Tuesday, January 27, 2004

My wife's company is making the great switch from desk tops to laptops. Last night, we got her laptop working with a phone dialup, and then we found that the Dell Latitude contained a MiniPCI card, which is a wireless card, so we activated that (why didn't it come activated? Beats me), and then she could just talk wirelessly to the router and thence to the cable modem. So this morning, she was at the kitchen table, wirelessly talking to the router, then to the Internet, then to her company network, then to her office LAN, and then to the hard drive on her office PC -- accessing files, moving them back and forth, no prob.


Monday, January 19, 2004

Sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea, looking at the sunlight reflecting off the snowy fields and onto the barns of the neighboring farmer. I know it can't last, but it's sure nice while its here. I hadn't planned to work from home today, but my daughter's ill, so I trekked in to the office early, picked up my laptop and some materials, and came back. One of the very nice things about working for my company is that I can do things like this, usually without having to warn people in advance. And one of the nicer things about being an IT person is the ability to work remotely.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

I have always enjoyed learning how things work.

For years, I wondered how exactly how a house gets built -- what, literally, do you do to build a house. How do the walls get built? What’s inside them, anyway? And why don't they fall down? I found a book several years ago, titled, I think, Why Buildings Don't Fall Down, that answered a lot of that, but some of my knowledge there comes from just watching builders, when I can. I've been surprised to see just how basic some of those fixes and methods are -- how a wall actually gets built, and what keeps them on the foundation. A couple of years ago, I was leafing through Fine Homebuilding, and was astonished to learn that they don't, always; they had pictures of buildings in San Francisco that had literally slid right off their foundations. I was amazed. So were the owners, I guess.

Usually, my desire for knowledge doesn't go too deep into the topic. Take my recent fascination with the concept of aortic dissection, something which I'll grant most people would not want to know about at all, let alone want to understand the innards of. I think its pretty cool stuff. I like knowing what it is, what’s actually happening, how it comes to pass, how it gets fixed. My knowledge about the phenomenon isn't too detailed, even for a layman, and I surely couldn't speak of it at length with anyone who actually understands it deeply. There’s a line that appears with some regularity in the Aubrey/Maturin novels, wherein someone who is talking to Stephen Maturin, who, in addition to his other skills, happens to be a physician (not a surgeon, he notes with some acerbity at one point); the person will say something like 'I am not to be speaking of medicine to a doctor of medicine....', the implication being that it would be presumptuous at best, and insulting at worst, to bring up the topic. I probably would, though, at least mention it, because it lets me establish a bit of a linkage with people who do understand the topic, and that might let me learn a little bit more about it. It also might help me know a bit more about people who understand this sort of thing, and I like that, too. So, I'd mention it.

Robert Heinlein was fond of saying (or having his characters say) that without substantial theoretical underpinnings, people could not offer valid opinions on the topic. That’s not so. It isn't normally necessary to understand an idea comprehensively in order to judge it. An informed opinion is sufficient, and sometimes, even less than that. How many people can speak authoritatively and provably regarding the relative worth of outfielders in professional baseball? But understanding what the outfielder is there to do is the basis for being able to speak about it. Similarly, knowing how a blood vessel works, how walls are attached to build a house, what a derivative is, understanding the role of the outfielder -- they all say that you are conversant with your world; you know more than what comes at you every day from your own discipline, your own narrow corridor. When you hear about something new, it provides linkage, a place to hook ideas together, or a framework against which to judge those new concepts for validity and usefulness. It allows you to offer opinions based on what you've just learned, and what you already knew. They might not be right, but they'll be worth something.

Plus, sometimes it’s just fun to know things.

Just knowing that stuff really does have a logical basis for how it works is satisfying to me. The current craze for carb counting is part of that. Years ago, I was talking with the woman who was our family doc about the concept of blood sugar, and what it literally meant, and she mentioned that people who want to track that and affect it will count how many carbs they eat. I asked her why, and, surprised that I wouldn't know that, she gave me thirty seconds of the relationship between carbohydrates and sugar. How could I not have known that, she seemed to think. But we all have holes in our understanding of the world. There’s a scene in Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where an artist asks the author why, if a light switch doesn't always work, is the author sure that its the switch that’s probably bad. Why not the wire? Or the light fixture, or the bulb? And why doesn't it take a couple of seconds for the light to light up, when you flick the switch? (Okay, that one, I knew.) But the idea that there would be people to whom that concept is as alien as the relationship of carbs and sugar is to me - - wow, that's amazing, and sometimes I remember that when I don't understand why people just don't GET some concept that I think is perfectly clear.

Of course, this is the time of year to think about impenetrable concepts, that being another way of referring to the US Tax Code (Why is it a code? Because it’s a secret! ). I was pleased when I realized, quite some time ago, that it wasn’t just coincidental that articles about what happens to people who don’t pay their taxes would show up in papers right about now. Doesn’t seem to happen all that much lately, though, but I think that’s because more people have a cavalier attitude to what they owe; Dennis and Martha’s behaviors probably are, if not the proximal cause of that, at least contributing factors. There is a terrific quote from today’s paper; a guy who wrote ‘Confessions of a Tax Collector’ (which I want to read; sounds good) says, in an article he co-wrote with a tax evader, that he learned the basic rules of tax collecting: Find what they love, and take it; if you can’t find what they love, find what they fear, and exploit it. Wow. He says it all comes down to knowing how to push people’s buttons. I’ve never been any good at that. Never have. I’m doing good to understand why buildings don’t fall down. Hey, I understand the concept of curtain walls and laminar flow, doesn’t that count for something? People and motivations, though, that’s beyond me. I did figure out, years ago, that most people are insecure to some degree. Some of us are insecure to a great degree, but everyone has some insecurity, and if all you do is tell them that they’re okay, that the image they’re putting out isn’t all fake, they really are hacking it, they really are worthwhile -- well, they don’t get that message from many other people, so they appreciate hearing it.

And that’s my big insight for today.