Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Settling In

Things are beginning to settle into something like a routine here in Birmingham. I've pretty much got the route to work memorized, and am learning all the major arteries like I-65, I-59, I-459, routes 280 and 150, and all the rest around here, and generally having fun with all the newness.

I've been entrusted with a truly beautiful Sony Vaio notebook computer (with a 16-inch, 1600x1200-pixel screen!), and despite Hunter's best efforts, there's been lots of patching, installing and the like to do to get me all the tools I need. There's also been copious paperwork and many logistical errands to do with Sushi and the dogs, but that all seems to be coming to a satisfactory end. As far as work goes, I get to do a lot of exploring of Microsoft Active Directory, ADSI, LDAP and several other related abreviations and acronyms. Much fun.

Accompanied Hunter's family on a birthday dinner for him last night, and had a fun time despite the glacial nature of the service. "Never busy on a Monday" - uh huh.


Sunday, April 27, 2003

In Birmingham!

Yep, the drive went well, and I've touched base with Hunter and family. I'm writing over dialup at the Birmingham Red Roof Inn, and so far all has gone swimmingly.

Sushi and the Boys behaved well on the trip; the drive was an interesting one, and despite my better instincts I pretty well used up my cell phone battery chatting with people on the way. Thankfully the charger still works, so the phone is back and ready for action. :-)

I'll post more later tonight; I need to get myself ready for the rest of today.


Friday, April 25, 2003

Lock and Load!

Doing better today after some chattage with Matt and Hunter, and a night to sleep on all of it.

Been an exhausting day at work, between exit interviews, farewell lunches and the like, and it's about time to get all my stuff together to leave DIT for good.

Tomorrow is The Drive: eleven or twelve hours in the car with two dogs, a cat, and a fair amount of luggage and electronic equipment.

Birmingham, here I come!


Thursday, April 24, 2003


Well, had lunch with J. We talked in the coffee shop for five and a half hours.

I'm at a loss, really. We talked about painful things, funny things, new things and old things. Things that had changed, things that were the same; beginnings and endings. Reward and regret.

She's a very special woman. I'm glad to see I didn't marry as badly as I thought I had. She's aged, like I have: she's taller than I remember; she's gained a little weight (a good thing); she and I have been some of the same mental "places" and faced a lot of the same problems. She's a warm, honest, good person, and I'm glad to have known her.

She moves differently, more fluidly. The Alexander Technique has done wonders for her poise and physical ease. She's just now found the courage to allow a boyfriend, and he sounds like a good man. She's building a new circle of friends, is looking at a wildly popular Alexander practice, and has matured and softened in all the ways I wished she would while I was married to her. We still know one another better than anyone else.

I will probably never set eyes on her again.

I have mournful music in my head and tears in my eyes. I don't know what to do about that.


A Ray of Hope

Whatever you think about the war in Iraq, it must be said that the pan-Arabic world has had a nasty shock, as has the world of people who thought that Americans were afraid to fight on the ground, or that we hid behind sorta-smart bombs and otherwise overstated high technology.

Steven Den Beste has something to say about the second-order effects beginning to emerge from this war that I think are worth reading.

Put simply, the Arab world is trying desperately to figure out just how it can be that we won, as quickly as we did and as decisively as we did.

My comments about remaking the Arab world in our own image a few weeks back were met with disbelief and derision by people like upyernoz (now identified as the infamous "F'ing Jeremy") and Sarah, but I'd argue that the second-order cultural "shock and awe" that we're seeing is exactly what was intended. Combine this with the beginnings of massive Arab introspection about why their culture keeps spawning repressive dictatorships and largely failing to keep up with the rest of the industrialized world along axes like quality of life, cultural/technical achievements and (should they choose) military might.

Protest all you want about how well Turkey and/or Qatar and/or Kuwait et al. are doing; Arabic nations have disproportionate numbers of human-rights hellholes when compared to other cultures. The middle east, to my eye, seems second only to portions of central Africa in spawning such places.

Baghdad, symbolic capitol of all that is Arabic pride, was taken along with its surrounding country by the corrupt, accursed Americans in only three weeks, with only a few hundred of our own casualties, and a few thousand (civilian) Iraqi casualties. The Americans were even doing their own dirty work, though helped greatly by the Brits and Aussies. American wizard weapons worked so well that civilian traffic could be seen in the streets of Baghdad during the heaviest bombardments - the Iraqi people figured out they had little to fear.

The predictions of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed have been shown to be the utmost fiction. Even the site Iraq Body Count has stalled at around 2400 civilians killed, and the point of the site is to make the U.S. look bad. Perfect? No. Any civilian casualties are too many. Astonishingly good? Yes, I'd say so. Has any country in the history of the planet been taken through hostile action with so little loss of life?

The next few decades are going to be very interesting times in the Middle East.


PS. Den Beste also links to this article by David Warren saying many of the same things very well, but drawing fewer blatantly pro-US conclusions and offering a little more perspective on what this event appears to be doing to the Russian psyche.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Okay, Getting Weird

Had some last-minute stuff to take care of re: the ex's house in Ashland (seems I'm still on the mortgage AND the deed - grumble), so I wound up calling her yesterday. We traded a few messages, then finally wound up speaking for about a half hour. Caught up, traded dog and cat stories, etc.

She has an Alexander Technique practice at the clinic where I'm going for my chiropractic adjustment this afternoon, so I mentioned that we were likely to bump into one another. Seems she's in Charlottesville all today, though, so it wound up being a nonissue.

Cut to 9:15 last night. She calls, and says she had thought about the possibility of us having some sort of in-person meeting; getting some sort of closure, that sort of thing, and wanted to know if we could have lunch sometime before I headed out of town. We decided to have lunch Thursday at Shockoe Espresso & Roastery downtown. You precogged it, Tripp. :-)

As you might imagine, I'm freaking out a smidge. I spoke with Hunter for a while last night, which helped, but I woke up this morning to a resurgence. This is one of those things that Acidman will understand: the idea of being in her physical presence again is a big one, because I can still remember all the enormous, tiny things - how she moves, how she laughs, what she smells like, the way her eyes crinkle when she smiles, the feel of her skin, etc., etc., ad nauseam, get the net.

I haven't seen her for three years. I still feel echoes of loving her, still bear a good amount of anger toward her, and have now discovered a surprising backlog of curiosity about what's happened to and with her.

Gawd, I'm a mess. Shoot me now.


Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The Body Never Lies

Ah, well. I suppose I am stressing a little. Whenever I do beyond a certain point, my neck will find a way to go out of joint, and possibly my upper back, right between the shoulder blades, and both have happened to me over the past few days. Fortunately I have a good chiropractor here, and I'll be seeing her tomorrow afternoon. I'll have to get a recommendation for someone in Birmingham, just in case.


Monday, April 21, 2003

Last Work Week in Richmond

Yup, the last Monday here at DIT. Had a nice lunch with my usual lunch group, but because our one bait-phobic member wasn't present, we went for sushi at Hana Zushi restaurant in Shockoe Bottom. Yum. I've been deficient in raw fish and wasabi of late. :-) I look forward to sugarmama and Hunter giving me the Birmingham Sushi Tour soon after I get there.

My immediate boss came back from her two-week vacation today, and had nothing but well-wishing at the news of my resignation and impending emigration to Alabama. That's been the pattern, actually - 'congratulations, been great to have you here, wish I had some other options too.' A very nice departure from the last time I left a job, which happened under much suspicion, nastiness and scapegoatery.

Spring is in full swing here in Richmond (and, I imagine, well on toward early summer in B'ham), and despite pollen coating everything with a malicious yellow-green haze, it's been a very easy season for me allergy-wise so far.

Knock wood.

Commercial Manned Spacecraft Prototype!
For those who might have missed it, there was some publicity this past Friday about SCALED Composites' SpaceShipOne project, the goal of which is to explore humanity's options in terms of commercial spaceflight. Their White Knight aircraft is one beautiful plane. It uses typical turbojets to lift the actual spacecraft SS1 to high altitude (53,000 ft-ish) so it can (I presume) detach and fire its solid/liquid-fuel hybrid rocket.

To be honest, I'm not sure how much effort (fuel, tower building, etc.) launching from midair saves over launching from a pad a la NASA's space shuttle or other conventional rockets, but I have to imagine it'd be significant. Still, it wouldn't make nearly as much of a spectator event as a shuttle or Saturn V launch did. :-D


[Edit: Here's some more information on the SpaceShipOne system as envisioned.]

Friday, April 18, 2003

Introspective Good Friday

Just got back from what will probably be my last lunch at a Richmond restaurant called "Vie de France."

Yes, yes, the name is French, but the proprietor has made a big public stink (before it was fashionable or merely good business sense) about detesting Chirac and the game of chicken he was playing with the U.S. He does carry Orangina (mfd. in France), but I grabbed a few locally made sodas with my three-cheese melt and "freedom frites." The special was big beef hot dogs with yellow American mustard and, evidently, homemade ketchup. Heh. The guy does know how to make a point. :-)

The world has gotten very weird indeed when French expats offer Red Hots in a pointedly continental sandwich shop.

...It's a cold, windy, mid-forties day here, with slight mist in the air as it tries to decide whether to rain or not. It's funny: I remember every Good Friday of my life this way. Pensive, dreary, chill.

I am, of course, at a big crossroads in life, and things will naturally loom large. As preparations are made and my time here grows short, I'm left with a slight sting of regret that I may never have given Richmond its due measure of attention.

It's when we move that we must see. It's good to be in motion again.


Wednesday, April 16, 2003

From the The Christian Science Monitor, via William Gibson's blog:

Iraqi defeat jolts Russian military

The gist is: American doctrine relies upon highly independent, nearly autonomous units that must be trusted to do their jobs.

Also interesting were Gibson's closing questions: "What dictator would be able to trust his own Delta Force? Is it possible that this new paradigm of warfare might prove to only be workable for relatively democratic societies?"

Yup, just might be... I've heard it said that compared to the old Soviet Army (as well as most "modern" Arabic armed forces), our sergeants have the decision-making power of their colonels.

God, I love being an American. :-D


In Search of Digital Nirvana

As Matt can attest, I have a bad habit of trying to automate and digitize my surroundings. Within the realm of my own PCs, this is no big deal. Complicated Windows desktops, a secret jones for anything Apple-designed, in constant dependence on my PDA of the year -- all relatively normal in this technophilic day and age.

But this also extends to my TV watching -- Matt's no idiot (chemical engineer, Civil War history buff, and unsung scholar of military strategy), but I remember ruefully the time he dropped by to visit and had to call me at the office, fuming because he tried to watch a DVD, and wound up stuck with sound from the VCR, video from one of the TiVos, and the inability to turn anything off. I had everything set up on my big universal remote, you see, and while using the thing is now deep in muscle memory for me, for poor Matt (or, indeed, anyone else) it got to be completely incomprehensible.

And then there're my lights. I'm a big fan of X10's wall-wart-based remote-control light systems, and almost all the lamps in my apartment need to be controlled with little remotes like this or a wall plate like this. This system allows all sorts of control over my apartment's lights, for example dimming, timed on/off, and macros like 'TV' or 'Movie' or 'Reading' lighting in which different combinations of lamps are on, off, or dimmed around my living room. However, nobody understands the system but me, and the remote switches are slow-acting and not 100% reliable, so you could say my apartment's got a little... personality. :-D When I get my own place there are actual X10 wall switches (that are as quick and reliable as the switches we're all used to) that I'll use instead, but still: this is all pretty strange when I stop to think about it.

Now there's the Logitech io Personal Digital Pen that my TiVos've been hawking for the last week or so; basically it's a ballpoint pen with a camera that remembers everything you write or draw if you use their special patterned paper. There's precious little handwriting recognition or intelligence as to content, but for a guy like me who always has piles and piles of disorganized meeting notes lying around, a device that will remember it all and allow me to keep it organized and easily retrievable is sounding pretty good.


Tuesday, April 15, 2003

In Transition

It's been a really nice feeling letting everyone around me know about the decision to shift locations. Around work everyone's wishing me well and commenting on how calm I am, when they'd be bouncing off the walls with an impending move.

Shucks, I just live here. From where I'm sitting, there're very few things worth getting too excited about, and so much is being done for me in this move that I'm inclined to sit back and enjoy the ride. :-)

Some particulars: I'll be doing similar work to what I've been up to for the past year or two; lots of web development, specifically intranet stuff, with rumors of data warehousing and some life-cycle-management stuff, and certainly lots of little urgent projects that will likely come up from day to day. Lots of "data plumbing," by all accounts.

The Problem of Software "Engineering"

"Data plumbing" reminds me... A subject that's been in and out of my mind a lot lately is the concept of "software engineering," and what that might mean. In the one hand we've got Microsoft turning out Microsoft Certified System Engineers (MCSEs) by the bushel, but on the other there's no certified discipline in the engineering field that deals with software.

What I do certainly isn't engineering. I likened it to bricklaying once, but Matt helped me clarify: it's more like artisanship; there's a lot of creativity and expertise involved, but it's not nearly as concerned with principles or existing practice as engineering seems to be. Want fries with that? :-)

Software certainly seems like something that could benefit from some engineering, along the lines of a bridge, a fuel formulation, or a power grid. An application suite like Microsoft Office or an operating system like Linux certainly has the complexity of an engineering project, but in terms of performance, neither exhibits the robustness that a bridge or power grid must exhibit from day to day.

State of the Art
Part of the problem, I think, is that software as a discipline has only been around for 60 or so years (if we're generous), and as such isn't well enough understood for a discipline to have emerged. We have schools and disciplines within the field of programming: object orientation, scripting, embedded logic; and plenty of toolsets, from myriad languages like the C/C++/Java/C# standbys, to Basic in all its incarnations, to old workhorses like COBOL and Fortran, to fringe innovators like SmallTalk, Perl, Ruby and Python, to odd document-layout pseudolanguages like HTML and whatever XML is becoming, to hard-on-the-metal assembler and straight hexadecimal.

There's a proliferation of tools, to be sure, but when it comes to using them there's precious little standardization or accountability; nobody who's ever used a Linux, Windows or Macintosh computer has escaped program crashes, lockups, inconsistencies from program to program, and the inevitable friction between applications and the hardware upon which they're expected to execute. In the embedded space (cell phones, auto-engine controllers, phone-switching boxes, video-game consoles a la Playstation and XBOX) the world is simpler and the stakes higher, but again, it's catch as catch can.

It's a sobering statistic that of all the programming projects begun in the wide world of business, only one in ten will ever see the light of its implementation day. In my experience this is true; I'm actually doing better than that: of the fifteenish big projects on which I've worked over the years, I think something like four have gone live. I'm beating the odds with these numbers.

Certainly there are many variables around software development: shifting markets, various potential roadblocks at the talent and management levels, caprice in the flow of funding; but these aren't unique to the field of software, and to be fair I'm not sure what the failure rate of projects in other fields is: what is it for buildings, for medicine, for power plants? Anyone know?

And for apps that make it out into the world, Microsoft is an instructive example: MS is widely derided for its first two or three attempts at a product utterly sucking. Windows 1.0? 2.0? 3.0? All slightly better than previous attempts (someone might argue that Windows 1.0 was better than straight DOS, but not me), and 3.x got a lot of use, but it wasn't until Windows 95 (otherwise known as version 4.0) that Microsoft was seriously in the ball park. And it still sucks, compared to say, Brooklyn Bridge 1.0, or Empire State Building 1.0.

(Clarification: here, I'm leaning heavily on the Open Source maxim that all software sucks, and that the best software simply sucks the least. Still, any program that ever loses data should be compared to a bridge occasionally "losing" a car, or a building "losing" an occupant.)

Stopping the Madness
How many programmers out there today would be willing to stake their reputations, incomes and careers on their programs never failing catastrophically? As in, never crashing to the operating system, losing data or irretrievably hanging? People who write the software in hospitals know a little about this, but how about those programming the computers that will be controlling all the interwoven traffic paths through Boston's Big Dig?

Anyhow, I'm getting way too long here, but I've felt for a long time that the world of software needs some sort of "bulletproof programming" certification, admissible in a court of law, and maintained by some sort of standards body, like real engineering works today.

There's a lot in the way of this sort of thing today: for one, a programmer is only as good as his tools: can high-level tools like Visual Studio .NET or Java be used to build failure-proof apps? The simple answer is no: no one's watching the watchmen, so to speak.

Then there's the matter of testing: how does one certify a software design as "good?" We can't know down to the for-loop or iterator-object what will work and what won't - a simple reversal of variables in a programmer's mind can still cause a compiler-invisible flaw analogous to badly forged metal in a load-bearing member; hit it with any load at all, and the bridge fails.

My guess is that we're simply not there yet: the tools need to mature, the meta-tools that would catch errors like the one I mention above need to be created. And that's just what I've come up with through idle thinking.

Heh - what will programming be like in fifty years? Will the concept even apply?


I is a Idjit

But it appears to be treatable.

I've managed to foul up yet another beer... The remainder of Rich's Vindication IPA has gone sour. But at long last I've thought through exactly why.

Put simply: there's no such thing as magic. One of the major problems faced by beermakers before the discovery of Pasteurization (and the invention of the bottle cap) was beer spoilage.

I'm using bottle caps, and keeping my equipment sanitary, but I'm not Pasteurizing. And I won't be (it does things to the taste), so it stand to reason that my beer's going to be vulnerable to spoilage just like all beer made before I happened to pick up a kit. And sure enough, I've had several batches of beer go bad after hitting a "peak" of maturity and flavor.

(Smacks forehead.) D'oh. I don't know why I thought I should be exempt.

The reason Rich's 2Red Richmond Ale has stayed good (Goddess' and Acidman's samples are still waiting for shipment, believe it or not) is that I refrigerated the entire batch as soon as it was ready, by taking it to my parents' and keeping it in their 40° garage, and then bringing the remnant home to my fridge, where it has stayed to the present day. Vindictive Vampire IPA, Big Dawg Brown, and finally Vindication IPA have all sat and aged, and become good (or, well, decent, in the case of V-Vampire), and then passed into funk. The reason: I never arrested the aging process through refrigeration, and aging became spoilage.

I've heard in a few places that beer can age ad infinitum, but I don't think the stuff I'm making is high enough in alcohol content for that. That, plus living with three fuzzballs may make truly thorough sanitation too difficult.

Ah, well. We live and we learn. Man, I wish I'd fridged Vindication two weeks ago... Damn.


Monday, April 14, 2003

Tax Time

Modifying my W-4 to remove all elections, a year and a half ago: Free

Gas to drive to the tax preparer's office: $0.02

Fee to process all forms: $113.00

Having a refund that finally wiped out my outstanding debt to the IRS owed in the wake of A) J's accountant's (incorrect) presumption of malice on her part and denial to me of itemized deductions for the 2000 tax year and B) my own failure in 2000 to adjust my W-4 to account for no longer paying a mortgage: Priceless.

I swear that the gravitational constant changed for the better over the weekend. It's so nice out lately. :-D


Friday, April 11, 2003

Why I Like XML

I mentioned Tim Bray's site ongoing a few days ago, and since have had occasion to read a lot more of what he has to say about data and why XML is a good thing.

Bray makes the point in his article "Why XML Doesn't Suck" that data almost always outlives the applications used to create it. This has certainly been the case for me; luckily things like TXTs, GIFs, JPEGs and DOCs have remained (mostly) readable over time, but there's no guarantee of that for the future; heck, some of my older DOC files from school in the early '90s are starting to lose their formatting information, if not their information (yet). Gone (practically) forever are the documents I wrote on my Commodore 64 in my freshman year - I say practically because there is some life left through C-64 emulators, but there's seldom any way to copy content from one environment to the other save simple retyping.

XML begins to solve this problem, because even if the program that created an XML document vanishes forever, a well-structured XML document practically announces its own uses.

For example, here's a simple XML document:

<Book Title="Neuromancer">
    <Author>William Gibson</Author>
    <Genre>Science Fiction</Genre>
    <Summary Markup="HTML">
        A <i>really</i> interesting book, and the first to be called "cyberpunk."

This data is practically timeproof. Even if I don't know what the program that generated this information used it for, I can decide myself how to use it.

So long as someone can figure out how to read ASCII, or UTF-8, or whatever character-encoding standard it uses, this will be valid data. XML is even pretty good at announcing its encoding, for what that's worth.

So anyway, XML's pretty cool. It's up to the programmer to decide how best to use it (and indeed, most uses will be invisible to the end user), but it's a nice way of separating information from the program(s) used to interpret it. I could write a program to list the above data as one entry among others in a catalog, or make a nicely formatted web page using this information alone as a (very) brief book review.

Versatile data is a good thing.


The Big News

Well, it looks like I finally can spill the beans...

I'm moving to Birmingham!

Yep. Alabama. As in, farther south than I am here in Richmond. As in, the home of Hunter and sugarmama, and not too terribly far from the land of Matt (my brother) and Acidman.

It's been in the works for a few months at this point, but at long last it looks like the agreements are signed, sealed and delivered (well, at least handshook :-) ). My first day will be April 28th, and there's a relocation package as part of the deal, so most of the elbow grease and grunt work of moving me there will be taken care of.

I'll be driving myself, Sushi and the dogs down that weekend, most likely, and kenneling the boys and keeping the cat in my hotel room while I apartment- and/or house-hunt in the area.

I'm already talking furiously with sugarmama, Hunter and others re: options and impressions, and will of course have all sorts of decisions and logistics to address, but at long last it looks like I'll be able to make some big changes.

I've always done better starting over than salvaging existing situations, and as I'm sure I've mentioned, this fall will mark fifteen years in the same place, a personal record by nearly a factor of three. A new town, a new social group, and a new set of opportunities.

Not to diss my existing social group(s), but this will mark the first time since getting moving in college (ahem --with Jennifer-- ahem) that I've made myself get a grip on an entirely new situation. The Internet will certainly still work, and, hell, I've been primarily in e-mail contact with most of my friends for the past several years anyway.

Exciting stuff...


Thursday, April 10, 2003

What He Said

A stirring perspective on the war was referred to me by Hunter this afternoon:

This guy writes so well, allow yourself around 20 minutes to read this:
It'd been a while since I'd stopped at Eject! Eject! Eject!, because Proteus only updates every so often, but I will certainly try to get there more frequently, because he consistently fails to disappoint.

I wish I had the clarity of purpose to write as well and as well-researched as Proteus does. Someday I shall.


Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Building Momentum

The idea of my very own weblog maintenance system, made my way, and teaching me things about web work, XML and all that fun stuff, is seeming more and more like a good idea. :-) Here's hoping Google/Blogger (Google bought Blogger back in February for those of you who weren't paying attention) doesn't regularly comb their hosted sites for seditious material like this. :-D

So, my readers, what crests the list of features you most want in a weblog system? The basics like "ability to post," "ability to edit," "ability to make it look unique," etc. are givens, and "doesn't crash or otherwise flake out with inordinate frequency" is high on the priority list. An automatically generated RSS newsfeed is something I want to implement, as well as a search facility and category assignment for posts.

Beer; Travel
I've submitted three bottles each of Rich's Vindication IPA and Rich's Almost-Finnish Sahti to the James River Homebrewers' Dominion Cup contest, the judging for which will take place this Saturday. Unfortunately I won't get to participate in the judging, because I'll be en route to Atlanta with my parents (for a visit with Matt and his esteemed ladyfriend Amy). Atlanta itself is a waypoint along the road to Birmingham, the purpose of which second trip is to see Meagan sing Orfeo and Euridice on Sunday evening. I'll be meeting up with Hunter there, and at long last he'll get to put faces to my parents' names (and see Meagan ply her trade). :-D


Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Needed: Emergency Backup Blog

If you're reading this it's been resolved, but evidently Blogger has had some sort of a meltdown. Fortunately I've been working on my own ASP / MySql / XML weblog system behind the scenes. If Blogger continues in this vein of melting itself I may well kick that into high gear and just migrate.