Thursday, April 30, 2009

The email I didn't send

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

Sometimes it just all comes together

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, 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

Farmtown, and Final Words (in general)

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.

OK, "Farmtown".

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

Easter 09

Stacey is off in Florida with her mom for Spring break, and Scout was with Dave until about 5:30p, but even so we had a good turnout for Easter dinner at our house this year: 8 guests. Liberty and I made 10, and my dining room table seats 6, 7 if you scrunch, so that became the kids table. The adults sprawled out in the living room, chatting (talk included zombies and vampires, so clearly I've selected a good family to marry into) and relaxing. No football on the TV, no gender separation followed by talk of politics and sex, but instead we had about an hour of gawking at people playing Pick-Up Sticks.

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:

Dry ingredients:
1 cup wheat flour
1/4 cup wheat germ
2 TBS sugar
1 tsp baking powder

Wet ingredients:
1 cup milk
2 TBS oil
1 egg
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

All about blogs

First, I'll still love you if you don't read this damned thing. In fact, if you're going to spend the time it takes to read this, I'd prefer you spent that time hanging out. Come on over. Seriously.

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, 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.

Burleson Blog

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

The quest for "Interesting"

I've been on a quest recently to find "Interesting Things". It struck me a few weeks ago while having a dialog with my daughter, Stacey, that things don't have to be perfect to grab your attention and to be found good, fun, readable, watchable, edible, engaging,... interesting.

Edible? Yes. For example, I watched a few episodes of Sam Zien's "Just Cook This!"[1], 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"[2] 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, 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[3]:

"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"[4]. 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