Category Archives: General

Twiddly Bits

[Yes, this is a repost from my original writerferret site. I will be reposting many of these here in order to capture them]

I have a confession to make. I am a twiddler. A twiddler lies somewhere in between a tweaker and a fiddler, and I’m a stereotypical case. It’s a condition moderately treatable, usually by ingesting large amounts of some brain-numbing chemical such as beer. Since I don’t drink a lot of alcohol in general I’m usually left to just suffer.

You probably know a twiddler, or you are one yourself. You might be married to one, or have one in your family. We’re everywhere, and it’s impossible to escape us, and it’s nearly impossible to treat us unless you plan on creating other types of problems.

What’s a twiddler, you ask? Well, a twiddler is someone who just absolutely cannot resist twiddling. No, not twiddling their thumbs (although this habit is a generally accepted precursor and warning sign in young children) but twiddling all the little bits on the things around them. We twiddlers, when faced when something chock full of twiddly bits, simply cannot resist diving in and twiddling them all until we’ve driven ourselves and everyone around us completely crazy.

I come by my twiddler genes honestly, at least. My mother is a horrible twiddler herself. She’s the type of twiddler that, when faced with a tiny scrap of lifted wallpaper buried in a corner of the room that nobody will possibly ever see ends up scraping and repapering the entire house, retiling the bathroom and then resurfacing the driveway just for good measure. She’ll stay up for 300 hours straight to accomplish it, if necessary. Her twiddling generally manifests itself in the arts and crafts, home improvement, gardening and all-purpose dog-twiddling categories.

My own twiddlish behavior leans more towards technology. When faced with a new toy, a new bit of knowledge or even just a new idea I will end up twiddling it until I fall over in an exhausted heap, I’ll then dream about it and then when I wake up I end up twiddling it again until I suddenly realize it’s been 3 days since the last time I ate anything more substantial than a cup of yogurt, the dog is alternating between biting my feet and whining at me with his legs crossed and my cat has packed her bags and left to move in with a saner family.

Since I used to be an engineer, this behavior generally worked out to my benefit professionally, at the expense of any social life. My CTO would drop some new cool toy or some nifty idea off in my office and leave me alone to play with it. When I surfaced for air 3 weeks later I’d pretty much be an expert on it, coming up with all sorts of esoteric uses for it that would make the original inventors cringe and flee the room, and in general becoming a thorough and complete menace. I’d then pocket my nice fat bonus check and walk away happy.

Well, I’m not an engineer anymore. I’m a writer now, and as a writer I twiddle words. Word-twiddling is generally a bit more esoteric than twiddling technology, so sometimes I go find some new project to sink my teeth into, building a lego robot to scratch the dog’s itchy bits or figuring out how to build an automatic nose picker or, as in my latest case, building a digital jukebox.

A twiddler with spare parts is a dangerous thing. When faced with a mound of spare parts I’ll generally go into hyperdrive figuring out some nifty thing that I can build with them. In this case, I was faced with a completely superfluous spare computer, an older one that my wife used to use before she fled my twiddling ways.

I have a very large collection of digital music, in both MP3 and more recently OGG format. I have a large CD collection, and have ripped all of them and encoded them for my car stereo. My car stereo is an empeg, basically a computer with 60 gigs of hard drive space running Linux and masquerading as a head unit. I’ve had this beauty for many years now, and it’s also a twiddler’s dream.

Well, I’ve gotten tired of toting my empeg in and out of my car and plugging it into my stereo. I thought this was rather silly to do, since I already had all the music encoded, had an extra computer, and the general desire to twiddle up something new. First thing I did was to completely strip the old computer, ripping all the parts out into a nice big pile so I could twiddle all of them individually (whee, jumpers and toggles and other assorted nifties).

After putting the computer back together, freshly cleaned, dusted and pressed I then slapped a new version of Linux on it, and then spent a good portion of the last two days transferring all my digital music files to it as well as playing with all the free jukebox players out there. Most of them are way too sophisticated for a twiddler like me, I prefer lean and mean interfaces. I knew what I wanted, things like being able to put it on my network and browse it from any of my computers, fast access, a clean uncluttered interface to it, building playlists on the fly, etc. I wanted it simple and fast to use, and most of all it had to pass the “can you use this while throwing a party and looking at it through a beer haze” test. This is generally a step forward, since most twiddling involves communing directly with the primal forces of nature and being open to whatever you discover instead of having a set idea of what you are looking for.

I finally found one that sort of fit the bill and installed it. I spent the better portion of the wee hours of the morning getting it twiddled correctly, and actually decided I really liked it. I was quite convinced I was going to have to write my own, since that’s the ultimate step of twiddling. I can’t ever really be content with software unless I write it myself, but I was struggling manfully trying to resist the siren call. Since the author of the software I eventually settled on had more than an average amount of cluefullness I really decided I could live with it, for now.

So far, so good, right? Had my jukebox built, working flawlessly, a handy and useful addition to my technology toybox. Complete with a Harmon Kardon speaker set and a wireless network card I could set it up anywhere I wanted, even out on the patio, with just a few mins worth of plugging and unplugging. You think I’d be happy, wouldn’t you? Of course you would, but all my fellow twiddlers can see what’s coming next.

I just had to improve on it, you see. So, after sleeping for about 2 hours last night, I get up and rip it all apart and redo it, making it better (or at least that was what I was pretending to do). Finally, after spending all day doing all sorts of bizarre twiddler dances over it, it’s broken. Not broken badly, mind you, and not irreparable, but broken to the point where I probably need to wipe it out and start from scratch. I’ll probably end up going back to the original shape it was in before I started in on it this morning. If I’m smart, I’ll revert it back to the state where I really liked it, then break all my own fingers to keep me from “improving” it. Of course, twiddlers like me are never really that smart and I’m quite sure I’ll end up fixing it, only to twiddle it into submission three or four more times.

Maybe I should just go buy some beer and medicate myself instead.

The Act of Creation

I recently satisfied my Mac envy and purchased a new Mac mini. Consequently, I’ve been diving into the Mac world, learning the whole Mac vibe and trying to wrap my head around a whole new way of looking at not only my computer but technology in general. It’s been a wild ride from the start, and one of the best things I’ve done for myself in quite a while. I’d completely forgotten how much fun a computer can be.

Now, when I get interested in something I generally dive into it whole hog. I immerse myself in whatever new thing I’m learning until I have a good handle on it. Consequently, I added quite a few Mac podcasts to my podcatcher download list. On one of those I heard about Sinbad doing the keynote for some Mac expo that just happened recently, so I promptly went and downloaded it.

I like Sinbad, but this post isn’t necessarily about Sinbad, nor is it specifically about Mac computers either. I’m merely setting the story up so proper credit can be given throughout the rest of the story, because Sinbad said something pretty incredible during his keynote… something that made me stop, rewind the MP3 and screw my headphones in just a little bit tighter to make sure I didn’t miss it.

What was this world-shaking thing that he said? Well, it’s actually blindingly simple, as most good wisdom is. He was talking about how we, as geeks, constantly compare hardware. We ask each other “What do you have? How much RAM, how much this, how much that?” when in reality what we really should be asking is “What have you created? What have you made? What have you done?” I think this is brilliant and really cuts directly to the crux of what I want to write about.

I love technology. I love new toys. However, what I love most about technology isn’t the technology itself but it’s instead what that technology allows me to do, what it allows me to create. I’m a huge Open Source fan, mainly because I’m cheap but also because I really believe in the creative power of the community. I have made my own contributions to the Open Source community in the past and I plan on continuing that long into the future. I think the power of human creativity is where the real miracle of technology exists.

I’m extremely excited about my Mac and I’m quickly trying to learn as much as I can about it. I’m studying Cocoa and Objective-C, learning how to use the Xcode tools, writing little dashboard widgets and in general having a ball playing with the system. My pleasure really stems from the sheer act of creation that the system facilitates, though. I get a real thrill out of creating something new and sharing it with other people. I think this desire to create, this raw unbridled enthusiasm for sharing is what drives most of the really interesting uses of technology (such as blogging, podcasting, and even things like indie music). You don’t have to be a programmer in order to create something. There’s interesting things being created every minute of every day and only a small portion of those really require any sort of programming ability or knowledge.

So, how many times have you asked someone else what type of system they run or how fast a processor they have? How many times have you actually used the processing power and the tools you have to create something new? I hope you’ll join me in making the effort to instead start asking “What have you done? What have you made?” I also hope you’ll join me in coming up with your own creative answers to that question when other people ask you what you’ve done.

It’s time we got out of the never ending upgrade spiral. It’s time we stepped off the “Have to upgrade every single time a faster processor comes out” elevator and instead learned to master the tools we already have. Pick something you love, pick something you are passionate about, pick something you want to learn more about or explore deeper. Find something cool, make something new and share it with your friends. Write a story, remix a song, put together a photo collage, make a movie or a web page or even just a greeting card. Put your own little stamp of creativity on the world. You just might find it addictive.

My Dirty Little Secret

I have a dirty little secret… don’t tell anyone, but I like to play online computer roleplaying games. Yes, that’s right, Everquest, DAoC, City of Heroes… those kinds of games. I also have to admit I played a lot of desktop RPG’s (D&D, Rolemaster, Aftermath, etc) when I was younger. There, I said it, now everyone knows I’m not just a geek but also a nerd.

Whew, glad to get that off my chest. I’m not ashamed of it, but I do know that a lot of people don’t understand the draw of these types of games and consequently end up classifying and labelling people who do play them. What they don’t realize is there are as many different reasons people play as there are people who play. When taken in moderation, these games can be quite fun and can provide a good social outlet.

Why do people play online games? Everyone who games has their own reasons for doing so but for me it’s the social interaction that means so much. I like people. I like the give and take of good social discussions, teasing each other, yelling at each other, relying on your teammates and friends, or just soaking up the atmosphere of being in a group of friends that “gets” you. These types of games, for me anyway, are a good way to expand my circle of friends and to get that social fix that I so crave. I’m not into the bar scene, I can’t go skating when it’s wet and cold and I can’t spend every day skiing in the winter so I use these games as a means to stay connected to a little bit larger chunk of the world than just my couch, refrigerator and television.

I know some people who game for the competitive aspect. They need to be the first to get some item, the first to max out in level or belong to the biggest uberguild. Sometimes these people turn to these games as a means to achieve status, power or even some measure of fame. They may be completely unknown in the meat world but when they log on everyone knows them and respects their accomplishments. They get the respect all of us need, they just get it in a different venue.

Other people like to solo. They consume the content of games in one huge gulp, racing from start to finish and trying to solve all the puzzles, raid all the content and finish every single quest. For them, these games are more like a single player CRPG, sort of a Morrowind that they have to log on to the internet to play instead of playing locally. Sometimes these people even go to the point of being annoyed when they have to rely on someone else (or worse yet an entire group of someones) to finish a specific piece of the game.

There’s also the classic explorers. These people relish in the thrill of discovering all the little bits of buried information, lore, experiences or adventures in the game. They may take forever to advance in levels but they will also end up knowing every tiny little nook and cranny of the game world like the back of their hands. They may be gregarious in nature and share the exploration with a group of friends or they may be solo but invariably their reasons for gaming revolve around the sheer thrill of discovery.

At times I dip into each of these categories. Some of them I may only brush the surface of and others I may get really deep into, but in general my reasons for gaming revolve around my own social and gregarious nature. It’s odd, though, because while my main reason for playing these games revolves around being involved with friends I also don’t go out of my way to make a lot of new friends this way. I’m not antisocial to new people, I just in general won’t go too terribly far out of my way to meet a lot of new people. This usually means that when my circle of friends shrinks or moves on (either they quit the game or move to a new one) I usually end up being through with the game as well.

It’s funny… I can sit down in any cafe or truckstop in America and within 30 mins be deeply involved in conversations with any number of people around me. I meet people easily, I enjoy people and can find something interesting about anyone. I love talking with new people, or just sitting back and watching them and being an observer of human nature. When I log on, though, I generally find myself a lot LESS likely to approach someone than I would if we were face-to-face. The anonymity of a keyboard usually encourages people to interact more freely but I find it works the opposite for me. I’m not sure why, but I do recognize that it happens.

Anyway, as usual I’ve gotten completely off the original topic I wanted to discuss but hey, that’s what’s fun about doing things like this! I guess if I had to find a point in here somewhere I would end up saying something trite like “Don’t be so quick to discount these games” or “non-nerds play these games too” but in actuality I’d just have to say do what makes you happy, reach out to people around you and above all try and stay balanced in everything you do. Life’s fun… live it to the fullest!

Will This Be the Year?

The last few years have been miserable… personally, professionally, for myself as an individual and (in my opinion) for society as a whole. The new year is here, though, and it has the slightest hint of promise to it; the faintest whiff of healing, recovery and renewal. If you stop, remain very quiet and listen very closely you can hear that faint sound of laughter creeping back into the world on little cat feet.

We’re still embroiled in a horrible situation in Iraq. We have another four years of a lunatic president in office, and the country has undergone a rather massive tilt to the right. A tsunami has ended the lives, fortunes and hopes of hundreds of thousands of people. Hungry and homeless people live right outside my apartment building.

All these tragedies still exist, yet I really do believe we’re reaching the end of the slow ponderous swing of the pendulum and are poised to bring things back from the brink. I can’t really put my finger on why, nothing specific leaps to my mind except an overall feel to the air and the first faint hints of a pattern coalescing out of the chaos that our world has been as of late.

Maybe I’m just happy because my long draught of unemployment is over. Maybe the fact that my own agonizing trainwreck over the last three years has finally come to an end and I’m finally feeling like a normal human being again. I’d like to think, though, that my own personal recovery is just an internal reflection of the external forces that seem to be working towards fixing things in the world. It’s time for me to be healthy and whole again and Lord knows it’s time for the world to be healthy and whole again as well. I don’t think the latter hinges on the former, of course, I’m certainly not significant enough to reflect the hurts of society. I do think, though, that many of the things I have undergone in the last few years are symptoms of things that have gone wrong with society at large… unemployment, economic downturns, failures in life, love, loss of dreams and of hope.

I’m seeing things change, though. I’m seeing people working at coming together instead of tearing each other apart. I’m seeing people focus on issues and problems bigger than themselves. There’s a quietness about it that defies an easy analysis, though. Maybe it’s a reflection of society or maybe it’s just a reflection of my own wishful thinking but I’m really beginning to see a resurgance of people simply “caring” about things outside of themselves.

In the long run, the greatest thing we can do as a society is to care for each other. When we place someone else’s needs at least equal to our own we grow ourselves. We stretch our limits and we begin to see how much we have in common instead of how different we are.

I watched an interesting television show last week that focused on interviews with teens and young twenty-somethings in the Middle East. These kids were just like our own kids; they had dreams, fears, ambitions, goals and desires that closely mirrored us as a society. One shot showed a young Iranian girl studying the play Hamlet, and I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was to see that Shakespeare and his keen insight into the human condition could be food for thought no matter the culture.

The show taught me an important lesson in understanding and in compassion. It reminded me that we are all laboring to get through this life the best way we know how and we all face many of the same big questions. It really helped punch home to me the awareness that we are so badly in need of compassion and acceptance.

One of the problems we face, though, is entrenched ideologies interfering with our need to reach out to one another. Our governments across the world don’t generally encourage us to view each other as the same so much as they encourage us to focus on our differences. We look at someone from another region or culture and we focus on their different skin color or religion instead. We view them as our “enemy” or as a commodity to be dominated or exploited instead of as a fellow human being who when push comes to shove is probably a lot like us.

I’m hoping that 2005 will bring a resurgance of compassion. I’m hoping that we as a nation will begin to rebuild some of the bridges we’ve burnt down over the last few years. I’m hoping that some of the countries that hate us so passionately can also learn to put aside their hate. It has to start somewhere; someone has to be the first one to put down the guns and the whips. Someone has to be big enough to turn the other cheek and seek out healing instead of hatred. I’m hoping that someone will be us and I’m hoping that it will be soon.

Welcome!

Well I’ve finally taken the plunge and done something I’ve been wanting to do for a while… I’ve moved my blog off of a hosted provider and onto my own server. I’m using WordPress as my platform of choice and am hoping to give it a good workout. If you’re looking to start your own blog and don’t want the overhead of running your own software you definitely should give Mo’time a look. I was very happy with their system and I think they beat all the big name hosted providers hands-down.

Anyone new to this site might want to hit the above link and surf through some of my back posts to get a feel for what I’m about. There’s a huge amount of columns there on far ranging subjects. I’m not sure I’ll keep up the 800-1000 words a day posting pace here and will probably scale back to a few of those a week but the jury is still out and we’ll just have to wait and see.

This will not be a traditional ‘blog’ per se, and I won’t be writing angst-filled poetry and ranting about my neighbors (well, not always anyway) but I will instead be trying to post thoughtful commentary on life, the people that make it interesting, and some of the issues and questions we all face. Of course, all the LiveJournal crowd and the rest of the “blogosphere” (oh how I despise that word) like to snicker and make disparaging remarks about those types of blogs so if you feel that way, you’re cordially invited to go snicker elsewhere.

This is a community… feedback, disagreements, arguments, side thoughts and commentary are encouraged! Believe it or not, I don’t think I’m always right and I learn an incredible amount when people take the time to thoughtfully discuss issues with me. The things you might read here are most definitely not set in stone.

All I ask is that you please try and keep it civil when you do comment. It’s ok to disagree, it’s not ok to be rude or disparaging about it. Courtesy is a big thing to me and I invite you to please play nice with each other (and me) while we’re here.

So for now, all I can say is buenos dias, welcome to the new blog, and here’s hoping it is as fun and successful as my old one!

— WF