Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Wreck of the Day

I love music of all kinds, but I'm not usually in love with music. It's only every couple of years or so that a CD (yes, I still buy them -- at least I didn't say "album") comes along that really gets into my head. Lately it's been Anna Nalick's Wreck of the Day. Okay, okay, I know the thing is over two years old and she has newer music, but I just got around to getting it a couple of months ago. I like a singer/songwriter chick as much as the next guy, but the Shawn Colvins, Paula Coles and Sarah McLachlans of the world are not usually the ones making the music that I find myself listening to over and over again. Not only are Nalick's songs musically delicious, but she has a way of tapping into emotions and putting them into words that is way beyond her years and light years beyond any capability I could imagine having.

I did have a personal brush or two with greatness goodness back in the day. My first college girlfriend ended up being a moderately successful singer/songwriter in Manhattan. Of course, I don't think I ever heard her sing, but she was really sweet and funny and she taught me about the importance of paying attention to people "after", if you catch my drift and I think you do. Plus, she's a really good singer. I also had a brief relationship with Linda Ronstadt's wardrobe -- or was it makeup? -- person. This was back when Linda was thin and dating the governor of California and sang songs that sold records. Wendi, the wardrobe -- or makeup -- lady was not really all that sweet as I remember, or all that funny, but she was nice and a lot of fun and we enjoyed ourselves across the Western U.S. and a good deal of Japan.

I also almost blew up Kevin Cronin with some pyrotechnics one time in Rockford, Ill., but those are all stories for another time. The reason I even bring up Anna Nalick here is that I sense a lot of what she sings about in some of my favorite bloggers. I write because I'm a procrastinator and it gives me something else to do besides what I'm supposed to be doing. But some of you seem to write because you must. You write as if your thoughts and feelings are a toxin that will destroy you if not purged through the process of writing them down and broadcasting them to the world. You do it despite the fact that each and every one of us will misinterpret your words and twist them to our own purpose with no regard for what they cost you, or how exposed they leave you.

I don't suppose "thank you" is the right sentiment, since I don't believe you could do anything else. But if you feel like I'm talking about you, then just know that every so often, someone gets a glimpse of what it must cost you to put it all out there. And I, for one, appreciate you doing it day in and day out.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Happy Holidays

The years that it's good, Christmas is hard to beat.

I think it's the quiet. Happy Happy, y'all.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth

You know what sucks about the Universe? It's the whole "arrow of time, events have to happen in a particular order" thing. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I have woken up frustrated that I am not a trans-dimensional being.

For example, there's this research paper that I'm currently writing on such a short deadline that I'm embarrassed to tell anyone the due date. And I don't embarrass easily, believe me. If you have doubts, keep reading. Anyway, the thing about research papers is that they are usually written to report the results of work that has already been performed. At least that's the theory. The inconvenient thing about this one is that I haven't done the work yet. At least not all of it. But I know what I'm going to do -- more or less -- and I know that it's going to work -- more or less -- and what more do you need, really? I mean, these things always work out, right?

Why don't I just do the work, you ask? Well, I need to get a draft of the paper to my co-author to review, which is probably going to take as long as it would take to do the work. So if I could just finish the paper and then do the research then I could maximize efficiency and minimize wasted time and have a chance in Hell of making the deadline. But alas, stupid spacetime has to be four-dimensional, like that's going to get anything done.

You know what else sucks about the Universe? Gravity. Gravity is a harsh mistress. I walked out of my lab yesterday and someone had just mopped the floor, so I thought it would be appropriate to fall down. And I don't mean "tripped and stumbled against the desk" fall down. I mean "lost your balance ice skating, high kicking and windmilling arms" fall down. The most amusing part was seeing the "Caution: Wet Floor" sign at the end of the hallway as I lay there trying to decide if I was hurt. I wasn't. I just ended up with one of those face of the Virgin Mary stains on my pants.

So don't talk to me about the Universe this week. The Universe is on my shit list.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why People Teach

Or maybe the title should be, "Why People Teach Who Don't Otherwise Have To". Of course, then I would probably hear from the person who designed the "I am the grammarian about whom your mother warned you" t-shirt. Dammit! Started another post with a digression, which is probably as bad as ending with a preposition.

Anyway, I am currently working as a researcher at a Large Southern University after spending quite a few years in commercial software development. A few years ago, when I was still actively involved in industry, I was invited to teach a course in software engineering at the aforementioned university. I taught for three years and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

I try to maintain contact with my industry colleagues, and last night I attended a happy hour networking event sponsored by the local chamber of commerce. Towards the end of the evening, I found myself talking to a business acquaintance whose duties include oversight of development at a research center associated with my university. As usual, our conversation eventually turned to the joys and pitfalls of software development.

At one point she recounted a meeting during which one of her developers said, "You know what would be cool...?", and I responded by saying, "I've always said that those were the most dangerous words in software development." She immediately asked, "Did you used to teach software engineering at the university?" When I confirmed that I had, she asked if I had taught one particular bright young man. Upon confirmation that the young man in question had indeed been a student, she told me that he had responded to the original developer's comment with, "My professor always said that those were the most dangerous words in software development."

I don't have children, but moments like that one afford me a tiny glimpse into the awesome sense of responsibility and tremendous satisfaction that parents must feel -- at least the ones that are doing it right. I know that there will be people out in the world years from now repeating words that they heard from me. Understanding that at least one of the people in the class was probably listening to what I said always drove me to strive to spend their time and attention in the most productive and enjoyable way possible. And on a number of occasions -- like last night -- I have been gratified to discover how often the things they remember are exactly the things I would want them to remember.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Pushing Daisies Thanatopsis

I cannot let the passing of Pushing Daisies go without comment. This is one of the most original shows to come to television in a long time, by which I mean that they reached all the way into the first half of the last century for their ideas instead of just recycling old shows that we all remember, and that weren't that good the first time. Not only were the story lines and dialog complex, original and entertaining, but the show had tremendous visual appeal.

What is it about us as a society that leads us to turn our backs on original, intelligent work in favor of predictable humor or a seemingly endless series of second-rate crime/medical dramas? It is much harder for me to bemoan the way that television executives treat us as if we are mindless sheep when we continue to act like mindless sheep. I mean, how many CSI's do we need?

Of course, we the viewers are not alone in our culpability. I don't see a huge push from any of the networks to promote any of the more original work until after it becomes a phenomenon like Lost. I don't recall seeing the Good Morning America team discussing the plot of Pushing Daisies or Eli Stone on the morning after, like they do with Dancing with the People Whose Names You May Have Heard or American Star Machine. Then again, Diane, Robin and the rest are just giving us what will get them ratings.

I know, it's just a television show. But in addition to the fact that I get 70% of my information and 85% of my imagined human interaction from TV, television is what passes for culture in our country today, and we spend our breaks and lunch hours talking about Meredith and McDreamy or what's up with the Desperate Housewives. TV has real impact on our lives, at least until you kids take over with your Interwebs and your iPods and such.

In the end, I suppose the forces at work are much like those that helped disappear everyone's 401k in these last few months. Everyone is so interested in short term gain that long term goals are forgotten or ignored. I'm afraid we are in for a crisis of culture someday soon, if we are not already in its depths. And I don't see the government coming up with a trillion dollars to bail out PBS. They haven't even done anything to get the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans reopened.

If you think art and music are unimportant, and you're not worried about disappearing art, music and drama programs in schools, then the passing of higher culture is no need for concern. But if you believe, as I do, that our appreciation of art and music build our capacity to understand and appreciate mathematics, science and the more mundane aspects of life, then you should be afraid.

Oh, and Sarah is right about another thing: Grey's Anatomy has gone seriously off the rails. I don't know if they are chasing the ratings like everyone else or what, but I may have watched my last episode.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Please Don't Shoot Me

In the aftermath of the election, online discussion has turned in some cases from which of the two candidates or parties are better, to an analysis of whether either of the two major political parties represent Joe Glass of Red Wine with Dinner, or whoever happens to be writing/reading a particular blog. Many of these discussions end in the land of Objectivism, the Libertarian Party, or both.

A surprising number of the computer people I know profess Objectivist and Libertarian leanings, and despite the irony of having a group of people banded together to be left alone, I understand their motivation. After all, I'm originally from Arkansas. Hillbilly blood runs in my veins, and I occasionally have to fight the urge to chase someone from my property with a shotgun. Usually it's my neighbor down the street who is clandestinely (he thinks) encouraging his little yippy dog to poop in my yard.

I professed to be a Libertarian myself back in the day, and I may even have voted for their candidate for president back in the 70's. (That whole decade is a bit of blur for me.) But the Libertarians have the same problem that afflicts the two major parties -- their "base".

Every party has what we call a "base", which means "fringe element without which they cannot win elections", as far as I can tell. The Republican base is known as "The Evangelicals", who seem to be people that spend all day in church and are hanging around waiting for God to finally destroy the world so they can go to Heaven (also known as the 1950's). The Democratic base is "The Left". These seem to be people who smoke their clothes and have abortions at every opportunity, and are waiting around for the Republicans to destroy the world so that they can be reincarnated in a world of love and harmony (the 1960's).

The Libertarian base seems to be the KKK, NORML, religious groups who believe the evangelicals are poseurs who are phoning it in, gun nuts, and anyone else who thinks they should not have to pay taxes. While I would be comfortable being associated with at least one of those groups, I can't hang with most of the rest.

The other inconvenient truth that keeps me from being a Libertarian is that it is not the 1830's. Except for a good part of the population of Alaska and a few others, we are not self-reliant pioneers, living off the land and defending ourselves from bears. The world is a complicated and highly interconnected place. Modern life requires an enormous amount of infrastructure, which in turn requires significant government involvement and organization.

So what is a reasonable person to do? There are millions of people who don't believe that Government and Society are the same thing, that individuality is an important component of the Land of the Free, and that our democracy should not be for sale. I don't have the answer, though I think proportional representation may be part of the answer. Whatever it is, it's going to have to start on the local level. We will never have a Libertarian President (or Green Party or Workers Party Animal Rights Party or whatever) until we have congressional representation from those parties. So get out there and organize your friends and try to get elected to something.

One final thought. In the end, we ask for the government we get. When Hurricanes Gustav and Ike blew through our region a couple of months ago, the small government Republicans and Libertarians were lined up with everyone else demanding water, ice and the legendary blue tarps. Congressional earmarks are only evil when they are not going to our State. It's up to each of us to change what we don't like.

I will take up Objectivism another day.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Honor Thy Father

On April 18th, 2007, Eddie took his small fishing boat out to a local lake for a day of fishing. He had landed one the largest fish he had ever taken from the lake two days before, and was out to catch another whopper. It was a perfect spring day with temperatures in the low 80's and a light breeze. He anchored in a small cove near the shore and put two lines in the water.

We will never know much else about what happened that day. When Eddie failed to return home for supper, his wife got worried and called family to begin a search. The search quickly escalated to include the local sheriff's office and the owner of the marina where Eddie's boat was docked. At about 11:30 pm the owner of the marina found him floating face down next to his boat. He was wearing a life jacket and had a fish on one of the lines.

Eddie was 80 years old. He was Past Master of his local Trinity Lodge, a member of the Scottish Rite, active in the United Methodist Church, a member of AARP and an emeritus member of the American Institute of Architects. He was a Scorpio and a lifelong Razorback fan. And he was my father.

My father was born in 1926 to an extended family of construction people. At the age of 13 he went to work for his Uncle Mutt, a general contractor. After a short stint in the Air Force at the end of WWII, and a short stint in college on the G.I. Bill, he gravitated back into the construction business. He married my mother Betsy on Christmas Day of 1949. They had four children between 1951 and 1959. He became a General Contractor and operated a successful construction company for ten years or so, building small commercial buildings, schools and churches. When construction lagged he took the architect's licensing exam. Despite not having finished college, he passed the test and became a licensed architect. Eddie and Betsy divorced after 28 years. Not long after the divorce he married Mary Frances, a widow and childhood friend. After about 20 years as an architect, he "retired" and began a career as a ready responder for FEMA that lasted almost another 20 years.

After health problems forced him into retirement yet again he continued to look for ways to contribute. He volunteered to supervise construction of a sanctuary of the First Methodist Church in a small, mostly poor community near his home town. There he continued to do two things he loved: build and teach. In recognition of his contribution the church named the sanctuary after him. It was his last big project, and perhaps the one of which he was most proud.

My father believed in the value of work and the need to leave the world a better place then he found it. In addition to the dozens of stores, pizza parlors, banks, schools, churches and hospitals he designed or constructed, he built several houses and countless tree houses, forts, playhouses, dollhouses, decks, gazebos and one swimming pool.
When he was here he was always my father. Sometimes grumpy, often bossy, he always had an opinion. Now he's gone and all I see is what a good man he was, how much good he brought into the world, and how much poorer we all are for his passing.

My father was born 82 years ago today. Happy Birthday, Old Man. I miss you every day.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Old Friends

Today my mother told me of an old friend of hers who had passed away unexpectedly over the weekend. Earlier in the week an old classmate informed me of her grandmother's passing, expected but never welcome. Last weekend it was another childhood friend relating how her husband and all of his buddies had lost their fathers in the last few years. The previous day there was the former colleague whose lifelong friend had passed away that morning, taken by a disease that progressed more quickly than expected.

This is the life of those eligible for AARP.

It is an insidious but profound transformation for many of us just on one side or the other of the half-century milestone. Our parents’ generation attains the average life expectancy for Americans in the early 21st Century and our own generation reaches the age that Samuel Shem called “young enough to die” in his novel House of God. The increasing number of funerals and “I thought you would want to know” phone calls and e-mails inexorably turn our attention to thoughts of health, retirement and our remaining time in the world.

As the days before us grow noticeably fewer than those behind, hope gives way to regret; for loves abandoned early or never explored, for friends betrayed or forgiveness withheld, for all that we are finally forced to accept will never be ours. Last chances spin past us with the accelerating turn of the seasons. We are getting old. We grow tired. We realize that it takes fifty years for most of us to really understand what it means to be mortal. As my ex-wife always liked to say, growing old is not for wussies, though that’s not the exact word she used. She was classy.

Perhaps the ultimate cruelty is that age does not diminish our desire to do and see and experience new things. We still wish to have adventures and fall in love and be popular. The spirit is not only still willing, it still burns with the same pride and desire and ambition that it has in decades past. But the flesh grows steadily weaker, we are reminded at every turn that we are no longer twenty-something and that even if we are as good once as we ever were, we are not as good as we once were (with apologies to Toby Keith, and to everyone else I know for quoting Toby Keith).
The upside to all of this, if there is one, is that those of us who are paying attention begin to appreciate our time more. We stop thinking “some day” and start acting. We make our bucket list, or start that business, or spend the occasional day at work completely screwing off. Because in the end, there will never be enough days if your life is sweet. But one perfect day can make a life worth living. So if you can see the Old Folks Boogie in your future, don’t waste another day worrying about the past you didn’t get exactly right. Use every day you have left trying to make that perfect day. And if you are too young to know what I’m talking about, just try to take it easy on the old folks. They may be having a hard time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Gustav, You Bastard!

Most of us who live in hurricane country – I won’t say “all” because I try never to generalize – wait, isn’t “never generalize” a contradiction in terms? In the same vein, isn’t “moderation in all things” a bit of an extreme position? I mean, shouldn’t it be moderation in most things, with a smattering of excess when called for?

This post seems to have wandered badly off course, I’d better start again.

Most of us who live in hurricane country share a dirty little secret. We sort of like living in hurricane country. We have a weather-related hobby that we can share during back to school time that gives us all something to talk about other than the oppressive heat and likelihood of afternoon showers. Before the Interwebs took the challenge out of everything, many people would get free hurricane tracking charts from the local TV stations and some (mostly old ladies) would religiously plot the positions of the storms from the nightly weathercast. Now we can all be play-along meteorologists, debating the relative merits of the National Hurricane Center vs. the Weather Underground sites, and interpreting the various hurricane model runs and predictions.

In addition to the conversational aspects of hurricane living, there is the excitement. Will it hit us? Will it dissipate or turn back to sea? Will it deliver God’s wrath to the rival Next State Over? The “dirty” part of our little secret is that we want it to come close. That secret, morbid, thrill-seeking part of us is never more active than when the 3-day prediction cone includes our area. The perfect storm brings a little wind and rain and maybe a day or two without power. It’s the closest we get to snow days here on the Gulf Coast. There’s a little debris to clean up, and maybe a small tree to cut up for firewood.

On the flip side, we are secretly disappointed when the storm turns away or weakens to nothing. After all, we went out and got all those batteries and water and filled up the car with gas. Some of us made sure our generators were ready to go or boarded up our houses. People fled their homes, sometimes in great numbers. For some reason, stores can’t keep Vienna Sausages. I’ve never quite figured that one out. Anyway, the point is that we spent a lot of time making preparations, and if the storm doesn’t show up it’s a lot like being stood up for a date.

Well, this is all a lot of fun until somebody gets hurt. What none of us want is to be hit head on by a major storm. Unfortunately, most of us don’t learn that until we get hit head on by a major storm. I mean, my house is considered too far inland to really be in hurricane country, but you can tell that to the 90 mile per hour winds that blew down all the trees in my yard. By the way, if anyone ever says, “It’s just a Category 1” to me ever again, I am going to poke them in their eye. Let me give you a couple of examples.

This is my tool shed before Labor Day.

This is my tool shed now. See if you notice any differences. You may have to look closely.

This is my back yard.

This is my driveway.

ly disconnected from the power grid." as "

Electricity is a distant memory for us now. It took the power company four days to come up with a plan of how they will go about restoring power, and many people will be without power for over a month. I have a pile of debris the size of a motor home at the curb, and that’s just from the front yard. The cleanup will take months. Oh, did I mention the holes in my roof and the other damage to our house?

And we were lucky. Several people in our neighborhood have houses that are in much the same condition as my shed. Our neighborhood is full of beautiful old houses and beautiful old trees, and it looks as if a war broke out between them. There were heavy casualties on both sides. And of course there were communities harder hit than ours, with hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed. The electric company described some towns as “hopelessly disconnected from the power grid.”

So thanks Gustav, for sucking the fun out of hurricane season. You suck!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Names Do Matter

My buddy Johnny Virgil (the restraining order is just a sign of affection) has some comments on Gwen Stefani naming her new child Zuma Nestra Rock. Apparently, Gavin Rossdale, the child's alleged father, had some sort of career-changing epiphany at Zuma Beach in Malibu. Probably something like, "I should have a baby with Gwen Stefani."

It got me thinking about how egotistical you have to be to think that your baby should be named in honor of an important moment in your life. I mean, seriously. Unless that moment is the baby's conception or birth or something, I just can't think of a single excuse for saddling someone for their whole life with a story that doesn't belong to them.

"Hey, Zuma. Cool name. What does it mean?"

"Oh, my dad got really toasted at the beach one time and decided I should think about that every time I wrote my name."

Don't get me wrong -- I'm all about naming your kids something that means something. Family names, religious names, names of historical or current figures, these are all good. I just think parents should try to think beyond some minor incident in their recent lives. After all, it's the child that's going to have to carry this name through his or her life, living up to what it means or living down its weirdness.

When I read all this I was initially appalled at how egocentric the rock star types can be. Then I remembered that there is no limit to how egocentric any of us can be. Rock stars are just more able to get away with it. So next time you are having a baby and thinking about naming it after the cute volleyball player you developed a crush on during the Olympics, please think again. As The Wobbler always said, "The naming of the names is important."