Wednesday, March 28, 2007


My daughter, Stacey, is my life's focus, and most of my excess energy is spent on her entertainment and well-being, and fretting about her safety and future. Although I dote on her friends somewhat when the occasion calls for it, such as getting her friends the cool Hillary Duff T-shirts when a couple of them went with Stacey and me to see her in concert, or fixing extra plates for dinner when the stragglers playing at our house get hungry, I rarely focus on any one of them to the point that it stands out. This last Girl Scouts meeting was an exception.

One of the girls in her troop, Taylor, is allergic to peanuts. When she comes over to spend the night, we always make sure she has her epi-pen, and that I don't have any menu plans involving peanut butter or tree nuts of any kind (to err on the side of caution), and if we eat out we alert the restaurant staff of the allergy, etc. I read some time ago about a peanut butter substitute made from sunflower seeds, Sunbutter. Around Christmas last year, I bought some and tried it out, and it was pretty tasty. Stacey and I thought it would be a nice Christmas present for Taylor and her father (also allergic) if we made some buckeyes out of it.

I had never made buckeyes before, so I found a recipe and substituted Sunbutter for the amount of peanut butter the recipe called for. They turned out edible, but much too sweet due to my chocolate selection, and a little sticky since I didn't use any paraffin or shortening with the chocolate. I was disappointed, but Stacey, being 10, didn't mind the super-sweetness of them. We delivered them to Taylor's house, to moderate fanfare and a couple of goodbye hugs. It was a nice moment, sure, but I knew I could make better product for round 2.

Round 2 came on Tuesday the 20th, when it was our turn to bring snacks to Girl Scouts. Historically, Stacey and I had brought snacks near Thanksgiving and again near my birthday. This was due to the snack list being alphabetized, and our last name starting with A. This was a great system for me, since I like making pumpkin pies and birthday cake, but the snack order was changed this year, and the Autery's got stuck with St. Patrick's Day instead. In the intervening months, I had procured a double-boiler, semi-sweet chocolate chips, a block of paraffin, and of course another batch of Sunbutter.

After school on the day of the meeting, Stacey and I worked together to make the evening's snacks. We took turns mixing the dough, I melted the wax and chocolate, and Stacey used a toothpick to dip the dough balls into the chocolate. The result was an order of magnitude tastier than my first attempt, and the troop gobbled down all 35 of them, concurring with my quality assessment. They also ate about half of the Christmas wreaths (cornflakes + marshmallow + green food coloring) we made because it was close to St. Patrick's Day, and they were green.

The punchline to all this was Stacey introducing the snacks not as buckeyes, but as "Taylor-tots", to the great amusement of the other girls. So our choice of snack was influenced by the food allergy of one girl, but the joy was still in the family candy making that Stacey and I did side by side.

In the news, Stacey's soccer season has started up again. A few of the girls from the fall season (Melany, Holly, Rachel, Bob/Katie, and Nicole) are back on the same team, along with some new girls (Margaret, Kelly, Haley, and a few I can't remember yet). Last season's coach isn't coaching this season, as his daughter has a leg injury and can't play, so one of the WASA organizers is sub coaching for us. He's a good guy, older, and has a good understanding of the game and how to herd rowdy 10 year olds into being productive. I predict that our team, using the placeholder name "Totally Turquoise Turtles", will fare better this season than we did last fall.

It just occurred to me that I never answered the riddle from March 1 about what color hat Sam is wearing. He's wearing a red one. Here is the sentence that gives it away:

"Sam sees that Frank is wearing a white hat, and Bob a red one..."

If either Frank or Bob saw two white hats, they would know that they were wearing red, otherwise they can't be sure. Since they both said they didn't know, neither of them saw two white hats. Since Frank was wearing a white hat, if Sam's hat were white, then Bob would have confidently announced his color... but he didn't, meaning he saw a white hat (Frank's), and a red hat (Sam's).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Valentine's Day party and Talent Show '07

The Valentine's Day party at Stacey's school this year was perhaps the single best run school event I've ever attended. A very type-A personality mom organized everything, reserved the gym to let the kids run off some energy, and thought up games and puzzles for the kids to play. A few of the parents, myself included, were left with very little to do. I managed to help set up some games, haul heavy stuff, and pass out goodies in the rooms. I imagine it's sort of funny to see me, 6'5" and 260 pounds, weave in and out of desks in a crowded room full of hyper kids without flattening anyone -- the years working in a kitchen full of gossiping teenagers gives me an edge. I felt like a fifth wheel for the majority of the party, but it was still nice to be there with Stacey, and at least somewhat engaged with the kids, students, and the moms. Oh! There was another dad there for a change!

This year's talent show had some hardships for Stacey, but it was ultimately a success. First, Stacey was out of singing lessons for about 6 months, and had 6 more months of tween defiance in her when we started lessons again. At one point the voice coach got upset with her because of what she perceived as smugness and questioning the quality of the choreography. An upset thespian is a strange sight to see, but fortunately she and Stacey were able to heal their little rift. My advice to Stacey consisted of the usual: trust the teacher, pay attention more, mouth off less.

In addition to that, Stacey wasn't invited to any group acts with her friends (and conversely didn't ask any of her friends to team up). Seeing kids at school in Stacey's grade that are fast friends and watching Stacey be on the periphery, not being outright rejected, but not being embraced, really makes my heart sink. Stacey herself doesn't seem unhappy with the situation, and I think her habit of embracing everyone and avoiding playing favorites keeps her out of the popular "cliques", a fact I'm OK with. I just easily slip into seeing it through my own school experiences, always the outsider, moving from town to town several times until High School, and I don't want Stacey to have to go through that. On the other hand: 14. 14 friends have spent the night with her over the last few years. Even though I get emotional about Stacey not being invited to do a group act like some of the other girls in her Girl Scouts troop, she does just fine by herself. And she loves too many people to have them all up on stage with her.

Another wrench in the works was really more of an opportunity. While she was busy retraining her voice and getting a crash-course on her act, she was offered a solo in the finale by the show coordinators. They still feel bad about the "Annie" incident from two years ago where Stacey showed her stage presence and confidence by continuing on with her act after her music died, and since this is the last year she's in elementary school, they offered her a special bonus. And when I say "a solo in the finale", I mean conducting the finale in its entirety.

Stacey was given a show tune, "Before the Parade Passes By" from "Hello, Dolly!", to perform, where she would sing alone on stage while the rest of the acts would come out on stage and take their final bows. When I found out what the finale was going to look like, I was shocked. There was a lot more work Stacey had to do, with only a few weeks to practice, but she pulled it off, and with class. What a hard worker she is, with all the imagined invulnerability of youth on her side.

At the show, her solo act, Ev'rybody Wants to be a Cat (coincidentally my favorite childhood song), went off without a hitch, to a smattering of polite applause. When the next act, a group of popular girls, was introduced, thunderous applause and squeals from the group's hangers-on was an order of magnitude louder and more enthusiastic. It was a very Donny Darko moment, as if she were dancing the autumn angel act before Sparkle Motion came on.

The finale was a different animal, though. Stacey was beautiful in her formal dress and make-up, full of poise, singing in a voice stronger and surer than her 10 years should allow. She sang a few measures of the song quietly, in tune, with nary a quaver, and then the curtain was raised. Each act would come out and bow, to the applause of parents and shrieks of groupies, and as Stacey's voice threatened to be drowned out, she would smile and sing just a little bit louder...

With the rest of them, with the best of them
I can hold my head up high
For I've got a goal again, I've got a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again

This pattern continued, and was almost a fight between little girls hooting for their friends and Stacey keeping her song above the distraction, until she was damned near bellowing...

When the whistles blow, and the cymbals crash
And the sparklers light up the sky
I'm gonna raise the roof, I'm gonna carry on
Give me an old trombone, give me an old baton
Before the parade passes by

And raise the roof and carry on she did. It was beautiful. When it was time to leave, we were stopped several times by adults heaping copious praise on Stacey on how strong and "grown up" her voice was, and how pretty she looked, future greatness, etc., etc. Instead of the typical "that's mah girl" proud daddy reply, to the moms and dads I'm close to I gave an honest reply of variations on "I knew she was good, but I didn't know she could do that. I'm just as stunned as you are."

Monday, March 05, 2007

Burning the candle at both ends

First of all, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 be damned. This is the piece of legislation that is causing me no end of headaches right now. The last problem legislation for me was the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, or the "Don't be like Enron, cuz we'll cut ya', fool" act. Sarbox was so broad in what it required IT groups to do to come into compliance, that several groups I work with were in panicked fire-drill mode for months. My individual requirements to help get us in compliance were negligible; it was the procedures we all had to follow that were changing. Not so with the energy act, or the "when do we spring forward, again?" act.

The energy act, along with giving tax breaks to Texas companies, changes the cutovers to and from Daylight Saving Time from the old dates in April and October, to new dates in March and November, and reserves the right to revert back in 9 months when it will be shown that no energy savings occurred, which has already been predicted by this study [pdf]. However, tens of thousands of man hours are being spent in coding and applying patches to account for the new DST schedule, and, similarly, tens of thousands more man hours will be required in a couple years when we switch back to the 1986 DST schedule. The great irony is that this will require a lot of computers to be switched on longer, consuming more energy.

So Sarbox didn't require the expenditure of much mental anguish on my part, just learning a new set of rules -- so much like a normal re-org that it mostly went over without any turbulence. The new DST dates, however, were a nightmare. A couple days last week I stayed up patching servers until the wee hours of the morning, only to return to work at 6:30am to start my normal work day. At work I tested vendor-supplied patches, coded some changes into one of my own at-risk programs (which, among other things, is responsible for sending our payroll file to the bank on time), and helped develop procedures to bring down services, failover to the backup system, fail back, and verify that all the services were working.

During all this, I was still a father, and I struggled to keep my participation in my daughter's life up where it is supposed to be. DARE graduation was last week, as was picking up Girl Scout cookies, getting presents for a friend's birthday, getting Stacey into extra voice lessons before the talent show, Introduce a Girl to Engineering day, and the Daddy/Daughter dance. By the end of the week, I was physically exhausted and short of temper. Friday night I crashed at 7pm, and slept until 6 Saturday morning.

On Saturday, I felt better, but spent close to 6 hours with a friend of Eric, my neighbor, helping her move. She was getting evicted from her house, her daughter was moving out of her boyfriend's place, and both of them were getting an apartment together. They were short on money and time, and couldn't hire movers, so Eric volunteered and rounded up as much help as he could find. I brought Dave, my mentee, who is no longer a little whelp, and in all there were 6 volunteers helping the ladies move. Two of them had to leave after an hour, a third left after three hours, leaving the lion's share of the work to Eric, Dave, and myself. It was strenuous work, and we had a strict timeline, so the three of us really had to put our backs into it. We got them moved on time, and the ladies were visibly grateful for the help.

After burning the candle at both ends to help my employer comply with an arbitrary, government mandated change, I collapsed for 11 hours, awaking slightly revitalized, only to push myself the next day helping some nice ladies keep their heads above water. I found that while the fiasco with Daylight Saving Time took all the life out of me, making me cranky and less daddy-like, helping the women move brought the joy of being alive back. Despite being sore and worn out, I'm happy to have gone through it. It brought back the joy I felt a few years ago volunteering with the kids at Annehurst. It brought back the memory of the look of pride in my daughter's eyes. It made me feel like winter was ending, and sunshine was just around the corner. It was substantive and worthwhile, and my body is bouncing back from it quickly... just in time to lose an hour of sleep next weekend.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Words that end in -gry

I found this riddle today in an alt.usage.english FAQ:

Think of words ending in 'gry'. Angry and hungry are two of them.
There are only three words in the English language. What is the
third word?

The FAQ talks about some word and phrase origins that are in question (posh, widget, face the music, get the lead out, etc.), examples of common English usage that is in dispute (begs the question, near miss, could of), and words that people are commonly looking for, like the name of the grass strip between the road and the sidewalk. And words ending in -gry, specifically to answer the riddle above, and thereby missing the entire point. Let me re-punctuate one of those sentences, in case you've never seen that one before:

There are only three words in "the English language".

Get it?

It's a corny joke, really, and one my daughter found some time ago and showed off to me. Those situations present me with a problem, namely I don't find the joke very funny, but I love it when my daughter thinks to share "cool" things she finds at school with me. I don't fake emotion I'm not feeling with her because I want to be honest with her (and because I normally don't have to -- I'm happy when she's around, and she's into some interesting stuff now), so I struggle with encouraging her to bring stuff like that to me, and try to remember how if it were brand new to me, and I were 10, how differently I would see it.

For the -gry words, there are several, most not used in common English. Here are three, in addition to "hungry" and "angry", that I don't think the reader will need defined:


This reminds me of a period in my life where I was asked a lot of what were thought to be "brain stimulating" questions. The year is 1980. After scoring high on the California Achievement Test, I am enrolled for the fourth grade in the Walkertown Gifted and Talented program near Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

It was an experimental program, complete with a Spanish teacher who would come in once a week and read random Spanish stories and have us try to guess what they were about, a week long field trip of the state (the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers museum were my personal highlights), and the aforementioned stimulating questions brought up in class frequently. Here are a few examples:

A man hears his doorbell in the middle of the night, and answers the door, turning on the porch light. Before he can invite his guest in, he sees the dust in the air moving around, illuminated by the porch light, and he begins a sneezing fit. What happened? Did the light energy move the dust? Did he see the dust, and think about sneezing? Was the dust always moving and him opening the door let it in? [This question was left open-ended, used similarly to a Zen koan.]

Three prisoners, Frank, Bob, and Sam, are offered the chance to be let go, if they can guess the color of the hat on their head without looking at it. If they guess wrong, they are shot and killed, if they say they don't know, they just stay in prison. There are 5 hats in a trunk, two of them white, three of them red. The men are blindfolded, random hats are put on their heads, and the trunk is then closed, and the blindfolds are taken off. Frank says "I don't know," as does Bob. Sam sees that Frank is wearing a white hat, and Bob a red one, and gets the benefit of being able to analyze their hats and their decision not to guess before announcing what color he is wearing. Can he really be sure what color hat he is wearing, and if so, what color is it? [I'll post the answer to this on Monday, to give anyone interested a chance to solve it.]

And the pièce de résistance, a written test the class was given:
1 - Read all the questions in this test.
2 - Add these numbers: 1,4,17,22
3 - Count backwards from 10 to 1, aloud.
4 - more inane simple tasks..
50 - Now that you've read all the questions, stop here and turn the test in without answering any questions.

Now, the problem with this test that I had at the time was simple, and defeated the whole point of the exercise - question 50 was illegible. The entire test was handwritten, and photocopied poorly for all the students. When the teacher wrote the test, she didn't leave enough space for question 50, so wrote it very small at the bottom of the page. I could not read the question, the punchline of the test, so I took the paper to the teacher and asked "What does this say?"

She smiled and shook her head. I didn't understand why she was smiling or why she wouldn't decipher her henscratch, so I went back to my desk and finished the questions I could read, including counting aloud, like most of the other kids ended up doing. A few kids successfully deciphered the last question, and did not take the test.

Years later, my own daughter was subjected to something similar, and when she told me about it, something straightforward occurred to me: logically, you should still take the test. The first question asks simply to read all the questions, not to act on them, and certainly not to "jump out of the system", as Doug Hofstadter would say, and follow the instructions on only question 50.

My teacher said, smugly, approximately the same thing Stacey's did: This was a test to see who was paying attention to detail. Like the "ends with -gry" exercise, this attempts to be funny, and fails. If I had been able to read the last question on my test, I probably wouldn't have taken the test, like a few others. Not because it made sense to do it that way, but because I was lazy, and erred on the side of least action when faced with ambiguity.