Friday, 29 April, 2005

A new job

Today was my last day working for Catapult Systems.  Starting Monday I'll be working from home full time.  My first contract, which should keep me occupied for quite some time, has me developing 3D graphics tools for a client in Japan.  The work that I'll be doing on this contract is very similar to what I was doing for Eclipse Entertainment before I went to work for Catapult.

I have a week to get back up to speed in the field before I leave for Japan next Saturday to meet with the client's technical team.  It's going to be an interesting couple of weeks.

Catapult Systems, by the way, is one of the best places I've ever worked.  E-business consulting is a tough business to be in, and yet Catapult's management team managed to carry us through the tech consulting crash of 2000.  Although there were a couple of layoffs and everybody had to take a small pay cut, we fared much better than most other consulting firms.  The owners were there working right alongside the rest of us every day, trying to keep the company going.  If it was just about the money, I suspect the owners would have taken their profit in early 2000 and retired.  They're in it for the long term.  It shows in the way they do business and in the way they treat their employees.  It's a great place to work.  I'd work there again, given the chance.

Tuesday, 26 April, 2005

A New Laptop

I've been busy the last week--much too busy to spend time posting here. I can't really say why yet. Wait a couple more days.

One of the things that's kept me busy since I returned from my bicycling trip was getting a new computer. I've been using the same 750 MHz Pentium that I bought from Dell five years ago as my primary machine. I've purchased two other computers since then to use as lab machines, but I don't like to change my production system very often because it takes too long to install and configure the darned thing the way I want it. Debra's computer, a Pentium 550, also was getting quite long in the tooth, even though I upgraded it in November.

Deciding what to get these days is tough. Initially I thought I'd get a new desktop machine with a quiet case and a new plasma monitor, but after much consideration I decided that I'd rather have a laptop if I could find one that I liked and that could replace the desktop as an everyday production machine. That turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be.

I looked at a lot of different notebook computers before I finally settled on the Dell Latitude.  When I first decided to replace my production machine with a notebook, my initial inclination was to go with the Dell because I liked the Latitude 830 that I've been carting around for work.  It's big and heavy, true, but it has one absolutely fantastic feature:  a clear and crisp display that offers 1600x1200 resolution.  The thing is a wonder.  The display also sucks power like you wouldn't believe, and as a result battery life is only about two hours.  Still, I probably would have bought one if Dell still sold them.

Figuring I'd take a look at the market, I spent several days in the laptop aisles of the big box retail outlets looking at HP, Gateway, Toshiba, Fugitsu, Averatec, Compaq, and other brands before I finally realized that I wasn't going to find what I wanted there.  They're beautiful machines, most of them, and almost every one had some features that I really liked.  The 17" Fujitsu screen, for example, is beautiful but too big.  HP's AMD-64 laptop is powerful and functional, but it sucks juice worse than my Latitude 830.  Sony's Vaio is a rugged little machine but it's expensive and the screen is too small.  I really like Toshiba's Satellite, but again the screen is too small.  And every one has a touch pad but no mouse stick.  I hate those damned touch pads.

To my knowledge, the Dell Latitude and IBM Thinkpad are the only notebook computers that still have a mouse stick.  That's not the only reason I went with Dell, but it certainly was a selling point.  I guess I could learn to work with the touch pad, although I've found that they get overly sensitive with age and begin to interpret even the slightest touch as a command.

The Dell Latitude D610 that I finally bought is an impressive little machine: 2 GHz Pentium M processor, 1 GB of RAM, 60 GB hard drive, CDRW/DVD ROM, four USB 2.0 ports, S-Video out, analog video out, serial and parallel ports, built-in 10/100/1000 Ethernet controller, built-in Intel PRO/Wireless, and 56 KB modem.  All in a quiet little box that weighs under 5 lbs.  The 15.4 inch screen shows a very nice picture at 1400x1050 resolution, a bit smaller than the 1600x1200 that I'd prefer, but probably good enough for my purposes.  All that, plus Windows XP Professional installed came to just over $1,500 at Dell's outlet store.  The machine has a "refurbished" sticker on it, but it looks brand new to me.  It's a heck of a deal as far as I'm concerned.

I expect it'll be a week before I decommission the desktop and reclaim the space occupied by that big 19" Viewsonic CRT.  Considering how well the Latitude 830 has worked out for me in my job with Catapult Systems, I'm reasonably confident that this new notebook can replace the desktop as my primary production machine.  I'll let you know after I've used it for a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, 20 April, 2005

Slightly overweight? No problem.

Remember when I saidthat the Body Mass Index standard was skewed toward an unrealistically thin goal, and that the "fat epidemic" that people have been screaming about is perhaps a bit overblown? According to an Associated Press article today, a recently published analysis of mortality and BMI published in today's Journal of the American Medical Association shows that people who are slightly overweight actually have a lower incidence of early death than those of "normal" weight. Obesity, defined as having a BMI value of 30 or higher, is indisputably lethal, but slightly overweight is not the major health risk that it's been made out to be. This information comes as no surprise to many, as other studies have found the same thing.

A CDC study last year listed overweight and inactivity as the second leading cause of preventable death, attributing 400,000 deaths per year. The study warned that soon obesity would overtake tobacco as the leading cause. The new study attributes only about 112,000 deaths to excess weight, and then subtracts the benefits of being modestly overweight to arrive at a figure of about 26,000. That places weight-related deaths in seventh place, behind car crashes.

It sounds like some suspicious number crunching to me, but it's pretty obvious that neither the CDC nor anybody else in the medical research community has any idea what the real numbers are. My gut feeling is that the numbers are closer to 112,000 than 400,000, but that's a pretty wide range. The CDC isn't going to abandon its campaign on fat, which is probably a good thing, but I'll bet they revisit their BMI calculation sometime in the next few years.

Nobody knows yet why slightly overweight (according to BMI) people are healthier than people of "normal" weight. I think it's because "normal" BMI is unhealthily thin, but I don't have any hard data to base that on. A related study, also in today's JAMA, finds that overweight Americans are healthier than ever due to better maintenance of blood pressure and cholesterol. I suspect that's true.

Obesity is still a problem, but the "fat epidemic" is almost surely less of a problem than the CDC and other organizations have made it out to be. Beware of government hype. It'll get you every time.

Tuesday, 19 April, 2005

12 Food Pyramids are Better Than One?

Demonstrating once again the idiocy of bureaucracy, the USDA today unveiled its new Dietary Guidelines for Americans to replace the silly Food Pyramid that debuted in 1992. Figuring that more is better, our intrepid bureaucrats have now created 12 different food pyramids, each one geared toward different lifestyles and eating habits. And just to confuse people, the color bands on the new pyramids run vertically rather than horizontally. Internet tools (MyPyramid.gov) based on the new information are under development.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns called it "a system of information to help consumers understand how to put nutrition recommendations into action." I call it "typical useless bureaucratic bullshit."

Really. How hard can it be? Diet and exercise recommendations for most people can fit in a couple of paragraphs. For sure, any such information that takes more than one page is just a bunch of fluff. The summary fits in a few bullet points:

  • Eat a balanced diet that includes meat, fruit, bread, and vegetables.
  • Enjoy snack foods sparingly.
  • Go for a walk every day. 30 minutes is a good target.
  • Buy a good bathroom scale. Weigh yourself once a week and record the weight. If you see your weight increasing, cut back on the amount you eat. If you see that you're losing weight (unlikely, but possible), slightly increase the amount you eat.
  • If you feel it's necessary, take a single multivitamin supplement every day.
  • Parents should do the same things for their kids: feed them healthy balanced meals and monitor their weight.

It really is that simple. All it takes is a little bit of common sense, a little bit of discipline, and a little bit of self restraint. It certainly shouldn't require a multi billion dollar industry and a government agency to ensure that people eat right and exercise a little bit.

Ignore the USDA's new guidelines and the sensationalist media's continual dire warnings about the evils of certain foods. Engage your brain along with your legs. Take a walk around the block while you plan next week's menu.

Government diet recommendations. What a crock. Next they'll be telling Sesame Street's Cookie Monster to take it easy on the cookies.

Oh, wait. That already happened. I just learned that Cookie Monster will be eating fruit next season. Cookies will be a "sometimes food." Not even Cookie Monster is immune to the "War on Fat" that is gaining mindshare. According to Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, the show's vice president of research and education: "We are not putting him on a diet, and we would never take the position of no sugar. We're teaching him moderation."

Give me a <expletive deleted> break! The Cookie Monster character is supposed to be over the top. He's what is commonly referred to as a negative example--somebody who gets in trouble because he can't control his cravings. I just can't believe that kids--now or 35 years ago--ever believed that it was okay to emulate Cookie Monster and scarf down dozens of cookies. Kids do understand the difference between fantasy and reality. What I can't figure out is who thinks kids are that stupid.

Saturday, 16 April, 2005

Debra Walks Down a Wall

Debra and I are in Harlingen, Texas attending the annual alumni reunion at the Marine Military Academy.

Having visited the school for the last 10 reunions, Debra and I had become a little tired of the Saturday festivities: alumni business meeting, campus tours, and other such things. We always avoided the rappelling tower and climbing wall because of my shoulder injury and Debra's fear of heights, opting instead to make a trip to Mexico for a few hours of shopping and some good tacos.

We didn't feel like going to Mexico today, and with my shoulder improving I thought I'd like to give rappelling a try. Debra even said "we'll see" when I mentioned rappelling--a far cry from the "no way in hell" response that I expected, considering how much she dislikes high places.

For me, a dedicated adreneline junkie from way back, rappelling was just another chance to learn something new and maybe get a little bit of a rush. Debra, on the other hand, wasn't too sure about the whole thing. But she stood there at the base of the tower calmly listening to the instructor's briefing and muttered "I can't believe I'm doing this" as she strapped on the harness and donned gloves and helmet.

She tried to talk herself out of it while we stood in line at the top of the tower, but she stepped right up when her turn came. There's no doubt that she was scared as she stood there listening to the tower master's instructions, and her legs were shaking when it came time to turn her back and step over the edge. I know she was terrified, but she worked her way through the fear and soon she was standing on the wall, supported by the rope. Then Major Compton said "Debra, I can't pull you back up. You'll have to walk down that wall." She hesitated a bit, got control of her breathing, and then slowly worked herself down the wall to the cheers and encouragement of everybody watching.  Click the pictures for a larger images with more context.

I've heard people before say things like, "I was scared, but I did it anyway." I remember well the first time I stood in the open door of a C-47, preparing to jump out and trust my life to the scrap of fabric strapped to my back. But I've never before watched a person overcome a fear that she had held onto and nurtured so lovingly. Debra was dedicated to her fear of heights.

The difference between the cowardly and the courageous isn't a lack of fear--only idiots are fearless--but rather that cowards allow their fears to control them while stalwarts acknowledge their fear and control themselves in spite of it. Rappelling and similar adreneline-charged activities are ideal motivators because they are safe and quick ways to teach people how to function in spite of fear--to stretch beyond their comfort zones in search of higher accomplishments.

Friday, 15 April, 2005

Debra is an Amazing Woman

My wife is amazing. A year ago Debra had never done a bicycle ride longer than 10 miles. After I finished the ride to Harlingen last year we began training her with the goal of having her join us for the last 100 miles of the trip this year. In October Debra completed the 100 mile Round Rock Outlaw Trail Century. At that time she expressed interest in doing the full three-day ride with me. She completed it yesterday. 335 miles in three days is quite an accomplishment for any recreational cyclist. It's astounding when you consider that she did it after only one year of training, having never been an "athlete" before. And she finished with strength rather than struggling across the line after pushing herself to the limit of her endurance. I know that she would have been able to get up and ride another 100 miles the next day if she had to.

When I spoke to the cadets at the school today, I told them of Debra's accomplishment and then I told them how she did it. We created a six month training plan with the goal of riding the Round Rock century in October. We then laid out weekly targets and a daily training regimen that slowly increased Debra's mileage each week. We plateaued a couple of times, decreased the weekly mileage a few times, and even took a whole week off from riding while we were on vacation. Although we did concentrate heavily on the bicycling, we didn't become slaves to the schedule. Our average weekday ride was under an hour, three or four days per week, with a longer ride (one and a half to eight hours) on Saturday. The important part, I told the cadets, is that she set a goal, created a plan to reach that goal, and then measured her progress every week. Small improvement every week can add up to great things in a relatively short amount of time.

During her training, Debra maintained a full-time job, served as president and show chaiman for her African Violet society, and maintained our household and the finances. We also managed to enjoy vacations and social obligations with friends and co-workers. Sure, we gave up things. Television went by the wayside (no great loss), and we lost some couch potato time, but in general we led a normal life. Funny, isn't it, how people find the time to do the things that they think are important? It's all about priorities.

Don't let yourself or anybody else convince you that you can't do something. Set a goal, build a plan, and then go for it. Measure your progress, readjust your plan, lather, rinse, repeat. It really is that simple. Not easy, mind you. It takes effort, dedication, and discipline. But it is possible.

I'm very proud of Debra for her accomplishment.

Monday, 11 April, 2005

Preparing for the ride

The big ride starts tomorrow morning.  My friend Craig Matteson shipped his bike last week, and he arrived from Chicago this morning.  Chris Crum, another fellow graduate, will arrive this afternoon from Fort Worth.  He's driving support, which might be the most difficult of all jobs.  He has to stay behind us most of the way, poking along at 12 to 15 MPH in his truck.  He'll have to deal with irate motorists as well as tired bicyclists.  I don't envy him his job.

I'm taking a digital camera along on the ride, hoping to get more action shots than last year.  I'm also taking the laptop in the hope of posting updates before I get home next week.  It's doubtful that I will be in any condition to post anything on Tuesday or Wednesday, even if the hotel has an Internet connection.  Thursday is a possibility, but Friday is more realistic.  Stay tuned.  Wish us tailwinds.

Friend and MMA graduate C.J. Johnson and his wife Kim gave us a send-off dinner at their house in Leander.  The three of us posed for the "before" picture in front of the fireplace.

Saturday, 09 April, 2005

Marine Military Academy Alumni in Iraq

A group of Marine Military Academy alumni paid for a flag to be made, and sent it to the 1st Batallion, 23rd Marines stationed in Iraq.  Over a dozen MMA alumni and staff are stationed there.  They managed to get them together for a few pictures with the flag.

Click here for a larger version of the above.

I only know one or two of these guys personally.  If I'm lucky, I'll get to meet most of them next week, as the 1/23 has recently rotated back to the U.S., and many of them will be attending the school reunion April 14 through 17.  First round's on me, guys.  Semper Fi.

Wednesday, 06 April, 2005

Really Random Notes

I've been ranting a lot here lately, mostly because I've been busy and frustrated, and ranting seems to come easily. It's easy to criticize, I guess. I think I'll take a break from the rants and try to find something good to write about. In the meantime, a few things that have accumulated while I was ranting:

  • A helpful reader who ran across my What's in My Pool? post from June of 2001 while he was searching for swimming pool pictures sent me a note saying that the thing I found is most likely a nutria rat. I wonder how many of those 25 pound rodents are nearby.
  • According to an AP report, a recent research study shows that low doses of the main active ingredient in marijuana (THC) slowed down hardening of the arteries in mice. Dr. Peter Libby, chief of cardiovascular medicine at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, was quick to point out that the study is unlikely to lead to "a joint a day keeps the doctor away." He also mentioned that exercise, a reasonable diet, and watching your weight have already been proven to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes from clogged arteries. Add "quit smoking" to that list.  [Note 04/08:  Michael Covington informed me that, whatever THC might do to the arteries, it's bad for the brain:  cannabis (marijuana) can precipitate severe mental illness.  See Michael's Daily Notebook entry for April 7 and the linked article for more details.]
  • My broadband internet connection is working again. Nobody at RoadRunner or Time Warner knows what was causing my problem or what fixed it, but at this point I don't particularly care. I just hope that it really is fixed.
  • The Minuteman Project is a controversial group of civilian volunteers who are monitoring the U.S./Mexico border in Arizona and reporting suspected illegal alien activity to the Border Patrol. I'll reserve comment on the group and on the subject of immigration, but I got a kick out of A Minuteman Report From the Field over at La Shawn Barber's Corner.
  • A coworker writes a different quote on the whiteboard outside his office every morning. The quote on Monday was from Pope John Paul II: The truth is not always the same as the majority opinion. My only quibble is that the Pope was overly optimistic. Based on my experiences, I'd say "is not very often..."
  • Speaking of Pope John Paul II, I don't understand people standing in line to view his remains. Don't get me wrong, I do understand reverence and respect, for the leader of the Church and for a profoundly good and moral man. But standing in line to view his body just seems morbid. I've been to one open casket funeral in my life, and hope never to attend another. My father was a strong and vibrant man, not the cold shrunken shell I saw in that coffin.
  • Companies are overreacting to the recently-passed Sarbanes-Oxley law, restructuring their accounting procedures and scrutinizing their outside contractor relationships. Some companies are making it very difficult for a contractor to remain a contractor, insisting instead on a part-time employee relationship. If all of my clients do that, I'll be submitting dozens of W-2 forms with my tax return and there's no way I'll be able to keep track of it all.
  • I've gotten used to the occasional call for the Austin Public Library on my mobile phone, as their number is just one digit off from mine. But recently I've been getting repeated calls for Lawanda, Jesse, and a few others. These calls almost invariably have no caller ID, and I've had to tell the callers several different times to stop calling because that person isn't here. I wonder if Lawanda, Jessee, and the others are giving bill collectors the library's number and the bill collectors are mis-dialing it.
  • A lot of software is designed to be used in The One True Way. If you try to configure it any other way, you will fail after much frustration. A case in point is MSIB--Microsoft's Solution for Internet Business. The two primary components, Microsoft Content Management Server and Microsoft Commerce Server, are quite flexible. But when combined with the MSIB code, the system becomes incredibly inflexible.

Tuesday, 05 April, 2005

Rosedale Ride

Debra and I participated in the Rosedale Ride on Saturday. This is the sixth year in a row that I've made the ride, and the fourth time that I've done the 100 kilometer (62 mile) route. This year the weather was almost perfect: clear skies, mild temperatures, and a light wind. It's a well supported ride with many helpful volunteers, all of whom cheered us on and thanked us for coming out to support the Rosedale School.

Sunday we did a moderately-paced training ride of about 13 miles. Training is over. If we're not ready by now, another week of training won't do any good. So we're taking it easy, doing easy training rides to keep the legs limber, eating lots of carbs, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of sleep. In short, we're building up our energy stores. The Big Ride starts next Tuesday morning. We're hoping for low temperatures and tail winds.

Not only is Sprint seemingly incapable of solving simple technical issues (see my posts for March 8, March 14, March 21, March 28, and March 30), they've hired an incompetent to implement their online Customer Satisfaction Survey. I wish I could give you a link. If there's a better example of how not to implement an online survey, I haven't seen it.

Their first mistake was maximizing the browser window when I clicked on the survey link that came in my email. There is no reason for a Web site to maximize a window. It's certainly not a very friendly thing to do, and is not calculated to make customers report favorably on their customer service experience.

The content of the survey is better than most online surveys I've seen, I'll give them that. The questions actually are well worded and presented in a reasonably good order. The formatting wasn't too bad, either. I especially appreciated the lack of bright colors and fontophilia that I see on too many surveys.

But I got a little annoyed when I selected the the answer to question number four and a new maximized survey window popped up. Then I got really ticked off when I clicked the Submit button and another maximized survey window popped up. With three survey windows on my screen showing my survey in various stages of completion, I honestly don't know if they received my survey response.  At this point I couldn't care less.

I'll be the first to admit that online surveys are difficult to do well. I should know, having worked for Inquisite for almost four years. But the mistakes that Sprint made with this one are amateurish mistakes that any competent Web developer knows to avoid. Maybe I should have somebody at Inquisite give Sprint a call.

Sunday, 03 April, 2005

Lamenting the loss of a useful device

I went shopping for a new digital camera over the weekend. I broke the battery door on my Creative PC-CAM 300 by storing the camera in a bag mounted to my bicycle's top tube. The camera's a rugged little thing, but it succombed to the repeated vibrations and shocks from a couple of hours on the roads. The thing still works fine as a Web cam, but since the battery door won't close I can't carry it around with me anymore.

I was hoping to find a replacement in kind. I like the PC-CAM because it's rugged, the case is molded to fit the hand, and it takes reasonably good pictures. The built in 8 megabyte memory lets me take about 128 pictures at 640x480. The included USB interface and software make downloading and managing the photo albums very easy. It's a simple, inexpensive, and very effective little camera. I've carried it on many bike rides, dropped it a few times, and crashed with it in my pocket. That I finally broke it is unfortunate, but not a huge financial loss.

But I can't find a replacement in any store that I've visited (Fry's, Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart) or at any online retailer. Creative's web site shows four similar cameras: PC-CAM models 350, 600, 750, and 800, but they don't appear to be available in North America. Stores don't seem to have anything similar that combines the ruggedness, price, and ease of use of the PC-CAM. Every camera I looked at had an LCD screen and looked like it would shatter if I dropped it. I wouldn't feel comfortable taking any of them with me on the mountain bike.

I guess I'll make another attempt at fixing the battery door with duct tape while I lament advanced technology's replacement of yet another device that I use and like. It seems that camera phones have made these inexpensive digital cameras obsolete, just as the 3G phones have made my Kyocera PalmOS phone obsolete.

Friday, 01 April, 2005

Cookie crumbles

Since I started using Firefox, I've been very careful about which cookies I allow my browser to save.  I also delete all cookies on a regular basis, just to clean up any unwanted crumbs.  I've noticed recently, mostly because I've been doing more Web browsing recently, that all too many sites misuse cookies.  A lot of blog sites, for example, have advertising banners that want to save cookies.  Others want to save cookies for reasons that I don't quite understand.  Maybe they want to keep a more accurate count of repeat visitors.  Whatever the case, I almost always refuse cookies from blog sites and sites from which I just want to read some information.

I'm not completely opposed to cookies.  Session cookies, for example, are great.  Sites can keep track of my progress through their pages, showing me special offers just once or otherwise customizing my browsing experience.  But once the session is over and I close my browser, the cookie is gone.  I like session cookies, and I've instructed Firefox to accept them unconditionally.

I turn down site cookies unless they are for a site from which I'm ordering something.  I figure that if I can trust a company with my name and credit card number, I can trust their cookie on my system temporarily.  Besides, I regularly delete all cookies, so I don't worry too much.  I detest and will not accept tracking cookies, though, even if failing to accept them prevents me from viewing some site's information.  I know that I could just delete all cookies after leaving the site, but I choose not to encourage the use of tracking cookies.  I hope that whoever operates those sites gets a report on the number of people who refuse cookies, and that the number is sufficiently high to induce a change of heart.  Cookies are supposed to be for my convenience, not for the sites' marketing convenience.

Web site operators, please review your cookie policies and stop using tracking cookies.  Bloggers, especially, stop subscribing to advertising services that store cookies, and stop saving cookies yourself unless it's for login purposes.  There are plenty of advertising services that don't use cookies, and there's no good reason I can see for any site to store a cookie unless it's for an ongoing customer who has logged in.  Other than session cookies, cookies should only be stored at the user's request.