Friday, December 31, 2004

Why CVS Doesn't Mean CVS

I'm given to understand that the name CVS (the pharmacy chain) stands for Courtesy, Value,Service. I picked that up from an article about the corporation's owner, several years ago, and as the article basically said that the guy was a greedy thug, it's possible that it actually stands for something way less complimentary.

There's a branch of the chain (why don't we call it a 'link' of the chain?) not too far from us, and for most of the time that we've lived here, we would do our drug stuff there. Cleanup in aisle three, cocaine spill, was always fun. But over time, we found that we could order drugs through the mail. It was usually cheaper, and it was usually more convenient. And, more important, it always meant that we didn't have to deal with the people behind the pharmacist's counter. That was the key selling point for us, not having to deal with those folks. Never liked that. Of their two pharmacists, one was supercilious, and of their rotating staff of clerks, most were dumb. Not all, but most.

This afternoon I remembered that again. My partner ran out of a drug, and the mail order people hadn't notified us till late that the renewal was going to be delayed. So, sigh, I volunteered to go. Buckle on the emotional shield, buttress the insulation around the reaction emotions. I knew I would very likely get irritated, because That Is What They Do. Even my mother, who would speak well of Attila the Hun, gets irritated by them.

Told the clerk that I was there to pick up an order. She found it, and her eyes widened. This is expensive! she announced loudly. I love that part. A quiet voice doesn't seem to be in the repetoire of these people. Hey, Mr. Hendricks, that anti-itch cream working out okay for you? Those new style panty liners to your likin', Miz Jackson? While I was there, the clerk spoke loudly to two people. Both elderly, so we know they must have been hard of hearing, right? Sigh.

I told her I'd write a check for it, and she stared at me. This is OVER TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS! she announced loudly. I contemplated a gentle No Shit, Sherlock, but that would have been crude. So I smiled, and said How much? And wrote the check. She looked at it for a moment -- perhaps not used to the concept of people just paying for something -- and handed over the drugs.

Another sale for mail-order drugs, hey?

Growing Older

I have been happily thinking about a new house, and how we'd like it to be better than the one we're in now. There's not much wrong with this one; we're just thinking towards the time when my mother is no longer with us, and our daughter is off on her own life. So, we're thinking of a smaller house, with the kinds of things in it that are important to us.

But one thing saddens me about this. It's not a great insight, but here it is: A retirement home almost necessarily implies a degradation of opportunity.

A degradation of opportunity because almost invariably, when 'spirited seniors' are shown exuberantly enjoying life, 'staying active', its either playing golf, visiting the kids, or being involved with activities such as docent at the museum, volunteer at the library, or magazine-cart-pusher at the hospital. I've read that my generation is the first to generally reject the idea of 'old age', but all of those images that I've mentioned still carry that thought to me. I don't mind getting old, but the idea of getting old and irrelevant bothers me a lot. I don't have a greatly satisfying career now, but I am skittish about giving it up for shuffleboard. I want to do things that matter. (That much of my professional life hasn't met that test, I'll ignore, thank you.)

I don't know how to address that feeling of old = irrelevant. Maybe when I truly am old -- and the older I get, the older Old gets -- I won't care. Or maybe by then I'll have come to a better level of knowledge, a higher level of wisdom.

Right now, though, the prospect is scary.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Last DUH moment of 2004

At least, I hope so.

Reading an article about an AI technology labelled 'Piquant' by IBM. Found a news thread on Slashdot that talked about it and the concepts behind and related to it, to some depth.

About half way through, realized that most AI is actually language parsing and inference.

Gee, really?


Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Artificial Niftiness

I just came across something that startled me.

I mentioned a few posts ago (at least, I think I did) that I occasionally find myself wishing that I were more up to date on the applications for artificial intelligence. There is no logical reason for this -- I don't work in the field, and given that what little I know is because I'm a self-taught amateur, there is vanishingly little likelihood I'll ever get a job in the field -- but I just like it. The idea of 'artificial intelligence' fascinates me. So much so, in fact, that one day, when I was musing about it in the lightest of ways, I forced myself to stop and answer this question: What exactly would you like to know better about AI? Programming? Applications? Packages? Societal implications? And then watched myself mumble 'um, you stuff, like HyperActive Bob.' You see the level of my intellectual involvement.

I didn't make up the name of that app, by the way. Its real, and its cool.

Anyway, I was poking around with that concept this morning, and came across a site with this on it:

This elective introduces the study and application of artificial intelligence, and its application to military and strategic domains. It provides an executive level overview of various AI technologies including knowledge-based systems, neural networks, genetic algorithms, intelligent agents, and natural language processing. Students will learn the applicability of each technology, and will be able to determine if AI technologies are appropriate for specific problems. Student research projects will expose students to AI research for center of gravity determination. The elective is presented through a combination of readings, lectures, class discussions, and research. Assigned readings support upcoming topics. Out-of-class project work is conducted in a series of scheduled lab periods. Through class and lab work, students and instructors will collaborate on an ongoing research project called Disciple-COG. The goal of the Disciple-COG project is to build an intelligent agent for analyzing and determining strategic and operational centers of gravity. Students will adapt case studies in center of gravity determination to teach an intelligent agent to reason about the same. Most sessions will draw on the Disciple-COG research to present the AI topic at hand.
Whoa, I thought, this sounds pretty cool. Must be some high density think tank, deep in the groves of academe. Some kind of joint project between RAND and the US Army, something like that.

Well, I got the Army part right. That description is for a course intended to give Army mid level officers an executive overview of the technologies and their capabilities, and its taught at the US Army War College's Center for Strategic Leadership, Knowledge Engineering Group, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It's a think tank, but one with real world applications and real world students.

How far AI has permeated our society!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Malpractice Article in Washington Post

There's an interesting article in the Washington Post today, by Marc Fisher. It's currently here, and says this:

Here's what is clear: Doctors pay vastly more for malpractice insurance. Insurance companies don't want to be in this business. The number of claims against doctors is flat. The average verdict against doctors who lost cases has tripled since 2000, although the total paid out by insurers doesn't account for the boost in premiums.
I don't know if insurance companies don't want to be in the business -- seems to me, if they didn't want to, they'd just stop writing policies. Course, maybe that's happening. And I don't know if claims are flat. Bet that is one of those 'it depends how you count them' things.

He also says that professional discipline of bad doctors is largely ineffectual (is that true? I think so, but only the AMA and state agencies would know, and they're not talking), and that payment of monies to the victims of malpractice doesn't have social value (I don't agree, but there should be limits.)

His final point: the basis for this situation is an erosion of trust. My take is, he's right. I'm less likely to sue if I trust the doctor -- and if I believe there is a vigilant professional inquiry system in place to catch the things I can't see, and determine if I should be compensated for them.

Both professions have problems. There are unscrupulous lawyers -- but not, I bet, most of them. There are incompetent doctors -- but not, I bet, most of them. There are grasping lawyers -- but not, I bet, most of them. There are smarmy doctors -- but not, I bet, most of them. There have to be lawyers who see this situation as a blot on their own profession. There have to be doctors who really want to get it resolved, and not just lifted from them.

But just try to find these people. Find a lawyer to say that most doctors are competent, and that even in the best of medical circumstances, mistakes happen -- and that many patients aren't in the best of medical circumstances. Find a doctor to say that most lawyers are competent, and that when someone is injured due to a doctor's malfeasance, they have a right to redress.

And while you're at it....find the Easter Bunny.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Decimal Points

Several years ago, some friends went to Spain and, while there, bought a jacket for the husband as a spur of the moment thing. They translated the exchange rate, decided well, it was a little pricy -- about $80 -- but what the heck, it was a splurge on a trip. When they'd been back home for a while, one of them was processing the credit card bill from the trip and stopped in shock. Apparently, when they'd done the math of the exchange rate, they'd slipped a decimal point.

Last week, doing last minute shopping at a Nordstroms, I bought several items for my partner, including a nice red jacket, charged them, went home. At the grand unveiling, she tried it on and liked it. It was then put away along with the other gifts.

This morning, looking at the outstanding credit card balance, I was stunned. Turned out the nice jacket was not $41.50... I'd slipped a decimal point.

I dithered for a bit, then talked with the partner, who, without taking a breath said 'Ship it back'. And its in a box now, waiting to go back.

This evening, she turned to me and thanked me. For what, I asked. "I've never worn anything that expensive before", she said.

Is she great, or what?


We've been discussing retirement homes, in a desultory sort of way. I think I want the Sims to build it for me. Click, click, pick some options, done. Of course, we'd be astounded by the price. There are some homes going up not too terribly far from where we live, and we were surprised to see that they were being advertised at a base price of $150,000 -- and just now, we noted that the base price is $190,000. For that, we're sure, you don't get mahogany inserts, thick sound insulation, or lavish accoutrements. You get a decent, not outstanding house.

We're not sure what we want. We know that it will almost certainly be a ranch style, with one bedroom, plus another room that is usable as a guest bedroom, a living room with big, comfortable chairs, someplace else for the television (we're not opposed to having it where we hang out to relax, just would prefer it to be elsewhere, preferably in a soundly sound-insulated room). Kitchen (room rather than area, would be our preference), possibly with a table, definitely with bright lights. Not necessarily a dining room, but if not then some extra gloss for the kitchen. Tile, hardwood, carpeting, good-quality cabinetry where appropriate. Not lavish, but not skimpy, either. Good sound insulation, especially around the bathrooms (who wants to hear?) . Wired for internet access, of course; wireless connectivity, preferably, and ditto for the modest sound system. A goodly number of bookcases. Security system. Attached two car garage. Total square footage indoors of, oh, about 1800 square feet, maybe something less. Not too much outside area, as neither of us is really a gardener. As for exactly where, we're like a lot of people -- we want to be close enough to a major city (or second-tier city) to benefit from it without having it impact the quality of where we live. Close enough to medical facilities for the inevitable needs. Good libraries - a decent college or university would be good. Some, but not an overwhelming amount of culture. Not too much 'outdoors' stuff -- we don't ski, ride horses, or the like; about the most is bicycling. We like to walk, and a park to do it in would be nifty.

Yep, we ran out of money about half way through that, I do believe.

Why is it...

that it's okay for those people to air videos of hostages being beheaded, and mess halls being blown up, but its not okay for us to publicize their people being killed by us?

Don't bother, I know the answer. I just don't particularly like it.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

C + 1 Thoughts

This morning, I continued my tradition of keeping one gift back until the end of Christmas Day -- this time, seriously till the end, as the recipient stayed downstairs to watch the tube, while I sacked out. She found it under her pillow when she came, but chose to wait till this morning to open it, which I thought was nice of her. I started doing this because I want to stretch out the image of Christmas, to get away, as much as I could, from the feeling that Christmas was a masive disgorgement of presents, and then its Okay, I've Opened Them, Got Some Good Stuff, Didn't Get Some Stuff, What's On Television? It seems to work. I have heard of (not personally known) families that do it in waves -- so many at 8AM, so many at 10AM -- and that would work, too.

After wandering around a bit in a post-sleep daze (I slept well last night, unlike the last couple of nights), I pulled on an overcoat and went over to the supermarket, which I found to my dismay that they didn't have the Washington Post, my paper of choice for Sunday reading. NY Times, yes, Post no. Bummer. I'm willing to believe that it is somehow connected to the cold (its not frigid, but it is chilly - about 17 degrees F) so that they couldn't get the trucks out, or the shipments to the train, or whatever.

That started me thinking a little bit about retirement. We were talking about it last night -- we're pretty much agreed on what kind of house, but not where; I'm still up for Australia, and my partner is thinking 'maybe a bit further north in Pennsylvania' -- but now I have an added item for the ten or so that I wrote on a sheet of scrap paper -- has to be somewhere that, if remote deliveries of the Sunday paper I like are delayed, I can still get it.

And it doesn't have to be the Post -- that's just the best of what's available here. Years ago I subscribed to a service that would send you one Sunday paper from a range of cities, once a month. It would arrive on Wednesday or so, and while there were some duds, some were quite good. I'd do that again, if I could find it.

Happy Post , no pun intended, Christmas!

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Adventures in Sim City

Today is Christmas, and if you could see our den, you'd know that Christmas definitely happened here. Shards of paper and wrapping everywhere. People walking around in new clothes, carrying new books. and playing new games.

Actually, one specific game. Sim City 4 -- Deluxe Edition. It was a gift to the offspring, from her aunt. She asked me to install it, and she then spent some time doing the basics of setting up a city. Watching her from time to time, I thought gee, that doesn't look all that hard. The potential for complexity is surely there -- multiple options, multiple possibilities for each option -- but it looks like you can start slow. I mean, heck, she's just a kid, how hard can it be.

So while she's downstairs, I thought, I'll do this, I'll give it a try. Ten minutes later, I've finally figured out what button to push to start things off. I'm not saying there aren't ten more I could have pushed, just that I found one that started one of the tutorials. Note: One of the tutorials. Looks like there's about seven of them.

Years ago, I played a game called Adventure, also known as Colossal Cave. You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike... That game challenged me, and still does (I found a site that runs a simulation for it; apparently, there's more than a couple). Sim City is light years past Adventure. It awes me. And my daughter just

I think I can see the end of my years as the All Knowing Father.

I want her to be resourceful and insightful, and this is one of the ways that it starts, when she realizes that she can do it, she can take control of parts of her environment and make things happen. She's moving towards not needing me as a source of insight, and I'm glad for that.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Parallel, as in NonIntersecting

Several years ago I had the delightful good fortune to take a year off from work. At the time, the stock market was going vertical and the phrase 'irrational exuberance' hadn't yet entered the lexicon, so I and my partner thought it was entirely likely that I would never work again. Instead, she would continue to work for several years, and I would pick up the slack at the house -- doing more cooking, cleaning the house, running required errands, and so forth.

One of the things that I would do was vacuum the house. When I saw in a comic's column (I think it was Dave Barry) that he would simulate vacuuming by dragging two sticks in a parallel path through the house, I recognized a kindred spirit. Although I knew that vacuuming did something, it wasn't always apparent to me what that something was. But since my partner valued it, I did it. I value her opinion, and I like it when she is happy.

This past weekend, I got to do something very strange (to me) in pursuit of that same goal. I earnestly and seriously told her that I thought it would be a good idea for her to spend time while we were at Nordstrom's to take advantage of their 'bra fitting specialist'. She'd mentioned wanting to do it, every so often, but she was reluctant to spend the money. Her comfort was, and is, very important to me, so I urged her to do it, and she finally agreed. After it was all over, she told me that it was a good idea, because it turned out that she had been wearing the wrong size. I said that I was pleased that she would be more comfortable now. She informed me that, actually, she couldn't feel a difference; it just looked better to her now. Felt the same, looked better.

Can't you tell if you're wearing the wrong size? What exactly did the fitter do, then? I decided not to ask. Even though it sounded to me like the fitter had done the equivilent of dragging two sticks, it seemed a good idea to just accept it. For one thing, I don't wear them, so how could I possibly know what its like, or whats important to someone who does? For another, even if the fitter really did just drag the sticks, my partner is happier now. That's worth a lot. That the fitter did something worthwhile was one of the things I just have to accept, like parallel lines not intersecting.

At least, in a Euclidean universe, she's happy, I'm happy.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Feeling Funny

Not funny as in funny, but funny as in odd.

A little bit of that comes from looking across the farmer's fields -- he gave up on cows, as being too much work at his advanced age, and now just grows corn -- and looking at the soft blue light on the barn and silos. Its beautiful. The thing is, how often do you get the urge to say that something is beautiful? Its a funny feeling.

Most of it comes from a Washington Post article about a solder who was seriously injured in Iraq, and the slow process of healing, wondering if 'he' will ever come back -- whether his brain is damaged, too, what will his life be like. Its a good article.

And the rest comes from an article about people who go to a homeless shelter for Christmas and put on a carnival. Its a feel-good article that makes me think, as articles like that always do, that I ought to do something like that.

But what really grabs me is that for both of those articles, I know -- I know -- that in less than a week, I'll have forgotten about them.

And that makes me feel less than dirt. I can think of good, solid, reasonable reasons why, and all, but still. Less than dirt.


Saturday, December 18, 2004

Not Really Making It

From what I just read, I've just been faking it when it comes to being Santa.

An article in the local public TV magazine talks to several people who've been Santa for decades, and they all say that they've gone home with black and blue marks from being kicked, squelching from being peed on, been interrogated as to the name of Mrs. Claus, the names of all of the reindeer, and various other bits of trivia.

They say you 'have to be on top of your game', 'be ready for anything', and 'never promise anything'. They say it helps to have a real suit -- one guy has one made from 800 rabbits; wonder if he mentions that to the kids? -- and a real beard, or at least one 'applied with prosthetic glue'. They relate kids telling Santa that Mom could use new underwear because she walks around all day wearing underwear with holes in it, and, oh by the way, she has a special friend who sleeps over when Dad's away. And sometimes tales much more dire than that.

Gee. And all this time, I thought the idea was just to talk to the kids. Maybe deprogram them from the cult of acquisition, a bit. And to really, really listen. Guess I've got stuff to learn, hmm?

Friday, December 17, 2004

Information just wants to be free.

How do you make an information structure work?

Boy, does that sound pompous. Its a side effect, I think, of the fact that I don't really even understand the question that I'm trying to ask.

Let me put it another way. People have information that must be shared with others. I'm thinking here of something like a cube, with a person at each vertex. Person A wants to know something, and it happens that Person B knows it, but Person A doesn't know that. Person B wants to tell someone something, but doesn't know that Person C is the one to tell. Person C -- you get the idea. Now take that and muddy it up a bit -- Person A doesn't even know that Person B even exists -- and expand it -- there isn't one Person A, there's an Organization A with a lot of Persons inside it. And, oh yeah, the cube isn't just a cube, but a multilevel hypercube.

So how do you make the information flow? How do you even know if its flowing at all?

There are people who are writing and researching this question, and a hundred just like it, coming at it from different points and different attitudes and different goals. I stumbled across just one of them the other day whilst reading through the list of sites at Yahoo that I mentioned in an earlier post. Which one? Um...its in the list of sites that I visited yesterday. Who can remember? But that point was made yesterday. For today, lets just assume that I really do remember the site and say that okay, so I found one person. And I assume there are thousands others. How do I find out what they're saying? I'm not talking about at the deep molecular gotta-know-(fill in the blank) technology down to the twelfth degree before you can even understand the conversation. I'm just saying, how do you find out what's going on, generally, in the world of people who think about stuff like that?

Or is it impossible? Does the information kind of have to resonate and reside solely in that tight universe until it finally gets chewed on enough so that it can be released to the outside world? Because before that point, it just isn't ready for prime time? Just isn't comprehensible to the outside world? Does information have a point before which it can't be released into the wild?

Years ago, I worked in Boston for a computer company, and I thought it would be a novel idea to step across to Cambridge and pick up some computer learning over at MIT. I spoke to a person in their admissions office who was a little unsure of my qualifications to be even thinking about this, and I pointed out that Hey, I did this for a living. They gently pointed out that the things I did every day were things that MIT people had done ten years ago. Day one, I was already ten years too late.

Okay, I know I can't overcome that. But if I want to know more about something -- in this case, how information flows through an organization, how you track it, how you enhance it -- and I'd like to know more about it than Popular Science can tell me, where do I turn? Is it Popular Science, then MIT Tech Review, then straight to the Phd theses?

There's gotta be an intermediate step in there. Doesn't there?

Things of Quality

I like it when I can use things that are made well. Usually, the things that I use every day are 'good enough' -- not slapdash, but not elegant and well-formed, either. Which I suppose is fair: after all, I'm not elegant or well-formed, either. But the other day I got the opportunity to use something that is made well.

Every year, we have a small, quiet post-holiday season get-together at our house as a way of decompressing from The Holiday Season. While the tree is still up, and the house is still decorated, we invite several neighbors and friends to come over and, as the invitation says,
Come when you want, talk a bit, have some munchies, listen to holiday music, relax. And you don’t even have to clean up afterward. What could be better?
The last couple of years, we put this note on an index card and dropped it into their mailboxes, but this year I wanted to do it a little differently. My wife found a notecard in a stationery store while she was in Philadelphia. I liked it at first sight. It has a good heft, the style is nice, the colors are nice. Yes, it's expensive, but not wildly so. I think it's worth it-- so much so that after looking locally, I went to the web site of the people who make it and bought two more packets, just to have them.

Good stuff.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


(There must be a word -- a pejorative word -- for the delay between when you want to write something in Blogger and when the damn screen actually paints. I used to think it was just the slow link here at work (my personal theory is that there is a robust cable just bristling and crackling with information, plugged nicely into the outside of this building's wall, and just inside the wall is a gnarled old man who reads each bit from a screen, laboriously taps it out on a keypunch, rolls across the room and feeds the keypunched card into a reader, and only then does it get sent to my computer.) but now I think that Blogger has a really slow front end, and little motivation -- remember, its free -- to make it faster.)


I think I'm more sensitive to this than I normally am because for the last hour or so I have been breathing helium. Specifically, I've been looking at the list of computer-related websites and blogs that is presented at Yahoo, here, working my way down the list and reading the ones that a) sound interesting and b) are understandable by me. In case you're curious, the ratio of the number that they present to the number that I look at to the number I actually understand works out to be about 10: 5: 2. Ah, well.

The one thing that I get out of all the sites that pass this filter is that things are seriously changing in the world of communication. I suppose that 'communication' is a very pale way of describing the mix of information management, portability, and computer-based tools (is there a better word? I mean, a non-buzzword word?). But to read these pages is to see not only the future but in many cases the actual present. Granted, Somewhere Else. Not at the company I work for, not at the place I work; and more certainly not at the semi-rural area where I live. ( Not that living in a rural area must necessarily imply technology that's at the Leave It To Beaver stage, as I've seen a number of articles showing people living thusly whilst still happily telecommuting, surfing the net, and watching ten zillion television channels. It just takes more money than I'm willing to invest. It would be fun to see just what it really would take to get up to that level, though. )

But somewhere, these things are happening, and they're happening now. Wonderful, magical things. Information flowing in amazing ways, from amazing mixtures of sources, just gushing out. Slowly, this gushing is becoming a torrent of possibilities that can and most likely will change our lives. Learning about this torrential flow is exhilarating. It fills me with excitement about the possibilities for improving not only life but all of the things that make life bearable, make it fun.

Of course, being magical, it helps to actually believe in magic. And I mostly do. So though I know that just because something worked for one person, one time doesn't mean it will work for me... and that there is certainly a difference between it working for someone who is a certified technogeek, heavily into acronym-rich concepts, and me, picking one out at Circuit City, still, the idea that its possible is captivating. And I admit it: I'm captivated, enticed, damn near seduced.

But there is a catch, and it lies between my ears. I don't know how to make this stuff work right here, right now. And the reason is that I don't know enough, and I can't remember enough, and I just can't do it enough.

I can't find enough to read that will keep me up to date, so that I know what's possible. When I find it, I can't find enough of it, so that I get past the breathless-wonder articles and down to the ones that admit that it can fail... even if they don't talk about exactly how. When I read enough, with enough detail, I remember only a vague general outline of what I read. And when I do remember in some detail, I can't see how to apply it where I live, where I work. And, when I do find it, do remember, do sense a way to apply it -- I can't change anything except in my own little orbit.

I can accept that. But I want more. Even subject to all the qualifiers above, I want more. Want to believe its possible. Want to figure out whats possible, here, and make it work. Here. Because when I do get it to work, when I can put the pieces together and remember them, understand them, see them fit together, I just know it's gonna be -- magical. Maybe not quite as magical as the articles I read now, but still: magical. I really want to believe that.

Helium? I hope not.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Doing the Dental

I am quite proud of myself.

I went to have my teeth cleaned today. That's a pretty minimal thing for most people, and it should be for me, too. But because I'm pretty good at denial, it's something I can easily forget, or cancel. If I should miss an appointment, its two, three months easily before I even try to make another . I'll defer for any reason at all. Haley's Comet, you say? Better cancel. Holidays on the horizon? Bad time -- better cancel.

I feel quite sheepish, and I know this is not adult behavior (its not even decent kid behavior). I do it because there is always a good chance that while I'm at the dentist, I'll learn something unpleasant. It was on a routine dental visit that I learned that I have -- excuse me, had -- two teeth that needed to come out because they were abcessed. It was on another that I found out I'd need a root canal. And even if none of these occurs, dental visits are almost always fraught with opportunities to have someone say I'm not doing things right, or not doing enough things, or both. Flossing? Not often enough. Wrong kind of floss, too. Brushing? Not well enough -- and have we mentioned brushing your tongue? (When they said that I thought they were joking. Dentists don't joke about things like that.) Replacement of the partial bridge on the horizon? You'd better believe it. Get used to the idea of being partially toothless for a while (dentists don't seem to think this is a problem).

So, whether they're about to spring on me that I need major work done, or am just being personally defective, I don't enjoy the process of going. Nobody does, of course. In fact, I've read once that being a dentist is a very stressful job. You're right there, almost literally in your face, causing some degree of pain to someone else, and that person is radiating a certain degree of discontent right back at you. Who could like that? I suppose its possible to have a non-stressful visit to the dentist, but I'd have to be woken up to drive home.

As it happens, this year I missed the appointment in June because I was going to have surgery on my chin the next month (I said I would defer for any reason at all), and I didn't even try to get it rescheduled until November, thinking that well, it'll be at least two months till -- and they said ah, we have an opening on December 15th, come on it. Arghhhh.

But its done. I acted like an adult, and I did it.

This time.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Bad Idea # 3,402

Don't tease your partner about how it'd be a much better idea to attend Christmas services via phone (press one to donate ten dollars; press two to give us your credit card number and let us pick the amount) , web site (click on the flashing chalice to attend Communion; click here to play the MP3 version of the sermon, or download this PDF file) , or mail (beat the rush; mail in your attendance in November) , rather than in person.

She won't think it's all that funny, and she'll think it's even less funny when the offspring, who knows no limits, starts elaborating on the ideas. No parking! No crowds! Atttend in your PJs!

As Martha might say: It's a Bad Thing.

PC Hardware

We just bought a Logitech MX Laser wireless mouse for the house PC . ..It's awesome.


1 - it does not eat batteries, as the Microsoft Wireless Mouse (yecch, pfah) did. Instead, it has one rechargeable battery. An indicator on the top tells battery strength. The batt will recharge when the mouse is dropped into its holder. If there were nothing else, this would make this mouse clearly superior to the Microsoft Wireless Mouse (grumph, tchah). No more feeding two new double-A's every 30 - 40 days.

2 - It is studded with useful little buttons -- zoom, scroll up, down, sideways, flick up the task bar to switch between active applications. Even its buttons have buttons.

3. - It's more comfortable than its predecessor. The MWM was ergonomic; this one is comfortable. Can't explain the difference, but both of us can feel the difference. This is a Good Mouse.

The other selling point, that it is a Laser Mouse, doesn't mean that much to us. But the three I've listed most certainly do. We like it a lot.

Death to the MWM. Long live the Log Mouse.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Air Girl Scout

If my daughter's girl scout troop got the use of a corporate jet to fly to a major city for a day trip, I'd be surprised and delighted.

A friend who is a Girl Scout troop leader, and is hyperactive even without that stimulus, is a manager at a local coporation. She has arranged for her troop to have use of the corporate jet for a day trip.

Why do I think that this is unfair?. What I think is, that reaction says something unflattering about me and my motivations. It suggests that I envy good fortune when it comes to others, if I think it didn't have an equal chance of coming to me or mine.

Gosh, self analysis is fun......

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Another One Bites the Dust

Another Cookies With Santa, that is. Two hours and a little bit more, in The Chair, smiling (not that you could tell through the beard), jokiing, teasing, and listening as hard as I could to soft voices, some of whom seemed to have no idea what they wanted for Christmas, and some that had a very good idea, indeed.

Three noteworthy occurrences in the stream of kids.

One of the kids who had a very good idea of what she wanted had a mother. Said mother took the opportunity of a break in the flow to come over, sit in my lap, and murmur that she'd been very good, and would prefer diamonds, rubies, or a Mercedes. Racy reparte not being in the Santa image, I murmured back " Baseball, Ruby Dee, and Mercedes McCambridge"?

One girl, looked to be about fourteen, who clearly didn't want to be doing this. I gave her the option, as I do with any kid old enough to possibly not want to be doing this, to sit on my lap or stand, and she said Stand, with a great finality in her voice. She stood and even smiled for the photograph, but when we were done, I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, and she just grimaced. "Too old for this?", I asked. "Yes", she replied, striding off, "and so are you."

And one woman, who walked up with a tall adolescent behind her. "This is my son", she said. "He's very big outside, but inside he's very young." He moved awkwardly, did not speak, or even meet my eyes. But when we were done, he looked at me and shook my hand. Made me feel humble.

Some general notes.

When a kid was dressed well -- not squeaky-clean, like for The Formal Portrait, but nice, with complementary colors and the like -- I told them. Sometimes, you get the feeling no one has ever complimented them before on something like that. I don't think its going to change a kids life, to have an unknown adult tell them this, but you never know.

One kid had a really nice smile, and I told her so. She denied it, so I told her again. She shook her head. Finally, I said "Look at me. Look me in the eyes." She did. I leaned really close and I said "This is Santa talking. You have a nice smile." And she smiled.

When I could, I suggested books as gifts. A couple of kids seemed surprised and thoughtful.

Once again, its done. And once again, I'm glad I did it.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Furniture Chess

I'm looking for a desk. It's going to be the opening move for a game of Furniture Chess.

The house PC has been resident on a small Queen Ann style desk in the room we call the library (a 10 x 10 bedroom), and over time we've found ourselves starting to run out of space on it. I put my laptop on the corner, and I have the keyboard for our PC on the center of the desk. Two speakers on either far corner, a bankers lamp, and a stack of whatever papers are being worked on -- it gets crowded pretty quickly.

Additionally, the daughter could use an actual desk to do homework on. She does it on the kitchen table (which, now that we use the dining room table much more frequently, has become pretty much entirely dedicated to her homework and projects). She has a small, kid-sized desk out here in the living room, but I doubt she's sat at it since she was three. Strictly speaking, she doesn't need a desk, but, in the timeless tradition of parents, we want to think that having One Place For Her Stuff will encourage neatness and organization.

So the plan is, buy a new, bigger desk for our stuff; move the QA desk out here for her to use (and put a new computer on it, said new computer being the old one that her grandmother will give up if we ever get her new one up to her), and pitch the kid desk. We'll likely give her the thin monitor from this PC, too; as I said, the desktop for the QA desk isn't that large.

First step: Pick the new desk. We're thinking something of quality, with plain, simple lines -- this Craftsman style is what we have in mind -- and we'd like to get it locally. Nothing against the company that I linked to, but you want to touch these things before you buy them. I did drop the store a line, asking if I could get a sample of the finished wood before I buy it. They'll likely say no, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

More as we do it. We need to figure out how to get the 'new' PC to talk to the printer, which at the moment is hardwired to the house PC. The router doesn't accept USB connections, which is what the printer is. This should be a Minor Problem. Should be. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


I suppose now Mr. Rumsfeld will scuttle back to his armored cave in the Pentagon, muttering darkly about insolent soldiers who take unfair advantage of offers to ask him tough questions, and actually do so. Possibly, like his boss, it's been a while since he met an actual tough question. Not a hard question, not a complex question -- a tough question, one that questions his assumptions, his style. Though I am sure that he's a tough guy in his own mileu, he most assuredly isn't up to the physical toughness of the people who asked him the question. They have to be careful every day of getting blown to bits. All he has to worry about is a sharply worded email. As I recall, this is the same guy who asked why having to stand for long periods of time, arms outstretched, at Abu Ghraib was a problem -- why, he personally stood for long periods, working at his stand-up desk. What's so tough about that?

He is out of touch. He should be out of office.

Wet Night Thoughts

It's a rainy Thursday night, and, except for the guinea pig, I'm alone. The offspring is at a girl scout troop meeting. They've merged the troop with another one, and so instead of having two meetings, one hour each, every month, they have one that lasts about two hours.

I spent some of the time wrapping two Christmas presents. I'm not a particularly good wrapper, but I try, and with the help of a lot of Scotch tape, I get it done. I was going to look into ordering some gifts on line, but that didn't work out. Partially, it was because the site of choice, Bloomingdales, has such a good security system that it won't let me order without giving it the secret password -- and their offer to mail me the secret password seems to have a glitch, as it's been about twenty four hours, and no password has dropped, ker-chunk, into my email box. I suppose it's a good idea, because what I was going to buy was just a little silly something, and I didn't really need to order it. I wonder about the effectiveness of Bloomingdale's online systems, though, when things like this happen. Years ago, the chairman of Scandinavian Airlines Systems said that it was important to keep the tray tables clean, because the passengers could see them, and if they were dirty, the passengers got a 'dirty' image of the airline. They wondered about the things that they could not see, if the things that they could see were in bad repair. I am willing to bet that the failure of Bloomingdales to send me a forgotten password -- or let me just reset it on the fly -- doesn't really call into question the integrity of their electronic operations. But it did cost them a sale.

Instead, I went to a recently opened branch of Coldwater Creek, and I bought two nice pieces of clothing there. The store is in a small shopping center that's recently opened not too far from where I work. They're trying to make it an upscale deal, so along with CC there is a J Jill, a Talbots,an Ann Taylor Loft, a Bombay Company, and some others. Have to say that both Talbots and J Jill seemed to have a bit of a problem with the idea of a guy walking around, looking at women's clothing. I don't think that they thought it was creepy -- the way that the people at Victoria's Secret did, first time I went into one of their stores, years ago -- but they just didn't seem comfortable with me there. I noticed that the salespeople -- all but one women -- went up to women as they entered, but they didn't for me. No matter. I found stuff that I liked in Coldwater Creek. Part of it was that I just liked the way the store was decorated and laid out, which includes that they did not have rock music playing, as J Jill did, and Ann Taylor. Talbots had some nice music, and they did have one nice burgundy silk blouse that I thought about -- but I'd already both the things at CC, so I wasn't too moved. I still want to get more, but if this is all I get, it will be okay.

So this evening, instead of shopping, I wrapped the two presents, and then I watched West Wing for about 90 minutes. One was a current episode that I'd taped last night, and the other was an old one. I will almost always watch West Wing, if its on.

I hear the garage door. I think I'm about to not be alone.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Excel - lent

This morning, I did some work with Excel, and whether it was because I was in a relatively decent mood, or the stars were aligned, or what, it went pretty well.

I was looking at numbers from a performance reporting tool that gave measurements about how well certain things were running. There were about six different classifications of numbers, and each had about 72 measurements per day, and there were a total of five days worth of data. (Why do I feel like ending that with many men were going to St. Ives?)

But I got it downloaded and dumped into Excel, plotted the values, and it told me something useful. In a way, I didn't need to -- it simply gave me a graphic image of something that I (and lots of other people) already expected (that this computer was seriously overloaded) but now I could see it; further, I could compare workloads (yes, the pain is mostly being felt by the least important workloads) and I could look at one workload over time. Performance and capacity people like this kind of thing, so I was having fun.

And unlike the last time, I didn't think 'gee, if this is fun, maybe I should do lots more of it!'. Okay, I did do one more days worth of data, and won out again: the chart clearly showed that although things were still tough on the machine, a change we'd made had had the effect of improving things for them.

I was pleased.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Yesterday was Amazing

...for a couple of reasons.

One was, I got the Christmas lights put up outside. We have a couple of evergreens in our back yard -- one was installed when we had some landscaping done about fifteen years ago, and the other was our attempt to have a live Christmas tree indoors which we would then plant outside. Both are huge -- about twelve feet high for one, fifteen to twenty for the other -- and while I realize that by redwood standards, they’re minuscule, they dominate the landscape back there, and we like that. Two years ago, I had the thought to put lights on one of them, and this year, going out to do it again, I found that I had to scavenge another string of lights just to get two thirds of the way up. You’d think the thing was growing, or something. They come on with a timer, and its just so nice to look out in the darkness and see it glowing there.

The other was, we did something spontaneous, and we did it, as my partner likes to say, ‘as a family’. We were eating dinner, and spoke a bit about the movie that my wife and daughter had gone to see while we were up at her mother’s house. This was while I was swearing under my breath, and not so far under, at the Dell That Would Not Start. My daughter said that she liked the movie and all, but the one that she really wanted to see was National Treasure. This took us by surprise. You realize, I said carefully, that this is not a kids movie. There are no cartoons, no princesses, no goblins, no ponies. I hate ponies! she announced. And I want to see that movie.

We shared the Parent Look across the table (can we/should we/is she old enough/we'd have to leave pretty much right away) and the long and short of it was, we did it. And you know what? We had a great time. She got most of the ins and outs of the script( though there were times where she shuddered and turned her face away from the screen, and I had to promise to tell her when it was over). She was riveted by the action (it helped that she'd been to many of those places). And to cap it, on the way home we actually discussed the plot with her. She spoke lucidly about it, and she actually liked the parts that we liked. Amazing!

Pretty cool.


Its come to the end of the year, which in my company means that it is time for PBC assessment.

PBC stands for Personal Business Commitment. When I started working here, four years ago, I thought that this would be an interesting and valuable tool to allow me to see how my contribution -- granted, a pittance -- affected the profit and survivability of the organization as a massive whole. I have always had a serious problem with the concept of Me as a significant affector of corporate success, both because I have found it very hard to believe that what I do in any way affects the organization, good or bad, and because I could not for the life of me think of a way in which it possibly could. Show up, handle problems, install software, keep your head down, and don't leave too early seemed to be the order of the day, and that was what I would do. Now, at last, I would have a criteria that I could use to see how I really did affect the organization. I didn't expect to find that I had much impact, but I was looking forward to finding out.

As it turned out, PBCs were a pipe dream.

They consisted of overblown statements issued from managers four and five organizational levels away from me, and supplemented by the managers between me and them -- statements like 'Contribute to the overall profitability of your business unit by reducing costs by ten percent while increasing market share and customer satisfaction'. All very noble, but how? Where? With what? I am sure that my group's manager would not agree, but my thought was that, basically, they wanted lip service -- they would certainly have liked more, but the truth was that for most people, the regimen I mentioned a few sentences ago was all they could do. They certainly could not reduce overall costs, and as for market share, they hadn't the slightest idea what our market share was, let alone how it might be affected. That was, and is, Other People's Job.

It saddens me to come to this conclusion, and I would very much like to be proven wrong. I am willing to admit that there is at least a chance that so long as I believe I can't affect the organization as a whole, I won't. I settle for doing what I can, where I can, and hope that that's enough.

Insofar as salary and pay in general is partially affected by this, though, there is a certain anxiety regarding whether what I wrote as my 'achievements', though true, will be found up to the mark. I guess I'll find out this month.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Normally, I'd Be Exhausted about this time, because today is the day that the company for whom I used to work holds their Breakfast With Santa, and I would have been sitting for about two hours as kid after kid clambered up and talked to me. I would have been thinking longingly of something cold to drink -- just as I was leaving, one year, the Coke delivery guy gave me a free one, and all I could think of was the old Coke ad -- and of getting out of the suit, knowing that the T Shirt and underwear would be soaked in sweat. One year, I didn't wear the T Shirt, and got to drive home with clammy clothes. What fun.

As I think I mentioned earlier, the reason I begged out this year was one that I couldn't really tell them -- that being, that I disliked when the family of the person doing the photography for the event clambered over me for their individual and group shots. It's silly, I suppose, but I felt unappreciated, and I didn't like that part of it, so I just didn't do it this year. We'll see about next year.

That won't be a consideration next Saturday, though, when I do it at one of the local hospitals. They have a good turnout, and they really seem to appreciate the effort that I and all of the others involved put into it. The first year, they equipped me with two rather sexy elves from a local college. Last two years, it was a middle-aged woman, which wasn't nearly as visually interesting, but I had fun anyway. I really enjoy it. I'm hoping that I'll get the chance to see any kids who happen to be in residence in the hospital, too.

Every year, I wonder if I should go out and buy a Santa suit. What I'd really want, I think, is one of the old fashioned ones, with a robe rather than the jacket and belt, and I'd want real boots, too. Then I realize that the setup would cost about $400 or so, and my enthusiasm wanes substantially. Come to think of it, thats exactly the cycle my mind goes through when I mull over getting a big screen TV, too. I think its called Reality Sets In.

Ah, Christmas.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Rather Broke...Aww.....

I guess I'm just not a sentimental kind of guy. Or perhaps its that I don't really get it. Certainly the disparity of my wishes and what actually happened in the last presidential election might suggest that.

So explain it to me again.

Why, exactly, should I care that Tom Brokaw is quitting? Ditto, Dan?

Is it one of these '"Well, we're news media people, and they're news media people, so we think they're something special, so of course we want to hype it" things?

Or is it "Well, see, people trust Tom and Dan, and we're sorry to see them go because we have no viable replacement for either of them, so there goes our market share'?

I really don't get it.