Category Archives: etc

The characters in the Cheers opening: A critical analysis

One of the great TV memories of my childhood is the Cheers opening sequence. I’m a great lover of TV theme songs, and I remember Cheers being one of my favorites. I’ve been rewatching Cheers, and the show is still great, but I find the old-timey images used during the opening sequence to be much odder than I remember. A casual search suggests that no one has ever done a true analysis of these pictures. I humbly accept the responsibility myself.

I’ll start with the pictures of people who look like the kind of folks I wouldn’t mind hanging out with in a bar. The more irksome characters are at the end of the list.

Mustachioed Barkeep

Mustachioed Barkeep

Mustachioed Barkeep


Oddly, I find this guy’s mustache to be wholesome and comforting. Maybe it’s because I lived in Brooklyn for so long. I know he works for tips, but I’m also impressed by how he manages to have one of the only non-lecherous smiles in the entire sequence. Sadly, after the death of Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach, they removed this likable chap from the opening sequence.


The Champion

The Champion

The Champion


Also known as the “We Win” guy. Bonus: The fair-haired dude hoisting a pint always makes me think of Matt Mullenweg.


Tom Joad

Tom Joad

Tom Joad


The dude with the Jed Clampett hat and the five-o-clock shadow is pure salt-of-the-earth. I feel like most Woody Guthrie songs are about this guy.


Norm

Norm

Norm


Even as a kid, I remember feeling bad that they chose an overweight guy to represent Norm. As if his weight is his only salient quality. Why not show an accountant? In any case, I respect a guy who can pull off a suit of that color. To me, one of the great mysteries has always been: what is he handing to the woman in the red skirt? The TV remote wouldn’t be invented for another 40 years.


The Madam

The Madam

The Madam


This woman seems like she’s the only drinker in the entire intro who is maintaining control over herself. I can respect that. The composition of this shot reminds me of that Renoir painting where everyone’s checking everyone else out.


Kid Gorgeous

Kid Gorgeous

Kid Gorgeous


The pale fellow in the jacket doesn’t look old enough to be drinking in this establishment, and his complexion makes me suspect that he’s nervous about being caught. I always imagine him as having been a 12-year-old drummer boy for the Confederate Army, returned to his local tavern as a 17-year-old amputee veteran. Notice that his legs are not visible in this picture.


The Cognac Brothers

The Cognac Brothers

The Cognac Brothers


Does he really need that cane? Or is he just trying to intimidate? Is he the bouncer, or just waiting for his carriageman to bring the team around? So many questions.


Rich Uncle Pennybags

Rich Uncle Pennybags

Rich Uncle Pennybags


You can’t afford what this guy is drinking.


Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy

Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy

Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy


The two most insufferable people in the sequence are also the last two, and boy, do they leave a bad taste in your mouth. Both are clearly looking to start a fight. The guy on the left, apparently drinking a $20 Trappist ale, is barely managing to hide his disdain for everyone around him. The dude on the right appears to be bragging about hooking up with your sister. (The guy in the bottom right, who looks as if he may in fact be dead, has pretty much checked out of the party.) I hate them so much.

Chicago

I’ve spent a lucky thirteen years in New York City, but my time here is drawing to a close. My wonderful wife is entering a PhD program at the University of Chicago in the fall, so this summer we’ll be trading the First City for the Second.

I’m trying to untangle my thoughts about leaving my adopted New York and returning to my native Midwest. It’s heartbreaking, thrilling, terrifying, a huge relief. For the moment, I can say with confidence that I am excited to be relocating to a city that’s served as the setting for so many great theme songs. Nothing’s gonna stop me now!

I miss my camera

It’s been almost a year since I ditched my smartphone. For the most part, it’s been glorious. Like a slow-growing tumor, I’d hardly noticed the damage that years of carrying a smartphone was doing to my lifestyle and my psyche.

The one thing I legitimately miss is the camera. In one sense, I’m glad to buck my generation’s tendency toward hyperselfdocumentation. At the same time, I have kids. I took many hundreds of photos and videos of my first child on my smartphone. I’ve partially compensated for this with the second child by strategically storing cameras in various parts of my apartment, so there’s always one at hand. In the house, this works. But, with the approach of warm weather, I worry once again about the hassle of filling yet another pants pocket with yet another device.

Friends have suggested that I get a smartphone but don’t use the data. But this is like suggesting that I replace my extracted tumor, but this time put it a little further from vital organs.

I feel like I’d be more likely to carry a point-and-shoot camera if they were more svelte. If the iPhone 6 can take such beautiful pictures, why doesn’t someone market a standalone camera with the proportions of a smartphone? The thinnest cameras I’ve seen are double the thickness of even the bulkiest modern phone – way beyond the point of pocketability. Is there a device out there for me?

2014

Reflecting on 2014, a couple of themes:

  • Reclaim. In the past, I’ve written about taking back technologies from corporate entities. This year, I’ve found myself embarking on what I consider to be the natural extension of Project Reclaim: taking back my attention from technologies. In April I ditched my smartphone, and in September I stopped using Twitter. Each decision arose from a desire to devote more of my limited mental and emotional energies on things that matter most to me, like my family and my work. In each case, the pull of inertia was strong – the natural thing was to continue using the tools, just like everyone else around me was doing – but in each case, the rewards of letting go have been significant.
  • Ease. My wife and I decided over dinner tonight that 2014 felt easy. We didn’t move this year. We enjoyed satisfying jobs and financial stability. Our son transitioned from a toddler to a very nice little boy. In contrast, our family has a number of very large changes coming in 2015, changes that will be hard in many ways. So the relative and welcome easiness of 2014 is worth a moment’s pause.
  • ShippingDuring 2014, BuddyPress shipped a number of major versions. I put a huge amount of time into BP 2.0, as both a developer and a release manager, and I think it paid off – IMHO it’s one of the most important releases in BuddyPress history. BuddyPress 2.2 will come in the first weeks of 2015, and it too promises to be a really important release. In addition, I was invited to join the WordPress core team for the 4.1 release, an experience that’s been fulfilling in its own way. Considered alongside a number of successful client project launches, I’ve been involved in a happily large number of solid software releases this year.

A big year ahead, but for now, за ваше здоровье!

Blogging heroes, 2014 edition

The best bloggers publish so regularly that it’s easy to take their work for granted. So, as 2014 winds down, I thought I’d take a moment to salute my favorite blogs of the year.

The main quality that earns a blogger my respect is fearlessness. In order to blog frequently, you’ve got to be willing to write on a broad range of topics, and to publish what might sometimes less-than-fully-formed work. Most authors (myself included) are too chicken to do these things. The writers listed here are not.

  • Samir Chopra – Philosophy, cricket, politics, parenthood, New York, literature, you get the idea.
  • Alan Levine – Alan is fond of saying that his tireless chronicling makes his blog a supplement to his memory: he can easily look back to see what he was doing and thinking just about any day in the last decade. We should all be so bold.
  • Audrey Watters – Independent journalist covering education and technology. Support her work.
  • Alan Jacobs – I follow Alan’s blog and tumblr in part to remember that there’s a way to engage in public intellectualism without being pandering or smarmy.

Thanks to all for your work in 2014!

Unpaid labor in academic and free software communities

There are many aspects of my current free software development work that are (thankfully!) very different from my previous life as an academic. But one way in which they’re similar is the way that one’s relationship to one’s own paid and unpaid labor is connected to one’s career progress, and the personality types that this structure attracts.

I’m a known advocate ([1], [2], [3]) for fostering a symbiotic relationship between my paid client work and my unpaid work on free software projects. And while I’m emphatic that there’s value in having these two parts of my career separate from (yet supportive of) each other, the separation embodies an unavoidable tension between what I’m paid to do and what earns the respect of my peers. If people know who I am, it’s probably because of volunteer work I’ve done for WordPress, not because of my client work. As such, there’s continual internal pressure for me to focus more of my mental and emotional energies on the unpaid work. Yet it’s important not to yield completely to this pressure, since my paid client work is critical, both in terms of the financial support and the technical inspiration it gives to my work on the free software projects. Balancing these two pressures is something I’m constantly struggling with.

The relationship between labor and rewards in academic work is similarly structured. Most academics are paid primarily for teaching duties, with service and research being important but often secondary, at least as far as the official job descriptions are concerned. Yet the system of advancement in academia is structured in such a way that one’s research and publication record is of paramount importance. And in many cases, volunteer labor – things like peer review and service to professional societies – is critical to one’s reputation as a scholar. Anyone in the academic world will recognize the tensions that this arrangement can produce.

The peculiar motivations baked into free software development and academia tend to attract similar sorts of overachievers. To rise to the top of your field, you’ve got to do large amounts of unpaid labor, while still doing enough of your paid labor to keep your job. This means that the most successful people tend to be those who are spending the greatest amount of their spare time working for free. A couple of consequences fall out of this arrangement. First, people who are already in a position of privilege (financial and otherwise) are able to climb the career ladder more easily. This setup also means thatt successful people are likely to have a sense of self-worth that is closely connected to their work. And these factors mean that successful academics as well as free software contributors are more likely to suffer from burnout.

Last year, DHH of Ruby on Rails wrote an interesting piece on “the perils of mixing open source and money”. I’m very sympathetic to many of his points about motivation: the tenor of a free software project, and the quality of the software that results, is largely a consequence of the fact that the creators of the software are not primarily motivated by financial concerns. This is something that academics figured out a long time ago. As such, I think that it’s important to continue to foster “reputation cycles” and other structures that help to enable talented developers to devote energies to free software without directly paying them for it. At the same time, it’s important to be aware of the kinds of tensions I describe above, because the separation of paid and unpaid work in this area can tend to be personally destructive at the same time that it’s valuable for the (software/academic) projects as a whole.

Goodbye to Twitter

I’ve been a pretty heavy Twitter user since about 2009. I’ve had a lot of fun using the service, I’ve forged a number of friendships there, and in several concrete ways, I owe my career to my use of Twitter. For years, I’ve kept TweetDeck open on a dedicated screen throughout my working day – a connection to the world around me, to colleagues and friends around the world. I was a Twitter advocate. I loved Twitter.

Over the past year or so, the things I once liked about being on Twitter have faded pretty rapidly, and the downsides of being connected to this space have come to overwhelm the upsides. Since ditching my smartphone a few months ago, I’ve been using Twitter less and less, until about a week ago I pretty much stopped.

There are dozens of reasons why I just don’t want to participate anymore, some of which are part of the recent zeitgeist and some of which are totally specific to me. It’d be pointless to list them all. At the same time, transitioning away from being an active Twitter user feels like a major life event for me (silly as that may sound), and I can’t help but reflect on two interconnected reasons that stand out from the rest.

One is that I’m tired of having an audience, or at least tired of having the specific audience that I’ve got on Twitter. Interacting earnestly and honestly with others is hard to do when you’re being watched by thousands of strangers. Some people react to this by adopting the voice of a pundit or a “public intellectual”; I’ve chosen to tell jokes. And the truth is that I like to tell jokes, and it’s nice to make a funny and have people laugh. But when your main public outlet is primarily a platform for snarky comments, it starts warping the way you interact with the world. I find myself actively looking for funny ways to be annoyed as part of my everyday life, and I shape a lot of my internal monologue regarding the banalities of existence against the backdrop of the audience I’ve cultivated. One-liner oneupsmanship is fun when you’re at the bar with buddies. But when it pervades your waking hours, it feels so vapid, and I’m tired of it.

Closely related is the sheer exhaustion of being constantly tapped into in the network. Every tweet I read or write elicits some small (or not so small) emotional reaction: anger, mirth, puzzlement, guilt, anxiety, frustration. I’ve tried to prune my following list so that when I do find myself engaging in a genuine way, it’s with a person I genuinely want to engage with. But there’s a limit to how much pruning can be done, when unfollowing a real-life friend is the online equivalent of punting his puppy across the room. So all day long, I’m in and out of the stream, always reacting to whatever’s coming next. Setting aside the question of how distracting this is when I’m trying to get work done, the fact is that I have a limited capacity for emotional engagement, and the code-switching that’s required when the character of my response is supposed to change every 140 characters only increases this overhead. A life spent on Twitter is a death by a thousand emotional microtransactions. I want to be pouring these energies into my family and my friends and my work.

I’ll keep my Twitter account, and I’ll probably open it once or twice a day to see if anything catches my eye. But I no longer want its constant companionship. That this realization feels more liberating than bittersweet shows that it’s probably the right decision for me.

I am a young person who solves crossword puzzles and maybe you should be one too

I am a pretty good crossword solver. I solve between 150 and 200 crosswords per month, and in 2014 I came in 46th at the national crossword puzzle tournament.

My interest in crossword puzzles is not something I talk about very much. I move in pretty uncool circles – computer geeks and academic nerds – but even there, this hobby gets a “what a dweeb” reaction from most of my friends.

As chance would have it, though, over the last few days a few friends and colleagues have talked publicly about solving. And my wife pointed me toward this piece in the Atlantic, which paints a pretty dour picture about the future of the puzzle. So I thought now would be a good time to come out of hiding, as it were, and do a bit of crossword advocacy.

It is a pretty awesome time to be solving crosswords. Since I started solving seriously about ten years ago, puzzles have become more innovative, varied, weird, funny, vulgar. It may be true that the demographics of crossword solvers skews old, but the puzzles themselves generally don’t. If you don’t do crosswords because you think they’re for blue-hairs, you’ve got another think coming.

Cool things about crosswords

Here are some cool things about crosswords that should appeal to the kind of dweeb who reads my blog:

  • Puns
  • Pattern recognition
  • Intentional conflation of use and mention
  • Syntactic and lexical ambiguity
  • 80s pop culture references
  • You can do them on shiny things like iPads

Places to find good crosswords

The first step to getting into crosswords is finding high-quality puzzles. Here are a couple of my standbys:

  • New York Times – This is “the crossword”. Puzzle difficulty increases from easy on Monday to quite hard on Saturday, with the large Sunday puzzle at about a Wednesday or Thursday level of difficulty. $40/year.
  • Los Angeles Times – Similar to NYT puzzles, but generally a bit easier. Free.
  • Creators Syndicate – Weekday puzzles are generally very easy. Saturday Stumper puzzles are typically the hardest puzzle of the week. Free.

Special shout-out to the following puzzles, which are not put out by large publishers, but are instead supported by subscription and donations to individual constructors. If you really want to support the future of crosswords, you should be supporting them:

  • Brendan Emmett Quigley – Twice-weekly(ish) puzzles. Funny, cool, free. Thursday themed puzzles are moderately difficult. Monday themeless are pretty hard.
  • American Values Club – Very awesome, not particularly PC. Works like a collective for crossword constructors, offering them some of the best pay in the industry. $18/year.
  • Fireball Crosswords – Hard puzzles that are also the bomb. $20/year

Get out there and do some crosswords, and one day you might be as cool as me.

Heart rate monitor training for the reluctant runner

My wife loves to run. I, in contrast, find running to be boring and unpleasant. But I run all the same, because it keeps me relatively thin and makes me feel better for the 23.5 hours per days that I’m not running. Before I had a normal-ish job and a family, I was running a fair number of miles – around 35-40 miles/week. But life got in the way, and I’ve been off-and-on for a few years now. The problem with off-and-on running is that it keeps you just fit enough to get through the runs, but not fit enough to get through them in a pleasant manner. I’d find myself running five miles one week, twenty miles the next, and feeling exhausted with every step. Combined with my natural distaste for running, this unpleasantness made for an exercise regimen that was hard to stick to.

So, last summer I decided that I’d mix things up, and I bought myself a heart rate monitor. (This one.) I figured that I wasn’t enjoying my running routine, and it wasn’t much of a routine anyway, so I might as well go whole hog into a training plan that was totally foreign to me; I didn’t have much to lose. I’ve been faithfully training with the heart rate monitor for about a year now, and overall it’s been a really positive change.

The first thing I did when I got the watch was to ask my wife if she had any resources for training with a HRM. Surprise! she had several, and she grabbed one for me from her unreasonably large library of running books. I found Heart Monitory Training for the Compleat Idiot by John Parker to be a helpful resource: written specifically for runners (as opposed to, say, triathletes), a very quick read, and full of advice that I found sensible and not overbearing.

The main takeaway from the book (spoiler alert) is that most people run most of their miles far too fast. When your “easy” runs aren’t legitimately easy, you’re never rested for the hard runs, and you never build the kind of stamina that you really need for distance running. (At the risk of sounding like a running nerd, the idea is to do the majority of your miles under your lactate threshold.) The heart monitor is used as a gauge for enforcing easy runs. The magic number is 70%: on easy days, keep your heart rate below 70% of your heart rate reserve, a figure which is calculated by subtracting your resting rate from your max rate, and then using your resting rate as a floor. For me, the calculation was something like this. I did a max heart rate workout (found a steep hill on a hot day and did repeats) and got my HR up to 192. Measured my resting rate over a couple mornings and called it 58. 192-58 * 70% = 94, which when added to 58 gives me an easy run ceiling of 152 BPM.

The first thing you learn when you start staying under this target rate during easy runs is that holy crap this is slow. I was accustomed to doing easy runs around 8-8:30/mile pace. With the HRM, on a hot July day, I found myself running at 10:00+. You also learn that hills are really serious business when it comes to heart rate. To stay under the 70% threshold on hills of any size, my shuffle devolved into a near-walk. It was torture. Physically, I had no idea what to do with my body when going that slow (your form totally changes). And mentally, I was humiliated getting passed by grandmas, kids, invalids.

But, I stuck with it, and after a few months things started to click. The weather started to cool. I found techniques for modifying my form up and down hills that would let me maintain some speed while keeping my heart rate down. And most importantly, I think that I really was building the kind of aerobic fitness that’d been promised in the book. Within four or five months, most of my easy runs were back down at 8:30 pace or faster – and they were all below the 70% HR threshold.

Some cool things happen when most of your runs are easy. For one, you can really go balls out on hard runs. Because there’s no latent fatigue from the previous few days (and because I know I’ll get legitimate rest over the ensuing days) I can pretty much run myself into the ground during workouts. Another benefit is that you can immediately start adding distance, because you never, ever feel tired during easy runs. I end every run thinking, gee, I feel like I haven’t even gone out yet. For someone who was used to feeling like shit after every run, this is a huge and welcome change that makes the whole endeavor much less unpleasant. Tracking your heart rate also gives you window into your general health. You might feel fine and plan to hit the streets at your normal pace, but if you are coming off of a cold (or have one coming on), your heart rate will be elevated, and you’ll be forced to slow down.

A couple weeks ago I ran the first road race that I’d done in a number of years. Looking back through my running logs, I see that the last time I ran a 5K at that pace, I’d been running twice as many miles per week, and I was five years younger. Granted, I’m still not running very fast in any objective sense, but this is still a pretty cool side effect of running a bunch of junk miles.

If you’re a runner and feeling like you’re in a rut – or if you’re someone who’s tried to run in the past, but could never get over that initial god-how-can-anyone-endure-this-torture phase – I highly recommend getting a heart rate monitor, and learning how to use it during training. It makes running more interesting and less painful. (Though I still don’t like it like my wife does.)