Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Unveiling

Yesterday I presented to Stacey's Girl Scouts troop leaders a pair of wood plaques based on the following design:

A man I know at work has a laser engraver, and has a standing offer to do some custom designs for people at work. I'm not naturally an arts and crafts guy, so I never investigated the idea until just recently. I had been put on a pair of projects with him, and during some ADHD moments when I couldn't concentrate for very long on any one thing, I asked him about some of the wood items in his cube. One was a small cutout of a helicopter, another a plaque with an armed forces logo and a division number (23rd Airborne, something like that).

They were interesting and well put together, so I gave some thought to what I would like to see made. I'm a big fan of my daughter, so I first thought of making a design for her (which is coming once I find the perfect set of icons, more on that later), but I couldn't piece together a decent template after a couple passes at it, so I put the project idea on the back-burner. Then I noticed a few items I had sitting in my cubical at work for years: Cards with the signatures of Stacey's Girl Scouts troop.

A few years back, I taught for a Brownies Try-It badge, my most miserable failure of a computer class. The Try-It was "Point, Click, and Go", and I had about 20 minutes to manage 10 well sugared 1st graders and go over some basic computer information. It was horrible, showing me the differences between teaching to 5th and 1st graders, between school and extracurricular settings, and between early morning and pre-bedtime classes. The Brownies class was all of the latter, my stunning success of a volunteer gig that year was a PowerPoint class for 5th graders taught at around 10am.

Anyway, though the class didn't turn out as well as I expected, the kids and troop leader still thanked me, and the girls signed a piece of paper they printed out in Word. It has clip-art of a man sitting at a computer, and the text "THANK YOU!! Mr. Autery From TROOP 1711!!" I have kept it at work with me since March of 2003. A pair of the girls who signed it, Anna and Amanda aren't at the school now.

On my birthday in 2005, and the day before my birthday in 2006, it was coincidentally Stacey's turn to bring snacks to the Girl Scouts meeting. I enjoy baking for kids, and usually go overboard for Stacey's troop meetings. Near Thanksgiving I had always brought the troop homemade pumpkin pie, and in the Spring I did Rice Krispies treats and either brownies or cake. On the 05 and 06 meetings that were near my birthday, Stacey rounded up the girls to make me a big construction paper birthday card, both of which, again, have been sitting in my cubicle at work since I received them.

The cards inspire me, as do the 12 or so pictures of Stacey from different ages, the thank you cards on Volunteer Day from the Annehurst kids I taught Powerpoint and Excel to, the simple "I love you dad" on notebook paper and the lamenated valentine from Stacey, the CompuServe "Ovation" award for coding the CSLive logfile analyzer in 1997, my recent Commended Mentor certificate from the Mentoring Center of Central Ohio, a snapshot of me with Stacey on my lap with 6 girls I was teaching Excel to for a stock market project at Stacey's school, and, oddly, the picture of me and Teresa kissing outside the church on our wedding day. All these items help me keep centered when I'm upset, keep me moving when I'm feeling lazy, and are a peaceful respite from crazy IT snafus and company politics. I could survive without them, but it would be harder.

So there I am with three cards chocked full of little girl signatures, a good woodworker willing to do little projects for his buddies, a "multi function device" printer that had a scanner and file server, a copy of the graphics program "The GIMP", and a little downtime between work projects. So I spent a little time scanning and cropping at work, a lot of time doctoring and filtering at home, and the image above is what I ended up with. A plaque with the Girl Scouts "Trefoil" logo, the troop number, and real signatures from all the girls who have been in the troop since March of 2003, even the two who moved to different schools.

Here is the final product, rendered a little poorly thanks to my el-cheapo HP 215 camera:

I had two of them made identically, one for each troop leader. Stacey brought them into the troop meeting yesterday, and I gave a brief summary to the ladies of how it was made, and where the signatures came from. One of them almost cried, they both hugged me, and then I crept away quietly as to refrain from grandstanding. When I came to pick Stacey up from the meeting, I sort of snuck in and snuck out. I didn't mention the project to the girls or the other parents (except for one a few weeks ago, who's daughter was my only missing signature -- she coaxed the girl to sign a piece of paper without explaining why, and I was able to also include her on the plaques), and I did everything possible to present this as a random present out of the blue, and to shy away from anything smacking of "ain't I cool!? Doesn't everyone just love me now!?"

It is my hope that Cheri and MaryAnn will enjoy their gifts, and perhaps will hang them in a peaceful place they use as respite from the world and for inspiration to keep up the fight.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I've been obsessed with Boggle lately. I'm in the process of writing a CQ tech experiment article about my struggles and ultimate success in creating a perl Boggle board generator/solver, which is a lengthy story that I'll spare you here. I bought a "Boggle Deluxe" game for Stacey this Christmas, and we've played some games on it, and found it to be fun and to have a little learning curve while your brain pumps new blood into its pattern matching areas.

She and I have fun at restaurants with kids' menus that have word search games on them. Usually a word search will have items from the menu hidden on the board, or the theme of the restaurant (e.g, Bob Evans has "breakfast", "bacon", etc.). After we quickly find those words, we set about using a different colored crayon to circle words that they didn't intend to put on the board, usually three letter words put there randomly -- cat, hip. So Boggle was a natural extension for us for a family game.

I don't recall mentioning that to anyone, so it came as a surprise last week when my neighbors were playing Boggle on a board they just bought. I joined in their game and thought I was doing fair, but I came in last place. The game winner, who spends a good part of his downtime solving crossword puzzles, scored half again as much as I did. Humbling, sure, but it inspired me to go figure out what I was doing wrong and train myself to do better.

First, I needed to understand the game better, so off I went examining the game and writing perl code. Along the way I laughed, I cried, and learned an important lesson about love... oh wait, that was the Disney channel that was on in the background. What I did learn was that the dice in a standard 4x4 Boggle set were substantially different from the dice in Stacey's 5x5 Boggle Deluxe set, so no analysis of likely big words on 4x4 would give me an unfair advantage when I played the game with my daughter. The 4x4 set dice are set up thusly:

a a e e g n
a b b j o o
a c h o p s
a f f k p s
a o o t t w
c i m o t u
d e i l r x
d e l r v y
d i s t t y
e e g h n w
e e i n s u
e h r t v w
e i o s s t
e l r t t y
h i m n qu u
h l n n r z

There are 7 letters appearing on only one die, namely b, f, j, k, qu, x, and z. This means words that have any of those letters doubled can't be spelled on a Boggle board. Words such as abbey (two b's), pizza (two z's), and offer (two f's) are examples of this. Further examination shows oddities like you can't spell a word with both f and k, b and j, and you can't spell a word with two c's and one m, or two m's and one c.

Once I finished the board generator and solver, I struggled to find a good workable word list, having trouble with lists that had slang, acronyms, proper names, or that were missing plural and past-tense forms of words. I settled on an official Scrabble word list, and even it wasn't perfect, missing the famous Boggle 17-letter words "quadricentennials" and "sesquicentennials" (spellable with 16 Boggle dice because one of the dice is "qu"), but that did contain "inconsequentially".

Phase two of the project had a high geek-index, writing a perl script to take my Scrabble word list and make a Boggle lexicon out of it, figuring out exactly which words could be spelled with the dice and which could not. I've taken the list of words that can't be spelled with Boggle dice and put them here.

And speaking of words...

Geek rant of the day

I hate the IT world's appropriation and misuse of the word "Agnostic". It is used to indicate that something doesn't see a certain layer, and the designer doesn't care about it. For example, the Java language is operating system agnostic. Cell phones are spoken language agnostic. Java should work on any OS, and cell phones should carry any spoken language.

Agnostic, of course, is not the right word. If you break it down etymologically, you get "against knowledge", which sort of implies what the tech use is, but common usage of the word refers to not knowing if God is real. OK, so Java doesn't know if God is real, and neither do cell phones. I accept that premise, but it still doesn't convey what Joe IT flunky is trying to say. What he is trying to say is "Java is OS ignorant", or "Java is OS uncaring", but those just make Java sound like a jerk. Instead, a better sounding word was misappropriated, the speaker sounds more intelligent, Java doesn't sound like a jerk, and language as a whole suffers at the hands of vanity. Again.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Pop the drop

I can understand the appeal of the Polar Bear Club. For the last few weeks, I've been taking my dog for an evening walk in the increasingly cold weather. I put on a couple layers of clothes, bundle up in my comfortable winter coat (thanks, Kelsey), throw on an iPod, hat and gloves, grab the leash, and off we go in a roughly 1¼ mile square to Stacey's school and back. Each night recently it has been getting progressively more uncomfortable, and after grocery shopping Sunday out in the 3° cold, I had to skip the nightly walk to stay thawed out (plus not wanting to get run over by crazed sports fans on a beer run).

Monday morning I made up for it in the 0° cold by walking the roughly 1 mile round trip to my bank from the office. The wind blew all the heat off of my cheeks, so I kept a downward gaze with most of my face buried in my coat. It was borderline painful to look up and check my surroundings (which I do frequently in a constant vigil to avoid ninjas and panhandlers), but I didn't need to often, as the streets were predictably empty. When I got back to work, I was completely fatigued and didn't get my second wind for about an hour. The struggle to keep yourself warm can really sap the energy out of you.

0°, incidentally, appears to be the temperature that causes schools to close in suburban Ohio. Between two days of brrr and the snow today, my kid's school has been closed for three days in a row.

I've decided to replace Diet Mt. Dew with a generic grocery store knock-off, Big K Diet Citrus Drop. The Kroger brand drink also has a knock-off slogan, "Pop the drop" replacing Mountain Dew's "Do the dew". It's cheap ($3 for 5 two liters), and uses real live aspartame instead of Dew's "tuned up" sucralose. Nasty.

So I've been in touch with my inner 16 year-old girl this morning. I opted to work from home because of last night's snow, so I've got MTV on in the background. I've been listening to such musical atrocities as R&B posers bragging on their lovemaking prowess, the misunderstood emo complaining about being... misunderstood, new school grunge in a pale imitation of Nirvana, and other styles that have me scratching my head as why kids go around quoting their lyrics. Of course, there's plenty of music in my generation to compare with this level of madness, for every Santana and Yes there was a Flock of Seagulls and Foreigner.

Amid all the crap on MTV this morning, I found myself enjoying some gems, namely Fall Out Boy and Gym Class Heroes. I couldn't help myself. Reminds me of the guilty pleasure I had enjoying myself at the Hillary Duff concert when I took Stacey and two neighbor girls last year.

Lastly, the Girl Scouts Daddy-Daughter dance is coming up here in late February, where we do some old dances like the Twist, the Hokey Pokey, and the Electric Slide. Based on this latest news, I'll need to make sure we do the Electric Slide correctly so we don't get sued.