Sunday, December 23, 2007

Veronica in her Rice Bag Dress






I wanted to get some shots of Veronica modeling her rice bag dress before she no longer fits into it. She is 3 years and almost two months old and growing vertically with amazing speed.

This is just a Zebra brand basmati rice bag with the bottom cut open. The handles act as shoulder straps and there is even a nifty zipper at the neck.

I think somehow this qualifies as even more frugal than dressing your children in hand-me-downs. Our baby girl wears recycling!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Why Does it Cost More to Ship Nothing?

So, my Aperture trial period has expired and I'm ready to buy the software.

If I buy a boxed copy from Amazon, it costs $239 with free shipping.

But it would be nice if I could just buy a license and not have to get anything shipped -- just buy a key that doesn't require that anyone ship a physical box and media around.

From the Apple Store, that costs $299 -- $60 more for the privilege of shipping no physical artifacts around whatsoever.

OK, so I'm determined to do the right thing -- not use fossil fuels needlessly and all that.

Then I get to the checkout on Apple's site and they are going to charge me tax, which Amazon won't. So that's $316.94 to buy a license key as opposed to $239 from Amazon.

I had budgeted $250 for Aperture. That's $66.94 over my budget.

Why am I punished for trying to save carbon?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Repaired Phone

Just a month or so after I bought it, my T-Mobile prepaid phone started rebooting constantly.

I took it back to the place where I bought it. Naturally, they would not replace it. I got a long spiel about how I had to force it to use one specific network or it would reboot, but how that was not a persistent setting so I'd have to reset it each time I powered up the phone. I found this unacceptable, but had to get pretty enraged in the store before the staff would help me. Ultimately all they really did was get on the phone to customer service for me. I had to ship it back to a T-Mobile service center at my expense. The only option available for a prepaid phone was to go without my phone. (That stinks, but it is unfortunately what is laid out in the warranty paperwork).

About two weeks later, I got back what appears to be a new phone. It has slightly revised hardware, although it has the same model number. I'm happy to report that so far it seems to be working much better.

Why I Don't Want an Airport Extreme Base Station

I was considering replacing my Netgear wireless router with something that would work better with our remote Airport Express units -- that is, something that would allow them to put remote computers onto the same network using WAP. The Netgear router will not do this, at least not without a lot of pain.

An Airport Extreme base station would do it, but after some reading, I have ruled out buying one. Why? Because it will not allow me to set the MAC (hardware Ethernet) address.

This features has existed in the last two Netgear routers I've owned, and it is extremely valuable. Our ISP requires that you specify a fixed MAC address. Dealing with Comcast customer service on the phone is not exactly my favorite activity, so it is far easier to reuse the old hardware address when changing hardware.

I think there may be a software solution for this but it looked pretty ugly. There may be a valid security reason for Apple not to want to provide this feature, but they lose out in usability. So no Airport Extreme base station for me!

Miserable Weather

We're having a miserable rainy day in Ann Arbor. I'm reminded of a line from a Tom Robbins novel -- I forget which one -- and I may be misquoting it: "the sky was filled with raw oysters and dead nuns."

We've got our train tickets for Christmas travel. We're headed to Washington, DC to see my cousins. We've got our tofurky for Thanksgiving. A tofurky is kind of like a haggis, except as Isaac says, you don't have to turn a sheep inside-out to make one. We're not actually vegetarians, but I kind of like tofurky, so I think we'll make it our own Pottsgiving tradition.

Much of my money and energy has been going into the Armstrong Collection photos -- if you haven't seen the blog where I'm tracking my efforts, take a look at it here.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Girl in the Fireplace

Last Friday night we watched an episode of Doctor Who entitled "The Girl in the Fireplace."

This was an absolutely fantastic episode. See the Wikipedia entry on this episode here. I edited down the plot summary since it was overly long. This episode won a Hugo award for best dramatic presentation, short form.

There are a lot of things wrong with this episode; it is maddeningly inconsistent. In this episode, the Doctor can supposedly read minds by performing a mind meld like Spock, a new ability. "Time windows" behave in bizarre and inconsistent ways; they're open, or closed, or disabled but still usable once if something hits them hard enough (but then they break), or shut down but still re-openable from one end; basically, they provide whatever the plot calls for at a given time. Time moves at different rates on different sides of the time window, but without any consistency whatsoever; again, it does whatever the plot finds useful. There's a weird sub-plot involving clockwork repair androids deciding that the best way to repair a disabled spaceship is to kill the crew and use their organs to repair a spaceship -- there's a weird scene in which Rose and Mickey discover a human heart beating inside one of the ship's systems. This makes very little sense, especially because apparently the heat of the spaceship systems tends to cook the organs, and the ship smells like roasting meat.

Interestingly, none of this matters. The episode is great because it is beautifully shot and beautifully acted. The costumes and sets are drop-dead gorgeous. Sophia Myles is fantastic and so is David Tennant. The Doctor is smitten with this brilliant and beautiful historic figure; she looks into his lonely soul and loves what she sees there. It is a timeless story of the semi-immortal Doctor confronted again with his helpless love of fleeting human life.

It's the human heart in the middle of the whole crazy Doctor Who apparatus, burning with loss. Suddenly that scene makes sense!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Andy Giveth and Bill Taketh Away

Here is a great article on the arms race between Intel hardware and Windows software and where it has gotten us. The author writes:
Microsoft Office 2007 which, when deployed on Windows Vista, consumes over 12x as much memory and nearly 3x as much processing power as the version that graced PCs just 7 short years ago (Office 2000).
People will try to rebut this result by pointing out that newer software has lots more features. That's true. For some categories, the great increase in processing power over the decades has made possible whole new types of creative activities that weren't possible before because they couldn't be achieved in a reasonable amount of time, memory, and disk space.

My favorite recent case in point is Apple's Aperture, which I've been using to process thousands of scanned family photographs. Aperture maintains one master version of an image file, untouched, and applies all its alterations -- cropping, editing, color shifts, sharpening, etc., as a set of instructions. You can have a dozen different versions of a photograph in progress without saving a dozen different files. To accomplish this it makes very heavy use of your machine's processing power and memory. It trades CPU for disk space. It requires a lot of machine resources, but on the other hand it allows you to experiment with images and make many different trial versions in a way that you just can't do working solely with a more traditional tool like Photoshop. (Although Aperture has fallen down on me for some tasks that Photoshop is capable of accomplishing on the same machine, like rotating a 500-megabyte TIFF file; Photoshop is better tuned towards making maximum use of disk space in exchange for limiting the amount of memory it requires).

But we're talking about an office suite executing the same tasks that were required of it seven years ago. Going outside the scope of the author's arguments, I'd go back much further; my experience with tools like Microsoft Word goes back to Microsoft Word 1.0. That tool was capable of making a writer quite reasonably productive on a Mac Plus with 1 megabyte of RAM.

I like being able to do what Aperture can do with 2.5 gigabytes of RAM and a G5 or better CPU. I like being able to compile software tools with over a million lines of code in them during the span of a coffee break. But as one of the commenters pointed out,
Everyone at my office was excited to see Vista and Office '07 when we bought a new Vista machine. The analyst using the new machine (she has an average of 20 spreadsheets open at a time) was quick to voice her displeasure as it was no faster than her old eMachines PC running Office 2000 with 128mb RAM.
Indeed! And another very perceptive comment:
What do you do with Office that you couldn't do with Office 97? In my experience, most people don't even know how to set paragraph indentation (they hit |tab| instead), let alone use anything advanced.
That is still true today for many, many users, except that in 1987 the big bugaboo was using spaces to indent things, which would come out differently when printed than on the screen. Except these users are using a gigabyte of memory and hundreds of threads to do the same thing!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

TMBG and Oppenheimer Live

Isaac and I went to see They Might Be Giants play last night at the Michigan theater.

The opening act was an Irish duo called Oppenheimer. They were a bit odd. I liked what they were doing with Moog and Roland synths, and appreciated the fact that the drummer was the singer. But I dislike excessive use of sequencing by live acts (Thomas Dolby is the exception, I guess). It mostly seemed to me like each song consisted of one or two nice but interchangeable synth riffs alternating with an interchangeable grinding guitar part alternating with an interchangeable vocal line with lyrics I couldn't understand, but in a mostly good way. I'd describe their mood as "chirpy," which may not have been what they intended. They reminded me of an Irish "Big Country" more tilted towards synth than guitar.

My failure to understand even one word of Oppenheimer's lyrics may have had something to do with the fact that our seats were in the balcony and from that vantage point the acoustics of the venue are poor -- too many reflections in the high frequencies, which makes them kind of dissolve into a generalized sizzling noise, and not much midrange. Fortunately, though, from that vantage point, it was not excessively loud -- my ears are mostly intact today. I'm too old to handle full-blown rock concert volumes any more. (As, I suspect, are the Johns!)

Anyway despite the deficiencies in the audio, They Might Be Giants did a really fun show. I have not heard their newest album, and so some of the songs were unfamiliar, but they also played plenty of older material, including "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," and "The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas" which they played as fast as a Dickies song. These songs they have no doubt played live hundreds of times, but they made them seem reasonably fresh. The set included some of more obscure songs as well, like "She's an Angel," "Spy," "Older," "Dr. Worm," "Drink," and "The Alphabet of Nations." They even played "XTC versus Adam Ant." I was grateful that they did not play "Fingertips."

I should admit that while I was a big fan in the early 1990s, and owned their first few albums, I am not nearly as familiar with most of the band's albums released since around 2000. I recently picked up the compilation "Then," watched "Gigantic," and have been listening to their podcats, but I'm sure there are several albums' worth of TMBG songs I've just never heard. Maybe I can make up for it by saying that I owned two Mono Puff albums at one point?

They did the odd bit of stand-up comedy. Flans claims to have purchased a copy of the Bee Gees album "Cucumber Castle" on vinyl! The thing that impressed me the most was that after many years of touring the band is extremely comfortable together and comfortable interacting with the audience. Flans stood right at the very edge of the stage bashing his guitar, and during solos even held it out so that fans down in front could strum it. That's faith in your audience! They also had the audience clap on the second beat of each measure in 4/4, that is, 1/CLAP/3/4, 1/CLAP/3/4 and Flans yelled out "OK, now keep it going! Don't slow down, don't speed up! And for God's sake don't stop!" They then proceeded to play "Particle Man" following the audience's beat instead of vice-versa, which made us feel like we had quite the awesome responsibility!

In general, the Johns were not quite in top form for ever song, but got energized as the set went on and ended the show well. The only downside was that after two encores the show went so long, until 11 p.m., that we couldn't get a bus home. Grace had to come and pick us up!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ticketmaster, Still

Isaac and I are going to see They Might Be Giants at the Michigan Theater tomorrow night.

Our tickets cost $25 each. So, $50. But then Ticketmaster charged us an additional $38.57 in convenience fees combined with their lowest-price delivery service.

It has been a long time since I bought tickets like this. I had thought the days of Ticketmaster's monopoly price abuse long gone. Why I am I still paying 175% of the face price to buy a pair of tickets? I think this is the last time I'll be going to a venue that sells tickets through Ticketmaster.

E*TRADE

So, I have a small amount of money in an E*TRADE savings account. E*TRADE has been in the news recently and its stock price has taken a big hit.

For the record, I am not removing my money. It is only about $200, actually.

I suspect E*TRADE will have to take a big hit just like all the other companies stupid enough to put their assets in securitized mortgage papers. But I'm not one for jumping on the bandwagon; that's how a "run on a bank" goes from rumor to reality. Interesting, too, that the analyst predicting a possible run on E*TRADE works for a competitor, Citigroup.

My prediction: it is Citibank that will be bankrupt within 36 years and begging for Federal bailout. E*TRADE will be a smaller but wiser and still functional concern. As someone who has many thousands of dollars in interest and fees to Citigroup over the past 20 years, I would see this entirely as the wheel of karma turning as it must!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sam Can Count!

Well, sort of.

The other day I was getting Veronica to count. I was asking her "what comes after nine?" After the third try, when she still had not answered correctly, Sam bellowed out "ten!"

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I've Been Robbed and Screwed, More or Less in That Order

So, last night I apparently left my ATM card in a drive-through ATM. These things happen to people when they get older, I guess.

About one minute after my $122.00 was charged, another $22.00 was charged to my account. $2 is the out-of-network transaction fee, one reason I rarely use ATMs these days.

My bank won't cover it, or at least the employee I spoke to says they aren't obligated to cover it because there's a sort of "deductible" of $50 for lost or stolen cards. But I'm supposed to fill out a form. I had the card (which is a "VISA check card" and ATM card combined) declared lost, so I should get a new one and shouldn't be liable for any more charges.

The extra $22 is going to cost me some pain. My balance was low yesterday -- I had an electronic transfer from another account in progress, but it will not complete until tonight. I had been careful to check that I had $120 available -- which I did -- but not much more than that, without the completed deposit.

So my balance was driven below zero, which means an overdraft fee. Banks love their fees. In the olden days banks made money on interest from using your money; not anymore. They are happy to let you take out more money than you have. Or let someone else take out more money than you have. They organize their policies to maximize fees.

Back in the golden age, in early 2007, I had an account with Republic Bank. I liked Republic Bank. If I tried to take out money from an ATM and I didn't have enough, it would say "sorry, you don't have enough money." Allowing me to take out more than I have so I can get hit with overdraft fees is _not_ customer service.

Republic processed deposits immediately, and always credited pending deposits before withdrawals after a given day's transactions. I had an overdraft protection arrangement with them, which covered accidents, and the fees for using it were quite modest.

But then we came to our present modern era, in the summer of twenty hundred and seven, when Republic became Citizens Bank.

Citizens holds electronic deposits for at least 48 hours. Every night, it chronologically rearranges pending withdrawals and and pending deposits so that the withdrawals go through first. Any pending withdrawal that exists within that window of negative balance generates a $35 overdraft fee. Their computer system literally rearranges the transactions, our of chronological order, to maximize the lines in the ledger that read negative. If you take snapshots of the online statement and compare them, you can watch this happen. It's kind of interesting... like watching a series of still shots from a security camera of someone calmly strolling into your house and taking your money.

Since these withdrawals also can float for a few days, that means the soy milk we bought at Trader Joe's the previous Thursday can suddenly cost us an extra $35 on Tuesday. Suddenly we might have $140 or $210 or $280 in fees, thus producing something that was extremely rare with my Republic account -- a "cascade failure," where because the bank takes their own sweet time to process deposits, it becomes almost impossible to put money in fast enough to avoid having it eaten by the cascading series of overdraft fees. A "cascade failure" can easily run upwards of a thousand dollars.

Did I also mention that they pre-date checks, too? I can look at my statement on a Tuesday, and it doesn't show a check clearing that day. Then sometime on Wednesday, a check will show up dated the previous day. Since they've pre-dated it, this comines with their chronological-rearranging trick to ensure that the amount of the check gets compared to the running balance that existed at the close of business Monday.

I have to hand it to them -- there must be some clever analysts and programmers who put a lot of effort into making their system maximize the bank's opportunities to collect fees while staying just within the bounds of the commercial code.

Now, I'm not the most responsible person when it comes to managing my bank account -- but with Republic's policies, if I had a small overdraft, as happened occasionally in recent years, it didn't tend to create a "cascade failure." I paid my penalty and the overdraft protection covered it, and it was cleared with my next deposit. Republic _helped_ me to keep my account operating. Citizens apparently has no equivalent overdraft protection product so they quietly turned that off, and quietly changed the way they actually process transactions.

I really, really don't like Citizens Bank, but it is not so easy to change banks on a dime, especially an account you've had for fifteen years, and which gets used for everything. Also, I know and like the people at my bank. But I guess that is irrelevant since they don't make policy. I suppose it is only a matter of time before the experienced employees are driven out in favor of people they don't have to pay so much.

Anyway... Where was I? The credit card number will be changed, which means I will have to track down all the organizations (phone bill, electric bill, Amazon, DreamHost, etc.) who have that credit card number on file.

My co-worker gave me a ride downtown and I filed a police report for my stolen $20.

I'm a little unclear on my ethical choices here. I feel a little uncomfortable agreeing to press felony charges for someone who took advantage of my carelessness, especially since it was such as small amount. The offender could be dirt-poor and desperate. But maybe that's just an excess of soft-hearted liberal guilt speaking. Or the offender could be a serial thief who is wanted already.

The bank employee I spoke to suggested that since the ATM will time out after a short wait and spit out the card, the thief would not have been able to take out the money without knowing my PIN -- implying that it must have been me. Fuck you very much, Citizens. Yeah, I stole that $20 from myself. Take that, me! And I'd do it again!

But I think the thief did come through immediately after I did -- the time stamps on the record support that. The machine was probably displaying a message that said "Do you want another transaction?" prior to timing out. It is a drive-through, after all. If nothing else, I am filing the police report to state for the record "someone stole money from me." Someone besides Citizens bank itself, that is.

Ephemeral Ephemera

My grandmother kept an album of greeting cards and gift cards from her wedding showers in 1933. See this entry in the Marcell Armstrong Memorial Collection blog.

My mother's entire life -- conception, birth, education, marriages, years of career and family, years of retirement and volunteer work, and death -- took place in a span of time which sounds reasonable -- seventy years -- but which was so short that it barely even faded these fragile gift cards. They don't even look old, but they outlasted her entire span of mortal existence. We are truly ephemeral.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Memento Mori

So, I have been falling behind on all sorts of commitments -- I was excited by the prospect of working through a bunch of Haskell exercises and get more serious about learning Haskell; I was learning all kinds of new jazz chord voicings in my guitar lessons; I had plans to record another podcast with original music.

Instead life intervened, and my mother died after a brief, unexpected illness, and then Grace's father died just under two weeks later. We've had a lot of death recently -- my grandmother died two years ago, at the age of 102, and Grace's brother died at the age of 40 just last year.

"Memento Mori" means roughly "remember, you will die." There's nothing quite like sitting in a room with the dead body of your mother to make this clear. It has been my task this year to think pretty hard about this, and to try to start planning for it, beginning what I hope will be my "ars moriendi" -- the art of dying well. And, I hope, a lot later.

I've been living on a kind of "split screen" for the last few months -- on the one hand, working on retirement plans and investments for my children's education and imagining what Grace and I are going to do for the next five, ten, twenty, or forty years, and on the other hand preparing our wills and making sure we are properly insured. It's been a strange combination of unnerving and reassuring. My grandmother made it to 102, and I have her genes, so I could have 60 years or more to live. Or I could take after my mother, and have 30.

Or none.

On the way to work this morning, as often happens, the light changed for me to make a left turn. I did my usual deep breath, look both ways, count slowly to five -- to wait for whoever was going to blast through the red light to go ahead and do so -- and then started to enter the intersection. At the ten second mark a woman in an SUV blasted through the red light, going way over the speed limit, talking on her cell phone. Missing me by only a few feet.

Memento, mori.

A year ago someone did this and I was hit by such an attack of road rage I actually chased him down, cut him off and forced him over to the side of the road, then got out of the car and chewed him out for nearly leaving my children fatherless. I can't advocate that behavior. Today I took a deep breath and let it go.

It would be a stupid way to die. But so is cancer, or heart disease. And we don't have control over everything. And believing that we do is a recipe for a heart attack.

There is good news in our lives too -- we just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary and baby Sam's first birthday and baby Veronica's third birthday -- but these celebrations have all been kind of subdued.

There have been a whole bunch of miscellaneous estate issues -- fortunately my stepfather and the estate attorney have been managing most of this -- but my stepfather wants to sell the house he and my mother shared in the very short term, and so is trying to dispose of my mother's personal effects very quickly.

This means a house full of furniture, clothes, and personal effects. Since I'm the son that lives a mere 250 miles away, instead of 2,000, I'm the one that has to figure out how to triage everything and move anything we want to save into our rather cramped and cluttered apartment. Which means a major purge of our existing clutter, and also coming to terms with letting go of almost all of my mother's personal effects.

Along the way I discovered that my mother and my grandmother had amassed a huge collection of family photos and documents, going back several generations. In addition, hundreds of documents: letters, journals, autobiographies, even short stories.

We have pictures of people I think are my son's great, great, great, great grandparents. I have not identified everyone yet, but there may even be pictures of a five-greats grandparent. My grandmother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which means she can trace her ancestry back to 1776. Which means my daughter can, too. That's good, because it appears from the organization's somewhat controversial history that they could use more black members!

There are Civil-war era photos. Cyanotypes from around 1900. Thousands of photographs -- perhaps 10,000. The oldest ones are mostly in pretty good shape, but many of the color photos, for example instant photographs from the 1970s, are fading badly. And there are some serious preservation issues -- photos that were recently annotated in ballpoint pen ink, which is acidic and eats through the paper until it stains the emulsion. Photos torn from albums and scotch-taped into new albums, or bundled together with paper clips or rubber bands and stuffed into acidic paper envelopes and shoe boxes.

I decided, and Grace concurred, that I was going to engage on a preservation and archiving project. We can't let the collection of family history end with my generation. So I have embarked on that project, which will consist of organizing, cataloging and propagating both the original artifacts and digital derived works.

So, for the immediate future, this project is now my highest priority. My other projects, blogs, and commitments are largely at a standstill. I apologize to everyone who I've ignored or failed to follow up with on some promise or another. But I think my children and grandchildren will approve.

Anyone interested can follow my progress on my blog, The Marcella Armstrong Memorial Collection.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sam's First Birthday Party

Our friend Olivia came to help us celebrate. Here is Grace with Sam and his itty, bitty cake (a brownie).



Veronica helped him blow out his candle!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Does Anyone Remember this Game but Me?

It took me some serious work to remember the title of a game I played around 1995. It is "Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou." Wikipedia does not have the game in its collective memory.

It is a very unusual game.

I recall getting completely stuck and giving up on the game, but it would be interesting to try again.

There are two copies available on eBay, selling for more than the original list price. Hmmm. Could I get it running on a G4 or G5 PowerMac running MacOS X 10.4?

They Call Me Sunny D


The "D" stands for "dimples!"

Baby Sam is just happy to be in his car seat, going somewhere.

At high resolution it is also clear the "D" stands for "dirty toenails!"

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Groovy Decay

When I was 15 to 16 years old, around 1984, I worked after school and on weekends at Loblaws grocery store in the Harborcreek Mall, Harborcreek, Pennsylvania (near Erie).

This past Sunday, the 14th of October, 2007, I took some photos at this site.
I was a bagboy and cart-fetcher, a "cleanup in aisle five" guy, a "go clean the bathroom in the break room" guy, occasionally doing a little stocking and pricing. Every night while the store shut down, I swept the whole thing.

Things I remember: endless sweeping and mopping. eating junk food on my ten- or fifteen-minute breaks. Punching in and out. Assisting an elderly woman who had slashed her hand open on a broken jar of pickles and who was dripping blood all over the floor in the refrigerated food section. (It was a different age; there was no lawsuit involved).

Sending a tower of plastic milk jugs crashing down while restocking the dairy section, making an enormous mess. Changing long fluorescent tubes and throwing the burned-out tubes into the dumpster behind the store where they exploded, releasing toxic mercury, which I promptly inhaled.

Retrieving rounds of change. Carrying the cash box with the manager to the bank's night drop. Running the box-crusher. Running the deli slicer in a pinch, although I was not legally old enough to do so.

The sign used to read "Loblaws: Your food store... and more"

It is hard to imagine that I used to spend my evenings out in this parking lot, wearing an orange reflective vest, trying to push a whole column of shopping carts across this parking lot and back into the store, while dodging cars and pedestrians. The asphalt is so destroyed that it seems to be breaking down into new topsoil in places.

I worked most school nights, either 4-10 p.m. or 6-11 p.m., then came home and watched the Letterman show before doing whatever schoolwork I needed to do, getting to sleep sometime around 1:30 a.m., and getting up at 6:30 the next morning. On weekends I could work longer shifts. Some weeks I would work up to 39.5 hours (carefully kept just below full-time, since a full-time worker would be entitled to benefits).

The grocery store closed down sometime later in the 1980s and with the anchor store gone, the last tenant soon followed.

I was sorely tempted to try to break into the building itself, but did not. The whole site is marked "No Trespassing."

My brother informed me that he did his illicit high-school drinking and bonfire-making, while I was off in college, in the woods behind this property. My memories of the place are not particularly happy, but not particularly unhappy. I do remember being very tired every night.

In one of those unexpected ironies that sometimes make me laugh out loud, as I drove off, the local radio station I was listening to was playing Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Camera

I finally broke down and bought a digital camera.

I had been stuck for years in a state of "analysis paralysis" about digital cameras. I wanted something that would produce photos that looked at least as good as my Canon 35mm Photura, which has a great zoom lens and does a wonderful job with auto-focus. The last digital cameras I used to any extent were a Sony Digital Mavica that wrote photos to 3.5-inch floppy discs, and an Apple QuickTake 100 that uploaded photos using a serial cable. So, clearly my impressions were out of date.

I was leaning towards a recent Canon, but there are so many different Canon models that I got very frustrated trying to compare them. I also did not really like the fact that a lot of their designs are, to put it bluntly, ugly.

The design of the Ricoh GR Digital really appeals to me, but it is fairly expensive, and the reviewers found that the image quality has a few issues compared to comparably-priced Canon cameras. The Leica D-Lux 3 also has a really appealing design, but at a rather extreme price.

The design of the Samsung NV series really appealed to me as well, but again the reviews pointed out some flaws in image quality when compared to Canon cameras. I thought I might consider a new Samsung NV-20, but they were not available locally yet.

My hand was forced because I had a project coming up that desperately needed a digital camera. The project was to spend a weekend packing and organizing my mother's personal effects in Erie, PA. I wanted to be able to discuss all these things with my brother and other relatives out-of-state. So, on my way out of town, I decided to just pick up whatever low-end camera looked reasonable at a couple of nearby stores. My only real requirement was that it would shoot reasonably good macro (close-up) images.

I wasted some time in an OfficeMax trying to buy a low-end Canon camera that was displayed on the shelf, only to find that it wasn't in stock, and then a few more minutes only to find that a different Canon also wasn't in stock. Circuit City's web site had told me that certain Samsung models were in stock at the Ann Arbor store, but it lied.

Getting desperate, I wound up purchasing a Samsung S730 for $129, along with couple of SanDisk 2 gigabyte memory cards, and a bunch of batteries.

Since the purpose of these pictures was basically to put together a quick catalog for browsing, not printing, I set the resolution to the lowest available (1024x764).

I found out the hard way that standard alkaline Duracells or similar batteries give terrible results; I got low-battery warnings and shutoff after only eight pictures. I had to run out for more batteries. I wound up buying a pile of Energizer lithium batteries. With a pair of these, I got something like 400 shots before the batteries failed. Duracell "Ultra" or equivalent produced perhaps fifty shots. I did not want to mess with rechargeables for that weekend since I was in a big hurry and it was not clear how they would stack up to the lithium cells. I may wind up buying an AC adapter for "tethered" work of this type.

I was especially impressed that this camera allowed me to take almost every picture without using a flash. The "anti-shake" feature was good enough that I held a lot of the items to photograph in one hand and the camera in another, using just the light that was available, and in most cases it still managed to give me a reasonably crisp image. It crapped out on extreme close-ups of extremely small items, such as thimbles, but this was not terribly surprising.

Besides the shots of artifacts, I took a few breaks to go explore some places in the Erie, PA area that I have not visited in a few years. For these shots I turned up the megapixels and the camera did quite a decent job there, too.

As far as I know there is not an option to shoot RAW, but that's OK for my purposes.

I wound up taking over 1,000 pictures. I was not quite prepared for how many pictures a 2G card would hold -- I've used up only a small fraction of one card.

Samsung seems to be a bit of an underdog in the digital camera market, but I am quite happy with it, and this camera has led me to think that I would probably like the NV-20 even more. For $129 bucks it seems like an excellent deal to me.

Sam is One!


That means he gets to have his car seat turned around to face forward!

He's saying a few words and phrases. This morning he said "hello," and a week or so ago, he said "pick me up" to Grace. He also said "thank you" when we gave him a snack. I think he is speaking earlier than Veronica in part because he copies what she does.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Veronica Makes Puns

Last night our two-year old wanted some of my guitar picks to play with. I was watching to make sure baby Sam did not try to eat any of them. When she was done with them, I counted them with her to make sure none were left on the floor.

One seemed to be missing, so I asked her: "Did baby Sam eat one of the guitar picks?"

She said, I kid you not: "No, he was just picking at it."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Veronica's Singing Career

Veronica now occasionally performs a song for us.

A couple of nights ago, she stood up on one of the toy chests in our living room and sang a song that she made up. It had a melody, mostly, and a regular song structure, with verses and a chorus, and some kind of coda (that is, we thought she was all done, but there was more). I think the lyrics were mostly a list of things that she hated at the moment, which included her dinner, which she had let become cold, and bedtime. After she was done, we applauded her.

She will be three years old on October 29th, 2007 (her birthday is two days before Halloween). One day she'll also be able to say that she has been playing guitar since she was two years old (if your definition of "playing" includes wearing her little Daisy Rock guitar on a strap and strumming at the strings with a pick -- hey, it's a start!)

Sam is not singing yet, but he is always cheerful, loves to play with random items (especially boxes), and says a few words now and then ("Hi Daddy," "Mommy," etc.) He'll be one on October 14th.

It was one of those moments that make me very glad to be a parent!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Another Death in the Family

We just received word that Grace's father, my father-in law, died today at about 6:10 p.m. He died just 13 days after my mother.

This means that this month we lost both my mother and my wife's father. Our children just lost two of their four grandparents in a span of just under two weeks. Isaac, at 13, was old enough to get to know them a little bit, but Veronica and Sam, at 2 years 10 months and 10 months, respectively, will never really get to know them.

It's been a hell of a month. Since bad things usually come in threes, it makes me wonder what we're facing next! Maybe it's my turn?


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dear Netflix Comma

Hello,

I am writing to report a database/labeling issue which may be also causing a problem with discs being filed in the wrong envelopes.

I have been repeatedly trying to get the correct discs that are part of the collection "Doctor Who: The Beginning collection," especially the second disc, "The Daleks." I have reported them as mis-filed several times, and gotten the wrong disc several times. I finally bought my own copy of the boxed set. I think the issue is in part in the database description. The title lines are so long that the information on which disc it is is not included on the white envelope until the bottom of the description.

"Doctor Who: The Beginning Collection" is a boxed set containing two plastic cases. As packaged in "The Beginning Collection," it is a 3-disc set in two plastic boxes. However, "The Unearthly Child" seems to have been also made available as a separate product (you can order it from Amazon) and it appears that The Daleks/The Edge of Destruction was also intended to be available as a separate product, although it is not currently available from Amazon. The two boxes that are packaged together in the set are labeled as follows:

Box 1:

"Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (The William Hartnell Years 1963-1966)" (this is a box with one disc labeled the same as the box, and so there is no confusion in the labeling on the disc)

Box 2:

"Doctor Who: The Dalex/The Edge of Destruction (The William Hartnell Years 1963-1966" (this is a box with two discs; one says "The Daleks: Disc 1 of 2" and the other says "The Edge of Destruction: Disc 2 of 2").

I would recommend changing the titles of all three of these discs in your database as follows, to better reflect the packaging:

Disc 1:

"Doctor Who: The Beginning Collection: An Unearthly Child (Disc 1 of 3) (The William Hartnell Years 1963-1966)"

Disc 2:

"Doctor Who: The Beginning Collection: The Daleks (Disc 2 of 3) (The William Hartnell Years 1963-1966)"

Maybe the description of the disc should include a note that says "NOTE: this disc is labeled "Disc 1 of 2" even though in the "Doctor Who: The Beginning" collection it is the second of a three-disc set."

Disc 3:

"Doctor Who: The Beginning Collection: The Edge of Destruction (Disc 3 of 3) (The William Hartnell Years 1963-1966)"

Maybe the description of the disc should include a note that says "NOTE: this disc is labeled "Disc 2 of 2" even though in the "Doctor Who: The Beginning" collection it is the third of a three-disc set.

I would also see if you can get the word out to your distribution centers to check that the discs from the set are in their proper sleeves, since several times I have failed to receive the right disc and I'm sure this will affect other people.

Sorry this is so confusing and I hope this explanation is helpful. I tried to explain this to your phone representative but he suggested that I write it out instead, and gave me a partial credit for my trouble, which I did not ask for but which I appreciate.

Yours Truly,

Paul R. Potts

Monday, August 27, 2007

Raining and Pouring

We had another whirlwind out-of-town weekend for my mother's funeral in North East, PA. I read the shortened eulogy and the attendance was very good. I will update the eulogy text to reflect my final edits. It was also my aunt's birthday on Saturday, and since she, my uncle, and my cousins were all in town for the funeral, we managed to have a little bit of fun amid the sadness.

On our way home, though, before we even made it back into Ann Arbor, we had received word that Grace's father is very ill and in the hospital in Saginaw. So we took just enough time to cook dinner and do some urgent cleaning, and then late in the evening Grace and Isaac headed up to Saginaw to visit him, leaving me to tend to the babies at home. Grace got back about 2:30 in the morning. She is moving directly on to the next crisis without an opportunity to catch her breath. She is going to take the kids up to Saginaw for a couple of days while I try to focus on work. Between my mother's illness and all the travel to Pittsburgh and Erie and then the funeral a week later, I have used up all my available time off from work, and then some (over the last few weeks, I missed nine days in total).

This has been a rough year: since last October, anniversary of my hire date, I took time off for the birth of baby Sam, then time off because of my shingles infection, and then time off for my mother's critical illness, death, and funeral. As far as my sanity and health are concered, though, this does not add up to the restorative powers of an actual vacation, even one taken at home. I am tired, mentally and physically; I'm feeling burned out; and I'd be grieving, too, if I had time to let everything catch up to me. I'm just hoping that when my time off renews again in October that we can plan a real, restorative vacation for the family.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Blocked!

So, while staying in Erie, PA for my mother's funeral I found out that my family web site, http://thepottshouse.org/, is apparently blocked by Websense Enterprise as "Adult Content."

The site contains photo galleries of my family, my old blog, links to my new blogs, e-mail links, and links to our password-protected Wiki. None of these things should be considered "adult" in the sense meant by web censors, unless my years-old opinions about the war in Iraq are inappropriate for children. The blogs themselves (on Blogger) don't seem to be blocked by Websense.

Should I take this as a compliment?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Eulogy (Shorter)

Thanks to Grace for her assistance with editing. This is a shorter version of the eulogy that reflects more closely what I read at the funeral.

It seems like I've been up here a lot recently. Just under five years ago [in September, 2002], I read some verses from Corinthians for my mother's wedding to Dick Zahner. Then not even two years ago [in March of 2006], I read a eulogy for my grandmother's funeral. Now I'm back to read a eulogy for my mother. This all has happened very quickly. You may be wondering just what happened. I'm still trying to figure it all out. So, I wrote this letter to my mother and I wanted to share it with you.

Dear Mom,

In the past few years, whenever something happened in my life, good or bad, I always got the urge to call you and bring you up-to-date, reassure you, and get your reassurance and advice. For the past few weeks, I've had that urge to call you constantly, because a lot of big changes have been happening. Now I can't call you, but I can still write you a letter. I can't mail it to you, but here is what it says.

The big news is that you have died. This was quite a shock to everyone. It happened very quickly. You had a lot of things going on -- oxygen masks, IVs, all kinds of doctors and nurses, and lots of family members with worried expressions. It must have been very confusing, especially at the end, so I thought I would explain to you what happened.

About three weeks ago, after a short trip to Chataqua, New York, you were exercising with your friends at the YMCA. Things didn't feel right, though; you complained about a feeling of bloating and pain in your abdomen. You said that you must have eaten something that didn't agree with you. You were only a few days away from your regular follow-up visit with your doctor. But when you called and told him about the problem, he suggested you go to the Emergency Room immediately.

From that point everything started moving with frightening speed. You had a CAT scan, and it showed tumors in your abdomen. It isn't exactly clear whether these were caused by cancer cells from the breast cancer or whether it was new ovarian cancer. It doesn't really matter much at this point. It would be easy to get very angry at your doctors and blame them for not spotting it earlier. However, this kind of cancer often has no detectable symptoms at all until it is very advanced. And I remind myself that the treatment you got two years ago restored your health and gave you two good and enjoyable years that you would not have had otherwise.

Next you went down to the Magee-Womens hospital in Pittsburgh for some tests. The plan was to find out what was going on and decide how to treat it. But your pain got rapidly worse. They admitted you. I spoke to you on the phone a couple of times; I was making plans to come on the weekend with my family, and trying to arrange with my father and brother to do the same thing. But then we got word that you had been moved to the intensive care unit, so we moved everything into high gear. We arrived in Pittsburgh the evening of Thursday the 9th of August, and came to visit in the middle of the night.

In the ICU, you were not doing well. You had your eyes tightly closed. It was a frightening environment. It took a while for us to find out exactly what had happened. You had a a partially collapsed lung, and fluid building up. It was hard for you to breathe. You had pneumonia in one lung. You also had some sort of kidney infection. But with tubes and antibiotics and a lot of moral support over the next day or so you improved. You were able to sit and talk with us. We talked about how you were doing. We told you about our families and how well everyone was doing. We talked about dying and what we thought it might be like, and what you believed and we believed would happen to you after you died. We told you we loved you.

You were moved back into a regular hospital room. Over the next couple of days you had a lot of visitors -- your husband Dick, your step-daughter Carolyn, my father Richard, my brother Brian, your niece Linda, and Grace and the kids. We arranged for people to stay with you around the clock. We read to you, talked to you, or just held your hand. Often one or two of us would be in your room and another one of us would be asleep in the waiting room next door. For a few days your condition went back and forth: you'd improve a little bit; but you'd get worse in the middle of the night. The tests the doctors had planned to give you were postponed again and again.

At one point the doctors considered putting you back into the ICU, but you didn't want to go back there. What you wanted was to leave the hospital and go up to a nursing home in Erie, so that you could die in a more comfortable place, surrounded by friends.

This brings me to the point of talking about your wishes. You made clear both in your written directives, and verbally, that if there was no chance of recovery, you did not want invasive procedures or extreme measures. It is one thing to check some boxes on a form, but I think it is quite another thing to realize that it is time for these directives to be carried out. I was, in fact, awed by your bravery.

So, we next focused all our attention on trying to get you moved to Erie. My biggest fear was that you would die before we could get you there. But on the morning of Tuesday, August 14th, the ambulance crew came and took you to Erie. I rode in the front of the ambulance with the driver while you were in the back with the nurse. For me it was the longest chunk of uninterrupted quiet time I had gotten since leaving for Pittsburgh, and I finally broke down crying for a while.

Once at Manchester Lodge, all of your IVs and needles were removed. You no longer had the heavy, uncomfortable oxygen mask. Instead you just had a simple tube in your nose. You were able to visit with family and friends. We got round-the-clock visitation going again -- which was easy, since so many were so eager to come and support you. Carolyn came back and brought Alicia. You had live music and grandchildren. You had a couple of good days.

You gradually became weaker. Your heart rate went up and your blood pressure went down. You began to accumulate more fluid in your lungs. We carefully monitored your medication so that there was no possibility you would be in any pain. The decision was made that you could not receive anything more by mouth to eat or drink. On Saturday evening, at about 6:30
p.m., you died. It was as peaceful and graceful a death as we could make it.

I just want to say a couple more things.

First, the way you faced your death was an inspiration to me and to everyone around you.

Second, while you had your share of doctors with poor bedside manner and nurses who treated you like an annoyance, there were also quite a few people who were very kind to you. The hospice nurse who was with you on your last day was wonderful. The palliative care physicians in Pittsburgh were wonderful. They spoke very calmly to you and asked you if you had any unfinished business. You said that you wanted everyone to know that you loved them.

Finally, I just want to thank you. You were a single mother in a difficult time. You had a hard and complicated life. You raised me and my brother. You did a great job. You re-married and brought new fathers into our lives. You cared for my stepfather Wence, and you cared for your mother, and you cared for your husband Dick. You enriched the lives of everyone around you. You had a lot of friends and you were well-loved, and you still are.

We'll go on. We'll miss you terribly. I wish you had gotten more time to enjoy your grandchildren. I wish we had gotten more time to spend with you. You said that you were concerned about the state of the world. The world will go on. It will be OK. We'll be OK. And we know that you are OK now too.

I'll see you again, before too long. And I'll be in touch.

Love,

Paul

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sam is Walking

While baby Sam has been "cruising" (walking a few steps while holding on to furniture), it was just this past couple of weeks, while we were splitting our time between hotels and hospitals, that he began to walk more than a few steps. He's still a little unsteady, but showing great progress. He's just a week past ten months old.

By comparison, Veronica was running (she never did crawl, and never did walk very much) at eight months. But while both are cute, Sam has a friendlier disposition.

I have a big backlog of photos to process, and they're all far too cute.

Eulogy for My Mother

Dear Mom,

In the past few years, whenever something happened in my life, good or bad, I always got the urge to call you and bring you up-to-date, reassure you, and get your reassurance and advice. For the past few weeks, I've had that urge to call you constantly, because a lot of big changes have been happening. Now I can't call you, but I can still write you a letter. I can't mail it to you, but here is what it says.

The big news is that you have died. This was quite a shock to everyone. It happened very fast. You had a lot of things going on -- oxygen masks, IVs, tests, pain medication, sedatives, all kinds of doctors and nurses, and lots of family members with worried expressions on their faces. It must have been very confusing, especially in the last few days, so I thought I would explain to you what happened in case you were confused.

About two years ago you were treated for breast cancer with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I know that was very hard on you, but the treatment seemed to be quite successful. You recovered some energy and were able to spend quite a bit of time in the last two years traveling with your husband. You were getting regular follow-up care to make sure the cancer did not come back.

About three weeks ago, after a short trip to Chataqua, New York, you were exercising with your friends at the YMCA. Things didn't feel right, though; you had been complaining about a feeling of bloating and pain in your abdomen. You said that you must have eaten something that didn't agree with you. You were only a few days away from your regular follow-up visit with your doctor. But when you called and told him about the problem, he suggested you go to the Emergency Room immediately.

From that point everything started moving with frightening speed. You had a CAT scan, and it showed tumors in your abdomen. It isn't exactly clear whether these might have been caused by cancer cells from the breast cancer or whether it was another, separate case of ovarian cancer. It doesn't really matter much at this point.

It would be easy to get very angry at your doctors and blame them. I find it a bit hard to believe that oncologists screening someone regularly for cancer would fail to detect such an advanced case of cancer. It isn't like you came down with a rare tropical disease that was outside their specialty. If anything I would have expected them to suspect cancer and do extra tests to rule it out even when it wasn't there. However, it is important to note that this kind of cancer, in the abdominal cavity, often has no detectable symptoms at all until it is very advanced. And I remind myself that the treatment you got two years ago did restore your health and give you two good and enjoyable years you would not have had otherwise.

Anyway, the next thing was that you went down to the Magee-Womens hospital in Pittsburgh for some tests. The plan then was to find out what was going on and make a treatment plan. But your pain got rapidly worse. You were admitted. I spoke to you on the phone each day for a couple of days. I was making plans to come and trying to arrange with my father and brother to come too. We got the word that you had been moved to the intensive care unit, and so everything went into high gear. We moved up our visit. My brother and my father arranged to fly out. We all got into Pittsburgh the evening of Thursday the 9th of August, just after a series of severe storms had produced tornadoes and flooding. When my father and brother got in by plane around midnight they immediately went to the hospital. Grace and the children and I all came to visit too, in the middle of the night.

You were miserable and frightened in the ICU. You were curled up on your side, wearing an oxygen mask, with your eyes tightly closed. You were able to talk, but mostly we just wanted to hold your hand. It took a while for us to figure out exactly what was going on. You had a a partially collapsed lung, and fluid building up around your lung. It was hard for you to breathe. You had pneumonia in one lung. You also had some sort of kidney infection. But with tubes and antibiotics and a lot of moral support over the next day or so you improved. You got your eyes opened and we were able to sit and talk with you. We talked about how you were doing, what we knew and didn't know about your condition. We told you about our families and how well everyone was doing. We talked about dying and what we thought it might be like, and what you believed and we believed would happen to you after you died. We told you we loved you.

You were moved back into a regular hospital room. This was still not a very comfortable environment but it was a far less frightening place than the ICU. Over the next couple of days you had a lot of visitors -- your husband Dick, your daughter-in-law Carolyn, my father Richard, my brother, your niece Linda, your nephew David, and Grace and the kids. We arranged for people to stay with you round-the-clock. Often one of us would be with you in your room while another one of us caught a quick nap in the waiting room next door.

One night while my brother was sitting with you during the middle of the night you began fighting to get out of bed. My brother tried to use the call button to get help but it didn't work. He had to run out into the hall and yell for help. You managed to get partly out of bed and it is a miracle you didn't tear out an IV. But you had a breathing crisis and you had to go back onto the high-pressure oxygen mask. You hated that mask because it was painful; it rubbed your face raw and dried out your lips and mouth terribly. For a few days it went back and forth like that. You'd improve a little bit; you got a transfusion and some new drugs and that seemed to help. But you'd get worse in the middle of the night.

The CAT scan and biopsy was postponed again and again. The doctors found that you had blood clots in your leg and also that something had gone wrong with your heart. It was very weak and it appears that you may have had a heart attack, or maybe it was damage from your previous chemotherapy, or maybe both. They put you on heparin to thin your blood. They decided they could not do a biopsy. At one point the doctors were considering putting you back into the ICU but you did not want to go back. What you wanted was to leave the hospital, and to go up to a nursing home in Erie so that you could die in comfortable surroundings.

This brings me to the point of talking about your wishes. You made clear both in your written directives that if there was no chance of recovery, you did not want invasive procedures or extreme measures taken that would just serve to prolong your life. You told these things to the doctors as well -- no tubes for breathing or feeding, and no zapping your heart with electricity if it stopped. It is one thing to check some boxes on a form, but I think it is quite another thing to realize that it is time for these directives to be carried out. I was, in fact, awed by your bravery in sticking to your principles.

So, we next focused all our attention on trying to get you moved to Erie. I have to confess that I was terrified that you would die before we could carry out your wishes. But there was only one day's delay, and on the morning of Tuesday, August 14th, the ambulance crew came to take you to Erie. I rode in the front of the ambulance with the driver while you were in the back with the nurse. For me it was the longest chunk of uninterrupted quiet time I had gotten since leaving for Pittsburgh and I finally broke down crying for a while.

I thought that the stress on the family was going to let up and that you would be in good care. But apparently hospice care in Michigan and Nevada and California is much different than the hospice care arrangement we had in Erie. They got you settled comfortably into a room at the Manchester Presbyterian Lodge. The social worker and hospice nurses and nursing home administrator and head nurse greeted us. But things did not go quite like we planned.

All of your IVs and needles and big heavy oxygen masks were removed. Instead you just had a simple cannula in your nose for oxygen. Your pain medication was changed to liquid morphine by mouth. But after 24 hours it became clear that things weren't quite right. You went from being able to communicate to sleeping around the clock. You were over-medicated. It also became clear that without some orders from the doctor, guidance from the hospice organization, or specific requests from family, the nursing staff at the home was not going to give you special care. For example, they still had you on a regular diet. They would plunk down a meatball sub on your table and take it away an hour later. Because you were so heavily drugged they would not even try to get fluids into you. You asked for pen and paper to write some notes but you were so sedated that we could only read a few words of what you wrote. You wanted to communicate but you couldn't. The system was failing you again.

So once again the family went into high gear. We started a round-the-clock visiting schedule with you. We had to feed you because the nurses were not trying hard enough. We got your diet changed to food that you were better able to eat. We started trying to get your doctor to change your prescription, but we were unable to get the doctor out to examine you in person and change your orders until the evening of your third day there. Your condition was changing for the worse so rapidly that we found this completely unacceptable. I began refusing part of your medication on your behalf.

This was probably the most nerve-wracking experience of my life, because above all I did not want you to be in any pain, but I thought that you deserved to share your last days with your family and friends. I think it was the right decision, though. You became alert again, while reporting that you were not in any pain. You were able to visit with family and friends. We got round-the-clock visitation going again. Carolyn came back, and brought her daughter Alicia. You had live music. You had grandchildren visit. You had a couple of good days.

We still felt like we had to watch over everything. Even after your doctor came back and changed your medication orders, although my father followed him down to the nurses station to see what he wrote, what he wrote was incorrect. I felt like we were having to act as doctor and nurse and social worker ourselves, all the time. Between the lack of sleep and the nervousness, I completely exhausted myself, to the point where I could not walk and began having hallucinations from lack of sleep. The rest of us were also exhausted. I developed an ulcer. But it was a small price to pay and it has already healed.

You gradually became weaker. Your heart rate went up and your blood pressure went down. You began to accumulate more fluids in your lungs. We got your medication raised again so that there was no possibility you would be in any pain. The decision was made that you could not receive anything more by mouth to eat or drink. On Saturday evening at about 6:30 p.m. you died. It was as peaceful and graceful a death as we could make it.

I just want to say a couple more things.

First, that the way you faced your death was an inspiration to me and to everyone around you.

Second, when my father and I were visiting you in the ICU, you said that you were very proud that you had always had the ability to forgive everyone who had harmed you. I would like to ask you one last favor. I want you to forgive the doctor in Erie who displayed such indifference to your condition. I want you to forgive the other doctors that failed to detect your cancer. I even want you to forgive the doctor in Pittsburgh who had such terrible bedside manner that he burst into your hospital room, explained loudly that your heart was failing and that there was nothing more they could do, and left. I will forgive all these people. It might take me a while longer, though. I'm not quite as good at is as you are.

Third, I'd like you to remember that we had our share of doctors with poor bedside manner and nurses who treated you like an annoyance, there were also quite a few people who were very kind to you. The hospice nurse who was with you on your last day was wonderful. The palliative care physicians in Pittsburgh were wonderful. They spoke very calmly to you and asked you if you had any unfinished business. You said that you wanted everyone to know that you loved them.

And last, I just want to thank you. You were a single mother in a difficult time. You had a hard and complicated life. You raised me and my brother. You did a great job. You re-married and brought new fathers into our lives. You cared for my stepfather Wence, and you cared for your mother, and you cared for your husband Dick. You enriched the lives of everyone around you. You had a lot of friends and you were well-loved, and you still are.

We'll go on. We'll miss you terribly. I wish you had gotten more time to enjoy your grandchildren. I wish we had gotten more time to spend with you. You said that you were concerned about the state of the world. The world will go on. It will be OK. We'll be OK. And we know that you are OK now too.

I'll see you again, before too long. And I'll be in touch.

Love,

Paul

Monday, August 20, 2007

My Mother Died

My mother died on Saturday, August 18th, 2007 at 6:30 p.m.

She was in a combination of nursing and hospice care in Erie after a hospital stay in Pittsburgh where she was in and out of the ICU.

It all went very fast; in the first week in August she was away on vacation, and then when she got back she exercised at the YMCA with her friends, but complained that she must have eaten something that disagreed with her. She actually had metastatic cancer in her abdomen invading several organs and causing all kinds of damage. It is approximately two years since she was treated (apparently successfully) for breast cancer. The new cancer (which might have started as ovarian cancer, or perhaps was metastatic cancer from her breast cancer) was not treatable surgically.

Somewhere along the way her heart was also damaged, perhaps some by her earlier chemotherapy and/or radiation, and perhaps by a heart attack caused by a blood clot during her hospitalization. Fluid was accumulating around her kidneys and around her lungs. She developed a pneumothorax and pneumonia as well as a kidney infection. These things were successfully treated and she was removed from intensive care, but suffered further setbacks, and after the damage to her heart was discovered, it became clear that the cancer couldn't be treated, not even via palliative chemotherapy. According to her advanced directives and her verbal instructions she did not want aggressive and invasive treatments any longer. The remaining scheduled tests were canceled, and she was moved by ambulance to Manchester Presbyterian Lodge in Erie. I rode with her. The high-pressure oxygen face mask and multiple IVs were removed and she had only a nasal cannula for supplemental oxygen. Most of her medications were discontinued except for liquid morphine (Roxinol) and a drug for anxiety (Ativan). When she was no longer alert enough to swallow safely, on her last day or so of life, even food and drink were discontinued.

She was with family during her last days. My family and I traveled to Pittsburgh and then to Erie to support her. She had regular visits from my wife Grace and her grandchildren Isaac, Veronica, and Sam. Many other people shared this experience with her as well: she received comfort, advocacy on her behalf, and round-the-clock company from her husband Richard, her ex-husband (my father, also named Richard), her niece and nephew, her daughter-in-law Carolyn, her grandaughter-in-law Alicia, my brother Brian, and also from a number of her friends. The end was pretty much as peaceful and loving as these things can be. She received enough medication to keep her free from pain and needless anxiety while still allowing her to communicate as much as possible.

While she felt that she was too young to die like this, and would have preferred to live longer, my mother knew just what was happening to her and she was conscious and as awake as possible through most of her last days. We had the opportunity to hold some final, very emotional conversations with her, to tell her how much we loved and appreciated her, and to discuss the dying process, what she expected to experience after death, and her hopes and fears and concerns. We told her that we were all doing well with our own families and she had helped us get to that point but that there was nothing more that we needed from her and she should not worry about us. She was looking forward to reuniting with God and she died with no unfinished business or grudges. In particular she was very proud of her ability to forgive everyone for every hurt, intentional or unintentional. She told us all that she loved us and we told her about our love for her. It was a beautiful and graceful death and I hope that I will be able to live up to her example myself when the time comes for my own death.

The funeral will be held this coming Friday, August 25, 2007 at 3:00 p.m. in the First Presbyterian Church of North East, PA. Her body will be set up for viewing before the funeral service. Anyone who will be unable to attend the funeral but who wants to have something read aloud can contact my mother's pastor at (814) 725-8641.

I will write some more on this topic in the weeks ahead and my eulogy will be posted here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Reading, Watching, Thinking August 2007

It has been a while since my last blog entry. Life gets busy.

Isaac and I have been watching Doctor Who. To kick it off, we watched disc 1 of season 1 of the new series that started in 2005. I was favorably impressed -- while it still has that cheese factor and silly monsters that make the show what it is, the new series seems to have considerably higher production values. I like Christopher Eccleston as the ninth doctor. Billie Piper does a very credible job as his companion Rose Tyler, at least in the episodes we've seen so far. Apparently, Eccleston only lasted for one season, though, and they are now on doctor number ten. David Tenant has completed two seasons and is apparently signed on for 2008. According to the show mythology, the Doctor only gets twelve regenerations, and so the thirteenth doctor seems destined to be the last. It will be interesting to see what happens if the show gets to that point and the show's writers have to figure out what to do next. Maybe there is another Time Lord surviving somewhere in space and time? And, of course, there can be any number of spinoff stories.

To try to give Isaac a sense of what Doctor Who is all about, I also interleaved a series of old Doctor Who episodes in the queue. So immediately after the 2005 series we were watching the very first episodes with William Hartnell.

I was expecting the original episodes to be unbearably cheesy, looking more like a school play than a real television production, with horrendous audio and picture, but they surprised me. While there are some gaffes in the writing, the first episode really makes up for it with the strength of the acting. It is interesting to contemplate how these episodes were shot. They seem to be made up of very long continuous takes, where the camera rolls even through the transitions between sets. Is this because they were shot on film and they did not want to waste film by bringing the camera up to speed and re-synchronizing with the dialogue? I'm not really certain. But the effect is almost like a documentary shot by video steadicam, and more like watching a play than a modern show with constant cuts.

After the introductory episode, the next few episodes involve a tribe of cave-people on a quest for fire as their planet appears to be entering an ice age. This is a pretty weak story and drags quite a bit. There are a few scenes that are very much worth watching, though -- there is a staged fight scene that seems to be lit entirely by a fire. It's really stunning and quite well-choreographed. It is also very violent -- in fact, it is quite surprising how violent some of the original Doctor Who material actually was.

We're continuing on with Doctor Who. We received a mis-filed disc from Netflix that was supposed to be "The Daleks." It was actually the two-part serial called "The Edge of Destruction" and the disc was taken from a set called "The Lost Years" also featuring Hartnell. The DVDs look very similar, so it is not a huge surprise that it was mixed up. Anyway, "The Edge of Destruction" was shot entirely inside the Tardis, and has a very weak script; the Tardis is malfunctioning because of a stuck button and as a result is hurtling backwards and forwards through time and space and somehow making all of its inhabitants violently crazy. The device somehow knows it is malfunctioning (apparently it has an artificial intelligence) and all the disturbances are a result of it somehow attempting to communicate that it is in trouble. According to Wikipedia,

This story was written by story editor David Whitaker within two days. It was created as a hasty "filler" story so that the series would fit a thirteen episode run, which was all that had been granted at that stage. Budgetary restrictions meant that only the four regular actors and the TARDIS sets could be used for the filming. Perhaps as a result of this, this is the least expensive Doctor Who serial ever, and the second episode ("The Brink of Disaster") is the cheapest episode ever.

Yep, it is pretty bad. The label on the "fast return" button is written by hand in felt-tip pen, which gives you an idea of the budget involved. It is a "bottle episode" that has almost no long-term bearing on the story arc, except that it shows the characters that the Doctor could be a bit of an asshole. There are old Star Trek episodes that are worse, though. At least the doctor keeps his shirt on.

Anyway, next up is disc two of the 2005 series, and the original Daleks. We'll see how many of the old shows we can stand. There are a lot of them -- nearly 750 episodes of Doctor Who have been broadast. It is truly a science fiction soap opera. Tragically, though, a lot of the early episodes, including many that have the most interesting storylines, are missing and exist only in various degrees of reconstruction. For example, the serial after "The Daleks" is "Marco Polo," which was a seven-part story set in the year 1289 in Asia. None of the original footage exists. Again according to Wikipedia:
In all, 108 of 253 episodes produced during the first six years of the programme are not currently held in the BBC's archives, although many more were thought missing in the past before episodes were recovered from a variety of sources, most notably overseas broadcasters.
That's a tremendous loss; whether the show is actually any good or not is beside the point; it is a piece of history.

Anyway. I don't get a lot of time to read, but usually have a few minutes in the morning before the babies are awake. I've been re-reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is one of my all-time favorite novelists. He writes stories that fall somewhere in between science fiction, magical realism, and modern realist fiction. Events often follow an inner logic, a metaphorical logic, a dream logic. This is one of his best novels and I highly recommend it to anyone who is not put off by a little magic.

I have also been working on my guitar playing. I am taking lessons again, for the first time in 23 years, and trying to put together more of a repertoire. I don't get very much time to do concentrated, focused, heads-down practice, but I am able to get at least a little playing in most days. That's helped to keep me sane in the midst of screaming babies and our ongoing barely-breaking-even finances; we're getting to the end of our debts, and so very soon we should be able to divert the $1,000 or so we've been spending on debts each month (for the last five years) into various forms of savings, and perhaps even take a modest little vacation, although we also need to figure out how to replace our car.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Hairy Bottom and the Deadly Aloe

So, I hear via the Intarweb that there is a series of books about a young boy gizzard named Hairy Bottom. Hairy is a gizzard, but his parents were Bugaloos, featured in the hit Sid and Marty Krofft show from 1970. Unfortunately, Hairy's parents were both killed (before Hairy was born) by the evil Moldy Wart. Hairy is left with only a "C" shaped scar on his forehead, which throbs whenever he is exposed to the threat of copyright infringement. (If this sounds confusing, it is; there are seven books in this series, and after the first one, the author, Jay Kay Elemeno P. Growling, decided to sell them by the pound instead of the word).

Now, Hairy also has a trusty flying squirrel named Hedgerow (who tends to bustle a lot), and friends named Herman Miller, Aaron Neville, and Aeron Chair. He goes to a public school called Pig Knuckles, where he is befriended by his headmaster, the wise and heavily armed Bumblebee, and taunted by a teacher named Plumber's Snake. There's also an elf, a plumber's helper named Doobie, who with his brothers sell odd little cigarettes to the students at Pig Knuckles. Doobie's brothers tend to whistle while they work, and in book three the group winds up with a recording contract, but that's a story for another day.

Now, Hairy isn't a very good student, and drops out of the Beauty College after he manages to dye his own hair an alarming shade of magenta using an organic shampoo formulated by Herman Miller, but that doesn't matter very much, because he is an excellent athlete, and attends Pig Knuckles on an athletic scholarship. His sport of choice is Kid Itch, and he can frequently be seen wandering around the campus of Pig Knuckles with a broom between his legs attempting to scratch himself in a most inappropriate fashion (see "Hairy Bottom and the Bedchamber of Adolescence," the ninteenth book in the tetralogy, in which Hairy Bottom's hairy armpits cause him to emanate the Odor of the Phoenix, Arizona).

Despite his inflammation, Hairy always seems to have plenty of money, and thus keeps his friends supplied with chocolate-covered mice, licorice whips and chains, so-called "doobies," and brightly colored prescription jelly beans in unusual flavors like "Window Pane" and "No-Doze," for those obligatory late-night cram sessions and travels to dreamy, magical realms.

In the last book, "Hairy Bottom and the Snot-Nosed Prince," Bumblebee is killed while fighting a vicious band of carnivores known as the Meat Eaters. Hairy is forced to confront the carnivorous tendencies of a friendly giant, Haggard, who has an alarming tendency to devour students, bellowing "Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum!" Hairy succeeds in turning Haggard into a sullen vegetarian by exposing him repeatedly to the music of The Smiths.

We last met the Meat Eaters in "Hairy Bottom and the Giblets of Gravy," where they invaded an athletic cup and caused so much itching and irritation that Hairy was unable to use his wand for a week. Well, the Meat Eaters came back, with a vengeance, and in the climactic battle scene in "Hairy Bottom and the Prisoner of Ass Cabin," Hairy's godfather Serious Plaque is attacked by the Meat Eaters and gets his tartar controlled, but good. Plumber's Snake is involved, but we are left not quite knowing whose side he is on: while he tends to insinuate himself in places he is not wanted, he always seems to get the job done.

The new book, "Hairy Bottom and the Deadly Aloe," seems like it ought to relieve Hairy's troubles, but in fact Hairy's deepest fears are realized when his medicinal salve, manufactured in China, seems to be tainted and causes a painful rash. Can Aeron Chair sooth his painful irritation? Will Aaron and Herman be jealous? Will Plumber's Snake work for or against him? Does Hairy's Stairway Lie on the Whispering Wind? You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!

I have not had the opportunity to read this book yet, since it is too heavy for me to lift to within the focal length of my astigmatic, red-rimmed eyeballs, but I know that when I do, it will contain a lot of words, and I will have to turn many pages before I reach the end!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Who is Actually to Blame for the Death of a Baby?

The blogosphere is abuzz over the death of an infant who was allegedly fed soy milk and apple juice by Vegan parents. This tragedy has led to a "perfect storm" of a news story, like the Terry Schiavo case. But it is interesting to note that most of the analysis I've seen has been absolutely facile. What really happened and who is to blame?

There are some interesting parts of the story that are not widely reported. The first is that the mother apparently gave birth at home. This is not crazy, but I can't advocate even an experienced mother doing something like this without a credentialed midwife in attendance. There is no indication that a midwife or otherwise qualified person was there. In fact, we're told in the articles that the first time the baby saw a doctor, he was dead. With the low weight of the baby, it seems very likely that the baby was premature, or at least underweight. As in "needs immediate medical care" underweight.

This leads me to believe that the parents were, or at least felt themselves to be, isolated from the support structure that should have been there for them. We read that they had a profound distrust of pharmaceuticals and the health industry. That isn't surprising. But did they have any health insurance? Any money that would have allowed them access to care at the hospital that was apparently across the street?

The second is that the baby reportedly had bedsores, which can be very hazardous in a newborn. This is not just diaper rash; it is a sign of genuine neglect over and above the low weight. Was the father around to assist the mother? What about any other family members? We don't know anything about how well the mother recuperated from the birth, and whether she had the physical readiness to be a fully competent caregiver, but then failed at it for some reason.

In the trial much was made about the parents and their vegan diet. However, I suspect that this is a bit of a red herring, introduced by the defense to try and diffuse the blame and confuse the issues at hand. Here is why:

Mainstream vegans (if there are such a thing) advocate breastfeeding (although I read that some vegans apparently advise against it, for reasons that are unfathomable to me). It didn't seem like the baby was breastfed, or not breastfed very much. This may not have been just a matter of the mother failing to breastfeed; the baby may have been underweight at birth, even premature (we aren't told), and weak. Such babies can have difficulty latching on, and might do better drinking pumped breast milk from a bottle.

Mainstream vegans can use commercial infant soy-based infant formula. It is vegan. Millions of babies are raised successfully on formula, even premature or underweight babies.

It is possible to successfully raise vegan children, although I believe getting all the proper fatty acids and B12 can be a bit dicey. I wouldn't try it without careful supplementation with at least some non-vegan nutrition such as fish oils.

Soy milk is not anything like soy formula. Soy milk is a reasonably nutritious milk supplement for adults or older children. We drink a lot of soy milk in my household. Our two-year-old gets some, but she also gets solid food and breast milk and a vitamin supplement. Soy milk is marked "not to be used as infant formula" right on the box or carton. Infant formula is much more dense in nutrients, especially fats, with a lot of sugars and proteins and special substances needed for infant development such as arachidonic acid. (See Wikipedia's article on essential fatty acids).

It seems likely to me that if the baby had been fed soy formula, he might be alive today. Why a parent would try to feed an infant soy milk, despite the clear labeling, instead of soy formula is beyond me. Was soy milk all that the parents could afford? Is it actually cheaper? Were there no resources that could provide formula for free or at reduced cost?

The issue is further confused because some sources seem to indicate the infant got at least some soy formula.

Apple juice is nearly worthless nutritionally and if not cut with water can cause dehydration, as the concentrated sugars tend to cause water to migrate into the gut. I can't imagine anyone with any medical or nutritional credentials whatsoever advocating feeding straight apple juice to a newborn.

It sounds to me like the baby died of neglect, under-nourishment, and dehydration. At least one source reported that the cupboards in the household were empty of food. The baby did not die because the parents didn't feed the baby animal-based foods. How many newborns eat meat or animal products anyway?

So this tragedy is not actually all about a vegan diet.

So what is it about?

Interestingly, it was only today that I saw pictures of the parents and realized that they are black. I had assumed that they were white, because I associate white, not black, people with vegetarian and vegan diets and with weird theories about diet.

In other words, in a kind of reverse racism, I associate white people with the liberty to be stupid enough to do something like this. I tend to believe that it is whites who can fixate on dumb ideas and attempt to apply them to real life without any practical consequences... until something like this happens.

Now that I've seen the photos, I have a whole other set of associations in my head, most of them the result of the racist world view I was raised with. The biggest two of these are "poverty" and "drugs." But it is important to note that the news accounts have not contained any hints as to whether either of these two things may have actually been factors.

Were the parents neglectful?

Were they ignorant?

Were they poor?

Were they high?

Were they unsupported by the community and their society?

This is a systems failure. White or black, rich or poor, if it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly also takes a village to kill one, or, more importantly to fail to protect one.

Or, to put it another way, if we don't have any responsibility for helping that child to grow up -- if we don't hold that task important -- why do we take it upon ourselves to punish the parents for failing so badly at the job?

Of one thing I am quite certain: while a life prison sentence (apparently mandatory under sentencing guidelines) might seem like justice, it isn't actually going to do anything -- either for the parents or for us -- that is truly worth doing. Except that the parents will get to complain that they can't get a decent vegan meal in prison.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

I Can't Fix an Ant

Not long ago Vera found an ant in our apartment and stepped on it. Unsurprisingly, it broke.

She asked me to fix it. I guess she thought I could fix everything. Sadly, I had to explain that I could not fix the ant, and that if she wanted to play with an ant she should just follow it and watch what it does.

It's important for all of us to know our limitations. No one can bring back a carelessly destroyed life and only a child would think so.

There's some kind of a lesson here about our occupation of Iraq, but it seems to have escaped my mind for the moment.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

First Impressions of Ubuntu

Ubuntu "Feisty Fawn" is supposedly the Linux distribution of choice these days. I've been an intermittent Red Hat user since early versions, and moved to Fedora Core in recent years.

I wiped Fedora Core off my PC and installed Ubuntu.

Initially I tried to have Ubuntu on the first drive and Windows 2000 on the second. That worked for a while, but when I had to reinstall Windows, I had very little success getting GRUB to properly boot Windows again. Finally, I broke down and threw out all my partitions and gave the first drive entirely to Windows 2000. The WIndows 2000 installer CD won't let you format a partition using anything but NTFS, so I had to use my Paragon Partition Manager emergency boot disk to do that. (I highly recommend Paragon Partition Manager!)

After that, the Ubuntu installer knew just how to set up dual-booting with no pain whatsoever, although I tend to prefer the Fedora Core setup tools instead, since it gives me a little more control.

The good:

It seems fairly polished. (But Fedora Core seems fairly polished too).

The installer works nicely.

The default GUI isn't painful to look at or use.

Package management with the GUI is pretty nice.

It's based on Debian, and apt-get is also pretty nice; I was able to install things like GHC quite effortlessly.

The bad:

It won't unmount USB hard drives. That's a fairly major bug that could lead to data loss. I read a bit about various workarounds until my eyes glazed over.

There is no file sharing available by default in the desktop edition. In fact, there seem to be no servers whatsoever. To share a volume with my Mac, I had to install Samba, edit the config file, add a network user, and edit a users file. That's fine for me; I can figure out how to do this kind of thing with only a little prompting from various HOWTO guides. But my wife is not going to want to learn the joys of sudo. This distro is alleged to be the one that people might consider to replace Windows (or, if you're Cory Doctorow, MacOS X). A modern OS that doesn't let you easily share a file on the network seems pretty lobotomized to me.

By comparison, though, getting Windows 2000 set up with generations of patches, and then Office 2003 set up on top of that, also with generations of patches, has been excruciating. Patches that won't install. Knowledge base articles. Forcible upgrades to later versions of Internet Explorer. Forcible install of the "genuine advantage" plugin. After repeated failure to apply five security updates to Office, I finally had to remove Office and reinstall it. Now everything seems to be up-to-date with patches.

So, for my use, Ubuntu beats Windows 2000 (admittedly, a pretty old version, but them Microsoft is busily turning XP into, basically, a forced upgrade path to Vista). I managed to get AVI files to play pretty nicely. I haven't tried CD burning yet. But beat MacOS X and its suite of polished applications? Well...

Monday, April 30, 2007

No More Local Apple Resources?

On Saturday I went looking, with Isaac, for yet another replacement power adapter for the otherwise-functional PowerBook G4. It is an original 400 MHz machine from 2000, but still works, and I find I can't bear to throw out working machines. Except that it has had endless problems with power adapters.

I went to CompUSA, where I have seem them for sale before. I was a bit shocked to find that CompUSA was having a going-out-of-business sale; most of the aisles were closed off, with only a handful of fairly useless discounted items. The Apple Store-within-a-store was completely gone. So, no power adapters for a PowerBook.

I went over to Best Buy. They no longer have any Apple machines for sale at all. Not too long ago they carried some iBooks and Mac Mini units. They seem to have an on-again, off-again relationship with Apple.

Does this really mean that there are no local resources for Apple owners at all in the Ann Arbor area?

There's an Apple Store in Troy. The last time I was there, they had nothing that would work in stock. They only carry new and very recent machines, I guess. They suggested I take a look at the Apple Store online.

They have an adapter that will allegedly work, for $79, but its customer rating is one and a half (out of five) stars "based on 1744 reviews." Wow, that's a lot of pissed-off folks. Given that I've gone through two "yo-yo" adapters for the G4 PowerBook and the adapter for Grace's iBook also fell apart, I'm not inclined to buy another Apple adapter. But I'm not too keen on third-party adapters either; the $45 replacement unit I bought for Grace's iBook is kind of cheesy. The adapter-to-iBook plug won't stay firmly in place. The wall-to-adapter plug won't either. Bump it just a little and one of the two, or both, will become disconnected.

I finally settled for ordering two MacAlly adapters, old/new stock from a seller on eBay. They were only $25 each, but he's charging me over $20 shipping. That seems excessive, but my hope is that this will keep both laptops alive until we can well and truly replace them.