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.