Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The last day of a bad blogging year

I have had a hard time getting posts organized to publish this year. I've talked a little about the challenges that we've had this year but that's really no excuse. Blogger makes it very easy to enter a few thoughts and publish them. There doesn't need to be a picture to illustrate it. There doesn't need to be cross-referenced documentation for everything. There doesn't even need to be a coherent narrative. All you need is five minutes (or less) to write something and then hit the Publish button.

No, the problem is that I'm trying to be perfect - or as perfect as I can be. That is a nice goal but when it interferes with getting things done, it is wrong. So, this is going to be the start of a new way of thinking about my blog. Actually, it's not new. It's a return to the way of treating this blog that I've talked about before.

This will be only my 26th post of the year. That's the smallest number since the first year of this blog, 2006, and that year's number of posts was small because I didn't start this blog until October of that year. Next year will be better. I can't wait. I plan to tell you all about!

Friday, November 07, 2014

This day in engineering history (a happier note this time)

Three years ago, I posted this message about an engineering disaster that happened on this day in 1940 when the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapsed. But I'd like to point to something positive today.

Today is also the anniversary of when the Canadian Transcontinental Railroad was completed. I saw it mentioned on the History Channel's "This Day in History Site" and here is the link to that story. Just as the first transcontinental railroad in the United States opened up our country for expansion, so did Canada's railroad. Yes, it brought problems as well as good but, for the country as a whole, it was good. Canada wouldn't be the great country it is today without this railroad.

Last year, we saw a wonderful IMAX film at the Boston Museum of Science titled Rocky Mountain Express. It's a documentary (the poster is shown at the right) that is partly about the history of the feat and also about the restored steam locomotive that was one of the last of its type to use that route. A lot of the scenes are shot from the train as it races through the beautiful Canadian Rockies. And with it being an IMAX movie, you feel like you're right there speeding along. If you get a chance to see this movie, do it. If you like trains, if you like history, if you like nature or if great engineering feats interest you, you will enjoy this movie.

Some of the final scenes are of the graves of the men who died building the railroad. It's sobering to be reminded that there is always a price to pay with human lives for any undertaking of this size.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Even more pressure

As I mentioned in my last post, it's been very busy and stressful recently. I mentioned that my mother fell and broke her hip. The operation was successful but the recovery is slow and painful. My mother is 89 and any change in her life is hard but this goes beyond measure. But it did bring one thing into focus for her - she can no longer mange the house by herself and shouldn't be living there alone.

We've been talking about this for almost 20 years (since my father died) but there was always some reason she could not move. But now it seems that there is no reason to stay. So, we decided she needs to sell the house and move from Western Pennsylvania to Cape Cod where we live. This is a bad time for this but I'm afraid if we don't do it now, something worse is going to happen to make this even harder. I had hoped that by putting the house on the market right away, we would start a long process that we might not want to begin if we waited too long. Unfortunately, the house sold in about a week! I knew the housing market was picking up but this just amazed me. Even though there are many things against it (there are only two bedrooms and a natural gas pipeline runs through the lower edge of the lot meaning nothing can be built over that spot), my mother got very close to what she thought the house was worth. But this means that not only must she continue her recovery from hip surgery, she must also prepare to pack up her belongings and move 650 miles away. And the cost of living here is much higher than the area south of Pittsburgh.

I hope to write about this effort in coming posts. Perhaps our struggle will help others faced with similar problems. Fortunately, we have until the end of September to finish the move. The people who bought the house, who are renting now, were willing to give her a longer time to move out even though it means their paying more rent. A lot of pleasant surprises are going to have to happen to make this go smoothly. We been praying about this constantly. Of course, we've been praying about my mother's recovery but we're also praying about finding an affordable place for her here, and praying about the terrible trip that is facing my mother on the day (or days) when she makes the trip here.

So far, the Lord has been kind. We have an apartment lined up within walking distance of our house that is a one-bedroom apartment that has special pricing for people on a low fixed income. And did I mention that since her hospital stay it was determined that my mother must be on oxygen 24 hours a day? While that adds another obstacle to her 12-hour (at least) journey here, we've found battery powered oxygen concentrators that, we hope, will allow her to make the trip and still have a full supply of oxygen. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A tough month but that's no excuse

The last month or so (since May 17) has been hard. I was in the hospital for about four days. Our software product was to be released during this time, too. Then, my mother fell and broke her hip. I traveled back to Western Pennsylvania to help her while she was in the hospital. I also needed to line up an assisted living residence for her when she was released from the hospital and then I helped in moving her there. Also, my family had planned on going on vacation during this last month and had already made reservations that we couldn't break.

But that is no excuse for my not writing entries for this blog. The hardest part about writing in this blog is starting up again after a long pause. I have a lot of things to write about, of course, and plan to do so in the coming weeks. But it will be a slow start up. This post is just to get everything started. Like a train starting, you cannot start the whole line of cars at one time. That's why trains don't like to stop that often and why it takes them a while to get started.

I case you are interested, there was a good puzzle from the radio show Car Talk about this.

Here is a link to the puzzle: Loose Caboose puzzler

Here is a link to the answer: Loose Caboose puzzler answer

I love trains!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Is it all a dream?

from Wikipedia Commons (see link)
Once in a college English class, when we were supposed to write a short story, the professor threatened to give us an 'F' if the story ended with the realization the whole thing had been a dream. Fair enough. That gimmick has been used too many times and done so well already (The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, the final episode of Newhart) that people learning to write should not use it in their stories. But I sometimes wonder if my life, since I was about 8 years old, has just been a dream.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when this happened but I'm guessing that I might have been 7 or 8 years old. I remember that my friends and I were playing together near a side road where a lot of weeds were growing. I had seen Poke Weed before and I vaguely remember being warned to stay away from it. But the berries certainly looked delicious and I'd seen birds eating it. I don't remember if I ate them on a dare or whether I was just hungry and they looked too good to pass up. I don't remember how many I ate but I did eat some. I remember immediately being sorry I did. They were very bitter and I may have spat them out but I got enough of them in me to make me feel sick. I got light headed and I may have blacked out. I distinctly remember smelling something, too. It smelled like a hospital.

Before this berry eating episode, one of my earliest memories was being in the hospital to get my tonsils out. I think I was 3 or 4 years old. I remember being on the operating table and having anesthetic being administered. I remember crying, trying to get away and then floating with the smell of the anesthetic being overwhelming. That is the smell I remember after eating the berries. Did I collapse after eating the berries and was I taken to the hospital? Am I still on the operating table and just dreaming that I've lived the next 55 years? Or did I die and this is all in my head as I await the resurrection? When you read the article that I linked to above, you'll see that the berries and most of the plant are toxic.

What I think happened was that after getting dizzy, not being able to see for a while and spitting out the foul berries, that I kept playing with my friends. I spent the rest of the summer doing fun things and going back to school that fall. I graduated from high school and went to college. I graduated and got a job. After a long time, I got married and had a family. In late 2006, I started writing a blog and just today, I wrote this post. Or did I? Perhaps I'm just imagining all of you. If I wake up, I'll try to keep remembering you all

The photo of American Pokeweed is from this link.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

For my birthday - Part 3

This is the last of my posts about my 63rd birthday. Previously, I wrote about what we did on my birthday. Then I wrote about what I bought myself for my birthday. Now I'm writing about what my family bought me for my birthday.

My son got me the biggest surprise. He searched and searched and found a Samurai Jack T-shirt. Samurai Jack is an animated series that we have all liked for a long time. There were only four seasons made and we have them all on DVD. I want to talk more about Samurai Jack in a future post. It is a fascinating show with interesting stories and unique production. Sadly, the series ended with no resolution to the story. We still hold out hope that there will be a movie to wrap things up..

My daughter bought me the two shirts pictured on the left. She is quite a good, self-taught artist and she is fascinated by colors and I really like the colors she picked for these shirts. I would have never picked the rugby shirt on my own (the top one) because of the color on top but now that I see it and how it matches with the other two colors, I really like it. I have no idea what to call that top color. If I say it's "purple", she would say it's "lavender" so I won't even try to name it. It just works. I should have laid the shirts side-by-side in this picture. Also, I shouldn't have laid them over the edge of our bed because they look like they are really wide at the waist. But then again, maybe if they were this shape, they'd fit me well!

The next gift was from my wife. She knows I love coffee and that it is a special treat for the week-ends. We usually share a pot of tea each day during the week and I enjoy that, too. There is something about the ritual of making a pot of tea that enhances the enjoyment. And sharing it with someone I love is the best. But once in a while, I like a cup of coffee and Green Mountain Coffee is wonderful. For one thing, it's delicious. But the big reason I like Green Mountain is because it is the coffee that was served at the bed and breakfast where my wife and I spent our honeymoon. That was a magical time. Every time I have a cup of Green Mountain Coffee, it reminds me of being alone with my new wife in the winter in Vermont. And it's only gotten better. That's one of the reasons I don't mind my birthdays. It's the mark of another year with the most wonderful woman in the world.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

For my birthday - Part 2

This post continues with notes about my recent 63rd birthday. My last post was about the things we did to celebrate but this time I'm going to talk about a gift I got myself.

I have played the piano since I was about 6 years old. At first, my parents found old upright pianos that people were giving away. Then, they bought me a spinet piano. Then, when I moved away from home I took the piano with me because neither of my parents played. But as I moved around, the hardest thing to take with me was the piano. But I couldn't leave it behind. Playing the piano is like a combination of expressing emotions, reacting to beauty, creating art and providing entertainment. Leaving that behind was never an option. But then, in the 1980's, electronic keyboards became more practical and useful. They actually sounded good and weren't just gimmicks. Also, the key sensors were good enough that when you hit the keys with different velocities, the sound changed like it would in a real instrument. Also, you could connect a digital piano to a computer and record what you were playing and then play it back and accompany yourself. Also, you could purchase orchestral scores and enter each of the parts yourself and play it back through sound modules that sounded a lot like the instruments of a real orchestra. It was like having your own orchestra at your disposal but every part had your own individual interpretation.

But one limitation was always that the keyboards didn't feel right. They usually only had 61 keys and the keys didn't have the right feel to them. They were too easy to press and didn't offer the right feedback. Playing too long on those keyboards would ruin your touch for a real piano. Then I bought a Roland A80 keyboard controller It felt just like a real piano (and weighted over 40 pounds!) but it was only a controller. It also cost over $1,000. It made no sounds of its own. And the sound modules needed an amplifier. Over the years, I had all that stuff but it was hard to have enough room to keep it all going and whenever we changed the house around, it was hard finding a new place for all the stuff. When we moved, my amplifiers got ruined in storage and I haven't played by electronic instruments in over 7 years.

Enter the Yamaha P-35 (pictured above). It has everything I need all in one package. It has an 88-key keyboard that feels like a real piano. The piano sound is magnificent and it has its own amplifier and speakers. Plus, it has a headphone jack so I can practice and play as loudly as I want and make as many mistakes as I do and not bother anyone! It's like a dream come true. And all this for only $449. At that price, you know it's not perfect. It comes with 10 different sounds: two different grand pianos, two different electronic pianos, two different pipe organs, two different harpsichords, a string section and a vibraphone. I wish they would have replaced one of the harpsichords with a jazz organ and one of the pipe organs with a drum kit. But I bought it for practicing and performing the piano. Who cares what other sounds it makes? It comes with a duo mode that would be great for teaching (you each use half the keyboard but the sounds are in the same octave) and it even has a metronome.  It has MIDI ports (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) so you can hook it up to other sound modules and a computer, too. Many newer keyboards only have USB connections for a computer. That limits what you can connect to. I get excited just talking about it.

But if that wasn't enough, I found a great music store in Austin, TX called Austin Bazaar that sells this piano and includes a stand for the keyboard, bench to sit on and headphones at no additional charge. It's everything you need but at the same price that other places sell only the piano.

If I can figure out how to include a sound recording on this blog, I may record some of the things I play with this wonderful piano. That is, if I ever take time away from playing it!

[Update: Something else I wanted to add about this keyboard. I almost didn't get it because the P-35 has only 32-note polyphony. That means it can only produce 32 sounds at once. Here's a link to a short description of polyphony at the Yamaha site. You might think that's no problem because you have only 10 fingers and even if you're playing in Duo Mode, there would be at most 20 fingers. The problem comes in when some of the keys continue to make a sound after you release the key. That's the case when there is a decay of the sound like a normal piano. The sound doesn't just stop when you release the key like in an electronic organ. And the key sounds even longer when you hold the damper pedal. So, is 32-note polyphony a problem? Not that I have found so far. I use the pedal a lot (probably too much) and I am an advanced pianist and I'm often hitting 8-10 keys at once a lot. I have yet to hear a note being cut off when one of the 32 sound generators switches over to a more recent key press. Yamaha has somehow figured out how to handle this well. Granted, their newer keyboards have higher polyphony that this (most have 128-note polyphony) but that may have been to take some of the strain off the microprocessor doing the voice switching. I am more impressed than ever with this keyboard! I am glad I bought it.]

Monday, March 03, 2014

For my birthday - Part 1

As I mentioned in my previous post about my birthday, nothing much happened on the actual anniversary of my birth. All the festivities occurred this past week-end. We went out to have a meal at The Olive Garden and most of us had a good meal. I was one of the ones that enjoyed the meal. And I think that everyone came around to enjoying the food by the time the left-overs were finished the next day.

After the meal, we went to see the movie Son of God in the theater. We had already seen the mini-series The Bible on TV and Son of God was made by the same people. We had expected that, perhaps, there would be new content in this version but it turned out that we had already seen the majority of this movie on TV. That was a little disappointing. But that was the only disappointment.

On TV, of course, the screen is smaller and the sound is less involving. On TV, you have to sit through commercials and a break of a week between episodes. We did get the DVD of the entire series and that cut out the commercials and waits of a week between episodes but it still couldn't compete with seeing this film in a movie theater. There is nothing like seeing a good movie on a big screen with big, full sound. This story deserved that. Some folks complained that you knew what was going to happen because of already knowing how the TV series was written. Well, in Titanic, you know the boats sinks and in Gone With the Wind, you know the North wins. And in every James Bond movie, you know he is going to get the bad guys. But many people still go to those movies and enjoy them.

In this version of the story, the writers put a special emphasis on the tough spot that the Jewish religious leaders were in. They were trying to balance keeping their faith and helping people survive in the face of the tyranny of the Roman occupation. I know they made the wrong choices but it was very interesting to see both their internal struggles and the outside forces forces vying to change them. If only they would have accepted Jesus as the true Messiah! But we knew how it was going to turn out. The real story is about how much God loves us. That never changes and it as compelling today as it was two millennia ago.

I felt this movie was well acted and beautifully staged. Also, there was great excitement when we found out that the actor playing Jesus is Portuguese. My wife is half Portuguese and my mother-in-law is second generation Portuguese. Another interesting part of the writing was the decision to have Pontius Pilate be such a strong character. I thought this was very realistic as Rome would not have allowed a weak governor in such a contentious region of their empire. And the ruthlessness that Pilate showed was just one more stress put on the Jewish priests making their characters a little more interesting than the simple, conniving, evil men of some other depictions of this part of the Bible.

In my next post, I'll talk about some of the gifts I got for my birthday.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Today, I am 63 years old. We won't be celebrating my birthday today, though. The celebration will happen this week-end. You know what the best part of this is? I said, "We" in that second sentence. I know you're getting tired of me making such a big deal about not getting married until I was 42 years old but it was very important that it took me that long to find true love. Men who got married young and had children when they were young are fortunate and I know they love their wives and children, too. But getting married and having children so late has affected my life and has made me appreciate these gifts so much more than I would have if they had happened earlier. I feel the way I hear people talk about thinking they had died and then finding that they were still alive. It makes them so much more appreciative of their life. That's the way I feel about being married and having children. It nearly didn't happen. I don't deserve it. It was a gift from God and I thank Him every day for that gift.

I didn't actually post this until the next day and thought about not posting at all. But then I thought better of it. Better to have posted late (and back-dated the post) than never to have posted at all. Also, I wanted to look forward to two posts I'm going to make about what happened for my birthday celebration. You'll see.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Windshield wipers

I just have to tell you about this. I bought some new wiper blades to replace the ones on our minivan that this horrible winter has ruined. I always put off getting new wiper blades because 
  1. When I'm in the car and the weather is good, I'm not using them and I forget that I need new blades
  2. When the weather is bad and I remember that I need them, I don't want to put them on in bad weather
  3. I don't have the money at the time
  4. They'll just work for a day or two anyway
I know. None of those are good excuses. But that has all changed. I have seen the light.

I finally remembered to go to Auto Zone and get some new wipers on a nice day. I kind of deluded myself into getting the ones I did because when the salesman looked them up on the computer for me, he told me they were $25 and the best they had and I said, "Let's get them. I'm tired of getting the $7 replacements and having them fail after a few days." Then I found out they were $25 each. I was too embarrassed to say they were too much after my little speech about wanting to get the best. So, I brought them home and struggled over installing them.

I should tell you that I always struggle over installing new wiper blades. It seems that people who design wipers have never seen any other wiper blades and start from scratch in how they will be attached. Then the designer moves on to another job in the company and a new guy is brought in to design next year's wipers. I guess there is a good reason for all the various ways of attaching them but I just don't understand. Anyway, I attached the blades and jumped in the car to test them. The windshield was dry so I was prepared for the rattling, scraping, sound-of-death as the blades ran over the bone dry glass. I hit the switch and they glided over the glass as if they weren't even touching it! I tried it again. Again the gliding and I could see they were touching the glass. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

To make it even better, we drove to Boston a couple of days later in a misty rain. I had never been so happy in the rain in my life. The wipers continued to silently sweep across the windshield cleaning off the mist and water like magic. They never made a sound. In a mist, I always leave the wipers off and wait for enough water to accumulate so they don't make the death rattle as they cross the windshield. But then, there are times when I can't see out the window very well. Now, with these wonderful wipers, I just left the control in the intermittent setting and didn't have to think about it again. I almost hated to get home and have to turn the wipers off. It was that good.

If you ever need new wiper blades, I urge you to save up your money and get Bosch Icon Wiper Blades. You will not be sorry.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A few more pictures from New York

Here are a few more pictures from my trip to New York City in January. Links to my previous posts about it are here and here. When I found out that I was going to New York, one of the things I looked forward to was finding interesting places to eat. In the end, I ate where the rest of the guys in my group wanted to go. I'm a team player if nothing else but I would have liked to get a chance to try one of these places. Especially when I was on a fixed budget. I should have at least walked in just to see what they looked like inside. I can't imagine finding slices of pizza for $1.00 anywhere but especially in New York which has a reputation for being an expensive place. Now, I may never find out what they are like. They have a lot of locations (what a surprise) and here's a link to their webpage.

I started writing this post yesterday and this morning I heard a story on National Public Radio about this very thing. Here's a link to the story on Morning Edition. You can listen to the story. It's only 50 seconds long. It's about a petition to ban $1.00 pizza in New York. Apparently, it's been a tradition in the city for a number of years and the petitioners want to promote diversity in the food that is available.

Well, it looked to me like there is a lot of diversity. All of these pictures were taken on 9th Avenue within one block. Right next to 2 Bros. Pizza was a nice looking noodle place called Tabata Ramen and here's a link to them. Now that I look at their webpage, I really wish I had gone in there. It looks wonderful. And different - as in diverse. It would be one thing if all you saw around were $1.00 pizza places but that's not the case. There were all kinds of different types of food in this one block. In the next block was a Subway sandwich place and an Italian place called Pomodoro.

Looking down the street (in my last picture) you see even more types of restaurants. Fresco Tortillas. Trattoria Casa Di Isacco (sorry, no link -  may be closed). Curry Hut. Atomic Wings (you can't see it in my picture). My goodness. I think I may have to go back to New York just to walk down 9th Avenue just below 40th Street and try each of those out. It's a good thing it's lunch time or I would be going crazy. It's Wednesday and the company is feeding us. American Chop Suey. Not as good as my wife cooks but not bad.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dodging a snow bullet

It been a cold, snowy winter. Even here on Cape Cod. We got more snow last night and the forecast was for us to get up to 14 inches. But we were fortunate this time and only got 5 -6 inches. But the next town,Sandwich, did get 15 inches. That's only about 15 miles from here. Also, the forecast was for very high winds and that usually means we will lose power but the winds were also not nearly as bad as was forecast. So, today dawned and the sky was clear and the sun bright. It was beautiful so a took a few pictures.

The top picture show the two maple trees in our front yard and our neighbor's trees in the background. The snow came from the north and you can see that direction on the trunks of the trees because that's where the snow stuck. But aren't the limbs of the trees beautiful? There especially nice with the sun shining so brightly.The second picture looks down the main road that runs in front of our house. Even as clear as the read is, there is no traffic because lots of people haven't dug out of their own driveways yet. One of my pet peeves is that the reason is that the snow plows throw so much of the snow and ice from the road onto our driveways. That is always the hardest part of shoveling - the final 10 - 15 feet where the plows throw the heavy, water-laden snow.

The final picture is a nice view through the low hanging branches to the front of our house. I really love our house. It's so cozy and comfortable. But it wouldn't mean anything without my wonderful family inside. I am blessed by God to have such a terrific family. And to think that I wasn't able to even have hopes of getting married until after I was 40 years old. I am one of those guys who never had a clue about what women were looking for in a man. I fell for all the wrong women and seemed to be trying too hard, I guess. But when I met my wife, I didn't have to try to figure out how to act. It just came naturally. I didn't get nervous about our dates and she is always so easy to talk with. So, at 42 years old, I finally got married. It's been the happiest, most peaceful, most fulfilling 20 years I could imagine.

To see these pictures in a larger size, just click on them.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Another way I'm going to get rich

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled, "How I'm going to get rich". It didn't happen, though. I didn't get rich. Not because it wasn't a great idea. It didn't happen because I just didn't do it. It would have worked. I'm sure of it.

Now, today, I just had another great idea and it's even better. Today is Valentine's Day and someone brought in a bunch of doughnuts. As usual, they went fast early in the day. As the day went on, fewer doughnuts were taken until late in the day, there was only one doughnut left. It got cut up into pieces but no one wanted to take the last one. No one ever wants to take the last doughnut. Or the last piece of candy or the last of any kind of treat. So, my idea is to provide a cheap replacement for the last doughnut (or piece of candy or whatever) and let it just sit there. It would be cheap so when you bought a dozen doughnuts, you'd only pay for eleven doughnuts plus one cheap imitation doughnut. The idea would be to make it look like a doughnut but an unappetizing doughnut. So, no one would try to take it and realize that it's a fake but it would sit there and be the sacrificial "last doughnut" so that all the real ones could be eaten. I will patent this idea and then sell it to Dunkin' Donuts or some company like that and retire on the royalties. I still promise to continue writing this blog, though. I may have to rename it - "Adventures of the Idle Rich".

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shirley Temple

Yesterday I heard that Shirley Temple had died. She was married, of course, and her name was Shirley Temple Black but I only think of her as the little girl named Shirley Temple. I've always liked the movies she made in the 1930s. I remember seeing them on TV when I was about the age she was when they were made. I would have been 10 years old when I saw her first in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I wasn't in love with her because I didn't like girls at that age. But I did admire her. She seemed, to me, to be the perfect child. She was bright, happy, talented and helpful. And very resourceful. In many ways, she seemed much more capable than some of the adults around her. And people were all over themselves trying to help her. Maybe that's why young children liked her films. She was the center of attention and always knew what to do.

Shirley always seemed to be in a tough situation but she made the best of it. As part of my "Working for the Man" post back in 2009, though, I wrote about the film Our Little Girl where I don't think that she made a very good decision. She tried to get her parents back together after their divorce by running away. I can see why this film wasn't shown often on Sunday afternoons when I saw her other movies. I've not seen this movie all the way through yet, and I'm glad I didn't see it as a child. Looking at it with adult eyes, I can appreciate the desperation a child might feel in that situation but to think that a young girl would use that sort of a desperate measure to solve a problem is a little scary. But as I often argue about other movies that I like in spite of their story, it's just a movie. What she said and did was written by a team of writers and helped along by an adult director. It was not meant as a blueprint for children's behavior. But that is not how I looked at Shirley Temple's movies when I was around 10 years old. I thought she was the brightest and most wonderful child I knew. She brought the writers' words come to life and I tried my best to be like her. And I still do. I will miss you, Shirley.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Telling a story

I think everyone likes to hear a good story and I think a lot of people like to tell a good story. Sometimes
we're telling a story and sometimes we're telling a lot of stuff that happened. In the first case, we're performing. In the second, we're reporting. Even simply reporting what happened can be done in an interesting way. I am not a good story teller in the sense that I mostly just list the things that happened in order. Sometimes, there is an air of mystery to my reporting that draws people in but for the most part, I'm a pretty bad story teller. But like a lot of folks, I'd like to get to be a better storyteller. As I've said many times, I'm hoping that my writing in this blog will help with that. But you can't just keep making the same mistakes over and over again and expect to get better. You have to get some feedback from people reading what you've written and you have to learn new things from other people.

If you get a chance, take a look at the video that this link points to. It's a clip from the film The Last Tycoon. In this clip, Robert De Niro's character is trying to get a writer (played by Donald Pleasence) excited about writing for the movies. You can see Mr. Pleasence being drawn into the story Mr. De Niro is telling. That's what you want in a story. You can be telling people the most important thing in the world but if you bore them, they are not going to follow you.

Another interesting link is this one pointing to a list of 22 story guidelines written by a former employee of Pixar. These are not just useful for people wanting to tell animated movie stories. They are really good guidelines for any kind of story telling. And really, I think, most of them are really good guidelines for writing in general. As a matter of fact, I think a lot of these guidelines are really useful in writing software, too

In the the software development method we use in our office, Agile Development, we call the list of things we need to do to complete a project as the stories for that project. Yes, software development is a little like writing an article. For instance, a story might be:
I want to be able to find words in a document and mark them so that I can see them.

Yes, as a software developer, you write it up like it's something you (or a customer) would want to do. Then, under that story, you would list a number of tasks that must be done to realize that story. You have to split the story up into a list of definable operations that can be done in a reasonable time (usually less than a day). By making the tasks small enough, you aren't intimidated by them. For instance, the first task might be:
Get the text of document as a String
We're no longer writing it as a story. It's a task to do. You have to be able to get the text from your document in a form that the rest of your program can use. A String, in the Java programming language, is a list of characters, words and punctuation that you can access with the rest of your program. It's like saying that if you want to work on something, you have to be able to pick it up. Later tasks could be to use some sort of algorithm to look for specific words. Then another task could be to find a way to mark the words or phrases once you've found them. When you get to the last task, you've finished the story. When you finish all the stories, you've finished the project. And like item 8 in the Pixar list:
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
This is sometimes the hardest part of a software project - deciding when you are done. That's why it is very important in a software project to specifically write down what you plan to do. When you are finished with that list, you are done. There are always things you or the marketing department think about later that could be changed, improved or added to the project but that could go on forever. You have to release the product and then start working on the next version with the new and improved features. If you have a good product, you can keep improving it and making our customers happier. Only bad projects cannot be improved later. Or you keep adding features as you are developing it and it never gets released. That's a really bad project or a story that never ends. You'll start to see people leaving after a while.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Jumping in the dark

This isn't about playing jump rope at night. But before I get to the main story, I have to set it up. Over the week-end (after burying the skunk), I went to start our car to run an errand but instead of starting, it made a rapid clicking sound and all the gauges and displays on the dashboard went nuts. I've seen a run-down battery give one click and then nothing before but this had me worried. Even the speedometer dial went from 0 to 120 and back a number of times! It seemed like something big was a problem here. I looked for loose or charred wires but nothing looked obviously bad. So, I hoped it was just a dead battery. I pulled my mother-in-law's car around and hooked up the jumper cables. As I hooked them up, I got the small spark that showed that the connections were good and tried to start our car. Still a rapid clicking and dashboard madness. I adjusted the jumper cables. No good. Then I remembered that I'd seen problems in other cars where the battery terminals were corroded and didn't make good contact. So, I cleaned those. Still no good. I gave up and put my mother-in-law's car back in the garage.

This was terrible. What do I do? Have it towed to a garage? Have AAA come by and see what they can do? I worried around for a long time but it was dusk and I didn't want to be working in the dark so I pulled my mother-in-law's car out one more time and tried a jump again. This time, I really made sure the cable clamps were well positioned and I noticed the engine of my mother-in-law's car, which I'd left running, sounded different as if the load on the battery had changed. Yes! That must have been the problem before. Even though I got small sparks when I connected the cables before, they weren't making good enough contact to carry the load that was needed to get our car going. Sure enough, when I got my son to come out and rev the engine of my mother-in-law's car to make sure we had enough power, our car started right up. That was it. A dead battery. I must have left a light on or something when we used it the day before. I could sleep well that night.

The next day, I needed to take the car to work because it was going to be very cold and was going to snow so I couldn't take the scooter (there hasn't been much scooter riding this winter). The car started up with no problem and I took it to work. And it did snow. We got about 4 - 5 inches. I left right at 5 pm so I could get the last bit of light to clean the snow off the car. As I was scraping the ice and dusting off the snow, I decided to start the car to get it warm for the ride home and to help melt some of the snow. I turned the key and got rapid clicking and a wild dashboard. I guess I hadn't left something on in the car over the week-end after all. Our battery was just not holding the charge. I'm surprised it held up over night and started that morning. Now I had another problem. There were cars parked all around me and their owners didn't seem to be leaving. I had jumper cables, of course, and other people did, too, but they weren't long enough to run past the cars that were parked around me. I'd have to wait until the people around me left work. But they didn't. I just happened to park among a bunch of people who were staying late that day. A lot of nice people at my job got out their jumper cables and we measured them against the length they'd need to go and no one had super long cables. One guy thought he knew whose cars were parked around me and said they probebly wouldn't be long but it had been dark for about a half an hour and the snow was continuing and it was getting colder and the wind was steady. I couldn't wait much longer. So, I called AAA. They are very nice and called the closest garage but said that it could take up to 90 minutes. I was going to die. So, more people checked the length of their cables. No luck. Just when I was about to give up, I saw the AAA truck pull into our park lot. It had been only about 10 minutes! He had super long jumper cables and had me up and running in seconds. I gave him a tip and he seemed really happy. But not nearly as happy as I was.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Burial for a skunk

No, this isn't about my going to a funeral for someone that no one liked. It was a real skunk and it had been killed one night while crossing the road in front of our house. I sort of wish I had taken a picture of it to post here but I wasn't thinking. All I could think about was my duty.

The deed happened over a month ago. The skunk was there in the morning when I left for work and, of course, I knew what had happened before I saw it. It was on the side of the road and just assumed the town would take it away. I should have known better because I've had to get rid of other animals that have been hit on our street before. But never a skunk. Before, I was able to just scoop it up and throw it in the empty lot across the road. But this was too much. The smell filled the air and was only going to get worse.

After a few days, though, we got a big snow storm and, unusually for Cape Cod, it stuck around for a long time. And just as it was melting, we got another snow storm. So, Mr. Skunk was buried, so to speak, already. And it was so cold, that the smell stopped smelling. Then a January thaw came and the snow started to melt. The skunk was no longer on the side of the road and we assumed the town had picked it up. They hadn't. The town snow plows had shoved the skunk off the road and into the sidewalk and then the sidewalk plow had shoved it up against our fence. Then it got even warmer and the smell returned.

So, this past week-end, I finally had to do it. Completely unrelated to this - I had a hole already dug in the woods in our back yard. When our dog Charlie was alive, I would dig holes in he middle of the wooded area way behind our house and bury his poop there. When the hole was nearly full, I'd cover it with the dirt from digging a new whole in another area. I had dug a hole for Charlie's winter production before the winter freeze came. As you know from an earlier post, Charlie died before Thanksgiving so the hole was still there. I was going to fill it in in the spring but now it would come in handy.

I picked a wide, flat bladed shovel to scoop up the skunk. When I got to the spot, I was amazed at what good condition the coat was in. It was beautiful as a matter of fact. I'd seen live skunks in our yard and had gotten fairly close to some live (and de-scented) skunks in zoos but I don't remember them having as beautiful a coat as this month-long dead skunk. I had second thoughts about burying it and covering up such a beautiful animal but then reason returned and I headed to the woods and threw it in. I have to admit that I was very sad as I covered up the skunk but it had to be done. The smell has now faded from our front yard and you'd never know the skunk was there.

I was thinking about how skunks are probably a pretty confident bunch. They know that other than really young predators who haven't learned better, they are pretty safe. Who would be stupid enough to threaten a skunk? Skunks are a pretty calm animal because they aren't under a lot of stress. They feel pretty safe. But then along comes a car or truck. They can't comprehend this threat to themselves. This is a lot like us humans. We build our nice strong houses and invest in retirement funds. We go to college and get a good job. What could possibly give us trouble?
We can make our plans,
but the Lord determines our steps. Proverbs 16:9 New Living Translation

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Stop rushing around

To start the year off, our pastor preached a three-week series entitled "Slow Down". I found it very helpful and I want to point it out to you, too, because you may find that you, too, have been working hard but not accomplishing what you want to.

The series is listed here in order with the date of the sermon on the same line as the title with a short summary below. The titles link to the Vimeo video for that sermon. They average around 40 minutes each.

Three questions - January 5, 2014
The three questions are:
  1. Who am I?
  2. Who am I pleasing?
  3. What slows me down?
"Who am I?" involves asking what our gift is and what our mission is. Why am I here? We can't do everything. We need to make sure we do the things we are meant to do and to not get distracted too often which is part of the second question. "Who am I pleasing?" involves our trying to please everyone and not wanting to disappoint anyone. Don't let busyness become a badge of honor. "What slows us down?" concerns our need to get away from the busy life to recharge and renew our relationship with God through Jesus.
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. John 15:4 NLT

Sabbath - January 12, 2014
The three sections of this sermon are:
  1. Embrace the value of work
  2. Invest in relationships
  3. Schedule a sabbath
In part 1, as we see in Genesis 1:1-31, God was pleased with each part of the creation as it was completed.  We were made for something and work gives us a purpose (not just a job we work for a wage, either). Part 2 starts with the realization that it wasn't good for Adam to be alone - even when he was is Eden! As we read in Ecclesiastes:
Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Eccl 4:9-10 NLT
This sermon ends with a reference back to the third question of the first sermon. Just as God's reason for resting on the seventh day wasn't because he was tired, we don't need to wait until we're exhausted to take time to get away from the world and renew our relationship with God. Our week is not complete without taking a rest.

Let it go - January 19, 2014
The three sections of this sermon are:
  1. Let go of the stress of the uncontrollable
  2. Let go of the fiction of domestic perfection
  3. Let go of digital distractions
The main text for this sermon is the famous story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42 where Martha is upset with Mary for not helping with the work of hosting Jesus, his disciples and guests who are there to listen. Jesus doesn't say Martha is wrong about doing the work but she is wrong in condemning Mary for wanting to listen to Jesus. We must not get distracted by the stress of succeeding. We must let go of the worry that everything in our house must go as we plan. This sermon ends with our pastor reminding us that while all of the electronic helpers and assistants we use are not bad in themselves, we must remember Paul's words in First Corinthians:

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. 1 Cor 6:12 NLT

A great book on this subject (besides all the Bible verses used in the sermons) is Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung.

Before I go, I want to tell you a little story I read a long time ago in The Reader's Digest. It was written by someone who was traveling out west and had stopped at a scenic overlook to see the beauty of a huge canyon. They were enjoying the vast scene and reveling in the stillness. As they relaxed, a station wagon came tearing into the parking area, a family spilled out and ran to the railing to take a look. The father furiously snapped pictures of the mother and kids in various poses with the canyon's high rising walls as a back-drop. After a few minutes, the parents started to herd the kids back into the car. The children wanted to stay for a while longer but the mother rushed them off with, "We have to hurry. You can look at the pictures when we get home." Let us not do this with our life.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Coming home from New York City

An old picture of an Acela
So, last time I wrote about going to New York on the train for my company's part of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Expo at the Javits Convention Center last week. We got to go on the train and that made it special. The expo was very busy and I enjoyed seeing all the booths and demonstrations. We stayed the night in a hotel not far from the convention center and were to leave the next morning by catching the 10 AM Acela Express (we took the Regional train down). I was really looking forward to that because I'd never been on an Acela before. I had been on the TGV high speed train in France but that was a long time ago. I couldn't wait to get up the next morning!

The center of the universe
Well, as I mentioned, it snowed all day on our arrival in New York. But so what? We were going by train. What stops a train? It turns out that snow and freezing temperatures can cause problems with switches and signals along the route. Also, getting workers to operate the trains can be a problem in the snow. Also, electric locomotives can have their power disrupted by snow (as I would find out on our way home). So, at breakfast, we found that our 10 AM Acela had been canceled but we were rescheduled to be on the 12 noon Acela. Not too bad. That would give us a little time to look around the city. Then, as breakfast went on, we found that the 12 noon Acela was canceled. That meant we were on the 2 PM Regional train. That's still OK. It's a train. I'll ride the Acela some day. That gave me a little time to look around the city. Our hotel wasn't far from Times Square. You can see from the picture on the left that I found Broadway and got to 42nd Street.
"Come and meet those dancing feet,
On the avenue I'm taking you to,
Forty-Second Street."
And, as you can see from the picture on the right, "They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway," is correct. And they move and dance and really grab your attention. I should have taken some pictures of the theaters on 42nd Street, too. They've come a long way from just a lit up border of lights around the name of the show. But it was very cold and very windy and there was a lot of wet snow seeping into my shoes. My socks were wet and my feet were starting to get numb. I had started walking around about 11:30 and wanted to get to the train station by 1 PM in case our train schedule changed again but I wasn't going to last that long. So, I started heading down to Penn Station. On the way I saw a couple more interesting things.

This film crew was set up for a shot with Times Square as the background (including a tour bus with the words on it in case you didn't get it). The fellow holding the microphone was the only one on camera. The young woman in the white coat was all bundled up but was still freezing. She was running in place and flapping her arms right up until the time the camera started. I felt sorry for her but I felt the same way. I had to keep moving or I was afraid I'd get frozen to one spot.

A little further on, I saw the scooter pictured to the right. I've ridden my scooter in some bad conditions but nothing like this. Look at those tires. I don't think they are going to give him much traction when he starts out again. I should have taken a closer look but I think that is the model of Yamaha scooter I considered when I was shopping for a scooter. I think this one is a Zuma. I ended up buying Honda scooter and I think mine looks better than this one. But then, I've never gotten mine all snowy like this one. Being small is definitely a nice feature of a scooter. You can park it almost anywhere.

Horseless carriage
Another interesting sight was this carriage in the picture on the left. In case you can't read the sign with the prices, it says, "$50 for the first 20 minutes. $20 for each additional 10 minutes." If I was taking that to a wedding, I'd definitely say, "Get me to the church on time." I wonder if the carriage is there for the winter or do they bring out the horse when the weather is a little better? I wonder where you stable a horse in the city?

I finally got to the train station and our 2PM train was still on time. Good news. No more delays. I'd seen enough of the city. At least in these conditions. The station was packed. I guess because there were so many canceled trains, all those people (like me) were hanging around to see if there were going to be any more changes to their trip. I sat in the lounge area for a while but worried about finding the right track in such a big area. So, I got up and got oriented. It turned out not to be that bad. The tracks were all clearly marked. Now, if they'd just say which track the train would be on. My fellow traveler showed up and we both wondered if we could get on an earlier train or on a later Acela. As we waited in line we heard a booming voice ask, "Is this your bag?" We had our bags with us but wondered if they looked suspicious. The policeman was more insistent the next time and then, apparently, the owner of the bag must have acknowledged that is was his bag and then we heard the policeman shout, "Get over here. And don't roll your eyes at me!" This was getting serious. They brought in the sniffer dog. I'm not sure if he was a bomb sniffer or a drug sniffer. Do they have dogs that do both? You could see that the guy who had left his bag unattended was not going to make his train. But we were. Even though we couldn't get on an earlier train nor a later but more comfortable train, our train was On Time - or was it? Just a little while before the train was scheduled to depart, they flashed the sign that it was delayed. They didn't know this before? Oh well, it was only going to be 15 minutes late. But 15 minutes later, it was going to be 30 minutes late. And 15 minutes later, you guessed it - it was going to be 45 minutes late. We were afraid to sit down in the lounge area because we might miss something - like our train being 60 minutes late or being canceled.

So, we'd been on our feet since 1 PM (it was 2:45 PM now) when they announced the train was coming into the station. Good! Now they'd announce which track it would be on. No such luck. They had announced that it was unloading but we couldn't see where people were arriving to see the track ourselves. In the meantime, they brought in more sniffer dogs and they were barking to each other. I guess they were passing along vital information about which smells were especially good in the waiting area. People were getting restless and whenever a track was announced, it was like the starting gun at a track meet. We were bumped, jostled and yelled out as people tore along the dotted line to get to their track. Finally, they mentioned our train number but instead of announcing that it was boarding on Track Number X, they announced it was getting a new locomotive. That wouldn't take long, though, because they do that all the time. Don't they?

I guess they don't change locomotives that often. It took them another 45 minutes. We finally found out our track number and calmly headed there. I didn't bump, jostle or yell at a single person on the way.  As we walked along the train, we saw lots of empty seats and rejoiced in the fact that we could spread out over two seats each. But they wouldn't let us on the cars with lots of seats. We were herded onto the cars that only had a few sets left. We were able to sit near each other and were thankfully able to finally sit down but we didn't get to spread out over two seats - but - it was warm and relatively quiet and no one was bumping into us. After we got to New Haven, the car really cleared out and we did have room to spread out over two seats. After leaving New Haven, two things happened together. The heat came on full blast and the lights and fans went out. Then the train slowed to a stop. The speakers in our car weren't working but it sounded like they knew what the problem was. The snow and ice had caused an electrical problem and they would have to restart the engine. We joked that this was just like a computer running the Windows operating system.

We sat there for about 10 minutes and the reboot worked. The train started up again and things were moving again. Especially the heaters! My friend happened to have one of our company's temperature loggers with him and it showed 84 degrees Fahrenheit. It never got any cooler. The funny thing was that when people would walk into our car from the other cars, you could see snow blowing in the area between the cars. When they got into the car, it looks like they'd walked thought a blizzard. I got up and took the picture to the right. This was the snow that was collecting between the cars. You'd think with all the heat in the cars, the snow would have melted.

We had an uneventful journey the rest of the way. We picked up my friend's car at the station and he drove me home. I got in the door around 9 PM that night. We had originally thought that getting on the 10 AM train, we'd get back early enough to go to work for a while around 2 PM. It didn't work out that way. But if I got a chance to ride the train (especially an Acela), I'd do it all over again.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

My adventure in New York

I should have mentioned that I was going to New York City this week. Our company had a booth at the Air
Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Expo at the Javits Convention Center (pictured at the right) from January 21-23. Our product s are used to read and store temperature, humidity, time-of-use and electrical characteristics (among others). So, people who make or use heating and cooling equipment can keep an eye on how well their equipment is working. Normally, only the sales and marketing people from our company go to these shows but sometimes they like to have the engineers go, too.  That way we get a feel for what our customers need and what they like or don't like about our products. Also, it's good to see what our competitors are doing to see if we are missing something or if we are comfortably ahead of what they are doing.

Our route from Penn Station to the Javits Convention Center
A few of us took the train down on Tuesday morning (January 21). I always like to take the train but in order to get there by 10 am when the show opened for the day, we needed to leave Providence before 7 AM. That meant getting up and leaving the house by 5:30 AM. While we were still in Connecticut, it started snowing. It didn't stop all day. There were 2 - 3 inches of snow on the ground as we walked from the train station to the convention center. The temperature had dropped and the wind was blowing pretty well. We only had to walk about a half mile but it seemed like more on the slippery sidewalks. It was nice and warm inside, though, and we found our booth without too much trouble. We were able to leave our bags and coats in the area behind the booth and we started visiting other companies' booths (the sales and marketing guys had to stay at our booth but the engineers got to walk around). I wish now that I'd taken my pedometer with me. I'll bet I walked 2 - 3 miles but I'll never know for sure. There were two floors of booths and there were hundreds of booths. I visited at 30 of them. Unfortunately, lots of signs were warning that no photography was allowed so I don't have any pictures inside. I took a break at 1 PM when I got hungry. There was a food court but it was packed and the prices were high. But I did manage to find a place to get a decent meal for about $10. It wasn't easy finding a seat in the crowded dining area but I shared a table with some folks who pretended I wasn't there. Just as well. I was too tired to talk.

Our route from the convention center to our hotel
The show ran until 6 PM and I visited booths until just before that time and headed back to our company's booth.  We grabbed our bags and headed to the hotel. That was another walk of about a half mile but the conditions were much worse by this time. The temperature had plummeted, the wind was blowing harder and the snow had really piled up. They said there was about 10 inches of snow in Central Park but people had stamped down the snow on the sidewalks so it looked more like 6 or 7 inches that we trudged through. Cars, trucks and buses couldn't stop very well and we had some close calls on the way. But we made it and it was dry and warm. You can't beat that. I would have slept on a cot that night but the rooms were really nice. I had one of the most comfortable beds I've ever had in a hotel. They guys all wanted to go out to dinner together but were talking about 8 PM! I said I couldn't wait for that and just wanted to grab a quick bite and jump into bed. But then they said we go somewhere sooner and I gave in. We still didn't get to eat until about 7:30 but I managed to survive.

It was a very good show. I learned a lot about what our customers want and what our customers don't want. I learned a lot about ways of presenting data so that it's understandable without needing to take a lot of time to set up. But I also learned that these folks are passionate about their jobs and know a lot about how to save money and energy when providing heating and cooling to houses, office and factories. The hard part is setting up and adjusting the equipment that does the work. They don't want to spend a lot of time and effort setting up our equipment that just has the "easy" job of monitoring conditions. Our stuff needs to be easy to use and easy to get information from. That's my job and I think I will do it a little better now.

We were going to be heading home the next day and my next post will be about my tiny tour of New York and the trip home.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Humans of New York

"If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't change a thing."
It seems like a such a simple idea. Take pictures of people on the streets of New York City, ask them questions and write down their responses. Then, put the pictures with the questions and answers on a blog. Anybody could do that, right? Well, if I did something like that (change Cape Cod for New York City), it wouldn't be nearly as interesting nor garner as many viewers. You should try going to Humans of New York and see for yourself. But you have probably done that already. As usual, I think I'm late finding this site.

As you can see from the example picture and caption I've posted here, the pictures combine with the stories perfectly. They make you wonder what the back story is. What is going to happen to this person in the future? Are the people in the picture OK? Do they have any friends? The stories and pictures are sometimes joyous and sometimes sad. They can be uplifting or depressing. How do some of these people get along in life? Sometimes you wish you could follow them to find out how everything works out. In this sense, the captions that accompany the pictures remind me of the six-word stories I wrote about in my "This is the story..." post years ago. So much wonder in such a short space.

Some of the subjects are the kind of people I wouldn't like if I met them. Many of their opinions differ what what I think. Some of the people are just out-and-out wrong about things - at least according to me! But they are fascinating. It opens up your world a bit. If I did ever meet these people, I think it would be interesting to discuss their ideas with them. There are people there that I think I could help and there are others who could help me. There are people I'd rather avoid and people I would love to meet and learn more about. As a Christian, it makes me appreciate what Jesus did and said about our neighbors. Whether we like them or not, we should love them all. They are all loved by God, after all, and deserve our respect. But it does make me realize how, "Love thy neighbor," is both a responsibility and a privilege. It is easy in some cases and hard in others. But it is not an option. It's a requirement:

"Owe nothing to anyone - except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, 'You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.' These - and other such commandments - are summed up in this one commandment: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law". Romans 13:8-10 New Living Translation

The owner of the "Humans of New York" site, Brandon Stanton, is talented in both his photography and his interviewing. Where does he get his ability to walk up to perfect strangers, ask to take a picture and get them to open up so readily?  His shots are usually posed and he photographs and composes the picture well. He asks a lot of the same questions to different people but how differently the people answer his similar questions is part of the fun. There is also a book appropriately titled Humans of New York. But the blog is free and updated almost every day. It's great fun and you will learn a lot about people. And yourself.

[Update: For those of you who use Facebook, there is an entry for Humans of New York there, too, at this link. It lets you read the comments others have made on the pictures. I suppose it lets you make comments if you belong to Facebook. I don't. Also, I just noticed, it doesn't seem like you get to see all of the pictures like you do on the blog site:]

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A silly joke

This is a joke one of my friends told me when we were about 10 years old.

An ant is standing on a cereal box when all of a sudden another ant goes running past him. A few seconds later, the running ant comes back the other way. Finally, after this happens a bunch of times, the first ant calls out to him and gets him to stop. "Why are you running so fast here?" he says. The running ant says, "Can't you read? It says, 'Tear along the dotted line.' " and runs off again.

If you want to see a fascinating documentary on ants, watch Ants: Nature's secret power on YouTube.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Working in Hell

This Sunday, as part of the sermon, our pastor asked us to think about the worst job we ever had. He wanted us to look at that job and find something to be satisfied with. Something we learned. Some satisfaction at having done a job well or in helping someone. The job that came to my mind had none of those redeeming qualities. The job I thought about only lasted one night. It made me think of what it must be like to be in Hell.

I've mentioned before (here and here) that while in college, I worked summers in a union for workers who operate heavy construction equipment - the Operating Engineers. I was classified as an oiler. In this type of work, that's the person that works as an assistant to the operator of heavy machinery. The oiler's job is to keep the equipment running by doing preventative maintenance on it. That involves keeping the machine clean, greasing the machinery and adding oil (hence the name) on a regular schedule. The oiler can also hook up loads when necessary and make sure the space around the machine is free of hazards and is not endangering other workers. It is not a high skill job. It's almost like an apprenticeship for someone who wants to make a living operating heavy equipment. The oiler learns how to run the equipment well and in a safe manner by observing and learning from the operator. I was a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 in Pittsburgh. I was not planning on making this my life's work but they always needed oilers during the summer when there were lots of jobs and the sons of union members were a good source of temporary workers. In the winter, when jobs were few, I would have never been able to get a job and would not have wanted to take a job away from someone who needed the work to support a family.

One of the problems with being an Operating Engineer was you never knew how long a job would last or where it would be. Most of the jobs I was called on went for a few months. That was just right for working summers between semesters. But sometimes you'd get called for a shorter job. One time I was called to work in a steel mill in the Southside district of Pittsburgh. There was no information about what was entailed in the job and I wasn't told how long the job would last but it sounded like I would just be filling in for the regular guy. I was just told when to show up and who to ask for. It was going to be the night shift. I was actually kind of happy about it. It was the closest job I'd had to home. Usually, the jobs were well over an hour's drive away. This job was only a half-hour away.

I showed up, found the office and showed my union card. They sent me inside the steel mill but when I met the operator I'd be working with, be took me below the mill. We would be working underneath the steel making area. The machine I'd be helping with was a Bobcat-like machine. Those are small, agile machines that often have a small loader or bucket on the front for excavation in small spaces. But in this case, the machine had an attachment that looked like a jack hammer on it. It was designed to get into tight spaces like the ovens and chimneys under the mill floor and chisel out the left-overs of the steel making process. Here is an explanation of how steel is made and that is where I got this picture. So, just imagine you're working below the space where all this 3000° Fahrenheit molten metal is being swung around, poured and spilled! Well, not much spilling went on because the steel workers are very good at what they do. But it does happen. So, here we were - working in a cramped, (the ceiling beams were just above my head), dusty, hot (you can imagine), dark (there were lights but many of them had burned out), noisy basement. Every once in a while, there would be a thunderous noise and everything shook when something dropped or was set down on the floor above us. There was never a warning when this would happen. Also, I noticed stalactite-looking things hanging down from the ceiling. I reached up to touch one and the operator yelled at me to stop before I could put a finger on it. "Those can be hot enough to burn off your finger and still look like they are cool," he said. He didn't have to tell me again.

To get the point across about how hot and dry it was, here was the first thing I had to deal with when we got to our machine. It wouldn't start. It didn't even want to crank. We looked at a number of possible problems but finally the operator said, "Oh, I know what it probably is," and went to the battery and unscrewed the caps where the water should be. It was completely dry!. The battery water had evaporated. I had to walk a long way to find some distilled water to pour into the battery. It started right up but apparently, this happened quite often.

Another disconcerting thing was that there were a LOT of small vehicles running around in this maze of corridors and none of them seemed to have horn nor did the drivers go slowly. You'd be working and all of a sudden this little machine would come tearing past you. I had to watch where I went and always keep looking around to make sure no one was going to run me over. It was the longest, weirdest, most uncomfortable night I had ever spent. When it was finally time to go home, the sun was just coming up and I couldn't wait to get into bed. The union called again the next day and wanted to send me back there because it looked like the regular guy was still out. For a real Operating Engineer, you wouldn't want to refuse a job because if you did that too often, you would find the job offers drying up. But in my situation, I had no problem refusing to go back to hell.To answer our pastor's question from Sunday - What I learned from my worst job was to not take a job in a steel mill.

"If you're going through hell, keep going."
Winston Churchill

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The day I performed real magic

From a young age, I loved magic. I don't remember the first magic trick I saw but it must have made a big  impression. I'd see magicians on TV variety shows and at live shows at the county fair. Then, a magician named Mark Wilson started a Saturday morning TV show that I never missed. He was very good at encouraging kids to try different magic tricks so in that sense, I knew that there were "tricks" to the magic. Some magic. But I think I still believed in real magic, too. I was never really motivated enough to actually try the tricks that Mr. Wilson showed on his TV program because a lot of his demonstrations were for sleight-of-hand illusions and I wasn't patient enough to practice to get them right.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when this story happened (probably about 9 years old) but I do remember the circumstances vividly. My parents were shopping for furniture and didn't want me to be bored while they looked over items and haggled with salesmen. So, they bought me a small deck of cards for doing magic tricks. I sat down at a couch that had a coffee table in front of it. I remember that this deck had various types of cards for different tricks but I picked the first one that was in the instruction manual. It was a set of cards imprinted with musical notes. I tried the trick as I read the instructions. They were in the form of printing what you would say to the audience (the "patter" in magician-speak) interspersed with instructions on what you were doing while you talked. As every magician knows, the patter has a double purpose. It explains what is happening to the audience and it distracts the audience so they don't see the trick.

The trick involved picking up two of the cards, one in each hand, and laying them down on the table together. As I read the patter and performed the trick, I laid down pairs of the cards on the two stacks until there was only one card left. Then the instructions told me to make a big deal of showing which of the two stacks I put this last card on. Then, I was to tell the audience (I was telling myself) that this last card made the stack I'd put it on have an odd number of cards but my magic was going to move the extra card from that pile to the other pile. I touched the stack with the extra card as I said the magic incantation, amazingly, I remember to this day: "Music, music everywhere. Extra card move from here to there!" as I dramatically pointed to the other stack.

Then the instructions said to count the cards in the stack I'd just pointed to and, sure enough, it was an odd number of cards! I'd done it. I had actually made real magic. I remember being exhilarated and then scared. Such power! Moving cards now but perhaps moving cars later? What would I do with this ability? Was it the magic incantation that did the work or were the cards themselves magic? Or did I just have a gift? What would become of me? I started to pray and to tell God that I would use this new ability only for good things. Could I keep my promise? From all the fairy stories I'd read and Twilight Zone episodes I'd seen, I knew I was in dangerous area. Great power could corrupt people. I tried the trick a couple more times to prove to myself that it wasn't a fluke. After the third time, it hit me. It probably occurred to you a while ago but I was probably about 9 years old and it took me a while.

The patter had done what it was supposed to do. It even distracted me. I was fooled into thinking the two stacks of cards had an even number of cards (before I put on the final card) because I'd put down two cards at a time. In reality, there were probably ten cards total so there were five cards in each pile. So, they both had an odd number of cards before I added the extra card and when I added the extra card to one stack, I made that stack have an even number of cards - six cards. The stack I pointed to started out with five cards and it still had five cards. I remember feeling foolish but I saw how a good magician could fool his audience into thinking that magic had happened. If he was able to convince them and distract them.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The misplaced newspaper

Here's another story about how I got myself in trouble (so to speak) when I was only trying to help.

When I was walking my dog, Charlie, every day, I would notice things around the neighborhood. Big things were obvious but I'd notice small things because of seeing the same things every day. So, one day I noticed that my next-door neighbor had two papers in his driveway. From previous walks, I knew he got one of the papers but the other one, a local paper, looked like the one the next neighbor along our street subscribed to. I didn't think much about it until I got to that next neighbor and didn't see his local paper in his driveway. I figured that a new delivery person was on the route and had gotten mixed up. So, when Charlie and I were heading home, I stopped at my next door neighbor's driveway, picked up the local paper, back tracked to the other neighbor's house and tossed it into his driveway. What a nice guy I am!

The next day, the same thing happened and I made my special delivery again. I was really feeling like I was making a difference in the world. But it kept happening and I did this for the next few days. My wife explained to me that this was never going to get fixed if I keep making the deliveries. So, I stopped and hoped that the other neighbor would miss his local paper and call the office to straighten things out. But, as usual, I worried about it. Maybe the second neighbor was too busy or forgetful to call the paper. Maybe I was going to get the delivery person in trouble. I wasn't sure whether to knock on their doors and explain what had been happening or not. In my usual way, though, I just let it go.

It became one more thing to take notice of on our daily walk. A couple of days later, I noticed that the local paper was being delivered to both houses! Now I saw what must have happened. My next-door neighbor had started delivery of both papers at the same time that the other neighbor went on vacation and stopped delivery of the local paper for a week or so. Then they must have returned from vacation and started delivery again. So, I'd been giving my next-door neighbor's paper to the other neighbor. Someone must have been checking on their house and taking the papers away or putting it in their house because the paper was never there the next day. Or maybe the delivery person did get mixed up with a new client and forgot to deliver papers to both houses. Of course, I'll never really know because I'm too embarrassed to ask my neighbors what the story was. I'll just add it to my list of worries and regrets that I drag with me through life.