Friday, January 29, 2010

Of Herself, A Friend Says...

"I have a richly minimalist fantasy life."

I really like that phrase.  Intrinsically at odds with itself, it nevertheless makes complete sense.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts on the iPad

I'm not a Mac fanboy.  I bought two Macs in the dim and distant past and both had serious problems.  More recently I find that Apple's prices are too high and their products - while they work very well if you're doing exactly what Apple anticipated - are problematic if you're trying to do something Apple's engineers didn't plan for.

All that aside, I find the iPad interesting, at least as a concept.  I am unlikely to buy that specific product from Apple.  The cost is actually OK, as far as I can tell, but...
  • I hate ATT as a network provider.  (And no, Verizon isn't any better.  Currently I'm on T-Mobile, which has much better customer service than either.  Their network, I know, isn't nearly as good, but then again I don't travel all that much, so it's OK for me.)
  • It has no multitasking.
  • Battery life may not be long enough to be a good e-book reader.
What the iPad does, though, is whet my appetite for something similar.  The vast majority of what I do on a computer could be done on such a device, though I'm not entirely sure about the keyboard without trying it.  Still, a fanless, lightweight, general purpose computer of that form factor could be very handy.

Imagine something of the general size and shape to the iPad running Chrome OS or a similar Linux variant.  (Such a device needs a lightweight OS, not Windows or MacOS, but something specifically designed for this environment.)  It should have a good integration with the Internet - essentially providing a cloud computing environment - but I also want both local data storage and locally run applications.

Being fanless is important to me. My existing laptop is just fine until I am sitting in a quiet room trying to think and the fan clicks on because FireFox is using too much CPU.  That's deafening and silly.

I also want a customer replaceable battery.  I know that will add to cost, weight, and thickness, but it's simply a requirement.

I just read a rumor that Google and HTC may be working on a tablet style computer.  That's what actually made me write this.  That's a device I'd love to see, and if they did a good enough job I'd buy it.

This is all just idle speculation on my part, but the age of the tablet computer may be coming.  I look forward to seeing what it looks like.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


What is that big shiny thing above my head?  The one against the blue background?  And why didn't I get soaking wet while walking the dogs?

Something very strange is going on...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Exercise for a Cause

Somone I know works for this startup:

Plus 3 Network

It's a social networking site that allows those of us that exercise to raise money for charitable causes at the same time.  Signing up is free and the results are cool.

If you regularly walk, ride, run, hike, do yoga, or any of a number of other activities, you can raise money for a good cause simply by logging your workouts.

Check it out, and if you sign up search for me on the site and we'll connect, something like Facebook's friend concept.  That way we can watch each other's workouts and encourage each other along the way.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Robert Burns Day

Today is Robert Burns Day... a celebration of Scotland and Robert Burns, composer of Address to a Haggis, among other things.

Alas it falls on a Monday this year, which makes it difficult to celebrate in the style it should be and still get up on Tuesday morning ready to face the world.  Thus, some friends invited us over for Burns Supper last night, which was a bit better, though still not perfect.  (I guess there are lower expectations for Monday morning than Tuesday morning, which makes an odd sort of sense.)  We ate home made haggis, neeps, and tatties, among other things.  Most importantly we toasted Robert Burns, Scotland, each other, and absent friends with a couple of good single malt whiskeys.

As an aside, we decided that since it wasn't really Robert Burns' birthday we were probably celebrating something else, which we decided was Montgomery Burns Day, which is entirely different, but still (in your best and most appropriate Simpson's voice) excellent.

A couple of years ago I spent a few days in Scotland and met a bunch of wonderful people.  Islay was particularly amazing, and I think I could live there, though my wife needs a bit more in the way of civilization.  Still, we both dearly loved it and would happily go back.

In any case, wherever you are, take a moment to think about Robert Burns, Scotland, and your friends, both present and gone.  And make the time to thank those you have for being there for you.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Tax Prep Time... Whee

While the weather stinks and keeps me from doing a project I have lined up, it's time to start the tax preparation.  For us, this involves an entire day or two spent going through the filing cabinet and extracting everything for 2009, getting it all lined up and organized to go when we see our accountant.

As to why we have an accountant, I suppose I could do it on my own.  I suppose I'd have a hope (just barely) of getting it right, too.  But in truth I want someone else to do it.  The ability to give her the data and have the results without the effort and worry about getting things in the proper place is worth the cost.

Those who know me well know I don't mind paying my fair share of the tax burden in the US, as I think we get value for our money.  I do, however, object to the outrageously complex way those taxes are collected and documented.  I have no problem with a progressive tax system - I even think it's fair - but surely there's a way for it to be simpler, so that someone like me (a college educated software engineer) could be confident that he's filled out the forms properly?

Apparently not.

So I have an accountant.  My life isn't really that complicated, but I guess the government wants it to be, or thinks it is, or something.

Anyway, I need to start working on the filing.  See you again in a day or two.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Just waiting for the power to go out

I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the combination of wind, rain, and PG&E causes us to lose power.  But that's yet another result of living on the edges of civilization, rather than in the thick of it.

On a barely related note, why is it that the six year old Siberian Husky with the incredibly thick, luxurious coat is the total wuss and won't go out in the rain?  "No, dad, I can hold it until at least Thursday" seems to be his response to any thought of going outdoors to relieve himself when the ground is wet.  Very strange.

Anyway, I hope you're dry and warm and happy, wherever you are.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Just saw Avatar

Went out last night and watched Avatar.  Some thoughts, but no spoilers...

First, we saw it in 3D, and while it was nice, I'm not sure it needs the 3D treatment.  In fact, at a few points I found the glasses somewhat bothersome as they induced a bit of haze.  (Yes, they were clean.  I checked.)  In any case, they didn't play with the 3D all that much in Avatar.  They used it, but didn't bang it over your head that much.

What?  A special effects movie that doesn't concentrate only on the effects?  Well, not that particular special effect anyway.

It was pretty.  The cinematography (well... animation, I guess) was quite nice.

The story was, as my wife said, "well worn".  I'd call it predictable.  In fact, just a few days ago I wrote a review of The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin, which gives her take on the same kind of situation.  My copy of that book has a 1972 copyright, and the first blurb on the first page says "it tells an old story in a new way".  I guess Avatar tells essentially the same old story in a somewhat new way.

Overall I enjoyed the film.  It isn't something that changed my life, but it was fun.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Things you don't expect

How about a water leak when it isn't raining?  And no, a pipe didn't burst.

Apparently some time back - no one is sure how long ago, but probably back in mid-December before we left on vacation - one of us left a hose valve just slightly open.  The water dripped out once every couple of seconds.  Normally this would not be a problem, but we live in a house with a flat roof.  An 18 year old flat roof with a deck over it.

Well, apparently the part of that roof right against the house where the hose was dripping slopes the wrong way.  Water had pooled up against the house there over the years and rusted through the steel roofing.  That rust may have been exacerbated by nails driven through the wall just above the roof line, into something vaguely like but not really flashing.

Anyway, the water runs into the house there, drips down through the ceiling and into the guest bedroom.  But it's not really that simple.  The entire house is shear-sheeted with plywood - on the inside even - so that soaks up and holds a TON of water before it drips down onto the drywall.

We discover the mess in the guest bedroom a week after getting home.  I got some advice from friends and tore out a lot of water soaked sheet rock.  Now we run fans in that room all the time trying to dry it out (which is working) and I've opened up the deck and put a bunch of goo into the area of the leak which I hope will prevent additional water intrusion.

What a mess.  I have a garage full of busted up drywall and muck to haul to the dump and need to give everything a long time to dry out before we close it back up.  Fortunately we have little or no mold in there, which is good.

Oh, and I did note dry water stains on the back of some of the drywall as I pulled it out.  That means there was previous leakage that we never saw.  This could have gone on for years.

I guess this summer we get a new roof/deck.  What fun.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Facebook vs. Holiday Cards

Thanks to our trip this year (and this is the last post even loosely based on the trip, I promise) we never got around to sending out Christmas cards.  I felt - and still feel - kind of bad about that.  One friend I know is always late and wound up sending out Martin Luther King Day cards one year.  I doubt I'll do that, but I suppose it is possible.

On our return I got the huge pile of mail from the post office and found lots of cards in there.  As usual, quite a few had letters in them too, and it suddenly occurred to me that holiday cards are, in many cases, an early version of social networking.

Without wanting to offend any of my friends on Facebook, one of the things about that community is that it is largely made up of people I don't see regularly.  Of course, there are exceptions, but in large measure my Facebook friends are more distant in terms of space or accessiblity.  Many of my former co-workers are there, for example, and our paths simply don't cross anymore.  There are even a few people on that list whom I know but have actually never met in person.

Status updates from those more distant connections are a lot like those annual letters from family and friends that you never actually get to see in person.  Great Aunt Betty telling you about her year - the good and the bad - without a lot of context looks a lot like a Facebook newsfeed.

There are minor differences.  Facebook is a bit closer to real time, so I don't get an entire years worth of news all at once, for example, and most of the holiday cards and letters I get don't comment on things political or social, but I found the similarities quite interesting.  If I took all the posts from some physically distant Facebook friend, removed the political and social commentary, strung them together and printed them, I'll bet I'd come disturbingly close to a holiday letter.

Food for thought.  I keep reading articles about the wonder of social networking, how new and different it is.  Not so.  Rolodexes used to do on paper what Facebook and LinkedIn do online, and now I realize that even the status update that goes to a bunch of people is far from a new idea.

Perhaps there really is nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reactions To Coming Home

As we neared home on our recent trip I found myself noting what I was thinking and comparing that with how the dogs were reacting.  Yes, it was totally silly, but it was amusing.

I, for example, was worried.  All the worst possible things go through my mind.  What if the house has burned down and no one called to tell us?  What if someone broke in and robbed us blind while we were gone?  What if someone is doing that just as we arrive?  Yes, I suppose these things are possible, but they don't merit concern until you discover they have happened, and why the heck do I only worry about them as we approach home, instead of for the entire two weeks we've been gone?  I worry about them none the less.  In some ways I am a compulsive worrier.

Then, as we get closer and we're on roads I drive often enough to know well, I start noting the things haven't changed.  We were only gone two weeks, but I still have to note that "the store is still there, right where it was when we left."  I try not to voice these idiocies out loud (google "My you're very tall" in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams for why not) but they do run through my head. What kind of neurosis is that?

Dogs, on the other hand, are a lot simpler in their reactions.

Having spent almost three days in the car, they are tired of it and want a change.  Our older dog - Leah - started sitting up nearly an hour from the house.  Something must have smelled right as it was dark by then and there wasn't much to see.  Still, she was alert to our arrival early on, even before we were on roads she knows from experience.  She watched out the windows and then pushed in to sit between the front seats and look forward as we hit familiar roads.

Danno, our younger (and dumber) dog, was mostly oblivious until we were only about fifteen minutes from home.  It was probably only after he picked up on something from Leah's actions that he, too, had to sit up and pay attention.

Both dogs exuded a kind of calm anticipation at this point.  They knew what was coming and looked forward to it, but there wasn't much celebration yet.  Some years ago a similar return home with Leah included barking with happiness for the last four miles.  I guess age - she's roughly ten - has mellowed her.

Once the car actually stops, of course, both dogs are dying to get into the house and back into territory they actually know.  The excitement is profound, though still relatively quiet.  By then, however, my own anticipation is basically over.  The house is still there, unchanged, and what faces me are the tasks that go with arriving at home: turn on the water heater, start the heat pump, unpack the stuff we have to have tonight, and so on.  I'm already in task mode while the dogs are romping and enjoying the return of familiar surroundings.

All of this only goes to show that our dogs are smarter than me, at least.  My wife would tell you that's an obvious conclusion.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Two More Trip Pictures - One With A Question

Some worried about road conditions while we were on our recent trip.  In truth, the roads were mostly fine.  We hit a few snow flurries, but nothing heavy in terms of new snowfall.  Worse, though, was blowing snow, particularly in Wyoming.  Anne drew the short straw for the worst case of blowing snow.  The picture below shows a mild case of what we were dealing with... 45 MPH wind gusts and a fair amount of snow can make for an awful mess on the road.  As I say, though, this picture is a less severe instance of the problem:

This next picture leads to a question I've had for something like 15 years, since the first time we did this drive:
What are those groups of three marks in the right lane?  They span what might be expansion joints in the pavement, and each group of three appears roughly where the tires of vehicles in that lane would be.  I only see these in Wyoming and a bit in Nebraska.  Just once this trip I saw a similar things with groups of four similar marks.

I haven't been able to figure out what these marks are for, but they've been on I80 in Wyoming for a long time.  If anyone knows, please drop me an email and explain it to me.  Thanks!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Holiday Excursion

I'm back from our semi-regular holiday excursion.  At odd intervals we pack ourselves and our dogs into a car and drive from our home in the San Francisco Bay Area to Chicago to visit family.  To many this sounds insane, particularly when done during the middle of Winter.  For us, though, it's the only way to do it that makes sense.

Gas, hotels, and food for the trip winds up costing a bit over $1000 the way we do it.  (It's 2250 miles one way, and while I'd love to do it in a more fuel efficient vehicle, our Honda Element is the one that can haul us, two big dogs, and our stuff.  Our 2000 Insight could do it for a less than half the gas used by the Element but there's no room for the dogs in there.)  Anyway, we make the trip in three days, weather permitting, and thus stay in two hotels in either direction.

Now, imagine purchasing two tickets from SFO to ORD, renting a car, and kenneling two dogs for that same duration.  The total cost is a lot more than driving.  Heck, just kenneling costs more than our entire trip.

And for those who claim that six days of driving seems like a waste I can only say that I'd rather drive for three days than wait in even one security line at an airport.  Traveling by plane used to be glamorous, or at least fun.  Now it's just insulting drudgery.  I'm not worried about safety - even after the recent scare - but being treated like dirt for that long and then being packed into a metal tube for several hours with a couple hundred total strangers just doesn't appeal to me.

Anyway, we do the trip, visit with two sets of in-laws, and return.  We change drivers roughly every two hours, which makes it possible to go 800 or 900 miles in a day without too much trouble.  That's how we can do the entire trip in just three days.

We get to see some really pretty country (Wyoming and eastern Utah come to mind) as well as some staggeringly boring terrain (most of Nebraska).  We also see some oddities.

This trip we noted that drivers in central Iowa were the craziest, weaving and speeding like they couldn't die, and that was despite a string of wrecks all across the state after a recent snowstorm.  We counted a dozen once we started, and we're certain we passed more than that before we started counting.  I guess Iowans simply aren't worried about their personal safety.

But the award for the place where people speed the most still goes to Chicago.  70 MPH on a freeway posted at 55 will get you run over, even when it is snowing.  There were fewer crazy drivers in our experience there than in Iowa, but it's clear that every car sold in Chicago comes with a brick on the accelerator pedal.  Oddly, the Illinois police seem just fine with this and never seem to pull anyone over for "just" being 15 or 20 MPH over the limit.  Go figure.

I have a few other observations that came from this trip as well.  I'll post them in coming days.

This time, though, I'll leave you with a picture taken at 75 MPH on I80 in Utah's western salt flats.  In places the surface water was frozen and rugged, and in others - like this one - it was almost mirror smooth.

I hope the holidays were good to you and yours, and may 2010 be better for us all than 2009 was.