Sunday, August 30, 2009

You know what would be cool?

This is a parable of home improvement and software development, and applies pretty much equally to both. If you're not a fan of either activity, or at least have never been on a project that spun wildly out of control until you felt sure you would die before it was finished, you might want to skip this one.

I grew up in a family of builders and construction people, and I have always enjoyed working with my hands. I have several small cuts and splinters right now to prove it. Most of my adult work life has revolved in one way or another around building software, and I've got scars from that, too. I've said for years that "you know what would be cool?" are the six most dangerous words that can be uttered when creating software. I have also said that I should take my own advice about eleventy-million times, but that doesn't seem to have any effect, either.

About six or seven months after Hurricane Gustav* reminded me why we refer to nature as a mother, we had completed repairs on everything except our yard, which I don't even want to talk about, and my little storage shed. For a number of reasons, I had decided to keep the new shed much simpler than the last one. It was going to be easy, cheap and take almost no time. I had the floor and foundation from the old shed. Six foot walls and a two foot roof height would let me do it all with a minimum of materials and cutting. Two productive weekends should have it ready to paint.

Just one thing -- it would be nice to have a little overhang because of how damp it is down here. Of course, the easiest way to do that would be to knock together a few simple roof trusses, which means the inside height will be restricted a little by the cross members. And while I could live with six foot clearance inside, I'm a little taller than that and get really tired of hitting my head. And you know that two foot roof pitch looks a little shallow for that height of wall, so let's make it 30 degrees and add another half a foot. It will be easier to cut that way. I can build a little gable vent to cover the space above the eight foot paneling. Oh, and I will need to notch the side paneling for the rafters. And I guess I need lookouts, so I will need to notch all the panels. Anyway, I think you see where this is going.

By initially changing one little thing from the simple, functional -- if not cool-- design that I started with, I have created a cascade of add-ons and extra work. All of the extra cutting, as well as the unknowns that come with designing on the fly, have caused me to do quite a bit more trim work than I had planned on. Oh, and the extra complexity cost me another piece of siding because of the unfamiliar territory of notching for the rafters.

So now we're two days from the first anniversary of the storm that started all of this, and I'm probably two work days from finishing the shed. Granted, it will be somewhat nicer than what I had originally planned, but it will mostly only look nicer, since the core construction is still what was planned when I was doing this on the cheap. And while I think we can all agree that it is better to look good than to feel good, I've always believed that being good trumps both.

So in addition to the building taking all sorts of extra time and costing nearly twice as much to build as planned, we have had to look at the pile of crap in the carport that would normally be in the shed for a year now. And the (much more enjoyable) project that I was working on when the storm hit has been delayed even longer.

If you've ever worked on a project that seemed like it would never end, and just got more and more complicated as time went on, or if you have ever waited for something to be delivered until you despaired of it ever being completed, the chances are very good that the same thing happened that has happened to my shed. One tiny thing makes a thousand other tiny things happen, and the finish line begins to get farther away instead of closer. So the next time you think of something that would make the thing you're working on cooler, keep it to yourself.
* You bastard!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The name abides

I got an IM today from an old friend : "Have you seen The Big Lebowski?"

I knew what was coming next. All my life I have wanted a nickname that sticks, but I have never been able to be a Pogey or Pony, Blister or Fister, Stoner, Boner, Weasel, Cracker, Buster or Grunt for more than a few weeks at a time. With one exception.

When The Big Lebowski came out, everyone I know called me "The Dude" for about five years. Now, I don't know if you've seen this movie, but it's a comparison that could be interpreted in several ways. It's sort of like being compared to Nick Cage's character in Raising Arizona. All of my friends swore it was only positive, and I have to admit I feel more than a passing kinship with the character. Still, I was not too upset when the movie and characterization faded from the collective consciousness.

But about twice a year or so, someone will see the movie for the first time and feel compelled to let me know how much I remind them of the lead character. I guess for the thousandth time (plus or minus ten), I am learning that we need to be careful what we wish for.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I grew up in the Civil Rights South. I was born a few years after Brown vs. Board of Education set the course of American schools (for better and worse), and a few years before the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act effectively ended state-sponsored segregation. I don't remember ever seeing whites only drinking fountains, or "don't let the sun set on your head in this town" billboards, but I know they were around when I was little. This, and the Vietnam War, were the backdrop for my childhood*.

The civil rights movement ignited a sort of civil cold war in the South, almost exactly a century after the real Civil War, once again pitting neighbor against neighbor and dividing families. The only time in my life that my father ever slapped my face was when I spoke the n-word in his house. I was six or seven, and relaying a message from a neighbor boy to my older brother. I took it as an unambiguous declaration of which side our family was taking in the conflict.

My father was a general contractor in those days, and employed men based on the quality of their work and the cost of their labor, without any seeming regard for race. If anything, I think he may have been running his own little affirmative action program, though it would have been more for pragmatic reasons than ideals. There is a persistent family rumor that my great-great-grandfather owned a single slave, and that one of his descendants (who shares our family name) became a prominent civil rights activist. Most of my family stories are apocryphal (to be kind), so I don't set much store in this one. One family trait I have retained is the belief that one should never let the facts stand in the way of a good story. I mean, the man and his accomplishments are real. He has a freeway named after him. It is only his relationship to my family that is in question.

In his later years, my father's insecurity, the deterioration and violence that were overtaking the city he loved, his new family, and (I suspect) his upbringing led him away from some of the principles he taught me. It was small things really, offhand comments and ill-informed remarks. Still, it was a profound disappointment to me, and I took it as a stark warning that age and fear can rob us of more than our health and future. In the end it seemed that he defeated whatever doubts had plagued him, and he dedicated much of the last year of his life to helping an African-American community near my hometown. I take that as an even stronger reminder that it's never too late to reclaim what is important.

I attended six different public schools, including a year at Horace Mann, a traditionally black high school that had been converted to a junior high as part of the school desegregation plan. I rode a bus 45 minutes each way to school, and made some lifelong friends. I will be the first to admit that the quality of education at Horace Mann was not equal to the schools I had attended previously, but I learned a lot about survival. A long time family friend -- now a judge -- was small for his age and suffered some form of violence almost daily.

In the end, it was abandonment that destroyed our public schools, and contributed to a host of our society's current ills. As whites fled first the schools and then the neighborhoods and cities, we returned to separate and unequal, except now the division was as much economic and ideological as it was racial. The poll tax was replaced by private school tuition, and interstate highways provided the separation that Jim Crow laws no longer could. I'm not implying that the people who left were wrong. They did what they believed to be best for their families. But the cumulative results are undeniable.

In addition to the cultural and civic and traffic problems that resulted, I believe these changes accelerated a fragmentation of our society that was already in progress. When I was a small child, our city park had a municipal pool set among the zoo, a golf course and a few permanent rides and other attractions. Of course, I never really noticed that everyone there was white, but as soon as that changed, many people stopped bringing their children to the city pool. Subdivisions with their own, private swimming pools began to spring up seemingly from nowhere. Within a few years the city pool was closed for good, and the great meeting place of children from across the city was replaced with a few dozen isolated descendants. My father was either unwilling or unable to join one of the local developments' pools, so he built his own, an enormous blue boomerang that did wonders for my high school popularity, at least in the warmer months.

Did we move too quickly to end the injustice of segregation? Too timidly? Is there some way we could have avoided the problems that have resulted, while still reaping the benefits? Would it have been better (or worse) if children had not so often served on the front lines of this war? Frankly, I don't know and I don't think it's important any more. We are where we are. I live in a city with a majority white population and an African-American mayor. The arguments of racism have evolved (mostly) from race to culture, which is not where we want to be, but you would know it's a lot if you grew up when and where I did. Still, we may have a "post-racial" President, but I am sure we have not yet achieved a post-racial society. And the rising Latino population will bring new challenges to our country's ability to be the "great melting pot of humanity" that I learned about in school.

School busing and forced desegregation are ending now throughout the South, and state-sponsored discrimination is mostly a thing of the past. It's time to tackle the problems that were created -- or at least exacerbated -- by the steps that were taken to address a great injustice. But we can't go back, and I would be heartbroken if our haste to find solutions led us to give up any of the ground that so many suffered to win.

* It's no wonder music was so important to us.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I might be Jesus

So, I'm in the grocery store this afternoon, picking up a few things because we're having a couple of friends over after dinner in order that our Mii's might rain humiliation on their Mii's in tennis, golf and whatever other activities they wish to lose. (Trash-talking starts early at my house.) I won't say which grocery store, but it's large and it rhymes with Malbertson's.

I normally try to avoid the big stores for several reasons, with the frequency of experiences like this one ranking high on the list. But the neighborhood grocer where we normally shop has apparently instituted a "stop carrying anything we decide we can't live without" policy, so I'm having to wander further afield for supplies these days.

First, I went to the deli to pick up twelve (12) slices of pre-sliced bacon, typically a 30 second transaction. But before any of that could happen, I watched the single (1)(one)(uno)(1!) person working the counter fill a colonel-sized bucket with sundry bits of fried God knows what for an indecisive -- and apparently quite hungry -- young man. Then I waited while a couple ordered one pound (shaved) of pretty much every type of lunch meat I could imagine, plus a few of whose existence I had previously been blissfully unaware.

After wandering the two acre store to pick up the other nine (9) items for which I had come, including a trip to the wine section, which could only be further from everything else in the store if it were in a different dimension, I moved to check out. Of course there were only two lines open, because who would imagine that there would be people grocery shopping at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon? Apparently no one in the grocery business, that's who.

After waiting behind several families apparently stocking up for the end times, I was second in line behind a thirty-something couple and their daughter buying (I swear to God) twelve (12) half gallons of Sunny D, two pounds of coffee, six (6) or eight (8) bottles of Old Spice body wash and not much else. If they were planning a party, I am really glad I wasn't invited. As their total was rung up, the cashier asked if they would like to join the cookware savings club or some such. The wife asked about five questions and then started reading the brochure! In the checkout line! Of course the decision had to be made before their credit card could be run, and once she had read the entire three page brochure and decided she wanted to join, we got to wait until a manager could come and do whatever important things managers have to do for important transactions like this one to be completed.

By this time I can't even see the end of the line behind me, and I think the woman next after me is about to go postal. And during all of this, do you think they even tried to open another checkout lane? Oh, you've grocery shopped before? You know they didn't.

So, the miraculous part? During this whole ordeal, from bucket to bimbo, I did not so much as grit my teeth. I didn't feel like shanking anyone. I wasn't upset. I wasn't even really impatient. I was actually sort of enjoying myself. I smiled at everyone who would have it, and didn't even get upset when two separate people tried to run me down in the parking lot.

This is the second time this week I have met adversity with grace, which is really quite unlike me. Perhaps I am growing wiser in my old age, gaining perspective and understanding the importance of enjoying each day. Or maybe I have a tumor. I think I will make an appointment before the death panels get organized.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lunch for two one

Don't you hate when someone invites you to lunch and then doesn't show up? I'm never really sure whether to be offended or worried. Today's perpetrator is a bit of a screwup free spirit, so I'm leaning towards the former.

Luckily we were meeting at everyone's favorite near-campus landmark, which features very good local cuisine and almost 200 varieties of beer. So I had a plate of etouffee and a pint of outstanding local brew, and let the two tables of lawyers next to me remind me why I don't have any friends who are lawyers. (Not that there is anything wrong with them.)

It actually turned out pretty well. I've had a pretty tough week so far, and it would have been easy to let being stood up ruin my lunch and the rest of my day. I'm not sure where I found the attitude to blow it off and enjoy myself, but I'm glad I did. Sometimes I still surprise myself.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Up from the Depths

Yesterday was a hard day. It wasn't necessarily a bad day -- or at least it won't have been when it's all said and done -- but it was a hard day. A hard day at the end of an intense few weeks at the end of a long summer. I drank two too many glasses of wine last night, just so I would remember today how hard of a day was yesterday.

I have been pushing since the beginning of the summer to have a paper ready to submit to this major academic conference that is particularly relevant to my research group and our field. It's one of two or three such opportunities that come along in a given year, and arguably the single most important. I have spent the last three weeks or so thinking of virtually nothing else. Up too early, in bed too late, hunched in front of one computer screen or another* morning and night. Too many fast food runs and evening glasses of red to shut my mind off for just an hour or two.

The deadline was yesterday. After spending most of the day reading and talking and editing and talking some more it suddenly became apparent that we needed to pull the plug. The writing was fine, but we just didn't have the results we needed to make the paper something we wanted to put our names on. I turned off the computer, came home, had a few drinks and made bread. The bread was awesome, by the way. I learned how to make kaiser rolls, and there's a lot of banging of dough involved.

There is really no feeling quite like the end of a long, hard project. And writing -- even research writing -- is personal enough that you get pretty wrapped up in it. And when it's finally over, they all seem to feel different. Some make you want to shout, and others make you want to scream. A few smell like napalm in the morning, and some end up smelling like the men's room in a cowboy bar at the end of rodeo season. And then there are those that don't smell like anything.

A project that neither succeeds nor fails is particularly unsatisfying. The work I did is probably not wasted, and plans are already underway for continuing to work to have something even better for the next opportunity in three months, or six, or whenever it is. But there's a process to this, a steady buildup of heavy breathing and sweat and focus. It's not supposed to end just because someone says, "time's up."

One way or another, it's back to the normal rhythm of life. I will go to the gym for the first time in a month, eat some vegetables, clean the house and go back to my every day. At least until the next time.
* I counted just now, and there are seven different computers in different places that I think of as mine. Though to be fair, I only use five on a regular basis.**

** This is ridiculous

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gimme the beat boys

I saw a spot on TV this morning about a sixteen year old girl who had stopped growing -- and apparently aging -- at about six months. Her doctor was talking about the hope of someday "turning off aging" and giving everyone an indeterminate lifespan.

I have two problems with this. First of all, we have enough people already, without everyone living forever. Perhaps more personally important, the girl apparently stopped developing when she stopped aging. She still had the mental capacity of a nine month old.

I was reminded the other day by an old friend that a group of us used to sing "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Drift Away" while getting ready for football practice in junior high. A few years later, I was singing "We Will Rock You" with a different bunch of young men in the back of a 44 ft. trailer while we loaded lighting equipment. There was joy that only the young can feel. At the same time, other friends were killing themselves, by accident and on purpose. That amazing range of emotions is driven by youthful hormones and exuberance, but also untempered by the perspective that experience brings.

Wisdom and joy both come at a price. I would love to have my 20 year old body back, but I don't think I would like the insecurity and loneliness that went with. Everything I have learned (and I read a lot) indicates that life is a process, and we interfere with that process at our peril. If we could stop aging, what age would you pick? Twenty? Forty? Something else? I might have to go with seven. I could read when I was seven, and I was no longer forced to take naps, but I didn't have a lot of responsibilities yet.

In the end, I think I will stay on the journey until it ends. Every year has brought surprises and new insights, and I think there is still more for me to learn.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Have we ever seen these two together?

From a New York Times article today on Hilary Clinton showing support for the new government of Somalia:

"Mrs. Clinton said* that the battle for Somalia, which has been the lawless home to Islamist extremists, terrorists, gun runners, drug smugglers, teenage gunmen and even pirates for the past 18 years, is deeply connected to American interests."

Does this remind anyone but me of Hedley Lamar's speech in Blazing Saddles?

"I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con-men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull-dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers, and Methodists!**"

I guess life -- or at least journalism -- does imitate art. Or maybe Harvey Korman faked his death and is secretly running Somalia.
* It's not clear from the article whether Mrs. Clinton actually said all that stuff about the terrorists and pirates and teenage ghosts. But I thought it was funny.

** This sounds a little bit like my old neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Must see TV

A friend posted this on Facebook the other day. All my instincts tell me to let you watch the clip and then shut up, but I've never really been one to follow good advice. See, the thing that makes this video so amazing is that it is 100% serious. Bill Shatner was part of a few shows I worked in 1978-79, and this is not an act. This is exactly how he was then, on and off camera. You could not find anyone who was more of an ass in the western hemisphere. You know that noise that Kif makes on Futurama whenever Zapp Brannigan asks to have his toes cleaned or whatever? We worked with Leonard Nimoy a few times that same year, and he made that noise almost every time Shatner's name came up.

Which is actually what makes present day, Boston Public Travelocity Shatner so wonderful. It's a testament to the power of continued existence and "character building" experiences to help us become better people in spite of our best efforts to do otherwise. Because I can't imagine what would transform the guy in the video into a jolly fat man with a sense of humor about the guy in the video except thirty years of perspective and a fair amount of getting your ass kicked by life. Let's face it. No one reinvents themselves until they find themselves in pieces on the floor and can't figure out how to put the old way back together.

I've got a friend from high school who could have been voted Most Likely to Have a Successful Yet Unremarkable Life, who had a seemingly successful and unremarkable life until about two years ago, when the whole thing turned to liquid shit. Since then it's been divorce, job loss, kids in trouble -- totally made for TV movie material. Maybe I will send him the link.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Maybe we should have gotten the credit insurance

Last weekend we watched I.O.U.S.A, and let me just say that if you are a citizen of these United States you must watch this movie. I'll wait.

No? Can't find room in your queue between Mamma Mia!, Get Smart, Knocked Up and Season 4 of Weeds? Yeah, I know. It's got pie charts and shit. It's not exactly Transformers. Okay, I'll give you the short version. Our national finances are in much worse shape than anyone will admit, it's getting worse faster than ever, and no one is doing a damned thing about it. And it's not just that you won't have any Social Security when you get old. In some unknown but relatively short amount of time the old rock solid American dollar may become worth about as much as a Columbian peso, which is not much at all. If you happen to see an Arab or Canadian or Chinese person snooping around your neighborhood in the next few years, don't panic. They are probably just checking out their new property.

I don't usually like to talk about politics, because no one wants to argue about the right stuff. But it doesn't really matter what party you're in. These guys pretty much blast everyone since Truman, and the only person who comes out of this looking like he knows what he's talking about is Ron Paul. But I'm still not voting for him. Maybe the craziest part of the whole thing is that they interview like a hundred politicians and none of them even try to deny that it's happening. They all really seem to feel powerless to do anything.

Oh, well. I guess it's always something. Enjoy the rest of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. In the meantime, I think I'm going to call my broker* and tell him to move all my money** to ammo and canned goods. Although Wobbler always recommended coffee and cigarettes, on the premise that you can trade those for anything.

* I don't have a broker. Though it was a financial advisor who told me the ammo and canned goods thing. He used to date my sister. True story.

** I don't actually have any money, either.