It’s almost a year since I last posted. A great deal has happened since that last post, most notably the death of my father. Trying to put the experience into words is beyond me, which is probably why there has been no posts. There are four draft posts in the dashboard, but I couldn’t finish them. So, in a fit of new-year optimism, I’m trying to write things again. Keeping a long way away from personal stuff is this new blog about RISC-V, and this review for Lowes which was in response to an experience that really got on my tits.

On the plus-side of 2022, I managed to start working at a new job that is stimulating, enjoyable, and doesn’t involve dealing with odious-bastard clients. I have learned from experience that when working closely with other people, it’s healthy to be able to have a level of frankness that can iron over disagreements and promote harmony – even if it initially causes upset. Far worse is to let bad feeling brew under the covers and get infected with pent-up frustration; eventually someone will explode and, by then, the damage to the project and the relationships could already be done. Unfortunately, when one of your close work-mates is a representative of the client, you can’t have that level of frankness. So, I’m glad to be out of a couple of messy situations and back to a healthy environment. It’s quite disturbing to discover how tightly my mental health seems to be entwined with the details of my day job.

To kick off the new year, here is a list of media I’ve enjoyed recently:

Happy new year.

Feb 22 Thonks

Recent events have been messy. The general thrust is that I’ve resigned from a rather awesome company to rejoin another company that feels like a strange kind of home. Some other thonks from this week:

  • When you walk a cute dog, people tend to be much nicer to you; it’s much easier to get a “good morning” from someone when they’re appreciating your mutt.
  • Getting out of the house every day, even just to help a dumb animal move its bowels so that you can pick it up, adds a surprising amount of positivity to the day.
  • In his book “Bullshit Jobs“, David Graeber describes work as a sort of involuntary S&M relationship with your boss; the difference being that there is no safeword beyond “I quit”. Over the years I’ve noticed that there is an addictive quality to this safeword: be warned.
  • The Cardiacs were one of the most extraordinary and wonderful bands that ever existed. RIP Tim.
  • Amazon parrots are extremely good companions, and seem to share a great sense of humour.
  • The cold is better than the heat, especially if you can snuggle up in a warm bed at night.
  • The Internet has proven that access to information doesn’t guarantee global enlightenment.

Zoom Feature Request

The 40 minute cutoff for Zoom meetings should be the feature you pay for. The human concentration limit in a meeting/lecture scenario is around 40 minutes, so when you get booted out, it really is for everyone’s benefit. Another feature I’d like to see is a time limit based on how much of a twat you are. It could use AI to work, out on a scale, how irritating and worthless everyone is, and then boot them out one by one in order.

Millennials, Gen-Z and Door Knockers

In case you weren’t aware, Millennials and Generation-Z (hereinafter referred to as “da yut”), on the whole, do not feel comfortable using doorbells, door knockers, and telephones. And before you feel the urge to point out that getting one of them to let go of their mobile for a split second is like prizing a thing out of a very tight thing, the fact that we still call them “mobile phones” is an anachronism; da yut do not make telephone calls with them.

To da yut, the smartphone is the gateway to their real lives. I’m not going to try to go on about the whole nature of reality and virtual reality because there are entire university departments dedicated to that stuff, and I haven’t got a clue. But one thing I have noticed is that their attitude to phone calls and doorbells is based on a simple and logical difference between them and us: they prefer asynchronous communication. We never had the choice.

To da yut, a phone call is rude and annoying. Someone has the audacity to interrupt whatever you are doing and demand attention, right there and then, because it’s convenient for them! And I tend to agree – why would you interrupt someone, unless it was an absolutely dire emergency? If it’s not critical, why would you not just send a message instead? That way, when they have time and are less distracted, they can deal with it.

So, why do we put up with it? Well, because it’s all we had, and we grew up thinking it was normal. It’s the same reason we feel like music should come on plastic discs and that people phoning radio stations to make requests is a reasonable thing to do. We’re just set in our ways.

Confronted with a the closed front-door of a friend, da yut are far more likely to text the occupant than do something aggressive like ring a bell. Why alert the entire house to your presence when it’s just your friend you want to see?

Yesterday, I spied through the window someone standing by my front door. I realised my phone was on silent and that this must be the Go-Puff delivery driver, so I opened the door and there was a young lad, furiously texting me on his phone.

“I still don’t feel comfortable just going up and knocking on people’s doors.” he said. “I’d be like ‘why are you hitting my house?'”

And he surely has a point.

Summer Days

Before the extraordinary heat, currently affecting the North West, makes its way to the Best Coast, it’s worth describing how nice things have been here. Last week revived all of the “joie de vivre” that we imagined we had before the pandemic: two lovely summer evenings in pub gardens, followed by a family meal in an impossibly picturesque country house, impossibly in Langhorne. Drinking in beautiful summer weather, in lovely surroundings, with lovely friends, has been a distanct memory, but last week it all came true. Thanks to the PHS popup beer-garden, and the wonderful Union Tap House, both in Manayunk.

Mystery Earworms

picture of girl trying to get something of her headPeople have different connections to music. Some like it, some just aren’t interested, and some others deeply feel part of the sound, which can result in goose-bumps [goose-pimples], frisson, and obsessive looping of audio fragments in the brain, whether awake or asleep. There’s no doubt that I fall into the last category, which means that earworms are more than just an irritation; they can absolutely overtake my consciousness and interfere with the normal functions of a tedious life. There are two main categories:

  1. Earworms I can identify, and may even know the words to.
  2. Earworms I can’t identify.

Category 1 are an annoyance, but they’re easily replaced by listening to other category 1 earworms that aren’t as sticky.

Category 2 are a far greater problem and can really interfere with the normal functioning of life. They’re also quite fascinating because it’s not clear how they work or why they can invade your consciousness when you can’t even identify them. If you know the tune, and even some of the words, how is it possible that you don’t know what it is? Has anyone ever managed to implement this situation in a neural network? I doubt it.

So, the other night I had a category 2 earworm in my head and it was interfering with my concentration and slowly overtaking my entire brain. There was a jingly introduction, a sad voice, probably in 3/4 time, and a feeling that the whole song moved from the little jangly thing into something big and pleasing. That’s way too vague to identify. But it would not leave me alone. It felt so familiar but also so alien. Why did it feel alien? How could it be so familiar but so distant?

So I killed it off by repeatedly listening to one of my favourite addictive earworms, made powerful by strong childhood associations and the fact that I knew the words. [“Bad Guys” from Bugsy Malone if you’re interested]. Problem solved.

The next morning, in the shower, the jangly, 3/4, tragedy returned. I had to get it – but how do you trick your brain into giving away associations? OK, it wasn’t the style of music I normally listen to, so it was probably something I came across or was shared with me. It was also well grounded in my memory so I can’t have recently discovered it; I’ve no idea how I knew that, but that was the only clue I was given. The last time I was subjected to a whole bunch of music I didn’t know was while I was working at Mediaguide (now, sadly, defunct), so it was probably one of the bands I was introduced to there. I went through the ones I remembered, and narrowed it down to a few artists that could fit the bill. But even with that shortlist it would have been a heap of music to wade through – and that would have been a last resort.
There was one band in the list that I had also been listening to a lot recently, but as music to work to. I couldn’t name any of their songs or even hum them – they just worked well as coding music. My memory of the music was not like this jangly sad thing… but maybe it was an odd track.
So, I fired up Amazon Music on the telly, and searched for “Here We Go Magic” (for it was they) and found the album that I’d been introduced to seven years ago. There’s no way it was at the start of the album…so I flipped to the last track and played it.
Boom! Jingly 3/4 sadness and beauty. Somehow there was a part of my brain that knew this, and was desperate to hear it – but it seemed unable to communicate it with the rest of me. Why does it work like that?
[The song is “Everything’s Big”, and the rest of the album is great, and worthy of more than background music.]

This was a fortunate, pleasing and baffling experience for me. It’s not normally that easy. If you find yourself in this situation here are some tools for identifying a song:

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the American obsession with “good” and “bad”. It seems to be accepted by all strata that there is such a thing as a good person and a bad person.

There are apparently good cops as well as bad cops. Good protesters as well as bad protesters. Good clerics and bad clerics. There are probably good bank-robbers and bad bank-robbers too. If only there was a simple hand-held test that would show if someone was good or bad – life would be so much easier.

On one occasion, while entering the States during a short period working for a pen-testing company, the immigration officer asked what I did for a living. On learning I was a “cyber-security professional” he said “ah, keeping the bad guys at bay?”

It was absolutely bewildering to me. He really thought it was about bad guys: evil people trying to hurt the good people, purely because bad guys want bad things to happen. No middle ground there.

Then I noticed how many times I hear people on the news – the fucking news – invoke the notion of  “bad guys”.  Because they’re the problem really aren’t they? Why don’t we just put all the bad guys in prison? Wouldn’t that solve all of society’s problems if we simply outlawed bad-guyism?  If we did that, then all that would be left are the good guys. And they’re good!

It’s like living in a really crap cowboy film.

A LabCorp Adventure

Today I had to deliver 3L of my piss to a private company called LabCorp.

Those of you living in civilized countries, where healthcare is all about making people better, rather than making an entire stratum of society rich, will no doubt be confused by why such a circumstance would arise. This is America: if someone can make money out of something, it is enshrined in law that they must do so, even if the “something” is blood, urine or egesta.

But, we get a choice! The specialist’s office asked me which private blood/piss/turd merchants I would prefer to patronise. The choice was really down to how far I wanted to travel with my 24 hours-worth of excreta and so I selected the only nearby franchise: LabCorp.

Since moving to this country I have had cause to visit various LabCorp branches on numerous occasions, usually as the result of company hiring policies that require pissing in a cup. Despite the awkward, and potentially embarrassing situation you find yourself in when attending one of these places, the staff work hard to make the experience as miserable and irritating as possible and let me tell you, they really do go the extra mile. Every “customer” is treated equally: as if they were imbecilic sex-offenders.

So, today at 8am, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of entering our local branch with a large specimen. But I needn’t have been concerned because everything was exactly as awful as I’d imagined!

Despite all of the covid precautions invoked by LabCorp, and publicised in countless posters and floor markings, the first thing you encounter in the waiting area is a mandatory touch-screen. Nice one LabCorp! And thanks for the bottle of hand-sanitizer taped to the touchscreen; it’s less safe than soap and water and far less safe than not requiring the use of a touch screen at all. I mean, there’s a window, with staff behind it, and a glass screen in front of it but yes, I understand that in this brave new world, all human interaction that can be removed should be removed.

Not having state ID on me (I don’t drive), I went through the tortuous procedure of typing my name, address, DOB and various other details using the unresponsive on-screen keyboard. It then asked me to scan my insurance card, front and back. Next, I was informed that I owed LabCorp $25 for previous services and offered the convenient opportunity to pay now with a credit card, which I politely declined. Finally, I was shown a summary of my details which, with a cursory examination, appeared to be correct, and was then invited to sit down and wait to be called. So, with a generous squirt of hand-sanitzer in one hand, and a big bottle of piss in the other, I sat down.

After a couple of minutes, a lady behind the aforementioned glass screen, started trying to attract my attention by yelling:
“Sir! Sir! Are you here for bloodwork?”

“No.” I answered truthfully.

“Well you have to wait outside. Because of covid. We can only have people who are having bloodwork done in here.”

Odd, I thought, but apologized and began walking towards the door. Before reaching it, another customer called out to me, pointing out that I probably was having something done. Oh. So I went to the window to make sure that I hadn’t got the wrong end of the stick.

“You’re here to have something done?” asked the lady behind the glass.

“Yes!” I said looking bewildered. I mean, why the fuck else would I be there at all, let alone at 8 in the morning and carrying a 3L bottle of piss.

“Well you have to sign in on the tablet!” she yelled.

“I did!” I yelled back.

“Well you’re not in the system!”

“I just did! I did it!”

“What’s your name?”
I gave my name.

“No, you’re not here. You have to sign in and choose ‘Drop off'”.

“I just signed in!” I protested. The lady responded by flouncing out of the room behind the glass and into the back. Now what? Was she going to ask for help with the tablet? I decided to wait and see.
After about 5 minutes of waiting by the glass, she returned to the back room and sat at her desk, avoiding eye contact with me. So yeah, she hadn’t been seeking assistance, just fucking off out the back until she thought I may give up and leave. With my piss.
“So! Should I try to sign in again?” I asked. She ignored me.

“Should I sign in again?” I persisted.

“YES!” she yelled back, in semi fury.

“Will it work this time?”

“YES! And choose ‘drop off’!”

So, I went through the tortuous procedure of typing in my details all over again. I scanned my insurance card again. I declined payment again. I confirmed the details were correct again. At no point was I asked about why I was there. Finally, I was told to take my seat and wait again.

“I’ve done it, but there was no option to select ‘Drop off’!” I called.
She glared at me with incredulity and fury before getting up and stomping towards the intervening door while angrily pulling on some rubber gloves (there’s no way she was going to deal with an unhygienic touch screen without rubber gloves).

She angrily prompted me to repeat, for the third time, the touch-screen procedure. At every screen, she angrily told me to click “Next” just before I clicked it. Until we came to the final screen, that told me to sit down and wait to be called, at which point her mood completely changed; confronted, as she was, by some evidence that I wasn’t a belligerent fucking moron.

I had to resist the urge to launch forth with a barrage of smug sarcasm, or questions about how embarrassed she was feeling.

She took the print-out of my details I’d been provided by my specialist and went through the procedure again, very sheepishly. This time, she stopped at the “would you like to settle out outstanding invoice” prompt.
“Ah, you have to pay this, ” she said politely. “That’s why it didn’t work.”
Oh really? I paid it.
This time a new prompt appeared which allowed me to select “drop off”.

Now, at this point, let’s consider the technical aspect of the touch screen software. I chose not to pay an outstanding invoice (there is a legit reason for this that you really don’t want to be bothered with), at which point it let me confirm my details and told me to sit down and wait to be called. If I hadn’t had the interaction with the charming assistant, I’d be sitting there still. Because it didn’t pass my meticulously entered details onto the staff! Did their QA engineers not spot this bug? There was a choice between paying LabCorp some money, or being told to sit and wait for something that would never happen.

Anyway, I had passed the challenge. My details were entered.
“So what now?” I asked.
“Go out the back and leave it on the table in the room with the green curtain.”

Wait – so after all of this, I’m just putting it on a table? Together with the document I was given by the specialist which contains all of the details I had repeatedly entered into the disease vector and an explanation of the test expected? Why yes. It’s almost as if the whole thing was a complete waste of everyone’s time.

So LabCorp, here are some action points for you:

  1. Fix your software so that it’s not buggy and unpleasant to use. If you need some help, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with some software companies that actually know what they’re doing.
  2. Why not try not using a dirty-ass touch screen at all and instead employ a human to just take people’s details.
  3. Consider a new approach when training your staff. Maybe transition away from the prison-officer training, and more towards, I don’t know, customer-service perhaps? Think outside the box.