AssholeDirectory dot com

I've got a great idea for a website:  Asshole Directory.  It's a user-maintained online database of people who are assholes.  Feel free to build it and cash in.

My wife had her lunch ruined by just such an asshole today.  Sitting at the bar at B Spot, she was accosted by a righteously indignant know-it-all who expounded on subjects such as the likelihood that her medium rare hamburger contained parasites, dead baby jokes, and how computers are bad.  In a perfect world, her parting remark to this miserable shit would be "by the way, what's your name?  OK thanks, I'm going to submit you to the Asshole Directory."

Users of the website would upload Assholish Behavior Reports identifying the name of the offender.  They would list the transgressions and, if possible, the date and location.  Other users, upon meeting someone and learning their name, would surrepititously check the Asshole Directory to gauge the quality of their new acquaintance.

Also, there would be an app.

Sure, it would be possible to abuse the system, but if Wikipedia can come to some kind of stalemate over global warming, we can at least provide some information about people.  Whaddyathink?

Fiction: Uptight

Cyrus's nose had been useless since he moved to Muskegon.  The paper mill had long since closed, but people said it was the kind of town that deadened the senses anyway.  His friends had abandoned wild hairstyles and clothes, moved past tattooing, and taken up piercings and implants in an arms race of personal branding.  The pavement cracked; their psyches thrashed.

They said he was uptight.  He resisted their jaded scarification.  Inwardly he reeled when Ethel became a junkie as a fashion statement, but at the bar Cyrus pursed his lips and nodded with everyone else.  He felt the emperor had no clothes, but who would listen?

He took to driving the battered streets after the early bars closed.  They said the Midwest was a post-industrial wasteland, but the bricks felt warm to him.  At least the buildings let the bindweed grow on them.  Nothing grew in his broken social scene.  As he rolled past the fences he felt watched, or perhaps looked upon.  It wasn't the buildings' glassless spectacles regarding him.  Maybe it was the Milky Way.  Muskegon no longer put out enough light pollution to drown out the stars.

Sometimes, as he drove, the crickets would go silent and Cyrus would sense a presence.  Above him there floated an ambivalent deja vu.  The hair would stand up on the back of his neck.  Would they take him away?  Would they show him a different place to be, a different way to be?  If they did, what could he do?  Nothing:  his friends' condescending grins would lock him out forever.  They could never change, even as they burned with the pace of their fashion.

I wish that they'd swoop down on a country lane late at night when I'm driving.
They'd take me on board their beautiful ship and show me the world as I'd love to see it.

DIY: USB wall plates

Have you ever wished you could plug a USB device directly into your wall to connect it to a computer somewhere else?  Wireless USB basically doesn't exist.  So I got some generic wall plates and USB inserts.
Pro tip:  connect the wires and make sure it works before you drill any holes.
In my kitchen, I have a laptop that's used for recipes, Internet radio, Netflix, etc.  We have a nice stereo sitting on top of the cabinets, but getting the sound up to the stereo meant having wires hanging down.  That's ugly and it got in the way.  I solved the problem by putting a USB hub up there (with a USB audio output) and running the USB cable from the computer to the hub through the wall.
The bottom plate (with old paint showing around the edges)
At the countertop level, I decided to repurpose a hole in the wall for a phone jack we weren't using.  Above the cabinets, I figured I could safely put the other plate a couple feet to the side.  Nope:  I forgot that the wall contained vertical boards (studs) that the drywall is screwed to, and there was at least one stud to the right of my upper plate that would prevent the wire in the wall from going sideways to reach the lower plate.  (That, of course, was after the first set of holes I drilled ended in solid wood up there, forcing me to drill a second set and patch the first.)  It wasn't going to be pretty up there.

Once I realized the upper plate was going to have to be roughly above the lower one, I drilled a third set of holes and tried lowering the cable from above.  I hit what appeared to be a *horizontal* board in the way inside the wall.  Exhausted, I packed up my tools and gave up.  That was January.  On Sunday I picked it back up again, and realized that (a) the horizontal board didn't block off the whole interior of the wall, and (b) the wall was insulated.
The top plate, with extra holes I had to patch
At this point I resorted to the ultimate homeowner hack:  a straightened coathanger.  I pushed it up from the lower hole, and its tip barely came out of the upper hole.  I attached the bottom end of the USB in-wall cable to the top of the coathanger with electrical tape and was able to pull the cable down through the insulation.  At that point all the wire connections were functional, and all I had to do was screw the plates to the wall.  Done!  Well, except for patching and painting over all the extra holes up there.

RSS for work and play

RSS is a technology for subscribing to blogs (or changes to any other website).  That may sound like something only a database administrator could love, but it helps keep my professional work relevant:  it provides context.  Without it, I run the risk of becoming out-of-touch or too highly focused.

I used to follow RSS feeds just for entertainment.  Recently, though, I've subscribed to several useful kinds of RSS feeds related to my work, and I want to share how I set them up. 

Google Alerts:
If you log in to your Google account, you can click "alerts" on the main page of all Google services, or simply go to  There's a screenshot above.  A Google Alert simply monitors the Google search of whatever keywords you specify, and notifies you when something new is available in the results.  For example, instead of doing a Google search for "U2 new concert dates" every day to find out where the band will play, you could subscribe to an alert and let it notify you.  I've used it to search for press releases about my field.

Google Blog Search:
Google Blog Search is essentially a Google search that only returns results from blog postings.  This is useful for excluding commercial pages from your results and getting an outsider's perspective.  You subscribe to it through Google Alerts, but you pull down the "Result Type" menu and select "Blogs".  Unfortunately I've found that there is still a lot of what amounts to advertising in the results - blogging is free, so many vendors set up multiple blogs with posts automatically generated to describe their products.

Scientific publishing houses:
For me, this has been a grand slam.  Once I left the national laboratory system and its free access to the technical literature, it became very difficult to follow new developments in my field.  I was thrilled that scientific publishing houses like Elsevier and Wiley provide RSS feeds of new articles with any terms you like appearing in the article's title or introduction.  For me, the feeds have been rich, with an excellent signal-to-noise ratio.  If you're not a scientist, the equivalent might be the publishers of the trade journals for your profession.

Professional societies:
Whether you're an accountant or a structural engineer or a massage therapist, you probably have a professional society.  And it probably has a blog.  Whether you're a member or not, subscribe to find out what the hot topics are.

In some of these cases, RSS is taking over the function of the good old-fashioned email newsletter.  The difference is that I've chosen what content I want to receive, rather than relying on a curator to compile what they think is relevant to a mailing list. 
There's a trap that professionals sometimes fall into where their work provokes the response "this solves a problem I don't have".  You may recognize the tendency in academics and artists, where they become so deeply specialized that nobody outside a handful of their fellow professionals can comprehend, let alone use, their work.  Remember the mathematician who proved Fermat's Last Theorem a few years ago, despite Fermat having died 350 years ago?  Yeah, me neither.  Only maybe five mathematicians in the world were qualified to judge whether or not he had succeeded, and his work was relevant to no one.

Tracking these RSS feeds has made me much more in touch with what's going on in my technical community.  It's also given me a broader understanding of how advances in my field are relevant to others.  I felt some of the news was worth sharing, so I'm sending my coworkers a monthly newsletter (yes, I created a mailing list).  It's a little like blogging, and so far, people like it.  Not only that, but I've come up with more potentially patentable ideas in the last six months than in the preceding three years.  Reading about what other people are doing has really gotten my creative juices flowing.  Give it a try!

Return of the 125,000 mile curse

I like my car.  Or, I should say, I liked it.  I am not a superstitious person and there are very few inanimate objects I'll ascribe intentions to, but I think my car is trying to make me hate it.

My cars have what you might call a 125000 mile curse:  at that point they either break beyond repair, get totalled in a crash, or (rarely) get traded in while still functional.  I swore it'd be different this time.  My Mazda3 suits me very well, and it should be capable of 175000 miles if not more.  So when it reached 125k, I put $2000 into it to fix an engine mount and work on the brakes and suspension.  I thought that should keep the car on the road for another three years, at which point the inexorable advance of rust would claim it.

Almost immediately after the brake and suspension work, the squeaking and rattling came back.  Can I get from point A to point B?  Yes.  Enthusiastically?  No.  I have to admit that driving past people in a car that is audibly in need of repair makes me feel *bad*.  I can ignore that problem by rolling up the windows.  However, earlier this summer my air conditioning began to flicker on and off.

Two weeks ago my turn signal stopped shutting itself off after right turns.  The windshield wipers have been whacking loudly against the metal beside the glass for the last 40,000 miles.  The A/C is unreliable.  It squeaks like a bus and rattles like a coffee can full of rocks.  And the rust is spreading. 

And yesterday it wouldn't start.

It may be time to trade in this sled.

The mechanic says the only thing wrong is the battery, but I know:  it doesn't like me.  It wants to go sit in someone else's driveway.  Maybe I'll grant its wish.