Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Another Martha's Vineyard story

In my previous post, Martha's Vineyard story, I talked about a camping trip I took with a friend to the island of Martha's Vineyard where we took a bike trip that ended up lasting into the night and we had no lights to get back to our campsite. This post is about what happened at our campsite a night later.

After having wonderful weather for the few days we were on Martha's Vineyard, we were going to get some rain one evening. We knew it was coming and it wasn't going to be a big storm so we were prepared for it. If it's a light rain, I actually enjoy camping out in the rain - as long as the tent doesn't leak and it doesn't last all day. So, when it started raining that evening, I was ready to sleep well. The sound of the drops on the water-proof fly over the tent relaxed me and helped me to go to sleep quickly. Normally, I sleep very soundly and it takes a lot to wake me. But during the night, I felt something moving and it did wake me up. At first I thought it was my friend moving around. Maybe he was looking for something in the tent or maybe he needed to get out of the tent for some reason. So, I let it go and fell back to sleep. Later, I was awakened again when I felt something moving against my sleeping bag at the end where my feet were (near the door). This time, it really woke me because it obviously wasn't my friend. It was something with four little legs. The rain was still falling and the clouds made the night even darker. I could see nothing and was imagining everything from what I could feel. Whatever it was, it moved in quick little motions. I imagined a rat getting into our tent or maybe a squirrel or a chipmunk. While I'd prefer one of the latter two, a rabid chipmunk was not high on my list of desired tent-mates.

I was afraid to move because I didn't want to startle the intruder. I'd seen enough movies about cowboys finding a snake in their sleeping bag to know that you don't move and startle the varmint. So I waited. It wandered around but never left my feet for long. It walked around them and over them. Once it seemed to settle down on them for quite a while. I was going nuts. How could I let this - whatever - sniff around me as it decided what to do with me? I started to inch my hand out of my sleeping bag to get my glasses and/or a flashlight. But I'd zipped up too tight and couldn't do it without unzipping by bag. I pulled it down one tooth at a time. Finally I was able to slip my hand out but as I felt around for my glasses or the flashlight, I knocked something over and the intruder flinched. Then it started to slowly walk up toward my face - on top of me! I didn't have long to think, I had to prepare for when it got up to my chest. I didn't want to thrash around to get the light and incite it to move faster so I waited. I knew where it was and set my hands where I thought it was going.

It was up to my knees. Then it was up to my waist. When it got to my stomach, I let loose a yell, shot out my hands and threw it against the door of the tent. Then I sat up yelling to my friend to watch out, "There's a rat in the tent." I grabbed for the flashlight. I shown it around looking for the beast and my friend yelled, "You big baby, it's just a kitten!" just as my light caught its frightened face looking up at me. "How did it get in here?" I yelled. My friend said he heard it pawing at the door when it was raining and he felt sorry for it and let it in. He didn't want to wake me up and assumed the kitten would just fall asleep and not bother us. He hadn't counted on my usual moving of my feet and legs while I sleep. I must have disturbed it and started it on its midnight prowling.

I can't remember if I was mean and made him put it out or if I relented and left it stay in until the morning. I hate to admit it but I think I made him put it out. That was a long time ago before I became a cat lover. I'd act differently now. I'd still be afraid and make a fuss but, if it turned out to be a cat, I'd let it stay in the tent. At least until the rain stopped.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Martha's Vineyard story

Here's a story from 1977 when I was living in Northern Virginia. It happened that one of my two best friends was living and working in Washington D.C. and we often got together to do things. One summer, we decided to make a trip to Martha's Vineyard for a short camping trip. While we drove my car there (and took it to the island on the ferry), we wanted to bike around the island. So, we got to the campsite (somewhere near the red circle labeled '1' on the map to the right), set up our tent and set out for one of the lighthouses taking the State Road (and its south branch named S Rd on the map). Gay Head Lighthouse - located, of course, at Gay Head - on the south-western tip of the island and named for the brightly colored clay cliffs there) was about 15 - 20 miles from our campsite. It's circled in red and labeled '2' on the map. It didn't take long to get there and we spent a long time investigating the lighthouse and then climbing down the cliffs to the beach. It was beautiful and we spent more time there than we had planned. It was getting late so we looked for a shorter way back. I had a pretty large scale map that seemed to show a shorter way along the western side of the island. But when we got to where we assumed a bridge would be across a small harbor (the red circle labeled '3' on the map), there was no way to get across. After searching for a way across, we finally decided we'd have to go back the way we came (all the way back to the red circle labeled '2' because we didn't trust the map anymore). We had to backtrack about 2 - 3 miles and by the time we got back to the lighthouse, it was dusk. We'd have to move fast but we missed a few turns on the way back and, with about 10 miles to go, it was completely dark. We didn't have lights on our bicycles and didn't even have flashlights with us. So, we carefully rode along the light-less road going off onto the shoulder more times than we could count. The worst part, though, was when a car would come down the road. The headlights were so bright to our dilated eyes that they would blind us and we had no idea where the car was coming from and where the edge of the road was. We came close to being hit a number of times with people yelling and honking at us making us even more nervous. We ended up only making about 5 miles per hour because we walked as much as we rode and that part of the trip took us about 2 hours. It seemed longer than that. We were completely exhausted when we finally got back to our campsite and had to rest for a long time before driving off for a much anticipated meal at a nice restaurant. I've never gone on a bike ride without some sort of light since.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The joy of solving even a small problem

Just to contradict myself:

A few days ago, in my blog entry, The joy of solving a problem, I said:
Every day I solve one or more problems and it's nice to be able to do that but when you're faced with a potentially catastrophic problem, there is a special joy in diagnosing the problem and fixing it.
Well, maybe the "special joy" is due to the relief of the catastrophe not coming about.  But I fixed another thing over the week-end and I'm still elated about it. The door knobs on both our front and back doors were acting up. Like the picture shown here, they have a button you push in to lock the door. To unlock it from the inside, you're supposed to just turn the knob slightly and the button pops out and the door is unlocked - unless it's like our doors. Both of the doors have been getting harder and harder to unlock to the point that I was afraid someone was going to break one trying to get it to unlock.

So, among my many projects for the week-end, I resolved to get to the bottom of the problem. Getting the knob apart was not hard but when I looked at the mechanism, I was a little surprised. It looked a lot more complicated than I'd expected. I'd hoped to see something obvious but I didn't. Finally, in desperation, I tried putting a little oil on the moving parts. After oiling the wrong parts a few times, I found the right place. Both doors now unlock easily (from the inside only!) and I couldn't be happier.

So now I've got a new saying to go along with the one about fixing a potentially catastrophic problem: There is a continuing joy that comes from fixing something that you use many times every day. Even small things make a big difference when they are used a lot.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Wandering Balloon on its last "legs"

As I mentioned in the post The Wandering Balloon, some balloons I bought for my family for Valentine's Day are still inflated but the one I dubbed The Wandering Balloon is not doing so well. It's still wandering about the house but it's not moving as much or as fast as it once did. The picture here shows it limping along in our living room. It's really kind of silly but I feel sorry for it! We've come to look on it almost as a pet. Should we "put it down" or let it continue as it is? Is there a balloon doctor we should think of taking it to? Whay am I spending time think about this?

Well, it has involved itself in our lives. We will be talking about something and out of the corner of our eye, we'll see the wanderer move into the room. In some ways, it has an easier time now that it's dragging along the floor because it no longer needs to dip down below the top of the door to move from room to room. I don't think we'll be seeing it upstairs anymore unless someone helps it. That reminds us of our helping our old cat Rosie (a post about her on my wife's blog) onto the couch when she isn't feeling up to it. Speaking of the cats, they liked tracking it around the house when it was more active. They liked batting at the string but now that it's moving so slowly, they've lost interest in ti. If only I could get it out of mind.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The joy of solving a problem

I often wonder what level of technical understanding the people who read this blog have. But then I think, "What does it matter?" No matter how technically inclined you are, there is always something you don't know about. I can take that even farther - in software engineering alone there a hundreds of things I know nothing about! If someone found out that I'm a software engineer and launched into a description of their latest web application that uses technology ABC to act as the front end for database XYZ, they'd probably lose me in a matter of minutes. So, I'll try to treat this as if you don't know much about the technology behind my story. But in the end, my problem is really not much different than the problems any of us has had to solve at one time or another.

One of my responsibilities is to oversee the building of our software product so that all the changes everyone in our group has made on the project each day get incorporated into a new version that can be installed the following day. We do this every day and it's called the Daily Build. What I REALLY do is set up commands to a computer program that actually does the work. That program is called Hudson. You can set it up to, for instance, build the project and make an installer for it every day at 4 AM (so the installer is ready for us in the morning). But setting up Hudson can be a big job and when things change, as with any computer program, you have to make sure everything is configured correctly or the Daily Build isn't ready for testing in the morning. One of the things that has to be set up is to have a Java development kit installed on the computer where Hudson runs. Java is a programming language and to write programs for it, you need other programs that take your program (written in text) and turn it into instructions the computer can understand. This set of programs is the Java development kit and this changes from time to time as bugs are fixed and improvements are made. Since we had just released a version of our product and were getting ready to start work on the next version, it seemed like a good time to update the Java development kit on the Hudson computer. This is normally an easy process but on the Windows operating system, telling Hudson where the new, updated version is located is a little more involved. I did that and ran some tests that showed that it was working and went home for the day.

The next morning, I checked my office mail from home to see if any surprises were waiting for me when I would get to work later and I saw a message that the Daily Build had failed. The Hudson program sends this with a list of errors whenever the Daily Build is not able to complete. The error list looked strange and I thought it might just be a simple matter of a power failure at the office and , since it looked like the power was fine now, I just restarted the build (doing that from home is a story for another day but suffice it to say that I can do pretty much anything from home that I can do in the office but a little more slowly and a little less efficiently). That second build didn't work either. So, I sent a note to everyone in the group that I'd tackle this problem first thing when I got in.

When I got to work and looked at the situation, I saw more problems. The tests that I'd run the night before no longer worked. As I tried a few minor changes to the Hudson configuration, more and different errors showed up. Then, even stranger things were happening as time went on - without my even doing anything! I began to think that the disk drive on the computer was going bad. If that wasn't the problem, it looked like the Java development kit update had not installed correctly. But why would it work at first and then fail overnight? The best thing I did to solve the problem was to not panic. When I tried to update the Java development kit again and it failed (in a different way), I was able to look at the clues and figure out that I needed to completely remove the Java software for the computer and start from scratch. I did that. Then, after many hours, I was getting different errors in the Daily Build - but these made much more sense. Now, I was able to fix each problem as it appeared and finally, after about five hours of work, I was able to declare it fixed and to produce a good Daily Build.

Boy did that feel good! Every day I solve one or more problems and it's nice to be able to do that but when you're faced with a potentially catastrophic problem, there is a special joy in diagnosing the problem and fixing it. I thought back to my earlier post Cheering for Sports Teams where I thought about not getting involved with professional sports teams that often disappoint you and that I should just follow teams that never lose (like the Harlem Globetrotters). But then you miss the special joy when those teams that have disappointed you in the past come through and do great things. Just as I could shy away from taking responsibility for things that need to be done every day with precision and timeliness, it's so sweet when you're able to do that under tough conditions. Those are the high points of an engineering profession and they're not as fulfilling without the hard problems.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A paucity of blog posts

How's that for a word I never thought I'd use? Paucity - The presence of something only in small or insufficient quantities or amounts.

My posts have really fallen off recently. It's partly because I finally got out to do some yard work that has needed to be done and I also took the time to clear out and dig up our garden plot to get ready to plant new vegetables for this year's garden. But the biggest reason I didn't post anything from May 12 - 15 was that my wife had to go to the hospital for surgery on Thursday, May 12. I was kept pretty busy those days doing things she normally does plus doing things I normally do.

Of course, the day of her hospital stay was all taken up with being in the hospital. My wonderful mother-in-law watched the kids that day so I could take Cindy to the hospital and stay there while she was there and then bring her home afterwards. We ended up spending almost eight hours there due to them taking her into surgery late and then our needing to stay in the recovery area a long time because she felt so sick whenever she would get up to leave. But we are thankful for the wonderful hospital we have right in our town. It is well run and well staffed. They doctors, nurses and other staff are courteous and helpful.

When I first started this blog, I was paranoid about mentioning anything about who I was, where I lived and anything about my family. I always made sure to not show the faces of my wife and children. As the years have passed, I've lost some of that paranoia. I've even put links to the two churches we've attended in our town. So, I shouldn't worry about giving our local hospital some much deserved credit. Our wonderful Falmouth Hospital was recently honored as one of the top 100 most improved hospitals in the country and a few years ago was recognized by Consumers Digest as being one of 50 exceptional hospitals in the country. That's pretty nice for a place that is only a 10 minute drive from our house.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cheering for sports teams

Note - I posted this on May 11 and I saw it on my blog. Then, something happened at Blogger and this post was removed and placed in the Drafts list. Also, the picture I posted was removed. My guess is that posts made during a certain time period were lost and all that remains are earlier drafts of those posts. I'm re-posting this now and have re-loaded the picture. Here's my post - it may be updated later:

It's fun to cheer for a sports team. I've always liked baseball and rooted for the Pittsburgh Pirates because I grew up near that city. Now I live in New England and I root for the Red Sox (although I still keep my eye on the Pirates). I cheered for my high school team in all sports, of course, and when I went to college, I cheered for all of the teams there, too. I even tried out for the track team but never made it into competition.

But cheering for professional teams has always fascinated me. The only reason most us root for a team is because it's in a city near us or in a city where we used to live. I lived for a few years in Northern Virginia where everyone is a rabid Redskins fan. Locals would get quite mad at me if I didn't watch their games and cheer them on. I guess I would have if I'd lived there longer. I just was never crazy about football. I can't warm up to the New England Patriots either.

Not matter who you root for, though, there are going to be good times and bad times. Right now, the Red Sox are having a tough season and the Celtics basketball team is facing elimination for the playoffs. It can be trying to have your feelings jerked around by circumstances you have no control over. Maybe it's time to start rooting for a team that never loses or disappoints. Maybe it's time I dropped all these other teams and adopt the Harlem Globetrotters as my team. They rarely lose (and those few times are just a mistake). There is no championship to lose. They always seem so happy. Everyone enjoys their games - except for the Washington Generals! They always lose to the 'Trotters. Yeah, that's the way to go. Root, root, root for the Harlem Globetrotters and never be disappointed again.

Then I think back to 1960 when the Pirates beat the heavily favored Yankees in the World Series. Then the 1971 and 1979 Series where the Pirates came from two games down to win the championship. And then, of course, there was the 2004 World Series when the Red Sox won for the first time in 86 years. And even better, the American League Championship Series where they came back from being down three games to none to win four straight games from the Yankees. It doesn't get any better than that.

So, I guess I'll stay with cheering for my usual professional teams. The Red Sox will turn it around and the Celtics will pull off a miracle and win their series to move on. The lows are bad but the highs are so much sweeter.

[Update - Well, the Celtics didn't turn it around and are out of the playoffs. And the Red Sox continue to struggle.  But that's just going to make the wins later that much better. I know the Red Sox can finally reach .500 - by the end of the season]

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Wandering Balloon

The youth group at our church was selling heart-shaped balloons for Valentine's Day. They are trying to make money for summer camp. So, I bought one for each member of my family. I've bought the balloons before but they never lasted this long. Usually, they would have deflated by the middle of March. This year, three of the four are still floating. My daughter played with hers so much that it lost its helium a few weeks after she got it. The ones I got for my wife, son and mother-in-law are still floating. But now, the one I got for my wife is starting to act strangely - it can't seem to stay in one place.

It's the Wandering Balloon and it's become the source of a lot of fun for us. You never know where it's going to show up next. I guess it's because it's starting to deflate and doesn't push up again st the ceiling as strongly as it once did. So now, any small air current will carry it around the house. The top picture shows it in my daughter's room (you can tell from the pink wall). But, since she had already "used up" her own balloon, Emma thought it wasn't fair that the balloon was in her room so she brought it downstairs and tied it to the hand rail of the stairs as you can see in the second picture.

But apparently she didn't tie it very well because, as you can see in the third picture, the Wandering Balloon worked its way back up the stairs later that day. At least, we think it was because she didn't tie the string correctly. Could it have untied itself? That could never happen, could it? And how do we explain the balloon moving into and out of rooms that have doors? How did the balloon drop down to fit through the door and then rise again once it got into the room?

This morning, I found the balloon in the living room (in the last picture). Once again, it dropped low enough to fit through a door. Did it just stay low this time or is it just bending down to look out the window? I'll be watching the door of our bedroom tonight. If I see a shape moving in close to the top of the door, I'll know it's just the Wandering Balloon checking to see if we're sleeping OK. Or could it have a more sinister purpose? If this blog doesn't get updated in the next few days, you'll know.
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Friday, May 06, 2011

Another scary headline

As with the headline that I wrote about last year, the headline in the picture to the right caught my attention. On my iGoogle page, I have four or five headlines from various sources and today's headline from New Scientist sounded too much like all the automobile and other types of recalls we've been seeing in the news recently. But how can you recall an infant? Do you take them back to the pediatrician who delivered them to get that birthmark removed or treat that weepy eye? Have they found a new childhood vaccine and they want to bring in all the kids who haven't yet had the shot to inoculate them?

Well, of course, it was just me misunderstanding something again. When I clicked on the little "plus" icon to open the headline up for the next level of explanation, it makes more sense.
Babies absorb information like a sponge. So why do we struggle to recall our first few years?
So it's about why we don't recall our early experiences. It is an interesting question and I'd like to read more about it sometime. But at least I can let my heart settle down a bit and worry about other things. I should have known they weren't talking about what I thought at first. There was no list of model years that normally accompanies a manufacturer's recall. What was I thinking?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The last Easter Egg

We always have an Easter Egg hunt for our children. We're always careful to have the same number of eggs for each of them (with each of our children looking for eggs of a certain color). But this year, Evan found one less egg than his sister Emma. We looked and looked but assumed the wind had blown it away, our dog had grabbed it or I had just miscounted (I'm the Easter Bunny).

I felt very bad and every time I've gone out in our yard since then, I've looked around for the missing egg. Our dog Charlie had helped me place the eggs and he helped me look for the missing one, too. And we still couldn't find it!

Finally, yesterday, after having his dinner and needing to walk it off (so to speak), Charlie convinced me to take him out for a snoop around the yard. While Charlie didn't find the egg (he spends the whole time with his nose to the ground), he led me to the tree where I'd put the egg - and forgotten about it.

I couldn't wait to get into the house to tell Evan and the rest of the family. As you can see in the top picture, it's a wonder that we missed the egg for so long. And as you can see in the second picture, while Evan is 14 years old, he still enjoys hunting for Easter Eggs. Especially when they've been hiding for so long.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Quite a few days of news

Except for one of these items, none of these will be a surprise to anyone reading this blog. But I just wanted to list these things since this blog also acts as my diary. So, now I can be reminded of what has happened in the last four days.

There was a Royal Wedding on Friday, April 29. It was the wedding of Prince William (oldest son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana) and a "commoner" named Kate Middleton. I tried to ignore it but it was all over the news. Also, my wife and daughter were very interested in it and I enjoyed watching part of it with them. Their favorite part? Seeing the horses pulling the carriage after the ceremony was complete!

Also on April 29, we released a new version of our software product. Part of the reason I wasn't able to watch much of The Wedding with my wife and daughter was that a bug was found at the last minute and I was trying to fix it at home and check it into our code library so we could do one more build before making the master disk for the product. I got it done but my supervisor was nervous about changing anything just a few hours before release. So, there is a known bug (not a big one, no data would be lost) as it goes out the door. It will be fixed in the next version. It's just something my co-workers can hold over my head if I get too cocky at work.

The Vatican beatified Pope John Paul II on Sunday, May 1 in Rome. This is the next step on the way to making him a Saint (with a capital 'S'). We Baptists feel that anyone who is a Christian is a saint (note the lower case 's') but the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church have decided to have a higher echelon of people who are, so to speak, Heroes of the Faith. In one way, I think this is a good idea. It's good to have people to look up to and these people have done amazing things (classified as miracles). I just don't agree that we need them as our intercessors to God. Jesus is the only intercessor we need.

Osama bin Laden was brought to justice late Sunday night, May 1 (or early Monday morning, May 2 in Pakistan where it happened). Notice my euphemism. In reality, he was assassinated. Couriers that were known to work for him were tracked for months and and, when they finally revealed the place he was hiding, it was watched for more months. Then a team of Navy SEALs was sent in and he was killed. [Updated- I originally said that bin Laden resisted and also that he used one of his wives to shield himself. I don't know if either of those is true so I removed them.]

You'll notice, by the way, that I'm no longer using links to The New York Times. That's because they have begun to charge for access to their content. While I greatly respect The Times and I think they have the best news website, I don't want to have links that will only work if you pay for them. That's too bad but I understand their reasons. Here is a link to that information.