Archive for November, 2013


Amanda Fscking Palmer!

(That title’s sort of a joke, in that she has used “Amanda Fucking Palmer” as a sort of branding thing, and “fsck” is an old nerdphemism for “fuck” so “Amanda Fscking Palmer” is arguably a cute title for something about her appearing before a buncha nerds. Also it keeps me from having the F-word (“fuck”) in the title of a weblog post, which might be nice because who knows how ol’ WordPress reacts if you do that?)

I don’t want to just constantly gloat about how amazing my new workplace is, but just this once… :)

Amanda Palmer and some guy

So as I’ve probably mentioned before here and/or on the Face Book and/or elsewhere, I think Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls and general musicness, not to mention a great TED talk) is awesome in all various ways, and I’d thought wistfully that it’d be great to see her live someday if I weren’t so lazy.

And then there was this poster at work saying that she and some guy were going to be appearing, right down the hall in the talk room.


Right after lunch.

That first picture up there is them doing a sound-check, which those of us who got there early to get good seats got to see, because they arrived late. :)

Palmer an' Gaiman

These picture are all awful, because it was dim and I was just using my iPad rather than something more camera-like.

That is her husband, Neil Gaiman, who is apparently a well-known Doctor Who impersonator writer in his own right, and was I think reciting a poem, while she laughed and looked appreciative from the piano bench.


And there she is probably singing the Ukulele Anthem, which is just marvelous on YouTube, and actually had me tearing up a bit near the end in person. Such energy and goodness…

(Not to mention boots and coat; I want them!)

So anyway she sang some things, and Doctor Who read some things, and the two of them sang one (very creepy) thing together (he says that he doesn’t sing, but she makes him do it), and then they sat down like talk show guests and answered some questions from the host, and a few from the audience, and then it was over, except for those of us who hung around forming lines of fanboys and fangirls to get our Gaiman books and Palmer CDs signed, and even…

Amanda Fucking Palmer, and some dork

… get our pictures taken with her. :)

I mean, you can sort of see from her eyes there that she is doing this because this random dorky fan she doesn’t know at Google has sort of attacked her with his iPad, and she is thinking about how she and Neil have to get over to Town Hall for their performance tonight, and do they have all the instruments packed and stuff, but still.


They were both warm and patient with the lines of adoring fans. And I really do know who Neil Gaiman is, more or less, and while a million years ago I read some comic of his and didn’t like it and haven’t read anything to speak of by him since, I do now have a copy of Neverwhere on the iPad.

But mostly now I’ve seen Amanda Fucking Palmer live. :)


More notes from the subways

sardinesPeople said that the L is crazy crowded at rush hours, but I decided I ought to give it a shot anyway.

Came home that way once, and the L was fine, but the 3 4 5* from Union Square to Grand Central was a line of sardine cans. :)

Thought I’d give it another try, the other way, but the 3 4 5 downtown from Grand Central was so tightly packed that I didn’t try to push myself in, but just turned around and went and found the good old S instead. So I didn’t get to find out what the L was like at the time.

(Today, on the way home, Track 1 of the S was down (“Out of Customer Service” as the loudspeaker amusingly said), and so the S itself was pretty packed, but not as bad as the 3 4 5 had been.)

What trains experience

Speaking of the loudspeakers, on one of the occasions that I took the 7 rather than the S just for fun, the train just sat there for awhile, and eventually the loudspeaker said (more than once) that we were delayed due to a train at the 5th Avenue station (Bryant Park, you remember) that was experiencing door problems.

And I thought, the poor train.

And I also thought, just what does a train experience, when it is having door problems?

In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, ol’ Dogen writes (roughly)

Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall. Some see it as the Dharma nature of pure liberation, the true human body, or as the form of body and essence of mind. Human beings see water as water. Water is seen as dead or alive depending on causes and conditions. Thus the views of all beings are not the same.

Perhaps a train’s experience of door problems is entirely different from ours.

The mysteries of time

It is odd how, regardless of just when I leave work, I so often have a choice between standing on the 5:57, or getting very early to the 6:15.

Then there is the 5:53, which is an extremely express train, but which, the schedule says, stops at Croton-Harmon only to pick up passengers, not to drop them off. I asked a ticket agent once if that meant that people really couldn’t get off, and she said nah, you can get off, just be prepared to do it very fast, because the train won’t stop for long.

On the other hand I asked a conductor of the 5:53 once if the train stopped at Croton-Harmon, and he (likely knowing that I really meant “can I take this train to there?”) just said (without going into any detail), no, I should get the 5:57 instead.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a regular presence in a couple of places along my subway route.

Having done their whole curriculum for nonbelievers on my front porch back in the day, I don’t stop to talk to them or take their literature, but I do sort of smile, if mostly to myself.

Today I noticed the signs at the top of two adjacent cardboard literature racks that they had set up at their larger installation.

The signs said:

What does the Bible really teach?

LIES that make God seem unloveable.

and I said to myself “well, can’t really argue with that!”.

Oooh I am so snarky. :)

Don’t hold

Speaking of signs, there are these signs on the inside of the subway train doors saying “Do not hold doors”.

clampTurns out, they mean it!

If you, like me, are one of those people who is used to occasionally putting out a hand to stop an elevator door from closing so that someone running towards it will have time to get in, you should consider not doing that with subway train doors.

’cause owch.

If they sense that there is an entire body in the way, they will squeeze for a second and then open again (and every other set of doors on the train will also open, just to make sure that everyone knows that some so-and-so is blocking a door and making everyone wait).

But if there’s just a mere hand or wrist there? They will clomp down on it and squeeze quite firmly until (for instance) a couple of long-suffering New Yorkers, one on either side of the door, sort of roll their eyes and curl their fingers around the jaws of the door and yank it open, both freeing the trapped and somewhat bruised hand or wrist, and allowing the hurrying person who was the object of the casual gesture to actually enter the car.

The bruises are about gone now…

* Update: all references to the “3 4 5” in the above should of course have been to the “4 5 6”. The 3 doesn’t even go through Grand Central ffs!


Dear NPR, WNYC, etc…

Please stop the obsessive coverage of and people who have to change insurance plans! Yes, these are small newsworthy items, the problems at the web site will delay how soon some people can sign up for the ACA, and some people really did have insurance plans so bad (effectively, fraudulent) that they’re now illegal or otherwise unavailable.

But you’ve covered those stories already. Multiple times. There is lots more going on in the world, and even just in the U.S., than that. The idea that these are Major Stories that need to be covered again day after day, in long painful detail, is basically a Republican talking point. Just by repeating them over and over, you give the listener an inaccurate impression of how important they really are. The website will be fixed, people will get over no longer being able to buy into really bad deals on insurance, and in the meantime there is much more going on that you could be using the time to cover instead.

Thanks for your consideration!
David M. Chess
a constant listener (mostly commute-time)

I’m sure they will immediately act upon my wise advice! At least if they read their email and/or web forms. Or I can just listen to my iTunes library until they finally get tired of the story…


The buzzing of distant bees

Is there evil in Heaven? And is there free will?

I know it doesn’t really make sense to spend too much time wondering about the details of fictional universes (“if Peter and his friends could only fly when they were having happy thoughts, why did Tinkerbell, who was after all the source of the pixie-dust that let them fly, seem to have no trouble flying even when she was upset?”), but I am somehow fond of these questions at the moment.
Heaven, the flowchart
It’s a subject that I don’t remember coming up in the average Internet discussion of (Judeo-Christian) religion, and it seems to me like a real quandary.

Seems likely that there is free will in Heaven (otherwise why give it to us on Earth?), and seems unlikely that there is evil (it being Heaven and all); and yet if God can make a place where there is no evil even though there is free will, why didn’t he do that on Earth?

(I started to wonder about this after hearing a couple of different theist types talk about their ideas of Heaven on NPR or something: the Jewish one said that there must be a wonderfully just afterlife because he strongly believes that the universe is just, whereas the evidence he has suggests that life isn’t just, so there must be some really very just stuff after life to make up for it; and the Christian one says that Heaven is a place where we all get whatever we truly want, and we all have learned to live together in harmony. Ha ha funny people, I thought, and also thought the “well if God can make it happen in Heaven, what’s his excuse for not doing so on Earth?” thought that we consider here.)

(Ooh, here they are! The Rabbi and the pastor; so you can judge for yourself how badly I’m misreporting their statements above.)

The usual answer to the Problem of Evil, that is comes about as a direct and inevitable result of imperfect beings with free will, seems to sort of evaporate if (as seems hard to avoid) Heaven is a place where imperfect beings have free will, and yet there is no evil there. So evil can’t really be the inevitable result of free will. So the Problem of Evil, it would seem, remains.

I did have a rather detailed discussion of this with my Jehovah’s Witness friend back in the day. He (and therefore I assume the JWs in general) have a pretty complete and interesting (if maybe sort of creepy) picture of life after the umm Big Thing, where (in the case of the JWs) the 400,000 special people or whatever it is go to live with God in Heaven or something, and all the other good people live on Earth under their direct governance more or less.

He said that yes in that world people would still have free will, and that in fact they would be able to do evil. They wouldn’t do it very much, because they would be good people living in a great environment, but it would still happen, and in that case God (i.e. Jehovah) would look into their hearts, and between the time they made a really bad decision and became evil and the time they were able to actually do anything bad as a result, He would stop them, in a very final way.

Since the JWs don’t believe in Hell, and think that all the stuff about burning and fire and stuff in the Bible is just a way of talking about ceasing to exist altogether, what happens to you if you freely chose evil after the Big Thing happens is that you just cease to exist.

Pretty weird, I thought!

And this got me thinking of a story set in that world, which I’ve never gotten around to writing, but which I think I will try to set down a general idea of here.

And in the meantime, you can ask your local rabbi or pastor or Judeo-Christian friend whether there is free will in Heaven, and whether there is evil there. I wonder if that is a hard question…

“I cannot follow the Elders anymore,” he’d said, that night, as they walked back from the orchards where they had been picking the perfect fruits that Jehovah provided for them in this perfect Earth.

“Jeremiah,” she’d exclaimed, “what can you mean, you cannot follow them? How could anyone do anything but follow them? We know that they are the appointed ones of Jehovah, that they have only our welfare at heart, that they are good and wise men. You cannot doubt, when you have seen Jehovah and His Son moving about on the Earth with your own eyes.”

“I have.” They were walking close together, hands brushing each other now and then, innocently, like brother and sister. “And I do not doubt that the Elders are those chosen of Jehovah. But…”

“But what? What is it that you can doubt?”

He’d taken a deep breath. He looked, she remembered thinking, like someone who was not quite sure of what he was saying, and speaking as much to convince himself as to convince her.

“I do not doubt the facts. The Elders are the chosen of Jehovah, and they do truly intend the best for me. But I doubt, no, I reject, their authority over me.”

“What can you mean by that, Jeremiah? Jehovah is the source of all authority, of all rightness, and He has given them their authority! It cannot be doubted, or rejected.”

“But I do reject it,” he’d said, his voice louder but still with an undercurrent of uncertainty, “I reject it as I am free to do, using the free will that Jehovah has given me. It is my right!”

She’d stopped, and taken his hands, looking very seriously into his face. The others walking in the same direction continued along, and were soon out of any danger of hearing.

“This is blasphemy,” she’d said, “this is not the use we are supposed to make of the freedom that has been given us. Can you truly do this? Do you truly, of your own free will, reject the authority of Jehovah?”

She had meant it rhetorically, really, or so she told herself afterward, saying it only so that he would say no, of course not, not that. But his face said that he took the question very seriously, and was considering it, somewhere deep inside. When he spoke again, the uncertainty was gone from his voice.

“Yes, Sarah. Yes, I d–“.

And before he’d finished that last word, her head was filled by a strange sound, like the buzzing of distant bees, and her hands were empty. And Jeremiah was gone, forever.

So now, in her bed at night, she lies curled tensely after her prayers, telling herself, telling Jehovah who can see into her very heart, that she does accept His goodness and His authority, that she is His true daughter, and that she would never reject Him.

And she cries until sleep comes.

Something like that, anyway…


The silence of the everyones

One odd thing, a very very odd thing really, thinking about it, is how silent the commute into The Big City is.

Not silent-silent, of course; the train makes lots (and lots) of noise, the big commuter train and the subway trains. The loudspeakers also speak loudly about standing clear of the closing doors and all.

But the people…

There is an official Quiet Car on the big commuter train; the first car or the last one, generally, depending on phase of the moon or something. (On the even bigger Amtrak trains, the Quiet Car has signboards suspended from the ceiling, saying “this is the Quiet Car” and all; on the commuter train you’re just supposed to hear the announcement and know which car you are in.)

But really, they needn’t bother.

On every car, everyone is silent. There may be two or four people traveling together, who speak in low whispers. There may be someone talking quietly into a cellphone, but even if they aren’t talking about their recent surgery or divorce or whatever (which I can sort of understand being disturbed by), but just saying “yes” and “aha” and “that’s nice”, they can still be tapped on the shoulder and asked to “keep it down” (I have seen this happen, with my eyes!).

I suppose maybe everyone is either trying to sleep, or being considerate of people who are trying to sleep.

Or they are just being boring. :)

Who does dare to make sounds? It’s kind of an interesting list:

  • People will talk, a little, if there is a reason; they will ask each other to make sure this is the right train when the loudspeaker says something confusing; a nice lady will ask me if I am all right when I make the mistake of sitting down on the subway and therefore crack my head sharply on the overhead handrail when I stand up again, and therefore sit down again quite abruptly; someone will ask me if this train stops at Penn Station, and I will proudly know the answer and tell them it does. But that is all very brief.
  • The subway musicians make sounds of course. Good sounds! Both the licensed ones with their assigned spots and their nice-looking cases put out for tips, and maybe their CDs for sale, and the I-suspect-less-licensed ones who just set up at a random place in the long hallway between Times Square and Port Authority. (I always carry spare dollar bills in a cargo pocket for these.)
  • Some people asking for things are mostly silent also, just sitting with a cup and maybe a sign, hoping for coins (or dollars). They are pretty rare; I suspect they are silent because if they are too noticed they get moved along by Authorities. But sometimes they will talk softly, or slightly jiggle their cups.
  • More mobile people asking for things can break the quiet of the subway to give their stories and rattle their cups; those tend to get dollars, too, even if (like the quite able-bodied guy on the 8th Avenue Local yesterday evening) their stories don’t really sound all that convincing. But I am in the “better a dozen grifters scam a bit than a hungry person get nothing” camp, so there we are. (The other morning on the train platform there was a guy offering resumés and asking if anyone needed a Graphic Designer; unusual!)
  • In between are the occasional musicians on the subway itself; playing the guitar or the sax (both or which I’ve seen recently) or whatever else. Do they also need licenses, I wonder, or are they technically just subway riders who happen to be playing an instrument, or something else?
  • The people giving away (trying to give away) the dueling Free Newspapers (AM New York and something Metro something) are to variable degrees talkative and cheerful or forceful or loud.
  • There are always people shouting about their God; pretty much invariably that Jesus fellow. Sometimes they are reading aloud from their Bible, holding up signs with chapter and verse, and sometimes just expressing themselves, apparently ad lib, about sin and salvation and all.
  • And then there was this rather down-at-the-heel looking fellow with a full beard who was singing (in quite a respectable voice) John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” while walking down that same long underground tunnel yesterday. If I wouldn’t have been completely and insultingly off-key I would have joined in out loud (I did in my head, of course).

I’m told that in more Southern climes public transportation is much talkier, more raucous, full of conversation and argument and shouting. I don’t know if that’s true even on Monday mornings. :)

There was that one time, some holiday night or something maybe?, when I was on a train for some reason and there were some tipsy young women talking and laughing and singing, and there was a not quite as young (but also I suspect slightly inebriated) man who kept yelling at them to shut up, and that was exciting. I think they all eventually got more or less thrown off the train by the conductor(s), for being unwilling to calm down.

More interesting than the stifled stifling silence, anyway…

how the hell can a person
go on to work in the morning
to come home in the evening
and have nothing to say?

Make me an angel
that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster
of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing
that I can hold on to
To believe in this livin’
is just a hard way to go.


Extra-solar pond slime

So today I went to a talk by Lee Billings, author of Five Billion Years of Solitude (which, note, I haven’t read yet, although I now have a signed copy; I’ve just heard the talk).

He is all about how incredibly cool it would be to find out that there is life on some planet outside the solar system (by deducing, say, a particular unstable mixture of gasses in its atmosphere that we can’t account for except by life), and that we are not investing nearly enough resources (money) in building the just-now-becoming-possible huge honking telescopes that would help us find such planets.

Or alternately, he says, it would also be extremely important in some way to discover that there isn’t life on any extra-solar planets that we can find, and that therefore we are even Specialer than maybe we thought.

There has recently been an Enormous Boom in the finding of planets outside the Solar System, apparently; an inneresting fact that I hadn’t known. Significant numbers of them are sort of vaguely Earth-like in various ways; also inneresting.

Extra-solar planets

But, as I said during the Q-and-A period (for which I may appear on the YouTube at some point in the future!) I’m not sure how interesting it would really be to know that there is, say, probably pond-slime on Kepler 22b.

The two reasons the speaker gave for the importance of looking for extra-solar planets with life (besides raw coolness, which I don’t think is a good reason to spend billions of dollars, really) were (1) having more places for humans to live by the time the Sun swells up and eats the Earth or whatever, and (2) knowing whether or not We Are Alone In The Universe (hence the title of the book).

In terms of having more places to live, I think that by the time the Sun swells up (a few hundred million years), and even by the time we’re conveniently able to go in large numbers to other solar systems, we’ll long since have just remade ourselves so that we don’t need certain sorts of planets with particular chemistries to live on, so that particular issue will be moot.

And in terms of knowing whether or not we are alone, I think it’s far more important to know whether there’s anyone sentient out there than it is to know whether there’s any carbon-oxygen-based life out there. Given a few dozen billion dollars and the choice between looking for photosynthesis, and looking for intelligent signals, I’m going for the latter.

The extra-solar pond slime is just going to have to wait…



New adventures every day!

Here are a couple more observations that I think I can share without revealing any family secrets.


You’d think that a place full of coders would be basically powered by coffee.

That’s certainly what I was expecting.

I was picturing, like, huge wall-length banks of those shiny cylindrical coffee machines that are everywhere, constantly being emptied by jazzed young programmers, and filled by a steady stream of staff persons with new grounds.

But it’s not like that at all.

There are fancy digital coffee-making machines in the snack areas (“microkitchens”, whee!), which produce what I imagine is quite good coffee (I’m no judge), but do it slowly. And there aren’t very many of them.

There are a couple or three of the shiny cylindrical coffee machines in the main food-places, but they tend to be awkwardly placed, and there are many things that it’s easier to get to.

There are also espresso machines (cappuccino machines, whatever they’re called) in the microkitchens for general use, along with signs about the time and place where the “how to” classes are offered, and the intranet URL of the relevant informational page(s). Naturally.

All of which encourages slow and thoughtful and high-quality consumption of only finite amounts of coffee.

Which I find fascinating.

As I pointed out the other day, I’m drinking a lot less coffee than I did before the venue change. Maybe the work keeps one awake all by itself. :)


I poked around the intranet a bit my first couple of weeks, figuring that these young hip (haha, “hip”) persons might include some number into meditation (“meditation”) or sitting or even zazen, and while I found some interesting groups dedicated to thinking about the impact of digital technologies on our practices of attention, and about being sure to pause now and then and be in the moment, and like that, they seemed to be mostly based out in Mountain View.

I did one “Mindfulness at your Desk” thing at Noon Eastern, 9am Pacific, where someone out on the Left Coast led a small group of us in meditation over videoconferencing, and that was fine, but a little odd.

I was figuring I could bring in a zafu of my own, and maybe just remember to sit in a quiet place somewhere now and then, when while exploring one of the higher floors of the building I came across a sign saying that sits take place twice daily (!) in the little sort of exercise room / dance studio. And in exploring it I found a cabinet with a bunch of nice high-quality zafus and blankets to go under them.

And the next time one of the twice-daily things came up, I was there, and this smiling person came and talked quietly and asked who would like some guided meditation, and talked softly to them while the rest of us just sat (on the nice zafus and blankets, which it turns out are for general use), and then he rang a lovely Zen bell, and we all sat more, until he rang it again and we slowly got up and went out.

ZOMG, eh?

So I may have a little practice, and maybe even a vague sort of sangha (not that there’s any particular reason to think all or any of the people are Buddhist as such), right there at work.

Who woulda thought?

P.S. This is a very good recipe for Butternut Squash Soup!


Passing in the night

So when you are riding in a train and looking out the window (or not), one of the notable things that goes by outside is other trains.

Train blur

Other trains are notable, in particular, because unlike most of the other things that go by outside, other trains are, a non-negligible fraction of the time, not standing still (relative to, say, the train tracks), but are moving. And also are often real close-by.

Even if the other train is standing still, since there’s a reasonable chance that it might not be, you can’t reliably tell that it is, just from what you see out the window when it’s filled up by the other train. It might be standing still and your train is moving, or your train might be moving while the other one is standing still (the actual case in the current hypothetical), or both trains might actually be moving (relative, again, to something like the tracks).

If the other train is moving, in the same direction and at about the same speed as your train, you can see out of your window and into the window of the other train, as it slides slowly forward and back due to small changes in relative speed, and sometimes there are other people over there that you could, say, wave at. Unless you are too shy at the time. (Which is fine.)

If the other train is moving in the other direction, then there is great rush and zooming and blurriness, because the other train looks like it is moving very fast indeed, at twice the average speed of the trains, or at the magnitude of the difference of their velocities (equal under the assumption that they really are moving in exactly opposite directions, basically). Which is very fast if both trains are moving somewhat fast. If both trains are moving slowly, then the other train might appear to be moving just somewhat fast, but still faster than it really is.

(All of these cases really come down to “the difference of their velocities”, of course, or the magnitude or absolute value thereof, which is in some sense the “relative speed”.)

Also, especially in the “moving quite fast in the opposite direction” case, when the other train’s beginning or end (front or back) moves by the window that you are sitting by (or the car that you are sitting in, generally), a thing happens with the air between the trains, where a high or a low pressure bulge goes rapidly by your train on that side, and there’s this sort of whooomp sound, which is fun. (It occurs to me that the high-pressure and low-pressure sounds are probably different; I will have to gather more data.) Or not just a sound, really, but a sound and a feeling, or maybe a sound with very significant very-low-frequency components (which is about the same thing).

So there is that!

Addendum to our observations on the S and the 7 the other day: another feature of taking the 7 from Times Square to Grand Central is that if you like miss a luck roll, you end up somewhere underground in a maze of twisty little passages, all but one of which just lead to other subway platforms rather than up into the rest of Grand Central where you actually want to be,

On the other hand the maze also contains a smiling redheaded woman playing the Irish Fiddle in the corner of one passage, which is compensation. :)


some additional words

So I woke up with some Upper Respiratory invasion on Saturday morning, and didn’t feel pretty much normal until yesterday sometime. That was no particular fun!

It did allow me to determine firsthand that, while the New Employer do as a general rule like team members to interact in person, if you need to work from home for three days because of an invasion of replicators, it is No Problem.

Also, they do Working From Home, like everything else remotely technical, very very well. Really very well. Remarkably. Quite.

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