Archive for January, 2010

Thresholds

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Control systems

I accidentally went for a walk on Sunday. I went out to get the paper and missed. (See Mitch Hedberg, below.) Not really. It was an intentional experiment. I have been remiss in taking cardiovascular exercise (that’s what they used to call it, ‘taking exercise’) for some months. One of my knees is wonky and I’ve been self-prescribing slovenliness as an antidote, but with few results. So I thought I would try walking.

Control systems utilize thresholds to manage goals (see Miriam-Webster, definition 3b). The goal of an air conditioning thermostat is to maintain the temperature in your house. The goal of a toilet valve is to maintain the level of water stored in the tank. The goal of an expressway ramp-metering system is to maintain the flow of traffic on the main artery. In each case, when a threshold is reached (temperature too high, liquid level too low, average speed too slow), a mechanism is invoked to alter the current state (the air conditioner starts cooling, water flows into the tank, the ramp meter lights begin their green and red interval cycling).

Failing

Three areas of my life have been patiently waiting for a threshold to be reached: my e-mail inbox, my financial records, and my exercise regimen. The failing state of each of these can be traceable to an identifiable, systemic cause.

In the case of my e-mail inbox, I had a nice little rule-based filing system going until my old Flower Power G3 iMac suddenly stopped booting. I moved the hard drive into a used G4 tower, but the tower stopped working after a few weeks. Fortunately I had backed up almost everything to a nice Mac Mini I got for Christmas ’08, but I didn’t think to back up my e-mail configuration. I had categorized my senders into groups (businesses, organizations, and everyone else in my address book [family and friends]) and routed them into different mailboxes, including Possible Junk for any sender not in my address book. It worked great, but just I haven’t replicated it yet.

In the case of my financial records, a few years ago I got rid of an old filing cabinet before I had purchased a replacement. So that meant that my files, including my financial records, were dumped into a couple of big plastic storage bins to be sorted Someday. Without going into embarrassing detail, that was the beginning of an entropic slide (again, see MW) into a room full of stacks of small and large pieces of paper of unknown, but probable, importance. To make matters worse, my Quicken backup from the failed computer was not readable by a newer version of Quicken, so I’ve been paying bills in an unbalanced state. Not a recipe for relaxation.

In the case of my exercise “system,” for many years I consistently got a nice 20-minute walk at least once a day when I took Greta The Wonder Dog up and down the hills of the neighborhood. Since her passing last February, I don’t think I have made that trek a single time.

Hope

Optimistically, it feels like I have hit thresholds on each of these areas this week.

  • I have received 297 messages since Jan 1. It is time to re-create my e-mail rules.
  • Tax season is coming up, and I have no desire to repeat last year’s blind wandering through the smug TurboTax questionnaire. Plus, I cleaned up my office over Christmas just enough to realize how behind my filing system is. And I need to write some checks.
  • In addition to wanting to exercise my gimpy knee, I need to get out in the air (or, in the case of Sunday’s walk, cold mist) to clear my head, the thinking of which has been growing increasingly murky. My decision was aided somewhat by a cute little electronic scale I saw Friday night. Cute, that is, until it tried to tell me what I weigh. Did I say ‘cute’? Mean, I mean.

So I’ve set sail on Organization Adventure. Last Friday I balanced about half of my old bank statements. Saturday I filed last year’s e-mails. And Sunday I took the walk. It was brisk and invigorating.

Or maybe that was just the cup of coffee.

Thresholds of curiosity

In the first paragraph I mentioned Mitch Hedberg, the late comedian to whom my progeny introduced me several years ago. Many of his quotes, including the Target quote I alluded to above, can be found in his WikiQuote entry. Be forewarned that, like most comedians, he follows in the occasionally vulgar footsteps of George Carlin, sprinkling, and even creating, his humor with four-letter words. But he was a funny man, and his humor has survived his tragic demise.

His Wikipedia biography explains that, like Will Rogers, Jack Handey, and Stephen Colbert, much of his humor is based on paraprosdokians, which I of course had to look up. And syllepsis, another unfamiliar word. The examples listed for both terms were quite amusing, at least to me.

In each case, my curiosity exceeded the Click Threshold, and I not only clicked, I also copied, so I could include the links for any curious readers (which, sadly, probably defines most of you. See “curious” in MW.)

When I finally clicked on Steven Wright, considered one of Mitch’s key influences, I apparently reached whatever my click-goal was. I was able to free myself from the potentially endless Wikipedia-loop. My flush tank was full.

I hope yours is too, because that’s all I’m going to write for now.

Sherpas?

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Birthdays

Our first few birthdays are cute. Then we start marking time: school, driver’s license, voting, drinking. Then the markers slow down, space out, get more vague…. There’s the ticking of the biological clock, reaching the Master’s category in the 5K run results, making retirement plans, receiving AARP membership offers in the mail, Social Security statements, Medicare. As the Earth spins its steady march around the Sun, our physical bodies undergo their own changes: we get bigger, gain strength, grow hair, hit puberty, grow more hair, and eventually a long series of system failures. We lose hair where it’s supposed to grow, and grow it where it’s not. Or it turns gray. Or both.

Satchel Paige (pitcher, philosopher) asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” As much as I prefer to avoid thinking about age, it’s pretty unavoidable if you’re paying attention at all. Watching the changes in your parents, then the same changes in yourself. Reading obituaries, and attending funerals, especially when the guest of honor is younger than yourself.

Growing old in America can be lonely. Yet many cultures revere old age. How can we view aging in a positive light?

Mountains

Mountains are dramatic. Perhaps that’s why they form the basis of so many analogies.

  • Religion – “There are many paths to the top of the mountain.”
  • Encouragement – “The Good Lord gave us mountains so we could learn how to climb.”
  • Obstacles – “Turn your mountains into molehills.”
  • Victory – “We have made it to the top of the mountain.”
  • Majesty – “That was a mountain-top experience.”

Mountain analogies are so common they are almost trite. Because of this triteness, I really tried to avoid this analogy, except that it seemed to work so well.

To start with, let me make it clear that the mountain in my analogy is not any trivial mountain, like Georgia’s Stone Mountain (which I dearly love), or the soft green mountains on the East Coast (of which I am also quite fond), or even the craggy Western mountains as exemplified by the Grand Tetons. (Who is not impressed by grand tetons?)

No, my analogical mountain is more of a serious climb, a Kilimanjaro, a K2, an Everest (which sadly exhausts my mental list of great mountains). Unlike the mountains in the previous paragraph, I’ve never climbed one of these serious mountains, which may limit the accuracy of my metaphor. But that isn’t going to stop me now!

Analogy

In case you’ve been otherwise occupied, watching TV, checking e-mail, and texting while you read this, here comes the analogy: in some ways, getting old seems like climbing a mountain.

You start off on an easy slope, with plenty of energy, surrounded by trees. You may not even realize you are ascending. As the slope gets steeper, the climb gets harder and the trees start to thin out. The air gets thinner, each step becomes more difficult, until at last it takes all your energy to just to take a single step.

This would seem a dismal prospect indeed, except that the view gets increasingly more impressive as you surmount the peak. No longer surrounded by forest, you can see great geological features, other mountains, clouds, rivers. The stars glow brightly at night through the thin air, even though your vision has faded from the oxygen deprivation.

As you approach the peak, you are rewarded with an awareness of how things fit together, of how the world works. You see the path that brought you to this place, and the obstacles you overcame.

Of course, like most analogies, this one has limits. Not everyone climbs up the mountain, nor makes it to the peak. Not everyone survives the obstacles, not everyone has clarity of thought and global awareness, not everyone learns from the journey.

I can further over-analyze my own analogy. How does the the actual end of life fit into this analogy? Is that analogous to reaching the summit? Or does one simply run out of energy and oxygen on the way up? The concept of Heaven Above fits nicely here. The climber simply leaves wherever they are on the mountain, whatever level they have achieved, and ascends into the clouds, experiencing an even grander vista (TM, Microsoft) and broader awareness and understanding.

Are there Sherpas on this climb? Other climbers? Are they on the same mountain. Where do you get food and water? Is the analogy like the sleeping arrangements: intense?

Clearly I’ve fallen over the edge of this particular analogy.

Post-post analysis

I’m not sure how well this weekly posting goal is going to work.

Unseen

Monday, January 11th, 2010

It’s 20 degrees (unseen) Fahrenheit in Atlanta (seen) this morning. I just finished rolling the trash (seen) to the curb, and adding air (unseen) to my front left tire (seen).

Friday morning we awoke to a rare powdery snowfall. (We usually get sleet or the dreaded ‘wintry mix’ causing power outages that are dangerous to a populace that usually worries more about heatstroke in the summer.) Interestingly, our furnace wasn’t working. My first thought was “low gas pressure”, since every furnace in the county was trying to battle the cold snap in the mid-teens. My second thought was “If, in fact, I have to call a repair company, they will probably not be able to schedule a visit before April.” My third thought was that I remember the furnace quitting before, and that it was something simple that time.

After taking some other critical steps (made coffee, plugged in a small electric space heater in the den), I finally decided to do what any self-respecting home repairman would do – I laid down for a nap, to think and warm up. (At this point it was around 50 degrees in the house). I lay there alternately snoozing and listening for the familiar sound of the fan, which would indicate that my first guess was right. Alas, no fan was heard, But I could definitely hear the furnace stepping through its cycle. And I remembered that the previous problem was a limit switch that a loose door failed to actuate. Eventually, somewhat warmed and encouraged, I decided to get up and try to diagnose the problem.

The furnace is in the crawl space of my house, which might explain my original reluctance to jump right on the task. I first checked the limit switch, and verified that, yes, indeed, I had fixed it last time. That was not the problem. I then activated the circuit board’s test mode, which briefly cycles through the major components to verify that they are all working. They were.

Finally, I called my frigid spouse (fortunately a temporary condition) and asked her to turn the thermostat to “heat” so I could watch the cycle, To an observer unfamiliar with furnaces, the problem was unseen. But I noticed that everything was working right except the ignitor. In a bold flash of insight, I realized that if I could do the job of the ignitor on its behalf, the house (and the spouse) would begin to warm. My first try was kitchen matches. But the gas jets were so powerful that they blew out the flame. My next try was a butane lighter, one of those with the piezoelectric crystal to generate a spark, and a long nozzle, good for lighting candles and starting fires. It didn’t have much fuel in it, but I was hoping that the spark might be enough.

So once again I sat in the cold waiting for the furnace to cycle through its start-up dance, until I heard the sound of the gas valve opening. I stuck the lighter into the right place, and pulled the trigger. Immediately and dramatically, the unseen gas became a very visible flame, and the furnace began its slow, steady process of heating up the house.

Perhaps due to the nap, I had the presence of mind to remove the old ignitor, and was able to find a replacement at the local hardware store while the house warmed up.

If your cultural antennae are tuned the same as mine, the notions of the seen and the unseen have perhaps evoked thoughts of philosophy and theology. Of course, in contrast to the spiritually unseen, all of the “unseen” items mentioned above are measurable by scientific methods. I remain intrigued by the notions of the impact of the unseen on the visible world, whether we are talking about the keel of a sailboat (unseen from aboard the boat) to an empty object in Blender (previously mentioned) which, while unseen in a rendered animation, has visible purposes and effects.

“See” you later.

Resolved

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

I had a great Christmas vacation, starting with a trip to see my family in mid-December. During Christmas week all four of our progeny were here, plus Ben’s new spouse, various significant others, pets, presents, and Becca’s baby delivery stories from the far North. The foodstuffs were amazing. We watched BluRays on a new big screen, played Sports Resort until our rotator cuffs were exhausted, read Terry Pratchett and other books, worked crosswords, stayed up late, slept in, and just generally goofed off. Even the intermittent trips to work in late December were pleasurable – the office was mostly silent, just a few cheerful co-workers, and I started some new projects, since it was too late to do anything for the sake of 2009.

So here we are at the beginning of a new year. Over the years I’ve become comfortable with the fact that I don’t typically resolve to do things. I make decisions as opportunities present themselves. While I do make some long-term plans, mostly I react to the forces around me. I suspect from above I might look like a billiard ball, caroming around the table of life. But I can look back at most of my decisions and explain what I was thinking at the time. Like the billiard ball, the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection, inertia is conserved, and frictional forces slow the ball down until eventually I lie at rest on soft green felt.

This year, the closest thing I have made to a resolution is that I want to write more regularly. It’s indoor work with no heavy lifting. How hard can it be? I would prefer to write a Book, weighty and important, or at least an Article, incisive and witty. But I am willing to settle for regular Postings, either on my work page, or on my “public” page, or, as in the case of this writing, both.

Intending to write raises other questions, like “why,” and “what,” and “when.” There’s a short answer to “why” taped to one of the computer monitors in my cube: “How can I know what I think unless I read what I write.” That’s a healthy, self-centered reason, and it has served me well. But I also recognize that there is a Reader, if only an imaginary one. (Note to self – write something about the unexpected usefulness of creating an empty object in Blender.)

Perhaps my value to the Reader is that I have a Peculiar Perspective on life and other things. Perhaps that perspective provides illumination to people who are more Normal. Perhaps it offers encouragement to other Peculiar People. Or maybe it’s just entertaining.

That’s really more thinking and writing than I usually do about the Reader. Mostly I just want to write, and write well, with quality (see Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.)

Oh, yes, and point to other clever things. I like sharing clever things with others, and even though I continually have to raise the bar for what I share (it sags, and I am often tempted to share cute pictures of cats), I still find lots of things that I want to post. Like this cartoon from Adam@home, which relates more to people at work because we are working on 3D stuff right now, and because there are latent Deadheads and other musical types here.


(click for larger image)
3d


And this column, sent to me by my wife, which says things I would like to have written, but am not good enough to.

As always, feel free to comment or e-mail me with your responses, but don’t feel obligated. I can always listen to the voice of the Invisible Reader in my head. It’s a familiar sound.

I wish for you and your loved ones a happy and prosperous New Year!