Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last post of the year

Well, in spite of the fact that I didn't post anything from December 23 through December 30, it's been a good year for my blog. I posted more this one year than in all the previous years combined. So, one of my New Year's Resolutions is going to be to make at least this many posts (132) next year. I'm going to try for more, though.

It's been a pretty good year all around although we've struggled financially. Due to our company switching health plans, we've paid out more in doctor, dentist, eye doctor and prescription bills this year. Also, due to the recession, our company kept the raises low this past year (2.5%) but at least I still have a job and we did get a raise - unlike many people I know.

Besides that, though, many good things have happened. I love my wife more than ever before. I love my kids, my mother and my mother-in-law more than ever. Our pets are healthy and bring us great joy. I've learned more about God and Jesus through the excellent ministry of our church. I can truly say I love God, Jesus and my fellow humans more than ever, too. Even my fellow humans that I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with! After all, we are all still neighbors. As hard as it is, I even felt sorry to see the news today that a certain Conservative radio entertainer had to be taken to the hospital with chest pains. I detest his angry, vile comments but I have to love him. This is completely the opposite of the radio commentator who wishes harm to those who disagree with him. But then, he must not be a Christian or he wouldn't espouse such hateful views.

I pray that we'll all have good health in the coming year and that we'll use that health to help others who are less fortunate than us. After the first commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul and with all our mind, our second commandment is to love our neighbor as our self. I can wish no better thing for all of us next year - that we can all live more fully in those commandments.

We enjoyed the movie "Avatar"

My thirteen year old son and I went to see the movie Avatar last night. At first, he agreed to go because he thought it was the movie version of an animated TV series he enjoys called Avatar: The Last Airbender but that movie hasn't been released yet.  It's coming in the summer of 2010 as a live action movie (more information here). But when I told him this movie was in 3D, he couldn't resist.

So, we found a theater in our area (a 45 minute drive) that was showing it in 3D. It was worth it. It is an amazing visual experience. Even if the story wasn't so interesting, I would have enjoyed the experience of seeing it. I would suggest you look around for a theater that shows it in 3D, though. I can't imagine that the 2D version is anywhere as enjoyable as the 3D version we saw.

It's a very long movie (about two and a half hours) but it needs to be that long to explain everything. I'm not a professional editor so I am not qualified to say this but I don't see what they could have left out of the movie and still have been able to explain everything that needed explaining. You'll find story elements from many sources from folk tales to the stories of this country's westward expansion to colonial powers' movements in Africa and Asia. You see themes from Anne McCaffrey's The Dragonriders of Pern series to the Star Wars movies. I highly recommend the movie. My son also enjoyed it. It is very entertaining.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Where have all the snow shovels gone?

Yes, my title is a play on the title of the song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone written by Pete Seeger and performed by Mr. Seeger, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and many others. The image at the right is the front cover of Pete Seeger's autobiography. It is described as, "An autobiography in words and songs by one of the most influential figures in American music." What a fitting format for such an amazing man.

I was thinking about it the other day when I saw news reports about our big snow the other day (my previous post) and the fact that many stores were sold out of snow shovels. This happens with every big snow and I never thought about it before: What happens to all those snow shovels? They can be used more than once, folks! Do people throw them out in the spring? Are all those people moving every year and leaving their snow shovels behind? Are all those people just getting their first house? Are they like socks and just get lost? This would seem to be a good area to investigate - if I had time to take away from all my shoveling.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A big snow on the last day of fall

Well, it was a big snow for Cape Cod anyway. The official report is that we got about 17 inches of snow but there was a lot of wind and the snow drifted so it's hard to know what we really got. This isn't the prettiest picture of our house with the car in the front. I hope to take some better pictures in the next few days. You can see that the screens collected a lot of the snow and we couldn't really see out very well.

The next picture is of some holly and berries in the back yard. This is a pretty big holly tree (at least 10 - 12 feet high) and I like the colors but I think my camera was having a hard time focusing. The wind was dying down but it was still very cold (again, for Cape Cod) so the camera was moving slowly. The birds and squirrels like to hide in this tree because it still has its leaves and they are a lot wider than the pine needles and give more cover.

The last picture is of our front door. You can see snow on the wreath which is under the porch. So, you can see how much the wind was blowing. We had at least 6 inches of snow on the porch. My wife says this would have been a perfect picture if the snow shovel hadn't been in it but I like it. It shows that I had to do a little work to get the picture. By the way, my wife, Cindy, bought that snow shovel many years ago at Walmart because it was cheap. But it is the best snow shovel I have ever used. It digs right under the snow and has held up to all sorts of use and abuse. I don't see them anymore so I hope this one lasts for a long time. It looks like we're going to need it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"That will never work"

Well, today is the anniversary of another interesting event. On this day in 1936, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy debuted on the radio. Younger people may wonder who they were and why that is so special and other people, who know about the successful career of Edgar Bergen might say, "So, what?" Well, the reason this has always struck me funny is that Edgar Bergen was a ventriloqust and Charlie McCarthy was his dummy. A ventriloquist on the radio? Even I could be a ventriloquist on the radio. After all, no one could see if I was moving my lips or not. "Now I'm going to drink some water while my dummy continues to speak." Yeah, how would they know?

It's not really as silly as it seems. Back in the 1930s, radio shows had studio audiences. So, yes, people would see if Edgar was moving his lips. Also, no, I couldn't be a ventriloquist on the radio today even without a studio audience because I'm just not funny (just ask the doctor who operated on my nose). Edgar Bergen honed his act onstage for many years before he was good enough for a national audience. After his successful debut, he got his own radio show - because he used Charlie McCarthy to great effect. It always reminded me of Bob Newhart and his use of the telephone in his act. You only heard one side of the conversation but he got you to infer what the person on the other end of the line was saying.

A friend of mine I used to work with is a good programmer and wanted to see if he could write a programming book. At that time, the Java programming language had been out for a while and many books had already been written about it. But it was still gaining a share of the programming population and as it grew, it was getting more complex as new features were added. So, my friend decided to write a book on one aspect of Java. But our Director of Engineering downplayed what my friend was going to be doing as if everything had already been written about Java. In the end, this was far from the truth and my friend went on to finish his book. I found it to be very useful and thought it was well written. And, at the time, there were no books written on that particular subject. And even today, new books are being written about Java as new features and libraries of routines continue to be added to the language.

So, I always try to remember these things when people tell me that something I'm thinking about will never work. If you do it well and find an angle that someone else hasn't thought about or hasn't done as well, you always have a chance to succeed.

Dragging Marley's chains

I noticed that today is the anniversary of Charles Dickens' publishing of A Christmas Carol so it seems like a good time for this post:

I have worked at my present job since 1988. Our company designs, manufactures and sells electronic equipment and there have been a number of different versions and variations of these units over the years. Since I've worked here so long, I am often the person the newer employees go to when they want to know about the older models we made years ago. I describe it as "dragging Marley's chains" when I need to take time from my current project to explain something about an old project. My description comes from the scene in A Christmas Carol where Ebeneezer Scrooge's long dead partner, Jacob Marley, appears to Scrooge on Christmas Eve to warn Scrooge that he is headed to the same fate as Marley - that is Scrooge will be dragging his own, longer chain around with him in the afterlife. Marley describes it as,

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost.
"I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded
it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I
wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"

Scrooge trembled more and more.

"Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the
weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?
It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven
Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since.
It is a ponderous chain!
from the Project Gutenberg entry for A Christmas Carol
It's a puzzlement. While it's a good thing to take an interest in all of your company's products, it can also be a burden.While working for a company for a long time (in my case, 22 years next month) can be a good thing, it can also mean that you're dragging along the knowledge you've gained in those years. While having a broad-based knowledge can be good, you limit the amount of time you have for learning more about a specific supject.

I know a lot of people that always plan on working for a company for only three to five years so they can leave all the old stuff behind. They want to move on to the next new thing. I, on the other hand, like to refine and improve the things I work on. My favorite product was a programmable controller that had no hardware changes for over ten years but was continually improved by rewriting its firmware (that's a program that is burned into the memory of the board). We never had to change the way the board was manufactured. We improved it by modifying what was loaded into its memory.

So, here I sit, forging more links into my chain. A chain of knowledge and memory.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Rules of Life - Part 3

At this time of the year, when we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, I think it's appropriate to list the third in my series of The Rules of Life. It really should be number 1 but I messed up. That's all I can say. I messed up. So, without further ado, Rule Number 3 is:
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
That's how we learned it in grade school. Yes, in a public school. You could do that sort of stuff in the 1950's. Believe it or not, we also started the day out with a Bible reading, reciting the Lord's Prayer and saying the Pledge of Allegience to the flag of the United States of America. We also sang My Country 'tis of Thee (I guess they thought the Star Spangled Banner was too hard).

Yes, "my" Rule Number 3 is the Golden Rule as found in the Christian Bible in Matthew 7:12 and again in Luke 6:31. It is said that many religions have a form of the Golden Rule and maybe I'll investigate that some day but for now, let's just look at how Jesus said it. The King James Version has Matthew 7:12 like this:
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets."
The New Living Translation puts it like this:
Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.
 It only seems fair, doesn't it? But who is more concerned with "fair" that children and it takes them a while to learn this rule. To them, things are only "fair" when it benefits them and things are "unfair" when they don't get what they want or don't get as much as the kid standing next to them. The hard part is putting ourselves in someone else's shoes and it takes a long time for children to understand that. And some never learn it.

Jesus later summed it up as, "Love your neighbor as yourself." He said it was the second commandment - right after "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind." It makes it all seem so simple doesn't it? Jesus could sum up everything in only two laws. I've taken three already and I'm not done yet!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A time for organizing; a time for leaving stuff all over your desk

Having a filing cabinet with lots of file folders is a fine idea. I have three two-drawer filling cabinets at work and I have tons of file folders in them. I make at least one folder for each project I work on and then add one for each part of the project. I'm usually pretty diligent about organizing my files and I take a lot of time organizing the papers and notes I put in the folders. But there are times when filing things backfires.

On Friday, three days ago, I was looking for some notes I'd made on a recent project. It was part of a larger, older project and should have had it's own folder that would be placed near the folder for the large project. To make it more complicated, this part of the larger project was postponed because the equipment wouldn't be ready by the time the large project would be finished and the software released. So, the large project was finished and released and the small part of it was postponed and my memory of it began to fade (about two seconds after I last put something in its folder).

Now, of course, we're working on the next version of our software and it has its own Big Project folder. The postponed project will now be part of the new big project and I need to refresh my memory of how far we'd gotten, what problems remained and what needed to be finished. But I couldn't find the folder! My first thought was that the notes might have been put in the old Big Project folder but I searched that and couldn't find them. I looked again for a folder with the name of the missing project and couldn't find it. I looked thought every cabinet two or three times. Noluck.

Finally, I bit the bullet and started a search of every file folder in all three file cabinets. It took a few hours. And, as an aside, you ought to know that I am easily distracted. I came across things that I'd completely forgotten about but got interested in again. Besides that, I found some items that had been filed incorrectly. So, in a sense, I was doing three things at once -  I'm looking for a lost project folder, I'm reading old information that I'd forgotten about (and wondering how I did that work so poorly) and I'm filing things correctly that I would probably be looking for in the weeks to come.

After hours of searching and dropping papers on the floor and sliding on papers that were already on the floor I found what I was looking for. I had put it in the wrong folder! And there's the one, big problem with filing things:

If you put something in the wrong folder, you have no idea where it is!

I don't know what I was thinking when I put my notes in the wrong folder. I may have been reaching for the phone or answering a question or even just thinking about what my wife would be cooking for dinner that night. I just made a mistake that had cost me three or four hours of time. Usually, filing my notes and organizing things is a good idea. But this time, I would have been better just leaving it on my desk to be buried by other things.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A time for jokes; a time for being serious

I really enjoy reading the blog of Earl Pomerantz. He is a screenwriter and producer and writes an entry in his blog every week-day. He recently needed surgery and wrote about it. One of the posts was titled, "Twenty-Five (Mostly) Helpful Tips For Prospective Hospital Patients".  It was interesting to me on two levels. One was that his list of tips for the hospital is, in many ways, tips for life in general. It reminds me of the series of posts I started that I call The Rules of Life. So far I've only written two (Rule 1, Rule 2) but more are coming. [Update - here are two more, Rule 3 and Rule 4]

The second part of Earl's Tip #6 is, "Also, some people have no sense of humor. Respect that. When you fail to make someone laugh three times in succession, stop trying."

About ten or eleven years ago, I was going to be having an operation to repair a deviated septum (that's the cartilage that divides your nose into two - I was almost down to one nostril) and I had to meet with the surgeon a few times before the operation so she could figure out whether it was worth it and how she would do it. She was a rather austere woman. She wasn't old as you might think from the adjective "austere" and some might just say she was eccentric. Anyway, she never laughed. If I'd have read Earl's tips ten or eleven years ago, I wouldn't have tried to make her laugh but I couldn't resist. And anyway, I was feeling nervous and wanted to put myself at ease.

So I hit her with some one-liners and a few witty observations. Nothing. I remember I had three office visits before the surgery and I was, believe it or not, feeling like I needed to make her laugh or at least chuckle. I didn't want someone hacking away at my nose with a stern look on their face. I wanted her to be happy while she had sharp instruments that close to my brain. So, on the third visit I let loose with all my best stuff. She wouldn't budge. Then, while we waited for some medication to take effect, she got a phone call and I heard her side of the conversation. She carried on the conversation in her usual stiff speech pattern until she said, "I was eating a ham sandwich." There was a pause and then she laughed. And laughed and laughed until she got to the point where she was having trouble breathing. When she came back into the room I was in, she still had a smile on her face but that quickly faded. She was, after all, back in the presence of that patient of hers who had no sense of humor.

The operation went well and I've always been grateful I got it. I never tried to get that doctor to laugh in the few follow-up visits I had after the operation. She seemed relieved, too. But I never did get the whole story about that ham sandwich.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A missed opportunity

I was just getting back from my lunchtime walk and was passing a house with a tall fence around it. All of a sudden, a squirrel comes shooting over the fence and is heading straight at me! My first thought is "rabid squirrel" and I froze. I should have run if I was really afraid or I should have gotten my camera ready if I wasn't. But I was in that twilight zone between. It didn't take long and the squirrel was only a few feet from me when it jumped to the tree I was standing near and sped up the trunk. I was standing near it's home tree, I guess, and when it was threatened in the yard, it headed for safety. I don't think it really saw me until it was almost to the tree.

I tried to recover to get a picture but this was a smart squirrel and it stayed on the opposite side of the tree until it was hidden well up in the branches and I couldn't get a shot. The picture I've included here is from some pictures I took back in August, 2007 of a much more curious squirrel. This squirrel, as I mentioned in my post back then, stayed on the branch looking at me for minutes. I couldn't miss the shots I got then. But today, I missed a great opportunity. It won't be the last.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Working for the Man

This morning, after seeing the news start to repeat itself, I skipped around the channels a bit and found myself in the middle of a Shirley Temple movie I'd never seen before. I have to admit, I'm a big Shirley Temple fan. I remember seeing her movies when I was growing up and looking at her as a good example to follow. No matter what bad circumstances she found herself in, she always kept a bright outlook on things and that's what pulled her through the bad times.

In this movie, Our Little Girl, Shirley's father is too busy with work (he's a doctor who is doing some important research) and neglects his family. The mother has an affair with a family friend and the parents divorce. Shirley's character is stuck in the middle and to try to get her parents back toegther, she runs away. I only saw a few minutes of the movie but it intrigued me enough to where I think it would be fun to rent and see it all the way through,.

The scene that caught my attention, though, was when the father decides to take some time off and take Shirley to the circus. As they're getting ready to go, the maid (or maybe she's a nanny) is thanking the father for the afternoon off because her teeth have been bothering her and she can use the time to go to the dentist. Wow. To think you could work for someone and be having a problem with your teeth and not be able to just ask for some time off! That was a shocker to me. Is that really how things were back in the 1930's? Is that how things are even now for a maid or nanny? I can't imagine working under those conditions. I'm thankful for the job I have and how easy it is to get time off when I need it - especially for medical problems.

My wife, Cindy, had another take on it. "Imagine being able to get in to see your dentist the same day," she said. That's right. Maybe things weren't so bad in the 1930's.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Throwing money at the problem"

I'm getting a little tired of hearing people say, "You can't fix a problem by throwing money at it." It's usually an excuse for people who don't want to do something. But name me a problem, other than simply changing your mind about something, that doesn't require money? Even if you can get enough people to volunteer their time (God bless them), you still need to buy materials for them to use and transport them to where the problem is. And there is only so much time people can donate before they have to stop and go to a job to make a living. And I think that is a lot of the problem with people who say, "You can't solve a problem by throwing money at it," have - they don't want to pay a fair amount to get something done.

The other possibility of why someone would say this is that they mean, "You can't solve a problem by ONLY throwing money at it." I'd agree with that but I've never heard anyone say that. It usually comes from someone who is against spending (often by the government) on something they don't want. But all of the conservatives out West who don't want the government to spend money are sure glad the government spent all that money on irrigation and dam building long ago. They are certainly happy the government subsidized the railroads and built the Interstate Highway System. Likewise, you'll often hear liberals complain about "throwing money" at something they don't agree with - new equipment for the police or the military or exploration of space or the oceans.

First of all, we need to have a discussion about whether something is a problem. Then, if it is, we have to have a discussion about how to solve it. Then, if you've decided to fix it and how you're going to fix it, prepare for the throwing of money! It's going to take a lot of it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A failure of technology or the understanding of it? - Part 2

There are probably more stories about the misunderstandings people have about technology than anyone could ever write down. But some are more endearing than others. My next story is abount one of my grandmothers. She and my grandfather had moved to California when I was in my early teens. I only got to see her on the infrequent trips they would make back to Pittsburgh or the even less frequent trips we'd make west. After my grandfather died, she decided to stay out there because she liked the weather, felt settled and her daughter, my aunt, and her family were there to help her.

After I graduated from college, I had a difficult time finding a job. I've probably got a few good stories about my job searches but not today. Just suffice it to say I went out to stay with her for a week or two while I looked for jobs. I also offered to help her while I was there. She had two small apartments that she rented out and one of the tenants had just moved out and had left a lot of stuff that need to be cleaned out. One of the things we found was a radio. Grandma looked at it and said she wasn't sure if it was worth keeping or not. She said she already had a few radios, "But maybe this one is tuned to a different station," she said. That went right past me at first.

We worked at separating the useful stuff from the garbage and getting the garbage out to the street for the trash haulers. Then, she started to divide the useful stuff into things she'd keep and things she'd give away. She got to the radio again and turned it on. "Well, it sounds like the same station as the last one. We'll just see if someone else can use it." I was floored. I asked her if she really had a bunch of different radios all tuned to different stations. She said, "Not that many. I only listen to a few stations." I asked her if she knew that you could tune a radio so that it brought in other stations. It looked like she didn't understand. So, I took the radio and tuned it to another station. "I don't like that station, " she said. So, I tuned it to another station. "Nope, that's not my style, either." As I tried to find a station she'd accept, she waved her hand in the way she did when something wasn't worth her time. She was busy and had no time for this foolishness. She looked at me the same way some people still do when I get excited about getting a piece of electronics or a program working in just the right way. I guess I've just always been a nerd and I'll never change.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A failure of technology or the understanding of it? - Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, I've got two stories about people misunderstanding how "high tech" things work. The first one is about a fellow I met while I was working for the U. S. Geological Survey at the national headquarters in Reston, VA. I wasn't a big shot. I was just a new, very green engineer right out of college who worked in the instrumentation group of the Water Resources Division. It was a huge building and there was an army of people needed to maintain and clean the building. The Survey was a very friendly place to work and the cleaning people, although they worked for a private contractor, hung around to talk with the scientists, engineers and administrators during their break time. Many of them took a real interest in what we were doing and how we were doing it. Our lab, with all its electronic parts, was an especially appealling place to many of them.

I remember one old fellow always saying hello and asking how things worked and he seemed to enjoy new projects as much as we did. He didn't speak very well and he may have had a learning deficiency but he didn't have a curiosity deficiency. One day, though, he came in with a small plastic container that looked like the microphone from a Citizen's Band radio. It was even called "Good Buddy After Shave". CB Radios were all the rage in the mid 1970's. He asked if I could make it work for him. He acted like he was 90% of the way there already. All I had to do was fill in the missing pieces. When I tried to make him understand that I couldn't do it, he misunderstood and thought I just didn't want to do it. He pointed to all the electronic parts we had and truly looked disappointed that his simple request couldn't be fulfilled. I got the impression that he'd already told his friends that he'd be coming back with a working radio. He never stopped by our lab again after that. It wouldn't be the first time I had to tell someone that something they'd requested wasn't possible or practical. But telling people the hard truth has never gotten easier.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Another short story

I promised another post about the little vignettes that WCAI, our local public radio station, plays throughout the day. This story, unlike yesterday's post, you can hear for yourself at this link. It's told by a local writer from the town of Truro on the outer part of Cape Cod. It's sad and funny at the same time. It's the story of a poor old fellow and his wife that save up to buy a coffee maker and then take that term too literally and start a fire with it. They didn't pour water in the machine nor put any coffee in it. It was a coffee "maker" after all. Why would they need to add anything? Luckily, people smelled something and got to them before it got serious.

It's easy to laugh but how many of us are confused by new technologies we don't understand? I'll tell a couple of other stories about this over the next couple of days - one about one of my grandmothers and one about a fellow I met at another job. But I can tell stories about myself, too.

I used to be able to work on cars - when they didn't have a million hoses and two million attached sub-assemblies on the engine. I hardly know where to begin, now. I can change the oil (and maybe the oil filter if it isn't in a place where you have to remove other parts to get to it) and add antifreeze but I can't even think of really working on the engine like my father and I used to.

Our car was making a strange noise one time and I tried to find the problem. I looked all though the engine and under the body and could find nothing. My son Evan, who was about 3 or 4 at the time, took one look and said, "Is that the problem, Dad?" Sure enough, he'd found that the exhaust pipe had caught on something and gotten twisted so that it was right up next to one of the tires and was blowing on the rubber - soon to be a major problem! I'd been overwhelmed by the complexity of the entire system and couldn't see it. Evan just looked for something out of place and solved it. I guess that's one way to deal with complex systems and this is what engineers are taught to do - reduce a complex system to a collection of less complex subsystems. I let the complexity confuse me. My son is probably a natural engineer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Short stories

Our local National Public Radio station, WCAI, has a nice feature they call "Voices of the Cape and Islands". They are short (almost always less than a minute) sound bites that are played between programs and announcements throughout the day. Most of them are local people telling a little story about some local person, place or event. You can hear a sampling of them at this link.

One I heard a few days ago isn't available for replaying on that link so I'm going to repeat it here from memory. Given my memory, it may be completely wrong.

It seemed like the story was being told by the wife of the man the story was about. She said that this man had been a dairy farmer all his life and had worked seven days a week year around. He'd never taken a vacation or gotten very far from his farm. Once, I forget the occasion, they took a trip to Nantucket. He had never seen the ocean before and tears filled his eyes when he saw it for the first time. He said, "This is where I want to live," and they moved there and have lived there ever since. I don't tell it as well as the woman who narrated it on the radio. But it moved me because I felt the same way when my parents took me on vacation to the North Shore of Massachusetts when I was a teenager. I'd seen the ocean before (Ocean City, MD when I was much younger) but the rugged, rocky coast of Massachusetts filled me with wonder. Even though Cape Cod is much different, I've never lost my fascination with the sea.

Next time I'll tell another story from this series that reminds me of two other stories from my own life. I'll tell those, too.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A bumper crop of leaves

Two years ago, we saw the largest number of leaves ever in our yard. Well, this year is even bigger. The picture on the top right shows the kids playing around in the leaves before we got started on raking them up. Actually, the kids raked and I used the leaf blower. I find the leaf blower works well when the leaves are scattered. Once you get big piles of leaves, the blower has a harder time. It works with big piles if you turn up the velocity of the air but that also adds to the noise. So, once we get to a certain point, I switch to the rake, too.

In the upper picture on the left, you can see the kids (with Charlie standing guard) finishing up the leaf pile. It looks a lot bigger than the pile from two years ago and that's compared to the kids who have grown (a lot) since then.

We had a very wet spring this year and the winter moths that kept last year's leaf "crop" small were less numerous this year. The crazy part about this year's leaves is that this is only the first part. We're probably going to have to go through this all again around Thanksgiving. There are still a lot of leaves in the trees.

Well, you can't make a big pile of leaves like that and not enjoy it so the last picture on the right shows the kids enjoying themselves after all their hard work. Charlie ended up in the pile, too, but I missed that shot. Charlie especially enjoys these sorts of activities when he sees the cats watching out the window. Then he can go in and tell them about all the fun they missed. [Update - my wife Cindy got some great pictures of Charlie enjoying the leaves - see her blog]

Monday, November 09, 2009

Tell me why

One of the things they tell you when your company says your retirement fund is in stocks and bonds is to think long term. "Don't go selling your shares or moving them around on a day-to-day basis," the pundits say. "If you sell when stocks fall, you're selling when the price is low. You'll have to buy it at a higher cost when the stock goes up." A friend says that when stocks drop and are low, it's like when regular stores have a big sale. "That's the time to buy," he says.

Well, that all makes sense to me. OK, I've bought into it. I'm "in the know". I'm one of the guys who understands the stock market. I'm proud of myself. I didn't touch our retirement fund during the past two years when everything dropped. "We're being smart," I told my wife, "We're buying low and we'll sell high." Just like the big dealers do.

Tell me why, then, that the stupid stock market is so volatile. Are there that many "stupid" people who buy and sell on a daily basis? Are there that many "dunderheads" who try to sell as soon as a stock goes down a little and sell as soon as it starts to rise? Or is it all the people "in the know" who are doing that and laughing up their sleeve at me because I actually bought their little story? The stock market had a pretty good day today so our retirement fund inched a little closer to where it was back in 2007 but what's going to happen tomorrow? Where's the long term thinking from the big players? I guess you can't earn the big bonuses if you just sit in your office and tell your boss your thinking long term.

Friday, November 06, 2009


My son has been playing an interesting game on his Nintendo Wii game system called Pikmin. It has been around since the Nintendo Gamecube (released in 2001) but was updated to work with the Wii's controllers. In case you don't know, Nintendo turned the gaming world upside down when it came out with its wireless motion sensitive game controllers. It lets you get into the game in ways I never imagined. All of a sudden, you felt like you are really bowling or really swinging a bat or, in the case of Pikmin, really telling some little creatures what to do and where to go.

In the picture at the right, you can see Evan and his assistant, Henry the Cat, playing the game. The premise is that Olimar, the captain of a space vessel (in the picture on the left), has his ship damaged by being hit by an asteroid and has to make an emergency landing on the closest planet. His ship breaks apart as he is landing and the pieces are scattered on the planet. The planet has a poisonous atmosphere (of oxygen;-) and that limits how long he has to find all of his parts and repair his ship for the trip home.

He discovers a unique life form that he calls Pikmin (in the picture at the lower right - with Olimar) that start out like plants but once they are plucked, they behave like animals. They seem to like Olimar and follow his commands. The game lets you slowly discover how to control the Pikmin and to discover new things about the planet. There are many hazards to overcome and you have to use your puzzle solving skills to get past the barriers and hostile animals that stand in the way of retrieving all the parts for the ship and getting back home. Evan has me and my wife playing the game. It's very interesting and a real test of patience while you try to figure your way out of problems. There are three different types of Pikmin with different skills, strengths and weaknesses and you have to figure out how the different types can help in different situations.

It's a lot of fun and when I think I've got problems, I just imagine what it would be like to be marooned on a strange planet with a limited time to fix my ship before I can get home. I'm glad I can just jump in the car and get home in fifteen minutes!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Another story from my trip to see Mom

I wrote a story back in May about a bogus election for picking a mascot at our brand new junior high school. Actually, it was two stories: one about a bogus election by NASA about selecting a name for a part of the International Space Station and that story reminded me of our junior high school election. Well, on my recent trip to visit my mother, I drove by the old "junior high school" and guess what? They've changed everything. Well, not everything. The building looks the same but it is no longer a junior high school. It's now a middle school. And now, where it used to be called the Finley Junior High School (located in Finleyville, PA on land donated by, or bought from, the Finley family), it is now named after its school district: Ringgold.

But the worst part is that the Knight mascot is gone! After all the effort the junior high administrators went to, and we students took in voting, it's all been wiped away.The middle school now shares the mascot of the high school called (are you ready for the symmetry?) Ringgold High School (where a fellow named Joe Montana went and was actually known more as a basketball player than as a quarterback for the football team). When I went to that high school (from 1966 through 1969), it was called Monongahela High School and was located in Monongahela, PA. Then it merged with the Donora, PA school district to form Ringgold. The funny thing is, I also got to be part of the naming process for the new, merged high school mascot.

The Monongahela mascot was the Wildcat. The Donora mascot was the Dragon. They had to come up with another name and some students were selected from each school to come up with a list of names that both student bodies would vote on. Of course, the Rebel (see the article back in May for more on that) was suggested for its historical and alliterative qualities and was quickly rejected. The administrators didn't want to invalidate yet another election (I think some of them moved to Florida for the 2000 Presidential Election). The Wild Dragon didn't last long as a suggestion, either. For some reason, speaking of alliteration, it was decided early in the process that the mascot should start with an 'R' like the new high school name. I remember the names "Roadrunners" and "Rockets" (my favorite) being brought up but the loudest, most insistent people backed the "Rams" and that's what went on to win the vote and became the mascot for the new, as-yet-unbuilt high school - and later the mascot of the renamed middle school.

Ours was the last class to graduate from Monongahela High School. After that, even though the new high school wouldn't be ready for 10 years (1979), and the students from each area went to their own high school building, they graduated from Ringgold High School - Monongahela Division or -Donora Division (there's that alliteration again).

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A surprise good time - 2

My wife took the kids to a Halloween party at my mother-in-law's church yesterday. We'd never been to one there so we didn't know what to expect. The kids dressed up in the costumes they were going to use for trick-or-treating that night - those are the pictures shown here with my wife. By the way, how did our 13-year old son, Evan, get so big?

Evan is dressed as the game character Mario (I especially like the big hands that came with the costume - we got the mustache right side up later) and Emma is dressed as Mulan from the Disney movie of the same name.

I was going to just drop them off  and leave the car there for them and I was going to walk home. Before I left, though, it was obvious that the party was not designed to include older kids like Evan. He didn't want to stay so he decided to walk home with me. We were having a good talk as we went along but I noticed people looking at us from their cars. Then I noticed them pointing. I finally realized they were reacting to Evan's costume. I mentioned it to him and he started to notice the reactions, too. He had taken off the mustache and the large "hands" so he put those on, too. Then people really started to react. We could see people smiling and pointing him out to other passengers in the car. Then people started beeping their horns and shouting out to "Mario".

Evan had been really disappointed that the party hadn't worked out but he was now having a great time. He was smiling and waving back at the people who beeped and waved to him. He liked the idea of bringing a little joy to their lives. I was telling him how he was doing better than I would have in this situation. I would have been embarassed at the attention and wouldn't have enjoyed it like he was. Now, I was enjoying it because he was having such a good time. He was almost sad when we got home and couldn't wait to tell his grandmother what a good time he had..

We had another good time when we all went trick-or-treating last night. We even took our dog, Charlie, with us. But it was the unexpected good time Evan had that I will remember about this Halloween.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Equal time for Maple Leaves

The two previous entries on the fall colors here and here showed mostly oak leaves. So, here are some of the nice looking maple leaves (as opposed to the Maple Leafs) from the woods behind our office.

I always see acorns around but I rarely see maple tree seeds around (except in our gutters). I collect acorns and sometimes dream of planting them like the shepherd did in The Man Who Planted Trees (the text of the short story). It was later made into an animated feature.

I first saw the animated feature as a part of an animated film festival. I thought at first that it was a true story but it's not. It's still a wonderful story about a man who changes the lives of the people in an entire region by planting a forest one tree at a time. It really affected me not just for its optimism about how one person can make a difference but the animated feature is beautifully drawn. It's a style you don't see very often. The objects in the story are not as separated and distinct as is usual in animation. It made me think about how we are all part of the whole. We all affect each other for good or ill. We all have amazing power to help or hurt our fellow man. Let us all look to help each other as much as we can.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween at work

Our office encourages people to dress up for Halloween. There is a doughnut eating contest and prizes for various categories of costumes. This year we got apple cider and danish pastries, too. I dressed up in my usual costume at the right. I use the same robe every year. It's funny to hear what people guess I've come as. Some say I'm Obi-Wan Kenobi, others say Gandalf. Still others think I'm a monk. I'm sort of like a Rorschach ink blot test. My costume is in the eye of the beholder.

Our family has mixed feeling about Halloween. As my wife points out, it started as a religious holiday but modern times have taken it far from that - sort of like what our modern society has done to Christmas. I don't like seeing people build up and glorify the evil in the world. But nice and good people are just too boring I guess.

As Philippians 4:8 says, "And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More fall colors

A few days ago, I posted some pictures from the woods behind our office. Today, I have more.

First, on the top right, is a pretty yellow Sassafras tree. You can tell a Sassafras Tree because it has three types of leaves that look like a right-handed mitten, a left-handed mitten and a strange mitten for keeping the three middle fingers together! I'm told that my uncles used to make sassafras tea that my mother remembers drinking but I don't know how you do it.

The next tree is on the top left and is a pretty large Oak tree. I can't really tell if it's orange, burnt orange or brown. I just know it's pretty. I'll leave the color naming to my wife and daughter. They know more names for more colors than I can imagine. And they often have an adjective to describe the color. They'll say things like, "Oh, that's not blue is Midnight Blue!"

Finally, I have two individual Oak leaves. The one on the right is a solid color while the one on the left is an amazing mixture of colors. You can see how the coloring of the leaves follows the veins in reverse - they stay green longer near the veins where they still have nutrients. The new colors work their way in from the edges..

I've made the pictures especially small here so I could fit them all in on the short post. But, as usual, you can click on them to see them larger.

Monday, October 26, 2009

This day in history

Today is the anniversary (in 1825) of the opening of the Erie Canal. The story that brought this to my attention was on the This Day in History website. The picture at the right was used on the Erie Canal website but was used there by the permission of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester.

Besides the building of the canal as a major engineering feat and an incredible accomplishment for the workers who dug it mostly using hand tools, the thing that caught my eye was how they were able to signal New York City that Governor Clinton was leaving the opening ceremonies [near Buffalo, NY] on a trip that would span the length of the canal route to New York City. They were able to send the signal in only 81 minutes by using cannon that were spaced along the entire route. As the first cannon was fired, it was heard at the next cannon placement so it fired and this continued all the way to New York City. It was the fastest communication of an event in the world at that point. A practical telegraph system wouldn't be available for 19 more years. This was a very limited signal, though. It could have meant anything (including that New York City was under attack!) but the meaning of the signal was decided before hand. The arrival of the signal meant, "Remember what we discussed before? That Governor Clinton was going to travel here on the new canal? Well, he's started."

It reminds me of the system described in The Return of the King (part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) when the kingdom of Gondor sent a message to its ally Rohan by lighting huge bonfires along the route. Of course, that book wasn't published until the 1950's. But I wonder if somewhere in history, people were able to send messages over long distances using flags or fires in a similar way?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fall color in a miniature forest

Back in March of this year, the town hired someone to come in a cut a fire break through the woods behind out office. I wrote about it here and here. It was a shame to see all the large, beautiful trees go. But everything is growing back pretty quickly. I don't know what is going to happen to the large trees that have now sprouted a lot of small shoots. Will they all grow together into one tree again or will some shoots out-compete the others and dominate? We'll see.

In the meantime, the fall colors haven't really hit our area yet - except for the small trees that are growing back in the fire break area. It's like a miniature forest. We can see over the tops of the "trees" as if we were flying over them in an airplane. I went out at lunch today and saw a lot of nice colors and took some pictures hoping to capture the beauty of the area. The top picture is a wide aspect view of all the mixed colors. Almost like a carpet laid down in the woods. The other pictures are pretty self-explanatory. The next picture is the only large tree (an oak) I took a picture of. Then come three different shades of maples.

It's almost as if someone set out to create a forest of bonsai trees. In this case, they get their shape because there are so many shoots rising out of the old tree stump. I don't remember the trees in this area being so colorful before. Even considering the pine trees among the tall trees on either side, the large trees aren't nearly as colorful as the new growth of trees in the middle.  I wonder if the stress they were under after being cut has anything to do with it.

As always with my pictures, you can just click on them to see the larger version. I've reduced the size of all of the pictures to help with the time it takes to upload them and to make displaying them faster. If anyone is interested in getting copies of the originals (my camera takes 6 megapixel pictures), let me know. I'm no great photographer but every once in a while I stumble into a nice picture.

The last picture is a small unknown red bush. It seems to like the fact that it isn't shaded by the trees around it for now. It won't be long, though. The way these trees are growing, the forest will be back in no time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The moving motel room

On my way home from work the other day, I saw this driving down the road. I couldn't resist getting a picture of it. The sheer size of it amazed me. Then the progression from the huge RV to the smaller car (although not very small) and then to the bikes was intriguing. Finally, the idea of dragging around a car making the handling of this monstrosity even more difficult was too much for me.

You can click on the picture to get a larger view. It's not a very good picture because I took it while I was driving (!) through the windshield of the car. They were turning into a campground. If you can call staying in that thing camping.

I jokingly call it a "moving motel room" in my title but it's more like a moving motel suite. I guess you save the money of needing to rent a motel or cottage at your destination but what about the cost of gas? And if they didn't buy this RV but only rented it, wouldn't that cost factor into your calculations? There is probably a very good reason for them choosing to vacation this way. I just don't get it. Maybe this is all they have and don't own or rent a home. At least they brought the station wagon along. I'd hate to be in our town when they decided to drive the RV down the main street.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A good story ruined

Here's another story from my recent visit to see my mother.

Years ago, we used to all go to visit my mother around Thanksgiving (before we had been through some fierce November storms and moved our visits to the summer). Part of the trip involved our going to see my relatives. During one of those trips, my Aunt June showed us a clock that she had saved from my grandmother's throw-away pile. It had belonged to my great grandfather and was a small mantle clock. It was spring powered with a pendulum and hadn't run for years. We had another relative who worked on clocks for a hobby and Aunt June paid him to work on it. After many tries, he said he could do no more to get it going again and Aunt June just set it on a shelf because it still looked nice and fit in with her style of decorating. She kept trying to get it to run (making sure the spring was wound and moving the pendulum) but it wouldn't go until one year near Christmas. Amazingly, after years of not working, it started ticking again! After Christmas, though, the clock stopped. It didn't run again until the next Christmas when it started ticking again. This went on for a number of years. I always told people about this and tried to imagine what would cause it - from my great grandfather's ghost to changes in temperature and humidity around Christmas.

Well, during this visit, Aunt June got to telling stories and one of them was how funny her mother (my grandmother) was. And how Grandma believed in the magical Christmas clock. She even sent people over to see it and Aunt June thought this was strange. I didn't say anything but let her continue. "Mom (my grandmother) was so funny. She believed there was something mysterious making that clock run only around Christmas time. Well, it only ran at Christmas because that's when I wound it. After Christmas, I just let it run down and didn't try to start it again until next Christmas." Boy, was I disappointed. I wanted that clock to be special. I wanted there to be some fascinating explanation about its strange behavior. In the end, it was just ordinary. I didn't tell her that I'd also been fooled by the clock story.

I guess in the end, the clock is special. It's old and it still works. Aunt June thought enough about it to save it from destruction and she spent a lot of time (with our clock-repairing relative) and money to get it working again. And it was a nice looking clock and went well with Aunt June's living room. I guess we shouldn't look down on something (or someone) just because it doesn't measure up to what we think it should be. I wish I had a picture of the clock. I forgot to take my camera when I visited Aunt June this year. Maybe next time. And, I shouldn't forget, the clock hadn't run for many years and only started to run again around Christmas. There's a little magic there.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Final report on my hat

I wrote earlier about replacing my lost Red Sox hat and then wrote a short update on it. The short synopsis is: I lost my Red Sox hat last winter and didn't get a replacement until August this year. After buying the hat and wearing it, the fortunes of the Red Sox seemed to improve.

Well, the final (unfortunately) report for the hat is here. It did very well for the rest of the regular season. The Red Sox had 26 wins and 15 losses in that time. That's a winning percentage of .634. Not too bad but not good enough to win their division. Another team won the division but at least the Red Sox made it into the play-offs. And they were going to be playing the Angels who they always beat in the play-offs so things were looking good.

Well, today we face the reality that the Angels won three straight games against the Sox and now the season is over for my baseball team and my new hat. I'll be careful to pack my hat so I can find it next year as soon as the season starts.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I outsmarted myself

Here's a story from my trip to see Mom last week. It happened before I even got on the train at Providence. Last year, we drove into Providence to find the train station and then, since we were early, I drove back out to show my wife the way to get home. But as I headed down Interstate 95 and then connected to Interstate 195 to head toward home, I had a hard time finding a way to turn around and get back to the train station before the train left. We made it but it led to some exciting talk in the car as the clock ran down.

This year, since it had been over a year since we'd gone to the train station, I decided to refresh my wife's memory of how to get back out of Providence and head back towards home. But wait - I had learned from my mistake last year and didn't head down the Interstates. I was smart and stayed on the local road and just crossed under Interstate 95 pointing out to her the entrance that she would take. Problem solved. Now, since I was on a local road, it would be easy to turn around and get back to the train station - we had plenty of time.

The picture at the beginning is a copy of the Google Map for the area and I've drawn our route in red. There are circled numbers that match up with numbers in my description here. If you'd like, you can right-click on the picture and open it in a separate tab to show it larger so you can follow along.

1) We're at the train station about 30 minutes early. My wife says that she can find the way out herself. "Remember last year," she says. "Don't worry, Sweetheart," I say, "I won't make the same mistake this year!"
2) We've reached the place where she'd turn to get on Interstate 95 to head home. Learning from last year, I just point to the exit and stay on the local road looking for the first turn off that has an obvious entrance. How hard could it be? It's a local road. "Define local," says a small voice in the back of my head.
3) After about a mile and a half, I finally see an exit that has a visible entrance on the other side. We've still got about 25 minutes. Plenty of time.
4) We have a little trouble finding a place to turn around but we do find one.
5) No problems now - we're headed back toward the train station. I tell my son, who is getting worried, that we have enough time to go home and come back again. A big lie but it eases the tension I sense in everyone.
6) I see I 95 again and we just have to pass under it to be within minutes of the train station. The local road splits into separate lanes and there are no signs but I'm sure that the lane I'm in the correct one. I have a sense about these things.
7) Well, here we are going south on Interstate 95 heading away from the train station and my jokes and false confidence are having no effect on my family. We'll just need to find an exit that has an obvious entrance on the other side. More people are getting nervous in the car.
8) After more than a mile, I see an exit that looks promising. I tell everyone that everything is going to be fine now. After we get off the exit, I recognize the area as a place we'd come about 10 years ago. It had no close entrances to I 95. Now I'm getting worried but I don't let it show.
9) After about a third of a mile of stop and go traffic, we finally get to the turn off to get back onto I 95. Everyone is telling me how to drive, to not bother waiting for people who have the right-of-way and to honk the horn at that idiot trying to cut us off. There are no rules now. We have less than fifteen minutes to get back to the train station.
10) We're back in I 95 heading back to the train station - for the third time today. All of a sudden, all the other drivers have slowed down. They are all talking on their cell phones and missing opportunities to move forward. Every driver in every car seems to have taken up smoking and isn't paying attention like they should be.
11) Finally, with about twelve minutes to go, we turn off on the exit we took about 30 minutes ago. Tension in the car remains high. I am told "don't stop or let anyone in front of us" or there will be trouble. I feel like I'm running for home plate and a large, grouchy catcher is in front of me with a ball in his hand.
12) With about five minutes to go, we arrive at the train station for the second time. I have to get my bags from the back, kiss everyone good-bye and pick up my prepaid tickets. I tell my wife, "Are you sure you know the way out? Shall we run through that one more time?" She gives me the "if your serious, don't bother coming back" look.

I made it with a minute (or so) to spare. After settling down in my seat, I got up to get a cup of coffee (ah, Green Mountain coffee) from the snack bar and thanked God for getting us there safely and prayed for my family's safe return home.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Back from visiting Mom

I made it back from visiting Mom who lives near Pittsburgh. It was a good trip and almost everything went well. The trip there on the train seemed to go much faster than its true 11 hour duration. I had some really good books to read. I read Band of Brothers, Gates of Fire, Red Harvest and Brave Companions. The first two I read from the beginning. The last two I had started a long time ago but never seemed to have the time to finish. Now I have. I'm still reading Gates of Fire and it is very good. I don't think it will take long to finish.

I did miss a chance of a lifetime - both the Vince Lombardi trophy (won by the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII) and the Stanley Cup (won by the Penguins) were on display together in downtown Pittsburgh (pronounced by some as "dun tun Pixburgh") the day after I got there. But Mom had too many jobs lined up for me to take time off to go back into the city. It was satisfying to get so many things done for her, though, and by staying close to home, I got to see most of my relatives still living in that area. I've lost track of most of the people I went to high school with and the ones I have kept track of have moved away.

Mom is 84 and can't do as much as she used to. I was able to get things out of the attic, move big bundles of clothes, replace a plastic dryer vent with a metal one, find a replacement water filter when the old one was discontinued, move porch furniture into storage, fix a leaking water valve, change the battery on her garage door opener (which didn't fix a problem), buy a large sheet of plastic and cover a work area that hasn't been touched by the workman for two years and whose own plastic sheet had ripped and allowed water to wash into the work area, checked the fluids in her car, got a needle that had dropped down into the works of her sewing machine and then took the sewing machine to a repairman when the machine still didn't work right and took her to the eye surgeon who gave her the good news that the bleeding has finally stopped in her eye and that now another eye surgeon can finish the cataract operation that has been on hold for almost a year.

There are other things I've forgotten but the best part was just being with her and talking over things we remember from our life together and what the future may hold. Even though we have relatives living in the area, they have lives of their own and Mom gets lonely. Yes, the answer is for her to move near us but it's too big for her to handle now. I'm afraid she won't be ready to move until something forces her. There are a couple of stories that can be told about the trip. I hope to write them down here in the coming days.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Cute things kids say

One day, we found that the local Toys R Us ( I don't know how to get the 'R' to be backwards) was going to have a visit from some cartoon characters that our daughter Emma liked. So, we headed off for a round of picture taking. The pictures here are Emma with Strawberry Shortcake, Wubbzy (of Wow Wow Wubbzy fame) and one of the Care Bears. We all had a great time.

Part of the fun was tracking down the various characters. But we were having so much fun. we lost track of time. I always call my mother at the same time that day and we were going to be late. So, I was going a little fast and as we rounded one bend I saw the police car - too late. Sure enough, he pulled us over. Lucky for me, he just gave me a warning and made sure the kids knew that daddy did something wrong.

When we finally got home (now late to call my mother), Emma wanted to talk first because she said she had something important to say. "Daddy got run over by the police!" I had to grab the phone quickly to assure my mother that I was fine and had only been pulled over. A mother in her 80's could have a heart attack.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Another construction work story

Here's another story about a construction job I worked on. The stories here and here are from another construction job I'd been on. This was going to be one of the nicer jobs I'd had. It was close to home (most of the other jobs I'd been on were over an hour's drive from home). Also, it was on a small machine, a Gradall pictured here, which was relatively easy to maintain. The name is a brand name and comes from its usual job: grading almost anything. It could move and smooth soil at almost any angle. The job I was working on was a new road and heavier equipment would move most of the dirt into place. The Gradall would just be used to even up the edges so that grass or some other plants could be used to help hold the dirt in place.

When I started on the job, the road was well under way and the operator of the machine was cleaning up after the hard work. I could tell he didn't like me from the beginning but I couldn't help that. My job, as usual for an oiler, was to drive the Gradall where it was needed and keep it in good condition by greasing the fittings when the machine was idle. We worked in one place most of the morning and I only needed to make small moves. But at lunch time, I was going to be moving the machine further back down the shoulder of the road. There was about a ten foot drop off into the woods from the shoulder of the road which was wide enough to hold the machine - but just barely. I was going to have to back up the machine with little room for error but I figured I'd done it before with bigger machines. As the operator and everyone else walked off for lunch (the oiler always worked during lunch and I knew I'd get to eat later), I started to back up but there were no rear-view mirrors!

The operator should have never put me in that situation and if I'd been more assertive, I'd have either waited until he got back from lunch to help or insisted on someone else to give me signals in place of the missing mirrors. But I was trying to fit in and be a regular guy so I gave it a go. I'd back up a bit and then get out and look around. It was taking forever and I could see the guys at lunch laughing and pointing. So, I started to back up longer before looking around. After a while, though, I realized that the machine was slipping off the shoulder. I started to move forward but I couldn't and the machine was tilting more and more.

Finally, the operator came running up to the machine and pushed the boom and the bucket over the side to keep us from sliding over as I moved forward to get traction. Then, as I started to back up, men who were returning from lunch gave me signals and I was able to get the Gradall back where they wanted it. As I got out to get my lunch, the operator yelled that the boss wanted to see me first. The boss handed me my check and told me that was it. I'd been fired for the first and only time in my life. In spite of the fact that I could have gone to the Union and complained about the unsafe machine, I felt horrible. It taught me a real lesson, though, about the need to stick up for what is right. I shouldn't have tried to drive that machine without the proper rear-view mirrors.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Rules of Life - Part 2

I've got a non-regular, write-'em-as-they-happen series going on the Rules of Life. Rule #1 can be found here. Rule #2 has to do with borrowing. This area of life could probably have a dozen rules of its own. And maybe it will. But for now, I'll stick with one specific thing. I'm sure this has happened to all of us. You go to use something (a tool, a book, a TV remote) and it's not where it's supposed to be. "Supposed to be", of course, is a matter of opinion. How do you decide where something is "supposed to be"? Also, how should everyone else know where the thing is "supposed to be"?

It's really very simple, the thing that you borrow is "supposed to be" where you found it. If you buy the thing or someone gives it to you, you get to decide where the thing is "supposed to be" but when someone else owns it, someone else has decided where it is "supposed to be". This is especially important when the person who owns it doesn't know you are borrowing it. When they go to use it next, they are going to go where the thing is "supposed to be".

Rule of life #2 - When you borrow something, return it to where you found it. Not where you think it should be. Not where someone else tells you to put it. Put it back where you found it. That is where the thing is "supposed to be".

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another trip to see Mom

Last year, I went to visit my mother by myself. Here's the link about that trip. It was the first time since I'd been married that I made the trip alone. Well, once again we decided that the trip was too long for us to travel as a family so I'm traveling alone again and I'm taking the train again. I'm scheduling this blog post to show while I'm on the train. I hope everything works that way. I should be sitting in my seat as this is displayed. [edit - See this story to find out how this almost didn't happen]

The schedule is a little different this time. The train is leaving about a half hour earlier but I'll be getting to Pittsburgh about the same time. We're getting up at 4 AM so we can leave about 5 AM to get to the station in Providence, RI at about 6:30 AM. After that, everything should be easy. I'll get to Pittsburgh about 8 PM. A bus leaves from near the train station at 9 PM and gets to my mother's town about 10 PM. I don't think we'll be staying up talking long that night.

I hope to have some stories write about when I get back. Last year I meant to tell about the hard time I had finding the bus that was supposed to be leaving from near the train station. I never found it and had to walk all the way into downtown Pittsburgh and take the subway/streetcar to a town near my mother's town. She had to drive a lot further in the dark than we'd planned. It wasn't good. This year will be better.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Too close for comfort

We were watching an old Twilight Zone episode the other day with my son, Evan. It was one of the original series in black and white. He has enjoyed the stories in the past so we thought he'd like this one, too.

It was the story about a group of families in a suburban neighborhood back in the 60's when we thought about nuclear war more often. One family had gone to the time and expense of building, stocking and maintaining a bomb shelter. The other families knew about it and chose not to build their own. They even joked about it to the father of the family with the shelter. Then, while all the families were at a party at the home of the family with the shelter, an alert came on TV about a possible nuclear strike headed toward the country. Everyone leaves and the family with the shelter begins to prepare to seal up the shelter and prepare for the worst.

But one by one, the other families show up asking to be let into the shelter. They are turned away because the shelter will only hold one family and only has previsions for them. The other families plead with them offering to supply food and help and to not be trouble. When they continue to be refused and more families show up, anger begins to take over. The outside families at first start to fight among themselves trying to show how their family deserves to be included in the shelter and the others don't. Finally, the families outside begin to get violent and try to not only break down the shelter door (of course, removing any benefit of the shelter) and attacking other families who came late to request help. The final scene is an announcement that the alert was a false alarm. There were no missiles on the way. The families disperse with a few apologies.

Evan was visibly upset. "I didn't like that episode," my 13-year son said. "That's exactly the way people would react, Dad!" It's too bad he's already come to that conclusion. I would hope it would be different but somehow I doubt it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A new friend on my walk

Yesterday on my walk, I came across this turtle. It didn't seem to be afraid of me and didn't pull into its shell. So, I was able to get a few good pictures. From what I can find on the Internet, it looks like a Box Turtle. Also, from information on the Internet, it looks like it might be a male because of its bright, red eyes (see the bottom picture) and its bright coloration. This is considered the least reliable method of determining the sex of a turtle, though. I should have taken a picture of its tail!

He was right in the middle of the path and I was tempted to move him but then I changed my mind. Turtles have been getting along without my help for a long time. Maybe he was on the hunt for a female turtle or a meal and I could ruin that. So, in the end, I just took a few pictures and left him alone. I will look for him when I walk today but, in a way, I hope I don't find him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The bumble bees are still busy

As I noted previously, I've been seeing a lot of bumble bees this year. Unlike when I saw lots of butterflies, though, the number of bumble bees remains high. The number of butterflies peaked in a few days and now I'm not seeing many. The reason for that may be that butterflies will migrate but the bumble bees do not.

The bumble bees are still hard at it. You can see three in this picture. There were probably 20 - 30 of them in the group of bushes where this picture was taken. But I couldn't get them to cooperate to get a good picture of all of them. This is why large numbers of bumble bees will never replace the honeybees that we're losing. The bumble bees are just too individualistic!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I just wanted some coffee

Our office provides free coffee and tea but it's not the best quality. I don't mind that much. I can tell the difference between the coffee at work and the coffee from a good shop (or even the coffee I make at home). But some of the folks in our software group decided they couldn't stand the free coffee any longer and decided to bring in their own coffee maker and take turns bringing in coffee. That was fine. I kept drinking the free stuff. I'm cheap like that.

But I always feel like an outsider - even though I'd been here longer than any of the others. So, in an effort to join in and be a regular guy, I said I'd take a turn at bringing coffee in. I noticed that when one fellow brought in a can of brand name coffee, some of the folks snickered (I thought it was fine) and when someone else brought in Green Mountain coffee (which I consider top of the line) and even that was panned. So, when it came to my turn I thought I'd better get what the more discriminating people were bringing in: Starbuck's.

I left early to stop by the Starbuck's shop in town. I was a little intimidated when I walked in and saw the variety of types of coffee that were available. I didn't have to wait long, though, a friendly person walked right up and asked if she could help me. "Yes, I'd like a pound of ground coffee, please. Nothing fancy, just plain, regular coffee. Not decaffeinated." I thought I'd given a complete description and would be on my way in a few minutes. "What continent are you thinking about?" she asked. I was surprised and assumed she somehow knew we had adopted our daughter from China. Had I mentioned that to someone who worked here that I hadn't seen? Maybe I was talking under my breath about a trip I'd taken to Africa or something. "What?" I said. "Would you like coffee from South America? Africa? Asia?" she answered. "Oh," I said, "I guess South America would be fine." That was the closest continent to us so it should be fresh, right? "Which country?" she asked.

Good grief! I suppose I should have cared but I just wanted to get to work. Colombia had the best advertisements so I went with Juan Valdez and said, "Colombian I suppose." "Very good," she said. Now I felt like a real connoisseur. These folks were well trained. I was now ready to leave comforted by the knowledge that I knew fine coffee. I started to ask how much a pound it would be when she asked, "How will you be brewing the coffee?" When I didn't answer right away she suggested, "Is this a preheated water type like the Bunn or is it a home coffee maker?" I told her is was just a home style coffee maker. Again I thought we were done but she asked, "What type of filter do you use? Do you use paper or gold?" A gold filter? Are you kidding? I didn't say that because, obviously, somebody did that. No one I knew but there must be such people or she wouldn't have asked. "No, just paper," I sighed. Now I felt really stupid. I felt like I'd just come in from the wild. I must be a coarse, ragged, dunderhead if I didn't know about these things. All this was going on right in my own town and I had no idea about it. I'd missed this all these years.

I finally got my coffee and paid enough for a good lunch for a pound of it. When I got to work, I wasn't ridiculed and the coffee was not the focus of laughter but somehow I still didn't feel like I fit in. Just the opposite. I felt like a guy who tries to dress up a little to impress his co-workers and then ties the tie in an odd way. I drank the coffee with them for a while but then went back to the free stuff. Trying to fit in made me feel even more of an outsider.