Apr 03

Ask a glass of water

And while I’m on the subject, here’s another item that is a lot easier to appreciate after you do without it for a while: the ability to stand up. I don’t mean the ability to walk; I haven’t taken that for granted since 1980. I mean the ability to remain vertical.

Let me explain. Marie was sick with a rather nasty cold over the weekend, and as she began to recover, it became clear that I was coming down with it. I started feeling the first symptom, a dry, scratchy sore throat, on Monday evening. I was able to work Tuesday but felt worse as the day progressed: nasal congestion, general aches, weakness, and so forth. Along with these came a symptom I hadn’t experienced before: the infection messed up my inner ear, interfering with my sense of balance. By the end of the work day I was already feeling dizzy, and by nightfall my internal guidance system was completely offline.

I spent the next twenty-four hours in bed. I would have done this anyway because I felt awful and needed the rest, but in this case I had no choice; I could not stand up without hanging onto some kind of support. Any movement caused the room to spin around me, and I lurched and staggered as if intoxicated. I have never actually been drunk, but this must be what it’s like. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal of it. I found that it was best to simply stay prone and try not to move until my semicircular canals recovered.

I think Ford Prefect summed up the experience best when, in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he described the sensation of hyperspace travel to Arthur Dent:

FORD: It’s rather unpleasantly like being drunk.
ARTHUR: What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?
FORD: Ask a glass of water.

Posted in Me
Feb 24


I’m taking an XML class at Wake Technical Community College. At the first meeting, one of the exercises involved answering a survey distributed by the instructor and then coding the result in XML. Some of the questions were amusing, so here is an excerpt (minus the boring what’s-your-name stuff at the beginning):
Please specify your background (software developer, database administrator, test engineer, homemaker, electrical engineer, graphic artist, web designer, technical writer, technical team lead, manager, other).
Technical writer with sixteen years of experience in the computers/software/telecommunication field.
Do you know HTML like the back of your hand?
Yes and no. I know the basic tags by heart: headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, links, and so forth. I would rather use a text editor to code HTML by hand than use a WYSIWYG tool, because I’ve seen the sort of HTML generated by such tools, and it makes my skin crawl. But for more complex stuff like framesets, I have to look up the syntax, and I don’t know anything about CSS.
Is XML the next hot thing or is it already over and done with?
I hope it’s the next hot thing, but who knows?
In months or years, how long have you known about XML?
I’ve been vaguely aware of it for two or three years, I guess.
In a Supporting Warrior Smackdown, who would be most likely to win? (a) Teal’c of SG1. (b) Duncan MacLeod of Highlander. (c) Worf of ST:TNG. (d) Jedi Ki-Adi-Mundi of Star Wars Episodes 1 and 2. (d) Tyr Anasazi of Andromeda.
It would come down to a duel between Duncan McLeod and Ki-Adi-Mundi, because the others are just not in the same league as an immortal and a Jedi. And MacLeod would lose, because he’s vulnerable to decapitation, which is easy for a Jedi armed with a lightsaber. Even if you arm him with a lightsaber of his own, MacLeod isn’t going to be able to get through the defenses of a Jedi who can use the Force to anticipate his opponent’s moves.
Why are you interested in learning about XML (or aren’t you!?!?)?
To improve my marketability as a technical writer and, hopefully, get a job.
What computer languages do you already know?
I am at least slightly familiar with Java, C++, assembly language, Pascal, COBOL, PL/I, and BASIC.
If you have a specific interest in a particular topic related to XML, please specify.
Not really.
What is a Regular Expression? (a) A way to manage spreadsheets. (b) A method of specifying data types. (c) A Microsoft invention, contributed to the W3C, for interpreting XML. (d) A method of specifying a textual pattern. (e) The result of a healthy diet with plenty of fiber. (f) None of the above.
I don’t really know, but I’ll guess (d) because I know that the “re” in “grep” stands for “regular expression.”
Who is tougher? (a) Jango Fett. (b) Alton Brown. (c) Neither — both are fictional characters.
Who is Alton Brown? Wait, let me do a Google search. (Ten minutes pass.) Hmm. This guy is either a genius or a madman. Hang on, I’ll be right back. (Five more minutes pass.) Okay, I’ve programmed my TiVo to record his show. I’ll get back to you after I’ve seen him in action.
Do you want to know more about the local XML user group serving the Triangle area?
No, thanks. I already know about it.

Nov 03

Worry lines

Thanks to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, I finally understand why no one has hired me yet. It’s those darn wrinkles on my forehead. I’ve stupidly neglected to have botulinum toxin injected into my face!
Of course, I’ll still have to do something about the gray in my beard. And my pattern baldness. And the fact that I have sixteen years of experience in my field. Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that a good thing? Why would I want to work for someone who values youth over experience? I think I’ll leave my face the way it is.

Apr 02

Rising star

I just checked my eBay feedback for the first time in a week or so, and discovered that my rating has passed 100, turning my Feedback Star from yellow to turquoise. I always wondered what it feels like when a D&D character gains a level — now I know!
Historical note: eBay later modified its hierarchy of Feedback Stars, adding a blue star (50-99 points) that comes between yellow and turquoise. So it’s no longer possible for a user’s star to turn from yellow to turquoise.

Posted in Me
Mar 02

Friday Five: Destinations

This week’s Friday Five is about vacations.
1. What’s your favorite vacation spot? I don’t think I’m really qualified to have one. I’ve spent most of my career working as a technical writing contractor, which meant that I didn’t get paid vacations. So I have done very little vacationing other than weekend or holiday visits to family, which don’t really count.
Now that I’m an honest-to-God employee at IBM, I should probably try to develop the vacation habit. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve lived in North Carolina for almost fifteen years and have made no effort to explore the state. I’ve spent a few weekends at Fort Caswell (on the coast near Wilmington) and have visited the State Zoo in Asheboro, but that’s all. I haven’t even been to Biltmore Estates.
2. Where do you consider to be the biggest hell-hole on earth? I’m not qualified to answer that one either. I can think of lots of places — Cuba and North Korea come to mind — that I have no desire to visit, but that’s not based on personal experience. I’ve never been to a truly awful place because I never go anywhere.
3. What would be your dream vacation? If this is another money-is-no-object scenario, then it’s easy: one of those billionaire junkets to Space Station Alpha.
4. If you could go on a road-trip with anyone, who would it be and why? Until recently, I would have had a difficult time answering this question. But a month or so ago, I drove to Lexington to meet my mother for lunch. Marie and I and the kids do this sort of thing fairly often (see #5), but on this occasion they were all busy with other things, so I ended up going by myself. And I enjoyed it immensely.
It had been many years since I had gone on a road trip alone, and I had forgotten how liberating it was to be able to set my own schedule, choose my own route, and stop wherever I felt like it. On the way back, for example, I stopped at a shoe outlet in Siler City and just looked around for a while. I didn’t end up buying anything, but just the fact that I didn’t have to justify the stop to anyone, or listen to complaints about how long it was taking, was exhilerating to me. I don’t often experience that kind of freedom.
Perhaps I should look for excuses to do that sort of thing more often.
5. What are your plans for this weekend? Tonight the family is going out to dinner at Stir Crazy (the new Mongolian barbecue restaurant in Cary) to celebrate Ben’s thirteenth birthday (which is actually not until Monday, but we won’t let that stop us). On Saturday, we’re taking Marie to see The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. (It will be my third.) On Sunday, we’re meeting my parents for lunch in Asheboro, again to celebrate Ben’s birthday.

Posted in Me
Feb 22

Friday Five: Birthdays

This week’s Friday Five is about birthdays.
1. Hey, baby, what’s your sign? Do you think it fits you pretty well? Sagittarius. I have no idea what that’s supposed to say about me, and don’t care, since I consider astrology to be complete nonsense.
2. What’s the worst birthday gift you’ve ever received? If I’ve ever received a really awful one, I don’t remember it. But since my birthday is December 20, I usually can’t recall whether a gift was for my birthday or Christmas anyway.
3. What’s the best birthday gift you’ve ever received? See #4.
4. What’s the best way you’ve celebrated your birthday thus far? It snowed on my fifth birthday, and I spent the whole day playing in it. This was a big deal in Louisiana, where even very light snow was rare. I’m not sure I had ever seen snow before, and getting enough to build a snowman was awesome.
But my birthday in 1979 was even better. It was the last day of exams at the University of South Carolina, and the dorms were closing for the holidays that evening; everyone had to be out by 7:00 p.m. So after my last exam, I packed my bags and settled down with a book by my tenth-floor window (which looked out over the parking lot) to wait for my parents to make the 90-minute drive from Rock Hill to pick me up.
Afternoon turned into evening, and the parking lot began to look increasingly empty as the other residents left. At 6:00 I was anxious enough to call home, but no one was there. Presumably they were already on their way to Columbia, but when would they get there? I ate supper and continued waiting. It began to get dark. I started making a list of people I could call who might let me spend the night if my parents didn’t show up before the housing people threw me out into the street. Finally, with a few minutes to spare, my family’s van pulled into the parking lot and I went downstairs to meet them.
The van contained not only my parents and both my siblings, but also Virgil, whom my family had brought along to help celebrate. The interior of the van was decorated with balloons and streamers, and as soon as I got in, the party began. When we reached Rock Hill, Virgil told me to drop off my bags and get in his car, because we were driving to Charlotte to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which had premiered ten days earlier (but which I hadn’t had time to see, due to exams).
I would have been happy to celebrate my birthday merely by finishing exams, going home, and being with my family again. To be treated to a birthday party at 55 miles per hour all the way from Columbia to Rock Hill, and then go see the long-awaited Star Trek movie with my best friend, was too cool for words. I’m used to having my birthday be pretty much overshadowed by Christmas, but in 1979, it was the other way around.
5. What are your plans for this weekend? Tonight my family is making one-handed brownies (no one can use their dominant hand), which should be an interesting exercise if we can avoid making a mess of the kitchen in the process. Tomorrow is Diversions, the monthly get-together with friends to play card and board games. We don’t have anything planned for Sunday, so maybe I’ll finally be able to unpack our new computer and install Windows XP.

Posted in Me
Feb 08

Friday Five: Truth or dare

I decided last week to start participating in Friday Five as a method of breaking the Blogger’s Block™ that has plagued me for months now. I’m not exactly sure how or when Friday Five originated, but I’ve encountered a number of blogs that feature it every week. The idea is simple: every Friday, five questions are posted, and you answer them in your blog. (Exactly who chooses the questions is not clear. I’m not sure it matters.) It seemed like a useful exercise to force myself to write something at least once a week.
It never occurred to me that on the second Friday after I decided to do this, the questions would all be about, well, sex. I stared at the list for several minutes this morning, trying to convince myself to just take a deep breath and answer them anyway. But I think I’m going to chicken out. My children read this blog, or at least they can if they are sufficiently bored, and I’m just not comfortable listing my erogenous zones, or recalling the most unusual place I’ve ever Done It, where they can see. I’m not convinced anyone else who reads this blog really wants to know those things either.
So I’m going to scroll back through the Friday Five archives and find a previous Friday whose questions I’d rather answer. Call me a wimp and a coward if you want.
1. What do you have your browser start page set to? My private home page, which is just a table of links to the sites that I look at on a more or less daily basis.
2. What are your favorite news sites? I’m still trying to figure that out. I used to read CNN’s site every day, but lately I’ve become dissatisfied with the quality of their coverage. I’m been looking at a lot of other news sites in an effort to find a replacement, but haven’t settled on one yet.
3. Favorite search engine? Google, of course. Is there any reason to use another one?
4. When did you first get online? Define “online.” My addiction to computer networks dates from 1988, when I started my first contract job at IBM and discovered the company’s internal network. In particular, the internal discussion forums were a revelation to me. They were all theoretically business-related, but there was a lot of friendly banter and camaraderie in some of them, especially the ones devoted to language and writing-related issues. I had never encountered that sort of global virtual community before, and I loved it.
The Internet and Usenet existed at that point, of course, but they were not easy to get access to. Basically, you had to be a university student or an employee of a big company to do it. But by 1989 I had found a group of geeks in my area who has set up a local UUCP network to share a dial-up Usenet and e-mail feed (provided by Data General at first, and later the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina). It was a kludgy setup, but it meant that I could send and receive e-mail, and read and post to newsgroups, on my home computer. By early 1990 I was discussing Star Trek trivia in newsgroups.
5. How do you plan to spend your weekend? At the beach! My gaming group is spending the weekend at Fort Caswell playing Dungeons & Dragons, celebrating Denise and Virgil’s birthdays, and generally enjoying each other’s company.

Posted in Me
Feb 01

Friday Five: Scars

This week’s Friday Five is about braces and sutures and scars (oh my!).
1. Have you ever had braces? Any other teeth trauma? When I was seven, dental X-rays picked up a permanent tooth that, while still inside the gum, was in two pieces. It was surgically removed — and when I say surgically, I mean under general anaesthesia, in an operating room. I actually spent the night in the hospital, probably the first night of my life away from my family.
I wore braces for two years in high school. After that I had a retainer, but it caused me to lisp, something that’s difficult to deal with when you’re a socially awkward and self-conscious teenager to begin with. I finally just quit using it. (As a result, a tooth slid out of alignment and I now have a gap between my front teeth. Yeah, just like David Letterman.)
The standard adult complement of teeth is 32. But the surgery cost me one permanent tooth, four more were pulled as part of my orthodontic treatment, and I only grew one wisdom tooth (most people get four). If you do the math, you’ll conclude that I only have 24 teeth, and you’ll be correct.
2. Ever broken any bones? Just one — my right femur, in a car wreck when I was 20. Six weeks in traction, then nine weeks wearing a cast, then four weeks on crutches. I have never taken the ability to walk for granted since then.
3. Ever had stitches? I got sprayed with glass fragments in the car wreck and looked pretty bloody by the time I was pulled out of the wreckage. But the blood was from superficial nicks to my face and scalp that didn’t require sutures, just Band-Aids. (Scalp lacerations, even very small ones, bleed like crazy.) The only trauma I’ve ever experienced that required stitches was ridiculously minor: while mopping the floor at Pizza Hut (where I worked for three summers), I managed to cut the webbing between my right thumb and forefinger on the edge of a steel prep table. The cut was tiny, less than half an inch long, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. I finally had to go to an ER and get three stitches to close it.
If non-trauma sutures count, I’ve had surgery twice on my left wrist, and twice on fingers of my right hand. (UPDATE: As of November 2006, the latter number has risen to three.)
4. What are the stories behind some of your [physical] scars? I have chicken pox scars on my temples and face, which resulted from catching the virus from my two-year-old daughter when I was 28. There are scars on both sides of my right shin where the metal pin was inserted through my tibia for the traction setup for my broken leg. I also have a small triangular scar at the base of my right forefinger (glass fragments from a broken terrarium, 6th grade) and a scar on the back of my left knee from a piece of metal at a construction site when I was five years old. (What was I doing at a construction site? My parents took me to see how our new house was coming along.)
5. How do you plan to spend your weekend? If Federal Express delivers my new computer, I’ll probably spend a good bit of the weekend installing and configuring it. I also have to do laundry, wash dishes, and try to get started on spring cleaning. On Sunday, of course, I’ll be at a party with friends, celebrating the fact that we’re not watching the Super Bowl.

Oct 23

The next generation

A quarter century ago, when Virgil and I were both students at Northwestern High School, he was in the chorus. (I wasn’t — I never auditioned, for reasons that I no longer remember. Perhaps it was because my voice hadn’t finished changing and I didn’t feel confident about my ability to sing.) At their concerts, I sat in the audience and watched while he sang. Tonight, I was sitting in the audience again while a high school chorus performed . . . but Virgil was sitting next to me, and it was our daughters who were singing. Afterward, I asked him, “When’s the last time we were together at a high school?”
“At the class reunion?” he responded.
“No, I only went to the ten-year reunion, and that wasn’t held at the school. It has to have been 1977, on our last day of classes before we graduated.” We looked at each other.
Life has come full circle. Virgil and I met in geometry class in the fall of 1974, when he was 15 and I was 14. Now Ruth (age 15) and Alana (age 14) are both taking geometry. They’re not in the same class, but that scarcely matters, since they’ve known each other all their lives.
Where does the time go?

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