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

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Fri, 18 Mar 2005 The Thrice-Cursed Airport Express

The thrice-cursed Airport Express has crashed again. First, printer sharing failed, and then a few days later the shared internet connection failed. Running the Airport Admin utility revealed that the device couldn't even be found on the network. A power cycle fixed it.

I checked Apple's site and there is an update to the firmware, which will take the device from 6.1 to 6.1.1; we'll see if that offers any improvement. The AirPort 4.1 software package offered for download on the same page is apparently the same version I already have. Meanwhile, until I determine if this update helps the reliability, I can't recommend the AirPort Express to anyone.

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Sat, 12 Mar 2005 Baby Drinks

So, we had eaten dinner, and were having some hot chocolate: Isaac, Grace, and I were drinking it out of mugs.

Baby Vera started yelling (not crying or screaming, just kind of... yelling, and waving her arms to get our attention, basically saying "Hey! Hey! I want some too!")

She would not calm down until we gave her something to drink (a small amount of water) in a cup with a handle like ours. She neede a little assistance with the fine adjustments, but had the basic movements right, and managed to drink some water out of a real cup, holding it (mostly) herself, and then she appeared to be satisfied and stopped yelling.

She was born October 29th. That puts her age at... hmm... exactly 9 weeks from her date of birth to the last day of December 2004, plus 10 weeks to the day to reach 11 March 2005, for 19 weeks, or if you measure by irregular calendar months, a couple of days shy of 4 1/2 months.

She is nearly crawling, too. We've got to start getting the house baby-proofed!

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Dobson and Wonka

Baby Veronica is almost ten months old, and walking everywhere. She's getting ahead of our child-proofing again; she can now crawl over the barriers (pillows) we pile up to keep her from going up the stairs. This leaves us terrified that she is going to climb them, and fall down a whole flight of stairs; she is coordinated to get to the top, but not to get back down yet. Maybe the pile of pillows at the bottom would keep her from breaking her neck, but I don't think we can count on that. The arrangement of wall and railing in our apartment will not accommodate any baby gate we've been able to find, so we will have to come up with something else. Our ancient and badly-maintained apartment is hard to baby proof in other ways; for example, the downstairs bathroom door won't close all the way, so she can just push the door open to get in. We've been keeping the trash can in there, to keep it out of her reach, since she considers all manner of dirt and trash to make excellent toys. Also, she likes to visit people while they are sitting on the toilet!

I have a backlog of baby photos to put on the web site, and another roll of film will be ready to pick up as prints and a CD from Walgreen's tonight. Taking lots of photos guarantees that at least a few of them will be passable. So: more baby photos, as soon as I get a chance. I need a little quiet time on the computer, when baby Veronica is not trying to demolish and eat everything in the office. I've got some other things that have to get done first: some consulting work to finish, and some work to do in Quicken, to confirm just how fast our money is vanishing.

Grace completed her insurance class last week, and seems on track to take her exam this week. She is trying to review every day until the exam, so it stays fresh. It's a lot of obscure information to hold on to and regurgitate on cue, so we'll try and get her into the exam as soon as possible.

One complication is the van. It needed a new fuel pump, and we had it replace. We got one estimate, from a local shop we go to often, but it seemed ridiculously high, so we took it to a cut-rate place in Ypsilanti. Now the van is dripping gas and smells like gasoline. I think we should not even be driving it; I want them to tow it to their shop and fix it for free. I think they screwed up, big-time. This begs the question of whether we want a shop that screwed up so badly, creating a possible death-trap out of our van, should be entrusted to get it right a second time. I have to assume they will try to wriggle out of responsibility. And we can't keep throwing money at different shops; we already had to eat the cost of diagnosis at the first shop. Urgh.

I've found an interesting piece here:

http://www.family.org/docstudy/newsletters/a0021043.cfm

It is a newsletter from Dr. James Dobson (Focus on the Family), a conservative think tank. I bring it up because it is being quoted in the leftish media out of context; this is an interesting example of the left engaging in practices they disparage the right for so much: taking quotes out of context. It was published in the Nation, and is now being cited elsewhere, such as on Alternet:

http://alternet.org/story/24359/

Now, I may have my doubts about the overall thesis of the piece in question, which is that homosexuality can (or should) be "prevented" by early intervention in the lives of young boys or girls who show cross-dressing, or even artistic, tendencies. There's certainly a lot to unpack and seriously question in a thesis like that. A lot of Christians would disagree with Dobson's premises; even some of the crazier recognize that he is channeling some of Freud's more discredited ideas (Google for "dobson penis freud" if you're interested). I'm not going to take the whole thing on now. But the overall method Dobson describes is about how fathers need to be strong role models and engaged with their sons. This one somewhat bizarre is being quoted out of context -- and there is a lot of context -- is the following:

"He can even take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger."

Um, indeed. But out of context, that does not seem like a good recipe for preventing young boys from indulging in narcissistic masturbatory fantasies. Or something. Actually, in my case, with Isaac, the first time he saw me naked in a pool shower, he was horrified, because he was never circumcised, and I had to tell him about how I was surgically mutilated as a baby, without benefit of anaesthetic... and how many other boys still are.

But be that as it may, the Nation's use of that line out of context reminds me of the reasons I stopped reading the magazine: basically, because of the tendencies of its authors to wallow in their own narcissistic masturbatory fantasies of what the right's ideas were all about, without actually unpacking and engaging their arguments, or even understanding them. It's kind of like believing that women go veiled in some Islamic societies because men hate them. There's a certain aspect of truth to that, but it doesn't begin to explain the history and cultural meaning of the veil. Lame.

Last night we went to see the new Willy Wonka movie at the IMAX theater at the Henry Ford Museum. It was better than I expected; some tepid reviews had left me with lowered expectations. That is probably a good thing. The IMAX format was a lot of fun for this film, especially during Oompa Loompa musical numbers. It isn't just a bigger picture, but filmed on much larger format film, so there is a very detailed grain to it that works especially well in this movie to reveal artificial-looking eyes (with contact lenses, in most cases, or digitally enhanced), and makeup (usually ghoulish). The wrinkled faces of Charlie Bucket's elderly grandparents are wonderfully expressive in this huge format. It's pretty much the ultimate Tim Burton film; he's gotten very, very good at what he does, and if you like Tim Burton films, you'll like this one. It is in some ways closer to the original text than the older movie, but gives Willy Wonka a back story and rationale. It isn't so true to the book, but I think it makes a better movie.

It's also made me give a little more thought to the Willy Wonka story. I find it interesting that the setting is a factory: a place which is inherently unsafe, because manufacturing requires energies and materials to come togther in large quantities, in which adult rules for safety must obtain, and in which the strategies of the various children (gluttony, begging and demanding, artificially inflated self-confidence, excessive smarts) and the parents that made the children that way can't protect them, probably for the first time in their lives, and so it is time for some hard life lessons.

It's really a Grimm's fairy tale, although everyone survives in the end, unlike the way things work in the original Brothers Grimm stories. Burton makes it even more complicated when he asks us to consider Willy Wonka's own family story and Wonka's own strategies are for confronting life's hardships. (Johnny Depp's Wonka comes off reminiscent of Michael Jackson). The film actually goes a little deeper in that respect. Charlie's character, however, and that of his grandfather are not explored deeply at all; in the book and original movie, Charlie's grandfather tempts him into his own naughty behavior (stealing "fizzy lifting drinks" and nearly getting themselves killed, and nearly losing the grand prize). In this film Charlie is flawlessly boring in his desire to give everything to his family; he even offers to sell his golden ticket to provide money for his parents. Fortunately, one of the grandparents tells him, in one of the film's best lines, that there are only ever going to be five golden tickets, but there will always be more money because "they print more every day." Sage advice to take a once-in-a-lifetime chance!

Sadly, upon questioning after the movie, Isaac was not able to come up with a single way in which this IMAX film was different than the usual films we go to. (The last film we went to was perhaps seven to nine months ago, when we went to see The Incredibles). The fact that the screen was eighty feet high and a hundred and twenty feet wide, the seating angled steeply down, the aspect ratio different, the picture incredibly sharp and detailed, and the sound piped through a 12,000 watt surround sound system didn't seem to register at all. Sometimes we worry about that boy. I guess we won't be spending the extra travel time and money to go IMAX showings again, although Grace and I enjoyed it. I expected Veronica to be nervous and frightened, but she actually just seemed quite fascinated and content to watch, even when the sound got very loud, and fell asleep for the second half. I wonder what that means about her.

In other news, I will be interviewing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsbugh. I had a previous phone interview with a group in the Robotics Lab. This position would involve taking over maintenance and enhancement for a large Common Lisp application. It is also DARPA-funded and done as a kind of subcontract to Northrop Grummann. There are some ethical issues, since it is a scheduling program that is used to schedule Air Force planes, apparently for supply, refueling, medical evacuation, and for bombing, too. I really, really want the opportunity to work on a project in Common Lisp, and we would all really like to get out of Ann Arbor. I'll have to think hard about it. There is another embedded programming possibility in Ann Arbor, and the possibility of continuing at Visteon. It will all come to a crisis point soon, but at least there are some possibilities opening up; that wasn't happening for me a year ago.

In the little bits of free time I've been able to scrounge, I am reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun novels. I have long been a fan of the Book of the New Sun; I've read it several times, and have the distinct feeling that there is a lot that I failed to understand. This feeling was only intensified by picking up Robert Borski's book Solary Labyrinth, which features some highly speculative interpretation on the family connections and meanings present in the book. Some I agree with, and some I think are long shots, based on only the most tenuous textual evidence. Borski's book made me feel that despite having read the books at least three times, I may as well have been reading a different book altgether. Better and more readable than Borski's book is Attending Daedelus, which features some more understandable interpretation, and a very useful chapter that summarizes the plot of the New Sun books. These somewhat obscure books are available on Amazon; there is a new book of Wolfe criticism coming out, which I have pre-ordered.

I tried to read the Long Sun books when they came out, but after getting halfway through Nightside the Long Sun, I decided not to bother. In comparison with the New Sun books, the Long Sun books are written in a much different style. They are a third-person narrative, and the story is extremely time-compressed; the whole 4-volume series takes place in about three calendar weeks. While the New Sun books give the immediate impression of complexity and depth and a great deal of back-story, the Long Sun books appear deceptively simple: less of the New Sun's space opera style and more like a simple fable or coming-of-age story. However, I now see that it was this radical change in style that turned me off, and gave me the mistaken impression that the Long Sun books lacked depth and characterization. In fact, they are incredibly evocative. Wolfe has just evolved as a writer, and he is able to pack much more into seemingly simple events. There is a great deal of foreshadowing, both in "reality" and in carefully portrayed hallucinations and dream states, and careful use of particularly evocative words. Together these hint at the underlying story. The main character, Patera Silk, is a much more sympathetic character than Severain the Torturer and Autarch of Urth, but there is a lot more to him than first appears. Gene Wolfe is particularly fond of unreliable narrators, and since Silk doesn't fully understand all the things happening around him, at least not at first, it is up to us to find the "true" story. In Silk's world, magic is indistinguishable from technology, to paraphrase Clarke's Law. His world is truly not as it seems. In fact, these books are so complex beneath the surface that after finishing the second, I had to debate with myself about whether I should continue to the third or immediately re-read the second, just to try to understand more of what I had just finished reading!

I have also purchased the Short Sun trilogy, in preparation. I don't get much time to read these days, and even when I do, I am often distracted, so it may be a while, but I want to get to the end!

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Wed, 09 Mar 2005 In the Bunker

I recently heard an interview in which an administration insider described a political leader as follows:

That's an area where Hitler did a huge amount of harm: he actually tried to manipulate the consciences of the German people. He convinced them they had a task to do, they had to exterminate the Jews, because the Jews caused all our problems. It wasn't Hitler's own idea... it had been put forward much earlier... that they had to make a sacrifice.

And I can remember a writer... she interviewed a soldier who had been stationed in a concentration camp. He was a guard, and she asked him: Didn't you feel any pity at all... for the people you treated so badly there?

And he replied "yes, I did feel pity, but I had to overcome it. That was a sacrifice I had to make for the greater cause." And that's what happend to conscience.

After all, Hitler used to always say "You don't have to worry, any of you... you just have to do whatever I say, and I'll take responsibility." As if anyone can take charge of another person's conscience. I do think you can make someone's conscience more sensitive, or desensitize it, or manipulate it.

The longer I live, the older I get, the more I feel this burden, this feeling of guilt, because I worked for a man, and I actually like him, but he caused such terrible suffering... and the feeling that I was so unaware and so thoughtless... that I didn't notice or pay attention. That feeling has oppressed me more and more.

It seems to me that I should be angry with the child I was, that juvenile young girl, or that I can't forgive her for failing to recognize in time what horrors that monster caused. The fact that I didn't see what I was getting involved in, and above all that I just said "yes" without thinking at all... I find it hard to forgive myself for everything.

He was a crimintal -- it's just that I didn't realize it. At some point afterwards, I began to wonder if I should have seen that... and after all, apart from me there were millions who didn't see that. I mean, it's not as though everyone apart from me realized what a criminal he was. And I try to take heart from those thoughts.

And Hitler did somehow embody something monumental. At first, when I was a child, the first time I met him he probably had a kind of paternal protective attitude towards me... and that's something I had longed for. I used to envy children who could say things like "My father says so and so," or "My father thinks..." I used to think having a father must be very important. Then I started working for Hitler, and suddenly I had that sense of security, too. There really was a sense of security in that community, which cut itself off so much from the outside... I think I had a very subservient attitude toward him as a father figure.

You know, I never had the feeling that he was conscious of pursuing criminal aims. For him they were ideals. For him they were great goals. And human life meant nothing to him in comparison. But that only became so apparent to me afterwards. You see, in the inner circle surrounding him, in his private sphere, I was shielded from the megalomaniacal projects and the barbaric measures. That was the awful thing, and that's what gave me such a shock later, when I realized what had been happening. When I started working there, I thought I was at the source of information and in fact, I was in a blind spot. It's like in an explosion, there's one place where calmness reigns. And that was the great illusion, the great, not disappointment, but lie that I had made myself believe.

The word Jew was virtually never used in everyday speech. The fact that Hitler would, at times, say something in his speeches about "international Judaism" or "the Jews," that was virtually ignored. Nobody ever raised the subject. At least, not in our presence. Actually, the only time I can remember the subject really being an issue was one evening at the Berghof when Frau von Schirach was a guest. I wasn't there at the time, I only heard about it. I was out of the room when it happened. She was on fairly cordial terms with Hitler, and she suddenly raised the subject. She told the Fuhrer directly that it was quite terrible, the way the Jews were treated in Amsterdam. They were packed into trains, she said, and it was an inhuman way to behave. It must have made him very angry, and he said to her: "Don't interfere in things you don't understand. This mawkishness and sentimentality." He really was very annoyed. He walked right out of the room and didn't return. And Frau Schirach was never invited to the Berghof again.

You couldn't discuss anything with him that was somehow sensitive or difficult. It was one aspect of him. And that was really the only time a conflict situation developed.

He didn't think in human dimensions. Humanity was never of any importance to him. It was always the concept of the superman, the nation, always this abstract image of a vast German Reich, powerful and strong. But the individual never mattered to him.

As for myself, deep in my heart, I did have some doubts, and I wondered: "Is all this absolutely right?" But then to question the situation, actually to initiate a discussion, would have taken more courage. And I think it's also the case that if you value and respect someone, you don't really want to destroy the image of that person -- you don't want to know, in fact, if disaster lies behind the facade.

I don't think he considered war a light-hearted matter. He regarded it as a terrible thing, although he never said so. For instance, whenever there were reports of air raids and people described the situation, or if I said something like: "My Fuhrer, you can't imagine how miserable it is for all those homeless people whose houses have been bombed -- it's just so terrible." He'd stop me right away and say: "I know exactly how it is, but we shall strike back. We shall take revenge, and with our new weapons everything will change. Vengeance will be ours!" He would always say that, and in particular he'd say that we would rebuild everything after the war and make it better than ever.

I think there was a general policy of denial. He never did see a city that had been badly bombed. We traveled through Germany in the special train with the blinds down, and when he reached Anhalter Station in Berlin at night the chauffeur would take the streets that weren't so badly damaged.

In the early days after the war, the past wasn't an issue, strangely enough. It wasn't a subject to be discussed in public either. And there weren't any books about it. In politics there wasn't yet the process of coming to terms with the past. Not even the Nuremberg trials started that process, the way it happened later, in the '60s. I don't know exactly why, but suddenly there were so many books. And lots of voices were raised. We heard about the SS state and then the diary of Anne Frank and there were people who had survived the whole thing. People who had resisted also spoke out. The thing that made a very strong impression on me was that after the war, the world wasn't at all the way Hitler had portrayed it and predicted it would be. Suddenly there was a spirit of freedom and especially the Americans -- I didn't get home until a year after the occuption, but especially the Americans -- turned out to be very good democrats and very helpful people. The care parcels started coming. I suddenly realized that none of it was true.

So in the early years it didn't really occur to me to come to terms with my past. Naturally all the horrors that emerged in the Nuremberg trials about the six million Jews and people of other faiths and beliefs who lost their lives -- all that struck me as very shocking. But I wasn't able at first to see the connection with my own past. I still felt somehow content that I had no personal guilt and had known nothing about it. I had no idea of the extent of what happened. But then one day I was walking past the memorial in Franz Josef Street to Sophie Scholl, a young girl who opposed Hitler, and I realized that she was the same age as me and that she was executed the same year I started working for Hitler. At that moment I really sensed that it is no excuse to be young, and that it might have been possible to find out what was going on.

The film is "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary." The directors include a commentary that describes Traudl Junge's later life, including the fact that she took an early retirement due to severe depression, and spent years volunteering as a reader for the blind. Shortly before the film opened, she told one of the directors "I think I'm starting to forgive myself." She died of cancer on the day of the film's premiere.

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Sun, 06 Mar 2005 Star Trek, Bismuth Crystals, and Baby Fatigue

So, we received in the mail a really cool bismuth crystal from an eBay seller. It gives our dining table a wonderful Star Trek feel. To find them, check out the seller's eBay store, Bismuth Crystals Unlimited:

http://stores.ebay.com/BISMUTH-CRYSTALS-UNLIMITED_W0QQssPageNameZl2QQtZkm

Ours is a 225-gram crystal, which was the second-biggest one that he had available. These things are fascinating. They are "natural" in the sense that they grow without prompting, in very pure molten bismuth cooled slowly, with the remaining molten metal poured off to expose the crystal, but "unnatural" in the sense that the conditions that make these very large, beautifully-colored crystals would probably never occur in a natural setting. (I say "probably" because it is a big planet and a big universe! Who knows? There might be an planet-sized, chemically- and isotopically-pure crystal floating out there, produced in some incomprehensible stellar process...)

We've been watching episodes from the Star Trek (original series) first season DVD set. Most of them have been quite the fun blast from the past, especially "City on the Edge of Forever," "Balance of Terror," and "The Corbomite Maneuver." "Balance of Terror" features some very fine acting, even if the writers can't keep track of the difference between phasers and photon torpedoes. Kirk's reputation as a total ham is not truly justified. But last night we stumbled across "The Alternative Factor," which none of us had any memory of ever seeing before.

We quickly found out just why we could not remember it; even our friend Olivia, who was a seriously dedicated Star Trek fan: it is terrible! The episode features nauseous spinning-screen effects, photographic-negative effects to indicate an alternate universe, and even contains the immortal line of dialogue "Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!"

There is the germ of an interesting alternate-universe story in there somewhere, but the storytelling is just awful: everything is told, instead of shown, in long and confusing talky scenes in which the techno-babble phrases like "negative magnetic corridor" pile up thick and fast. The storyline constantly contradicts and muddles itself (initially we are told Lazarus is traveling in time, but this seems to be an unnecessary complication; we're told that the planet is "dead" and "destroyed" but in fact it looks a lot like Southern California; there are repeated references to alien invasion and end-of-the-universe scenarios, and we are tortured by constant repetition of a painful music cue and cheesy "universe-flipping" effect. At the end, Kirk learns the truth, alone, but suddenly Spock and everyone else seems to have been informed as well, without ever being told. It is just terribly sloppy. Dilithium crystals don't look anything like the dilithium crystals shown in other episodes. One half of the two-sided hero/villain is identifiable mainly by his exceptionally cheesy facial hair. They definitely weren't all masterpieces!

As an exercise, maybe Grace and I will take a shot at rewriting "The Alternative Factor." She has some experience in screen-writing, and I have some experience in writing short stories, so maybe we can come up with something better. It could be fun; it could even play into an interesting home-school exercise for Isaac.

A baby update: Veronica is just past the four-month mark. She can't quite sit up on her own, but she will happily lie on her belly or back and play with toys. Yesterday she ate a Sears tool catalog. (Well, not really, but she ripped a bunch of the pages out and tried to stuff them in her mouth). She has discovered her toes. She's very stong, and seems to really enjoy working out: wrestling, doing sit-ups and push ups -- basically, anything that gives her a chance to work her baby muscles hard makes her giggle and laugh her head off. She will be crawling very soon!

And me? Although she really is a great baby, and sleeps most of the way through the night, she wants a lot of attention, and we do our best to give it to her. The end result is that I am generally always just a little bit more tired and distracted than it seems like I should be. When she does get to sleep, and I'd like to stay up and study or write, I usually just crash instead. Having a baby at 37 is probably quite a bit harder, in terms of stamina.

Grace certainly has it worse: she is Vera's caregiver all day, every weekday. She has been really great about trying to give me a little bit of time to myself on some evenings and weekends, but she is definitely tired too. A long winter with multiple bouts of colds and flu has not helped any, either! With any luck as the days get longer and warmer we'll get some energy back.

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