You report, I decide.
kitten   June 29, 2004

And now it's time for "Q&A with kitten". I'm your host, kitten.

Kathryn of Hawaii asks,

Hi! Why is it that you want to become a criminal defense lawyer? What makes you want to help someone that has done something wrong? I only ask because I would really like to be a prosecutition lawyer someday.


Glad you asked, Kathryn. You just stirred the hornet's nest.

First: "someone that has done something wrong"? As a future prosecution lawyer, you should know that our system defaults to innocent until proven guilty. Has every person who goes to trial done something wrong? Of course not -- they're found not guilty all the time. I'm one of them (actually, my charges were dropped before trial, but it proves that anyone can get accused of anything and that doesn't mean they actually did something wrong.)

Second, even if they did do something wrong, the defense attorney's job is not to say "My client is not guilty." His job is to say "You want to deprive this person of life or liberty? You want to do this because you think he's a criminal? Fine -- I'm here to make sure you play by the rules."

Some of the most important rights in this nation involve the rights of accused persons. Think about it: The right to trial by jury. The right to not be unreasonably searched. The right to a speedy trial. The right to not be engaged in double-jeopardy. The right to face the witnesses and accusers. The right to not incriminate yourself. Clearly, our founding fathers thought accused people needed protection against over-zealous government (having been through it themselves) -- and there's only one person in the courtroom who makes sure that protection sticks: The defense attorney.

Finally, every time a defense attorney makes sure the rights of an accused person are protected, even if that person is guilty, he is helping to solidify those rights and pave the way for the next accused person who takes the stand -- and who might not be guilty.

This is a question asked far too often -- not necessarily to me, but in general. Would that every person who thinks this about defense attorneys would get accused of a crime they didn't commit. Happens all the time. We could sit by with a stopwatch and time how long it takes before they start crying for their lawyer.

The idea that all a defense lawyer does is get criminals to go free is an absurd one. People should know better.

Join me next time for "Q&A with kitten."

Might as well jump.
kitten   June 27, 2004

There. My about page is finally created, two years after it was supposed to be done. It's full of information you probably already knew.

You can all quit pestering me about it now.

Class in session.
kitten   June 26, 2004

Using other people's computers is, more often than not, a maddening experience. I am called upon from time to time to do exactly this -- for repairs, for technical assistance, or if I just need to do something while at someone else's home or business. Things are difficult to find on thier computers, with all kinds of useless clutter strewn about, making the interface not only hard to use but hard on the eyes. There are icons all over the place, blinking garbage in the tray distracting me, and all manner of other cruft that generally gets in the way of anyone -- not just me -- actually getting anything productive accomplished.

I am here to show you how to have a proper goddamned Windows desktop for once in your life, so pay attention. Yes, that means you.

First up: This is a proper desktop. I want to draw your careful and note-taking attention to the following points of interest:

  • The first thing you will note is the background. Your choice of images will, of course, differ from mine, but a proper goddamn background is low-key, does not visually interfere with being able to see icons, and most importantly, is large -- that is to say, it is not a tiny little picture that you've scaled up so that it's all blurry and ridiculous looking.
  • You will also notice that there are very few icons. The only icons that are there that aren't default for Windows are programs that I am likely to start upon bootup. This is because desktop icons are the worst way to access anything, since you have to close all the windows you're working with, click the desktop icon, and then re-open the windows. The only exception to this is the "notes.txt" file on the desktop, which is there only so I can access it if I happen to be on the desktop when a note has to be taken quickly (phone number, directions, etc).
  • The "quick launch" area has three shortcuts -- Show Desktop (to quickly minimize all windows at once), IE, and notepad. You do not need forty seven quicklaunch icons down there, all hidden away behind a stupid little arrow.
  • Likewise, the system tray has only a few icons. In the screenshot, there are six, but four of those are programs I deliberately opened and put there. On booting, there are only two. There are not a metric ton of them, again hidden by a little arrow.

Running programs fullscreen (or "maximized") is stupid. This is a proper goddamned browser window. As you can see, it does not dominate the entirety of the screen real estate. There are very, very few websites out there that require windows larger than this, and those that do are almost always due to a design flaw.

But what's actually wrong with running it fullscreen? Well, for one thing, this says it all. This is what happens when browsers are run fullscreen when most sites are not that large. If you need another reason, check this out. With a proper goddamned browser window size, you can surf the web while also keeping an eye on other things. Here, I am watching IRC and an AIM window. Granted, the browser blocks most of what's going on, but I can see well enough to determine if my attention is needed.

You will also notice that in a proper goddamned browser, there are very few buttons. Back, Forward, Stop, Refresh, Home, and History are all you need. You should never search from the "Search" button, you do not need a "Go" button, you do not need "media" or "full screen" buttons, or any of the copy/paste options. If you want to print, go to File, Print -- which will also remind you to preview first instead of spastically hitting the IE print button and ending up with ten unusable pages.

One thing almost no one can seem to get right is a proper goddamned Start menu. Typically these are about two columns wide and take up the entire height of the screen. There is absolutely no reason for this. Your Start menu should always be in "classic" mode if you are running XP, and should be as small as possible. As you can see, only frequently used programs are in mine, rather than every single application I've ever installed, with three hundred recursively branching sub-menus and redundant MS Office launchers all over the place.

The program list is small, and grouped sanely. This is what you should strive for.

If you do this, there will be some programs that you use infrequently, but still need from time to time. You don't need them cluttering up your Start menu and making it fifteen feet wide, so how will you access them? You'll use your proper goddamned Explorer, which can easily be opened from the My Documents shortcut, or from the Start Menu, and includes a handy-dandy address bar at the top where you can almost always type the location faster than you can navigate to it by going up and down filesystem trees, but you retain that option with this setup.

You will also note that this is not run fullscreen, and it is in "Detail" mode, which gives you a clean, easy-to-read, uncluttered view of the files, without wasting your time loading idiotic previews or displaying icons the size of a drive-in theatre screen.

By following these simple steps and examples, you will be well on your way to having a proper goddamned Windows desktop, instead of the mangled, eye-gouging, kludged, inconvenient, clumsy mess you currently have.

From Atlanta, good evening.

My minions grow in numbers and power.
kitten   June 25, 2004

Back in May 2000, I discovered the SETI@home project. This is a distributed computing project, meaning an incredibly large and computationally-intensive task that would take forever on one massive computer is parcelled out to many dozens, hundreds, or thousands of smaller computers, so that they can use their idle time to crunch the needed numbers.

The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence project is one of the most popular distributed computing concepts around. Signals are gathered from the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico and broken down into small quarter-megabyte "workunits" which are then distributed to SETI@home users. Their computers spend the processor's spare cycles (e.g., while you're at work, sleeping, or otherwise not actually doing anything with the computer) to analyze the data and send the results back.

Anyone can do this -- simply download the client, which is the application that actually pulls the data and analyzes it, create an account, and forget about it.

For over two years I did the majority of my workunits on my home machine, an ancient 133mhz laptop, which took almost a week to grind out the results for one unit. For a while I was able to run it on a few low-end machines around the office, in the 300 to 400mhz range, which fared a little better but still took two or three days a piece. I ran the full screensaver client, which was the only one available at the time -- it wasn't very efficient because a lot of processor time was devoted to displaying pretty graphics about the analysis as it worked, which replaced your ordinary screensaver. Still, it was reasonable enough, and it made for an excellent conversation piece.

Today I'm running on a 1.1ghz Athlon, and using the command-line client, which doesn't bullshit around with fancy-shmancy graphics. It sits in the system tray, runs twenty-four hours a day, and is exceedingly good at getting out of the way whenever any other application wants processor time. I can't tell that it's running even when I'm playing processor-intensive games.

SETI@home is actually a lot of fun -- checking your user stats, watching your workunits increase, trying to commandeer spare computers to run it, bickering with other users about whether time devoted is more important than workunits completed, and so forth. My stats page shows that as of this writing I've contributed more than four and a half years of processor time and have completed 1081 units as of this writing. It also shows my handle to be DiscoKing, which seemed like a good idea at the time, and a hotmail account that has been inactive for more than three years. Unfortunately, I can't remember the password to the SETI account so I can't change any of this information.

I strongly encourage everyone to participate in this project. Instead of displaying flying toasters when you're not at the computer, why not put those spare cycles to good use? Download the client and get started -- or better yet, join forces with me. Here's how:

1 Download the command-line client (Windows only -- other OS's can be found elsewhere) and the manager.
2 Shove them both in a directory somewhere according to whatever file organization system you have. Mine is in d:\kitten\misc\seti\.
3 Run the manager (seti_driver.exe). Configure your options -- set the priority to "idle" to make sure it stays out of your way, check "Hide Processing" and "Display Transmit", and keep "Auto Transmit" off (unless, of course, you want it to do so automatically). I keep my cache size at 10, meaning that I have 10 units in queue just in case there's a connectivity problem -- I can keep working on the others instead of waiting to download a new one.
4 Run the actual command-line client. Type 2 to use an existing account and enter "" as the email address. (Yes, I know. I was young and foolish, okay?)
5 The manager should download all the units for the cache and start working on the first one. Close the DOS window, save your configs on the manager, and minimize it -- it'll go to the system tray and, if all is well, turn blue.

That's it. Additional information and troubleshooting can be found on the SETI@home site. Once everything is up and running, you can pretty much forget about it, except to check back at the aforementioned stats page to see how we're doing. I want to emphasize that the command-line client is very good about getting out of the way for all other applications, but if you're paranoid, just grab the screensaver client -- it's slower, but guaranteed to only turn on when you're not at the computer anyway.

If I can remember the password and/or convince the kids over at Berkley to change the information, I'll rename this the mirrorshades account, and we can become A-list celebrities when our computers are the ones that finally find a signal. Until then, every little bit helps, so why not help my minions grow in numbers and power. Join forces with me and together, we can dominate the slackers, layabouts, and ne'er-do-well jackanapes with their puny one-man, one-machine shows.

Thoughts from above hit the people down below.
kitten   June 21, 2004

History, they say, repeats itself.

I can't claim that this time was any different, really.

I also take little comfort in the fact that my intuition on this particular subject has an excellent record, insofar as I've never been wrong.

They say those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

I've learned. I've learned about this more times than I like, although really, one time is too many. I've learned it the hard way each time.

It would seem that knowledge is not a deterrent for repetition.

Welcome to the jungle.
kitten   June 14, 2004

Three years ago, I was working at a small company as the unofficial IT director / all-purpose computer bitch. I was laid off in early 2003, but to this day, the job presents me with difficulties; namely, that of telling prospective employers what I did, and for that matter, what the company itself did. I have virtually no idea what this company's function was, despite working there for over a year and a half, although I did learn how to spew an amazing amount of marketing jargon without thinking. As for my role there, it was essentially vast tracts of doing absolutely nothing, punctuated erratically by moments of panicking and crisis-defusion, usually involving something truly earth-shattering like the CEO not being able to print her email. When asked by interviewers "What did your company do?" I am forced to mumble vaguaries about consulting and hope they leave the issue alone.

I learned something else at this job -- something besides the ability to keep a straight face while discussing proactive prioritization of mission-critical objectives that will leverage end-to-end supply chains to maximize profit potential in the e-marketplace. I learned that trying to look busy and productive is much more difficult than actually doing work.

The reasoning here is this: If you're actually doing work, you can focus on it, even if you don't like it. When your boss comes round demanding to know what you're up to, you can tell him, show him on the monitor, provide actual progress reports, discuss problems and solutions, and so forth. It may be tedious, depending on what you're doing, but it usually isn't very stressful.

On the other hand, if you have nothing to do, and can't find anything to do, you have to have a prepared list of action items (translation: "things") to talk about when he saunters by your desk and wants to see what you're doing, because for some reason, "nothing" just isn't an appropriate response to the question "What are you working on?" in the corporate world. "Fuck all" and "jack shit" are even less favorable, accurate as they might be.

To compile this list you have to invent plausible-sounding things that don't actually need to be done, which nobody will be able to determine their level of completion, and that nobody really cares about anyway. You have to invent explanations as to why these things need to be done. It's also best if the things you're pretending to do are things your manager won't understand, or that sound so technical or mind-numbingly boring that he won't ask for details. And you have to have have enough of these fake workloads that you can answer the question several times a day without repeating yourself too often over the course of a week. Conjuring up phantom work that fits all of this criteria is a full-time job in and of itself.

But being able to covertly read from your list of falsified action items isn't enough. Sometimes your boss will just wander by on his way somewhere and idly glance at your desk or computer screen, so you have to look like you're doing something as well; evidently, managers don't like to see how much your railgun accuracy has increased in Quake III. You need to find important-looking papers to spread out on your desk, with pen in hand as though you're making corrections in the margins. Ideally you'll also have things that simulate work on your computer screen at any given time: memorandums, spreadsheets, network diagrams. Anything that has a progress bar that increases slowly but visibly is invaluable; I think I must have defragged the drives on every machine in the office in command-line mode at least every other day.

As if all this wasn't enough, you still have to find something to actually do to occupy your time when you aren't fielding questions about what you're not doing.

Most games are out of the question, for obvious reasons. It can be done, but it requires half your attention on the game and half devoted to keeping your eyes and ears open for approaching footsteps so you can alt-tab back to your spreadsheet; it is also too easy to get so far drawn into the environment of rocket launchers, hidden treasures, and enemy defenses that you don't realize your boss is standing behind you until it's too late. IRC is a good choice for some who are able to use the excuse "It's a technical support forum" and be believed, but there are many managers who wouldn't accept this -- and how long can you really stare at an IRC channel and nothing else? Surfing the web is only acceptable if you could plausibly get away with the line, "I'm checking the code on this site to get an idea of how they solved this problem I'm having," but this only really works if you're realistically involved in web development in your company.

In my position, I could get away with both IRC and clomping through the interworldwebnet on a limited basis -- but I couldn't be "asking technical questions to this support group" or "checking javascript code" all the time. I had to find something that would entertain me and not draw undue attention to the fact that all I was really doing was holding the chair to the floor with my ass.

It was about that time that I discovered the joy of screenplays.

I had a lot of movies I just hadn't ever gotten round to seeing. I couldn't watch them at work, but I could do the next best thing and read the scripts for them. They gave me something to do, excercised my mental abilities to some degree, and looked nice and boring (and therefore work-related) on the computer screen. I found that reading screenplays was an incredibly efficient way of devouring a two-hour story, and it gave me a great deal of insight into the actual process of writing scripts for screen and television formats, which is something I was already interested in.

Screenplays are usually easy to find on the net. There are several sites devoted to hosting them or at least giving you links to other places you can find them.

I've been reading a stupid amount of them lately, my interest recently reasserting itself with my acquisition of a Palm IIIe. Screenplays online usually come in one of three formats: pdf, which is obnoxious; plain text, which is the most common; and HTML, which is usually just the plaintext wrapped in <pre> tags for some reason. With the latter two, I can strip out any HTML code, convert the file into Palm format, and load the entire document onto the Palm, allowing me to read the screenplays anywhere, and with the soothing green backlight I can read in bed without having a 40 watt light shining in my face.

In the past two weeks or so, I've read: Gattaca, The Abyss, Lost World, The Matrix, Back To The Future, Men In Black, Total Recall, Alien (all four of them, plus about a dozen unproduced submissions for Alien 3), Neuromancer, Dave, Predator, Blade Runner, Castaway, As Good As It Gets, Ghostbusters, American Beauty, Suburbia, Carnivore, Equilibrium, Independance Day, and a handful of others, with a few dozen more in the queue.

Action movies are difficult to read in screenplay format -- long unbroken narratives about who is shooting at whom and what blows up when. Movies that rely heavily on visual presentation and editing (such as Eternal Sunshine) usually aren't even worth reading, because the effect obviously doesn't translate very well, although you can get a sense of exactly how much directional control the screenwriter has over the final product. I have found that, in general, comedies and light dramas are the easiest to read -- and by easy, I mean that one can get an excellent sense of what the film would be even without having seen it.

The screenplays fall into fairly straightforward but often overlapping categories: Those that are for movies you've seen, those that are for movies you haven't, those that were never produced. There are scripts based on books you've read, scripts based on books you haven't read, scripts based on movies you've seen based on books you haven't read and vice versa -- and then there are the various drafts of scripts in various states of revision.

Sometimes those can be the most illuminating, as you get to watch the progress and evolution of the story, from treatment, to the first few drafts, to the final shooting copy. Delving into this area is not for the weak of heart -- some of the most beloved movies started out as utter abominations.

Take Star Wars, for instance. The first draft was entitled "Adventures of the Starkiller" and was about a boy named Luke Starkiller. Most of the intended film had him mucking about on a planet -- not Tatooine -- and whining to his buddy Biggs. Darth Vader wasn't Luke's father and wasn't what we've come to know as the Sith -- he was just some vaguely mean-spirited guy who could do magic tricks. Leia wasn't a princess -- she was just eye candy that still lived at Uncle Owen's house (Owen is a Jedi, by the way). Jedis were called "Bendus", their power comes from some kind of stupid crystal, and all the stormtroopers had lightsabres. My friends and I have a running joke about Lucas' inability to write, and the early drafts seem to vindicate our theories. A sample of this garbage:

I am Lord Darth Vader, first Knight of the Sith, and right hand to His Eminence Prince Espaa Valorum, the Master of the Bogan. You will not mock me, or my Master; for the Ashla is weak, and the FORCE OF OTHERS cannot save you now...
Truly, it makes me want to cringe.

Back To The Future was just as bad. Marty and Doc aren't friends -- Doc is just some crazy old guy whom Marty uses to make bootleg videos for sale. Doc invents a time machine out of a refrigerator, powered by Coca Cola, and gets shot by the FBI instead of Libyans. Instead of a dog named Einstein he has a monkey named Shemp. There is no 88 miles per hour, and the line "One point twenty one gigawatts! Great Scott!" was originally "4200 rads? Good god!" which doesn't quite have the same impact. Marty eventually returns to 1982 by driving the fridge to a nuclear bomb test site and waiting for the bomb to blow up. As we know, when he returns in the film, everything is more or less the same, except that Marty's father is more confident and thus more successful in life. But in the script, Marty's return sees a sort of 1940s alt-future, with servant robots, 62 states of America, flying cars, time-travel wars, and everyone is still listening to Perry Como and dancing the mambo. As for his experience in 1955, it bears only the most passing resembelence to the film version, thank the gods.

In fact, this script is so mind-bogglingly terrible that I'm amazed it got produced at all. I'm afraid that if I were in charge of the studio at the time, and this screenplay came across my desk, I would have had the writer dragged into my office and executed on the spot.

But as I said, this is all part of the experience of script-reading -- watching the changes made, the revisions and alterations, and the overall evolution of the idea from original treatment to final film. If you have even a passing interest in looking behind the scenes at the driving mechanisms of this type of storytelling, do yourself a favor and download some screenplays.

And if you have no interest at all in the art of filmmaking, it'll at least give you something to do at work when you aren't shifting your paradigm.

Hundreds of scripts to peruse, from popular to obscure to unproduced.
Dozens more, mostly science fiction and fantasy.
Look here if you can't find the one you want anywhere else.

Heavy like a bomb.
kitten   June 13, 2004

"Where do you get your ideas?" is, apparently, the most annoying question a writer can receive. Naturally, it is also the most frequent.

I wouldn't know. I'm not a writer. I wouldn't have an answer to the question if anyone asked.

"Ideas?" I'd have to say. "What ideas?"

It happens, you know. In the car, watching a leaf plastered by rainwater to the windshield. Watching it get torn loose from the wind. Seeing a couple in an argument in front of a store. Listening to businessmen in a coffee shop discuss proposals. Remembering a line from an old song.

Remembering a whisper from an old love.

These things, they turn into ideas, on occasion. On occasion, something slowly emerges, and percolates, simmering until such time I can put the idea down on paper, or rather, the digital facsimile thereof. Writing by hand is a lost art, and I am one who lost it long ago.

The idea is a fragment, a vignette. Spawned from the fragment of overheard conversation, from the brief image of two lovers angry with each other, from the way the visuals in a film force you to fill in your own story if you've turned the sound off. From the leaf being peeled from glass.

And so the idea obtains clarity, or at least as much clarity as I'm capable of giving it, which is to say, not much.

Then it stops.

The fragment is there. The idea, full of potential and clawing at my brain for me to do something with. But I have no follow-up. I play, and that's about as much as can be said. A shard of a story drifting in a void with no history and no destiny, because I don't know what happened before, what's going to happen, or where it's going.

I also lack the imagination to figure it out.

They say you should be able to hear your characters speak. I can't. I don't even know who they are.

They say you should let the story tell itself. I can't. I barely know what this means.

They say you should write what you know. I can't. I know nothing.

The detrius, the linguistic flotsam, is scattered around, in text files, in archives, on hard drives, on disks. Look at it closely, for its name is might-have-been.

It doesn't keep me from daydreaming, though. That somehow, I'll get somewhere with the next effort. Or maybe find the future for something I started long ago, and then banished to binary limbo, where story bits go when they've been neither good enough for consideration nor bad enough for deletion. That the ideas will come, that the words will work, that someday I'll sit on the subway and spy someone across the way reading a book with my name on the cover. That someone will find it worthy to distill the idea into a film.

That someday, someone will ask me.

"Where do you get your ideas?"

If I ever find out, I'll let you know. Don't wait too long, though.

Do you come from a land down under?
kitten   June 12, 2004

There's something a little disconcerting about a 25 year old becoming nostalgic, or complaining about damn teenagers, but nevertheless, this morning I was attempting to ascertain why today's generation is almost entirely composed of snivelling, obnoxious little twits with superiority complexes large enough to de-orbit planets.

I formulated a hypothesis, and did a little research which confirmed my theory. This is the result of my findings, compiled for all to examine.

I believe I've made my point. From Atlanta, good evening.

We got to install microwave ovens.

It's come to my attention recently that in general, and the walled city specifically, have been the subjects of debate in certain circles, with people emailing links and quotes back and forth and trading arguments on the veracity and validity of the essays and critiques on the more literary areas, such as they are.

Ladies and gentlemen, my email address is available at the top of every post, and more contact information is listed on the side menu. If you want to quibble, or would like me to clarify a point, feel free to use the tools I've provided.

I just think it's pretty silly to argue with each other about it when the author himself is available.

Another one bites the dust.
kitten   June 5, 2004

In memory of Ronald Reagan:

"The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation was awarded a huge research grant to design and produce synthetic personalities to order. The results were uniformly disastrous. All the 'people' and 'personalities' turned out to be amalgams of characteristics that simply could not co-exist in naturally occuring life-forms. Most of them were just poor pathetic misfits, but some were deeply, deeply dangerous. Dangerous because they didn't ring alarm bells in other people. They could walk through situations the way that ghosts walk through walls, because no one spotted the danger.

The most dangerous of all were three identical ones -- they were put in this hold, to be blasted...right out of this universe. They are not evil, in fact they are rather simple and charming. But they are the most dangerous creatures that ever lived because there is nothing they will not do if allowed, and nothing they will not be allowed to do...."

Zaphod slid aside a large ground-glass door. Beyond it lay a tank full of thick yellow liquid, and floating in it was a man...the kindly looking man in the tank seemed to be babbling gently to himself...Zaphod found a small speaker by the tank and turned it on. He heard the man babbling gently about a shining city on a hill.

He also heard the official from the Safety and Civil Reassurance Administration issue instructions that the planet in ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha must be made "perfectly safe".

Young Zaphod Plays It Safe, Douglas Adams