Archive for the ‘Autobiography’ Category

Harry Arvil “Joe” Brown, Jr., 1925.10.21 – 2014.4.27

One of my earliest memories of my father is watching the otters in an aquarium or zoo somewhere. I don’t know where, exactly, and the memory is indistinct enough that I can’t even place it precisely in time. If I had to guess, I’d say I was maybe three years old. I remember at the time being overwhelmed with how much my father knew. I don’t remember what, exactly, he told me or how he explained it, but I remember being in awe at the depth of his knowledge. Years later, knowing his personality and his interests, I’d imagine he was more likely explaining the construction of the water tank than anything about the otters themselves. My father loved mechanical systems and he understood them as well as almost anyone else on the planet.

I think that his love for systems and his strong desire to understand the world is maybe the most visible mark he left on me. Without a doubt my curiosity, passion for science, and love of well-engineered systems are largely thanks to his influence.

Years after that first memory, my father would become something of a legend among my friends. You get a lot of cachet when your father fought in World War 2, worked on nuclear missile silos, and was one of the best pistol shots in the Pacific Northwest. But he was a man who was worthy of some amount of real legend. He had a brilliant mind, a quick wit, and a kind heart. He served on PT Boats in the Pacific Theater in World War 2, had a long and interesting career in mechanical engineering in both the mining and nuclear industries, and was a devoted husband and a fantastic father to his five children.

I always got the sense that my father found his own life just as incredible as the rest of us did. Born in rural Wyoming, the son of an oil pump repairman and a singer, he never expected more than a solidly blue-collar life. And I’m sure that’s a life he would have been happy with. He started working on farms at the age of 14, and almost didn’t finish high school because he had a pretty decent job in an activated charcoal factory in Seattle. By that time (1942) America was at war, and Dad decided to join the Navy. Since he was only 17, though, he had to track down one of his parents in order to sign his enlistment papers. He made contact with his mother, living in Northern Oregon at the time, got them signed, and joined up with the intention of being a gunner’s mate.

See, my father had been fascinated by firearms from a very young age. He acquired his first gun, a Colt coach gun, from his grandfather when he was just six years old. He started collecting cartridges when he wasn’t much older. Joining the Navy and getting to both see the world and work on guns full time must have seemed like a pretty sweet deal.

The only problem was, he scored too high on the enlistment tests. So they sent him to radio operators school.

Dad spent the last several years of the war in the Philippines, serving as a radioman on Patrol Torpedo Boats. Whenever he spoke of his time in the war, he spoke of it with relish. One of his favorite stories to recount was how they trained him so well and worked him so hard that on several occasions he fell asleep while taking down Morse code, only to wake up a few minutes later and found that he’d transcribed it perfectly, even while dozed off.

After the war, Dad came home and (by his own account) was surprised to realize that he qualified for the G. I. Bill. He’d always figured on a blue collar life and I get the impression that the idea of college genuinely didn’t occur to him until then. After a small delay due to being caught in an accident at an aluminum smelting plant (just one of the many times my father cheated death), he ended up studying mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin.

He ended up having a hell of a knack for it. He was so good that, after a sterling career in the mining industry, he was offered a position at OSHA as the director of safety for mine hoists and lifts, with a strong suggestion that he’d be eventually taking oversight for mine safety generally for the entire country.

He turned it down only because it would mean living in Washington DC.

Eventually, he ended up finishing out his career in the nuclear industry, the last few years of it in the Tri-Cities. He (along with my mother) lived in Kennewick for 37 years. For my entire life, I was mystified by how much he loved the Tri-Cities and the American West in general. He often described himself to me as a Westerner and swore that the Western United States was the greatest place in the world, and the only place he would ever live.

On the 27th of April, he passed away. He was surrounded by people he loved, in the West he loved, having lived a long and honorable life. He leaves behind his wife Donna, who he adored, his children Aaron, Darrell, Brian, and Belinda, and his sister Catherine (Kitty). He was preceded in death by his son Bruce and his sister Nita

He was an incredible man, and I miss him dearly.

Dad and Me

Jaywalking as Magic Trick

Magic tricks are valuable because they define the borders of our map of the possible. They only work if they exist clearly beyond what we understand to be possible, but close enough to the boundaries of it that we can see it from the realm of the everyday. In fact, that’s probably a good abstract definition of magic: anything that happens just outside our mind’s Overton Window. This definition has several pleasing applications, not the least of which is that it explains why magic tricks work on dogs:

But this definition of magic as anything just outside the realm of the possible has more quotidian applications as well. Take, for instance, the bewildered looks I get whilst jaywalking. You see, Seattle, for all its pretensions at grunge iconoclasm, is a worryingly law-abiding town. This has an adverse reaction when combined with a population laden with a communal phobia for confrontation and an urge for conformity you can only get when the entire town is all trying hard to front as the exact same sort of rebel. The end result is punk rockers that won’t even cross against the light on a deserted one-way at four in the morning. Whether their reluctance is purely a fear of the constabulary or whether they’re worried someone might see them, deciding that jaywalking is for dorks, and judge them harshly, I can’t say.

One thing is for sure, the furtive glances they shoot me as I stride into the road tell me that this isn’t the same obeisance noted by Olufemi Terry when he described Germany as “…a country, … , in which even anarchists wait for the light to change before crossing the road.”

The average Seattlite’s reluctance to jaywalk has none of the volition or civic-mindedness of those Teutonic anarchists. Rather, it’s bred from a timidity that seems to view jaywalking as beyond the realm of the possible.

And so, about once a week, I’ll walk out into the street and see someone on the opposite curb shoot me with a brief look of wonderment. As if I’m walking on magma, rather than asphalt. Some will then timidly look left, look right, and deciding that if a policeman or a judging peer were to suddenly materialize to accost them they could always point me out as instigator, take a few tremulous steps into the street. Others will just wonder silently until, at long last, the light changes and they can safely proceed.

Most just catch my eye and then sheepishly look away. Not for shame of my jaywalking, mind you, that’s just how people in Seattle react to eye contact. It’s the Seattle way of saying “Howdy, stranger.”

Only once has any one of these onlookers ever spoken to me about my jaywalking. I was crossing Broadway against the light at Pine. In jaywalking-as-magic terms, this is the equivalent of sawing a lady in half and putting her back together again: a pretty common trick, but still one a confident magician can pass off as amazing. As I got to the other side, a young man in baggy sweatshirt and bondage pants glanced at me and said “hey man, cops’ll totally ticket you for that.”

“Pardon?” I said, looking him in the eye.

He muttered something and looked away.

Tim Rogers on Illness, Writing, &etc.

I’ve been nursing some kind of migratory illness ever since I got back from Minneapolis a week ago. It wasn’t particularly helped by the going away party for a couple of colleagues that saw me getting home blitzed at 3am Saturday morning. Turns out benders aren’t great for one’s immune system.

But it felt apropos to come across a new video by Tim Rogers of him talking a bit about his writing process and reading a new essay he wrote about being sick. It’s called “soup and soup and noodles and sumo”:

In Memoriam

To the Lost and the Damned. May you find your way home.

Neoteny, Geeks, and Auto-domestication

First things first, read these two blog posts on cat domestication and dog domestication, respectively. There’s a lot of great information in them. Note, but don’t get hung up on, the slight hints of post-modern Internet pidgin used occasionally in both of them, especially the all-caps portion of the intro to the dog post. I’ll circle back to language later in this post, but for the time being it’s worth noting that the author (who is a talented writer in both Standard Modern English and Internet Pidgin1) sprinkles the essays with references to “doges”, occasionally uses the faux-French “ze” instead of “the”, etc.

Now not knowing too much about animal domestication, both of these essays straight up blew my mind. The notion I found most interesting, though, was that of neoteny as a primary mechanism for domestication. Neoteny is the retention into adulthood of juvenile traits. To quote the post on cat domestication:

“There is another big goddamn difference when it comes to meows, too- wildcats will meow as kittens but hardly EVER meow as adults, whereas domestic cats if you hadn’t noticed meow all the goddamn time and never shut up. They have retained the kittenish behavior of meowing into adulthood (similar to the way that dogs retain the wolf puppy behavior of barking into adulthood). This retention of a juvenile trait is known as neoteny and it’s pretty common among domestic animals, particularly pets. You want humans to love you and care for you? BE A BABY FOREVER

Cats have a lot of other neotonic behaviors, like kneading (aka the thing kittens will do to mom’s belly to stimulate more milk production) and high levels of playfulness[.]”

This idea that neoteny can be adaptive in cases of domestication is interesting, because it occurred to me while reading the post that there’s another sort of creature that I interact with that is also extremely neotonic. Geeks.

Look at the two pictures below2 3. One of them is a play-oriented kid’s daycare, the other is a tech office:

Copyright  Ab Rogers Design

Copyright camenzind evolution

If I were to photoshop out the playing children in the first photo, do you think you’d be able to tell the two apart? How long would it take? If the only clues you had to go on in the two photos were primary colors and a slide, how would you tell apart the natural environment of adult technical professionals from children at play?

It’s not accidental that nerds surround themselves with toys, tend to score high on measures of openness to new experience, and have play-oriented hobbies (like video games, board games, ultimate frisbee, etc.) I suspect that in ambiguous, cerebral professions, neoteny might be a strong advantage.

But first, look at some of the other ways in which geek neoteny expresses itself.

Geek speech is extremely playful and inventive. Geeks tend to love word-play and neologism and have built not one, but several overlapping and mutually integrated pidgin languages.4 This sort of perpetual re-invention of speech is unusual in adults, but found commonly in teens and pre-teens.

Geeks tend to be socially oblivious to varying degrees, many of them intentionally so. Most geeks fail to see the point of social niceties and tend to be much more blunt and artless than their ages would suggest. Most older geeks never acquire truly adult social networks and don’t seem to develop the desire for family building. Those geeks I know that have kids tend to treat their children more like peers than the non-geeks I know.

The same guilelessness that marks geeks as having child-like social sensibilities can also itself be a social asset. Geeks are famously low on social skills, partially because of genes, partially because past times like reading, gaming, and coding, don’t give one a chance to develop those skills. In my experience, it’s very common for geeks to go from being strangers to acting like very close friends with someone, based largely on only shared interests. In the absence of practiced, developed social skills, child-like enthusiasm and guilelessness can lead to remarkably thriving and stable communities around common interests. (It’s rare, in my experience, for nerds to have friends with drastically different interests. Regular adults will usually have several such friends and can have interesting and meaningful conversations about topics which are outside the areas of their interest and expertise. This is a characteristic that very few geeks have.)5 And while geek friendships are every bit as awkward as individual geek social awkwardness would suggest, these intense, childlike passions give geeks an avenue to build friendships that many have a hard time building with socialization alone.

More generally, geeks tend to display the sort of wonderment, obsessive passion, openness to new experiences, and playful orientation towards the world that one more commonly associates with children than with adults.

All of this leads me to a hypothesis: this neoteny is going to help the geeks conquer the world. While brain plasticity is a real thing that declines over time, it doesn’t decline at a steady rate and can be reversed. It’s well established that people with active minds and varied habits maintain neuroplasticity better than those with less stimulation. So a group of people who conscientiously stay childlike, with varied interests and an extreme openness to new experiences well into their adult lives might have a decided intellectual advantage over those who don’t, as they adapt to new technologies and new trends. This would account for the many middle-age nerds and programmers who have stayed completely up to date on the sources of culture, eagerly adopting modern social media and self-curated news sources like Reddit. The simple neoteny of being enthusiastic about new experiences and viewing the world as a creative object of play makes one not just resilient to technological and social change, it makes one thrive on it. It makes geeks, to use a term from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, anti-fragile.

Just as neoteny in dogs and cats helped them to adapt the sorts of neural machinery they needed to be integrated into our families6, geekdom might be a memetically advantageous way to preserve neuroplasticity and intellectual curiosity long past the adolescent period in which it traditionally began to disappear.7

So in a way, geekdom is an unintended exercise in self-domestication. Geeks seem to stumbled onto a well-established evolutionary pattern, neoteny, that often produces excellent results in situations divorced from the evolutionary pressure of brutal, violent nature. In the case of geeks, this auto-domestication appears to be successful because of the enhanced neuroplasticity and openness to new ideas it affords them, which is a huge advantage in an environment in which keeping up with evolutionary change can be incredibly adaptive.

As with dogs and cats, it brought with it a variety of other side effects, some positive and some negative, that make for a very particular memetype. Just as cats and dogs are reliably and noticeably different from their wild or feral brethren in certain ways, so are geeks memetically different from your typical adult in well-understood, reproducible ways.


1 Which, contra many naysayers, can actually be extremely expressive if used correctly.

2 Copyright AB Rogers Design

3 Copyright camenzind evolution

4 Hacker slang, l33t, and Lolcat are three that spring to mind.

5 All of this might be true for other sub-cultures. Hipsters might have a strain of this going on, but I get the impression that that’s more conscious rebellion and that hipsters, for all my dislike of their smug self-absorption and self-conscious, intentional iconoclasm, due seem to be more “adult” than geeks, in the traditional sense of social maturity.

6 OMG THIS GIF So fucking brilliant on the part of the dog. I could write an entire essay about how this gif shattered my theory of mind when it comes to dogs.

7 This neoteny may also be way nerds my age seem to be seem to be avoiding the musical and artistic stagnation that previous generations fell pray to. It’s pretty common for baby boomers to still be listening to music from the 60s, but most nerds, even those older than me, seem to still be discovering new music. Non-geeks my age, however, seem to be slowly falling behind the times, with many of them still listening to the music that was popular when we were in high school and college.

XBox, Occupy Free Time

So between visiting my folks over a few glorious, fun, relaxing days over the holiday, then working part of the weekend, and now getting both an XBox One and a Playstation 4 on the same day, the amount of time I’ve been allocating for blogging has dropped precipitously. As I’m sure my audience has noticed.

But fear not, while I’m talking to my console1 and butchering barbarians in Ryse: Son of Rome, you lot can be playing with this fun little quiz I found for you all. Basically, it gives you a Google Streetview scene to explore and you have to guess which of three neighborhoods in London you’re in. My best score was 6/10 which is not to shabby for someone who’s never actually lived in London. It’s a pretty slick piece of work and worth checking out, even if you know nothing about the City and surrounding environs.


1 The voice controls work way better than I thought. I was sure they’d be gimmicky and stupid, but it turns out they’re awesome. Accurate, intuitive, handy, and oh so futuristic. Microsoft has set a high bar for voice controlled electronics.

“I’ve gotta forget you somehow”

I fell into a bit of a nostalgia pit this evening, after discovering a bunch of CDs of turn-of-the-millenium Eastern Washington bands. In between ripping albums from the Stoics and Loudermilk, I stumbled across this gem on YouTube:

Mu Meson, “Girl”

Samsung Galaxy S3 Keeps Going into Car Mode / S-Voice

Executive Summary: Power down the device, remove any case you may have on it, and clean USB ports on both device and case with canned air.

I had an annoying problem with my S3 tonight. I was sitting on my couch, playing some GTA, when my phone started going crazy-go-nuts making a bunch of noises I’d never heard it make before. When I checked it, the device was going in and out of car mode and randomly launching S-Voice. Since I never use either function, this was equal parts baffling and annoying. I tried rebooting the phone, which didn’t fix the issue. Since I hadn’t updated software recently, I thought it was unlikely to be a software error.

The fact that it involved car mode (which can be triggered by USB docks) lead me to believe it might be caused by scuzz (technical term) in the USB port. I pulled off my Duracell case and gave the USB ports on both the device and the inside and outside of the case a few good blasts of canned air. Put it back together and powered it on: hey presto, phone is back to normal.

A New Policy on Spammers

There’s been a particularly egregious spam-flood here of late. Akismet has kept back the majority, but some of the filth has still seeped through. As such, I’m instituting a new policy for spammers, effective immediately. Hereafter, any spammers caught within the perimeter will be fed to the Crabipede.

What’s a Crabipede you ask? Here’s a delicious-looking necropsy of a juvenile specimen:

Fear the Crabipede

Spammers be warned.

Kindle Fire HDX Announce

I’m thrilled to see the announcement of the new Kindle Fire HDX tablets. I’m very proud of the part my team and I have played in getting the new devices ready for launch. I’m also very happy to see some of the other cool features that the other device teams have been working on. May Day looks like an awesome feature that will be a huge help for our customers, and off-line viewing of Amazon Video content will no doubt be very handy. I’m especially thrilled to see the continued expansion of the X-Ray family of features. I’ve only used it for books so far, but it seems like a killer feature to have for movies and music as well.

And while I very much believe in Jeff’s comment from the Kindle Fire HD launch last year to the effect that we want to win when you use your device, not when you buy a new one, I’m thrilled to see that we’re continuing to innovate with regards to form factor, display, hardware specs, etc. so that users who do choose to upgrade will definitely be rewarded with a better physical device.

Please do check out the product page for more details.


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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.