personal

    I’m heading in to staff the booth at a convention. That’s far outside my comfort zone, so when my boss asked me, I immediately said yes to commit myself to doing something new.

    This has traditionally worked out well for me. I highly recommend everyone do this to extent they can.

    You know how sometimes you come to decide that an entire niche market is so filled with awful and overpriced alternatives that you’d rather just write your own and give it away for free?

    My toes are on the precipice.

    Winding down

    I knew the conversation wouldn’t be easy when the veterinarian asked if this was a good time to talk.

    I still think of her as a puppy, even though she hasn’t been one for many years. People are surprised to find that this tiny little dog is a full-grown adult. Although she’s shaped like a miniature version of the real thing, it’s hard to wrap your brain around something that small being anything other than a baby.

    The years don’t care about her appearance, or that she sometimes sleeps on my pillow next to my head, or that I remember how frisky she use to be. Even little bits wear out and start to fail. As her vet translated the numbers from the lab results into things I could understand, I began to realize what they meant: my wife and I will have to make difficult decisions soon.

    It’s hard to know what’s best for her, and harder yet to separate that from what’s easiest for us. Those aren’t at all the same things. If I could throw the finite resources available to us at the problem and put it off forever, I would. But that’s not how time works. We can delay things, but only for so long. And the delay has its costs. The analytical part of my brain imagines that she has a fixed amount of happiness left. Do we let her spend it all and then lay down for a last nap, or do we spread it over years (or maybe just months, who can tell) of uncomfortable treatments and procedures? I don’t know. And not deciding is the same as deciding: time won’t give us the luxury of pausing until we can choose what’s right.

    My heart knows that this is tougher because of how much we love her. If these sorts of decisions were easy, that would be sad in a different way. Many years ago, we came to care so much about our little puppy that it made the inevitable so painful, but I wouldn’t change that even if I could. And until then, I’m going to make her remaining time as happy as I can.

    How QBasic jump started my career

    When I was an enlisted sailor in the US Navy, I spent an awful lot of time on a deployment hacking away on our ancient laptops to write QBasic programs to automate some of our completely-not-computer-related work. For instance, I wrote a little program to format short text messages in a particular way and write them to a floppy. Then I could hand that floppy to the ship’s radioman, and he’d run a program to load the messages and broadcast them over a packet radio to the MARS radio network. A ham operator in the States would call the recipient, read the message to them, transcribe the reply, then radio it back to our ship. I’d pick up a floppy with those replies, bring them back to the medical department where I worked, and print them out.

    At that time, the quickest way to contact home was to buy a calling card for the ship’s on-board satellite phone, which cost something like $5 per minute to use. The alternative was to write a physical letter. If you were lucky and the person wrote back immediately, that would take about one month to get a response. The MARS radio system was free to use and shortened the round trip to about a day. My little program helped people use it, and I can’t exaggerate how happy this made my coworkers and bosses.

    One day, a particularly enlightened boss sat me down for a talk. “Why do you lie to yourself that you want to be in medicine?” “Uh, because I want to be a doctor?” “Stop kidding yourself. You want to work with computers. We both know it.” Whoa. It was like a lightning strike. Well, of course I could go to school for that thing which had been my obsessive hobby since I was tiny! Why hadn’t I thought of that?! And so I got out of the Navy, enrolled in a computer science program, and here I am today rattling on about it.

    Thank you, QBasic. You weren’t running on my beloved Amiga, but you were in the right place and time to kick off a career that I’ve loved every step of the way.

    The dynamic range of emotions

    “Dynamic range” describes the difference between the softest and loudest bits of a musical recording. If the sound was recorded poorly so that the soft and loud parts are similar, it stops being interesting. Imagine the 1812 Overture where the cannon fire was at the same volume as the brass, or Skrillex without the drop. Without softness to compare it to, you can’t have loudness.

    I was thinking about a loved one who passed away, and about the ebb and flow of happy memories mixed with tragic moments. The difficult parts were devastating, but I don’t think I’d forget them if I could. Without the sadness to compare with, could the happiness be as wonderful? I wouldn’t risk foregoing the lows if it meant the highs were less joyous.

    Rebooting

    I started this blog twelve years ago. I always meant to update it regularly, but… life intervenes. After recently coming back to it, I decided it was due for a good cleaning. There were lots of old articles about things I no longer care about but that people on the Internet keep visiting and linking to. I kept them. But there were also a lot of opinion pieces that I no longer agree with. Their disposition was a harder decision. The possibility of deleting them felt dishonest, like I was denying ever holding those beliefs. Conversely, this blog isn’t a diary (I have a separate one of those) or a public record (I just write stuff every now and then).

    I won’t ever apologize for opinions I’ve had but discarded. If we’re a product of our environments, then our ideas must surely be the result of the people around us and the things we were taught. We don’t often get much say in these until later in life. However, many of my opinions have changed greatly through time, usually after meeting new friends or reading new viewpoints and considering my own beliefs in the light of new information.

    Additionally, while reading through those old posts, I realized that a lot of them were phrased a lot more strongly, perhaps harshly, than I’d ever actually felt about the subjects involved. In person, I can cheerfully discuss great differences with just about anyone. I’m excited and energized by tracing back to the roots of our dissents and looking for common ground in even wildly different worldviews. And yet, reduced to written word, a lot of the things I would have said with a smile over a shared meal came across as, well, angry and mean.

    Given that I now disagree with many of the ideas I’d described, and that other posts inaccurately conveyed a stridency I never felt during their writing, I’ve deleted large swaths of old content. If I won’t apologize for my opinions, I will for how I might have expressed them in ways that hurt, angered, or belittled.

    And with that, let’s begin this experiment anew.

    Great Expectations

    I probably sound like I gripe all the time, but that’s really not what I’m like. I’m an optimist and happy by nature. It’s just that I have high expectations for how things could be and I’m disappointed when I see people fall short of their potential. I don’t complain about companies that are trying their best but fall short. I call out the ones that could be so much better but don’t seem to have the desire to see it through.

    To Sell A Car

    In the process of moving to another state, we decided to sell my car to some friends. This turned out to be much harder than anticipated.

    I admit that this is entirely my fault and I deserve to be made fun of for it, but we couldn’t find the title. It could be that the bank which financed the loan never sent it to us. It could be that it’s in our safe deposit box in our last city and that I’ll find it next month when I go back for the rest of our stuff. Or maybe I’m just a bad document caretaker and I lost it along the way. I don’t know. But the end result is that we don’t have the title and needed to have a duplicate issued before we can sell the car.

    Late May

    I called the county clerk’s office to ask how to apply for a duplicate title. The clerk was very helpful and friendly, and offered to look up the necessary information while I was on the phone. I gave her my car’s VIN and my personal information, and she came back with the unwelcome news that the bank still had a collateral lien on the car. I pointed out that I bought it used in 2000 and didn’t have a 12-year loan on a used Oldsmobile, and that I hadn’t been arrested for chronic non-payment of the loan. She laughingly agreed that I’d clearly paid it off, but needed a notarized lien release from the financing bank before she could issue a new title.

    When I tried to find contact information for that bank, I discovered they had been acquired by another bank in 2004 and no longer existed.

    OK. So.

    Early June

    I called the new bank, Regions, and explained the situation. They were more pleasant and easier to work with than I’d feared, but couldn’t find any information about my paid-off-9-years-ago loan from their subsidiary. They took all my information, though, and agreed to send a lien release if they couldn’t find proof that I still owed them money. That seemed perfectly fair and reasonable — from a bank! — and I sat back to wait for the letter to arrive.

    It didn’t arrive.

    Late June

    I called Regions again. They were missing some information from the lien release application form (but weren’t sure exactly which information) and needed to re-file it. Given how nice they were and that I wasn’t even their customer any more, I didn’t protest or complain too much.

    July

    A couple of week later, the official, notarized lien release came in the mail. The VIN wasn’t quite identical to the one I gave them, but I hoped the county clerk would call it “good enough” and accept the note.

    Now we were ready to apply for the replacement title. The state’s form required that Jen and I both have our signatures notarized, so on a sunny Saturday, we drove to a nearby UPS Store and paid up. We stuffed the lien release letter, the application, and a check for $14 in an envelope and mailed it to the county clerk’s office.

    August

    Not a peep from the county clerk. I didn’t rush things because, well, government office… But after a few weeks of silence, I called to check on the application.

    The county clerk never received it.

    The notarized application? The check? The necessary, certified original copy of the lien release? Lost forever to the mail system.

    I asked the clerk if I could just take the car out back and burn it, as that might be the easiest way to dispose of it. She asked me to please not to.

    I sheepishly called Regions again to explain the situation, apologize profusely, and to ask them to please send me yet another copy of the lien release. They cheerfully agreed to and collected all my information to fill out the request form.

    I called US Bank to cancel my lost check and they told me there was a $30 change to stop payment on a $14 note. I told them not to bother and that I’d take my chances.

    Now

    And that’s where it stands. All I wanted to do is sell my car, and it’s involved the county clerk, three banks (one of them out of business), a UPS Store, and the post office. As of today, I’m no closer to the goal than I was two months ago.

    As a side note: yeah, it was my fault for losing the original title (if I ever even had it). But I wouldn’t have been able to transfer the title to the new owners without the lien release anyway, so this was destined to be a pain in the butt in any case.

    Guest Post By Gabby My Morning

    When my alarm went off at 7:00 I got out and landed on my sister, Ari.She
    fell out of bed and I fell to.I got into my clothes and went out of my room to
    get breakfest.When I was done I brushed my teeth and hair.Now I could play.But I got on the computer instead.

    Becoming Unrooted

    So, I forgot my root password. For non-technical types, that’s pretty much the key to the kingdom when you need to get full access to a computer, or install new software, or to make backups, or to fix something in an emergency. I use this little program called “sudo” all the time that lets you do most of the same things except with your own password. I guess it’d been so long since I’d actually needed that root password that it just slipped my mind. Still, I felt pretty dumb and resigned myself to coming up with a new one and resetting it on all the computers I use.

    So, this morning something came up where I really needed that password, and without thinking I picked up a keyboard and mashed it out. It worked. “Oh joy,” I though. “I’ll just do it again and pay attention to what I’m typing.” Except that try as I might, I just can’t type that password if I’m consciously thinking about it.

    This has not improved my outlook on an upcoming birthday in the slightest.

    Vapor Rises

    Dan Feather, aka “Vapor”, died today after he lost control of his motorcycle. Dan was remarkable for his quiet decency. There were many reasons to like him, but above all else, he was a good man.

    Goodbye, friend. You leave behind many people who held you in high regard.

    Rest well.

    I Am Awesome

    I got the best fortune cookie ever a few days ago:

    Your modesty will shame those with lesser knowledge.

    What can I say? It was right.

    Negotiations With Western Digital

    We bought a Western Digital external hard drive for Jen’s computer while we were in Omaha. I hooked it up when we got home and it was dead on arrival. I called for an RMA (“return material authorization” — basically permission to return it to the manufacturer) and got the replacement a few days later. Unfortunately, they didn’t include a pre-paid shipping label to return the defective part, and the customer service guy wasn’t too keen on giving me one. I wasn’t asking for anything unreasonable or that they just justifiably deny, and here’s how I got one anyway:

    CS guy: It’s not our policy to give out shipping labels. It’s the customer’s responsibility to pay for shipping.

    Me: It’s not this customer’s policy to pay for shipping products that were dead on arrival.

    CS guy: I see your point, but that’s not something we normally do.

    Me: OK, but I’d sure appreciate it. I mean, I did you a favor by calling you instead of returning this to the store. I didn’t know I’d have to pay for it.

    CS guy: Well, we don’t do a very good job of telling you that on our website. I can ask my supervisor, but I don’t think he’ll do it.

    Me: I’ll hold.

    [5 minutes go by]

    CS guy: Sir, this isn’t something we do, but since these are special circumstances, we’ll do it just this one time. You’ll get it within a week.

    Me: Thanks! Oh, and can you extend my deadline for returning the broken one by a few days since I don’t have the shipping label yet?

    CS guy: (sighs) Yeah, OK. You can have an extra 10 days.

    Note two important things: first, I was polite; second, I was assertive. Failure on either of those would have wrecked the whole deal.

    Mowing With Max

    I have a nice Craftsman lawn mower. I like my lawn mower. I have no desire to get another lawn mower. And yet, I got another lawn mower. Jen bought a cordless string trimmer from someone she knows and they offered to throw in their mower for free, so why not?, we took it home.

    I began mowing the lawn this weekend, and at one point I stopped to adjust the deck height on one side. When I tried to restart the engine, the pull cord snapped. Well, I couldn’t very well leave the lawn half-mowed, so I figured I’d try the “new” one. It started, which gave it an immediate advantage over the other.

    After about two laps around the yard and listening to every single moving part squeak, rattle, or tick, and given the number of knobs and levers on the thing, I named it Max, as in “Mad Max”. If the bad guy from “The Road Warrior” had a wife, and she made him mow the lawn, he would have built something like this.

    I guessed that it had to be either the cheapest, junkiest mower I’d ever seen, or the nicest I’d ever been around, for two reasons:

    1. It was monstrously heavy. It was self-propelled for the same reason as a Cadillac Escalade: if it wasn’t, it would be pretty useless.
    2. It had no safety equipment whatsoever. I don’t know how many times I got nailed by flying debris that shot out from the back of it.

    And yet, it ran and did a pretty nice job. With any luck I’ll be able to fix the regular mower and use it next weekend, but if not, it’s nice knowing that the other hunk of snarling, deadly iron is available.

    Long Weekends

    Summer’s upon us again. The kids just got out of school on Wednesday, which reminded me that my last post was to say that the kids were just starting back and I haven’t said a word since then. Anyway, we have them signed up for pretty much every summer sport offered and Gabby’s getting ready to start piano lessons, so they’ll be keeping pretty busy.

    Jen and I have been mulching the flower gardens, to the tune of about one pickup load of mulch per weekend. We’ve put down about 4 tons now, and I think we’re finally getting to the end of it. Which is good. Because at this point, if I never move another handful of the stuff, that’ll be fine by me.

    If God Meant For Man To Roll

    It seemed like such a simple idea at the time: I’d buy a cheap bike and ride to work whenever possible. I’d get fresh air, exercise, and a tan, and most importantly I’d save money on gas (because I’m a cheapskate and hate paying $3.00 per gallon regardless of whether I can afford it).

    So, I went to Happy Fun Land — what we call Wal-Mart when we want to antagonize the kids — and picked up their $80 generic mountain bike. In short, that lasted for a grand total of two (2) round trips to work before a broken chain ended my patience with its mechanical problems.

    Wal-Mart kindly allowed me to exchange that lame horse for a slightly more expensive and much nicer Schwinn. I rode it to work exactly once before getting a flat tire.

    It’s the little things, really. Chains are easy to fix and cheap to replace, and flat tires aren’t a big deal, but as of today I’ve spend about $50 per ride and I still don’t currently have a working bike. Maybe some of us are just meant to drive.