Monday, January 31, 2011

The best gift

I was in the kitchen of our office at lunchtime and overheard someone talking about giving gifts. She said that there just wasn't enough time to go shopping for some of her relatives for Christmas and she had resorted to making up packages of useful things (as she thought of them) and giving those instead. She got things like bottles of household cleaners, useful tools for the kitchen and things like that and wrapped them up as Christmas presents. She heard nothing but praise for the gifts. She said that next year, she was going to do more of that.

It reminded me of when I bought my first house. I was an old house that needed a LOT of work. I threw a house-warming party and got lots of nice gifts but the best ones were the useful gifts. I got a portable light with a clamp that I could position where I needed it. And I got a small copper pipe cutter. I tried using a hacksaw on the pipes (as I saw in a do-it-yourself book) but the edges were always rough and didn't join correctly. The pipe cutter made a nice, clean cut and I didn't need to clean the cut nearly as much as I had to when using a hacksaw. The clamp light came in useful in many situations and not all of them related to working around the house.

I don't remember what other gifts I got at that house warming but I'll never forget the light and the pipe cutter.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

From a distance

This is a funny story where any of us could be the one making the mistake. In this case, though, the mistake comes from the fact that an airline company (like many other companies) has moved their reservations center to a foreign country (India in this case). They do this to decrease the costs of maintaining the service. I guess.

One of the guys in our office was planning a family ski vacation to Colorado. He had reservations to fly from Boston, Massachusetts to Denver, Colorado and then, making a connection by a smaller airline,  to a smaller, local airport in the mountains of Colorado. But a storm is coming and he wanted to change his reservations to leave a day earlier. It was a last minute change and he expected problems. But the reservation agents were having real trouble getting the connections to match. It looked like he was going to have to spend a night in Denver and then take the local flight the next day. In an attempt to be helpful, the agent in India suggested that perhaps he could drive from Boston to Denver and then the airline could fly him the rest of the way by plane!

This joke may be lost on anyone outside the United State so I've put a map here to explain the joke. As you can see, the majority of the distance of the trip is from Boston to Denver (1767 mi or 2844 km). The distance the airline offered to fly him (approximately 150 mi or 240 km) is less than a tenth the distance they asked him to drive. To people in India, I suppose, once you're in the United States, everything is close. Of course, you would hope that the airline would have provided their agents in India with a map so they could check these types of problems but, apparently, the airline was really trying to cut costs and decided a map was too extravagant. From a small map, though, it might look like the two cities are are really close. Like the song From a Distance. From a distance, all of our differences, seem small.

So, before we laugh, imagine if someone asked us if it was better to drive from Mumbai to Kalyan (both in India) or from Mumbai to Bengaluru. Yeah, I wouldn't know, either.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A tale of two amendments - part 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, my post today is a continuation of my ideas on the shooting in Tucson on January 8  and how many people are using it to frame their arguments about the Constitution. The previous post concerned my feeling that some people are incorrectly tying this tragedy in with the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Today I'll weigh in on the people who are incorrectly saying that this tragedy shows how we should limit free speech because it brings about such terrible events. In this way, I believe, these people are not living up to the First Amendment to the Constitution.

We've all heard the old story about how free speech must be limited in cases like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. Well, it's not illegal to shout "fire" in a crowded theater if there really is a fire in the theater. As explained here, the real quote is that it would be illegal to falsely shout "fire" in a theater. Gabrielle Giffords is a US Representative to Congress. The calls for blame in this shooting come from a campaign advertisement that placed Ms Giffords' district under a crosshairs symbol (as in a target of a gun) on a map. You can see it here at Gawker.com with a bit more explanation of how the man running against Ms. Giffords added more worrisome actions to this. While I call this "stupid speech", I wouldn't call for it to be illegal. I think the people who use these kinds of images and words to attack their opponent can be brought to light and argued (after all, we, too, have freedom of speech), the demand that all of this kind of speech be outlawed is wrong.

We all say stupid things. When the anonymity of the Internet is thrown in, we may say some really stupid things. The worst part of the "crosshairs campaign ad" story is that while the woman who authorized the advertisement took it down after the shooting, she never apologized or admitted to being wrong. Of course, this same woman is a loud-mouthed quitter who used to be a governor but left the office and now only seeks attention. No matter what overweight radio talk show hosts or governors-who-quit say, their speech and ideas should not be banned. But we should always argue with them about their speech. We need to stand up to people who lie or imply that other people are "dangerous" and need to be removed - forcibly if necessary.

I saw a very interesting article the other day written by a columnist, Jeff Pearlman, for Sports Illustrated. In the article (available here), he mentioned how writing about sports for a widely read publication opens him up to a lot of abuse. He's gotten used to it and usually just moves on. But one especially bad incident led him to try to find the people who were delivering such vile comments. When he finally tracked them down, with their anonymity removed, they were apologetic. They couldn't really explain why they had been so cruel with their words. My guess is that they wouldn't have done it if they'd known him or were talking to him face to face. It's our job to keep the people who spout this kind of talk, be they talk show hosts, governors who quit or anyone else, responsible. We need to remind them that they are talking about real people who are just as vulnerable as they are.

The picture above, of the Bill of Rights, is a slightly enhanced version of the one from the National Archives here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A tale of two amendments - part 1

One event - two Constitutional Amendments. This post concerns the shooting in Tucson on January 8  and how many people are using it to frame their arguments about the Constitution. The arguments concern the First Amendment and the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

It makes me a little frustrated when I hear people saying that if only more people had guns in Tucson that day, some of the 19 people shot (and 6 of those died) could have been saved. I read an opinion piece in the New York Times this morning that made me realize how wrong this idea is. It also reminded me of talk after the shooting on the campus or Virginia Tech that if people were allowed to carry guns on campus, this all could have been prevented. Yes, I can just imagine a group of people roaming the campus with their guns drawn. Who was the shooter? What did he look like? Was it a man? Is that him - the guy with his gun drawn, "furtively" looking around? I'll be a hero - I'll shoot first and ask questions later. Yes, that would have stopped the slaughter. Please read the New York Times article, though, It puts it much better than I can.

But likewise, there are people who would like to ignore the First Amendment and ban all "hate speech". Yes, I think a lot of speech in political ads and on radio and TV has gone too far. I'll write more about this side of the argument in a later post.

The picture of the US Constitution above is from this site.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oh, the excitment of Christmas

This is a funny picture I took at Christmas that I forgot to post. Our kids (and my wife) weren't the only one's anxiously awaiting the chance to open their gifts at Christmas. The cats were eying the tree and presents on Christmas Eve.

I took this the morning of Christmas Eve and the sun was really bright coming in the window. This isn't the best picture I've ever taken. It's pretty blurry but it's still funny.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nice use for a pot holder

As I mentioned previously, my daughter has started a blog to show the craft projects she has been working on. I thought I'd show one pf the things she made for me.

I like to drink tea during the day. I have a nice tea pot that my wife bought me and I fill it up at the beginning of the day and pour a cup when I need it throughout the day. But it cools down as the day goes by and I wanted something to keep it off the cold desk. So, my daughter suggested I use one of her pot holders. It works but there is still a loss of heat through the top of the pot. So, if you're listening, Emma, maybe another project could be a tea cozy to cover the top of the tea pot, too.

This bottom picture shows the pot holder in use with a picture of Emma watching over it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My daughter's blog

My daughter has caught the blogging bug. She already had the "crafting" bug so she has combined the two. She started a new blog named "Crafts Made by Me". She loves making things and she loves showing those things to us. So, this blog seemed like a natural project for her.

One bad thing is that Google/Blogger doesn't seem to allow a young person like her to have their own blog. Goggle doesn't even let her have her own Gmail account. I was surprised at this. Yahoo let us set up an email account for her after having one of us sign into our account and verifying that we are letting her have the account. They charge our credit card $0.50 to verify that we are an adult and that's it. It all makes sense. I did that after having Google tell us we couldn't set up an email account for her because of her age. So, I assumed that once we had the Yahoo mail account, we'd be able to set up a Blogger account for her but we got the same notification from Blogger that we got from Gmail.

So, my wife has set up a new blog in her own name and is just letting our daughter use it. In case you don't get a chance to visit the new blog from this post, you'll see that her blog is listed on the right under my "Other blogs" list. I think you'll like the variety of projects she undertakes. She is quite a remarkable young lady and I'm proud of her.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Do you want to be resilient?

It's been a crazy day with a lot of snow arriving last night and then a lot of rain. Our office was closed for three hours this morning to allow things to settle out and then we were asked to come in if we could. I may write about dealing with the water-logged snow and the quick change of temperature and rising wind some time. But not right now. I want to write about a story I heard on the radio as I drove in. I wouldn't have heard it if I hadn't gone in late.

The story was, appropriately, on the American Public Media show The Story that plays on our local National Public Radio station, WCAI. Today's story was about Haiti a year after the earthquake hit (New York Times article here but you may need to sign up to read it - it's free). Specifically, the part of the show caught my attention was the interview with Yolette Etienne - a worker with Oxfam in Haiti. The whole story is amazing and you should go here to hear it and the other stories about the brave heroes who are still in Haiti trying to help the people out. But one thing Yolette said really struck me. She said that people outside Haiti are amazed how resilient the people there are. But she said that she doesn't want to be resilient. That sounded odd and I thought I may have misunderstood what she said because of her accented English. But as she talked, I understood. She said she didn't want to be resilient if it meant continuing to live as she had for the last year or more. She wanted to do better. She wanted to lift the standards for life in Haiti. She talked about this disaster being an opportunity to do things right in the country.

It made me think about my own life. How often do I accept the way things are just because I don't want to rock the boat, because I want to show that I can be resilient or because I'm just too lazy to do anything about it? Do I want things to improve? Do I want my wife and children to have a better life? Do I want things in our world to improve? Sometimes it takes being annoyed to make things better. To improve things, you have to admit that things CAN improve. It takes being a little mad at your situation to make your situation better. And it means getting up off your butt to get started. That's the hard part. So, I've written this down to remind myself about it.

The picture is from the Oxfam.org site.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Just a flick of the wrist

Now that we're all driving around in cold, icy conditions, it seems like a good time to tell a funny story.

I'm sure everyone has had to deal with ice accumulating on the windshield wiper of their car. It leaves streaks on the windshield and the wipers don't clean the windshield well. My father found that if he rolled down the window and put his hand, palm down, on the windshield, he could let the wiper ride up onto his hand. Then, he would flick his hand outward and it would push the wiper away from the windshield. Then, the spring on the wiper would bring it back hard against the windshield breaking the ice. He could do it a number of times and the ice would eventually break up and the wiper would start working again.

I tried this myself and it worked very well. Sometimes their was too much ice or the spring on the wiper wouldn't pull back hard enough (due to ice buildup) and I'd have to pull over and fix it the old fashioned way. But it usually worked and I was proud to show it to other people.

One day, during the summer, I was explaining this method to a friend of mine. I had a Triumph TR6 at the time and there were all sorts of problems with it (that's why I was able to afford it in the first place). Anyway, we were stopped at a light when I showed him how easy it was. When I flicked my hand outward, though, the wiper went flying! It flew all the way across the road. Luckily it didn't hit any other cars but I had to pull the car over and run out into traffic to pick up the wiper. I always made sure the wipers were attached correctly before I tried that trick again.

This brings to mind another "funny" wiper story. My wife and I had driven to my mother's place for Thanksgiving and were on our way home when a tremendous rain storm hit the area. The wipers on our car (not the long gone TR6) were not up to the task so I decided to stop at an auto parts store to pick up a new pair. It was still raining like crazy when I got back to the car. I waited for the rain to slow down but it didn't look like it was going to do that very soon so I decided to replace the wipers quickly. I worked as quickly as I could with the rain pelting me and then I jumped into the car to get going. As I backed out, I turned on the wipers and as they made their first swipe, both of them few off into the parking lot. I thought my wife was going to die laughing. I jumped back out into the rain to pick up the wipers and took the time to attach them correctly this time. They worked well for the 650 mile trip back home.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The day after

Yesterday was our anniversary. We've been married 17 years. There had been a big snow storm the day before our wedding and we worried that many people wouldn't make it. The crowd was reduced but the people in the wedding had come early and since my two best friends and their wives came from Vermont and extreme northern Maine, our "little" snow didn't phase them. We had a wonderful wedding and reception. Since our first night together was going to be at an inn not far from home, we didn't have to worry about getting there in the snow.

The next day, we awoke to a beautiful, sunny morning. It was still cold and there was still plenty of snow. We were going to spend the rest of our honeymoon at two bed and breakfast inns in Vermont so we packed up to start our trip there. We were going to have breakfast at this inn before we left, though. We sat in a sunny alcove that looked out on a snow covered garden. Birds were flying around the feeder and it looked so peaceful.

One of my worries when I was younger and single was that, if I could ever get married, even if the wedding and reception might be nice, I would wake up the next morning and think, "Now what? I have to spend the rest of my life with this woman. What have I done?" But this morning, 17 years ago, it was just the opposite. I looked over at my beautiful wife in the tranquil setting and thought, "I get to wake up like this every day for the rest of my life. Who could ask for anything better?" It was a wonderful start to our marriage but things have just gotten better as we've gone along. Of course, I COULD have had the worrisome thought on our first day together. But that's why it's important to make sure about the decision you make about the woman you're going to marry. I wish for everyone to have the same good fortune I had in meeting and marrying my wife. But she is taken. You've got to find your own dream girl.

The picture here (obviously not taken in the winter) is from the website of the inn, The Dan'l Webster Inn in Sandwich, MA. I'll try to look up pictures of the two bed and breakfasts we stayed at in Vermont for a later post.

Friday, January 07, 2011

I've worked here forever

I've worked at this company for 23 years. This week is the anniversary of my starting with this company in 1988. Some people would say, "That's great." Others would say, "What's the matter with you?" The "what's the matter with you" folks may be right because I could probably make more money if I looked around. But then I'd probably have to work farther from home or we'd need to move. Also, there are a LOT of appealing things at this job. The chief one being that we aren't pressured into putting in extra time to maintain our "he's a team player" credentials. There are times when I need to put in extra hours at the office or do work at home at night or on week-ends but there is no pressure to do so.

I also like what we do here. We're not designing bombs or things that will wreck the environment or cause people to lose their homes. We don't hurt animals and we don't cause children to dislike their parents. We don't make products that deceive people into spending money on something that is not going to work. Our products are used to improve the world. Our products help people and companies reduce the amount of energy they use. Our products help improve the environment.

When I left my previous job (where I worked for 13 years) to take this one, I took a $15,000 a year pay cut because I liked what this company did and how they did it. I don't think I've ever made that pay difference up over the years. And I've not become a manager at this company. Many people think that because I've worked here so long, I should be part of the management team. I enjoy what I do too much to be moved to a job where I just manage people. Besides, I'm not good at that. See The Peter Principle (this is a revised version of the original book written in 1969) and you'll understand what I'm talking about. For a short article on it see the Wikipedia article here. I'm doing exactly what I should be doing and what I enjoy doing.

When I've asked people in the military why they have to transfer so often, they say it's so they can advance. I guess I can understand that - you need to get different experiences in order to grow. But it doesn't seem like the right way to get more experience. Plus, you'd think constantly rearranging units would reduce the cohesion that should be an important part of a military unit.

Anyway, I'm here and I'll probably be here longer - if they'll continue to have me.

[Update, Jan 8, I didn't mean to imply that in the 23 years I've worked here, my salary has never reached the level of my previous job. What I meant was that I'm probably still $15,000 behind the salary at a similar job at a different company. My salary has certainly risen faster than the rate of inflation. It just hasn't kept up with the increase in my experience and in the rise in engineering salaries over the last 23 years.]

Saturday, January 01, 2011

First post of the year

I'm not really entering this until January 3 but I'm using the January 1 date because that's when I started writing it.

I couldn't quite make it until midnight on New Year's Eve. If it hadn't been for the wrestling show interrupting the Twilight Zone "marathon", I think I could have done it. How to you call something a marathon when there is a two hour interruption? Would they still call it the Boston Marathon if the people running from Hopkinton to Boston took a two hour break to watch a fake wrestling match in the park? I don't think so!

Also, if they'd had a slightly better episode at 11:30 pm, I think I might have made it. The show I really wanted to see, "The Midnight Sun", wasn't going to be on until midnight and I was just exhausted. The episode at 11:30 pm titled "The Masks" just wasn't as interesting to me. But, of course, it makes sense to have an episode called "The Midnight Sun" at midnight.

My son, Evan, was a true gentleman and didn't make me feel bad about going to bed early. He ended up staying up until midnight himself but said it wasn't as much fun.

My resolutions for the coming year are not so much to do new things or stop bad things but to just do more of what I've been trying to do all along - love the Lord our God, love my wife, love my kids and play with them when I can, work hard, keep walking, eat moderately and keep writing in this blog - although I'll try to write more often.

Here's wishing that anyone else reading this will have a great year.