Archive for 2007

Keeping up with the Joneses using cosmetic internal hardware

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

Reports are circulating in the technical press that the premium notebook computers will start coming with 4GB of memory standard rather than 1GB as they did at the beginning of this year.

That might sound like a good thing, but I heard no mention of disclaimers saying that 32 bit Vista or XP (i.e. the operating systems practically everyone uses) can’t access all this memory, nor will you notice much performance improvement over having a machine with 2GB inside.

If you think this problem will go away when we’re all using 64 bit operating systems, there’s a good chance the consumer market will never make that move. Trucks might need more wheels than cars, but if you mount duallies when you don’t need them, you will hurt performance and increase expenses.

Similarly, more memory can actually hurt performance if you don’t actually need it because of the resources necessary to manage it. Speed junkies would be better advised not to run programs they’re not actually using.

Keiko’s guardian angel

Friday, December 21st, 2007

Keiko has really had a rough week. She’s had 3 seizures and her condition has deteriorated steadily. When she’s not lying looking only half alive, she wanders aimlessly while bumping into things, and won’t eat. In addition, she spontaneously falls over and doesn’t care about her favorite toys, foods, or activities. Knowing that she can’t possibly be having any fun, I made the heartbreaking decision to schedule her final appointment at the vet.

Despite the fact that I’d already thought a great deal about this before going in, Dr. Lindsay talked me out of it. He explained that the increased dosage of phenobarbital she is taking could also explain her coordination problems. Enzyme levels pointed to pancreatitis which would both make her very sick and not make her want to eat.

It’s possible that the bladder cancer has worked its way to the spine and is interfering with her control of her hind legs, and/or that brain damage from her tumor and the last round of seizures is causing serious problems. However, he thinks there is still real hope that things will improve significantly on their own and that it is too early to throw in the towel.

Dr. Lindsay has been an incredible vet from the very beginning. The first two times he helped us for emergency appointments during off hours, Keiko wasn’t even a patient of his, and he wouldn’t take payment. I once heard someone at a party who knew him personally and professionally describe him as “hard core.” He’s been a vet for over 30 years, but he somehow makes himself available when you can reach no one else. He favors low tech common sense approaches, and his advice has always been good.

Keiko’s a very tough girl and has been beating the odds for some time, but eventually it will be too much for her. However, Dr. Lindsay thinks her chances of having a bit more time are decent. She’s in terrible shape right now so she will spend next week, including Christmas, at his practice where she will rest and be under observation. I’m no fan of aggressive measures (a euphemism for acts of desperation unlikely to lead to success). That being said, if you’re going to lose, it’s better to go down swinging.

The Emperor has no clothes

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Recently, Dorothea Salo delivered a blistering critique of library-created institutional repositories. Her basic point is that our IR service model is driven by a failed ideology, we ignore peoples’ real needs, our tools are hopeless, and we don’t deal with funding or other practical considerations in a realistic way. In addition, she charges us librarians with not eating our own dog food since we do not do what we try to convince others to do. In two words — we suck.

What has been interesting is the response to Dorothea’s comments. A lot of people are glad she’s speaking up.

I believe in emphasizing the positive, but I’m glad to see our profession might finally be getting ready for an open discussion on how we can move things forward. We do many good things, but our profession has a disturbing habit of pretending we are dizzy with success when we are reeling from spectacular failures.

The “how we done it good” articles and presentations that permeate our professional communications are not harmless. I once let a journal editor talk me into putting a positive spin on a method I used in one of my own projects and originally reported to be unworkable. A couple years later, I learned the article was required reading in a library school class — a student contacted me wanting more detail so she could copy my method. I’ve been asked to put a positive spin on sections of several other writing projects when my assessments of methods, services, or products were less than glowing.

We need to recognize our limitations. As a profession, we pretend we can solve more than we can. We cannot compete with companies like Google, Amazon, or a number of others on their own turf. If we make pathetic attempts to mimic these services, our users will simply ignore us. We must accept that some companies perform certain tasks far better than we will ever be able to and adjust our services accordingly.

At the same time, we need to not be afraid of taking risks or let past failures make us fearful of decisive action. The only way to succeed is to try. Most things worth shooting for are hard, so logically, there should be many failures. Rather than pretend they are successes, we should learn from them and move on.

A lesson for our information economy

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

The success of user created content in the blogosphere, Wikipedia, YouTube, and other venues has been welcomed as the democratization of information. However, I’ve been wondering if the success of these things isn’t because our information flows have become screwed up.

When formal channels can’t be used the way they should be, people seek alternatives. During the Communist era, the Soviet citizenry couldn’t find meat, toilet paper, and other essential goods in stores. To satisfy their needs, they turned to the shadow economy. I can’t help but notice that Americans now use a very similar method to find the information they need most.

Just as the planned economy failed the Soviet public, the channels we should be able to trust are failing us. Consequently, a growing number of people rely on the blogosphere, cocktail parties, and other places where the information and ideas are exchanged much more freely. Like their Soviet counterparts who knew better than to waste too much time looking in stores with empty shelves, these people largely ignore the mainstream media, the professional literature, and other traditional sources of information.

While many see this as a positive development, it reminds me of the old style Soviet economy when it was in its final throes. People all but gave up on the government stores and turned to bartering and the informal markets that sprung up everywhere to meet their needs. Eventually, the old system collapsed.

Just as Soviet citizens had to constantly hustle for butter and sugar that they knew couldn’t be found in stores, we turn to yahoos on the Internet and seek offline conversations for critical facts and honest assessments about people, methods, products, and organizations we can’t get from reports, presentations, articles, and conversations that appear on record. That we need to do this is symptomatic of inadequacies and problems in the formal channels.

If you think about it, a party is just a meeting with no agenda. Yet if you ask people if they want to go to a meeting, you will get a very different response than if you ask these same individuals if they want to go to a party — even if the same people are attending, they expect to talk shop the entire time, and you’re trying to tap them for designated driver duty.

Why is this? One explanation could be that the chances of learning something useful or interesting is far greater. This explanation also describes why people don’t pay attention to key reports, but they go out of their way to read blog postings on the same subject. Anyone who makes their living providing information services should be taking notice….

Now THAT’S a burrito

Friday, December 7th, 2007

Now that the temps are dropping and I’ve been spending more time in cold rain, I’m finding myself ravenously hungry all the time. It’s not for lack of food. Last night, I ate almost double what I normally do (a feat I would usually consider impossible). For breakfast this morning, I couldn’t resist supplementing my normally large breakfast with a a 350 calorie Ensure-type drink.

For lunch, I found myself famished again so I decided to try a new Mexican place. I noticed a burrito called a “gordo” (literally, “fat one”) on the menu. According to the description, they combine multiple tortillas into one giant 28″ tortilla and fill it with good stuff. I asked the owner if it’s actually possible for one person to eat. When he said he’d seen people try, I couldn’t leave that challenge unanswered.

I’ve seen some big burritos, but the gordo topped them all by a considerable margin. Even if it had been cut in half, it still would have been huge. I should have asked what was in it, but there was easily a pound of beef, an equal quantity of rice and beans, somewhere between a half pint and a full pint of sour cream and guacamole, and lots of veggies. Heck, the tortillas used to wrap the gordo were formidable by themselves.

The best part about it was that it was not only huge, but it was one of the best burritos I’ve ever eaten. I could tell that all the veggies had been chopped fresh, everything had been well-prepared, and the balance of flavor was excellent. And yes, I did finish it, but it wasn’t easy and the owner actually seemed disappointed that I succeeded. I do not intend to attempt to eat another gordo. Some things only need to be done once.

Fetch with black dog on the beach in the dark (photo included)

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

blackdogindark.gif November through February has always been my favorite time to go to the beach. The cold and rain drives people away. There’s something about the sounds, smells, and solitude that is very relaxing. The winds and cold water are invigorating.

When Keiko and I go out at this time of year, it’s usually in total darkness. When we played this morning, I couldn’t see the ball I was throwing. Due to the cloud cover, the stars and moon weren’t providing much ambient light so I couldn’t see her either. Nonetheless, she was still fetching just like we were in broad sunlight (it has a rattle in it so she can hear it) — she navigates primarily by hearing and smell.

Unfortunately, after about 20 minutes, Keiko dropped the ball in the ocean. It doesn’t rattle when it’s bobbing about, and I can’t see it when it’s more than about 10 feet away. Consequently, neither one of us could find it, and it floated away. I came back to the house to bring another ball to play with. Without the rattle, she often couldn’t find it even when it was next to her.

What makes this trip especially nice is that I never thought we’d still be bringing Keiko out here in November. She was given a couple months to live near the beginning of this year, and the oncologist said he was very sure of his diagnosis. She bleeds and discharges all kinds of mucus every day, and that’s a bad sign, but frankly she still seems in better shape than she was in February.

No more books!

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Way back in January, I described how I was finishing work on a book I was writing with Terry. Anyone that knows me that will tell you I’m not a procrastinator. Neither is Terry. Nonetheless, we’ve put in lots of time on the project since then, and I just sent the index to the publisher yesterday.

Even though the chapters were theoretically done with time to spare, we wound up working with the editor improving things up to the deadline — you don’t want other people noticing easily fixable flaws since your name’s on the cover. Then, a bunch of production work needs to be done. The editor tweaks a few things, the book gets typeset, and artwork is added.

After we had the camera ready copy in hand, we worked with the editor to change the layout because some of the figures were not clear enough. The publisher has proofreaders, but we went over it with a fine toothed comb to look for small errors. Yesterday, I finally sent in the index — that can’t be written until you know exactly what page everything appears on.

By the time you’re done, you’re pretty tired of it. I remember after finishing my first book project, I swore I wouldn’t do another one because it’s so much work. Two weeks later, I approached Terry and we started this one. I would have preferred to wait, but timing is important.

I’m very happy to be done with this — now I can do something more fun on my weekends. In a bit of coincidental timing, the first royalty check from the first book came in. I used it to buy a new transmission for my bike that will make riding in the mountains much easier.

Despite the fact that I know what I’d write about if I did another book, I’m not going to do it. At least for another couple years…..

A good ride

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

This past weekend, I took part in the Everest Challenge. It’s a bicycle race in the Sierra Mountains that’s over 200 miles long with a total elevation gain over 29,000 feet. Even though I was just there to finish and not to race, it’s the most difficult ride I’ve attempted.

It was unusually cold and stormy during the ride. We rode through heavy wind, rain, hail, and driving snow. The weather for the second half of the ride was much better, but it was still very cold. As I started the final climb, I started thinking about why I was out there. I was exhausted and in pain. The straw that broke the camel’s back was I was tired of freezing. I bailed.

The whole point of endurance rides is to challenge yourself physically and mentally. However, it’s also important to have fun and enjoy the scenery. When an event turns into a masochistic exercise in pride, it’s time to think about stopping because it’s not fun anymore and you won’t get any physical or mental benefit either.

Despite not finishing, I’m very satisfied with how things turned out. I rode well for all but the last few miles. I developed a new appreciation for what the other riders go put themselves through to achieve their results.

With the time I saved, I visited the ancient bristlecone pine forest where there are trees over 4000 years old — I’ve wanted to see them since I was 10. And frankly, I’m glad I chose to see the trees rather than spend an extra 2 hours and change torturing myself. They were literally a few yards from the finish line, but I wouldn’t have been in any condition to notice them if I had been too pigheaded to know when to quit.

Preparing for the Everest is a lot of work and it’s a long way away, but I hope I can do it again next year. One thing is certain though. If I ever try it again, I’m doing it with alpine gearing.

Humor is not dead

Monday, September 10th, 2007

I don’t send web links very often, but today I saw what has to be the best practical joke ever. In a nutshell, a guy named Amir gets his buddy Streeter to propose to his girlfriend. The thing is, though, that Streeter doesn’t know he’s going to propose.

I’ve always loved practical jokes, but it’s hard to play them anymore. The very nature of a good prank is it causes short term frustration. Unfortunately, our collective psyche has gotten so fragile that when someone gets upset, there’s a strong tendency to look for some kind malicious subtext rather than laugh and move on.

Fortunately, there still are a few people wandering around who aren’t emotionally traumatized for life by a practical joke. If you like really good pranks, just check out the video and watch a master at work. Those guys must really be good friends.

If a car ever deserved a victory lap, it was this one

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

This past week, we finally sold our trusty Honda shown here with Shirley in this 12 year old photo. We’d been thinking about getting a new car for some time, but wanted to wait until we passed 200,000 miles. Once we reached that milestone, the problem was figuring out what to do. The reality is that it was a great car. It had always been insanely reliable and still got more than 40mpg — which is nice if your office is 64 miles away from home like mine. It’s hard to justify getting rid of a car like that.

However, it was literally the bottom of the line model, and driving 3 hours a day in a poorly ventilated spartan econobox on noisy highways in the summer ain’t exactly my idea of fahrvergnügen. Now we have a Subaru Outback Sport Special Edition (no photos yet). Basically, it’s an Impreza with some nice features such as all wheel drive, satellite radio, automatic climate control, and some other bells and whistles. I love it.

At the same time, Shirley and I were both sad to see the Honda go. I regret not taking a picture on the final day so you could see how good it still looked. And man, what a car. It still had the original clutch. The interior looked great and it the exterior still shone even if it had a few chips. The engine still purred. The entire time we owned it, we only paid for one repair that wasn’t scheduled maintenance — one of the CV boots cracked at 165,000 miles so we replaced that for $90. Arguably, that’s just wear and tear. We replaced the original equipment battery only last year and we were only on our second set of brake pads.

So I think it was very fitting to pull it onto the exact same lot as it had been purchased from almost exactly 12 years to the day (the Subaru dealership there was formerly a Honda dealership). I’ve never heard of anyone driving as far as we did on one clutch, one battery, or with as few problems. And while part of me wanted to hold onto it for awhile longer, I’m happy the Honda could retire gracefully with a spectacular and untarnished service record.

I don’t know what will happen to it in the end. The dealer will sell it to a wholesaler, and that particular model is preferred by kids who like to race cars because the body is light and cheap. Maybe it will get a new lease on life with a powerful engine, new transmission and suspension, and a wild paint job. Even if it just winds up running short errands in town until it stops, we’ll remember it fondly.

Not what you want to hear

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

Yesterday, I took part in a conference call with one of our vendors. Our relationship has gone sour lately, and I was hoping this would be an opportunity for everyone to see things from the other side and start working better together. For most part, the discussions were very frank — a euphemism for saying that everyone was telling each other how it is.

That’s fair enough. While I believe that our vendors are business partners and we must work with them productively, our interests will not always align. This inevitably will result in frustration from time to time on both sides.

However, yesterday looked like it might be the beginning of the end. Multiple times, a high ranking representative on the other end referred to us “untrustworthy.”

I’ve heard similar accusations leveled at the company, but rather than get into a pissing contest over who is right, I think the more important issue is what happens when business partners don’t trust each other. Things are hard enough when everyone tries their best and presumes good intentions. As soon as you view your partner with suspicion, hedge your bets, and do the minimum to avoid being screwed yourself, you have a one way ticket to failure. That strategy is poison, and rarely leads to a good outcome. The discipline of game theory is practically dedicated to describing why this is the case.

The reality is that this vendor plays a key role in our operations, but we are a huge customer. Our relationship is somewhat like a couple navigating a major river in a canoe. If both people don’t work together, they wind up in the drink. It’s a dangerous situation, but probably survivable even if it’s pretty miserable in the short term.

However, there is a point when you have to ask yourself if you’re on the right path. I’ve stuck up for this company many times when I hear people razzing them. I think most people don’t appreciate how tough their position is.

On the other hand, this company has changed with time. Their outstanding strength has always been to provide powerful tools that let you do things they didn’t think up first. Now they seem more interested in keeping things locked up in proprietary structures that make it difficult to work in practical environments.

Nowadays, information comes from many sources and institutions need products from different vendors to work well together. Even Google doesn’t have the ability to do everything well, so they keep their focus on search. A small company that has far fewer resources will not be able to provide everything libraries need in a black box.

Whatever the case, I see storm clouds on the horizon. If things don’t get better soon, it will be a wild ride. Either we’ll be in a partnership that works much better, or we can find out what we’re really capable of when a long term partner pulls out. I’m looking forward to whatever happens.

No new goals for me

Monday, August 6th, 2007

After a disappointing performance on the Oregon Ultimate earlier this year, I was eager to do well on a big ride. This past weekend, I took part in the Shasta Super Century. Basically, you ride to the top of four mountains in one day. The roads are steep, so it’s challenging.

Having learned from my earlier DNF, I formulated a strategy for completing the Shasta and stuck to it. The first half of the day couldn’t have gone better. I moved right along and felt like a million bucks. Somewhere on the third mountain, I started feeling sick and actually took a 5-10 min nap at the top (something the other riders found funny). For most of the final mountain, I was in a daze and experiencing heat exhaustion symptoms even though it wasn’t hot.

Although I completed the ride with time to spare, midway through the final climb on the Shasta, I thought about scrubbing my plans for taking part in the Everest Challenge (my riding goal for the year). The Everest is roughly as bad as two Shastas spread out over two days.

Ever since I got my new job, I’ve been riding half as much as I normally do, and the resulting loss of conditioning was hurting my performance. As I slogged through the final 2 miles of the Shasta, I calculated that I might be able to complete the Everest, but even under the best circumstances, I’d probably feel the worst I’ve ever felt on a ride. Since I already felt terrible as I thought about this, it didn’t sound very tempting.

After I finished the ride, I realized that completing goals requires us to go well beyond our comfort zones. By definition, anything in our comfort zone is something we know we can do, and there’s not much point in setting goals if there’s no doubt about the outcome — it’s hard to get much sense of accomplishment from shooting fish in a barrel.

It’s much more satisfying to try things where the outcome is unknown. If I do my best to prepare for the Everest, formulate a good riding and nutrition strategy, give my best effort, and am willing to possibly feel worse than I ever have on a ride before, I might be able to finish the Everest. I’ll be pretty happy if I can pull that off.

I won’t feel bad if I don’t make it to the end. When you explore your limits, you find what you’re made of, and you can use the knowledge you gain to improve yourself whether or not you succeed. Besides, plenty of strong cyclists in their 20’s and 30’s don’t reach the finish. I’ll have lots of good company regardless of the outcome.

A little help is always welcome

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

I’m lazy by disposition, so I like to do things the easy way. For example, every year, Shirley and I paint one side of our house. The idea is simple. If every side gets painted every 4 years, the whole house looks pretty good, and it doesn’t take much time or money to keep it looking that way. All you have to do is be willing to keep things the same color.

Bo helping paint This year, we had a new helper shown here with me. Normally, we don’t borrow other peoples’ dogs for home improvement projects, but Bo’s owners just had a baby so we took care of him for a few days while they got things set up.

While I dealt with the bees’ nests and the painted the high places, Shirley worked on the low places. It was hot that day, so Keiko just rested in the back yard. Bo contributed to the effort by making sure we didn’t have too much leftover paint — about 1/2 hour into the job, he dragged his cable across my paint bucket and dumped it all in the yard.

As you can see, all turned out well. Now I can turn my attention to my next project (which is actually a bike ride in California this weekend). We’ll see how that goes.

They just don’t make things like they used to…

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

People say we live in a throwaway society where things are intended to be disposable, but that’s not entirely true. Today, our car passed the 200,000 mile mark. When we bought the car in 1995, we figured we’d have to replace it in 2001 or so. As it turns out, the car still runs great, and the only unscheduled repairs we had to pay for were a leaky water pump (which was scheduled for replacement at 180,000 miles anyway) and a outboard CV boot that was starting to crack. This car has thousands of parts, and each piston and valve has probably moved up and down around a billion times. We’re still using the original clutch.

Cars aren’t the only thing that last a long time. Practically all of us regularly use appliances, tools, furniture, utensils, clothing, and a variety of other products that we’ve had for decades.

Despite the fact that we have all this stuff that lasts forever, we buy more at a furious pace. Few people actually keep cars in garages anymore because they’re filled with junk.

While many people find all the junk we have undesirable from a conservation or aesthetic point of view, I think the bigger problem is what it does to our priorities. Most of us dedicate our lives to acquiring and keeping stuff at almost any personal cost.

As a society, we measure others by what they have rather than what they do. Whenever art, athletic achievements, or a number of other events are discussed in the popular press, attention immediately focuses on the money that changed hands rather than on the substance of what happened.

Arguably, we don’t own stuff — it owns us. Maybe a step right direction would be for all people over a certain age to get rid of something every time they acquire something.

Regardless of the problems associated with buying lots of stuff that lasts forever, I’d like to raise a glass to the people who designed and built our car. 200,000 trouble free miles is truly impressive, and it’s a testament to the fact that people can do good things if they set their minds to it.

Agony of defeat? Not exactly.

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

Well, it finally happened — I failed to complete a ride. Yesterday, I attempted the Oregon Ultimate Road Ride. Basically, it’s 215 miles in the Cascade mountains. The ride had it all — distance, tough climbs, great scenery, scorching heat, and wind. 18 people attempted this year.

Many things went right. I had a great time and met a number of people I hope to ride with again. Weather was decent. I felt good and rode with the big boys until mile 60 or 70. Although they dropped me, I passed the 100 mile mark 6 hrs after I started. That’s a respectable time even on a flat route, let alone one that involves thousands of feet of climbing. Although I’d been using more of my legs than I should, I was on track to a strong finish when I passed the halfway mark.

At mile 125, I was riding slower than my usual pace but still feeling good. Just a couple miles later, heat exhaustion hit me like a load of bricks — it was all I could do to not pass out while riding. I took off my helmet to cool off, but around mile 130 I was in a total daze and barely able to move in my lowest gear. I felt so bad that I considered  lying on the shoulder of the highway and falling asleep. Fortunately, Bryan was nearby, heard from another rider that I looked terrible, and he rescued me.

My first reaction when I knew my day was prematurely over was to question the rest of my riding schedule. I wondered if maybe I wasn’t kidding myself about my physical condition and need to face the fact that I belong with smaller fish in a smaller pond. However, once I got some fluids in me and began feeling normal again, I remembered that people much better than me have bad days — some of whom also failed to complete the Ultimate. I knew that I could have finished this ride, but just not this time.

Normally, my strategy is to ride my ride and let others ride theirs. I don’t attempt to catch or drop anyone. This time, though, I got caught up in the moment. I rode too hard and didn’t pay enough attention to hydration. I don’t regret trying this. One of the things I’ve always wondered is if my normal strategy is too conservative and if maybe I should ride harder. Apparently, my regular plan is spot on.

I think I’ll still attempt the Everest Challenge, though I think I need some more training in high desert. The problem with riding in the high desert is you don’t feel like you’re sweating, so you can get dehydrated easily.

In a strange sense, failing the ride yesterday may have been a good thing. Today my left knee hurts like heck — apparently a combination of painkiller and adrenaline kept me from realizing how bad it was yesterday. Better to bail early and still have a chance of healing up in time for some great rides in August than trashing my knee and being out for the rest of the season.