Oct 31

Livin’ la vida mocha

On October 16, I started drinking coffee. It was the exact opposite of going “cold turkey”; that morning, I changed from a lifelong coffee-avoider to a person who sips the stuff more or less nonstop throughout the work day.
Blame Weight Watchers and IBM. When I started on the Weight Watchers plan in 1999, I suddenly had a very powerful incentive to reevaluate my taste preferences. I was drinking several canned drinks a day, and their sugar content was a major reason why my weight had reached 230 pounds. I needed an alternative. I had tried diet sodas in the past, and had always found them to taste nasty. So, during the first weeks of my diet, I drank a lot of water. But eventually, I broke down and drank a diet soda, and found that it tasted just fine. In fact, all diet sodas now tasted good to me.
Apparently, once the sugar content of my bloodstream came down out of the stratosphere, I could taste the artificial sweetener. (I should have expected this; years before, I had stopped salting my food, and had discovered that foods had flavors of their own.) So instead of sipping Dr. Pepper all day, I could now sip Diet Dr. Pepper. It was still expensive buying all those drinks from vending machines, though. I tried bringing store brands from home, but lugging several cans of liquid to work every day wasn’t much of an improvement.
Over the next two years, I discovered that diet drinks were just the tip of the iceberg. Virtually every food I thought I disliked, I found that I enjoyed eating or could at least tolerate. My diet gradually shifted from meat and carbohydrates to semi-vegetarian, as I learned that collard greens, brussels sprouts, and squash were not the inedible horrors I had always believed. I even found that my childhood allergies to raw vegetables and fruits had disappeared, and I could now eat bananas and watermelon like everyone else.
When I started work at IBM in May, one of the perks of the job was the free drinks. Coffee and tea had been free at many of my former workplaces, but not Coke and Pepsi products. Now I had access to vending machines that would dispense Diet Mountain Dew and Diet Pepsi without payment. At last I could get my daily caffeine without worrying about the calories or the expense! If only the drinks didn’t run out so often.
Of course it was too good to last. The drinks were running out because IBMers had no incentive to limit their consumption, and the cost of refilling the machines was becoming prohibitive. Finally IBM put its corporate foot down. Drinks would now cost 25 cents. This was still a bargain, but it started me thinking. “If what I’m really after is the caffeine,” I reasoned, “why am I ignoring the free coffee?” The last time I had tried coffee, it had tasted horribly bitter and nasty to me, but how long ago was that? Ten or fifteen years? If I could learn to love Brussels sprouts, it was time to give java another try. So, on the morning of October 16, I took the IBM thermal mug that I had owned for over a decade (since my previous stint as a contractor) and filled it with coffee for the first time. And found that with the proper amount of nondairy creamer and artificial sweetener, I like it a great deal.
So now I drink coffee all day. It’s a little thing, but I feel as if I’ve finally completed the transition into adulthood. At the age of 41, I’ve joined the worldwide fraternity of coffee drinkers at last. I’ve been initiated into the mysteries of grounds, filters, little plastic stirrers, and the magic button that sets the brewing process in motion. I’ve burned my lips and tongue with coffee that was too hot, and learned that the interval of enforced patience between pouring and drinking can enhance the joy of the first sip. And although I’ve managed to avoid getting coffee stains on my clothing, I know that it’s only a matter of time before I bear the Mark.
Best of all, I never have to sleep any more.
Note: I borrowed the title of this post from an Onion article.

Oct 24

We’ve been on this shift too long

The deadline crunch that kept me from posting here for a while has now officially passed. In the part of IBM where I work, iterations of the software and documentation are called drivers for some reason. When I started this job six months ago, work was just starting on Driver 6, to which I contributed nothing worth mentioning. The deadline that just passed was for Driver 7, and this time I wrote a bunch of online help pages (which is why I was so busy the last couple of weeks).
Now we’re starting on Driver 8, and when my manager sent out an e-mail about the schedule, he attached an MP3 file containing an R.E.M. song called “Driver 8.” (You can hear a sample of it here.) Playing it through my headset, I found that I really liked the sound of it, but couldn’t make out all of the lyrics. And in the process of tracking them down on the Web, I discovered that the guy playing drums on this song was named Berry. Isn’t synchronicity fun? No, wait, that was The Police. Never mind.

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?

Posted in Me
Oct 08


In an open letter to the terrorists (posted to a CNN message board), Laurence Simon points out that they should be afraid of us because we are crazier than they are. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a sample:

We sell hot dogs in packages of ten and the buns in packages of eight.

We can’t even decide if pitchers should have to bat for themselves or not. All those baseball fields we’ve got… none of them are even remotely the same size.

We think Elvis is still alive.

We put our money into dot-com businesses that have no imaginable source of revenue whatsoever, and then scream when their stock values plummet to zero in the frenzy of sudden realization. We lay off thousands upon thousands of workers because it is good for the bottom line and stockholders, when it’s the bosses who are the real stockholders with options for even more stock.

We gave millions of dollars to a guy that told us that God was going to kill him if he didn’t raise enough money. When he didn’t get enough money, he didn’t die. So we gave him more money in celebration of the fact that God didn’t make him die.

We’ve managed to keep the formulas for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken secret for decades, we encrypt the most banal communications on our Information Superhighway, and yet we given away our most important nuclear secrets to the Chinese and Russians at the drop of a hat.

He’s right. Heck, this explains why so many of our former enemies (Great Britain, Mexico, Germany, Japan) are now staunch allies. They realized that we’re heavily armed and stark raving mad, and decided that it is much safer to be our friends.

Historical note: When it first appeared, the open letter was attributed to someone else by a lot of people, including me. But Laurence Simon sets the record straight on his own blog, and also provides annotations for all of the things he alludes to.

Oct 05


Most Windows installation programs do two things. They ask you to shut down every other application running on your computer. But first, they take over the entire screen, hiding the Taskbar and making it impossible for you to shut down anything. There must be a good reason for this, but I can’t imagine what it is.

Oct 04

Bad ideas

Listening to All Things Considered on the way home this evening, I heard how Washington is celebrating the reopening of Reagan National Airport. Am I the only one who thinks this is a mistake? DCA (that’s its three-letter code) is dangerous for reasons that have nothing to do with the recent terrorist attacks. No airport should be where it is in the first place. I’ve been there, and you can literally look out the terminal window and see the dome of the Capitol.
The FAA can tweak the security procedures and flight paths all they want, but it will always be insanely risky to have jumbo jets taking off and landing inside a city. DCA should have been permanently closed years ago, and I was hoping that after September 11, it finally would be. But apparently convenience still trumps safety in Washington.
NPR’s next story made me forget all about that by giving me something even worse to worry about. Since the World Trade Center was destroyed, I’ve seen quite a few harebrained and ill-considered proposals for anti-hijacking measures, but by far the worst is the notion of remote-control systems for airliners. The idea is that if a plane is hijacked, or the pilot incapacitated, people on the ground can send a signal to disable the controls in the cockpit, take control of the plane remotely, and land it safely in a secure location.
But if the FAA can seize control of a plane remotely, then terrorists can do it too. In fact, it will make their task much easier — now they can fly airliners into skyscrapers without putting themselves at risk. They won’t even have to go through the security checkpoint at an airport. Sure, you can build security features into the system, but can you guarantee that nobody can hack their way in or steal the password? The system has to be absolutely bulletproof, or you get a repeat of September 11.
Linda Wertheimer discussed this proposal with the president of the National Air Transportation Society for over four minutes, but it apparently never occurred to her to ask what would prevent terrorists from exploiting it. The closest she got was to suggest that terrorists could take over the control tower at an airport and seize control of airplanes from there. But why would they need to? All they need is the right kind of signal. I can’t believe anyone is taking this proposal seriously.

Oct 04

Buffy lives

I won’t post any spoilers about the Buffy season premiere, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that (a) it revolves around Buffy’s return from death, and (b) magic is involved. We all knew that ahead of time; the question was, how would this be handled? Bringing back dead characters is a very tricky business that can undermine the credibility of any show if it’s done wrong. Dallas ran afoul of this hazard back in the ’80s. The problem wasn’t that Bobby was resurrected, but the way he came back. Declaring an entire season of the show to have been a dream was a cop-out and a cliche, and Dallas never really recovered.
So I was curious to see how Buffy would avoid the pitfalls of raising its main character from the dead. Very well, it turns out. The spell that brought her back had so many conditions and qualifications that I’m sure we’ll never see it used again: it was only possible because Buffy had been killed by mystical forces, it was extremely dangerous for the caster, its material component was a rare and irreplaceable artifact, and it has severe consequences for everyone involved (which we’ll see next week). Nicely done.

Oct 04

Looking down

The Enterprise titles begin with some lovely pictures of the Earth from orbit, which demonstrate how far Star Trek has come in 35 years. Remember when the original series depicted the same thing in episodes like “Miri” and “Tomorrow Is Yesterday”? It looked like a globe: continents and oceans, but no clouds. That’s understandable, because manned space flight was only five years old at that point, and a meeting of everyone who had done it would have fit comfortably into an ordinary conference room. Orbital photos of the Earth existed, but they were grainy black-and-white images that didn’t come close to conveying the breathtaking reality that cosmonauts and astronauts saw.
Nowadays, Star Trek doesn’t have to guess what Earth looks like from orbit, or use visual effects to simulate it. They just use a photograph of the real thing.

Oct 04

Bumper stickers

Traffic on I-40 was exceptionally horrible this morning, leaving me with plenty of opportunities to read the messages on the back of other people’s vehicles. As usual, most of them made me say “huh?” For example, this one is my pick for Most Unnecessary Advice Ever: BE AS YOU ARE. And can someone explain to me what A COUNTRY BOY CAN SURVIVE is supposed to mean? But I liked the upside-down one that said IF YOU CAN READ THIS, PLEASE TURN ME OVER.
The most baffling bumper sticker I’ve seen recently was not on a car, but stuck to the inside of the sneeze shield at a food court serving line. It said “GOD” BLESS AMERICA. Apparently “God” is not His real name, just a pseudonym.

Oct 03


Who are those astronauts that appear in the titles of Enterprise? I’ve been having fun trying to identify them. The title sequence includes these shots:

  • A test pilot in front of his plane, walking toward the camera. His face isn’t terribly clear, but it could be Gus Grissom. (On the other hand, this may not be an astronaut at all. Maybe it’s Chuck Yeager. Hard to tell.)
  • A close-up of a smiling astronaut wearing the characteristic “Snoopy cap” of the Apollo program. I’m almost certain it’s Alan Shepard, suiting up for Apollo 14.
  • An Apollo crew during launch. The helmets make faces hard to identify, but I believe the one closest to the camera is Jim Lovell. He flew on two Apollo missions, but in this shot he’s in the commander’s seat, and that means Apollo 13.
  • A fully suited Apollo crew walking down a corridor on their way to the launch pad. It’s impossible to make out faces, but I’ll bet this is the crew of Apollo 11.

Update: At least one of these guesses turned out to be wrong.