Saturday, December 26, 2009

Snow, Snow, Snow...

Four inches at least here in the Chicago suburbs.  Streets are a mess, still, and though the forecast said it was going to be only sporadic snow today, it's basically been continuous.  Yet another example of the inability of anyone to predict the weather with any accuracy.

I hope whatever you're doing for the holidays you're comfortable and happy.  Cheers!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

For those who don't know, I'm traveling this holiday season and thus not spending much time on the computer.

I wish you all the best, and I'll be back here with new posts in early January.

Take care!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Initial Experience with Google's Chrome Browser for Linux

Yesterday I installed the first generally available beta release of the Chrome browser for Linux. Initially it seemed OK, and a friend asked for a review, so here it is. Sadly, however, I am back to using FireFox. Chrome isn't ready to displace FireFox yet. At least not for me. Maybe someday.

The issues I encountered include:

  • There is no "Open All in Tabs" option in the bookmark menus. This may just be something I do, but every morning I use:
          Bookmarks | morning links | open all in tabs
    to bring up at least a dozen web sites that I read while I wake up and get ready to face the day.  I find it handy to have that ability, but that feature is not present on Chrome.  For me, while this isn't a deal breaker, it does make it less likely I'll stay with the browser.

  • Java didn't work for me at installation.  Javascript is fine, I think, but Java is dead. Chrome attempted to pull all of the configuration information from my FireFox installation, but apparently there is something about the Java config on my Linux machine (running Ubuntu 8.04 LTS and FireFox 3.0.15) that it didn't understand or like.  I posted this problem to the Google Chrome Help forum and so far the only response has been several other people saying they have the same issue.  Maybe there is a fix for this, but if so I don't yet know it.  For now, this is a serious issue.

  • This isn't a big deal, but there isn't as much control over fonts with Chrome as there is with FireFox.  That's a blessing and a curse, of course.  It's easy to screw up someone's CSS based website by telling FireFox that sites cannot override your font choices and/or selecting font sizes different from those the site expects, but I live with it and make use of it regularly.  I could live with what Chrome offers, but it's an irritant.

  • I cannot yet tell if Chrome is actually faster or more stable than FireFox.  My network connection isn't stellar, so delays are often the result of that rather than anything going on in the browser.  Plus, one of the major speed ups is supposed to be the way it runs local scripts, but Java isn't working, so...

  • I cannot get Chrome to display PDF files in the browser.  This is a significant problem, and once again FireFox handles it just fine.  If a link points to a PDF file FireFox opens it up in Acrobat (which I installed myself a long time ago, and whose configuration Chrome should have imported).  When this happens I get the Acrobat tool bar inside the browser window and can look at the document.  Sadly, however, Chrome just downloads the PDF file and then stares at me.  I was able to right click and save a copy of the PDF, but that's not as useful as viewing the document in the browser in many cases.  For me, Chrome for Linux strikes out there.  That said it's still a beta, and there might be something odd about my Linux install that keeps it from working out of the box.  Still, this is a problem I cannot work around.

  • At least one site doesn't work with Chrome that I know of, and my testing is pretty limited in that regard so far.  Now, I admit the site - a registration site for a non-profit I am affiliated with - is not setup to deal with FireFox all that well either, but it generates PDF files in some cases, and that breaks down as mentioned above.  Beyond that, however, after encountering the PDF load failure I was unable to get Chrome to download the PDF for external viewing.  It might have been user error, but it bugged me.  I had to switch back to FireFox to check on something because of it.

  • Finally, they've done some odd things with a menu and the way new tabs are opened up.  I think they've missed the UI boat as a result.  First, the menu issue: in FireFox if I put the cursor over a link and right click the top two menu choices are "Open in a New Window" followed by "Open in a New Tab" in that order.  Chrome reverses those menu options, so I was perpetually opening new windows with it when I meant to open new tabs.  That's an irritation that I could get over, though.  Yes, it's different, but yes, the most common option should be first.  And I suspect most of us actually open more things in tabs than windows these days.  With time I am sure it would become natural.

    It's what happens when I actually manage to get a new tab to open, though, that bugs me.  Say you're in FireFox and have 3 pages open, in tab1, tab2, and tab3.  You're currently viewing tab2 and you open two more pages (in tab4 & tab5) via the right click, "open in new tab" menu option.  When you're done you wind up with tabs arranged like this:

    tab1  tab2*  tab3  tab4  tab5

    (Tab2 is starred because it is the current tab.)  And that arrangement makes logical sense.  New tabs open on the rightmost end of the list, and they open in the order I make it happen.  If you do the exact same thing in Chrome for Linux, though, you get this arrangement:

    tab1  tab2*  tab5  tab4  tab3

    In Chrome new tabs open immediately to the right of the tab containing the current page, and they shift all other tabs to the right in the process.  That's just wrong, at least for me.  My brain is (more or less) wired to think of things linearly.  if I open tabs I expect them to appear in the order I open them, not the reverse of that order, and I expect to find them on the end of the list for easy access.

    I'm afraid Google just got this one wrong.  The FireFox behavior here is actually the right one.  As with some of these other issues, though, it is something I could probably live with given time.
That's the list of issues so far, and it's enough to have moved me back to FireFox for the forseeable future.  I'll look at later betas of Chrome and see if it improves, but for now I have to say there are a couple of serious issues and a number of nits that bug me.  It's not worth changing.

Google gets a lot of things right in my view, but not with Chrome for Linux.  At least not yet.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What To Do Next... What To Do?

I am overwhelmed with choices these days, and I am hitting something that we used to call "vapor lock" in a co-worker back at my first job in 1986 or so.  The inability to pick something and work on it leads to a lack of progress on everything.

The major tasks on my list include (but are not limited to):
  • Write a carving document that has been on my to-do list for months now.
  • Add a bunch of things to my personal web site.
  • Learn MySQL and php so I can do some interesting things with book review indexing and searching.
  • Carve stone.
  • Write fiction.
  • Learn Java so I can figure out how to write Android applications.
And, of course, on top of all that sits the overhead of life.

I am starting to think nothing major will get accomplished until the new year begins, if then.  I wish it were otherwise.

Maybe the thing to do is spend a couple of hours on just one or two things each day.  Have to try that.  I certainly need to get something moving on all these fronts eventually.

I have to say it, though.  Work provided a focal point that removed some of the decision making process.  That may or may not be good in any given case, but it was real.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Last night as I drove to the stone carving class I teach I had a thought.

I've been unemployed for almost two weeks now, and I am noting some things about my own behavior and expecations that are interesting, at least to me.  Conversation at the class expanded on the issues as well.

Four years ago, when I stopped working the first time, I transitioned out of my job carefully.  I documented what I did for my co-workers extensively and handed off the tasking to others.  In addition, the nature of my work was somewhat different then.  While I worked on big, important systems with hundreds of thousands of users, I wasn't generally on call for support.  At least not regularly.  In a pinch I might get a call but I wasn't on the hot seat on a day to day basis.

During the last year things were different, and my exit was more abrupt.

This time I was working on systems that required more supervision and manual intervention.  That meant I was on call - 24x7 - for problems that customers, support, or automated tools might find.  In addition, every time I opened up my email I first looked for notifications about anything that might have gone wrong or that customers needed assistance with.  Those always took priority and required fixing.

Living like that meant there was always a level of adrenaline in my bloodstream.  Even now, just writing about it, I can feel it.  Keeping the system working and the customers happy was, effectively, a constant, low level engagement of my fight or flight reflex.  For the last year my body has been adjusting itself to that level of stress.  Now I have to become adjusted to a much lower level of stress and that's taking longer than I'd like.

There are behavioral things that go with this change too.  While working, my morning ritual was to get up, throw on some clothes, and check email to see what (if anything) needed work.  If something needed attention it got it, before breakfast or a shower, and well before driving to the office.  Correspondingly I'd check email several times a night while at home for the same reason, and deal with anything that came up then too. 
Now, of course, there's no reason to check email that often, but I still do.  Maybe that will change with time.

Last night, as I mentioned, those at my class pointed out other things that go with a high stress job, things that are missing now.  The feeling of being needed and the status that goes with being the one others turn to, for example. And yes, I am vain enough to care about those things - just about all of us are - and their absence is another thing I have to adjust to.

It turns out that being RIFed is very different from quitting on your own.  I know I've mentioned that before, but two weeks later the difference still looms large.  I couldn't discuss my departure in advance with anyone at the office, of course, so there was no ability to plan and hand things off carefully, as I would have liked.  That leaves me with guilt about what those who remain are dealing with, and a lack of resolution on my side.

I suspect this level of discomfort will go on for some time, no matter how much I wish I could get past it more quickly.  Just about everyone who is let go from any job probably suffers similar issues.  For me it only drives home the point that many companies should treat their employees a whole lot better than they do.  Letting people go should be the very last resort.  And if it really becomes neccessary, involving them in the process and giving them time to make the transition would be smarter for everyone involved.

At least, that's how it looks to me.  I'd much rather have taken a couple of weeks at the office to hand off my work to others and make sure - as best I could - that they knew what they were getting into.  Instead I was walked to the door because that was company policy.  Not good.  For me or the company.  Oh well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Most Social Thing You Do...

If you're like many people there is a high probability that the most social thing you do in any given day isn't something you expect.  In fact, the thing that causes you to interact with the most people - potentially making them happy, upset, or angry, and in which they can have the same impacts on you - is something you think you do when you think you're entirely alone.  Any ideas?

It's driving.

A typical commute to work involves interacting with hundreds of people through a set of mostly agreed upon rules, but with a faceless anonymity that lets everyone violate those rules without feeling the repercussions in the way they would if they did something similar in person.

How many of us willingly cut in front of others in line at the store?  If we turn a corner and nearly walk into someone we apologize, right?  Even if it isn't our fault.  These habits help keep society working relatively smoothly.  They reduce tension and lessen hostility.

But we all do stupid things while we're driving  - both inadvertently and deliberately - with astounding regularity.  And those actions affect others.  Don't believe me?  Just look at how others impact your driving.  When was the last time you got through a commute and weren't frustrated by someone?  Perhaps they were too slow or too fast, weaving in and around traffic, lane splitting on a motorcycle while traffic was moving at the speed limit, or just in your way while you were in a hurry.  You get the idea.  Almost every day I commuted to work I remarked to myself on someone doing something that annoyed me, and I know I'm not alone.

In truth I'm sure that some of the time I was equally annoying to others.  I also was moving at the wrong speed for someone else's taste, and so on.  Statistically it has to happen, and as a practical matter I know it did.  How many times have you looked in your rear view mirror to find someone sitting just inches off your bumper, impatient to get around you?  Regardless of whose fault it really is, you know they're blaming you.

So, the next time you're behind the wheel, think for a moment.  Ask yourself if something you're doing - while you're "alone" in the car - is something you'd do in person, where you'd have to talk to others as a result.  It's an interesting exercise.

That awareness won't fix conditions on the road, of course.  We're all human after all, and we all do stupid things, but it may give you a bit more patience with others and let you arrive at your destination less stressed out.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Well, That Was a Week of Work

Finally finished setting up my book review blog.  All the ancient posts are there, they've been spell checked, re-read, some tweaked, some commented upon, and the infrastructure in blogger worked to my satisfaction.

At this point all I need are a few hundred thousand readers. 

More to the point (for this blog, anyway) is that I have more time for other things now.  Tomorrow I direct at a fencing tournament.  Next week I will bathe dogs, something they will hate with a passion.  And I can read again, instead of just working on creating a place to write about what I read.

Changing topics, next week will be the first time I see my former co-workers since I was let go.  I'm already wondering how that will make me feel.  I've got a certain amount of guilt about the entire situation there.  I hope no one is holding anything against me.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book Review Blog Is Up And Running

Since sometime in 2005 I have been writing book reviews and posting them on the web.  The location they've been posted has changed over time, but I've now decided to create a blog where those reviews will get posted as they happen.  For various reasons it's simpler than what I had been doing.

If you'd like to check it out, the URL is: As of now I have all my reviews written in 2009 put into the blog.  That caught me up on something that was way overdue since I went back to work.  Reviews from 2005 - 2008 will appear over time.

Your feedback about the reviews and/or the site itself is encouraged and appreciated.

Note that I don't claim these are good reviews.  They're just my thoughts about what I am reading, and I read a fair bit.

Thanks much for your interest!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Revamped Blog Format

Just made some significant changes to the way this blog is displayed by blogger, but I hope they are mostly invisible to you.

If anyone has trouble reading this now, or thinks a change that is visible is a problem, please let me know. It looks OK on my browsers, but I run neither a Windows nor a Mac, so I represent a tiny fraction of the actual reading audience in terms of my technology choices.

You can send your comments directly to me via my personal website's contact page, or leave a reply here.

Thanks for any feedback!

So many little things change...

One of my former coworkers said something like the following yesterday: "Changing all of my contacts from 'co-worker' to 'former co-worker' is a drag." He's right, but that's just the beginning.

There are so many little things that need revision when you change jobs. In my case it extends to odd things. I had all kinds of bookmarks in my web browser for work related sites. Those can go. I moved my websites from my employer to another hosting provider, which means all kinds of things change.

My morning rituals change too. Until Friday morning I got up and logged in to work to see if anything needed my attention immediately. Then I went off and got ready for work. It's very different now, of course.

None of these things is a big deal all by itself, but they add up to something that I can imagine being depressing. I'll be fine. I wanted out, in fact, but my exit was actually involuntary. (About 1/3rd of a very small staff that had already seen significant reductions in size through attrition was let go. The implications of that are ugly for those left behind.) Still, the fact that I was let go, rather than choosing to leave on my own, gives some things an odd twist.

In any case, Now when I sit down in front of the computer my tasking is very different. In a week or two it will all feel natural again, I'm sure, but it's still a bit off.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday the company I worked for followed through on things that had been going on for a long time. From my perspective things started going down hill some months back, when we had two consultants come in to evaluate the organization. (Anyone else remember "The Bobs" from Office Space? Yes, it was something like that.) Others tell me strange things were going on before I even hired back in, but most didn't know or note them at the time.

In any case, yesterday I was let go. The technical term for this kind of job action is "Reduction In Force" (aka, a RIF). As I understand these things, there is a legal difference between a layoff and a RIF. In a layoff, the company is obligated to hire the employees back preferentially if their jobs become available. In a RIF the company has decided these jobs are being eliminated permanently, and as a result no one will be hired for a similar job for some period of time.

In my case, the company is clearly not going to be hiring more people like me for a long, long time. Probably never again, in fact. They're taking a hammer to the organization that was Concentric and sucking it into XO completely. Those of us who did Concentric specific things are on the chopping block, now and probably in the future, though (of course) no one in charge anywhere would say or admit that.

As a result of these events I begin a new part of my life today. A life once again without work, at least for now. I don't know how long that will last. I might have to (or even want to) go back again. I might do some contract work, or not. For the moment I am taking a wait and see attitude, and using the time to catch up on a lot of things that have been put off over the last year.

There will be some changes in this blog and more changes to my sculpture web site. There will be additional posts in the new art blog, and I think I'm going to start a third blog as a place to put my personal book reviews, since that'll be simpler than the way I am currently publishing them. I probably need to spend some serious time learning web design more than I now know it, and I have a web site to play with for my fencing club for that little effort.

On top of all of that there are lots of projects around the house that have been put off for months, and a lot of stone carving to do too. I want to do some fiction writing as well. Maybe some of that will make it's way onto the web if I like the results.

In all, I have no shortage of things to do, and now I have a lot more time to do them. I'll keep you updated on things here too, of course.

Many thanks to the support I have received from friends who already knew about the RIF. I am amazed at the support I get from all of you. It means a great deal to me.

And so, on with day one.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New ISP In Use...

This is today's final blog post... I promise.

As mentioned a while back, I was moving my web site to a new ISP.  That's done, and it seems to be working.  In fact I've moved 3 sites to the new ISP.  I'm not going to give the name away just yet since I don't honestly know if I will like them yet or not.  If I do, I'll share that information here later.  If not, I'll get to move again at some point.  That'll be barrels of fun, let me tell you.

There are still a few back end nits on the website that aren't working, but nothing that should be visible to anyone reading this blog post.  Still, if you find something out of place or that doesn't work please let me know.

Oh, wait.  The contact form doesn't work yet, I'll bet.  That's the first thing I need to fix.  Whee.

Anyway, the website can be found at the old URL:  or the new one:  Either should take you to exactly the same content.

Thanks in advance for any bug reports!

I Don't Twitter Part II

In a post from some time back (July 31, 2000, in fact) I said that I don't use (or much appreciate) Twitter. I got quite a few comments at the time, and a long response from Paul some time later.

Paul's points are well taken - you can read them here yourself - but I continue to be frustrated by both Facebook and Twitter. Of course discussing that frustration in a blog post probably isn't all that original. Or intelligent.

I'm still considering shutting down my Facebook account.  The only reason I don't is that it does - as Paul suggests - keep me somewhat up to date on the lives of friends that I otherwise would lose touch with completely.  That may be more important For Paul than me, being as he's separated from so many by an ocean.  To me it's only something nice to have, not something critical to my life.

Some time back - after the July post that started this - I began using FB's new "lite" user interface:  It's not perfect but it has greatly reduced the distractions that come with the standard FB site.  That's helped somewhat, and is probably the reason I haven't left Facebook for good.  Time will tell if it's enough, or if they change it to enable the silly applications and things that only annoyed me.  My take on FB is still evolving.

Twitter, however, has proven less useful to me every time I am exposed to it.  Paul's comments on it are quite good, but let me give you a counter example.  Today's Loma Fire near my home lead to some digging on the web for information.  Some places had links to Twitter, and eventually I chased them, mostly to see if there was anything useful out there.  Eventually I found the keyword #loma that seems to be related to tweets about the fire.

And what do you suppose I found there?  Not much, actually.  Chase the link to see it yourself, assuming it's still valid.  It was mostly (lots of) repeats of information it was simpler to find in other places, like the official CalFire site and local news organizations.  There were a few comments and a couple links to pictures too, but nothing all that useful or interesting.  That said, about the sixth time I read "Problem: water and lunches are 3 hours late" though, I was starting to wonder.

In any case it turned out to be essentially useless, and this was a real time case where Twitter is supposed to stand out.  It didn't.

Going back to my premise, if someone wants to pontificate about what they are eating or where they are traveling, etc. in a medium like Twitter or FB, I'm pretty sure I'd rather not know.  If that same someone wants to make a cohesive narrative out of that part of their life, that's great.  Such things are called many things: articles, blog posts, short stories, even books.  A series of tweets, however, is not remotely cohesive, at least not to me, and without the context from one to another I feel as if I am watching a feature length film by viewing only every 10,000th frame.

So, for now, my opinion on Twitter stands: I don't get it, and I don't find it useful - or interesting - when I am exposed to it.  Facebook may get a pass, or not.  I reserve judgement for now, but only thanks to the new lite UI.

May your experiences be better.

Blog News...

The next bit of news... I've got twins.  Well, not really, but it sounded good.

What is going on is that I've decided to create a second blog.  It will focus solely on my artwork (when I have any time to do any artwork) and related things.  Anyone who's subscribed to The Powell Triangle (or just winds up here on occasion) specifically for news about art can now look here instead:  There you'll find whatever I have to say about art - my own (mostly) - as it comes up.  It's still very much in its infancy - it's not even formatted properly yet, and my website doesn't even link to it at this point - but it is coming.

The Powell Triangle will continue in the same way it has, with me telling you about fires in my area, announcing weather events that seem out of place, spouting off half baked opinions about things political (and non-political), and generally chewing up disk space and Internet bandwidth to little or no gain.

You may want to revise your RSS subscriptions accordingly, depending on exactly what you do and do not want to hear from me.

Finally, both of these blogs have comments enabled but moderated.  In the past it has been the case that I didn't moderate comments in this blog, but I've decided I should do so.  It's not like I'm so popular that I get many spam comments, but it seems better to avoid them up front than to delete them after the fact.  So now your comments have to be read and approved by me before they're posted.  I apologize now for any delays and/or mistakes on my part in dealing with your input.

That's the blog news this time around.  Thanks for your attention!

Another Fire Near My Home

Despite over 13 inches of rain just a bit over a week ago, fire season is definitely not over. Very early this morning a fire broke out near the site of the Summit Fire that caused so much grief and damage last year.

As of this writing the fire is listed at 800 acres in size and either 0% or 5% contained, depending on the source you're reading. The local school just a mile or two north of us is being used as a helipad, so we've had a constant stream of helicopters landing and taking off there all afternoon.

Like last year, the fire is east of us by a few miles. Based on the smoke I can see, the prevailing winds are blowing south, also like last time. However, unlike last time, I've seen written reports that the first is moving west. If it is doing so it is moving slowly, and it's happening because of terrain, not wind. Still, west is towards us, and those reports have me slightly worried.

The bigger worry, though, is wind. I've got an email from the weather service saying the entire bay area is going under a high wind watch on Monday night. They're expecting northerly winds of some speed. That would not drive the fire towards our home, but it would be nasty for those in the path and those working the blaze.

In any case Anne and I are just fine at the moment, and we're keeping a careful eye on things. If I was responding with the VFD I'd probably be at the station, ready to respond to any other incidents that come up, though it is possible I'd be on the fire line itself. When the pager goes off at 3:30am you do what you're told, and I have no way of predicting exactly where I'd be.

For those wanting more information, the best sources of news I've found so far appear to be:


The former appears to be updated more often, but isn't official. The latter is definitely official, but only gets updated once or twice a day.

This one is called the Loma Fire. If I get any major news about it I'll share it here. Hopefully, though, things are under control relatively quickly and things get back to normal.

Several Posts Coming Today...

Thanks to various events I have several things to write about. Each is going to go into its own separate post, so be prepared to read a few things over the next few hours. And thank you for doing so!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Nothing is simple...

The title says it all.

I wanted to replace the filters in my reverse osmosis unit, but what I got from the store wasn't the right ones. Another trip back tomorrow.

And now I am going through moving my website to a new hosting service. So far it's going just fine, but I expect there will be a lot of rework as part of the move. Whee.

For the moment I am moving my blog back to to publishing directly on google, just to get make the migration to a new host easier. I might move it to my new host later, but then again maybe not.

In any event, you can be sure - since I am doing it - that nothing will go smoothly during all of this. Not much has gone smoothly at all lately, which partly explains why posts have been so few and far between here. Something will have to give at some point, but for now I just cover my head and try to hold on.

In the meantime, it's back to the old hosting provider where I will attempt to put redirects into place for my old blog so it can still be found by anyone searching for it. Then, once that is done, I can try moving the site to the new host.

Fun. Or something vaguely like it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Hold with Verizon Again...

It's a holiday, but Verizon's phone system claims their billing department is open, or at least it's happy to let me sit on hold for 20 minutes waiting to talk to someone, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion, however, that no one is going to answer the call today.

All I wanted to do was ask an innocent question.

A couple of months ago I switched my cell phone service to T-Mobile (and, by the way, the couple of times I've called their customer service I've been very happy with the results). When I switched I reduced my land line charges as much as I could, even discontinuing long distance service with Verizon because I hate them so much.

Finally I got a bill that doesn't have all kinds of funky charges and credits on it as a result of the switch and I see this:

Interstate Subscriber Line Charge $6.50

Now, let's just pause and consider that for a moment. They're charging me $6.50 for the ability to call interstate, when I have disabled long distance calling? We don't live anywhere near another state, so there is no way for me to call one one my dime without long distance service, so why am I paying this charge?

Technically, yes, I can call toll free numbers and yes, technically those may be out of state, but someone else is paying for those calls, not me.

I think this is pretty weird, and I wanted to ask them about it. But now - after far too much awful hold music and no indication that anyone will ever answer - I have hung up. I will try again tomorrow, perhaps. A real work day, when maybe - just maybe - someone will actually answer.

There's a reason I left Verizon. Frankly, a couple of tin cans and some string would be just as reliable as they are in my area, and for data I'd get far more bandwidth on that setup than I would on their crappy phone lines. Their lousy charging schemes, awful customer service, and astounding inability to even answer their own phones are just icing on the cake. We only keep the land line because we need an alternative to the cell phones in an emergency. If we lived in town I wouldn't bother with one.

Maybe tomorrow I'll get somewhere with this. Anyone want to bet they cannot remove that charge from my bill? I'm guessing they will say it is "mandatory" or "government required". Any takers?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's Fire Season Again...

Major fire - 2000+ acres, or so I read this morning - over near the Lockheed plant in the Santa Cruz Mountains, west of highway 17. Evacuations, big smoke column, etc.

I found out about this late last night. It's not good.

Friday, July 31, 2009

No, I don't "Tweet"

Here's another in a series of posts that will almost certainly offend some of my readers. I apologize up front, but I stand by my premise...

Yes, I am something of a Luddite, but that doesn't mean I'm completely nuts. Lately I am starting to think certain uses of technology are simply a bad idea. Consider:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Power Point in the school
All of these suffer from a single major issue: they encourage tiny thinking.

Yes, I know that Twitter has become a major news source, and yes that's a good thing. It may even be a democratizing influence, but all kinds of technologies with a few good uses suffer from huge drawbacks. I'm not going to make a list by way of example. If you can't come up with a few genies that did both harm and good when let out of the bottle you're not trying.

Put plainly, Twitter actively discourages complex thought. Far too many Americans can't string even a few words together. If the current generation grows up communicating in ultra compressed text snippets I really don't want to think about where we'll be. I am certain I won't like it though.

Facebook looked interesting to me after I started using it, and there are a lot of people I simply don't see that often. Our hectic lifestyles mean I'd never know what they are up to without Facebook or something like it. Lately, though, I've encountered something I don't like: people are mirroring their incomprehensible twitter feeds into their Facebook status updates.

Maybe I'd understand them if I did nothing but follow Twitter and/or their lives in depth, but I have a wife, a job, dogs to take care of, and things to to in the real world. Trying to understand these cryptic messages typed in on phone keyboards from the middle of nowhere isn't going down well with me. In truth I could probably ignore those - possibly by disabling the feeds from the guilty - but there's a related trend, and it's just as disturbing: short, pointless, repeated Facebook status messages.

How often do I need to know that someone is tired, or is going to bed? The minutia of daily life is just that: minutia. Tell me about the important things - or even the semi important things. Did you get a new job? A new house? Get engaged or divorced? Celebrating something important or had an epiphany of some sort? Great! Share away. Tell me about your kids, the things that made you whoop for joy or scream in despair. I'm fine with all that, and I will whoop or cry with you. I'll even do my best to support you when you're down. Just please don't use the vast resources of the Internet to tell me you're home from work.

Years ago I heard a story on the radio about a pathological diarist. He documented every little thing in his life: what he had for lunch, at what time, where he sat while he was eating it, what he was going to next (after updating his diary), and so on. As I recall he was in his 40s or 50s and his diary was many, many books, all full of hand written, pointless drivel about nothing. I pitied the guy, and I suspect that vast diary will be thrown in the trash when he dies. No one is going to care, and all that effort is wasted.

I feel somewhat similar about people I know telling me (and all their other Facebook friends) they had green beans with dinner. Part of what causes these kinds of status updates - besides most of us (myself included!) having nothing important, relevant, or useful to say the vast majority of the time - is that the silly status box is so small. Facebook doesn't limit you to a tiny comment like Twitter, but the interface encourages it, and recent design changes at Facebook indicate they're moving farther in that direction. Yet again a powerful tool is helping make all of us - or at least its users - less capable of complex thought.

I must admit I've posted pointless status updates myself many times, but I am trying to stop it now. Actively working at it. Feel free to tell me this blog post qualifies as the same kind of inane babble, but at least I am trying to address a complex topic - something I care about - and am doing so in whole paragraphs, with real thought behind them. (Or the closest analog to real thought I can achieve.)

The last item on my list - Power Point use in schools - is just as bad, and just as dangerous to the future. An entire generation is growing up thinking that the best possible communication path is animated bullet points that slide into place on a screen with sound effects. "The Panama Canal is in South America. Click! Ships go through it. Click! The US helped build it. Click! And that's my presentation. Can I get my 'A' now? No? But I wrote the right number of bullet points and I had pictures and everything!"

How many avid readers do you know? How many of them are kids?

What about writing? Does anyone you know write more than a hundred characters with regularity? Probably not.

Nothing encourages thoughtful, intelligent communication anymore, and the technologies listed here are radically changing the way we communicate whether we like it or not. I am not optimistic about the direction of that change.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why I Left Verizon

I love it. About a month ago we left Verizon Wireless for a series of reasons: cost, lousy handset choices, and what they do have are hacked to bits to keep you from using the good features.

Today I got an email asking me to take a survey about why we left.

So I tried it. "500 Server Error" on the first page. OK, I think. Their server must be down. I'll try later, because I really want to unload on these nitwits and tell them how much I hate what they do to their customers.

Can't sleep and am up at 3am. Time to try again. I Got 3 pages into the survey before I encountered the "500 Server Error" again.

So that's how incompetent Verizon is: they can't even run the web server that collects data about why their former customers left them.

I give up. They can go rot for all I care now.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

2:45am, Dog, Skunk(?) and Limited Water

Given that title you've probably anticipated things correctly.

Early this morning our very pretty - but not so bright - male, husky needed to go out. Given he'd forgotten to eat until we went bed at something after 11pm, this was no surprise. I let him out, but kept the spotted, barking dog in so she wouldn't wake up the entire mountain. That last detail turns out to have been a mistake. Had I let her out to bark at the world this might have all been avoided.

(Aside: what is it, do you think, that makes the phrase "not so bright male husky" repetitive? Is it that all huskies or all makes aren't all that smart? Clearly it can't be that all huskies are male, as I have actually seen a female husky. Anyway, back to our narrative...)

Leah - the spotted dog - was miffed. She wanted to get out there and make things move, but I stood my ground. Our neighbors really didn't need to be woken at that hour. A couple of minutes later I called Danno back in.

Immediately upon his entrance I knew something was off. He brought with him a foul odor of something... chemicals and burning hair, perhaps? It was definitely not the usual skunk scent, though in all honesty I don't know what else it could be.

Investigation left me at a loss. The dog smelled generally, but not in specific spots. It was like he'd been sprayed with an aerosol can from a distance instead of shot at with a spray bottle. Very odd.

In any case, he stunk. So, at 3am, I had to bathe an 85 pound husky who hates water. It actually went moderately well - he didn't even howl in protest - except that tonight was the time that the float switch that protects our water pressure pump decided to turn things off. Thankfully I figured that out before I started and installed a quick workaround. The bath helped remove much of the odor, but not all of it. (Again, this doesn't feel quite like normal skunk as a result. The skunk scent I am used to lingers forever, and - being oil based - is very difficult to remove.)

Right now I am washing the second load of sheets we keep on the floor of the bedroom to reduce tracked in dirt. There's a lingering odor in there that I have not yet been able to find and eliminate, but I'm trying.

To make matters worse, the predicted high temperature today is 97 degrees. Usually I'd turn on the air conditioning in such a case, but with the odor of skunk (or something) in the house, that seems like a bad idea.

The question of whether or not it really was a skunk is still open. Perhaps it was a juvenile, or had some strange medical condition that changed the scent. Another odd thing is that if you go outside right now there is no indication of where the skunk was. If it sprayed last night I'd expect to smell it even now, but I don't.

I have ordered a water delivery, of course. The well can't quite keep up after 2.5 years of drought. I sure hope we get a really rainy winter this year. It can't arrive too soon.

Anyway, there you have it. I've had an eventful night. Hope yours was better.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Sad Day

This week someone I work with announced his resignation and I'm not happy.

Over roughly 20 years in high tech and 4 years in college I've worked for several companies, and with some truly brilliant people. I hope none of those people will be offended when I say that no one I have ever worked with or known - anywhere - is as amazing as David Schairer.

The experience of working with David is unlike any other I have had. I once likened working with someone else to drinking from a fire hose. That individual was a source of amazing amounts of information in his field, but there was no ability to control the rate at which the information came out. He could do his job well, but teaching was not something you wanted him to try.

David is entirely different.

First, he's a true polymath, astoundingly well versed in a huge number of topics, ranging all over the technical map and going beyond into classics, languages - both modern and ancient - and vast realms between. British naval history, whiskey, oddball web comics, and any number of other things are stored in his head. In depth. Every conversation with David is a new window on the world, full of twists and turns, unexpected connections, and an amazing variety of facts.

Beyond that, David has the ability to read others and throttle back if he's overwhelming those he's talking with. Truth be told he doesn't always do so - he's so far beyond most of us that it's hard for him to slow down - but he can present just about any information in clear and concise ways, keeping it interesting, lively and relevant. He can entertain, enthrall and teach all at the same time. This ability makes him an powerful mentor, even if he's not thinking of himself in that role at a given moment.

Of course there are some things that David doesn't know, and when those come up he's honest and says so. It doesn't stop him from contributing to a discussion, but you always know where he stands. This particular trait is related to - and probably springs from - an underlying honesty I find particularly appealing.

Another of David's abilities is idea generation. Present him with a problem - "How do we do X?" - and he will supply multiple approaches before anyone else has come to grips with the problem. His ability to see solutions to the kinds of issues we encounter is second to none.

On a personal level, David has been someone I can ask questions of at work - almost regardless of the topic - for my entire time at Concentric. He's one of a core of supremely gifted individuals that make working here so interesting, and who keep me on my toes all the time.

Now, I'm sad to say, David has decided to move on. My job will not be the same, and we who remain will miss him, both professionally and personally.

There are still brilliant people here. That was one of the attractions of Concentric, and why I came back here when I returned to work, but David's departure will leave a gaping hole to fill, and it will not be easy.

I look forward to following David's exploits in the future. And if it should come to pass that I can work with him again, I will be thrilled. He's one of a group that created a level of personal loyalty and intellectual challenge that I have never found anywhere else.

All the best in your future endeavors, David. I'll miss you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Tech

So just days before HTC introduces 2 new Android based cell phones we bought new G1 phones from T-Mobile. So far we're very pleased even if we missed the latest and greatest.

I love the integration with gmail, google calendar, and google contacts. It means I don't have to back anything up and I can see my wife's calendar without any effort at all. That's really good. The built in web browser is perfect for the inevitable lookup of something while out somewhere and away from a "real computer".

In addition, though, the phones just seem to work, with nice features - particularly once the 1.5 version of the firmware got installed. They integrate well with all kinds of networks including our home wi-fi.

Some of you will know that I have no love of Apple or Microsoft. With the G1 I get a nice alternative that lets me do what we want, and which gives us an excellent user experience to boot.

Sorry if this post comes across as an ad. I'm just happy to finally have something that lets me carry my address book, calendar, and what-not in a single device that simply works. I used to be able to do this with a Palm Treo, but this puts those old Palms to shame.

The new Palm Pre looked nice, but for me the keyboard was too small and the Sprint sales guys weren't hungry enough. The G1 had a nicer keyboard and an great UI too.

Anyone considering taking the smart phone plunge should at least consider the G1. I can't claim it will change your life, but it could, and it's awfully nice in any case.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On Old Dogs

I just read a lovely article about old dogs that should be shared. Please read it.

To those words can add only one thought. Weingarten mentions people who "seem unmoved by the deaths of tens of thousands through war or natural disaster will nonetheless grieve inconsolably over the loss of the family dog." He goes on to suggest a reason for this seemingly odd behavior. And I agree with him, but I want to add a second reason.

We all do this to some degree, though not necessarily over the family pet. The loss of someone close to us - a spouse or child, a close friend or relative - affects us much more than the deaths of those farther away. It's simple human nature, and those of us who are close to our dogs have simply included them in the circle of companions we'll miss more intensely when they're gone.

I've got some familiarity with old dogs, and they often have a certain accepting dignity about them. I hope I can show some of that as I age.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fire Department BBQ

I honestly don't know how many readers this blog has but it's already proven to be more than I expected, so I'm going to take a moment and plug a generic cause that I believe in.

Until a couple of months ago I was an active member of my local volunteer fire department. Right now I'm on leave, but that's beside the point. I joined the department - and support it still - because what it does is incredibly important.

While I was responding I went to innumerable vehicle accidents and on many medical aid calls. Those were the day-to-day events we saw. Less frequently we went looking for smoke or fire when someone thought something was out of place and called 911. Sometimes we found fire and did the arduous work of putting it out. A few of those fires were in houses or garages, more were outdoors - wildland fires. Most were small but every single one had the potential to get away. One finally did last year, before anyone even knew it had started: the Summit Fire, the event that prompted me to start this blog in the first place.

I don't tell you this to brag - in truth I was a small part of a team, and nothing I did by itself was of particular consequence - but instead to show you the nature of things that your fire fighters do, every day, for you.

I know that many places - in the US at least - have paid fire fighters, and I appreciate them. I worked with paid professionals all the time, and loved doing so. But here in California - with the budget woes and financial crisis - volunteer fire fighters save our counties money as they save lives and property. They give back to the community every single day in ways large and small, and they deserve your support. Who else do you know that gives their time, money and effort to make you and your neighbors safer, occasionally risking their lives in the process?

On Sunday, June 7th, my local volunteer fire department is hosting its annual BBQ fundraiser. it's the only fund raising activity we do, and the proceeds help fund the department for another year, buy equipment, hire trainers, and so on. Yes, we get county funding too, but money in our accounts stays in our community, and it directly helps you, the residents.

If you live in the Summit area and are served by Loma Prieta Volunteer Fire and Rescue, please come join us on Sunday, July 7th, at the gazebo on Summit Road for lunch, a chance to meet your fire fighters, see the equipment they use, and thank them for their service. I'll be there somewhere, helping keep people fed and happy.

If you don't live in my area, you may have a volunteer fire department where you live, and they will, no doubt, have fundraising activities. Please support them. Their work is important and you're better off for their efforts.

This is a cause I really believe in. Your volunteer fire department might save your life someday, but I am certain they are working to make you, your family, and your friends safer every day.

Thanks for reading this. I hope you can support your local volunteers.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

An art related post. No, really!

Last weekend found me installing and unveiling a garden sculpture for Jenny Yamate. This piece has a great history. At the art show we did last Fall at Jenny's gym I had another pumice sculpture that sold to one of her clients. But before it left it was at the gym for some time and Jenny got attached to it.

Well, a bunch of her clients got together and commissioned another stone from me to go where the first one had been.

I had the raw materials already, and needed only the time. Going back to work made things slip, but the piece was done something like two months ago. In an interesting twist, this piece got it's name - Flexibility - before it was even complete. Usually I wait until it's done to name something, but this one clearly had a name right away.

Jenny wanted to have a party for the unveiling, so we did that last weekend. I had a great time, and I hope everyone else did too. Big thanks to everyone who helped make this possible, and to Jenny for being both patient and appreciative!

Here are a couple of pictures courtesy of Neil Wiley, Mountain Network News. That's me and Jenny in the first one.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Politics Again. Sure to Upset Everyone Somehow.

This morning as I was leaving for work the phone rang. I picked up only to hear a robo-call from some (I assume) right wing lunatic asking me if I was aware of the tea parties and "what was happening with our government." It closed by asking me to "pay attention."

Well, I have been paying attention. There are many things going on at both the state and federal level, and I have opinions about some of them. Mostly I'm disgusted.

At the state level the recent news is the CA supreme court upholding Prop 8. I've seen blog posts and Facebook status updates from people - including friends - on both sides of this issue, and I'm afraid I have to come down on the side against prop 8. Strongly. I know this may upset some of my friends and coworkers, but here's the thing. I know several gay couples, and marriage - real marriage, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities - matters to them. And you know what? They deserve it.

These people are just as much a part of America as any other citizen, and they are - or should be - the equals of any of us. But no, they're not. Not here in California. Instead of equality we get a slim majority voting away the rights of a minority, and that is appalling. This nation's founding fathers were afraid of the tyranny of the majority, and here we have a textbook example of the principle, in one of the (supposedly) most progressive states in the union.

Here's a thought: next time around let's modify the constitution so that left handed people can't get married. It's a nice narrow subclass - much like gays & lesbians - so the supreme court should have no problem upholding that too. And then, the election after that, we'll stop bald people from getting married. Don't want them to raise children. And then brown eyed people, after all, you can't trust people with brown eyes. And after that? Jews? Non-whites? Gee, for some reason this is starting to sound familiar.

There is no threat to anyone in gay marriage. All prop 8 does is legalize discrimination. So much for the land of the free.

And as if that wasn't bad enough the state's economy continues to crumble. There isn't enough money to go around and there aren't any places to cut without hurting people - a lot of people. California has been ungovernable for a long time and it's only going to get worse in the coming years. I am not optimistic, but I don't know what to do about it. Moving - thanks to our jobs and the roots we've put down in the community - is not an option we like thinking about. I suppose it could come to that, though.

On the federal level - which is what this morning's stupid robo-call was about, I guess - the picture is slightly more mixed. President Obama has changed a number of policies from the Bush administration for the better, and I appreciate that. Even better, the Republicans are being forced to call themselves a "regional party" now, and their falling support is something I can only call a "good thing."

On the other hand I'm not so sure I like the government owning large chunks of major banks and auto manufacturers, but that might have been inevitable. Or not. The bailout is an enormously complicated thing and I can see arguments on all sides of it. I can even appreciate and agree with many of them, and I have to admit that I don't know what the "correct" solution is, or if there even is such a thing.

What disturbs me is we're starting to hear that the Obama administration is doing some things in the way that the Bush administration did. In the most recent example I know of, they are essentially following a Bush administration policy of denying that the list of visitors to the White House is public knowledge.

Excuse me? Didn't we have screaming lawsuits about this when Cheney didn't want to release his list of visitors while he was setting up his "energy policy"? And don't I recall Obama saying he was going to do things differently, starting with a reversal of the "don't disclose it if you don't have to" crap that the Bush administration was doing? They were going to be more open, or so we were told.

Well, it appears the Obama administration isn't quite living up to it's own ideals in all cases. But then again we knew that already, didn't we? We were told "no lobbyists", but there were all those exceptions for key positions. And then there were all the appointments of people who had "tax issues" discovered only after their selections were announced.

How completely unsurprising. People in power abuse that power, regardless of their party affiliation. We saw it - in spades - in the Bush administration and now we're starting to see it in the current crop of politicians as well.

The Obama administration may be more to my liking - on any number of fronts - but they're still politicians, and we should all know what that means by now. Cynicism, I'm sad to say, is the only defensible position when it comes to politics.

And with that I've probably alienated the last three friends I had. That's a shame, but I have this honesty problem...

Monday, May 18, 2009

I'm About Not To Vote...

I think this will be the first time I haven't gone to the polls since moving to California.

I kind of hate myself for not voting, but I've got my reasons.

First of all I live in something of a media vacuum, and so the dire predictions of disaster if the various things on this special election fail have only slowly been getting to me. This has been made worse by my local NPR station - which has been in pledge hell for the last 1.5 weeks, which means I turn it off immediately after hearing it - so I'm less informed than usual.

But beyond that, I'm truly of mixed mind about the mess we're in.

I may be the only person in the state who think the legislators aren't responsible for this mess. No, we, the citizens are, and I can sum up why quite simply:
  • We hate paying taxes
  • We don't want to give up services
  • We keep tying our legislator's hands with rules and initiatives
  • We require that every decision of consequence be encoded in the constitution and therefore go before the people for a vote
That set of choices - and they are (or were) choices - leads to disaster every time.

So here we sit staring at a huge budget deficit. If we pass these silly measures it's going to be bad. If we don't pass them it's going to be worse.

Some claim the measures were all written at the last minute with no review. Maybe true. Some claim we'll be letting child rapists out of prison if we don't pass them. Also possibly true.

All I know is that I'm sick of the games. If we haven't got the money to pay for things there are only a few valid choices:
  • Pay for less
  • Pay less for what you get
  • Get more money to pay for what you need
That's it, people. Nothing else is sustainable in the long term. Either you spend less in some way or bring in more money. It really, really, (REALLY!) is that simple.

From my - admittedly too brief thanks to work - review, every last one of these measures is a shell game. We're moving money from one year to the next or borrowing now and will have to pay it back later (with interest), or something similar. Frankly it's crap.

It is basically impossible to look at any one state program and say "that's a waste of money." It's possible I feel that way about some programs, but others will always legitimately disagree. I assure you that no one ever said "here's a really stupid way to spend the state's money!" and then we all voted for it. No, it never happens that way. The expenses are all good in and of themselves. There may be some unintended consequences of these things, but actual fraud of intent at the creation of a given law or bill is exceptionally rare.

And of course no one ever wants to admit that they get any value for their tax dollar. "I pay too much in taxes" is all I hear - from everyone, nominally on the left or the right. And then the complaints follow. "Have you noticed the roads? They stink! So many potholes! And my kid's teacher has 43 students in her 4th grade classroom. And my friend just lost his unemployment benefits because he still can't find a job. What kind of system lets those things happen? They must be wasting all our money somewhere." Oh the irony of it all.

In any case we're stuck with it. The economy sucks, people are hurting, and we're being dragged back to the polls to vote on a series of measures that are so complicated no one can predict what they will mean for the budget just a couple of years from now.

Well, I've had it. I am no expert at this, and I can't make informed decisions about it, and for that reason I am not going to vote tomorrow. Part of me wants to avoid damage to the system, but part of me also wants the state to see some shock therapy.

That said, the people that really, really need to get zapped are the voters. The initiative process has gotten entirely out of hand and we've handcuffed our legislators at every turn. They have no money to play with, people. X% for K-14 education (prop 98, right?). No, you can't raise property taxes (prop 13). Y% for roads (some other proposition that was approved a few years back). And so on.

We, collectively, deserve everything that goes wrong as a result of this budget crisis. A smarter electorate would have given their legislators the tools to solve the problem and let them do it, not actively prevented it.

The next few years are going to be ugly. There will be fewer police, fire fighters, teachers, and so on. Taxes will be high and services will be low. The standard of living is going to go down.

Maybe that's necessary, though. Maybe - just maybe - if we all suffer enough someone will start telling people the truth: this is our fault, people. Get it through your thick skulls. We need to spend less or take in more money. Anything else just causes the kind of issues we're seeing now.

Happy suffering.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Conversation You Don't Want To Have

Paraphrased a bit, but more or less accurate, and the gist is definitely real:
Hey Jeff.

Hey Name.

You have a pickup, right?


Any chance I could borrow it?

Uh, sure, but when? I've got some commitments and...

This afternoon?

Well, I'm using it right now, but maybe when I am done. What's up?

I've gotta pack up all my stuff and get it into storage.

You're moving?

Yeah, but I don't know where I'm going yet.
I am not making this up. Someone I know is moving out - with no place to go - thanks to the economy and the loss of a job some time ago.

I'm hearing noise about how things may be bottoming out. I sure hope so. This sort of thing is getting really depressing.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A rough time...

Yes, I've been away for a while again. Sorry about that.

Have you ever had to interrupt some one's vacation to give them awful news? When they were travelling? In another country? With a nine hour time difference? Well, I hadn't either until just a couple of weeks ago.

My other grandmother died. It's been a hard year for my family on that front, as that makes two.

The first to die, however, had been in poor health for some time and it was mostly a relief to have it finally end. This one, though, was another matter entirely. A completely unexpected event in a woman of reasonable health for her age of 90. And her son - my father - was travelling in Europe with my mom when things started to go bad.

They managed to talk to her on the phone before she died, but they couldn't get back fast enough. Aortic dissection can do that, and it's actually pretty good they talked to her at all.

I found myself travelling as a result, assisting with funeral arrangements, helping clean out her apartment, and so on. Not a fun way to spend a week, but necessary.

I cannot claim that's the only reason I haven't written here lately. There are other factors.

First and foremost it seems that all I do these days is work or come home so tired I have no energy left for anything else. As a programmer you know it isn't physical exhaustion that's the problem, but rather mental stress. I wish I could write about that, but I can't. It's enough to know that it's a job and the checks still clear.

In addition there aren't many mundane things to write about lately. The overhead of life rarely makes for good blog posts. The few interesting things that happen tend to wind up in Facebook lately. Of course that's a totally different format. Assuming you're someone I know - and why else would you be reading this? - if you're also Facebook user and we haven't "friended" (I hate that word) each other yet, please do so.

One bit of recent news is that I am embarking on a writing project with some of my stone carving students to document what we teach in our classes. This will wind up online one of these days, and there are at least two of us working on it, so maybe we'll keep each other going and it will actually get finished.

If there's something you think I should be writing about, please let me know. I know I still owe the next post in the water saga, and I will get to it one of these days. But other than that suggestions are welcome.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Geeze... gone nearly a month

Sorry folks. I've been busy with life for the last few weeks and, unfortunately, it's that part of life that doesn't get blogged about. It seems unlikely anyone reading this will want to know about my doing laundry or mowing the yard (well, that might be worth mentioning, actually), and the actual contents of my work life are off limits these days for various reasons.

In general, we (Anne and I) are just fine. We got our income tax rebate checks, had dinner guests over one night, and continue to get by. It's just that there hasn't been much excitement lately. I can't even get that worked up about anything political right now. It appears (based on the most exciting political story this weekend is that the Obamas are getting a Portuguese Water Dog. Oh joy. Can't we, as a country, worry about something else?

I guess it's finally OK for me to mention one significant thing: I've had to withdraw from the volunteer fire department. Technically I'm on a 6 month leave of absence, but unfortunately I'd guess the odds of going back within that time are really small. I don't know if the chief has announced this yet - probably not, as he's even busier than I am - but I don't think anyone from the department reads this. (If you do, please let me know, OK?)

I left because I simply couldn't make the time - mentally - to both work and be a VFD member. The time required isn't that large, but the simple fact is that I wasn't going on calls since going back to work. It seemed more than a bit silly of me to stay on the department without actually going on calls, so I did the honest thing and said so. The six month leave is at the request of the chief, who says if I can come back in that time there's nothing lost. We'll see, but as I say it seems unlikely. They way I am wired, work takes over on just about every front.

I suppose I should mention that we got through the great ATT cable cut of 2009 without much issue. Our Sprint EVDO connection went down, but amazingly Surfnet stayed up. Both are working now, though the Surfnet connection still only "works" in the most generous sense of the word possible. They claim they're installing new equipment to help improve things for us, but we see no change yet. Oh well.

There. One big bit of (not so happy) news and the rest is trivia. That's all I've got to show since the last post. Sorry.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Living With New Glasses

This is an interesting change in my life. I've had reading glasses before - that I used when working on computers, mostly - but not glasses that I've worn all the time. Making the adjustment is not as simple as I'd like.

I was told that these new glasses would make driving at night easier, and - so far - perhaps they do reduce eye strain from oncoming headlights, but they also give me lots of "spikes" from bright point sources that I find irritating.

Certain lighting conditions seem to result in light bouncing off the edges of the lenses and give things a slightly foggy look, too. I noted this most strongly while watching a concert last night. Depending on the angle I held my head at, the light off the stage caused the issue. But, of course, looking at the lenses directly against a uniformly colored background shows they are perfectly clear.

Condensation and rain clearly don't mix well with glasses either, and I've already experienced both of those, though not to any huge degree yet.

The most irritating thing, though, as to be learning to turn my head instead of just moving my eyes. The "sweet spot" with these lenses isn't always in the right place, particularly when I am reading. I find that I have to adjust the position of the book because my head can't comfortably point any farther down.

It's while reading that I am doing most of my experiments with what is and isn't in focus, and I'm wondering a little bit about that too. Sometimes, while reading I think that one eye - generally the left - is in focus, while the other is slightly out of whack. I move things around - head, eyes, reading material - and play games. (Close one eye, bring the reading material into focus with the open eye by moving reading material and/or head around. Switch to the other eye being open and see if things are in focus for it, doing the best I can not to move during the process.) I wish I had something conclusive on this issue, but I don't yet. Just an odd feeling that things might not be quite right, but it could just as easily be that I'm not yet adjusted to how to hold my head while using these new glasses.

I'm sure I'll work this out eventually, but it gives me new appreciation for the difficulties of full time lens wearers.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Glasses

I'm getting old.

New glasses.

And not just any new glasses, but bifocals. (Well, technically, they aren't bifocals - they're progressive lenses.)

These are going to to take some getting used to.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

On The Stupidity of Employer Provided Healthcare

Time for a rant. Sorry.

I've been hearing and reading a lot of crap lately. All kinds of people are up in arms about the fact that Obama wants to do something about health care. There's all kinds of FUD being spread around as a result. I'm no health care expert and I would never claim to be one, but I do have an opinion or two, and a couple of facts to state:

1) I personally know too many people who don't have and cannot afford health insurance. I'm not talking about bums living under overpasses either, but good, hard working people - some with jobs, some who've lost jobs in the economic crash. And if a working software engineer is seeing these problems regularly, they're going to be a lot worse among people whose incomes are lower.

2) Getting health coverage through one's employer is stupid. Even in the best of cases it means that things can change in nasty ways during a job change, but much worse is possible. Lose your job, lose your insurance. Have a serious medical condition requiring ongoing treatment? Too bad. Got a family that depends on you? Too bad for them too. If it really was the case that everyone who lost his or her job deserved to lose it you might make an argument in favor of this turn of events, but I think you'd lose it when others - dependants of one sort or another - are considered.

3) A lot of vitriol is thrown around about the government being a lousy solution. How it is inefficient or corrupt. But no one ever stops and says "compared to what?" Recent events in the financial system - multiple ponzi schemes and billions of dollars lot - should be enough to make everyone take a step back and realize that there is no group of people that isn't subject to corruption and the effects of greed. Not one. The government is no worse than any business in this regard, and (in fact) it might be better, since much of our government is supposed to be open and accountable. The same cannot be said for the innards of most corporations.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I have a solution for health care in mind. I don't even know to what extent the government should be involved. In truth, I haven't a clue what a real solution will look like, but I do know that anything that continues to tie health care to employment is a problem. I've also come to the conclusion that insurance as we currently do it is a bad idea. Insurance companies are supposed to spread risk around. Everyone pays a little in and the company pays out when people experience the insured risk. But if they limit themselves to only insuring those at little or no risk, they aren't performing the service for which they were created and have instead become money making machines. In the process those who cannot get coverage are hurt. I find that unconscionable.

It may be un-American, but I actually think we get something for our taxes. Things like roads, courts, national defense, police, fire & EMS services, environmental protection, and (when it works) regulation to keep the most greedy among us from taking advantage of everyone else. My list is a good deal too short, but you get the idea. My taxes get me something in return. The life I lead is better because I pay them.

Specifically on health care, I would love to see a day when someone who is sick or injured doesn't face death, bankruptcy, or poor quality treatment for lack of money. To be honest, I'm willing to see my own taxes go up to make that happen. I've seen enough people worry about whether or not to go to a doctor or hospital already in my short life. That is not a choice anyone should have to make for financial reasons. Ever.

To this day I think a society can best be judged by how it treats the least fortunate among its members. On that front the US stinks. It needs to be fixed.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Something Complicated Actually Worked!

I've been so busy lately I haven't been posting much. I apologize to each of my three readers for leaving them in suspense too often.

Today I get to report on a bit of good technology news. As you may know, my recent luck with tech - particularly computers - has not been stellar, but just this once I have something to share that seems to be OK.

My ISP - a no name outfit that does wireless connections here the in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Verizon and cable companies dare not provide reasonable service - has been giving me fits lately. The connection has been poor at best, and sometimes didn't work at all. They've been out for a couple of visits (one of which they've billed me for, which I will be complaining about to them soon) but in the end had to admit that they were simply unable to get me a reasonable signal. Not good.

In desperation I've searched for alternatives, and finally settled on something that seems to work. It's not lightning fast, but it works. It's an EVDO connection provided by Sprint in my case, though others can get something similar from Verizon.

I ordered an EVDO modem from Verizon and a Kyocera KR2 EVDO router. The modem arrived on Friday and I began playing with it. There, I appeared to hit a wall. Initializing it required a Windows machine which I lack. Thankfully I managed borrow one from a friend and did the initialization there. Once done, I could simply plug the EVDO modem into my Ubuntu 8.10 system and connect to the network from the network connection tool. It just worked. Amazing.

Even more amazing was the fact that the router arrived before I visited the friend who loaned me the Windows machine. Once I had initialized the modem and tested it in my Ubuntu 8.10 laptop, I removed the KR2 from the box, plugged the USB modem into it, connected the router to the laptop, and plugged in the router's power supply. Once everyone's POST had completed and the EVDO modem had said "hello" again to Sprint, I was back online, this time through the router, which also acts as a WiFi hotspot.

In other words, except for the silly requirement that my EVDO modem be initialized under Windows (or a Mac), it all just worked. Perfectly. First time.

That never happens.

So now I get to do some speed testing with it and see how it actually performs. So far we know it is an acceptable alternative, but we've done no optimization about placing the modem, etc. I may also need to add an external antenna to increase the bandwidth, but I'll learn that with time.

Right now what I have is something we can use when my regular ISP's connection isn't working properly. And if we can live with the data rate and the 5GB/month cap, I may be able to say good-bye to my old ISP permanently. Give me a couple of months to figure all of that out. I promise to report on it here eventually.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How Much Rain?

As many of my readers know, California is in the midst of a three year long drought. Between that and recent economics and politics, it appears to me that everyone is about to die of a massive heart attack. So I thought I'd keep this post light.

This morning we clawed our way to 33" of rainfall so far for the rainy season, which runs from July 1 through June 30 out here. 33" may sound like a lot to some of you, but it's not. If we have no more rain it would be our fourth lowest rain year on record since we moved in back in 1992.

Anyway, as I was writing the numbers down this morning I realized that the only place we have a record of them is on a beat up 3x5 card held to the fridge door with a magnet. That seemed kind of silly. So I put them into a spreadsheet, and actually figured out what the average rainfall in our area has been for 1992 - 2008: 49.59" at our home rain gauge.

So, as you can see, 33" is still well below average, and given we're near the end of February already it's going to be hard to get back to average before the season ends.

Anyway, here are the actual numbers:
  • 1992-1993: 45.75"
  • 1993-1994: 28.80"
  • 1994-1995: 74.50"
  • 1995-1996: 53.55"
  • 1996-1997: 54.70"
  • 1997-1998: 74.70"
  • 1998-1999: 40.85"
  • 1999-2000: 52.70"
  • 2000-2001: 38.85"
  • 2001-2002: 48.95"
  • 2002-2003: 50.80"
  • 2003-2004: 38.80"
  • 2004-2005: 63.00"
  • 2005-2006: 67.80"
  • 2006-2007: 25.35"
  • 2007-2008: 34.35"
May you stay out of drought wherever you live.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mountain Living - Water Part XI

Another in the ongoing saga of our water woes...

Now we have a 5000 gallon tank full of mud.

Well, that's a bit hyperbolic, but still somewhat factual. The other day I noted that the water in the dog's dish was slightly brown. Wondering about that I did some research and discovered that all the water in the house was that color except what comes from the RO unit.

So I wandered out to the water tanks to see if anything was up out there. Oh yeah. Suspended silt in the water. Probably the result of two years of drought and then finally getting some water into the water table this year. Cruft is getting dislodged and washed out into our well. Fun!

Eventually I think it will settle out, but it will take time. And in the meantime it's ugly. I backwashed the filters and things are better now, but it's not pretty out there.

Once again I repeat for those who hate city water: you have no idea how good you've got it. Just pay your bill and quit complaining.

At the moment I am waiting for referral information on how to build my own sand based turbidity filter that might help with this (and other) water quality problems. We'll see if that ever shows up or not. And in the meantime I'll keep asking the oracle.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

I hate computers...

Yes, it's true, I despise computers, despite having programmed them for nearly 20 years and continuing to earn a living from the silly things.

I have a nice big rant building up inside me about how Linux is only the lesser evil among a selection of evils ranging all over the map in power and degree of vileness (is that even a word?), but for now, let's just say I hate computers in general. Every beeping one of them.

Why, you ask?

I've been trying to setup a new computer for 2 days now. Not much luck.

Oh, it runs, sort of. But I can't get the device driver for my graphics card to work, and the sound drivers completely fail too. But my OS is from April of 2008, so clearly it's just too old. The proprietary video driver is only supported by the latest version, and it appears that version may have better support for the open source driver too.

So far today the only thing that has gone right on the computer is this: I managed to replace the busted keyboard in my laptop with one that works. The stupid little trackpoint thing was causing the mouse cursor to move whenever I typed on the keyboard, and since I use focus-follows-mouse, that was a bit of a problem. Plus, once it started moving it was sometimes 30 seconds or so before it stopped being wedged in a corner of the display. Very irritating.

So at least that's working again, which is an improvement. It's actually possible to use it as a laptop again.

So, while I continue waiting for Surfnet's lousy network (don't get started... don't get started...) to download an ISO image of the latest Linux version - in the desperate hope it will deal with the video and sound options in my new computer a bit better, even though it will have bugs too, some of which I am already familiar with from other installations - I am going to go do something much less painful: tax preparation.

That should give you some idea of just how screwed up my weekend has been thanks to these infernal "labor saving" devices.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mountain Living - Water Part X

This isn't the water related post I expected it would be.

As those following the water saga know, we've been buying water lately as the production from the well has tapered off. Not fun, but necessary.

Well, sometime in the last week or two, that changed. The tanks are now full. On their own. I just talked to my wife who told me that they are "full, full", not just "full". Interesting.

This sort of thing has happened in the past thanks to minor earthquakes which - I think - break up the silt and calcification that clog up the paths the water takes to get into the well. But we haven't had any quakes I know of in our area recently. A few 4.x sized things down near Hollister and Gilroy, maybe, but nothing in our neck of the woods.

Perhaps some of our highly limited rain has finally made its way into the water table, and thus is now available as water in our well. Who knows.

In any event it appears we won't have to buy more water for a while. Go figure.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On The Nature Of Commitments

I've been pondering commitments lately. I haven't had an epiphany, but I thought I might ramble about them a bit and see if anything interesting falls out.

My thinking about commitments is caused by the fact that I find myself shedding them right and left since I went back to work. There aren't enough hours in any given day to let me do now what I did when I wasn't working. Of course, I didn't manage to keep all my commitments then, either. I did better, though.

Commitments seem to come in a few forms, for me at least. This list may not be exhaustive, but it includes:
  • Unbreakable commitments made to others. These are rare: wedding vows, deathbed promises and the like. And clearly what is unbreakable for some isn't inviolate for others.
  • 'Breakable' commitments made to others. These are more common. We make them all the time in work and personal life.
  • Commitments made to oneself. I chose not to split this into two categories out of personal experience. For me, at least, commitments to myself are pretty slippery. if I tell someone else about them, though, they become much harder to break than if I keep them inside.
As my available time has dropped and my workload has increased, I find that the nature of the commitments I make (and keep) is changing. More and more are related to the office, while those that were made before I went back to work are being set aside.

That's perfectly normal and understandable, of course, but it still frustrates me. Planning on doing something and then not doing it is not my style. Particularly if I told someone else I'd do it. It happens to us all, of course. We all bite off more than we can chew at times, but it feels like a weakness in me that should be overcome, if only I could figure out how.

I suspect I'll be in this state for quite a while. As I recall, when I quit working nearly four years ago, one of the hardest things about doing so was all the commitments I'd made to my coworkers at the office. Letting those go was not a simple task, and now I am setting myself up for that again someday.

But for now I suffer the opposite, sort of. I'm having to let go of the commitments I made when I wasn't working. There's less time for the fire department and friends. There's less time for me, to do things like go to the gym. There's less time to walk the dogs, even.

Still, it has to be done, and it was a choice. My choice.

Something tells me I need to go think about something else for a while.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Printer Works

Small miracle: the Xerox Phaser 6130n that I bought works with Linux.

My version of Ubuntu (8.04) didn't want to support it initially. It didn't have a driver available and recommended a driver for a different Xerox model. That did not work. It spat out a few pages with gibberish on them instead of a test page.

I grubbed around on the CD that came with the printer and found a directory named "Linux". What? A major manufacturer supplying something for Linux right out of the box? Great! But what was in there was a .rpm file for a driver. Ubuntu doesn't use .rpm files for packages, it uses .deb files.

There is a way to convert between .rp and .deb package formats, and I started down that path, but simultaneously I went to the Xerox web site to see what they had out there. I hoped they'd have a pre-built .deb file I could download, since Ubuntu is pretty popular.

What I found, though, was a bit different. They had PPD files available, and PPD files allow the CUPS system to work with a printer just like a driver does. (Or so I gather, since my choices were to install a driver or a PPD file.)

So I downloaded the archive full of PPD files, extracted the one for the 6130, and installed it.

Like magic, the printer worked. It prints in color, prints images, etc. This is great news.

Every ink jet printer I've ever owned has ended its life with print heads full of dried up ink that will not be removed and prevents clear printing. The most recent one, while it was suffering from a clogged print head too, actually died a horrible mechanical death when something went "POP!" inside it one day. It never printed again.

I hope this new Xerox 6130 works out well. I've been without a printer for months now, trying to figure out what laser printer would work with Linux.

So far, so good!

Today I am a Follower

Yesterday Steve added my blog to the published list of blogs he reads. I'm honored. A bit scared - for the reasons I mentioned in yesterday's post - but definitely honored.

But it was that action on his part that got me to thinking about blog etiquette and whether or not I was doing things properly. I wasn't.

There are about 20 things in my RSS reader at this point. Some are just silly, some I am more seriously interested in, some are from businesses, and others - the most important ones to me - are written by people I know.

I feel no obligation to give regular link space to the business blogs I follow. They may get mentioned from time to time, as appropriate, but the nature of my relationship with them isn't one that requires me to advertise for them.

Nor do I feel obliged to provide regular link space to those blogs that are written by people I don't know. There are several of those, mostly artists writing about their experiences. These are valuable to me, but since the writers don't know me from anyone, there seems to be no obligation on my part to advertise for them. (I might choose give them links, though, and as with business blogs, I may mention them where appropriate.)

The last category - and the one where I realized I was falling down on the job - is blogs of people I know. I had a few listed on my site, but the full list I follow wasn't up there. That, I decided, needed to change.

These are my friends, and through the web of connections that is the Internet it is entirely possible that someone who finds me will realize they also know someone whose blog I follow. By not giving them links, I was actively doing them a disservice.

So this morning I revised the link list. I added four blogs written by people I know to the sidebar. I also added the blog of one person I don't know, but whose work I admire so much I felt that the chance of exposing others to him was worthwhile.

So once again, thanks Steve. It appears that getting in touch with you was good for me in several ways.

And for anyone else out there whom I know and who keeps a blog, consider sending me a link. If you're not on the list I probably don't know about it, and that's no good. I want to keep up to date on my friends.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Things I Hate: My Own Typos

I apologize, sincerely and completely, to everyone who has read this blog. Every last one of you deserves a medal for slogging through the forest of typos that result from my vague attempts at communication in English. (If I stuck to my native Gibberish I'd probably be just fine.)

Typos are my bane. There are probably still a few in this post that I haven't found. Yet.

Let me tell you a story...

An hour ago I exchanged email with a friend (hi Steve!) and former coworker - a technical writer - with whom I hadn't conversed in a long time. It turns out he has a blog. Naturally I read through some of his blog in the process of this communication. His writing is good. I've added his blog to my RSS reader.

With some trepidation I told him that I, too, kept a blog. A few minutes later he told me that he'd added my blog to his RSS tool. (The main attraction being the picture of me with a fork suspended from my nose.) Uh-oh. Now Steve's a nice guy, but look at it from my point of view: I've got a professional writer reading my blog. This'll be "interesting". I'd better go look at it real quick. From the outside.

And the first thing I noted was that I hadn't posted in 12 days. Even without Steve there as a motivator, that was not good, and I needed to remedy that. The previous - basically content free - post was the result. OK, fine. At least you know I'm still alive.

Then I went back and re-read the post I'd just written and published. Typos. Typo city! And Steve is out there lurking. He really is a nice guy, and I probably won't get email telling me that I have used "it's" where I meant "its" for the 10,000th time. But I could get that email. If not from him then from a few others that have been known to "express themselves" to me in the past. (Hi David.)

So I edited the post and fixed the typos I could find, including the gross spelling errors that spell check was warning me about when I typed the thing up in the first place. sigh.

Then I checked a few of the older posts, just to see how I'd been doing on the typo front.

Suffice it to say that if this was a war between me and the typos, they'd overrun my position years ago, taken my HQ, sacked my supply houses, moved in, married, had kids, and sent them to college. There were a LOT of typos out there.

So I fixed what I found in various older posts. I didn't get to them all, alas, and I probably missed some in the posts I did review. What can I say, though. I don't have hours and hours to spend at it right now, and finding my own typos is just about as easy as performing brain surgery on myself.

But once again I must apologize to all of you who risk reading my words. I'm not nearly as illiterate as they make me look. Honestly! Please accept this blog entry - even if it too is crawling with grammatical boo-boos - in the spirit of contrition in which it is intended.

Special thanks to Steve for causing this, even if it was entirely unintentional on his part. If you want a link to your blog in here, Steve, just ask.

I guess there was one benefit to finding all those typos: I got to add another post to my "Things I Hate" series.

(Now to proofread this before hitting the "publish post" button... shudder.)

Strange Silence

Yes, it's been 12 days since my last post here. Or something like that.

You'd think - with the inauguration and all - I'd have something interesting to say. Not really, and that's why I haven't written.

In all honestly, I was happy to see our new president take office. So far he's kept to the script as I envisioned he would, and I agree with the things he's done, at least to the extent that I understand them. But he's still human, as is his staff, and the mistakes and issues will inevitably come.

And that's where I peter out. Happy, but wary. Not much there.

I could write about my own life, right? After all that's not getting any simpler. There's a new printer sitting on the table behind me that hasn't been setup in the week since it arrived. There's the DMV testing I need to finish to finalize the drivers license that will let me drive fire engines. There's work, which brings with it a whole slew of things I need to do and understand. And there are friends and commitments that I need to keep up with. There are dogs to pet, sculptures to carve, and so on.

Mostly, though, it's overwhelming and I'm tired. That's not where I want to be, and it makes for lousy blog entries.

Slowly, however, I can see things changing. I'm actually less exhausted now than I was a month ago. The schedule that came with going back to work is getting a bit easier, and I've ordered a new computer that will make it simpler to work from home a bit, letting me dodge the worst of rush hour, at least.

But that's all pretty mundane stuff. As you can see, I haven't got anything of substance driving this post. Mostly I'm just writing so my readers - and there are a couple of you out there - know that I am still here. Oh, and Paul, I really will write that next update on the water system one of these days.