I had the single worst dining experience of my life here. Another, the Lake Effect Cafe, had great reviews. Sites like Yelp have become a real problem for businesses. They have no control over them.
We had a wonderful meal. I had an omelet and home fries. They also had freshly squeezed orange juice and I enjoyed some Earl Grey.
We rolled in to the conference around 11:00, just in time for a talk called Smash the Monolith. I could relate to this, talking about maintaining legacy applications. All applications proceed to a point of unusability. They become rigid – changing one thing breaks other things. Methods attract more methods like black clothes attract cat hair. As a human owned by a cat I appreciated this analogy. He related it to the concept of entropy from physics. You have to rebuild your mental model, which crumbles over time. The word legacy means a gift from one generation to the next, and he suggested thinking about how archeologists work. Since I had recently become an assistant docent at an archeological museum this also resonated. An archeologist preserves the context around something.
Zach followed this with a talk about some of the Ruby core libraries. We had talked the night before about improving the accessibility of rdoc, something I still intend to do. He talked about Distributed Ruby, or drb, which allows Ruby programs to communicate across TCP connections and processes. Very cool! He also touched on rss, rdoc, and curses. I found this useful and will investigate these gems further. After this we had lunch, but since we had just had a good meal we just nibbled, enjoying our warped schedule.
Next came a talk about reinventing the wheel. We use a lot of frameworks, but that can cause problems. You will use a tool more if you don’t understand it. We have become maintenance people and need to write more. Instead of using someone else’s tool, why not write it yourself? You will learn more. He also gave some good general design tips: use a full-width header, rounded corners, and wood grain always looks artistic.
After this came the cutest talk I have ever seen. An eleven-year-old girl gave a talk about her journey learning Ruby as a kid. She used kidsruby.org which has a turtle program. It sort of reminded me of Logo, something popular way before her time. She made the funniest joke. When discussing writing a simple Hello World type program she said: “You can make it say hello,but it only prints it on your computer, so you’re really only saying hello to yourself.” Later I learned that she had ad-libbed that joke. What a natural! And what a cutie!
The time had come for the lightning talks. I enjoyed them. First someone talked about active-support. RubyMotion now has motion-support so I found this very interesting. RSPEC Search and Destroy sounds cool. Programing and music theory also interested me. In high school when we learned about fractals I wrote a program mapping the equations to music notes. It sounded a lot like jazz. Sun Ra said “There is a universal language, and it is jazz.” The speaker writes a gem called jazz_model. Someone talked about bcrypt-ruby. And Alex gave his talk. Finally came the keynote. A guy talked about becoming a programmer while living in a bad neighborhood in Chicago. I have one line of notes: Purpose over profit. And with that we walked out into the Buffalo air.
We didn’t know where we would eat. We wondered about Duke’s Bohemian Grove bar. The name made me nervous, and FourSquare listed it as a dive bar. Alex saw it and said: “If this is the place I think it is, it definitely fits in with our trip.” “Your first dive bar!” proclaimed FourSquare as I checked in. I hoped it didn’t just broadcast that to Facebook. I wondered if I would end up tied to an altar. With these strange thoughts we went in…
And we feel so glad we did! They had a live jazz band playing. We sat and had wings. I ordered the eggplant wings and they tasted exquisite. They breaded and fried eggplant, then added the sauce. I also had truffle fries. You can pick two sauces, I picked lemon-basil and homemade barbecue. Fantastic! And of course we had more sweet Buffalo beer.
At the end the owner came over. “Did you try the eggplant wings?” he asked. I said I had. “I have to ask: who is Duke and why did you name your bar after the Bohemian Grove ceremony?” He explained that Duke refers to his family name, and to his older brother who had passed on. I told him that we had quoted Fear and Loathing the whole time, so Duke meant something to us as well. Then he started describing the bar, since I got the reference. It had owls, all-seeing eyes, skulls and bones, Masonic aprons, and different themed tables such as the UFO table and the mind control table. “My wife is a big Infowars fan.” he explained. I loved connecting with some awake people, and promised a good review on my blog. He said they serve food until 01:00 A.M. and stay open 365 days a year. “We’re always here for you.” We left feeling ecstatic. He gave us some stickers with subliminal content.
We could have stayed all night, but had to go to the other after party. We talked and eventually said our good byes. We came back to our crappy hotel room and prepared for the final day of our journey while trying to ignore the telltale sounds coming through the paper-thin wall. We would see Niagara falls, go to a concert, and somehow make it home around midnight.
We got up and packed. We had enough of the cramped room – they forgot to give us more weird packets of shampoo. They had had enough of us as well – they yelled at me for emptying my tobacco pipe in the toilet. We shouted our farewells and left. We decided to snack on some food in the car and see Niagara Falls first, then go to breakfast at the Lake Effect Diner since it had treated us well and we probably wouldn’t find something better. Twenty or so minutes later we began to draw close to the falls.
Alex could see the mist in the air. He said it looked like smoke from a fire in the city. We pondered the amazing physics required for this to happen. We got out of the car and as I began walking I felt a tremendous vibration in the ground and heard a low rumbling. I wondered if a plane flew overhead, then suddenly realized it came from the waterfall!
We walked down a path to the American side. We decided not to try to cross to Canada because Alex forgot his passport and I only had a copy of mine. First we came to a 200-foot cliff with a railing. The power felt serene. I could hear the water flowing and splashing on the rocks. I made a recording, and listening to it still makes me feel peaceful. I enjoyed leaning over the railing and putting the recorder as far out as I could for the closeup. We laughed in amazement at the people below us getting wet.
After spending a few minutes listening to the water and the languages around us we proceeded to Horseshoe Falls. The waterfall bends around like a horseshoe, hence its name. People in boats rode in the horseshoe and got absolutely soaked. It also impressed us and I made another recording. After a half hour or so we had seen enough. We felt very glad we went.
We headed to Lake Effect and had another great meal. I had excellent blueberry pancakes. After that we said our good byes to Buffalo and headed out. We stopped at a farmer’s market and got some amazing grapes, apples, and peaches. Now we had to make it to some random ball room venue in northern New Jersey for the concert. We ate at Chipotle and entered the concert hall just in time. It had all worked out! All hail Discordia!
Alex wanted to see a band called Cake. I had never heard of them (I haven’t listened to the radio since 1992) so didn’t know what to expect, but figured why not go to a concert? I expressed concern at the volume levels and Alex thoughtfully bought me some earplugs, and I feel so glad he did. As soon as it started I put them in and could hear everything just fine. In fact I think I could appreciate the music more. And at the end I could walk out with unblemished hearing. I can’t afford to damage it just because some insane humans listen to music at dangerously loud levels. I use my hearing to see.
The concert ended and Alex felt awesome. We had listened to the Beatles a lot that day so continued the trend, and listened to the first disc of the White Album. Finally at around 01:00 A.M. we had made it back to Philadelphia. We had done everything we had wanted to do!
The Nickel City had treated us well. We met some friendly people, ate well, and had a great time. Hopefully this will become an annual conference, and we will see you next year. Now that we know, we will have to bring a whole Philadelphia contingent!