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

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Sat, 12 Mar 2005 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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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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Wed, 02 Feb 2005 Five Lakes Grill

To celebrate Grace's 32nd birthday, last night we drove to Milford and ate dinner at Brian Polcyn's restaurant, the Five Lakes Grill.

The space and atmosphere were pretty decent, but not wonderful. I have no love of Muzak, and there was a lot of it, but at least it was not loud.

The food was great. We've been meaning to make the trip ever since reading a review in the Atlantic several years ago. The review has been stuck to our closet door with a magnet ever since then. Now we can take it down!

Grace had the rack of lamb, which she described as the best she's ever had. The only flaw was that the wilted spinach with it was too salty. The salad was good. We split glasses of a house Shiraz, which was quite tasty.

I had a special, marinated skirt steak with a sweetish currant sauce, served with vegetables including blue potatoes and asparagus. The meat and sauce was excellent, and the vegetables excellent, but the combination didn't really sing. Not all specials wind up working out as well as the tried-and-true dishes; that's OK. It was quite good anyway.

We had a charcuterie platter appetizer; it is one of Polcyn's specialties, and he teaches charcuterie. The sausages were all excellent, including a seafood sausage. He also had a great prosciutto.

Isaac had a Greek salad with fried calamari on top, which he enjoyed very much, and a pot pie with pearl onions and duck confit, which was wonderful. He loved it, although he was getting a bit full and had to take some home.

For dessert Grace had creme brulee, which she again described as the best she's had: a great crackling burnt sugar coating on top, fresh berries, and a custard that was not overly sweet. I had a lemon tart, which was excellent, and which came with a little chocolate cup with rasberries that tasted house-made. Isaac had a thick hot chocolate, which was bittersweet and rich, although the combination of caffeinated soda and dark chocolate got him pretty wired up, so perhaps it was not the best thing to give him at ten o'clock at night. The coffee was excellent.

The entire meal cost us $150, before tip, which is quite a bit, but it was one of the best restaurant meals we've ever had, so I don't consider it an unreasonable amount to spend for such a special occasion. We took baby Veronica with us, and that worked out fine; she didn't fuss much, and even slept on the seat of the booth for part of the meal.

It was a good time, and a good reminder of how unimpressive most of the downtown Ann Arbor restaurant have become. I would not be surprised if we were back there soon.

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Sat, 22 Jan 2005 Singing on the Brain

So, Veronica loves singing, and Isaac loves to sing too, so last night we took both of them to see Singing in the Rain, the Gene Kelly musical, at the Michigan Theater.

It was a strange coincidence: on Saturday night we watched the documentary I had ordered from Netflix, "Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer." Then Sunday afternoon, after attending a memorial service for a friend, we saw that Singing in the Rain was on the marquee of the Michigan Theater!

I had seen this musical on video, but had been a bit bored, especially by the long fantasy sequence "Broadway Melody." But on the big screen, it was just amazing. I'm disappointed that we missed "An American in Paris," which has an even more remarkably fantasy sequence. The print was excellent, and not very scratched, with a very clear soundtrack, although the colors seemed a bit unevenly faded and would flicker a bit from scene to scene.

It also makes me remember how many great movies I used to see at the Michigan, and how much we are missing out on right here in Ann Arbor. I miss living within easy walking distance of downtown. But we should at least come downtown a few times a year to see a movie at the Michigan Theater!

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Baby Boogers

So, my baby girl is almost four months old and my grandmother is 101. That's quite a spread of living relatives!

She's been a joy, and cute as can be. It is thrilling to see her developing new skills. She has unfortunately been a bit sick this winter, with mild flu-like symptoms and accompanying discomfort and fussiness. A doctor friend told us that babies born late, with meconium and the amniotic fluid, were often "snurfly." That fits baby Veronica -- she's often full of snot. We have been running a humidifier, and suctioning her nose out with a rubber squeeze bulb (she really doesn't enjoy that very much, although she is getting used to it and doesn't seem to be so frightened by the process any more). We might try taking the nurse's advice and putting a little bit of salt water up her nose with the bulb to help loosen up everything, although I get the feeling that she will be even more unhappy about that.

She has also forgiven me for slipping while trying to trim her tiny baby fingernails and accidentally cutting off some of the flesh on her finger. Her fingernails are a source of endless difficulty because we have to keep them extremely short, or she scratches up her face (or our faces). We're afraid she's going to scratch her own eye. But cutting them, even with a baby-sized clipper, is difficult. It is easiest if she is sound asleep, but turning on a bright light will wake her up, and in dim light it is very hard to see what we are doing. So I tried to do it while she was awake, with Isaac distracting her. But she is wiggly. Oops.

Then of course I had to clean the wound, which added insult to injury because of the sting. She was pretty upset about that. Fortunately it is a small wound and is quickly healing. Forgetting my guilt over hurting my innocent baby girl will take considerably longer!

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Mon, 03 Jan 2005 The Tsunami

Well. Usually not much interesting happens between Christmas and New Years. This year: ka-pow. The most devastating natural disaster of my lifetime. I could try to write something adequate to the event, but I don't feel up to it. I am very deeply saddened. Last night in our family prayers I said that it while we mourn the dead we should be devoting most of our attention to the survivors, because they face huge dislocation, upheaval, disease, famine, and all the horrors that refugees confront, whether refugees from war or disaster. I am heartened by reports that aid is getting through. The challenge will be managing a long-term reconstruction and, we hope, putting in systems that will help prevent events like this from becoming so murderous.

This disaster was not about global warming per se, and it wasn't a weather event per se, but as sea levels rise and storms become more energetic, the massive flooding scenario is one that is bound to be repeated. Nations like the Maldives, that are only a few feet above sea level, just don't have any protection against whatever the tide and wind might bring them.

It also saddens me that we would like to contribute cash, but for the moment, can't. I'm worried we'll bounce checks this week if I gas up my car or pick up some groceries. There's just nothing in the checking account, and won't be for perhaps another month, assuming my job lasts. We had a cascade failure: the muffler blew out on my car, I got a speeding ticket, and we managed to trigger a pile of bank fees covering several hundred dollars more. We're just barely above water. My parents contributed money to help us buy Isaac a bike for Christmas, and we barely managed to do so because so much of the money they gave us was eaten up by bank fees.

It's embarassing to be struggling like this. If we weren't still devoting so much of my income to pay down debts, this wouldn't be happening now. Getting into debt out of school, and retaining bad spending habits for a decade or more, was definitely the worst thing to happen to me, in terms of undermining my long-term security, feeding depression and anxiety, and all that. I take personal responsibility for it, but a deregulated Citibank certainly hasn't helped matters. I've also tended to choose, for the most parts, jobs that haven't paid competitively, because I was more interested in the kinds of work and the work environments that they offered. I'm still looking to make that tradeoff in the future, if we can manage to do so.

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Fri, 10 Dec 2004 Baby Pictures

Baby pictures, as well as pictures of Isaac, are now available at

http://thepottshouse.org.

Baptism pictures coming soon, as soon as I get them developed. Enjoy.

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