Somebody that I used to parody

Posted April 17th, 2012 at 2:04am by Stephen

First, watch the original (if you’re not sick of it yet):

Then watch this amazing cover:

And then watch the parody of the amazing cover:

The man was a prophet

Posted April 16th, 2012 at 2:52pm by Stephen

Image of the projected Tupac Shukar from the 2012 Coachella, superimposed with text saying, 'Holographic Tupac says: I don't have no fear of death. My only fear is coming back reincarnated. Also can any of you explain this twitter thing to me?

This technology is amazing, but I’m not sure most dead celebrities would want to be brought back to life this way.

Welcome to Lego City

Posted April 11th, 2012 at 9:25pm by Stephen

Sammy holding up a Lego creation (Sophie in background); Sunnyvale, CA, Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Photo of Sammy and Sophie's Lego creations; Sunnyvale, CA, Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Another photo of Sammy with Lego; Sunnyvale, CA, Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Both Sophie and Sammy love building. The fun begins after the sets are broken up and they start getting creative.

I have to give Lego credit: The new “Friends” set aimed at girls has worked well for my daughter. She loves the fiddly pink accessories.

Draw Something was fun until I mastered it

Posted April 9th, 2012 at 1:23pm by Stephen

Draw Something screenshot of Blondie's Parallel Lines album

Draw Something screenshot of Catwoman

Draw Something screenshot of YouTube

Actually, though, the truth is I’m terrible at drawing in Draw Something.

And the real reason I’m boycotting Draw Something is both because I dislike Zynga’s business practices and I found the CEO’s behavior after his company OMGPop’s acquisition by Zynga to be reprehensible.

While it was fun to play, I’m trying to eliminate some of my life’s time wasters, so I’ll use the above as my excuse for quitting Draw Something… at the top of my game.

(If you want to see some genuinely good Draw Something drawings, check out Rachel Fox’s gallery.)

White people can’t eat spicy food?

Posted April 7th, 2012 at 12:30pm by Stephen


At a Korean restaurant in Santa Clara with Matt and Marli, Matt pointed this out on the menu. We ordered one normal and two spicy dishes, and they were delicious, but all three were not spicy. Perhaps they didn’t believe us? It reminds me of this SNL skit with Christian Slater.

Paper books vs. e-books: I still can’t decide

Posted April 6th, 2012 at 2:23pm by Stephen

I’m late to e-readers compared to some of my friends, but over the last couple of years I’ve been slowly increasing the quantity of books that I’ve read electronically. However, I’m nowhere near giving up on paper books.

The 2010 data from the Association of American Publishers shows that we’re still far from the tipping point. Despite impressive growth in e-book sales, the data shows that paper book sales aren’t yet decreasing, and that as of 2010 e-books hold a 7% share of total sales and a 5% share of units sold. It’s clear to me paper books are still going to be produced and sold for many years. However, in twenty years, I suspect paper books will no longer hold the majority of the market.

2010 data from American Association of Publishers for paper sales vs ebooks (graph by Stephen Mack)(click to enlarge)

It’s clear that e-books are growing fast; the same AAP data shows that e-book growth is over 1,000% a year, and a Harris poll released in September 2011 showed that e-reader ownership increased from 8% to 15% in one year. (Smart phone growth is helping a lot with that.)

Here’s my dilemma.

Paper Books Digital Books
Advantages Advantages
  1. I’m used to this format
  2. You can read them in the bath
  3. Loan them to a friend or sell when done
  4. Can buy ’em cheap at used bookstores
  5. Easier on my eyes
  6. Much easier to be given as a gift
  7. That new book smell
  1. Can read them anywhere, as long as I have my phone with me
  2. Ability to carry dozens/hundreds of books in my pocket
  3. Instant gratification when buying a new book
  4. Always remembers my place
  5. Ability to search
  6. Easy definitions of unfamiliar words
  7. On smart phone, built-in nightlight for reading in darkness
  8. Many free titles that are in the public domain
  9. Can enlarge the font if my eyes are tired
Drawbacks Drawbacks
  1. I lose them sometimes
  2. Gotta have bookshelves to store ’em
  3. Heavy when moving, adds to “stuff”
  4. They came from trees; have to be printed & shipped, using energy & fuel
  1. More expensive than paperbacks typically (but often cheaper than hardbacks)
  2. Repulsive licensing arrangements
  3. Restrictive DRM
  4. Unclear if I will lose access to purchased works in the future or not (what if Amazon or Apple go out of business?)
  5. Format wars
  6. Remote editing or removal from the mothership (e.g., the Orwellian nightmare)
  7. Often no universal page number reference
  8. Uses up my battery
  9. Can’t read during on a plane during take-off and landing

I’ve never had a paper book crash on me and require me to reboot my brain to continue reading. So there’s that.

For now, I’ll continue to experiment with both, and usually pick whatever format is cheapest for the titles I want to read.

Blogging again? Maybe.

Posted April 4th, 2012 at 2:45pm by Stephen


It’s been a while.

I might try this blogging thing more regularly again.

A lot of big changes in the past half year or so that I haven’t talked about at all, and haven’t felt right talking about.

And I still don’t feel right talking about them.

Not yet.

Not today.

Soon, maybe.

Anyway, um… Sorry to be so quiet. Please drop me a line (, please say hi.

Blue Moon

Posted March 27th, 2012 at 3:14pm by Stephen

20120327-151455.jpgLunch boxes for employees at TiVo’s birthday party celebration, and my Blue Moon XIII write-up for the TiVoCommunity forum.

Happy Holidays from Sammy and Sophie and the gingerbread pod people

Posted December 23rd, 2011 at 10:18am by Stephen

We celebrate the holidays by making people and then eating them. It’s a form of transubstantiation, I suppose. 20111223-101537.jpg





Posted September 23rd, 2011 at 5:39pm by Stephen

My daughter,

You turn four today. What a wonderful presence you bring to the world! I love your joy, your good nature, your sense of humor, your boundless energy, how uniquely you see the world, and how much you’ve created your own persona. You can be stubborn about the small things (like what to wear in the morning), but you’re so easy-going and resilient about the big things.

As I told your brother, we have rough waters ahead, and I know how deeply you’re already feeling the changes that are happening. But you’ve already proven yourself to be so good at adapting to the complex world around you. Look at how easily you’ve adjusted to your new room at school, and how you jump right in to tell your friends what to do. With your family’s help, you will thrive and grow, endlessly.

I love you, Sophie. I’m proud to be your father.

Sophie demonstrating her unique style
(click to enlarge)


Posted September 16th, 2011 at 1:17pm by Stephen

My son,

You turn six today. How we’ve both grown over that time. I love seeing how fully you experience the world: An ice cream cone on a hot day or a fascinating creature at the aquarium can captivate you and fill you with joy. A 3am itch attack or finding a dead snail can overwhelm you. You are so interested in everything around you, so creative with stories and turns of phrase, and I admire how drawn you are to the sciences — geologist, paleontologist, biologist, and museum owner are all things you’ve said you want to be when you grow up.

We have rough waters ahead, but you say you’re ready to captain them, and I believe you. You make friends easily, you learned to read and write well ahead of your peers, you’re curious and adaptable. You’re well equipped to continue to explore and develop.

I love you, Sammy. I’m proud to be your father.

[Sammy, eating a cupcake, in Mountain View, Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bearing light

Posted September 7th, 2011 at 12:54pm by Stephen

The Lamplighters, illuminating the 9 o’clock avenue on Thursday evening before the burn.





Gullible comic

Posted August 8th, 2011 at 12:42pm by Stephen

[Comic comic 5, words by E. Stephen Mack, art by Jim Woodring via Microsoft Comic Chat 2.5. Text: 'And so that's why the moon landing was faked.' 'Daniel, you are so freakin' gullible. Your picture is under gullible in the dictionary. You believe every piece of crap you read.' 'That's not true!!!' 'Give me a minute!' Screenshot of wiktionary with gullible follows, with a picture of the first character.]

(Click to enlarge)

How to eliminate e-mail spam from the world entirely in two easy steps

Posted June 24th, 2011 at 12:42pm by Stephen

Spam represents more than 95% of the e-mail sent to the company where I work. On my personal Gmail account, my spam folder reflects the same experience: The daily volume there is approximately 20 times that of the legitimate mail sent directly to me.

Spam filtering, a dismal experience as recently as five years ago, is now relatively successful. Gmail’s filters are top notch, and the corporate filtering solutions we use are also excellent. However, both false negatives (spam not detected) and false positives (legitimate mail caught as spam, which I may not see for weeks if ever) are fairly common occurrences. I personally experience each of those at least once a week.

Simultaneously, not enough people seem to recognize how insecure e-mail is. I commonly see people sending passwords and credit card data via e-mail, because they apparently don’t realize that e-mail is exactly as secure as a snail-mail postcard (which is to say: not secure at all).

I first used e-mail in 1986, when I received an account for an undergraduate computer science class at U.C. Berkeley. It was my first experience with the internet. This was long before the web, of course, and the internet back then was a text-only environment that consisted mostly of news discussions (Usenet), file transfers (ftp), chat (irc), and e-mail. Back then, e-mail addresses didn’t resemble the ones we use today — there was no simple @ address. Instead you had to use a so-called bang path, telling people your account name and a list of machines that would have to be contacted one by one in order to reach the machine that had your account. So for me in that undergraduate class, it was something like mit!uunet!ucbvax!zooey!estephen. The process was error-prone and unreliable. But it was explicit about how many different machines would have to pass along your e-mail from one to another. (Sometimes a machine would not be able to deliver an e-mail until later that night; an average e-mail took 1-5 days to deliver from one end of the country to the other.) It wasn’t long before the modern @ style addresses came in, and you no longer had to tell your e-mail a long list of machines in a chain that had to be reached.

Anyone who used e-mail during that time knew first-hand that the root administrators could read every single piece of e-mail that went through their machine. Fewer people today seem to know that the same is still true now. Certain Google employees can read e-mail on your gmail account (same for Microsoft and Yahoo and their e-mail services). Your employer can certainly read your corporate e-mail. Certain AT&T employees can read all e-mail going through their backbones. Any kid with a packet sniffer can read e-mail you send from your laptop at Starbucks.

I want to say that e-mail has come a long way since my undergraduate days, but of course it hasn’t. Other than the dubious additions of text formatting (Yowza!) and attachments, the last 25 years of e-mail improvements have been minimal. Our vulnerability to spam and scams — as well as the insecurity of what we send — are proof of that. The best improvement has been the growth of free web-based mail services, especially the UI innovations of Gmail itself.

Encrypted e-mail (e.g., PGP) has been around for at least 20 years. But it’s suffered from a long-standing chicken-and-egg problem: people don’t use it because no one else is using it.

But let’s suppose that Google took the lead. Let’s suppose they changed Gmail so that the next time you logged in, you were required to create a PGP key. You were then guided through the process of storing, verifying and exchanging keys with your friends, family and frequent e-mail contacts. All of your banks and large companies would be on board as well. And starting with any e-mails sent from one Gmail account to another, 100% of the e-mails sent were encrypted and signed. There would be pressure on Hotmail, Yahoo mail and other mailing services to follow suit.

That’s step one.

Step two would be an option (completely up to you if you wanted to enable or not) to put any non-encrypted or unverified e-mail sent to you into an “Unverified Junk and Crap and Scams” folder. Over time, that folder would need to be used less and less, and the false negative spam and scams would collect there. Soon people would ignore it entirely, and only read the e-mail that was proven to be from who it was supposed to be from.

Pressure would mount for everyone to jump onto the PGP bandwagon if they actually wanted their e-mail to be received.

As a consequence: Spam would virtually disappear.

And you could send private information with a sense of security. (Not absolute security, of course, since there’s always the possibility of break-ins or the person on the other end not being able to keep your private information private.)

I want to live in that world. Let’s say goodbye to phishing e-mails purportedly from your bank, deposed Nigerian dictators looking for a little help transferring a quintillion dollars, and endless pitches for natural viagra. Let’s bring e-mail into a new era of security and reliability.


Posted May 13th, 2011 at 1:02pm by Stephen



Posted May 8th, 2011 at 1:36pm by Stephen


Social Networks and Your Mom

Posted March 31st, 2011 at 11:45am by Stephen

(Sorry, mom.)

Social Networks & Your Mom

(click to enlarge)

Symphony for the Comet (a short film)

Posted March 29th, 2011 at 9:24pm by Stephen

Hale Bopp comet, 1997, photo by John TewellI’ve had this idea for a student film in my head for 10 years and always wanted to make it. But today I have admitted to myself that I will never actually film this. Instead, I release the words from my head.


Just past dusk. A suburban church spire is silhouetted against the hazy sky. Directly above the spire, as if being pointed to, the comet Hale Bopp is clearly visible, a Nike-like swoosh.

SUPER: [The comet Hale Bopp was known as the “Great comet of 1997.”]

A car drives up to the church parking lot, and before the car has even fully stopped, the rear door opens. RICKY, a young junior high student, 12, with his tie loose and his shirt tail hanging out, rushes out, lugging a French horn case, and disappears through a side door into the back of the church.

SUPER: [In prehistoric times, comets were believed to be harbingers of doom.]

A few moments later, RICKY’S FATHER and RICKY’S MOTHER emerge from the car, close the doors without locking them, and casually make their way into the church, holding hands.


The church is warmly lit by hundreds of candles. Comfortable pews line the church floor, easily enough seating for 300 people. On stage, behind a conductor, there’s an orchestra comprised of two dozen junior high students: two oboists, a bassoonist, two French horn players (including RICKY), and various violinists, violists, cellists, and a double bassist about half as tall as his instrument. Two dozen pairs of parents are seated in random locations, some close to the stage, some further back.

When the last pair of parents has sat down, the conductor and junior high orchestra teacher, MR. TYCHO, looks at his watch and then nervously stands up. Behind him, through the stained glass window, the comet is barely visible.


Um, thank you, everyone. On behalf of the Cliffdale Junior High School Orchestra, I’d like to, er, thank everyone for attending, and, um, for all of your support. Well, the orchestra has worked really very hard on tonight’s program, so, um, this is… this is Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony.” Class!

He taps twice and the orchestra picks up their instruments. A nod and gesture, and the first turbulent notes of the allegro assai erupt from the violins. The first few seconds seem fine, but quickly the performance starts to fall apart. MR. TYCHO seems oblivious, stoic throughout. RICKY is the first to play an off note, but soon both the pace and the key of the entire ensemble deteriorate. Close-ups of the different parents show extremely visible reactions to each wrong note: A blink from one father. A frown from a mother. A series of nervous tics on a second father, in reaction to a sequence of wrong notes.

The orchestra continues on, undeterred, really doing their best. MR. TYCHO, with determined baton movements, tries to recover and get his class regrouped.

Interspersed with the performance, shots of the comet glowing brightly overhead, ominous, out of place.

Cutting ahead to the slow movement of the adagio, Haydn’s intended dissonance almost seems to be delivered by the orchestra. But one of the students drops his cello, a loud clatter from his folding chair as he scrambles to pick it up. A cut to someone who must be his father, hiding his face, he can’t bear it. He’s trembling.

The fast tempo of the last movement is next, the determination of the young orchestra obvious, sweat forming on MR. TYCHO’s brow. RICKY with his cheeks puffed up, snot running down his nose. While some parents sit passive (a close-up of one shows he’s wearing earplugs), most parents are in visible pain, reacting with spasms and jerks to each new wrong note or mistimed entrance. RICKY’S FATHER shakes his head while RICKY’S MOTHER grabs his hand. RICKY looks to them anxiously.

With a slow fade-out, finally, the last tortured note: A mournful dead cat’s howl of screeching pain.

Then: Silence.

MR. TYCHO stands stock still in front. Silence continues in the church. A survey of each parent: Shock, disbelief, pain, eyes closed, hands over ears, no motion, no words.

And then the expression of the students in the orchestra: Hopeful, expectant, exhausted, their young faces peering anxiously up from their instruments and searching around the room, looking for a reaction, any reaction. RICKY looks to his parents.

RICKY’S FATHER stands up and begins applauding. Within seconds, every parent joins him, cheering, jubilant, massive applause. It’s now a wave of standing ovations, the applause now thunderous. This is a genuine moment (no ironic slow clapping). Shouts of “brava” and other cheers. The reaction of the students is also genuine — they’re standing, bowing, giving off exhausted smiles throughout.


The comet. Silent. Motionless. When it finally leaves our night sky, it will not be seen again until the year 4534.


Bleach vs. eczema: Bleach wins

Posted February 28th, 2011 at 1:44pm by Stephen

I have eczema, a very common skin irritation. Unfortunately, both Sammy and Sophie inherited it from me. For a time last year, their skin condition was truly terrible. While once they slept through the night, for a while every single night either one of them or both of them woke up multiple times, usually with itch attacks.

Our pediatrician recommended a dermatologist, and the dermatologist recommended something that I had previously read about but hadn’t actually tried: Bleach baths.

With eczema, there’s a skin condition (a disease, mostly genetic), and it’s made worse by all the scratching, which causes infections due to the bacteria entering the open wound (mostly Staph Aureus), which causes the eczema to get worse, which causes more scratching, making a vicious cycle.

By putting bleach in the bath, you kill the bacteria on the skin, sterilizing it, which reduces the number of infections, thus helping control the itching.

The dermatologist recommends the following (taken verbatim from their handout):

  • 1/8 to 1/4 cup of bleach (like Clorox) in a bathtub that is at least half full of water. Measure the bleach and put it in the tub first, then add lukewarm water to fill the tub to ensure that the bleach is diluted completely in the water.
  • For a baby bathtub, you can add just a capful or tablespoon of bleach to the water
  • These baths should be performed 3 times per week to cut down on the bacteria on the skin
  • As soon as the bath is over, pat dry, and immediately apply your favorite emollient, such as Vaseline, Aquaphor, Cerave, etc.

Remember, undiluted bleach is dangerous to the skin, so be sure to mix the bleach.

How well does it work? After a low point in August of last year when I was at wit’s end, we began trying this in September. It took about two weeks to really see the difference. Since then their skin has been in much better shape (mine too). We give baths to our kids every other night. If we slack off on the every-other-night bleach in the bath routine, we notice the flareups return.

Two Share

Posted January 17th, 2011 at 11:51am by Stephen

Snow bubble, blueberry. A Mountain View afternoon warm enough to ditch the jackets. I love this.