Thursday, April 30, 2009

Explaining the unexplainable

I read a good post on the blog of Bruce Eckel the other day. It was entitled, "Writing Software is Like...Writing". Bruce is a teacher and a writer about software and the process of writing software. I own his book called Thinking in Java and I read as many of his articles as I can. I respect his opinions and his ability to explain confusing topics. I had compared writing software to building a railroad (in the jungle, no less) in a blog posting from last December. There I mentioned that there have been other analogies to writing software from building a bridge to designing a building. But Bruce's idea may come closer to it than any others I've read. For one thing, the writing of software isn't verifiable like other forms of engineering. He also points out that there is a great variety in both writing words and writing software. Managers ask why there are so many failures in software writing compared with other forms of engineering. Software developers have been trying to come up with methods that allow software projects to be scheduled; their time estimated better and their results be more consistent. There doesn't appear to be a method that gives good, repeatable results. So, we keep trying to find analogies to writing software in the hopes that if it's like some other, older trade, maybe we can use techniques that work in that trade to improve writing software. We feel the need to come up with an analogy for what we do to explain it to our bosses, our friends and our families. "What do you do all day at work, Dad?" At one of our company's children's parties, they had the kids make a drawing of what they thought we did all day. My son drew a picture of me playing computer games. He'd never heard a good explanation from me so he had to make up his own.

It's a little like when Jesus tried to explain the kingdom of heaven using parables. He wanted to explain things to his listeners that they couldn't understand. They listened but could not hear. They saw but did not see. Jesus explained heaven in terms of things they could understand. As in Matthew 13 (link is to the New International Version), Jesus used the parable of a farmer sowing seed, a woman using yeast for bread and fishermen catching fish in a net. If we can understand these small lessons and act on them, we can begin to understand how God works through us in the world. As we learn more, we use the lessons more so we can understand more. When we're faced with a vast truth that we can't fully understand, it helps to understand just a portion of it so we can get a start on using it. It's only through the practice of using it that we start to really understand. A teacher was asked by a student, "How do I learn to write?" The teacher answered, "By writing."

Monday, April 27, 2009


I don't usually make New Year's Resolutions, but this year I did. I was going to stop eating Doritos. I don't think Doritos are evil. I don't think Doritos are dangerous. I don't think cutting out Doritos is going to improve my health. I just don't like the hold they have on me. Every night I would eat them while I was watching TV, working on the computer or playing games with my wife and kids. Every night. And often, I would eat more than half a bag in a night. Sometimes, I'd eat a whole bag. I didn't like the feeling of not being able to say, "No."

The picture of the Doritos nutrition information here is from the Frito-Lay website for the Cool Ranch variety - my favorite. One of the funny things I learned from this label is that the serving size is about 12 chips. If only I could limit myself to that.

Well, I held off until Thursday night, April 23. But I was still not feeling well, I was bored, I'd held off longer than I'd expected to, we'd had too much rain over the last few days, I was worried about my family recovering from the colds we all had - any number of excuses we all come up with. Isn't that always the way? If we want to do something, we'll find an excuse to do it. So, the answer for whether we should do something or not should not be, "Well, I have an excuse." The answer should be, "I said I wasn't going to do it." Or, even better, "This is wrong." You shouldn't start doing something because there is an excuse. I didn't like the hold Doritos had on me. That hasn't changed. No number of excuses is going to change that. I repeated my little back-slide the next night. The excuse for the night was my son and I were going to watch an episode of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series on Cartoon Network. But after finishing the bag I'd started the night before, I decided to jump back on the wagon. It's Monday, April 27 and I haven't had any Doritos since. We'll see how long I go this time. Or maybe I should say, we'll see how long I can dismiss the excuses for eating Doritos again.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Still can't hear

It's getting a little worrisome. I think I'm mostly over the cold/flu I got almost two weeks ago. But the hearing loss I got as part of it is still bothering me. I can hear very little in either ear. It's amazing how it has affected me. I no longer want to talk to anyone because I'll miss most of what they say. I'm always looking round to see if I've missed someone tying to talk to me. I dread going into work, going to church or even doing something as simple as getting a haircut (boy do I need one) because I'll miss an instruction, appear to snub someone or get a crew-cut because I misinterpret what some is saying to me. It certainly has given me a new perception of what it is like for millions of people with hearing loss. Perhaps this is God's plan for this problem. I want to pray for recovery but maybe I should just let God take care of it in His own time. Maybe I haven't learned my lesson yet. I have gone to two doctors so far (the Emergency Room and an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist) but nothing they've prescribed has given me my hearing back, yet. At least the sinus infection seems to be gone.

I'm going to do a little bit more study on this. Is it selfish of me to ask for healing when so many other people are faced with much worse conditions? I know God won't do anything out of His will just because I ask for it but should I even ask for healing? It seems so inconsiderate of the world in general and God's plans specifically to be asking for things for myself. But this is affecting my family, too. The kids find it hard to talk with me and my wife and I can't carry on a normal conversation. I think they're getting a little frustrated at work, too. Not that they blame me for not getting well but everyone has their job to do and if they have to take more time to deal with me, it takes time away from their own work. I find it hard to concentrate. I describe it like holding two pillows up to the side of your head while you're standing in a room with a diesel engine running. Yes, it's not only the lack of hearing but the noise coming from my own head. The ear folks call it tinnitus. That's a nice, quiet name for something that sounds like a tractor idling next to you.

I wouldn't be so worried but a similar thing happened last summer. I got a much less severe cold and a week later, I suddenly (over the course of an hour or so) lost hearing in my left ear. I treated it myself for a while with decongestants. Then, I made a planned week-long trip to see my mother and couldn't do anything about it while I was there. When I finally got to the doctor, they weren't able to reverse the hearing loss and I've been going around since with the hearing impaired in my left ear. How I long to have only that much hearing loss now! I guess that's one lesson I've really learned in this: For as bad as I thought my hearing loss was before, it's much worse now. Dear God, please take this burden from me - if only for my family's sake.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Would you like less government? How about none?

I'm still sick! My biggest problem right now is that I can hardly hear anything. It's like holding two pillows over you ears. And my wife and son are sick now, too (thank God, our daughter and my mother-in-law are well). So, I'm in a bad mood. Perhaps that explains this post.

Yesterday was Tax Day. Thanks to my wife's organization, our taxes were finished weeks ago and we've already gotten our refund. I don't like paying taxes. I don't like it when our taxes go up. I don't like needing to change the oil in the car. I don't like taking medicine. But they are sometimes necessary things to do. There are those who think we don't need to lose so much of our hard-earned money through taxes. What does the government do for us anyway?

In his first inauguration speech, Ronald Reagan is often quoted as saying, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." This is a famous quote of his and at first it seems he is advocating anarchy. No government. But to understand that he is not saying that, you have to look at his entire sentence. [Link to text of the speech] "In this present crisis," begins the sentence. So, he was saying that in this particular case, the government was causing (or at least aggravating) the problem. He, of course, used his position in the government to do something about the problem and he used his ability to get a Congress controlled by the other party to go along with most of his ideas. He didn't cut down the size of the government in his eight years in the White House. He never presented a balanced budget to Congress (supposedly, I'd have to look that up).

There are a lot of folks saying the Republican party needs to get back to its roots to make an impact on this country. These folks point back to Ronald Reagan as the standard to be met. That may be but I think the current generation is losing track of what happened back in the early 80's. What our country always needs (no matter which party is in power) is a strong check on that power. While it looks like our country is going deeper into debt to try to get out of the problem we're in, we do need people continually calling attention to the size of the deficit to force those in power to keep it in mind. Just as we needed people continually pointing out the costs of going into Iraq. We need people who are questioning each step made along the road to recovery (i.e. will this particular stimulus really help the country recover?) just as we needed critics who complained about the stresses "No Child Left Behind" placed on school districts with no additional funding.

I just don't like it when people quote part of Mr. Reagan's remarks and say the government should just get out of the way. The government does only harm. We don't need a government. Free enterprise and checks and balances of the marketplace will cause everything to work out. That is just plain wrong. Just look at Somalia. There is no government. Just warlords and organized crime. How is that working for you?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Yes, more sick time

Not long after posting my last entry, I started to feel my ears stuffing up. I heard less and less in both ears and there was more noise (tinnitus) in both ears. It got worse that night but I went to work on Friday. I called the doctor during the day to see if I could set up an appointment. The nurse said I just needed to take some Ibuprofen for any swelling and decongestants to let the fluid drain from my ears. She didn't think coming in would help. "We can't cure the flu or a cold," she said. I was exhausted by the end of the day. Everything seemed to take so long. Everything was a struggle. I couldn't even finish my lunch.

My energy levels dropped and my hearing was getting worse throughout Saturday so my wife insisted that I go to the Emergency Room. People clogging up the emergency rooms at hospitals is supposed to be one of the problems with our health care systems and I don't like to do it but I was desperate. I had no other option but to wait and hope it got better. My doctor does not have week-end (or evening) hours. The Emergency Room did not seem to be crowded and they took me into two separate rooms for initial checking (temperature, blood pressure etc) and registration quite quickly. I was feeling terrible but hopeful. Then came the hour and a half wait. I got to watch the end of the Red Sox-Angels game (Sox won). I'd forgotten to bring a book and there were no magazines (I would have settled for a "Highlights for Children" at that point).

Finally, I was taken in (at the same time as a fellow who had been there before me!) and given a small, separate room. A doctor arrived who was very quick and efficient. In about two minutes, he found that I had a sinus infection and prescribed an antibiotic to help. I would have liked to ask a few questions but he was off to help someone else. I was just glad for the confirmation that I wasn't just acting like a baby.

The prescription only called for two pills a day and it was so late when I got to the drug store to drop off the prescription, I didn't wait for the pills that night. I was only able to take the first pill Sunday morning. Today, Monday, after taking the third pill, I'm feeling a lot better. I still can't hear very much. I hope this will improve as the rest of the conditions improve. My hearing problem may take a more involved diagnosis.

But I regret that I ruined Easter for my family. We didn't get to go to the Easter service. We didn't have a big Easter dinner. I also regret that my doctor's office didn't spend the two minutes it would have taken to discover that I had an infection. Instead, I was forced to pay $100 for the same service. As an aside - it's all well and good that insurance companies want to discourage us from going to the Emergency Room by tacking on a big co-payment - but what do you do when there's no option? Maybe my doctor's office will cover the $100 for me. Right. I hope to be back at work tomorrow. I may not be able to hear but maybe that will help me get more work done without being interrupted my people talking or phones ringing.

And we continue to wait for the results of the oncologists report of our dog Charlie's skin tumors. He got through the operation fine and he is back to his old jolly self. He doesn't have to worry. That what he has people for.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Back at work - and worrying

As I mentioned in another post, "Too bad we don't get better - all of a sudden", I regret the fact that I'm not feeling completely well yet. I'm feeling well enough to come to work and be able to concentrate again but it is a struggle to keep my mind focused. I'm not coughing and sneezing like I was so at least I'm not getting others infected (I'm washing my hands often and using a paper towel to pick up items other people might use). As I mentioned yesterday, I'm a little worried about my being late with my parts of our latest project but what's really worrying me is our dog, Charlie.

He has a lot of fatty tumors around his body and the vet has told us not to worry about them - as long as they stay soft and pliable. But when one started to grow outside of his body, on his stomach, we decided it was time to have the vet take a special look. He found some pre-cancerous cells in it and suggested that we have it removed. That is happening today - along with two other smaller ones we hadn't noticed before. Then they'll send a sample to an oncology lab to see if we are in for more problems. We'll know a bit more this after noon when we pick Charlie up and a little bit more when we get the report from the oncology lab. Of course, what we want is for Charlie to just be well - all at once and forever. That doesn't happen with this kind of thing. Hosanna!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Two days sick - more to come?

I stayed home yesterday with a sore throat and a cough. I'm a firm believer in not getting the other people at work sick. I'm glad I set up a computer at home that allows me to get some work done - I talked about this before. While I tried to get some work done at home, it was hard to concentrate. We are on a two-week schedule on our projects at work. This is part of the Agile Method of software development. Also, we have a 10-minute stand-up meeting every day to discuss what we're working on and what problems we're facing. I'm going to miss my two-week milestones. I felt even worse today (fever, chills, achy joints, no energy) and I think I might have the flu. I had a flu shot back in November but, as my son points out, it can only cover three strains of flu virus. I hope I'll be able to go to work tomorrow. If not, I'm really going to be behind.

This reminds me of how I felt when Cindy and I were about to get married fifteen years ago. I rarely get sick but at that time, I felt worse than I'd ever felt before. I went to the doctor and his nurses acted like I was being a big baby. He said I "just" had the flu and I said it never felt this bad before. His answer was that I'd never been 42 before, either. Poor Cindy was sure I was just trying to postpone the wedding. We didn't and I was better in time for the wedding. But the effects of the flu lingered into our honeymoon. We still had a wonderful time. We stayed in a bed and breakfast in Vermont. It was so relaxing. We didn't feel pressured to do a bunch of activities but we did ski, toboggan and take a sleigh ride. All we really wanted was to be together and enjoy each other.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Humility is a strange thing

I remember a quote I read a long time ago (the Internet has many links that attribute it to someone named E. D. Hulse) that says, "Humility is a strange thing. The minute you think you've got it, you've lost it." Then, I made up my own quote to answer this, "It's easy to be humble when you've got so much to be humble about." I thought about this because of a recent firing at our office and because of this Sunday's sermon at our church.

The firing happened on Thursday. The fellow who was "let go" had been with our company for 19 years (I've been here for 21 years). He is a software engineer and was the first person to write software for this company that actually had a degree for that. Everyone else (myself included) who wrote software came at it from another discipline like electronics engineering or physics. He is also an accomplished professional musician (guitar and piano) and has a knack for learning foreign languages - he speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese with some other languages thrown in when he needs them. He wrote a book on using the Java programming language and published a number of magazine articles on programming over the years. How could they let someone like that go?

They felt he just didn't fit in. He had been moved out of the Engineering group a number of years ago to take over the maintenance of the company's database system that keeps track of inventory, customer information, parts and shipping information. He still had to use his programming skills but not with the mainstream programming languages like C, C++ or Java but with the internal language used by the database program. He wasn't working with a group but was working on his own. Our software group has progressed to needing to write specifications for our projects. We need to document everything for other members of the group to be able to pick up where we left off. We check all of the code we write into a software repository where everyone has access to it. He was learning to do all of these things but they felt he wasn't progressing quickly enough. So, they "let him go". It sounds so much nicer than "fired".

As I talked with him about it, one of the things we discussed was that he did a lot more things than most of the supervisors in our company really knew about. As he said, "I was always taught to be humble and not to brag about what you've done." I was brought up the same way. It is nice if people notice what you've done but you don't make a big deal about it. But that isn't the way it seems to work if you're working for a company. If you don't publicize the things you've done, it doesn't get noticed. My feeling is that, if supervisors are getting more pay, more prestige and more power in the company, shouldn't they have to accept that they should be taking the time to learn what the employees are doing? Well, I guess not. In the end, it is our responsibility to let it be known what we have accomplished.

The sermon this week as the second in a series on redemption. Our pastor spoke about hope and that it doesn't come in the form and at the time we expect. The verses we read were from Matthew's description of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. The people were shouting Hosanna which means "save now". He was there to save them but not in the way they demanded. The citizens of Jerusalem wanted their Roman overlords to be defeated. Now! What Jesus had for them was for their sins to be forgiven and for them to return the love that God had for them. But another aspect of the story reminded me of my fired friend. Jesus chose to enter the city on the colt of a donkey. This was a humble way for the King to enter the city. But He wasn't hiding as He entered the city. He was telling the people what they needed to hear. He reminded them of the powerful miracles He had performed. He told them that he was God. I think we are wrong when we think we are being humble by not telling people what they need to hear. We need to be bolder to tell the truth. Not to brag but to explain what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Friday, April 03, 2009

We're a long way from the new year

When I stopped at the post office recently on my way home from work, I noticed a lot fewer cars were parked in the lot. Back in January, I was complaining about the number of people who were using the exercise gym in the same building as the post office and parking as close to the building as possible. It seemed silly to pay to take an exercise class and then try to get as little exercise as possible getting into the building. This also made it hard for people trying to get in and out of the post office quickly because we had to park so far away from the building.

Well, it looks like the New Year's Resolutions are falling off. Fewer and fewer people are using the gym and it is easy to find a parking place at the post office. I haven't quit my "No more Doritos" resolution yet. Although, as my son says, I've replaced Doritos with popcorn. Got to get the salt somewhere :-)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

More on traffic

The other day, on the way home, I experienced "road rage". In a sense. It wasn't directed at me and I didn't act on it but I got angry at someone because of the way they drove.

I had pulled out safely on the highway (a four-lane road that had far too many ways to enter and confuse drivers) and noticed someone up ahead needing to pull out onto the road. I pulled into the left lane (after first checking that no one was there or would soon be there) to give the guy (or gal) a break. Also, before I pulled over, I noticed that the gap behind me was wide enough to make my pulling over useful. I didn't want to pull over to make room only to have it "wasted" by someone right behind me keeping the entering car from getting on the highway.

It seemed like one more case of Magnanimous Me making the world a more pleasant place by being kind to a stranger. You know, the Random Acts of Kindness thing. As I checked in my rear view mirror, though, I saw a car in the right lane moving up fast. That car had been at least 200 yards behind me when I first pulled to the left and had not been going that fast. Now, the car was speeding up and staying in the right lane so that the new car couldn't pull onto the highway. By this time, I was past where the new car was so I started to pull over. I wanted to give the speeding car the benefit of the doubt and thought maybe he was in a hurry so I should pull over and let it pass me.

But no. I was back in the right lane and we'd passed the new car that was still trying to enter the highway and the speeding car slowed down! Now I got mad. That guy had sped up just so the new car couldn't get on the highway. Was it that he didn't want anyone else in front of him? Did he recognize the new car and didn't like them? The "speeding" car never did pass me. He didn't seem to be mad at me for pulling into the left lane to try to let the new car in. He just did a Random Act of Meanness. I didn't act on my "rage" I just let it pass but it made me think.

I don't want to come across as the perfect driver. I do stupid things on the road, too. I wonder about a lot of us who drive and don't want to give other people a break. We seem to act like it is our private road. We act like we were born in this lane and no one else should be allowed in it. We act like giving a person a break in traffic is going to make our life more difficult somehow. I guess this is a case for the psychiatrists out there. Why do we act like this at weak moments?

[Added after original post - I am hoping that in the future, I'll have the time to list a related verse from the Bible. In this case, a relevant set of verses would be:

Romans 7:21-25 "21So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." - New International Version]