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Jonathan Coulton Songs

I’ve become a fan of this geek rocker who writes really wacky songs. Here is a top ten of my favorites.

10. Better: A man is falling out of love with his girlfriend who is addicted to cybernetic augmentations.

9. Tom Cruise Crazy: Tom Cruise is probably the only man on earth who couldn’t enjoy Tom Cruise.

8. First of May: Celebrate the coming of spring with joyful, indiscriminate outdoor sex.

7. Your Brains: Tom has fortified himself inside the mall against a zombie invasion. His zombified coworker, who probably was a particularly annoying power suit in life, opens one-sided parlay on behalf of the grey matter hungry masses.

6. Mandelbrot Set: The fun and magic – of fractals! A heroic ode to Benoit Mandelbrot.

5. Chiron Beta Prime: The irrepressibly cheerful Anderson family sends holiday greeting from their slave colony run by evil robots.

4. Mister Fancy Pants: “Say a little prayer for Mr. Fancy Pants. The whole world knows it’s only clothes. Deep in side, he’s sad.”

3. Skullcrusher Mountain: The clumsy flailing of a mad scientist in love.

2. I Feel Fantastic: The tragically funny inner dialogue of an acute pill-popper.

1: I’m Your Moon: Pluto isn’t a planet anymore, but Charon will always be there for him. An astonishingly poignant song of unconditional love.


I beat my normal ride time to the station by ten minutes, whoo!

Sure I used the fancy bike, clipless pedals, reduced gear, and a broad interpretation of traffic signs. But gosh darn it, I smashed the hell out of my record this morning and I am just glowing with self-congratulation. Pat, pat.

Farewell, Auto

American culture got hooked on the private auto because it meant a greater measure of freedom. One could go wherever roads are – on his own terms, at his own pace, limited only by the constraints of time and budget that were not so intensely impacted among the expanding middle class.

Autos for a time did not just symbolize freedom in use, but also in upkeep. Fuel was cheap, but the cars themselves were also mechanically simple. With a modern car, all but the most simple maintenance tasks are inaccessible to a home mechanic. Before the 1980s, an enterprising youngster could build his first car.

When cars later became accessible to teenagers, freedom took an extended interpretation, as the car represented refuge from their parent’s house. Since I came of age to drive, my parents continually pushed me to learn. They even pledged to buy the car, which was generous of them. I believe they saw my ownership of a car as a means of escape in a town I found smotheringly dull.

But I never liked cars. I’ve always looked at them like a sickly, troublesome pet – more trouble than it’s worth. I knew that if I had a car, I’d have to hold down a job to support it. I was way too much of a band geek to give up an hour of my spare time. Driving a four-seat car always felt like I was taking more space than I felt entitled to. It doesn’t help that I’ve always been a lousy driver.

I’m observing that private autos have been steadily falling out of use in American society. They are becoming unsustainably high-maintanence for lots of people. More trouble than they’re worth. Where cars were once associated with freedom, they are now more commonly a stone around the owner’s neck.

I prefer bicycles because of the open, non-invasive interface with the environment. The area extends evenly fore and aft, and I know exactly where I begin and end. It’s so much harder to get that sense of boundary when operating a vehicle that is largely empty space.

I’ve also enjoyed how bicycles are much easier to maintain. All the moving parts are out there in the open, obvious and self-evident. One does need special tools for some jobs, but these are much more accessible than the diagnostic computers needed to service modern cars. Fortunately, the special tools do not need to be called upon often, as long as one keeps diligent about the basic maintenance.

I don’t own a car anymore, nor do I miss it. I use a combination of bicycle, train, bus, taxi, and rideshare to get around. Some people have described my commute as epic, but I don’t find anything heroic about it. I see hundreds of workers making a similar journey every day. It’s just the direction society is going now.

Curry Madness: Homemade Sauce

I make curry quite a lot, because it’s fast, flexible, tasty. Until today, I have relied upon prepared sauce concentrate to make it. It’s cheap and convenient, but every dish tastes the same, give or take a certain degree of intensity.

Curry paste is not complex – blend some ground spices into a pool of chili oil. My boyfriend had gifted me some spice powder, so I thought I’d try to make curry from scratch.

I wasn’t particular about authenticity, but I wanted the curry to feature my favorite flavors. I chopped a handful of fresh ginger and garlic, and plucked a handful of fresh basil leaves. The spice melange composed mostly of cumin, coriander, cardamom, and chili flakes.

These things should blend in chili oil to make a thick paste, which you dilute with water to simmer bite-sized food chunks. I selected firm tofu for it’s neutral flavor, because I really wanted to see how my sauce would hold up on its own.

I had some issues with proportion of paste. At first, I added way too much to the simmering pot, and the texture was unpalatably gritty. I had to act fast, ladling out bubbling curry water while adding clean water. As a rule, I think three tablespoons of paste is appropriate for two capsicum-dependent diners.

I should note that the amount of water needs not be an exact and arbitrary volume. The role of the water is to regulate the cooking temperature and hydrate the spices to avoid burning. Most of the water eventually cooks out.

The last step involved what I call an “unctuous fluid”, usually yogurt, coconut milk, tomato sauce, cream, or peanut butter. The unctuous fluid brings a pleasant texture to the party, and helps the spices cling to the food.

When it comes to unctuous fluids, feel free to mix them. For example, my tofu curry was mostly coconut milk, but I found the taste to be lacking. Despite the ample spice, the underlying flavor was flat. I added a couple ounces of tomato sauce, knowing it’s acidic fruitiness loves the basil. The overall dish instantly snapped to life with full-bodied goodness. Always follow your hunches – just keep a fire extinguisher and your favorite takeout number ready.

Curry is usually accompanied by grain. I like classic Indian staples, like long-grained rice and flat bread, but there are more interesting companions, like quinoa and udon noodles. I am a big fan of curry sandwiches.

Chestnut Street

A roadie or a physics student might parse the circumstances based upon four factors: a light bike, heavy backpack, 10 percent grade, front brake.

To put it more directly: I took a pretty spectacular spill on my bike.

I am really surprised that I was not badly hurt, though everything did hurt for a good while later. Ironically, the same oversized rucksack that contributed extra inertia to my 9 point vault over the handlebars had also made my silhouette irregular enough to prevent me from rolling more than a few revolutions down the ludicrously steep pavement.

No other factors were in play: just me, gravity, and the left brake. There I lay like a flipped turtle in the middle of empty Chestnut Street, San Fransisco, between Larkin and Polk in the wee hours of the morning.

And in this state, I had the silly recollection of Pauli Shore trying to milk a cow, which promptly dumped bowel and bladder on his head.

“Oops,” he muses wearily, “Wrong button.”

It seems the Caltrain gets more first-timer bicycle commuters every day. I’m still learning myself, and see that cycling to work has pitfalls that are not so obvious. I gleaned from this experience some valuable lessons about handling descents under load, which I offer to you fledging commuters:

Consider investing in a sturdy rear rack and sensible panniers. You can expect this installation to cost no less than $100. A low center of gravity will make your bike handling less nimble, but much more forgiving. Things to avoid are panniers that will smack against your heel as you pedal. It’s really distracting, and will negatively impact the effectiveness of your stroke. Bonus- no more sweaty back or upper body tension.

Understand that the front brake has significantly more stopping power than the back brake. When you lock the front wheel, it acts as a pivot point, and inertia carries the vehicle around it. Stunt drivers use the same principle swing through tight corners at high speed. When cycling down a hill, the bike will simply pivot vertically – right over your head. Internalize which brake lever belong to which wheel, and apply brakes evenly to control speed when going down hills. It’s also important to adjust your speed before beginning to turn, because your contact with the road is a great deal less when the bike is tilted. Ride within your ability.

Don’t take chances when there is cross traffic. Stop. every. time. If I had a nickel for every time I kept pace with a stop sign coaster, I could buy a custom plate saying, “I stop at intersections, and you got passed!”. You probably wouldn’t shave any appreciable time off your commute, and it makes every cyclist look bad. If you want a speedy commute, just ride faster. It’s good for you.

To help keep your back wheel on the ground, you should adjust your riding position to the rear when careening down declines. Stand up and lean back until your elbows are almost straight. If you are turning through a curve, keep a habit of raising the inside pedal to the twelve o’clock position. This will keep the pedal from hitting the ground as the bike leans into the turn. Failure to do so may damage the crank or pop the back wheel off the ground, which naturally negates any further attempt at handling.

I hope you benefit from my silliness. Be careful out there, and enjoy the ride.

Into the Breach

I went to Bay Area Gaming Studio this morning to sign my offer letter and complete other paperwork. Same as the day of my interview, I waited in a lobby with a couple other anxious people, no longer candidates but new hires. Another immaculate HR person hands us each a thick packet of documents, to be read and signed at our leisure, and guides us through the secure parts of the building in a notably less circuitous path.

I am lead to the place I was to work. About a dozen people are already there, interacting with two long rows of LAN connected computer stations. It’s a multiplayer lab.

I recognized one of the men who interviewed me. He had traded his bright shirt for a wool cap against the palpable chill in the room. Lots of running hardware in here – makes sense. There are vents in the floor among the ubiquitous cables.

I was greeted warmly and invited to sit at a station with the other testers. I settled into the game, some kind of third-person shooter. Though I’d grown up watching my step-father play at these kinds of games, I had never tried to play one myself. I’ve typically preferred something more relaxed and thoughtful, and DOOM scared the hell out of me.

The other testers were very, very good at this game. I tried to check my frustration over being unable to find the gun caches, negotiate the maps, or dodge snipers. I didn’t understand the team game objectives.

Lunch was served two hours later, and my initial enthusiasm of the morning had turned soggy. How am I supposed to push the game capabilities past the breaking point when I could barely strafe? Why did my first project have to be a shooter?!

The lab testers were friendly, took me in right away. As we walked together to the dining commons, they pointed out a long table to go back to when I had gotten my lunch. Between rich cheeseburgers and friendly words, I felt much better.

We go back to the lab, and I felt determined to develop fighting skill. I eventually found a shotgun, and to my surprise, discovered an aptitude for it. The testers had explained the game rules to me over lunch, and I elected to guard choke points in my team’s territory, which suited the shotgun’s deadly yet limited range. I racked 14 kills in the first match of the afternoon!

The day was over before I knew it, not just because I was finally having fun, but also because the lab room is not unlike a casino – no windows and no clocks. Knowing the time demands soon to be asked of me, I can see how this setup is beneficial. It’s easier to work 12-14 hours when you don’t see the time pass.

I was reminded around 6pm to catch my train, that was the last time I left work before dinnertime.

What’s your Greatest Weakness?, Pt. 2

Additionally, interviewers: I don’t see the advantage of putting the spotlight on your candidate’s major flaws:

What if an 18th century Marshall of France looked at a Corsican cadet’s diminutive stature and said, “Je suis desolé, Napoleon, but you just don’t command the presence of an officer.”

Benjamin Franklin was reported to be a robust and handsome youth. He lived half his life in poor health because he made bad lifestyle choices of which he was perfectly aware were unhealthful.

We all have these kind of glaring faults and vices, but we shouldn’t be judged by them on the short term. In the little time they have, it’s probably more viable to allow your candidates to showcase their mitigating strengths.

Imperfections are perfectly common, but well-adjusted people don’t enter solemn commitments with others because they chiefly lack any one of a laundry list of undesirable qualities. Instead, they seek out and come to rely upon specific important qualities, which also serve as the saving grace in the face of numerous lesser sins.

I invite all interviewers to convey their thoughts. Do you use or avoid this question? I’m not going to try to tear you down if you happen to keep this curveball in your arsenal. However, I do enjoy a good argument.

What’s Your Greatest Weakness?

I’ve been thinking a lot about interviews lately, and inevitably about classic questions.

It’s pretty presumptuous to ask a stranger about their great weaknesses. I’d just as rather brush the question aside with a curt and innocuous response. Here are Jig’s Top 10 ways to curtail this annoying question.

10. I’m terrified of bugs. Arthropods, that is.

9. I can’t swim.

8. Drink too much coffee.

7. I have a hard time saying no.

6. My mini golf handicap.

5. I forget people’s birthdays and anniversaries.

4. I’ve got to die sometime.

3. I’m pretty stubborn.

2. I’m a pretty terrible cook/dancer.

1. Kryptonite

Quick Delicious (and Vegan!) Banana Bread

I stumbled upon a brilliant muffin recipe at Tiny Vegan Kitchen.

UPDATE – You must, and I mean absolutely must watch this batch in the oven. Don’t go anywhere. Don’t go to the toilet, check the mailbox, or play Tomb Raider with the egg timer widget ticking on your laptop. Because this recipe employs such paltry amounts of fat, the time between “done” and “smoke alarms” is less than a minute. Believe me, I know. You’ve been warned!

It’s of wholesome composition and a surprisingly palatable texture. I’d like to make a batch of smaller galettes to take on the bike.

The Wet Stuff:

3 x ripe bananas
.25 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar

The Dry Stuff:

2.5 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 360° F.

Blend the wet stuff and the dry stuff in separate vessels, then mixed them together to make a thick batter.

You can bake it in a greased or lined muffin tin, or drop the batter by the spoonful on a shallow pan for scone-shaped bread. I’ve never tried to bake a loaf, because my gut tells me the recipe is not designed for it. You should bake for 8-12 minutes, and watch carefully for browning.

I suppose chewing scalding hot bread is a matter of preference, but I believe the flavor and texture both benefit from a thorough cooling.

You can substitute white flour. The texture will not be as dense, but it’s not as nutritious as whole flour. This is an awesome breakfast food, and the energy kept me going strong all morning. I’m going to try adding chopped walnuts in later batches.

Clinched the Play

HR called me back: I have an offer! Bay Area Gaming Studio thinks I’m a promising game tester, apparently. Yay for me!

I’m on the train bound for Prism Enterprise. I get to tell the guys there that I made the cut.