Category Archives: Nerdy

Renegade childhood pen acquisition

This morning I woke up in my friend’s apartment in Osaka, happy to be here. I made some coffee and decided to write by hand in my journal, to add to the 3,000 or so pages I’ve filled with fodder for future stories in recent years. Pen selection of every entry is a delicate process, subject to several variables. The thickness of the ink is dependent on my environment—am I on a bumpy train and require greater precision? Am I writing while leaning on one arm on a bed and need something with low resistance so my hand won’t get tired? Or is there a desk so I can use a thicker, felt-tip pen with a feather-light touch?

I picked one from the arsenal and decided yes, it would be the one for today: a Pilot P-700 Fine with a marbled pattern on the pen casing.

When I was in elementary school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the school would host seasonal sales. Cookies, wrapping paper, and other various items from catalogs, the school would give to the children to peddle to our families, neighbors, and whoever else we could convince to buy, in exchange for points that could be redeemed for prizes. An ideal American business transaction: convince child laborers to flip stuff that had no value to them to adults, in order to receive things kids would actually want that were of exceedingly less monetary value. But I was never allowed to participate. These sales were, my mother explained, a scam, exploitative, demeaning, or some other reason (she never really explained her decisions for such things in a way I could understand as a kid), and she wouldn’t have me involved in that racket.

Every year I would watch with jealousy as the prizes came back to reward the burgeoning entrepreneurs of the class. I wanted some fucking prizes too. By fourth grade, I decided to take things into my own hands. I can’t remember what I sold or to whom, but somehow I snuck that catalog behind my mom’s back and sold enough goods to amass approximately 500 points by the end of the allotted time period. I turned my order forms in to my teacher after scouring the rewards sheet for the thing of most point value to my 9-year-old self.

When the day came for the prizes to be delivered, I waited patiently while the big ticket prizes were delivered to the kids with hyper-competitive parents who probably dumped hundreds into the catalog just so their kid could be the class winner. When the small package was placed on my desk, it was a triumphant moment. I unwrapped it and my little hands, for the first time gripped that which, 20 years later, would help to draft the culmination of my life’s work: a Pilot P-700 Fine pen with a marbled pattern on the pen casing.

That pen, nobody could borrow. I had my decoy pens for that, and still do. No, the Pilot was my professional tool. It signified sophistication and professionalism. I remember the feeling when it ran out of ink after pouring its contents on the pages of my notebooks: the slow death of an old friend. I kept that empty pen in my desk for years even though it was useless; it became its own memorial. Whenever I use the new version, I remember what it meant to me back then: defiance, self-sufficiency, creative endeavor against all obstacles.

You may classify my association with this pen, something many would easily discard, as overly sentimental. But if the objects in our lives are symbols, what better reason to posses them than the direct memory link to the moments in which they were acquired?

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Breaking through to the bonus side

DKC2_Find_the_TokenBonus items in video games are almost always hidden behind some array of dangerous obstacles. On first play, most people would avoid them. The primary goal, after all, is to complete the level. But when you immerse yourself in the virtual world for long enough, you begin to see the obstacles as goldmines. You know that the only reason that lava pit, or wall of bees, or freakish baddie is there is to guard the prize on the other side.

DK_Rambi_RumbleMaybe the first time you found one was on accident, when you lost control and saw the prize on the other side as you were falling to your death. So you went back. Your instincts began to invert themselves. Now, instead of running away from harm, you plow straight into it. You sacrifice your health based on some kind of faith that, once you break through, whatever is on the other side will restore you and give you powers you never knew existed—strength that will make the obstacles you once feared seem benign.

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Seapunk squid screening party success

I somehow managed to gather most of my favorite people over to my apartment tonight to watch the premiere of Discovery’s squid documentary, about which I’ve spend the past two weeks interviewing the most fantastic scientists for, culminating in one of the best articles I’ve ever written:

Giant squid! To catch a monster, bring patience and plenty of cash

RELEASE THE KRAKEN!

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The software patent system is broken, long live the software patent system

Tonight I went to a panel discussion, one of my favorite closet nerd things to do on a Thursday night in NYC. It was at Hack Manhattan, aptly titled “Software Patents Debate – FREE alcoholic and non-alcoholic refreshments.” Sold out, obviously. The panel was hosted by America’s Future Foundation and featured Nilay Patel of The Verge, Chris Mims of Quartz, Reihan Salam of National Review, and patent lawyers Christina Mulligan, Alan Tenenbaum, and Greg Maskel, moderated by Chris Gaun of Gartner.

The purpose of the panel was to debate whether or not software should be patentable, if the current system is broken, and if it encourages innovation. All the panelists agreed that it was not optimally functional, mainly because of the legal aspects. The main example they kept coming back to was of a 15 year old kid in Wichita who makes iPhone game apps in between homework assignments. The kid could get sent a letter from a company claiming he’d infringed on their patent. The letter may or may not be valid, but that doesn’t matter—even attempting to defend his app could require up to $30,000 in legal fees and a whole lot of time. And it’s not like he knew about the patent in the first place because there’s no effective way to search the system and see if what you’re working on falls under another patent, he’d just have to build the thing and wait to see if he got a letter. As Christina put it, “when you’re in the position of making a product, it’s mathematically impossible to know what patents you might be infringing.” This is in-part because of the rate of growth of the software industry, in which there are about 700,000 patents currently pending, and millions of others in existence. Understandably, if I had the skills to invent something new, I would feel really discouraged from sharing it with anyone.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to define who the patent trolls are and thus impossible to impose regulations preventing such trolling. They are usually companies who bought up a bunch of patents but aren’t contributing any innovation to the marketplace, and will sometimes send letters in the hundreds or thousands to people who could possibly be infringing seeking royalties, which many inventors are inclined to pay even if they didn’t knowingly infringe on the patent because paying the royalty fees is cheaper than the legal costs. So the trolls can just sit back racking in the dough they’re bullying out of anyone brave enough to attempt to innovate. It’s clear they must be stopped via a reform in the legal system, but the reason they’re able to do that is because the ability to claim royalties exists to protect inventors from getting their ideas ripped off by intentional copycats. SO we need to find a way to differentiate between innovators and leeches. Shouldn’t be hard in theory, but what metrics do you use in practice?

It’s a stifling atmosphere that makes a lot of true innovators throw up their hands and say “to hell with the system, I won’t use it.” This is often the case with proponents of the open source movement, who are clearly the ideological heroes. But in refusing to seek patents on the principle that they won’t engage with a corrupt system, they are choosing to be poor. As Nilay put it, “the people who need [the patent system] the most are the people who don’t believe in it.”

Then there’s the case of companies trying to discourage competition by trying to patent things like rounded corners. Obviously no one company invented rounded corners, and certainly not Apple, but they still won. So the system is clearly still having some problems establishing whether an invention is “new” or if the company is exploiting the shit out of it.

The lawyers were very lawyery. One of my favorite exchanges was when Christina pointed out that the vast majority of patents are never litigated but one could still never know if he was in the wrong. Then Alan chimed in and said it didn’t matter, “go forward with your product and if you become successful then you become a target.” So if you don’t get successful, don’t worry about it. Except… what’s successful? Selling 100,000 apps at a dollar each and having to spend half that on legal fees? A million?

Then someone said maybe software shouldn’t be patentable at all, because it’s this thing that’s way different from a steam engine or light bulb or whatever was being invented when the patent laws were made with a 20 year expiration date that doesn’t really make sense in the context of today’s rapidly changing software landscape.

Ultimately, we want as much innovation as possible in our society. But as usual, the dudes on the golf course smoking cigars are keeping the nerds from saving the world. One thing’s clear about this royal mess though: Something’s gotta give.

The ScienceOnline2010 countdown begins!

To commemorate the fact that there is only one month to go until I get to see all my favorite people from the Internets, some of whom I will be meeting for the very first time IRL (!!!), I present to you my favorite picture from ScienceOnline2009.

Via Alice of ScienceWomen:

hot shoes

Image 1: The Hot Shoes of Science.

From the top left we have my own hot legs in the gold and black Naughty Monkeys, Scicurious (my ScienceOnline2010 roommie!!!) of Neurotopia‘s hot legs in the purple and gold Naughty Monkeys, ScienceWoman‘s and Alice’s hot legs in the brown… I don’t know what you call those things but they both looked very becoming in them and I adore them very much. The ladiez, notsomuch the shoes — FOR ME. OK I’m going to stop talking now, and start getting excited about ScienceOnline!!

w00t!