Monday, February 27, 2006

Super Fine Lung Ching

Another Harney and Sons tea: Super Fine Lung Ching.

This is a dry (astringent) yellowish green tea with a very clean, smooth flavor and hints of citrus, like the scent of grapefruit skin, and a slight nutty flavor, a bit like almond or hazelnut. The flavor changes and opens up as the tea cools, so it is actually better to brew it with water off the boil and drink it when it has cooled a bit. It is one of the more subtle and delicious green teas that I have tasted, but it is quite expensive, and I don't really enjoy the way the dry "mouth feel" lasts and lasts. Also, it seems to have quite a bit more caffeine than I expected, and I am pacing around my office this afternoon like a caged animal, feeling twitchy!

Due to its astringency, I would not recommend drinking it on an empty stomach (in general, any of the more astringent teas tend to make me nauseated when drunk on an empty stomach). When I feel like a green tea pick-me-up at work mid-afternoon I will probably continue to make a pot of genmaicha (toasted bancha with rice) or hojicha (roasted stems) which are much less expensive but make a comforting and mildly stimulating brew.

Taxes Done

Our taxes are finished. This is probably the earliest I've ever finished my taxes. We went to H&R Block as we did last year. Last year our taxes were complex, involving several jobs and a lot of 1099-MISC income and self-employment tax, and I did them myself, and then took them to Block to have my calculations confirmed. This year things were simpler, but our experience with H&R block was so positive that we just went back.

Strangely, although we are getting a small refund on our federal taxes ($75 or so), we apparently owe the state almost $600. This has happened even though we set our withholding allowances identically on the Michigan W-4, as the form advises. I used Quicken's withholding allowance calculator to try to estimate everything so that we came out close to breaking even at the end of the tax year, but it did not come out right. Apparently the difference is because the federal forms factor in additional deductions, while the state tax is pretty much a flat tax based solely on income.

We're changing our state withholding allowance for 2006. This advice from H&R Block is probably worth more than the $150 fee we paid H&R Block, since we might have wound up owing a couple of thousand dollars to the state for tax year 2006, and would probably have to pay penalties on that. So I'm quite satisifed with our service!

Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler has died. This is a great loss. Butler was not widely read or hugely popular, but she had a truly original voice and I admire her work greatly. Sadly, she seemed to be in the middle of a very creative period in which she was writing the best work of her career.

I have read a couple of her novels, but I have been most impressed with her short stories, which show enormous virtuosity, vitality, and boldness that reminds me of James Tiptree Junior.

Butler was a black woman, a lesbian, and recipient of a MacArthur Foundationn "genius" award. It was well-deserved. If you are new to Butler consider reading "Bloodchild and Other Stories." Savor this amazing work and take a moment to consider what this woman, who was only fifty-eight, and who seemed to be just reaching her creative peak, has already written and might yet have written.

Spam Overload

I had almost fifty spam messages this weekend. Of these, a dozen were the same message, with an image advertising Viagra and Cialis from "ED Medicine Chest." Since these are all coming from different addresses, I have to assume these are Windows zombies. An additional eight or nine were in Cyrillic or Japanese. There were a handful of other duplicated messages.

I have spam filtering via my host, but it does not seem to be very effective. DreamHost provides a configurable installation of SpamAssassin with a user interface that seems to be part of the SquirrelMail webmail interface. I seem to have access to only two parameters, one of which controls the likelihood that a message will be flagged, which is not of interest to me, and another that changes the likelihood that a message will be held in quarrantine.

Only a scant handful of these messages are caught in the filter. My attempts to change the setting away from the default value, either increasing it or decreasing it, always seem to result in less, not more, spam caught in the filter.

At this point I would actually like to move to a whitelist, with everything else held in quarrantine for my occasional review. It's gotten that bad.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Pencil Fetish

I'm a big fan of particular writing instruments. My preference is as much about feel and heft as it is about the way it writes and the way it looks.

My favorite fine-point pen is the Rotring Rapidoliner (disposable) 0.25 mm (white tip). This gives an extremely fine line. Not the finest, though -- there is a 0.18 mm Rapidoler, which I have not used. I used to use refillable Rapidographs for drawing: my experience cleaning them and cleaning ink stains from my fingers has led me to greatly appreciate these disposable pens.

This pen has been discontinued, unfortunately. I have a few refills on hand, since when they started disappearing from store shelves I went scrounging for them and stocked up, but it seems I won't be using them for too much longer.

There are some downsides: it is "scritchy" because the tip is so thin, and requires smooth paper for best results; it clogs easily, and if you've left it alone for a couple of days you will probably have to spend some time shaking and coaxing it into delivering a line; it is somewhat expensive; and it seems wasteful to dispose of both the tip and the ink supply while keeping just the pen barrel. Also, the ink tends to bleed through thin paper like that in my Moleskines.

My favorite mechanical pencil is the Rotring 600 matte silver model with the knurled grip. This is also discontinued, and they are now going on eBay for $50 or more. There are later versions that have a smooth finger-grip area, but that doesn't seem right.

The old-style 600 is heavy, made of brass, nicely balanced in the hand, and seems nearly indestructible (it had better be, because probably won't be able to buy a replacement). I have this pencil in 0.5 mm and 0.35 mm tips. I found the 0.35 mm pencil on eBay from a seller in Germany. The 0.35 mm lead is not widely stocked, so I had to order some. I find that I like the fine line, but it feels like I am cutting the paper with this very thin lead, and because it is so thin, it disappears very quickly, so I am constantly having to advance the lead. I wind up using the 0.5 mm pencil most of the time. Both are a pain to carry around because unless they are in some kind of case, they will snag and tear holes in your clothes or scratch up anything else they are rolling around with.

My notebook of choice is the black Moleskine, in pocket size with blank pages for personal use, and the slightly larger 5x8" size, with grid pages, for work. I also like the brown kraft Cahier notebooks, also with grid pages, for my hobby programming projects.

My eraser of choice is the Pentel white Hi-Polymer eraser. This is particularly nice for Sudoku puzzles because it is soft and can be used repeatedly without tearing holes in the paper. This means I have to carry a loose eraser with me. I'm keeping an eye out for some kind of idea case that would hold pen, pencil, supplies, and one of these erasers, but I have not found it yet.

It seems like there is some improvement taking place in mechanical pencils. Pentel has models that acknowledge that a lot of space in the mechanical pencil is wasted and could be used for a larger eraser (the tiny pink or blue erasers in the traditional mechanical pencil is nearly useless). They let you twist the barrel to extend the eraser -- you don't have to remove, and possibly lose, a metal cap. This falls nicely into the "why didn't someone think of this before?" category.

I'd pay quite a bit for a pencil with the lovely finish, heavy brass body, and knurled grip of the old-style Rotring 600, but which uses a larger and longer white polymer eraser, like Pentel's, that I can extend with a twist. It should also have a retractable tip so I can carry it in a pocket.

I would also bend over backwards to give a manufacturer money for a slightly less expensive Rapidoliner that had a bit more ink in it and that was readily available in 0.25 and 0.18 mm.

The other pen I love is the plain black PaperMate Flair felt-tip. I can't think of a single design improvement I would make to that pen, but if I could, I would figure out how to make it with waterproof ink. It seems to bleed through my Moleskine paper less than the Rapidoliner. This pen has been essentially unchanged for my entire life; I think it was introduced in 1966!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cheney Indeed a Dick, Sources Reveal

All that Dick Cheney needed to do after his hunting accident was notify the White House and release a brief statement, something like the following:

"While hunting yesterday at approximately 5:30 p.m. the Vice President discharged his weapon and accidentally hit Harry Whittington, a member of the hunting party, with birdshot. Mr. Whittington was rushed to Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital, where he is in stable condition. Doctors expect him to recover fully from his injuries. Mr. Cheney regrets the incident and offers his apologies to Mr. Whittington and his family."

That's all it would take to make him look like a human being. Instead the white house is spinning like mad, first trying to absolve Cheney from any wrongdoing, and then actually stating that the 78-year-old Whittington was at fault.

This is just disgusting on many levels. I may be personally offended by these captive-bird shooting parties, but that's Cheney's hobby, and it involves guns, so accidents are part of the deal. But Cheney's lack of response and obsession with secrecy has resulted in other people having to spin the events for him. His silence implies his approval of all the excuses being made in his name, even the blaming of the victim. That is what is really the most disgusting. But I suppose I should have learned by now to expect nothing better from him.

When you're vice-president, it is up to you to keep the public informed, and up to you to take responsibility for your actions. Unless you're a Dick.

Update: news is out that apparently a pellet embedded in Mr. Whittington has moved, lodged in his heart, and triggered what doctors are describing as a "minor heart attack" resulting in cardiac catheterization. All you hunters out there -- I'm curious -- is this what usually happens in one of these commonplace, trivial incidents in which you get "peppered" by a fellow hunter? One of those things that you laugh and joke about later, together, around a roaring fire? One of those bonding opportunities that makes you better friends? I'm just asking.

Update 2: it seems fairly likely to me that alcohol was involved in this accident; initial reports on MSNBC contained references to beer-drinking but were later redacted; an article on Capitol Hill Blue, unconfirmed, cites a secret service agent's report that Cheney was visibly impaired. Recall that Cheney has two drunk-driving arrests under his belt, one more than Bush. It also makes sense of the delay in reporting the incident to authorities. But maybe this is just because I can't imagine that blowing away dozens of tame birds on a reservation would be very much fun, unless enough drinking was involved to make it challenging.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Some Films for Grownups

I've experienced my share of "adult" movies but these, for the most part, could really be better characterized as "adolescent" -- they tend to feel kind of like handicam footage taken at an extended fraternity hazing. What if you're a grown-up and want to watch a film with some eroticism to it?

From Netflix, I rented "Nine Songs." This is a story of a summer relationship in Londone between a laconic male scientist and a visiting American woman. The movie is paced as a series of brief vignettes of stages in the relationship interspersed with concert footage from nine different bands, most of which I have never heard of. The dialogue is eliptical. There is explicit sex. Eroticism is mostly about relationships -- the fascination that characters feel for each other -- and this is clearly a casual summer relationship. There are some weird passions that arise, but they seem to come out of nowhere and seem to me more as indications or underlying pathology than as evidence of a deepening relationship. Ultimately, I'm not sure why I should care about these characters, since they didn't seem to care about each other. Perhaps that is the film's message, but I just didn't quite "get" this film, and the concert footage seemed not to add very much to the story, so I can't really recommend it.

To recover from "Nine Songs" I popped in another movie, one that I own: "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (And your mother too). This is a terrific film by the director of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." It follows two teenaged boys in between high school and college in Mexico and their adventures with a more experienced woman, Luisa. The director cuts in with voiceovers periodically over extended scenes that bring in the back-story: this movie is deeply about class. It is erotic but always suprises you with its realistic portrayal of jealous, angry, or sad people: in one amazing scene, the boys try to get their first glimpse of Luisa naked in her hotel room, but they get a surprise and see her emotionally "naked" instead, weeping over her fractured relationship with her husband. This film has some of the best steadicam work I've ever seen and utterly convincing acting, as well as stunning scenery from rural Mexico; the director clearly loves and is fascinated by his subject, which is much bigger than just the naked protagonists. Highly recommended (for grownups only).

Last night I watched Bertolucci's "The Dreamers." I will buy this film. It has some of the most amazing visuals of Paris I've ever seen. This is the director of "Last Tango in Paris" so we expect that the eroticism will be a bit warped. The plot centers around a young American who becomes friendly with a French brother and sister, set against the backdrop of the French film scene in the midst of social unrest in 1968. The twin brother and sister have a kind of pre-genital incestuous relationship and the American's fascination with both girl and boy challenges and disturbs this equillibrium. All three are "dreamers" -- insulated from reality, they view the world through their fascination with films, and Bertolucci intercuts the scenes with clips from some great films; this sounds awkward, but it does not take over or become annoying. There is nudity and moderately explict sex, and a lot of drinking and smoking and drug use, as the trio becomes more and more isolated and obsessive. There is blood and semen and urine, garbage and dirt and, in a truly painful scene, even horribly burned fondue and ratatouille that looked like it could have been delicious!

But what I'd like to convey, and am having difficulty conveying, is the stunning beauty of every shot in this film. Bertolucci has an amazing eye, and there is an incredible way in which the framing of each scene is poised between documentary-style naturalism and carefuly-staged artificiality. It's one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. The protagonists have gorgeous bodies and the camera loves them, and it also loves the sets: on the street, in the apartments. Even the way the camera follows a character down a narrow hallway is visually fascinating. Also highly recommended, but only for grown-ups ready deal with both the sex and the politics.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Ex-Air American

I'm getting fed up with Air America.

When I worked at Visteon I was testing a Sirius radio, and so wound up listening to Air America on Sirius. In fact, I wound up buying a JVC Sirius radio and paying for a quarter-year's subscription so I could continue listening to Air America shows after leaving Visteon.

However, I never was able to get my Sirius radio to work at home, because of line-of-sight issues, without running an antenna out the window on to the sidewalk. I tried repeatedly to order a car adapter but they are apparently unavailable; the web site I ordered from neither billed me or ever shipped anything, with no notice or order confirmation and no response to e-mail messages. Apparently I was not the only one to have this problem, since many of the Yahoo store reviews said the same thing about the retailer.

Sirius then dropped Air America without notice. This alone was not enough to convince me to abandon Air America, but Air America was replaced by "Talk Left," and the vitriol that the hosts of various "Talk Left" shows expressed towards the Air America hosts was disgusting. One loved to mock Al Franken specifically because he actually did research and prepared pages of notes for his show. Imagine! Attempting to inform his audience and bring facts to the table! Of course, the actual effect was to throw in to start relief just how poorly prepared and uninformed the "Talk Left" hosts were by comparison. (Note to radio hosts: cutting off nose to spite face not fun for listeners; may backfire!) I wrote AA a polite letter telling them what I thought of summarily cancelling an entire channel. I did not receive a response; not even a form letter.

I specifically configured my Sirius account to _not_ automatically renew after billing me for one quarter. Sirius did not honor this, and billed me for a second quarter. Their phone rep had the gall to claim that there was no such option available while I was staring at the web page with check box on it. So, it was time to say goodbye to Sirius. The Sirius radio becomes a useless chunk of hardware for the baby to play with.

I was delighted to find that Air America shows were available as podcasts. I've been listening to them daily, especially the Rachel Maddow show. Listening to the radio shows without advertising makes them much shorter. For example, Majority Report, a three-hour show, clocks in around 1:52:00 as a podcast. I was also a big fan of Morning Sedition, which is now cancelled. I have downloaded all of the available shows as MP3 files and am slowly listening to 2004's shows, despite the poor audio quality. Actually, they cheer me up; the news was a little better then!

Now the current free podcasts of Majority Report and the Rachel Maddow Show have been discontinued. They want to charge for access. Here's a hint to AA: if you want to fund the podcasts, include the ads in the podcast! Advertising funds radio. I might consider paying to download a daily podcast, but the operative word here is "might."

I have not embraced the value proposition in the same way that I've embraced it, and now pay to download, legal music files from the iTunes store. I'm not convinced that they will have much in the way of replay value. I don't necessarily want to "own" them in the same way I own my downloaded music files.

For the most part I just want to listen to them once, time-shifted; most will get deleted. This seems like a good use for a DRM solution, such as a free expiring license or some such, but I'm a technologist, and I know how this kind of thing always blows up in my face, so I won't tolerate bullshit like that on my computer. So I guess that means I would have to buy them, they had better be pretty damned cheap; the signal-to-noise ratio of the short Rachel Maddow show was quite high, but it has gotten lower as the show has become two hours, and the call-in shows have a signal-to-noise ratio that approaches, or dips below, unity.

Should I consider buying an XM radio to listen to Air America? What happens when XM drops them? What happens when I can only listen in my car because of line-of-sight and reception issues?

Let's see... nose, face, spite, twice burned, once bitten, three times shy, or something like that. I will (probably) never use Sirius again. AA cancelled my favorite show and now wants me to charge me for podcasts. For lack of any compelling way to continue, I guess I'm now an ex-Air America listener.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Month Fifteen... the life of Veronica Ruth, baby girl, and her brother Isaac and parents.

For those following along at home, she is now talking incessantly, although some guesswork is still required to figure out what she is saying. She will rarely answer questions. She will engage in a dialogue with me involving the alphabet song. (I sing: A, B, C, D... and then stop and point at her; she says the next letter, kind of, sometimes; well, she did at least once, I'm pretty sure). Grace seems to understand more of what she says, or at least is more confident about her guesses.

After observing her, I've come up with a new theory of human communication. It is probably not original to me. This theory is that the approximate tone and emotional content of words represents the primary function of communication. In other words, being able to utter "yeh" in about the correct tone of voice at the right time with an appropriate smile is about 90% of the job of communication. She laughs when we laugh; when we clap, she claps her hands and does a little victory dance. She tries to do what we do. We use an electric toothbrush, so when we give her a regular toothbrush (without toothpaste) she wiggles it around in her mouth and chews on it and makes a "zzzzz" motor noise. The stated goal (exchanging words, actual tooth cleaning) are mostly an afterthought, a technical detail. Or maybe I'm just starting to think like a 15-month-old baby myself.

I've consistently been grateful because V has never made our sleep situation impossible. Even when she was a newborn, she would sleep in fairly consistent stretches, waking only briefly. The new parent nightmare of screaming baby and sleepless night has happened to us only a handful of times, and usually only if V is sick with a cold or fever. That's starting to change a little bit. She seems to be getting revved up for her "terrible twos." When her will is thwarted, she will throw herself down like a protester going limp while the police carry her off and scream like a banshee. She is no longer napping much, but yet seems to stay up later and later. Her energy level is remarkable. She seems to need less sleep than we do, and is frequently active past midnight as we are falling asleep. Occasionally we just have to wrestle her to the bed and squeeze until she tires herself out sufficiently to fall asleep.

Just to make things even more fun, she's a very aggresive climber, and has become fascinated with electrical outlets. We have put safety plugs in all our outlets, but we have to take them out sometimes to use them. She'll unplug the power adapter for Grace's laptop to get at the outlet. She'll move chairs around to climb up on them and get onto the table. We had to move a tall CD rack upstairs because she can climb it like a monkey. She is tiring! Grace tells me Isaac was a much different baby. I think it is going to get worse (tantrums, screaming "No!") before it gets better (potty training, actual conversation).

Isaac is still having some difficulty finding his role in the family. It would be nice to say that he still gets as much attention from his parents as he ever did, but that is just not possible. I am trying to do more with him, but I have to trade off with Grace on baby care and pick up household tasks that she is dropping, so that does not amount to very much. I am taking him to the gym with me, and trying to work more with him on his home-schooling. He is studying algebra and doing quite well at it. He needs to pay a great deal more attention to writing and English, so Grace and I are contemplating trading stubjects. He needs a lot of work on attention and responsibility.

So how is Dad holding up? I had a followup appointment with my new doctor. Since starting up a gym membership in early January, going about twice a week, I have lost about three pounds and can fit into pants I haven't been able to wear for five or six years. Isaac has been going with me. My goal is four days a week, but two days a week is what I've been able to manage in practice.

My blood pressure is excellent and has gone slightly lower since getting back to the gym. My overall cholesterol is fine. My mood is reasonably good, and has improved as the days become longer. I've managed to find some time for hobby programming (in Scheme) -- gaining facility with Scheme is a long-term goal of mine. I've had a little bit of time for study -- not much, but better than none.

So how is Grace doing? She has lost quite a bit of weight herself. She has not had any gall bladder attacks for several months. A recent ultrasound revealed that there are some small stones visible. She may still need surgery; the answer is unclear, although she is going to talk to a surgeon.

Our disposable income this past month or so has been almost entirely spent on co-pays and related health-care expenses. Now that we have health insurance again, we have a backlog of things we want to take care of. We've all seen doctors. Isaac had his first dental visit in years. I've seen a doctor for the first time in years. Grace needs a number of dental fillings and had the first one done. After some bursts of disturbing behavior Isaac is seeing a counselor; another expense, but it seems necessary.

I had an eye exam, the first in nine years. Our insurance doesn't cover any of it. I need new glasses. But even armed with the new prescription there is little I can do now until we've put aside enough money to buy them. Our cars are falling apart. Our apartment is falling apart. If things stay on track, though, we will finish our major debt consolidation plan later this year, and that will be a great achievement. It all has to stay together until then.

So, we're all tired. We all have too much to do. We have too many things we need to spend money on. But we're doing OK. Tomorrow it will all be different.