Category Archives: Personal

Pertaining to my own personal life

Farewell to a Long-Held Email Address

I no longer have access to micah@cowan.name.
I now answer to micah@addictivecode.org

I’ve had the @cowan.name for over a decade. You’ll find Google search results for it up the wazoo, long-term mailing list and usenet activity, and it’s been my contact email throughout my tenure as a project maintainer for a few GNU projects… But it’s gone now. :(

Really boring technical explanation

Okay, so the .name TLD has been a really funky thing ever since it was started. For starters, you were originally only able to buy at the third level (john.smith.name, never *.smith.name). I bought micah.cowan.name and sara.cowan.name, but no one (at the time) could ever buy cowan.name—it was only sold at the third level.

Today, if no one has already bought at the third level, it’s permitted to buy at the second level. Which really just complicates spam filtering more than accomplishing anything else, because filters have a hard time telling whether to block everything coming from @smith.name, or just @john.smith.name.

Anyway, you could buy at the third domain level, but it would also automatically include appropriate email address forwarding to wherever you wanted, for (in my case) micah@cowan.name and sara@cowan.name.

I registered them ages ago, on register.com. But they’re rather expensive, and I finally got sick of paying way more than these domains are worth, so I transferred everything to another registrar, gandi.net, including those two.

I knew at the time that the new registrar didn’t handle administrating the email forwarding, but I figured as long as I left them at their current values, they’d be fine anyway.

Well, they both suddenly stopped working early on the morning of Thursday, 2014 April 16 (yesterday at the time of this writing). If they’d stayed at the former registrar, they would have expired last month, which seemed a little too coincidental.

After some digging, VeriSign, the administrators of the .name TLD, told me that while the new registrar did indeed have micah.cowan.name and sara.cowan.name, the email forwarding objects are separate, sort of “not-domains” domains, and would have had to have been explicitly requested as part of the transfer (but were not). So they remained with the former registrar (hidden from the UI, basically).

Register.com, AFAICT, no longer even has a UI for managing the email forwarding, but would hopefully have allowed me to change it by mailed request or something. But the whole thing’s a mess.

I could conceivably transfer the domains back to Register.com and ask them to reinstate the email forwarding (they’ll have expired, so probably re-request from Verisign, assuming no one else has bought those non-domain “domains” in the interim?) the email forwarding. I could also conceivably go to some cheaper registrar that handles .name forwarding (many today do not).

But all this seems time-consuming, by which point I’d probably already have gone a week or more without the address. If I’m already having to work around it, I might as well stick with it, especially if it’s liable to remain this cumbersome in the future.

So farewell, prized micah@cowan.name address of mine. You served me well, even if occasionally some web app or other would refuse to believe it was real, forcing me to use some alternative address instead.

The ordeal is quite a bit less of an obstacle for my wife (who had sara@cowan.name); she just used it for a few friends, and one or two online accounts. I’ve got hundreds of online accounts to sift through and change email for… :?

Japan Trip, Days 1 and 2

(Pictures in this post are sparse; my photo album in Facebook is shared publicly, so provided you have an account, you can see the full set of pictures there.)

I’ve been wanting to make a trip to Japan since I first started learning the language 25 years ago. I’ve never even left North America. I’ve barely traveled a little ways into Canada, and a little ways into Mexico, and the last time I did either of those was when I was 18.

The high school student that stayed with our family for a year, Kanako Maezato, was graduating high school (has now graduated, at the time I’m writing this), and had asked us to come see her. We both wanted to come, but Japanese schools end after February, and of course our three kids are still in school, so it would have been difficult for us both to come. My wife Sara doesn’t like to travel alone, so I ended up coming by myself. I’m spending a week in Okinawa, where our homestay student lives (her family is hosting me), and then most of a week in Tokyo, with a weekend diversion in Osaka.

I decided not to mess around, and chose to fly with JAL, which has a reputation for being an excellent airline (they certainly lived up to it as far as I’m concerned).

While waiting for the plane to take me to Tokyo (where I spent one night before proceeding to Okinawa), I saw the flight attendants pass through the boarding area to the jet walkway. Each and every one of them, before entering, would turn and bow to the patrons seated. Which, at the time, was mostly just me, and maybe a couple other people, which was highly amusing, and probably made me feel a bit the VIP. :)

Aboard the plane, service was beyond exceptional. As expected, everything with a smile, but something I didn’t expect was that, between meal and snack and drink times, they would still be trawling the aisles on a regular basis, quietly presenting various conveniences, such as blankets or earplugs or eyemasks or a small tray of snacks with a couple drinks, on the off chance anyone felt the need for such a thing. You don’t really ever have to hit the assistance button (not even sure there was one? Didn’t see it up by the lights, where I’ve usually seen them before on airplanes), because they’re always just there when you need them.

Also, the meals on the flight were amazing. A variety of things to eat, all of which were good.

At one point in the flight the next day to Okinawa, they served a few candies. One of them tasted like mint and brown sugar, so I asked the flight attendant if that’s what it was, and she took the time to explain that it was and that it was an Okinawan specialty, and did I want some more? I politely declined, but she came back a few moments later with a little packet she’d prepared for me, with a couple more of those candies, and a couple other varieties as well.

Backing up to my first night, in Tokyo. I’d decided to rent a mobile phone and wifi hotspot for the duration of my stay in Japan, so I went to the store at the airport where that’s available. It was ridiculously easy. I gave them my credit card and passport (for ID), and filled out, like, a few lines on an application. They then explained to me that I would not be charged on the card until I brought back the devices, at which time they would charge the card for the rental fee, and any minutes I’d used on the phone (no charge for minutes or bandwidth on the hotspot device).

What. How… what?! That would never happen in America. You’d definitely pay a hefty deposit in advance for the devices, and probably in advance for the minutes too (prepaid?). At the very, very least, you’d pay for the minutes as you use them. Granted, that’d kind of suck, since the bank will charge a currency conversion fee, but no American company would ever be so trusting in their arrangements. Especially without a credit check. I’m not even sure how that can work for them – what if someone gave them their credit card info, and then proceeded to max that card out during their stay, and screwed them over when they returned? Even contesting the charge seems like it’d make things pretty difficult for the rental company, given how hard it is to pursue legal action and such things against someone in another country. I was completely amazed.

The hotel I was staying at was the Grand Park Hotel Panex (booking.com). I took a bus from the airport, but missed the stop (I recognized when it was coming, but stupidly forgot to hit the “please stop” button). So I had to get off a stop or two later, and catch a taxi back. It was under $3, though, because I was still relatively close (tipping is not expected in Japan, and sometimes considered insulting, so I didn’t add it).

The hotel’s elevators were annoying… the doors close, literally about three or four seconds after opening them. I had two large bags, and there was no “rushing” through those doors. They closed on me and my bags about three or four times as I got them out (both that night, and the next morning). Odd.

Once I arrived at my room, I could not for the life of me figure out how to turn any of the lights on. There was a small glowing panel (looked like a button, but wasn’t pushable) next to a switch that appeared to be for the room’s main light, but hitting the switch didn’t do anything. Bathroom light wouldn’t turn on either. It was midnight, so this wasn’t fun for me. There was some writing under that glowing panel, but the panel’s light was too dim to make out what it said.

keyfob inserted into slot, next to switchI found a (very convenient!) flashlight attached to the bedside, and brought that back to get a better look at the text. I figured out it was saying that I should insert the hotel keyfob (a long plastic stick thingy) into a slot in order to provide power to the room. If I couldn’t read Japanese at all, there would have been no possibility to avoid a call to the front desk to ask about the power (which would have been equally pointless, as the receptionist didn’t speak English anyway).

I really haven’t experienced any jet lag at all (this is my third day here). Probably because I made a point to attempt to adjust my sleeping patterns to the Japanese time zone a couple days before I left (having a flexible work schedule definitely has its advantages). I haven’t found that I sleep quite as long at night as I might want to—it gets cut shorter by an hour so—but nothing horrible, and I generally feel pretty wakeful up until 10 or so at night.

breakfastIn the morning, after I checked out, I saw that there was an amazing breakfast spread set out. I didn’t see any prices on any of the items, so I figured it must be the most amazing complimentary hotel breakfast I’d ever heard of. Turned out I was wrong; it wasn’t priced individually, you had to buy a breakfast ticket at the reception.

In the morning, I needed to get back to Haneda airport, so I tried to take the train. I ended up going to the wrong train station, though, which took me a bit to figure out (I still had plenty of time). Once there, I got myself a Pasmo card, which I charged up with some money to use on the Tokyo train system (you can also use it at station vending machines, which is fairly cool).

At the rail station, there were gates to use your card at for entry. I saw a slot in the gate, so I stuck the card in. It was accepted oddly. I took a closer look and realized the slot was for paper tickets, and I was supposed to swipe the card over an RFID-type scanner. Whoops. Fortunately, at all the station gates there’s at least one attendant right by, so I got their attention and the gate machinery was opened and my undamaged card handed back (all within mere seconds). Really efficient. And embarrassing.

That’s about it for this post, except I’ll mention that, since there’s no tipping in Japan, and sales tax is always included in the listed price, figuring out totals at stores and restaurants is way easier than in the US. Especially since they mostly don’t follow the practice of pricing things at $4.99. Japanese vendors are not afraid to call 500 yen, 500 yen.

Suggested Improvements to the UC Merced “Expanding Your Horizons” Event

This is an open letter to the Expanding Your Horizons network, and to the Women in Science and Engineering of UC Merced, in regards to the disappointing experience we had with the Expanding Your Horizons Conference for girls in junior and high school, offered at the UC Merced campus on Saturday, February 22, 2014, which was sufficiently poor that we decided to leave before the workshops had even started—even though we had pre-registered and paid for the event, and driven for an hour to arrive there, on time.

But first, I want to start by expressing my gratitude for your organizations, for the programs you offer, and for working to encourage girls and young women to enter fields in science and engineering. Women are clearly underrepresented in those fields, and I firmly support any effort made to close the gap between the current state of science engineering, and a more diverse population of scientists, engineers, and other workers in related fields.

And the fact that you are able to offer such events at the ridiculously low cost of $5 per participant (covering both a tee shirt and a lunch), is simply amazing, and I want to express my deep gratitude to your respective donors for making such a thing possible, as clearly that is not nearly sufficient to cover the costs of putting on a program such as this, and offering low entry costs makes your program accessible to girls of all income brackets.

My 7th-grade daughter, Joy, who turns 14 next week, has long been very interested in pursuing a career in entomology (bugs), or possibly a related field such as biological illustration (she is a gifted artist). Geeky, exuberant girls with a love for science and discovery tend to find today that they have trouble finding people, whether adults or peers, that can easily relate to them, or who can encourage (or even just abstain from discouraging) them in their interests and life goals, so both she and I were very excited to learn about this even taking place near to us.

Unfortunately, as I said, we found our immediate experience at the event to be so off-putting, that she elected for us to turn around and head back on the hour trek home (making some mood-restoring stops along the way). To be sure, I bear at least some responsibility for this, as some aspects of our experience would have been improved had I made a greater effort to contact your organizations to fill in some of the information gaps left by the event website and confirmation emails.

But I would definitely like to make both organizations aware of some suggestions for improvements to future program events, that I believe would have made for a much, much more positive experience for my daughter and myself. These suggestions are, ordered by our expectations of greatest improvement to students’ experience:

  • To strive harder to match participants with workshops suited to their expressed interests, or when this is not possible, to provide advance notification to that effect.
  • To be able to more quickly inform registrants who’ve received their name badges regarding what workshops they have been assigned.
  • To include better information (quantity, quality, and accuracy) about the program and its workshops and activities on the website. In particular, to more accurately describe how participants are matched to workshops, and to reflect what level of participation is permitted to young students’ parents and guardians.
  • To provide directions, signs, or maps, to the event location within the campus.
  • To better train and inform the staff about the program and its particulars, with particular stress on providing as overwhelmingly welcoming an environment as possible.

To communicate why I believe there are improvements to be made in these areas, I will give an outline of our experience.

I heard about the program through local news sources in the areas surrounding Merced. I found the local event website, but was disappointed by the fact that there were really only about three paragraphs of information about the event taking place, along with a list of topics that would be covered. I would very much have liked to find more details about subtopics covered within those broad subjects, or descriptions of what sorts of activities would be involved or included in those workshops. Ideally, bios about the workshop leaders would be nice too.

The website was not explicit about it, but seemed to me to indicate that parents/guardians could attend the workshops with their daughters (which I later learned was not the case). After further consideration of the website and the pre-registration process, I can see some signs that perhaps should have led me to suspect this, but I still feel justified in having interpreted the information on the website the way I did (further explanation some paragraphs below), and would appreciate it if your organizations would take care to be more explicit about this matter. Of course, I should also have verified my mistaken assumptions by explicitly contacting you.

When we arrived on the UC Merced campus, there were helpful signs clearly directing us where to find parking. However, there were no signs or staff within sight at the parking lot to give us any further direction as to where we should go on campus to find the event. Directions had been provided via an email link, but only to UC Merced itself, and not to any point within the campus.

So we charged into the campus for a while, deciding we were probably amongst dormitory apartments, and ended up circling back to the parking lot. At this point, we did encounter two staff members, who were stationed at the farthest point from the parking entry, and were not particularly visible from anywhere that timely arrivals were likely to be. We also would not have identified them as event staff, though they were wearing event tee shirts, as the coloring on the staff tee shirts makes it difficult to make out the design unless you are very close by.

They sent us in the right general direction, but without further signs or indicators we still got a bit lost and nearly entered an entirely different event (which turned out to be for martial arts practitioners).

When we did finally arrive at the event site, she got her name badge and a tee shirt. I had trouble determining how to pay for my own participation (as I expected to do), and they seemed to think the parent can participate, and enjoy the lunch, with just the child’s admission fee (which had been paid online). This seemed unlikely to me, so they said they’d check. But they never got back to me (probably overwhelmed with new registrant arrivals).

So I found someone else to ask, and was then informed that parents are not participants, and must leave the campus after dropping their daughter off. I replied that this contradicted what I’d understood from the website. I was then told that I could accompany her, but could not buy a lunch or tee shirt (which suited me fine).

I then wanted to determine which workshops she’d been assigned, so I could confirm that at least some portion of the day would be spent on subjects of interest to her. They could not immediately determine this information, despite the fact that color-coded dots had been placed on participants’ name badges to identify their group. They had to run and find someone with more information, who then gave them what they needed to look up which group she was in by what color she had, and determine which workshops she would participate in.

I feel it would have been much more helpful to have a large sign in the registration area, indicating which colors included which workshops—or much better, to notify pre-registered participants of their workshops as soon as this information was known.

We were dismayed to discover that none of the workshops she was assigned were in any way related to the interests she’d indicated on her pre-registration form online (Animals, Science, and Computer Science, though that last was really just in order to fill a thirmaked choice). Instead she was assigned to things related to earth mechanics, and design-and-architecture. We expressed our dissatisfaction and lack of interest in these subjects, and the cheery and somewhat dismissive response was, “well, that’s what you’re here for, to learn!”

Which is perhaps an acceptable perspective to take regarding girls who have not yet obtained an interest in science or engineering, or whose interest was still of a general nature, but is to my view, less helpful in nurturing the enthusiasm of a young girl who already has fairly solid ideas about what areas in science (specifically, and not so much engineering) she wants to pursue. We also felt it was a pretty dismissive, unwelcoming response.

To be sure, not greatly unwelcoming, but certainly not positively welcoming and encouraging. And please remember, much of the reason that organizations and events like this are necessary, is that the world is already a decidedly unwelcoming place for women in science, engineering, or technology. And as much as delivering disappointing news and the stress of dealing with hundreds of registrants (others of which must surely have had to be disappointed) is a part of handling events such as these, it seems crucial to me not only to go out of the way to avoid anything that might make a girl feel unwanted or unwelcome, or dismissed, but to strive to provide an overwhelmingly, even ridiculously, safe and welcoming haven for girls to foster their interest in technical fields.

I do not want to overstate the case, of course. While Joy did indicate later that she felt it was unfriendly, I don’t think that she felt actually unwanted or anything like that. Her decision to leave at that point was primarily due to the disconnect between the workshops to which she’d been assigned, and the science-related interests that she actually holds.

Naturally, we do completely understand that it isn’t always possible to closely match students with the interests they had indicated.However, the information we’d been given had clearly and explicitly stated that early arrival would improve the chances of getting into the desired workshops, whereas the programs had already been assigned to students well before anyone’s arrival, since they’d been marked on the students’ name badges before people could come to collect them. A more accurate description of that process would have been greatly appreciated.

And of course, given that these programs had in fact been determined ahead of time, an advance notice of her assigned program would have allowed us to make our decision on whether to participate before conducting an hour-long drive to reach the campus.

Regarding my mistaken impression that parents could participate in the program: this impression was gained mainly from the following sentence from the faqs page:

The student fee is $5 and the adult fee is $5

Now, having later re-examined the website, and finding an empty section on “adult workshops”, I suspect that this line exists because EYH may in fact have other events that do offer adult workshops, and this line is left-over from faqs used to describe such events. Further, I probably should have suspected something when, on being invited to pay for my student, I was not offered an option to pay for myself. I also later found a sentence elsewhere on the website that stated that parents that arrived too late to participate in campus tours, would be asked to sign the liability waiver and then leave the campus—that was not precisely my situation, since I had arrived before 8, but it would have hinted that parents do not participate.

It would have been quite a bit easier if the website had explicitly stated this information. The consistently repeated language on the website was that parents and guardians “do not have to” remain for the event, but there was no place that made it clear that they could not.

Again, please understand that I hold both of your organizations in high regard, and am excited about the work you are doing and have done. I understand that my situation may well be an isolated case (though I suspect that many participants and their parents experienced at least a few of the same issues, particularly in regards to lack of website information, and directions within the campus), and hope that the overall experience was a very positive one to the many other young girls who came to learn about science and technical fields. And I do hope you return to provide this excellent event again in the future, particularly if you choose to implement some of the suggested improvements that I’ve offered.

Sincere Regards,
Micah John Cowan.

How Strange Am I?

So, I’ve been reflecting lately on some of the things that make me a bit… unusual. I’m not really talking about quirks or eccentricities here, so much as interests, or unusual approaches to learning things, or things I’ve taken the trouble to learn that have little value to most people.

I think I’m beginning to realize that I love arcana: knowledge that has become uncommon and unusual. It’s not because I get some sort of snobby delusions of superiority from them, or because now I know something no one else does; it’s because whenever I encounter some fascinating system I’ve never seen before, I want to know what makes it tick.

§ For instance, I’m probably virtually the only person under, say, 60 years old, that actually understands and uses shorthand (specifically, the Gregg shorthand system, at the top of that image). It’s a method for writing quickly and compactly (and, against those who don’t know that system of shorthand, secretly) that used to be required knowledge for secretaries, journalists and court recorders. It fell out of style with the advent of personal audio recorders.

Why do I know shorthand? Because I ran across it at some point when I was ten, and thought it was cool. A journalist was doing a local interest piece on my family. I told my Mom I thought he was really just a spy. “I saw him when he was interviewing the family: he wasn’t really writing anything, he was just scribbling!” It comes in handy every now and then, though possibly more often for writing private notes than quicker dictation, as I don’t have enough opportunity to exercise it to be drastically more efficient with it than I am with longhand.

§ Typography is another interest of mine; when I tell people this, it’s frequently mis-heard as “topography”, and they assume I mean that I like maps or something. Typesetting systems such as Τεχ (and the older, less powerful nroff) are in relatively wide use in the Unix world (though I think they may be diminishing somewhat in use), and are useful to know something about (though, like many, my knowledge of nroff doesn’t extend much beyond the use of a particular set of macros to create Unix “man pages”). But the real source of my fascination with and love for typography, is Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographical Style, which is an extremely artful and enlightening, if a tad eccentric and old-fashioned, work on the subject. One word of warning: reading this book will cause you to become accutely aware of minor typographical glitches whenever you are reading, where formerly they were no more than a very subconscious annoyance. And, as good typesetting is swiftly becoming a lost art, there will be no end of opportunities for such irritations.

Now, lest you be confused, when I say I have an interest in typography, I don’t mean, as some do, the use of flashy and avant-garde fonts for titling a magazine article, or the creative twisting of text into a catchy logo or icon. My interest is actually in ordinary running text, as found in a book.

Most people probably could not imagine a more boring occupation than the careful, minute adjustment of spacing between words, lines, and paragraphs; the pairing of just the right font appropriate to the text, and the general use of a subtle touch throughout. The thanklessness of ordinary book typesetting is that the sign of a good job is precisely that no one really notices what you’ve done at all (unless of course they true have some typographical training). A perfect example of this (though far from perfection itself, I’m sure) is my setting of Mark Twain’s Cannibalism in the Cars. It is set very plainly, without flair, and you would not guess the numerous hours spent in getting the text to look just so, avoiding various minor irritations that can crop up in typestting, and coming up with ideas to make this somewhat complicated narrative as smoothly legible as possible.

§ Music has been a very large part of my life, from very early on. My family is very musical, pretty much every one of my two parents and seven siblings has a great singing voice, and several can play at least one musical instrument. I started piano lessons when I was five, and once I could play basic chords and such, my talents were sequestered for playing music as a family, for my Dad’s worship music services at church, and for, well, pretty showing off at family gatherings and such. The scene from Step Brothers where the “perfect” brother’s family were all singing in perfect harmony was hilarious to me, because our family used to do just that sort of thing.

The combination of formal piano lessons (which I continued into the music degree program at CSU Sacramento, which BTW has an excellent music department) and regular opportunities to play off chord-sheets with my family, means that I can now read sheet music proficiently, and can also improvise based on just a few scrathed-down chords. I’ve met a lot of people who can do one or the other of those, but not both (though being able to do both is not exactly rare).

On the other hand, some of my abilities in music really are somewhat unusual. As mentioned, I can improvise off of chord sheets. I can also frequently play along by ear to songs I’ve never even heard before. I’ve actually done this on stage, in fact, when accompanying a musical group at our church. It went very smoothly.

I can also transcribe music by ear. Back when I used to head up church music ministries, I would frequently make up the chord sheets for the other players, without any instruments nearby to check it on, even if I’d never seen a chord sheet for the song before. I can do this with melody lines, too; I used to sketch melodies out that popped into my heads so I wouldn’t forget them later.

Given these things, it’s kind of a shame that I don’t do a thing with music these days. I guess I should form a band or something, but my free time for something like that is pretty much nonexistent, and there’d most likely be transportation issues. Still, the one thing I miss most from church by far is playing with musical groups; I really enjoyed that.

I’m sometimes asked if I have perfect pitch, and the answer is… well, sort of. Mainly, I only have relative pitch (that is, if I hear a note and you tell me the name, then I could give you the name of any note you play thereafter). But when I’ve gotten used to playing and singing the same song over and over, I tend to develop a memory for where that key is, and so I can frequently work out what a note is without hearing a reference pitch first. But I wouldn’t be able to do it without some silence first to find my own reference pitch from memory; most people with “real” perfect pitch actually know the note instantly, from the note itself, and don’t work it out based on some other pitch.

§ Probably from my apparent love for esoteric arcana, I tend to learn a lot of obscure programming languages and technologies. PostScript, for instance, which is a programming language that outputs printer pages. Hardly anyone actually learns how to write code in PostScript, because no one really uses it as a programming language beyond writing some boilerplate code that’s capable of reading the “real” graphical data they’re interested in. Yet it is a full-fledged programming language, capable of accomplishing some exotic feats. I wrote a PostScript file for example, which results in a different randomly-generated maze every time you print it (note though that the primary links there are to static PDFs which are randomly generated when you download them, but will print the same static maze every time; not all systems can print PostScript files directly).

As another example, I actually know the Unix sed programming/stream-editing language. This is a transformation language that changes a given input into a desired output. Most people know how to do pattern-matching and substitutions in it, which honestly is what it is most useful for. However, it has support for labels and conditional branching, and is actually Turing-complete, so could be used to theoretically transform any input into any output (ignoring the fact that implementations typically have severely limited buffer space), and I’m one of the few folks who actually bothered to learn it well enough to use some of its more advanced features. Not that that’s particularly useful, as doing anything that isn’t trivial tends to be way, way too complicated with sed; but I tend not to like knowing things only “half-way”, so… I know sed. That would seem to place me in the same category as crufty old Unix sysadmins who are decades older than me.

§ I’ve memorized the ASCII table of character codes. Yeah, really. I can actually read that . No, it’s not just for general geek snobbery; I actually found it to be quite useful while I was studying terminal control sequences and the ISO-2022 character encoding standard (two more bits of esoteric arcana, though these actually happen to be very useful to me now as a co-maintainer of GNU Screen). It has also proved to be useful for doing percent-encoding for URLs in my head.

§ Alright, so like thousands of other programmer geeks, I know C, C++, etc. However, one difference between myself and the vast majority of other programmers I’ve met is that many of the programming languages and other technologies I know, I learned directly from the relevant published standards. I have copies of the C and C++ language specs as published by ISO/IEC, I go to ECMA to read about “JavaScript” and ISO-2022 (Ecma-35), the Open Group for Unix specifications, and the W3C for DOM, XML, XSL, and HTML.

That’s not necessarily the best way to learn something; it certainly isn’t the quickest. But it does tend to make me… “unique”. I do frequently find it to be helpful, to know a lot about nitpicky details, so I don’t have to wonder about the corner cases that might trip up other folks. Knowing what the standards say about something helps me to write very portable code that runs on as many existing implementations as possible, and hopefully any future ones that may be written. It also gives me an idea of what features of a language are likely to change, and which are likely to remain stable.

The thing about standards, though, is that they frequently represent an ideal that differs, mildly or very substantially, from that technology as found in the real world. The current C standard has loads of things that virtually no one implements, or plans to; and all the major C++ implementations lack the “export” feature for templates. As to trying to write useful websites that conform to all the applicable standards… it’s simply an exercise in frustration. Thus, it’s not enough to know what a document says about the technology on paper; you need real experience with actual existing implementations to know what is portable. And that is probably why most people don’t bother learning the “official standards” to begin with, and what makes my familiarity with them so unusual.

Ka-poof!

Well, my computer died Saturday. My wife had just started using it (after I’d been hogging it all day, natch), when it suddenly just powered off. But it didn’t just power off, it also produced a hefty amount of that tell-tale scent, ozone. Mixed with something else… like maybe the scent of real smoke.

I’m hoping that it’s just the power supply, and that if I just replace that, maybe everything will be fine. But power supplies have a way of taking things with them sometimes if they go down hard. Also, some recent behavior has made me suspect that the mother board may not be quite up-to-par anymore, either. I may end up having to replace that as well. Perhaps I can salvage the CPU as well, though I’m sure that’s taken quite a beating too, as I was experiencing heating problems a month ago (solved with the purchase of a case fan with significantly more oomph!). Perhaps it’d be well to go with a more up-to-date motherboard/CPU combo… I don’t think I want to go 64-bit, though, as Shockwave Flash is known to have issues on 64-bit Linux systems. Guess I’ll be doing a little shopping soon.

I’ve been wanting to get a laptop, and maybe now I have a good excuse to get a basic, cheap, not-quite-modern-but-still-very-usable model; but lately Sara and the kids have been using the computer more and more, and I don’t want to deprive them of one. And if I had a laptop, I definitely wouldn’t be keen on letting the kids (four-year-old David in particular) go touching it and stuff.

Maybe if I can manage to get the desktop working again, with some semblance of reliability, with just a power supply replacement (fingers crossed!), I can transfer ownership of that to “the wife and kids,” and get myself a cheap laptop, and a wireless access point. That way, too, I can stop pacing my room back and forth when Sara or one of the kids is surfing noggin.com. :)

Sick, sick, sick

Well, I’ve been healthy for a week now; but last week marked the end of the most gruelling flu I’ve ever had; I missed over a week and a half of work. It started out mild enough, just a sore throat. Then for half of the next day, I was unable to speak in anything but a hoarse whisper. By the weekend (which was a three-day weekend, Memorial Day weekend), and on through the next week, I spent pretty much all day in bed, racked with full-body, energy-draining coughs. Coughs that felt like I was gonna eject a lung. And, yeah, constant nose-blowing. For Memorial Day weekend, I also had really annoying muscle aches, that absolutely prevented me from feeling any kind of comfortable.

I actually still have a little bit of that cough. In fact, this morning I had a bit of a coughing fit.

I don’t ever want to be that freaking sick, not ever again. Not even when I’m 75 and figure I have it coming. Guess if anything’s gonna motivate me to start eating right and exercising a bit, maybe this will, just to help keep from ever feeling that lousy again. I’m definitely going to take up vitamin C and D supplements (BTW, did you know about the recent studies that indicate that vitamin D reduces cancer risks in women by 60%? That’s twice as effective as quitting smoking! It also appears to be very effective for men as well), and I will be first in line for the next batch of flu vaccinations.

New Family Addition

Kamberly LaVene Cowan was born 2007 Feb 7, at 7:18 pm PST. She weighed 7 lbs 11 oz (yup, like the convenience store), and measured 19 inches. And she’s cute!

(Sorry, not gonna post pics here; I have a thing against posting photos of my kids to the internet.)

The “Micah Cowan” Page

How weird.

I was doing a search on my name, since I was curious what pages would come up these days. I was surprised to discover this one at tutorials-blog.com, which features my name as the title, in hot pink against a black background.

The content was not immediately familiar to me. However, as I checked more closely, I realized it was a reproduction from a thread in comp.lang.postscript on Usenet. About three of the articles on that lengthy page were written by me. None of the posts actually contain much indication as to who wrote them; you can find which ones are mine by seeing my name in some of the quote attributions.

As far as I can tell, the purpose of this site is to steal the publicly available content from Usenet posts, for the purpose of attracting search engine hits, so visitors will come to that site in search of useful information, and the Google Ads placed there will generate a bit of income for the site owners. Obviously, the only people who are going to enter “Micah Cowan” into a Google search are either:

  1. Friends or family of mine,
  2. Prospective employers, or
  3. Very bored individuals who have happened across my name.

However, it does happen to be the first-ranking page of, among other probable search terms, postscript “extensible lists”. With a huge amount of content (and they seem to have archived a fair bit of Usenet), this can add up to significant $$$.

Stealing content to gain advertising is becoming relatively commonplace now. I’m sure there’s a term for it, but I don’t know what it is. The trouble is that since this is Usenet, it arguably is published by the authors (including myself) with an implicit license for redistribution. These site owners could even claim to be providing a “service”, much like Google Groups, in archiving Usenet articles (though how much of a “service” it could be when they remove all headers, including indication of authorship, is debatable). So, it’s probably totally legal, if unethical.

Legal or not, I’d be willing to wager that Google wouldn’t approve. It probably violates their Terms of Service; I’ma go figure out how to report it, at least. :)

Still dunno why my name was chosen to title the page. Much as I’d like to claim it’s because it happens to be a popular search term ;), it seems more likely that the aggregation engine mistakenly thought my name was the title of the thread…?