Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The new kids

In a fit of serendipity, two kids made it over to Stacey's sleepover this weekend who have never been able to come before, which was great. Stacey and I are always happy to entertain new people at the house. When I realized that these two made 14 unique girls who had slept over during the past 4 years, I took the opportunity to reflect on how the behavior of this year's gang of 10 year olds differs from the sleepovers of the past -- how the new kids differ from the old kids, and to reflect on how happy and proud I am that so many kids find Stacey likable enough to want to come spend the night, and that so many families find me, a single dad, trustworthy enough to send their girls over. Even though Stacey and I face challenges in life, I feel that we are truly blessed.

The event this weekend was simple and lighthearted, we just went out for pizza and rented movies, and I did nothing more than set up mattresses in the family room, make Rice Krispies treats, and retire to my room with a book (Better Off) until I zonked out. As Stacey and her friends grow up, entertaining takes a lot less out of me. A few years ago, the kids were interested that I hang out with them, watch the movie, play the card game, judge the talent show, etc., but now the kids run the show themselves and want to talk secret girl stuff (who likes who, who's mean at school, who shaves their legs), or watch teen dramas instead of the animated movies they all loved just a couple years ago. No more giggling girls asking if they can paint my fingernails (one time was all I would submit to, and it was the rubbery kind that you could peel off later).

Sometimes I miss being the noble and cheerful master of ceremonies, praised for my cooking, humor, hair braiding, and understanding of things Disney, Brats, and fashion (I hear orange is the new black). What has replaced that is more fulfilling than the fleeting moments as the center of attention -- after all, the kids don't come over to see me, they come over to see Stacey. The style of the 10 year old sleepover is wonderful. It is my daughter maintaining her friendships over time, growing, becoming independent, and sharing her joy of living with her sisters.

One change from the 6 to the 10 year old style that I'm less fond of is how quickly my cloak of invisibility goes back up after a sleepover. [All adults have a cloak of invisibility, it is the thing that we have that makes kids ignore us.] Back when Stacey was in second grade, I taught a little weekly computer class as a volunteer, and the kids would always greet me when they passed me in the hallway when I picked up Stacey after school. When I stopped teaching the class, it took about 3 weeks before the cloak started to go back up. A select few of Stacey's closer friends kept waving to me in passing until the end of the year. In third grade, the cloak was completely back up, the kids (expectedly) having forgotten me over the summer. When Stacey would throw a party or a sleepover, the cloak came down for a few days. These days the cloak is on full-time, no matter what... except for two special girls.

One girl is from a rich family and is doted on by sycophants who want to come to her huge house and play in her pool. Stacey and I loved her since Kindergarten, never knowing where she lived or the financial status of her parents. She was always bright and sunny in the computer class I taught, quick to catch on and always happy. One day when she was feeling a little sick after recess (dehydration and running around sweating at recess = stomach cramps), I delayed the start of class while I walked her down to the office, made sure she got in to see the nurse, explained to the nurse the symptoms I saw, and left her with a pat on the back and saying something like "I hope you feel better, sweetie." Basically full daddy-mode had kicked in, and it was all the will I could muster to leave her and go back to class. The next week when I came back for class, I asked her how she was feeling, and she flashed me a big smile. After that, she could always see through my cloak of invisibility, and to this day will usually greet me in passing, unless too many of her buddies are around. I can live with that -- I'd hate to be the cause of someone breaking little kid social mores in front of her friends.

During the summer between the 3rd and 4th grade, she invited Stacey to come over and play one day, and when we saw where she lived, we understood what we thought of before as the odd behavior of her little tribe of friends. I think the fact that we never made a big deal about money or big houses, or made excuses to invite ourselves over helped her family warm up to us. Stacey and she aren't exactly close friends, but she does come over once in a blue moon for a sleepover, and Stacey and I get invited to big shindigs in her neighborhood.

The other girl who has the magic power to see otherwise invisible adults loved my cooking. I believe it was the tacos made with Old El Paso burrito mix that cinched it. That's always been a standby meal, quick, tasty, and high in fat -- my McDonalds dinner. She is a small, natural athlete, natural dancer, who is expressive sometimes and shy at others, embarrassed of her natural gifts. She, like some of Stacey's other friends, is comfortable at the house, free from older siblings and from being scolded for letting her hair down and going wild. What makes her special to me and why I'm glad Stacey and she are friends is a sort of Taoism she embodies. Basically no one hates her, and she never complains about anyone, odd traits for a 5th grader in the suburbs.

In the news, life is good. Stacey is rehearsing for this year's talent show, and was offered a solo in the finalè. I'm keeping my house nice and tidy, and my dog walked, through the miracle of listening to podcasts on my iPod, my personal "whistle while you work". I'm caught up on sleep and work. Lastly, Stacey brought home the total kick-ass report card for this 9 weeks, earning copious praise from her teachers.

Fun with bureaucracy

Note on cabinet at work yesterday: "Please return the four mugs reserved for guests."

Email to my floor this morning: "Please don't leave your dirty dishes in the sink."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Long Tail

It's Girl Scout Cookie time again, the time of year where I reflect on my ability and motivation to sell to people. This year, the market for cookies was very saturated, and I did little more than hit my "regulars" at work for a few boxes, and one or two shameless affairs such as getting a woman 8 months pregnant to buy 13 boxes. But, I kept plugging away slowly until the numbers added up. Stacey and I also do the traditional door-to-door selling, which is becoming more frowned upon in "these times". I found out two interesting things while selling at the office: No one sells out of their racial preference, and with a modest amount of effort, most anyone can be talked into a box of cookies or two, even if they've already purchased from someone else.

The racial preference thing was unexpected. I work with a lot of Indian IT contractors, and I found that absolutely none of them had been pitched, while the white people around them had. I talked three Indians into buying a total of 6 boxes, two of them having never bought Girl Scout cookies before (the other Indians I pitched to politely declined, one offered to just donate cash, which I politely declined). So basically there is an untapped market of polite middle class people, some of whom are eager to participate in bizarre American rituals like direct marketing of snacks to pay for a girls' group's activities. Not being racist, in this case, could conceivably be a money maker.

The "Long Tail" is an economic theory used mainly in reference to Amazon.com. The idea is basically that rare items will be in demand if you have a big enough collection of potential buyers. Amazon makes use of this idea by having access to a wide variety of rare items, and has a huge audience of buyers looking for some book from their childhood that they liked which isn't on the shelves of their local retailer. Undesirable men use this idea by not being deterred by the hundreds of women who reject their advances, until they find a "buyer" who sees some particular quality in them that is more important than their overall putridness.

Girl Scout cookies are neither rare nor putrid, but are available for just a few weeks a year, so it's easy to suggest a box or two to just about anyone, which I did. What I lacked in desire to hard sell a few people, I made up for in a long tail, selling 1-4 boxes to 20 people. Between that, Stacey and I hitting the neighborhood, and family sales, the Autery family had an above-average year with 140 boxes sold.

..and now for something completely different.

A gem from PRI's "This American Life", here's a depressing story about would-be Nazi Saboteurs, and the failed attempt by two of them to defect:
This American Life 2004 archive. Scroll to episode 260, The Facts Don't Matter, and look up some of what's being talked about here.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Oh Death

Oh Death please consider my age
Please don't take me at this stage
My wealth is all at your command
If you'll remove your icy hands

..or as I would put it:

Cry the winter knife
Over iron and shadow
When will the light fall?

Our frantic whisper
Hot wind, sunshine, run, play, dream
We ache for summer

Moments stare sadly
Still water rusts the thousand
Time sleeps without will

Basically I'm sore, exhausted, and cold. And I love it. Sunday was mentor fun day at OSU's RPAC (unsure of the acronym, but it's OSU's new workout facility. I spent a few hours there with Dave, both of us getting winded and banged up pretty bad playing basketball and volleyball. While this was going on, snow was accumulating when I wasn't home to clear the driveway and sidewalk. After hanging out at RPAC, I went to a friend's surprise 40th birthday, getting home at about 8pm, too worn out to clear the snow. I also didn't get up early enough this morning to clear it before going to work.

After work today, Stacey wanted me to take her out sledding, so off we went to a local hill. At some point, I went down to the bottom of the hill to play catcher, to prevent Stacey from sailing off into the trees if she came down too fast. [Sidenote: This reminds me of a Dan Simmons story in his short story collection Lovedeath called Entropy's Bed at Midnight, although I'd like to think I was freaking out about my child's welfare slightly less than the protagonist of that story.] So when it was time to trudge my way back up the hill, I wanted to go faster and decided to jog up the steep, snowy incline. When I got to the top, my heart was racing and I couldn't stop panting for a minute or two. 250 pounds, 75% grade, 40 yards, extra muscle tension to maintain balance on a slippery surface -- 'nuff said.

So when we got home, I just had an hour or two of daylight left, and wanted to clear the snow from the driveway, so I grabbed my little wussy snowshovel and went to work while Stacey started on a snowman, and played with one of the neighbor kids. The snow had a thin layer of ice on top of it, and some of the snow had partially melted and refrozen since the precipitation yesterday. So the shoveling went slow, and I was less than 100% when I started. But I kept going.

An hour later, I finished, getting as close to complete clearance as I could. I came close to stopping a few times, but the knowledge that some of the neighborhood kids were out and potential witnesses kept me going. I didn't want them to see me give up, so I kept plugging away, slowly, mindful of my pending heart attack, the racking pain in my palm from holding the shovel, and my knees and back from hunching over to sling the piles of snow.

And now, Oh Death, won't you spare me over til another year. Pain and fatigue like I haven't felt since I managed a pizza shop. A nice hot shower to relax the muscles, reruns of The Crodocile Hunter, and I'm at peace with the world, anxiously expecting a restful night's sleep. Like Grandma says, hard work never hurt nobody.

Fun with Archie

Look ma', I'm in the paper... if you don't mind my last name being misspelled as "Autury" instead of "Autery".

Last Thursday, I was honored by the Mentoring Center of Central Ohio as a "commended mentor" for having volunteered for Northwest Counseling over the last 4 years. My mentee, Dave, attended with me, as did my daughter Stacey, roommate Bill, and 5 members of my church group. It felt good to be recognized, but as the article above shows, I and 6 of my fellows were honored mainly as footnotes to the 3 "outstanding" mentors who have either been mentoring for much longer, or who have done some truly amazing work with a volatile kid. Considering my lack of a rich public speaking background, I was happy to only have to take my certificate, get a picture taken with the other guys, and go sit back down.

Archie Griffin was the keynote speaker. I had never heard him speak before, except for a Kroger commercial or two back in the day, so I was taken by complete surprise when he gave a moving, inspiring speech, with emphasis, full command of his audience, and barely glancing at his notes. He was even deferential to the event by slipping away quietly after his speech before autograph seekers would have ruined the spirit of lobbying for mentoring. I'm not a sports nut, and I'm also not a sucker for a tearjerker speech, nor do I tend to put people on pedestals, so I can say objectively that Archie is a class act.

As fate would have it, the company I work for, AEP, was one of the sponsors of the event, and a major contributor to local mentoring agencies. Accepting a certificate and being in a major contributors' group photo would have been the director who works on my floor, Velda Otey (my boss' boss' boss), but she was committed to two different publicity events that night. I saw her name tag as I walked in, so I looked for her during the pre-ceremony dinner. I saw her come in and went over to say hi, and she was talking with Marilyn Pritchett, director of the Mentoring Center about needing to leave. When Velda saw me she said "Oh, thank goodness, you can accept the award for AEP."

"Um... sure," says I, so along with having to stand up and walk to the stage a second time to get a second certificate (amid the confused looks of some of my guests), I was in a group photo with some big-wigs from major area businesses like Huntington Banks, Chase, Nationwide, etc. So basically there is a picture somewhere with directors and Vice Presidents of big companies, and me. I had trouble not laughing like a fool when the picture was snapped, as I had this brief fantasy of showing future viewers that I was the lone coder among high paid businessmen by doing something a geek might do in a formal picture: the Spock hand-sign. Live long and prosper, indeed.

Fortunately, common sense won out.

The best moment of the evening, by far, was the look of pride on my daughter's face when I walked up to the stage for the commended mentor certificate. On the way up, the speaker narrated who I was, how long I had been placed with Dave, and some of the major activities we had done (including our two Habitat for Humanities projects). Stacey stood and clapped uproariously, with the rest of the gang attending on my behalf, and despite my long-practiced emotional control, I was moved to near tears. Stacey can do that to me -- cleanse my soul, be the medicine for my sky.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oh The Ironcy

The year is 1993. I am making a whopping $6.25 an hour as a delivery driver for a local pizza chain, a then unheard of amount for a driver, but it was a small perk of stepping down from being an assistant manager. So what was I doing at 22 years old dropping out of a (mediocre) career path and not replacing it with something cooler, such as, say, college? Making $30,000 per year, that's what I was doing. How so? Delivery reimbursements at $0.75 each, the $1.25 average suburban tip, and about 35 deliveries per night. It works like this:

$6.25 x 40 = $250 in taxable pay per week, plus
($0.75 + $1.25) x 35 x 5 = $350 in cash, making
($250 + $350) x 50 = $30,000 per year, assuming 2 weeks of unpaid vacation.

So I averaged the same pay that I was getting as a manager, with a significant reduction in stress. Basically, I did so well for myself driving my car around town and listening to books on tape that I had no motivation to give up my lifestyle and live like a pauper, whether from working fewer hours and attending school, or from the giant pay cut I would take in an entry level position at a "real" company. I did the latter a couple years later, but all of this detracts from the anecdote. The point is, there I am, flipping pizza and observing the antics of my fellow man.

The head manager of the store I worked in, John, had a sycophant assistant manager, Debby, that was taken with him in a mad, unrequited love, and hung on his every word. One of my fellow manager-come-drivers, Dave, worked in the store with the three of us. Dave was sarcastic and aloof, and rarely had an honest conversation that wasn't full of double meaning or disparaging undercurrents. He was our local Stephen Colbert, the brilliance of his antics being lost on the people around him, who thought him simply ignorant and grouchy. Naturally, I liked him.

One day Dave had a conversation with John and Debby that they recounted to me, to illustrate that Dave wasn't as smart as he pretended to be. I don't remember the details of the conversation, but the punchline was Dave turning to Debby and saying "That's ironcy for ya'", pronouncing irony as "eye-ron-see". Debby gave him a puzzled look, and he shrugged and bobbed his head in a mock self-deprecating gesture and said "OK, Debby, ironcky", pronouncing irony as "eye-ronk-ee". Not exactly high comedy, but for something spur of the moment, it was still pretty good.

I insisted to them that Dave knew very well how to pronounce "irony", and this was an elaborate case of playing country-dumb, that John and Debby were both supposed to understand was an act. They would have none of it. No, Dave went around using words incorrectly because, despite his indications otherwise, he isn't any smarter than we regular folk.

I didn't understand then why they couldn't see the encounter as a gag, how Dave correcting himself with another incorrect word was typical of him being silly to pass the time. Were John and Debby incapable of that type of abstraction? I didn't think so. Were they threatened by Dave and latched onto every opportunity to vindicate themselves by making him out to be stupid? I swayed between those two beliefs until recently, but now I think something else was going on.

I think there is a class of people who can't read minutiae -- subtle gestures, inflection, pauses, facial tics, and some more intangible cues. Some of us can see them, others can't. Most people read each other just fine in normal social interaction; for example, people can tell right away which smiles from members of the opposite sex are cheerful, and which are amorous. Most people can tell when a toddler wants to be picked up, whether an upset person is angry or only sad, and dozens of other normal human things. However, some people can't read the subtleties, or the meaning someone is trying to broadcast if it falls outside of the basics, unless they broadcast very strongly and unambiguously.

Put simply, some people can't "feel" that the other guy is being sarcastic unless it is grossly overdone. If I'm right about this, then I have my explanation of why the world is so loud to me and my ilk. If I'm right, that explains why most popular stand-up comics are the ones with the wildest mannerisms or atypical voices. Think about it: Sam Kinison. Mork. Rodney Dangerfield. Carrot Top. Buddy Hacket. All people with broad appeal, and all a little over the top in their own way. But not Dave. No, he had to stick with pizza until he put himself through school.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Latest Projects

I've had a lot of fun lately with my first gen iPod Shuffle. It's a mere 512 megs, huge by the standards of 5 years ago, but low-end compared to the competing devices of 2007. Even though there are shinier, more powerful gadgets out there, the Shuffle does well for me.

It all started, oddly, when I bought my new car, a Saturn Vue. The Vue came with a free month of XM radio, which I did not renew, but is magically still working more than 2 months later, which I imagine they will try to bill me for. After browsing around through stations, I found XMPR in the talk radio block of stations, which is basically NPR for XM. So far I have been spared pledge drives.

Leaving for work at 6 in the morning, I found a great show on XMPR, "This American Life". The show is basically long interviews with people on a variety of topics, grouped into shows on the same theme. It was contemplative, reflective, funny, and moving, and I loved it. I loved it so much, I wanted to be able to regularly hear an entire episode, so I searched for their podcast on npr.org. I found "This American Life", as well as "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me", "Science Friday", "Pop Culture", and "World Cafe: Next" podcasts, and set about configuring a Linux app, Rhythmbox, to subscribe to and download as much of them as I could.

Why not just use iTunes on the Mac? Two reasons. First, it's Stacey's Mac, and I moved it into her room after her last birthday. Second, being in front of iTunes makes it too tempting to spend money on music or shows I may or may not listen to. No, a Linux replacement solution, free of charge and free from temptation was called for.

I bought my Shuffle in 2005, when they first came out. I used it excessively at first, mainly when working out, and imported most of my CD collection into iTunes. I tried an FM transmitter device to hear my music through the car stereo, but had poor luck with it, and poor luck again with a different brand, so I gave up. Over time, my excitement about the Shuffle abated, and it fell into disuse. Until recently.

As it turns out, the radio in my Vue has a standard mini input jack. I was able to take a mini-to-mini cable from my computer speakers, and use it to connect the Shuffle directly to the car stereo. A little tinkering around with output levels, and I was able to get pretty good sound.

At that point, I had a working podcast snagger for Linux, and a working Shuffle-to-car-speakers interface, leaving only a way to get the NPR shows onto the Shuffle using Linux. That problem has been solved 10 times over, which a quick web search told me. I downloaded a small Python script to update the iPod's database files, and found I could mount the Shuffle as a USB drive, copy mp3 files to it, run the Python script, and be in business.

And in business I am, and have been happily listening to podcasts and some ripped CDs in the car and on walks for the past couple weeks. I haven't taken on any geeky side-projects for a long time, having come close a few times to swearing off technology. This project had a clear goal, didn't require much time (no coding, just web searches), and as a side benefit improves the health of me and my dog. Not only do I spend more time doing laundry and dishes while listening to the iPod, but I take more walks, at work for lunch, and at home with Heidi.

Not much other news to report. I discovered another standard suburban tradition that was under my nose for years, but I never noticed: holiday gifts for teachers, troop leaders, coaches, et al. So now I'm guiltily trying to catch up on some gifts for the major adult players in Stacey's life. For the music teacher, I have a DVD burned of the latest Christmas concert -- that was a no brainer, really, as I had already made one for family when I went down to NC this Christmas. I came up with a suitable gift idea for Stacey's Girl Scouts troop leader to spring on her when it's my turn to bring snacks for the girls, but that will deserve its own write-up later. (You don't read my blog, do you Cheri?)

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Fun

My power went out today for about an hour. There was a delay between the lights going off and the sound of the transformer blowing of about a half-second. Normal speed of sound is 344m/s, so I'll guesstimate the problem came from about 200 meters away (or about an eighth of a mile for you non-geeks), and sounded to me like it came from the southeast, putting the blown transformers here:

I may have to hike over there later today to see if those are really transformers and if any evidence of recent work on them has been done. Alternatively, I could sign onto work and see if any AEP trouble tickets for this area have been entered, however most of the lines in town are owned by Westerville's utility department and not AEP, so I might have to put my shoes on to go check it out.

The Christmas trip down to North Carolina was good. I wrote a CQ article that detailed one thing I witnessed. Stacey was glad to see the family down there, especially Grandma and Great-grandma. It's nice that Stacey has had a relationship with her great-grandmother. I met mine only a couple of times as a boy before she died. My memories of her are few, but I saw the respect and deference given to her by older relatives such as my grandmother and grandfather, and it struck me as curious. Stacey has had a strong relationship with her great-grandmother (and is well liked by the other 16 of the family down there, and is known on sight by most of the roughly 150 family members attending our annual family reunions). She's a lot more engaged with them than I was at her age, which makes me very happy.

This week we've been recovering from our trip, playing games we got as Christmas presents (my favorite being Marvel Comics Monopoly, her's being the stand-alone console game Dream Life), seeing Pursuit of Happyness (++good), attending a modest sized alcohol-free New Year's Eve party, and cooking breakfast over a match-lit gas stove while the power was out.

At work all the year-end projects got done on time, despite my getting a last minute project in early December, and three projects that a co-worker couldn't complete because she was out on sick leave. My boss is happy, and the bonuses come March should be decent, both nice, but both paling in comparison to quality time I've had for the last two weeks with my daughter, mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousins, cousins-in-law, and their children.

All that plus the long weekend, and I'm ready to tackle the menial chores of life with full vigor come Tuesday.