Matt's rambling

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Help get Robert A. Heinlein into the Hall of Famous Missourians

If you don't know who Robert A Heinlein is, then you probably aren't a science fiction fan. Even if reading isn't your thing, he has influenced American culture immensely, and his works shaped the future of science fiction. He was named the first Grand Master of Science Fiction in 1974, and along with Clarke and Asimov are the best known authors in science fiction history. Even if you're not a science fiction fan, you've probably heard of his work "Stranger in a Strange Land" that had such a major impact that Billy Joel's "We didn't Start the Fire" lists it alongside Bob Dylan and the separation of Berlin by the Berlin Wall.

Odds are much better that you know who Heinlein is than what the Hall of Famous Missourians is. The Hall recognizes noteworthy individuals who have at some point called Missouri their home. While housed in the capitol, all existing busts were paid for by a fundraiser held by the Speaker of the House who selected the respective inductees. The Hall is located on the third floor of the Missouri capitol building in the rotunda (the big round area in the middle) and open to the public. These are frequently used to educate students on their heritage as Missourians.

In 2013, the Speaker asked the public to weigh in, picking two to induct (Andrew Taylor Still and Robert A. Heinlein) while he picked another two (Mel Hancock and Virginia Minor). Of these four, all but one were able to be funded through the Speaker's efforts. Not to leave Heinlein out, though, for the first time ever, an outside party is being allowed to raise funds for the bust of the next inductee.

That's where you come in!

The Heinlein Society has taken on the task of leading the fund raising, and they need our help!

  • If you prefer Paypal, they have four donate buttons at the top of the page. You want the one on the top-right that mentions the bronze bust of Robert A. Heinlein. 
  • If you prefer to donate by check, they have their full address listed at the bottom of the page.
  • Whether you donate or not, SHARE their link and send more people there who might donate.

I have wanted to see Heinlein in the Hall of Famous Missourians for as long as I've known it existed. I'm not the only one who has been crossing my fingers every year, hoping his name would come up. When I learned the question was going to be opened up to the public, I was excited. The moment it was officially announced to the public, I personally emailed THS, posted it on Twitter, and emailed it to my family and friends...along with a number of reminders of just how important Heinlein was in shaping what we take for granted today. I believe that got all of three votes, and one of the three was mine. Fortunately, other people jumped in and made sure he won a place in the Hall. While I'm disappointed it wasn't able to be funded last year, it is still very cool that Heinlein will be the first in the history of the Hall to be crowdsourced. As a man known for popularizing the phrase and concept "pay it forward", it seems fitting that we all can step in and have a part in making sure the future doesn't lose sight of the bright light left behind by one of our most brilliant minds. As much as I wish Heinlein as alive to be recognized, the purpose of recognizing our heroes is to inspire the next generation.

This is where I mention that I work for the Missouri House of Representatives as nonpartisan staff and have done so for almost a decade now. I've written a lot of the code that makes the Hall of Famous Missourians visible on the web. I'm posting this on my own time on my own account because I am a fan of science fiction and a fan of Heinlein's works (most of them...if someone asks I might post reading recommendations), but it wouldn't be right not to mention this bust would be three floors above me where I can go see that nerds like me are not the only ones who realize the importance of science fiction to the world. I am also donating to this.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Revenge of the Comic Sans!

Just when you thought it was safe to code CSS for your website with web-safe fonts in a proper, well-recommended way. Just when you thought you would never see Comic Sans in any work of your keyboard. Just when you thought the evil font would always be someone else's problem... it's back! And on your own website too!

To preface, I was instructed to use the "same font" as a graphic on our website. I did so, but of course, you can't trust every browser to have "Monotype Corsiva". So, being the good little web developer, I checked "web safe fonts" and did exactly as several websites specified:
'Monotype Corsiva','Apple Chancery','ITC Zapf Chancery','URW Chancery L',cursive;
As you might imagine, on every computer and mobile device I had access to, in every browser, this showed up in either Monotype Corsiva, one of the alternatives I specified, or a flat sans-serif font. All good, the way things are supposed to go.

So, after a week of testing by several co-workers, small, unrelated changes, and the final go-ahead, I push the site changes to the live environment. There are, of course, the usual Twitter complaints "it's ugly", "you moved things", "I don't like this color". What shocked me, though, was "They used Comic Sans! Hahaha!"

As you can imagine, I went into panic mode, delving through my code for any mention of the horrendous font, trying to reproduce it on several computers, and finally going into Chrome's developer tools and removing fonts. I took out Monotype Corsiva, then Apple Chancery, and so on, until all that was left was "cursive". Guess what font reared it's notoriously ugly head.
The default font in the stack for "cursive" is Comic Sans!
Now think for a minute all the sites you've laughed at that had Comic Sans where no one in their right mind would put Comic Sans - businesses, government sites, and other places that just made you giggle and wonder what the hell they were thinking. The places you see it are often decorative areas, or in "personal" letters - places you might use a cursive font.

The moral of my cautionary tale is to NEVER use "cursive" in your CSS font-family list. For an unfathomable reason, it is listed as a "cursive" font, and apparently the best option that the standard browsers can think of. The only browser with access to Comic Sans that doesn't default "cursive" to it is Internet Explorer.

If you need to use a cursive/script font, and don't want to force users to install it first:
'Your Fancy Font','Apple Chancery','ITC Zapf Chancery','URW Chancery L',sans-serif;

Friday, October 28, 2011

Morality vs Bulk Sale

Imagine yourself back in the 50's. You're watching a child on TV who reads a sign and does what it says, only to see someone else walk past him and ignore the sign. You know that within minutes the second child will get their comeuppance and the first child will be vindicated and rewarded.

Now, that scenario is in a commercial advertising Reeses, Snickers and Butterfinger candies. The second child walks off with a wad of candy after smugly telling the conflicted "good" child that "I can't read" (after being told exactly what the sign says, negating that argument). The "good" child stands there looking like a chump and we're told to buy in bulk because this is the way things are. Embedded in it is the stereotype smart girl over the dumb boy that we see a lot in recent years to depict female empowerment to a young audience (though as an issue of superiority rather than equality, arguably negating any social benefits).

Not that long ago, another commercial, this one from McDonalds, depicted kid in the back of a car being handed their Happy Meal boxes and being told to wait till they get home. There is a cartoon-style slew of eating noises as the children promptly disobey their parent. He turns around and with a surprised smile lets it go as if a cute smile negates parental authority.

I've seen dozens of these in recent years, promoting disrespect of parents, disrespect of elders, violence against people who've done such crimes as wearing clothes that aren't fashionable, massive overeating, sexual suggestiveness, and drug use, all in the name of selling products to children. Occasionally these are boycotted, but often enough, like this instance, they are ignored.

It is not the job of government to censor this. Nor does it mean you turn off the TV and keep your child sheltered from society. What you do, however, need to do is sit with your child while they watch TV. If you aren't there, the TV is off, or limited to DVD's you've approved. This allows you to be there and tell them "this is wrong". It also means you can keep in mind who felt the need to indoctrinate your children towards bad behavior, and not take your children there. If, after these sorts of commercials, sales drop from offended parents, then the commercials will change. If instead, they get nasty letters and sales increase, the ads will continue. Government censorship is not the answer, but you don't have any obligation to pay someone to push a viewpoint you disagree with.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

STS135 - The Final Shuttle Launch

It's taken me a while, but I've finally uploaded all the photos and video from the launch. For those living under a rock, that loud rumbling noise you heard on July 8th at 11:26 AM (EDT) was the last shuttle to launch from the United States. All further space exploration will be done through Russia's program, or by countries who give a damn about the future. For now, though, I'll simply tell about our trip for those interested.

My brother took some very good photos of the launch itself, and we took our pictures standing in front of the aftermath:
I also took video of the launch:

The experience was wonderful, and I would do it again in a heartbeat...if there were an opportunity to. My family tried to see STS-58 in 1993, but the launch was postponed. As a result, we were in Epcot Center when Columbia rose up in the distance. We could just see its trail and flame as it rose up over the roof of the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" building. Nearly 18 years later, I finally got to see it close up with my youngest brother.

We arrived the day before and toured the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, getting to see several Star Trek props, a live show, and even seeing an interview with Peter Cullen (the voice of Optimus Prime) and watching the latest Transformers movie with him. We also bought a few souvenirs...

The day of the launch, we left the hotel at 2am, arrived at 3am, and got in a long line in the dark. The organization there was amazing, and we got through security much faster than I expected. The park only had a few things open, most of which we'd already seen, so we did the shuttle experience ride, looked at the enormous crowd for the bus tour, and decided to just wait for the launch.

We first went to the bleachers set up behind the IMAX building for viewing, and waited there for a few hours while the sun somehow burned me through the clouds. A few rays peeked out, and we were told the weather still only had a 30% chance of being safe for launch. As the time approached, the clouds got thinner and the crowd more optimistic and eager. I have never seen so many ThinkGeek customers in one place (literally, just going by t-shirts alone).

As the launch window approached, I overheard someone say that the best viewing area was behind the solid rocket boosters, and another said that the shuttle would rise near the flags. Not liking the fact that I could barely see the flags through the trees and IMAX building, I decided to vacate the bleachers with my brother, and we went past the trees to find a massive crowd gathered at the Astronaut Memorial and the entire walkway from it to the SRB's, so we waited at the corner of the fence in front of the alligator pond. We waited about 45 minutes there while the count was held the final scheduled time, released, and apparently held briefly, though we didn't hear that part.

Finally we heard the firing chain was armed, and with the igniting of the real SRB's, the 10 second countdown began. At 9 seconds, the crowd was counting down loudly...and quickly, reaching 1 three seconds too early. There was an awkward pause, and then we heard the official "2" and broke out laughing. Then "1", and then "liftoff". We waited, with many cheering, but seeing nothing, then some words I didn't quite hear brought a louder cheer from the crowd and a bright orange light came from the distant trees. Silently it rose up over the trees, skyward right along the American flag, just as I'd hoped when I prepared to video it earlier, and we watched it fly behind a small cloud and disappear amid fading cheers as if it was over. It then rose past that cloud and the cheers renewed as it rose and finally disappeared into a higher cloud.

I stopped recording, thinking it was over. Just as I did, a rumble came, and the ground shook softly. Fish started jumping in the alligator pond in front of us, agitated by the vibration. As it passed, we watched the trail of smoke spread out and grow, and decided on one last photo with us beside it in the picture. And with that, it was over. Before we got near the park entrance, the shuttle had left the atmosphere and was over another country. We met up with my boss and her father, then left to get much-needed sleep, barely able to stay awake for the two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic before finally our path diverged from the bulk of the crowd and we drove back the last 40 minutes of our normal hour drive at regular speed. Before I could sleep, the shuttle had made it around the whole Earth already.

With the extra time of the shuttle taking off as scheduled instead of late like I feared, we caught my brother's favorite band, The Protomen, in concert in Nashville the next evening, then woke up late and saw the Parthenon replica, then drove home. All in all, it could hardly have been a better trip.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Comparing Apples and Microsofts

With mounting pressure for Balmer to step down at Microsoft, and the panicked cycle of investment and dumping of projects, it's easy to see Microsoft is in trouble. The enormous juggernaut of the 90's keeps putting out products that sell, but they're the same products year after year, with few exceptions. They aren't entering new markets, they aren't gaining ground on old markets. Which is a disaster, because those markets are growing.

What's killing Microsoft is also mobile computing. If you've used Windows CE or one of its children prior to Windows Phone 7, you probably have said at some point that they deserved to lose that market. Unfortunately, that's the growth market, and Apple took the lead by being the first to bring the old capacitive screens to phones. Windows has spent and spent to get back into the market, but the damage is done, and the money is being wasted.

What will be killing Microsoft is Cloud. Yes, they have a cloud presence, but after years of licensing practices that users thought were confusing, problematic, and downright dishonest, they don't have the credibility to lead that market over Amazon, Google, and other heavy hitters, and there is a growing interest in small companies offering the same Cloud services, that don't have huge targets painted on their servers like the heavy hitters do.

Apple, by virtue of their glamorous perception, has been growing in the public view. In the early days, Jobs and his mindset of acting like a monopoly until it became reality nearly killed the company. They went to "underground" as a marketing campaign multiple times to keep their computers afloat, getting small pockets of strong support among unproductive people and artists. Then came the iPod and OSX. They jumped on a market that nobody dared invest in and established themselves there they was Band-Aid did bandages, to the point people thought any other mp3 player was a "knock off". They also solved the nagging issue of compatibility with the Windows world by letting the Open Source community do the hard work for them with a *nix base to OSX. When you throw in the iPhone and its early dominance, and the iPad's current early dominance, Apple has risen above Microsoft in company value, as far as Wall Street is concerned.

For all it's evil, Microsoft was never as bad as Apple about locking down its platform or restricting its users and customers. We thought this changed with OSX, but iOS brings it back with a vengeance. In the emerging markets, Google is the "white knight" to Apple's "black night" in this regard, even though Google has its own share of evil. Apple also lacks the vast cash reserves that Microsoft has spent to fight progress for a decade. It's no longer the fastest growing in the mobile market, and its Cloud presence is a joke. Apple did sweep the over $1k PC market, but most people are spending under $1k for their PC.

In short, Apple is doing well today, but it has positioned itself where it always positions itself - Overpriced, with an overinflated perception of quality, excessive restrictions on its users, and fighting against compatibility with the rest of the industry.

Unlike Balmer, Jobs does two things well. First, he sells. He is probably the greatest salesman to run a company since PT Barnum. He has developed a cult of personality that instantly translates to sales. Second, he dives in. The technology for the iPhone and iPad has been around for decades. Market experts said it wasn't viable even as people complained about why such things didn't exist. He listened to the people and invested his company's assets into it.

Unfortunately, Jobs isn't healthy. His health issues that don't bode well for him seeing another 20 years at the helm, and even 5 is suspect. We already see the stocks take a nosedive every time he sneezes or drives by a doctor, so the reality is there that the day he does quit or kick the bucket, Apple will redefine terminal velocity as its stock falls. The model he has structured is sustained only by his ability to convince people he has what everyone wants. Microsoft, for better or worse, made themselves necessary. Apple products, though, are immanently replaceable. iPhone held the market for a while, and iPad holds its market now because the alternative is seen as imitating rather than offering new value. That perception died with the iPhone with Android and maneuvering by Google. The iPad won't magically fare better in the long run.

And then there's the stock value. It's huge for what little Apple actually owns by comparison. The company's P/E is 15.5, which is relatively moderate, and it's still faltering in the business sector. All this tells me that the stock is overinflated. Much like his products, Jobs has sold his company well, and the stock has risen accordingly.

Apple isn't taking Microsoft's place. It is, however, taking back the place it occupied in the late 1970's. If anyone, Google is the new Microsoft, reaching to the masses and to businesses rather than trying to present their products as status symbols.

Friday, September 17, 2010

IE9 or XP, one has to go

The internet seems to be at an interesting crossroad. Windows XP is, according to Microsoft's statistics, used almost equally with Windows 7 finally, despite XP no longer being supported.

With the beta release of Internet Explorer 9, though, XP users are finally seeing this in terms that might be real enough to notice. If you're on XP, Microsoft isn't giving you IE9, and at a critical time as the internet shifts from HTML4 and CSS2 to HTML5 and CSS3, enabling all manner of content delivery which will be the internet for most people. If your webmail or social network requires HTML5 features, IE8 will be dead to you.

Microsoft assumes this leaves one path going forward - everyone pay up and get your Windows 7 so you can have "the internet" back. What I think they fail to realize is that the money-spending public is not the computer neophyte crowd that were in the critical age bracket back when the blue "e" was mistaken for the symbol of the internet. While most people use Internet Explorer when visiting Microsoft's website (because IE used to be the only one that worked there due to intentionally bad site design), the statistics on other websites are much different. W3C, for example, shows a steady decline in IE usage, down to 30.7% this month, with Firefox clearly leading and Chrome gaining ground fast.

So is it more likely that someone will pay for a whole new operating system, which likely requires a new computer, re-installation or repurchase of various software, setting up new profiles and reconfiguring old accounts? Or will those who feel XP "still works fine" for them, just stop using Internet Explorer and switch to one of the browsers that already supports the new standards better than what IE9 is expected to do when it finally comes out at some vague point in the future?

Even I still have an XP machine at home that I use regularly. It's days are numbered (possibly in single digits...), but I still use it. And I only open Ineternet Explorer when testing compatibility. Internet Explorer 8 is already a dead browser for me on a personal level. If a programmer like me doesn't see the dire need to upgrade to 9, and therefore Windows 7, why does Microsoft think this is going to work?

My suspicion is that this will not be the death knell of the Internet Explorer empire, but the capitol has at least moved to CSStantinople while the "barbarians" gather siege weapons in their WebKit. Just as the Romans before them, the empire fell from within, the "barbarians" were merely the power that rose up in their place.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Agile Cod'ing? Another geek fish recipe.

I made this last night, but was too stuffed to type it up. It's better for serving two rather than one. Seasoning is based on the amount of sauce, not the fish, so don't scale up if you don't need more sauce.

Cod & pasta recipe:
  • 1-2 Cod fillet
  • Olive oil
  • 15oz Tomato sauce
  • 1/2tsp Onion powder
  • 1/2tsp Garlic powder
  • 1tsp Oregano (flakes)
  • 1tsp White pepper (ground)
  • 2tsp Ancho pepper (ground)
  • Parsley flakes
  • Pasta

(Measurements approximate)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).
Pour tomato sauce into glass baking dish. Stir in onion, garlic, oregano, white pepper, ancho pepper.
Spray or brush olive oil onto fillets on both sides, then put into the sauce. Cover with the sauce thickly.
Sprinkle parsley flakes over the top of the fish lightly (this would also be where you might add cheeses if you prefer that), then put into the oven for 21 minutes (fish should flake easily with a fork when ready).

While this is cooking, boil your pasta. Preferably timed so that you’ve finished straining the pasta shortly before the fish is done baking. I used shells (conchiglie), but it would be better with flat noodles, such as linguini, mafaldine, farfalle (bow ties).

Once everything is cooked, plate the pasta, then place the fish on the pasta carefully with the sauce and any cheese or parsley you added still over it. Stir the remaining sauce in the pan, then pour it over the pasta.

Make a cute portmanteau of “cod” and whatever pasta you used (eg. “codinguini”) and serve.
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