Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost
The end is nigh.
My grandmother called me Sunday night. She informed me that God may take my daughter away from me because she was at home by herself before the age of 16. Either God, or my ex-wife's parents.
After getting divorced and re-married, I can no longer claim the "head of household" tax status, and Scout's mother can no longer receive as many college grants, or any government subsidies to pay for Scout's daycare. Living in sin, by contrast, is much more cost effective. The higher tax obligation and new funds requirement for little Scout coupled with other financial support of my family (both cars, mortgage, the usual home expenses) has drained me of disposable income.
Tack onto all that the downturn of the American economy, AEP did not give raises to anyone this year, and the loss of my long-time roommate. No raise, no help with the mortgage, no tax refund, and an unexpected $130/wk daycare expense. I have since drained my emergency savings account trying to stay above water.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
I was once a fulltime reader, a book nut who, in my sparsely furnished apartment, had an easy chair with a stack of books on both sides. The year was 1992, I was 21, living alone, and perpetually broke - but didn't really notice. I had no computer (save a beat-up and ageing Apple //c) and no television, just a CD player with which to play my Jimmy Buffett and Led Zeppelin, and a Half-Price Books habit. When I would get home from work, I would put on some music, cook and eat dinner, clean the kitchen, and then sit in the chair to read until I was too tired to continue. When I had finished a book, I would place it on top of the stack on the right side of the chair, and then grab the next book from the stack on the left.
Since then, life moved on, and I lost at first the time to read, and then the habit. Now I'm lucky to finish three physical books in a year. I have cheated on reading by listening to audiobooks in my car on long trips, or on the commute to work - a habit I picked up when I delivered pizza and got tired of the radio.
I stumbled across the above quote last week, and it really struck a nerve with me. I reflected for a while on the days of the simple apartment that I lived alone in, the chair, and the stack of books. And then I began thinking of my Hamlets and Dantes - Siri and Miles Teg, Fiver and Joseph Knecht - and the fantastic worlds opened to me from the stack of books, and the books read to me in my car. So like we geeks do, I made a list. Below are some of the more creative or personally influencing works I've come across. I expect everyone has heard of some of these, possibly most of them, but some of them are gems I stumbled across that I have never heard discussed, which is a shame, because they're all brilliant and everyone needs to read them.
Here, then, are my 15 recommendations of books worth reading. Ideally, you should read all of them, and we should get together at the local pub and talk about how awesome they were over brews and greasy food... but I'll take what I can get. I'll write some basic setting details and impressions, and I'll do my best not to ruin the stories by revealing too much plot.
1) Across the Nightingale Floor - Lian Hearn
Friday, October 23, 2009
I worked from home yesterday so that Scout wouldn't have to go to daycare for the few hours between Liberty leaving for work and me coming home. The day was uneventful, Scout played quietly while I worked, I made her some lunch, she watched a movie, then I was done with work and we went out.
We went to Stacey's school to watch Stacey play in the annual Powderpuff football game between the 7th and 8th grade girls. Stacey's team won handily (34 to 6, I believe), and she managed to get a little muddy, a little banged up, but in good spirits overall. Scout was happily cheering for a little while, but quickly became bored with the game, and struck up a conversation with the 5 year old beside her. A transcript, F for friend, S for Scout:
F "I like your Hello Kitty shoes."
S "Thanks, I like your Hello Kitty necklace."
F "Thanks, my mom got it for me. Do you live on Greenwood drive?*" * - name changed, not actually Greenwood drive
S "No, we live in Westerville."
F "Are you in school?"
S "Yes, I go to dinosaur school."
(pause to hear my whispers)
S "Oh, right... I go to Nikou, it's a dinosaur school."
F "Oh." ... "I'm in kindergarten."
[lull in conversation]
(pause to hear more of my whispers)
S "What school do you go to?"
F "Mark Twain. Do you leave near Greenwood drive?"
S "We didn't drive, we walked."
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
About a month ago I put my name on the "send me an invitation" list for Google Voice. Yesterday I finally received my invitation, and set the account up today.
If you haven't heard of this before, it's a free phone number from Google, free voicemail, free SMS messages, but not actual phone service. It rings all your existing phones, or just the phone you tell it to. It can forward SMS messages to your mobile phone or not. It can give different callers different greetings, and block callers. It handles voicemails as an email with an audio attachment, and attempts to transcribe the message.
The above image shows Google's attempt to transcribe me leaving myself a voicemail. Those of you who have heard me speak know I mumble terribly. In fact, I'm barely comprehendable when I'm right next to you in a quiet room. I left myself a mumbly message and said exactly the following:
"Hi Curtis, this is Fred. Give me a call when you get a chance. See ya'. Bye."
Hearing "Curtis" as "Chris" I've been putting up with my whole life, so no surprise there. I kind of slurred together "See ya" as one word, so missing that is understandable, too, I just don't know how they got "Ciao" out of it.
Another cool thing you can do is put a "call me" link on a web page or email that doesn't expose the phone number, and you can delete it later. Looks like this is going to be a fantastic service, and I'm happy I signed up early.
Ebay Merchant Account
Several years ago I helped a lady set up a website to sell her handmade jewelry. She owned a domain name and had a web host set up, and a php-based e-commerce engine that had hooks into Paypal. The main purpose of her seeking me out was to have me add code to the php scripts that could handle county lookups by zip-code, and offer a choice of counties to the user if their zip-code spanned counties (like mine does: 43081 crosses the county line between Franklin and Delaware counties). This was all to handle a new Ohio tax law that required Internet sellers to charge the correct tax rate for destination counties.
That part was pretty straight-forward; I just added a page that, if the destination state was Ohio, queried a lookup table (PostgreSQL, I believe it was... select county from lookup_t where zip = $input, something like that - after $input was sanitized, naturally), and prompted you if there was more than one hit. The hard part was understanding how it interacted with Paypal. To help me get that working, I signed up my personal account for merchant functions.
Long story short, I figured everything out, got the website working famously, and the lady who hired me never had enough sales to support the site. She contacted me a year or two later to retrieve the customer info from the database before the site was taken down. Bummin'. Although, now I can do this with my paypal account:
Bring a Bag of Awesome to your parties! (only $10, plus tax)
Hire Curtis and Liberty to come to your parties and bring their keen insight, skill at party games, clothing and computer repair, and optional bouncer services if the party gets out of hand. For each extra Bag of Awesome you buy, we'll bring some sort of treat - 6 pack of cider, pizza, hors d'eouvres, board game, paper mache sculpture, what have you. Buy now, we ain't getting any younger!
The above button is the result of me experimenting today. It's actually functional, so don't play around with it unless you really intend to send me $10. Plus tax.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Edward: "I'll wait for you to figure out what you want, but them werewolves is dangerous and you should stay away."
Bella: "Cool, but I'm going to hang with them anyway, because I'm mad at you for not having sex with me until we get married."
Jacob, after pinning Bella and kissing her roughly: "You like that, don't you, bitch?"
Bella: "No, damn it! How could you? Drive me home right now.... Actually, I liked it quite well; let's do that again before you go off to get injured in battle."
Edward: "Hey, if you want him instead, you know, knock yourself out."
Bella: "I don't know, you're both so big and strong, but you're in front of me right now, so I'm yours, bebbeh, as long as you promise to do me just before you turn me into a vampire."
There, with those adjustments, the book could be condensed to about the length of a short story, a novella at most. And here's the shocker: It would be fantastic. The mythology in this series is very impressive, much to my surprise. The characters are very close to psychological archetypes - Edward is an Arthurian knight, with a knight's noble love for the queen, just barely suppressing his manly urges, sacrificing all for the sake of duty and rightousness. Jacob is a Viking, fighting with his small group against stronger opponents with greater numbers, sure of the futility of his efforts, but valiantly fighting to his inevitable doom. Bella is the mystery of the void, a siren to the undead, immune to their magical powers, the pure being that both sides want to protect from the evils of the other. She is Thumbelina, smaller and weaker than the beings that fight over her, questing to find the right prince to marry so she can become Maia.
Saturday, October 03, 2009
So I logged onto my work's mainframe a few days ago (for an arcane project-related purpose I won't go into), and, as I am wont to do, I poked around in my directory to see what I was working on way back when. Last year, I did a lot of work in our mainframe developing a job-scheduling solution. This year, I've been hanging out mainly in Unix land, and haven't had any mainframe contact for several months.
I miss the mainframe, the misunderstood behemoth, with its OCOPY and BPXBATCH, its copybooks, its IDCAMS and LISTCAT, and, lastly, its COBOL. But on the other hand, it's insane, and has a lot of acronyms that are unfamiliar to most of the modern IT world, who are knee-deep in C#.NET, Eclipse, and Oracle, or maybe Linux, Python, and MySQL. In fact, in the late 90s when I was explaining to my NT Administrator buddy about working on a mainframe through a 3270 terminal, how the native character set was EBCDIC, not ASCII-based, and how synchronous comm like Bisync and SNA worked, he scratched his head in befuddlement at the queer, unfamiliar arcana.
So with that in mind, I suspect that no one I know who reads this will have any idea what any of this means, and so I will try to go slow, and attempt to explain all the fun I had taking my trip down memory lane. The punchline is this: Last year I played with COBOL in my downtime, to see what the fuss was all about. I used ROSCOE to write the code, to submit the jobs, to compile, to link, and to execute. And it was fun.
Step 1: 3270
Friday, September 25, 2009
On the last day of our trip to Vermont, Liberty, Scout, and I went with Dominique to the Bread and Puppet Theater museum, which houses giant masks, puppets, paper-mache sculptures, and artwork with which I am at a loss to classify. The work is, presumably, all from old shows and parades. Here is a link to some of the art in action:
And here is a basic description of what the theater is, from Wikipedia (abridged):
The Bread and Puppet Theater is a politically radical puppet theater, active since the 1960s, currently based in Glover, Vermont. The name derives from the theater's practice of sharing its own fresh bread with the audience as a means of creating community, and from its central principle that art should be as basic to life as bread. The Theater participates in parades including Fourth of July celebrations, notably in Cabot, Vermont, with many effigies including a satirical Uncle Sam on stilts. The Theater was active during the Vietnam War in anti-war protests, primarily in New York. It is often remembered as a central part of the political spectacle of the time, as its enormous puppets (often ten to fifteen feet tall) were a fixture of many demonstrations.
There's more to the "bread" angle. The founder comes from a family that makes old world bread straight from rye berries. Thick, gritty, a meal. Not sissy bread. The shows try to indicate "This is what people used to mean by 'bread', and 'art' should feed your soul the same way."
I was amazed at what I saw, and as my bitter view of all things grows in midlife, there aren't many things I'm willing to say that about. Some of the simple slogans spoke to me in a way that generic leftist propoganda does not. "Art should be cheap, and not the pervue of the rich." "Resist the machine-operated details of life." And the one that really threw me, the most basic possible reproach of patriotism, capitalism, manifest destiny, etc., was this statement in reference to the constitution: "It's just a goddamned piece of paper!"
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
"Talitha cumi" - Vermont, to my wife.
Liberty really came alive in Vermont on our recent two-week vacation to see her sister. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen her this happy. Dominique came down to Columbus with her husband and two children to see Eric and Zoe get married a few months back, and shortly after their return, Liberty pined for her lost Vermont very strongly, and I consented to drive up there with her and Scout in order to answer what was clearly a question of importance to her.
Liberty, and me, and Scout. And not Stacey. Middle school had already started for her when OSU's break between quarters started. To say that I was upset about leaving Stacey behind would be an understatement; I was, rather, beside myself with disappointment and fear of further pushing my steadily-growing-up daughter away from me. However, to miss this chance to help Liberty stay connected to her family and revisit the state that gave her the most happiness would have been unconscionable. Unforgivable. And so we went, I leaving my misgivings behind.
Friday, September 04, 2009
So I coded this new perl script... what, I lost you already?
If you're still reading, so I coded this new perl script to solve the problem of the day. My group was notified that some of our processes are filling up some webMethods server logs with what looks like debug messages. When you're dealing with an environment the size of our's, with dozens of code migrations each month, you run into things like this from time to time. "Oh, I left the test password in the SQL script, crap!" and so forth. You fix it and move on, and occasionally offer up a sacrificial lamb if there is a business disruption. We calls these "lessons learned" meetings.
Anyway, in this case we were able to check the timing of the log messages with the record of what services were called at what times, and found a match. The webMethods service at fault was invoking a java service that had as one of its lines:
output = Service.doInvoke( "pub.flow", "debugLog", input );
In theory this type of thing should be commented out or removed prior to code being migrated to production, but in the webMethods IDE, you have to sort of go out of your way to see raw java code, selecting each java service in turn, and visually scanning. There is no function in the IDE to search java code.
The question I wanted an answer to was "how many other services call debugLog this way?" The lack of a search feature in the IDE made this unanswerable, so we went to the filesystem to search the source code directly. Alas, the java services were XML files whose java sources were MIME encoded elements. Before I lose you completely, a little background...
Thursday, September 03, 2009
Zombies are pretty popular these days. Having been a fan of the genre long before it was as mainstream-popular as it is now (I was zombie when zombie wasn't cool, so to speak), I try to see all the zombie films I can when they come out, and lately I've even taken to reading zombie fiction. Most of it is great, and like bedroom antics, even the bad is pretty good. Not much of it, however, adds anything new that's truly interesting. Here are some exceptions:
Herbert West - Reanimator
Friday, August 28, 2009
Yesterday all the groups under my group's director (my boss's boss) met for an annual meeting to discuss statistics, politics, arbitrary administrative tasks, and a small bit of what I quaintly refer to as "real work". Like all such meetings, it started off with a "safety tip". This is where people with no medical, structural engineering, or injury prevention training give you unsolicited advice on how to behave both at work and at home, as though they were some sort of authority.
The tip this time was about hand injury prevention, and, although I find the whole "safety tip" phenomenon lame at best (dangerous at worst), this one was pretty sensible. Use the right tool - a crescent wrench is a bad hammer, for example. Most injuries occur to your off hand, e.g., you hammer the hand holding the nail. And lastly, the reflection-inducing question: How much of your job could you do if you lost a finger? A thumb? A hand? As in, we type for money, we dial phones, we take notes, we draw on whiteboards, we sometimes wear shirts with buttons. Hands and fingers are pretty useful for all these tasks. This got me reflecting on some fun keyboard related things I've done over they years.
As members of CompuServe's tech support group, my ex-wife and I (we were engaged at the time) did a lot of case note entries. This is where you summarize what a caller's problem was, what you did to try to fix it, and where the problem stands now. In some cases, a caller has only one phone line, and can't connect to the service while talking to you, and after the call ends, you must take the next call in queue rather than call back later to check on them. Although this is a rule I broke frequently, most tech support people gave the customer the boot happily, and hoped that the customer would get another CSR when they called back saying the problem still wasn't fixed. "Here, try this init string..." flush! "Sometimes that goes away if you reboot..." flush! That sort of thing.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
"Don't capitalize on an opponent's mistake, play better Go." - Aphorism on the "Go" board game.
This year I first heard the term "German-style board game", referring to the fantastic game "Settlers of Catan". I was looking for board games for the house, as the missus is fond of them, and spent some time perusing websites in search of one that was just right. Settlers was pretty highly rated, and I liked the description of it on Wikipedia and Amazon, so I bought it.
It turns out that the game has a large following, including a couple of my Facebook friends. The premise is basically city building. Different areas in the land you're settling produce different resources. If you collect enough brick, wood, what have you, you can build roads and settlements. Liberty and I played a game and enjoyed it, and some time later a friend and his wife brought over their copy for another game. Big fun.
A couple months later, the aforementioned man and wife, Herr and Frau Barrett, brought over Eurorails, which I had never heard of. It's a train game based on the Empire Builder rules, where you lay tracks and make deliveries of goods to cities based on cards you are dealt. You have goals such as building lines into so many major cities, and being the first to make so much money.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
BackgroundThe high school I went to was a magnet school of what was then just "Worthington High School", but is now either Thomas Worthington, or Worthington Kilbourne, or perhaps it is a magnet of both. I don't really care enough about the current zoning of Worthington schools to fact check that. It was called the Linworth Alternative Program, and unlike other "alternative" schools, its function was not to house the ruffians who couldn't be managed by meek schoolmarms, it housed instead the hippies, punks, budding activists, and artists that couldn't be managed by closed-minded state employees who made their cheddar parroting textbooks and catering to sports enthusiasts and young Republicans.
There were roughly 200 kids at the AP. Teachers dressed casually and were referred to by their first names. Class schedules were determined with a sort of voting process: teachers put available times for classes and how many students could be in each on a bulletin board, and interested students wrote their names by the classes they wanted to be in. Classes included the standards: history, math, english, sciences, but also classes with social/political themes: "Current Events", "Science and Society", and "World Trade", and differing points of view classes such as Canadian History. Phys Ed was free-form; you just had to log 40 hours of athletic stuff you had done on a piece of paper and hand it in - the main effect of this was to encourage students to play pick-up soccer games after school and marathon hacky-sack sessions during free periods.
Free periods were free, neither study hall nor lunch; you could listen to your Walkman, take a nap, read, whatever. There was no cafeteria, so when you wanted lunch, you went to the office and signed your name on the "sign-out" sheet, and wrote down where you were going, and went there. Most lockers did not have locks on them, and in my 4 years at the AP there were only 2 reports of theft, one of which was resolved (catty girls playing out some Kabuki theater drama).
Friday, August 07, 2009
"The best underlings will skim a little. If they're not taking a little, they're taking a lot. And if they're not taking a lot, they've got an angle, and they're dangerous." - Mob saying
I am not the type to take psychological baggage from work home with me, but a particular project has been my bane now for a couple of months, and I have taken to rambling about it at home. I have been fretting about it so much lately, that my dear wife has taken to asking me how work was, which she was never previously inclined to do. The problem? A well-meaning programmer at a vendor put a few undocumented hacks into some code to help us a few years ago, and then left his company.
With names changed to protect the innocent, we'll say that I am the translator, the messaggero, if you will, between internal mafia bosses, and external contract killers. It's a dirty world we live in, friends. A dirty world. The mob system keeps its books in an internal database that we'll call "Corleone". The contract killers keep track of their info in a system we'll call "assassi-net".
When somebody doesn't pay up, or insults a boss, Corleone sends me an xml message with who to clip, where they are located, and a unique identifier for the request that, for lack of a better term, we'll call a "ticket number". I, in turn, take the request and reformat it to data that assassi-net can read, and then I open a "ticket" with assassi-net, and give the return info to Corleone, including their ticket number, and which hitman is assigned.
Saturday, August 01, 2009
As a popular engineer, you know many people in your home city. While traveling around town, visiting your friends, you realize it would be really handy to have a program that tells you which of your friends are closest based upon which friend you are currently visiting.
The problem translates to a "nearest neighbor" problem variant known as "kNN", or k Nearest Neighbors. There is a host of wikipedia and scholarpedia articles related to this, however I never found a source with a good plain-English problem description that didn't also claim one search method or other as "The kNN algorithm", rather than acknowledging more than one good approach. Here's a bad approach:
The naive approach
For each point, find the distance to each other point, remembering the best 3 distances along the way. I was able to whip up something without much trouble (in perl, naturally) that does just that. Discounting the routine that parses the file into variables, and the one that summarizes all the results, the rest of the code looks like this:
Sunday, June 28, 2009
I had a pesky, seemingly insoluble programming task I've been dabbling with for about 3 weeks now in my downtime. Some fellow programmers have posted implications that they have created a correct solution, but until last night, I had been getting something wrong. I suspected my reading of the specs wasn't correct, my approach was skewed, or, God forbid, my choice of programming language was wrong. A little background:
Facebook has a "careers" link on its homepage, which I found one day when a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side moment led me to poke around job app sites and see what was out there that may make me happier. [Predictably, nothing seemed more attractive or stable than AEP... at least, nothing that would let me stay in my current home]. On Facebook's careers page is also a link to "Puzzles". Curious, I investigated.
The Puzzles page has a list of programming languages (plus make and model, e.g., Gnu C++ version 5.2 instead of just C++) that their black-box puzzle evaluator supported, and a set of puzzles with input and output specifications for prospective programmers to try their hands at. Prominently displayed are a couple of pictures of smiling winners under the caption "solved and hired", implying that if I can write good solutions to all the puzzles, Facebook will fly me out to Palo Alto for a new, joyous life of coding for a social networking company.
After seeing that, I queried the missus "Hey, angel, want to move to Palo Alto?". "No." So that settled that, but some of the puzzles seemed interesting. One was a basic test to see if you can read a spec and write something that is no more complicated than a "Hello, World" program. Not being a tool, I skipped that and moved onto the next, which was reading an input file that had a number in it, counting from 1 to that number, and outputting one of three strings if the count was evenly divisible by 3, 5, or 15. A few minutes later I had some sample perl code to do that, submitted it, and later got an email back congratulating me on my working solution.
Then came the "Gattaca" puzzle. The bad news about submitting code for Facebook puzzles is that if your code doesn't pass their tests, they don't tell you why. It's all automated, and all the replies have the same text, to the tune of "sorry, that didn't work, try reading the specs or trying more test cases, and don't use any funny modules I might not have installed." Good advice, to be sure, but the one thing I've always had in all my coding jobs is good feedback. The error message. The log file. I've never been faced with mysterious, black box test cases, and no results other than a pass or fail. That's a real drag.
So I had been drowning in the shame of suddenly being sub-elite as my first four code submissions to the puzzle all failed, but contradictorily I was excited about all the cool optimizations I found in code rewrites. For example, an early version of the code took 6 minutes to handle a sample test of 100 genes in a 1000 character long DNA string, where my final version tackled the same set in a couple milliseconds.
The premise of the puzzle is that you have a string of DNA codes [ACGT], a list of the start and stop positions of possible genes, and a value, or "weight" for those genes. The genes may or may not overlap each other. The goal is to calculate a path through the entire DNA string that has the highest total genetic weight with no selected genes overlapping. The output is just the final total value. Here's an example, omitting the actual DNA string:
Monday, June 01, 2009
On Sunday I had the joy of adding a brother-in-law to my family, watching my kid sing karaoke, being conveniently available to assist in a variety of last-minute emergencies, and watching a ceremony with equal parts levity and warmth, packed with the love of family and friends. Zoe and Eric, you guys have been married in all but name for years, and everyone in attendance was well aware of that; in fact my brief scans of the crowd from my back-row vantage (I was an usher) showed no expressions of "good luck", "I hope they make it" or any form of anxiety, but rather "it's about time", "I'm looking at the perfect couple", things like that.
Friday, May 29, 2009
My other sister-in-law, Dominique, came down with her husband Willie, daughter Sequoia, and son Arlo and stayed with us for a few days. They live in Vermont, and came down for the wedding. Liberty offered them lodging, naturally, and I set about a day-long frenzy of getting the mainly unused downstairs bedroom and bathroom in tolerable shape to handle guests, washing dishes and clothes, cleaning grout, vacuuming, and stocking the house with food. During the early stages of that I managed to throw my back out, and I had previously told Liberty to go hang out with her sister and play while I did all the preparation. So it was very exciting when I was alone and faced with pulling mattresses and boxsprings out of the basement one handed while scooting myself slowly up the stairs, wincing in pain all the while - the ordeal reminded me of countless bad action movie sequences where the hero is injured and crawling slowly to the just-out-of-reach weapon while the villain rants and spouts soliloquies. Not being a big sissy boy, I got through it and the house was in tolerable shape by the time our "company", as we say down South, arrived.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
- Going to the Asian festival Saturday, and then to see the much watched and hated Terminator: Salvation
- "Second Amendment Sunday": The Barretts, Liberty, and myself are going to the firing range to check out his .357
- Monday Dominique and her husband and brood will be coming into town from Vermont and staying with us for the week
- Tuesday I'm taking a day off work to go to the zoo with club Allerding
- next Friday and Saturday we're renting a cabin for a couple days to see Zoe and Eric's wedding plus festivities
- Wednesday the 3rd is Stacey's (possibly final) orthodontist appointment
- Friday the 5th Liberty is getting leg surgery
- Saturday the 6th is Stacey's soccer team's going away party
- Sunday the 7th is a canoeing outing with my mentee, Dave
And finally, later that week Stacey will be out of school, and begin her summer of resident camps and visiting extended family out of state. Somewhere in there library books are due.
This would cause a lesser man panic, a lazier man to forget something, or myself to send out scores of emails organizing everything while sippin' my Port.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
This is from a blog I read (or skim) daily at work when I'm waking up and trying to shift gears from Spidey-sense mode (from the 5 or so brushes with death I have with early morning commuters) to code-monkey mode, which requires that your language centers are firing. This entry shows a study relating how much recess school kids are given and how well-behaved they are in the classroom. Although the results don't seem to me as significant as the author implies, it seems obvious that letting kids burn off energy a couple times a day is a good thing.
What struck me most was the first comment after the article, posted by Lilian, which echoes a sentiment of my own:
"It may also affect teachers' effectiveness in the classroom if they get a break too."
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Where does "Medicine for the sky" come from?
a) Sci-fi short story by Asimov
b) Engrish.com pic of Japanese storefront window
c) Hillbilly slang for bitter coffee
d) Theoretical huge machine to repair ozone layer
e) Comment my kid made about a sunset
I must tell this story a lot, because everyone who has taken the test so far has correctly identified the last answer as the correct one. Either that, or some other psychological thing is going on - it sounds cooler than the others, maybe I wouldn't mention my kid if that wasn't the answer, something like that. For those who haven't actually heard the story, it's over on my CQ blog: Here
What I found most interesting in combing through everyone's answers was *how* they got certain questions wrong. For example, most everyone incorrectly assumed my high-school nickname was Stretch. Predictable, but boring. One person, however, guessed the worst possible answer from my list, "Klepto". Why, I ask, would someone think that? Was it a blind guess? Was it them being funny? Or did they assume I had a reputation as a shoplifter when I was younger? I did, mind you, but it wasn't notable enough to be nickname worthy.
My nickname was Stork, from one particular kick of a soccer ball during an after-school pickup game. I chipped it with my arms extended, and the effect was very stork-like. The following year a fellow classmate, Terry Cook, also tall and occasionally odd-looking when kicking a soccer ball, acquired the nickname "Emu", sort of a derivative of mine.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
That mentality, and some of those families, made its way to Appalachia, where it was hard for a European to do much besides goatherding, and eventually gave us several blood feuds that could have started as something significant, like which side of the Civil War your family fought on (think Hatfield/McCoy), or seemingly meaningless things like a social cut or cheating at cards. The culture of honor demands men who answer insults immediately and strongly, to maintain the family reputation, to scare off any threats to your herd... except the mentality stayed strong through those families' descendants, who may not have been herdsmen.
Fast forward to the present day, and you still find remnants of the culture of honor. In search of this, "Outliers" reports of a study conducted of how different groups of young men react to insults. Those who reacted the strongest all had one thing in common. I'll summarize with a line from the article: "Call a southerner an asshole, and he's itching for a fight."
Here's a link that discusses the study in detail:
Thursday, May 07, 2009
I've been toying around with this idea for a while now of a sort of self-help book. It will mix the ideas of how to succeed as nonconformist in the corporate world without making people hate you, which I have gotten really good at over the years, and how to write pragmatic code, non-buggy code in the shortest time possible, which I have also gotten pretty good at. I have no real direction of where the book should go, or if I should write it at all, or if I should turn it into a blog that I'll update whenever the mood strikes me and play the rest by ear. I'm not sure yet if I'm going to actually start the blog or not, because, well, it's pretentious. Even by my standards.
Here's a sample paragraph from what would have been the first entry, where I'm introducing the concept of the proper way to object to things to improve your position. The concept is, like many of my thoughts on life, stolen directly from a movie. In this case, Kevin Pollak tells us to "object once to get it on the record" in "A Few Good Men" (the one with Tom Cruise, not the gay porno, which Wikipedia assures me exists, but with which I am otherwise unfamiliar - in this case, I could not handle the truth, not at all). Anyway, here is said paragraph:
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
At least, hopefully you know. I'd hate to think I'm the only one out there suffering through that roller coaster. Is it a flaw in thinking or a natural extension of empathy to be able to better bear pain that you know other people also bear? Or maybe that's a throwback to being a little kid and being obsessed with "fair", where you win the spelling bee at the expense of your peers, and "unfair", where you are caught pulling April Cornelison's hair and get publicly chastised by Julie Smith, her best friend. Poor April. I'm so sorry, honey. I hope you know it was because I was madly in love with you, and, well, that's just how little boys are.
So after taking stock of where I am in life, I took stock of stuff I've been meaning to get around to, and it turns out I'm slowly accumulating quite the to-do list. Here is the abbreviated version:
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Very well, we'll figure out the money problem a different way. Your efforts on our behalf are appreciated.
I hope you will take no personal offense when I say dealing with Job and Family Services is always a frustrating affair and an assault on one's sensibilities, or that I find it unconscionable that the state would prefer my wife to be unmarried. Having visited your Agler road office a couple of times to retrieve and deliver paperwork and interact with the staff, I am happy that my wife will no longer have to suffer through the rudeness, aloof disinterest, and being ignored that permeates the atmosphere there. It hurt me deeply to see her after being at the office, where she would consistently come back feeling small and looked down on. No longer having to see my wife go through that will be the biggest boon the state has ever given me, and for that I am grateful.
If you're not able to deduce what's going on here, this was my first draft of an attempt to be as much of a jackass as possible while seeming to be polite and appreciative. Further revisions would have made it more biting and heart-wrenching, but I abandoned the project. I decided not to send the email for the usual reason that actually making people feel bad and being spiteful are just not my bag, and in this case also because I had been corresponding with JFS for the past few days from my work email address, and staying employed and harassing government employees tend to be mutually exclusive.
What's the background? Little Scout. Beautiful little Scout, who I love, who sits on my lap while I read to her, who I longingly look forward to hanging out with for a couple hours alone on Thursdays so we can play at the mall, or the park, or the library, who will still occasionally slip and call me Daddy. While Liberty was single and living on her own, working a crappy, low-paying retail job and going to school, she was unable to pay for everything herself, and the government was nice enough to provide for her a daycare subsidy. They pay the lion's share of daycare expenses, and she pays whatever they determine she's capable of as a co-pay.
Having been the child of a single mom who had trouble making ends meet, this wasn't surprising, and in fact I was astounded by how well Liberty coped with navigating "the system", how her apartment was stocked with plenty of furniture and toys, how she functioned on basically no sleep, how far she stretched what disposable income she had, how she was always able to squeeze in time and energy for me when we were dating, and how happy her little kid was. I knew she was always on the edge of collapse, and I guessed she was always close to bankruptcy. And yet, she struggled on, her head and spirits high.
She moved in with me a few months before we were married, and eventually Scout was moved to a daycare close to our house that catered to suburban types. The previous daycare was basically in the hood, staffed by people who had no business being in child care, who spent more time shouting at the kids in their ebonics/hilljack creole than they did trying to teach them manners, sharing, tolerance, whose idea of afternoon snacks was a giant pack of Twizzlers shared between the kids, and whose playtime was either running around in their little mulchy playground or filling a table full of shaving cream and letting the kids smear it all over themselves. Shaving cream. Seriously. On the days I picked up Scout from there, the two things that kept me from going apeshit were Scout's arms waving wildly and shouting "daddy daddy daddy!" and the fact that I never witnessed any of the staff being mean to Scout. Other kids, yes, but never Scout. That probably kept me out of prison.
The new daycare, by contrast, is staffed by people with actual training in early childhood education, has an actual preschool program, has a great indoor play area, a projection TV where they show Disney movies and the like, and lots of smiling kids and teachers. Also by contrast, they are pretty expensive. For Scout's age group, they charge $175 per week. When Stacey was that age, I believe I was paying $400 per month for a daycare I thought was great, but was out in a rural area on Avery road around Hilliard.
When Liberty went back to fill out a new subsidy request for the new daycare, it went through without any problems, and everyone was happy. Or so it seemed. Since the new daycare was more expensive, the Department of Job and Family Services basically sicked the hounds on her. They stalled payment after it came to their attention that Mr. Allerding was a graduate student and hence ineligible. Of course, there was no Mr. Allerding, and Ms. Allerding was an undergrad. After a few interactions with JFS, trying to get an actual person to answer a phone, or at least a person whose voicemail wasn't full, she got begrudging acceptance from them that there was an error, and that they would pay up. But they didn't, and Liberty went to the office on Agler road to try to get things cleared up. And when they found out that we were married, and that I make what I do, the gig was up.
As my unsent email above declares, the office is filled with angst and people who are in theory supposed to help their fellow man in their time of need, but instead are turned into mistrustful and uncaring automatons over time by a few ill-mannered and self-entitled money seekers, who I believe, after being there myself a couple times, are not the norm. The result is that the people who are in need and have the potential to be contributors to society down the road after clearing a hurdle or two are treated like dirt on the case workers' shoes, like less than men. Liberty's visit to clear up the "Mr. Allerding the graduate student" problem was met with a typical reaction: she was asked to sit and wait, and then ignored until, two hours later and close to being late for work, she inquired what the holdup was, and was told "Oh, she says you have to reapply." So not only was this information not conveyed to her directly from the decision maker, which would have been the respectful thing to do, the third-party messenger didn't even bother to notify her that a decision had been made and left her sitting in a chair for the better part of two hours. And let's not forget the bait-and-switch of the promise to pay and the demand for more time and paperwork instead.
The whole system of government aid is like this. It's the reason the card readers for "food stamp" cards (which actually used to be stamps, I remember them as a kid when my mom used them in grocery stores... I thought they were pretty cool, like my mom had a secret, underground currency) are ugly brown boxes that rarely work, prompting the cashier to shout out to the manager across the store "Hey! How do you work the FOOD STAMP reader!? This guy's got food stamps and CAN'T PAY!" Everything has to be ugly and belittling, and the retailers are encouraged to follow suit, making the consumers feel as low as possible.
I think it's important to clarify a point here: Why are we still trying to do this now that she's married to someone with a nice cushy coding job, a 401k, and a savings account? Don't I love Scout enough to chip in on her daycare expenses? I do, yes. Basically Scout's parents are caring and devoted to her, and they want to be responsible for her care and upbringing. And I don't want to be imply that they can't do it alone. As it turns out, as may already be clear, the state considers me financially responsible for Scout. And I agree with them. Scout's needs are Liberty's needs, and her needs are my needs. And now the state has trumped any melodrama between Liberty, Dave, and myself with a simple "you're married to someone who makes too much, and we aren't giving you any more money."
...which is what we found out after she reapplied. Realizing the boat we were in, and trying to calm the woman I love and give her hope when she called, despondent, and told me the news, I went to my budget spreadsheet and tried to see how $175 per week could fit in and not send me to the poor house. It's a close call, as I'm pretty over-extended, but if I pull some money out of savings, and don't put any more in for the rest of the year, and cut back on how many dinners out we go to, it's workable. And we have a little left over for birthdays, and for Zoe and Eric's wedding, and to get Stacey to North Carolina this summer, and for Christmas.
Except, I can't just go spend an extra $20 any time I please an a whim. This first week was the hardest, as the money I'm paying for taxes just came out of the bank, and we went on vacation recently, and after the unplanned $175 came out, I got to a point where I had no spending cash left. Not even change to buy a soda at work.
Except I've got this jar full of pennies at my desk that I've been collecting over the 6 years I've been at AEP, and the credit union downstairs has penny rollers. And I'm thinking to myself yesterday as I'm pulling out change to roll so I can get a pop and a candy bar, "Thank God that my wife doesn't have to go deal with those monsters any more. No one gets to look down their nose at her. She doesn't have to go to work in tears wondering if her daughter is going to be kicked out of daycare. And all I have to do is get down off my high-horse and roll some pennies."
I was so happy at the thought that I kept going until I had 10 rolls filled, and I grabbed them and went down the elevator amidst some quizzical looks from my peers, and gleefully said to the credit union teller "I'd like a $5, please." I'd rather do that any time I'm thirsty than to have my beautiful wife, fair, loving, and perfect, spend one god-damned minute at a bleak government office sitting in a fucking chair worrying and hoping someone will help her. To quote Johnny Castle: Nobody puts Baby in a corner.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
I was nervous yesterday at 5:25. I stood alone on the Metzger park soccer field, hoping all my girls would show up in time for the 5:30 kickoff. The opposing coach had his entire entourage warming up, taking shots on goal, and calling a cheer involving the team name. My co-coach wasn't going to make it that night, so I was flying solo. So at 5:25 it was me, the refs, and all of them. And I was nervous. But if you didn't know me very well, you wouldn't be able to tell, as I stood there with my usual inscrutable mask on, standing still and relaxed, effectively covering my panic. It's something I've done my whole life, and people who know me can see right through it, just as I can spot strong emotion behind a mask when I see other people do it. It's like looking in a mirror.
I had arrived at 5:00 with Stacey, Liberty, and Scout, and the kids and I kicked a ball around while Liberty sat in the shade and pulled out a book she was reading for school. By about 5:20, only one other of our team's players had shown up, so I sent her and Stacey out canvassing the park to make sure people weren't at the wrong field. So when the refs showed up, only I stood on the field representing our team.
Fortunately, our players started trickling in, with Stacey bringing up up the rear. By kickoff we had 8 players, enough to field with no substitutes. The position chart I had drawn up before heading to the game had to be scrapped, and I assigned positions off the top of my head based on who had shown up, decided to stick with my controversial aggressive 3-2-2 formation, despite being shorthanded. That's 3 forwards, 2 midfielders, and 2 fullbacks, rather than the more acceptable and defensive 2-3-2 that most teams play, and that I had long since let my co-coach talk me into.
By a couple minutes after kickoff, a 9th player showed up, so we had a substitute to rotate players out when they were winded. Up until that game, we usually had 4 substitutes, letting us keep everyone really fresh, and creating controversy about who got to play longer and who had to sit and watch from the sidelines. I love the players on our team, I really do, but it's so easy for 11/12 year old kids to get angry when they think they've been treated unfairly compared to their peers. It takes a lot more politesse than I typically wield in my normal, curmudgeonly existence to keep everyone happy. But I try. None of that was a problem yesterday, though. When someone looked like they were about to drop, I pulled her and put the player on the sidelines in her spot. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Within the first 5 minutes of the game, the opposing team scored. They had clearly practiced a play to dribble down the sidelines and pass to the goal box, where a teammate would sneak in to trap the pass and take a quick shot. Our defense was surprised by the play the first time, and our goalie, who had never played goalie before and was nervous about the whole affair, wasn't able to get a hand on the shot.
My reaction was pretty passive, atypical of rec league kids' coaches. The opposing coach was a good example of the type more common in the league: a shouty micromanager brimming with testosterone, sporting a clipboard, a buzz cut, a polo shirt too wide in the shoulders, and with a touch of a beer belly. In contrast, I had my fitted T-shirt from threadless.com, orange with a picture of a cartoon fox on it, a full head of hair pushing afro-size, a full beard, and no accessories. Or beer belly. I looked out of place, and I maintained my reserve and calm when my team got scored on, and at that point I suspect the other team expected to walk all over us. Except...
Except my team is full of fantastic, spirited, intelligent kids who get enough support and encouragement from their parents and coaches to believe in themselves, and they don't give up when things get challenging. And I don't freak out or scold them when things aren't perfect. And they grow confidence, and they read the field well, and they learn from mistakes - mistakes like letting someone sneak up and trap a pass and take a quick shot, which never succeeded for the opposing team again for the remainder of the game.
Our goalie got her footing and started blocking shots, our defense kept the opposing forwards outside, our midfielders and forwards got the ball upfield and kept the pressure on the other team's defense, and we quickly came back and tied the game. Throughout it all, I had encouraging words to give, applause and a yawp of "good job $x" when $x made a good move. I had only minimal direction to the players during the game that had just slightly more content than "go get 'em!", and I took the time to go grab little Scout and bring her to the sidelined kids (the substitute, and the 10th player, who has a broken thumb and can't play, but came to the game shortly after it started in support of the team) where Scout entertained the older kids with her boundless cuteness.
Some of the other team's players looked over at our antics during the game with stoic expressions, hiding strong emotions behind a mask. Hiding jealousy and sadness, longing to have a game atmosphere with levity, and a coach who wasn't a madman who fills the game with nonstop, loud direction, telling each player where to stand, who to pass to, who should go to the ball. I never got indoctrinated into that type of crap as a kid, and I hate it when I see it.
Like I have during most of the 14 previous games I've coached, I felt heartache for the other girls, who want someone to be proud of them and tell them what a good job they're doing, who want to figure out how to play without the constant fear of being scolded for any small infraction, and are subjected to insanity and anger from men with chips on their shoulders, trying to accept that it's normal and OK to be shouted at over a ball game by the person whose job is supposed to be teaching you. The quick glances and the hidden emotion pain me every time I see it, but they also tell me I'm doing the right thing on my side.
We scored again before the end of the half, going up 2-1. I say "we", but in fact it was the same player who scored the first goal, the first girl other than Stacey to show up to the game, eager to play, eager to do well. She was the largest kid on the team last season (but now Stacey is about half a head taller than she is), and was known for her large frame and for powerful but sloppy shots. We'd keep feeding her the ball and she'd keep pounding it toward the goal, and eventually it would go in. Not much of a strategy, but she ended up being the top scorer last season, and her mom expressed happiness at her success and gratitude at being placed at forward. On other teams she had been relegated to goalkeeper, the usual place most coaches put a kid who is a little heavy and slightly disagreeable and cocky, or defense, where her wild strong kicks are perfect for clearing. I enjoy the whole disagreeable, cocky angle, so that wasn't a problem, and I like to see kids both grow and be happy with what they're doing. I asked where she wanted to play last year, and she said forward, and that's where we put her. Since then, her shot got better, and her dexterity got better, and she seemed more happy by the end of the season, finishing with 14 goals, the most on the team.
During the second half, she scored two more times! The last shot was with a level of calm and poise that I've never seen in this age group. She dribbled toward the right goalpost, drew the goalie out a little and did a push shot to the far goalpost that was controlled and had only enough force to speed by the goalie, the ball never left the ground. Quite a change from being stuck on defense and being thought of only as "the big girl".
So our three forwards kept the pressure on, our defense formed an impregnable wall, and our goalies (we switched at half-time) stopped all comers after the first surprise play. I couldn't have been happier with my girls, who all ran until they were red in the face, and when they needed to come out, were eager to get back into the game after a sip of water and a minute's rest.
What a treat, man. My disorganized team, lacking discipline and deference to an authoritarian leader, lacking the team cheer, unafraid to speak their mind and tell me where they should play, my team who stumbled on the field at the last minute, they played with heart, and freedom, and they totally kicked ass. Sometimes it just all comes together.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The "in general" is to indicate I just want to talk about the concept of final words, as opposed to having a need for any at present, which I do not.
A couple years ago, Stacey and I took a trip down to North Carolina to visit family, and we brought along an audiobook of "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy", which is a fictionalization of a real event, Norman Mailer-esque. The event that was chronicled was the oppression and removal of a community of descendants ex-slaves from a small colony in New England by evil and smug puritans, sure of the righteousness of their crimes. It was a young-adult book, won the Newberry award, and is told from the point of view of a pastor's son. Good book, we both enjoyed it, and it made the 8 hour drive go a lot quicker.
One of the topics that comes up in the book is one's last words. An ailing, older village matriarch is obsessed about saying something memorable on her deathbed so that the town will remember her as a wisened saint instead of the crutchety old bag she was in everyday life. She arranges for the lead characters to do housework for her, and when she believes she is about to die, she says her last, beautiful, moving words... but does not die, and awakens to hear the lead characters debating which word was used in a particular phrase as they're trying to write it down. She scolds them, complains that now she has to think of something new, and then says:
"Oh hell, it's warm here. Get me a ginger ale."
...and then dies. Funniest stuff ever. High comedy, a blunt look at another white-man's hubris induced abomination in history, and a fine read, even if the target audience is middle school kids. In fact, I've enjoyed many of the "Young Adult" audiobooks at the library, maybe because I don't hold them to as high a standard. Like going to see a campy action movie: you anticipate mindless stupidity, and if fact put your brain in park before sitting down with your popcorn, but are sometimes pleasantly surprised at the intelligence or subtlety of the movie. For every few "Tango and Cash" types there's at least one "The Bourne Identity" to make up for it.
Another audiobook I just finished (actually by Norman Mailer this time) is "The Castle in the Forest". It chronicles the early childhood of Adolf Hitler, his siblings, parents, and the communities they lived in. Fan-freakin-tastic! It is sometimes deliberately dull and plodding, and sometimes you are moved by the characters, but are more often shown that they are monsters, ignorant, or both. I loved it.
One of the themes of the book was to put Hitler into as humiliating and perverse a situation as possible. The setup for the humiliation is complex and lengthy, so I will only try to summarize with the punchline: Hitler trying to escape being punished by his dad by attempting to slip through barred windows at night in the dead of winter, naked. Upon hearing dad coming down the hall, he jumps back in the room and throws a sheet over himself, and is then laughed at by dad, and referred to from then on by him as "toga boy". We are shown before then to have a low opinion of dad, who is thick-headed, fancies himself highbrow, but isn't, and to take many laughable things far too seriously. To have him laugh at Adolf in those circumstances is macabre and brilliant. Go Norman!
The dad, Alois, has struggled to be more than the 19th century's version of middle management, learning a few Latin phrases, joining a club for gentlemen, trying and failing at beekeeping. Ultimately he is too earthy for the gentlemen, and too snobbish for the pub-goers. He dies isolated, having accomplished nothing of value, and worried about the future of his family. And in a vain attempt to be classy despite it all, he mutters to no one in particular as he feels the end coming:
"Acta est fabula, plaudite!"
...which are the supposed last words of Augustus, roughly translated as "The play is over, applaud!"
Interesting read, that. It takes a lot of stamina to get through, even the audiobook version that I listened to on the way to work for a couple weeks. Lizzie Bright, on the other hand, is much easier on you and more fun. But you should still read them both.
This is a Facebook application that is a MMORPG/Sim hybrid. You basically run a farm by plowing, buying seed, planting, harvesting, and selling at market. You also can buy and sell animals, put up fences, wells, bales of hay, etc. that have no function other than decoration, plant fruit trees. You can hire people to work on your farm, which gives them money out of the ether for working someone else's farm, and magically makes your crops sell for more at market. Amazingly bad economics, but very fun.
The MMORPG aspect is basically that you can meet other players on your farm, at the market, in other buildings (the pub, the realtor), and everyone walks around together via avatars, and their chatting appears both as speach balloons over their heads and in a text window below. You can have neighbors that are your Facebook friends, and "tend" their farms, which involves imagined windstorms that require raking, or sunny days that require watering, both giving you a token few gold pieces and experience points.
At the marketplace, a curious phenomenon happens: People overwhelm the chat window with pleading requests to be hired to harvest. "Any jobs going?", "hire plz", "Looking for a job, I need to buy a [whatever]" are some of the common phrases that litter the marketplace rooms all the time. Some people offer to trade work for work (Liberty and I do this with each other, and also involve our in-game neighbors whenever appropriate), some scam each other, like having multiple accounts, one to empty a market room of competition by hiring to an empty farm while the other then announces that he's looking for work. It's a strange economy of negotiation, begging, complaints, lies, backstories.
I hang out in the marketplace when I'm waiting for my crops to come in and I'm bored. I don't need to be there, but I have found out a few interesting psychological tips that would apply to other "games" such as dating, job interviews, and being cool at parties.
- Disinterest is interesting to the buyer.
- With an equally interesting female and male seller and a male buyer, the buyer will buy from the female.
- Female buyers respond positively to comedy, negatively to sarcasm.
- All buyers respond favorably to smalltalk of commonality. Why American Idol is the devil, what in-game animals look the cutest, "You're from Kentucky, oh, I'm your neighbor to the north", what beer do you drink when you play the game, things in that vein.
- Uniqueness that isn't challenging or scary gets fast responses... foreign languages, showing insight or intelligence *without seeming smug*, and giving out game tips (what to click to make the game run faster or how to prevent being booted from an overloaded server), these all get me hired the quickest. As an example, I popped into a room a couple days ago and said simply "Beunos tardes, amigos." and was immediately hired by someone.
I find that when I go into a room and just chat like it's an IRC channel, I'll get hired 50% of the time pretty quickly. Sometimes a room is overloaded with fools shouting about being hired, sometimes the conversation is dull and what I have to say registers more pompous, in those cases I either sit longer waiting for someone to hire me, or I bail and go to another market room.
Over the past couple of weeks, I've seen the game grow, and I've seen people's behavior in the rooms change. It's interesting, and it reminds me of some of the comments I've seen about other online games like Warcraft, City of Heroes, and the like. This one is superior, though, as it is free, is honest about being fanciful, acknowledging its own bad economics, and caricaturing the avatars and animals, and gives lots of psychological data to me that my reclusiveness would prevent me from obtaining otherwise.
And I can quit any time I want. Honest.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
For the food, everything was pretty good, surprisingly. I got lucky on the chicken roasters, they came out done and juicy, the candied yams were well received, Eric and Zoe brought over a great salad, just a couple lettuces with some cranberries and nuts, but super yummy. Heather and Steve brought over a greenbean casserole, and that went fast. In fact, everyone gorged on the dinner so much that the desserts went mainly untouched.
In my spastic rush to get everything ready for the dinner, I neglected to get breakfast food for little Scout for the week, realizing this moments before I was going to run off to work Monday morning. Fortunately, we had all the raw ingredients around to make Jamba pancakes, so 30 minutes of rattling in the kitchen, Scout had a breakfast I haven't made in about 6 months, I had a second breakfast, and got to smooch the wife before I peeled out of the cul de sac and hastened to the office.
"What's a Jamba pancake," you ask? As everyone related to Liberty knows, they're the wheat pancakes her mother makes from scratch. Jamba = Grandma in Scoutish, hence they are "grandma's pancakes". I feel I should spell out the recipe again here:
1 cup wheat flour
1/4 cup wheat germ
2 TBS sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
2 TBS oil
1 tsp vanilla
Directions: Mix it all up and cook them like any other pancake mix, or, if you prefer...
Combine dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and stir. Add in the milk, oil, and egg, stir again, but don't make the batter too smooth. Let the batter sit for a minute for the baking powder to do its thing, then heat a pan at medium-low temperature. If the pan isn't non-stick, smear on just a touch of butter or oil - not enough to add flavor to the batter, just enough to lube up the pan. Just before cooking, add in the vanilla to the mix.
Once pan is heated, pour in 1/4 cup (or a little less) of batter per pancake. If your batter is the right thickness, it won't bubble up much as it cooks, so watch the height and color of each pancake. When it rises a little or darkens, it's ready to be flipped. Flip once, don't touch it, and pull it off about 30 - 45 seconds later. Repeat until you run out of mix.
This makes enough to feed one very hungry dad, two hungry Scouts, or three regular Scouts. The ingredients add up to around 1000 - 1100 Calories for the whole mix, depending on what type of milk you use.
From walking into the kitchen to finishing the last of the mix usually takes me about 25 - 30 minutes. A rookie move is to try to cook these faster - big mistake. Turn up the temperature and they'll burn before they cook through, smoosh them and they'll taste like all the baking powder that didn't react. Slow is key. These are pancakes for people who like to both eat healthy and relax in the kitchen. If you want fast, buy Eggos or a drive-through breakfast. If you want super-awesomeness, make Jamba pancakes.
It's funny I should talk that way since I haven't made them in 6 months, but, still, they rock.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
My friend, Bill, suggested I take a peek at this artical: How to Dissuade Yourself from Becoming a Blogger, which I found enlightening and, as a whole, faultless. Why not abandon the public blog and start a private LiveJournal, as suggested in the artical, or spend time updating Wikipedia or posting to blogs I follow?
Why indeed? First, I do minor edits of Wikipedia from time to time, and I post comments to one blog in particular... I can expand on that, sure. But why keep this? Because I like writing it, people I know occasionally find it, and it contains most of the things that I don't try to hide from people I might meet in the future. [Yes, I have things I hide, don't act all surprised, buster] Over the years, I have gained and lost a few readers, including my ex-father-in-law (who's still welcome to come hang out with me when he's in town), coworkers from previous jobs, and a sister-in-law... possibly an ex-sister-in-law, but I never asked her. This gives them a general idea of how my immediate family is doing (for example, I'll have plenty to say about Stacey next post when I talk about how the soccer season is going), and some of the things I'm currently geeking out about. So some of this is for them, and any future thems I pick up in life. Some of it is a trip down memory lane when I'm feeling melodramatic. Some of it is how I kill time. I don't play video games as often I used to, and I have lots more family in the house than I've had in years, so I like to do something I can stop immediately when one of my girls wants me to come hang with them.
Predictably, I didn't grow a large fanbase with my ramblings, and never intended to jump on the political-commentary-cum-capitalism-through-banner-ads bandwagon, but I did improve, over the years, my thought process, my writing syle, and my voice. I got over hangups I had about language. I focused more on communicating ideas and feelings than I did on using correct tenses, when to use semicolons, avoiding incomplete or run-on sentences, other grammar-nazisms. I think what I ended up with is readable, and doesn't break enough rules to detract from the reading experience.
So let's talk about blogs. If you're looking at this on cautery.blogspot.com, then on the right you'll see a list of the ones I tend to follow. Check them out. If you're looking at this through Google Reader or some other RSS application, I'll enumerate a few. Why do I follow the ones I do, and what is interesting about them?
I'll focus this entry on the easy ones: People I know.
Chris was my roommate for about a year in 1994/1995. He, like me, changed course in life in an unexpected way. He was heading down the road to being a chef, and when we had company over he would sometimes throw together a cool dish I had never had before. He encouraged me to get a good set of knives and some basic kitchen tools. He is, without a doubt, the reason I can cook food now.
He didn't become a chef, and, as is my nature, I never asked him why. We were both about 19 when I first met him, and he was struggling through the unhappy chore of being a pizza shop assistant manager. He was well on his way to quitting Donatos in frustration when I met him, while I was living in another friend's basment, deciding finally that I needed to get a job and move out, rather than while away my existence delivering coupons with my old buddy Steve Young (not the one you're thinking of, most likely), and mooching off of my family for $10 or $20 here and there. My levels of "tool" and "fail" were staggering back then.
At Donatos, I didn't make much of an impression on Chris as far as work ethic goes. He scoffed at me a couple times, and I correctly read the perform-or-get-fired mentality of the store, and quickly became useful and liked, and went on to become an assistant manager at a different store... but this isn't my story. Chris and I developed a close friendship along the way, and he left the company shortly after I moved to another store to be its bottom level manager. He went on to desk jobs that led him to CompuServe, where I followed him in 1995 after we had been roommates for a while. He was the push that led me to working in IT, which led me to my first wife, which led to Stacey. I wouldn't have Stacey if I didn't bump into Chris back when I was 19, a fool, and directionless. Thanks, man.
I left CompuServe a couple years later, and Chris and I lost touch shortly after that, bumping into each other online occasionally. Somewhere along the way, Chris and his wife, Tracy, decided to adopt a Chinese girl. So they learned the ropes of international adoption, and flew the hell out to China! They came back with Kennedy (when she was 3, I think), and it was then that Chris and I reconnected. I brought Stacey over to entertain Kennedy on one occasion, and they hit it off pretty well. At some point I brought over a gaggle of neighborhood kids, and we all went down to the Asian Festival together and had a good time, and then we all lost touch again for a few years.
In the meantime, they went BACK to China and adopted ANOTHER kid, Bai Hua. We've since reconnected yet again, and Chris and the whole gang have come over for dinner and chit-chat, and the wife and I are going to head back next week sometime to their place... possibly. With two busy families, coordinating even a simple dinner at home can be difficult.
So, yeah, there's my buddy Chris, a fellow pizza flipper turned awesome guy, and this is his blog. He (mainly his wife, I think) writes about the goings-on with Kennedy and Bai Hua, infrequently and with brevity, as fits their overloaded schedule. Check it out, and learn about the local organization for people who've adopted Chinese children. Good stuff.
The Principle of Moments
This is from the aforementioned friend whose basement I lived in briefly, Chris Barrett. He and I were best friends between roughly the 8th and 10th grades. Without going into any detail, let me just say that "Columbine" would be known as "Worthingway" instead, were it not for Chris's strength of character. That was a damned violent environment, with a student body hell-bent on forcing academic mediocrity and social lowest common denominators, and staffed with adults skilled at looking the other way. And coaching their sports teams. I recently revisited the school when Stacey's basketball team had a game there, and it felt better. Maybe I grew up and got stronger, maybe I didn't know what to look for, but it didn't seem like the place it was.
Chris introduced me to the GBBS program for the Apple //. Customizing that program and running my own BBS was what made me cross the threshold separating hobbyist/tinkerer and programmer. He also introduced me to such things as Buddhism, Tolkien, Chicken Fried Rice, Highlander, Bard's Tale, and the Linworth Alternative Program. He was the one peer I had bold enough to say "You're a senior man, don't you feel dirty dating a Freshman?" (I didn't sleep with her, I swear!). Conversely, when I was fresh off the boat from North Carolina in the 8th grade, he was the sole person who saw intelligence in me through the remnants of hillbilly that I brought with me. Not one crack about the accent or clothes... many cracks about other things, but not one implication that I was stupid.
That type of support, and having a friend interested in science, philosophy, computers, and other things cool, kept me in the game when I had all but given up on school, and learning in general. Chris helped me have confidence in myself, and exposed me to the geek subculture when I was still stupidly struggling to be a low-ranking hanger-on in the local conforming kids' aristocracy. Thanks, man.
Chris, coincidentally, also worked at CompuServe for a short time while I did. He left for bigger things, later finishing his PHD and starting a professorship at OSU teaching anthropology. Righteous!
This is his blog, updated infrequently, and packed with yummy vitriol on the things in life that need a good smack upside the head. It's also possible he has a low opinion of some of his students... but if half of what he writes is true regarding their work ethic and writing quality, they deserve much worse than the disappointed comments of their teacher.
Eric Gotta Teach!!!
Eric Hauter will be my brother-in-law this May 30th. I've known him for just a couple years now, and we haven't done anything yet that's just the two of us, so our attention is always split when we're around each other, and consequently we haven't managed to form a deep friendship. On the surface we don't seem to have much in common, but he's me. Me with good personal skills and an easy smile, and lots of memorized rap lyrics. And a modest command of Russian. He has a wide circle of friends that all speak highly of him, and I'm jealous of all the women who comment flirtingly on his Facebook entries.
His blog is fairly new, and he updates it frequently. It's mainly comedy, listing things that "suck" and "don't suck" with colorful commentary, and it also has twisted stories from his youth mixed in. Some are cute, some are horrifying, all of them have depth, and honesty.
To be frank, I didn't care for the first couple entries, but I kept reading anyway, in support of my friend and future brother. Once he got his sea legs, his entries got really, really good. Now I anxiously check Google Reader once or twice a day to see if there is anything new from him.
I hope he and I get to the point where I can, off the cuff, say how much some small acts by him affected my life and changed who I was, and how I'd be a different, worse person without him. He seems to be a hell of a guy, and I'd like to be able to say that. I can only say this for right now: He managed the clothing store my wife works at when I was first dating her. I came in once to surprise her with flowers and see if she wanted to do anything that night. Eric smiled when he saw me, and gave Liberty and I some time alone to talk, making it much easier to calm myself down to the point where I could talk without sounding like Erkel. That helped... thanks, man.
I might talk up the other blogs, maybe not. But check them all out, there are nuggests of coolness in each of them.
Until next time.
Monday, April 06, 2009
Edible? Yes. For example, I watched a few episodes of Sam Zien's "Just Cook This!", and noticed that he uses salsa or something salsa-like in many recipes. I decided to improvise a tortilla soup based loosely on his recipe, but with whatever I happened to have in the pantry at the time. I had a can of chicken noodle soup, a jar of salsa, a loaf of wheat bread, some chicken cold-cuts, and some shredded "Mexican" cheese. Declaring that was close enough, I set about heating the soup, dumping in the jar of salsa, and threw a couple slices of bread in the toaster. While the soup got hot, I shredded up some chicken and dropped it in, and stirred the whole mess for a few minutes. Last, I quartered the toast in a pair of bowls, poured the hot soup over it, and topped with the shredded cheese, which melted in short order.
The result? Fantastic! I could see where crisped tortillas would have been better than toast, and chicken stock better than condensed soup. The whole thing was imperfect, but it was what I had, it was fun, and it was just right. It took 5 minutes to throw together, and Stacey and I each enjoyed a bowl together on the couch, watching TV and chatting. It was a nice moment, and the interestingness of the food was the glue that held the scene together. It reminded us of the less healthy concoctions I threw together in the past (back in my 3000+ Calorie days), most involving nothing more than a starch, a meat, some fat, seasoning, maybe some canned veggies on top, maybe not. Whatever was around. E.g., rice and ground beef with shredded cheddar and taco seasoning. Yummeh! ("Yummy" with a subtle accent change to denote part sarcasm, part fond memory -- it's all in the inflection, if you heard me say it, you'd understand.)
What else has been interesting lately? Re-learning some math. John Conway's "Book of Numbers" was a great place to start, showing the fun of integer sequences and how complex things like combinitorics, dividing factorials, and even the Fibonacci sequence all show up in something as basic as Pascal's Triangle. It's tinkering with numbers, not rote calculation and intractable, evasive equations meant to look complicated -- you know, the ones they always show in movies where math is mentioned, and the savant looks off into space while CGI equations get tossed around and highlighted. That's bunk, and completely uninteresting. It's mathematical namedropping, equations as a cult of personality. Boring. The Book of Numbers, contrastly, is interesting as hell. It helped me to rediscover some of the joy I had in school when I would figure out something new.
A quick anecdote: In my 6th grade math class, we had a unit on fractions, and one of the lessons was on how to compare them by determining the lowest common denominator and converting the fractions. Tedious, boring. After tinkering with the concept for a few minutes (yes, a few minutes, and no, I'm not bragging, it was just curiosity and experimenting to unlock an easy concept waiting to come out of the numbers) I discovered cross-multiplication. The teacher had never heard of it. I struggled to explain the concept, while the teacher struggled to "get back on track", to get back to the printed nonsensical boredom of the textbook. Her interest and her college degree was in "teaching", not in what was being taught, which she had only modest understanding of. What a shame. All the young, spongy minds in the class would have been able to soak things up quickly and eagerly, but instead were sat in front of someone not inspired by what she was teaching, all book, all formula. Just parotting what the book said and writing legibly on the chalkboard. Had I not had the stressors in life that urged me to explore, I may have wasted away into stupidity because of teachers like this.
And for those unfamiliar, here's cross-multiplication, as shown by a simple gif:
Get it? If not, and it's interesting, then work it out. You'll get it soon enough. If it's not interesting, screw it. Get on with life and find something that is interesting!
So the main thing I do in my search of things interesting is to browse the web: looking for new books on Amazon or the local library, playing flash games, watching Youtube, reading odd news stories, web comics, and frequenting a variety of blogs. Some are brainy, like languagehat.com, which covers word usage, etymology, translation woes, and Russian novels; some are political, like Shisaku, which discusses how apparently corrupt the Japanese government is (and who comically refers to his writing as "marginalia", showing great wit and a masterful command of English); some are from friends, like the journal and ramblings of an OSU professor who was my best friend in high school, and an ex-roommate who talks about his experiences with the kids he adopted from China.
I find them all enjoyable, and I want to share a very small portion of two of them with you in the form of individual sentences from the blogs. They require no setup, and you may be able to deduce exactly what the context is of the entire post based on them. The first is from Cognitive Daily:
"Amateur fighter pilot ignores orders, listens to the voices in his head and slaughters thousands"
Get it? If that doesn't jump right out at you, then maybe you're not as big a geek as you think you are... or maybe it's been too long since you last saw it. And with those two hints, how about now? Still don't get it? The reference is in the footnotes below.
The next is from my future brother-in-law's new blog, "Eric Gotta Teach". He quickly found a good voice with his writing, and we're on the same wavelength on most things, and in spite of... nay, because of his off-color perspective and offensive comments on all things, I find his stories the most entertaining of all. And while we're throwing around superlatives, his blog is the single most vulgar thing I read, and despite my history of keeping my own writing clean...ish, I feel unapologetic about just how many evil grins his blog brings out in me.
Here's the quote, and it should require no set up.
"Tell your mom thanks a lot," she said, and tossed the apple directly into the trash can.
Yes, it's exactly what you think, and she was really that horrible. If, for whatever reason, the setting and players aren't obvious, another footnote below links to the blog entry.
The sentences I'm quoting are the choice elements that the entire entries reduce to. They imply the entire setup that led to them, and are the words that stick with you when you reflect on the entries later. Is there some sort of reductionism science behind my bold proclamation? No, I just find it interesting how those sentences stick out, and how they could only fit well in the stories they are in.
Here's a sentence I wrote today, in my favorite language, perl, that has the same qualities. It implies the problems that led up to it, and an expressive solution condensed to a small line of code. It goes thusly:
perl -ne '$cnt++ if /^01/;print if $cnt<2;print STDERR if $cnt>=2' file >new 2>old
First, I'm running the perl interpreter from the command line, hence the opening "perl". The "-ne" switch iterates through each line of the input file and runs all the commands that follow (everything surrounded in single quotes) on each line. The input file is "file" (not really, but the real filename may expose company confidential information, and, as much as I like you, I'd rather not get fired for the sake of telling you a story), standard output has been redirected to the file "new", standard error has been redirected to the file "old". A basic knowledge of Unix or Linux would make all that obvious. The interesting part is what's in the quotes.
If a line starts with "01", a counter variable is incremented. If the counter is 0 or 1, the line gets printed to standard output, the default. It the counter is 2 or more, the line is printed to standard error.
The result is that if a file has two sets of data that are delimited by lines beginning with "01", this will cleanly split them into two separate files. This was necessary to do at work today as the final fallout/cleanup of system woes we had since my first day back from vacation. We had to make emergency moves of processes to an alternate server, and many manual interventions to move critical files around. This netted us this morning with a file containing two days worth of banking data, which choked when the database import process ran. The files needed to be split, and, under the gun, I came up with a one-line routine to do just that. Sure, it was elegant and smart and all that, but the interesting part was that if you work here, and know our systems, and know perl, (and could see the real file name) you could see my command and deduce what must have happened that made it necessary. It was the entire situation reduced.
In other news... No, no other news. Here's some footnotes instead:
1 - Just Cook This! He's a big goofball, which is part of the appeal. Wikipedia says he had some sort of freakout on the Today Show about being interrupted too much by the hosts, which sounds funny. I'll have to check that out.
2 - The Book of Numbers
3 - Cognitive Daily
The reference is from a sample of answers to the question "How does Star Wars end?" Another quote from the same page humorously references "Triumph of the Will".
4 - Eric Gotta Teach
Thursday, March 19, 2009
So, yay me. Why obsess about the chart and daily weights after the giant slide down from doughy to healthy? So I don't lose track of where I'm at. So I can quickly see when my habits need to be tweaked (like they do now after a lazy winter), rather than oscillating between fat and thin. So I can keep my confidence high, and so I can base my self-image on something concrete. "Look, here's proof that you know yourself, and that you're in control. Here is a problem that you solved, and here is the strength of your resolve over a long time. You da' man."
Other news: The Wife and I are getting ready to head off for an anniversary trip this weekend. Our first. Our first of many. We're heading down to Chicago in search of food, culture, and old hotels.
I took the soccer team to Magic Mountain to play lasertag, ride go-carts, and play video games last weekend. It couldn't have gone better. 3/4 of the team showed up, the sun came out just in time to warm things up enough to open the go-cart tracks, I hit a few jackpots on VRS Marbles (which is still there and still functional after 5 years) and donated my prize tickets to the girls. The girls were all smiles for the day, and Stacey has another strong, positive memory of childlike fun with her peers - important as she grows further away from childhood every year.
Bad news? Not much. I'll need brake pads on my car by the end of the Chicago trip. I can't claim "Head of Household" on taxes anymore now that I'm married (which means what, exactly, about the government's opinion of married men?). I've taken to constant Claritin-D and the Neti Pot to stave off morning headaches now that Spring has arrived. I spent a year basically pain-free after my sinus surgery, taking no antibiotics or Nasonex, and slept like a baby most nights. Now I've discovered I'm not immune from all pain, but hopefully I'll stay in better shape than I was before the surgery, buying ibuprofen in bulk, taking off sick monthly, being nauseous from the constant stream of antibiotics in my system. That sucked.
I'll try to get some pictures from Chicago uploaded after we get back, and maybe I'll get around to posting the long-overdue shots from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, too.