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

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Fri, 26 Mar 2004 Internal Spotlight of the Shiny Camcorder

Grace and I went to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I can recommend it quite highly. Perhaps it isn't the best film of the decade as some critics seem to be raving, but it does perhaps the best job of any film I've seen in recent years at presenting a consistent and unified vision.

I'd also give it the "best artistic use of a handheld camera" award. (We're not talking Blair Witch Project, running-through-the-woods jerky camera work here). To me it has more of the look of a Dogma 95 film, but without the various restrictions on reorganizing time and space. It also wins my "best use of a disjointed, slightly unsettling soundtrack."

It has some great acting as well, but the best acting in the film does not come from the stars, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. They are OK; if you're frightened that this might be a typical Jim Carrey vehicle, fear not. Carrey is quite bearable here, even more so than in The Truman Show. Winslet is quite good. But some of the supporting cast manage that spooky Zen trick of disappearing entirely into their characters. Frodo also makes an appearance and does a pretty good job, although his role is rather small; I think he's headed for a distinguished career.

Most reviews give away some of the key points, so I'd recommend seeing it before reading about it. There's a related web site: http://www.lacunainc.com, but I'd avoid it until you've seen the movie.

The story is told out of sequence, and it can take a while to figure out what is going on. I'm actually disappointed I knew something about the plot beforehand, because I didn't get the pleasure of utter confusion, and I don't know how quickly I would have figured it all out without any hints.

If you see it, try to keep in mind that it will all become clear, and that even the reason for the disjointed presentation will also become clear. It is really an excellent example of form following function in storytelling. If you go see it, I'd like to hear what you think.

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Tue, 23 Mar 2004 Blosxom and the "entriescache" Plugin

The "entriescache" plugin seems to have a problem. When I add a new entry, and then delete it, Blosxom displays two copies of the first weblog entry. It seems to have something to do with the meta time stamp: if I don't include hours/minutes/seconds, two day time stamps on the same post match. The cache gets confused. It seems to use only the timestamp, rather than a combination of timestamp and filename, to distinguish the entry.

Additionally, deleting an entry, or moving it, seems to totally baffle Blosxom. I wind up with the new entry skipped and the old one displayed with no title or content.

Updating a story is also broken; Blosxom will not notice the new file modification date, but rather goes entirely by creation date.

Finally, adding older stories (files with old creation_date metadata, but with new time stamps, migrated from my old web site) results in these stories not showing up in the weblog until I forcibly delete the state files for the plugin. Even adding brand-new stories results in those stories not showing up until I delete the state files.

Given that I'm using this plugin to try to solve the problems caused by lack of creation date metadata, it is especially frustrating that it seems to create several more. The situation I wanted to avoid is perhaps coming to pass: I'll have to start hacking Perl again. Grr...

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Big Picture

So... lots going on. I have not been called in to my hourly work for a week This means a money crisis, as we have no savings and no heath insurance, and some ongoing medical issues in the family. My hope was to continue in this hourly position for a while longer, earning enough 1099-MISC to keep us afloat, and spend the rest of my time looking for a more secure job or at least securing more freelance work, and possibly plan a bigger career transition.

Now... I don't know. Taxes are going to be a stone bitch this year, and next year, if we haven't abandoned our apartment and gone underground, even worse. I was earning enough to live on, but not enough to pay the taxes on my take-home.

I have applied for a position at the University of Michigan again, this time in Bioinformatics. I got myself a copy of the O'Reilly book on BLAST to study up a bit. It could be an interesting job. The description primarily asks for C++ and object-oriented design experience, which I have, but also mentions Linux desktop support. That seems a bit unfocused, but it could work, I suppose. It seems to me that if the hiring party understood current Bioinformatics tools, he or she would be asking for Perl experience. I've used Perl some, but not all that much. I started looking at some of the BLAST algorithms and they look interesting; I could see working on optimizing them in C++, or even implementing them in Dylan, which would be a lot nicer, and could be speed-competitive.

I'm also concerned because I'm not sure the University can pay me enough anymore. They advance salaries very slowly; 15 years of experience may not count for much where U-M pay grades are concerned. I can't be earning what I was earning ten years ago. I should be applying for grade 9 or 11 jobs. I haven't seen a grade 11 technology position on U-M's web site in a long time.

To put it in perspective, in 1990 I took my first serious job (ignoring a year's internship after graduation and a brief stint as a word processor) at the University of Michigan's Office of Instructional Technology at about $25,250. After three years I took my first job in the commercial sector starting at $40,000. After seven more years and a couple more jobs, by mid-2000 my salary had crept up to $48,000 at the University.

I had a spike in income while working at InterConnect, a small web services company, during the 2000 boom, but that position only lasted for a year. And since then I haven't really earned any more than I was earning in 2000. I have also not had a retirement program of any kind, decent vacation, or good health coverage (and now I have none).

Plot it against cost of living in Ann Arbor: my income is going down. I know that there are a lot of people here who make less than I do; I'm not blind to that. But with the bulk of my disposable income going towards debts, both mine and the debts Grace and I consolidated when we got married, and several thousand in medical bills incurred last year (while I was supposedly fully insured), we sure don't feel secure, or like we will ever be able to own a home here.

And, yes, I know there are a lot of people around here making far less than I am (or was). I don't mean to whine. I've blown a lot of money over the years and been very irresponsible. I started racking up debt right out of college, and I've been fighting against my spending tendencies every since. It seemed that Grace and I had established some patterns and economies, finally: we have no credit cards; we're in a consolidation program; we no longer really spend all that much. But with no protection against medical expenses and no income security our best efforts are apparently not enough.

I moved here in 1990, and since then housing prices have continued to inflate at a ridiculous level. Outlying suburbs have also become out of reach. Basically, Ann Arbor has failed to properly manage its growth; the city has not insisted on affordable housing and failed to fight sprawl. New development, rather than increasing the density of the town, seems to be appearing mainly in the form of suburban McMansions. Despite their increasing distance from downtown, they are no cheaper, just larger. Nothing has mediated the phenomenon of home-sellers treating their houses and investments and home-sellers apparently willing to take out every more outrageous mortgages to pay for them.

So, we're considering moving. I liked Ann Arbor, but the decision's pretty much been made for me. Grace likes Hartford, but I have no real attachment to the Northeast. I'm considering Pittsburgh, because it is inexpensive and seems vital. Carnegie-Mellon pays tuition for staff. They post a lot of tech positions, but most of them appear to be either entry-level or require a Ph.D. I want to see if I can establish some contacts there; I'm not really happy applying for positions cold (for one thing, it never seems to work). I've heard good things about Vancouver.

Adding to all this is the fact that I don't feel Grace and I have our roles straight in this marriage. When I have to focus on housekeeping and homeschooling I can't put my time into freelance work or job- hunting. This week spent at home has not been very productive. I'm mostly trying to clarify my thoughts and figure out what to do next. That isn't earning me much money.

Here's to free-fall. Cheers.

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Sun, 21 Mar 2004 Under Construction

The weblog is back online in a reasonable way. Thanks to my friend Art Delano for helping me come up with a draft style sheet, which I've since modified.

The blog was destroyed by a series of accidents involving the Interarchy FTP client. Two-way synchronization can be dangerous; one error wiped out the content on the server, and a second error wiped out the content on the client. I claim there are some problems with the client program and the way it references directories, but I have not proven that yet. I bought it because the other FTP clients were all so bad, and this one seemed to offer a nice bookmark interface. Yet the interface has proven to be quite painful to use for certain basic tasks.

Anyway, after losing my files, I was very fortunate to find out that the entire contents of my weblog were available via Google. Google literally saved the day. I was very unhappy about having lost most of my incidental writing for the past year. I was able to rescue the text from the cached pages and extract the original content. Since then I've gotten an external hard drive for backup and am also keeping my weblog in a local CVS repository.

I'm using Blosxom 2.0 with a number of plugins. I've had no end of minor problems getting everything to work. It seems that some of them may be traceable to some kind of caching of scripts going on at my ISP; changing the code, as opposed to the templates, did not always result in different behavior when reloading the page. At least, I hope that is the explanation; if it isn't, my weblog has an evil poltergeist hell-bent on giving me a headache, where executing the same script different times on the same text would produce different results. There are also a bunch of minor bugs and a seemingly endless number of inconsistencies, which I'll write about later.

One thing I dislike about Blosxom is fine-grained control over the number of postings displayed and the depth of the tree traversal. There is one setting for the number of posts displayed on a page, and one setting for the depth of traversal. What I'd like is to limit the number of posts on my "front door" -- the page when generated with the default URL -- to five, so that the default page is quite short and quick to generate. I want the "front door" page also to only descend one level: that is, it should only display posts at the root of my blog. Over time I will organize postings into subfolders, so this will have the effect of hiding less immediate material.

When a user chooses a subset of posts, either by year, or by topic, I want the resulting generated page to display all the relevant posts; for example, if someone clicks on the year 02003, he or she should see the whole result. A delay incurred by asking for a particular action is acceptable; the indexing plugins provide a kind of warning that there will be a lot of content (31 posts in 02003, 14 posts under Iraq).

Note that if the recursion depth parameter was applied relative to the current point in the hierarchy, this would work OK. I could set the number of posts per page to something large, say, 99, and then when the user loaded the root, with the default URL, only unfiled posts would appear. The default would then become small and quick. Clicking on topics would not include entries in subtopics, though; the hierarchies would not "roll up" subfolders. More useful would just be separate settings for the default page. I guess I'll have to dust off my Perl, which was never that good. I'm also considering either finding a similar tool written in Ruby, or porting Blosxom myself.

Anyway... the plugin I'm most excited about is Markdown. It lets me use formatting similar to Twiki; the author's goal was to allow content to be formatted as easily as we format e-mail messages. Given how easily I was able to migrate my content to Markdown, I think he succeeded. I have long been frustrated by the tedious process of marking up blog entries with HTML tags just to get paragraph breaks; by the time I get it to look right, I've forgotten what I wanted to write. I've used Twiki a lot more, but Wikis have inconsistent markup syntax.

My hope is that Markdown, as a Blosxom plugin, could become a de facto standard for basic markup, to be used by Wikis and blogs alike. I'm uninterested in running my blog as a part of my programming hobby. I've got much more interesting coding to do. Markdown and Twiki let me write content as easily as I write e-mail messages, letting me worry about formatting only if I want to.

Enough with the gory details... time to get to bed. Here's hoping one day this is easier.

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