Carl Banks' Blog

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Three months in Los Angeles without a car

It can be done.

Today I got my car back after two months in the shop after a month sitting in my garage unused (when I was too busy to attend to it). [1]

But I want to make it clear that good public transit was a big part of my decision where to move to where I live now (Santa Monica), and that my job is fortuitously right across from a bus terminal on the other end of the line. [2] In fact, I had been taking the bus to work for about a month before my car's transmission started to go. Around the same time I had a big project at work that was nearing a deadline, and so I never got around to taking the car in for service till a month later.

So for that month and the next two, I took buses (and, in a couple cases, a train) everywhere. Granted, I don't exactly have a vibrant social life, and I have a lot of the stores I need within a few blocks of my apartment. Also, I found that at no point did I have a need to hit anything like a Target [3], which would have been a pain. But the bus was able to get me where I needed to go: doctor's appointments, destinations here and there, and downtown L.A.

So, the next time someone tells you it's impossible to live in L.A. without a car, I am proof that it's definitely possible.

Still, I'm really happy to finally have the car back. In fact, I was so happy I went to the supermarket and filled up a whole cart.


[1]Two months in the shop was for three reasons, 1. I have a Saturn, and my repairs were covered under warranty, but there aren't any Saturn dealers left near where I live, so I had to take it to a non-Saturn GM dealer, which means they had wait for parts to come in, 2. rather than ordering parts for both repairs I needed at the same time, they ordered the second set of parts after the first repairs, 3. the guy fixing my car took a one-week vacation where nothing was done, and 4. they didn't call me when it was done so it sat finished for a week.
[2]Or was, rather. You knew that as soon as I found such an arrangement my company was going to find a way to mess it up. Soon after I moved, they moved my desk to a building two miles down the road. But since all my work remains in my old building, I work in that old building in a lab, for now.
[3]At least not until two days before I got the car back.
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Nickling and Diming

One of the main complaints consumers have is about companies who "nickle and dime" them all the time, meaning that they charge small fees for a bunch of things that aren't part of the up-front, advertised cost. Airlines charge fees for baggage, food, and earphones that aren't part of the ticket prices. Banks and credit cards charge all sorts of financing and usage feeds. Hotels charge for extra blankets. And so on.

Personally, I say bring it on.

First of all, we have to address a common myth. People think that companies resort to nickling and diming in order to squeeze out every little bit of profit they can, no matter how petty. Although it's true that the goal of nickling and diming is to increase profits, the idea isn't to profit directly off of petty things.

The fact is, these companies already know how much money to charge so as to maximize their profit margin (or, for airlines, to minimize their losses). Nickling and diming customers will acutally reduce their margins, unless the price increase is offset by a lower base price. And that is exactly what the real purpose of nickling and diming is: to allow those companies to charge less money for their basic service while maintaining their margins.

"But isn't that false marketing?" you ask.

Well, yes, sometimes it is, when the fee is unavoidable. But here's the thing: most nickle and dime fees aren't unavoidable. They're mostly for add-ons: optional amenities on top of the basic service.

Personally, I hardly ever use these optional amenities, and I'm rather happy to know I'm not subsidizing other customers' usage. In fact, I sometime rue how many amenities the basic service includes, thinking how many dollars I could have saved if I didn't have to subsidize those amenities for other customers (especially in hotels). And, when I do use optional services, I'm happy to pay for my own consumption, rather than burden other customers with it. The sword cuts both ways for me.

I don't deny that the actual economics is more complicated than I've presented here, nor that there are many shady uses for the "hidden fee". But the bottom line is, most of the time, nickling and diming customers reduces my price. So I say, more nickling and diming.

Tags: capitalism, consumer, economics, nickling_and_diming
Last Edited: 23 July 2010, 6:44 PM
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Nonfiction Book Title Rules

Nonfiction is one of the most popular genres of books sold today. It's also the genre with the absolute least amount of imagination when it comes to book titles. In fact, all nonfiction titles follow five basic rules.

Rule 1: All nonfiction books must have both a title and subtitle.

There are no exceptions to this rule. All nonfiction, every single book ever published, adheres to this rule.

Rule 2: The title will be in one of these three forms:

  1. <single_proper_noun_or_name>

  2. <optional_definite_article> <option_proper_noun> <noun> <preposition> the <noun_phrase>

  3. <adjective> <plural_or_collective_noun>

Rule 3: The subtitle will be in one of these five forms:

  1. A <adjective> Look at the World of <noun> in <optional location>

  2. The Story/Untold Story/Tragedy/Triumph/Defeat/Victory/Lessons of the <optional_proper_noun> <noun> in <optional_location>

  3. How the <proper_noun> Expedition/Voyage/Incident/Experiment/War <optional_prepositional_phrase> Changed the World/Ended Slavery/Is Destroying America

  4. A Journey into <abstract_place>

  5. The Day/Night/Hour <something_bad_happened>

Rule 4: Only the subtitle is allowed to identify the book's contents.

The title alone should never, ever be sufficient to allow someone to guess what the book is about. Preferrably, the title shouldn't have anything to do with the contents except in the most abstract, metaphorical sense.

Rule 5: The word "secret" may appear anywhere in the title or subtitle even if it violates Rules 2 and 3.

That's it: these five rules are sufficient to cover the title of all nonfiction books ever published. Let's take a look at some examples of valid titles.

  • Great Bass: A Comprehensive Look at the World of Fly-Fishing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado
  • Dark Valleys: The Untold Story of the Fall of the Amazon Hunter
  • Men of the Tundra: How the Chadwick Expedition Changed the World
  • The Pendregoth Scandal: A Journey into the Secret Dark Mind of Barry Goodfellow
  • Frozen Blankets: The Night the Cold Came to Okruk
  • Bronze Rain: Lessons of the Ambush in Chicketaw Valley
  • Broken Eggshells: How the War of America's Youth on our Police Force is Destroying America
  • Thomas Jefferson: A Journey into the Secret Life of the Slaves at Monticello
  • Secret Sailors of the Silent Service: How the Bluefin Voyage Changed the World
Tags: lack_of_imagination, nonfiction_titles
Last Edited: 15 July 2010, 2:35 AM
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Photographs of Me

Professional Photograph:

High School Yearbook Picture:

A Candid Photograph:

Another Candid Photograph:

Photograph of the MTS Machine and me:
(Interesting note: The photographer of this picture, Regina
Kauffman, was on the crew of the EC9 spyplane that emergency
landed in China.)

Photograph from my Football Days:

Photograph of me in the Virginia Tech Flight Simulation Lab:

My Brother Victor and me in Tempe, Arizona:

My Mom and me in Nogales, Mexico:

Me standing with the SR-71 in Tuscon, Arizona:

South Park caricature:

Professional Photograph with some interesting image processing:

Photograph from my days as a Calvin Klein model:

On a boat on Lake Waconia:

In a restaurant next to Mom:

A more up-to-date South Park caricature:

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New Blog

I've had a web presence since 1995.

In those 15 years, many things about the World Wide Web have changed tremendously, but one thing has remained the same: my web pages have been almost entirely static. Except for a few minor cgi-bin applications (including the Oracle of Notre Dame in a previous form), all my web content was edited on my desktop, uploaded, and served as-is.

Well, I've finally jumped on the dynamic content bandwagon. Welcome to my new blog. Like any respectable web app, it stores content in a database and retrieves it upon request.

So what pushed me over? Well, it's mostly a matter of the right technologies coming together and getting support from inexpensive web hosts. Until recently (last few years), most inexpensive web hosts only supported dynamic content with PHP (which I will never touch) and cgi-bin scripts. CGI is terrible for anything more than trivial apps. But lately web hosts are supporting a wider variety of web frameworks (largely due to the success of Ruby on Rails, I think).

With that development I began considering to implement my own dynamic content in Python. There are now tons of libraries one can leverage to take care of the gory details (and that's all I wanted—which is why I didn't go with a framework like Django). I found CherryPy to be especially helpful to take care of all the HTTP aspects, while not being overly formulaic to use. The major libraries that came together for my blog are:

  • CherryPy manages the HTTP aspects
  • Mako manages the HTML templating
  • Docutils converts user input to HTML
  • SQLAlchemy manages the database
  • Elixir set up the SQLAlchemy's ORM classes

I threw together a couple small apps with CherryPy and SQLAlchemy, and then decided I was ready to try for a blog, and here it is.

Tags: blog, cherrypy, python, sqlalchemy, wsgi
Last Edited: 4 July 2010, 3:44 AM
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List of Facebook Apps I've blocked


August 6, 2010

Facebook added an application kill switch, which I invoked, so now all applications are blocked. Yay.

Here is a list of Facebook apps I've blocked. With one minor exception, my policy is not to allow any third-party Facebook apps.

Even though I use Facebook sparingly (it's mostly there just in case people want to find me), I find Facebook apps irritating enough to stomp out and brag about it. Besides being annoying information vomit, they are often also security risks (they can phish information from your Facebook profile if you allow them).

The first 20 or so apps on this list I blocked before even having used them; when I first signed up I browsed through the most popular apps and blocked them all. I take great pride in having blocked SuperPoke without ever having been SuperPoked.

Here's the list:

  • Causes
  • MyCalendar
  • Birthday Calendar
  • Abrazos
  • IQ Test
  • Agenda de cumpleaños
  • Pittsburgh Steelers Fans
  • Top Friends
  • Collect Hearts
  • Pieces of Flair
  • Birthday Cards
  • SuperPoke!
  • (lil) Green Patch
  • Pass a Drink
  • Slide FunSpace
  • Texas HoldEm Poker
  • Hugged
  • Circle of Friends
  • RockYou live
  • Pink Ribbon
  • We're Related
  • Music
  • Pillow Fight
  • Food Fling!
  • Which TV Mom are You?
  • What is the theme song of ur life???
  • Which celebrity should you marry?
  • Name Generators
  • livingSocial
  • Yearbook
  • How Well Do You Know Me?
  • Growing up in Oakmont, Pa.
  • Send Your Friends Terrible Towels!
  • Pittsburgh Steelers Swag
  • Send Your Friends hugs!
Tags: apps, blocked, facebook
Last Edited: 17 October 2009, 11:55 AM
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An Open Letter to all Job Recruiters

Dear the five or so job recruiters per day who try to contact me:

First of all, I would like to thank you for your interest. It is comforting to know that I always have options. However, several aspects of you methodology have been a source of irritation to me, so I thought I'd write this letter to make you aware of this.

  1. Please do not cold call me. I realize that calling the victim, er, prospective employee is the modus operandi of some of you, and that's perfectly fine. But, there a little problem here. You see, the resume I have up on has a contact preference set to "Email." And when that didn't work, I decided to put a line at the very top, right in the objective, that says "ATTN Recruiters: please contact me by email only, not telephone." But that didn't work either. I may have to remove my phone number altogether (which I don't want to do, because I would like someone I've communicated with to be able to refer to it to get my number).

    You see, it's really annoying to get 2 or 3 calls a day while at work, oftentimes when I'm at a meeting. Which brings me to my next annoyance....

  2. Ok, you've decided to cold call me. Why in God's Holy Name would you call me during work hours? Isn't that the worst time imaginable? "Hell-lo, Meester Bonks, my nay-yam is Hajib, er, Michael, I-ee om calleeng you on behoff of a large tech-no-loj-ee-cal firm. Do you have twoo meenutes to speek with me?" Um, yeah, sure Hajib, I'm sure my coworkers won't suspect anything if I shout my preferred job locations into a phone for the benefit of a guy in India with a bad connection. Which brings me to my third annoyance....

  3. Don't use non-native English speakers to recruit. You've outsourced your call center, your software division, your manufacturing, your accounting department, and so on. Fine, you gotta roll with the times. But if there's one thing you don't want to outsource to non-native speakers, under any circumstances, it's recruiting. Let's take a look at my thought process to figure out why. "Hell-lo, Meester Bonks, my ney-yam is Okmed, er, Matt...." Hmm, some Indian guy is calling me about a job. I'm not too familiar with the firm he's mentioning. I wonder if I should consider working for it? Well, let's see, what do I know about this company so far? Number one: They outsource jobs to Asia. Yeah, great first impression there, what American wouldn't want to work for a company that has a history of shipping jobs overseas?

    To be honest, I don't personally care about this so much; from a purely economic perspective it makes sense to outsource. And I am the sort that wouldn't exactly be crushed by unemployment. In fact, I'd probably volunteer if there were upcoming layoffs. But, a recruiter does have to talk about more varied things than a customer service rep. I don't mind talking to Hajib over a billing issue, but over a potential job is a little much.

  4. If you're not going to read my resume, please don't act like you did. All too often I get emails like this: "Greetings Carl, I have personally reviewed your resume and I believe you would be an excellent fit for this job opportunity. If you have an MSEE and 7+ years experience working with PLC, please respond with an updated resume in Word format." Um, dude? You just claimed in the very previous sentence that you reviewed my resume. I shouldn't have to tell you that I don't have an MSEE nor 7 years experience in anything.

    If you're going to send out mass emails based on keywords, fine, but don't be a pretentious fool by claiming you read my resume.

  5. Give me details about the job. My rule of thumb is that I don't respond to any recruiter who's failed to supply at least three things: a brief job description, a job location, and a description of the firm. This should be a common sense thing for a recruiter to provide. I get emails like this all the time: "We are looking for an experienced Python developer. Please call me if you are interested." Um, how the hell would I know if I'm interested or not? All I have to go on is Python developer. That's not a brief job decription. What kind of Python developer? What software domain? There's nothing about a job location or firm.

    Even a bit of information might pique my interest; for instance, I'd probably respond to this solicitation: "A medium-size aeronautical firm in Northern California that is looking for an experienced Python developer to write user-friendly interfaces for numerical simulations." Conversely, the tiny bit of information might be enough to rule out the offer, saving everyone's time. When recruiters don't volunteer this information, I assume they have something to hide and ignore it.

  6. Emailing me a tenth time isn't going to get me to alter my decision to have ignored you the previous nine times. If I don't respond, it's because I wasn't interested. Sometimes if a person is polite and emails me back for an answer, yes or no, I'll write them back to say no. But mostly these repeated messages are just spam.

  7. There's a reason that, although I live in Cincinnati, Cincinnati isn't listed among my preferred locations on my Monster resume. Hint: It's because I don't want to work in Cincinnati.

I think you for reading this, and I would encourage you to pass this on to any of your friends to that all may be enlightened.

Yours truly,

Carl Banks

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The Apostrophe Rule

The Apostrophe Rule is a rule I made up while advising someone on an Internet forum what to do about his wife who would always talk his ear off. I've been told many times how clever the rule is, so I thought I'd share it with the whole world.

The husband in question here didn't want to shut his wife down completely, I guess because he thought gossiping was the highlight of her day, or something. Anyway I gave him this rule which is designed merely to set boundaries about who she can talk about, and it's pretty clever. Here is the rule as the husband would dictate it to his wife:

You may not gossip about anyone you need an apostrophe to name.

If you think about it for a moment, it's clear how and why it works, but I'll give some examples anyway. First of all, people who are on first name basis with both spouses are acceptable, since they can be named with their actual name, no apostrophe needed. Any relative or friend of the wife would be acceptable; she could name them as "my sister", "my mom", "my best friend", "my coworker", "my dentist", etc. However, the rule kicks in once she starts getting to "my sister's friend", "my coworker's niece", "my mom's psychiatrist", "Dawn's hairdresser", etc. Those people need apostrophes to be named, so she is not allowed to talk about them.

This rule has two benefits. It limits the number of people available for the wife to gossip about, ostensibly reducing the overall time she'll be able to spend gossiping. Also it helps limit the gossip to be about people that the husband is less uninterested in.

As far as I know, I am the first person to come up with this rule. I've had a lot of people follow-up with praise for this rule whenever I post it. They will write, "Wow, that's a really good rule." I've even had women say they would respect men who instituted it. It seems that a lot of people like rule.

The Apostrophe Rule is slightly related to an observation I made about urban legends, which I'll call the Apostrophe Theorem even though it isn't a theorem and isn't even always true, for that matter. It's just cool to call things theorems. It goes like this:

Whenever someone claims a dubious, urban-legend type story really happened to someone they need an apostrophe to name, it isn't true.

Point is, stuff you hear from the grapevine, even short grapevines, isn't trustworthy, which is why gossip about your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate is so inane. What's the point of listening to all that when it's probably not even true? Some people have an instinctual filter to that causes untrustworthy information to bore us; others don't. That's why we need the Apostrophe Rule.

Tags: apostrophe, apostrophe_rule, apostrophe_theorem, gossip, wife
Last Edited: 18 January 2009, 1:17 PM
easy wrote: quite easy to circumvent. instead of "my sister's friend" just say "friend of my sister." "niece of my coworker." "psychiatrist of my mom." it's awkward English, but clearly understandable.
Carl Banks wrote: easy: If you're thinking about circumventing the rule, you're missing the point. This rule is about one spouse communicating boundaries to the other. It's not a challenge to see if they can circumvent it.

Why did the movie The Matrix suck so bad?

I just got done watching a very good, highly entertaining movie, V for Vendetta, on FX. It was created by the Wachowski brothers, who made another movie I thought was excellent, Bound, but are most well-known for the Matrix Trilogy.

V for Vendetta and Bound were such good movies, it makes me wonder, why did The Matrix suck so bad?

I know exactly why I didn't like The Matrix; I just wonder why the Wachowski brothers did it. In V for Vendetta they took existing idea—totalitarianism, vigilanteism, revolution, and vengeance—and made a movie about them, but without the pretension of being the first ones to ever present those ideas. It's not as if no one has ever sat down and thought about whether vigilanteism is ever justified, and the movie didn't make itself out to be the first to ever ponder these ideas.

The Matrix, however, did. The Wachowski brothers presented this idea that the world we live in is just an illusion, as if they were the first people to ever ponder that idea. Well, no they weren't: the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about this idea only around 2500 years ago in his Allegory of the Cave. And, to make matters worse, the movie fails miserably to convince me that the world could be an illusion. I'm apparently expected to believe that if you get shot in the Matrix, your body will be riddled with bullet wounds in the real world, and nonsense like that. The movie tries to be like, "This could really happen," but the silly inconsistencies, stupid plot devices, and bad thermodynamics destroy that. It tries to be plausible, but it just isn't.

Cinematographically it's not even close to being as well done as V for Vendetta or Bound. All it really has going for it is special effects (which are not as technologically advanced as they appear) and little in-jokes (oooh Neo is an anagram of One, that is so cool).

In short, it sucked.

I just wonder how the Wachowski brothers did so poorly with it, when they did so well on other movies.

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MRI of my Brain

Yes, this image is really an MRI scan of my brain.

The story behind this image begins in 2005, when I began to experience minor but irritating dizzy spells. After some otolaryngologists were unable to diagnose the problem (I had no hearing loss so it didn't appear to be Ménière's Disease), I was recommended to a neural specialist who ran an MRI on me as a precautionary measure. They were looking for multiple sclerosis. Fortunately my brain scan was normal, and as a side effect I got this cool image that shows my brain in all its glory.

By the way, I still don't know what caused my dizzy spells, but after I went through some physical therapy the spells became much less severe and frequent but I still get them once in awhile. I think it's safest for me to assume I have a minor case of Ménière's Disease so I try to avoid getting water in my ears.

Tags: MRI, brain, menieres_disease
Last Edited: 17 August 2008, 4:00 PM
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