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Author: Steve

I live and work in the Philadelphia area. I am an ETL software tester by profession but I also enjoy writing, tabletop gaming, reading and thinking about history, binge-watching Netflix, and traveling with my BFF. We especially like going to the Big Apple to catch a show.
A common practice

A common practice

I’ve finished another book, a relatively quick read, taking me to 2 out of 20 books completed in my 2020 reading challenge. I just might get it done!

The book was Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson, a brief treatise on innovation. I left a short review on Goodreads. but wanted to blog about something interesting I learned during my read.

A commonplace book from the mid 17th century

As part of the history of genius inventors, and of how information is organized and shared among them, Johnson covers the history of the commonplace book. This was a way for private individuals to compile knowledge, particularly popular in the early modern period. It was basically a loosely organized collection of notes. Typically it would be one volume, but it might take a lifetime to fill it, becoming a kind of jumbled encyclopedia with a personal touch.

There were even methods devised for the best way to organize the information, so that it could be found easily, but wasn’t too restrictively compartmentalized. The idea was that a freer arrangement could help reveal connections between different subject matters, allowing new concepts to emerge.

I realized that I have actually been following this practice my whole life. I’ve just been keeping smaller notebooks, to the point that I have piles of them now. Inside there are notes from reading books, as well as ideas for stories and games and world settings, all jumbled together. Sometimes I go back through them to revisit old ideas and ruminate more on them.

Some of my “commonplace” notebooks.

So that was a cool thing to get out of this read, the knowledge that I have been following a time-honored practice shared by scholarly types of centuries past. In fact, nowadays, most of us probably do, if only in the form of bookmarked web pages! So much to know about the world, and yet so much that remains undiscovered.

Inside one of my notebooks.
Silent of the Week: Michael Bloomberg

Silent of the Week: Michael Bloomberg

I’ve written in the past about how the Silent Generation (b. 1925-1942) has held onto power for a long time in the United States, and how their influence has contributed in many ways to the kind of slow burn that characterizes our current Crisis Era. The old political regime, with its special interests and its money corruption, is associated with this generation and its long tenure. There are even two members of the Silent Generation running for President…

Oh wait, make that three! Almost as if to rub the corruption of politics by money in our collective faces, along comes Michael Bloomberg (b. 1942) to crash the Presidential race. He’s the 9th richest human in the world (Donald Trump is only the 715th) and a hero of 9/11, so why shouldn’t he flex his muscle in this era of populist strongmen? So what if he’s been a little racist and sexist in his past – that didn’t stop the current White House inhabitant from getting where he is today.

If you haven’t cut the cord, then you are probably going to see a lot of ads for this guy’s candidacy in the months to come. And you are also probably old, which means you might be in the demographic that Bloomer is trying to reach. That Sanders guy might be too scary radical for you, and Biden – well, that whole Ukraine thing…

Personally, I hope Bloomberg’s candidacy turns out to be history’s most expensive flash in the pan. But I have to give him this one post just for the sheer chutzpah of what he is doing – shoehorning his way into the wrong primary (since his party is a cult now) to try to transmute his personal fortune into political power, and prove to us that oligarchic plutocracy is here to stay. Money can’t buy you love, but it just might be able to buy you a Presidency.

For his thrilling debut on the stage of the Democratic debates, and the promise of much more media coverage to come, I name Michael Bloomberg the Silent of the Week.

So many books, so little time

So many books, so little time

I’m way behind on my reading challenge so what do I do? I pick up a new book to read, of course. Actually, there is some logic to this decision – I tend to read ponderous works of nonfiction which means it takes a long time to get through a work. So I am adding a short piece of fiction to my list, which should increase my odds of finishing a book soon.

The fictional work is the novel Freedom Road, by Howard Fast. I didn’t know this before, but he is the same author who wrote the novel Spartacus, on which the film was based. And Freedom Road was also made into a TV mini-series, starring Muhammad Ali. So I’m going to look for that on streaming video once I’m done with the book.

I have small paperback edition I can carry with me at work in this odd little bag I bought, to read during my lunch breaks. Now that’s progress!

My Old Site Is Back Up

My Old Site Is Back Up

I have actually had my mindspring.com email since the late 1990s. You see, I have this stubborn resistance to upgrading tech or adopting new tech. I didn’t get my first smartphone until 2014 and I don’t even own a smartwatch now. I even continue to maintain an old flat HTML web site like it was still 2002 or something.

That is, I was maintaining it until EarthLink (which bought MindSpring) took it down; I guess they were tired of supporting free web sites for their email users. Whatever. I finally got around to scrounging up some basic hosting and put the old clunker back on the interwebs. It wasn’t too much of an ordeal, though there was quite a bit of search and replace of hardcoded URLs.

Divesting myself of the old email address might be a bit more of an effort, since it is linked to so many services. So let’s see if I can keep it alive for another decade or two.

My old site has been resurrected at http://stevebarrera.net/

Where on Earth has Steve been?

Where on Earth has Steve been?

You may have noticed I haven’t been blogging much lately. My new job keeps me very busy and drained of energy. I’m sure you are familiar with the experience; after work all that you are up for is some TV and then going to bed, and your hobbies suffer as a result. My eyes are tired all the time since I computer all day at work anyway and they just need a rest. I’m feeling old.

Ok, enough complaining.

Now, it’s actually possible that the real reason I haven’t been blogging is that I have been lost in virtual reality. Yes, that’s right, last Christmas the family got a VR system. It was a gift for the eldest son, but of course we’ve all played around with it a bit.

It’s an early model HTC VIVE that we got used on ebay for 500 bucks (that includes tax and shipping). At that price, it wasn’t something extravagantly out of reach for a middle class family. That’s basically the price of a smartphone, which everyone in every economic class has today. That suggests we may well be on our way as a society to a Ready Player Onestyle corporatist oligarchical dystopia where we all spend as much time as possible escaping our drab reality for a colorful virtual world where everything is possible.

Oblivious to the horrors of my nightmare society, I am lost in a reality of my own making.

Oh wait, we’re probably already there.

So anyway, the system we got consists of a headset, two controllers and two cameras that are mounted on very tall stands. We had to clear out a space in our computer room and then calibrate the system to establish the physical play area that maps into the virtual space. It’s not really enough space to move around in, but the VR apps don’t actually require walking about anyway. Movement within the worlds is always handled by some mechanic involving the hands or controllers.

The technology isn’t advanced enough (not at 500 bucks, anyway) to create any kind of pseudo-realistic experience. The experience is fully immersive, but only in a world that is abstract and cartoon-y. And I find that it is difficult to read text in the VR display, which is annoying, but that’s my old and tired eyes. I’m sure that the text is readable if you have better vision than I do.

So far my favorite games are Beat Saber, where you slice at flying cubes with light sabers, and Job Simulator, which is a satire of modern working life. There a lot of combat, FPS and RPG-type games that the boys like, but that is not for me. And yes, every app we have is some kind of game. The one exception would be Google Earth.

You’ve probably experienced Google Earth on your computer screen, but let me tell you, it’s much better in the full immersion of VR. You can pick up the globe and turn it around, or zoom into it and fly around all over the planet like you’ve always wished you could do in reality. It actually can be a bit disorienting when you zoom in too fast and are suddenly perched on a mountaintop.

In the close up the view is actually rendered graphics, not satellite imagery. I assume this is for software performance reasons. Again, not a hyperrealistic simulation. But you can still go into the street view, at which point you are in slideshow mode. Even here you are limited to what actual photos the Google Earth crew assembled together, but it’s still an amazing experience to wander the streets and roads of the Earth, anywhere you want.

I wanted to check out places I’ve lived as a child, so I got a set of coordinates from my Dad. I found that even immersed in the VR, there was only a vague sense of remembering the locations. They probably have changed a lot in the many decades that have passed (WP: Google invents time travel so they can expand their maps feature into the fourth dimension). But I’ll say, there was some inkling of a memory.

Even revisiting places from just twenty years or so in my past, it was hard to tell if I remembered them. Part of it might be that the perspective (I mean the actual visual perspective) is a bit different in street mode in the VR than it would have been in real life. And you can’t move around and look at anything closely; as stated earlier, it’s a slideshow.

The greatest familiarity that came with a strong sense of nostalgia was in visiting Blacksburg, Virginia, where I went to college. This is a place that will always be close to my heart, because I spent so many formative years there. I also got a strong emotion out of visiting my old neighborhood in North Carolina, where I had a house for ten years. But that is a very recent memory, and connected to a big change in my personal life.

Other than that, I don’t know, it’s just as much fun to wander around in the countryside of New Zealand (which I’ve never visited in “meat space”) as it is to try to recognize places which I did visit long ago. So if you’re wondering why I am not knocking on your door, it’s probably because I am off exploring strange lands in a virtual space. Someone please check on me every once in a while to make sure I’m not badly dehydrated.

My 2020 Reading Challenge

My 2020 Reading Challenge

I have read a lot of books. I have been especially interested in reading history, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is how much there is that I don’t know. Of course, this drives me to read more, so now I have a fairly long reading list of books that I just haven’t gotten to quite yet.

This is not an uncommon thing; there is even a term for collecting unread books – tsundoku. A collection of unread books is called an antilibrary, and supposedly it’s good to have one, to remind oneself of the limits of one’s knowledge. My antilibrary, honestly, is actually not that large. But it’s large enough, possibly, to last me the rest of my life.

Between work, family, and other hobbies, I have not found much time to read lately. So, for 2020, I have decided to read more, and to track what I read on the social website Goodreads. My goal is simple – 20 books completed in 2020. And I plan to post reviews, some of which I may share on this blog.

Let’s see…20 books a year. If I live for 30 more years, which is plausible, that means 600 more books to read before I die. That’s it!?? There’s more than that many books in one aisle at the Barnes & Noble!

When will I have time enough? It almost makes me wish for the fate of Burgess Meredith’s character in the famous Twilight Zone episode. But of course, we know how that turns out. And even if I found time to read 6000 books, I would only scratch the surface of all that humanity has recorded.

Ah well. It’s still a joy to read a good book, despite the limitations of our mere mortal lives. I end with a quote from a great poet.

Knowledge is precious to us, because we shall never have time to
complete it.
All is done and finished in the eternal Heaven.

Rabindranath Tagore
A small sample of my library. There’s even more on my Kindle.
Best Streaming of the Decade

Best Streaming of the Decade

I can’t believe it’s 2020 already. Happy New Year one and all.

2019 ended with a flurry of social media postings of decade retrospectives. Here is mine – my favorite streaming TV series of the 2010s.

The 2010s stand out to me as the dawn of the age of streaming video, when the TV/Internet convergence that had been touted before finally came to pass.

Some of the shows on my list actually began in the late 2000s. Some of them were originally released on cable TV rather than a streaming service, but I mostly watched them on Netflix or Amazon.

For example, The Walking Dead premiered in 2010, and I first watched it on cable. Then I cut the cord a few years later, and picked it up on Netflix (watching each season delayed by a year).

Here is my list of favorite TV series of the past 10 years, all binge-watched over the Internet.

Aggretsuko
Better Call Saul
Black Mirror
Breaking Bad
The Crown
The Expanse
Fleabag
The Man in the High Castle
Marianne
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Mr. Robot
Stranger Things
The Walking Dead

Silent of the Year: Nancy Pelosi

Silent of the Year: Nancy Pelosi

Who is the most powerful woman in the United States today? It’s not Hillary Clinton, whose fortunes peaked a few years ago; we all know the story of her rise and fall. No, according to Forbes, those consummate rankers of the wealthy and powerful, it is none other than Nancy Pelosi (b.1940), Speaker of the House and highest ranking elected official in U.S. history. She is seven years older than Baby Boomer Clinton, and from an earlier generation – the Silent Generation.

Taking a look at the Forbes lists over the years, it’s interesting to note that most of the American woman on it are C-level executives in the private sector. Other countries have their Chancellors and Prime Ministers, but the U.S. has its CEOs and COOs – reflecting perhaps the entrepreneurial bent of American society, or perhaps its failing in never having elected a woman to the Presidency. When government officials do make the list, they are usually in the executive branch, which makes Pelosi’s appearance as a member of the House of Representatives all the more remarkable.

Of course, she is no ordinary Representative. She is the first woman to hold the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives, and in fact the first woman to lead a party caucus in the United States Congress (which she has done since 2003). That would actually make her the only woman to have achieved this. She has held her seat since 1987, representing the city and county of San Francisco, and one key to her success is that she has one of the safest seats in Congress for Democrats.

Now, that’s not to downplay her merits as a politician and a leader. She’s has been very effective at guiding her caucus in a time of intense partisan warfare, and was an instrumental part of its major achievement in this era – the Affordable Care Act. Now she leads the Democrats in their first year with a Congressional majority in the Trump era, following the 2018 mid-term elections – and this after weathering opposition from within her own party.

Standing atop the Democrats’ only hold on power in the United States government, Pelosi’s primary accomplishment has been persisting in the face a hostile Senate and an unpredictable and disgracefully immature President. Her way of handling Trump is patient and resolute, like an exasperated mother dealing with a troublesome child. It’s summed up in an image of her that went viral during the 2019 State of the Union address, when he made comments about the need for unity and she rewarded him with a hand clap. If her applause was mocking in any way, surely Trump’s comments were just as insincere.

Pelosi has never lost track of the seriousness of our current state of affairs, and of her responsibility as leader of the House, and undoubtedly will be most remembered by history for her decision to impeach President Trump following revelations that he abused the power of his office in an attempt to influence the upcoming elections. It’s a decision she delayed longer than some might have wished, but in her role the choice was hers to make, and her timing may prove to be the wisest in the end. In deciding to proceed with the impeachment, she has restored honor to a troubled U.S. government. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming trial, I am grateful to her for her leadership, and to her generation – the Silent generation – for sticking around to help us deal with those obstreperous Baby Boomers.

Nancy Pelosi was already included in my “Silent of the Week” post covering Congressional leadership. In light of recent events, and with Forbes naming her the most powerful woman in America, I hereby declare Nancy Pelosi 2019’s Silent of the Year.

Nancy Pelosi applauding the President during the 2019 SOTU address.
10 Indispensable Albums

10 Indispensable Albums

So I accepted this challenge on Facebook where you post ten indispensable albums, one a day. Here are the albums I chose, along with the text I posted on FB (with some edits). I consolidated them into one list for the blog format, also figuring I should save the information somewhere that doesn’t belong to the android overlord of social media.

So without further ado, here are my top ten indispensable albums.

1) Jesus Christ Superstar

My first experiences with music were listening to my parents’ record collection. They had a lot of old albums that I remember, but the one that I remember most fondly is the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. They had the double LP set, with Sides 1 and 4 on one record and sides 2 and 3 on the other, so you could play them on a turntable with a record changer. My sister and I knew all the lyrics and would sing along together. This was actually a concept album before it became a Broadway musical, and as a musical is still produced to this day. It’s a brilliant work that has stood the test of time.

2)We’re An American Band

My generation grew up on rock and roll, and was greatly influenced by the music made by the generation that came before us – the Baby Boomers. We call that music “classic rock” now, and there are a ton of possible choices that might go on a Gen-Xer’s list of indispensable albums. I chose this one: We’re an American Band by Grand Funk (Railroad). It was also in my parents’ collection; they had one of the original gold foil copies, and I listened to it from an early age. I think this album captures perfectly the energy, attitude, and ambition of the young Boomer generation. I still have it on CD and pop it into my car stereo when I need to get my blood flowing.

3)Space Ritual

Here’s where my list of indispensable albums starts to veer away from the ordinary. When I was in high school some friends introduced me to the progressive rock/space rock/acid rock/whatever you want to call them rock band Hawkwind. I was instantly hooked on them. It’s not that they are that impressive musically; I just loved their weird style, their use of electronics, and the psychedelic and science fiction themes in their songs. And I’m telling you, until you’ve listened to Hawkwind’s epic live double album Space Ritual with your headphones on in a dark room in an altered state of mind, you have not truly experienced the mystery and majesty of this Universe.

4)Angel’s Egg

After being introduced to Hawkwind, I started getting into more alternative rock music, especially what was coming out of Europe. There’s a lot of interesting stuff from this time period (late 60s through 70s), but as for indispensable, I would have to pick the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy by Gong. This is a three album series that tells a strange mythological tale involving, among other things, magic tea, extraterrestrials and mystical prostitutes. A wonderful expression of the spirit of its age, it is playful, humorous, and – to me at least – has a profound spiritual message. The second album, Angel’s Egg, is the centerpiece and my favorite of the three.

5)Liege & Lief

So what makes an album indispensable, I think, is that you’ve listened to it many times, never tire of it, and feel that the world would be a lesser place without it. With that in mind, I have to include Liege & Lief, by Fairport Convention. This folk rock album features adaptations of traditional Celtic music and the enchanting singing voice of Sandy Denny. It is an all-time favorite of mine.

6)Extraterrestrial Live

When I was in high school my friend Joe Webb introduced me to my next indispensable album, Extraterrestrial Live by Blue Öyster Cult. It’s the second live album I’ve put on this list. I guess there can be something in a particular concert performance that makes it memorable and unrepeatable and better than a studio album, and this is one example. And of course it has the sci-fi/fantasy appeal that is a staple of heavy metal music. This double LP set has so many great numbers – Black Blade, Godzilla, Don’t Fear the Reaper, Joan Crawford, and my all-time favorite, Veteran of the Psychic Wars.

7)The Dreaming

There is a lot of music from high school days on my list of indispensable albums. It just goes to show how the impressions made in your formative years are the ones that stay with you. And here’s an astounding album that has made a lasting impression on me: The Dreaming by the inimitable Kate Bush. It’s so uniquely creative, and every song is a gem.

8)Joe’s Garage

This next indispensable album might not appeal to all tastes. Frankly (heh), it’s obnoxious and crass and has lyrics that would get an artist ratioed and hashtagged into oblivion in today’s social climate. But it fit into its time, which was a much more free-wheeling age.

I’m talking about the brilliant satirical rock opera Joe’s Garage, by Frank Zappa. I want to listen to it many more times before I die, and when I do die, you can play this song – which features the greatest guitar solo in history – at my funeral.

9)Beaucoup Fish

Suddenly I’m jumping ahead two decades to 1999. What about all the wondrous varieties of rock music of the 80s and 90s? Well, I can appreciate it and admire it, but none of it made it to…indispensable. Maybe if this was a top 20 list.

Plus, at some point later in life, I started getting heavily into electronic music, so that genre gets the last two of the ten albums.

Now, for electronic music, I actually have an indispensable band, and that band would be Underworld. They are just freaking amazing in their mixing skills and their composition and tempo – and what’s even better is they’re still active and producing as much as ever. Just follow them on Spotify for endless fresh tracks. They’ve had a lot of great stuff since the early 90s, but if I had to live with just one of their albums, then that album would be Beacuoup Fish.

10)Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost

My number 10 indispensable album is a probably obscure psychedelic trance masterpiece by electronic musical project Shpongle. It’s title is Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost, which is taken from William Blake and speaks to the ineffable mysteries of time and consciousness. It’s a work of genius, a dream journey in an electronic and world music soundscape that is utterly entrancing and profound. That’s my opinion, anyway; I think it’s one of the best albums in its genre. It is best listened to in its entirety as one continuous piece, which you can only approximate on YouTube.

11)Illinoise

That’s right, my top ten list goes to eleven.

Most of the albums were from the way back, when I was first developing my attachment to music. But I really do appreciate the more recent waves of artists as well, so here is one more. My eleventh and final indispensable album of this list is Illinoise, by the quirky, creative indie musician Sufjan Stevens. He is a multi-talented virtuoso, and while his albums can be hit or miss as he genre-hops, this is one that I never tire of hearing.

I Have A New Job

I Have A New Job

Some moons ago I posted about my history of working in IT, and how I was focusing in data warehousing and working with many associates from India. That was back when I lived in North Carolina, and I predicted that there would be more corporate campuses in my future. When I moved up to Pennsylvania, I actually took a job that was in a downtown office building – a work environment with a different vibe. On a corporate campus you’re more isolated within the company’s culture, and usually eat at the cafeteria since it’s inconvenient to leave the campus. In a downtown environment you can escape for a walk, and eat at nearby restaurants.

Well, once more I have switched jobs and, as predicted, I am now working at a corporate campus again. It’s an interesting one, sprawling and maze-like, with buildings that are oddly colored and resemble warehouses. It’s like being in a giant art project, with the insides of the buildings filled with interesting art, too. The buildings all have open floor plans – that is, they are just one huge room on each floor, so they are warehouse-like on the inside as well as the outside. But it’s not that they are converted warehouses, as some office sites are – these were built this way intentionally.

My desk is in the middle of the floor, in a huge space that is cacophonous when the building is full. The power and network feeds are up in the ceiling, and connect to the individual desks via long, coiling cables called “pythons.” It’s a unique setup in my experience. The energy here is very dynamic, basically a perpetual commotion, like one might imagine a trade floor would be – and it is a finance company, so that is fitting. At least there are windows, so there is a little bit of natural light.

I am in the data warehouse group, and as usual, most of my coworkers have H1B visas and are from India. So the pattern persists. This has become my niche – token white guy on a fin tech data warehouse team. I’ve occupied this niche for twelve years, and with each job shift I notice the workforce getting younger and younger than me – disconcerting, but obviously inevitable. There’s so much aggressive energy from young people trying to prove themselves, and to me it’s all old hat and I’m just here because I need an income so I don’t retire in poverty.

Including this one, I have now worked a total of 18 IT jobs in 6 different Eastern states. My longest stint was for 5 years and three months, and my shortest (not counting this one) was for 5 months. It’s been a fascinating career, full of all kinds of experiences, and I don’t regret taking any of the jobs, even the ones that drove me crazy (but that’s a whole other story). Here’s to what adventures lie ahead.

A nest of pythons hangs overhead in my new workplace.