Tuesday, June 28, 2011

technology and misanthropy

I've been subscribed to a Quotation of the Day list for about 8 years; it's been run by some random guy in Canada for at least 20. Today at work I was reminded of this, from January 17, 2011:
"I looked at the USB cables dangling there, and I laughed pityingly at them, and I thought, Whoever designed the connector of the USB cable was a man who despised the human race, because you can't tell which way to turn it and you waste minutes of your tiny day, crouched, grunting, trying the half-blocked connector one way and the next."

- Nicholson Baker, from his novel The Anthologist.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

oof so busy

No house yet. The sellers accepted the offer on June 6, but as you'd expect, we're still waiting on their bank (it's a short sale). Still looking around at other places, but there isn't anything, really: lenders are only dribbling out the foreclosures and short sales, to keep prices from cratering, and combined with the local tech boom, prices are only inching down.

I'm flying to Western New York State this weekend for my grandmother's memorial service. It will be nice to see everyone and be supportive however I can. I expect miserable weather, although on the bright side there seems to be some hope of thunderstorms.

I studied a little bit for the GRE! Have I taken practice tests yet? Nope! Do I need to? Yes! When will I do that? Dunno!

Work is going smoothly. It's pretty slow in the office. Also pretty warm. The Ops office completely lacked ventilation until last night: one of our guys sent email (possibly profanity-laden) to a few people explaining that he wasn't coming into the office until they fixed the AC like they've been promising to since before I started there. They installed a couple vents in our office, but it was a little hard to tell how well it worked because one of the AC units for the entire building broke, so it was generally a bit warm. Our floor-standing AC unit seemed to keep us in better shape than the rest of the office, though.

For reference, the guy who complained has a weather station on his desk, and it was 86F in the office, with no air movement, when I gave up and went home yesterday.

My toes seem to be doing well. Anna had the bright idea that my awesome kick scooter might have been the problem, and sadly I think she was right. But, I can run again. Or I would be able to, if I weren't drastically out of shape and my limbs didn't feel like lead. I'm working on it.

Perhaps in lieu of studying for the GRE, I've been reading a lot. I finished Dracula! It's really, really good. I'm not entirely clear on how deep it is in the "literary" sense, as opposed to just being exquisitely constructed storytelling. I'm going to read some background essays for help: there are various claims of themes involving Irish-ness (did you know Bram Stoker was Irish? I didn't, until a few weeks ago) or the power/danger of female sexuality, or whatever. Philistine that I am, I failed to notice any themes that persisted through the book, despite my years of education. But I often think any fiction more complicated than Steinbeck is wasted on me.

(Speaking of nice things being waste on me, I tasted a $300 bottle of red wine last week. It had the exact same metallic-dirt taste as reasonably-priced red wine, except this was worse because it was a Bordeaux, so it was kind of watery as well. Yum!)

I highly recommend Dracula, because it's probably not quite what you expect. Set aside your previous vampire-fiction experiences: I got to the end and thought "Wow, that would make a horrible movie." Plus it's just fun to read.

Sunday felt like my first Father's Day. J spent the day with his dad, but Anna took me out to dinner.

Anna refers to me as a "bonus parent," and J and I are growing closer with time spent together. So I get to do things like tell him how to dump the nasty cough medicine on the back of his tongue so he tastes it less, and he occasionally steals my shoes like he steals Anna's. We have the occasional history lesson: for example, if you're building a Lego base on the moon a thousand years ago, there were no horses because they were brought later by the Spanish.

This is nuts. When did I ever find time to watch TV?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

my favorite piece of classical music

I forget about it, often for years at a time. I first heard it on one of the college radio stations around Oakland, and I thought it was modern; but no, it's from the 1600s. Most music from the 1600s is recognizably Baroque: even Bach, for all his world-turning genius, was a solidly Baroque composer and didn't go too wildly off that track. I listen to Telemann, Monteverdi, Purcell, and Handel, and appreciate their talents, but I perceive them as lesser masters of Bach's art.

This thing just kills me, though. Antonio Bertali should be one of those generic Baroque composers, but his Ciaccona for Treble Instrument and Continuo is just something...other. The violin just dances and skips off the continuo underneath. First it's just fun, but then come the rhythm changes, and then the key changes, and then a bunch of stuff that sounds almost like jazz, with lots of accidentals (notes not in the main key of the piece). If you're not a musician, you can just tell that it doesn't sound 400 years old. But we never hear about it.

It turns out the chacone was a popular form--Bach did one, quite striking in his Bach-like way, but not leaping ahead to modernity like Bertali's. To confirm that Bertali's Ciaconna really is that much of an outlier, I went and listened to a bunch of Ciaconnas by other contemporary composers, all using the same basic themes and melody.

If you're impatient, here's the Bertali, in all its awesomeness.

Here's the ensemble L'Arpeggiata doing Cazzati's Ciaccona, with the same rhythm/bass/melody.

Here's L'Arpeggiata again, performing the Bertali. Notice how much less comfortable they look--maybe they didn't rehearse it as strongly, but it's also a much trickier piece to play.

Here is Tarquinio Merula's Ciaccona.

A bit jumpier and more off-beat than we usually think of for Baroque music, but still not quite as off the beaten trail as Bertali's.

Here's Kapsberger's (don't worry, I hadn't heard of him either). Same rhythm, bass, and melody, all a bit more buried.

Nope, it really is that awesome. Just for fun, here's L'Arpeggiata again, with the original lyrics:

Monday, June 13, 2011

corners of history

[Warning: Contains spoilers about the movie Inglourious Basterds. I haven't seen it.]

The Internet recently fed me this New York Times piece comparing Quentin Tarantino's World War 2 film Inglourious Basterds [sic] to reality. There's never any end to the surprises, is there?

Many of us know about Operation Paperclip, the project to bring German scientists to the U.S. after the war, to make sure their knowledge and skills went to the U.S. instead of the U.S.S.R. We took what could charitably be called a realpolitik approach to this, scrubbing the dossiers of various war criminals, apparently without President Truman's knowledge. For those of us a bit more distant in time, Wernher von Braun is probably the famous one, thanks to Tom Lehrer.

New to me was Operation Crossword: future CIA director Allan Dulles secretly negotiated with SS General Karl Wolff for the surrender of German forces in northern Italy. Wolff was a slippery bastard, and managed to avoid not only execution, but even serious prison time, somehow convincing everyone that despite being a senior SS general, he totally didn't know about the death camps. Russia was specifically disinvited to the negotiations.

(Russians? What Russians? We're supposed to be allies with the Russians?)

Some people mark this as the beginning of the Cold War. Russia, as sanguine and forgiving as ever, made a still-popular miniseries called Seventeen Moments of Spring in 1973, a version of events as skewed from reality as you might expect. (Have you seen it? Is it any good?)

We only know the past as a fixed story, so when we look at history, it seems inevitable that things should have turned out that way. We learn from history books, so as we breeze through the 1950s in a textbook, we lose the scope of detail we would have gotten from reading the newspapers just for a single week in 1953, when we would have read about the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Iran, which destabilized the Middle East in an anti-Western direction up to the present day. Being an American citizen in the early 50s, before Vietnam brutally reminded everyone that governments can't be trusted, would we have known or believed the coup was triggered by the CIA and the world's oil companies? I don't know, but you definitely won't learn it from American history books.

I wonder what other surprises are waiting for me to find out about them?

my job: a vignette

Last week, one of our server applications, which has had a long list of troubles, suddenly developed a massive memory leak, seizing up and crashing over time. We set it to restart every 30 minutes, which is hardly sustainable, because it reduces our capacity and reliability.

I volunteered to go sit with the engineering team while they decided what to do. The options were:
  1. spend some time with the debugger and profiler and such and try to figure it out, or
  2. start upgrading the code to Ruby 1.9 and hope that fixes it.
My sage advice:
"That's not exactly an afternoon's work, right?"
"And it will probably introduce additional bugs?"
"That sounds like very expensive voodoo, that might not even work."
"So you think we should do the profiling thing?"
"Okay, we'll do that."
From any angle, it's difficult to believe I actually do this for a living.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

the varieties of painful experience

I'm always fascinated by the varieties of pain I experience. When I was 13 I tripped and fell while running at full speed playing soccer, landed poorly and broke my left arm--both bones, clean through. May you never see a 45-degree angle in the middle of your forearm.

All things considered, that's probably the most painful thing I've experienced. I remember being largely incapacitated, and unable to see: my vision was just sheets of red, a lot of the time. Then there was a shot of Demerol, and then more pain when the doctor set my arm. It got sort of silly, really. I didn't have any mental training at the time, and in any case there comes a point where pain can just be completely consuming your moment-to-moment experience, whether or not you're consciously attending to it.

Years later, I was crawling to the bathroom with cold sweats from something that is not this but does involve pinching some very sensitive nerves; I found the will to re-arrange everything myself, but the nerves were sore and twitchy for a couple of months afterward. Maybe a year after that my back got all scratched up on a coral reef, and that stung, but the aloe with tea tree oil we mixed up as a disinfectant? that hurt like the dickens.

There was my first concussion, working after my first year in college, and the fractured metatarsal from falling off my bike. Of course aikido has had a lot to offer, with a couple broken toes, a fractured ball of the foot, one or two mild concussions, jabs to the ribs, and one thundering punch that thankfully landed right in the thick bony part of the sternum, leaving me merely stunned and sore, rather than writhing on the floor trying to breathe.

(This all sounds very violent and hyper-masculine, but honestly, my older brother racked up worse injuries playing touch football and kayaking. The longest-healing injury I've had was some muscle tear or something from throwing a football.)

All of which brings us to my current toe experiences. The left toe has been bugging me, but last night during aikido I took a step and in the right toe it was like someone shoving a big splinter into the side of it. Which I assume is what was actually happening, because there's a bone spur on that one, too, so the "splinter" is just on the inside. This was one of those sharp pains that leaves an echo: twinges, mental fear that it will happen again, and a changing feeling of heat and cold on the skin above where it hurt.

This one is actually more bothersome than the soreness on the left, so I started eyeing my calendar for when I could get the right one done.

When you're setting up a new computer server with multiple hard drives, systems administrators check the serial numbers: if the numbers are too close, it means they're from the same manufacturing lot, and you send some back to the seller, because otherwise they'll fail around the same time.

I guess my warranty is starting to run out.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

toe-grinding 2: maybe another time

I canceled the surgery today, after seeing the surgeon yesterday. It was turning out to be more extensive and with a longer recovery, and while I was at aikido last night, it occurred to me that I'm not quite ready to give it up for any number of months.

About 10% of humans have an extra bone in their big toe. I'm one of them, and somehow the bone spur is interacting with it? And since the pain is where that extra bone is, there would be an incision in the pad of the toe to grind down the spur and take the bone out. That means 3 weeks on crutches, instead of 2-7 days, and an even longer recovery--even with the regular bone spur on the side of the toe, most patients report it takes at least a year to feel really healed.

I had the surgery scheduled for the 14th, and I'm just not ready to be on crutches for 3 weeks on short notice. Also I live in a second-floor one-bedroom apartment with no couch and steep stairs.

My plan is to stop running: I'll join the local gym and do elliptical or whatever. Stopping running should let me keep doing aikido. And I'll probably investigate some kind of bodywork: I'm not satisfied with this problem suddenly appearing 6 weeks ago, after not bothering me at all for the years since the root injury (fracturing the toe joints). It just doesn't add up, and the doctor didn't seem to have a good explanation for what's going on in there, which doesn't exactly make me want to cut my foot open and start removing bones.

So I'll try this for a few months and see how it goes.