Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Seeing Beyond Ourselves

I'm reading the book "The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace" by Jeff Hobbs. Set in the late 1980s, it describes the life of Robert Peace, who managed to leave his inner-city life in Newark, NJ, and attend Yale University. Unfortunately, he died in a drug-related shooting after he returned to Newark.

In the chapter I just finished, Robert's mother Jackie heroically manages to get her son out of public school and into a Catholic private school. It was a long road for her. She first attended a training program for six months. Sacrificing time with Robert, the program got her into a better paying job. She then took on a second job, and after two years of long days she was finally able to send her son to a private school.

Leading up to this moment, Jackie was concerned about being considered uppity. The author writes "being known by this label meant that you thought you were better than everyone else around you, that you deserved more..." But Jackie wanted her son to be among people "who saw beyond who and where they were."

I put the book down at this point, struck by the idea of seeing beyond who or where you are. I thought about the power and commitment of Jackie's striving. I thought about being uppity.

This week is when most people reflect on themselves and where they're at. We close the door on 2014, and hope the door that's opening in 2015 is somehow better. The secret is that every action and decision we made in 2014 has led us to the very door that's opening tomorrow.

New Year's Eve is the perfect time to remind ourselves that the first step to "better" is to see beyond ourselves. Then, like Jackie, the next step is to take action.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Puzzle Time

Over the past few years, a small tradition has formed in my house: the winter puzzle. My father-in-law will bring over a jigsaw puzzle for Thanksgiving, and during the lazy weekend we'll tackle it as a family. Sometimes three or more will be at the puzzle, picking up a piece and testing where it might go. Sometimes it's just one person, passing a little time.

We don't finish the puzzle during the Thanksgiving weekend. Instead, it graces our living room table often through December and sometimes beyond. We let it sit there for days without touching it, but an unfinished puzzle begs to be finished.

We've had some missing pieces, but this adds to the excitement. Most times it is under a sofa cushion, but once we found a piece still in the plastic bag that the puzzle came in! We had given up on finding it and only noticed it when we were putting the puzzle back into the box.

The puzzle on our table this year has a winter theme, but we'll also tackle other themes like food, landscapes, and paintings. I love seeing the puzzle slowly take shape. Everyone contributes to its finish, and when we're done, we jot down the date on the back of the puzzle's box top. I like this little bit of record-keeping, and on some older, borrowed puzzles we've seen multiple dates in the box top.

Happy holidays!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Relishing Potter

For the past few months I've been enjoying the Harry Potter series. I am nearing the finish of Book 3 ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban").

The books are filled with vivid images: horses with gigantic bird heads, enormous snakes that slither in huge caverns, man-horses ("You have a human on your back!"), forbidden forests, and paintings whose subjects move. The Hogwarts School (Gryffindor, Quidditch, the forbidden forest) feels like it should exist somewhere: you only have to catch a train from platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross railway station!

Harry Potter, and his best school friends, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley form the main attraction. They have a middle school friendship that blossoms further with each book. The tender lessons on persistence, camaraderie and loyalty are universal. I think I can anticipate what they will face as the books progress, but for now it's fun to enjoy their young adulthood.

Harry Potter, the boy who lived, is of course a cultural phenomenon. Eight movies. A theme park. Conventions. Merchandise. In my own middle school youth, I had the Lord of the Rings, but they are heavier going than Harry Potter. I like the lightness and emotion in Harry Potter. I am glad I'm reading these!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sick Day

I had to call in sick this morning. My third sick day this year. The first two were in late February.

Before this year, however, I've rarely called in sick. Despite harsh New England weather, despite miles of air travel (during my travel years), despite a daughter in school (all those kids and their sniffles), for the past ten years my work attendance was free of sick days. I suppose those were my indestructible years.

To coax myself into feeling better, I guzzle orange juice, suck on cough drops, and take DayQuil. Hopefully I'll be better tomorrow: maybe it'll be the start of another sick-free decade.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Finding Oceanic

Sometimes I have to pinch myself: technology can be amazing.

A few months ago, I ate lunch with some co-workers at Royal India Bistro, a fine Indian restaurant in Lexington, MA. I hardly know the names of the Indian food I eat, so that afternoon I visited the restaurant's website. It began to play some streaming music, and while this normally annoys me, the initial notes were light enough that it drew me in. I liked the beat, and the motif, so I kept the music on, as I searched through the menu.

The music's change in tempo took over my attention. Head bobbing, I gave into it, letting the song wash over me. I was dazzled by its first impression! Instead of the food, I scoured the website for the name of this song. Unable to find it, I just played the song again.

A few days went by. I continued to enjoy the song by playing it off the website, but now I was at a loss: how could I find out the name of this song? I remembered reading an article about music detection software, and decided to try it out. I downloaded Shazam onto my iPod. I played the song through my speakers, and let Shazam listen.

To my delight, Shazam identified the music! The song is "Oceanic, Part 2", from the 2007 album "Breathing Under Water", by Karsh Kale and Anoushka Shankar, featuring sitar by Ravi Shankar.

I found the song on YouTube. Check out the song, and check out Shazam. Amazing technology, indeed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Everything I Want?!

An old friend sent me a birthday greeting this year on Facebook. He said "Make sure you work on your bucket list." Yes, maybe I should.

Tonight, I rummaged around some old files and found a list I made in 1991 titled "Everything I Want?!" It's not a proper bucket list, because I wrote it when I was 23, in the full flush of adulthood. I dug it out to see if anything got accomplished from that list. Instead, I got a few laughs. Two items: 1) have a washboard stomach, and 2) spend time in an Oregon dude ranch. Who was I back then?

Without further ado, here are a few of my bucket list items:

1. Watch a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.

I have watched many games at Fenway Park in my baseball days. The Yankees, their great rival, should have been the team of my youth. I should at least visit their new stadium (since I never saw them in their old one)!

2. Visit Tokyo with my wife.

This trip would be out of both our comfort zones, so it's something we have to do together. Besides, we both said we would!

3. Visit the Grand Canyon.

One of the great sights that I missed seeing with my family. I'll have to make up for it!

4. Finish Super Meat Boy (a video game).

I always play this game on vacation, and I love its humor and speed. Please, let me beat the final boss!

5. Read "Infinite Jest" (David Foster Wallace).

I'm proud to have have read some big literature: "Gravity's Rainbow" (Thomas Pynchon), "Ulysses" (James Joyce). Someone suggested "Infinite Jest", and when I saw that it was over a thousand pages, I said sign me up.

Will I be able to look back on this list 23 years from now, and say that some of those items got crossed off? I guess we should stay tuned.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Mowing and Weeding

For the past few years, I've been mowing and pulling the weeds in my lawn and shrubbery more regularly.

Before this, our lawn and small garden would become overrun with weeds by mid-June. I'd spend a hot weekend pulling the weeds, filling up waste bags with these invasive plants. These would always be exasperating affairs, with me cursing at the gardening gods.

Of late, I've learned to treat some areas with basic weedkiller sprays, but the best antidote to keeping back the weeds is regularly pulling them. So every weekend, usually early in the morning, I'm outside pulling weeds, for about 30 to 45 minutes. I don't pull weeds everywhere: I pick my spots. One day I'll focus on the area next to the street, and another day I'll pull the weeds in our shrubbery bed.

I do make sure to pull as much as I can (I fill a waste bag about half-way before I call it a day). I use a heavy duty set of gloves, and sometimes I'll use a small trowel. When I'm pulling these weeds, I notice how they can take root in the trickiest of places. I start to think that pulling weeds is my own stand against nature's inevitability.

I have also been mowing the lawn more frequently too. I remember that I used to skip weeks of mowing, to the point where the grass came as high as half-way up my knee. Nowadays, I mow every week. The result: a neater appearance. Combined with the weed pulling, the lawn area is presentable, and it's very satisfying.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Anticipating "The Giver"

As the Summer movie season gets underway, the one movie I'm anticipating the most is "The Giver".

"The Giver" is a book by Lois Lowry. My daughter had to read it for school. In an attempt to keep up with her studies, and to show some solidarity, I read her copy. I finished it over a weekend, and I was greatly affected by it.

The book is about a young boy who lives in a utopia. He and his family have everything "decided" for them, and in return they live in peace and harmony. Despite the peaceful grown up life he knows he's in for, he begins to yearn for "something more." When his community announces that he will have a special job working with an elder statesman who has memories of how things used to be, he is introduced to some harsh truths about utopia.

Since this book is a young adult novel, I didn't expect to be swept up in the emotion of "The Giver", but I was. Every revelation the protagonist experienced wrenched my gut. By the time he realizes how to act on his feelings, I was both cheering and fearful. The book had me in tears, so potent were its images and truths. ("I thought there was only us." "There's much more.")

It's a book that I'm grateful to have read, and one that I wish I would have experienced when I was 13. ("The Giver" was written in 1993). I don't know if the movie will have the same impact, but I'm hoping it popularizes this wonderful book.

"The Giver", directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Jeff Bridges opens August 15, 2014.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Praising the Turkey Terrific

My favorite sandwich of the past many years is the Turkey Terrific from Neillio's in Lexington, MA.

To describe it simply, the Turkey Terrific is a Thanksgiving dinner made into a sandwich. It's turkey, stuffing, cranberry and mayonnaise, all lovingly arranged on French bread. The turkey isn't deli turkey, but rather sliced turkey that's precisely measured. At the deli, these pre-measured slices are wrapped in thin wax paper, and arranged in a small mound on their counter.

The deli servers may not have lee-way with the turkey, but they seem to have discretion with the application and proportions of the other three ingredients. Some seem to throw in a little more cranberry, some seem to throw in little more mayo. I've grown to enjoy the varieties. The deli servers will make it any way you want, as I have seen people request this sandwich with cheese, or without cranberry, but I've always ordered it straight. One time I tried it with wheat bread, but it wasn't the same. The heft of the French bread really ties the sandwich together.

The taste of the turkey, mixing with the cranberry, mixing with the stuffing is a heaven on earth sensation.  I'm always filled with gratitude and satisfaction eating this sandwich. By the end of the sandwich, I'm actually somewhat tired, just like I had eaten a real Thanksgiving meal. It's a belt loosening sandwich, except I've made it a rule to only eat it on the weekends, and I rarely wear a belt on the weekends.

It's a little over four miles from my house to Neillio's, and the whole way I'm smiling. The servers will mark "TT" on the paper in which they wrap this glorious sandwich. Some will only use three lines, concatenating the two Ts into a symbol that looks like pi. My wife's sandwich (she'll vary her order more than I will) is nestled next to mine in the brown take-out paper bag, along with a cookie for our daughter. I count my blessings eating this sandwich, and a sandwich that can elicit this feeling deserves all the praise it can get.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Evaporate Faster

I do the dishes here at home. My wife cooks, and since I do not cook, I contribute by doing the dishes when I can. For the most part this involves putting dishes into the dishwasher, but there is always one or two items that I wash by hand in the sink. Some of these non-dishwasher safe items are plastic containers.

One of my hangups with plastic containers is with their curved edges designed to hold a tight seal for a cover. Drying these becomes a very detailed chore for me. I like to put dishes away completely dry, and to get at all the moisture on a plastic container involves stuffing the folded edge of a towel into the crevices of the plastic containers. Because of the required attention to detail, I tend not to take this step, opting instead to let the containers dry on the counter. But I'm mindful of the moisture, so I take these containers and whip then in the air, forcing the water off the surfaces. I am rewarded with a splatter on the sink from this action, and I leave the chore thinking that this causes the remaining water to evaporate faster.

As I was composing this post in my head, I realized that I couldn't definitively declare that my actions make the plastic containers dry faster. Does a puddle of water evaporate faster than that same volume of water dispersed over discrete droplets? In other words: does a teaspoon of water dry slower than say that same teaspoon divided into two?

This ends up being a fruitless experiment, because my action removes excess water. The amount of water remaining should evaporate faster than the original, larger amount.

Or maybe I shouldn't think about this too much.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Cracked iPod

Last month, I cracked the glass on my iPod.

For all the vaunted stories I've read about iPod's Gorilla Glass, the glass does crack if it falls from height. The glass can crunch up against a set of keys without a scratch, but it doesn't necessarily withstand a fall from your coat pocket.

I thought I could live with it. There was more than enough smooth glass for me to read and compose e-mails and tweets, but the back-breaker was playing Candy Crush. If I wanted to preserve my finger tips, I needed to get this glass replaced.

I've repaired electronics before, so I looked into replacing the glass myself. I thought it would just be a "do-it-yourself" swap. I couldn't have been more wrong. The repair of a 5th generation iPod "display assembly" has a very exacting procedure requiring specialized tools, and a surgeon's touch.

My wife helped me find Boston iPhone Repair in Harvard Square. The snug room filled with various iPods and iPhones in clamps gave me some assurance, but the second they realized my device was a 5th generation, they said "take it to Apple. It's too expensive for us to repair!"

With some fits and starts and help from my co-workers, I arranged my first ever appointment at Apple's Genius Bar in Burlington. When I arrived the technician looked at the cracked glass, then asked if I backed up my device. He said for this kind of damage, the usual route is replacement. It would cost me $149. I gave him my credit card in agreement.

The Apple employee had me erase my cracked iPod, then retrieved my replacement device. I was slightly disappointed that it wasn't in a glass box. Instead it was wrapped in some folded cellophane. I was even more disappointed that it didn't have any kind of charge, so I could't play with it in the store. But these were fleeting feelings.

At home I charged it up, then I summoned my old device from the cloud. When the future arrives and we can transport our consciousness into other bodies, it will look like an iPod restoring itself from the cloud. In an hour I had nearly everything restored, including my Candy Crush (level 55).

The iPod I had before this was from 2008, so I can only hope I can keep this replacement in good working condition for another five years.

Friday, January 31, 2014

My Books and Movies from 2013

In 2013, I only read 11 books, according to my list on LibraryThing. My favorite book was "Code", by Charles Petzold. In this fascinating book, he takes the intrepid reader on an exploration of the foundations of computing. I want to give this book its proper praise and review, so I'll reserve that for my other BLOG.

The other book of note was French Lessons, by Alice Kaufmann. The book is a memoir which focuses on the author's adoration for French. From a very early age, Ms. Kaufmann yearned to be French, and she took advantage of living overseas to immerse herself into the Francophile culture. What made the book stand out was the detail with which she describes herself becoming better at the language.

Last year, I watched 18 movies. I managed to watch a good number of movies theatrically, including "Gravity", and "Frozen." My favorite flick that I watched was the "The King's Speech", winner of the 2011 Academy Award for Best Picture. I loved everything about it: the story, the photography, and the superb acting. Later in the year, my wife and I watched "The Queen", which tied the year up in a nice bow.

So...onto 2014!