Sci-Fi’s Difficult Genius (The New Yorker)

Posted May 13th, 2015 at 10:25am by Stephen

Gene Wolfe’s science fiction is neither operatic nor scientifically accurate; his fantasy works are not full of clanging swords and wizardly knowledge.

Fascinating profile of one of my favorite writers.

Source: Sci-Fi’s Difficult Genius – The New Yorker

Marketing

Posted May 9th, 2015 at 1:18pm by Stephen

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Kauai Photographs

Posted April 17th, 2015 at 5:20pm by Stephen

I’ve added a Flickr Album for our Kauai trip.

Kauai

Posted April 11th, 2015 at 12:49am by Stephen

I titled the last post “Aloha” because I’m in Kauai with Sammy and Sophie, flying back to California tomorrow. It’s been a great trip:

  • We flew in and landed late Friday night, and basically just crashed in our condo in Poipu since it was around 11pm (2am our time).
  • Saturday we had breakfast at the Grand Hyatt next door, shopped for groceries, and visited the pool and beach.
  • Sunday we used the pool, made reservations, and had a luau.
  • Monday was a raft ride up the Na Pali coast.
  • Tuesday was a kayak and zipline adventure.
  • Wednesday we hiked the Waimea Canyon.
  • Thursday was a pool and beach day, at Salt Pond Beach Park.
  • Today was a helicopter tour, followed by waterfall visits.
  • Tomorrow we’ll visit Poipu one more time, then pack and drive up to Kilauea Lighthouse before red eye home.

Wailua Falls, Kauai, April 10, 2015

Kauai is an amazing island: Laid back, verdant, friendly, and charming. I can’t wait to return here.

Aloha

Posted April 11th, 2015 at 12:16am by Stephen

Starting in 2009, most of my social media activity was in FriendFeed. I’ve written about it before; it was far better than Facebook, Twitter, and any other site in terms of features — and the community was tightknit and supportive, especially after Facebook acquired the site in 2011, and development ceased (causing the user base to slowly migrate away.

Today, FriendFeed died. Facebook pulled the plug.

There is a replacement site, Frenf.It, created by an Italian FF user known as Senape, and it offers a lot of promise. But when FF’s shutdown was announced a month ago, I resolved to return to blogging. In the past I was too much of a perfectionist and I let good post ideas languish (or just posted them to FF instead). I’ll try to just dash off quick posts here more frequently.  

Venmo: A case study on why e-mail verification is absolutely required by any web site with account creation

Posted October 10th, 2014 at 1:34pm by Stephen

I’ve had my estephen@gmail.com address since gmail was in beta, approximately 10 years now.

Now, personally, I don’t find it very difficult to remember my e-mail address. I can type it in just fine. But that’s far too challenging a task for many people, it seems. There’s an Edna, for example, who lives on the other side of the country from me. I know a lot about Edna — I know about her taste in cars and crafting supplies. The main thing I know about her is that she likes to sign up for lots of accounts and she believes her e-mail address is estephen@gmail.com. Poor Edna. And poor me, because I get a lot of her junk e-mail.

Sometimes I end up on e-mail threads having nothing to do with me. Two recent examples were a church group planning a camping trip, and a New York apartment complex trying to rally tenants to sue their landlord.

There is an Ed and an Elissa and quite a few others out there who have mistakenly used my e-mail address when signing up for accounts. Usually I can cancel their account or unsubscribe fairly simply. And sometimes I end up on a mailing list of a company that just refuses to take me off. (Car dealerships seem to be the worst at that one.)

Fortunately, many companies use e-mail verification: Before they let someone create an account, they send an e-mail off to whatever address was used to sign up, and require the recipient click on a link to confirm that the e-mail address is actually associated with the person who was trying to sign up. This is a smart process. It’s not entirely foolproof (since the e-mail recipient could confirm the address even if they’re a different person from the one who tried to sign up). But it’s far better than just relying on people to type in their own e-mail address correctly. You simply cannot trust people to be able to do that accurately.

Now a financial company, one that facilitates payments, you’d certainly expect them to use e-mail verification, right? Paypal and Square do. Both have elaborate processes to verify all aspects of your identity, up to and including your bank account (by sending a $1 charge to confirm that your debit card is real).

Today I had an experience with Venmo, a payments company similar to Square and Paypal (but with more of an apparent emphasis on Facebook integration). Venmo requires verification of your phone number, when signing up, but not your e-mail address. (They require e-mail confirmation to receive money, but not to create the account or send money.) Here is the e-mail exchange I’ve had with them earlier today that explains more.

[Screenshot of Venmo's cancellation screen]

Dear Venmo Support,

At some point in the past, someone named Exxxxxx Stepxxx created a Venmo account. She is apparently not a very attentive person, however, because she used the wrong e-mail address when creating the account — she used estephen@gmail.com.

Sad for her, but estephen@gmail.com is my e-mail address, and I have had it since when gmail was in beta.

Your company is idiotic to not require e-mail address verification. All of your competitors follow a typical process where an e-mail address cannot be used to create an account (or even changed on an account) unless a customer verifies that they actually have that e-mail address. The typical process is to send an e-mail stating that someone has created an account with this e-mail address, and then there’s a link to confirm the customer received the e-mail — thus proving the customer is in possession of that account.

For a banking company to not require address verification is absolutely moronic.

I had never heard of Venmo before today. I have never received any e-mail from your company before today.

But a friend wanted me to pay for a t-shirt using Venmo, so I tried to sign up today and found my e-mail address was already in use.

I thought perhaps I might have used your service in the past and forgotten about it, so I chose to reset my password.

Soon I received a password reset e-mail, and with one click I was logged in to Exxxxxx Stepxxx’s account.

From there, it appears I could see all kinds of financial and personal information about her account. She had a balance of $0, I didn’t check but it appeared to me that her bank accounts were also linked.

Instead of exploring her account, I chose to deactivate it immediately. She’s lucky.

But I’m flabbergasted that you are such a naive and terrible company that you let any customer type in any e-mail address they want and you just assume that they are able to type in their e-mail address correctly.

If you expect that your customers are actually able to remember their e-mail address and type it in, you are sadly mistaken. As a financial company you absolutely cannot trust people to be able to type their own e-mail address. YOU MUST IMPLEMENT E-MAIL VERIFICATION IMMEDIATELY.

I will create a new account using a different e-mail address to pay for my friend’s t-shirt, and then I will immediately cancel my account, because I suspect your company has one of the worst sets of security employees and practices in the entire financial world. You are demonstrably a completely untrustworthy company.

How can you be still in business?

FYI, I will be posting this to my blog, FriendFeed, Twitter, and Facebook. I will also be submitting this to popular security blogs. I will be recommending to all of my friends to not do business with you.

Please forward this message to your senior management, and in particular your security team.

My cell phone is 4xx-xxx-xxxx should you have any questions.

Kind regards,
Stephen Mack
The true owner of estephen@gmail.com for approximately the last 10 years

They replied about an hour later:

Hi Stephen, thanks for your very thorough review of our free service. We definitely appreciate constructive feedback from our users.

We also appreciate you looking out for the security of another user by canceling their account on their behalf.

When you created your account with your alternate email address, we sent a verification email to that address. If it’s not in your inbox, check your spam folder. The process is exactly as you’ve described. The email confirms that an account was set up with that email address, and provides a link for users to click in order to verify the account.

User bank and debit/credit card information is stored securely and entirely encrypted using bank-grade encryption technology. We only display the last four digits of a user’s bank account or card number, just as any other online retailer or financial institution does. This is so our users are clear about what funding sources they have on file at any given time.

We are continually working to improve the user experience and of course, the security of our free service and we value your comments.

I’ve noticed that you did successfully pay your friend but have not cancelled your account yet. If you are still dissatisfied with our free service, you can visit: https://venmo.com/account/settings/cancel to cancel your account.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to us again.

Regards,
Tim

But this isn’t good enough, as my response details:

Tim,

Thanks for your detailed reply.

As you saw, I did in fact create my new account (and that’s good detective work on your part, since I used a completely different e-mail address). And I did receive an e-mail that offers me the OPTION of verifying my e-mail address in order to receive payments.

But that e-mail does NOT require me to verify the e-mail address to send payment. And most importantly it does not require me to verify that e-mail address BEFORE the account is created! That is completely horrifying and evil.

So, because of your company’s poor security practices, if I had used the wrong e-mail address, then the true owner of that e-mail address would have been able to see:

* My name
* My phone number
* My photo (if I uploaded one)
* My FB friends (if I had linked FB) or any other linked social media
* My transaction history
* The last 4 digits of my debit card and its expiration date
* My zip code (shown on the confirm cancellation screen)

You don’t mention if you’ve escalated this complaint to your security team and management or not. I highly recommend you do so.

It’s not so much that I’m “dissatisfied” with your “free service” as I am completely mortified at how horrifically terrible your security practices are.

I have not yet canceled my account because I’m investigating other ways in which you may be violating my privacy and security. But rest assured I will be canceling very soon.

I am currently in the process of writing my blog post about my experience. Please be advised that all e-mail communication sent to me regarding this case will be considered public and is likely to be included in my post.

Thanks for your quick response. Unfortunately your response doesn’t help with this security and privacy flaw, not by a long shot.

Best,
Stephen

Happy Seventh Birthday, Sophie

Posted September 24th, 2014 at 11:29pm by Stephen

Sophie,

Yesterday you turned seven, and each year you are sweeter and more caring. You’ve blossomed in first grade. I have to confess, I was a bit worried about your reading. Unlike your brother, you didn’t seem as interested in learning how to read on your own. I think you enjoyed having me or Sammy read to you a bit too much to drum up the enthusiasm to learn the rules on your own. Until first grade, that is. Thanks in part to your teacher, Mrs. Payne, and to your friends, you found the enthusiasm and focus to really learn. Now in second grade, reading is easy to you. Instead, I see you applying that same energy to learning math. I have no doubt that in a few months’ time, what seems hard to you now will be quite simple. It’s been the same way for swimming these last few months.

You have always been advanced for your age in the social arena. You are warm, friendly, loving, caring. You feel everything so strongly — whether it’s fear or joy. And such an easy-going girl; it’s no wonder you make friends so easily.

I also love how much you love music. Dancing with you is one of my favorite things in life. My love for you grows endlessly each year. I am overjoyed to watch you bloom in front of me. I can’t wait to see how your world grows next.

Much love,
Daddy

Sophie in 2007, being born

2007

Sophie in 2008, crawling around at her uncle Robert's house

2008

Sophie in 2009, in her old room in Mountain View

2009

Sophie in 2010, at a TiVo summer company party

2010

Sophie in 2011, at her pre-school

2011

Sophie in 2012, at the Mountain View Farmer's Market

2012

Sophie in 2013, holding a bead Shannon made

2013

Sophie in 2014, at the Mountain View Farmer's Market again

2014

Happy Ninth Birthday, Samuel

Posted September 17th, 2014 at 12:47am by Stephen

Sammy, Samuel, Sam —

I know you now wish to be called “Samuel,” and I’m trying, but it’s hard for me to get used to that particular change. I’m sorry in advance for the fact that I’m likely to call you “Sammy” basically for the rest of my life.

The last of your single-digit birthdays is today. In many ways, you’re already looking far ahead: Your reading level was assessed this week to be at the 10th grade level. The subjects you’re most interested in (biology, paleontology, astronomy, Lego construction) are advanced. But although you went through a phase where you were sure you already knew everything, you also are the same inquisitive four-year-old who asked “why” several hundred times a day. You’re not yet bored of asking your dad questions. That makes me profoundly happy. To be honest, I still catch myself staring at you sometimes when you’re talking, dumbstruck that you’re real.

You’re settling into yourself; you’re less moody and volatile. I’ve noticed this year in particular that you’ve become comfortable with what you WANT to do and what you CAN do — and you work each day to bridge the two.

My love for you grows endlessly each year. I can’t wait to see what’s next. I’m already proud of you.

Much love,
Your papa

Sammy in 2006, catching bubbles

2006

Sammy in 2007, at the Children's Discovery Museum

2007

Sammy in 2008, at a NASA display at the Mountain View Art and Wine Festival

2008

Sammy in 2009, eating a smore at the Seascape beach

2009

Sammy in 2010, at Big Basin Redwoods State Park

2010

Sammy in 2011, at a birthday party in Mountain View

2011

Sammy in 2012, at the Mountain View Farmer's Market

2012

Sammy in 2013, holding a bead Shannon made

2013

Sammy in 2014, at the Santa Clara County Fair with a snake around his neck

2014

Drought

Posted July 23rd, 2014 at 3:14pm by Stephen

I have lived in the Bay Area since 1979. I have never personally seen the Lexington Reservoir off Highway 17 near Los Gatos as low as it is currently, although historically it has been lower both due to construction and previous droughts.

The East side is currently at 18.1% of capacity.

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, East side, at low water levels, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack]

The West side is drained:

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, West side, at zero water level, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack

Someone has started an art project in the lake bed. Or finished one, I’m not sure which.

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, West side, with the words I MISS written in stones, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack

I’ve heard news reports that water boards across the state aren’t setting penalties for wasting water — because when water usage is reduced, they lose money.

So it’s up to us.

At my house, we’re flushing less, trying to reduce bath water use, and not watering the lawn at all. I wonder what more we can do.

PowerPoint: “I heard you liked hidden things, so I hid the hide menu afforandance”

Posted January 22nd, 2014 at 1:56pm by Stephen

I delivered a company-wide brown bag at work today. I was surprised during the presentation that a slide I’d included wasn’t displayed. I began to question myself. “Did I forget to copy and paste in this slide?” Afterwards, I found out that the slide was marked hidden. But it’s no surprise that I didn’t notice. Observe:

[Image of the right-click menu in PowerPoint, with a very subtle indicator that a slide is hidden

Bad PowerPoint, bad

I actually saw the gray coloring of the slide when I copy-and-pasted it into my presentation, and wondered if that meant it was hidden. I right-clicked on the slide, and expected it to say “Unhide Slide” if it was actually hidden. Since it said Hide Slide, and I didn’t want to hide the slide, I thought I was fine.

I now see that the subtle 1-pixel wide orange border around the icon next to the words “Hide Slide” means that it was hidden. And the slide was therefore skipped during the presentation.

So, there are two affordances used by PowerPoint to show the slide is hidden:

  1. Gray text in the body of the slide in the main display area
  2. A pale orange 1-pixel border around an icon that I never pay any attention

Trouble is, #1 I thought was because the slide’s text was SUPPOSED to be gray. And #2 was way way way way way way too subtle for me to notice.

PowerPoint, I give you an F. See me after class.

My wish for 2014

Posted January 1st, 2014 at 6:15pm by Stephen

As we throw away the calendar for 2013, a blank year stretches ahead. May those who are in pain find solace. May those who are consumed by grief find joy. May those who are paralyzed by regret find redemption. May peace, love, and friendship find us all.

I resolve to work harder to see every argument from the other person’s point of view.

I resolve to find the proper balance between work, family, friends, play, health, and obligations.

I resolve to adhere to the rule of three.

Happy new year!

Resolution update: June report card

Posted July 27th, 2013 at 11:43pm by Stephen

Halfway through the year already! Way past time for report card #6. I had a difficult time finishing this one for some reason.

In terms of exercise, May and June were together the two most active months of my life. Let’s see how I did on my goals.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    I worked hard at trying to improve my “presence” in June. It’s still hard for me to be objective about this, but I do think I made some progress, and in particular when I was with my kids tried to really be there for them 100% of the time I was with them. I’d love feedback from friends and family on how I’m doing.

    Status: Let’s say B for June.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    Over on FriendFeed, we started our Kindler’s List reading group, and our first book was Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I enjoyed it just fine, but it didn’t blow me away.

    In addition, I finished NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (which I had been reading on and off for quite a while). I was blown away and recommend it unconditionally to parents with children of any age. Fantastic book.

    1. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants: Three stars
    2. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children: Five stars

    Status: A- (since I’d read a lot of NurtureShock in previous months).

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    No update from last month; I still need to select a 10k to be run before September 30, and after that I have a 5k in November lined up with Amanda and Tamara.

    Status: Two down, two to go! Not yet complete, but on track.

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.).

    For June, my goal was to run 50 miles. I managed to run 56.1 miles, per my RunKeeper profile. That’s a new record for me.

    [Stats from RunKeeper showing miles run for Stephen from January to June, 2013]

    So far in 2013 (through June 30), I’ve run a total of 243 miles. I am not sure if I can hit 500 miles total for 2013, but that seems like a great stretch goal to aim for.

    Status: A.

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of June steps]

    In June, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 453,366 steps (down a bit from 491,069 steps in May), with an average of 15,112 steps per day (down from 15,841), a most active day of 21,003 steps, and a least active day of 10,521 steps. I did not miss my 10k step goal at all in June. There were 3 days over 20k steps (down from 8 in May).

    Status: A.

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I had 15 runs, but just as in April, I only had 8 sessions of calisthenics and 8 sessions of weightlifting (although I did a better job of spacing them out throughout the month). Just as before, the extra runs offset the missed workouts, but I could have easily done it all.

    As I noted last month, I had originally set this goal to be 2 workouts per week of each type, and then switched to 9 a month, and I pointed out that that structure makes it too easy for me to slack off in the early part of the month. That’s been the case in June as well. I will need to do better at spacing out the workouts.

    Status: B-.

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. Then in April he told me it should be three times a day. So shall I do.

    Per Flossy, I flossed 3.0 times a day on average (between 2 and 4 times each day, with only two days where I didn’t meet my goal of three times a day). I did have a dental checkup in July, and I did well (my gums were in much better shape), so the flossing is having a positive effect. I recently finally got around to buying a waterpik.

    Status: A-.

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had three sugar drinks and one diet soda in June, about on par with May. I had one week with two forbidden drinks, so I did not keep to the allowable limits.

    Status: C-.

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    Still struggling with this one. I was not good at keeping to the mid-week (Tue-Thu) unsweetened coffee.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track, need to do better.

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Did a bit better in June on this.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    Two blog posts in June not about resolutions (both mainly images).

    Status: B-.

Star Wars versus Game of Thrones: Hosting

Posted July 26th, 2013 at 12:40pm by Stephen

[Two screen captures. One from Empire Strikes back showing Chewbacca, Leia, and Han being betrayed by Lando. Caption reads: 'My host betrayed me. You'd never believe it.' The other from season 3 of Game of Thrones shows Cat at the Red Wedding. Caption reads: 'I might.'

(See Mashable’s summary of the Star Wars versus Game of Thrones battle.)

Resolution update: May report card

Posted June 14th, 2013 at 2:33pm by Stephen

It’s mid-June, so it must be time to write my report card for May.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    In May I tried to leave my iPhone and laptop at my desk a bit more and work on being truly present, especially for my kids. I still need to improve, however. If you catch me not paying 100% attention to you when I’m around you, please let me know.

    Status: Let’s say B- for May.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    I didn’t finish a damn thing in May — just a few chapters here and there. However! I did something about it: Now there’s a FriendFeed reading group, where we select a free book from the Amazon Lending Library for Kindle. (We’re reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to start.) So while I failed in May, I should be back on track in June.

    Status: F.

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    I ran a race in May! It was the Chick Chaser 5k (suggested to me by Sparky), sponsored by the Silicon Valley Tri Club. This was held in the beautiful Los Gatos Creek park, with only 35 female and 42 male runners competing (big contrast to my last two 5ks, which included thousands of runners).

    I was happy with my place in the results — 23rd place among the men and 29th overall, with a 7:25 pace. I started out at a faster pace than usual for me — 6:35 for the first mile — but that was in a vain attempt to keep up with all the triathletes who were zooming past me. My activity record in RunKeeper shows that after the first mile, I slowed down to about a 7:45 pace.

    [Stephen crossing finish line of Chick Chaser 5k; Los Gatos, CA; May 10, 2013, photo by Rama, courtesy of SVTC]

    The winners ran at a pace well under six minutes, which is intimidating to me — and it wasn’t because they’re younger. The fastest male was 47. So I can take that as inspiration that I can run faster than I do today.

    I still need to select a 10k to be run before September 30, and then I have a 5k in November lined up.

    Status: Two down, two to go! Not yet complete, but on track.

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.).

    Well, since I ran a race in May, I shouldn’t also have a separate RunKeeper goal for May, but I did set one for running 45 miles. I was proud of myself for my longest running distance in a month to date, 52.1 miles — beating the 50 mile mark for the first time.

    For June, I want to repeat that accomplishment. My RunKeeper profile shows I’m on track to run 50 miles in the month.

    [Stats from RunKeeper showing miles run for Stephen from July of 2012 through June 14, 2013]

    So far in 2013 (through today), I’ve run a total of 211.1 miles. I wonder if I could hit the 500 mile mark for 2013.

    Status: A.

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of May steps]

    In May, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 491,069 steps (up sharply from 407,972 steps in April), with an average of 15,841 steps per day (up from 13,599), a most active day of 24,112 steps, and a least active day of 10,004 steps. I did not miss my 10k step goal at all in May. I was proud to have 8 days over 20k steps (including a weekend with back-to-back 20k days), whereas in April I didn’t even have a single day above 20k steps.

    Status: A.

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I had 15 runs, but just as in April, I only had 8 sessions of calisthenics and 8 sessions of weightlifting (although I did a better job of spacing them out throughout the month). Just as before, the extra runs offset the missed workouts, but I could have easily done it all.

    As I noted last month, I had originally set this goal to be 2 workouts per week of each type, and then switched to 9 a month, and I pointed out that that structure makes it too easy for me to slack off in the early part of the month. That’s been the case in June as well. I will need to do better at spacing out the workouts.

    Status: B-.

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. Then in April he told me it should be three times a day. So shall I do.

    Per Flossy, I flossed 3.2 times a day on average (between 2 and 5 times each day, with six days where I didn’t meet my goal of three times a day). I am proud of getting so much closer to hitting the goal. But I still need to buy a waterpik.

    Status: B+.

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had two sugar drinks and two diet sodas in May, a bit worse than April. But it was still within the allowable limits.

    Status: A.

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    Not doing so well on this one — a lot of syrups and flavored lattes. To give myself something concrete to accomplish, starting in July (which is halfway through the year) I will allow myself sweeteners four days a week, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Mid-week coffee will be coffee and milk (and ice) only. I will phase that down to end the year with no sweeteners.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track but with a plan of attack.

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Still on track with this, but still need to spend more time classifying expenses and reining in spending.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    Zero blog posts in May not about resolutions. It should have been easy, but I didn’t do it.

    Status: F.

Congratulations, Sophie

Posted June 11th, 2013 at 10:06am by Stephen

Sophie's kindergarten diploma

Sophie graduated from Kindergarten today. She began the year able to read and write her name and maybe one or two other words. After a year of homework and effort, she’s now able to read at a first grade level, and she enjoys writing her own stories.

Well done, sweetie! We love you.

Sophie holding her diploma, Ellis School, Sunnyvale, CA, June 11, 2013

Sophie and her Kindergarten teacher

Fairy tale

Posted June 5th, 2013 at 4:30pm by Stephen

Father reading to children: ...and then, no one ever heard the words froyo or vuvuzela or jeggings ever again. And they all lived happily ever after

Resolution update: April report card

Posted May 21st, 2013 at 10:02pm by Stephen

Better late than never, here’s my report card for April.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    I think I backslid a bit in April. Let’s say C.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    Didn’t finish any real books. I need to rethink my priorities for reading and make sure I allocate enough time. I did make some progress on a couple of titles, and finished up The Human Division. But this was my worst month of the year so far. My Goodreads activity was minimal.

    I finished:

    1. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads: Five stars.
    2. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above: Three stars.

    I failed to select a new free book for April, since I didn’t finish the one from March.

    Altogether, I read less than half a regular book’s worth of pages in April, well below goal. Let’s say D-.

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    I ran a race in May (covered in next month’s update), and selected a race in November (thanks to Hookuh and Tam).

    I just need to select a 10k, preferably to be run in July, August, or September.

    Status: Still one down, three to go! Incomplete, but on track.

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.).

    In April, having come off a sore ankle in March, I set a modest goal of only 30 miles. (I accidentally set it to be 25 miles in RunKeeper.) I was able to run 36 miles by the end of the month.

    For May, my RunKeeper goal is to run 45 miles, or an average of three miles every two days. I’m on track.

    So far in 2013 (through today), I’ve run a total of 157.1 miles, still on track for about 350 miles for the year.

    Status: A

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of April steps]

    In April, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 407,972 steps (up from 387,002 steps in March, which had 1 more days), with an average of 13,599 per day (up from 12,484), a most active day of 19,214, and a least active day of 10,109. I did not miss my 10k step goal at all in April.

    Status: A

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I had 13 runs, but only 8 sessions of calisthenics and 8 sessions of weightlifting — all of which were in the last half of the month. In some sense, my extra runs offset the missed workouts, but I could have made it if I were a bit more diligent early in April.

    I had originally set this goal to be 2 workouts per week of each type, and then switched to 9 a month, but I think that makes it too easy for me to slack off in the early part of the month. I’ll keep it as is, but I’ve tried to keep my workouts a bit more spread out in May compared to April.

    Status: B-

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. Then in April he told me it should be three times a day. So shall I do.

    Per Flossy, I flossed 2.5 times a day on average (between 0 and 4 times each day). I can do better. And I still need to buy a waterpik.

    Status: C

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had one sugar drink and one soda in April.

    Status: A

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    I backslid on this one. A lot of syrups.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track but improving

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Still on track with this, but need to spend more time classifying expenses.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    One blog post in April not about resolutions.

    Status: A-

God, atheism, and emotions

Posted April 26th, 2013 at 8:10pm by Stephen

Earlier today on FriendFeed, Dr. Ganata shared an article from Pacific Standard magazine: “Emotional Reactions of Atheists May Reveal Echoes of Belief”.

header of article

I found myself having my own emotional response to the article and the corresponding study, and I wanted to set down my thoughts.

First of all, there’s no widespread agreement on labels. To some, an atheist is anyone who does not believe faithfully in the existence of God. By that definition: People who are unsure or neutral or agnostic on whether or not God exists? All atheists. But to others, an atheist is someone who is convinced that God definitely does not exist — and may spend energy trying to convince the faithful that they are wrong. Even among the faithful, there is a spectrum of how strongly and completely one believes in God. So there is a wide range of possible beliefs among individuals.

The study organizers recruited from a skeptics organization, from a bible group, and from students. They don’t break down how many applicants they got from each source. They divided participants between “atheists” and “religious people” (those are their labels, not mine), based on their answers to a 19-question survey. While there was a sharp difference between the scores of the two groups, they don’t make a distinction between atheists who once were faithful, or if the atheists are “weak atheists” (those who simply are not sure in the certainty of the existence of God) versus “strong atheists” (those who are positively, 100% convinced that there is no God).

Second, the study design is garbage. The overall approach is measuring skin conductance (“SC”) while participants read statements and then say them aloud. There’s no data on what SC means, no proof of what it measures, no theory about what emotions it’s tied to, and the study doesn’t bother to provide the raw data to back up any statistical claims.

In study 1, the participants each were given three sets of statements:

  1. “God statements”: Statements where one dares God to do something awful, such as “I dare God to make me die of cancer” or “I dare God to make someone murder my parents.”
  2. “Offensive statements”: Random offensive things, such as “It’s okay to kill ugly children” or “It’s okay to kick a puppy in the face.”
  3. “Neutral statements”: Random inoffensive things, such as “I hope it’s not raining today” or “It’s okay to wear glasses.”

In study 2, they add a fourth category:

  1. “Wish statements”: Repeats of God statements but restated as a wish, such as “I wish that I would die of cancer” or “I wish someone would murder my parents.”

However, study 2 is very poorly thought out. The phrasing of the statements is not at all equivalent. Worse, they’re having the same person react to the same statement both from category 1 and category 4 — but the emotional response will be much greater the first time you read it than the second, whichever way it’s phrased. And most disastrously, study 2 is only of atheists, so for cateogry 4, you can’t compare the SC of atheists to the SC of religious people.

Third, the study lacks sufficiently documented controls. The two groups of study 1, atheists and religious people, were selected based on their responses to survey questions. How many people applied? How many were rejected? Why are there no participants with middling responses?

A much better study design would have three groups: Atheists, religious people, and a random group used as a control with unknown belief status. If the study’s central thesis is true (that both atheists and religious people will have a strong emotional reaction to category 1 statements), all three groups should have same result.

And I would design the questions with much more diversity of control statements. “I wish that I would die of cancer” is just outright much less controversial than saying “I dare God to make me die of cancer.” Add in “I dare Zeus to make me die of cancer” and “I dare my best friend to make me die of cancer.”

My final objection to the study is that the statistical results of study 2, with only atheists participating, shows a huge change in the responses to categories 1 through 3 when compared with the results of study 1. Their SC went down for categories 1 and 2, and up for category 3. That’s ridiculous! The study designers could not even reproduce their own results from study 1 with the exact same methodology. That shows their candidate screening or test administration or SC measurement is fatally flawed. How much variance would we see again if they conducted a study 3 or a study 4?

Set aside all that. Let’s say the test is valid and the results are genuine. What does it mean?

The article and study do take pains to point out several possible explanations for the result why both atheists and religious people have a similar emotional response to reading the God statements:

  1. “Atheists’ explicit beliefs may differ from the implicit reactions that exist outside of conscious awareness.”
  2. Atheists “may have found using the word God stressful because others, possibly their friends and family, do take God seriously.”
  3. Atheists “may have found the idea of God ‘absurd or aversive,’ leading to the heightened emotional response.”
  4. “Although atheists did not currently believe in God, they may have been influenced by their own previous beliefs.” (A reference is made to 2006 research that found three-quarters of American atheists were once believers.)

At heart, I had to think about why I had an emotional response to reading the article and the study. Because I self-identify as an atheist, the first conclusion was offensive to me: Hey, you, you atheist you, you’re deluding yourself — you may say you don’t believe in God, but your emotions betray you, ha ha. You really do believe in God. Sucker.

It was hard for me to be objective about that.

But why?

We all delude ourselves all the time. We’re full of self-delusions that affect us constantly, without us even being aware of it most of the time. I know this and accept it. So why would it upset me for me to feel that I might have an emotional belief in God?

I have to admit if I were to take the test, I’m sure I would have a hard time being unemotional in reading aloud a statement that said I dared God to kill my parents or give me cancer. Again: But why? Is it because I secretly do believe in God? I don’t think there’s a chance that that’s true. I think actions and expressed beliefs are actually more significant than emotional responses.

No matter what, the thought of having you or your parents die is going to provoke an emotional response, whether or not God is involved in that thought.

I don’t pray. I don’t ascribe supernatural explanations to events that take place. I don’t go to church. I wouldn’t turn to any holy book for answers. And while I respect my friends who do believe in God, I don’t feel that their religious beliefs give them any power or morality that I don’t also have.

Bottom line, I don’t think this study proves anything. The whole point of atheism is to separate one’s emotional beliefs and irrational human nature from our actions and logical thoughts.

I think most atheists would agree that they don’t KNOW that God doesn’t exist. The way I feel about it is this: I assume God doesn’t exist until the moment I see some evidence that God does exist.

I can’t prove God doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t even try. Similarly, I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. So, since I can’t prove the opposite, I’m happy to concede that God MIGHT exist. (So might the Loch Ness Monster.) I just don’t see any evidence for it, so I don’t personally think it’s at all likely.

Despite that, why would I take the risk in daring an all-powerful God who MIGHT exist to kill me or my parents? On a rational basis, there’s no point in tempting fate, even if the risk is minute. My emotional side knows that better than my rational side.

I’d like to see the study redesigned with a big twist: Per the study, there were some religious people who refused to say some of the God statements. But there were no atheists who refused to say any of them. But what if you paid people to say the statements? If you move the study from the emotional realm of skin response into the rational realm of getting paid, would you see the opposite result, where even religious people are willing to say the same statements as the atheists? Or is it offensive to even ask?

Maybe emotionally we’re all believers to some extent, but when money is on the line, some of those who identify themselves as religious people might be willing to act a little bit like an atheist.

This is too long already, but I want to conclude with an apology: If you were offended by any of what I wrote, I am sorry. I don’t mean to challenge anyone or offend anyone. Your beliefs are yours, and I don’t have any intention to try to change them. My whole intention is to explain myself, mostly so I can better understand myself.

Recently, Barry paid me a high compliment on FriendFeed: He called me a damn fine Christian. That makes me damn happy to hear. Because even though I’m a heathen, I strive to be a moral, helpful, useful, good person. In other words, a Christian. Or a Catholic. Or a Buddhist. Or a Muslim. Or an atheist. Theist or atheist, emotional or unemotional: We’re all here to try to make the world a better place. Right?

Resolution update: March report card

Posted April 6th, 2013 at 7:26pm by Stephen

And now my report card for March.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    You tell me — how am I doing? Let’s say B-.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    I didn’t do very well on reading last month; my Goodreads activity was very light.

    I finished:

    1. Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay (third book in The Hunger Games trilogy): Two stars.
    2. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #7: The Dog King: Five stars.
    3. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #8: The Sound of Rebellion: Four stars.
    4. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #9: The Observers: Four stars.
    5. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #10: This Must Be The Place: Two stars.
    6. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #11: A Problem of Proportion: Four stars.

    I hard a hard time selecting the free book for March (which I’ll talk about next month since I’ll finish it this month). I need to start a book club with other Kindle users, I think.

    Altogether, I read a bit more than a regular book’s worth of pages in March, well below goal. Let’s say D.

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    I need to select my second race, for April, May or June. I’m torn between the The Electric Run in April, or the very similar-seeming Neon Run in June, or a timed race that’s a bit more serious.

    Status: One down, three to go! Incomplete, but on track (assuming I sign up soon for a race for this quarter).

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.).

    Officially this is “N/A” for March since March was a 5k month, but I did set a goal of 35 miles, which I didn’t make due to my ankle starting to hurt in the last half of the month. My total distance in March was 29 miles ran, including the 5k. So, regarding the ankle: On Sunday March 10, I went for a 10 mile run. I didn’t actually intend to run that far — I just drove to Baylands Park and started running down the Stevens Creek trail, and became curious to see how far I could go. (I had been influenced by some of my friends training for marathons and half marathons.) I was sore by the end and running slowly but proud I could run 10 miles in under 90 minutes. I followed that up on Wednesday March 13 with my fastest run to date of my standard 2.2 mile run (first time completing it in under 16 minutes); my ankle felt a bit sore but wasn’t too painful. And then on Friday March 15, I went for a 5 mile run with my brother Rob. That one did me in — by the end, I couldn’t run on the ankle, and it was throbbing. (I found it didn’t hurt if I was doing toe strikes, but heel or mid strikes hurt.) I tried taking it easy for the next two weeks, stopping my runs. I tried again on Thursday March 28 for my normal 2.2 miles, and was elated to find the first mile was good, then crushed that the second mile brought back the ankle pain if there was any kind of heel or mid strike.

    I felt really defeated. I was extremely angry with myself for letting myself get carried away and get hurt. The thought of not being able to run again depressed me, and I was really missing the post-run endorphin rush. So on Monday this week I made an appointment to visit my doctor. I was able to see the medical assistant for my doctor’s team that same day. He examined the ankle and told me he didn’t think there was any fracture or sprain but theorized instead I had made my heel sore — and he asked me some pointed questions about the type of shoes I was using and how long I’d had them. My shoes were just cheap running shoes from Target. So his prescription was better shoes, with more padding. (He also advised I could go the other way, and try minimal shoes and then relearn to walk in them for two weeks, and then try running slowly, but I didn’t want to take that route. My cursory review of research shows that the minimalist shoe style may have its risks, although my friend Jascha disagrees. So, with new shoes purchased (including some gel inserts recommended by the clerk), I’ve gone on two short runs so far in April, and both have felt good. No pain! Resolution: Short runs only for a while.

    For April, my RunKeeper goal is to run 30 miles, easing back in. Two miles every other day is my plan.

    So far in 2013 I’ve run a total of 97.5 miles, which means I can hit 350 miles for the year if I keep it up. I’d be happy with accomplishing that.

    Status: N/A

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of March steps]

    In March, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 387,002 steps (down from 390,761 steps in February, which had 3 fewer days), with an average of 12,484 per day (down from 13,956), a most active day of 24,340, and a least active day of 6,626 (resting the ankle). I missed my 10k step goal twice in March.

    Status: A-

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I was one run short. However, I don’t want to beat myself up too much, since I would have run if not for the pain, and two of my runs were longer than normal. I did have the other 18 workouts. I will give myself full credit.

    Status: A-

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. So shall I do.

    Thanks to Flossy, I was able to track fairly accurately. I flossed from 1 to 4 times a day with an overall average of 2.3 times.

    I had a cleaning in April and my dentist was pleased, but told me he wanted me to floss and brush THREE TIMES a day (and get a water pic). So I have to step my game up.

    Status: A

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had no juice or sugar drinks in March, and one diet soda.

    Status: A

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    I’ll need to start tracking more closely, but I estimate about half of my coffee in March was sweetened with only milk.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track but improving

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Still on track with this, but need to spend more time classifying expenses.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    I did manage to write a single non-resolution post in March. March 31 counts!

    Status: B

Nice-ism

Posted March 31st, 2013 at 10:06pm by Stephen

(Trigger warning: Starts light, ends with discussion of rape.)

When I was a child growing up in England, my mother pointed out to me that the word “nice” is an insult there.

Consider:

“How was the party?”
“It was… nice.”

That means the party was a dull affair, completely devoid of anything memorable. While no one was poisoned or defenestrated, no one truly enjoyed themselves either.

The British character is to generally speak no ill of anything; see this Language Log entry for further examples, where it explicitly defines “quite good” as “a bit disappointing.”

Exhibit 2 is this food item:

a photograph of a 'Nice biscuit'

This is a Nice biscuit (which, since it’s named after the French city, should be pronounced as “niece,” but when I was a boy we always pronounced it to rhyme with “ice”). It’s not terrible, but, as Jasper Fforde wrote (on the page where I borrowed that picture from):

…the Nice biscuit is important as it’s the threshold biscuit. Everything above is edible and quite nice, and everything below it is animal feed. It’s the last biscuit that you’ll eat on a tray, and without that mean smattering of sugar, exotic stippled edge and ‘Nice’ logo, it actually would be animal feed.

Of all the biscuits (which is to say, cookies) available, and given a limited number of calories one can consume in a day, why would one eat a biscuit that was only a hairline above nasty, instead of something amazing like a lemon savannah, little schoolboy, or a Jaffa cake?

Thirdly, consider this horrific story from the Seattle Times of 50-year-old Mark W. Mullan, an apparent third-strike DUI offender, who drove his pickup into a crowd of pedestrians, killing two and injuring many. According to his sister-in-law in that story, Mullan is a kids’ baseball coach, and “a nice guy.”

That phrase jumped out at me in that story because lately I’ve been seeing quite a bit about not-so-nice-guys who act nice. There’s a long history of this kind of “But he’s a nice guy!” defense. We seem to expect that people who can perform genuinely cruel or evil acts should act rudely and selfishly. (It’s almost a cliché.)

And more recently, there are Nice Guys, the ones who don’t get dates and are constantly told that they’re good “friend” material, and who end up getting twisted up about it. Two well-articulated examples:

David Futrelle: “One reason so-called Nice Guys™ seem so creepy to so many people is that it’s easy to see the rage and the bitterness and the weird sort of self-hating entitlement that is so often lurking underneath – and sometimes not that far underneath – the ‘nice guy’ exterior.” (The “Nice Guy” Who Raped and Strangled a Young Irish Woman)

Chelsea Fagan: “But what makes these Nice Guys so quick to subvert that pain of unrequited love — whether from one individual or from a thousand societal directions — into a palpable hatred for women?” (The Difference Between A Nice Guy And A “Nice Guy”)

The recent Steubenville rape case (and the revolting media coverage that underplayed the suffering of the rape victim and overplayed the ruined lives of the perpetrators) was an inspiration for two remarkable essays by women I follow on FriendFeed. Both essays are important to read:

Jenica: “Young American women are taught to live in fear, to live in a state of heightened anxiety, because they are inherently victims. Because if it happens — if you’re sexually assaulted — you’ll be expected to explain all the ways that you did everything you could to prevent it, and if you didn’t do all of those things, well, then. You bear responsibility for what happened to you, even though you are not the one who made the choice to attack another human being. Even though you were the one who was attacked.” (How about we not put all the responsibility for rape on women?)

Monique Judge: “Women are made responsible for the actions of men who ‘just couldn’t control
themselves’ in the face of the temptress in front of them. We teach women things that they should do to prevent rape, but do we teach our men not to rape? (Rape Culture — see also the published column, “Woman fired for speaking up against sexism“)

I’m speaking now to fellow men: It’s time to put a stop to condoning sexism. It’s time to stop doing nothing. It’s time to educate our sons on proper values and ways of treating women, to make it impossible for them to be the kind of man who would assault or rape. It’s time to stop being nice.

“Nice” is far from good enough. Nice is what got us into turning the other way, not speaking up, when we saw behavior that was questionable. To avoid confrontation, we let other men be jackasses at technical conferences. We wrung our hands over perpetrators who deserve no mercy and no sorrow.

I have not ever aspired to be “a nice guy.” Instead, I work to be a good man.

And I want every man to do the same.