Friday, December 30, 2011

unslept family day

J is 7 now, which means I've known him almost five years, and he is growing up. He runs pretty normally now, and he's making that fantastic, gratitude-inducing shift in perspective where he starts to see himself and to empathize more clearly with how others see the world. He's still got his package of Asperger-y stuff, but he's growing up into his unusual self. He looks us in the eyes constantly now, which is striking and awesome. It'd be nice if school could be challenging enough for him to learn anything besides perseverance in the face of tedium, but in general he's got the hang of it as long as his teacher knows how to handle him.

No work today or Monday, so after trying to sleep off my 1:30am-6:30am awakeness, I was around for playing, and J really wanted my company. He's a big fan of making extended Tinkertoy armatures for poking Anna--as with most things J-related, we have no idea why--so he recruited me to help build a Mama-poker that would be longer than her (extremely long) arms without falling apart. I ended up doing the engineering, but he enjoyed watching and doing the testing. We ended up with a quite successful design, about 4 feet long and very stable. Anna was a bit more equivocal.

J knows me so well now that he's largely able to keep up with when I'm being facetious (not coincidentally, a word I learned from my father at an early age).
J: *giggle* Chris, are you making a whatchamacallit too?
C: No. I decided to make a thingamahoozie instead.
J: A thingamahoozie?! What's a thingamahoozie??
C: Oh, you don't know? It's so much better than a whatchamacallit, you won't believe it.
[sounds of Anna busting out laughing in the other room]
Sometimes it's just fun to be contrary.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy December 25th

Merry Christmas! The important thing, of course, is that I got presents.

We had some time with J in the morning, and then friends came over and I made leg of lamb, shiitake mushroom rice pilaf, and a second attempt at Yorkshire pudding that came out pretty perfect, thanks to a conversation with Mom.

Yorkshire Pudding 2

The friends brought Southern-fried greens, artisanal gin (the Botanivore), and an 8-year old girl, and all around it was a lovely afternoon.

One new revelation about family life is that Christmas is no longer a time of rest. Sure, I used to cook and buy presents and go to parties before, but now there's someone else's parties to go to, plus we've had J all week, and while it's nice to spend time with him (mostly), it means less time alone. Plus I'm busy at work trying to be prepared for the coming transition. It was a nice quiet couple of weeks in early December, there, but oh, that bird has flown.

(J has further promoted me, by the way: he was sort of emo the other day and I stuffed him in his room, whereupon he screamed "YOU'RE THE WORST DAD, I MEAN STEPDAD, EVER AND I HATE YOU." It's touching to be so internalized! You know he likes you if he feels free to call you names. We knew he'd connected with Mom when he called her "Mrs. Shouts-A-Lot" after she badgered him to move so a piece of sailboat didn't bash him in the head.)

I hope your holiday has been peaceful and spent however you wanted. Here, have some baroque music.

Friday, December 23, 2011

I should be asleep

...and I'm not. The douchebags upstairs managed to wake me up (thankfully not Anna) with the dulcet tones of their subwoofer again. They turned it down when I went upstairs, then 20 minutes later turned it back on, louder and with dancing. At that point I was awake in the living room, so I went upstairs and knocked, and like magic, the music stopped and the flashing party lights went dark...and they refused to answer the door. It's like they're two-year olds. At least they then gave up and went drinking elsewhere. A mere five weeks until their lease is up! It's not clear the leaseholders actually live there now, and there's no signs of anyone moving, so I wonder if the landlord will have to evict them.

I've taken on some additional responsibility at work as a result of the tech lead leaving in a few weeks, going on a crusade to catalog and prioritize all the broken things so the team can stop fighting fires, which is both demoralizing and prevents them from working on actual interesting things. I'll have more to say about it post-holidays.

Holidays! I'm not sure what's happening on Christmas, yet. I've been known to spend California Christmases watching movies with friends, and I think once or twice by myself, though of course I don't really remember except that I'm satisfied with how it's all turned out in the end.

My memory is horrible: I had a brief IM chat with a friend, and the next day:
"Sorry for being all weird yesterday. I realize you probably didn't notice anything at all, but I just wanted to say."
"I don't remember what you said, but I'm certain you weren't being weird, so it's all fine."
I'm very present and involved in the conversation when it happens; just, when it's done, I'm on to the next thing and the details will more or less immediately slip my mind. It's a little weird when people thank me for saying something they found really helpful and I have no idea what it was. I try to speak directly to whatever's in front of me at the moment and put my attention on that, and if you can do arithmetic you can correctly guess that we cannot be thinking about past things and have 100% of our attention on the current thing.

That's all mostly true, but it's worth considering whether it's using Zen practice as a way to explain my memory which is just as bad as it has always been, long before I ever heard of Zen.

ANYWAY. Dude. Polar bear!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Happy Hanukkah

The Yeshiva University Maccabeats originally got famous with a video called "Candlelight":

This is actually an arrangement by Mike Tompkins, covering a pop-dance song by Taio Cruz called "Dynamite":

That song neatly articulates a sort of "we're going to go someplace, and the place will be cool because we are there" attitude that I can't say I really understand, but we'll save that for later. Regardless, even a quick glance at his other videos shows that Tompkins is quite a professional.

I find myself really touched by Matisyahu's "Miracle," so I've been listening to more of his stuff on YouTube. This is "King Without A Crown" on Letterman in 2006; it shows both how very talented he is, and why I loathe that guitarist:

Here's the music video for "Miracle," which is just...weird.

Apparently he's a really good ice skater? He wrote the song so kids would have a Hanukkah song that actually talked about the meaning of the holiday, but the narrative of the video is just shy of comprehensible.

And finally, one of the awesome catchy ones, with a pretty start:

One cool thing about Matisyahu is that he's just this normal guy who liked reggae and found his way to Orthodox Judaism. As I was looking him up, I found that just last week he shaved his beard:

He looks like hell, despite being a few years younger than me. Life as a touring musician is pretty hard, but who knows. He's still Orthodox, and I'm glad he's finding his way.

serious shopping failure

[I started a blog post, and it turned into an essay. I'm hoping to finish it this week.]

I tried to support local business today. I really did. I wanted to get a sight for my bow, so that maybe I could actually hit something more than 30 yards away. (At shorter distances you do what's called "instinctive shooting," which is literally "Hey, that looks good. *twang*" but with lots of practice. For longer distances you have to sight against some fixed point on the bow, which means either using an actual sight, or sticking a piece of numbered tape on the bow so it's not just a piece of featureless wood with no markers to sight on.)

The people at Pacifica Archery are fantastic, but most people shoot compound bows, and that's most of what they carry. They only had two models of sight for recurve bows, nearly identical, and the same price.
  1. I chose the nicer one first. The parts of the sight didn't actually fit together well enough to be usable.
  2. I punted and chose the other one. It was machined so poorly the screw holes didn't even line up and it couldn't be mounted on the bow.

Okay, then. How much are new limbs for my bow? (It's a 35lb. draw, I'd like to go up to 40 or 45.)

After 30 years, the company stopped making that model when the economy tanked, and when they brought it back, they changed the specs, so they no longer sell limbs that fit my bow. So I'm looking at a new bow, whenever that becomes important to me.

Just to add insult to injury, the shop also didn't have any larger quivers I liked.

It's not anyone's fault, particularly. Just a massive conjunction of retail lossage. I felt bad, because I don't mind paying the premium to get advice and customer service and keep the local economy running, but I do require that they carry something I can actually buy.

Friday, December 9, 2011


Wednesday night I went to the local YMCA, which we joined a while back. It turns out that compared to an unlit, cold running route full of traffic lights, a treadmill is just fine.

I'm working a fair bit, trying to give work its due after a few months of non-work chaos. That's going well, although our system has been in meltdown for a few weeks. I feel like I should be able to fix it, but I actually can't, and it's hard to let go of that and go write code for the new and improved version, instead of trying to get the current version working. It's a terrible time for our team lead to be quitting: the boss thinks we can hire a replacement before the end of the year, which means I'll consider us lucky to find someone before March (he's often a little optimistic about hiring, and in general, hiring mostly stops during the holidays). My fellow SREs voiced my fears by pointing out that when the team lead leaves, one natural choice for at least an interim team lead would be the other senior engineer, which I hate meetings and I don't know anything about video, but hey, it could work.

Married life is going well in Week 5, its cold iron grip generously offset with snuggles and head-petting. Ain't nothing boring about it, that's for sure.

Hanukkah is coming! Have some cute Jewish boys singing excellent a cappella:

The best part for me is that the description says, "Feat. Big Bang Theory's Mayim Bialik!", when in fact those of us of a certain age remember that Mayim Bialik starred in her own TV series, Blossom. Like most of us, she's much hotter now at age 35 and not dressed in horrible early-90s clothing. Somewhere in there, she got a Ph.D. in neuroscience, which of course makes her even hotter.

No real rain yet! Someday, though.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

in memoriam

Yesterday we had J.D.'s memorial service, starting with about 90 minutes of people standing up and sharing stories or thoughts about J.D., then a whole mess of food, and then folks took the room apart, laid down carpet foam, and it became a chill party. There were a couple very nice altars, one for the community to put stuff on, and one main altar:


Jon Logan, among other things a brilliant ambient music DJ, did the most amazing slideshow, set to this Aphex Twin song which will, for a long time, make me cry.

All my photos are here.

I might have thought, after moving his dead body, that the fullness of J.D's death would have hit me already. Maybe it did, and now I'm just having sadness about it; I don't think the psychoanalysis matters.

Matt L. called me yesterday afternoon to ask if I would work with him in bringing the wireless microphones around to people who wanted to talk, which of course I did, so I ended up helping the memorial after all, and in such a public way that everyone thanked me for all my hard work. I also got to say my own piece, which was fun. I'll post links to video, if there is one (there should be, since it was live-streamed).

I was really struck by how many people, in their grieving, made what they were saying be all about them. We didn't cut anybody off, though it was an option: "really awkward" is not the same as "inappropriate." J.D.'s mother started off with a long prepared statement that talked (in not entirely accurate terms) about their estrangement, and after a brief field trip into the crazy, ended by encouraging people to resolve their own estrangements. A few more people echoed that sentiment during the sharing, and one guy afterward was talking to me and talking about how he was going to call his father the next day, since they'd been estranged for a few years.
"...and I realized aw, crap, I gotta make a phone call."
"Yeah, you do."
"I should."
"And you know, it might not work."
"But then I know I made the effort."
"Exactly. The best we can do is to be the ones to set ourselves aside and reach out. It might not work out, but we tried."
I was pretty angry at J.D. for a while after he moved to Colorado, because he left a vast quantity of stuff in the house we were both moving out of, which took me about a week and a half to dispose of. He never quite apologized for it, and without that I didn't have much to say about it, so it just sort of hung in the air and dissipated slowly like a bad smell in a poorly-ventilated room. Our friendship always had a bit of awkwardness to it, so it's not clear what would have changed had we actually worked it out. We talked and saw each other and hung out and had dinner. Life continued. So I think it's okay, and I don't regret anything.

I didn't see him often in person, but I talked to him every day on ICB, and now our conversation is ended. I guess this is it, then. Our friend is dead.

Friday, December 2, 2011

oh, you were joking

Sixteen days without a major life event! I've been able to run a couple times this week, and even went to aikido on Wednesday. Let's all hope for a calm stretch.

A while ago I had this exchange with a friend at work:
M: does zen practice make you better at coming up with unanswerable questions?
Chris: heh!
Chris: it helps us find questions to ask, and understand that a lot of the time the learning is in the process of questioning rather than in finding an answer.
Chris: tends to focus on setting directions and intentions, instead of goals.
M: actually (all kidding aside) that's very interesting. sounds like it could be useful.
Which is sort of typical of what happens when people who only know Zen from its cultural chic. The standard Steve Jobs hagiography now mentions his Zen connections, but tends to gloss over the disconnect between his Zen practice and the fact that he was kind of a dick. Or Zen restaurants and furniture. Or soap! Clearly it's the best religion ever, or at least among the most diversified.

But then you run into someone who's actually practiced for a while, and it turns out that in fact we try to speak and act in spontaneous ways that meet the needs of the moment. Like last year, walking with a friend and talking about a rough patch in his life, when he said, "And now you're going to tell me that everything is impermanent." I said, "Well, that's true, everything is impermanent, but it's irrelevant to the conversation right now, and it'd just be a cliché to say it."

That's part of why I try not to be all overtly Buddhisty when I'm talking to people: not because I'm ashamed of it (if you ask about it specifically it's hard to get me to shut up), but because it uses a vocabulary and a frame of reference that's pretty foreign to most people. All I really want is for people to understand how their minds work, which is how everyone's mind works, and how the whole universe works. Once we really see our minds in action, we can understand and end our own angst, and we can do incredible amounts of good for the people around us. I don't particularly want that everyone should be doing Buddhist practice; I do care that everyone learn to see themselves and the rest of the world as the fully human, suffering, not-actually-comprehensible entities that we are, and to have compassion for what they see.

"Huh, that's interesting, I'll think about that" is the first step.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

dead bodies are weird

It's been a few days since J.D. died, days packed with J.D.-related events, and I'm still kind of sick and I'm ready to be done with all the mournful socializing. Friday night a bunch of us got together to eat some food and hang together; yesterday a group of mostly the same people went to his house to help out his wife by carrying out his last wishes that his friends take away most of his stuff. He had a pretty solid collection of books, and an absolutely stunning collection of CDs, but since he mostly gathered CDs so he could use them in DJ sets, the collection is incomprehensible to most of us: vast stretches of obscure and usually wonderful electronic music. Nonetheless, we did the best we could, and many of the DJ pals found some exciting stuff in there. I got an Iron & Wine CD (he's even better than I thought), some Apocalyptica, a whole bunch of Bob Dylan, and I think every one of Iain M. Banks's Culture novels. Inexplicably, I also took Sounds of North American Frogs, just because.

I mentioned before that I helped the hospice nurse move the body from the big fluffy chair where J.D. spent most of the past several months, onto the hospital bed where the nurse could do some cleanup and put a shirt on the body so we could have some last moments if we wanted, before the crematory guys came. There was a certain unreality to the whole experience: an hour before, I'd stood in the doorway for a few minutes, hands in my pockets, fascinated by J.D.'s labored breathing as he slept on morphine, watching his clock tick down. That wasn't the J.D. I knew, and yet it was: just a few weeks earlier he had bravely and generously had some folks over to watch movies for my bachelor party. He was vomiting and hiccuping the whole time, and everyone just took it in stride, made sure he had a clean pan to vomit into, and enjoyed each other's company (though not, alas, the movie).

This is the very blunt list of things I noticed about seeing and moving a dead body. I'm not likely to ever forget, but I feel compelled to share.
  • I picked him up and thought, "Wow, he's so lifeless." Which is ridiculous thing to think, because he was dead. But, we have the "lifeless" as an everyday word, and never used for genuinely dead things: it's stuff like artistic performances, or bad food.
  • The nurse thought I might be able to move J.D.'s torso: not a chance. After months of wasting away he still weighed a good 180 pounds. Also, "deadweight" has new meaning.
  • A dead person's head will loll around and backwards in a way that a live person would never tolerate, even when unconscious (I think because it would prevent breathing).
  • The jaw slacks in a certain unmistakably not-alive way.
  • Hands are ice-cold, but the head is still warm, as the brain is the last thing the body tries to protect as it shuts down.
  • That thing on TV where they close someone's eyes? I tried it, and it turns out that's why various cultures put coins on the eyes, which are otherwise determined to stay half-open. There's all kinds of things to say about why that feels creepy.
When I've talked to friends and relatives with hospice experience, they all independently say that no matter how ready you are, death is always shocking. The alive-to-dead transition is a sudden between-the-eyes direct education in how fragile and transient we are.

You often hear someone want to remember a person in a certain way: in their full alive-ness, instead of wasted and dying. And we ourselves always want to choose how we are seen and remembered. My last memory of J.D. is of moving his dead body, but it doesn't bother me. It's just part of the cycle of my J.D. memories. I wanted to be there for the end, partly out of curiosity (like most of us, I've been lucky enough to never see someone die), and partly because I felt it was something important that I could do, and I was right. It is something I can do, and it was a great privilege to be able to do it.

I've always wondered how it would go when it came time for one of us to die, and I have to say that as a community we've done magnificently, in taking care of J.D. and his wife, and in grieving freely and openly together. It's a chance for us to really see each other, and to forget about whatever stories we may habitually tell ourselves about how we see each other or what we can tell each other. We're free to spontaneously start crying, or start giving out hugs. There's a great sense of openness, of everyone creating an accepting space for everyone else.

Given his dedication to community, I can only imagine J.D. would have been overjoyed to see it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

J.D. Falk, 1974 - 2011

My old friend and housemate J.D. died on Wednesday night, following many months of fighting a very aggressive gastric cancer. Remarkably, at pretty much this exact time:
21:15 <dr.msk> JD's RFC is published.
21:16 <dr.msk> RFC6449
That was a little weird, even for the already-weird experience of someone dying. (RFC stands for "Request For Comments", and they're documents that define technical standards. Things like the World Wide Web and email are defined in RFCs. They're not as big a deal nowadays, but it's still cool to write one.)

There's a lot to say about J.D.: the anti-spam group he founded has one obituary, and there's an ongoing public memorial page. He was kind, generous, welcoming, affable, open-hearted, and tirelessly put his energies into building and supporting communities of all kinds. He was a remarkable DJ, and was developing into a remarkable maker of electronic music. He was also kind of a flake, and despite the years-long prodding from his wife, he left a lot of not-quite-resolved relationships behind, including with me. But he and I had long ago said everything that really needed to be said, and it turns out that once someone's dead, it's easy enough to let the unresolved stuff matter even less than before.

I could exhaust my supply of synonyms describing him, but read the memorial stories and you'll get the idea. I'm not so good with remembering stories on demand, especially under strain.

I had the difficult privilege of being in the house when he died, and helping the hospice nurse move his body from the fluffy armchair where he spent much of the past six months over to the bed so the crematory guys could pick him up,. I have a lot to say about the whole experience, much as it starts to make things seem about me; but I'm kind of a mess, and I get a lot of interesting stuff out of being a mess.

Good-bye, J.D. Thanks.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

death approaches

An old friend and twice-housemate of mine, JD, who has been gravely ill with cancer all year, is finally down to his last days (possibly hours), in 24/7 hospice care at home. On Sunday, while he was still in the hospital, I helped move furniture around so a hospital bed and other gear could come in, and me and his wife and another friend were talking about funeral home and other arrangements. I'm part of the funeral-planning committee, though Anna and I got sick again as soon as we got home, so I haven't done anything yet except to suggest that a post-funeral reception is going to be many hundreds of people and therefore it's not practical to have at someone's house.

I've been watching my own reactions and impulses, along with everyone else's. I've been thinking it would be nice and interesting if I could see him one last time, but he very graciously had some folks over for my bachelor party a few weeks ago, so we had a solid hug then, and I don't feel like there's anything unsaid between us. Some people have a need to go see him, but he's exhausted and ready to die, and doesn't want visitors.

That last part there is exactly why we say things like "Don't wait until the end to say what you want to say." In addition to death sometimes coming on suddenly, even if there's some lingering, you don't know that you'll be able to see them. "Don't wait" isn't some philosophical point. It actually means "don't wait." It's not something to think about, it's something to do.

People get cranky with Buddhism, and especially Zen, for constantly harping on death: the teacher Dainin Katagiri famously started a fundraising talk with "You are all going to die someday." I've never had much patience with the American religion of positivity, or the idea that everything happens for a reason. Saying that everything happens for a reason, without actually knowing the reason, is a measured dose of comforting predestination, often invoked by people who would otherwise strenuously insist that we live from free will.

If we can't figure out the reason why a 37-year old is struck down by a vicious cancer that doesn't normally strike any of his demographic groups, maybe that's because there isn't a reason. Does that mean his life didn't have meaning? He did work and created communities that still flourish, touching thousands and thousands of people. He's dying because people die. The choices he made, the relationships he had, are what matters.

JD was a phenomenal downtempo DJ, and this was a favorite song.

Don't wait.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

what's "attachment"?

[Shannon has been kicking ass on her blog lately, which inspires me to write some Buddhist-y things.]

A friend, on Facebook:
Not being attached to the outcome is like trying not to think of something. I need a Buddhist SWAT team.
Every English speaker who encounters Buddhism struggles with any discussion of "attachment" and "non-attachment". I think it's because in our casual speech, we use "attached" to mean "closeness" and "affection". When we're not ready or in the mood to say "I love you", we say "I'm quite attached to you". We use it to mean someone is in a romantic relationship:
"Sorry, honey, he's attached."
"There are no unattached women in this town."
This isn't a bad way to use the word, but when people first started translating Buddhist texts into English, they used "attachment" to describe concepts that have absolutely nothing to do with emotional closeness: "grasping" is usually a more evocative term. It's possible this was perfectly consonant with the meaning of "attachment" a century ago, as in the famous case of the lovely St. Paul's Cathedral being originally described as "amusing, awful, and artificial." Then again, maybe the translations sucked, which was common. It's certainly confusing now, and of course we're stuck with it.

One word that often comes out as "attachments" is klesha, which many people render as "afflictive emotions," which I like. These are things like desire, anger, and aversion generally, but in Buddhist practice we're particularly concerned with the times when we put extra energy into those emotions instead of just feeling them and letting them pass. That extra energy is what we call "grasping" or "attachment." Until you see this happen for yourself, it takes a variety of metaphors to describe it. For example, I would get angry with my students in Chile, and in that moment of anger I had a choice: I could either put more energy into being angry, speaking sharply at them and trying hard to make them do what I wanted; or, I could let myself feel that moment of anger, but then let it pass and decide to respond differently, with calm firmness. Our emotions are transient, and they will change, but only if we step back and let them change. There's a sense of righteous power in being angry, and it's hard to step back from that.

Remember those playground spinners?

The chaos of our emotions often feels like we're spinning around and around on one of these, completely out of control. We don't understand why we're caught up in such a tumult. The turning point in our practice is seeing, really seeing and knowing inside, that we ourselves provide the motive power for the spinning, by putting that extra energy into our thoughts and emotions. We start out on the edge of the disc, moving so fast we feel sick. With practice--zazen meditation combined with an intention to look carefully at our experience in and out of zazen--we move a bit more toward the center of the disc, moving slower and slower. Eventually we realize the disc is only moving because we keep kicking it along, and we learn to back off, let go, and stop adding that extra momentum. The spinning slows down, and occasionally, for times that can be instants or hours, the spinning stops entirely, and everything is quiet.

[By the way, you can read about the Three Poisons or kleshas and seek in vain for a unified presentation, even within a single Buddhist tradition. The Buddha had many formulations and presentations of his teaching, varying with time (45 years!) and audience. The subsequent systematizers further modified things, often with significant misunderstandings, as I'm learning from Richard Gombrich. That kind of brutal consistency, prized in Western philosophy and theology, doesn't exist in Buddhist thought. Buddha's goal was not to create a system of things to believe in: he wanted to give everyone a complete set of tools for understanding and ending our own mental anguish. Buddhist teaching is quite coherent, but it is as multi-faceted as any human being.)

Another way to think about it is with a lawnmower: if I grab really hard onto a running lawnmower, the vibration hurts my shoulders and rattles my teeth. If I hold the lawnmower lightly, it just makes my hands tingle.

Does that make any sense? I never know if you're nodding excitedly and going "YES! YES!" or just thinking, "Why doesn't he post more cat pictures? I like cat pictures. Am I out of Oreos again?".

Anyway. May you (and all beings) successfully stop kicking your playground spinner.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

just married

Anna and I got married on Saturday. So that's a thing. We're honeymooning, which means lots of eating and staring off into space and reading novels, and not so much with the brilliant coherent essay-writing.

At some point my friends pointed out that our anniversary is Guy Fawkes Day, that most twisted of British holidays, which we would never have heard of if not for Alan Moore's V For Vendetta (which you must go read right now, if you haven't). So that's entertaining.

The guest book didn't get put out, so we don't have an exact count, but it was about 170 people. It was a Zen Buddhist ceremony, which is funny because there are no Buddhist weddings outside the West: they're typically either civil matters, or handled by a more visceral local religion, like Shinto in Japan. This is part of the transmission of Buddhism to the West, though, so here, we have Zen weddings. Our teacher did the honors, I sang the Magnetic Fields' "Book of Love" as Anna came up the aisle, and we had a first dance (I hate dancing) just so ninjas could interrupt and attack us. Me, Anna, and J successfully fought them off. It was awesome. No video of the ninjas, I don't think, but there are some photos that I'll put up soon.

Our witnesses were both named Ann, so mine was the Best Ann and hers was the Ann of Honor.

Before the vows, Anna and I each had a chance to say something: Anna said many funny things about the unlikelihood of her ever getting married (e.g. during the toasts, the Ann of Honor said, "It's a cold day in hell, and somewhere, pigs are flying"). That warmed up the crowd for mine, where I started by saying that before I met her, my life was a friendless, meaningless void. With, what, 100 of my friends watching? Very silly.

The wedding gave me a lot to think about in how I and others perceive me. For one thing, I'm struck by how surprised people were. I guess I don't pay a whole lot of attention to how much and in what ways I'm a private person, or what I do or don't share with different people. Apparently, when Anna and I started dating, someone advised her to be cautious, because they hadn't seen anything that indicated I was interested in or particularly capable of returning deep emotional connection. That's pretty wacky, given the decades I've spent learning and experiencing those deep emotions. It's not like I'm hiding or anything; I guess I just haven't found a reason or useful way to bring my deep sentimentality into everyday conversation.

Later, a woman from our dojo said, "I didn't know you had it in you", meaning the comic timing of what I said during the ceremony. I responded gracefully, but I was taken aback, because honestly, I'm pretty funny and the timing of my delivery is usually excellent. I thought about my relationship with her over the years, and I realized that when I've made jokes, her response often indicates she doesn't quite know what to make of me, so I've toned everything down around her. Maybe I shouldn't? Hard to say.

I guess that kind of sharing is what I wanted for the wedding: to invite a bunch of people I know in all different kinds of ways, and bring everyone together for this one focal moment of standing up and showing ourselves. The two most common comments were "Amazing ceremony" and "Wow, you have incredible friends." That's pretty much what I wanted to hear.

Steve came all the way from Chile! And brought me a bottle of Mistral Nobel pisco, so I can share the, uh, "joy" of pisco with everyone here. (That's the good stuff, but when I was drinking it straight on ice so I could actually taste it, all the Chileans looked startled and repeatedly asked if I didn't want to mix it with some Coke or something. I like it, mostly, but it can be an acquired taste.)

J was part of the ceremony too, and I think it did something to cement for him the commitment of our little family: he's been looking forward to it for a long time, and I perceived a shift in our relationship afterward, where he seemed a bit more relaxed and I got a long, long hug goodbye when he went to school Monday morning.

The weirdest thing about getting married is that there was this huge crowd of 170 people, and now it's just us. It's so...quiet.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

scenes from the haunted fishtank

One of the many downsides of being knocked on my ass for a month is that I've watched a lot more TV.
  • The Troll Hunter. I was expecting this to be really bad, but in fact it's excellent. It's Norwegian, and there are very clearly a horde of cultural references we won't get, but it's a fantastic movie. The lead actor is a Norwegian comedian, and he leaves me very, very curious about what Norwegian comedy looks like. (I'm not going to link to any descriptions about the movie. Just go rent the DVD, or stream it on Netflix, or pirate it, or whatever, right now.)
  • The A-Team. I was really expecting this to suck, and I think that's a completely reasonable expectation, but instead you get a quite well-done shootout-caper movie of a much higher quality than the schlocky-but-personable TV series of my childhood. Given Mister T, you might have to stretch to imagine B.A. Baracus having much depth, but MMA fighter Quinton "Rampage" Jackson turns out to be a genuinely good actor.
  • Breaking Bad. Hooooooly crap, this is one of the most masterful things to ever happen to television. The plot: a high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and starts cooking methamphetamine to provide money for his family after he dies. That's the beginning. It's harsh: every episode is tense with impending doom, endless awkward moments and human train wrecks, carefully examined frame by frame in slow motion. It's about change, and how we choose to create ourselves and our lives with every choice we make. Here's a great essay comparing it to the three other Great TV Shows Of The Moment.
  • Heroes. Promising first season, but it sucks pretty quickly. I gave up and reading the episode synopses for the last 1.5 seasons.
  • Game of Thrones. Based on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels. It's brutal in spots, as you (or I, at least) would expect from something authentically medieval. It's not for the squeamish, but I've found it aesthetically stunning from the opening shot of the first episode. And check out the opening credits. Also, dwarf actor Peter Dinklage!
Of course, except for The Troll Hunter, I recommend reading books and talking to people instead. =)

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Since I've been teaching J how to program in Scratch off and on, I had the rare moment of talking to my parents about programming languages the other day. There's not usually much to say about specific programming languages with someone who doesn't write code--though there's lots to say about the nature of programming, and I have a blog post in the works about that--but I mentioned I was reading some horrible C++ code and it was a little tricky because I don't really know C++. I used it a couple semester in college and that was it. Mom said, "But you can tell it's horrible anyway?", which I can, and that got me thinking about why, and what I understand about programming languages and how they're related, and all kinds of stuff.

Programming languages are not mathematically related to human languages, but they're related inasfar as they're made by and for humans. Much like human linguists, we talk about "families" and "dialects", and languages influence each other's development, often with cycles of back-and-forth borrowing of ideas. To see this profusion, take a look at the canonical Programming Languages Family Tree, or O'Reilly Media's much prettier version (now somewhat out of date).

Making a programming language is now well-enough understood that college students do it in one semester. Making a programming language that's useful is a whole other project, and highly likely to fail. Solving a real-life problem isn't just about the language, but about its associated libraries, which need to:
  • manipulate files on disk and otherwise talk to the computing environment.
  • deal with networking.
  • deal with multiprocessing (doing more than one thing at a time).
  • provide utilities for common programmer needs, like finding the length of a string of text.
This is a lot of work, and programmers have limited time to learn new things and even less time to actually adopt them, so your language has to have something special to offer to get off the ground. Java, for instance, looks a lot like C++ but doesn't suck quite as much. Ruby, which I work in, lets you accomplish a lot of work with very little code. Python is similar to Ruby, but a bit easier to read. And so on.

Enough describing. Why can I be judgemental about C++ code when I don't know C++? Let's start with some languages I'm more familiar with. Here's a class in Java. A class is technically defined as "a thinger that combines data with the operations on that data". Like so:

public class MessageCounter
int count;
MessageList messages;

public void receive(Message msg) {
MessageList.add( msg );

(None of these examples are complete, by the way. I'm stripping out a bunch of stuff that's needed in real life but would just obscure my point.)

That receive() thing is a function (or sometimes subroutine), but for irrelevant historical reasons, when a function is part of a class, we call it a method. The ++ operator comes from C, and increments a variable by 1.

My second language was Perl:

module MessageCounter;

$counter = 0;
@messages = [];

sub receive {
my $msg = shift;
push @messages, $msg;

Okay, that's a bit out there, I'll grant you: Perl is not for the faint of heart. But see how there's still a block marked MessageCounter, we're clearly doing something with a structure named messages and the message we received, and there's that ++ again. sub is short for "subroutine".

Here's Ruby, invented some years after Perl by a guy who couldn't take Perl's punctuation any more.

class MessageCounter
def receive(msg)
@messages.push msg
@counter += 1

See? It's like Perl, but easier to read. Ruby lacks the ++ operator, so we say += 1: in this language family, = means "assign the right side to the left side", and @counter +=1 is shorthand for @counter = @counter + 1.

After all that, here's C++, which predates all three.

class MessageCounter
int counter;
MessageList messages;

public void receive( Message msg ) {
messages.add( msg );

That's right. There's a one-word difference from the Java. C++ is a huge, awful language, and even professional C++ programmers often don't know all of it, but much like seeing Catalán when you know Spanish, you can usually get the gist.

As for judging quality, because all these languages belong in a very, very large category called imperative languages, and furthermore (because they have classes) they're object-oriented,
(Pedants: Yes, Perl is not object-oriented. Hush, it's not important right now.)
there are common principles, the subject of many many books, of how to organize programs in a way that is comprehensible. The code I was reading violated many of those principles.

See? Simple!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

it seems I'm awake

We're experiencing some household-wide Epic Sleep Failure here at the Snugglehaus. I often sleep erratically anyway, then Anna came down with this brutal cold and cough, and now I have the cough, though it seems not as bad as she did. (As a girlfriend told me years ago, in a delightful fake Russian accent: "Strong, like bull. Smart, like tractor.") Our sangha's retreat is this weekend, and if I feel like this, I won't be able to go. I'm normally fairly robust, though, so there's a good chance I'll be better. If not, I have a quiet weekend alone in the house, which isn't so bad.

I can do 15 push-ups! The last 5 hurt my upper incision, which is healed on the surface but will take some time to knit together underneath. It's hard for me to imagine how debilitating a traditional open surgery must be, where they make a huge incision in the abdominal wall. It's such a strange feeling to try and use a normally-reliable muscle and it's just...broken. A couple years ago I was throwing a football around with some kids at Thanksgiving, and after one particular throw my shoulder hurt and one of the muscles (the front part of the deltoid, from the diagrams) stopped working for a few months. I couldn't do push-ups, which meant I couldn't get up in aikido the way I was used to: where before I would put my hands down and push up, I learned to put my elbow down instead, and use my sturdy, jointless upper arm for support. I assume I tore the muscle or something: it got better very slowly, and it was at least 18 months before it was fully healed.

It turns out, though, there's no working around the need for my upper abdominal muscles.

J's excitement at programming in Scratch continues. Sometimes I show him stuff, sometimes he figures things out; he found a bunch of code examples I didn't know were there, and picking those apart seems to be a good way for him to learn. He digs through the icon library and makes varyingly elaborate stories about how the knight was mean and so he's being punished by J making him spin around and grow small. It's pretty adorable.

Not that I've been at work much this past month, but we're finally done with our Quality Initiative (which left me with a single vague assignment I wasn't interested in) and back to re-designing the transcoding system (which is really interesting and it's what I want to do). Now, of course, I have to design and build extremely high-quality components from scratch. This is something I can do, of course, but I feel like it's not necessarily something I have done, so there's a certain sense that I'm now playing with the pros and this is the time to bring my A-game. There's a strong leadership aspect, too: the team already has a leader, but they're looking to me for the vision of the re-design, and I need to communicate with and get everyone understanding and participating. There are several parts of the thing that I don't actually know how to build yet. (It's a big, complicated thing. The broad strokes are clear, many details are not.) I'm happy to be back onto that.

And apparently I'm getting married in three (3!) weeks. We have the expected last-minute RSVPs and cancellations, crabby or insane relatives, ordering cupcakes, writing checks, sorting out final details. Anna and I finally picked witnesses to stand up and sign paperwork and handle logistics the day of the event (because we shouldn't have to worry about stuff, even if we'll be able to, which I doubt): they're both named Ann, so I decided mine would be the Best Ann and Anna's would be the Ann of Honor.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

warm hand to warm hand

There's a wide variety of things I know a fair bit about. My housemate in Chile, Steve, often remarked on how exciting it was to randomly discover things like
  • I was on the diving team in high school (varsity one year, because there were only 4 divers and one guy broke his foot).
  • I did archery for a while.
  • I learned ceramics and jewelry-making for about a year.
  • I know a lot about blacksmithing.
  • I'm a very good cook.
  • I helped crew a sailboat in Mexico for 3 months.
  • I once moved to Wisconsin to become a professional a cappella singer.
The list goes on like that.

It turns out, though, that my general hobby is dilettantism, and there are far fewer things I know well enough to teach in any depth:
  • sailing
  • aikido
  • computer programming
I've been pretty excited about teaching J how to program, because I think he'll love it and it's something I really enjoy. I finally got the chance, when J talked about to Anna and he was incredibly excited about it last night, so tonight he took his entire hour of allotted Computer Time to playing with Scratch, a simple graphical programming environment designed for this purpose. I had all of 15 minutes to mess with it last night before cracking it open with J today.

He was SO EXCITED. I couldn't stand it. I would direct him to something, like a loop or an instruction to change the picture's color or whatever, and he would start playing around with it and telling a story, flailing with excitement every time he made something happen. That's a big part of the joy of programming: you think something, type into the computer, and the computer does things. Later on, you make many computers do things. Often in a coordinated fashion. It just gets better and better.

So awesome. For a whole hour!

Now I have to learn how to use the thing so I can teach him more stuff. =)

Dennis M. Ritchie, 1941-2011

Everyone knows Steve Jobs died, because everyone knows who Steve Jobs was. Steve Jobs made sure everyone knew who Steve Jobs was, by being the public visionary of Apple, then Pixar, then NeXT (you're easily forgiven for not recognizing that one), which Apple bought as the foundation for Mac OS X, making him the public visionary of Apple again. Everyone knew him because he personally masterminded and introduced dozens of things that changed our everyday life.

If you're a non-Microsoft computer geek, though, you probably owe your career to Dennis Ritchie, who died on October 9th. With Brian Kernighan, he created the C programming language, which was mostly invented so that Ritchie and Ken Thompson could write the Unix operating system. Steve Jobs' NeXT was based on Unix1, and Linux was a complete re-implementation of the Unix design.

(Those cabinets behind Ritchie and Thompson is the computer, and there's paper in that computer terminal.)

It's hard to overestimate Ritchie's impact. My entire career has been programming software in Unix-like environments, and that looks like it will be true for a long time. Even DOS, the hoary undercarriage of Windows, was actually a half-assed braindead Unix rip-off. You may recognize
c:\\Documents\Your Mom\Friday Night.doc
but that started out as
If you're an advanced DOS user, you may have done something like
list | more
where the output of list gets "piped" through the pager more so you can actually read it if it's more than one page. You wouldn't know it from DOS, but pipes were Unix's gift to the world, enabling people to write small, general-purpose tools and string them together to create extremely complex effects (also known as the Unix philosophy). This sort of thing is routine in Unix:
grep apple some_file.txt | sort | uniq -c
Which, in order, finds all lines in some_file.txt with the word "apple", sorts them, and simultaneously removes duplicates and counts the occurrences of each line.

The C programming language and its Frankenstein descendant C++ have been so popular that any new programming language needs to either have C-like syntax, or have a really compelling reason not to. Languages that kept C's lower-level syntax (like 'x=5' for "assign the value 5 to the variable x") include C++, Objective-C, Java, Microsoft's C#, Perl, Python, and Ruby.

I don't know when this was made, but they're already greybeards.

In his quieter, harder-to-understand way, Dennis Ritchie changed the world every bit as widely as Steve Jobs did. Well done.

Dilbert Unix comic

1 Well, kind of. The history of "Unix" and its derivatives and copies is a tangled mess: here is a "simplified diagram" of the Unix timeline.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

recent events

I tried going for a run Friday!

I'm not trying that again for a while. The impact made stuff hurt. I do need some exercise, but something less jarring. I guess I can try swimming; sadly, the only things I really like doing are running and aikido, and I can't do either right now.

We had a weekend of doing roughly nothing, since Anna's not feeling well and I think I'm fending off whatever she's got. There are various wedding things to do, even for me, so losing the weekend doesn't feel stellar, but it'll be fine.

Speaking of: less than 4 weeks now! We're looking forward to it, and we'll be very glad when the marrying part is over with and we can continue on with being married. For our honeymoon we'll be getting sloppy drunk in all the highest-quality strip clubs of Portland.

Well, I will. I think Anna was planning to go look at art museums or a quilt convention or something. Whatever. Chick stuff.

I've had several opportunities to remove Anna's power of speech over the years: early on, by jokingly using the word "girlfriend"; then a couple of times by oblique reference to marriage; once we were engaged, I once made her seize up completely by referring to her as "Mrs. D---". (Behold my feeble attempt at blog anonymity.)

However, she has decided to escalate everything by changing her name. I'm not sure I can top that, at least without some planning. I'm sure I'll think of something.

It brings up some interesting stuff for me, though. It's this very unexpected jolt insisting that I'm all grown up now. Which I am, of course. I now have a matching set of dishes to prove it. I've fulfilled my life's ambition to own a butter dish. I thought I was as grown up as I could get!

Imagine my shock.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

music for the rainy season

A while ago it occurred to me to look up the history of the Shaker song "Simple Gifts". Incredibly, until Aaron Copland used it in "Appalachian Spring" in 1944, it was apparently unknown. It's so familiar to us now that it's hard for me to imagine a world without that melody in it.

The music was re-purposed in 1963 to create the hymn "Lord of the Dance", which I heard at Episcopalian summer camp long before I knew about the Shaker song. I think the version I heard was by the early Christian rock band Petra, but I can't find any evidence they ever recorded it.

If you venture much into the obscure, you might have been briefly misled when a guy named Chris Clark released a very strange, squelchy, crunchy, wonderful electronic track by the same name but completely different music:

Then one day I heard this, and sometimes I just load up this video and listen to it a few times, because it's one of the prettiest things I've ever heard.

That's all.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I am predictable

Anna's mother was visiting briefly yesterday, and as J was eating his dessert banana, he took the sticker and told her, "Watch!" and put the sticker on my hand.
"Wait. What? What are you doing to me?! Stop that! Huh...I guess I'm organic!"
Everyone laughed, and J said:
"See, that's how I get my parents to be silly!"
I guess it's good to be reliably entertaining.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


You're in luck! I've been reading a lot while sitting around the house. It's been a good few weeks for links.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

lesser evils

This came up again in one of my online communities last week, as it does every few months and especially every election cycle. It's this idea that "the system is corrupt, so I refuse to participate." It's normally about voting, though an old friend of mine is also missing my wedding because they refuse to submit to the idiocy of modern air travel.
Gil [to Chris]: alright how about Pinochet vs. Hitler. donating to the Pinochet campaign? he only killed his political enemies, not 6 million members of a particular race. that's indisputably less evil
Gil [to Chris]: i'm asking if you really think voting for the lesser evil is always the right thing to do, or if there's a line at which you would say no, i'm not participating in this
Gil [to Chris]: remember we only get 2 choices, that's the nature of the system
Chris [to Gil]: "always" is a big word that I work very hard to avoid, but I do think that in general I have an obligation to create the best world I can given the options available to me. so, yeah, I probably would, unless there were some other action I could take.
Chris [to Gil]: but ducking out entirely and hoping things will take care of themselves? I don't think I can do that.
Gil [to Chris]: huh.
Chris says, "even if you think no one's listening when we speak, there's definitely no one listening when we're silent."
Chris says, "in the Pinochet vs. Hitler case, look at the choices: 6000 dead and 45000 tortured, or 10 million dead. it's a shit sandwich, but I can't imagine saying 'this system is corrupt, I quit' and not doing the minimal bit to prevent the greater number of deaths."
Set aside that Pinochet's definition of "political enemy" was pretty broad--the comparison is sound. And I don't get the attitude. I understand that things are frustrating, the system is broken beyond belief. But where do I get off deciding that I'm not even going to do the bare minimum of speaking up? How important do I think I am, really, that my very absence is some magical form of protest?

My friend is missing my wedding because s/he "doesn't want to give them the satisfaction" of putting him/her through the security theater. Well, whatever. The security theater isn't going to notice. The things accomplished by their avoidance are (1) they feel more comfortable, and (2) they inconvenience themselves (including missing other people's life events).

Every moment of every day, we choose whether or not to show up. We choose what to say, how we say it, whether to be cruel or kind, harsh or compassionate, honest or deceitful. They're not obvious choices, and we're often not paying attention. Think of our life as being an endless conversation with the entire world. Some people in the world know us, some don't. If I'm silent around people who know me, they'll notice because they expect me to speak. If I'm silent around people who don't know me, well, they have no idea what's normal for me. They'll draw their own conclusions, but the one thing we can say for certain is that I won't be part of the conversation.

Now imagine that voting is part of the conversation with all our fellow citizens who don't know us. What happens when we're silent?

No one really cares. They're too busy participating. They're showing up.

I just don't get it. How is that useful?

Even if we think no one's listening when we speak, there's definitely no one listening when we're silent.

no hiding place

The other day I walked out to my car and noticed that my (poor, neglected, dead-battery) motorcycle cover was hanging low, like there was a weight inside holding it down on the ground. I thought maybe one of the neighborhood kids had somehow managed to get one of the sidecases off and it was on the ground, though that was unlikely and very difficult.

I went over and pulled up on the cover, and there was in fact a weight inside--and it started moving.

What the hell? Did a raccoon fall asleep inside my motorcycle cover? I backed away to let whatever it was figure out how to get out and away, without biting or scratching me.

After a couple seconds of frantic scrambling, the sleek black cat who lives a couple houses down escaped and ran away at top speed to the safety of the fence behind the building.

Sorry, cat.


Let me just say how much I love the compassionate teacher and Zen Beginner blogs (always linked in the sidebar there). They're doing it right in every way, and they write about it so well. Like this:
The forms of oryoki are starting to make sense to me but I still can't figure out if I'm supposed to be present for my food or efficient in eating it.
Yes! Exactly! (It's both.)

How am I feeling?

You know something was really wrong when you wake up with 4 incisions and one less organ and you feel better.

I checked with the doctor on Friday to make sure my various pains are normal, including pain where the gallbladder used to be. He said that the inflammation had been very bad, so that area is still recovering from the original problem. The painful one of the three incisions--I can't feel the other two--is just under the ribs near the sternum, and feeling much better today than yesterday. Overall my system seems to be coming down from its week of rude shocks, and settling back into an equilibrium.

I'm thinking a bit about capability: normally I'm very lithe and agile, and right now I'm neither. From aikido, I have very strong core muscles that I use quite a bit, often just for fun, and with the incision just below and to the right of my sternum, tensing my core muscles means pressing against my stitches, which isn't dangerous but can hurt quite a bit. I also get tired after 30-60 minutes of doing anything except sitting down or puttering slow around the house. I sat zazen this morning for the first time since Wednesday, and I was pretty beat afterward. Because I'm young and in shape, I don't always stop to consider what a physical practice it is, even though I rely on it to get my body warmed up for the day. It takes a lot of core and back muscles to sit still for that long, which of course is why half my sangha sits in chairs.

It's certainly much better to have the gallbladder out, but still. Ow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

surprise surgery

Sunday night, a bit before bed, I started developing a weird sort of ache in my upper right abdomen, just under the ribs. I've had occasional pain there over the past year or so, but this was much stronger and bigger, and quickly escalated to include all the muscles around it on both sides. I thought it was some form of gas, since every few years I'll get some sort of intestinal-gas experience that puts me on the floor, but it wasn't responding to my usual gas treatments, and while my anatomy is dodgy, I didn't think there was any intestine up that high, and it didn't feel connected to my digestion. It's a lot like what I imagine being stabbed feels like.

At midnight I decided it was not improving at all, and with my panting and sweating, Anna woke up and dropped me off the E.R. and went home to sleep and be with J. My heart rate when I got there was 39, which is low even for me, so I got a bit of atropine to bump that up, and some oxygen, and then they did an X-ray and a low-contrast CAT scan and blood and urine tests. The doctor, who was awesome, thought it was a gallbladder problem, but the ultrasound tech wouldn't show up until 8. They gave me some Dilaudid, which took the edge enough that I could sleep 20-40 minutes at a time. My heart rate returned to its apparent normal of 45-55.

During the ultrasound the doctor came in and talked to the tech.
"Mind if I look over your shoulder?"
"Not at all."
"Oh, wow. Good for me, not so good for him. I mean, wow, if I can see it, it's pretty obvious."
It turned out to be a giant pile of gallstones (he was relieved to actually have a diagnosis so he could stop worrying). I don't know why it never turned into an acute problem before, but there it was.

The recommended surgeon is on vacation, so I called a guy JD and Hope recommended, and when I used the magic words "I'm in constant pain", they fit me in yesterday, and there happened to be a surgery slot open this morning, so we were off to the races.

Anna brought me in this morning, and my friend Ann came to take over when Anna went to get J. My only memory of the operating room is of being shocked at how cluttered it is. It looks like someone's attic, if they were the sort of people to keep their attic sterile and full of millions of dollars of equipment.

I didn't get to see the surgeon (I was asleep), but Anna reported that everything went well, though the gall bladder was so inflamed and cranky it was a challenge to get it out through the small laparoscopic hole. It's done, though, and even though one of my four incisions hurts quite a bit, my body is clearly more comfortable now.

So, hey, ouch. I'm really glad to have it done so quickly, though.

I'm, uh. Gonna go fall asleep again now.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

the GREs

I took the GREs today (Graduate Record Exams, basically the SATs for grad school). It was sort of an entertaining practice run: I was going to apply for an MS program in computer science, but then discovered that I can take as many graduate classes at Stanford as I like, and up to 18 of those credits (at 3 credits/class) can transfer to a master's program whenever I feel like applying and making the commitment. Good things about this:
  1. If you're actually enrolled, you have 5 years to complete the master's. That's just barely possible at one course per quarter (the most I could manage while working); accumulating 6 quarters' worth of credits before enrolling makes that 5 years a lot more feasible.
  2. Good grades in actual Stanford graduate classes will weigh much more heavily on a Stanford application than the GREs or anything else.
The GREs were paid for, and I haven't really had time or inclination to really feel prepared, so I figured I should just take them anyway, as a baseline experience. Remember, these are the new GREs, as they just revised the test and deployed the new version in August.

I'm glad I studied what little bit I did, because they are sneaky bastards, those test authors. It's not hard in the usual sense. Just...sneaky.

It's a computerized test, which is actually pretty cool. I imagine I tanked the Analytical Writing section, because I thought it was 30 minutes for both writing questions, and it turned out it was 30 minutes each, so my first answer is probably unacceptably short.

The Verbal stuff seemed pretty easy (shocking!). The Quantitative was harder, but I found that I kept flashing on the answers as I went through, especially as time started to run out. I'm sure it helped that I was taking them as a dry run, with nothing actually at stake. I felt like eventually I was getting a bit into the swing of how those problems are constructed, although for many of them I definitely did not resolve them the elegant way. (One guess which is faster and more reliable: me staring and trying to figure out the clever shortcut, or me typing 5 different things into the on-screen calculator to see which one matches my answer.)

For the Quantitative and Verbal sections, they give you your score at the end. Unfortunately, the scores for the new revision won't be available until November-ish, so they just give you an estimate of how you would have scored on the old test. Memory is hazy on which was which, but it said "720-800" for (I think) the Verbal, and "750-800" for the Quantitative. Doesn't seem too shabby on an 800 scale, and for not studying.

How's that look for a grad school application? The Stanford CS department says:
While there is no minimum requirement for GRE scores, a strong application would include percentiles in the high 90s for the Ph.D. program and scores in the 90th percentile for the MS program.
Okay, so what are the percentiles? Wikipedia's chart agrees with this test prep site:

Scaled scoreVerbal Reasoning %Quantitative Reasoning %

Holy crap! 800 on the Quantitative, a perfect score, is only 94th percentile. That means that 6% of everyone who took the old GRE got a perfect score. 94th percentile for Verbal is all the way down at 660.

No wonder they revised it: that right there is a test that is very seriously out of balance.

(A corollary is that any range they gave me for Quantitative is pretty meaningless, being a range that starts at 84th percentile. Imagine if, on a standard American grade scale, your teacher said "You got somewhere between a B and an A+": no shit, Sherlock, I knew that when I walked out of the exam. The Verbal range, by comparison, says that I would have gotten a 98th percentile and up.)

At any rate, I'm glad I took them. While tricky, they weren't as scary as they might have been, and I still have some of my gift for standardized testing. I have no idea what my actual scores might be, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

[EDIT: If you're curious, it's now adaptive by section rather than by question, so you can jump around and skip questions and go back within each Verbal and Quantitative section, which wasn't possible before.]

Thursday, September 15, 2011

catching up with the kid

I was on J-minding duty tonight so Anna could teach. I'm glad to have some regularly-scheduled stretches of time with him: we already didn't see each other much, and then I've been busy and the custody schedule changed so he's with his dad for 5 days at a time.

The kid cracks me up.
"Huh, I'm getting married in seven weeks."
"You are? Oh, is it to Mama?"
"Yes, to Mama."
"Oh, good. I'm glad it's Mama."
"Yeah, I think we all are."
He has a sophisticated sense of humor, but if he was playing that conversation, he's miles ahead of where we think he is. Seems unlikely: he just forgets things.

Anyway, we had some lovely Lego time, then a seamless dinner through bedtime routine. It's after 9 PM and I have no idea if he's asleep: that's not my problem. But I left him tucked into bed with the lights off! My work is done.

Like most modern Westerners, I don't care much for poetry, but there are a few that stuck with me from my school days. This one is from Francis Darwin Cornford. (Don't worry, he's not famous.)
The Guitarist Tunes Up

With what attentive courtesy he bent
Over his instrument;
Not as a lordly conquerer who could
Command both wire and wood,
But as a man with a loved woman might,
Inquiring with delight
What slight essential things she had to say
Before they started, he and she, to play.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

the state of things

We were gone over the weekend, but the Elephants upstairs have been, if not quiet, subwoofer-free in the evenings. We'll see if that continues through the weekend. Their landlord sent us the text of his email to them saying he wasn't renewing their lease and asking them to move out before it expires. It seems there have been various other complaints from other complex residents about them, including some concerns about a rotating cast of people living there. The landlord asked the Elephants about this, but somewhat incredibly, the leaseholders don't return his emails or phone calls. There's circumstantial evidence that they're fresh Stanford graduates, possibly MBAs (always a bad sign), and this may be their first experience living around non-students. Hopefully they learn from the experience, or just rent a house.

I'm still looking at the rental and housing markets occasionally, just for fun, and it's still insane. Houses are still too expensive, rentals are impossible to find. By the time house prices come down, getting a loan will likely be a dodgy thing, requiring a full 20% down payment on what will likely still be a $400,000 house. We may be here a little while, which is all right because wow, this is a nice place. Granite countertops, wood floors, spare bedroom, two bathrooms. And mostly unpacked, even.

I bought a new case for my home server. I'd intended to get a small one, but then I saw this guy's writeup of it, and it sounded so amazing that I went out and bought one. And it's amazing.
mobo side closeup

It has a pair of 200mm fans--that's 20cm, or 8". The big fans have white LEDs that make for a soothing glow in a dark room, as well as being really quiet and cooling the case really well. The sides have latches: no need to unscrew anything. The hard drives and optical drive slide in, with no screws. The only time I picked up a screwdriver was attached the motherboard to the case.
other side closeup

All the cables run along the back side of the motherboard, getting them completely out of the way of both the fans and any work you want to do in there. There are USB ports in front of the case, and all the fans plug into a built-in fan controller.

The whole thing is a bit of an extravagance, but I figure I'll keep it for many years, and it's such a pleasure to have well-designed things in the house.

I've been working a lot. We're doing this 6-week push to increase our code quality and testing, and it's really an epic project, but also puts me a bit adrift, just when I'd started digging into the Transcoding System re-architecture which is the thing I really care about. I have a nominal project, but I've quickly found more interesting things to do.

I've realized that my bosses' expectations of what I should do are in fact very vague and noncommittal, and what's best for everyone is my new realization that no one has much stake in my doing anything in particular, and I'm perfectly capable of picking important things to work on and just going and doing whatever I feel like. I'm the only one of my kind in the company, so there's no model to follow, not even another person to compare me to. Also, it's been impossible to hire anyone else like me, so I'm not going to get fired. I'm feeling less stressed overall, though still I'm always casting about to get my hooks in something cool, like a torpedo looking for a target.

[EDIT: In addition to few people being able to do my job, nobody else wants it.]

Today I discovered that with all my years of designing complex interacting backend services, what really impresses people is a webpage they can look at to see what's going on. Awesome. I hate webpages.

Apparently Anna and I are getting married in 7 weeks! We've decided to start writing the ceremony. She's been a complete bad-ass about organizing the whole thing. It feels like there's a lot to do, which there sort of is, but it's all manageable. Should be a good time. And then we go to Portland and fall asleep for a week.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

more elephant adventures

If the upstairs neighbors make noise on weeknights I'll often wait to see if they stop, since they do have day jobs and tend to go to sleep by 11. At 10:45 I heard a robust bass line through the ceiling and decided that was enough.

I pounded on the door. No one answered, so I went around to make sure someone was awake, and the light was on in the room above ours. Pounded on the door some more. Knocked. Pounded.

Finally the skinny one answers, in shorts and a tank top.
"You the guy in back with the stereo?"
"No!" An annoyed denial, with an unspoken "What the fuck is your problem?", but he is clearly not in charge here.
"I heard the subwoofer again."
"That was the washing machine."
"The washing machine?"
"We're all asleep." Points at his clothes. "Do I look like I'm listening to music?"
I looked at him and snorted.
"How the fuck should I know?"
And went back downstairs.
I really dislike doing this. The intimidation is necessary because they weren't responding to clear communication, and without profanity (or physical violence, I guess, though I haven't needed that in decades) I'm not very good at being intimidating. I'm also so unfamiliar at playing the role of Angry Male that I wasn't able to master the situation completely, and I got pulled into a staring match instead of using my words to manipulate the conversation.
  • Someone in the back room was awake.
  • Unless their washing machine has a variable melodic bass line, it was the stereo.
  • Anna says the music stopped as soon as I pounded on the door the first time.
So I feel pretty good about my grounds for action.

I suppose I've successfully done some sort of alpha male thing, since I clearly make them a bit nervous, but I'm not really happy with having a relationship with the Subwoofer Douchebags that's based entirely on me banging on their door and spitting profanities to intimidate them. I was avoiding calling the police on a weeknight because they tend to eventually turn the music off, but probably I'll just do that next time.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

reveling in uncertainty

One lasting effect of my time in Chile is a stronger sense of relativism: of just how arbitrary cultural norms are. I have a much better sense of how strongly cultures can differ on points that initially seem really important, and how the set and sequence of what matters in Culture A can be more or less orthogonal to what matters in Culture B.

Let's illustrate this with two social-religious issues: divorce and gay sex.
  • Divorce in the United States has gone state by state, but a brief scan indicates that Maryland legalized it in 1701, while South Carolina legalized it around 1949. Chile legalized divorce (fault-only) in 2004, and no one uses it: they just separate and go start families with other partners.
  • Chile legalized gay sex, by repealing the laws, in 1994 (yes, 10 years before divorce). Many American states never actually legalized it: Lawrence v. Texas struck down all the sodomy laws in 2003, but states only rarely bother to repeal laws rendered unenforceable. (Especially if, like the American South, they're a little cranky about the law being struck down and they want to leave it on the books as a middle finger to the Supreme Court.)
Abortion is illegal in Chile, with no medical or rape exceptions. It's tempting to think the country is a right-wingnut's dream, but pre-marital sex is ubiquitous, and teen pregnancy is generally treated cheerfully. It's a tolerant society; they just tolerate different things, at different rates of change.

A couple weeks ago some of us at work were chatting about our various migrations around the country, and I was explaining to one of our interns (whose parents are Taiwanese!) that Chileans tend to stay within a 20-minute drive of their family, and if that impacts their career, they're generally okay with that, because the family is what matters to them. Furthermore, Chileans who do leave their families behind often face significant pressures to come back. He wasn't getting it.
"Wait, so they just...take whatever jobs are near where their family is?"
"For the most part."
"They're happy like that?"
"Of course. They're living according to their values. If they weren't happy about it, they'd do something else."
This doesn't mean that we can't have values. There's a small raft of things I won't tolerate at all if it's in my power (rape, torture, slavery), and then a somewhat larger raft of things I disapprove of but I recognize exist more reasonably within their cultural context: like teen pregnancy in Chile, which hinders girls' prospects for a better life, but because of their tighter-knit family fabric, it's a more manageable thing than here. Or veiling women in the Muslim world, which you can write many books about, itself having many contexts, some good, some bad, some just very alien to us generic whitebread Americans.

Most cultural differences, though, just aren't that important once you start looking at them. Chileans eat horrible, awful, boring food as a matter of course, but it's still a beautiful country full of perfectly friendly people. Their map of social dishonesty is different: they can't say "No" to a request, and we can't say "You're looking fat today". It's not really possible to say that's a terribly important difference, and to have relationships there, you really have to open up and accept those differences.

Here's where this can change everyday life.

If those differences are not very important between cultures, it follows that they're not really that important within a single culture, either. If you learn to accept vast differences when you're embedded in a different culture--when you have no choice, if you want to have relationships and participate in that society--then you've already re-wired yourself to let go of things you thought mattered but actually don't. You can meet someone who disagrees with you, or that you have a negative reaction with, or whatever, and instead of thinking, "This person is a jerk" the way you would have thought, "Holy crap, Chileans are insane" (which they kind of are but I totally have anecdotes to back that up, and Chileans don't disagree), you can think, "Huh, this person and I aren't getting along. I wonder why?" and you can start out by asking questions instead of making judgements.

Most of us need to be less sure of our judgements, and living abroad is an excellent way to do that.

encountering the neighbors

We have these upstairs neighbors. I don't know anything about them, because they don't seem interested in chatting. It also seems like there's a leaseholder and some amount of rotation in other residents: consistently, two Asian guys with near-identical polished black Infinitis (a G35 and a G37), and then an unpredictable assortment of other guys and girls.

They stomp around pretty gracelessly, and the building transmits a lot of sound, so I started calling them the Elephants, which was cute until they started playing techno with a subwoofer, first during J's bedtime and then later in the 12-4 AM stretch, especially on weekends. They woke us up Friday night around 1, and Anna went and talked to them for what was probably the fourth time. I think they started to dismiss her as an Oversensitive Female, so after the techno made it impossible to nap in our bedroom this afternoon, I thought maybe an Angry Male might be a useful addition.

I had some wine at the dojo party, to go with my bizarro ex-girlfriend conversation, and went to bed a little amped-up, so I didn't blame them when I woke up two hours later to their laughing. As I lay awake in bed, the talking and occasional bass snippets actually seemed pretty reasonable, and Anna woke up briefly but got back to sleep pretty easily.

Then came the techno. At 1:40 AM. Enough.

A couple eventually cracked open the door I'd been pounding on, to discover a very cranky man they didn't know, saying "It's two in the fucking morning and someone is playing thumpy fucking subwoofer music in the back room. Turn it off. Or just turn the bass down." Note that despite the profanity, I didn't actually accuse them of anything, not knowing if it was them.

And behold, silence. I'm taking some time to settle down, but I think a message was delivered and the thumping will not wake up Anna tonight. Probably I should have added that I'm just going to call the cops next time, but next time I'll probably just call the cops. It's a little weird because in their room the sound is probably fairly moderate. In our room it sounds like someone hitting the frame of the building with a large mallet over and over.

I wonder what those two people saw, how they interpreted it, what their response was. I wonder if they'll take it differently than they did Anna's polite engagement. This is a strange role for me to play.

I wonder what their names are.

Friday, September 2, 2011

work issues

I was cranky about work this week. Not just cranky, but sunk in a bit of a fog, what's left of depression for me after

Anyway. Cranky. I spend a lot of time working on things I don't care about in between the things I do. As useful as I've been, I look back on six months and don't feel like I've been particularly effective. Certainly I haven't been engaging the sorts of system-design skills I'm good at; i was just starting to, when the company stopped new development for six weeks to work on various quality-focused initiatives. Now I'm working for at least a week or two on spewing out some kind of inventory database for all our servers, which is not the least bit interesting to me, though it desperately needs to be done. (And which I've been hacking on over the months, but only implementing the things I need.)

I watch other people of both greater and lesser seniority becoming technical leads. How do you become a technical lead? By having an impact and pushing others to do the same. What am I not doing? Having an impact.

Also, I'm getting married, one old friend is missing my wedding for reasons I'm not entirely clear on or at peace with, another old friend is very extremely ill, and being a stepdad is an ongoing process. Among other things. It's a busy time. I can't recall ever having this much stuff to deal with.

I've been through this cycle before, of course (that's what makes it a cycle). Over a period of a few weeks, I'll wind up tighter and tighter. I get irritable, which is a lightweight form of anger. I feel it in my aikido instincts, where I'm much more likely to want to use force and be combative, even if I don't act on it. During this part of the process, zazen keeps me in touch with what I'm feeling, but doesn't actually help me settle down.

This mental pain is dukkha, that troublesome Buddhist word usually translated as "suffering", but "angst", "stress", "distress", or "discomfort" are usually better. The root of the word means "a wheel out of balance". The Buddha, as was his way, gave everyone a fine definition:
Birth is dukkha; aging is dukkha; illness is dukkha; death is dukkha; grief, lamentation, bodily pain, mental pain and despair are dukkha; having to associate with what is displeasing is dukkha, separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not getting what one wants, that too is dukkha.
Faced with this dukkha, I become hard, trying to defend myself against it. Trying to defend myself against the world outside myself, as if that's the problem. As if there's some kind of separation between "me" and "everything else". There isn't, though not in any particularly magical mystical "everything is connected" way. It's actually very concrete, though counter-intuitive: every phenomenon's existence depends on every other phenomenon's existence. Thich Nhat Hanh, while I'm allergic to his writing, named his monastic community the "Order of Interbeing", which describes it quite well. Everything in the universe is interdependent to the point where it inter-is. The chain of cause and effect is often so complex that we can't enumerate every link, but it's there. I get hard and angry in response to my conditions at work. My conditions at work arose because I took the job and then started executing on it in a certain way. I interviewed for this job because I'd worked with the recruiter at a previous job, which I'd taken because I was burned out at the job before that...the details are endless. But every decision and every interaction and every response and every happenstance all create what we call the "causes and conditions" of our current state of affairs.

All this is to say that there's no such thing as "Chris" being separate from "the world Chris lives in". I have created that world. That world has created me. We have arisen and developed together. We're not two different things: the world would be very different for a lot of people without me in it. I'm not special in this way. It's true for you, too. It's true for everybody.

At this point in the cycle, I'm getting hard and, in a way, angry about my suffering. This continues for a week or less, when one day I've had enough and I sit down for zazen again, and this time, at some point I change from being hard and angry to being soft, and sad. I let myself feel sad because after all, things are not what I want, and feeling sad about that is okay. I finally accept my dukkha, stop fighting it or protecting myself, and really fully acknowledge it as part of my experience right now. I open up to my immediate experience (which has a lot of unpleasantness). I become quieter and less confrontational, especially at work. In aikido, I lose the impulse for violent, linear motions (like punching people) and my fluidity returns. I give up trying to force my experience of the world to be a certain way. I let go of my desire to control, to stop feeling bad, to shut the world out, and once again I can create flexible, spontaneous responses to the needs of whatever's really happening.

I'm feeling a lot better now. I was in a couple friends' aikido tests on Friday, and that's always fun. I'm still a bit on edge about work, but I've settled considerably, and after venting to my team lead a bit, I've discovered that the current view from the higher-ups is that I should make of my role whatever I want.
("After this current project, I'm going to spend 100% of my time on X. I'm also going to have the team run me through like a new employee, so I'm fixing bugs and knowing the code better."

"Oh, definitely! I'm actually surprised that wasn't happening already."

Has this ever come up before? No. I'm the only software engineer on the Ops team, so there's been no one else trying to do this job that we could use either as a model or for comparison.)
It's good to be on the up-cycle again. There's still a lot of stuff to work through, but I'm definitely settling down, even with some stuff left over from Chile. My one response to everything is "Let Go": people, places, things, ideas, beliefs. Just because you let go of something (or someone) doesn't mean it goes away. It might, but that's better than grabbing onto it and trying to control what happens. Letting go means allowing the world to take its natural shape, accepting The Way Things Are as your starting point and going from there.

If you're feeling hard and angry in any part of your life, consider letting go and becoming soft and sad. You'll be glad you did.