Browsed by
Category: Uncategorized

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.

Welcome to New Sweden

Welcome to New Sweden

Would you believe that I live, work and play in Sweden? Or, rather, what used to be Sweden? That’s right – the Kingdom of Sweden once laid claim to a part of the east coast of North America, back in the colonial era before England snatched it all up. It was established in the lower Delaware Valley, in what would today be called the tri-state area. The sites of what are now Wilmington, DE and Philadelphia, PA are included in the former colony.

The replica Kalmar Nyckel sailing on the Christina river in Wilmington, DE.

There’s even a famous ship involved in the founding, akin to the Mayflower that legendarily landed at Plymouth Rock. The Swedish ship was called the Kalmar Nyckel, and it came to North America with Swedish colonists in 1638. The settlement they founded was Fort Christina, named after the Queen of Sweden. There’s a replica of the ship that plies the former waters of New Sweden for the benefit of tourists, and I sometimes see it when I am at work in Wilmington. But all that remains of the fort is a marker.

The Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, DE

There is a little bit left of the old colony of New Sweden in the urban landscape of the area, mainly in the form of three churches known as the Old Swedes Churches. There is one in Wilmington and two in Philadelphia. The one in Wilmington is a National Historic Park, and you can visit and get a tour for $5. When I went, the guide first wanted to know if I am of Swedish heritage, which I am not, because many Americans who are of Swedish extraction come to the church out of, I guess, genealogical curiosity. Then he showed me around the church and grounds, and told me a little history. It’s a remarkable site to visit, with its many very old graves, and original masonry dating from the late 1600s.

As the guide related it to me, the Europeans who first settled here weren’t in New Sweden for very long. The colony was ceded to the Dutch after a war and became part of New Netherland. But even that status was brief, as it all went to England in 1676. By then the Kalmar Nyckel had been sunk in battle. Now the people who lived here got along with their lives pretty well no matter who was officially in charge – it really didn’t matter to them which monarch on the other side of the Atlantic ocean ostensibly ruled them. Part of the logic, I suppose, of living in the New World, which eventually would lead to complete independence from European monarchy.

New Sweden is something of a very minor footnote in American history. The Dutch influence was actually greater in the early colonial era – I’m sure you know what old New York used to be called. And most Swedish-Americans today live in the midwest and descend from immigrants who came in the late 19th century. But I am reminded of the Old Swedes’ historical presence every time I cross Swedesford road, on the northern edge of the former colony of New Sweden. America’s old history remains faintly visible through its modern facade.

The Land Back in Time

The Land Back in Time

Don’t you just love beautiful rural country? When I am driving through rolling, wooded terrain that is cut through by small waterways and dotted with rustic buildings, it takes me back to a part of the country where I spent a great portion of my young life. When I’m driving through this kind of country, I always say, “this reminds me of Virginia.” Where I live now, just west of Philadelphia, the countryside of Chester, Berks and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania is most certainly like this. It can be quite rugged, even though it is so close to the coast, and often feels like I’m back in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, where I went to college.

If you look at a topographic map of the Eastern United States, you can see why this is so – below the Mason-Dixon line, the eastern mountain chain lies far from the Atlantic Ocean, and there is a vast coastal plain (the sandy pine lands of the South), but north of that line, the mountain chain veers eastward and the plains dwindle away, so that the foothills lie very close to the coast. This is the land where I live now. I still find it a bit startling that there is rural, mountainous terrain so near the urban coastal strip where I work, since it’s not what I have been used to my whole life.

In addition to the difference in terrain, there is also an apparent cultural difference between the inland counties and the urbanized coast. Inland, I don’t see nearly as many non-white people, and it feels like I am back in the Appalachian mountains of my youth. In fact, central Pennsylvania is actually Northern Appalachia, and shares much in culture, ethnicity, and political outlook as the rest of the mountainous east. Now, I say “apparent” cultural difference because I know that many people, such as myself, move freely in and out of this milieu. They may sometimes just be dabbling in rural life.

Joanna Furnace in Berks Country, PA

Which was basically what I was doing this past weekend when I attended the annual Hay Creek Apple Festival, sponsored by the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association and held at Joanna Furnace. This is an old iron smelter that was active in the 1800s, before the once prosperous and powerful iron industry died out in the region, and has since been renovated and turned into a historical site that is open to the public.

Last weekend the site was filled with food vendors selling food that in large part involved apples (hence the name of the festival), which are widely grown in Pennsylvania. This state actually has a huge agricultural sector, and much of the beautiful rural country of which I write is farmland. In fact, with the presence of so many Amish and Mennonites, traveling through this farmland can feel like going back in time.

Apple cheeked me

In addition to food vendors, there were family-friendly activities and a large flea market. I was there to support the Morgantown Arts Center, which had a booth with arts and crafts, as well face painting. You can find the arts center on Main Street in Morgantown, PA – they have paint and sip nights, classes, open studio nights, and more.

When I did find time to step away from the booth and walk around, I checked out the buildings in the complex. There was a booth where the archaeological organization that does the renovation was set up – the structures are mostly recreated from evidence, once the foundations are located. The furnace itself is original; for practical reasons it would have been the sturdiest structure at the site. It’s basically a giant brick tower that was filled with charcoal and iron ore and burned fiercely hot until the iron melted out, but of course it isn’t operational.

A 1930 Model A on display at Joanna Furnace

The flea market was set up in a parking area and people were selling mostly antiques and collectibles, and some original art. In all, walking through the event gave me the impression that central Pennsylvania lives in its past. It’s not surprising to me that this part of the country went to Trump in 2016, since he was promising to bring the past back to them.

There’s a lot to celebrate in this part of Pennsylvania’s history, and all of the rural beauty here speaks of another time. What it will do with the future, I cannot be sure. I have to go down to the city to make my living.

Fine Art Time

Fine Art Time

I’ve been getting into art lately – painting, mainly – and wanted to share a recent experience. My BFF and I did one of those “paint and sips” where you sit with a group of people and all work on the same painting, while enjoying some wine or other such beverage. It’s a business model; you pay a little money, an instructor guides you through the process, there’s other people there, and you have a good time.

In this case the brand was “Painting with a Twist,” at a location near my apartment. We were going to be drawing a castle, and it was also “Wizard Trivia Night.” Meaning Harry Potter trivia night, though they didn’t call it that. It was BYOB, so we packed up some snacks and a bottle of red wine, with three wine glasses, since we were meeting a friend. Everything was all set up when we got there, and the canvasses had the castle (Hogwarts?) already drawn on it. We were among the first to arrive, but it wasn’t long before the space filled up.

What was interesting to me, no surprise, was the demographic breakdown of the participants. I counted 24 artists total, of whom 5 were male and 19 female. Almost everyone was from the Millennial generation, the exceptions being my BFF and me, possibly a couple of Gen-X moms, and one Boomer grandmother with her Homelander grandson. The three Millennial men present all appeared to be on dates (with women). The instructor and her assistant – a black man and the only non-white person present – were both Millennial.

It looked to me like most people did not bring food or drink. There was one other group that brought a bottle of wine, and a did see a couple of craft beers on the table, but it seems that people came for the art. Which was a lot of fun to do, and definitely easier with the help of our hostess. She was lively, as much MC as art instructor, and kept up a party atmosphere with jokes, a few fun games, and the trivia contest.

The prizes for the games and contest were either a pick off a table of painted bottles, or a $5 off coupon for another painting night. Because this was a business, after all. I think that combining the painting with a themed trivia contest helped draw in customers; it was almost a full house. That the clientele was majority Millennial is in keeping with the idea that their generation is more interested in acquiring experiences than material goods. Or perhaps it is more that this is the level of experience that young Millennials can afford.

We certainly had fun and would do it again. Check out our finished artwork below.

You may or may not be able to find me in this group of happy painters.
The Machine Stopped

The Machine Stopped

As a software tester I get how difficult software development is, and why software technology so often fails us. The problem space of testing for all possible scenarios is too vast to traverse within the time frame of a fundable development project. It’s likely that some scenario will be missed in the journey from design concept – which always look great on paper – to actual implementation – which often fails to meet expectations, usually because the expectations are not accurately communicated.

Therefore I was not surprised to learn that two recent Boeing 737 plane crashes were the result of software failure. This article by a former crash investigator explains it a bit, even comparing the software that aids airplane pilots to the software you use on your mobile phone. If you’ve ever been frustrated using your phone, imagine how airplane pilots must feel, operating their software-laden fly-by-wire systems. The stakes are obviously much higher for them when those devices fail.

As the article points out, there is a paradox where reliance on safety technology sometimes makes us less safe. Relying on computer software, which is bound to be error-prone, seems insane. It’s only possible because our genius system of corporate capitalism deflects liability away from individuals and underwrites risk through insurance payments. But take it from someone who has been testing software for most of his adult life: all of those automated and networked computer systems that pervade our lives are full of bugs. You won’t see me getting into a self-driving car any time soon.

The Family Gathering Around the Tube

The Family Gathering Around the Tube

In the classic television show The Waltons (which you can binge-watch on Amazon Prime if you’d like), the Walton family is often seen sitting around their radio, listening to news or to one of the Presidents fireside chats. Ever since the invention of broadcast communication using electromagnetic radiation, some form of this ritual has been a hallmark of modern life.

When I was young, we sat around the television, which picked up a signal that was broadcast over the air. It was a huge deal when sometime in the 1980s we upgraded to receiving our signal over a wire. Even back then we had many electronic devices in the house, in contrast to the Waltons, who only had their beloved radio.

Fast forward to my early adulthood and you might have found my friends and I enacting the ritual around a computer screen, playing a strategy game. We would all have insisted on playing competitively against one another, but today’s young generation can be seen gathered around a game where one person is playing and the rest spectating. Either way the social bonding around the screen remains a constant.

Now that I am in mid-life and enfolded again into a multi-generational family, we repeat the ritual gathered around the Internet. For that is what our big screen is connected to now, the old commercial channel format replaced by streaming on demand. We sometimes sit and watch short videos on YouTube, discussing them in heated arguments, or showing our favorite new finds to one another. For whatever faults the Internet may have, it has become a place of gathering, of sharing and interacting.

I’ll leave off with a video from a YouTube channel we enjoy, since we are all film fans. The channel is a very erudite set of video essays on film technique. Here we learn why Edgar Wright movies are so good (and this was made before Baby Driver).

A Star Above

A Star Above

I wrote this story. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

A Star Above

Not Quite a Christmas Story

Millions of years ago, in a time long forgotten, the shape of the land was not the same as it is today, and the Earth was ruled by the Saurians.

And it came to pass, one winter’s season, that a bright star shone in the sky above. It was so bright that the Saurians were certain it was a portent. So they asked the wisest among them what the star might signify.

The most wise of all the Saurians had a vision, and told it unto the others. “This star signifies that a child is hatched! A child who heralds a new age to come!”

“What will come in this new age?” cried the other wise ones.

“A new hope, and an end to the wickedness of our kind.”

“It is true that many Saurians are wicked,” agreed the others. “What shall we do now that we know of the meaning of the sign?”

“We must journey to where the child is hatched. If we follow the star it will guide us there.”

So the wisest of the Saurians, as well as two others who were fairly wise themselves, set out on a journey, walking across the great land, keeping the star ahead at all times.

“I think it is growing brighter,” said one of the three wise Saurians, one who had a large posterior and a long, sinuous neck, and came from the swampy regions.

“Yes, it must be nearing the time of the child’s hatching,” said the wisest of the three Saurians, who stood on two legs and could run very fast, and was from the grasslands.

“Is the time of the end of wickedness arriving? What should we do?” worried the last of the three, who had a shell, and a horny head, and was from the rocky places.

“Let us bring gifts to the hatchling,” said the wisest Saurian. “Do we have anything to bring?”

“I have these weeds from the swamp that I like to eat,” said the long-necked Saurian. “They smell real good.”

“I have some shiny rocks that I have collected,” said the horny-headed Saurian. “I think they are very pretty.”

“They are perfect,” said the bipedal Saurian. “We shall bring the fragrant plants and the shiny rocks as offerings to the hatchling who portends the dawn of a new age.”

So they walked on, carrying their gifts, following the star, which grew ever brighter in the sky above. At last they came to a place where a herd of Saurians grazed on the grassy hills.

The wisest Saurian spoke to one of the herd, “Have you heard of a child who is hatched, and portends a new age, as signified by the bright star above?”

“Yes,” said the other, “many of us have gone to visit the child. But it is not hatched.”

“Not hatched? It is still in its egg?”

“The child is born, but not of an egg.”

“A child born not of an egg!” cried the three wise Saurians. “Truly this is a miracle!”

So they went together to where the child was born, and saw it in a little nest, where other Saurians stood around, bowing in awe before it. It was a creature not like a Saurian, tiny and covered in fur.

“That is – different,” said the wisest of the Saurians.

“Yes,” said the other. “It is not a Saurian like us, but a Mammal. And it portends a new age.”

“We have brought gifts for the Mammal child.”

“You can just put them over there.”

And the star above grew ever brighter, and then fell to Earth, and the Saurians and their wicked ways were ended forever. And the Mammal and all of its kind came to rule the Earth in their stead, as they do to this very day.

The End?

Music for All Ages

Music for All Ages

I have always loved music. It touches the soul. As the ancient Greeks theorized, the harmonic structure of music reflects the order and harmony of the Universe. And so the joy experienced when listening to or performing music is transcendent – you really are reaching out to heaven!

I wanted to be more engaged with music, to do more than just listen to endless Spotify playlists, so last year I joined a choir. I had been in a choir in junior high school, so I figured I could jump back in (“back after a 40 year hiatus,” as they say). Of course it has been a lot of work to get up to speed on how to sing again, but it has also been tremendous fun.

One thing I love about choir is that it brings all the generations together – this is a hobby that doesn’t appeal to one particular age group only. We have choir members from every generational archetype. Yes, that’s right, we have Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers and at least one Silent. He told me himself – he was born in 1940 and even identified himself as a member for the Silent generation.

We are called The Singers for Goodness Sake, and are non-profit, performing mainly in retirement communities. Tonight is the last performance of the season, and then I will take a break for the summer, when traveling will take priority. I’ve feel like I’ve come a long way in the eight months since I started singing, and like we’ve come a long way as an ensemble. I look forward to making more music with friends of all ages.