Tuesday, February 24, 2009

State of the Union speech, and a little rant from me

I watched President Obama's speech tonight on CNN with Facebook comments and Twitter streaming by both at once, and several people talking with me on IM, as is now my usual practice watching anything interesting in politics. If I had to watch the speech without the backchannels, I wouldn't be exactly bored. I'd be frustrated, like I was missing a sense I'm used to having. My reactions develop and merge with the stream of reactions online and I like it that way.

While I watched, talked, and listened, I noticed Tweet Congress, which encourages members of Congress to get on Twitter.

Now, even if we manage to keep a handle on the downward slide of the economy, I think this country needs more investment in something like the CCC and the WPA. We need better infrastructure especially in schools, health care, and housing. More investment in programs like Americorps.

I have been thinking about what will happen if more and more people become poor and homeless. Here's my tinfoil hat speaking... We have widespread poverty already. But it is cordoned off from the middle class and wealthy. As I considered what would likely happen I thought back to the Astrodome or "Reliant Center" relief camp of 20,000 in Houston after Hurricane Katrina. You may not remember, but Barbara Bush and other powerful wealthy people actually believed that the people whose communities and homes were destroyed by Katrina would want to live on cots under the bright lights of a refugee camp, and would be better off there. Better off! It was amazing and outrageous. Yes I watched this woman who was the First Lady of the U.S. for 8 years walk through the sad shell shocked crowd of black folks who had been trapped in the Superdome, and then say on the radio that they were going to have a happier better life now that they were taken care of in this camp, and they weren't going to want to leave, because they had been "underprivileged". The disconnect and lack of empathy and imagination was, and still is, so vast for people like Bush.

Some factions of government were practically salivating at the thought of having an utterly disempowered population in a fenced off area they would make into a model refugee camp. They were planning, likely with some good intentions, "Reliant Village". I saw the plans for it, with a mobile school and playground and town square and sort of a barracks set up. They planned for the long term, for years of thousands of people living there in the stadium and parking lot. And I believe that model is still in the minds of much of our government; disaster, as an opportunity for a kind of reform. But a kind of reform that any sane person would reject, because it means living in a jail wrapped up to look pretty, with electronic tracking bracelets and military guards everywhere 24/7 to guarantee that poor people are safe from themselves but most of all to sanitize the idea of poverty and unfreedom for the rest of the country who still have jobs and homes so that they won't have to face up to it. Those middle class people were all too happy and charitable to send truck loads of their donated old tshirts to the camp not having the faintest clue that no one had anywhere to put a truckload of clothes and material possessions and that that kind of charity wasn't helping a damn thing.

In short, I now trust, due to Obama being elected, this won't happen.

Under Bush, that's where we were heading, straight to crazy-ass dystopia. And it was beginning to happen post-Katrina. Surprise, most people got the heck out of the camp as soon as they could muster up a ride or a bus ticket out of town, if they knew anyone - anyone! who lived outside of the hurricane-hit areas. The ones too old, alone, or in too many difficulties to do that, got bussed off forcibly to smaller refurbished military bases and church camps in the middle of nowhere where they know no one, because of the panic over Hurricane Rita -- camps where years later some are still stuck.

So what do I think will happen? Don't know and it will depend how bad the job losses are, but I'm putting my hopes on massive public works programs and jobs for everyone. Housing is the piece of the puzzle I can't see for the life of me; public housing sucks, institutional living sucks worse, maybe an expansion of Section 8, better funding of Habitat for Humanity type of projects, or better rent control laws will help. There is no safety net, welfare and even food stamps are incredibly broken, and people need that safety net, more transparency and less cold hearted state employees who do their jobs right.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

My tiny adorable flowered computer!

I got an HP Mini Vivienne Tam edition to review a few days ago, and I've used it so far for blogging, surfing, email, IM-ing, and writing up my thoughts in Notepad. Here's my preliminary review based on four days of casual but heavy use.

This is a good computer for a blogger or a student who doesn't need a huge screen or massive computing power. Also it's incredibly cute.

Here's some praise!

I'm a demanding blogger. I type 100 words a minute and I like to have about 50 tabs open. This HP Mini was incredibly easy for me to slip into using. I blogged from it without noticing the slightly smaller keyboard; I could type just as fast as I usually do. The size, key placement, action, and feel of the keys are all just great. If you've tried a mini before, but had trouble getting used to the keyboard, you may be pleased with a Mini.

The screen is big and very readable! It's tiny and very light.

I like the way the case opens and shuts. The shell is hard plastic - not fabric or gelskin covered.

It has two USB ports, which seems quite nice.

I'm happy with a 60GB hard drive in such a tiny, light computer.

The wireless mouse works well.

Everything I wanted out of my Asus EeePC, but sadly never quite got, has come true in this adorable netbook!

Here's my wishlist.

I fervently wish for holes in the case where I could attach straps. Two holes near the hinge would be ideal, so that I could put a shoulder strap on this beastie. At She's Geeky conference this weekend, how many women did I just watch, walking around the room holding a computer, a paper notepad, a pen, a purse, and a latte? Around the house, it would be all that plus a book and a baby and 6 things you've picked up from the living room to move to the office. Computers need handles. But beyond the OLPC or old clamshell iMac handles that require a hand. Shoulder strap power!

Backlit keys would make me *very* happy. I'm often typing in bed or in a darkened room, in work meetings or conferences. It's lovely if I can see the keys, but keep the screen relatively dim.

Neutral thoughts

* Mostly, I use MacOS X or Linux. So this is the first time I've used Windows. While I'm not especially impressed with Windows XP, I'm also not especially annoyed. So for a week or two, I'm going to stick with XP to give it a fair shake.

* I haven't tried doing any development on this machine yet, but I think that will go quite well.

* I haven't tested battery life. So far, it hasn't been a problem, but I haven't approached it systematically.

* I haven't tried the webcam yet. It has a built in camera! I will take it through some video chat paces.

* I haven't tried installing any games or a Second Life client on it. I'll let you all know how that goes. I figure, I don't play a ton of games, but if Second Life behaves well, then I can stand by my recommendation the computer for the writer and student who's also a casual gamer.

My criticisms of the HP Mini are minor.

* The computer goes to sleep a bit too quickly when I half-close the lid. I'm often blogging or emailing or IM-ing in social or work situations, or doing actual work with private information in a cafe, and if someone comes up to talk with me, I need to half-close the computer so they can't shoulder-surf. While the Mini wakes up very quickly, I wish it didn't go to sleep until I *actually shut the lid*.

* The bumps on the f and j keys are too subtle for me to feel them easily. I could type with more confidence with better subliminal feedback about the "home" keys.

* The hinge on the case could open a little more widely. It goes past 90 degrees, but not quite far enough. I type in my lap, not on a desk. This is partly habit I'm sure, but I wonder if it's at all a gender related habit, as chairs, desks, and tables often don't match up for me, because I'm shorter than the default person (male) they're designed for? Because the computer's in my lap, and the resulting viewing angle, I sometimes need to tilt the screen further back than 100 degrees. Now, this is also true when I have my HP Mini in bed. Which I often do.


This computer is cute. It's pretty. But it doesn't make me hurl with the pinkitude. Really!

It's a really nice color of deep red, with black around the screen. There's nothing ugly and clunky about this computer. It's totally elegant. I take it out of my bag, and everyone admires it, and whatever one might think about HP's targeting of women or the cut of the marketing, women everywhere I go are exclaiming with delight at how cute this computer is. It is very much OMG I WANT THAT. Then, because I'm this sort of person, I hand them the computer and invite them to type something and take it through its internet browser paces. In fact, it's been really fun to have people come up and talk to me and be so friendly, because they're curious about my computer.

For quite some time I've been asking the world for an adorable computer that is small and light, yet still a useful computer. (Oh, how I miss my 12 inch MacBook, but how I wished it were *even smaller*.) While I have issues as a feminist with everything being pink especially like, pink tools and pink computers, (see girl geek bingo), I also have mixed feelings and like things that are pretty and cute. It's better if they're pretty, cute, and punk rock, and actually work.

This is my usual style (me and my sister, with 13-inch MacBooks covered in stickers)

And here I am with the Vivienne Tam,


This gets across how tiny and handy it is. See how it likes to sit on top of my MacBook?! It's like a cute little ladybug!


The Internet is srs bzns and so am I, in black boys' guayabera, SF State tshirt, cotton handkerchief with red stitching, and matching computer,


The Vivienne Tam and its matching mouse want to wear my Fluevog boots:


If it had a hat, it would have a beret. If it were a color of nail polish, it would be "I'm Not Really a Waitress" red. Yes. I have middle class brand awareness. I cannot help it. When I wasn't playing video games, I grew up in a mall. It seeps into your blood.

Even the packaging was nice! It was like buying a computer at Sephora. Or Bloomingdale's or something. I know it's shallow, and obviously I care WAY more about the specs and usability of a computer than the box it comes in, but I noticed the box anyway. Check this out:

exciting box

tiny pink computer!

At the She's Geeky / Women 2.0 Dinner, I ended up passing the computer around almost as much as I got to use it myself. And when I whipped it out of my backpack to show to my friend Beth aka Techmama, she yelped and pulled out her own! We were like, "Oh no, same dress at the prom!" We managed to share the cuteness!

I can heartily recommend this computer if you're a blogger, writer, or you just want your own laptop instead of using a shared family computer. The 60 GB hard drive is big and fast enough to deal with the *ton* of photos, Flip videos, and music that I tend to accumulate as a blogger. The wireless also works very well so the machine lives up to its promise of portability.

ALSO, IT IS REALLY CUTE. Did I mention that!?

I have three matching wireless mice to give away. Red mice with lavender flowers and silver sides. Who wants them?

* Buy it from HP: HP Mini Vivienne Tam ("Buy it" link gives all the specs)
* Buy it from Amazon:HP Mini 1140NR 10.2-Inch Netbook - Vivienne Tam Edition (1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 Processor, 1 GB RAM, 60 GB Hard Drive, XP Home, 3 Cell Battery)

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Programming languages and science fiction!

Cat Valente, Tiptree-winning author of The Orphan's Tales, wrote up a brilliant comparison of programming languages to literary genres. She covers a lot of ground here as a cultural and critic, and she's witty as hell. If the bits I'm quoting make you laugh, go read the whole thing!

Smalltalk is mythpunk, Python is speculative fiction, Java is...

Divorce in the suburbs, cancer of the miscarriage, and how God will punish you for having sex. That's right, it's the big, predictable Literary Fiction Gorilla, coming to destroy a gated community near you. Java is the mainstream of the mainstream, it gets all the critical hand jobs, they teach it at universities, and the support base is vast...

PHP is journalism, Perl is poetry, Ruby is steampunk, ASP is given a snarky kick to the head that keeps making me laugh!
It mixes all the worst parts of the other genres/languages. Hey! Serial killers are awesome! What about a vampire serial killer? What about a vampire werewolf serial killer with a heart of gold? What about a vampire werewolf serial killer with a heart of gold who mixes row result processing, business logic, and layout code ALL ON ONE PAGE??!

Sold, to your corporate overlords. After all, if you put the strength of an entire company behind it, it'll be a success, even if it leaks memory and ends with and then I woke up.

The feel and culture (and reputation) of each programming language are well described and it takes some complicated snark to link them all to equally well described literary genres and subgenres. Geek culture is AWESOME.

I can't imagine a more perfect post for this blog to link to! Thanks, Catherynne!

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

She's Geeky - Tour of WordPress template code

There were 20 or so people at this talk, including non-programmers and programmers wondering if they should install WordPress, and bloggers and admins already familiar with WordPress. We did a round of introductions:

* Graphic designer interested in what degree of control she could have over a WordPress blog.
* Benay, running a blog connecting seniors with caregivers.
* Collie, looking for help with a WordPress upgrade on a complicated blog. Where is community to find help or pay someone to help? (Collie and others: you might try Heather L. Sanders. Anyone else have recommendations?)
* Person who installed WP to force herself to learn more code. Curious about plugins. Which are most useful?
* Terri - uses WP at her job for blogging, thinking about running her own for personal use.
* Nadine - Installed WP for other people many times. Does a lot of troubleshooting.
* Laura - Has installed and messed with WP many times. Wants to create a template from scratch.
* Stephanie - has an HTML site. Might want a blog.
* Olya - is a blogger. sometimes has language barrier while troubleshooting.
* Estella - artist, craisin.com.
* Crystal Marie - adding a blog to her existing web site. Looking at WP and Drupal.
* Beth C - Loves WP. Would like to do more customization.
* Michelle - Is a coder
* Vee - Blogs for her company. Knows HTML.
* Min - Uses MoveableType, is curious
* Karen M. - Thinks there might be entrepenurial opportunities with WP
* StephanieBamBam - Personal blog

I've been using WordPress for several years and administer a group blog. As part of my job, I do tech support for bloggers who run into template problems and quite a few of them use WordPress, so I look at a lot of different templates and help people troubleshoot. (The other part of my job, I munge data, write back end tools and infrastructure-y scripts in Perl, Python, and PHP in an aspiring codemonkey way.)

I started out by saying that WordPress was blogging software that you can either use on wordpress.com, or can download for free and install on your own server or web host. You will need an account somewhere and need to have it clear in your mind that you've got a username and password for that server account. In that account you'll be making a folder where you install WP, and then you'll have an administrative username and password for the WP admin and blogging interface. You may need to pay attention to this in order to change file permissions and make your theme files writeable if you want to edit them from the Theme Editor web interface. This tends to confuse people who aren't used to web hosting. Also, some people use web hosts which have one-click installs or who install WP for you and then charge to upgrade or maintain it.

We looked at the files and folders in a WP installation. There was some discussion of how you move files around and edit them. (Either from the command line on your server, from the admin interface for theme files, or with FTP; you can download the WP files, and extra themes and modules, to your computer, then upload them to your web host.) It's a good idea to just look through all the folders, so you know what's there. You may want to read through the wp-config file. But most of what people deal with is in wp-content, in the themes and plugins folders.

We then looked at the WP administrative dashboard, a bit at Widgets, and then at the Appearance menu and the Theme Editor. I said that editing code in the Theme Editor window sucks. While it's great for making quick changes, I recommend you edit the files in a text editor that will color code the code and indent it nicely, like vim or Textmate. You can pass code back and forth with other people by putting it into pastebin.com, which will also color code and indent it nicely. Also, it's amazingly helpful to print out all the template code, and mark it up with pen, and see which bits you can understand; or at least understand more or less what it does.

I explained briefly that anything that looks like a command with parentheses after it, like get_header, is a function and you may need to look for it in functions.php to figure out what's happening. We looked at index.php for a little bit. It is helpful to read through it. You should be able to mark what is header, what is the content (including "The Loop" which will cycle through your posts), and what's the footer.

The WordPress codex is your friend. Here's some great starting points:

* http://codex.wordpress.org/Using_Themes
* http://codex.wordpress.org/Stepping_Into_Templates
* http://codex.wordpress.org/The_Loop

Take a look at your sidebar.php file, header.php, footer.php, and page.php for individual post pages.

At some point, I mentioned the site to look for and download WordPress Themes. You can specify whether you want fixed width or floating; one, two, or three columns; and other parameters such as the main color. It is often best to start with a fairly popular theme.

Keep track of customizations you make to the theme you pick, because at some point you will want to upgrade or change it. Make backups.

There was some discussion of plugins as well. All in One SEO Pack (which sounds a bit evil, but which is great since it makes your URLs a bit more human readable as well as search-engine-friendly) had good recommendations. Stats, Sitemaps, and various Flickr or photo plugins were mentioned by bloggers at the session. On the group blog I co-administer, we had written some code to pull in a list of all our plugins onto a static page called "What we use", which has come in handy many times when we want to recommend useful plugins to other people. (Whoops; when I tried to show this off, I found that our recent upgrade to 2.7 had broken this code.)

The post template plugin was mentioned for its usefulness and for being able to pick a post or a page and "template-icize" it. This sounded intriguing!

Someone else mentioned that people should be aware that new plugins might break other ones and if you run into trouble, uninstall some plugins and see if that fixes the problem.

Someone else asked if there are good books for learning WordPress theme development or php. I don't know about books, but php.net is fantastic, and the WP Codex is quite good. The Codex is also editable by its users, so if you use it a lot, make an account, log in, and fix any documentation that's wrong when you figure out a solution. I also recommended blogging your template or code problems or posting on forums, and then posting the solutions to those problems when you figure them out. This is hard to do sometimes, but the more of us who do it, the better.

When I mention IRC at this conference my general impression is that people aren't using it that actively and many people don't know what it is. People who were techy or coding at all or playing on MUDs or smoething before the web, or before about 1995 or 96, know what IRC is. People who learned their stuff or got involved with online worlds after that, it's much more hit & miss. In any case, I continue recommending people try IRC and hang out in channels on freenode that have to do with the tools or languages they're using. Here's some explanation & guidance on IRC and WordPress. Lurk for a while, pick up the culture of the channel, and you might be surprised you can actually answer other people's questions: when I do this I tend to feel better about asking questions myself.

At some other point I mentioned MAMP again. It's very handy and easy to install, if you want to run a local web server off your Mac in order to develop and test. While I was doing this hour long talk, at least two people downloaded and installed MAMP and WordPress and got it running on their laptops.

I enjoyed this session! We didn't go all that deep, but we covered a lot of ground and people seemed energized by the ideas and possibilities. If you were there, thanks for coming, and let me know how your project turns out!

She's Geeky

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