Marc Olson, RIP

Posted in Random thoughts at 9:33 am by ducky

Marc Olson shot himself on Friday; I went to the funeral yesterday.

Marc was a good man, a happy man when I saw him last, about nine months ago, over lunch in Vancouver. He exuded happiness and success. While I didn’t know him extremely well, I had spent a bit of time with him and his family, as they owned the property next to my husband’s family’s vacation property out on Stuart Island. I remember them at a New Year’s Eve party, I remember setting off fireworks at his property, and other relatively banal but fun family-ish gatherings.

He was a pilot, so he and my husband had things to talk about. He had been the design manager for Microsoft Outlook 2002, so he and I had things to talk about. (He is the one who arranged for me to get an evaluation copy of Outlook 2002 when I was working on my book.)

I have been struggling to understand why he would shoot himself. He was professionally very successful, had lots and lots and lots of friends (literally hundreds of people came to his funeral), and I always knew him as a happy vigorous guy.

My best theory right now about why he killed himself is that it was the result of damage he sustained in his third, most recent, and I guess now final plane crash. The first time, he was on a grass strip, hit a bump, and the propeller nicked the ground. Props are so strong and planes are so light that it flipped the plane over. He walked away from that one with no damage.

The second time, he was landing on a sandbar, and I don’t remember exactly what happened, but his body sustained some annoying but easily survivable damage — like a broken ankle or something like that. He was also away from roads, so apparently it was a real pain to get him out, but he wasn’t badly hurt.

The third time, he ran out of gas just short of the runway, and had to land in the trees. While he didn’t break any bones, he was banged up pretty badly. I heard that he was able to walk to a road, flag down a driver, and get the driver to take him to a hospital. (Can you imagine being that driver? Having some bloody guy walk out of some trees to the road? Would you stop?) I heard that he lost so much blood that the doctors wouldn’t let him do anything high-altitude (including getting in a plane, even as a passenger) because he was low on hemoglobin. I heard that he had a head injury of some sort.

The best story that I can fabricate is that the head injury messed up his brain somehow, or that the steroids they fed him to help him heal messed up his brain chemistry…. because I just cannot imagine the Marc I knew killing himself.

So long, Marc — the world is a sadder, poorer place without you.


  • There is a more formal obit.
  • Keywords: Marc Alan Olson, Microsoft, funeral, death, suicide.


meme: non-Indo-European programming languages

Posted in Hacking, Random thoughts at 1:30 pm by ducky

I had a very interesting lunch yesterday with Dan Delorey, who is a PhD student at Brigham Young University and interning at Google Kirkland.  While we covered a wide range of topics, there was one meme of his that stuck with me through most of the (four-hour) drive home:  Almost all of the programming languages today were developed by men whose native tongues were Indo-European languages.  (Obvious exception:  Ruby, by Yukihiro Matsumoto.)

What would a language developed by someone with a non-Indo-European background look like?

What would a language developed by someone whose mother “tongue” was sign language?

I was reminded of something I saw ten years ago: a woman commented that if a woman had invented the WIMP interface,  there would have been two cursors.


why do we like rounded corners?

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 1:03 pm by ducky

I ran into a posting that theorized about why we like rounded corners. Basically, it said that we are drawn to organic, natural-looking forms.

I think it’s much simpler than that: we are drawn to things that look expensive, and rounded corners look expensive. Rounded corners are expensive in this day and age. They are harder to design and harder to manufacture.

I remember being struck by the ceilings at the Uffizi — the designs on the ceilings of the corridors were all very regular and precise. To my eyes, they looked kind of boring. Well, back when the Uffizi was built, it was very difficult (i.e. expensive) to make things that were very regular and precise. Machines are really good at that, but people less so.

In the Renaissance, great effort was made to make paintings look extremely realistic. Then, in the late 19th century, impressionism — which was not particularly realistic — was born. I don’t think it is a coincidence that daguerrotypes were invented in the mid-19th century. Extreme realism was no longer particularly difficult/expensive.

(The impressionists also profited greatly from the being able to buy pre-made tubes of paint, instead of being shackled to a studio with a bunch of apprentices running around literally creating the paints. But that’s a different story.)

Bottom line: we are attracted to rounded corners because they look expensive.


okay, this has gone far enough

Posted in Random thoughts at 12:20 pm by ducky

A lot of sites don’t verify email addresses, and so it has happened that a lot of people have signed up for things using my email address. For a while, it was just mildly annoying, since most of it ended up caught by my spam filter. But it’s getting tedious, and so I am going to fight back. I’m starting to change the passwords on the accounts that people sign me up for, deface their pages, and “out” the sites that don’t do proper checks.

Here are the identity thieves I’ve dealt with this week:

  • 760atl at YouTube
  • redclaws/BlueClaws/Doom30 at gamestotal.com
  • dan lorocca on MySpace
  • Some guy signed up to get a subscription an online erotic magazine from zino.com with my email address. I didn’t find out what my alleged name was, but note to people who are thinking of using my email address: next time I will find out your name and post it here.
  • Chloe tried to sign up for Tickle, but Tickle did have email confirmation. Yay Tickle!

I also want to give a special shout-out to Dawn Cheng who gave my email address out to the WRONG place; she has caused me no end of spam. Grrrr….


LOLcats are the new ethnic joke

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 9:22 pm by ducky

You are reading my blog, so you probably do enough web surfing to have seen the meme/joke/fad called LOLcats. (Unless you’re my mom. Hi, Mom! In the LOLcat genre, people put captions with a particular patois onto pictures of cats. Note that the language used for the captions is “bad” — incorrect by the standard rules of English — but relatively consistent.)

Why are they funny? Why are they popular? I think LOLcats are the new ethnic joke.

First, the cats are stupid, in much the way that the butts of old ethnic jokes were stupid. Having stupid protagonists makes it easier to set the audience up to form an expectation of “reasonable” behaviour, and then deliver a completely different behaviour. That’s funny.


Q: Why did the blonde scale the chain-link fence?
A: To see what was on the other side.

The joke is only funny because “to see what was on the other side” is not reasonable behaviour.

In a similar manner, the LOLcats can be stupid. Consider this one. There are lots of reasonable reasons why the cat’s leg is shaved, yet the cat comes up with a preposterous one.

Second, a lot of the appeal in both jokes comes from shared context. Recognizing shared context feels intimate, and that makes it easier for us to laugh. Consider:

Two black guys are walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, when they realize they both have to take a leak. There’s no place else to go, so they just take a whiz off the side of the bridge. While they are taking their leaks, one says to the other, “Dang! That water’s cold!” The other one says, “Yeah, and deep, too!”

This joke depends upon the audience knowing that there is a stereotype of black men having really long penises. Blonde jokes depend upon the stereotype of blondes being stupid; many also depend upon a stereotype of blondes being promiscuous and/or pretty; some also depend on a stereotype of brunettes being intelligent yet unattractive.

A lot of the LOLcats jokes are also only funny if you have shared content. We sometimes share recognition of the recurring form of the speech: “I’m in ur X Y-ing ur Z“, “Do not want“, or “Oh hai“. We sometimes share recognition of the recurring content of invisible objects, buckets, and cheeseburgers.

Why are buckets funny? Only because they are shared context. It doesn’t matter what the running jokes are, only that they are understood by everybody. (Why was JJ Walker’s “Dy-no-mite!” funny in the 1970s? Why was “NOT!” at the end of sentences funny in the late 1980s? Why was “Don’t have a cow!” funny in the 1990s? Because they were shared context that bound us together.)

Ethnic jokes could be really funny, but it is also clear just how damaging they can be. (I’m ashamed to say that when I first met a Polish boy in my youth, I was surprised that he wasn’t stupid.) I am glad that I don’t hear/read nearly as many ethnic jokes as I did thirty years ago.

LOLcats are a perfect substitute for ethnic jokes. The cats won’t get their feelings hurt if your jokes make them look stupid. No cat will mind if a shared understanding develops among us humans that all cats like cheeseburgers or like to play with invisible toys. We can make as much fun of cats as we want, and the jokes will be funny.

And that’s a good thing.


Yay! Stored Communications Act overturned at Appeals level!

Posted in Politics, Random thoughts, Technology trends at 9:23 pm by ducky

Yay!! Wired Magazine tells me that the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio has overturned the Stored Communications Act!

Basically, the Stored Communications Act made it possible for the government to seize your email records directly from your ISP, without a warrant, and without ever telling you. While I understand that many people are all in favor of violating civil rights of guilty people, I am really really against violating the rights of innocent people, and any time you make it easy to violate the civil rights of guilty people, you pretty much guarantee that some innocent people’s rights will be violated as well.

I thus see this verdict as a Good Thing.  Go EFF!  Go ACLU!


Excel dorkiness

Posted in Art, Hacking, Random thoughts at 11:44 pm by ducky

I stumbled across this old post by Anil Dash where he mentioned that almost all of his geeky friends have at some point made an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of something really obsessive:

Perhaps the ultimate example of this sort of dorkiness is the fact that almost every one of my friends has, at one point or another, made at least one Excel spreadsheet to document some arcane aspect of their lives. The number of consecutive sunny days, the types and prices of the cups of coffee they drink, or just straightforward charts about their boss’s mood. There’s no end to the ways one can misuse desktop applications in one’s personal life.

I read that and thought, “Huh. I certainly haven’t done anything like that.”

Um. But then I remembered that I had generated a list of the world’s writing systems, with the likeliest start/stop usage dates, the lat/long of where it was first used, how many people currently use it, who created it (if known), and samples of characters in that system (if I could find them, and I usually could). Oh.

And then my husband pointed out that I also have enumerated various California prisons, their lat/long, the type of facility (state pen, federal pen, county jail, etc.), and how many inmates it has. Oh.

But I can honestly say that I have never used Excel to keep track of these obsessions.

I used gnumeric and oocalc.


Folate is really, really good for you

Posted in Random thoughts at 8:14 pm by ducky

I mentioned that vitamin D is really, really good for you. Folate — vitamin B9 — is also really, really good for you.

Taking folate significantly reduces the risk of bearing a child with neural tube defects (including anencephaly and spinal bifidia). It is so dramatic that many countries have started adding folate to grain products (in much the same way that vitamin D is commonly added to milk). In the U.S.A., for example, breads, cereals, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice, and other grain products have had folate added since 1996. Neural tube defects have dropped by 25% in the U.S.A. since fortification started.

Higher levels of folate intake also have been found to correlate with reduced risk of getting Alzheimer’s, reduced risk of stroke, and there is even some correlation (though not as strong) with reduced risk of cancer.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we got lower rates of Alzheimer’s, stroke, and cancer as a result of fortifying grains? Supplement that with a bit of vitamin D, and we just might get a lot healthier!

Vitamin D is really, really good for you

Posted in Random thoughts at 6:08 pm by ducky

[Note: a later study says that vitamin D, while good for colon cancer, isn’t the miracle that the study I report on here says it is.  Drat.]

Vitamin D — sunlight — turns out to be really really good for your health. “The one-fifth of premenopausal women who consumed the highest levels of vitamin D and calcium […] had a one-third reduced risk of developing breast cancer compared with those who consumed the least.” One third! That’s significant! Update: 60 to 70 percent lower!

There have been a number of other studies recently that have connected low vitamin D in heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes.

The easiest way to get vitamin D is from sunlight, but that doesn’t help people in northern climes like Canada and Scotland in the winter. There is vitamin D in milk, but if you don’t get any from sun (like in northern winters) you’d have to drink three litres per day to get enough. (I drink an unusually large quantity of milk, but even I only drink about a litre per day.)

Yes, it is true that more sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer, but it turns out that skin cancer is much easier to notice, diagnose, and treat (being on the surface and all). It’s just not as big a problem “Fifteen hundred Americans die every year from [skin cancers]. Fifteen hundred Americans die every day from the serious cancers.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to give a blanket recommendation of how much vitamin D supplement you should take. It depends on the latitude, the time of year, how much you are outside, and how dark your skin is. The lighter your skin, the more vitamin D you can absorb from sunlight. Also, vitamin D is fat-soluable, so it is possible to get too much.

So lay off that sunblock!

Nurturing voles

Posted in Random thoughts at 5:44 pm by ducky

The hormone vasopressin appears to regulate nurturing behaviour in males — at least in some voles. Prairie voles are monogamous; mountain voles are wildly polygamous. If you give prairie voles vasopressin, that triggers nurturing. In mountain voles, it doesn’t — but it turns out that mountain voles are missing a receptor for vasopressin that the prairie voles have. If you give the mountain voles the receptor, they become nurturing. See the story.

Meanwhile, it has long been known that oxytocin makes females more nurturing.

(There is nothing particularly new about this, I just decided to start making links to things that I think are really interesting that other people don’t seem to know about.)

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