01 July 2016

Mission: Incredulous

My mission: Infiltrate a government office. Connect an encrypted laptop to the network. Print my travel form. Egress without being seen.

First, I would don black pants, black boots, a black turtleneck, and a balaclava. Then, I would procede to the government building on Polk Street. I would park in the back parking lot, start playing the Mission Impossible theme song on my phone, and climb the stairs to the third floor. From there, I would take a freight elevator to the basement, sneak into the IT office, connect to the network, print and sign my paperwork, place it in the manager's inbox, and be gone without a trace, obtaining a milkshake on the way home.

At midnight, I started donning the clothes to be used for the mission.
OK, so I realized I don't own boots. Nor a black turtleneck. Nor black pants. Nor a balaclava. OK, so I just went with the clothes I already had on.
Then, I drove to the office. Well, I ran into some difficulty, as the road was closed for construction. I took a detour, but the detour was closed for construction. So I took a back route not on the maps.

I arrived at the office and placed the encrypted laptop into an innocuous messenger bag. I put on my headphones and started playing the Mission Impossible theme song.

I found the back stairwell locked, and it would not respond to my key card. I tried the back elevator, but it would not respond to my key card. I went around to the side entrance, but it would not respond to my key card. Giving up on stealth, I walked to the front entrance. The doors were locked and the security guards were absent, so no one could let me in.

Hanging my head in shame, I stopped the music. I had not earned the Mission Impossible theme song this night. I walked back to my car and headed home.

On the way home, I forgot to stop for a milkshake. It's just as well... I had not earned a milkshake this night.

01 May 2015

State of Affairs

Well, it's official.  I am now a government employee.  I have just started my job as a Regional Network Specialist for the Texas Health and Human Services Committee.

It's not as fancy as it sounds.

I can't say much about my job.  It's not a federal job, so I would't have to kill you if I told you anything, but it's a state job, so I could be fined and go to prison, depending on what I said, so I'll be careful until I get a feel for this place.

In the mean time, I know I promised more LifeHacker articles, and yes, they will come.  The next one will be on overcoming procrastination.  I know it seems ironic, but this time I honestly haven't been procrastinating.  I've gone back to school, working on my next degree, and that's a full-time "job", but I've also desperately been searching for work, which is also a full-time "job", so I've been genuinely busy.  And now, I have a fur-realz full-time job, so that plus being a full-time college student means that I'm geunuinely busy, so I'm not really procrastinating.

BUT... I shall, nevertheless, publish an article soon regarding overcoming procrastination.  And yes, there's more to it than just "do it now".

Oh, did I mention that I'm testing a mobile app for creating and editing blog entries?  Let's see how this works out.

07 April 2015

That's So Meta

So, I was sitting at my computer, which was, at that time, temporarily located in a public space.  I was pondering the concept of metahumans.  My aforementioned friend Jean entered the public area to acquire a snack.  I turned to her and said, "So, I've been pondering the concept of metahumans."

She turned to me and said, "This is why we can't have adult conversations."  And she walked out.

Anyway... what Jean didn't understand, and still doesn't, is that I was being completely serious.

So we come to the crux of this particular article.  (Isn't that cute?  How I called my blog entry an "article", as if I'm a journalist?)  What I want to ask is this... Do metahumans exist?

The answer is... "Weeeellllll.... it's complicated."  I'll simplify this answer later, but first let me unsimplify the answer.

First, what is a metahuman?

The term "metahuman" originated in the D.C. Comics "Invasion" miniseries.  It has since been stolen by everyone else.  Simply put, it refers to someone who's human, but somehow more than human.

Superman doesn't qualify, because he's not human.  (Sorry, Lois.)

Iron Man doesn't qualify, because he doesn't really have superpowers.  Just a really cool suit.

Jimmy Olsen doesn't even begin to qualify... he's just a part-time crossdresser with a camera.

BUT... but... The Flash (in some versions), Spiderman, The Hulk, Barack Obama, Professor X - These have all been labeled as metahuman.  Whether they are, and what, exactly, are the criteria for being labeled a metahuman, are matters of debate amongst comics enthusiasts.

And believe me, you don't want to start a debate amongst comics enthusiasts.  Do you know how things get whenever a Los Angeles sports team wins, loses, or schedules a game, and suddenly half the city is on fire, cars and buildings are smashed, and the governor has to declare martial law?  Well, it's like that.  Only without all of the civil discourse.

But, again, I digress.  The point is... these are examples of metahumans in comics.  But my thoughts here aren't just about comics.  Or are they?  Do you see any pretty pictures of well-drawn characters?  No.  No, you don't.  Because this isn't about comics.  Not really.

This is about real life.  Do metahumans really exist?

Let's explore the word just a bit more.... The prefix "meta" means "more than" or "outside of".  Essentially, a "metahuman" is someone who is "more than human", or a human whose capabilities are outside the scope of what humans can do.

This is where it gets interesting.  Obviously, those people out there who can lift cars with their minds, and who can fly, and who can communicate telepathically with animals, those people are keeping well-hidden.  And who can blame them?  Between a government that's reputed to dissect curious specimens and religious groups that want to burn everything at the stake, exposing ones self can be dangerous.  But what about people who aren't so secret?

When I turned 30, I got my first-ever eye exam.  Don't judge me.  Anyway, the doctor was flabbergasted by the quality of my vision.  He said, "You know those people who get Lasik and then their vision is better than 20/20?  Well, your vision is way better than theirs."  Of course, it didn't last, and now I have two pairs of glasses, one for reading and one for driving.  But at one time, my vision wasn't just good, it was beyond exceptional.  And that's just plain ol' me.  What about better examples that we KNOW are genetic?  (Some purists will argue that to be a true metahuman, one has to actually have the genes for one's abilities, not just have the abilities themselves.)

In Germany, in 2000, a baby was born with a mutation that boosts his muscle growth.  At the age of 5, he had twice the muscle mass and half the fat of other children his age.  His mother was a professional athlete, and some other members of her family were found to be unusually strong, so this could be a dominant gene.

Some indigenous people in Siberia were found to have a gene that boosts their ability to handle cold temperatures.

Tibetans have a greater lung capacity than people from lower altitudes, allowing them to take in more oxygen from thinner air, and they have other adaptations that help them survive long-term.  Sherpas, similarly, have better blood flow to their brains, protecting them from problems with the thinner air.

There are people with resistance to HIV.  The gene which, when received from both parents, causes sickle-cell anemia will, when only received from one parent, confer immunity to malaria.  People with mutant feet adapted to climbing trees, eyes that see better under water, and people who can eat all the bacon they want without suffering from heart disease.


The list is pretty extensive.  There are seven billion people in the world, and there are lots of mutations happening, and sometimes a gene pops up that convers an advantage.  Ain't evolution grand?

My point is, these people have characteristics which, in the D.C. universe, would qualify them as "metahumans".  They have abilities that place them outside what's normally considered possible for humans.  And it's not through hard work, lightning strikes in chemistry labs, nor magic potions.  It's built in, hard coded.  So, are these metahumans?

Yes.  Or... are they?  Consider this....

Now, to offend any creationists who might stumble across this blog...

Are we apes?  Let's consider.  I'm not a chimpanzee.  I have the same number of fingers and toes, but my toes are shorter (and cuter).  We have the same general shape at birth, we have hair follicles all over, but my follicles are less active, and I'm taller as an adult.  I'm also physically weaker.  But about 99% of my DNA is identical to that of a chimp or bonobo.

If you think that's crazy... 50% of your DNA is shared by bananas.

Long ago, animals happened.  Some of these became vertebrates, but they were still animals.  Some vertebrates became mammals, but they were still vertebrates.  Some mammals became apes, but they were still mammals.  And some apes became humans, but humans are, like it or not, still apes.  Every characteristic that defines an ape still applies to humans.  Face it.  You're a monkey.  Or at least a great ape, with lots of monkey DNA.

So... humans are still apes.  Extend that.  Eventually, humans will have evolved.  It's difficult to say what we'll look like in 500 million years, because evolution isn't a path, just a process, but we'll definitely look different.  But we'll still be humans.  And apes.  And mammals, and vertebrates, and animals.

Unless we leave our bodies behind and become godlike beings of pure energy.  But that's for another article.

So... Do metahumans exist?  Yes.

But they're still human.  And therefore not metahuman.

See?  It's complicated.

And... regarding the incident with Jean...

It should be noted that, not five minutes later, I was walking past her home office, and she shouted, "Hamcat!"  I stopped, backed up, and looked into her office, and she said to me, "Hamcat.  HAMCAT!!!"  Then she went back to whatever she was typing.

This is how I know I need to move.

29 March 2015

Features of Habit

habit /ˈhæb ɪt/ [noun] - 1. an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.

Welcome to the first article in my new Lifehacking series.  It's taken longer than I anticipated to publish this first article, but please bear in mind that I haven't yet written the one on how to stop procrastinating.

So... habits.  We all have them.  The word "habit" has taken on negative connotations, lately.  We think of habits as being something akin to addiction.  Often, one hears  phrases like "bad habit", but rarely, if ever, does one hear of a "good habit".  But habits are part of us.  We're wired to develop habits.  And there are very good reasons.

I won't go into it here... consult your local evolutionary psychologist... but simply put, habits are like computer macros.  When you develop a habit, your hindbrain can take over that function and free up your forebrain for more important tasks, like reading blogs.

Think about it... do you drive?  If so, you probably don't think much about HOW you go about starting and stopping.  Do you have to think each time about which pedal is the brake pedal?  If so, perhaps you should purchase extra insurance.  How about walking? We know we walk, but we don't think much about it.  When you drive, do you put on your seatbelt?  If so, do you keep a checklist handy that includes the seatbelt, or do you simply use the seatbelt because it's a habit?

Note: as habits go, wearing your seatbelt is a very good one.

Our lives are full of habits that help us get by.  You might get into the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street... feeding your children... locking your car doors when a brown person walks by.

I mention that last point to acknowledge that yes, there are bad habits, and they must be addressed.

The point of this lifehack is to take control of your habits.  There are two pieces to this...

  1. The adoption of positive, helpful habits
  2. The elimination of negative, or "bad" habits
To the first point, it would be nice if we could just develop helpful habits whenever we want, just by doing them, right?  Right?

Well, we can.  No, seriously.  Developing a good habit is as simple as doing the thing.

Well, maybe not quite that simple.  But that's most of it.  Pick a thing that you want to do habitually.  Do it each time it's relevant.  If you forget to do it, backtrack (where practical) and do the thing.  The point here is to build pathways in the brain.  We learn to do things by building neural paths.  Repetition reinforces those paths and makes them stronger.  The act of consciously taking the time to do the extra thing that you want to do actually builds the extra circuit in your brain that, over time, makes the thing happen without you thinking about it.

For example, if you've been driving without a seatbelt, and you want to get into the habit of wearing your seatbelt (good for you!), then the first step is to start bucking up every time you get into your vehicle.  I find it's best to do so before starting the vehicle.  Mostly because my vehicle makes a nasty noise if I don't.

Now, this part is important... if you find yourself starting your vehicle and realize that you haven't yet put on your seatbelt, stop the engine, and then buckle up and start the engine again.

I know that this can place extra wear and tear on your engine, but it's not much, really, and you know what else costs even more than vehicle maintenance?  Getting your face sewn back together after putting it through a windshield.

Sounds simple, right?  Well, it isn't.  Or it is, but not quite as much as I've made it out to be... there's one important detail... forgiveness.  This information actually came from a study about procrastination, which I will read, when I get a chance, but it's important in areas like this... apparently there's a quirk in the firmware of the human brain.  If you beat yourself up about something, that prevents you from actually overcoming it.  So if you forget to do the thing you intend to do, don't feel bad, and don't punish yourself.  Just back up (if you can) an do it.  Move on with your life.

Now... the second part... overcoming bad habits.  This is a bit trickier.  It's not about building new pathways in the brain.

Or is it?

It can be.  One popular method of breaking a bad habit is to replace it with a different, less-bad habit.  It's similar to the method used in 12-step programs such as AA/NA.  Have you ever been to one of those meetings?  They set out to replace your drug habit (and yes, alcohol is a drug, by definition) with something else.  Usually, that involves replacing the drug with a deity (although the term "higher power" is used by those groups that want to continue receiving government money and having people sent to them by the court system), although most of the attendees also take up smoking.  Have you ever been to one of those meetings?  I've fought oil fires (military training) that produced less smoke.

I want to point out here that the success rate of 12 step programs is exactly the same as the success rate of people who just decide to quit on their own (Dawson, et al.), and while the evidence regarding whether such programs work is as hazy as the meeting rooms, the fact that such programs teach you to give up one type of dependence and replace it with another doesn't sound like the most ideal outcome, to me.

But I digress.  The point is, yes, you can overcome bad habits by replacing them with other habits, but that's not the only option.

The brain is quite malleable.  Not just in the physical, silly putty sense, but functionally.  Studies into neuroplasticity (no, that's not in your spell-check dictionary, but yes, it's a real word) have shown that the brain can adapt to almost any situation.  People have lost as much as 80% of their functional brain matter and still managed to graduate at the top of their classes.  Stroke victims who lose the ability to walk and speak are often able to relearn those skills.  After some therapy and hard work, the functions previously filled by one part of the brain can be taken over by another part.

Is this relevant to overcoming a bad habit, or is it just some really cool information?  BOTH!  The fact is that, although old habits are a function of paths burned into the brain, those paths can be destroyed.  And not just by smoking and praying for help.

It's not just a matter of willpower, which is essentially your will fighting against your will.  There are many suggestions and methods for accomplishing this, but it breaks down fairly simply...

  1. You have to want it.  If you don't want to stop doing The Thing, you'll keep doing The Thing.  You have to earnestly want to stop doing The Thing.
  2. Be aware of your actions.  Often, we continue to do The Thing because we don't realize we're doing it.  A future lifehack will discuss self awareness, but essentially you need to become aware that you're doing it so that you can stop.
  3. If you normally do The Thing as a step in a particular process, doing the process multiple times, while intentionally skipping The Thing can help.  This builds and reinforces pathways in the brain that don't include The Thing.
  4. This one is important... forgive yourself.  Yes, this unexpected yet key component to learning a new habit is also key to losing an old habit.  If you slip up, if you forget yourself and accidentally do The Thing, don't punish yourself or lose sleep over it.  Forgive yourself and move on.

Again, you might ask.... can it be that simple?  Well, yes and no.  It looks easier than it is.  But over time, it works.  And less time than you would think.

A note about my examples above... I know that I used drugs and addiction as examples of bad habits.  Yes, there are physical components to some addiction, but essentially, many drug addictions are psychological, and involve brain pathways not unlike those of habits.  I don't pretend that overcoming addiction is a matter to be taken lightly, nor do I pretend that drugs are bad just because that's what Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the Republican Party, told me when I was a vulnerable young child.  I simply used that example because the information is compatible, and many people can relate.

Notable habits you can learn to your benefit:

  1. Seatbelts.  Did I mention seatbelts before?
  2. Taking your medication when you eat (especially for diabetics)
  3. Unsupervised physical therapy (for sports and similar injuries)
  4. Daily personal hygiene (I'm looking at you, Albert Blastin)
  5. Eating breakfast
  6. Allowing for extra travel time when attending a scheduled event
  7. Reading bedtime stories to your children
  8. Checking the gas gauge on your car (and also glancing at the tires before driving somewhere)
  9. Making sure you have your keys before locking your vehicle door
A special note about this last problem... Tired of locking my keys in my vehicle, I intentionally got into the habit of locking my car doors using my keys, rather than using the controls.  I've never locked the keys in since, although I've had friends (I'm looking at you, Giordi), who have locked the keys in multiple times when borrowing my car.

And for crying out loud... wear your seatbelt!

19 December 2014

Life Hacking: The Series Begins

OK, update on the whole weight loss thing... did you know that you can suddenly start losing weight for no reason if you become diabetic?  Unfortunately, I'll have to wait until the seasons change a bit before I can get back to testing the sunlight thing.  Or if I can figure out a way to get some sun in relative privacy beforehand, then I can test.

The "seasons" where I live aren't the traditional Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring.  They're "Oh dear God it's unbearably hot", "Finally, it's starting to get less unbearable", "It's finally cool enough to go outside without an environment suit", and "Oh, no, it's getting hotter again!"  No, the problem isn't that it's too cold to get some sun.  It's the position of the shadows of the trees in the back yard.

So, on to other topics... I'm going to start a new Life Hacker series here on my blog.  I've seen lots of "hacks" on the Lifehacker website, but many of them are disappointing.  Not because they don't apply to me, because it makes sense that many things that apply to one person won't apply to another, but because nearly all of the "hacks" I read involved invoking or evoking a deity.  If I want to read advice that says to pray the stress away or something like that, I'll visit an overtly religious website.

But I don't.

Now, I should be clear on this... When I say "hack", I generally am not referring to the word as it has come to be used, which is not the correct meaning at all.  To "hack" did not originally mean to crack a code and steal someone's nude selfies.  Cutting-related origin aside, in computers, to "hack" originally meant "to find a simple, elegant, creative solution to a complicated programming problem".  The original "hackers" were clever programmers who found ways to do things with code that made their professors scratch their heads.  At some point, this translated into computer pranks (one of my favorite pastimes) and penetrating security measures (again, one of my favorite pastimes), but originally, it was basically about finding clever solutions and new, better ways of doing things.

These days, the term is no longer used simply in computers, but in many areas of life.  And this is where I want to focus my new series.  I don't yet have an outline of the series, because I'm just putting together the beginning details.  I know I need certain things.

  • I need to shorten my commute to work or increase my productivity.
  • I need to find a new place to live.
  • In that new place to live, I need to contrive a work space.
  • I need to have room for my daughter to live with me without either of us losing basic privacy.
  • I need to work on my health.
  • I need to find a way to reduce the cost of groceries and other living expenses.
  • I need to find additional income.
  • I need to spend more time with my dog.
  • I need to increase my overall productivity, both at work and in my personal life.
  • I need to work on my personal appearance.
  • I need to further my education.
  • I need to work on my blog more often.
  • And I need to do all of this within the bounds of a fairly small salary.

The obvious solution starts with having a job that pays well, or money to fall back on, but those aren't options for me at this time.  Therefore, hacks.  New, clever ways of doing things.  My financial resources are limited, and my time is currently limited.  Some of the bullet points above will help with that, but there has to be a starting point.  Therefore, I'm going to hack my life.  I don't know exactly how I'm going to start, but I'm working on putting together a plan, and I'll share what I learn in my new Life Hacking series.

I have to set my goals.  I started with the basics.  If you look at a build-it-yourself project, like on the Make Magazine website, it starts with a list of "materials and tools you'll need".  Well, for the most basic of these, I need a job - Check.  I just spent half a year unemployed, so I'm still working on getting caught up, but that's in progress, so soon I'll be able to move on.  That said....

Hack 1: Set up payments.  If you owe money from a period of hardship, you can usually set up automated payments.  Take your expenses, figure out the most you can afford to pay back each pay period, and then cut that in half.  That's the amount you should pay each pay period.  If you have something set up, then you don't have to worry about it after that.  It should take care of itself.   Just try to figure out when it will be paid and then make sure the payments stop at that time.  Some companies will continue to charge as long as you allow them to do so.  I owe a little money to my bank, so I have them take a small portion of my direct deposit.  In two weeks, that should be paid off.

Hack 2: Prioritize the things that you need to catch up on.  If you've been unemployed or otherwise financially burdened, you might have several things to pay up.  You need to set your priorities.

  1. Things that will get you arrested are priority one.  Get your car's registration and insurance done, pay any fines owed, that sort of thing.
  2. Things that affect your health and welfare are next.
  3. Things that affect other things are next.  Get your car serviced if it needs service, because that car might be needed to get to work.  Make sure to get your phone bill paid.  Internet access can also fall here, if it's necessary for your work or other IMPORTANT things.  If you only use it for entertainment, it can fall to the bottom of the list.
It's all about priorities.  Make a list of things that need to be paid off, in order from most dire and immediate to least dire.  If you really think about what's the most important, you might just decide that some things you've been paying for for years aren't worth keeping around.

These are two starter hacks.  Simple, yes, straightforward, yes, and obvious, maybe.  But things that seem obvious are often overlooked.  That priorities list is something I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere, but that I've never done before.

So, here's the deal... I'm looking at changing my life.  It's not a bad life, really, but I think it could be improved.  The improvement will involve all areas of my life, hopefully making them work better together, and, in the end, improve my quality and enjoyment of life.  And I want to share anything I figure out that helps.  I'm going to change my life for the better, period, and if I can help you change yours for the better, then everyone wins.

So that's what the new series is about.  I got back on my feet, so next I need to find a place to live, and then I need to work on the things dependent on having a home, and so on, and I want to do a better job than I've done up to this point, and I want to share anything I learn.  I hope I'm able to convey information that helps people out there, and I look forward to seeing what happens.

On a side note, this could become a collaborative project.  It's the biggest thing I've ever worked on, and I've worked on some doozies, and yes, I know that I ended a sentence fragment with a preposition, and I would like to hear any non-preposition suggestions, comments, or questions.  If you don't want to add a comment to this blog, you can e-mail me.

Insert clever ending here, and let's get hacking!

13 August 2014

Photosynthetic Philosophy

I've discovered a new, wonderful thing!  Druids heal when exposed to sunlight.

No, think about it.  Have you ever heard of a Druid dying of skin cancer?  Maybe.  But not skin cancer from the sun, because if a Druid gets skin cancer from UV rays from the sun, the cancer cells immediately "heal" into normal cells.  Druids who don't get enough sun can suffer from all kinds of problems.

What's my source, you ask?  Because shut up.  That's why.

Anyway... isn't it wonderful?  I've noticed that since I started getting sun at least twice a week I've lost about twenty pounds a month, without making any other changes.

So, not only do Druids heal from sunlight, but we also get healthier.  This has possibilities.

11 August 2014

When Knowledge Takes Root, New Ideas Germinate

OK, new plan.  After planting those seeds, I started actually reading up on the raising of trees from seeds.  What a concept!  As it turns out, you can't just plant apple seeds and have them grow right away.

I had been thinking of what we did in elementary school, which involved taking dried beans and watching them germinate in moist paper towels in the windows.  Those beans sprouted little plants within days.

In other words, those beans lied to me.

Apple seeds germinate during the winter, apparently.  Since I currently live in Texas, where "winter" is a euphemism for "the coolest part of summer", I had to simulate Winter.  I placed four seeds in a moistened paper towel, put that into a plastic bag, and put that into the refrigerator.

Fast forward to today.  Four weeks after I put the seeds into an artificially cold environment, I checked on them.  One tiny little guy has germinated.

The others show no signs of life, as yet, so I put them back and kept this one out.  Now, on to planting.

Now, as much as I would LOVE to have a little bonsai at my desk, my current setup doesn't have room for a bonsai.  SO I decided to look at other things I could do.

My roommate, Jean, was complaining about all of the empty bottles and jars I've been collecting, with an emphasis on the fact that I can't use one of my alternate "planting pots" when placing plants outside.  Now, I don't know that an apple tree can be kept as a desk plant, and I definitely want to give this little thing room to grow.  I didn't have any actual pots handy, and definitely need to get a big one for this, so I decided to go with something very non-traditional.

Did I select a pill box for planting my first apple tree?  Yes.  Yes, I did.  But wait, hear me out...

The cardboard box is ideal for planting a new seedling, because it's small enough to move easily, and will have no problems holding the soil.  And when it's time to replant, I don't actually have to remove the box.  I can plant the box right into the soil of the bigger pot, and the box will become compost.

So, I folded the flaps inside the box, to reinforce the strength of the box, but, more importantly, to get them out of my way so that I could think.

I added soil to the box, filling it about half-way.  Then, I dropped the seed into the center and filled the box the rest of the way.

The potting soil I chose is, according to the label, formulated for vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs.  I figured apples might fall somewhere under there, so I used that kind.  Next, for moisture.

Obviously, cardboard's One True Weakness is water.  Well, water and fire.  I'm concerned with water.  I need to be able to water my little plant.  Due to the way these boxes are coated in some kind of shiny mystery layer, I wasn't worried about the box falling apart, as long as I didn't overwater, but obviously the box would still leak water through the bottom.  So I needed something to catch and hold the excess moisture.

Enter the lid.  I took a jar lid that would have gone into the trash and cleaned it thoroughly.

And that's it.  I added just enough water to moisten the soil (I hoped) and the runoff sits in the lid.  As the soil dries, some of the water should soak up from the lid back into the soil.

And that's it for now.  Let's see how this seed turns out, and also let's see how long it takes before Jean starts screaming, "You planted a tree in what?!?!?"