Thursday, January 28, 2010

Another missed opportunity

As I wrote before, even with a digital camera, with its auto focus and no worries about running out of film, I manage to miss some great opportunities to take a good shot. Well, add to the list of digital advantages that I forget about until it is too late - motion pictures.

A few weeks ago, we had a surprise snow storm with no wind. That is unheard of where we live. There is always wind. In our old house, we even had wind in the house when the TV stations said there would be no wind that day. So, snow with no wind was a story in itself. But this snow also had larger than usual flakes. So when you looked out the front window in our office, it looked like a snow globe. The snow fell straight down very slowly and you could see the individual flakes. It was beautiful. I'd never seen anything like it - and probably never will see anything like it in the future.

At least I had the presence of mind to take a few pictures of it (you'll need to click on the top picture to see it large enough to show the snow). But I should have taken a movie. It would have been great. It would have won awards. It would have been a top hit on YouTube and might have even made the evening news. Well, no, none of that would have happened. But I would have put it on this blog and would have enjoyed it myself. Now all I can do it look at these pictures and try to remember what it looked like. Maybe next time I'll think about taking a little video with my camera.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The return of the Tree Muncher

It's back. In an earlier post, I talked about the mysterious machine that was eating a path through the woods behind our office. The mystery was solved when I got a chance to talk with the operator (and owner) of the machine.

Well, a week ago, on the way back from my walk, I heard the machine clanking and buzzing through the woods again. The buzzing sound is the sound of it tearing through the wood of a tree it is mincing into wood chips and sawdust.

I didn't have time to see where it was and what it was doing. I had to get back to work. Then, I got so busy at work last week that I didn't get a chance to walk all week. I finally got out yesterday to see what had happened. The top picture is one I took about a month before the Tree Muncher had its meal. The bottom picture shows the results.There was already a road here so that small pick-up trucks could drive through to test the wells in the area (testing the groundwater for contaminants) but it was starting to get overgrown. It made it more of an adventure to go for walks when it felt more closed in. Now it feels like I'm walking on a highway. At least most of the trees were left.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Happy birthday Mom

My mother is 85 today. She's still living in the house that I grew up in. It was the first and only house my parents ever bought. She feels like it's too much to take care of now but the thought of packing up and moving to an apartment is too much to think about.

We've tried to get her to move near us but that's overwhelming to her, too. I tell her that I would do all the work but it doesn't matter. She would worry about it and that seems to be the big problem - something else to worry about.

I wish I could see her more often and help her with all the things she can't do. Maybe one of these days I'll win that argument but that would be the first one. She doesn't have a computer and will never see this message. I love you, Mom. I hope you have a great day with many more to follow.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Too much irony to ignore

 As most people have heard, there was an election in Massachusetts this past Tuesday, January 19, to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy. Massachusetts is a very Democratic-leaning state that hasn't had a Republican senator since 1972 although there were three Republican governors in a row before the current Democratic governor. But, it surprised everyone when the Republican won the election. Most people considered that the winner of the Democratic primary would be the easy winner of the special election. There are a number of differing ideas on why he won:

1) The Republican winner ran a very good campaign
2) The Democratic candidate ran a very poor campaign
3) It was a referendum on the Health Care legislation being debated in Congress right now
4) It was backlash at the poor state of the economy (but the candidate who lost had nothing to do with it)

It could be any of those, something I forgot to list or a combination of any of these things. But what strikes me as the most interesting is that a couple of years ago, Massachusetts passed a huge overhaul of its health care system that many feel was the model for the legislation now being considered in Washington. The Massachusetts system was developed and passed by a Republican governor working with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. They managed to cooperate to hammer things out. One of the complaints of the health care legislation being debated in Washington is that it is too partisan. I will not be assessing blame here because it is too complicated, it would take too much time to write up and because both sides are to blame for it.

The irony is that this election in Massachusetts may well derail the national legislation that was, in part, inspired by the health care overhaul in Massachusetts. And to add to the irony, this election was to replace the man, Edward Kennedy, who more than almost anyone was responsible for getting the overhaul of the national health care system started. He continually pointed to the Massachusetts health care overhaul as a model for the way it should be done at the national level.

Themes that come from real life are much more interesting than fiction. If someone had written a story like this a year ago, I'll bet no publisher would have bought it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Parental guilt

I just overheard some folks talking about preparing for a new baby and it reminded me of something that happened to Cindy and I while she was pregnant with our first child.

We were trying to be as prepared as possible and, in addition to taking birthing classes at the hospital, we were also taking CPR classes that were aimed at expectant parents. We thought we were well prepared (of course, you never are - at least for your first child) and then some of the other people in our class were talking and the father said that they had a whole closet filled with boxes of disposable diapers. Cindy and I looked at each other and we both thought, "Should we do that?" Our first brush with parental guilt and our son wasn't even born yet.

As we thought about it, we realized it was silly to take up too much space in our home for boxes of diapers. It's not like we wouldn't be able to get out to buy more diapers when we needed them. Having enough to last a few days was good enough unless we were expecting a snow storm or a hurricane and neither was coming. There would be more "guilt trips" thown our way in the coming years but at least this was one we didn't have to worry about.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My wife's birthday

I'm actually entering this on January 15 but I'm post-dating it as January 13 because that is my wife's birthday. I didn't enter this on the right day because I wanted to put a picture of her here and I keep forgetting to get the one I want. When I get it, I'll put it here.

As for all of us, her birthday is both happy and sad. Sad because she is a year older but happy because she is a year older! As the saying goes, it's better to be the age you are than not be able to have a birthday. Another old saying is that your age is only a number. It's trite but it's true. It's not like you magically get more forgetful, less active or heavier on the anniversary of your birth. It's just a reminder of your being that old. It's what happens day to day that makes the difference. And a birthday can be like New Year's Day in the sense that you can use it as a reason for different behaviors and habits that actually help you improve your life.

Cindy got some nice presents (although not as many as she deserves) and a nice cake (made by her mother who used to run the bakery in the local supermarket). She is the love of my life and the one bad thing I see about her new age is that it reminds me of how I wish I had asked her to marry me sooner. We knew each other for a few years before I finally wised up and asked her to marry me. We were married on January 8 partly because her birthday was coming up on the 13th and she didn't want to be one more year older on her wedding.

Cindy was 32 and I was 42 when we were married. In some ways, I'm glad we were older than usual because we were more sure about who we were and what we wanted in a spouse. Also, we were done with our "wild" times and were ready to settle down and start a family and spend our time with the kids instead of running off to be with other adults and leaving the kids with baby sitters. But it would have been nice to share our life when we were more active, too. And it would have been easier to chase around with our children when we were younger. But all in all, I'm glad we got married when we did.

When we got engaged and told all of our friends, one of the fellows in our church sympathized with my not getting married until I was 42. After all, his father didn't get married until he was 48. And he always told his kids, "Don't rush into marriage like I did!"

[Updated -  January 17, 2010, I've uploaded the picture from Cindy's birthday celebration that I originally wanted to include. This picture says a lot about her. She loves her children so much that she wants to include them in everything she does. She is willing to give up anything for her children (even the coveted Birthday Wish) so the children can join in. She's a wonderful mother and a terrific wife.]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Programmers as mystery writers

As we try to find all the bugs in our program before we release it (at the end of this month!), we are finding that the problems are harder and harder to nail down. Also, they are getting tougher to differentiate. When something goes wrong, is it another case of the bug we've been looking at or is it a new bug? Who should look at this bug? It could be a problem with the database or it could be a problem with the user interface. Or perhaps they are interacting and it involves both of them.
I remarked that sometimes it seems that we're not writing software but mystery novels. A real Who Done It!

We could sometimes use Nick and Nora Charles or even Miss Marple or even Sherlock Holmes to help us track down these problems and figure out who was responsible. In our case, though, we don't want to assess blame but find the person who has the best chance of knowing how to fix the problem.

Then the fellow in charge of testing said maybe it's more like the movies where a little kid tries to tell his parents that there is a monster under his bed. The parents come in to look and find nothing. They leave after tucking the child back into bed and turning off the light. Then the ominous music starts and the program crashes yet again.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tiny footprints in the snow

Something was out prowling around recently in the snow in the woods behind our office. I'm no tracker but it looks like a two legged animal to me. Maybe a small bird. Or a fairy! Notice the sharp turn to the left and then another turn to the right (click on the photo to see it larger). At first I thought something might have startled it but it probably wouldn't have resumed its direction so quickly if it was afraid of something on its right. And there didn't seem to be a wider spacing of the prints after the turn as there would have been if it sped up. Just another mystery.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Hill Street Programmers

Our programming group has a ten minute meeting every morning. It is an informal time when we take turns telling what we worked on the previous day, what we are going to be working on this day and what problems (if any) that we've run into that have stopped our progress. They are called Stand Up Meetings because by standing up, we don't get comfortable and go on too long. After all, there are usually eight of us in the meeting and we have to finish in ten minutes.

These meetings keep us on our toes. You want to have some accomplishment to tell about in the morning and you want to know what you're going to be working on that day. And by listing any roadblocks you've run into, someone else in the meeting may have an idea that can help. Our supervisor usually ends the meeting by saying something like, "OK, let's get to work. I hope you all have a good day."

Today it struck me how similar these meetings are to the "roll call" or briefing scene in the old 80's TV show Hill Street Blues. It was always the first scene in the show and everyone would be given their assignments for the day. And in the early years, Sergeant Esterhaus (played by the late Michael Conrad), who ran the briefing, would always end the scene with the line, "Let's be careful out there." That would work for us, too. It doesn't take much for one programmer to cause the daily build of our software to fail and cause a headache for everyone.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The irony of finding problems

When people find problems with your product, you want to make it as painless as possible for them to report the problem so you can fix it. But, just saying, "I've found a problem," isn't enough to help fix the problem. So, whoever finds the problem (some people call them "bugs") must provide enough information to help track down the source of the problem. To do this, elaborate programs have been written to keep track of bugs - a description of the bug, who reported the bug, under what circumstances the bug showed itself and what equipment was being used. Beyond that, we need to know what the bug reporter was trying to do and what they expected to happen.

For instance, in the picture here you could simply say, "I've found a bug." Well, technically, it's not a bug. It's a Cricket which is a member of the order Orthoptera (Grasshoppers, Crickets and Locusts). True bugs are in the order Hemiptera. Then, if you look closer, you see that the Cricket is missing one of its hind legs. We could dig deeper but that's enough to illustrate my point. Simply saying you've found a problem isn't enough. There needs to be more information. And this is where the irony comes - if it gets too hard to report a bug, people will not want to take the time to report the bug. I've found this myself.

While adding features to our products, we use our products. And sometimes, we discover problems with our own product. It's in our own best interest that we report the problem so that someone who knows about that part of the product can fix it. But the first thing that comes to my mind is, "I don't have time to write this problem up. I have a schedule to keep. Maybe I didn't see that bug after all. Anyway, someone else will probably see it and report it." Yes, I'm tempted to ignore bugs but I don't. I dutifully write them up. But what about our customers? They're busy, too, and they don't have as much reason to take the time to collect all the important information about the bug and send it to us.

So, the bottom line is - there must be a balance. You must make it as easy as possible for people to report problems. Just creating a huge form that must be completely filled out before a bug can be investigated is not the answer. But you must also determine the minimum amount of information that is needed before working on the problem can begin.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Another good movie

I'm a little late writing about this. I took my daughter to see The Princess and the Frog on New Year's Eve. It was very good and was much better than I expected. I went to it like the dutiful dad not expecting to like it but I liked the story and I enjoyed the characters and the people they chose for the voices. I don't think voice actors get enough credit for what they do and how they do it. I'd like to write more about that some time but I'll leave it there for now. The story sounds trite if you tell it but I liked it very much. The surprise ending (to me at least) was also nice. It could have ended five minutes earlier and I'd have been happy but the final twist made it just perfect.

The fact that Randy Newman wrote the original music was another good thing. I've liked his music ever since I heard I Think It's Going to Rain Today. I think the melancholy aspect of his songs is what I enjoy the most - if you can say "melancholy" and "enjoy" in the same sentence :-) Then, I saw The Natural (one of my favorite movies) and heard Mr. Newman's musical score. It added so much to my enjoyment of the movie. I'll write more about Randy Newman at a later time, too.

The one thing I didn't like about the movie was the references to voo doo and making it look like it could really have an effect. I understand that people can react to it, be scared by it and alter their actions based on that but I don't like it when dark arts like that are made to seem real. Any story needs an antagonist and this sort of thing ties in with New Orleans (where the story takes plae) so I'll let them off this time.

But other than this, it was an enjoyable time. My daughter loved the movie, too, and that makes it all worthwhile. I like going places with my wife, son and daughter together but it's also fun to just spend some time with each of them individually. It gives us a chance to do things that everyone doesn't like.

Friday, January 01, 2010

First post of the year

This is just a quick note to start out the new year. After trying to stay up until midnight for a number of New Year's Eves, my son was finally able to stay awake until just after the new year turned last night. He's 13 and is very proud of himself. I stayed up with him but this isn't my first time and the need to do it wasn't as great for me - other than I didn't want him to have to stay up by himself. It was more fun for us to do it together and to encourage each other. We also had help from the SyFy Channel having a The Twilight Zone marathon starting on New Year's Eve and running through New Year's Day. It really helped us stay awake.

I used to enjoy the SyFy Channel more when it was known as the SciFi Channel and didn't have such an emphasis on ghost hunting and other paranormal activities. But they do have some good science fiction movies from time to time and they are the only ones showing The Twilight Zone.