The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Tue, 31 Jan 2006 New Weblog

I have given up on blogging with Bloxsom, at least for the time being. The workflow (editing text files at home and synchronizing them via ftp) was such that I was just never posting; it is clear that the Wiki model and the online editor, where the web browser is the only tool needed, is the better way for me. I have a new weblog up using Google's blog tools. See:

http://geeklikemetoo.blogspot.com

I have also created another programming-specific weblog, currently centered mostly around Scheme:

http://praisecurseandrecurse.blogspot.com

Thanks for reading.

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Fri, 28 Oct 2005 Veronica Year One

Tomorrow, our little daughter will have her first birthday. One year of Veronica Ruth in the big wide world! Plus those early formative months in the womb, although she was not nearly as much fun then. Grace said something the other day about just how strange it was that a year ago, she wasn't around. It is somewhat mind-blowing. She seems too real to have not been in existence before that. So where was she? It is just as mysterious when people leave the world. It doesn't seem possible that they could be here and then not here so abruptly, but that is indeed the mystery we are confronted with. She will have to confront it too.

Lightening up a bit... Vera is doing great, although she is a constant challenge. She is fond of climbing, so she has a considerable number of bruises. We've tried to make the house fairly baby-proof, but she will climb anything. She has a lot of new skills. She is not speaking clearly, but she stuck a metal CD rack in my face and said "Daddy, eat it!" Grace asked her once if she would like some more food, and she said "That would be lovely." I'm not claiming her pronounciation would be clear to anyone else, but we understood her. This was at ten and a half or eleven months. She doesn't generally speak when you want her to, although she will typically answer questions with "yeah." She chants "ma-ma-ma-ma" as a kind of mantra while playing.

The sign language has not gone as well: she has not learned very many signs yet, and does not use them regularly, so maybe like she skipped crawling, she will skip signing. We are also not very consistent about using the signs. She still loves her They Might Be Giants DVD, and will dance whenever she hears "Alphabet of Nations" or "Clap Your Hands." Or even if we sing it to her and clap. She can clap along. She also manipulates objects in more sophisticated ways. She can't assemble duplo blocks yet, but the other day she had a cardboard box that was open on both ends, and sat and repeatedly put blocks in one and and watched them slide out the other.

I am also coming to the close of the second week of my new job, as a senior software engineer with Lectronix. I am very pleased to be rid of my tedious commute! The new office is only a couple of miles from home, and I may even be able to bike. I even have windows and an office with a door! Heaven. The work is interesting as well, although I am just starting to learn about the embedded platforms and tools. In addition, we should have health coverage again! That can't come soon enough. Medicaid is still bouncing all of Veronica's bills, and some of this paperwork is now almost a year old. They kept sending letters threatening to cut off coverage, with no explanation as to what we had done wrong, and Grace was not able to get a call back. We may wind up just having to eat about a thousand dollars worth of well-baby visits and immuninizations for the past year. Grace has also had some problems with her teeth, and it appeared she might need surgery. On top of that there is her gall bladder, which probably needs to be removed.

In the week between the end of my MicroMax/Visteon job and the start of this one, we were able to take a couple of days off and go up north, to Grand Marais on Lake Superior. Isaac had never been. The trip was beautiful, but too short. And too much driving! With stops, the return trip took over twelve hours. Road construction and endless traffic backups didn't help any. But the U.P. was beautiful. It turned out to be kind of an adventure: we met Governor Granholm in Grand Marais, who was visiting a community meeting to talk, in part, about the harbor breakwall, its state of disrepair and the need for funds to repair it. So we have pictures of Isaac shaking the governor's hand.

I am continuing to occupy my mind with a little bit of reading, in what little free time I can find, and am trying to take a more active role in Isaac's homeschooling. We are reviewing geometry and narrowing in on techniques he's forgotten over the summer, and he is also doing fraction drills. Although I am always hesitant to give him easy drill work, he seems to enjoy it, and at his age he can use all the basic technique work he can get, as long as we also try to move him forward. Isaac is also continuing in the Ann Arbor Boy Choir (a choir boy and an altar boy) and joining a more advanced singing group. I must go... they are performing tonight! It is going to be a busy weekend!

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Fri, 26 Aug 2005 Installer VISE

Installer VISE has a good reputation as one of the best packages for building installers, but apparently that is not saying much... it is really pretty awkward to use, and the documentation is weak.

It is like writing a program in a conventional language where all the actual behavior is hidden. Like: what the conditionals actually say; how comparisons are done (what constitutes true and false); not being able to evaluate any kind of previous step for success or failure without introducing a superfluous variable test item; not being able to actually manage types and perform type coercion yourself; not being able to actually manage strings yourself... ugh.

It does supply quite a bit of behavior for you, though, which would be quite awkward if you had to write it all yourself. Oh well...

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Dead Turtles

When I came home from work last night, after spending nearly 90 minutes to go 32 miles, I found that the kitchen sink was full of hot water that had backed up from the dishwasher, which was running.

And in the sink were my three turtles, Giblet, Bubba, and Sluggo.

Dead.

Having undergone some combination of scalding and drowning.

Isaac had been feeding the turtles, at my request, but wandered off to play and left them there, for I-don't-know-how-long. Grace was busy with the baby.

The backing-up of the dishwasher drainage into the sink happens commonly, and can be fixed by running the disposal or making sure the plug is firmly stuck in place.

It was a bad idea to feed the turtles while the dishwasher was running. And an even worse idea not to keep an eye on them and notice when the water started to back up, and stuff the plug back in, or run the disposal to clear the blockage (the turtles are much too big to go down the drain). Or take them out.

I did not know that the water was hot or that they were dead, and so we yelled for Isaac to come finish feeding them.

This is where it gets weird.

He drained out the water, rinsed them off like he is supposed to, and put them back in the tank. Apparently not noticing, or deciding to not bother to mention to us, that they were dead -- two completely limp, and one stiff. Not moving. Eyes closed. Bubba with his mouth open looking like he was in agony.

Which he probably had been.

Isaac has been feeding them for a while now, and has a lot of experience with them now... he knows that they hate being handled, and always try to wriggle their way free. It is not normal for them to have their eyes closed, for Bubba's neck and limbs to be sticking out stiffly, and for Bubba and Giblet's heads to be flopping loosely.

It was an accident, but accidents happen a lot less often to the observant and attentive. Isaac's response was just surreal, but the lesson we are trying to teach him from this is that being an observant person, paying attention, and taking responsibility for the helpless are the most important things we can teach him.

We are not giving Isaac a specific punishment, because this is at least partially an accident, although he felt the need to ground himself for a few days.

A brief eulogy for three turtles:

Turtles aren't pets in the same sense that cats or dogs are pets. You can't really train them much. They don't adjust to being handled; they don't like it. They are mostly for watching. Graceless and awkward on land, they are remarkably agile in the water. When they are not swimming around looking for food, they either lie on the bottom of the tank or bask on a rock. Occasionally I would even find all three of them stacked up, in order, from largest (Giblet) to smallest (Bubba), but if they saw me move, they would immediately jump back in the water. Oddly, although they are normally very shy, when I practiced my guitar, they would line up and appear to be watching me. Baby Veronica loved to watch them. They are relatively low-maintenance pets; unlike fish, they thrive in plain tap water, and with a large-capacity filter unit with a biological "waterfall" attached, I did not need to change the water very often. Since I am allergic to most furry pets, they were just about the ideal pet for me.

Giblet, a female red-eared slider, was purchased by my brother Brian perhaps seven years ago when she was tiny, about the size of a silver dollar. He kept her for a while, but she was not thriving; her tank did not have a proper heater and tank filtration, and Brian was over-extended with two children and several other pets to cope with. So, I took over Giblet's care and brought her to Ann Arbor. She grew, and grew, and grew some more, until she was about the size of a dinner plate. Her hobbies were basking, stealing food from the other turtles, and occasionally climbing out of the tank and hiding in obscure corners of our apartment. She bit me on several occasions, once drawing blood. She was mean, and you got the sense that she would eat you if she could, but she did a good job at being a turtle. Turtles can live fifty years or more with proper care. She might have lived several decades more, and she might even have outlived me.

I purchased Sluggo, a male red-eared slider, as a companion to Giblet. She was very small, and I did not want her companion to be large enough to take her head off while they were eating together, so I found the smallest turtle I could find. He was still quite a bit larger than Giblet. Now the tables have turned, and she is much larger. When I got Sluggo, I thought he was young, but it seems that he was the full-grown runt of the litter. He had a parasite and a soft shell. I was able to remove the "slug" (hence his name) and harden up his shell by feeding him turtle mineral supplements, although it remained somewhat distorted as it grew. He improved under my care, but always behaved kind of strangely; he seemed terrified of everything, including his own food. He seemed to have a neurological problem and his claws would sometimes twitch violently. Amazingly, he managed to fertilize Giblet several times, although the eggs always got eaten before we could collect them. He must have had a traumatic childhood, but did come out of his shell, so to speak, under my care. Sluggo did his best at being a turtle. I am glad that I was able to improve his life a little bit.

I purchased Bubba, a yellow musk or mud turtle, to keep Giblet and Sluggo company. He was more friendly, and his was shaped such that it always appeared to have an affable grin on it, hence his name. He had a remarkably long neck, which he could stick out to an absurd length. Instead of basking on the rocks, he enjoyed lying on the bottom of the tank and occasionally extending his neck all the way to the top, where his nostrils would just barely break the surface, to sip some air. He had an interesting hinged plastron. He developed a strange lump on his foot, and I was afraid it was some kind of tumor, but it went away after I put a sulfa antibiotic for turtles in the tank. He was not able to bite nearly as hard as Giblet or Sluggo, and resisted less when being carried to and from his dinner. He seemed a little bit more intelligent, although that is pretty subjective. Bubba was a great turtle. I'll miss him the most.

We did not bury them; they went into the dumpster. We don't have a good place to bury them, and I couldn't bear the idea of having a funeral for pets which are not even mammals. But they will be remembered. This weekend I will be dismantling the tank. I'm not going to replace them.

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Wed, 17 Aug 2005 Hump Day in Hell Week

This week Grace is attending an insurance sales class in Lansing. This means that our pattern for the summer so far -- in which I get up Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at about 6, and leave about 7, and Grace and Isaac get up after I leave -- is all scrambled. Now we're getting up at 5 and we're both commuting. Veronica and Isaac are both getting sitters or day care, and Grace is pumping milk for her. Although Vera likes day care (she loves to play with other babies), when I come home it reminds her that Grace is not there, so she starts to cry "mama" and is very hard to distract. By that point I badly need a nap. She seems to be on strike as far as drinking her mom's milk from a bottle goes (although she is eating and drinking other food before Grace gets home, and nursing when Grace gets back). All the pumping isn't going to waste, exactly, since it is relieving Grace's engorgement and ensuring that she will keep up milk production, but now we seem to have an oversupply that the baby won't drink.

Meanwhile, we're all recovering from a nasty cold/sinus infection. Veronica fortunately seems to have stopped throwing up on Grace and the bed during the night, and no longer has a high fever. My cough is just about gone. In addition to comforting Veronica in the couple of hours between the time I get home and Grace gets home, helping Grace get some dinner on the table and clean up afterwards, I'm also trying to complete a consulting project, writing a Windows installer. To help make sure neither of us drives off the road after waking up at 5 following a night of broken sleep, we are trying to get to bed by nine. That isn't working terribly well. Grace just had her fuel pump replaced, and her van now smells like gas, so there may be a leak somewhere, as if she didn't have enough to worry about, without the fear that the van will blow up or catch on fire.

Fortunately, it is Wednesday already, so the crazy week will be done soon, and perhaps we can get back into a routine. Veronica will get her mom back. With luck and some concentration I can finish this consulting gig successfully, which will pay for Grace's class and the day care this week, and also make it through the next month at Visteon. Grace will take her licensing exam and with luck pass it, which will make the class worthwhile. Veronica will make it to ten months, Isaac will get through the week without losing his mind, and everything will be back to normal... just in time for me to start worrying again about what I'm going to do when this temporary work assignment ends, around October... Urgh...

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Tue, 02 Aug 2005 On Firefly

I love Firefly. I've watched all the episodes at least twice, and I'm looking forward to the release of the Firefly movie this fall.

Lately, though, I've been contemplating the show's structure, and its strengths and weaknesses as storytelling and science fiction. I'm not going to dissect the whole thing now, but one thing that has stuck in my mind is that in the world of Firefly, no accomodation is made at all to the reality of vast interstellar distances. The ship Serenity can travel between planets in a matter of a few days; I think the longest journey time they mention is a month. But there is never any mention of faster-than-light travel. It's as if Einstein was just wrong in that world. Actually, the ship never even seems to accelerate very hard -- the crew and passengers don't have acceleration couches -- so apparently they don't believe in Newton, either!

Now, I have to say, I love Kaylee and her approach to spaceship drive repair -- "that part doesn't do much anyway; you can just rip it out." I love the beautiful Firefly effect. I love the narrow escape from the Reavers in the pilot, where they ignite the engine in the atmosphere and create a huge reaction. I love that explosions in space are silent. I love the fact that most aspects of life in the Firefly world are very low-tech. Firefly is "about the strawberry" -- the Preacher's bribe to Kaylee. It is a human story of loss and longing on a harsh frontier where the amenities of old Earth are rare and valuable, and life is cheap.

I don't want Firefly to be Star Trek -- an unrealistic world where there is no dirt, universal socialism and abundance seems to be the order of the day (people don't even seem to use money), and there are apparently no "have-nots." Human nature seems to have irrevocably changed in the world of Star Trek -- is anyone convinced by this future? But I think it frustrates the viewer not to at least have some ready excuses available for all the various laws of physics that get left by the wayside.

On Serenity, the crew seems to have instantaneous radio communication available between planets, or while they are nearing a planet. They've got some equivalent of interstellar wi-fi. When approaching a ship or planet they can hold conversations with other people with pretty-much instantaneous response times; they don't have to wait a few minutes for the reply to come. Even the round trip from the earth to the sun would be something like 14 minutes. They don't even invoke some kind of alternate technology like "subspace."

It is as if they just compressed the universe by a factor of billions; different planets seem to be closer together than the planets of our solar system. It is 240,000 miles to the moon and takes several days to get there with Apollo technology, and even assuming drive technology we haven't invented yet, it would take a year or more to get to Mars: the distance to Mars varies from about 35 million to 260 million miles. And think of how long it has taken Pioneer just to get out to the edge of the solar system.

Maybe the magical Firefly drive can do all this: accelerate the ship far beyond lightspeed, cancel gravity and inertia, and generate cool special effects as well. That seems a little much, though.

The Serenity also has a strange habit of coming upon other ships, as they wander about in "empty space" on routes designed to avoid being detected by the Alliance. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Serenity can also apparently be taken into "atmo" and landed on a planet, apparently without worrying about burning up on re-entry. But yet the ship looks like it is made of materials that are available today: steel plating, prone to rust and all that. The situation with the space shuttle now shows how tricky that kind of thing is in real life. There is one funny moment (I think it is in "Shindig") where the pilot, Wash, has to struggle to correct his entry trajectory, but when I watch this I keep thinking about how the physics don't make a lot of sense. At that speed, if he made such a dramatic error in the ship's angle of approach, they would burn up or break up before anyone had time to react. (Think space shuttle Columbia.)

That said, I still enjoy the show, and hope it can be resurrected in some form. It is ultimately about human relationships, but ignoring both Einstein and Newton without even bothering to offer a hand-waving sidestep to the laws of physics just grates on me a little; it seems insulting to the viewer. There is an especially funny line in "Objects in Space" when Zoe is speaking to Wash about River:

Wash: "Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction."

Zoe: "We live in a spaceship, dear."

Yep, they live in a spaceship, but some things are just silly!

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On Print Heads

I've written before about my experience with my HP Business Inkjet 1100D printer. I was, for the most part, quite happy with it. However, recently the black printhead failed.

The Business Inkjet design separates the ink cartridge from the print heads. One would think that this might reduce waste and cost. The ink cartridges still cost a lot of money, though. The idea was that the print heads would last much longer than the ink cartridge - thousands and thousands of pages. According to PC World, "HP estimates that the black print head will last for 16,000 pages, and the color print heads for 24,000 pages each."

Well, that didn't happen. I haven't kept a page count, but I haven't even finished a second ream of paper, and a few 25-packs or 50-packs of photo paper. I doubt I've printed more than 2,000 pages.

Now, when an ink cartridge fails, you can still print; you'll just lose a color. Of course, if this is black, that can be a big inconvenience, but ink cartridges are usually in stock at office supply chains. However, when the print head fails, you can't print a single page: the printer just refuses to do anything. I found out the hard way that because they supposedly last such a long time, the chain stores don't carry the print heads; they are a special-order item. The salesperson at Office Max was quite surprised when I brought back my print head, and tested it out in another printer. It was kaput. And just out of warranty. And my printer was completely out of commission, while I had to wait a week for the new print head to arrive.

So, I have reservations about recommending the 1100/1200 series printers. There is the irregular print area on the back of the page versus the front when duplexing. Although color photos can look pretty stunning on expensive photo paper, printing out grayscale photographs results in pictures that look greenish.

Maybe my print head failure was just an anomaly, but the cost of replacing printheads and ink cartridges is starting to add up. Are there any decent, reliable inkjet printers that produce fast and sharp text, excellent photos, and that aren't obscenely expensive to operate? The reviews of the 1200D I've seen are not encouraging -- it seems that it is not an improvement over the 1100D model, so I probably don't want to pick one up for my mom, although that was the model I was considering. I've always been an HP fan, but is it time to consider another manufacturer?

(My 1100 can duplex, but this is a feature I've rarely used, so I would not consider it an important selling point. Ethernet, however, would be welcome, since trying to share the printer with my Airport Express has led to poor results, including a lot of photo print jobs that stalled out and failed; this does not seem to be HP's fault, though).

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