Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Best Damn Dead Squirrel Reporting on the Internet

I tread lightly here, because it wasn't just a few years ago that I was the idiot reporter bringing in news stories like this one (from Local News 8) Link his here; I can't guarantee it's permanent, however:

A squirrel got the shock of its life Monday morning, and so did people in his neighborhood. It happened in the area near Freeman and Cleveland Streets in Idaho Falls.

The little squirrel made his way to a transformer box on top of a power pole and was electrocuted. It landed on the ground.

The mishap caused an extremely loud explosion, and it startled several people living nearby.
"All of the sudden there was a huge ‘kaboom!' And I mean, it was loud! And then a lot of smoke came up from the ground," explained Diana Forbes, who witnessed the explosion.

The smoke near the ground was most likely from the body of the little squirrel. It apparently fell from power pole after the explosion.

Comments on the local news' website about this story have been comical to say the least. A few chimed in to say that the station had no right to parade this dead squirrel's remains on television, where innocent children are confronted with the grisly images. If her innocent kids are anything like mine, this is not the first unfortunate, dead animal they have seen in their lifetime. We had a dead bird in our front yard earlier this summer, which the kids found. We explained death to them -- a topic they're already familiar with, given the passing of their Opa (who died before the younger two were born, and at a time when the oldest wasn't even a year old). So the concept of death is not new to them. They asked a lot of questions. We answered them, honestly. We've talked to them about the fact that our dachshund, now 14 years old, is likely to die in the next few years. It'll be sad, we tell them, but that's how life goes.

Then there's the misdirected soul commenting on the story who decries the sentiment expressed by these two ladies, angrily snarling "It's people like you who have helped the government turn Americans into sheep," as if there's a vast conspiracy to conceal rodent death from the general population, or if the moment we cry for dead rodent censorship on local television is the exact same moment the feds will descend upon us with their helicopters with the owl-feather-coated rotors.

Then there's the ghoul who is upset that the TV station, instead of reporting on dead squirrels, isn't reporting on the traffic accidents he/she has seen in the last few days. These kinds of rubberneckers aren't content with driving by the site of destruction, they want the local TV station to aid and abet their rubbernecking. My Dad, rest his soul, was a serious rubbernecker. One of the most embarassing moments from my childhood came after a cop shouted at dad over me through the passenger window because Dad was moving too slow past the scene of an accident. Additionally, having been a reporter, I'd like to say this: These are the worst kinds of stories to do. Do you like ambulance-chasing lawyers? Why encourage ambulance-chasing among reporters? And, having been in a few accidents myself, I'd like to say that the last thing I need is some idiot reporter shoving a microphone in my face. Although if one did, I'd insist the only way I'd talk to them is if the printed "Brian Davidson, Local Boob" underneath my picture when they do the reporting. (Best Homer Simpson line ever, if I'm allowed a segue: "Our lives are in the hands of men no smarter than you or I. Many of them incompetent boobs.")

Urgh. All of this confirms the fact I'm glad I'm no longer in the news business.

Spiked History

Been reading a great book lately, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes. It ties in with the work I do on a fundamental level, so it’s been a real education. Anyway, this book has been a real eye-opener, and a lesson on how some broad-stroke journalists and historians present a distorted picture of things. For instance, you always hear about the letter Albert Einstein sent to FDR, raising the concern about Nazi Germany building the bomb first, and urging the United States to begin seriously its own investigation of nuclear fission for the purpose of bomb-making. What’s fascinating to me is that, up until now, you’d think it was Einstein who did the urging. Not so. He saw the importance, yes, but it was other physicists, notably Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, along with fellow physicist and Hungarian Edward Teller who were the urging behind the whole thing. They talked Einstein into signing his name to the letter because he had far more name recognition than they did with the figureheads in Washington, and in the popular press. Einstein hadn’t even been following (much) the discussion of nuclear fission until Szilard and Teller brought it to his attention. (Which makes sense, as Einstein was a theorist in relativity, a rather different branch of physics study than the nuclear physics that interested Teller and Szilard.)

I’ve also enjoyed, throughout this book, getting a peek into the minds and ways of these scientists, and some of the cockamamie things they had to do to get their experiments to work. In dealing with some of the radioactive substances, for instance, they had to get the stuff from one spot to another in a hurry, because the half-life was so short, often a matter of less than a minute. Apparently Enrico Fermi, in addition to being a good physicist, was also a fast runner, so the job always fell to him.

Equally interesting has been the latest chapter, looking at how the bureaucracy in both the United States and Germany either sped up or slowed down the research at critical times. With neither side really not knowing what the other was doing, due to a blackout both sides engaged in during their research – little of note was published on nuclear physics during the war years – it really became cat-and-mouse, guessing as to what the other guy was doing. And even when the scientists from opposing sides met, there was so much mistrust. Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg met in Copenhagen during the war, Bohr working in occupied Denmark and Heisenberg working in Germany. Heisenberg gave Bohr a schematic of the heavy water reactor they were working on in Germany, and though the two men had worked before, Bohr didn’t trust that Heisenberg was telling the truth – because he was so unsure of motivations, and so caught up in the Spy vs. Spy mentality. It’s all an interesting precursor to the furor and folly of the Cold War which, of course, carried nuclear physics more than any other science along for the ride.

Another interesting thing: The first nuclear pile – slabs of uranium and graphite, used to study neutron absorption and to look for plutonium – was built in New York City, not Chicago, though the one that gets all the attention was the one in Chicago, because that’s where the work was actually accomplished. Fermi had to move all of his blocks of uranium and graphite from New York to Chicago on the whim of a bureaucrat, who liked that Chicago was more central to other areas of research, notably Berkeley in California and the Oak Ridge reservation growing up out of the mud in Tennessee. As if there’s any less traveling involved when you haven’t concentrated the research and development phases in one spot. Even when they got to working, it all came down to politics. Los Alamos, Hanford, Oak Ridge, Berkeley, Chicago. I guess what I’m getting at is that the history we get in our textbooks, or from magazines and such, isn’t always accurate. It’s a caution to journalists (and I recognize this in myself) looking for shorthand ways to explain big things, mostly by perpetuating mistaken summations from the past or creating new mistakes out of whole cloth. No wonder scientists and engineers especially get fed up with journalists. I think it’s been of great advantage to me to work in this industry as well as journalism. In some ways, I think it’s making me a better researcher, which is probably more important than being a better writer.
Then again, there are times I think I’m so cute and stupid I wish someone would pat me on the head, get me a drink and send me to bed.
Add one linguistic mystery: How does a word go from “absorb” to “absorption,” is a mystery I’d like solved now.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Muppet Show - Sax and Violence

As I've struggled to find a meeting style that fits my personality, for some odd reason I'm taking inspiration from this bit of Muppet silliness. Everyone has a part -- maybe some of them are stupid -- but if we don't fulfill our roles and intermix as we should, the band leader will hire a new sax player.

Making Sense Out of Nonsense

So, the bailout bombed.

That it bombed is surprising. Surprising in that, on the surface and through the pinprick investigating I've done, having it bomb makes sense. I've tried reading what I can about the bailout, pro and con. I even tried reading the bill that the House pooped on, but honestly, I have no idea how anyone reads those bills, becasue in part they imply complete familiarity with other bills and such being amended by this bill. No one in their right mind has time to do that kind of reconciliation.

What a Harvard economics lecturer, Jeffrey Miron, says today in a piece on CNN.com makes sense. Here's a quote:

The current mess would never have occurred in the absence of ill-conceived federal policies. The federal government chartered Fannie Mae in 1938 and Freddie Mac in 1970; these two mortgage lending institutions are at the center of the crisis. The government implicitly promised these institutions that it would make good on their debts, so Fannie and Freddie took on huge amounts of excessive risk.

Worse, beginning in 1977 and even more in the 1990s and the early part of this century, Congress pushed mortgage lenders and Fannie/Freddie to expand subprime lending. The industry was happy to oblige, given the implicit promise of federal backing, and subprime lending soared.

This subprime lending was more than a minor relaxation of existing credit guidelines. This lending was a wholesale abandonment of reasonable lending practices in which borrowers with poor credit characteristics got mortgages they were ill-equipped to handle.

He goes on to say this: The problem started with bad government. Adding more government isn't going to fix the problem.

I don't like the idea that what I pay in taxes should go to bail out someone who
took on a debt they didn't quite understand, using tools (sub-prime mortgages)
that are essentially geared to bite homeowners in the rear. My wife and I deliberately chose a home well inside our price range, in an area where the cost of living is low compared to other areas in the region, and, frankly, chose a house that's rather in need of a bit of service. We'd looked into building a new house, but such adds on tremendously to the cost of housing -- in our case, at least an additional $50,000 -- that we didn't feel was justified by having that new house smell. We've put money into the house, fixing it up, and I've done most of the labor, from electric to shingles to window and door replacements, myself. The only thing we contracted out was $1,000 worth of plumbing for the downstairs bathroom. Sure, parts of the house look like a homeowner committed a handyman project against it, but most of it does not. The roof, especailly, draws compliments, and that includes compliments from the contractor across the street.

So why, I ask, should I bail out people who didn't make the same prudent decisions? I know not everyone can live here in Idaho where the cost of living is low. I'l also lucky to be in the job I've got now -- it certainly could be a lot worse. But if it were worse, I would not be looking to the government, hat in hand, hand out, for money because my dumb mistakes led to my downfall.

Having the bailout fail hurts us financially. We'll take a drubbing in our retirement investments. That can't be helped. But I guess what I'm saying is that I don't feel that selfish -- approve of an idea just because it might help the status quo. When something's broke, you fix it. You don't slap a patch on it so it can continue along its merry way.

You could, however, climb the Cliffs of Insanity, and, perhaps, find salvation there. Or the Man in Black. Either way, you're covered.

Message From The Godfather

Three major points became clear as I read about the spiral model today and this weekend:

1) This model, though related to agile programming, requires greater patience. With cycles lasting six months to a year, rather than weeks or months as in the agile model, those looking for a quick win ought to look elsewhere.

2) This model is geared towards projects that the end users plan on using, with or without modification, for years to come, rather than using it until an alternative comes along, unless that alternative represents a paradigm shift in how the project might be used.

3) Again, as with the agile model, adequate communication is key in making this model work. Without adequate communication, in fact, there is a greater risk of failure at greater cost than with the agile model, because of the time involved in moving from cycle to cycle.

The key component of the spiral model – risk identification – is an exciting feature. Quite often, I note, and I see this in myself and with a lot of people I know, when we’ve got a project, the tendency is to jump in and start working/writing/developing, without really looking at what weaknesses or risks are involved with the approach we’re taking, or what risks may be encountered with any approach. The first iteration of Uncharted.net, for example, was accomplished without properly assessing the risks, the primary risk being that as the site grew, a severe bottleneck would develop when it comes to putting new content up on the site. The goal, obviously, was to present site content in a way that is pleasing to the eye and consistent with company style. An unassessed risk, however, was the WYSWYG editor used for posting content – Number one, you folks in this class already know how I feel about WYSIWYG. Number two, the editor had NO ability to incorporate photos – it was simply a text editor. To incorporate photos into the text, a photo editor had to go in and manually tinker with the site to make it work. That led to a lot of delay, some of which we still haven’t caught up with.

What worries me is that the second iteration of Uncharted, which has adequately addressed this risk, did not include additional risk analysis. Obviously, I’m taking this class a year too late. But we do have one saving grace – a month when we’ll be allowed to tinker with the site and try to make it break in as many ways as possible. I’ll try my best.

It all comes down to communication – there’s a wall there, as Kronk might say. Our design team has worked solely on design and user interface, only occasionally asking the rest of the team for input – and the input has come in the form of having us look at screen shots, which tells us some about design, but little about functionality. So I’m nervous.

So this takes me to what Barry Boehm (who must be the godfather of spiral, as his name shows up everywhere) et al say in “Using the WinWin Spiral Model: A Case Study,” which appeared somewhere; I’ve lost the URL. (UPDATE: Martin found the link for me. Thanks.) Anyway, the article says: “The most important outcome of product definition is not a rigorous specification, but a team of stakeholders with enough trust and shared vision to adapt effectively to unexpected changes.” He outlines how a group of students worked with the USC library on a website that brought some of the library’s collections to the Internet. Initially, there was a lack of trust, but as the teams worked together over a few months, they saw an increase in trust, which came with increased communication. This time to get to know each other and to build that trust is a distinct advantage of the spiral model, as there is time built into the cycles (at least as Boehm outlines them; I realize there are others who use the spiral model as an extreme programming tool, making some cycles last a day) to allow that trust to build.

Another item I like in Boehm’s approach to the model is the admonition not to conclude negotiation – which involves that building of trust and assessment of risk – without coming in with a prototype. He says it best: “Don’t finish negotiations before prototyping. If you do, the agreements destabilize once the clients see the prototypes.” He advocates combining the negotiating and prototyping segments, so clients can visualize how their negotiated points may be integrated into the final product. Again, it comes to communication, rather than coding or documentation, as being the key to making use of any model succeed.

That Bird Talked to Me

Saturday, we took our kids to the Tautphaus Park Zoo because it was free, and that's about the only way we can afford it at the moment. I was not looking forward to the petting zoo, because all it means is watching a bunch of lounging rabbits, a bitey llama and those goats who shed hair and stink slightly, of, well, goat.

But those goats were pretty entertaining this time around, much more than the lions, who were taking it easy because they knew their new cubs were leaving and they'd no longer have to fuss with the likes of homework, play dates with the tigers, et cetera. The boys (our boys, not the goat boys) had some food pellets to feed the goats. Two of the goats were rather aggressive, cooperating quite nicely with the boys but getting as much in each others' way as possible. They got to fighting so much about the food that they each darted to an opposite corner of the pen, charged at each other and klonked skulls. I thought they only did that on Mutal of Omaha's Wild Kingdom or in a posed Marty Stauffer special.

Then there was the parrot. They had a rather scraggly looking parrot, a cockatoo, I believe, walking on the rail around the goat pen. I glanced at it, then got distracted by Isaac. Next thing I knew I heard a little cawing sound. I looked up and into the eyes of the bird, staring at me from the rail, about a foot from my face. Startled, I said, "How's it going, bird?" "How's it going," the bird replied. Then it waddled off. Weird. Birds NEVER talk to me. I've always prided myself on that clear marker of my mental stability. No longer, apparently.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Many moons ago when I was but a wee lad, I remember a giant accomplishment: After several years of toil writing boring short stories and crappy poetry, I finally had enough accumulated to completely fill a 1.44 MB 3 1/2 inch floppy. Stupendous, I thought. I had actually amasssed enough original writing and such that I had crossed the etheric plane into needing TWO disks to back everything up.

Tonight, I burned a 4.7 gig DVD of stuff I've done in the past six months, and there was NOT enough room on the disk to take it all. Granted, a lot of it was pictures. But 4.7 gig is still a lot. And, like the stuff squeezed onto that original floppy, most of it is rubbish. But it's mine.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

You've Seen The Photos, Now Watch the Movie

Though I'm still struggling with video quality, I'm still having fun making these videos. I hope this one is good enough to show some of the beauty we enjoy here in Idaho. The desert part.

Bad Crime Writing

With the relief you feel when you have your first good poop after a bout of diarrhea, Mark Crater lowered his gun, holstered it, patted its butt and then lifted his hand to his nose to smell the odor of flop sweat and burnished steel clinging to his fingers. He looked down, out he fourth-story window, where Ace McCracken, the vile criminal he’d been chasing all weekend, had just jumped to his death rather than being shot by Crater’s anxious bullets. Crater laughed cynically. “Didn’t have any bullets left, you idiot,” he said to the crumpled form on the wet alley cobbles. “Couldn’t have shot you if I’d wanted. And boy,” he said. “I wanted to.”

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ugly Tips

In the interest of getting rid of all the junk I cling to, I've been going through boxes and folders as of late, discarding stuff such as high school papers, college papers and the like. Some of it I've been preserving by scanning it into the computer. So I did with a slew of identification cards I have, beginning in high school. So today, I present an ugliness retrospective.

Starting with that all-important sophomore year in high school. I was so snazzy in that 80s layered look, I'm surprised I just didn't spontaneously combust.
The scariest thing about this ID card from junior year is that up until a few years ago, I still had that shirt.

This is more than an identification card. It's an I.D.entification card.

Then I was off to college. So young then. So baby-faced. What happened?
I got thinner, that's what. First ID card, post-mission, at good ol' Lame is Rob Ricks College.

Then I was off again to hedonistic Moscow. I'd say the studio lights were too bright, but I never have eyes in any picture taken of me. Note, however, that both U of I cards sport the nifty gear logo of the university, famed from Moscow to Pullman for its engineering school. Not the wimpy little logo they have now. I went to Moscow when the school proudly wore its engineering on its sleeve. Though I was not an engineer. I was a comm major, destined to take classes in whatever building in which room could be found, through a college housed in a little building that got demolished to make way for the new student center.

Those carefree Argonaut days. This was the last press pass I had, though I worked for just about ten years at papers outside of school.

You know what I think? Ugly! I think it's a conspiracy!

Drawings for Daddy, Part I

Now begins what I hope may become a regular feature of this blog: Drawings for Daddy. If you have young children, you know they produce an inordinate amount of original art, all of which they believe is suitable for framing and eternal preservation. We had bales of the stuff until I hit upon the plan of scanning the pictures into the computer, thus preserving the art but not necessarily the mounds of paper it's attached to. We do, of course, save the best, but if we saved everything, we'd have to have our study declared a landfill. So, here are a few examples:

Daddy Helps Lexie Pray, by Lexie, age 6:

I Am A (Cyclops) Child of God, by Isaac, age 4:

Mom, How Do You Spell Daddy's Name, by Liam, age 8:

I just get teary-eyed looking at it all.

Pictures of My Butte

As promised -- albeit a week late -- photos from our hike up the North Menan Butte.

First, a view of the sun, shining through a rather aged and shriveled juniper:

Next, a view through the windows of the Peephole Cave, near the summit on the west side of the butte:

Liam's teacher and a few classmates at the top. Liam's on the right.

From the top of the rim, it's a looooooong way down to the valley and the sage brush plain below. Like the rocks, though. They're fun.

And a closeup of a juniper. Love those scaly leaves.

And then a visit to the buttes wouldn't be complete without a loud cheer from the hikers. Here goes:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mr. Facetious

With things like this to consider, it's a wonder the true greenies just don't up and spontaneously combust -- except that such combustion would add carbon the the environment.

Now honestly, if you think domestic dog and cat poop is an environmental problem, consider these:

1. Polar bear poop decreases the albedo of North Pole ice, making it melt faster.

2. With all the concern about poopy pollutants swilling our streams and rivers, what's to be done about the fish pooping directly IN the streams and rivers?

3. If a bear poops in the woods, do they bury their waste far from water sources and underneath at least 12 inches of soil?

No Bailout for Me, Personally

As the East Coast, Washington, the presidential candidates and a constellation of Joe Schmoes, bloggers, bloviators and whotheheckars continue to wet their pants over the impending meltdown on Wall Street and the end of life as we know it, I want to go on record saying this:

I, personally, do not want a bailout. Although a COLA of more than 1.5 to 2.5 percent this year would be nice.

One of the biggest arguments I keep hearing against the $700 billion bailout the suits have proposed is that the little guy on Main Street is suffering, too. The argument is that we, the taxpayer, should not bail out big corporations that made stupid mistakes, cooked the books, ate the cheese, whatever you want to call it. I couldn't agree more. The plan Bush proposes, after some compromise with Congress, sounds reasonable. I would just rather that the Main Streeters express their disagreement without, cough cough, holding their hands out, wanting a bailout of their own.

I admit, when my wife and I bought our house, we didn't read all the fine print in the funny little contracts we signed. We were smart enough, however, to know that we weren't buying more house than we could afford, or signing up to some jiggered-up mortgage that would blow up in our faces.

I admit, when it comes to our IRAs and other investments, that I have no idea what I'm doing. I am smart enough to know, however, that nobody but my wife and I convinced us to put money in the stock market. Even with our paltry investments, we've lost quite a bit. That is, as my father-in-law (our financial adviser, a shrewd one at that, who is NOT opening his quarterly statements recently either) the risk of doing business in the stock market. Prices go down and people lose money. End of story.

This big bailout -- along with $25 billion of taxpayer money Congress is considering handing over to Ford and General Motors, quietly, as the banks and such wait hat in hand for their lolly -- will likely proceed in some form or another without my approval or understanding. That's the inevitability of the "C" I got in economics class and representative democracy. I'd just like someone, somewhere, to take responsibility for their actions and put their hands down when the bailout wagon comes trundling along.

Does the bailout push us closer to socialism? Are we, as Time Magazine putting it, becoming the United States of France? And, at the bottom of it all, is that such a bad thing? I'm going to get letters on this. But understand one thing: I won't ask you for taxpayer money when you deliver those letters.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ghosts Explained

Thanks to the fine researchers at Fark.com, I had the joy of reading a list entitled “101 Signs That You’ve Encountered A Ghost.” Now, I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts the way the Cowardly Lion believes in ghosts in The Wizard of Oz. My beliefs are more along the lines of those of Granny Weatherwax, from Terry Pratchett’s novels, who knows spirits exist but not in the sad, sheet-draped, “woogy-woogy” way that this list implies.

But that’s beside the point. As I read this list, I became convinced it could easily be "101 Signs That You’ve Got Small Children in the House,” with only minor modification and explanation. So here goes. In no particular order. My additions to the ghostly list appear in bold.

1. You feel like you’re being watched from a ceiling corner of the room. Kids use stealth when they’re out of bed after hours, but are rarely wise enough to hide where parents can’t see them.

2. You see unexplained lights in houses when no one is home. Chances are some kid left the light on.

3. Your dog freaks out over something you can’t see, cowers and runs from the room, or refuses to enter the room. The kids have pulled her tail or ears once too many times today.

4. Your cat stares at a certain spot, his hair raises, he hisses and bolts from the room. See No. 3.

5. You see a transparent human form walking around. Substitute “naked” for “transparent,” and there you go.

6. You feel a weight on your bed, as if someone is sitting there but no one is. Come on. Someone is ALWAYS sitting there. Hiding under the blanket, giggling.

7. You hear someone shout your name. I don’t even need to explain this one.

8. You find physical evidence of footprints that can’t be explained. At least until one of the kids confesses to stepping on dog poop before they came in.

9. Electrical devices start operating by themselves. The boys have taken the TV remote controls to bed again.

10. A child’s toy starts moving on its own or if it’s electronic, starts making noise. The kid just dropped it like a hot rock because brother/sister have a more interesting toy.

11. You see a light colored mist form into any shape and the origin of the mist is unknown. At least until you catch the boys playing “Air Freshner” in the bathroom again.

12. You hear crying of an unknown origin. See No. 7.

13. You smell a fragrance in your home that you don’t own. It’s amazing how many fragrances I’ve smelled in homes I don’t own. Guess even ghost-chasers are occasionally snagged by the unclear antecedent.

14. A picture flying (not falling) off the wall and into the room. The kids are jumping on the bed in their room again.

15. You hear the sound of footsteps when no one is there. See No. 6.

16. You see someone who looks as real as you do but as you watch they disappear. Sometimes all it takes is one look from Daddy and the bedtime escapee disappears.

17. You’re physically touched by someone that isn’t there – your shirt or hair is tugged, someone brushes by or lays a hand on your shoulder. See No. 6.

18. More elevated – you’re slapped, pushed or shoved by something you can’t see. See No. 6.

19. A foul odor comes from nowhere and then disappears. And then reappears when your son walks by.

20. Furniture is rearranged – even heavy furniture. Dad got fed up searching for Legos.

21. Water is turned on or off by itself. The four-year-old – who wets the bed if he’s over-watered – is sneaking a “sip.”

22. You hear music from an unknown source. The kids got their tape player down from the high shelf again.

23. Lights turning on an off by themselves. Parents can turn off every light in the house and have them all on again 30 seconds later because the kids are afraid of the dark.

24. More elevated – you see the light switch move when no one is touching it. Kids are damn quick.

25. Unexplained writing appears on a wall, mirror or piece of paper. Kids found the Sharpies again.

26. Objects are missing from a locked box or safe and show up later outside of the secured place. No place is too secure for the four-year-old, who can pick any lock with his fingernails.

27. Your doorbell rings but no one is there. But the bushes next to the house are giggling.

28. You hear doors or cabinets opening and closing by themselves. Someone’s sneaking something.

29. You SEE a door or cabinet open or close when no one is near it. See No. 24.

30. More elevated – doors or cabinets slamming shut with extreme force. The older two don’t want the four-year-old to play with them any more.

31. A child tells you they see someone that you can’t. (Children and animals are very sensitive to the paranormal) Come to my house and I’ll introduce you to Zarahemna, the imaginary warrior.

32. Faces appearing within inanimate objects and then disappear. Yup. Like doorways, mirrors, shiny dishes. Soon as you turn around, you’re back to No. 8.

33. You feel a cold spot when there isn’t a reason for it to be cold in that area. Someone dropped a cup of water.

34. You find handprints of unexplained origin. Variant of No. 8.

35. You hear hushed whispers but can’t find the source of the sound. As soon as you enter the room, the kids play possum.

36. Items disappear and then reappear in an unexpected place. See No. 26.

37. You see a shadow of someone in your peripheral vision. They’re sneaking out of bed again.

38. You look into a mirror and see someone else reflected there but when you look into the room where they should be standing no one is there. See No. 37.

39. You see balls of unexplained light. The four-year-old just ran up to you and punched you in the groin. Again.

40. You get a sudden sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and Goosebumps on your arms or a prickly feeling on the back of your neck all at the same time. Damn. It’s time for the nature hike field trip. Up the mountainside. With two third-grade classes. And it’s hot.

41. You get sudden cold chills accompanied by a sense of fear. See No. 40.

42. You feel uneasy in certain areas of your home like the basement or attic. Because it’s cluttered with toys, and you swear you just cleaned it five minutes ago . . . (and are these ghost-writers stealing lines from Ghostbusters now? I'm ready to believe them).

43. You feel a sudden warm or hot spot in your home. Somebody didn’t make it to the bathroom on time. Again.

44. You feel a breeze inside the house when the windows are closed. The four-year-old’s out the front door again, staring at the moon.

45. A spirit orb appears in a photo you’ve taken. Turns out it was a picture the kid took of his sister, shining the flashlight at the camera.

46. A musical instrument plays by itself (piano etc.) I was once accompanied on a walk to the post office by two flutes, tooting exceptionally loudly. I certainly didn’t recognize the kids playing them.

47. A sudden feeling of nausea in a particular room when you’re not sick. You’ve just stumbled on the soiled underwear stash under the eight-year-old’s bed.

48. You have thoughts that don’t fit your personality when in a particular area. In the driveway, getting out of the truck, just coming home from work, hearing a lot of shouting inside. You ponder getting back in the truck and driving until the gas runs out.

49. Laughter without a source. The eight-year-old is reading Foxtrot while hiding in the bunkbed cubbyhole. Again.

50. You hear sounds of pain, like moaning, but there isn’t anyone there. No one wants to fess up about how the six-year-old “fell” down the stairs. Not even the six-year-old.

51. You hear sounds or smell a certain fragrance or odor at the same time every day. See No. 47.

52. You see unusual things reflected in glass objects. The kids found their supply of hillbilly teeth.

53. You record voices of people who weren’t present on a tape or digital recording device. You’ve not yet mastered how to say “Sit down and shut up” in a nurturing manner.

54. You answer your phone and the voice of someone you know that has died speaks to you. The eight-year-old has picked up the phone extension, claiming to be George Washington. Again.

55. Small, flashing lights zigzag around the room. The kids found their supply of tiny flashlights.

56. The television set goes berserk for no apparent reason. See No. 9.

57. Light bulbs blow out on a regular basis. See No. 14.

58. The phone rings with a different ringtone that it’s not programmed for. The eight-year-old has learned to program the phone. And is teaching the others.

59. Abrupt mood swings or changes in a person’s character only in specific areas or in places thought to be haunted. See No. 48.

60. You feel frozen to the spot for a short amount of time. See No. 48.

61. Visitors to your home often complain that they feel uncomfortable, couldn’t sleep well or heard and saw things they couldn’t explain. See the entire list, but particularly No. 47.

62. People in your family are consistently having nightmares. Because they’re constantly bringing home books about sharks, octopuses, dinosaurs, UFOs and volcanoes from the school library.

63. You hear tapping on the walls. When you checked on the “sleeping” kids five minutes ago, they were playing possum.

64. You’ve seen what appear to be red eyes in the darkness. See No. 62. It’s your spouse, responding to repeated nightmares.

65. You’ve awakened to see misty people standing around your bed. The four-year-old had too many “sips” before going to bed the night before.

66. There’s blood running down the walls. See No. 50.

67. Unexplained whistling. The six-year-old finally learned to whistle, and boy is she proud.

68. You have visions of how someone died as you’re falling asleep. See No. 54.

69. If you have a rocking chair, it rocks by itself. The kids are throwing pillows at it again.

70. An entity tries to harm you by holding a pillow over your face. Or a dolly. Or a stuffed animal. Because naptime for Mommy or Daddy is officially over.

71. You hear pages of books or newspapers turning. See No. 63.

72. You’re filming a family event and an apparition appears in the footage. Any random child has decided to entertain the family by emerging from their bedroom with all their spare underwear worn on their head.

73. A ghostly voice threatens you. See No. 54.

74. You feel someone breathing on your shoulder or neck. If any parent has NOT experienced this, I want to trade their children for ours.

75. You wake up to find odd marks or scratches on your body that wasn’t there when you went to sleep. See No. 13, but substitute “body that wasn’t there when you went to sleep” for “homes I don’t own.” Alternate explanation: Kids slept with Mommy and Daddy after experiencing No. 62.

76. Black marks suddenly appear on the walls of your home. Another variant of No. 8.

77. You’re alone in the house, and you hear a door slam in another part of the house. School’s out.

78. You hear scratching sounds from behind the walls. See No. 25.

79. A candle is suddenly blown out when no one is near it. “Who dares leave a lit candle unattended with kids in the house!”

80. You’re driving down the road, see someone walking on the side but when you look back at them in your rearview mirror, no one is there. Because you can’t see through the blankets, balloons, toys, books and grocery bags stuffed in the back of the car.

81. You’ve seen objects levitating in the air. Lego fight.

82. You’ve been levitated into the air. You sat on or stepped on some of the Legos from the Lego fight.

83. You’ve woken up because your bed is violently shaking. It’s 6:30 am Saturday and the kids are anxious to start the day.

84. Papers are jerked out of your hands when no one is near you. When they want something, kids have very long arms.

85. A glowing cloud hovers in the room. See No. 11.

86. The air in certain areas of your house may feel heavy or stagnant even though you try to freshen it up. Underwear stash odors linger.

87. You become sick with an illness that the doctor can’t diagnosis or treat. Combination of Nos. 86 and 48.

88. You lock a door or window only to find it unlocked or vice versa. See Nos. 26 and 44.

89. You see apparitions while touring a battleground or graveyard. Quite possible a variant of No. 72.

90. You’re shopping and turn to look at a person nearby you and discover they don’t have a face. You blink, look again and they’re gone or they disappear right in front of you. When shopping with Mommy or Daddy, kids sometimes achieve speeds faster than that of light.

91. A woman or man walks up to you in a public place, gives you what seems like a message and then disappears. Possibly reporting a No. 72 in progress, or some other child- or parenting-borne indiscretion they’d like you to remedy.

92. You look up at a house from street level and see someone standing in a doorway or window when you know that no one is home or the home is empty or abandoned. The kid didn’t want to get caught sneaking home from school again, so he/she has gone deep.

93. You see a single light and hear a train coming down the tracks when the tracks are no longer in use and the train never really goes by. The children were so bitter the last time you spotted a train and didn’t tell them until the train was already passing that now you see trains everywhere.

94. You hear someone breathing in an empty room. The rooms are NEVER empty! NEVER!

95. The radio in your car turns on or off by itself. The transmission’s going out. Okay, so this is the ONLY one I could not link to having children. So could be a poltergeist. But I’ve also seen the transmission angle.

96. You hear screams or ghostly activity at specific times every day – usually at night. See No. 37.

97. A “lady in white” is seen walking down your hall or steps. The six-year-old drank too much and is making multiple trips to the bathroom in her nightgown.

98. You see a dark colored mist that forms inside and takes the shape of a person. The mud fight was a smashing success.

99. The batteries in your flashlights, cameras, phones etc drain very quickly when in areas that are thought to be haunted. The kids got to them before you did.

100. You wake and feel a pressure on your chest that doesn’t have a medical reason. Except for the toddler sitting on your chest, counting the chest hairs poking out of your shirt.

101. You sit down in a chair and it feels like you just sat in someone’s lap – but the chair is empty. “That’s MY chair, Daddy!”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sesame Street Therapy

A friend of mine is convinced that if people who were mad at each other would just sit down and watch the Muppets for six weeks straight, they'd learn to get a long better. I believe there's thruth in that: Best ways to get to know a person is laugh with them or cry with them. So the next time you're angry at someone, sit them down and watch all the Sesame Street videos in this vein: The Mad Painter.

My favorite Mad Painter interlude came when he painted the Number 8 on the bald man's head. Why the man simply let him paint -- even when he handed him the 8 to hold while he painted -- always befuddled me. I do appreciate, however, the Mad Painter's strict adherence to protocol. Before he begins painting the Number 8, he does remove his swim mask and snorkel, replacing them with his signature bowler hat.

The actor behind the paint brush is Paul Benedict, who it seems did a lot of work in TV and film, but not much in the films I've seen. He does appear as Judge Womack in The Addams Family. He's also credited as "The Zen Buddhist" in that Dick Van Dyke classic, Cold Turkey. And, based on that chin, he could probably do a mean John Kerry.

I'd like to meet him one of these days and say, "Thank you, Mad Painter. You made my childhood a bit more surreal." Because who wouldn't want as a role model a guy who painted numbers on random things?

The more I think about Sesame Street (and who isn't thinking more of S.S. these days, given the headlines) the more I realize its true gift was breaking down that Fourth Wall and talking directly to we children. They, and Mr. Rogers, excelled at that. Thanks.

Wall Street and Wart Removal

Atlanta is out of gas.

The federal government wants $700 billion to bail out Wall Street – on top of the $172 billion the Federal Reserve shelled out last week.

And the warts on my thumb keep coming back.

The third item is the only one of the three I feel competent discussing in this forum. I’ve tried those paint-on, over the counter wart removal medicines, but these warts are pernicious. Isaac’s gone one as well that just won’t go away.

Maybe that’s the best way to write about the second item. No matter what kind of remedies whomever puts on Wall Street, the problems aren’t going to go away. So the government wants to buy assets at a discount from both U.S. and foreign firms, hold on to them, then sell them at a profit to get the $700 billion back. Who believes that will happen, given the government’s propensity to buy high, sell low, on just about every pie they get their finger in? These warts aren’t going to go away with $700 billion worth of whitewash. And while I like Sen. Christopher Dodd’s ideas of giving the government stakes in the companies they bail out and curbing executive compensation at said firms, I’ve got to wonder if those are only symbolic gestures. More wart remover.

Kiplinger.com has a pretty comprehensive history. a chain of events that led up to this month's debacle, here. Good reading.

But, unlike most in the Peanut Gallery section of the Blogosphere, I don’t pretend to understand all of this mess. I do know I won’t be opening the quarterly statements I’ll be getting in the next few weeks from our IRAs. I’m depressed enough with other monkeyshines at the moment.

Speaking of monkeyshines, the situation to which I’ve alluded to cryptically may be coming to a happy resolution, though it does mean another string of late-night meetings. Ugh.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Spud Day

Culture of the Spud
Small-town celebration touts Idaho’s most famous crop

That some folks in Idaho are passionate about potatoes, you expect.

That this most famous of Idaho products is celebrated in small-town Shelley, population 3,813, where the local high school mascot is a potato wearing a crown, a robe and a scepter, you expect.
That, in Idaho, the weather changes every five minutes, you expect.

That most of the crowd jovially retires to tents selling the likes of scrapbooking supplies and cinnamon almonds when a sudden downpour of rain and hail, accompanied by apocalyptic claps of thunder and jolts of lightning, scatters the thousands awaiting the crowning event of said celebration to wait out the storm, you expect.

But when Miss Russet, crowned only days earlier, drops a pat of butter and shakes a bit of salt into the liquid mess that is hundreds of gallons of water (liberally mixed with rain) and over a thousand pounds of instant mashed potatoes churned by a cement truck and dumped into a pit dug into the infield of a baseball diamond, you do not expect that she’ll dips a spoon into the goo and takes a sip.

But that’s exactly what she does. And the crowd, soaked by rain, sitting on dented aluminum bleachers and separated from the arena for the coming sport by only a string of bright orange snow fencing, roars its approval. They’ve eaten their potatoes. They’re wearing their potato buttons. They cheered as children as young as three and four competed to see who could pick a bushel of potatoes the fastest. From their shelters, they cheered the hardy, foolhardy young men who kept going at the potato-picking competition during the 20-minute downpour.

They’re ready.

This is Idaho Annual Spud Day, celebrated in Shelley since 1927. The mess of instant potatoes Miss Russet just sampled is part of the Spud Tug, a tug-of-war contest that leaves the losers swimming in—and spitting out – that wonderful, starchy mess.

Explaining that passion for potatoes is sometimes a bit difficult, says Katie Wann, a Shelley-area resident and transplant from small-town Oklahoma to small-town Idaho four years ago. “In Oklahoma, we have the oil, we have the cattle. We don’t have the potatoes,” she says. Though she can explain participating in spud harvest easily enough – she’s helped with the harvest on area farms since she arrived – Spud Days often “brings comedy” when she tries to explain it to her Sooner relatives. “I explained the whole thing to my sister-in law last year by e-mail,” Wann says, from the free baked potatoes – nearly 7,500 were served this year – to the potato-picking contests, the Spud Tug to the thousands who come to the celebration from as far away as Wyoming and Utah. All her sister-in-law could say, Wann says, was “That’s so unusual.”

So is Bingham County, home not only to Idaho Spud Day in Shelley, but also to the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, the county seat. What Idaho is for the potato, Bingham County is for Idaho. The county covers 2,120 square miles of Idaho’s 83,570 square miles. Of Idaho’s annual potato crop – in 2006 it was 12.3 billion pounds – Bingham Couny grew 30 percent or 3.7 billion pounds, roughly twice the poundage of potatoes produced by the entire state of Maine. Potato farming and potato processing – from instant flakes to French fries to hash browns, and soon, to ethanol, brewed in part from potato waste – is the county’s livelihood.

So potatoes are familiars to the people who celebrate Spud Day. No witch without a black cat; no Bingham Countyite without his or her potato.

At the potato-picking contest, it’s the childrens’ hour. Young boys manly try to scoop enormous handfuls of potatoes form the ground to drop into their baskets, not caring that as many tubers fall from their arms as fall home. Other young men, and most young ladies, frantically pick potato after potato from the ground – the outfield of a baseball diamond – and pepper them into baskets. Those who rabbit the potatoes in rapid-fire typically win.

Other youngsters, waiting for their turn at the race, sit and lounge and wrestle on woven plastic sacks of potatoes placed at the corner of the picking area. The air has that fresh potato smell – a little dirty, a little musty.

Others exchange shots with potato guns – low-powered toys that shoot bb-sized bits of potato using air pumped into the gun. Potatoes riddled with holes – the shooters make their ammo by jamming the tip of the gun into a spud – litter the park. “I know where you can get a bunch of potato guns,” a youngster says as he races to the picking area. “Mine just broke. I’m going to get another one.” Only in Idaho.

Also only in Idaho: The guns are tiny cousins of the potato bazookas, built of PVC pipe and fired with hairspray and lighter flints, brought out in the fields far away from mothers and the population in general, capable of shooting a whole potato hundreds of feet.

Bobbi Southerin, who has lived in Shelley for about two years, moving to town from Sugar City, Idaho, a town once known for its sugar beet crop. For her, Spud Day is “like the East Idaho State Fair (in Blackfoot) but you don’t have to pay to get in.” Indeed, many of the vendors – from Wimpy’s burgers to the Pronto Pup trailer to the shack that sells enormous deep-fried turkey legs – are fair staples.

For Paty Gil, Spud Day shows Shelley at its best. A native of Brownsville, Texas, Gil moved to Shelley in 1978, following her father who came to set up a Baptist ministry in the area. Gil is still active in the Baptist church in nearby Idaho Falls. “The community has grown a lot” over the 20 years she’s lived here, she says. She’s seen her fellow Hispanic population soar. “It’s good for the community, as we grow, that we grow together,” she says. Spud Day, she says, shows the city’s multicultural face. As one walks through the city park where the event is held, half the conversations are in English, the other half in Spanish. On the playground next to the shelter where the free baked potatoes are passed out, kids swing and scream and slide and holler together, not caring that one’s skin is lighter, another’s darker.

Gil is here today, in part, to support that multicultural face. She advises the Hispanic Awareness Leadership Organization at Shelley High School, a group of Hispanics and Anglos who raise money for charity and perform service in the area. Spud Day is a big fund-raising event for the group – here in droves in their deep red HALO t-shirts – where they raise about half of the money they get each year for a program that provides Christmas gifts to needy families. “I see a town getting past differences,” she says. “The best part about Spud Day is that any family can come and have a good time together with their neighbors.”

Billy Park of Ammon, a city of 12,000 to the north of Shelley, plays an unusual role in the Spud Tug. He’s here with a 20-ton cement truck from Burns Concrete of Idaho Falls, set to mix 1,800 gallons of water with more than a thousand pounds of instant mashed potato flakes donated by Basic American Foods – Shelley’s largest single employer – to make the potatoes for the tug-of-war pit. “The hardest part of this is cleaning the potatoes out,” he says, laughing. “The concrete comes out a little better. The potatoes get stuck in the truck real bad.” He’s helped out at Spud Day for the past four years. With a bucket brigade, a crew of five scoop out the flakes, trucked to the park in two man-tall boxes, into the cement truck. The scooping takes about fifteen minutes, the mixing, about five. “I’d like to see some concrete finishers try to work with this stuff,” he says. “I don’t think they’d like it.”

The crowd does.

The margarine-yellow liquid gushes down the chute, splattering on the compacted dirt at the bottom of the pit.

The crowd – blond-haired children, salt-and-peppered old men, high school students, farmers, teachers, mothers and fathers – screams.

To the east, lightning bolts from the clouds.

The rain starts.

The margarine-yellow liquid still gushes, splashing now in the pit, with lumps of mashed potatoes plopping into the guck. The rain comes. Harder. Harder, pelting the liquid in the pit, making it appear to boil as if it were an emanation from the nether regions below this arena.

The rain comes harder. Hailstones fall.

The crowd flees.

Inside tents brought to the park for the selling of scrapbook supplies and cinnamon almonds, the crowd waits.

The rain passes.

Miss Russet does her seasoning and tasting, and the first teams come out – celebrities, from local television stations. Not quite chivalrous, the teams place ladies first; first to go into the pit. The teams grab the rope – two-inch-thick hemp, bumpy, good for gripping, with a knot tied at each horsetail end. The announcer hollers “Tension on the rope,” straining his voice to be heard without speakers, put away during the deluge.


The teams pull. Channel Eight pulls Channel Three into the muck with a splash. One teammate submerges completely, arises spitting out potatoes, her clothing soaked and covered with a wake of soggy flakes. She grabs the rope and pulls her teammates in, leaving only the smug cameraman on the shore of this sea of goo, film at six.

Next up: two teams of children. Not worried about the cool weather. Not worried about what they’re about to fall into, get into their hair, perhaps swallow.

This is Spud Day. It’s expected.

What is a Russet?

Miss Russet, OK. King Russet, mascot of Shelley High School, fine. But what’s a russet?

A russet is part of the proper name for the potato most commonly grown in Idaho, the Russet Burbank. This potato variety owes its genesis to Luther Burbank, a 19th century botanist and horticulturist who developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including a spineless cactus used for cattle feed and the plumcot, a cross between the plum and the apricot. He developed the Burbank potato, winnowing it from several types he experimented with on his farm in Massachusetts. The Burbank potato produced incredible yields, when compared to the other varieties he tinkered with.

The Russet Burbank is a natural offshoot of the Burbank, and owes its added name to the reddish-brownish (mostly brownish) and net-patterned skin it has. If you’ve eaten McDonalds French fries, you’ve eaten a Russet Burbank potato.

These potatoes are not used for potato chips. Chip manufacturers prefer the Maris Piper potato which, unlike the Russet Burbank or Burbank varieties, does not turn brown (due to carmelization of its higher sugar content) than the Maris Piper potatoes do when they’re fried as chips.

Gorilla Detector

I apologize for the poor image quality; I don't have any larger pictures of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew not being eaten by a gorilla. Maybe if I keep searching. . .

The video can be found here.
This is the beginning of what could become a lucrative amateur psychiatric practice if I could get the copyrights, which I can't, so I won't. But just in case, I'll put up the sign here:

Damn. There's another copyright I won't get.

Agile Programming on A Dysfunctional Team?

Blogger's Note: This post is part of an assignment for a digital media class I'm taking this semester. The assignment was meant to elicit our thoughts on the agile approach to programming. That is all. Breckenridge.

Going from writing to programming feels like lolloping into uncharted territory – My “programming” knowledge is limited to recognizing HTML structure and being able to interpolate what it means by toggling between a HTML editor and a WYSIWY(don’t necessarily)G box. But I’ll be brave like my eight-year-old when he goes off the diving board into sixteen feet of water because he knows his Dad will be nearby to rescue him if he starts to flounder. (Y’all are my surrogate Dads on this one, of course.)

My initial sources: A Wikipedia entry on agile software development, and “Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto,” from the agilemanifesto.org website, used simply to gain a little background knowledge on the subject. A third source I found rather enlightening from a human performance perspective is a video/slide show presentation by Henrik Kniberg, A Sweden-based programmer and author who presented “Ten Ways to Fail in Scrum” at an agile programming conference in August. (This is, by the way, an excellent demonstration of how the web can produce documents that the outside world can’t. We get the video and in a separate screen beneath it, his slides, a most excellent way to present this information) This can be found at www.infoq.com/presentations/Fail-Scrum-Henrik-Kniberg.

We’ve seen through our own experimentation that chunking is a tool that can be misused. Kniberg feels the same way about agile programming. I like his example: He depicts a lumberjack eschewing his ax for a chainsaw, because he’s been told it’s a better tool. So he uses it like an ax, chopping at the tree and lamenting that he gave up the ax because this new tool just isn’t working – not realizing, of course, that for the chainsaw to work, it has to be started.

Kniberg, of course, is an advocate of agile programming – preference on scrum. But he realizes, as he goes through his ten points of failure, that, like with any other tool, it’s the human performance that makes things work and makes things fail. Perhaps his presentation was most meaningful to me today because, over the weekend, I and others at a project I’m involved in spent a lot of time working through a massive communication failure and personality conflict that has led one of our team members to quit. Listening to Kniberg’s presentation (it’s an hour and a half long) really brought home the idea that while tools can help people get work done, getting that work done depends on how people use the tools and on if they actually can get along. I can see that, if I’m allowed to remove programming from the picture and apply the waterfall and agile techniques to project development as a whole, that we have team members who are working on one philosophy, while others firmly believe the other is better. I can see that agile’s emphasis on quick deliverables through several iterations would allow measurable progress for those who are impatient, and allow for a plan towards improvement for those who would rather wait longer for perfection. If we had taken this approach with the project I’m involved in, we might have avoided some trouble.

Listening to Kniberg’s presentation on failure made me feel better about my own failures – because I can see what we’re experiencing is not uncommon. Most striking are his discussions of teamwork (inability to escape fixed roles, inability to see past “well, I got my stuff done,” and the inability to implement different facets of a project in parallel) plus his discussion of “Mergophobia” – the inability of team members to define when they’re done, the fallacy that integration takes place at the end, rather than all along. These are the Achilles heels of the project I’m working on.

The biggest Achilles heel I can see in agile programming, though, is the emphasis on co-location. The team I work with is geographically dispersed – from Michigan to Texas to Utah to Idaho. Physically, the closest team members to me are 2 ½ hours away. Yes, everyone is instantly connectible via e-mail and telephone, but the crisis that led up to this weekend’s implosion stems from the misuse of e-mail to the point of name-calling and shrill chastisement to the complete disuse of the telephone. We have two team members who realize that phone communication – the best alternative we have now to face-to-face communication – is critical, but neither is willing to pick up the phone. They’ve also both shown an inability to disagree in an agreeable manner via e-mail.

I know conflict arises in face-to-face communication as well. But people are more apt to be communicative, cooperative and willing to settle differences amicably if they know they have to show up at the same physical office every day, week in, week out. I know some teams are able to accomplish such camaraderie in virtual offices; they accomplish this, I’m sure, by getting to know each other on a very intimate basis, but it ain’t working for us – because we have team members who are very alike but regard each other with enough disdain and derision that they’re blind to their similarities.

But off that tangent. I like the idea of agile programming offering fast deliverables within weeks or months, rather than longer periods of time. I like the pig and chicken notion in scrum – that the “pigs,” team members who are entirely committed to the project – have the most say, while the chickens – those whose input isn’t critical – don’t have as much pull. That, however, does have its own pitfalls, as the team has to clearly define what roles are mission critical and what roles aren’t before conflict arises, or else ka-boom.

The project I’ve mentioned has thusfar worked on the waterfall metaphor – and that has led to impatience and disruption from teams within the project, especially among those who’d like to see a product much sooner than we’re accomplishing now. That difference in production philosophy, combined with the communication breakdown has been highly disruptive.

I suppose the purpose of this post is to say:

1) Tools work as long as those using them agree on their use.
2) Tools don’t matter if team members are committed to any form of dysfunction.
3) The United States of America has the highest doctor-to-daredevil ratio in the world.

I will now sign off and try to think of something useful to say on the subject.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gleeful Angst

Blogger's Note: I started this post, obviously, on Sept. 19. Didn't finish it. But it's a comment on the times.

He sat on the stool, slouched like a burlap sack of spuds, staring out the window. "One day," he said. "One day, life will be fun again."

Third Grade Lies

Today, I went on a "nature hike" with my oldest son's third-grade class. We were to climb the North Menan Butte, a 300-ft-tall volcanic cinder cone about 15 miles from where we live. We've climbed the butte before. We did not expect any surprises.

Color me surprised.

This innocent nature hike turned into the Bataan Death March of nature hikes. Rather than climb from the public parking on the south side of the butte towards the saddle of the volcano, we climbed the west side of the butte, a hike which begins with a ten-minute jaunt just to get to the foot of the volcano. Then we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. An entire herd of third-graders, two classes in all, most eagerly ascending, but me with the stragglers, including my son, bitter that he'd forgotten to bring a water bottle. I was not bitter. I would have had to carry it the entire time. But we saw lizards, We saw scorpions. We saw little caves I'd be tempted to sneak into and camp out in at night. We also walked, once we got to the rim, to the other side of the mountain, a distance of about two miles, to stand atop the white-painted "R" that faces east. Then we walked down to the saddle, crossed the crater bowl, then slid and skittered down the sandy slopes to the bus. In total, a walk of about four to five miles. Made the kids late for lunch.

But I'd do it again. Tomorrow, I post pictures.

Random Junk

Writers, being the pack rats that we are, tend to collect a lot of things. Most of the time, these little objects have something to do with a story or novel they're working on. Or at least they did at the time they were collected. Sometimes, the reason for collecting fades with time. I found a few examples while poking through a folder in the filing cabinet.

Item No. 1: The cover I made for "Slouching Towards Bensonville"

Carefully hand-crafted, this. The background is made up of packing slips and other papers I smuggled out of Target during the nine months I worked there in 2005-06. The line drawing is an amalgam -- the person was drawn by my Dad, in a letter he sent to me while I was on my mission in France. Originally, he drew the figure pushing a lawn mower, a fate he found himself in with his two youngest sons out of the house. I changed it, rather clunkily, to a shopping cart to fit in with the novel's memes. I do plan on finishing the book one of these days.

Here's another item: A freehand drawing. Don't remember what this was supposed to mean, but, obviously, it was rather important.

Then there's this item:

Again, don't remember why I kept this.

As for the next two items, every hack writer has at least one of each, stashed somewhere, like pennies in the couch cushions. No one ever uses them in a novel unless they're writing some kind of spoofy mystery or a Pee Wee Herman movie, but they're preserved nonetheless.

Yup. A lotta junk. But in a way, it's all inspiring. Little snippets of thought, of possible inspiration. Perhaps someday . . .

Looking through this stuff, I suppose, is natural when you're considering your options. Wondering if what you're doing right now is worth the frustration. It probably is. I'm being cryptic again, purposely. I suppose things went as well as can be expected tonight. Could have gone better, but still.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

No Opinion Opinion

I write occasoinally on political matters here. I don't know if anyone reads it. That fact does not bother me; for I do not expect my opinions to make a difference. Or be read, for that matter.

It's not because I'm on the bottom of a stack of 110 million bloggers. It's not that I don't have prominence in any eyes outside of the three sets belonging to my children. And my wife, and the dog, and the fish, who spalsh at me when I'm getting ready for work at 4 am because they think I might feed them. It's because, taken individually, my opinions do not matter. I will go vote. It will make no difference, because I will vote for a third-party candiate and my state will deliver its electoral votes to John McCain.

Some people however, take heart in the fact that their views are shared by many. They feel that, in their commonality, they can make a difference. They forget that, without the aggregate, they're on their own. So, Matt Damon, I do not care one iota what you think of any of the political candidates running this year. Nor do I care what any other Hollywood dilletante, commentator, bloviator, ruminator, expectorator or spectator thinks.

So come on, Election! Let's get the party over with.


As I sit here, I can't help but recall the words of Lady Galadriel:

The Fellowship is breaking. It stands on the edge of a knife. Waver just a little, and it will fail.

I'm tired of the drama. The soap opera. Hopefully, tonight, there will be a resolution. I am being cryptic on purpose, hoping that somehow a subtle message is passed along.

Blogger's Note: In order to avoid a trickle of e-mails from concerned readers, I can say this: The drama has to do with a business venture, nothing more.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Da Fenucci Roll Call

So. $85 million to AIG. A whopping $87 million to Lehman Brothers, via Chase, and Lehman Brothers is still going bankrupt while selling some of their assets to the British bank, Barclays. That Federal Reserve is into some serious pocket change if they can bandy about that much money over a weekend. Makes my planned splurge on a $10 burger at Big Juds on Friday seem like a piffle. I, for one, do not feel bad about all the tax deductions I can claim (legally) every year. And if the stock market continues to tank, I'll have to learn about how to benefit from those losses as well. Sure there's a way somehow. I may have to look into pumpkin futures myself. Just remember to sell them before Halloween, before!

All this economic instability has me pretty grateful we're not grossly into debt. We're paying on the house, of course, but own the cars free and clear, and have less than $1,000 in credit card debt. And on student loans. We both worked our way through school; I came out with the most student loan debt -- seemed massive then, but compared to what others come out of school with, $1,500 is paltry. True, we don't live extravagantly, nor is it likely we'll be able to afford a vacation this year. But times certainly could be a lot worse. We've also had additional expenses these past two years -- I'm going to grad school and all, and that's taken an average of about $2,500 a year. Fortunately, that's almost finished; one more semester and I'm through. I'm also looking forward to a COLA adjustment when the new fiscal year starts up. WOn't match inflation, of course, but at least it's better than nothing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Do Not Read This Book If You Have Faith in Politicians

A few days ago, one of the people I work with came into my cube and saw that I was reading Seymour Hirsch's The Dark Days of Camelot. He said he liked to read those kinds of books, but had to stop because every time he did, he found out that our presidents weren't exactly the most upright gentlemen in the world.

So it seems with one who gets a lot of honor and hype: JFK.

People like to say that Nixon was a political animal, not proceeding in any direction unless there was a political advantage. If Hirsch's work is correct -- and I have no reason to doubt it, he's certainly not partisan, as he led the New York Times' reporting on Watergate -- then Nixon had a lot to learn compared to JFK. Most startling is that Kennedy had an opportunity to end the war in Vietnam before it came a war, and didn't take it, because it would be more politically advantageous to wait until after his supposed re-election in 1964. Now, it's fun to play all these what-if games, and, given the times and seasons, it's likely the whole of Vietnam would have gone communist if the agreement of "neutrality" for the South with the North and the Russians had played out. There was concern with the domino theory, with Indonesia and India going communist after Vietnam. But at the same time, I wonder if ending the war before it escalated would have been the brighter thing to do, considering all the Americans and Vietnamese who died in the conflict.

That's not to say I think communism is a good thing -- I've also recently read James Michener's The Bridge at Andau, describing the Hungarian revolt against communism in the 1950s. His arguments against communism -- and his invitation for Indonesians in particular to talk with those who fled Hungary after the revolution failed -- are strong. Communism was exceptionally brutal. But I'm ever the optimist, who thought perhaps that the efforts between North and South Vietnam to settle things might have been worth the price of so many lives lost. People like to say it's now, during the Bush Administration, that the United States started to lose its international credibility. I think it started long before Bush.

Also, to think that actions taken by the Kennedy administration led the Congress in the 1970s to forbid the United States from assassinating foreign leaders, well, that doesn't speak well for the Kennedy foreign policy, either.

Ah well. Rose-colored glasses and the like. Now, when modern partisans compare a certain presidential candidate to Kennedy, I have to wonder if it's a compliment.

We Have A Trifecta

From CNN this morning, before the market started to inch up:

I hope this staring bleakly into space man has invested his money in something sensible, like pumpkin futures. He looks like he's about ready to chuck himself off a bridge. Truth be told, though, he's probably staring at an overhead computer, but it still counts in the trifecta because he could also be staring at Batman, poised on the roof, ready to pop through the skylight and take on Lex Luthor or John McCain or any other supervillain who might descend upon the US economy. With his youthful ward, Barack. Still counts as a staring off into space because we can't exactly see what he's staring at. He might also be staring at Martha Stewart, who showed up at the stock exchange balcony again wearing her hot pants, in the hopes her presence could boost their spirits.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Something I've Always Wondered

When there's a bad day on Wall Street, do the Associated Press and other big-shot media companies actually go to the New York Stock Exchange to snap pictures like this, or do they just re-use old pictures, from a batch of photos they took the last time the market went south? If they're getting fresh pictures every time, do they have a code of ethics that requires them to find someone either:

1) Hand on head, as in the picture above,

2) Staring bleakly at a computer screen, or off into space, with that rugged, just got back from the GQ shoot look,

3) The token minority trader.

Do their rules also require that during a string of bad days on Wall Street that they get different people in each new photo, so that the average consumer suddenly doesn't begin a growing suspicion that the creep with the yellow name badge, crew cut and striped shirt is the cause of all the stock market's misery?


Wow! They included two of my imaginary requirements in this one. If only she were turned around, looking in the general direction of that computer, we'd have a trifecta.

NOTE: I'm not belittling the losses suffered on Wall Street today. 2:45 pm and the market is down just over 500 points. I'm losing lots of money here, folks. Amigo money. No dough, no show.

Another question: Do the traders get fewer bonuses, or have to undergo some hazing ritual back at the office if they're caught by the media in a despairing monent? Do they have some GQ-posers who take dramatic posers so as to draw attention away from the others, who may, in fact, either be readying nooses or preparing to walk straight out of the exchange and into the nearest local bar?

You Could Get Me A Chunky . . .

When I was a little kid, ten or so, one of my older sisters dispatched me to the corner store (the old North Forty convenience store on the corner of Ion and Yellowstone; it's a vacant lot now) to buy her one of these:

She wanted to cut the wrapper and post it below a picture of her boyfriend. Had she told me that, the name of the candy might have stuck in my head a bit firmer. But since I was a clueless kid with a bad memory, this is what I came home with:

It just wasn't the same. I got hollered at. Mom came to find out what the hollering was about. In a true example of parents not wanting justice but quiet, my sister was dispatched to the store to buy her own Big Hunk, while I was left at home, consoled with the Chunky I'd brought home.

Ah, those childhood memories . . .

We spent a lot of money at that store. I clearly recall one day riding my hideous, orange, banana-seated bicycle to North Forty, my backpack heavy with glass pop bottles to redeem, ten cents each. A bolt broke on my seat (the bike's not my personal seat) and the seat fell off. I landed on the backpack. Nothing broke. Why the clerks at the store bothered with us little kids returning pop bottles all the time, I'll never know. They were money, I suppose. Some states today offer that same kind of redemption on plastic obblte, 5 cents, 7 sents, or so. Not where I live. So that source of ready cash, for kids who didn't get an allowance, is dried up. Now my oldest gets an allowance, but he's not interested in going down to the corner store for candy. He's saving up for a $90 Lego Indiana Jones kit. He's much more focused than I was. He would have brought his sister home the Big Hunk.

The store suffered an odd fate. For a while, it shared the building with a Kirby vacuum dealership. Then the dealership left, and the other half of the building was turned into a video arcade. Then, for some reason, the building was literally sawed in half, with half of the building residing behind a house off First Street. The other half doggedly hung on in its original configuration for a while, but then it was destroyed to make way for . . . nothing. I still drive by there now, wondering what happened. I miss its old neon (yay! neon!) "North 40" sign, vaguely remember when it had one of those "Union '76" orange balls hovering above it. Now it's all in my head, vying for space with the other random memories I have.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Crapanimation Debut!

Thanks to my daughter, six years old and our resident artist, I have now branched out into the world of animation. Walt Disney, obviously, has nothing to worry about.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Super Chunk!

While perusing two of my kids' library books today, I found another example of how chunking works/doesn't work/perhaps doesn't matter.

My son, a third-grader, brought home two books that, on the surface, appear to be very similar. One is on earthworms, the other on snakes. Both are geared to introduce kids to these animals, to describe their variety, what they eat, how they work, what they do and where they (the kids, not the worms or snakes) can go for further information. But the ways the books were presented were peas and carrots. Both, however, are chunked.

In the earthworm book -- the heavily-chunked one -- starts with a table of contents, followed by a page called "fast facts," which talks in brief about the kinds, ranges, habitats, food, and young of worms, followed by a series of pages (appearance, homes, eating and enemies) each accompanied with a picture. Each topic gets one page, no more, and sometimes a bit less. Then there's a hands-on activity, words to know, and a list of places where my kid can read more. The text is informative, if a bit repetitive, and flows in simple, subject-verb sentences.

The other book on snakes is completely different. The writing is more complex, posing questions, using a more conversational tone and incomplete sentences. (We also "get to know" the writer thanks to a blurb at the back; the earthworm author gets no such treatment.) The chunking is present, but not as easily evident. One topic follows the other, but they're not set off by headers, nor limited to one page. The only graphical hint that the subject is changing slightly is the drop-cap that begins each section. At the end there is a section that mixes "words to know" with descriptions of various snakes. We also get an index, along with places to "find out more."

As I mentioned, one of these books clearly has chunking stamped throughout, while the chunking in the other is more subtle. If my son were required to write a report on either snakes or earthworms, however, based on these books, I'd urge him to use the earthworm book, since the heavier-handed chunking offers him more clear start and stop points for various items he might want to mention in his report. If, however, he were asked to offer a book report on one of these books, I'd urge the snake book, as the author uses language and photos more skillfully to incite curiosity and have the reader pose questions.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: I still believe some texts will lend themselves better to chunking than others. However, other elements of writing style also have to be taken into account in deciding how "heavy" the chunking may appear in the text. In general, these two books appear similar. But in the specific, they approach the subject matter differently. Might it be safe to assume that chunking in some documents is desirable, the the heaviness or lightness of the chunking might depend on the end goals of the text?

It's a squishy answer I'm not sure I like all that much, but it's easy to see how taking a light or heavy approach at chunking might make some pages more useful than others -- depending on how users want to use the pages. With chunking, we might be able to influence how users use what we present. But still comes the question of the week: How do we choose? There's got to be an answer somewhere, Sloth.