Sunday, March 30, 2008

Off The Freakin' Chain

I took that title from one of the comments on The Demeanors' MySpace page. They were amazingly good in their first show, and think the crowd (other than family and friends) was a bit surprised at how young they were.

They were the first band of the night, being the youngest and the least experienced, so they had the experience of doing the sound check. The Metaphor Cafe is a small club but it has a decent sound and lighting set-up.

They were there early and so we had an hour or so to kill before the show started. It was interesting to watch how the cafe transformed slowly into a music venue as night came and the ska kids started to file in. By 7 there was a decent crowd and they finally started to play.

They began the show with a couple of their more straight punk tunes, with just drums, guitar, and bass. Both are remarkably good songs (in my opinion) and they sounded good playing them. After that they brought the horns on stage and proceeded with their ska songs. Their only cover was Sublime's "What I Got", but all of their original songs were pretty strong. The horns were spot on, as if they'd been playing together forever. My son's friend Ben is evolving into a pretty talented front-man for the band, in addition to being the bassist. Brandon, the drummer, is excellent. He gives them a stronger pulse than the typical ska band and i think it works well. In my obviously objective opinion it was a solid live set. I wish it had been longer, but since Nathan broke a string on the last song it was probably for the best that it ended when it did.

It's definitely weird being at a show as a parent. You figure that in the eyes of the average teen-ager you must be some variant of creepy old dude, so it's hard not to feel conspicuous. Most of the band-members parents ended up gathered in the same area near the back of the club, and it was like some sort of strange reversal of the kids' table.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What I Do

I always use the pathetic joke that I'm not quite sure what i want to be when i grow up, despite the fact that i've been grown up by any objective standard for at least 20 years. So i guess that i have to concede that what i do for a living is what i will do when i grow up. However, even though i have 20+ years of experience in the thing that i do, it's still kind of hard to describe to other people.

Some people in my life know that my education was in chemistry, so back when i was working on software related to the chemical and biotech industries, I could claim to be anything from a chemist to a computer programmer. In reality, i've never worked a day in my life as a chemist. I'm much closer to a computer programmer, but that description invokes the idea of either Initech or guys who code web pages in their mom's basement. If i said that i worked in molecular modeling or bio-informatics, etc; I got blank stares and changes of topic. In practice, my main task during that phase of my career was designing and writing application software that was used by chemists or other research scientists. Occasionally, i got to do some real thinking, like the time I created new code to calculate dispersion curves in polymer crystals, or the time i wrote a simulated annealing system. But primarily, I was a standard-issue software engineer, and at some points a manager of software engineers.

When i left that industry, I could look people straight in the eye and tell them i was a software developer without worrying that they would ask me for details. Briefly, I worked on a defense project, and all i had to say was "I work on a classified project for the Navy". Nobody knew what that meant either, but almost everybody knows somebody working in defense contracting so they have a basis for comparison. When i got into the digital music world, I could simply say that i worked for an on-line music service, and everybody knew exactly what i meant (Actually, they though i meant ITunes, but close enough). When i worked for Yahoo!, i just said "I work for Yahoo!". Enough said.

Still, even though i put software engineer on my resume along with all of the requisite acronyms and characteristics of said occupation, I'm not sure if that's exactly what i do. Almost every job that i've had has involved some sort of mathematical, quantitative aspect that is not necessarily a component of all software careers. I'm not exactly a quant either though. I don't know how to pivot an Excel spreadsheet or even start SAS; but i can create generalized linear models with R and write code to do steepest descent optimization. I once used the term "scientific programmer", and i've considered the mildly confusing "computational scientist" (as opposed to computer scientist) to describe my occupation, but both of those seem to describe a more focused role than mine.

Part of my problem is that i have always been the jack-of-all-trades types of programmer. I like the full-on analysis-design-build-test cycle of regular software engineering, but i also like to write Perl scripts, optimize SQL queries, and tinker with user interface widgets. This is a good quality to have if you want to be employed, but it's not that great if you want to be identified with a particular skill. I think this is a side effect of having entered the computing field without having gone through any formal computer science training. I did not begin using computers with the intention of developing a career, and so i never went through the process of identifying a specialty. I took whatever opportunities were available to people of my background, and those were initially in scientific realms without a lot of existing IT infrastructure. So, you coded, you wrote documentation, you did calculations, you ran cables, you did a lot of archaeology on crufty old code written a thousand years ago on in Fortran on stone tablets by long forgotten grad students.

I suppose that before too long all of the diverse skills that i've accumulated over the years will qualify me to call myself a consultant, which is sort of the high-tech version of a sign that says "Will Work For Food". Or perhaps i'll get around to finishing (also starting) my epic sci-fi/fantasy trilogy so that i can change careers entirely. Or, possibly, i'll become a personal trainer specializing in over-40 mid-life crisis types. Whatever. I guess i'll just change my approach and say that i don't know what i want to do even now that I'm grown up.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Poetic IM

My former martial arts instructor and I were having a philosophical on-line chat, and he sent me this, which i think is the most poetic IM i've ever received:
i think enlightenment is a constant, we are equipped with it, it's always there,
because we have these...glimpses of it,
it shines through in cracks and crevices like the sun through a forest when the sun is low
we have so much clutter
it gets blacked out
in the day to day

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Demeanors

My son's band has changed their name to The Demeanors. They're playing at the Metaphor Cafe in Escondido on March 29th as part of a Skank-Out Productions show of local young ska bands.

Poster design by Duke Duel Designs.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Barack Obama

Like most people of sound mind, i'd vote for a fence post if the Democrats decided to run one against John McCain in the fall. So for me the only choice is between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (and, possibly, a fence post). Prior to the beginning of the primaries I had a slight preference for Mrs. Clinton, but at present I have a slight preference for Mr. Obama.

I like many things about Mrs. Clinton. I think she would come to the White House better prepared to handle the responsibilities, and I see some of her ostensible liabilities as assets (to paraphrase Tina Fey, she might be a bitch, but bitches get things done). She makes a good point that Obama's message of hope has a whiff of magical thinking, and i think there's little doubt that in the Washington meat grinder she would be the more resilient politician. Mrs. Clinton has definitely been hurt by people around her, especially her husband and Geraldine Ferraro. But what's hurt her in my mind is that she has yet to take an unequivocal stance on any issue, even the war in Iraq, which is the key issue for my money.

Obama is hardly perfect either. He has some troubling religious affiliations, and his proposals for how he would change things are too vague for my pragmatic mind. I have conservative tendencies with respect to small government and fiscal responsibility, and those aren't things that I expect Obama to emphasize. But i'm very pleased with the way that he speaks consistently and directly about his positions, even in potentially hostile environments. There is far less sense that he is tailoring his message for his audience, or exploiting the prejudices or ignorance of his supporters. Finally, as with Bill Clinton in the early 90s, i get the impression that he is pretty smart, or at least is thinking for himself. I think even most republicans are getting tired of the pretense that Bush has any idea what he's talking about.

The best sign that Obama is on to something is the effort that the right-wing press is making to persuade people that he's bad. There was Rush Limbaugh's cynical effort to get people to vote for Clinton in order to divide the democrats, and Fox news has been discussing his "decline" after the Ohio and Texas primaries. The mentally challenged Glenn Beck never fails to mention Obama when he's shilling for Jonah Goldberg's idiotic Liberal Fascism book. I'm sure there will be all manner of swift-boating to come, but it's sorta cool that Obama has already put the machine in motion.

The general election could be pretty interesting. Obama will probably have trouble attracting the centrist voters, while McCain might have problems rallying some of the party base. If Ron Paul had Ross Perot's money, I wouldn't even be surprised to see him as an independent candidate. I also worry a lot about Senator Obama's safety to be honest. There is still a segment of our population that will have a problem with an unabashedly liberal black candidate.