Sunday, December 27, 2009


The next step

Perhaps it's the post-graduation euphoria talking, but I think I know the next step. It is the piece of unfinished business that has been tracking me since my 20's. I think I am finally ready to do a Ph.D. It will be part-time, while I work at my full-time job, as I did for my Master's. There is a small potential technical issue with timespans that might prevent it, but beyond that, everything seems in alignment. I have a supportive advisor, who is well aware of my situation and is very patient. I have a job with flexible hours that allows me to take classes. I have a research area that I am really interested in. And, the really crucial piece that I didn't find out until last week, all of my Master's classes will carry over, which means I need only 4 more classes, an exam and a dissertation. This last bit is really important. I just couldn't see going back and taking 36 hours worth of course work. But 12 hours is doable. That's only a year, or maybe a year-and-a-half if I take it easy.

Still, even though it feels right, there's a good chance I might not make it. I couldn't do it in my 20's in Math. But I think my motivations now are different. Back then, I wanted to do a doctorate, then go into Academia like my dad, without really knowing what that meant. Back then, I couldn't get past the idea of GPA and getting the right answer on a test. Now, I'm less interested in that. This degree would be much more personal, much more about proving something to myself. I understand the academic mentality and system far better. Doing this thesis has taught me a lot, and so has my work experience. I am better now, I think, about battering away at a problem, at not being overwhelmed by a long-term project. Though it may take some time, I think I could make a contribution, even if only a small one. Well, we shall see.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Done and Printed

Just got done printing the final copies of the thesis on nice cotton paper. Printed on Thanksgiving morning (early hours) 2009. So that's it then. No more changes. Nothing more to do than turn it in to the Dean's Office on Tuesday. And I am thankful to be done. And also thankful to have something meaningful to celebrate for my 50th post. If it were not for the pressure to produce a paper from this, I think I would feel a tremendous sense of release. As it is, were it not for a sense of obligation to my advisor, I would be quite happy to drop the paper altogether. But for right now, I'm going to forget about it, drink Apricot Ale, and eat turkey (or shrimp fajitas).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Loose ends

Hmmm... well...
So the last time I posted, I had just turned in the first draft to my advisor. Now I've already defended, and made the few changes recommended by the committee, and got that back to the dean for their perusal.

The defense was quite a shock. For my first master's, I did a project, so there was no defense. For my second, the defense was great -- like having a conversation with a couple of friends who really liked something I'd done. This defense was quite different. I had to prepare a 35 min presentation, and the idea was that I'd present then answer questions. But about 10 minutes in, one of the committee members asked about something I'd said, and from then on it rained questions and criticism: "well, have you considered this case? why not?", "the point you're making is obvious -- it's well known", "let me tell you how you should have gone about this." It was pretty rough. And I realized that from the beginning, the project I'd been assigned was a bad fit for a defense. I was simply trying to provide a known capability. They were expecting a research project. So while for me, all I had to do was test that the capability worked properly, they cared nothing at all about how robustly it was implemented, only whether it was superior to other techniques, and if so, under what circumstances. And the one piece that we added on at the end that did have a research angle they found completely uninteresting.

Really, I shouldn't have been so surprised. I knew that they would be more interested in results and research than in all the time I had taken to understand and express the statistics behind the formulas. I don't even think they read those sections of the thesis -- the only comments I got were on the abstract and the results sections. And oddly, after all the questions and enough suggestions for things I should have done to do a dissertation on, they didn't require me to do anything beyond a few minor changes. It was a big reminder to me, though, of what the research life is like, and why I didn't do the Math Ph.D. You have to give your life to the subject. You do one thing, and do it to the exclusion of everything else. You become an expert in one little narrow area by studying everything ever written on it, and then you help push the boundary. You go out and seek grant money, fund graduate students, spend your life promoting your research, and in the end, perhaps, you have a result named after you, or a well-known paper, or a set of disciples carrying on the torch. And compared to that investment, the time I've spent writing code, testing, compiling sources, and trying to express it all in words the best way I can seems like nothing, and the results of my labors feel amateurish, which, in reality, they are. I have yet to find the thing worth devoting my life to. My passions at this point are reactive rather than creative. I wonder if perhaps I ought to be content with being a skillful workman. Ultimately I do not want to, but that too is a reactive passion, a cry against meaninglessness. Already I am looking for my next educational experience -- already the void is stirring inside me. Part of it is about boredom. Another part is just hearing someone say, "you have done measurably well." That is why it stings when I realize that all the A's on coursework and words of praise from my advisor, and even my own feeling of satisfaction amount to a mere forgery. I want to say, "you can't possibly expect me to take it *that* seriously -- I'm only doing this for fun. It's just not that important. I get just as much pleasure from laying laminate well." Then again, maybe all these thoughts right now are the post-defense emptiness talking. So either way, here I am recording, so I can look back later and think either "at one point, he really got it," or "how could he have thought that?"

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fully Drafty

Just sent in my first full draft of my thesis. I'm tired, and disappointed with the latest results. But I also can't quite believe that on my hard drive (and now on Google's hard drive) there is a complete document, be it ever so humble. Alas, that it has so many shortcomings. But hoorah that it exists. I'm not nearly as proud of this as I was of my last thesis. That was real thought, real ideas, earned step by step over months of processing. This has its moments, I suppose, but I don't feel like I've broken through the barrier to being a co-creator of knowledge rather than a tweaker. I still look at those theoretical papers and wonder "how could someone be genius enough to come up with that?" There's a bone ceiling -- my skull -- and I can't get past it. Still, I'm glad to have a draft done before leaving tomorrow to come back to Houston. I expect I'll be wiped tomorrow night. Especially after the bottle or two of beer I'm planning to celebrate with :)

I really enjoyed being in Baton Rouge today. I guess I had low expectations, but the campus and the area around it is just how I imagine a college should be. I wondered if this is how Austin used to feel before it got big (not culturally, obviously, but there's a certain feel about a big university in a state capital where it's a big deal, but there is other stuff). Baton Rouge feels the right size, somehow. I walked down the main road through the campus and took a couple of pics. I saw three good-sized buildings belonging to religious groups. The Episcopal one was a lovely chapel with its doors thrown open in welcome, but no one in sight. The Catholic one was magnificent with stained glass, and absolutely huge. Its doors were closed, but there was one person around -- inside. The Baptist one was less impressive -- neat and practical with large rectangular glass windows, through which you could see students and staff interacting. Seemed like a metaphor for something.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Forestalling the Morning

I'm lying in bed working on the thesis, listening to a Russian Orthodox choir sing a chant called "Forestalling the Morning." It's 5:30am, dark and drizzly. But I feel good about getting stuff written up, even though I haven't made the breakthrough discovery tonight that I hoped for. And the music is fantastic, no -- that's the wrong word -- it just is. I mean, it is fantastic, and beautiful, and thoughtful, but those are qualities of the music. The music itself is more than that. More even than its connotations of drafty monasteries in the frigid Russian winter, and monks gathered to forestall daybreak even earlier than 5:30, kept warm by the smell of incense and the singing of the chant. Why forestall the morning? Why not let the sun rise, and bring at least a little warmth? I don't know about them, but I do understand the desire to stretch the current moment, to stave off even good things because the now is so great for whatever reason: inspiration, productivity, enlightenment. Right now, I'm in a place of thinking "when the morning comes, there will be time to enjoy it then."

I don't often think like that. More often it's "what's the next thing I have to get done," the next duty, the next problem, the next interruption. I wish I could keep this perspective. Focusing only on the tasks and problems is dispiriting -- there are always more problems and more tasks. One more bug fixed? Great -- now fix this one. To begin a day before the day even begins just feels good. If I could, I would probably start each day really early. Usually that never works for me, but at the moment I seem to be on a weird schedule: work, come home, make dinner, go upstairs, work on thesis for a couple of hours, then sleep for 4-5 hrs, wake up around 2 or 3 or 4 or 5, work on thesis, then sleep a bit more before work. Why not just work more on thesis in the evenings and sleep normally? I don't know. This is just what my body seems to want to do. Sleep for me is like Keith's arms. Some positions are comfortable for him, others are intensely painful, and which ones are which is unpredictable. I don't think I'll work this way forever, but for now it feels comfortable. And I get to email my advisor at weird times in the morning, so he knows I'm working hard (which I am in reality anyway).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I don't usually publish recipes, but Kathryn really liked this. I was going for a soup that would have a creamy flavor without being too heavy. I cheated by basing this on a can :) Baxter's soup is made in Scotland, not too far where I grew up. But I found cans in our local HEB. This recipe is heretical since vichyssoise is supposed to be served cold. But I don't really care so long as it tastes good.

Salmon and Mushroom Vichyssoise

1 lb of salmon, cut into 1" cubes (with or without skin -- your preference)
2 medium red or white potatoes cut into 1/2" cubes
6-8 oz of mushrooms (button, cremini or portabella), coarsely chopped
1 can of Baxter's Vichyssoise soup
14-16 oz of chicken broth (either a can or bouillon is fine; fat-free/low fat is fine)
1 yellow (crookneck) squash, sliced
1 carrot, sliced (optional)
1 small onion, chopped (optional)
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp dill
1/2 tsp garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in a 3 qt pot. Bring to a boil then simmer, covered, for 40 mins.
Makes 5 large bowls.

Serving suggestions: I served this as an entrée with Indian flatbread (roti) because it's quick to make and uses ingredients I have on hand. You could also add rice to the soup, or serve with another type of bread.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fun with beams

It's really nice to see the house as repairs progress. First, the scary bit -- seeing the facade torn off to reveal what is underneath - good or bad. Then the approach gets hashed out. Then the bad stuff gets cut out, representing perhaps years of neglect, and replaced with good, new stuff. And hopefully the replacement process doesn't lead to other things like drywall cracks or plumbing problems. It's so like coding that it makes me wonder when I (or some other poor person) will look at code I wrote, rip off the nice facade presented to users, and declare something rotten.
That's related to something I haven't quite decided in high versus low process systems. Assuming that you neglect the extremes of ridiculous process (analysis paralysis, for example, or where there are process guardians like the gatekeeper of the law in Kafka), and just hacking, where does the point of maximal utility lie, where you get excellent quality of code produced efficiently? That, I assume, is what everyone is looking for, and it is probably unanswerable outside a context: this project, this group of people, this set of time/budget constraints, this set of customers and stakeholders. So, then, does it come down to gut feeling -- "I'm not comfortable with the amount of test time," "I'm constantly bogged down in useless process activities." The process world is full of frameworks, but frameworks need interpreters, customizers, domain specialists. And even then, the results are not always good, and need to be revised. The process specialists have thought of this. Their mantra is "continual process improvement." But in practice, it seems to be far too much costly and disruptive to thoroughly revise processes, and it's embarrassing to admit you've been spending on money on process that's wasted effort, so what you get is process ossification followed by patches to address new cases. And since the goal is to develop sets of processes that can be passed down to future projects, you get process megaliths carted by forklift from one project to another long after the reason for their existence has been forgotten.
Compared to this, hacking seems attractive. But it seems that even better would be to learn what is useful from the process folks, to take the time to understand why certain processes are good and work well. Occasionally, process saves the day, and, having experienced this myself, it doesn't take too many "day savings" to become convinced that there is value in process. But the value is only there a small percentage of the time. And the thing is that the value is often precisely where the developer doesn't want it to be -- in the stubborn anal retentiveness of process, in some ridiculous process that's useless 99.9% of the time. The process that forces you to write down exactly what is on the screen. The process that forces you to put a second and third and fourth pair of eyes on something that obviously works (well, almost). The process that makes you spend hours documenting details that no one will ever look at again. 99.9% of the time you spend doing this is wasted. BUT, there's the 0.1%. And, actually, it's not about understanding the 0.1% process, or believing in it, or thinking of it as worthwhile; only doing it matters, refusing to follow your gut instinct that this is a waste of time, and following it like a slave with as good an attitude as you can muster. Is 0.1% enough to justify this?
If 0.1% is not acceptable, then what number would be enough -- 1% useful? 10% useful? 50% useful? And how would you know -- process metrics never seem to measure these sorts of issues; maybe they can't be measured.
If 0.1% is acceptable, then where does the limit lie? Should we layer on enough process that we code only one line per week, because somewhere at some point there's a 0.0000001% chance that the process will turn up something important? It seems reasonable that there is some level of process that is too much; process at any cost is not justifiable. So, then, there's a need for a metaprocess to decide which processes are worthwhile. But I don't know that I've seen a complete metaprocess of this kind, merely some broad brushstrokes in this direction (e.g. here) and even these are disputed (see here).

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fence Day 3

Busy day yesterday. Drove up to Bryan and back, then decided to do more fence. Sure enough, another post was needed, so time to get a PHD, like Keith recommended. Home Depot only had one with wooden handles. It worked pretty well up to around 30", then there wasn't enough space to really pry the dirt loose with the wooden handles bent. Got down to 32 with a fair bit of effort, then gave up. It's not perfect, but that section of fence is up :) I have to make a decision on whether to try to salvage the next post or not, but that should be the last one. If I'm careful with recycling old fence, I should have enough new fence to finish it. Otherwise, it'll be another trip to the fence place.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Fence Day 2

Thought today was going to be my first shot at laminate flooring, but after trying out the laminate we got from Home Depot on the kitchen floor, the color just wasn't right. So, we returned it, and Kathryn found a much better alternative. So now I have two boxes coming from Amazon. Found out that laminate at Home Depot is largely exclusive to Home Depot -- they do a deal with the manufacturers. However, the manufacturers sometimes make similar laminate for regular flooring stores, just with a different line name. The alternate branding is usually a much better deal because companies are competing on price. In my case, I got the same laminate with the same warranty, but with a built-in underlay for cheaper than Home Depot was charging for their laminate with no underlay.

Instead of laminate, I decided to do fencing. Dang, putting in a fence post is a lot of work, especially without a post hole digger. I broke a shovel doing it, but the post is up, and I was able to roll the table saw to the bottom of the garden to cut the pickets to length. That was nice! Looking forward to doing more tomorrow -- and hoping I don't have another post to do!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Last Thing

Wrote a poem while not being able to sleep. Tried to capture some of that mushy overlapping thinking that goes on when I'm really tired. It's not a great poem, but I'm glad to express something. Figure I'll post it before I overthink.

Last Thing

The last thing I want to do right now is write a poem.
Can't sleep no sleep under the fan's
too cold quilt's too hot and thick
blades keep turning sheet's too thin
five thirty-nine the Y is open
up on yesterday's caffeine
do a treadmill in my blue shorts
driving in a fog and hope
no one hits me
thinking carpet, laminate gotta
fix the kitchen focus on the fog
blurry tiredness baseboards
stainless steel sound of air
but indistinctly sink into a
sinking feeling for the crash.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Can you see me now?

Last Saturday: beautiful weather, Brazos Bend park, looking at trees.
This Saturday: torrential rain, Clear Lake parking lot, looking at stranded cars.
I'm so glad we took the truck today -- I've done the car in high water thing before and it wasn't fun. Still, I guess it gives me time to try to fix the OpenGL rotations.

Friday, April 17, 2009

MacPort Day

This is what the weather looked like the day we delivered the first beta of the Mac port of the graphics software we've been working on. Yep. Overcast with thunderstorms later in the day. Real Seattle weather -- guess Microsoft has influence upstairs. Maybe if the sun were shining we'd get more frames per second :)
But still, this is a big achievement (mostly of Keith's)

Before the big storm, Kim showed me all the stuff going on in her garden including the budding blueberries and the tomato plant that almost ate Texas (and still might). I was inspired, so I went to Houston Garden Center in the rain and picked out a couple of ajuga to fill up the empty spots left in the ajuga area. Or maybe I'll plant them under the strawberry bush. Possibilities ... hmmm....

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Brazos Bend :)

Had a great day yesterday. Persuaded Kathryn to go to Brazos Bend with me. Actually, it wasn't hard. Apparently all I have to do is prefix a request by "would you like to go in the truck to X" and the answer will be "yes." Kathryn calls this "the truck novelty." I'm trying not to only use this information only for important things. We had a great time walking the trails and I got a rare shot of Kathryn taking pictures. I like this picture because it shows her intensity and focus on getting the shot she wants. Naturally, she will hate this picture, because she hates all picture of herself.

After walking around, we headed briefly down to Bryan Beach, then ate at our favorite German restaurant in Lake Jackson. Had my first Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout. Delicious! All in all, a wonderful day, and a very welcome change from work/school. It made me want to visit other state parks. I feel an Austin trip coming on... Kathryn's never been there and is interested.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Dirt Day 2.5

Didn't go to Brazos Bend today. But I did fix up the second garden. Got some plants from Houston Garden Center for cheap. Decided that this garden will be white and green with a little bit of yellow. This should go well with the dogwood that's already there, if it ever flowers. I don't usually get annuals, but they had a deal -- a 24pk of white begonias for $5.77. Also got some really interesting variegated asiatic jamine. I'm hoping these will fill in during the winter time when the begonias go away.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spontaneous flowering

Came home today to the most beautiful flower. I think it's a daylily. It's not really part of the official garden -- it just sticks out of the lawn. Each year, it comes up, flowers, and disappears. The first year, I thought it was a weed, and mowed it down before it bloomed, but still the next Spring it came up. It's interesting owning a house -- you inherit a history, and not only in rotting wood, or strange-colored linoleum two layers beneath the current bathroom floor. A garden has a history too, and it's nice to feel like I'm adding to it.

Used the truck today for hauling dirt and a landscape timber home from Lowes. Man, it was so much easier than fitting it in the Camry -- and easier to get out on the other end too. The 8ft landscape timber fit diagonally across the bed with the tailgate up. Sweet! And no worries about the rear suspension giving out. Must get those hydraulics replaced on the liftgate, though. Got bonked on the head twice :) I think I'm going to like having a truck. Tomorrow... dirt day 2.5. Or maybe I'll leave that for Sunday and go to Brazos Bend instead.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


My neighbor had an excess of aloe this year, so he dug some up and offered it to me. I have them planted around the tree in the front yard, and the largest is in the herbs-n-more garden at the back, since it's a herb... sort of. Initially, they went very brown, but now they seem to be perking up, and some of the brown stems have even turned green again. I cut one of the brownish ones tonight, and there it was -- slime in the aloe machine! It was actually very good on the mosquito bites I incurred while propping up the netting on the impatiens and coleus. But the smell! I had no idea aloe had a smell. Something like a kitchen in a cheap Mexican restaurant. Maybe I cut it too low down the plant.
In other garden news, the peppers haven't died yet, some of the onions are hanging in there, and the coleus show signs of adaptation. All this is better than I expected. Maybe there's a glimmer of hope after all. Then again, summer is on the way. Arrrrgggggghhhhhhhhhhhh!
Got the truck last Saturday. Kathryn put it on her facebook status and it became big news. Lots of comments like "mid-life crisis", "it could be worse." As if I would think a truck could make me cool! That battle was lost a long time ago :) I just like the idea of grabbing an air mattress and heading for the state parks.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Garden Update

Hmm... well the peppers aren't looking so hot. Then again, they're not hot peppers :)
But check out these little guys. These are from the zucchini seeds I planted as an afterthought. Cute and fast-growing. And edible. The ideal plant?

One thing that's impressed me this year is how well seeds work. Of all the seeds I've planted, across flowers and vegetables, a very high percentage have germinated. Kudos to the guys who work on this. And to God, I suppose, for the original idea.

What? Me? A trucker?

I never, ever thought I would own a truck. I just figured I'm not a truck person. But as of Tuesday if everything works out I'll be the owner of a big 1995 F-150. Even test-driving it was a bit scary -- the sense of so much heft and engine power under my foot barreling down Hwy 6 at 50 MPH. But I need something more robust than my poor abused Camry to carry my loads of dirt and landscape timbers, and this truck seems to be in great shape and reasonably priced. Oh, and the camper top rocks! I want to try camping with it soon before it gets too hot. I'll need some "manly" curtains to go with this truck's macho exterior. Black velvet, maybe?

Dirt Day 2

Got dirt? This was quite a load in the back of the little Camry. You could see the rear end squatting on the way home from Lowe's :)
Kathryn helped, and we weeded and planted most of the coleus and impatiens from inside. Hopefully some of them will grow. The peppers that were left over from Dirt Day one are now huge thanks to Kim's magic bulbs. The ones outside don't seem to be growing, so hopefully they're busy making roots.

Friday, March 20, 2009

World's longest error?

Been playing around with hashtables (excuse me, "unordered maps") from the forthcoming version of C++. The use of templates here is truly impressive, as are the error messages that result if you do something wrong. On the right is an error I got while compiling. It's not something I contrived -- it's a real compile error. And no, you're not looking at multiple error messages -- that's a single error message. It's so long, the terminal runs out of space to display it. It's saying that you can't ask whether an iterator to a unordered map of has the same value as an interator to an unordered map of . This is perfectly reasonable. Trying to figure that out from the error message, though, is quite a challenge!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pictureless Mini-Update

Got to do this quick since I'm violating my curfew. Let's see.
Garden: Nothing has died yet. I'm amazed. After planting in perfectly pleasant weather, we had a cold snap, then heat, and still the little green peppers and onions are hanging in there. They don't seem to be growing much, but that might just be transplant shock.
School: nothing more really done on thesis work. Spring Break = working on homework set (not as hard as last time, but hard enough), and getting ready for test next Monday.
Other: started a diet (no particulars, just eating less calories). Started working out. Feel a little better. The Fog Index seems lower. Trying to sleep better (hence the curfew). Thinking about getting a truck or SUV for carting stuff and hitting the beach :)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Planting Unpickled Pepper

So here they are. What used to be big fish in small pots are now plankton in a raised bed -- a doubly-mixed yet internally consistent metaphor. The peppers are in the ground! So are the onions, though not so you'd notice. I was a bit worried about leaving them today, thinking they might get fried, but they looked fine when I got home. My goal was that the temperatures they're in now are about the same as the temperatures they had inside, though they will get more sunlight. We'll see if anything comes of it. The hardest part was getting all the concrete blocks (kind of) straight. I've Americanized the teeth. I'm mostly waiting until Fall to plant Kim's kind donation of beans and lettuce, but I did stick a few zucchini seeds in since these supposedly mature quickly enough that they will be ready before the hottest part of summer.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Old Election Posters

I love looking at historical posters and imagining what the mindsets were of the people who made them and the viewers who saw them. In the 1840 election campaign, it was sufficient for William Henry Harrison to portray himself as an ordinary farmer, complete with plough and log cabin. It's interesting to compare this to the formal portrait of Harrison on the Wikipedia site. You'd never guess from the Wikipedia portrait that he'd ever dirtied his hands in the soil. Obviously the "eagle" image was a big deal in American politics since it appears on many election posters across time, including the next one from William Jennings Bryan, part of the 1900 election campaign. The iconography here is dense and far more complex. On the bottom left, a female figure in white, presumably Columbia, wields a hatchet against an octopus whose limbs represents various different special interests groups. On the bottom right is a reference to the then recent Spanish-American war, and continuing conflict in the Philippines. Bryan accused the incumbent administration of imposing an American colonial dictatorship over Cuba and the Philippines in place of the previous Spanish colonial dictatorship. The two bells at the top of the poster read "1776 Liberty" on the left, and "1900 No imperialism" on the right, presumably an attempt to contrast the American fight for liberty against American "imperialism" in Cuba and the Philippines. Beneath the bells, the phrase "no crown of thorns, no cross of gold" is a quote from a then-famous 1896 speech by Bryan, denouncing attempts to move to a gold standard, back in a time when a silver dollar really was (partly) silver. Harkening back to the old idea of farming as the heartland of America, there's a rooster, and a plough, though in reality by 1900 America was becoming increasingly industrialized. Finally, in this very crowded visual image, there's the blind figure of Justice, and the Statue of Liberty.
Phew! Our final image is from the 1904 campaign of Eugene Debs. Like the Bryan poster, it's filled with images, but the images represent a quite different picture of America. Here are the farmer and the industrial worker joining together to cast their ballot above a pilaster that reads "workers of the world unite." Unlike Bryan's poster, which proclaims abstract moral issues ("liberty, justice, humanity"), Deb's America is a sweaty place, full of industry. From the bottom right we see a locomotive rushing forward into the future; a weaver on the loom; a miner; a farmer (but not a single farmer like Harrison, or a single plough, like Bryan -- rather several farmers working together behind a team of horses); a machinest; a foundry merrily belching huge plumes of smoke into the air; and a ship perhaps representing sailors or international trade. And what is up with Hanford's necktie? Obviously it's meant to imply "I'm not one of those toffs -- I'm a working man, like you." Despite the appeal to the working man, however, Debs garnered only 3% of the vote.

Fresnel lens

Meant to post this earlier. While I was stuck in Angleton on Tuesday, I went to see the Brazoria County Historical Museum. While I wouldn't call it a tourist spot exactly, they did have a nice collection of reproduction election posters, some dating to the very early days of Texas. I love this sort of thing because you can see how ideas of how to "sell" a candidate evolved as time went on. Early posters are obvious and direct, and so are the "campaign songs" -- specially written for the campaign. As you move towards 1900, the posters become far more elaborate and make extensive use of iconographic details. Hmm... think I need a separate post for this. You also get to see how much quirkier the US used to be. For example, the 1860 election campaign was famously presaged by the Lincoln-Douglas debates over slavery. But I didn't know that neither Lincoln nor Douglas had any electors on the ballot in the state of Texas (or anywhere else much in the south).

In addition to these posters, they had a (real, not reproduction) fresnel lens from an old lighthouse that was demolished to make way for a Dow chemical plant. The picture doesn't do it justice. It's an amazing and beautiful construction. Looking at it, set against a wall with no light source inside, you can see nevertheless how it picks up the ambient light (this picture is taken without a flash, and the room was dimly lit to help preserve the older documents). It's a great demonstration of theory and practice coming together -- the mathematical properties of the lens giving the practical benefit of a maximal use of the amount of light available. Sweet!
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Dirt Day One

Well, the green peppers are about to hit the growing light and they're huge for the little 3" peat pots they're in, so I thought it was high time to get some dirt to do the little vegetable plot I've been planning. I've got a bit more work to do to get the plot ready, but now at least I have the soil. The onions are no longer in good shape. Maybe I should have planted them earlier. Maybe it just wasn't a good mix putting them in the same tray with the peppers -- the peppers seem to be quite happy while the onions have developed a fungus. The impatiens and coleus are doing well. I have a couple of good-sized (for the pot) impatiens that I might try out in the near future. That will require Dirt Day Two - Revenge of the Spaghum Peat Moss.

I was planning to get all my dirt delivered in a big batch. But the company I contacted had a 3 cu. yard minimum, which is more than I need, and they charge a hefty delivery fee. Plus I get whatever they put in the mix, and I have to figure out how to deal with 3 cu. yards of dirt in my driveway. If I do it bag by bag, I can work on the garden incrementally, and I get to choose different mixes for different areas. We'll see. I haven't made the big commitment yet -- the veggie patch is only 20 sq. ft; the area at the bottom of the garden is 128 sq. ft.
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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

First flowers

These are from the crossvine I planted a few weeks ago. Honestly, I'm very surprised to see them. The crossvine is doing great despite being unceremoniously dumped in the dirt with no soil amendments beyond a sprinkling of slow-release fertilizer. The strawberry bush is doing OK, putting out some little leaves and buds despite being in deep shade pretty much all the time. Native plants rule!

Life is good (sometimes)

I'm down in Angleton, sitting in a Whataburger having just finished my "Breakfast on a bun," listening to good music and checking out slashdot. It's just me, the staff, and a group of retirees reading their papers. There's a big sticker on the window that reads
One nation

(I've tried to approximate the font typeface as best I can). There's a flag on a flagpole above the words that sticks down and divides the word "One" from "nation." An oblique reference to the civil war, perhaps?

Kathryn is doing jury duty and so is safely esconced in the rather intimidating Texasy Art Nouveau county courthouse. On the back of the courthouse there's an interesting frieze pictured above, presumably depicting the primary activities of the county at some point in its history. The area around the courthouse is well kept and pleasant to walk in. Really, it's a pity that something so nice is only experienced by most people when they do jury duty, or pay parking fines. It's worth my while to come down here every so often, just to be somewhere different from the places I usually go.

Wow. Just looked up, and the population of Whataburger has changed completely as I've been writing. There's now no one here over 45. How odd. Just like this blog entry. OK, enough being random for now.

Something accomplished, something done :D

Just finished the first homework set for class. Took me long enough. But mixed in with the relief of being done, I must admit I'm a little proud of what I accomplished. Maybe the set was hard, and maybe it wasn't, but it demanded a use of Math skills I haven't exercised in years. And now that I'm done, I realize that I've missed this sort of intellectual challenge. For all the agony and frustration that make up trying to prove a theorem, there's an amazing reward at the end (if you ever get there). What you've done is right. Not just "feels right." Not just "sounds good." Not just "industrial-strength," or "professional quality." No, this is really and truly right. Perfect, in its way. And so the moment of proof is, in a sense, a perfect moment. The joy of proving something has an eternal feel to it - you are echoing back to the universe what it knows to be true about itself. With your finite and imperfect hands, you have grasped a piece of what has always been true, and always will be true. And in this moment, it does not matter whether there will ever be an use for what you have proved, or whether anyone else in the world understands what you have done. The only thing that matters is the joy of the sequence of thought expressed in the notations on the piece of paper in front of you. And that is what Math is really all about.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Law of Unintended Consequences -- Right-side Up

I guess when I hear someone invoke the "law" of unintended consequences it's usually in a bad way. Like, "you can't go back in time and fix something because the chain reaction might blow up the world." But I think I very often find an upside to the "law" -- occasions where I do something (or someone else does) and years later something good results, totally unexpectedly. Case in point. I remember taking a statistics course in 2005, but only barely. That was a rough semester. I had to leave the house at 6:30 in order to make sure I made it to my 8:30 class, then I had a break before stats at 11:30 followed by a lunchless scamper back down I-45 to work. I'd get back around 2, meaning that between the classes I had 10 hours of work time to make up each week. Mid-way through the semester Kathryn got sick and ended up needing surgery, so I was pretty busy, and not well focused on the material. In addition, I was a bit disappointed because I had hoped the stats class would focus more on approximation theory and Gaussian models, and this didn't happen.

So fast-forward to this semester. I'm in another class, and we start talking about Poisson distributions and Markov chains. The professor is covering things in class in an intuitive way, generally glossing over the details, but giving homework questions that stress the theory. The textbook is next to useless - kind of a hybrid Math/Engineering book with scraps of random theorems thrown in presumably to make the book seem more rigorous. Tonight, I came across my notes from the stats class 3.5 years ago. And there they were. Poisson distributions. Markov chains. Probability theory. All explained in a beautifully concise and careful manner with plenty of intuition, summary and illustrative examples. How could I not have just eaten this up at the time? I guess I was too frazzled to appreciate it. But I sure do now! Thanks, Dr. Nicol. I owe you one.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Land of No Outdoors

Kathryn and I went to Sugarland today, to a little Indian restaurant we know and love from the time it used to be in Clear Lake. Not that I go to Sugarland often, but every time I do go, it strikes me as an extremely odd place -- perhaps the strangest place I have ever visited. Everything is new there. The strip malls with their vast array of chain stores and the odd mom-and-pop are pristine and immaculately coutured, every brick and line of tinted mortar redolent of the same grand architectural theme. So, too, with the subdivisions, whose houses rise effortlessly from just the right amount of weedless green grass fronted by perfect prisms of yaupon holly or indian hawthorn. So far, so good. But the odd thing is that of all the times I have been in Sugarland, I have never one actually seen a person outdoors, except for the short journey from house to car, or car to store. No one stands and chats by the conveniently-placed trees, or the charming English-style wrought iron lampposts. No children play on the wide sidewalks, or ride bikes up and down the quiet side streets. There are no benches outside the stores in the strip malls, and no one, apparently, misses them. From all appearances, Sugarland is a place with no outdoors, or rather a place where the outdoors is simpy a landscape to be looked at from inside, or a road on the way to a destination.

Imagine, just as a thought experiment, a town -- let us call it Superland -- some time in the future. Thanks to a Star Trek-like teleportation system, there's now no need to drive to stores in the strip-malls. Being up-to-date epitomes of contemporary design, the strip malls were built with teleportation in mind, while recognizing that customers still want some touches that harken back to the old way of doing things. So there is still a parking lot outside, and every so often automated cars drive up to the storefronts, simulating the experience of a bustling shopping envionment. The automated cars serve a secondary function of cleaning the lot as they drive, though happily only the results of the cleaning and not the mechanism is obvious to customers. Consumers love the convenience of zipping from one store to another, then instantly back home without the hassle of having to drive. Teenagers can now meet at the mall without driving up their parents' insurance rates. Workers can take an instant trip down to their local branch of This Planet's Most Overpriced Coffee between meetings without being late. Automotive manufacturers are, of course, highly unhappy, but after they squandered billions in taypayer funds in the great depression of 2010, no one much listens to them any more. Desparate to find new uses for their product, the big oil companies have found a huge emerging market in simulated outdoor experiences. Why, they asked, go outdoors with all that heat, rain and ice, and all those nasty bugs when instead you could have grass that never needs mowing, filtered sunshine with no UV rays, water features and whatever else you desire in the climate-controlled comfort of your own Total Immersion Simulated Backyard (TISB)? And the best part is, you never have to worry about some eyesore that your neighbor has erected again, because your TISB is programmable so that your neighbor backyard appears the way you want it to. In fact, you never need to see your neighbors again. True, energy bills have increased by several hundred dollars a month, but now that they no longer have car payments, gas costs and auto insurance to deal with, most middle-class households can afford it.

When TISB was first introduced, investors were worried that consumers might not accept it as a replacement for the neighborhoods they lived in. But with internet education firmly entrenched, it soon became clear that consumers only cared about the appearance of the neighborhoods they lived in, and crime rates, and otherwise couldn't care less. With teleportation and TISB in place, no one went outdoors any more, and violent crime rates dropped precipitously in the newer neighborhoods that supported both. And for those interested in additional security, TISB provided a "neighborhood view" module, removing the need for windows, so houses could be made far more secure.

So, is this a dream or a nightmare?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Old Cats

Brandy is 18 in cat years -- perhaps 90 in human years. Four years ago she had blood clots that caused partial paralysis of her hind legs. At the time, the vet gave her a few weeks to live. Yet ... to-date, she's still eating and sleeping and annoying us with her extra-loud meow. I took this picture yesterday when I was getting the one of the cinnamon peppers. It came out surprisingly well. I hope I look this wise when I am 90.
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Fairy dust

This is so blurry that I hesitated to post it. But I love the glow of the candles on Kaley's face, and just what is that immediately to her right? Fairy dust?
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Cinnamon Peppers

It's not a metaphor -- that's real cinnamon on the peppers. Some of them have developed a sad case of fungus; cinnamon is supposedly an antifungal. I'm not that worried, because being fungusy seems to be a minority pursuit, and I already have more plants than I can probably use. Next time they need watering, I'll use weak chamomile tea, which is also supposedly an antifungal.

I watered them from the bottom on Saturday -- just sloshed in some water into the tray -- and it was rather amazing to note the capilliary effect at work, and see the top of the soil eventually turn dark as the water made its way up.

Need to get the garden soil next weekend for sure, unless I go with a piecemeal approach in which case I could do it tomorrow. The taproot of the onions is already to the bottom of the peat pot. I wouldn't be surprised if the peppers are there soon too.
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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Loving God

I have never managed to love God. A few years after I became a Christian, I had a vivid image in my head of being trapped in a dark room, of which I could only see one wall. In that wall was a window, looking out on to a beautiful landscape. I was filled with desire to go through the window and out into the sunlit grass and trees. And, in fact, on inspection, the window was not really a window -- only a frame without glass. But no matter how hard I tried to get out of the window, my body always somehow ended butted up against the frame, while I struggled and contorted my limbs in a hopeless effort to get more than one dangling arm or leg outside. At some point, I thought, "Perhaps the problem is that I'm trying. Perhaps I need to let go and let God bring me into the light." So I let go, and I am still here in the dark room, waiting.

Perhaps it is like 1John says: if you can't love your brother, who you do see, how can you love God, who you do not see? And, in all fairness, I don't particularly love my brother. It's not that I'm a misanthrope. I find that most people are perfectly pleasant and reasonable, provided they are not pushed too far. This is, after all, what social convention demands. But there's nothing lovable in that. And if they do happen to be pushed beyond that point, it is usually more accurate to assume that they will behave selfishly, based on survival instinct, or family bonding, than that they will behave altruistically; there is a reason why saints are saints - if everyone behaved this way, the term could happily return to its new testament sense, applying to all Christians rather than a special few.

But the problem for me goes much deeper than that, and gets to the heart of what we can know about God. The message of the conservative churches I went to for years focused on the "Abba, father" view of God, the idea of us as children, and God as all-powerful, all-loving father. But what I have never been able to reconcile in this picture is that God should love some and not others. The second this question comes into play, the all-loving father image vanishes, and stern truths emerge. The Calvinist says, "God plucked you from the jaws of Hell when you had no power to love God on your own. Rejoice that he chose you." The Arminian says, "God gave you a gift of grace, and by that grace you chose life rather than death. Rejoice that he gave you the gift." And for those whom God did not choose? He simply did not choose them. And why? For his own reasons, and not because of anything they did. And as soon as these words are uttered, there is a blanket of incomprehension between us and God. It is conceivable that, given the choice to save his own child or the child of another parent, a father might choose his own. But the father who has the ability to save both children, yet lets one die arbitrarily does not meet the minimum standard of behavior for human beings.

Either God is impartial, or God is not. If God is not, then, so far as we can see, God's actions are sometimes arbitrary. And if this is the case, then we are asked to trust those actions against our best instincts on the grounds that they are for the good, even if they are not for our good (in the human sense), and even if they result in the acute suffering of others no worse than ourselves or eternal damnation. If God were the impersonal ineffable god of Plato or Plotinus, or some great universal force that binds everything together, then I could accept this more easily. But in Christianity, we are told that God is personal, and oversees the smallest detail of each life. And we are commanded to love this Person. Psychologically, I do not see how this is possible, unless we close our ears to everything outside and focus the message down to the good things God has done for me. I have walked this path, and it was not pleasant.

So let's suppose that God is impartial. For example, if the father tries to save both children, but one child refuses to be saved, we do not consider it the father's fault. Could it be that God is impartial, but our free will trumps the ability of God to compel us? This might be plausible if everyone had an equal chance, an unequivocal experience of God's grace. But what does this mean? It cannot mean that everyone grows up being taught Christianity, since that is obviously false. So we would then need to believe that people in places completely outside the bounds of Christianity, who never hear of Christ through the testimony of any missionary, never read a word of the Bible, and, indeed, are brought up in societies and beliefs completely different and even antithetical to those of the Judaeo-Christian tradition can nevertheless experience grace. If this is true, the "one way to heaven" is very broad indeed, and the implications for our understanding of God are significant since the forms, beliefs and scriptures of the Christian faith as we have been taught them are now no longer definitive. This idea requires either an undermining of the Biblical text, or some subterfuge to maintain it (e.g. a special revelation of Christ at the point of death for all who had no chance to know him in life). And as soon as we solve one question using this method, another pops up. The desire to keep God loveable begins to trump knowledge and tradition, and any reasonable attempt to express what Christianity means wilts. God begins instead to take on image we create for him, and becomes what we want, but at the same time becomes blurry and indefinite, more warm feeling, less deity, more principle, less concrete reality. And ultimately, I think this is unsatisfying, and we simply turn back to ourselves and our "common sense" to make decisions, and belief recedes into memory.

I haven't though of the room with the window for quite a while. I know very well that there are theological answers to all of the stuff above. The problem is, those answers don't get me through the window. For that, I need something else, and what that something else is, I don't know. Maybe, like the man attempting to gain access to the law in Kafka, I will never find out.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Been thinking about how to approach this topic. Let's try this.
Somewhere, right now, someone is becoming a millionaire.
Somewhere, right now, someone is about to die of starvation.
Somewhere, right now, someone is worried sick about a Calculus test.
Somewhere, right now, someone is being applauded for graduating from Kindergarten.
Somewhere, right now, someone is throwing a bouquet after getting married.
Somewhere, right now, someone is about to commit suicide because someone else broke up with them.
Tonight, I was pleased by how well the beef stroganoff turned out.
Tonight, I cut my finger on the sharp end of a curtain rod.

The common thread is significance. Each event really matters to the person experiencing it, and sits in their mind, taking up their thought space, focusing their mental capital. And, unfortunately, in the scheme of things, give or take a few hundred years, it is unlikely that any of these events will be remembered by more than a note somewhere in cyberspace. But, the events are obviously not equivalent. I would never suggest that my struggles with OpenGL shaders are anything akin to the struggle against sweat-shop labor, or starvation, or a traumatic relationship breakup. They're probably not even worthy to compare against the Calculus test. I felt strange writing the list of events above, as though it were wrong to put the horrific side-by-side with the trivial.

It sometimes happens, as it did in the shower this morning, that I am thinking of some work- or school-related problem, and all of a sudden there is an irruption from somewhere else, and I am thinking of the Middle East, or the global financial crisis, or someone I know who is hurting. And there it is -- the Discrepancy. The self-question: why were you thinking of something so trivial when there is something so significant going on to think about? Or, more pointedly, why are you living a life focused on the trivial when there are significant things to address? It's not about practicality; it's a moral issue. For example, it's not that I could solve the Middle East crisis. But even if I could do nothing, would it not be better to spend a life working on that than coding OpenGL? Isn't it better to tilt at a worthy windmill than step on a grape? Maybe if enough people join in, the windmill will tilt.

But really the point is not about me. It's about discrepancy. It's about all the things going on the world, and how it seems right to be concerned with big things, but there's always still what to eat for dinner, and how to earn a paycheck, and the splinter in your finger from a piece of wood you absent-mindedly ran your hand over without noticing. And on the positive side, there's the joy of eating something you enjoy, or watching a seed grow, or a laugh shared with friends versus the great joy of peace after war or maybe the birth of a child.

Modifying discrepancy is difference. It's unfair to say to a child learning addition, "that's trivial," simply because you have taken it for granted for so long. So, it seems that the absolutes aren't there. You can't say "breakups are the same for everyone," or "having a child is the same joy for everyone," or "dying is the same for everyone." Difference is personal. Discrepancy is absolute in its import, but personal in its instantiation -- everyone sees discrepancy, but, perhaps, where we see discrepancy is personal.

Becoming involved in our own worlds and isolated from those outside is a defence mechanism against discrepancy. Discrepancy is considered a negative thing in this society because it makes us realize the relative unimportance of our lives, and disrupts comfortable assumptions. Apple pie. Family values. Peace and love. Doing this questioning and making us uncomfortable should be one of the primary purposes of the great institutions of education, media, religion. That's why it's so disappointing to see education as socialization, media as entertainment and religion as social conformity.

Haven't expressed this right. Too much though in too few words.

Onions gone wild

The onions look like they are set to take over the world. I can't believe how prolifically and reliably they've grown. I put a bunch of seeds in each peat pot, thinking that perhaps one or two would sprout. Some of the pots now look as if I've sown grass. They obviously love Kim's magic grow-bulb. They're now tall enough that their growth is being restricted by the plastic top, so I've had to separate them from the peppers, which are just starting to sprout. I hope that Brandy, who likes to sleep by them, won't eat them. I assume that cats left to their own devices will be maximally evil, which is usually prudent, though sometimes I'm proved wrong.

Good day at work today. Hacked up some code with ifdefs with Keith, and all of a sudden there is a moon. Still, shaders are called shaders for a reason -- they're shady: deceptively simple on the surface, but tough as nails to debug and possessing surprising sleight of hand when addressing the graphics hardware. Now to fix up some CMFS...

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Phone post

Testing... 1 2 3
Sitting, bored, in Panera, I thought I'd have a go at posting from my phone. It's not great, but might work in a pinch.

In other phone news...

Got a call from my mother who has just moved to Tennessee. She seems to be doing well.

Called the Good Earth people. They will deliver soil on a day's notice, and COD. Very cool. Got the strawberry bush and crossvine planted today, so maybe next weekend will be the time to do the raised bed. I don't seem to be able to post images from here, so I will do so when I get home.


I had a dream last night. What was the dream about? No idea. I never remember my dreams. But it's a good thing when I have them -- it means I've actually slept reasonably well. Hoping for another one tonight :)

Thinking of heading to Brazos Bend park tomorrow. Got to get my time in before it starts getting hot. There are already mosquitos on the path by Keith's. Will get the new plants in the ground before going. I really hope they grow.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Planting humility

Well, so far, so good pretty much. The onions are amazing, partly because unlink the other stuff I've grown from seed they don't put out little leaves first -- they just sort of unroll a stalk, and then the stalk gets thicker. Not seeing too much from the impatiens or the peppers yet. The coleus are doing great.

The crossvine (left) and strawberry bush (right) arrived today by mail. I'm really impressed. This is the second time I've ordered from people on Ebay, and both times I've been very happy with the results. This place is especially good with great prices and a specialization in native plants (actually, Florida natives, but there's a lot of crossover with the Texas Gulf Coast).

Despite not getting much sleep lately, I'm feeling pretty good. It always helps me to have a hands-on project going, whether that's woodworking, or garden, or something else. I don't think I was meant to shuttle back and forth between home and work and do nothing else. Having said that, work is good. I feel like I'm doing something of value to people outside me and Keith. And class is good, too. I had a great conversation after class yesterday with one of my professors. I appreciated that though he has been a professor for many years, and a background in industry before that, he is still curious to learn, and humble enough to learn from someone with far less experience. The right kind of humility seems to be a common factor in people I admire, the type of humility that is not the doormat I used to be, nor self-defensive, as I feel myself to be now, but honest and open and genuine. Humility of being. Math makes most people who do it at a high level humble. It very quickly shows you your own fallibility. Gardening does that for me too. I hope I can learn well from these and other teachers.

Well, better sleep before I'm tempted to look into the segfault on my Bayes code.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I've been doing a bit of thinking about the concept of using simulations for performance analysis introduced in class. The motivating example used was comparing two types of RPC: one blocking, the other non-blocking. In introducing the idea of simulation, it's obviously necessary to abstract some elements of the system so you don't have to do something ridiculous like worry about where the disk head is at any given point in time. The question then has to be: what do you abstract, and how, and what must you simulate, and to what degree? For example:
1) Maybe you do need the disk involved, but only at a high level. E.g. if the RPC call blocks, and the process has pages swapped to disk, then performance will, in part, depend on things like whether you have a disk cache in place.
2) How much of the OS do you simulate? For network stuff, surely it's important how efficiently the network driver handles different-sized packets. This can change even with point releases to an OS, or if you change out a network card. In which case, the simulation is only good for version X of this OS with Y hardware, and is not really about just the RPC code.
3) What about chaos? I don't mean Windows. Actually, I have a new level of respect for Windows now that I've had to develop on a Mac for a bit (yuck). I mean situations where the equations blow up due to inherent unpredictability (sensitive dependence on initial conditions). You can use simplifying assumptions, and control load, but then how realistic is your sim?

I'm not sure yet whether I like the textbook for the class, but I did like this one quote: "The complexities of interactions among various system components and user programs often surpass our ability to readily identify what system and algorithmic variables are really significant, and in what functional form these variables are related to a chosen measure of performance" (16). The book advises that in order to figure out what is significant, you either need to see the system in production, or do a really detailed sim.

When I started this class, I thought "simulations are simulations." I expected that performance simulations would be similar to the software simulations I used on the job before to verify interfaces and programming logic. I now see that a performance analysis sim is potentially much more complex. There's also something interesting that sims say about the nature of time. In a sim, time is quantized and turned into a sequence of steps that are, given suitable control on inputs, deterministic. A sim can be fast-forwarded or run double-speed, or checkpointed and restored later. You might go to work in the morning and have the sim run through a year's worth of processing by 5:00. I find this sense of creating time to control it poetic. There's a certainty and absoluteness that reminds me of what I like about Math: I prove a theorem and it's proved forever, and the proof has a life of itself, independent of me -- a proof is the creation of something infinite, something that transcends time. This is probably not what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote "Only through time, time is conquered," but there's a resonance in there somewhere, at least for me.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Got this picture with some of the concrete blocks roughly placed. The shape and unevenness of the blocks made me think of the old observation about the teeth of American versus British actresses. I like the way it's shaping up. Maybe I should have an inconsistent border.

Meanwhile, back under the fluorescents, I'm already seeing the first signs of life! I'm really surprised -- I wasn't expecting anything for another 5 days. Might have to get in some soil faster than I expectd. The pic is a bit blurry because it's taken though the plastic top.

I saw a comment on a forum asking why anyone would go to the trouble to raise plants from seed when it's really not cost-effective (not to mention the heartbreak of putting in effort only to see the plants go leggy or die). For me, the reason is the wonder of seeing something come from a tiny brown blob that I stuck in some moist soil. This is what makes it all worth it. Maybe it's like reliving the wonder of childhood experience -- seeing a lightbulb light from a battery-powered circuit, or making a stink bomb from iron filings, or the strange experience of snow burning your hands after playing out in it too long. There is a way that the world is, and it's endlessly fascinating and worth learning about. If any of these plants reach maturity and survive the transition to the garden I'll be thrilled. But if not, I don't think it will stop me from trying again. And in this climate, I won't even need to wait until next year.

Burn's Day

Today (well, yesterday, the 25th) was Burn's Night in Scotland, a celebration of the most famous of Scots poets, Robert Burns. Scots the world over celebrate with a traditional "Burn's Night Supper" of haggis, neaps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). Outside of Scotland, Burns is best known as the songwriter of "Auld Lang Syne." Inside Scotland, he's probably more appreciated for his poetry, like "A Man's a Man For A' That," which comments on the fundamental equality of human beings regardless of class; "Tam O'Shanter," which tells the story of a drunken reveller coming back home through a graveyard, and "Holy Willie's Prayer," a satire on the hypocrisy of one of the religious figures in his area. His poems have a witty earthiness that somehow goes with the Scots character, the kind of earthiness you might also find in a good single malt. Due to the time I spent getting in the concrete blocks, I had to settle for what we had in the cupboard -- a cheap sherry, not worthy of his memory. But tomorrow, I might pass by Spec's on the way home and grab a dram of something better. Pity there'll be no haggis to go with it.


Found out that Home Depot in Clear Lake is relocating and has everything 40-60% off. Not much is left, but I did manage to get a couple of power cords and a pile of 8"x8"x4" concrete blocks (90!) to make a couple of good-sized raised beds in the garden behind the shed. It took two car trips to get them home with the weight in the trunk depressing the back of the car perilously close to the wheels. Kathryn helped me get the second load in, which was really good of her. Concrete's not my favorite choice, but at 70 cents per block this was too good a deal to turn down, and each block has a hole through the middle that I could use to plant something small. It was too late to get pictures last night, but I'll try to put some up tomorrow. I spent a bit of time getting used to Wings3D in the hope that I can make a 3D model of how the garden will look. I might or might not have the patience to carry this out, but it's fun to play. Next thing will be to get a big delivery of soil.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I had a great walk at Brazos Bend park last Saturday. It feels, and has always felt, so natural for me to be out in the woods. I think smell has a lot to do with it, and that's also why I like gardening. But it's also the sight of the path bending and disappearing into the trees and brush and wondering where it might lead. And the way that everything just is the way it is -- sometimes tangled, sometimes straight, grains of soil and huge oaks coexisting in a single system by being themselves. Nobody says to the grass "you should be shorter and more uniform in height," or to the trees, "you shouldn't shed leaves on the path." Very Tao.
On the path, there was a bench with a plaque in someone's memory. I don't know why it stood out to me so strongly. Maybe it was because we lost Maggie a few weeks ago, and Keith was up in Austin at a funeral. It struck me that if I could pick my own way to be remembered, that I couldn't do better than this. To be a bench, in a state park, to be remembered through an object of use to people who never knew me in a place like this -- what could be better? It made me want to write a poem for the first time in forever. I still might, but I need to get this thought out in case I don't. I can't express the depth of being there, but at least I can say it was deep.

Something new

"Something new" seems like a good title for the first post of a blog. New blog. New year. New job (well, fairly new). New class. New thesis. New stuff on the horizon. I have an itch to plant. This year I'm starting two trays of plants from seed. It was only going to be one, but Kim kindly lent me her spiffy seed light, so now there are two trays of about-to-grow seeds on the bedroom floor tucked away in the corner.
On the left side... scarlet impatiens and a coleus mix.
On the right side... onions and yellow peppers.
At the moment, I'm running the lights on them 24/7. Should see results in a couple of weeks. I've also ordered a strawberry bush plant and a crossvine for use in the garden behind the shed. I'm rather attached to that garden, despite the fact that nothing wants to grow there except weeds. It's just such a lovely corner, shady and out of the way. It's not the corner's fault that it's the plant equivalent of the "dead zone" in the Verizon commercials. I'm thinking of putting in raised beds. On the other hand, there's part of me that says, "no, just get the right plants." So I'm pursuing that angle too. Crossvine just rocks. Sun? No problem. Shade? Easy. Bad drainage? It eats that for breakfast, and drought for dessert. What a great plant. And all those lovely flowers! Maybe I'll save the raised beds for the veggies. They could probably use them.