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

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Fri, 10 Dec 2004 My Christmas List

My Christmas list. Things I can't afford to buy myself this year.

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Baby Pictures

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

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

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The Incredibles

If you haven't seen Pixar's film The Incredibles, go. Go now. I'll wait.

I loved this film. The level of detail in the world-building tops everything Pixar has done to date. The interiors, the jungle sequences, the hardware. The cars. The kitchen appliances (I'm not kidding). It's just stunning.

What we've got is basically a cheerful rip-off of just about every super- hero comic out there, including the Fantastic Four and X-Men, combined with a touch of the darkness of Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It's all set in a kind of blended 1950s dream-time.

Holly Hunter's character, Elastigirl, steals the show by virtue of her pragmatic motherly ass-kicking, and best of all is rendered not like a wasp-waisted, giant-breasted Amazon, but like an only-slightly-idealized, fit, fortyish mother of three. That means she's got thighs and a rear end. Somehow, that's more appealing than any Boris Vallejo brass-brassiered fantasy girl.

I also really liked Sarah Vowell's character Violet, a nervous and insecure teenage girl. She's portrayed as pre-sexual, pretty much a flat- chested stick figure, but is really engaging as she develops confidence, and learns to use her superpowers for more than just becoming invisible around boys.

Bob Parr, Mister Incredible, played by Craig Nelson, is also really entertaining as a gone-to-seed superhero, struggling to fit into his tights. While kids will enjoy it, there is an awful lot here to appeal to adults.

The villian, Syndrome, voiced by Jason Lee, is a classic Bond villian; a cheerful psychopath, who has to explain his brilliant plan before killing the hero. Syndrome's secret volcanic lair is a better Bond villian hideout than I've seen in any of the real Bond movies. There's also a great high- speed chase through the jungle that quotes the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi, but blows that sequence out of the water.

The story is engaging; it is a long and detailed film, with lots going on, and the music is fantastic too: a marvellous pastiche of period jazz, lounge, and tiki, but the real reason I'd pay to see it again is another opportunity to gawk at the, well, incredible amount of detail that went into the design of every object and set. You're looking at a fully realized future past: a world that never came about, but feels very close. It's really a thing of beauty, especially if you appreciate retro design.

Since I should mention at least a few weaknesses of the film, I'll point out that the film may not work very well for children, at least not young children. Our son, age ten, seemed to be very confused by the rather elaborate plot and somehow did not "get it." The character of Frozone is a bit of an uninspired stereotype, especially when we hear him interacting with his wife. The villain, Syndrome, is not handled very artfully in the end, which seems too cruel and glib, like a wasted opportunity to write something better for his character. The film may feel a little too long to some viewers, especially children, with one or two too many smash-bang fight sequences. But these things do not really lessen the joy I got from this film.

The single most amazing thing about this film, to me: read the credits. Hundreds of artists and animators worked on the thing. But the design language is as beautifully consistent as if the entire thing, beginning to end, was the product of one visionary auteur. It's hard to imagine how Pixar achieved that kind of design discipline, but it shows in every frame.

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Fri, 03 Dec 2004 Apple in Retail and the Airport Express Adventure

I'm trying to write shorter, more frequent blog entries. Brevity is hard for me! And writing more frequently has been a challenge as well. Besides the transition to living with a newborn baby, my use of the computers at home has been disrupted by a malfunctioning AirPort? Express.

We've had it for only about two months, and it worked great when we got it; it allowed us to rearrange our network to minimize long cables, and untether Grace's computer (an old and battered iBook). Now everything is temporarily patched so that she can go online from our bedroom, but no one else can. I've been loathe to completely rearrange the network hardware and cables temporarily, so we're limping along until the AirPort? Express comes back.

It seems to be a power-supply problem. The Airport Express is basically an AirPort base station built into the from factor of the square white iBook/PowerBook power supply. It has no power switch, and is designed to stay on whenever it is plugged in. When you plug it in now, the green indicator light comes very briefly on - just a flicker for a fraction of a second - and then goes out. Discusson on Apple's support boards seems to indicate that a few other people are reporting the same problem. I am guessing that the units have failing power supplies; to avoid dissipating too much heat, Apple may have had to specify an anemic power supply. Maybe the first batch was then prone to burning out. But that is only speculation on my part.

What is not speculation is that it is still very painful to get support for Apple hardware sold retail. I bought this AirPort Express off the shelf at CompUSA locally. In retrospect, this was a mistake. I then managed to lose the receipt, although I could have sworn it went into the box with all the receipts I carefully saved from the parts for my recent home-built PC. I did still have the box and the warranty paper, but that probably isn't good for much but recycling.

First, I tried to call Apple. Naturally, they only answer the phones during banker's hours. That would mean camping on the phone from work, not a good move at this point in time in my rather strained work environment. So I decided to talk to CompUSA. They don't do repairs or returns on any of the Apple products sold. In other words, a computer store, with an in-store repair center, that sells you a product, can't accept it for a return or a repair, because it has an Apple logo. I guess they make an exception for return for any reason within 14 days, or something like that, but otherwise, if you bought an Apple product from them, you've got to talk to Apple.

There's something wrong with this picture. I am afraid I became testy with them and demanded to speak to a manager. She was polite, but kept saying, essentially, that if I had wanted them to be able to swap me a new AirPort Express, I should have paid them for a CompUSA extended warranty or purchased AppleCare. I replied angrily that Apple covers the product for one year, and that they should swap it and negotiate the issue with Apple for me. No-no-no, they don't do that. They were, however, able to print me a duplicate receipt, so that I had, more or less, proof that I purchased it from CompUSA on September 11th, 2004 (perhaps it is just that date of ill omen that doomed the AirPort Express). This should not have been strictly necessary, as all AirPort Express boxes are still under warranty, but I was glad to have something to show Apple if necessary.

Grace then tried to take the device to the Apple Store in Novi. Surprise: the store has moved. After packing up Isaac and the baby and driving to the old location, no one in the plaza could tell her where they moved to, the baby needed changing, Isaac needed to get to choir practice... so back they came.

She went back again the next day. Apple accepted the AirPort Express and agreed to replace it, but did not have any in stock. We since were notified that it is ready to pick up. She tried to get out there yesterday to pick it up and had an attack of mysterious abdominal pain (second incident), and so once again had to turn around and come home.

She may be able to get out to pick it up today, although the baby has had some difficult nights and she's been pretty tired. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so presumably if she can't get it today, she'll be trying Friday, but we're not keen on contending with crazy day-after-Thanksgiving traffic and crowds with a near-newborn baby in tow.

So, the tally so far: one phone call and five road trips totalling at least five hours, to get warranty service for a little box that only cost $125 initially, and which I bought locally.

Like I said, there's something wrong with this picture. Perhaps it would have been easier to do this entirely by phone and mail with Apple, but this all just seems like the wrong model. Buying a piece of cheap, commodity Apple hardware should not be like buying an exotic foreign car. I know Apple has had a difficult relationship with retailers; their hardware is pricey and high-margin, and retailers can't make the profits they make on commodity PCs.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but this retail experience, quite frankly, sucks, and if this is what first-time Apple buyers face when they pick up an iPod or what-not, it is not going to encourage them to buy Apple again, at least not from chain retailers.

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Wed, 01 Dec 2004 The iPod U2 Special Edition

I have only a few comments on this item. The first is that I want one. Not because of U2's signatures or the included songs or coupons for the boxed set, but because I'd like to have an iPod, and I like my consumer electronics toys to be black. I could live without the red scroll wheel, but I suppose it is OK. I look reasonably good in a nice dark red. But it also comes with the standard white headphones, which goes quite a ways towards ruining the allure of the black unit altogether.

I would definitely use an iPod, both for music and downloadable audio programs, which could make my work existence a little more bearable this grim fall and winter, and for carting around other files. But my objection is mainly that it is too expensive; I can't feel comfortable spending that much. If I could write programs for it, or use it to learn a new programming language, develop a demo, or advance my career or hobbies in some way, then perhaps. But even so, and even though I'm now employed and earning a decent salary, with a new baby and the prospect of a bleak economy and more unemployment in the future, it is just too much of a luxury item.

My last point is that I think Apple is making a mistake in pricing the black U2 iPod higher than the standard model. I'd consider buying one -- with the strange white headphones, with the signed case, with the "big U2 fan" (which I'm not) aura to it -- but I certainly wouldn't pay m ore for what is essentially a style distinction, not even a brand distinction.

To digress as I love to do: I did count myself a U2 fan in the Boy/War era, and I love Steve Lillywhite's work as a producer. I liked their work with Brian Eno quite a bit as well. I still have some bootleg casettes of U2 playing in small venues doing "I Threw a Brick," "Stories for Boys," and "An Cat Dubh." But that was a long time and a lot of albums ago. I haven't bought a U2 album for almost twenty years. U2 these days doesn't get a lot of points as a brand to me; there's just not really very much allure left. In the same vein, as an REM fan who bought Murmur and Chronic Town on vinyl, and saw them live on the Fables of the Reconstruction tour almost 20 years ago, I can honestly say that we've both moved on. But the people Apple is marketing this to are perhaps younger: those who first heard of REM around the Green period, and who first heard of U2 around the Achtung, Baby! release, when both bands were indisputably mainstream pop.

But even assuming I'm not the target audience, I think Apple has a misconception about the allure of "limited-edition" and "co-branded" products. I think these things will get people's attention, but the same people will then quickly run a cost-benefit analysis in their heads. The U2 brand and the "special" aspects of the product will in fact draw people to it, but I don't believe that they will want to pay a higher price for this cachet. I don't want to, and probably won't... if I do eventually buy an iPod, and can't get a black one for the same price, I'll probably get an white one. Or a mini, even though the size limitation will make it less convenient (just putting my unabridged Tolkien audiobooks will probably fill half of it), strictly based on price.

Apple should be thinking of the co-branding as a way of getting people in the door, and any extras in the box as an incentive to move iPods, not as a way to increase the price.

As for the extras that go in the box, like the poster, and the $50 coupon towards the U2 "every song" set -- they do not fundamentally add value for me. I could say "well, I would have purchased the set anyway, so this is actually saving me money." But it doesn't do that; even if I was likely to purchase the set, which I am not, paying $50 more to get a $50 coupon wouldn't really give me anything, would it? A discount coupon works as an incentive to get someone to buy something that he or she would not buy otherwise. The set will be a big-ticket, high-profit item. Discounts entice more people to buy it, with a modest hit to the per-item profit margin. But paying extra for the coupon would just mean putting a down payment on something I'm not likely to buy. It would be like buying myself a gift certificate. Where's the fun in that?

Addendum: had I been more flush with cash, I definitely would have bid on the Unauthorized U2 vs. Negativland iPod being auctioned on eBay. The complete Negativland catalog represents a lot bigger bonus, and the collector's aspect is real. Unfortunately, Apple has little sense of humor about things like this, and the auction has been suspended. Sigh. Negativeland

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Wed, 17 Nov 2004 He Wasn't My Guy

More in re: "you're just mad that your guy lost." For the record: Kerry wasn't "my guy." At the last, I wasn't willing to vote for the lesser of two evils, going with the "anybody but Bush" theory. I wasn't able to vote for Kucinich, so I had to settle for Nader. Yes, Nader. To quote Doonesbury: "Flush!"

Of course, Michigan was not actually a swing state, so in practice my vote didn't matter. The electoral college saw to that. At least, my presidential vote. In the local races and ballot initiatives, I might actually have had some way. That's something lost in the debate over vote-counting; if it is possibly to conduct large-scale fraud with direct-read, e-voting machines, how much easier is it to tilt a state or city election?

Kerry lost my vote when he didn't take a fundamental stance against the war. He wanted to have it both ways. The Kerry I wanted to vote for was the young Kerry; that Kerry wasn't "nuanced" in protesting what was going on in Vietnam. Yes, we're still fighting Vietnam - believe it! We needed to get out, period.

That's pretty much what has to happen here. I admired Kerry's seriousness and calm demeanor in the debates, but he just wasn't a a true opposition candidate. His vague plan to internationalize the occupation is too little, too late. Applying "nuance" in Iraq will just drag it out and result in more death. Even a new president with, one might hope, increased international credibility, will not be able to convince other countries to sink with us in this swamp of our own creation.

No more good can grow from this poisoned seed. It is time to cut and run. We can't secure Iraq, and it is getting worse. We can't even provide sufficient security for NGOs to get in and help provide emergency food and medical care. Anyone seen as having any connections to the US will be targeted. The best we can do is fund regional Arab-state organizations to try to clean up our mess, pay reparations, and acknowledge that we never should have invaded. The whole catastrophe is prima facie evidence that we need to join the ICC ASAP. There is no room in the world for "Team America: World Police." There is no true impunity. You can't get away from the law of karma, and we've been dropping a hell of a lot of thousand-pound bombs.

Saddam is gone, and that's a good thing, but it is inarguable that the world is far more dangerous. Saddam was a defanged mad dog, a contained threat to no one but his own people, and thus no justification to violating Iraq's sovereignty. Countries just can't operate like this. We wouldn't tolerate it, and our motives are far from pure.

The entire history of Iraq is the history of ill-advised Western meddling. The solution is not more meddling, although there is truth to Powell's "you break it, you bought it" warning. We've bought it, but we can't fix it. Iraq is where those who didn't learn anything about Vietnam will have to learn those lessons this time around. Iraq is where the neocon's perverse idealism was tested against hard reality and lost. We don't need any more naked greed disguised as faith-based foreign policy. We need a short-term exit strategy and we need it to be implemented now. But we're not going to get it. Bush's cabinet purge is the triumph of rhetoric over reality.

Do you realize that we used napalm in Fallujah? Shall we talk about the purity of our arms? But it's OK; they were just dark-skinned Islamist terrorists. It isn't anything like what we did in Vietnam, right? Right?

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Wed, 10 Nov 2004 Election 2004

Well, the election came and went. Although I am very troubled by all the reports of voting anomalies, voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, and perhaps outright fraud, I don't believe that the election irregularities were sufficient to throw the key states. So, let me go on the record: I accept the results of the election. Bush won.

That said, when I mention election irregularities, I don't want to hear "oh, you're just mad because your guy didn't win." There's a lot of that flying around. It is maddening; it puts the election on the same footing as a football game, and just frames democrats as sore losers. There were serious irregularities. The most compelling evidence is the Berkeley study. Bev Harris and her team find mismanagement and suspicious behavior everywhere they look. Ballots left in boxes, lost, shredded, thrown in the trash. I could easily be convinced that the true intent of the voters was not expressed, but as of yet the evidence is suggestive and not conclusive.

Now, what it suggests is that every American of any political affiliation should be outraged. The people who treat our ballots like yesterday's newspaper should be fired or, better yet, prosecuted. Voter intimidation and disenfranchisement is not the same as trying to shout down your football team's opposing fans at a game. The sports metaphor is absolutely the wrong frame, to use Lakoff's word. Deliberate disenfranchisement or vote tampering is criminal.

I'm a technologist, and it amazes me that anyone even slightly familiar with computers would entrust an election to them, at least to any computer system as it is generally known. I believe that a properly auditable and simple e- voting system could be developed, but any responsible official using direct-read, untraceable "black-box" voting machines should be thrown out for gross negligence. These people aren't stupid; they want their dirty fingerprints on our elections to remain invisible.

But your vote is far too important to trust to the vagaries of technology, and I say that as someone who has been programming computers since 1977. In fact, I wrote an electronic voting system, to run a mock election at my high school. It ran on the Radio Shack TRS-80, and wrote individual votes out to casette tape. It didn't yield an auditable paper trail: there was no way for the individual voters to confirm that the computer recorded the vote that they intended. But at least the series of vote records could be run through again one-by-one for a recount; they existed as discrete records, so at least the procedure that counted them could be verified. Now, we don't even have that. We've got machines yielding negative counts, or counts of thousands of votes in a precinct with only a few hundred total voters.

I was just a kid, and wrote my program for fun. But even then I knew that each vote should be recorded separately and serially, to avoid problems with a crashing program or power outage, and to allow this kind of verification testing. The real election isn't a hobbysing project, so we should take it seriously. Read what Bruce Schneier has to say about e-voting; it's the most sensible thing I've read on the subject. Technologies are not panaceas: a paper receipt is not a panacea, and encryption and digital signatures are far from panaceas. But they are certainly a thousand times better than any unverifiable, falsifiable, unsigned and unauditable vote recording process.

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Tue, 02 Nov 2004 Veronica Ruth Potts

Veronica Ruth Potts was born at 6:23 a.m. on Friday, October 29th. As they say, "mother and baby are doing fine." And Dad is feeling great, too!

We were very fortunate: the delivery went very well. No long labor, no C-section. She was born with long fingernails and lots of hair.

The original plan had been to go into the hospital Thursday morning around 7 a.m., but they were full. Grace and I waited around all day, and bickered. We had all kinds of contingency plans involving her going into labor before then, but no plan for waiting around all day, and no food. We were understandably tense. Finally, at 6, we were asked to come in at 7 p.m. There was a little more waiting around after we arrived, but by 8:30 or so, we were in the room.

It was hurry-up-and-wait for the next couple of hours. First, they had a lot of trouble getting an IV inserted. This was not a surprise, since people often have trouble drawing blood from Grace, but it resulted in a lot of waiting around. Grace got a few extra holes before they found a nurse with more expertise, who finally got the IV going on her wrist. They got the intravenous oxytocin going at perhaps 10:30 p.m. on Friday. Grace began feeling mild contractions. We listened to Stevie Wonder and I wrote notes on my newly aquired Newton MessagePad 2100 (purchased on eBay), but that is another weblog entry for another time.

Nothing really changed until our obstetrician broke Grace's water with a little plastic lancet around midnight. He put in a probe so that he could monitor the strength of the contractions. We could watch them on both a strip chart and on a monitor. The monitor was a Windows machine running some kind of web application on Internet Explorer. It seemed to crash at one point and need restarting. Color me surprised. Not. I'm perpetually flummoxed as to why people would deploy any kind of critical software on such a platform. It isn't that I would use MacOS X or Linux or something else instead; I wouldn't even use an operating system at all, if I could help it. But that's also a weblog entry for another time.

They found meconium in the amniotic fluid, which is common in late babies; they warned us that the baby might not breathe right away, and they would bring in some people to do some extra suctioning-out and checking as quickly as possible. If you don't know what this means, here's a primer: basically, babies can poop in the amniotic fluid, and then inhale it. That means (possibly) tarry, sticky poop in the lungs, trachea, etc. It's not a good thing. Fortunately, Veronica doesn't seem to have inhaled any of this stuff.

Grace had strong contractions every two or three minutes until about 3 a.m., when they became increasingly painful. We were listening to Eric Clapton; Grace was wobbling around the room attempting to relieve the pain by moving around and rocking. She started to experience hallucinations and asked me to change the music from Eric Clapton to Van Morrison. Apparently she was seeing big spiders with legs growing out of their legs and other strange things, but at least she realized they were hallucinations. All this stopped immediately when they put in the epidural. The contractions continued for three more hours while Grace actually dozed off on the hospital bed. The doctor came and checked her. The baby's possition was good, but slightly rotated; he had her lie on her other side, propped up with a rolled-up blanked, to get the baby's position to shift.

Grace reached full dilation around 6 a.m. The last stage went very quickly: our obstetrician came back in, and said the baby would be out in ten minutes. He was only slightly exaggerating. The head was coming into view. You could see her hair, coated with waxy yellow gunk called vernix. She has a lot of hair!

They gave Grace a little bit of oxygen, to make sure the baby was getting as much oxygen as possible via the umbilical cord. The baby's heart rate looked low, but I'm not entirely sure the monitor could read the baby's heart accurately at that stage of delivery, when the head was crowning. In any case, they took the oxygen mask off almost immediately, since it was all over so quickly. I don't recall the precise timing, since I was not looking at the clock or counting, but I recall that roughly only a dozen hard pushes were needed, and took fewer than five minutes, all told. I supported Grace's neck while she pushed, and tried to help her count. It was at this point that I wished we had taken at least one or two of the childbirth classes, instead of going through most of the pregnancy assuming we would have a scheduled C-section.

The head popped out, and our doctor began suctioning out the baby's nose and mouth right away to make sure she didn't inhale any meconium that might be in there. One or two more pushes, and the rest of her popped out. No tearing, no episiotomy. The doctor offered to let me cut the umbilical cord, but I declined, in part because I was trying to help Grace keep her legs stable on the push-bar (the epidural results in somewhat numb and wobbly legs).

Our doctor told Grace "you were made for this," and he was right. We were really impressed by our obstetrician. He was extremely reassuring, confident, and quick, giving us all the needed information without making us fearful or panicked. It was his advice that led Grace to try a vaginal delivery, and it turns out to have been a great decision. What kind of a doctor would let her patient have surgery that wasn't at all necessary? Our other obstetrician, apparently. I'm still appalled.

After some more suctioning and checking, half of the extra staff disappeared; apparently they weren't needed. Veronica had a high APGAR score (one nurse told us the next day it was "nine point nine," although that didn't quite make sense to me, since I thought APGAR's categories were all measured 0, 1, or 2, and produced a round number... so now, I'm wondering where she lost the tenth of a point, but it doesn't really matter; it was obvious that little Vernonica was in great shape: pink, wiggly, and mad as hell. With any luck, it is only the first of athe high scores she'll get on standardized tests!)

Grace was doing extremely well, too. My chronology may be slightly confused at this point; I was a bit dazed. I spent the next few minutes bouncing back and forth between the warming table and Grace's bed. Our daughter was weighed and measured; they gave her a vitamin K injection in the thigh. (That made her really mad). She was quickly warmed up under the heat lamp, burrito-wrapped, and successfully latched on to Grace's breast fewer than ten minutes after birth.

At some point (memory fails on the exact order of things at this point) Grace began shivering, but a heated blanket from the warmer took care of that in short order.

The doctor took blood samples from the umbilical cord. I took a couple of pictures of the baby. Grace passed the placenta without difficulty, and as soon as the baby was nursing, she and the obstetrician started chatting about her years on the rowing team in college and his experience as a triathlete. Something about the push bar on the hospital bed reminded her of rowing, apparently. Yes, my wife was having a conversation about sports mere seconds after giving birth. This is in pretty stark contrast to her previous birth, where she had a C-section after twelve hours of labor; in a photo taken after that birth, she looks like she just had been beaten up. This time, she was chatty.

My overall impression of the whole thing was that it went so quickly and calmly. Conversations with other dads had led me to expect screaming, and body fluids squirting in all directions. I'd been prepped to expect a C- section, a blue baby, and an unconscious mom. None of that happened. I'm not generally very squeamish (I used to watch the surgery channel), and so the only thing I declined to observe was the epidural (they ask dads not to watch that anyway, after one passed out and suffered a concussion; something about a long needle going into the spine is a lot more unsettling than the birth itself). There wasn't any screaming. The only serious cries of pain occurred just before the epidural went in.

St. Joe's took great care of us. I have only minor complaints. Only a few hours after Veronica's birth, we had to put up with incredibly loud construction noise coming through the air vents; it sounded like someone was drilling holes through the walls of our room!

The older unit, where we were moved after the birth, was not nearly as nice as the rennovated delivery rooms, but we had been told this would be the case during our tour. In particular, the reclining chair/bed provided for a spouse or partner was really ancient and uncomfortable. I didn't really sleep much that night in the hospital, and of course I didn't sleep at all the first night, so I was pretty wiped out by Saturday afternoon, when we brought the baby home.

The bedside manner of the nurses varied; I did not like one of them. This only would have become an issue, I think, had we needed a lot of care. Most of the time was spent waiting and attempting to nap. Grace passed a blood clot "the size of a mouse," but that is also apparently common. We had far too many knocks on the door, from everyone from social workers to someone wanting to take a family picture. But overall, the environment was really supportive. I never expect to get any rest in a hospital.

I watched them bathe Veronica in the nursery and trim the umbilical cord stump (a bit unexpectedly) with a scalpel. Under the sponge, she turned bright pink as if she were sunburned. I also watched them administer the heel sticks to take blood tests. Embarassingly, I found myself watching the wrong baby, convinced that she was mine. Honestly, it is a good thing they label them and carefully match the armbands against the parents armband. Newborns really don't look that different! Her only really distinguishing characteristic seems to be her big toes. They are large and with a wide gap between the big toes and the rest of the toes, just like mine.

The first night home, we were expecting a quiet night with a few wakeups for feeding, but Veronica got really cranky and would not be consoled or suckle. After an hour or two of listening to her cry, we decided to give her a little water (less than half an ounce). Her little digestive system started gurgling and she felt immediately better, and promptly fell asleep. Our theory is that since she was late, the meconium in her digestive tract had gotten thicker and more like tar, and was painful to pass; the water helped to loosen it up. The next morning she had blown out a lot of it.

We were also a bit concerned the next night, because it seemed as if she had forgotten how to nurse. She would fuss and cry for twenty minutes before latching on. We had her first pediatric appointment the next morning, but by then she seemed to have gotten over this difficulty. She now latches on immediately and sucks well. I can say, with all honesty, our new daughter sucks!

It is now her 5th day of life outside the womb, and she is doing quite well. She is more alert every day. Grace's milk has come in and Veronica is feeding regularly. We have mild concern about her wet diaper count and her weight loss, but have had her to the pediatrician's office once already and will take her back on Thursday to check that she has not lost too much weight.

With newborns, it is hard to determine how much breast milk is going in, so you try to measure the input by the output. The general rule is that she is supposed to have a wet diaper count that matches how many days old she is: one the first day, two the second, and so on. This doesn't go on indefinitely, obviously, or I'd be expected to dampen over thirteen thousand diapers today. For day six and afterwards we're supposed to expect about a half-dozen wet diapers per day.

Veronica followed the schedule for the first few days, but had only two on day four. This is day five, and she's only had three. We're a bit concerned, and giving her as much milk as she can hold, and a little more supplemental water with a spoon, after okaying this with her pediatrician. She seems to be chowing down on the milk now, so I don't expect either the wet diapers or the weight loss to be a real issue, but we are keeping an eye on the situation and will check in with our pediatrician tomorrow in advance of her next scheduled appointment on Thursday.

We're co-sleeping, with the baby right in the bed. Various authorities warn against this, but it is working out very well. The baby is only waking us up a few times a night, and Grace can put her right on the breast without a lot of rearranging. I can't imagine how people manage with the baby in a crib in a separate room. Of course, she is a newborn, and different every day, but for the moment we're only suffering very mildly from interrupted sleep, not serious sleep deprivation.

I'm not going to turn this weblog into the Veronica Chronicles; I just wanted to tell the amazing story of her arrival. I'm amazed by how quickly she's become a regular part of the family, and I'm so grateful Grace did not have to have a debilitating surgical procedure, and is up and around, so that I can go into work and we can all do our jobs.

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Mon, 01 Nov 2004 Paper Mario: the Thousand Year Door (Amazon review)

I'm a 37-year-old husband and father; probably not the game's biggest target demographic, but more adults play these games than you may think!

I played (and completed) the excellent Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 a few years ago, along with my young son. It was very close to a perfect game: visually spectacular, original, engaging, moderately challenging, and filled with goofy cut scenes. The episode-based play worked perfectly to keep both of us from getting bored or frustrated; it was impossible to go too far down a dead end, or "lose" the game.

I'm happy to say that this sequel is worthy of the original. There is again an elaborate plot and back-story; there are more engaging Mushroom Kingdom characters, and lots more great paper effects. The papery world can get peeled back like Post-It note, torn like a Kleenex, folded like origami, and spring out like the pictures in a pop-up book. The characters have more to say (sometimes more than you want them to say!) The game's designers paid a great deal of attention to user interface and playability, and it really shows.

The Paper Mario games are not terribly difficult. That's a good thing, especially if the game-players in your household are young or less experienced. If you're an adult and at all good at figuring out strategy-based battles, you may rarely lose a fight. This may make the game seem too easy, but there are still plenty of silly cut scenes, animations, mini-games, and side quests to keep you entertained.

This is also the kind of video game that is enjoyable to watch someone else play: the beautiful color palettes, animations, and secret objects are enough to occupy two peoples' attention, so try trading off with your kids and showing off your stylin' moves (and don't bogart that joystick!)

The original Paper Mario game had a few drawbacks. The large number of battles could occasionally become tedious. This game improves on the original in giving you an audience to distract you and cheer for you during fights. The menu of available moves, badges, and items is even more elaborate than in the original, so you can focus on clever strategies. In fact, you have to pay at least some attention to careful use of your party members and special attacks: some enemies are impervious to all standard attacks, and will require cleverness to beat, just as many of the worlds contain areas that will only open to you after you've gained additional special abilities.

One last comment: these games are short. I think I finished the first one in about twenty hours of play, and I did not rush. Twenty hours may sound like a lot, but not when compared to a game like Donkey Kong 64, which might take a player ten times longer. If you are a hardcore gamer, you might want to look elsewhere, but if you have a life outside of video games, and don't have a lot of free time to spare, this is the game for you. You might find yourself, like me, wishing at the end that there were more secrets to uncover and more silly mini-games to play. I have not finished this new Paper Mario, but I've found most of the stars, so it will probably not be long. I'm looking forward to what I expect will be a spectacular ending!

P.S.: Addendum to the above, added after posting the original.

I may be mis-remembering how long it took me to finish the original Paper Mario for the N64; it may have been more like 40 or 50 hours; still, compared to some of the more elaborate platformers, it was a relatively short game. In any event, this game is proving to a bit longer than that.

I've gotten past the thousand-year door, but decided to backtrack before confronting the final bosses so I could go rack up some additional levels, find all the shine sprites and boost my party members' levels to maximum, solve "troubles," and in general extend the playing experience. In other words, I'm not in a hurry for the game to be over.

I've also decided I won't want to finish the game until I've beaten... (chilling music)... the Pit of 100 Trials. The Pit is a sadistic device designed especially to appeal to compulsive perfectionists like me. It is basically a one-way sequence of battle rooms. To finish, you must win consecutive battles of increasing difficulty. Every tenth room contains a treasure and the opportunity to bail out and return to the start. There is occasionally the chance to skip ahead a few levels or buy some items, but for the most part you just have to slog through; there are no save blocks available along the way, and if you give up, you will have to start again from the beginning.

While you start out with low-level Goombas, by the time you reach the 80s you will be confronting black steel chain chomps and magical creatures who carry many special abilities and items. You'll find yourself and your partner paralyzed, confused, or frozen, and then attacked multiple times by creatures who can do ten or twenty points of damage with a single blow. By the time you reach the 90s, your foes will make the boss fights to date look easy. Also, you can't easily pump up your experience by bailing out and restarting the series; completing a battle you've already won will only give you a single star point.

This challenge is in here just for those who, like me, want the fights to be a little bit harder, requiring a little more careful strategy and planning. But taking on the Pit is entirely optional, so as not to ruin the fun of those who don't enjoy the tougher fights. Yesterday I gave out at level 93, but I will prevail!

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Tue, 26 Oct 2004 Head for the Exit, Baby!

Well, like many deadlines do, our baby's due date sailed right by. The baby is now ten days late. Grace's readiness for delivery is rated a "9" now, as determined in our last doctor visit yesterday, but she's so far had only "warmup" contractions. The baby still seems to be doing fine, wiggling and kicking but sleeping most of the time.

If she doesn't go into labor tomorrow, the plan is to go into the hospital Thursday morning early, at which time they will induce labor.

We're nervous because we gave up a scheduled C-section on the 16th in order to try to do it the usual way and avoid a C-section, which is harder and slower to recover from. Now we're concerned that we've set ourselves up for a repeat of her first pregnancy, where after 12 hours of labor Isaac's heart rate slowed, and an emergency C-section was performed.

It's a long story, but we had pretty much assumed that after that, a scheduled C-section might be the best option. Even when we asked about whether this was in fact the best idea, our first doctor just took this plan as a given, and never told us that it wasn't medically necessary, or in fact gave us any useful information at all from Grace's old medical records, even though she had received them.

After a visit with a second doctor in which he gave Grace more information and answers in ten minutes that our previous doctor had given her in ten visits, we changed doctors. He told us that there wasn't anything that ruled out the usual method of delivery, and recommended trying it, so we gradually came around to the idea.

We still might be able to achieve that, but the other thing we gave up by not scheduling the delivery was the chance to have our available friends and relatives, who have to work around their own work schedules, here shortly after the delivery. My father and stepmother came for a week-long visit, and we had a good time and they gave us a lot of help getting the apartment ready, but now we'll probably need, and be short on, help in the first few days following delivery, as Grace recovers from a regular delivery or C-section.

I don't have much in the way of paid time off from work; I'll actually be running a deficit in days off, which is an unfortunate thing to do right before the holidays. If I had understood how the PTO plan would actually work in practice, I might have had second thoughts about taking this job.

It really is a bind; I need to take care of my wife and kids (plural now!), but my project at work is on a tight deadline, I have little or no PTO available, and I certainly can't afford to take unpaid time off. I will try doing some work at home, but I'm not sure how well I'll be able to achieve that with Grace recovering, a newborn, and my son all here. Lots going on! Please wish us luck.

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Sun, 10 Oct 2004 Deploy Baby Unit!

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned... it has been well over a month since my last weblog entry.

Life has become busier. To begin with, I'm now working again, finally. My employer is a company in Canton, MI, called MicroMax. My title is Senior Software Engineer. It is a relatively short commute: only about 30 minutes, on relatively uncrowded streets. The work is challenging, and different. I'm doing primarily documentation at the moment. The project is a little more tense than I'd like, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed and wondering how our team is going to get everything done that needs to be done, but I'm maintaing some degree of optimism. A regular paycheck certainly helps with that.

Our bank account is still kind of stunned from months of unemployment, and it is taking a while for things to normalize, but in a month or two, if things go well, we will have built up some reserves. We're very fortunate in that we did not have to either declare bankruptcy or stop paying our consolidated monthly debt payment, thanks in part to help from family and friends. The unemployment system kept us housed (it was enough to pay rent), but it didn't keep us fed or keep us from going into bankruptcy; it took selling off a lot of posessions, as well as a support system, to do that. It drove home how badly we need to have savings, and how badly we need to be out of debt. It made me even more resolved that if our creditors do not honor the agreements we have set up with them, they will not get paid. I can't pay Citibank whatever they want, when they've failed to honor the payment agreement that we made with our debt consolidation organization. We can't allow them to keep pushing our debt-free horizon further back; we need to be in the black. Especially since I doubt this is the last time I will find myself without a job.

The bigger life change on the horizon is that Grace is due to have a baby in six days; her due date is the 16th. Of course, babies don't necessarily pay attention to due dates, but it seems likely that something will happen pretty close to that date. The baby's dropped into a good position for delivery. It all looks pretty much ready to go. Grace has left her job, in preparation for at least a few months as a stay-at-home mom, and has been focusing on getting our apartment fixed up and ready. She's made a lot of progress; a little something every day. So I'm encouraged. We are tackling messes we haven't dealt with since moving in over three years ago. It is also enabling me to do more deep cleaning, when the clutter is taken care of.

It is a scary prospect, becoming the father of a newborn at the age of 37. I'm very sensitive to noise; my concentraton is easily broken, I tend to need time to myself every day to keep from becoming very irritable, even if it is only a short time. My work requires great concentration, and I am quite critical to the project. If I'm dozing at my desk I won't be much use.

Everyone tells me how difficult a new baby's sleep patterns can be for the parents. Grace tells me, though, that Isaac was very easy... not fussy, not a big crier, and slept well quite early on. But I can't count on that. We might get lucky, and we might not. I'll have to count on Grace's help, family and outside help, and my basically patient nature. It will have to do!

I expect that the next weblog entry will tell the world whether our baby is a boy, Samuel Ambrose Potts, or a girl, Veronica Ruth Potts. Wish us a speedy and safe delivery!

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Wed, 25 Aug 2004 Terry Pratchett's Discworld

I've finished all of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (with the exception of the graphic novel The Last Hero, and not counting the other Discworld collaborations like The Discworld Mapp. I have even read a few of them multiple times.

All of the reviews and notes can be found on my Wiki. See the Terry Pratchett page on my Wiki.

That makes up 28 novels, at least until Going Postal is released. I have enjoyed the Discworld books... but I don't think I'll be standing in line for the next one. I'll wait for the paperback, or get it from the library.

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Tue, 24 Aug 2004 abebooks

I decided to take for a spin and see what they could do for me. I was particularly interested in tracking down some long out-of-print juvenile science fiction books that I read as a child; I wanted to give them to my son, Isaac.

I quickly found, and ordered, the following:

Ted White, Secret of the Marauder Satellite

James R. Berry, Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet

Alfred Slote, My Robot Buddy

Eleanor Cameron, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Enchantress from the Stars

I also found a couple of books for me: a cookbook I used to have called Vegetarian Suppers, with some excellent recipes; an out-of-print programming text called Functional C, and a copy of the trade paperback edition of Heinlein's The Number of the Beast (late Heinlein, not his best writing, but it holds a special place in my heart because I read the first part of the book serialized in Omni magazine and then saved up my allowance to buy it).

I placed this order on the evening of August 14th, so the vendors got the orders on the 15th. The last book arrived today, the 24th. That's nine days to receive eight books from used bookstores all over the country!

I'm really impressed. I was expecting it to take at least two weeks to get everything, and wondering what I would do to track down the one or two books that would, I thought, most likely never show up, but which I'd get billed for anyway. What a pleasant surprise!

I bought Dar Tellum from Scholastic Book Services when I was in perhaps third grade; I can't remember anything about my teacher, the classroom, or the kids. I remember that I was miserable, so I probably took refuge in books. I remember the newsprint order sheets and saving my allowance to buy a few carefully chosen books. Among them were also some turkeys like the Benji movie adaptations, and some science fiction that was not terribly good, like A.E. Van Vogt's pulp Planets for Sale; I decided not to bother tracking that one down.

And I remember this book. Holding it is like looking through a tunnel to a day thirty years ago. It is all here: the psychedelic green-and-black illustrations, the weird lilac color of the title, and the soulful pair of eyes on the front cover. (It helped that I thought I looked, with my platinum blonde hair and blue eyes, a lot like the protagonist). The storyline is about telekinesis, channeling, and global warming: this book is copyrighted 1973. It is a strange and subversive story about civil disobedience and keeping secrets from adults. I feel very proud to be able to pass it on to my son, and very glad that this little piece of my formative years still exists in the world. This book shaped me.

So, I highly recommend It leaves me wondering if there might be some way I could earn some money and assist some of the local used bookstores in getting their inventory listed. They are clogged with stuff they can't move; Cross Street Books in Ypsilanti, for example, is almost impossible to browse, with books crammed in every available space, piles on the floors blocking access to the shelves, and narrow aisles impossible to negotiate; you feel like you will be crushed by falling books. Surely getting all the stuff they can't move up on would help? I'm living proof that someone will want a book, but the hard part is delivering obscure and relatively worthless (in a monetary sense) books to buyers. It looks like has solved that problem.

Meanwhile, global warming is real; where is Dar Tellum when you need him?

Here's my son's book report. He's ten. I should mention that his reading level is very high but his writing level is a bit sub-par; we're working on that. It is one of the reasons we took him out of school and started home-schooling him. This is a huge improvement over last year. This is his second attempt at a book report; yesterday's was terrible, so he's rewritten it. We may ask him for one more try.

Dar Tellum is a character from the planet sidra. Dar Tellum is like a ghost, a thing, technically. He is also telepathically connected to Ralph.

Ralph is a kid who daydreams a lot. He is the kid who meets Dar Tellum. He is the main character.

Ralph meets Dar Tellum. Ralph learns the world is in danger. Ralph gets the idea. Ralph puts the idea in Dad's briefcase. Ralph and Dar Tellum save the world.

The books writing style is about eight year-old level. The story is interesting, to an extent. The age level is nine, about. The illustrations are good, but have too little color. I recommend it very much to any body who wants a introduction to science fiction.

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Tue, 10 Aug 2004 Peace Camp

Last week I took Grace's advice and decided to take a mini-vacation, even in the midst of unemployment. I took Isaac to Peace Camp, a camp organized by the local Zen Buddhist temple. The camping was tent camping, and not terribly rustic (we had access to plumbing, including a shower), but the area was deeply wooded and humid, and we had several heavy rainstorms, so it "felt" more rustic than most of my previous camping experiences. The tent stayed fairly dry inside, but the air was very damp. Think dampness and slugs. Lots of slugs. In your sopping-wet sneakers.

It wasn't relaxing in the traditional sense; I didn't spend much time reading, or swimming. Instead, there was a lot to do: formal work practice groups with scheduled jobs, as well as the opportunity to jump in and help at just about any time. Most of the labor centered around meals and meal cleanup: meals were cooked primarily in an outdoor pavilion and served at tarp-sheltered picnic tables, but a kitchen was available across the street for the more challenging cooking jobs, such as making pancakes.

Almost my first act was to spill several gallons of hot water all over the entryway carpet in the Friends' Center. I was attempting a labor-saving innovation to cart hot water to the dishwashing tables; it didn't work out. I was rushing: always a recipe for disaster. Things got better after that and was able to jump in and do a lot of useful work: cooking and draining pasta, cooking scrambled eggs, cleaning up the cast-iron pans. I also got campfire duty, and aside from one abject failure when the whole carefully-laid fire was too damp to burn, the fires went well.

Being unemployed tends to make me feel quite useless; it is demoralizing to find no one who wants to put my skills to work. It was gratifying to do basic cooking and cleaning every day, even work as basic as hauling containers of water and sweeping outhouses. I think I also may have sweated off a few pounds. It was really nice to go to bed each night bone-tired.

I thought that it would be a good opportunity for some father-son bonding with Isaac, but he didn't really feel the need; instead, he immediately joined up with a roving pack of kids, and spent most of the week playing card games and swimming. I'm assuming this is mostly a good sign; he is developing a lot of independence, and didn't feel the need to cling. Isaac had a grand adventure of his own: he went off on the Famous Overnight, in which a group of campers canoed across the lake and hiked into the woods to spend a night under the stars, camping without tents, building shelters, and building a fire without matches. Naturally, there was a tremendous thunderstorm. He had a great time, although I was sleepless with worry while the lighning flickered and thunder roared. We had a big celebration with drums and recorders to welcome the campers as they returned from across the lake, rather sleep-deprived but exhilarated.

There were lots of songs to sing, meal prayers, a drumming class, a polarity therapy workshop, and dharma talks (seminar and workshop-style talks for the adults on Buddhist practice). I did chanting until my diaphragm was ready to give out. Sitting in a lotus was murder on my spine: I've become so accustomed to hunched sitting at a computer that the truly relaxed upright position caused me great pain for the first few sessions. My back finally did straighten up, though, and my posture is now better. I'm going to try to keep it that way by continuing to do sitting meditation. It has been many years since I've done it regularly.

I'd like to say that I got a great deal out of the sitting meditation, but I am out of practice; at best, after a few days I could slip into a relaxed sitting state easily, without much pain, and quiet the breathing and the mind a bit, but my practice was not up to snuff, and by the last two days I was also fighting sleepiness. The cushions worked wonders, but when I tried to do it on a carpet square, my legs would invariably go to sleep. When I was ninteen, I could sit in a full lotus comfortably for some time, but that was almost twenty years and seventy pounds ago. I did not manage to fully join the early-morning meditation even once, although I did get to a wonderful and intimate late-night chanting service. On several mornings I was up at the right time, but did not have a clock and was not cued in as to who was meditating where. If I return next year, my goal will be to do a little less work and a lot more practice.

I also know now what I want for my birthday: a zafu (round meditation cushion) filled with buckwheat hulls, along with a matching zabuton (square floor mat). Both should have washable zippered covers. I'm trying to decide between sets from or; the store offers organic cotton covers, although a set is a bit more expensive. Grace wants a set too in order to meditate with me, and Isaac will probably want to join us too... although I think we'd be lucky to get 5 minutes of peaceful, silent sitting out of him. Maybe we'll get one set to start and see how it goes.

Postscript: when Peace Camp was over, it still wasn't over! Grace and I took one of the campers, an Indian student named Sujit, back to Toledo. I found myself coming back the next morning to assist further with cleanup. I took all the recyclable materials back and got them dried out (no small task) and into the right bins. I have volunteered to be part of the organizing committee for next year, whether I'm here in town or can only contribute via e-mail.

But now, it is really over. Sujit gave me a book on Buddhism, and I picked up a couple more, including Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau, a book that I used to own, almost twenty years ago, and Old Path White Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh, from which some of the children's stories came; we're using these brief episodes from the life of Gautama Buddha as bedtime stories before our evening prayer. I also picked up Thubten Chodron's Working with Anger; a good deal of the dharma discussion with Barbara Brodsky invited us to consider our experience of, and attachment to, anger. I've also been considering just how peace-making, in the context of my wife's Interfaith Council work, must come from a place of peace. I've seen firsthand the results of individuals trying to bring about change not through open compassion and love but through angry criticism; it just doesn't work.

So, am I more peaceful? I still had a wicked argument with Grace the other day, but I think that I am doing better; my posture is improved, my clarity of mind a bit better. The employment situation is still wearing at me; it is especially disheartening when a potential employer just drops the conversation, despite my followups. But I've been away from it just long enough to, I hope, gain a little perspective from the distance. I was also able to engage with many practicing Buddhists in conversations about right livelihood; that helped affirm my faith that a path will appear.

I'll close by remembering (as best as I can) the meal meditations we used, as we began each meal in noble silence.

This meal comes from the labor of beings past and present
With it our body-mind is nourished,
our practice sustained.
Gratefully we accept this meal.


Buddha was born in the Lumbini Garden
He attained enlightenment at Bodghaya
He set in motion the wheel of Dharma at Sarnath
He entered into Paranirvana at Kushinara

We also used one or another variation on the Buddha's Golden Chain of Love; this is the variation I prefer (with the phrase "not only my own happiness, but also the happiness of others" instead of "my happiness and misery.")

I am a link in Lord Buddha's Golden Chain of Love
that stretches around the world.
I must keep my link bright and strong.
I will try to be kind and gentle to every living thing,
and protect all who are weaker than myself.
I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts,
to say pure and beautiful words,
and to do pure and beautiful deeds,
knowing that on what I do now
depends not only my own happiness,
but also the happiness of others.
May every link in the Buddha's golden chain of love
become bright and strong,
and may we all attain Perfect Peace.

I'll spare you the lyrics to some of the silly songs. Maybe next time! My profound thanks to Haju (the leader of the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple), Yosim (who led some of the dharma instruction), Sujit, and all the other wonderful people I met at Peace Camp! May we all attain perfect peace.

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Thu, 29 Jul 2004 Functional Developer Opens Up!

I found out today that Functional Developer, the flagship Dylan compiler and IDE, has gone open-source. That's exciting news. It even applies to all the extra libraries that Functional Objects used to sell.

Of course, it is a huge project, and it now leaves the Gwydion project in a unique bind: they now have two high-quality, advanced, and extremely large codebases to work with. The two are "compatible" only in that most of the straight Dylan code involved is at least largely portable, modulo compiler and library bugs. Some of it has already been used with the Gwydion d2c compiler. That's something. So, where to start?

I took a shot at compiling the Ravensbrook memory management codebase. This required a few tweaks to suppress warnings, but seemed to work after that. That's just the beginning, though. Functional Developer has a full-blown GUI for Windows, and an alpha-level command-line compiler for Linux. It hasn't been ported to MacOS X yet. They don't even have full build instructions for Linux yet. The MacOS X port would be a great project to work on, but it is also quite intimidating. Porting the IDE would involve a complete implementation of the DUIM libraries. That could be valuable for both compilers. And it appears that someone has done at least preliminary work on generating PowerPC instructions!

But Dylan is already fragmented within the d2c project, because of the separation between the byte-code interpreter, Mindy, and d2c. Mindy's main use these days seems to be in boostrapping d2c. There's another interpreter project, Marlais, which seems to be at least marginally active; it is a true interactive interpreter, but I'm not sure how well it works at the moment. And of course there's the buggy and abandoned Apple Dylan, which won't run in emulation under MacOS X, and is even more unstable than usual under MacOS 9. That one's out of the game, but lives on in spirit.

For the moment, I should just try to finish my somewhat derailed Dylan sample code project, and consider what I could do with a PC running the full version of Functional Developer, together with all the optional libraries, on Windows. I don't have the PC, but maybe a suitable machine will magically arrive on my doorstep. Stranger things have been happening recently. But would it allow me to do anything that would help me find a good job? Would it contribute anything useful to the Gwydion group? Or would it just distract me from my job search? I'll meditate on that and see where it leads me.

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What Kind of Job?

I was passed over for the Brown University instructional design position. It is probably just as well; it provided no benefits at all, and I would have needed to finish an initial set of deliverables by the end of September, with the job to conclude at the end of the year. In other words, it would require either a frantically fast move, or temporary separation from my family. I've been so stressed out about the job search and corresponding money crunch that they might consider the separation a nice bonus, though. Maybe it would do all of us some good.

It's 3 a.m. Do you know where your job is?

I promised in an earlier entry to talk about the kind of job I'm looking for. I had to answer this question recently for someone who thought I might be a fit somewhere in his organization, but didn't have a specific posting to refer me to. So here is what I told him.

Something that is implicit in my resume, I think, is that I really value constant learning and mixing heads-down development with writing, training, and design. My dream job used to be DTS (Developer Technical Services) in the Newton group, where I would have a chance to write sample code and help outside developers get their code working, which might include writing library code for them, isolating bugs, etc. That combined the tech part with interaction with other tech people. It doesn't sound like your team will necessarily be supporting other developers, but if there was some equivalent, that would probably be the best of all worlds for me.

That said, I also like working on challenging low-level coding projects. I like to sink my teeth into code, I'm willing and able to do maintenance work and revision of old code, and I've tended to take on the "language lawyer" role as well as writing style guides and setting up processes where there were none. I would be looking for a more senior-level job, doing at least some architecture work and supervising other developers, perhaps managing a build process. I'm comfortable managing a small group, and I like to do XP-style pair programming. I don't really want to be a project manager who doesn't also do at least some serious hands-on coding.


I like the startup environment in part because in startups and small companies I've gotten to wear many different hats and contribute to setting up a whole development culture. If I have a single heads-down assignment to work on all day every day, that job would be less satisfying for me, although I can enjoy that kind of thing for the length of a single project, especially if it is a challenging one.

It seems o me that there are really two ways I could go.

First, I could go down the ladder, to a more entry-level position, and try to acquire some more in-demand paper qualifications, such as an MCSE or some sort of Linux certification, and look for a sysadmin position or low-paying programmer position. The problem being that the low pay might not keep us afloat, and force us into bankruptcy anyway.

I could try to teach myself C# and .NET and more of the J2EE APIs and apply for a job with one of those specific requirements, although it would not result in the various years of experience that various employers are demanding these days. I also usually learn best when given a real task, not when left to my own devices to make one up.

Or, I suppose, to become buzzword-compliant, I could apply for something like this, which I came across in my job hunt yesterday:

As a volunteer software engineer for e-Brainstorm Technology, you will be a key member of a growing organization that delivers high quality, value-added Information Technology services and solutions. Successful candidates should have 1-2 years of application development full life cycle experience. J2EE, Oracle9i, ASP.Net, C#, SQL2000 skills as well as some networking experience are required. Highly self-motivated, self-directed, creative, spontaneous and attentive to details. Excellent written, verbal, and interpersonal communication skills. Ability to translate functional requirements to technical specifications. Thrive in a deadline-driven, multi-projects, fast-paced team environment. Work closely with project manager and sales engineer. Bachelor's degree in Software Engineering or Computer Science is required.

Compensation: Volunteer position with training and career growth opportunity

But that doesn't seem like such a good idea. I'm not sure how anyone with the necessary credentials could consider taking this job, and I certainly don't think this is a trend that should be encouraged. It doesn't seem to be a job posting for a non-profit; if they are delivering "value-added blah blah blah," does it make any sense that the person adding the "value" would not partake of any of that added value?

It seems to me that if I'm going to find anything, I have to be able to differentiate myself from all the people who realized in 1999 that there was money to be made in web development, and so bought themselves a copy of "Teach Yourself Web Programming in 29 Minutes." Where is a good job for someone who has been programming computers since he was ten years old, twenty-six years ago?

Up, then. To a more senior more technical, or managerial position. If there is an "up" in the current job market. And what about sideways? That is, in effect, what I was hoping to achieve with the Field School position.

Paul Graham describes the dilemma I feel quite well:

What do hackers want? Like all craftsmen, hackers like good tools. In fact, that's an understatement. Good hackers find it unbearable to use bad tools. They'll simply refuse to work on projects with the wrong infrastructure.


A couple years ago a venture capitalist friend told me about a new startup he was involved with. It sounded promising. But the next time I talked to him, he said they'd decided to build their software on Windows NT, and had just hired a very experienced NT developer to be their chief technical officer. When I heard this, I thought, these guys are doomed. One, the CTO couldn't be a first rate hacker, because to become an eminent NT developer he would have had to use NT voluntarily, multiple times, and I couldn't imagine a great hacker doing that; and two, even if he was good, he'd have a hard time hiring anyone good to work for him if the project had to be built on NT. [Footnote: They did turn out to be doomed. They shut down a few months later.]


If it is possible to make yourself into a great hacker, the way to do it may be to make the following deal with yourself: you never have to work on boring projects (unless your family will starve otherwise), and in return, you'll never allow yourself to do a half-assed job. All the great hackers I know seem to have made that deal, though perhaps none of them had any choice in the matter.

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Wed, 28 Jul 2004 My Calculator and I are Feeling Obsolete

I've been cleaning out my posessions and auctioning them off in preparation for a possible move. Among the things I've gotten rid of: a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, two recent TI calculators (a TI-89 and a TI-83 silver edition), a Chapman Grand Stick, a broken original Newton MessagePad, a lot of miscellaneous audio and DJ gear, several ancient Macintosh computers, years and years of Wired and Mondo 2000 magazines, all my vinyl records including some rarities such as REM's first album Chronic Town, Should Have Been Greatest Hits by the Tourists (Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart with a band before they became Eurythmics), all of Thomas Dolby's vinyl albums and EPs including the European version of The Golden Age of Wireless containing the tracks "Leipzig" and "Urges," singles and albums by some of his friends and collaborators including Lene Lovich and Adele Bertei, Torch Song's Prepare to Energize EP (used in some early Orb tracks), all my commercially-recorded VHS tapes, and hundreds of books.

Today I attempted to fix one of my oldest posessions: a Radio Shack calculator circa approximately 1982, with a green LCD screen, labeled "Radio Shack LCD Scientific." I got this for (approximately) my 15th birthday. It would have been expensive back then; perhaps $40 or more. It was a gift from my mother. I didn't know much about the scientific functions it provided, but I spent a lot of time trying to understand them anyway. I was not able to find much information about this model, save that it seems to be a re-branded Casio fx-80.

I have already repaired this unit once, when a set of leaking batteries ate up the clips in the battery compartment and I had to clean that out and re-solder the wires connecting the battery clips to the circuit board. Today I tried to put new batteries in it but could not get a peep out of it; I re-tinned the wires and soldered them to the clips again, and used a pink eraser to clean the contacts on the on/off switch; nothing. The batteries overheated and began to melt, so something is either shorting completely or acting as a resistor. The chip might be fried. In any case, it needs more help than I can give it.

I'm feeling very reluctant, though, to toss it out. The prospect fills me with a deep sadness. This calculator has never had button problems like the new HP models. The on- off switch operates with a satisfying "click." There's no contrast adjustment for the yellow-green screen; it is always right. The paint and buttons are subtly tinted to look compatible with the screen color. The buttons sit on a very readable aluminum faceplate. The case is slightly wedge-shaped, so that it angles slightly towards you as it sits on your desk. The buttons come in two different sizes, so that the grid of scientific functions don't seem to visually overwhelm the numbers and basic functions, and the scientific functions are laid out with an eye towards relative frequency of use.

I remember being attracted back then (at the age of fifteen) to the subtlety and beauty of the design, although I did not have the language of HCI and the subsequent years of experience evaluating and creating user interfaces. I guess people don't really change that much.

The fx-80, also known as the Radio Shack EC-498, is a non-programmable scientific calculator. It supports the usual transcendental functions. It does degree-minute-second calculations; it handles polar coordinates; it even does basic stats, using a separate mode and an additional set of registers, even though it only has two or three memories. The designers came up with a very clever and subtle scheme to support multiple modes of behavior and hidden functions; it is mnemonic, and so effective that I can remember pretty much how it worked, over twenty years later. I will describe the user interface on my Wiki here.

Even though it is only an 8-digit calculator with a rather limited features set, I have a strong impulse to keep this one and auction off my TI-86. If only I could get it working. The TI can no doubt do degree-minute-second calculations, stats, and polar coordinates too; I just have no idea how to find that function without rummaging in the manual. And I read the manual at one point. When I push "stat" on the TI, it throws me into a bunch of nested sub-menus. The manual is long lost. I have the option of using the PDF manual available on TI's web site, but somehow using a computer to figure out how to use a calculator seems like overkill.

I feel like the TI is an imposter, the Johnny-come-lately trying to humiliate the real calculator with its wads of RAM and menus and graphing abilities. But I'm not fooled. The antique is cool. The TI is just a hunk of rather ugly black plastic. Instead of serving as a useful calculator, it is really a slow and watered-down version of Mathematica. I own a copy of Mathematica; it is a great program, fantastically powerful. But if I wanted Mathematica, I would use Mathematica.

I will probably keep the TI, but I will miss my old calculator. I'd really like to get my hands on a functional fx-80, either marked with the Radio Shack logo or not. A whole pile of fx-82 variants followed the fx-80, but they didn't necessarily get better... just gratuitously different, and uglier. See a gallery here.

Look at Casio's calculators today, such as the FX-260 solar: they've dark gray plastic, and the same yellow and blue colors that TI uses for labeling. Nearly every key has extra labels. The subtle cueing for the inverse functions is gone: for example, the sine key now has "sin" on the key and "sin^-1" directly above it, like the TI. It embraces redundancy. Some of the original is still present, but the larding on of new features has required basic scientific functions to be demoted to shifted number keys. There is extraneous writing under the display, where it will catch your eye every time you move your eyes from the screen to the keys, and also some kind of color-coded legend describing the modes: a built-in cheat-sheet. A good design would render such a thing unnecessary, obviously. It is even uglier than the TI design. I'm sure it is much more powerful than the original, but I will miss the clean brushed-metal design of the original fx-80.

I try not to get attached to my material things. I know it all goes the way of all flesh. But sometimes it is hard. I was unhappy to have to toss out a skipping CD player from 1990 and a VCR from 1993. Ten years of service, or even twenty, doesn't seem quite enough at my age. I understand the economic reasons for planned obsolescence; I just don't like them. The calculator hasn't worn out; it is hardly even scratched. But the innards were not built to last or to repair.

Twenty years goes by pretty quickly. I hear the mechanical Curta calculators still work really well. Some of them were produced in 1947. And don't get me started on slide rules. How many of you have even held one, much less used one?

Now, a computer is obsolete in three, two, or even one year. My PowerBook G4, purchased in 2000, is on its last legs already. I've replaced various parts including the power manager board, power adapter, and built-in backup battery; it hasn't worked right since it went out of warranty. Only adding loads of RAM has kept it able to run recent OSes at all.

After my VCR and another loaner VCR both stopped working (and I did my best to fix them; I got the loaner working again for a while, but something else failed), I went on a search for another VCR. I was looking for one that would last ten years or more, like my last one. It seems that such a thing does not exist anymore: that is, no matter how much you are willing to pay, no one builds a solidly-built VCR that can be repaired.

So, I finally broke down and bought a DVD player. I tried to pick one that received good reviews. It is pretty, but it feels flimsy, and most of the features are only accessible from the remote control. Does anyone believe it will still be operating in ten years?

[/root/geeky/life] permanent link

Fri, 23 Jul 2004 Linked In

Wow, I just did a Google search on my weblog's base URL and found out that, as far as Google knows, not a single web page links to my blog! That's inspiring, it really is. On teh intarweb, no one knows I'm not a dog. Bark, bark.

For some reasons the Wiki is not getting crawled by Google: for example, I can't get any hits from keywords on my page of reviews of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. The blog is, though; Google probably found it through our main home page, which appears as a link on various sites that archive mail and Usenet postings.

I have reconfigured my bloxsom script so that it now shows only seven stories on the default page. This prevents the default page from getting huge. This setting is unfortunately global, though, and even applies to more specific searches: so, for example, if you select the topic "geeky," you won't see my article on the Dylan programming language; you'll only see 7 of 12, with no "more..." link and no indication that there are more articles, unless you happen to notice that the number of articles on the page doesn't match the displayed count.

Strangely, in by-month view, all the articles for that month are shown, even if there are more than seven. So the limit doesn't apply here. I've got to dig into Bloxom again. I'll probably have to find another plug-in, one that will provide a "more articles..." link when browsing by subject. I've got five plug-ins already, including two which together are needed in order to allow me to update entries after posting them, without screwing up the sort order. Does everyone who uses Blosxom have to mess with it this much? If so, what does that say about its usability?

I appreciate Blosxom's simplicity and support for plug-ins, but sn't there a saying about making things as simple as possible, but no simpler? Or, in this case, as simple as it can be while still handling the most common use cases? Being able to always reach even the oldest posts when browsing by subject seems like a desirable use case to me... but what do I know? I'm just a dog.

P.S.: I installed the "moreentries" plugin. You have to modify templates to get it working. It also disables some of the other plugins, like "archives," unless you carefully reorder them. The author of the plugin has a few choice comments about the Blosxom experience here.

In the release notes for the plugin, the author writes: author writes "This is a big ugly hack. The only entrypoint that worked for this is the filter() hook; the problem is that when filter() is called, the sort() routine hasn't run (isn't even decided on yet!), and %files contains all posts, not just the ones matching the request. Even running as filter, it has to be the last plugin to run, so that any other filtering happens before we decide the 'numbering' of the posts."

P.P.S.: OK, so "morentries" was working. But then I found out that Blosxom doesn't support conditionals in the template: that means it is difficult to customize the text that shows up when there are more entries available using a previous or next control. So I tried the "interpolate fancy" plugin. It basically worked, but I ran into problems when trying to nest conditionals. So I tried Rael's own "interpolate conditional" plugin, which is simpler. It worked, but I had to give up on nested conditionals, and also limit my conditional so they didn't extend past a single line in length (this breaks Rael's plugin). So it is all working, but the solution to "how do I do that?" is in part "change what you want to do."

It seems that perhaps the chain-of-filters model simply can't always do everything one might need. I've found arbitrary dependencies, bugs and undocumented limitations at every turn: and these are very small pieces of code. It's a bit like Linux in the early days: Linux is free only if your time doesn't cost anything. And after you add rather simple functionality, it isn't such a simple little application any more.

[/root/geeky/blogging] permanent link

Sat, 17 Jul 2004 Queens and Knights

I've become aware of a job opportunity in Cambridge, MA. The company offering the job want to see a programming example. They recommend solving one of two problems posted on their web site. This one looked the most interesting to me. They say:

Unless otherwise specified, you may use any language you like for the programming problem. If you send code for a problem, please include the final answer in the body of your email and please send code that actually compiles and runs, so we can test it -- no pseudo-code please. If you're submitting a program, try to make it as efficient as possible.

Queens & Knights

In 1850, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Franz Nauck showed that it is possible to place eight queens on a chessboard such that no queen attacks any other queen. The problem of enumerating the 92 different ways there are to place 8 queens in this manner has become a standard programming example, and people have shown that it can be solved using many different search techniques.

Now consider a variant of this problem: you must place an equal number of knights and queens on a chessboard such that no piece attacks any other piece. What is the maximum number of pieces you can so place on the board, and how many different ways can you do it?

I was just recently going through old papers and looking at a solution to the Knight's Tour problem I wrote for a computer science class in my sophomore year of college. The Knight's Tour asks for a "tour" in which the knight, using his unique L-shaped move, touches every square on the chessboard once and only once. My program allowed the user to specify the size of the chessboard (there are "degenerate" cases; obviously, on a 1x1 or 2x2 board the knight cannot move; on a 3x3 board the knight either starts in the center square and is stuck there, unable to move, or starts on an edge square and can quickly hit all the edges but can't get into the center).

I ran solutions up to a 10x10 board, but this was about eighteen (!) years ago, and the code was written in Pascal for the VAX 11/750. I can't remember if the 10x10 solution ever completed. The standard 8x8 board took some time, perhaps an hour or more, depending on the load on the system. My fellow students and I took great joy in all firing off our programs at once and watching the system crawl. I put in diagnostic output which would dump out an ASCII representation of the board in progress, and as you may guess, the I/O was much more expensive than the search, and so the runtime would increase by at least an order of magnitude.

We were studying recursion, but deep recursion in VAX Pascal was dicey: deep searches tended to blow up the stack. A follow-up assignment for some classes was to implement the solution using a hand-rolled stack data structure, which was considerably more efficient. I don't think my class implemented that program; we did something else with stacks. In any case the lesson taught, inadvertent or not, was that was recursion was a powerful tool for performing a brute-force search of a problem space, but "real" programs would not use it because building and unwinding the program call stack is expensive and the program is likely to run out of stack space.

Now I know that VAX Pascal probably didn't properly optimize tail recursion. I've got several other programming techniques and more expressive languages at my disposal these days. So I'm going to take on the Queens and Knights problem and see what I can come up with. I have friends that would probably try it using a genetic algorithm or a purely functional language like Clean, but I'm not quite to that point; I'm going to write it in Dylan, using the Gwydion implementation. I'll first re-implement the Knight's Tour to warm up, using a naive technique, and then see if I can start to improve the run time.

You can follow my efforts on my Wiki here.

P.S.: I have an initial Knight's Tour implemented, using a combination of iteration (to track starting positions) and recursion (to backtrack) along with a table of offsets to describe the moves. This took me about one work day, so I've certainly come a ways since 1986. The Gwydion d2c compiler is still frustratingly slow, although using a BBEdit worksheet helps; it doesn't quite have a real-time listener for writing and testing functions interactively, like Apple's Dylan did (and yes, I'm familiar with d2c's interactive mode; it is still too slow and fragile). I'd like to try this using Functional Objects Dylan, but I don't have access to a working PC at the moment, and the free version is missing some basic library functions (I believe format-out is missing, for example, unless you pay for at least the minimal console libraries package).

[/root/geeky/programming/dylan] permanent link

Mon, 12 Jul 2004 The Long Hot Summer

Good afternoon, loyal reader. It is another fine day, if you call mid-80s and humid fine. It is finally starting to feel like summer, after a strangely cold June and first part of July. If the temperature gets as high above normal as it was as below normal for the last six weeks, we're going to be in a lot of trouble. Grace is entering the 3rd trimester and is not able to tolerate heat and humidity; she tends to wake up nauseated (nothing like some dry-heaving to start the day off right).

Our other big news is that I'm unemployed. I have been receiving Michigan unemployment: the first time in my life I've ever had to actually use the system. We received our first check and should get a second this week. It was considerably easier to apply and receive this benefit than I thought it would be.

I'm grateful to have it, but there is a complication, of course; it will pay us about $1,200 per month. That's very helpful. But our rent costs $1,000 per month, and we need to put about $850 towards debts each month to maintain the consolidated debt plan we set up two years ago. Then, there are the matters of food, utilities, car repairs (non-trivial at the moment), and all other expenses.

Among these other expenses are creditors hounding us for payment for my brief hospital stay last year, which we thought was covered by our insurance at the time.

It was, for some definition of "covered," which in reality meant "mostly not covered." I'm not used to this; in the past, every medical expense I have had was entirely covered, or required small co-payments.

But now we're being hounded; the creditors are threatening some kind of court action unless we pay them $5,000. Well, we don't have $5,000, so they're not going to get it -- for the time being, at least. I suppose they may be able to legally garnish my unemployment. Maybe they will put me in jail. I hear they are doing that to debtors again. I hope it is air- conditioned and they will let me write letters.

Which brings me back to the fundamental problem of unemployment. If I understand its ostensible purpose, it is supposed to pay me enough to stay afloat while I spend all my time finding a job. But of course I have, in reality, been putting a great deal of time into trying to get enough money to make ends meet in the short term. This has involved, in part, running around selling off, or trying to sell off, a lot of our possessions. We've gotten rid of all of our records, almost every bit of my remaining music gear, video tapes, and boxes and boxes of books. I've sold a few small items on eBay as well.

Those things that we can't sell, we've been donating, recycling, or just throwing away. We want to be ready to move on short notice. And of course with Grace feeling sick and tired much of the time, a great deal of my energy has gone into cooking and home-schooling. So I am feeling quite overwhelmed, and am not feeling on top of my job search.

And, this late-breaking news. Re: our debt consolidation agent, Take Charge America (formerly CCOA, Credit Counselors of America). It turns out that although we have sent them statements religiously, and paid them religiously, they have only received our last set of statements, which we had to fax multiple times. After two years, in which we assumed they were checking up on the agreements with creditors that they negotiated on our behalf, they have finally done some looking, after some serious prodding. We prodded because it did not appear that some of the creditors, such as Citibank, were acting in accordance with the agreement.

Silly me; I had thought that TCA must be using a sophisticated computer modeling tool, like... oh, I don't know... Excel... to track our progress, and was using our statements to verify that progress. Instead they apparently lost 18 months worth of statements, failed to tell us, and didn't bother to do... well, much of anything. Well, that's not quite true: they've been deducting $585 from our bank account each month, and paying it to the creditors. That's something; at least the creditors are being paid on a regular schedule. But it is less than we expected.

Anyway, we're supposed to send them our statements, for those creditors which still send us statements, quarterly. We've done that: we faxed them. Something on the other end received them. TCA claims they did not receive the faxed statements; they never verified that the creditors were complying; in fact, they didn't even tell us that one creditor was insisting on receiving $4.00 more per month before reducing the interest rate, and thus has charged us 13% interest for the last two years.

They also didn't notice that Citibank was charging us 19.9% instead of the agreed-upon 9.9%. And they haven't attempted to get MBNA, who was charging too much and eventually corrected their interest rate, to credit us per our original agreement.

In other words, it isn't enough if Citibank is caught charging twice the negotiated interest rate and made to reduce the rate; they agreed to a negotiated settlement in which we paid X at Y interest. They must recalculate and correct our balance to match what our balance would have been had they been complying with the agreement from the outset.

Because of creditor non-compliance and TCA's apathetic enforcement, they've told us that it is going to take approximately another 3.5 years, instead of two years, until we are debt-free. We thought we were at the halfway point. In other words, a 37.5% increase in the time, and thus the money, we originally planned to pay. That's more than just a rounding error.

My suspicion is that our account rep is simply losing the statements to lessen her workload, and only responding when customers are angry enough to gripe to her supervisors. It is eerily similar to the behavior of our Medicaid rep: lose the evidence. The dog ate my homework.

So we'll try to follow up aggressively; if the creditors aren't complying, and won't pay the agreed amounts, we'll write to them ourselves; if that doesn't work, we'll have TCA drop them from the agreement and inform them that they won't get paid. I'm all for personal responsibility; we want to pay our debts. But I'm not willing to pay these debts indefinitely, at whatever rate our creditors think they can get away with.

So we've got one more thing to worry about. I've got to make up spreadheets for each of nine different creditors and try to extract information from TCA; I've got to follow up on both the creditors that send us statements and those that don't.

As if unemployment, pregnancy, a mountain of 1099-MISC income upon which I can't afford to pay the taxes, and a mountain of medical bills weren't enough.

On the positive side, some of our friends and relatives have been exceedingly generous; we've gotten assistance with our utility bills (air conditioning is essential if Grace is to be functional); we've gotten help with groceries; we've even been given maternity clothes, and even a working car to help us out. That's wonderful.

Now, on to the job search. The job market does seem to be picking up, and that's good. However, what I see more of are postings like this one:

"We have the following Immediate Job Openings in our highly esteemed organization.

Six Java/J2EE consultants. Atleast three years of experience in above technologies. Required Skills: experience in Websphere and WAS is a must. Candidates who are willing to Transfer H1 will also be considered. we will give Training in hot and current technologies. Candidates should be willing to relocate any where in USA."

There's often some strange catch: either "willing to relocate to [sic] any where in USA," or they want seven years of experience and 65% travel but they only want to pay $30,000, or the requirements are so specific, mentioning a dozen acronyms I've never heard of, that I am not eligible by any stretch.

What I'm really looking for is an employer that wants a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand; in other words, I want dinner and a movie before I get screwed. I want to be an employee; I want health benefits for my family; I want a salary that will enable us to pay off our debts. It would also be nice if the job involved something I was even remotely interested in and did not involve a terrible commute. (We've seen in many of our friends what that does to a family).

At the moment we're considering moving. Grace really wants to live in New England again. I'm game if I can find a decent job and place to live. I feel like Ann Arbor no longer offers us much except some friendships.

One possibility is Providence, RI: I have applied for an instructional design job at Brown University. I have a phone interview scheduled next Monday. The job sounds potentially interesting, although there are downsides: it is temporary, leading to a possible permanent position, without benefits. We would need to try to get Grace enrolled in some kind of equivalent Medicaid program in Rhode Island. If I take that job and it doesn't lead to a permanent position, I'll be in the same position again, but with a newborn baby, although (we hope) in better financial shape.

Another possibility that caught my eye is an opening at the Field School in Washington, DC. DC is expensive but there is good public transport. I have cousins in the area who might help us move. The Field School job looks interesting because although it is a system administration job, the school's web site indicates they are open to combinations involving teaching. In other words there is a possibility I could run their computers and also teach computer programming. Unfortunately I have not yet managed to get an interview for that job, but I'm going to hound them.

I'll continue in another weblog entry and discuss a little bit more the kind of job I'm looking for. Meanwhile, wish us luck, or if you are the praying type, please pray for us.

[/root/news] permanent link

Fri, 14 May 2004 To Be and To Have

On a whim, I picked this film out from a brief capsule review, having heard almost nothing about it, and took my wife and son. She's a Francophile, and we're home-schooling our son, so I thought a documentary about a tiny French school might be interesting.

I was right. Isaac complained about boredom during the movie, but I think it gave him some him material to think through later, and he still remembers the students. Grace was fascinated. What is amazing here isn't any particularly gripping interpersonal drama or angst, but the way the camera lingers so effectively on the faces of its subjects. There are no actors here. Structured only by time and simple editing, we get almost painfully real glimpses of the lives of a dedicated, middle-aged male teacher and his students, most of whome seem to come from farming families somewhere in rural France.

We see a teacher of almost infinite patience, Georges Lopez, working with calm dedication to provide each student not with short-term gratification but with what the student needs. Lopez by turns teaches a whole range of ages in one classroom, covering coloring, handwriting, cooking, writing, and math. We get to see the aftermath of a playground fight, a couple of parent-teacher conferences, and an inadvertently funny scene in which a child's entire extended family winds up trying to help him slog through a difficult multiplication problem. Any adult trying to help a grade-school student with long- since-forgotten long division will surely laugh out loud in sympathy.

Beyond teaching, we see Lopez as counselor, confidante, and friend. It is fashionable to believe in the U.S. that a teacher can be effective while maintaining complete "professionalism" and emotional separation from his or her charges. What emerges here is a different kind of professionalism; he counsels a boy whose father has cancer, and a painfully introverted girl. When the students leave for the summer, they each give and receive kisses on the cheek. Some are crying; they will miss him, and he will miss them. I miss all of them already; it was was a privilege to be able to pretend that I was briefly part of their lives.

Unfortunately, it will probably be hard to catch this film on the big screen; the theater was empty. It was the opening night of Van Helsing and the only other people watching had probably picked it as a second choice after being unable to get tickets to that splatter-fest; as we left, we heard them muttering a refund. I left feeling saddened by both what has become of both American teaching and by the ruins of our national attention span.

[/root/films] permanent link

The Triplets of Belleville

We just rented the animated film "The Triplets of Belleville." It is absolutely fantastic - easily one of the best animated films I've ever seen! I'd rate it right up there with the best of Miyazaki including his masterpiece Spirited Away.

It is in French with no subtitles, but that hardly matters because there is almost no dialog whatsoever. It is almost a silent film except for great sound effects and music.

The settings are very dark and somber, but the caricature-style drawings of the people are done with a fantastically light and deft touch. One of the best characters is a fat, elderly dog who barks at trains; we even get to go inside the dog's surreal black-and-white dreams.

The action is extraordinarily silly, but not just in a slapstick way; there is a remarkable attention to detail, and the funniest parts are played out in absolutely deadpan silence, just as they should be.

It lost out in the Academy Awards to Finding Nemo. I enjoyed Finding Nemo, and it deserved to make money and win awards, but it is hard to believe that anti-French sentiment surrounding the Iraq war wasn't at least partly to blame for the failure of Triplets to win any awards; as artistry goes, the two films are simply not in the same universe, and can't be compared by a common set of criteria. Nemo is the result of a lot of hard work and craft, but Triplets is a rarity, a true work of art and inspiration.

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Grosser By the Dozen

We rented and watched this Steve Martin vehicle. I was nervous about it, and it turns out I was right to be. It's an extended sitcom. It plays as if an interesting script was butchered beyond recognition. Steve Martin only gets to throw off his leash and make some priceless facial expressions in one or two scenes. The rest of the time he's Mister Wonderful: the perfect, patient, placid, and perfectly unrealistic father/husband, basically every woman's ideal. Post Roxanne, Steve Martin has played sort of post-menopausal male characters, if that makes sense: his Parenthood/Father of the Bride persona is beyond the age where his libido is a threat to any nearby single women; he's a dedicated husband. That's a good personal and positive role model. He's still a handsome and athletic man, though, and it is not unconvincing when Martin's character notices that his wife is unashamedly checking out his buns. Therefore, it makes no sense that this script seems to have inadvertently cut off his dick when he received his well-earned vasectomy following child number twelve; despite his apparent middle-aged studliness, his character is actually a sad, dickless wonder who lacks the testosterone to stand up to even the most junior of his children. And doesn't make him anyone's role model; it makes it painful to watch him.

We're shown the "chaos" that ensues when that many kids run wild -- but it is sanitized, Cosby-show, sparkling-clean chaos. There are only three truly funny moments of mayhem, and they belong in a different movie entirely, perhaps one by the Farrely brothers: one involving a dog biting someone's crotch, one involving vomit, and one involving hanging from a chandelier. The rest are only a pale rehashing of the same things. The two-dimensional neighbor family is an absolute embarassment; the writers should be ashamed. Chevy Chase called: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation wants some of its characters back.

It is all so clean that when there is a little bit of dirt in the spotlessly-clean house, it is disturbing for the wrong reasons; it looks like the director wasn't paying attention, or maybe the dirt was added in post-production via computer rendering; in this perfect home, it is as out-of-place as a turd on the Cosby family's dining-room table. When the kids fight, there is no real fighting; it is kind of a zen thing, really: the fight of no-fight; when a child becomes alienated and runs away, it isn't true pre-teen angst; it is dumbed down with his sadness over a dead frog. (Most real boys that age I know would probably find playing with a dead frog more interesting than playing with the live one). You can almost imagine the dying frog as the father's moribund dream of a coaching career.

The sad part is that there is some real content here; Steve Martin's father character is forced to choose between his coaching job or another dozen years of cleaning up after slobbering brats. His wife doesn't have to make that choice; although she cuts her book tour short, she actually succeeds in getting her book out, and on the bestseller list. She's able to juggle her career dream and her family. But Daddy, moving heaven and earth to do all he can to keep things together by himself, is mercilessly berated for letting a few things get out of hand; the children, even high-school-age children, are never to blame for acting out, nor is it ever considered typical adolescent rebellion; it is all daddy's fault for daring to dream.

One of the cute-as-a-button children actually throws a sharp dart at another kid's head, leaving a bleeding gash; nearly putting his sibling's eye out only elicits a mind verbal reprimand, not the memorable thrashing the child needs to cement the lesson. The kids are never really shown cleaning up after themselves, although there is much griping about chores. There's the usual subtext that dads can't take care of kids, but given that this one seems to do such a great job, we're left somewhat puzzled.

The ultimate message to him is clear: suck it up. Sacrifice everything for the children, and don't expect them to pull together, or move a bit towards responsibility and maturity themselves, or learn to take care of one another; if you don't give up everything for them, they'll become psychopathic, narcissistic drop-outs. No one seems to acknowledge what dad actually gives up; saccharine-flavored tears are shed, but no one learns anything, especially the kids, who are never expected to grasp that there may ultimately be limits to just how fulfilling it is to clean up after children. As I watch the credits, I leave the film with the full expectation that Daddy will have hanged himself from the meaningless plot device by morning.

P.S.: I just took a look at some reviews. It seems the critics agree:

"A disgrace. A spineless eunuch of a father allows his children to yell at him and bully him. They destroy a mansion. Their mother must be on heroin." -- Victoria Alexander, COM

"An overstuffed, undernourished Brady Bunch episode, only not as funny." -- Sean Axmaker, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

"You don't so much watch this witless, charmless, pointless fiasco as sit hostage, waiting for it to end." -- Colin Covert, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

"surprisingly unpleasant" -- Sean O'Connell, COM

"Knows no tone between schmaltzy / gooey and slapstick / gross-out." -- Robert Koehler, VARIETY

"OK, so I havenıt read the original book or seen the previous movie. But Iıd bet the family dog never rooted its snout furiously in a kid-hating boyfriendıs crotch." -- Nick Rogers, STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER (SPRINGFIELD, IL)

And, finally:

"'Cheaper by the Dozen' is not only one of the worst films of the year, it is also a perfect example of why so many foreign countries hate America so much." -- Peter Sobczynski, CRITIC DOCTOR

It makes me recommend instead "Life as a House" instead, which although a manipulative and sentimental film in its own right, at least has an interesting script and some memorable moments, and is shot beautifully; it doesn't look like a Brady Bunch episode, and it avoids being a complete waste by having some slight grit to it: adolescent boy tries to engage in auto-erotic self-asphyxiation, sells drugs, gets caught trying to make money giving blowjobs to neighborhood pervert in car, neighbor girl cock tease likes to live dangerously giving hand jobs to naked adolescent boy in shower, Fountainhead-like architect character doesn't really give a damn what other people think any more and actually is capable of getting angry and getting an erection. At one point he threatens to remove his son's piercings with the nail-pulling end of a claw hammer. The adolescent is realistically whiney and prissy, there's not a frog funeral to be found and, for all its flaws, the film is a thousand times more real. Or you could watch "American Beauty." However, neither of these are kids' movies. I've just been watching Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits and Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Any self-respecting child would get much more out of these flights of grim fancy than this crap.

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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:, 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 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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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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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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