inessential by Brent Simmons

November 2001


It’s obscure ’80s punk rock lyrics day.

I’m walking aroun’

with my feet on the groun’

blah blah blah

fuck you, narc

-“Unalive” by the Smart Nigels

I keep farting

I keep farting

I keep farting

My mom said get a load of you

My dad said get a load of you

I went in the closet to beeeeeeee alone

-“Boy in the Closet” by Prozac Delivery System

Something about love

Makes me want to shove

My face in the mud

When I get horny

-“Big Girl” by Protruding Television

I’m a fetus

and you’re not

I wear small boots

I got tattoos

a pack of smokes

a quart of booze

-“Carousel” by Rocket Crash

If I were starting a punk rock band today, I’d call it Wireless Portal.


It’s been said by other people, but it’s worth repeating: the best programmers these days know how to use the Web to solve problems.

I’m not talking about just knowing how to find things on MSDN online or Apple’s developer site. As often as not, the problem I need to solve hasn’t been addressed there—but somebody, somewhere has run across the same thing and found a solution.

It also requires some flexibility and an open mind. For instance, more than once I’ve run into a case where there are Visual Basic examples that show how to fix a problem, but nothing in C. No matter—a willing programmer can translate, even without having any VB experience.

Of course, my hope is that any programmer who uses the Web also gives back to the Web, posts their solved problems, tips, sample code, and so on. (I’m lucky that I get to do this as part of my job.)

For a programmer these days, knowing how to learn on the Web is more important than knowing any particular language or environment.

Were I interviewing a programmer today (I’m not), I wouldn’t ask as much about their education or experience with specific tools as I would about their use of the Web. And, because I believe in a sort-of instant Web karma, I’d also find out if the Web for them is a two-way street.

It’s possible that I wouldn’t hire anybody who doesn’t already have a weblog. Given the choice between a programmer with a computer science degree and a programmer with a weblog—everything else being equal, I’d hire the programmer with a weblog.

I’m a big fan of usability guru Jakob Nielsen—but I don’t go to his site very often because I find it hard to use.

Some things bug me about the home page. The big colored boxes have no borders—so they sort of bleed into the white space. It looks amateurish (in the negative sense).

The two yellows clash (to my eyes).

The search box in the upper right is too large—it suggests that, to have any hope of finding what I want, I’m going to have to type in multiple keywords.

Worst of all, the margins are very small. I appreciate that the page re-flows as I resize my browser window, but I have difficulty reading with small margins and really wide blocks of text.

This is even worse—much worse—when reading one of the AlertBox columns. Again, liquid design is good, but tiny margins, super-wide lines of text, and long paragraphs is just way too difficult to read.

So what I invariably do when I read one of his columns is resize my browser window width to about one-third of its normal size. I have to, in order to read it.

So, before following a link to his site, I always stop and pause and wonder if I feel like dealing with it. Most of the time the answer is no. Which is too bad for me.

By the way—this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I know it.

Papa chases bugs.


He also tells me we have a terrible invisible mouse problem here in the house. And we’re infested by ghosts.

Sometimes it’s not cats but squirrels.


Okay, here’s an example of really excrementally bad UI design.

I had to reboot Windows because it had gone crazy. So I went out to the grocery store, took a friend to the airport, re-painted my bathroom, discovered some new prime numbers, just to kill some time while waiting for it to re-boot.

Then when I got back there was a modal dialog box on my machine.

It said: Register Your Product. It had three buttons: Remind me in two weeks, never register, or register now.

Okay—but which freakin’ product?

I had no idea. So I clicked Register Now, figuring that the next thing I’d see is a dialog box that would somehow clue me in as to which product I’m registering.

You know what happened when I clicked the Register Now button?


Well, something. The dialog box went away. But nothing else happened. I just sat there staring at my desktop. Nothing continued to happen, until finally I fired up Visual C++ and went about my work.

I have no idea which “product” is responsible for this.


One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready—now go cat go!

Speaking of cats—I’m lucky that Papa is a shoulder cat. Half the time when I pick him up he clambers up on to my shoulder. Then we walk around the house, him sitting on my shoulder or draped around the back of my neck. It’s fun. Maybe it’s the Maine coon in him.

If you have a shoulder cat, then you’re lucky.

I send you this tourist guy in order to have your memes. All your Mahir are belong to us. Harry Potter would like to offer you a confidential foreign business opportunity where you can work at home. Hot teens are waiting for you to get out of debt now. Somebody please make the voices stop please.


Over the holiday weekend I cleaned the gutters. You haven’t lived until you’ve stood on the creaky top step of a ladder and reached up and dug your fingers into a cold slurry of leaves and pine needles, bits of which fall on your face as you transfer it to your bucket.

And then there’s that smell.

The only reason this post exists—because who cares about my gutters?—is so I could use the word “slurry” in a sentence.


Washington Post: ‘Harry’ and The Nation of Dweebs. “Where are the kids who are supposed to be beating up the kids who like Harry Potter? Where is the bully who is going to tell them what kinda dorkface fairies they’re being?”

Thank you!


Happy Thanksgiving!

Here are a few things (and people, places, etc.) I’m thankful for. This list is by no means comprehensive.

The Renaissance

The Sistine Chapel



Erik Satie

The Revolutionary War


The Killers by Ernest Hemingway

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Philip Roth

Anjelica Huston


Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Susie Bright

The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams


The Story of English

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

wild animals




Dogwood trees


The Atlantic Ocean

The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges

Eiffel Tower

Romance languages

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

Milan Kundera


The Decameron


Star Trek

vacuum cleaners

gold toe socks


Prelude to an Apres-Midi d'un faun by Debussy

Stravinsky: Sacre du Printemps

Henri Matisse

The Web

Monty Python

Red Dwarf

The Democratic Party

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

Martin Amis: The Information

Sabbatical by John Barth

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Daniel J. Boorstin


Dahlias, nasturtiums, black-eyed susans, chrysanthemums

The Space Needle

The Pacific Science Center

The Wyeth Museum

George Washington









The Clash

The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

courtroom dramas

Babe Ruth

The Mariners


potato chips

The Chesapeake Bay

Washington, D.C.

Buddy Holly

Chuck Berry

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas


hot chocolate


Mac OS X



Leonardo da Vinci






dirigibles and blimps

the end of the Cold War

the defeat of Nazism and Imperial Japan in WWII

Philip K. Dick



Virgina Woolf

Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? by Edward Albee

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Raymond Carver

The Roman Empire

Roman ruins

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons

comic books

the Polio vaccine

Camille Paglia

Scotch on the rocks

Bloody Marys

Queen Elizabeth I

Sherlock Holmes



Richard P. Feynman


Humphrey Bogart

Spencer Tracy

Katharine Hepburn

Douglas Engelbart




Handspring Visors

Clay flower pots

Cordless telephones

Regular trash, recyclables, and yard waste collection



free speech


Pilot Razor Point pens

Ancient Egyptian civilization

The Sphinx

The Library of Alexandria (wish it hadn't burned down)

Marco Polo


Doc Martens





French fries



indoor plumbing

indoor lighting

Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation

Umberto Eco

Avalon, New Jersey



The Audubon Society

LCD monitors

Trinitron monitors


Alexander the Great

The Canterbury Tales






The Marquis de Sade

The Story of O







The Moon Landing

Nelson Mandela

The Specials

Bonnie and Clyde

Alexander Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson

Samuel Adams

John Adams

Thomas Paine

Abraham Lincoln

W.E.B. duBois

Sojourner Truth

The underground railroad

The Harlem renaissance

Langston Hughes

Ralph Ellison

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Absolutely Fabulous


Jean-Paul Gaultier


The Washington Monument



Denis Diderot, Jacques le fataliste


refried beans



washing machines

digital cameras

Harold Bloom

Charlie Rose

William S. Burroughs



chocolate ice cream


Dr. Seuss

The Stainless Steel Rat



The Athenian republic




The Old Testament


John leCarre








The Origin of Species

Cote d'Azur


Arabic numerals

The number zero

J.D. Salinger



swing sets



Henny Youngman

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

stoves and ovens

microwave ovens


Camper van Beethoven

Martin Luther King, Jr.

pine needles


Italian subs

office supply stores

underground sewer pipes




disposable contact lenses

rye bread


The Four Seasons

flamenco dancing


various unmentionables

The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In the Beginning was the Command Line


Henry the Navigator

The Odyssey


Amerigo Vespucci

Christopher Columbus

Dashiel Hammett

Raymond Chandler

Mary McCarthy

Dorothy Parker



Johann Sebastian Bach

Speed Racer

Wings of Desire and Until the End of the World by Wim Wenders


The Rosetta Stone

The Great Pyramids of Giza

Vasco de Gama

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

trains, especially the TGV

Cancer researchers

AIDS researchers

The Center for Disease Control


paper clips

nail clippers

tape measures


sky lights

particle accelerators

The Constitution

salt and pepper

chile peppers


Frederico Garcia Lorca

William Carlos Williams

paved roads

Roman aqueducts


kitty litter





Jasper Johns

Andy Warhol

Lou Reed

the Pogues

travel books

CD-RW drives



halogen lamps



Patrick Henry



Suze Orman

The West Wing

lawn mowers

color printers

trauma centers




Grand Canyon

The Alps

Mt. Everest




the invention of latitude and longitude



Tomorrow is Thanksgiving! I’d like to thank Papa for being so cute, but he’d probably just bite me.

Sometimes I wish I could sing like Kim Carnes. “All the boys think she’s a spy...”

But my favorite female singer is Martha Reeves of the Vandellas. Dancing in the Street, Heat Wave, Jimmy Mack.

Whenever he calls my name

Soft, low, sweet and plain

I feel, right here

I feel that burnin’ flame


When I was a teenager I was an anarchist.

Then one day I learned I wasn’t an anarchist anymore. I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. It’s about two planets: one an anarchy, the other most definitely not.

The thing was, I thought the anarchy planet was so boring and dreary and puritanical—and the other planet, for all its being fucked-up and unfair, was much more colorful and fun and glamorous and irrational and interesting. It would be easy to choose where to live.

And then I knew I wasn’t an anarchist. I was kinda sad about it, because my self-image was that of the radical anarchist revolutionary artist. So I had to drop the anarchist part.

A couple years later I read Ecotopia, which describes a sort-of anarchy spanning northern California, Oregon, and Washington. It sucked. No way do I want to live in Ecotopia. Ugh. Blech.

From these books it appears that political anarchies are not particularly anarchic: they’re boring and everyone’s the same. So much for anarchy. Too bad.

Years later I discovered that Rousseau is the source of so much of this stuff. If there’s one philosopher I wouldn’t mind punching in the nose, it would be Jean-Jacques.

That’s not to say I don’t like Ursula K. LeGuin’s books. I think The Dispossessed is a good book. And I loved The Lathe of Heaven.

A counter-example: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress describes an anarchy on the Moon. I wouldn’t mind living there. It’s a very different anarchy—a fun and diverse anarchy—than the anarchies described elsewhere. It’s more a transplanted and scratched-up Jeffersonian anarchy than a Roussea-ian anarchy.

I am 32% Grunge.


John Barth: “The Parallels!” Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. “Although one finds flavors and even some specific detail of Buenos Aires and environs in the corpus of Borges’s fiction and of Italy in that of Calvino, and although each is a major figure in his respective national literature as well as in modern lit generally, both writers were prevailingly disinclined to the social/psychological realism that for better or worse persists as the dominant mode in North American fiction.”


You may be against the war. You may be against globalization. And you think to yourself, hey, I’m a dissenter, an American dissident, a small voice crying out for justice.

Ho hum. No one cares.

The only real dissent in America—right now, in November 2001—is to not like Harry Potter.

(I mean the books. Some Harry Potter fans think the movie’s kind of weak.)

What kind of mean-spirited, child-hating, yellow-toothed, coldly logical {pictureLink ("bastard", "mib.jpg")} would not like Harry Potter?

To not delight in magic and the innocence of children is, well, so against the grain of modern culture and everything that’s good in life that you might as well, I don’t know, give it up, hang yourself, check out, do the rest of us a favor.

You’re exactly the kind of person that everyone else thinks sucks.

It’s been said, by my boss among other people, that irony and sarcasm don’t work on the Web. Maybe that’s true—but I enjoy it way too much to give it up.


Here’s how dumb you have to be to be me.

I’m walking around in the kitchen making hot chocolate. I hear footsteps. What the hell?

So I investigate, go in the living room, check the bathroom. I pause, I listen—the footsteps have stopped. I continue—there they are again!

Of course it was me, it was my footsteps. Good grief.


Sometimes I think that one of the requirements for being a weblogger is that you’re stuck intellectually in the ’70s and ’80s.

The Selfish Gene (memes) was published in 1976.

Gödel, Escher, Bach (meta this and meta that) was published in 1979.

Chaos was published in 1987.

One thing we can be thankful for—enough time has passed since the 1962 publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that people don’t use the word “paradigm” all the time any more.

Or else there’d surely be a weblog named Chaotic Meta-Memetic Paradigms.

Ho freakin’ hum.


I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.


Blake’s poem posted yesterday totally outclasses this one—but still, this poem has a place in my heart. It was my favorite when I was in AP English many years ago.

It’s about cats, naturally. It’s by Alastair Reid.


may have killed the cat; more likely 

the cat was just unlucky, or else curious 

to see what death was like, having no cause 

to go on licking paws, or fathering 

litter on litter of kittens, predictably. 

Nevertheless, to be curious is dangerous enough. To distrust what is always said, what seems, to ask old questions, interfere in dreams, leave home, smell rats, have hunches do not endear cats to those doggy circles where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches are the order of things, and where prevails much wagging of incurious heads and tails.

Face it. Curiosity will not cause us to die— only lack of it will. Never to want to see the other side of the hill or that improbable country where living is an idyll (although a probably hell) would kill us all. Only the curious have, if they live, a tale worth telling at all.

Dogs say cats love too much, are irresponsible, are changeable, marry too many wives, desert their children, chill all dinner tables with tales of their nine lives. Well, they are lucky. Let them be nine-lived and contradictory, curious enough to change, prepared to pay the cat price, which is to die and die again and again, each time with no less pain. A cat minority of one is all that can be counted on to tell the truth. And what cats have to tell on each return from hell is this: that dying is what the living do, that dying is what the loving do, and that dead dogs are those who do not know that dying is what, to live, each has to do.

Of course, at age 16 one is—and should be—a Romantic. You don’t know too much yet.

By age 33 one discovers, as Calvino more or less put it, that the crystal holds as much or more beauty than the flame. (Well, not everybody discovers that, sadly.)

But that’s not to deny the coolness of the poem. I especially love these bits: “having no cause to go on licking paws,” “interfere in dreams,” and most of all “chill all dinner tables with tales of their nine lives.”

Where the poem gets weak is where it’s talky and philosophic (didactic, even) and gets away from the poetry. But then, I’m not a poet, and I don’t see another way to conclude this thing.


I just hit my funny bone. It’s not funny. It makes me mad at Microsoft. Everything makes me mad at Microsoft.

The leaves need to be raked. Damn that Redmond software monopoly.

It’s raining again. Just give me five minutes alone in a room with Steve Ballmer.

Global warming—it’s probably Bill Gates’ fault.


By the way, the above is an example of hyperbole.

One of the cardinal rules, growing up, was don’t exaggerate.

(That’s how WASP culture is passed from generation to generation.)

But me, I love to exaggerate. I’m a big fan of the out-of-proportion. As I’ve said before, proportion, balance, symmetry, harmony—yawn yawn yawn—hold little aesthetic appeal for me.

Except that I love the word “symmetry” in Blake’s famous poem.

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies, Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? and what the chain, In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp, Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears And water’d heaven with their tears: Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Fearful Symmetry


There seems to be a disrespect for Carbon among many OS X users. The refrain I keep hearing, not necessarily applied to our software but to many other people’s software, is “why didn’t you use Cocoa?”

The argument, from people who like to tell developers what to do, is that Cocoa apps are faster and more OS-X-like.

Now, I like Cocoa alot. I’ve been learning it a little bit at a time when I have spare moments. The more I learn the more I like. I’m starting to believe the hype that, once you learn Cocoa, you can build apps more quickly in Cocoa than with any other framework.

But I don’t believe it’s faster. Objective-C is a dynamic, object-oriented language. Though I don’t have hard data, it’s a rule of thumb that straight C outperforms object-oriented languages. There’s a certain performance overhead associated with object-orientation—and my guess is that Objective-C, especially because it’s so dynamic, is far from being an exception.

It was true at first that Carbon lacked certain features present in Cocoa—Services support, for instance. But now Carbon has all that stuff.

Again—this is not to dis Cocoa. Were I starting a new Mac-only app, there’s an excellent chance I’d use Cocoa.

But there’s a certain lean elegance to a well-written C app that should not be dismissed easily. You get a finer level of control because there’s less going on behind your back.

A good C app is written with object-oriented principles, only you use structs and callbacks and function pointers. You do a lot of factoring, respect the principles of encapsulation and MVC design, etc. You don’t have to give up good programming practices just because you use Carbon.

What I’m saying is: Carbon is cool too. Don’t disrespect it. So much depends upon the developer.

Another benefit to Carbon, not to be taken lightly: if you want to port your app to Windows or Linux or whatever, starting with a Carbon app is easier than starting with a Cocoa app.

I’m lucky in that my first lessons in good programming practices began over 20 years ago. My parents were both programmers, and I was learning BASIC on my Apple II Plus.

Many dinner conversations could be summed up with these famous words: “Goto considered harmful.”

I was thick-headed. I preferred goto to gosub. (I was also 12.)

I’m an award-winning programmer. I even still have my medal.

In the eighth grade I went to some sort of programming competition in Delaware. There were kids from all over the state.

Our task was to write a BASIC app that sorted an array of strings.

I knew about a few sort algorithms, but we had a time limit, so I went with the easy one that I knew I could do: the bubble sort.

After I turned in my floppy with the program on it I decided to get out of there. There was no way I was going to win. Even though my program worked, surely other kids were using faster, more sophisticated algorithms.

So we went home.

Later I found out that I won. Someone from my school accepted the award on my behalf.

My conclusion—which, looking back, seems rather harsh—was that sometimes you are the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.


One of my favorite tricks is that I can instantly tell if a number is divisible by six.

It’s easy. Here’s how in two steps:

1. It must be even. If it’s not even, it’s not divisible by six, which is even.

2. It must be divisible by three. Here’s how to tell if a number is divisible by three: add up all the digits. If the sum of the digits is divible by three, then the number is divisible by three.


5487: no, not even.

368: even, but not divisible by three, since 17 (the sum of the digits) is not divisible by three. So it’s not divisible by six.

8796: even and divisible by three—hence divisible by six.


In honor of Veterans Day, will return Tuesday.


Last night I dreamed I was at a picnic somewhere in Central America. Sheila and Papa were there. A green-and-blue butterfly, some kind of swallowtail, landed on my right index finger. That’s it.


It’s great to work with Doug Baron again. Yo!


You know that thing where it feels like you’re going to throw up, but then you don’t, it just rises in your throat, seemingly for no reason, but then it goes back down?

I don’t know if there’s a word for that. I always call it “chunks.”

Every time I hear or read the word “meme” or any derivation thereof I get chunks.

One of the many things I hate about that word is that underlying it is the assertion that all thought is propaganda.

Is the theory of evolution by natural selection a meme—or is it true?

Memes and truth are mutually exclusive. The idea of memes is the idea that there is no truth.

I keep thinking that if I say enough bad stuff about the word “meme” the idea will start to stick and people will stop using it.

By the way, I’m joking.

Kafka: “Oh yes, there is hope, infinite hope—but not for us.”

No what else I hate? GUIDs.

You know those long strings of garbage—EA47-FG7F5-F6234F-FUE7E4-FUCKTHIS—that appear every time I turn around in Windows.

This seems to me to be so ugly, so quintessentially Microsoft.

Eventually we’ll all have to have our personal GUIDs stamped on our national Microsoft ID cards (passports, that is). I’m thinking of having mine tattooed on my chest.


I really wish Buddy Holly was here.


For a project I’m doing in my off-hours—not a UserLand thing—I need some quotes from developers and sysadmins who use OS X and have Linux experience.

How do the two compare? Is OS X a kind of nirvana, with the best of both worlds (GUI and geek)—or is it just a watered-down poor cousin to Linux?

Send me email or post to my discussion group. Please also let me know how I can cite you. (As in, John Doe, Chief Developer at 200OK Software.)


Sdief Vreeejdk a fit: “J aj r rkt sdjtre aid aiwt eirs lz oejey. Ro fked otg.”

Gtqwf ik!


My site and Sheila’s site are both two years old today. Happy birthday!

Here’s my first post; here’s hers.

Sometimes, for a mental exercise, I like to think about things backwards.

Think of composers and their elaborate process of forgetting songs. Hours spent at the ivories, patiently sucking notes out of the air and into their piano, until no one knows their music anymore.

War, of course, is excellent when played backwards. Injured people become whole as brave infantrymen retrieve their hand grenades, put the pins back on, and store them away somewhere safe and far away. The dead rise and return to their families, remembering nothing of their muddy ordeal.

I’ve imagined doing software backwards—and it almost works. Backwards 1.0 has a ton of great features. With each release it has fewer features, until, one day, it’s down to its core, the bare few features that make it a killer app. (It reminds me of Mark Twain famously saying that he didn’t have time to write a short letter.)


I get to vote today!

Excellent. I love voting. I love the ritual of going to the polls, going through the whole thing of looking up my name on the sheet, getting my ballot, making the marks, putting it in that machine. All the people there voting, and the volunteers—they’re all cool.

I’d say that it was like church for me, if church didn’t connote tedium and faceless authority. It’s like a cool joyous church, relaxed but excited.


I hope it’s not terrifically crass of me, but I’ve got a complete system for sale—Seattle residents note.

It’s a 7200/120 Power Mac running OS 8.1. 40 MB RAM. I bet LinuxPPC would run quite nicely on it.

Also included: an AppleVision 1710AV 17" Trinitron monitor, a mouse, and—for any nostalgists out there—an authentic Power Computing keyboard.

$250, cash, and you have to drive over to my house to pick it up. Send me email if you’re interested. Everything’s packed up in two boxes, ready for transport.




I ask my kitten, I say, “Hey Papa, what’s your favorite kind of food?”