Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The insanity that is Uber - a 100$B company?

So we've had taxis for years and we know that generally taxi drivers work hard, long hours and make small amounts of money. The cab companies make more, of course, but I don't think there are a whole lot of billionaires in the taxi business.

And now there is Uber. An earlier round of VC $ put its value at $17B. According to Fortune, Uber is now "raising new funding at a valuation of between $35 billion and $40 billion, according to a new report from Bloomberg. This would be one of the richest “venture capital” rounds in history (Facebook still holds the crown), and likely mean that investors expect Uber to eventually go public at a valuation of at least $100 billion."

How are to make any sense of this? Where would all the money come from to make all these investors (and shareholders) rich? 

By cutting out the "middleman" (regulation to ensure safe rides, primarily)? Maybe, but I can't imagine it will generate that much revenue?

By reducing the cost of a ride, compared to a taxi? That's true, apparently, some of the time with Uber, but often it is way MORE expensive - because prices are "market-driven."

By shifting more and more of the costs and risks to the drivers? That's pretty darn likely. Just look at the poor "contractors" who have to pay for their trucks and lease their gear from FedEx. 

By shifting riders from mass transit to Uber (in other greatly expanding the "pie" of pay-per-ride)? Again, that seems unlikely.

What am I missing? How could Uber replace an existing business that brings in nowhere near that much money and suddenly be printing the stuff?

Oh, and that's if they don't self-destruct due to their cavalier, arrogant attitudes and actions of their management.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Feeling trepidatious? Time to lay very low?

Sure, "trepidatious" might not be a word, per se.

But I am confident it is something that more than one very famous male actor is feeling right now, as they watch Bill Cosby go down in flames.

As in: seriously and deeply apprehensive about what the future might bring.

There are a few things we can be sure of right now, even if Cosby never faces a judge or jury:

1. Bill Cosby is a nasty piece of work, and very likely (was) a pedophile.

The pattern of behavior, finally brought to light after years of self-censorship by victims and callous disregard by the media and judicial system, is overwhelming and seemingly never-ending. Mr. Cosby is a serial rapist, and he did it by drugging young women, some of them less than 18 years old at the time.

2. Bill Cosby is an actor. 

The roles he played were just that: roles. We are easily fooled into thinking of the people behind the roles as sharing characteristics of their characters, but that's just, well, foolish.

The whole point of being a great actor is that you can act really well. You can pretend to be someone else really convincingly. But they are still someone else and not the "real you."

3. Bill Cosby cannot be the only one.

That's where the trepidation comes in. Seriously, what's the chance that Cosby is the only famous, powerful, rich actor who has a long history of taking advantage of and raping women (and/or men, for that matter)?

There have got to be others, and they've got to be terrified that soon their victims will say "Enough!" and then the next deluge will begin.

So my advice to all those A-listers who are also serial rapists:

Lay low, lay really low. Do not provoke your victims. Do not laugh in their faces.

And then maybe you will be able to retire and fade into the sunset, so that your obituary will not be some variation of:

Funny Guy, Sure, But Also a Rapist

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interstellar Madness

Saw Interstellar last night. Only had to wait through TWENTY MINUTES of trailers. Had to put fingers in my ears for much of it. So loud, so invasive, so manipulative. Anyway....

I don't watch TV anymore, rarely watch a movie or read a novel. So when I do subject myself to high-resolution artificial input to my brain, it is a jarring experience.

And enjoyable. I haven't stopped watching TV because I don't like it. I have stopped watching TV because I can't help but "like" it, be drawn to it. I am a product of millions of years of evolution, and both Madison Ave (marketeers) and Hollywood know it, and take advantage of it.


I enjoyed watching Interstellar, with its time-traveling plot ridiculousnesses and plenty of engaging human drama. 

But one line really ticked me off. The movie is, to a large extent, a propaganda campaign to get Americans excited about being "explorers and pioneers" again. 

Cooper (McConaughey) complains that "Now we're a generation of caretakers." and asserts that:

"Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here."

That is the worst sort of human species-ism. It is a statement of incredible arrogance. And it is an encouragement to humans to continue to despoil this planet, because don't worry! 

Science and technology can and will save us! Right? 'Cause it sure has done the trick so far. We are feeding more people, clothing more people, putting more people in cars and inside homes with air conditioners, getting iPhones in the hands of more and more humans. 

Go, science, go!

And if we can't figure out how to grow food for 10 billion and then 20 billion people, if we totally exhaust this planet trying to keep every human alive and healthy into old age, not to worry! There are lots of other planets out there and, statistically, lots and lots of them should be able to support human life. Just have to find them and, oh, right, get there.

But there's no way to get there without a drastic acceleration of consumption of resources of our own planet. Traveling to space is, shall we say, resource-intensive.

Where and how did we (the self-aware sliver of human organisms) go so wrong? 

I think it goes back to the development of recorded knowledge (writing, essentially or, more broadly, culture). As long as humans were constrained by the ability to transmit information only orally, the damage we could do was relatively limited, though still quite destructive.

Once, however, we could write down what we knew, then we could build upon that knowledge, generation after generation, never losing anything but a sense of responsibility about how best to use that knowledge.

That sense of responsibility might also be termed "wisdom", and unfortunately wisdom is something that humans acquire through experience in the world, not by reading a book or a webpage. 

Mankind was born on earth and there is no reason at all to think that we - the entire species - shouldn't live and die right here on earth. Especially if we recognize that the price to be paid for leaving earth is the destruction of large swaths of earth and our co-inhabitants and....

Being the moral creatures that we like to think we are, we decide that this price is unacceptable.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Science needs to explain this?

Christopher Nolan of Dark Knight fame releasing new sci-fi movie: Interstellar.

In a Chicago Tribune interview, he says:

I could be wrong, but science needs to cross a threshold and explain why a monkey typing infinitely would never type the works of Shakespeare.

Well, I could be wrong, but maybe Nolan is a bit of an idiot when it comes to science.

Please, Mr. Nolan, tell me which scientists make this claim?

I guess he read somewhere about infinity and how incredibly awesome and big and never-ending it is, and so eventually anything would be done by anybody or anything and so even monkeys would "eventually" write Shakespeare and and and....

Produce a movie called Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey. 

In fact, maybe Chris Nolan is actually a monkey who crossed over from that obelisk in 2001, and got super smart and so a monkey already has produced a movie called Interstellar.

Damn, that is just so cool and so weird and it's like, that's never going to happen, man, no way.

So scientists had better figure out WHY that is not going to happen when they obviously really believe that it WILL happen (go, monkey, go!).

And to do that, they are going to have a cross a threshold, 'cause clearly science has hit its limit here. Just like with souls. Science can't explain souls, so I guess scientists had better cross over - maybe into a parallel universe -

Because really what could be cooler than parallel universes?

Sunday, October 05, 2014

What I like best about myself

What could be more self-centered?

Why should anyone else in the world care what I like best about myself?

I have no idea. That is for sure. But, hey, what can I say? This is the world we live in (I mean: the artificial environment humans have created, mainly to avoid actually living in and on our amazing world).

It is an age of, ahem, sharing. And, ahem, advertising. Actually, first and foremost, advertising.

Anyway, screw all that. Here's what I like best about myself:

I love to be with kids. And I am, to put it stupidly but perhaps clearly, a kid whisperer.

Given the choice between spending time with an adult or spending time with a child, there is no contest. None at all. It's a bit of a compulsion, I suppose, but....

If there is a child in the room, I pay them all of my attention, I cannot stop myself from doing this. It just happens. Adults, for the most part, disappear. I engage with a child as a peer, another whole human. And usually children respond to me instantly and with great enthusiasm. 

Chances are, if your child is between, say, three months old to five years, we will be fast friends within minutes. Your cranky baby might fall asleep in my arms, as I sing Moonshadow to her or whisper nonsense words in her ear. Your shy three-year old son might find himself talking excitedly about a snake he saw on a trail that day (he hadn't mentioned it to you). Your teenage daughter might be telling me about playing games on her phone and how she doesn't think her dad realizes how much she is doing it.

I have the most amazing discussions with children. And though I bet this will sound strange to you: some of my favorite and memorable conversations have been with five month old babies. How is this possible, you might wonder. They can't even talk. Well, you can find ouit. Just try this at home with your baby:

Hold her about a foot away from your face, cradled in your arms. Look deeply and fully into her eyes. Smile deeply. And then say something along these lines, moving your mouth slowly: "Ooooh. Aaaaah. Maaaaa. Paaaaa." And then she will (sometimes) answer back, eyes never leaving yours....and you have a conversation. Your very first game of verbal Ping Pong. 

I suppose I could try to explain the feeling of pure happiness I experience at moments like this. I don't think, though, that written language is good for stuff like that. It's better for recording knowledge needed to destroy more and more of our planet to make humans comfortable.

And with my granddaughter, oh, don't even get me started. Sometimes I will be talking to her, our heads close together, and realize her face has gone into this kind of open, relaxed state in which she is rapt, almost in a trance, absorbing everything I am saying, the sound of my voice, my mouth moving. Just taking it all in. You'd better believe that I put some thought into what I am saying to this incredibly smart and observant "big girl." (who turns three in three weeks)

Here's another "try this at home" with your three year old (or two or four): talk about shadows. Where do they come from/ How do they relate to your body? Why does their shape change as the day goes on? Loey and I have had fun with shadows several times.

I have always been this way. I have no idea why. I have this funny feeling that it might actually be at least in some small way the result of a genetic mutation. I have a nephew who resembles me in several different, seemingly unconnected ways, including this love of and deep affinity for children.

I don't think that many people understand what I am doing when I spend time with children. I am called a "doting" grandfather. It offends me, though I certainly understand that no offense was intended.

I don't dote on Loey. Instead,I  seek out every opportunity to share my wonder of our world and life with her, help her understand and live in the world as effectively as possible. What this has meant lately is that I talk with her a lot about trees, how much I love them, how amazing they are. 

One day at the park, as we walked past the entrance to the playground, I noticed a very small oak sapling - in essence, a baby oak tree.

When we got inside the park, there was a mature oak towering over our stroller. I asked Loey if she wanted to see a baby tree. She said yes, so I picked her up to get close to the mature oak's leaf. I showed her the shape of the leaf, and the big tree to which it was attached.

Then I took her outside and we looked at the sapling. I showed her how the leaves on this tiny baby tree were the same, shape and size, as those on the big tree. That's how we knew it was a baby of that big tree. And it certainly was interesting that the leaves would be the same size on the tiny sapling. Held her attention throughout. That was deeply satisfying.

Mostly what I do is look children directly in the eyes, give them my full attention, smile with great joy at seeing them. Babies are deeply hard-wired to read faces. They can see in the wrinkles around my widened eyes and the smile that is stretching across my face that I love them, accept them fully. And with that more or less physical connection established, they seem to relax, melt, soften with trust. They know they can trust me, and they are absolutely correct. 

In that moment, I would do anything for them.

This wisdom (that's how I see it) to accept the primacy of our young, my willingness to appear to adults as absolutely foolish, but to a child appear as a bright light, making them glow right back at me:

That is what I like best about me. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

What I felt sad about last night

A few weeks ago, I moved my office into the basement. That was a big change. That room upstairs, with big windows looking out onto Pratt Ave was where I'd spent almost all of my professional career (we moved to the house in 1992, three months before leaving Oracle for a consulting gig), wrote my books (including the first, Oracle PL/SQL Programming, that changed the course of my life), built the software (Xray Vision for SQL Forms 3, QNXO, Qute, PL/Vision, Code Tester for Oracle, Quest CodeGen Utility, etc.), did the webinars, wrote 1000+ quizzes for the PL/SQL Challenge.

But you know what? Bye, bye, no big deal. Change is good (like this change: Veva and I are taking ballroom dancing classes. I will learn what to do with my feet when I dance!).

I like my cave, I mean, office. It's spacious, and I can make as much noise as I want. Which is very important, since I will be churning out lots of really noisy videos about PL/SQL and my latest dance moves. 

I'm getting my artwork up on the walls:

My father did the painting on the bottom left. It has a lot of power and feeling. My dry cleaner created the beautiful painting on top.

I re-established my sand table with beautiful pieces by Terry Hogan, and many other shells and coral from the sea:

And I put some of my awards and other mementos up on shelves that used to hold a small library of science fiction/fantasy books:

So, yes, settling in to my new office. And last night I started nailing up corkboard tiles to the thick wood paneling, so I could pin up photos of my granddaughter, Loey. Oh, I suppose other people, too. But Loey mainly, because she is the light of my life, and oh my she is a bright light.

In any case, as I hammered the tiny nails needed to hold up the corkboard, I became aware that I felt kind of down, as if the day had not gone well. Why would I be feeling that way? It had been a good day. And then I (the conscious part of me) realized that the non-conscious part of me was feeling bad about having broken a branch in the woods earlier in the day.

That sounds kind of weird, right? I mean, seriously, how bad are humans supposed to feel about breaking the branch of a tree? It's not like they'd notice, right?

But it made perfect sense to me, so I decided to share with you why a broken branch would set my brain to brooding, thereby giving you a sense of how I see the world these days.

As to why anyone should care what I think of the world, well, I leave that entirely up to the reader. No readers, then no one cares. :-) 

As soon as the thought (brooding about broken branch) broke into my consciousness, I immediately knew it was true (that happens to you, too, right? You can instantly sense that a thought is correct. Now try thinking about what is going on in your brain for this to happen and how much of your brain is the "I" that is you). 

You see, I had earlier been thinking back over to when I was in the woods this morning cutting down buckthorn. At one point a rather large tree came down hard against a nearby native tree I was working to rescue. 

To my great dismay, one of its branches was caught by the twisty, grabby buckthorn. It snapped and hung loosely. I did that. That was probably two years' new growth, hard work against buckthorn. And I killed it. 

That bummed me out (and still does), but I reminded myself that I have to accept that even when I move carefully and always safely, I cannot always control where a large tree will fall. I will make mistakes and there will be setbacks. But I just have to keep going.

"Going where?" you might ask. I have developed a new, very strong compulsion: to rescue trees. To do what I can with my own hands, with my own time, with, in other words, a solid chunk of my life, to heal some of the damage we humans inflict on our co-inhabitants and the planet itself.

I think about it as direct and positive action, a principle I attempt to follow in all aspects of my life these days.

Here in Chicago, buckthorn - an invasive import from northern Europe - grows aggressively, crowding out the native trees. In particular, they don't allow young trees, the saplings, the next generation of the natives, to survive. And as the buckthorn grows taller,  it also kills off the lower branches of the mature trees. 

Buckthorn is really an impressive, powerful, successful species. I admire it greatly - and I cut down on the order of 200 buckthorn trees a week (many of them quite small, but not all). Contradiction? Not at all. A necessary corrective action to human abuse of our world. We travel about, carrying with us the seeds (and ballast and larvae) of destruction for many ecosystems.

I do not want to lose our native trees (and even the non-invasive imports). I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy forests. I want to respect trees, since we could never have evolved to what we are today without trees. And even today the forests of the world are absolutely critical to the functioning of the global ecosystem(s).

I want to treat trees with respect and do penance for our cutting down 95% of the trees in the continental US. So I go out and rescue trees. It is now my only form of exercise and it keeps me in great shape - especially for picking up, carrying and playing with Loey. She loves for me to hang her upside down by her ankles and swing her like a pendulum. She trusts me implicitly. I love that.

Sorry, you must be wondering: what is the point of all this? 

To give me an opportunity to marvel at the current state of my life, in which I have quite an intimate relationship with trees. I study them, I read them. Really, it's quite amazing. I can go into the woods now, look at how a native tree's branch has withered, identify the buckthorn that is doing the damage, and actually play it out in my mind's eye: years of slow growth, of slow-motion battle, and of losing it to the buckthorn. Everywhere I look, I find the trees telling their stories.

My greatest joy is to uncover a small sapling that was so completely surrounded and covered by buckthorn I didn't even see it there when I started cutting. Then I open it to the sun and the wind. I did this with a lovely 15 foot tall maple sapling last week. I will be visiting it (and hundreds of other trees) each year now, making sure the buckthorn (and grapevine) leaves it alone, allowing it to grow to a big, thick, incredibly strong and life-giving tree.

There, right there, that's what I marvel at: I know that the 10+ hours I spend each week in the woods rescuing trees will mean that 20 years from now there will be trees with a diameter of a foot or more that simply would not be there if it hadn't been for my effort and my attention paid to something other than human stuff.

That makes me feel happy and less guilty about my consumption (and indirect killing of many, many trees). It gives me a purpose in life, besides family and work.

I plan to rescue trees for as long as my body is able to do the work.

Anyone care to join me?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

This is not my kingdom

I don't know most people in Chicago on an individual basis, but of all the people I don't know, my favorite Chicagoans are scavengers. They roam the alleys in beat up pickup trucks, with various kinds of makeshift walls extended above the bed.

They grab anything made of metal and anything with the possibility of value. They reduce the amount of garbage going to landfills and I thank them very much for doing this.

Driving the other day, passed one such truck with a hand-lettered sign nailed to the wooden side wall. It said:

This is not my kingdom.
Just passing through.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Eli and the Runaway Diaper now available!

In 2013, the big sensation in (my) children's publishing was the release of Vivian Vulture and the Cleanup Culture.

In 2014, the honor goes to Eli and the Runaway Diaper.

It's a book about a diaper that gets tired of the day in day out grind of covering Eli's bottom (the names have been changed to protect the innocent). It decides that it's time to look around for a new and hopefully better (more appreciative) bottom.

Eli is initially dismayed, but happy to join the diaper on its quest, so off they go on a grand adventure!

Illustrated by Robert Melegari, it's a fun, light-hearted journey to self-discovery and self-improvement.

You can order it on Amazon,  Createspace, and so on. But if you order it from me, I will sign it and ship it off to you, all for the list price of $12.99.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Flipping Herman Millers

I was one of those dot.com boom excitables who decided that he must own a Herman Miller Aeron chair in order to be super cool and incredibly productive while I blogged and tweeted (well, I don't think there was Twitter back then) and so forth.

Soon after I got the chair, I realized that I really didn't like it very much at all. It didn't seem to provide support in the right places, didn't make it easy to avoid slouching....it wasn't the desk chair for me.

[My chair of choice, for years now, is the Swopper.]

Tried to get my son interested. Nope.

Tried to get my wife interested. Nope.

Moved it to the garage. 

Finally decided to offer it up on Craigslist nice and cheap to make it go away. Posted the ad for $200 and within minutes had someone lined up. He lived in St. Louis, but his dad lived nearby, and he told me when picking up the chair:

His son has built up a business "flipping" Aeron chairs. Buy them cheap, buy lots of parts, fix 'em up, and spin 'em back out into the market. 

Who knew?

What a remarkable system is capitalism. Sure, it's not nice. It's not fair. It's played a key role in the destruction of our planet as humans suck out the "natural resources" to make all the stuff that consumers want to buy. 

But capitalism is a very organic way of organizing an economy. 

Oh and this same chair-flipping fellow also does a wholesale business in ugly Christmas sweaters.

Finger on the pulse of a nation.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

July 1, 1858: Co-discovery of Evolution by Natural Selection

On this day in 1858, members of the Linnaean Society of London listened to the reading of a composite paper, with two authors, announcing the discovery of evolution by natural selection.

One author you've probably heard of: Charles Darwin

The other? Famous in his time, but in the 20th and 21st centuries largely forgotten: Alfred Russel Wallace.

Darwin was a Big Data scientist, spending 20 years after his trip to the Galapagos gathering data from his own experiments and from botanists around the world, to make his theory unassailable. Wallace was a field naturalist, studying species and variation, up close and very personal.

Both ended up in the same place at roughly the same time, driven by the inescapable conclusion from these three facts:

1. More organisms are born than can survive (for their full "normal" lifespan). 
2. Like father like son: we inherit characteristics from our parents
3. NOT like father like son: each offspring varies in some way from its parents.

So who/what survives to reproduce and pass on its genes? Or rather, who dies and why? You can die purely by accident. You are the biggest, strongest lion. Nothing can beat you. But a tree falls on you. Dead and gone.

Or you can survive because you have an advantage, however slight, that another in your species lacks. Your beak is slightly more narrow and lets you get at all the nuts on the tree. Your legs are slightly longer so you can avoid the tiger. And so on, everything sorting out how to eat, how to survive long enough to reproduce, from bacteria to coral to fish to mammals.

And with each passing generation, the mutations that help you survive get passed along, and so we (humans and everyone, everything) change - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. But change we do. 

With this announcement on July 1, 1858, humans now had a way of understanding how the world works without having to fall back on some unknowable god or gods. And we have also been able to build on Wallace's and Darwin's insight to now understand, perhaps too well, how life works on our planet, and how similar we are to so many other species.

Which means - to my way of thinking - that we no longer have any excuses, we humans, for our ongoing devastation and depletion of our world and our co-inhabitants.

In a more rational world, in which humans shared their planet with everything around them, instead of consuming everything in sight, July 1 would be an international day of celebration.

Well, at least I posted a note on my blog! Plus I will go outside later and cut back invasives, to help native trees grow.

How will you celebrate International Evolution Day?

Here are some links to information about evolution, about the way these two men got to the point of announcing their discoveries, and more.

You will read in some of these articles about Wallace being "robbed" of his just fame and recognition; I must tell you that Wallace, in his own words and the way he lived his life, was gracious and generous in spirit. He always saw Darwin as the one who fully elaborated the theory, making its acceptance so instantly widespread across Europe. He did not seem the least bit jealous.

And Wallace was, in many ways, a far more interesting human being than Darwin. I encourage to check out his autobiography, My Life, as a way of being introduced to one of my heroes.


Monday, June 16, 2014

A terribly oblivious ultra-rich man

Steve Ballmer is a terribly oblivious ultra-rich man.

His offer of $2B for the Los Angeles Clippers is so ridiculously outsized and unjustified, plus it so richly rewards Sterling for, um, for saying something in private.

[Interesting to consider how in the US, land of free speech, this nasty brutish fellow is being punished -well he was being punished before Ballmer rewarded him - for his private thoughts. That's pretty awful when you think about it.]

Anyway back to Ballmer. His offer is so absurd that it becomes patently obvious to everyone that he has so much money it's simply no big deal for him to throw $2B on the table to unambiguously cinch the deal. 

The aristocracy in France did quite well, too, until they forgot that they were supposed to pretend at lesat a little bit that everyone else weren't virtually slaves for them. But when they got too flagrant, they paid, oh how they paid.

And here in the 21st century, in what is supposedly and still formally a democracy, with citizens supposedly being equal under the law, you really don't want to draw attention to your beyond obscene wealth.

Bad move, Ballmer. If I were a fellow billionaire, I'd get in touch and tell him to tone it down. 

The closer you look....

In the last couple of years, I have shifted my attention away from the human condition (wars here and there, cool new gadgets, etc.) to the non-human condition: the natural world of trees, water, creatures large and small, the process of evolution.

Along the way, I have been reminded that what you pay the most attention to is what your brain spends the most time thinking about (at least the parts of my brain that "I" am "conscious" of). So I need to be careful about what I pay attention to (one reason that I have stopped watching television almost completely). 

And spending ten plus hours a week outdoors, in the woods, cutting back invasives and rescuing trees, has reinforced this to me:

With living things, the more I watch and more closely I watch (and smell and taste), the more amazed I am by the wonders of life. And the more alive I feel,

With manufactured things, it is just the opposite.

The more closely I look at something made by humans, the more sterile, dead and energy-sucking it appears. And the more I watch (or smell or taste), the more deadened I feel.

Perhaps this is not such a big surprise, since everything that humans make is dead, and built upon the deaths of many creatures. Sorry if that sounds like such a downer, but I believe it is simply a statement of fact.

Anyway, no need to feel down. Just go outside, into the trees, into a field, away from things we make, take a deep breath, feel the sun on your face....and you will feel much better.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Do animals have souls?

OK, first of all, don't tell me your answer to this question. That would make the rest of this post seem a bit rude.

Here is one of the dumbest questions I can ever imagine a person asking, much less answering:

Do animals have souls?

How utterly ridiculous.

No one knows what a soul is. No one knows what it looks like, what it means, whether or not it really exists.

Furthermore, we certainly have no idea - please allow me to repeat that because I think it is so fundamental to accept this as fact: we have no idea at all - of what is going on inside an animal’s head. Clearly, a whole lot is going on, if you take the time to pay attention to animals and think about what it takes to do what they do. But many of the things humans blithely state as fact regarding animals, such as “They don’t know the difference between right and wrong.” is fundamentally meaningless because we simply cannot know what is going on inside another creature’s mind. We just make the assumption that they are really super different from us in all the ways that matter - to us.

We are intelligent, moral, sentient. We are smart and they are dumb, brute animals. We are conscious, we have history, philosophy, nuclear power. What do animals have? Nothing!

Oh really? How do we know what animals have? Or even what “have” means to a butterfly or a snake or a black bear? Again, we really have no idea whatsoever what animals have, what they want, or how they would feel about killing others just to make themselves comfortable (something that we humans do every second of every day).

So we make the most self-serving assumption imaginable. We simply outright declare that other creatures have no souls, are not sentient. They are food or threat or benign, but they are not like us.

We will continue to reject the evidence of our senses, the clear demonstrations of sentience, of complex social structures, in other animals. That way we don’t have to feel bad about enslaving them and killing them. Think for just a moment about how smart pigs are, and then think about pig farms in which tens of thousands of these poor creatures live short miserable lives - brought into this world for the very purpose of slaughtering them for bacon. And then later a dam bursts and an entire town is swamped with pig feces from the refuse lake at the farm. Go, humans, go!

I sure am glad there wasn’t and isn’t a species of creature on this planet that's three times our size, extremely powerful and licking its lips at the prospect of a nicely smoked human torso. 

We do not know what goes on inside a pig’s head, but it sure seems like they can feel and express terror. 

So, yes, humans will keep on keeping on, keep on consuming, reproducing, and assuming. But that doesn't mean we can’t try to recover a shred, a mere shred, of our individual dignity by at least acknowledging what we are doing, and taking at least one step, no matter how small to help heal our planet and our co-inhabitants.

We can start by acknowledging, accepting, that the thing that we believe makes us unique and special among all living things is simply an unknowable assumption we make. It is an arbitrary, self-serving action - and brings into question the very idea that humans can be considered moral creatures. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Bill Cosby the Mathematician

Leafing my way through the Chicago Reader, I came across this ad:

It took me a moment to sort it out. Can you?

And I don't even know what it is an ad for. Maybe he is coming to Chicago soon for a show? Maybe his greatgrandchild said "Hey, Great Grandpa, look what I learned in school today!" and BC was just so taken with the idea - and the fact that his own clever descendent came up with it, that he decided to run it as an ad.

In any case, generally I hate ads, but I sure like this one.

Ha! Or maybe it is old as can be (as in dating to at least 2011) and I am just catching up:


Well I've never pretended to keep up.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I (re) Join Oracle Corporation!

On March 17, 2014, I became an employee of Oracle Corporation for the second time. My first round with Oracle started in August 1987. My second son, Eli, was less than a year old. I'd been incredibly bored with my consulting gig, which consisted of babysitting a reporting system on a DEC10 "mainframe", based on a flat-file database – but a database.

So I checked the Help Wanted pages (no Internet, no smartphones, no LinkedIn) and came across an ad from Oracle Corporation. It contained the word "database", so I figured: "Why ?"

I was hired, even though I was completely ignorant of relational databases. Ok, not completely. I'd read an article by Codd and memorized "Twelve Rules of Relational Databases." But no one ever asked me about relational theory. Instead the key  question seemed to be: "Are you comfortable talking in front of groups, large and small?" I was, after all, interviewing for a "pre-sales" (sales consultant) position.

Fortunately (?), I'd been very active for the past several years organizing Americans to protest facets of our government's policies in Central America, and yes I'd spoken often to groups large and small. My manager-to-be at Oracle seemed pleased enough with this, and I got the job. I never thought my political activity would help me land a software job, but that's exactly what happened.

Looking back on that moment, I see now that it foreshadowed a significant, but not widely recognized characteristic of my career: The popularity of my books and trainings stem as much from my communication skills (the delivery) as from what I am communicating (the content).

I'll get back to that in a moment. Well, joining Oracle changed my life. For one thing, I had to go out and not only buy some suits, but wear them every day. And then after five years with the company, I left to do some consulting, and a few years later ended up publishing Oracle PL/SQL Programming (O'Reilly Media) in 1995. Now that really changed my life!

For the next almost-19 years, I have focused almost exclusively on the Oracle PL/SQL language. I wrote nine more books on the language (probably about 4 too many, actually), of which over 400,000 copies have been sold. I traveled to dozens of countries to share my obsession (expertise) with PL/SQL in trainings and presentations. I built and designed PL/SQL testing tools, code generators, code libraries, and more. I wrote lots of articles for Oracle Magazine and other publications. I attended many, many Kaleidoscopes and Collaborates and International Oracle User Weeks and Oracle Open Worlds and....my wife got really tired of my traveling. Sigh....and that is why I have pledged that in Round 2 with Oracle, I would not start living on airplanes again.

For much of those 19 years, I worked for Quest Software and then Dell as a PL/SQL Evangelist. Quest and Dell helped sstrengthen the PL/SQL community not only by offering such amazing tools as Toad for Oracle, but also by funding my position and giving me a tremendous amount of freedom to continue learning about, writing and writing about PL/SQL.

But I decided last year that I wanted to close out my career as a software professional (I will, after all, be 56 in September 2014) with the company that created the programming language that transformed my life: Oracle Corporation.

Wasn't I lucky that the head of all product development at Oracle, Thomas Kurian, was also a former PL/SQL product manager! Otherwise, Oracle might not have been interested in having me back. ☺

So what will I be doing at Oracle Corporation?

My title continues to be PL/SQL Evangelist, and PL/SQL will continue to be my main focus, of course. I will help promote the language, add to the collateral available for PL/SQL, write articles for Oracle Magazine and post content on Oracle Technology Network, present at the key Oracle developer-related conferences. In other words, all the usual stuff.

But I see my evangelism as a two way street: I want to make sure that developers around the world take the fullest possible advantage of PL/SQL, yet I also want to make sure that Oracle generally and the PL/SQL development team in particular recognize the importance of the PL/SQL community, and leverage it fully.

Ever since 2010 I have been writing daily quizzes (and more) on the PL/SQL Challenge. I have been amazed at the enthusiasm of hundreds of developers to test their knowledge on this site. And it has been fantastic to see many PL/SQL experts who might otherwise never be known or recognized by their peers step forward to share their expertise. This was one of my "hidden" goals of the PL/SQL Challenge.

You see, I have never been entirely comfortable with being (one of) the "go to guys" on PL/SQL. I know very well that for all of my depth and focus on PL/SQL, I am really not very strong technically. I am no Tom Kyte, no Bryn Llewellyn. I only took three computer programming courses in college, all 101 level. I mostly got lucky - and fell into programming at a time when a degree in computer science simply wasn't a requirement (1979!).

It turns out that my main strength, the main reason (I believe) that my books and presentations became so popular, is that I am a good at communicating ideas, techniques, etc. in a way that people find accessible. I never learned how to write and think like a computer scientist, so people can actually understand - and enjoy - what I write. Because of the limitations of my formal training, I often have to think my way step by step to an understanding of how things work (I can't just know things from my university days). I then share that step-by-step process with my readers, which helps them understand. Finally, I seem to find it impossible to keep my sense of humor out of what I say and write - and boy did my readers appreciate that! :-)

Bottom line: it makes me a little nervous when so many people look to me for "all the answers" to their PL/SQL-related problems. I don't have all the answers. But I am pretty sure that if I do not, there is someone out there, some Oracle technologist who has worked with PL/SQL for years, who has a computer science degree, who has faced different challenges than me, who might just have the answer you need, a code sample to save you hours of work, a piece of advice that can save several bangs of the head against the wall.

But how to get the question to the person who can answer it? Of course the OTN discussion forums and places like Stackoverflow provide a way to expose this expertise and make it available to many. I hope to complement those kinds of efforts with new initiatives at Oracle.  You will see announcements over the next year regarding this community building effort. But in the meantime if you have any ideas for me on this topic, please do not hesitate to send me an email.

The Two Me's Online

I have, for years, offered my thoughts (some might say "rants") on my Feuerthoughts blog and @stevefeuerstein twitter account. Going forward, I will cleanly separate my Oracle-related posts from my personal content. So here's a quick guide to the sites and accounts I will be using.

Blog - stevenfeuersteinonplsql.blogspot.com
Twitter - @SFonPLSQL
LinkedIn - www.linkedin.com/pub/steven-feuerstein/0/61/51b/

Home - www.stevenfeuerstein.com
Blog - feuerthoughts.blogspot.com
Twitter - @stevefeuerstein
Facebook - Steven Feuerstein

If you follow my @stevefeuerstein twitter account, I urge you (if an Oracle technologist and not my mom) to also follow me on @sfonplsql. I will soon ramp up with daily PL/SQL tips and more.

Time to Get to Work!

Lots to do, lots to do. Including coming up to speed on a Macbook. I am making the switch after 30 years with DOS and Windows. Fun, scary, frustrating, liberating. More on that, too, to follow

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How Humans Lost Their Hands (and saved the world)

My first creation (and destruction) mythstory....

Copyright 2014 Steven Feuerstein

A very long time ago, our home, the Earth, was very beautiful and full of life on the inside, but on its surface it was empty.

So the Great God Bacta shook the planet and brought forth multi-cellular life in all its ever-lasting glory and ever-changing beauty.

And among the multitude of multitude of creatures, one little piece of Earth's life was Sura, and she was the First Woman, mother of all the humans.

She was, however, sad, because she was all alone, and lonely.

Bacta felt sorry for Sura and in a moment of love for this new surface life, bestowed upon Sura four gifts:

1. A fat fish made of silver, with jewels for eyes.

Bacta declared: as long as Sura possessed the fish, humans would never lack for food. Bacta would make sure the harvests are plentiful and the hunting good.

2. A golden coconut, always full of cool, fresh coconut water.

Bacta declared: as long as Sura possessed the coconut, humans would never lack for water. Bacta would make sure that the rivers flowed and the water creatures cleaned the water, and that humans would always have enough to drink.

3. A glowing jade stone in the shape of a pulsing heart.

Bacta declared: as long as Sura possessed the jade heart, Bacta would make sure that humans would love each other and protect each other from harm.

4. A fossilized shark fin, dark and sleek.

Bacta declared: as long as Sura possessed the fin, humans would be born with their amazing hands, with which humans can make all sorts of things.

Sura thanked Bacta for the wonderful gifts, but still looked sad. Then Bacta remembered, and it created Beto, the First Man.

Beto, the First Man, was also the happiest man, because his job was to make little baby humans with Sura.

Beto was good at his job, and so was Sura, and soon humans - and the things they made with their amazing hands- covered the Earth. After all, Sura still possessed the fish and coconut and jade and fin, so humans ate and drank and loved and built all they wanted.

And they were so busy eating and drinking and loving and building, that they didn't notice all the other creatures who had stopped eating, no longer drank, felt neither love nor hate….because they were simply no more.

Bacta discovered what was happening and appeared before the multitude of humans, to declare:

"You are eating so much food
and drinking so much water
and loving so few and so little
and building so many roads
that the last butterfly has died."

A great murmur went up amongst the humans: "Butterflies dead? So what?"

Bacta was not done. "I have never before had to take back a gift, but I hereby take back the fish. I will no longer make ensure that you have food to eat. Perhaps this will teach you to live in the world, instead of eating it."

And so it came to be.

A swarm of locusts ate the crops that humans planted. Worms ate the fruit in the trees. The rains stopped and everything went bone dry.

Many humans died.

But after a while, the humans who survived figured out how to stop the pests and after a while rain returned. With GMOs, and Roundup, and DDT, humans could get back to eating and drinking and loving to their heart's content. And they did.

Then Bacta appeared for a second time before the humans, very angry, and said:

"You are still eating too much food
and still drinking too much water
and still loving too few and too little
and still building too many roads.
Now, the last elephant has just died."

A great murmur went up amongst the humans: "Elephant? What is an elephant? Dead? So what?"

Bacta was not done. "Only once before have I had to take back a gift, but now I take back the coconut. I will no longer make sure that you will have water to drink. Perhaps that will teach you to live in the world around you, instead of drinking it dry."

And so it came to be. The water in the rivers turned blood red and the water in the seas caught fire.

Many humans died.

But after a while, humans learned how to clean the water so they could drink it, and live. They had to keep this good water apart from the bad water and so from that time on, everyone drank water from plastic bottles.

Bacta was outraged. Water was the source of life, the home for all bacteria. Humans were even ruining that?  Bacta appeared before humans in a fury, and said:

"You are still eating too much food
and still drinking too much water
and still loving too few and too little
and still building too many roads.
Now the last frog has just died."

A great murmur went up amongst the humans: "Frogs are slimy. Frogs are gross. Good riddance, frogs."

Bacta was not done. "Only two times before have I had to take back a gift, but I now take back the jade heart. I will no longer make sure that humans love and take care of each other. Perhaps that will teach you to live in the world around you, instead of covering it with humans."

And so it came to be. Families stuck together, even tighter than before, but friends were no longer trusted, and everyone else was a danger, and not to be trusted.

Yet if you are not trusted, then after a while you act untrustworthily. Without trust and love, between the many groups of humans around the world, violence broke out and wars swept the continents.

Many humans died.

But after a while, those who stayed inside or had the biggest guns, wrote contracts agreeing to help one another. And then the lawyers ruled the land, along with the police.

Which meant that humans could get back to eating and drinking and not loving the world, which they did, with a vengeance.

Forests disappeared. Coral died and turned into rock. Without trees, rivers dried up. Without coral, the fish and then whales had no food, and they died, too.

Many humans died, but many more kept on eating and killing.

When Bacta appeared for the fourth time, humans trembled before the roaring voice of a billion billion bacteria:

"STILL  you eat too much and
STILL you drink too much and
STILL you love too little and
STILL you build, build, build."

The humans were confused. What else were they supposed to do, with their amazing hands and their amazing minds?

Bacta was not done. "You build so much that there's no room for anything but humans. And then you have more humans.

"Only three times before have I had to take back a gift, but now I have come to take back the fin. I will no longer make sure that humans are born with hands that allow them to build, and in building, destroy. Perhaps that will teach you to fit into the world, instead of fitting the world to your desires."

And so it came to be. From that time forward , human babies were born without hands. In their place were just two stubby fingers, and no wrist.

The humans with ten fingers called these tragic babies Four Fingers.

Ten Fingers helped the Four Fingers. They built special gloves for the two, lonely fingers on each hand, and built special machines to do things for Four Fingers they could not do for themselves.

And then Ten Fingers and Four Fingers got back to eating and drinking up the world.

Aren't humans amazing?

But after a while, all the Ten Fingers died, and then a little while after that, the machines stopped working and the gloves wore out.

Many four-fingered humans died.

The ones that survived worked hard for their food with their four fingers, but didn't eat too much.

They got thirsty from their work, but didn't drink too much.

And the only way they could survive was to work together, so they came to love each other dearly.

But they didn't have hands, and never would, so they didn't build any machines.

Which means they didn't spoil the water.

And they didn't cut down all the trees.

Happily, soon (after just 100 generations of Four Fingers) the water was pure again, and the forests were full of trees again, and new creatures evolved to take the place of all the creatures humans had killed.

And Bacta looked up at its creation, and was, for the first time in a long time, pleased.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Is Evolution Irrefutable and Compelling?

On my PL/SQL Challenge website, we have a feature called Roundtable, which offers an opportunity to discuss "big picture" questions relevant to Oracle programmers.

The current discussion (well, sharing, really) asks players to share the programming languages with which they work.

In part of my answer, I wrote:

I should learn new stuff...but, heck, I am 55. I have spent a very large percentage of the last 35 years in front of a computer or talking to other people about how to work best in front of a computer.

I'd rather learn other new stuff, so for the past year I have been intensively studying evolution. How truly incredible and amazing! Now there's a "language" that blows my mind: The coding in DNA is mind-boggling. The irrefutable and compelling logic of evolution is astonishing.

If you have not read about evolution lately (and certainly almost anything you learned in school was both superficial and is now out of date), I strongly encourage you to check out:

Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin
The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner
The Darwinian Tourist, Christopher Wills
Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne

To which one player responded:

 ==> [The irrefutable and compelling logic of evolution is astonishing.] <==
Is religious zeal allowed on this site? If it is, I am very happy to hear. I have tons of it. Irrefutable huh? Huh. Sounds like religious zeal to me. Please let me know!

I responded in part as follows:

The irrefutable and compelling logic of evolution is astonishing to those of us who use and celebrate science to understand the world and live within that world. Evolution is accepted as fact within the scientific community (which is not to say there aren't a few scientists here and there who reject it, I suppose) and is demonstrated in virtually every branch of science active today.

and offered to start a discussion on my personal blog, where it would be more appropriate to delve into our different opinions about evolution.

So here it is!  I look forward to at least a response from Mike to get this going, and I would ask those who submit a post to tell me what books or articles by scientists that document the evolutionary process have you read. I am not asking if you believed any of it, but simply whether (and which) you have exposed yourself to this information.


Friday, February 21, 2014

ODTUG is my favorite Oracle User Group!

Each June, ODTUG hold its highly respected and enthusiastically attended Kaleidoscope conference. this year it will take place in Seattle. Lots more details here.

And several years ago, ODTUG added a community service day (CSD) on the Saturday before the conference, to give attendees an opportunity to "do good" while they enjoy the perks of a software conference (they are, after all, very perky!).

Yesterday ODTUG announced their CSD for 2014:

Nature Consortium in Seattle, Washington, strives to combine community, art, and nature. Be a part of this quest by joining ODTUG on Saturday, June 21, for our seventh annual Community Service Day. ODTUGgers will be working to eradicate several invasive plant species in the West Duwamish Greenbelt, one of the crucial wild spaces in Seattle providing a home to much of the wildlife thriving in this tech-savvy city. In keeping with the values of Nature Consortium, Seattle itself, and Kscope14, you will realize the culmination of community, art, and nature as musicians play in the forest while you work to better the environment.

This choice makes me both excited to, for the first time, attend a Kscope CSD and proud to be a member of ODTUG.

I happen to believe that fighting invasives is just about the most important thing and best thing a human can do in this world to compensate for all the awful damage we have caused to our very own beautiful planet/habitat. 

I look forward to joining what I hope is a group of hundreds of fellow-Kscopians to make a big impact in June!

Thanks so much, ODTUG!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Snake handlers and their faith - why not go all the way?

Just reading about another snake-handling pastor who died from a snake bite.

My feeling about these folks is: go for it. If you want to risk death for your beliefs, why not? It's not like there aren't enough people alive in the world to fill in any gaps you leave behind.

The CNN article mentions that people like Jamie Coots takes this passage from the Bible's Gospel of Mark literally:  “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Reading that, I just had to wonder: so if you really do take it literally, why do you only handle snakes? It seems like you should also drink bleach before you start your sermon. That is a deadly thing, so "it shall not hurt them," right?

Obviously the answer is: Wrong. It will kill these people each and every time. Without fail.

So why do they handle snakes but not drink bleach or give comfort to humans who are dying from a bacterial infection that cannot be stopped by antibiotics?

It seems pretty clear: snakes won't always bite them, and if they do, the bites are not always deadly. They are ready and willing to take a risk - and if they survive, they can attribute it to their spiritual purity, the hand of god, whatever.

The article also mentions that adherents to this selective faith 'say there are other spiritual reasons to handle serpents. Practitioners often describe it as a mental and emotional rush, as if they were touching the hand of God. "They almost always use drug metaphors, like 'higher than any high you can experience," said  Paul Williamson, a professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkansas who studies serpent handlers.'

Right and that, too: it gets them high.

Drinking bleach? I don't think you will get any sort of high from that.

I am agnostic when it comes to matters of religious faith and God. Maybe there's a God, maybe there isn't. So I don't really get religious people. But I do admire and respect people who stick to their faith and practice is without hypocrisy.

"Are you a runner?"

That's a question I get a lot.

I guess that's because I am not overweight and kind of tall....?

I can remember a few times when I really enjoyed running: both times they were more an adventure, in which running was the mode of transport. But generally, I have been bored by running so, no, I am not a runner.

In fact, over the past year, I have completely changed my views on exercise, and running is even less a part of what I do to stay healthy than ever before.

And for some reason I've decided to share my changed views with you. Maybe you will be interested. But at least when I am done, I can say: Good, I don't have to think about writing this anymore.

I'd been a member of Bally Fitness since 1988, when Oracle offered to subsidize membership in a fitness club (said subsidy rescinded two years later!).

But early in 2013 I decided that I had had enough of exercising on machines, inside sterile buildings, in order to stay fit. It's a pretty awful way to compensate for a sedentary life, when you think about. Moving your limbs through a series of limited, repetitive motions, while watching TV or listening to music or who knows what. That's not the same as living in the world, exercising our bodies as we evolved to live and thrive. Not even close.

So I quit Bally (by then acquired by LA Fitness, which promptly shut our closest club after the acquisition. Clever people) and now get my "exercise" by going outside for long walks, very occasionally a run, and most important of all (to me) fighting invasive species (buckthorn in Chicago, kudzu in Puerto Rico).

Cutting down trees, clearing brush, pulling out invasive sapling trees by their roots: great exercise! (so long as I do not injure myself, which I must confess has not been one of my strong points).

But I will admit that is not all I do. I am getting older each day, definitely well into middle aged now, and I am getting creaky. If I do not stretch, I am much more easily injured and I just don't feel good. Flexibility is a wonderful thing!

In addition, I have discovered the joy of a strong abdomen. I have found that as long as my "core" muscles are well maintained, I no longer have problems with lower back pain. In addition, I have noticed that I move around the world with greater confidence and (dare I say it?) grace - because my abdominals can easily support my torso as I move around.

So what does all that mean? That I do a set of abdominal exercises (crunches, situps, various things) each day.And a bunch of different stretches. Oh, and I've found that outdoor work involves lots of bicep activity, but not so much on the triceps. So I do some of that indoors, too (another key objective for me to stay in shape is to be able to play, hold, fly like airplanes, etc. the children dearest to me, and upper body strength is key for this).

Which brings me, really, to the basic point of this post (still with me?): I think that I am a fairly disciplined person, but I could never remember all the different stretches and exercises I want to do each day without a reminder. And I have found that unless I work from a checklist, it is all too easy to say "Aw, I don't feel like doing that one today."

So I put together a very simple grid that lists the things I want to do each day. I don't care about (for the most part) how many I do, just that I do it. And I don't beat myself up if I miss a day or a stretch. There's always tomorrow.

Friday, February 07, 2014

What programming languages do I use?

This month's Roundtable discussion on the PL/SQL Challenge is:

If you are on this website, you almost certainly know PL/SQL and SQL. What other programming languages do you currently use? How do you find they compare to PL/SQL and SQL?

We have been playing quizzes at the PL/SQL Challenge for several years; some of you almost seem like old friends to me by now. It is always interesting to find out more about players. Let's start from the professional side (perhaps the next Roundtable can explore our personal lives. :-) ).

  • What language do you use most of all in your work? Do you consider this your primary language or just the one you have to spend the most time with?
  • What languages do you use now? Preferably this would mean you used the language on a "real" project in 2013.
  • What languages do you plan to learn? Why? Do you need it for your job or do you simply want to expand your horizons?
Here's the answer I posted there today:

What technologies to I use?

I suppose everyone on this site knows the answer to this question:

2. SQL (in a rather ignorant fashion, relative to my level of expertise in PL/SQL)
3. HTML (I know, I know, it's not a programming language, but I can't have just two languages. Too embarrassing)

Years ago, I was a FORTRAN programmer.

I happened to get a part-time programming job in a University of Rochester research lab and lo and behold! Time to learn FORTRAN.

So I did, and used that knowledge to get jobs all the way through 1986. FORTRAN in a bank, Fortran in a pharmaceutical company, FORTRAN in an insurance company.

But, fortunately, as I moved through various FORTRAN jobs, I also started to work with these strange things named databases - on DEC "mainframes" like DEC10s and DEC20s.

Which then allowed me to think I might be able to work for Oracle with their even newer relational databases. That was a pre-sales job (standing up in front of groups of people and showing them how amazing SQL joins were!), but fortunately I arrived just in time to welcome SQL*Forms 3 and PL/SQL. Ah! A nice easy language that even I could "master"! (I only took three programming classes in college, all "101" courses on Algol, Lisp and something else....)

I suppose I should learn some new technologies. Ruby on Rails sounds very cool - the name, I mean. I don't know anything about the language itself. Python? How fun is that?

I should learn new stuff...but, heck, I am 55. I have spent a very large percentage of the last 35 years in front of a computer or talking to other people about how to work best in front of a computer.

I'd rather learn other new stuff, so for the past year I have been intensively studying evolution. How truly incredible and amazing! Now there's a "language" that blows my mind: The coding in DNA is mind-boggling. The irrefutable and compelling logic of evolution is astonishing.

If you have not read about evolution lately (and certainly almost anything you learned in school was both superficial and is now out of date), I strongly encourage you to check out:

Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin
The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner
The Darwinian Tourist, Christopher Wills
Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne

A Letter from "Oyster Shel"

My father, Sheldon Feuerstein, was a large presence in our lives and the lives of many others. He was a big man, physically (and, sadly, overweight for too many of his later years, which contributed to the diseases that led to his death in 2010), but it was more than that. He was smart and honest and eloquent. He could also be very stern and, before he passed middle age, manifested quite the temper. But he was a deeply compassionate man, especially for members of the family. Many nieces, nephews and cousins remember him with a love and deep fondness that sometimes surprises me.

Who knew that the man who insisted I throw away and redo my math homework because it had an erasure, who sent me up to bed without dinner because I did or wouldn't do [whatever], who demanded that I mow the 2/3 acre of a lawn even though I was wracked by allergies, could be so warmly encouraging and loving to my cousins? Ah, humans - such complicated creatures! :-)

I visited my mom in Florida last week (oh, the green! the sun! the warmth!) and we looked through my dad's stamp collection and many old papers stored in the safety deposit box.

Most of it was the "usual" - birth, death and marriage certificates, honorable discharge papers from the military (Dad was always disappointed that all he did as a soldier was move around to different bases in the US, never fought, served overseas. That's probably why he so looked up to his great Irving Effron, who was a Jewish Marine (quite unusual) and served in the Pacific. Check out this great NY Times letter about him - subscription probably required), and so on.

But then inside a small, old envelope, we found a real gem: a letter Dad had written to his oldest sister, Belle, and her husband, Max, just before he was going to be Bar Mitzvahed:

I especially love the line: "where would you stick Jeffrey?" The idea of "sticking" Jeffrey (another very large human being in multiple senses, and just thirtenn years or so younger than my dad) anywhere is very amusing....

Love you, Dad! Miss you, Dad!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Favorite stories: how programmers benefited from my book(s)

I received this very pleasant note today from a PL/SQL developer:
Actually, the second edition of PL/SQL programming is what jump started my career as a PL/SQL developer. I was sold to my first Oracle customer as an Oracle developer, while I had actually never written any PL/SQL. So I raced to the biggest bookstore in Rotterdam and guess what I found [Steven: the biggest computer book he ever saw? :-) ]. The sad thing is these kind of books cannot be found in physical book stores anymore.  For years I used to visit Barnes & Nobles in WPB and pick up an Oracle book when on holiday. Every year the computer book section would occupy less space, and would recently only offer books on iPhone programming, Excel for dummies and such. This year I didn't even bother. Even my favorite bookstore of all times, Computer Book Centre in Funan Centre Singapore is now on line only.
Wow, his favorite bookstore is in Singapore. I like that!

I sure enjoyed my time in Singapore, though bookstores didn't figure much into the visits....

I have to say that I've never been overly concerned about how my books might help a corporation improve its bottom line. But I have always felt very satisfied when I hear how my books may have helped an individual's career.

Oh, this Dutch developer also shared with me his orange bookstack:

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Free Shipping! Free Shipping! Free Shipping!

If you are one of the many humans who don't believe in evolution, or more specifically believe that the planet is just 6,000 years old, or believe that a God or gods have a plan for us, I wouldn't bother reading any more of this post.

OK, then. So if you are still reading this, I will assume that you have a healthy respect for the scientific method (including, at its core, a constant challenging of its own "theories" - current models for explaining how the world works) and a growing horror at what we humans are doing to our world  and, just as importantly, doing to the millions of other species of living creatures on this incredible planet.

But we shouldn't give up, right? We should do whatever we can, whenever we can, to heal the world from the worst of human ravages, cut back on our consumption, educate our fellow humans about the importance of changing our ways.

Absolutely. But first allow to express a bit of concern about the chance that anything we do will have much impact.

1. "Free Shipping" 

Among the many incredible accomplishments of e-selling juggernaut Amazon is that "visionary" Jeff Bezos has managed to zero out the entire cost of the infrastructure of transportation of products in the minds of consumers. We have become addicted to "free shipping" (hey, and if you pay just $79 for Amazon Prime, free second day shipping) and fully expect that we should not have to pay anything to:

a. Move the product from the factory in China to a truck.
b. Drive the truck to the train.
c. The train chugs its way to a port.
d. A truck takes the product from the train to a container.
e. Container is loaded onto massive cargo ship (holding thousands of said containers).
f. Cargo ship crosses big sea, consuming enormous amounts of fuel.
g. Ship arrives in San Francisco and lets all its ballast water out into the Bay, releasing billions of creatures who do not belong, some of whom will invade and wipe out native creatures.
h. Move container off ship to truck.
i. Truck to train.
j. Train to truck.
k. Friendly Fed-Ex or UPS fellow leaving a box at our door.

All of that, and not only for free, but cheaper than we can get it ANYWHERE ELSE including the store down the street.

Causing this shift in our perspective is no small accomplishment - and has, I fear, nothing but bad consequences.

Seems to me that 2014 is the wrong year (as if 2013, 2012, 2011 or 2010 were any better) for humans to no longer have to pay any attention - or money - for the vast and vastly destructure globalized movement of products.

Not promising at all!

2. "All the News That's Fit to Banner"

It's not hard to find an article or blog post or (even better) a tweet about how our attention spans are decreasing, how young people don't read lengthy books or articles anymore. They are easily distracted and tuned to receiving short bursts of highly packaged data. Yeah, OK, we've heard all that.

And I believe it.

So I found it really striking and downright depressing that none of our major newspapers even include the Environment, Planet, Ecology, Climate Change, etc. as a top-level entry on the banners of their websites. Take a look:

If these hold-outs of reason and deep(er) thinking can't seem to manage to accept the world-killing efforts of humans (also a major killer of humans) as a significant category of news in 2014, then I truly do not find it easy to be optimistic about the chances that we will change our consuming ways.

3. Dolphin and Killer Whale Shows

Well, I am not going to repeat what I already said here, except to say:

The next time anyone sounds off about the superiority of human beings over other creatures, ask them what they think about us enslaving other sentient beings.

Monday, January 13, 2014

SETI is a Grotesquerie

SETI - the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

I used to be big into sci-fi. I read lots of fascinating stories involving ingeniously crafted aliens. It was very entertaining and thought-provoking.

Like many humans, I looked on with awe as humans found their way into space, peered ever deeper into space (and the universe as it existed long ago), and searched avidly for life on other planets.

Now I find all of that to be a grotesque mockery, since that search for extra-terrestrial life is possible only through our utter disdain for and vast destruction of life on our very own planet.

The only life we know for sure exists.

How many species of frogs, butterflies, trees, bats, birds and myrid others have gone extinct so that humans could establish and operate the vast network of factories, homes, aircraft, trucks, trains and more, required to send rockets (and humans!) into space?

Clearly, humans don't really give a shit about life, in general.

All we give a shit about is us: sentient, self-aware, tool-making us. Special and unique us.

And what we are looking for "out there" are others like us: tool makers, manufacturers, consumers.

If that wasn't the case, if what we really wanted to do was establish contact with other sentients, regardless of how they lived in the universe, so that we could learn from each other, then, let's see:
  • It would be considered murder to kill a whale.
  • It would be considered slavery to keep a cetacean captive (and performing tricks) at places like SeaWorld and Shedd Aquarium.
  • We'd be working awfully damn hard to learn how to communicate with cetaceans.(even if only as practice for the "real thing")
Why do I say this? Because cetaceans are self-aware.
Cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - have been evolving for millions of years, just like us. They have big, complex brains. They have language. They recognize themselves. They have a sense of humor, for heaven's sake.

Repeat after me: cetaceans are self-aware.

Too bad, then, that they don't make stuff. Because as far as humans are concerned, if you are not ravaging your planet in order to build things to make your lives more convenient and comfortable, then you are a lesser being. And that renders you simultaneously uninteresting (except as a source of entertainment) and available for exploitation.

And so here it is, 2014, and still our governments can't even agree on enforcing a worldwide ban on whaling, thereby ending the rampant slaughter of these extraordinary creatures (who, we should recall, evolved from land-based mammals, reclaiming a life in the ocean. Amazing!).

Don't worry, though: even if all the whales are dead, we will still have recordings of their haunting, beautiful songs.

And we can still take our children to "educational shows" that feature those cute, smiley dolphins leaping on command and wiggling their tail in delight over being fed a fish.

As if dolphins need humans to feed them fish! This sort of travesty is what passes for the most high-minded, progressive education of our youth.Yuck.

The fact that humans can't even accept cetacean self-awareness shows clearly that we do not respect life and we do not respect sentience. The only thing we respect is the ability to manufacture and consume things, regardless of the cost to the rest of our planet and its inhabitants.

C'mon, SeaWorld: let your killer whales go!

Hey, Shedd Aquarium, close down your abomination, the Abbott Oceanarium!

Oh, and NASA (and China National Space Administration and India Space Research Organization and European Space Agency and...)? Please shut down operations. Now.

If we are going to drive to extinction hundreds, probably thousands, of species, and obliterate the lives of trillions of individuals, let's at least commit the resources that result from those deaths to finding a way to reduce the awful impact we have on our world.