31 January 2008


In the beginning, there were sideways smileys. These have been around since the Internet was invented. In simplest form, they consist of two eyes and a mouth in various expressions. The variations from that basic premise are endless, but the following are the most common ones:
    :) or =) <-- smile, happy
    ;) <-- sardonic, or winking
    :p or =p <-- tongue sticking out
    :)) <-- happier, or very big smile
    :D <-- very big toothy smile
    =( or :( <-- sad
    :(( <-- sadder, or crying
    :'( <-- crying
    :\ or :/ or =/ or =\ <-- depends on context; could be crestfallen, anxious, sympathetic, concentration
    :| <-- unhappy, discontented, stressed
    XD <-- a very big toothy smile with eyes squeezed shut and scrunched together
    XP <-- tongue sticking out with eyes squeezed shut and scrunched together

Alternate forms also include a nose, for example:

or, put in the opposite direction (which I've mainly seen from Australians):

Then came right-side-up smileys. These consist of two eyes and a nose. Variations are even more endless. I've always associated them with anime fans (and others heavily influenced by Asian Internet customs), since those were the people who first started using them.
    o.o <-- widened eyes
    o.O or O.o <-- one eye larger than the other, can indicate a wide range of things - suspicious, disbelieving, mild shock, etc.
    O.O <-- total and utter shock
    @.@ <-- drugged, delirious, mesmerized, hypnotized
    >.< <-- eyes squeezed shut and scrunched together
    -.- <-- annoyed
    ^.^ or n.n <-- happy
    u.u <-- eyes closed
    $.$ <-- greed
    x.x <-- dead
    T.T or ;.; <-- crying, usually in a humorous sense. (T is an eye squeezed shut with a line of tears.)
    >.> followed by <.< (or vice versa) <-- shifty eyes

Sometimes the nose is a _ instead of a .

At one point it was possible to see differences in which kinds of smileys someone used, and how they used them, depending on where they first learned Internet social customs. There were regional dialects. Nowadays everyone is more homogeneous - though new smileys still get invented all the time. For example:

^O.O^ - a small dog with big eyes and a psychotic stare

This was inspired by an Italian greyhound named Jake, who became popular in the blogosphere for the way he stares.

Why are smileys important? There are some who say that smileys are superfluous and pointless and that they indicate laziness in coming up with ways to explain meaning with words. I say they are an important way to convey nonverbal communication over a text-only medium. Facial expressions and tone of voice are important in offline social interaction; so too are smileys for the same sorts of things online. Some find them annoying due to the way they are sometimes used. I say that they are great for conveying personality, and if they are annoying it means that the person using them is annoying.

Along with smileys, there are other non-word conventions. Examples of non-smiley punctuation:
    ? <-- "what?" "yes?" "elaborate please"
    ! <-- shock
    ... <-- skepticism, disapproval, disbelief, speechless

Exact meaning depends very heavily on context.

And then there are non-words that aren't punctuation. In some circles I'm notorious for being able to convey a huge amount of meaning by how I say "hmm." What it means depends on context, specific spelling variant ("hmm" vs. "Hmm" vs "hmmm" vs. "hmm..." vs. "hmm!" vs. "mmm" vs. "hrm" vs. "mmhmm" ...), and who it's coming from. Meaning tends to be highly individual.

30 January 2008

The taste of duck

Duck tastes nothing like chicken. The meat has a texture and appearance more like pork, except darker. The taste? Like mud.

I've only eaten one other thing that has a comparable taste, and that was mullet (the fish, not the hair). Ducks and mullet are both mud sifters.

29 January 2008


In my youth, when I knew nothing and wanted to know everything, I wondered why anyone would ever want to not know something. I could understand sometimes wanting a delay in knowing things - for example surprise parties, spoilers to stories (movies, tv shows, books, etc.). But not why someone would want to never know something at all; that concept was inconceivable.

In mid-adulthood, I begin to understand. Every time a new piece of knowledge comes in, it requires processing time. Sometimes it means altering what's already known to make the new piece fit. Sometimes it means throwing out what was there before, when older pieces turn out to be obsolete or completely wrong. Sometimes whole worldviews drastically shift - and when the dust settles, entire paradigms have crumbled and new ones formed.

Assimilating new knowledge requires time, energy, and effort. Sometimes it requires chaos and pain. The more pieces of knowledge already there before, the more of them might need to be altered, discarded, or shifted. Learning new things has a cost, and the longer someone has been alive, living, and learning - the more already known - the greater that cost can be.

I can understand sometimes wanting a delay in knowing things - until the full cost can be borne. And I also understand now that sometimes the potential gain of knowing is not worth the cost at all.

27 January 2008

Non Sequitur

Today I'm involved in a totally retarded blog-community building exercise, known as International Hijack Day. What this means is: I'll be asking a discussion question here, and people will be answering it. However: they won't necessarily be answering my question here, and they will also be answering completely different questions from elsewhere.

If you haven't heard of this before, click through above to see the detailed rules. Everyone is welcome to join in! Otherwise: feel free to attempt a discussion of my question here while trying to ignore the non sequiturs that will be going on in the comment thread. :)

What's the most creative thing you've ever done with a pine cone?

(Feel free to just make something up if your real answer is too boring. For the writerly types, feel free to make a Ficlet out of it. :) )

26 January 2008


Most people tend to think of TV watching as a passive activity - you sit there and watch and that's about it. Sometimes you can discuss it with other people after it's over, but it's not quite as fun and interactive as having an intelligent discussion while the story is unfolding.

Unfortunately, there's a downside to watching with other people. Talking about the show during the show tends to mean missing parts of the show. It's possible to rewind and rewatch, but that breaks up story momentum - plus it can be an art form to get it to start again at the right spot.

Fortunately, we now have text messaging. It makes no sound, and therefore drowns nothing out, and the receiver can choose when to read the incoming messages. Additionally it has scrollup - a written log of everything everyone said. This allows fuller, more complex discussions, especially after the show is over.

I prefer to watch TV with people over IMs or IRC. As someone who likes to pay full attention to a show and not miss a thing, watching with people in the same room tends to annoy me. Invariably they want to talk while it's on, if not to me then to each other, and they never wait for commercials. By having them over the computer instead, we can have all the fun of intelligent play-by-play discussions with none of the annoyance. Win-win for everyone!

22 January 2008

Bringing about epiphanies, one thick skull at a time

Whacking sense into someone with a clue-by-four is easy when the recipient is young and impressionable - 20 years old or younger. Usually there's about three days of outrage immediately after the whack (less the younger they are), and then the light bulb comes on.

Getting light bulbs to come on when the recipient is 30+, on the other hand, apparently requires a month of intense aggravation, fallout hitting third-party bystanders, rifting of communities, and a lynch mob.

The same principles apply. The recipient has to be ready to listen at the time that the clue-by-four impacts. For young'ns it's just a matter of waiting for the right moment. For the old and set, getting them to that point can be really hard.

All in all, I think what I've most learned is that I'm much better at teaching than punishing. And next time, now that I've done it once and have a few new clues of my own, I can probably (hopefully) better contain the fallout and shorten the month.

And here's hoping the recipient does something useful with his new light bulbs.

21 January 2008

On Empathy

"Empathy" is not just a synonym for "sympathy." A true empath is one who experiences the emotions of others as if they were their own. A true empath senses an emotionscape all around them, often "seeing" individual emotions as rays or waves.

Physical distance does not matter. The strength of an emotional signal depends on three main things: how strong it is at the source, whether the source is thinking about the empath, and how well source and empath know each other.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between an emotion from within and an emotion from someone else, especially without context - they fundamentally feel the same. Also, the empath's mind will try to supply some kind of reason for any unattached emotions, which can be further misleading. But each individual person has a signature feel to them, borne of their souls, and each of these is unique. It is possible to discern these signatures, given enough practice.

In real life, emotion waves are just one of many aspects of a given social interaction - along with body language, tone of voice, and words. Online lacks much of the nonverbal context of offline, which actually makes the emotional signals easier to see.

Empathy is not the same as telepathy - the ability to read thoughts. Knowing what someone feels is separate from knowing why they feel it. However, given enough context surrounding an emotion, an empath can often deduce the thoughts with amazing accuracy.

20 January 2008

What am I beyond human?

I suppose there's no point in being abstract and cryptic about it when 95% of my audience already knows exactly what I'm talking about.

This blog was intended to be about who I am, not what I am. Those of you who knew me before already know what I am, and those of you from the Whatever didn't need to know because who any of us are (other than Scalzi) is more or less irrelevant. I've carefully avoided specifying because I want my words and actions to be considered completely separate from any preconceived notions based on knowledge of whats.

But then we (the Whateverite side of the crowd) started having Group Blog Incoherence. And then we became Collaborating (Co-conspiratory?) Founders. And then it was only a matter of time before the Big Question came up to the spotlight. Am I "he" or am I "she"? Because of course gender matters, of course it's important. And of course there's a difference. A lot of people would like to pretend otherwise, but then it's unnerving not to know, isn't it? At some point as you want to know me better as a person, you start quietly digging around, scrutinizing and analyzing my posts, hoping to figure it out - or in one case, emailing me. Not that there's anything wrong with that, or with you - it's natural and human. Gender is one of the three basic defining characteristics of a person you've just met - so much so that it's part of a standard greeting in online chat ("ASL?" - stands for "age/sex/location?"); it covers what would be immediately obvious offline. There are people wandering around online who are actually incapable of proceeding with a conversation until ASL is first answered, whose minds are blown at the concept of doing such a thing. That's how basic it is.

So what am I? I thought I knew when I was two or three. That's when children first become aware of gender. But then everyone else told me I was wrong, and even my own body agreed with them. When I was eight or nine, I assumed I was one of those mutants that hadn't developed quite right, and when puberty hit, all would become clear. I would no longer have to play along.

Puberty hit. It didn't turn out to be the ending. It turned out to be the beginning of something that had no end at all. My body betrayed me again, everyone else went along with it, and the only reason I'm not dead at 16 is because I'm too much of a coward when it comes to physical pain.

There used to be a voice of protest in the back of my mind. It insisted that I wasn't what they told me I should be. It got quieter after puberty, and then it was overriden by the voice insisting that I merely didn't want to be what I should be. Fifteen years later the first voice had more or less succumbed. By then, when I finally discovered that transsexuals aren't, in fact, merely insane, that there are actual physiological bases underlying the condition - I'd been playing the part for so long that what I knew as a toddler was no longer right either.

So am I he or am I she? Sometimes I wish that English was one of those languages where the third-person pronoun was gender neutral. (I certainly could've evaded doing this post for far longer.) Neither sounds right to me anymore. Along the gender gradient between masculine and feminine, I'm pretty close to the middle overall.

I think at this point I can only conclude that I'm human.

16 January 2008

Hiring the next U.S. president

I've never been in a position to make hiring decisions. However, I've helped evaluate and make recommendations to the people who did make hiring decisions. Mostly this was in the form of faculty hires while I was a graduate student. Each candidate would visit the campus for two days, during which they would make several presentations and meet with all of the faculty, staff, and students - including an hour lunch with the graduate students as a group. Afterward, we would meet again to discuss our impressions in detail, rank them in order, and write an organized recommendation to the department director.

In that same spirit, here's my thoughts on the candidates for U.S. president, based mainly on the AtGoogleTalks Youtube videos.

By and large, all of the Democrats say the same things. The difference, therefore, is in how they say it and how they treat the people they're saying it to. So the following comments are mainly impressions of who they are as people.

4. John Edwards

He talks a lot without saying anything. Moreover, he has no respect for the audience - arrogant, dismissive, and pandering all at the same time. As far as he's concerned, they're there to watch him and Google's VP put on a show while they watch passively, and he underestimates their intelligence and interest in detailed facts - even after the VP specifically tells him otherwise.

The body language also bothered me throughout. I'm not great at interpreting it as a general rule, but one thing I've learned is that too much chin stroking and mouth covering is bad - it means BSing, hiding of things, and outright lies.

It's possible that he's accustomed to standard televised debates and just didn't adapt well to Google's informal interview approach. Nearly everything he said was a sound bite. Even so, an inability to adapt is also detracting.

3. Hillary Clinton

She has some good ideas on how to do things, and puts importance on a lot of the same concerns that I do. Has a good grasp on details and developed good rapport with the audience. However, she's a little too slick about saying all of the right things at the right times. It makes me wonder what's getting smoothed over.

I'd find her acceptable as a president, but she wouldn't be my first choice.

2. Barack Obama

He's a man with a vision and a lot of passion. He lacks the smooth polish that Clinton has, and is prone to stuttering when he's not giving a prepared speech - but that also makes him more real.

Overall he feels like a fresh change of pace after nearly a decade of USian decline to the world, and out of all the candidates he strikes me as the one that can actually reinvent us - not just fix us - and put us back to being a respectable nation.

1. Bill Richardson

He would've been my first choice if he hadn't dropped out of the race, as he's the most qualified candidate for the job. He has all of the experience and knowledge of running a state, including the whole conundrum with illegal immigrants. For foreign policy: hostile foreign governments ask to negotiate with him by name.

The two things that most impressed me about him:
a) He can say "I don't know" when he doesn't know.
b) When he wanted to collect the email address of the woman who'd asked the question he couldn't answer, he directed his aide to go to her, not make her go to them.

Little gestures of respect, done casually without great deliberation, say a whole lot about the kind of person someone is.

Overall, I wish we could combine Richardson and Obama. It would be totally awesome if Obama won the primaries and Richardson agreed to be the VP candidate - but as far as I'm aware, Richardson plans to go back to running his beloved state. Which also speaks highly of him, because that's where his attention really should be.

So far there have only been two Republican candidates to visit Google.

2. Ron Paul

I've talked about him before. He's a Libertarian. I'm very libertarian. When it comes to individual personal liberties, we agree. However, he thinks that those same liberties should be extended to businesses.

Businesses aren't people and aren't driven by the same motives. People are mainly interested in raising healthy, happy families. Businesses are mainly interested in making money - maximizing profits and minimizing expenses; given free rein, they will attempt to do so by any means available to them if they can get away with it, such as shafting their employees, shortcutting product and service quality, overcharging, backstabbing their competitors, etc. Successful lying, cheating, and stealing are considered good from a business standpoint. For that reason, I find his ideas about free markets rather frightening.

1. John McCain

I've talked about him before, too. The fundamental underpinnings of his political philosophy all derive from being a Christian who wants to advance the American Way to the unwashed masses. However, from those premises, what he actually wants to do is largely the same as how I would want to proceed.

Given those two choices, I'd have to go for McCain over Paul. But I'd rather have a Democrat.

14 January 2008

Random obscure things I've learned recently

The American moose is the same animal as the Scandinavian elk. The American elk is not found in Scandinavia.

The name "John" translates to "Ivan" (EEE-van) in Croatian.

The word "Cherokee" is unpronounceable in their actual language. They call it "Tsalagi" - and their name for themselves is "Aniyunwiya."

The Incan writing system consisted of bundles of strings with knots in them, called "khipu."

Due to quirks of international trade agreements, the round blue tins of Danish butter cookies cost a lot more in Denmark than they do in the U.S.

Also, "shit" is not actually considered a profane word in English-speaking places outside of the U.S.

13 January 2008

On Good Listening

Good listening means that you look at the other person for who they are, and not who they are in relation to yourself. It's about asking the right questions at the right times to help them discover aspects of themselves that they need to see, while you yourself, the listener, are completely irrelevant.

11 January 2008

Mandarin teaching alphabet

The Chinese written language consists of thousands of characters. The western world learns these with the help of "pinyin", which tries to represent the different sounds of the language using the Latin alphabet.

The Chinese also learn their written language with the help of an alphabet. It consists of 37 sounds and looks like:

The symbols are in order from top to bottom, right to left. They are pronounced (roughly):

r aan ie ah eee tzih jü jee guh duh buo
en ay oh ooo tsih chü chee kuh tuh puo
ong ow uh ü sih shü shee huh nuh muo
oeng oe eh ür luh fuo

... so while English-speaking schoolchildren are reciting "ay bee cee dee" their Chinese-speaking counterparts are reciting "buo puo muo fuo." (There might actually be other non-English European-language weird letters with umlauts or whatnot that better represent the sounds, but unfortunately the only one I know is ü.)

I learned the teaching alphabet as a kid. Unfortunately, I learned it so well that I failed to learn the actual characters they were next to, because it was easier to just use the crutch than memorize the real character. Thus, I'm functionally illiterate. I also only barely speak Mandarin - basically at the level of an 8 year old kid - which is just enough to get by with the non-English-speaking fellow workers at the Chinese takeout if I use a lot of hand waving.

The most useful thing I've ever done with this bit of knowledge was to help someone translate some arcane Buddhist texts. It was filled with rare words that she didn't know, but it did come with the teaching alphabet next to them. As she was perfectly literate with all of the actual characters, she'd forgotten the teaching alphabet. So I read everything out loud, having no clue what I was saying, and then she was able to take lots of notes and explain it back to me.

10 January 2008

Election Politics

Televised election campaign events mainly consist of candidates trading 90-second sound bites at each other. The news media prescreens all the topics and even prearranges who gets to answer which questions. They call these things "debates." I've never understood how anyone can expect to learn anything useful by watching them, and as a result, up until very recently I've basically ignored election campaigns altogether.

Then came Candidates@Google. It's a series of hour-long videos on Youtube where Google hosts several of the presidential candidates. The basic format is an informal question-answer session between the candidate and first a leader at Google, then members of the audience. This allows regular people (not news media) to ask intelligent questions on topics that most concern them. It also allows the candidate to reply for as long as they want, in as much detail as they want.

So my plan for this election season is to make my voting decisions based largely on these videos. So far @Google has videos for: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Bill Richardson, John Edwards, Ron Paul, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd, and Mike Gravel. Candidates are invited based on how much interest the employees of Google have in hearing from them, and they're evidently more interested in the Democratic candidates than the Republican ones this election season; this suits me fine, since I am too.

The downside is that many of them were made fairly early on, so they're mainly good for giving me first impressions. Of the ones I like, I then further investigate by looking at their websites. In an ideal world, Google would make more of these videos near the end of campaigning time so I can get some "last words" impressions as well.

Some candidates also have Youtube accounts. There they can put videos of themselves answering questions from regular people for as long as they want, in as much detail as they want. I've thus far not gotten around to looking into these, other than to discover that they exist. It'll be another avenue to explore more fully in future election seasons.

All in all, I like that it's becoming much easier for the candidates to tell me all about themselves and why I should vote for them.

08 January 2008

At long last, PHP capitulates!


I can now make PHP convert timestamps in obscure (read: retarded) formats into widely-used and sensible ones. The Saga of the Three Scripts (that began here) is drawing to a close! The third script, the writing is done!

Let us not speak of debugging just yet. I must first bask. :D

... umm, and pay no attention to that big chunk of data I completely forgot to account for, either. o.O I'm done, dammit! DONE!



07 January 2008

A weekend filled with weird, surreal dreams about rotten eggs and farts

It turns out that migraines and tinnitus are both much worse under conditions of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a gas leak from a poorly maintained heater. Also, none of the above are particularly conducive to complex thought.

But it's all better now. We hope. :)

04 January 2008

And now a moment you've all been waiting for ...

Presenting Poofy Fourth Street, sidekick to my alter ego Aqua Man Edna:

This was drawn by the ever-awesome Megadeus. The exact wording of my art request was: "an octopus riding on the back of a seahorse, wielding a sword, shield, ray gun, and whatever other weaponry comes to mind, dressed in shining armor with bell bottoms. And a cape." I blame the comments on this post for my making such an insane request - but he took it and I'd say did a spectacular job. :D

03 January 2008

How to sell me television entertainment

First, some facts:

1. At the present time, I pay the cable company $52 every month for TV.

2. I only ever watch one channel. Much of the time, I really only watch one weekly show. $52 is the price of the cheapest available option from the cable company for me to access that specific channel. This means that 4-5 episodes of the one show costs me $52.

3. I can buy a full season of that show, 26 episodes, as DVDs from Amazon for $30. Unfortunately, these aren't generally available until months after the end of the season.

4. I can also watch any given episode of the show for free, within a day after its official TV airdate, if I download it off the Internet.

5. The cable company tells me that at some point in the not-so-distant future, they will be able to sell me access to individual single channels in an a la carte fashion. Unfortunately, their timeframe for "not so distant" is "maybe in five years" while mine is more like "by the end of this year."


a) At present, my most sensible course of action (financially speaking) would be to cancel cable television, download what I want to watch off the Internet, and then later on buy the DVDs when they become available.

b) What I'd prefer is a legal way to watch what I want at or near the actual official airdates, for the same cost as a) or lower. Even better than #5 above would be a way to buy realtime access to individual single shows - either in the form of "rent" the way it sort of is now, or actual purchase of each episode.

c) If such legal schemes as b) ever came into being, I wonder what implications they would pose to advertising, the funding of new TV shows, and the entertainment industry as a whole.

Vaguely related: How to sell me music

01 January 2008

The Turning of Cycles

In modern times, new days start in the dead of night and new years start in the dead of winter. I think it made more sense back a few centuries and cultural norms, when new days started at dawn and new years started in the spring.