Thursday, July 29, 2004

Everything is catching, yes, everything is catching on fire 

Last week my grandmother had to take a letter down to the mailbox. She's eighty-six, but she's healthy, and while she doesn't drive anymore, she's still fairly spry - she gets tired easily, but she can get around and take care of herself, and she can still cook dinner for the whole family when she gets  a yen to.

But my dad had had the dogs out last weekend, tied to a lead that gave them plenty of room to run and frolic around while he mowed the lawn. And he didn't roll up the lead and put it away when he brought the dogs back in. And my grandmother tripped on that lead, and tumbled down the driveway. She broke both her wrists - not just broke them, but fell to the concrete with bloody, white shards of bone poking out just under each hand.

My mother heard her scream as she went down, and she dropped the load of laundry she had been carrying out to the laundry room, and ran out to find out what had happened to my grandmother.

As much of a bad grandchild as it makes me feel, I am glad I wasn't there at that point - I don't deal well with other people's blood and injuries, and I probably would have had hysterics or fainted. My grandmother was trying to sit up, nearly passing out from the pain, with her hands dangling at the ends of her wrists, the bone poking up over the unnatural angles her limbs were making. I know this because my mother told me the story later, in a tone of quiet horror that made it obvious, even over the phone, that she was still seeing the woman who gave birth to her and raised her greying out on the driveway with blood running down her wrists and her skeleton exposed to the air.

My mother ran to her, of course, and tried to support her as she sank back to the ground. Now she was lying with her head on my mother's lap and her back on my mother's legs, as my mom talked to her, trying to keep her conscious, and desperately tried to figure out how to call 911 without leaving my grandmother lying on the pavement. Of course none of the neighbors were home to hear her yelling for help.

Then a car came up the road - a minor miracle if you believe in them, because no one on the street was home to receive visitors and my parents live at the back of a cul-de-sac. The man in the car saw my mother frantically waving, pulled over, and called 911.  He even offered to go into the house and get a blanket and a pillow, but my mother declined, fearing the dogs' reaction if a stranger entered their house without her. She's hoping he'll call as he promised to see how my grandmother is doing, so that she can send him a gift of some sort to thank him for his help. He stayed, talking to my mother and grandmother, dialing my father's work number so my mother could talk to him, until the ambulance came, even tearing down the street after them in his car when he could hear that they'd taken a wrong turn.

Then the ambulance came, and took them away to the hospital, where my father met them. And then there were the X-Rays, and the CAT-scans, because my grandmother is getting on in years, and the shock might have caused a stroke.  The EMTs were extremely impressed that a lady of her advanced age had held onto consciousness the entire time - apparently healthy 20-year-olds with even a single fracture of that type frequently pass out from the pain. I guess five kids and three miscarriages is good for something after all. Horrifically, they had to give her three shots of morphine (half an hour apart) to even dull her pain, and my family's hereditary intolerance of opiates had her close to vomiting before the pain began to fade away. At some point in this carnival of medicine my mother called me and let me know what was going on, venting some of the stress she'd been under by talking it out while my father sat with my grandmother.

Four days later, they finally released her from the hospital. They couldn't even cast the arms because of the wounds in her wrists - too much danger of an infection going silently gangrenous - so they put a pin in each hand, a matching one in each forearm, and bars between them to immobilize the wrists. It sounds much more painful than an ordinary cast to me, but my grandmother has such a collection of metal in her bones (pins in each ankle and a screw in one foot - she broke a lot of bones even before old age took its toll on them) that maybe it's just one more step towards becoming the Tin Woman.

So that's basically what's been going on with me. Also, in the trivial news of workaday life, all of my clients have lost their minds, two of them have damaged or destroyed their databases, one has decided, a year post-cancellation of their project, that they'd like to reinstate the project, and three more have decided to move up their deadlines. Considering I was behind already, I've begun to suspect that when I die, they'll hook my brain up to a computer so that I won't really get any rest after all. But that's life, isn't it?


Friday, July 23, 2004


I have just experienced, on a smallish scale, the true meaning of a paradigm shift. I've been banging my head up against this programming problem in a project of mine for three weeks now.  It was such an incredible experience that I decided to take time out from my under-deadline panic-crunch to try to get it down on paper - er, pixels.

I'm under NDA, so I can't describe the problem in detail, and really it would be pretty boring reading unless you're a geek. Basically, I had to place two points within a box, and use them to draw a square within that box. The problem was further complicated by the fact that a half-dozen external constraints could be placed on the points, and that the user could change his mind, and decide to move one of the points - but all I would ever know was the external constraints and the x,y coordinates of the latest point I'd been sent - not which one to change or how to change it.

I've been working on it off and on for the past three weeks, putting it down to work on other parts of the project (or other projects), hoping that a solution would come to me in my sleep or magically somehow, growing increasingly more stressed out about it as the deadline approached. Finally, tonight, the night before I'm supposed to deliver a functional (although not final) system, I've been staring at my computer screen in increasing panic, feeling a burning pain in my stomach that reminds me worryingly of the ulcer I used to have, trying to figure out how I would either (a) finish this damn project before morning or (b) inform my clients that they'd have to reschedule their training appointments with external vendors next week because I couldn't cut it despite my repeated assurances that I could. I've probably written and discarded five hundred lines of code since 10pm, realizing with a sinking sensation every time I thought I had the solution that I had left out half the requirements.

And then it hit me. It was exactly like every description of epiphany you've ever read. A sudden blinding light going on in your brain. Being hit upside the head with a hammer you can't feel. A feeling like the ground shifting underneath my feet: I had been going about it all wrong the entire time.

In retrospect, it seemed unbelievably simple. I was trapped in my own assumptions. I was receiving points, therefore I was storing points. But the points themselves didn't matter - they were just a way  of receiving user input. What mattered were the boundaries of the square I was drawing. Once I started to think of it as four lines instead of two points, everything fell into place. I have to rewrite half my code now, but it'll be easy, because half the mucking around I was doing before was to translate points into lines.

I don't think I've ever experienced this sort of instantaneous paradigm shift before, where the whole world just sort of moves a few inches to the left and shows you a new picture. I think I'm glad, because as helpful as it was, it was unsettling. Most of the time I like the earth to stay right where it is when I'm standing on it.


Sunday, July 18, 2004

Frozen Grapes 

They are the best thing I can possibly think of right now. Seriously. Our weather has been bizarre the past year. First we were snowed in over New Year's (when it's not supposed to snow in Portland, or at least not stick when it does). Then, over the past month, I've been bitching about the fact that Portland had apparently decided not to have a summer - it was chilly and grey until the middle of July, fer crying out loud. Now a deathly stillness has settled over the city, bringing with it heat and humidity. We haven't hit the godawful 100+ temperatures of last summer (yet, knock on wood), but we're all wilting, opening every window and sliding door in the house, praying for a breeze, and trying to find out how much it would cost to get central A/C (more than we can afford).
In the midst of our tribulations, though, L has brought us frozen grapes. A memory from her childhood prompted her to place a bag of seedless red grapes in the freezer, and she brings out little bowls of them in the evenings, when the heat refuses to disappear with the sun. Each one is like a miniature popsicle, bursting with sweetness and an icy bite of refreshment. We're eating them like popcorn.


Saturday, July 17, 2004


My dreams of new furry things to love and hug were fulfilled when I got two ferrets a couple of weeks ago. They're fantastic - the cutest thing ever. The best part is when Amber, the younger-but-more-aggressive ferret, steals a chewy-toy-snack thing from Sheba, the older-but-more-submissive-but-a-bit-of-a-human-biter ferret, and runs off into a corner and hides it under some bedding or boxes or something, just because Sheba won't play with her when she has a Cheweasel around. Luckily Amber hasn't figured out how to turn off my computer when I have to work yet. I'll have pictures to post as soon as I find the dongle for my digital camera.
I'm extremely tired of clients in general. Two of my clients managed to damage or destroy their databases this week. Of course, they both claim they had nothing to do with it, but I know better. Other client-related things I'm tired of:
-Payment is coming RealSoonNow(tm). Currently this is only the case with two of my clients, but I get so damn tired of being strung along. "We're processing your payment, but we found this bug:" (and then they relate something that is totally out of the scope of the project, and that I should demand a change order for, but since they owe me three months' rent, and I really need the money, and the change'll only take two hours, I capitulate and add the feature to get paid). And then the payment is being processed by Accounting. And then it's in the mail. And then, sometime shortly after my funeral, my greatful heirs will get paid. My dwindling bank account is swiftly losing patience with this tactic, though.
-We must have this immediately, or the world will end!!1! I'm tired of clients emailing me about a new feature they want, then emailing me 24 hours later to bitch because it wasn't instantly implemented. Newsflash to these clients: You're not my only clients. If you were, you'd be my employer, and I'd be contacting the Wage & Hours division about my pay scale. Giving me $500 over the course of a year does not give you the right to my undivided, constant attention and instant responses to your needs. Other people have paid me for my time, and many of them have already-established deadlines that I am contractually obligated to. And I know this shocker will be hard for you to believe, but some of them are bigger fish than your two-bit, negative-income company, and I would rather have them as clients than you - especially since they're understanding when I say "yes, I can, but I'll need a week to clear my schedule first."
-Hey, I want to sell this!/Would you like to go into business with me? OK, I guess this one is sort of flattering. And there are a couple of projects I've worked on that I'm genuinely proud of and think that a market exists for as a packaged product. But basically I'm a hack. Not a hacker, just a hack. I write web-based applications and custom shopping carts because I'm too lazy to do real programming, and I like the instant gratification of HTML. Just like I'm self-employed because I like to work late and sleep late, and having clients instead of a job lets me set my own hours. Most of the projects I work on are not terribly original, just really specialized (have you ever tried to find an installable shopping cart for those necklaces that have a word written on a grain of rice? Me neither, but I expect I will have to soon). Yes, I 'speak' ten or twelve programming languages, but that's just because you all are so damn attached to your crappy, overpriced web hosts that only offer X scripting language that I have to know that many just to get any work. That doesn't mean that everything I write is gold, or that everyone in the world really wants to pay thousands of dollars for the lousy recipe database (or whatever) I wrote for you. So just a tip: I like to get paid in cash. Not a percentage of the company you think really really really could make tons of money, if the rotation of the Earth came to a halt tomorrow. Not the cash that you think you'll have, when this incredibly lucrative business starts paying off. I didn't go into this field so I could get entree into your ground-level business opportunity, I went into it so I could get paid for programming websites. I take cold, hard, cash, that I can use to pay the rent and the electric and the gas bill. Failing that, I also take checks and PayPal. But that's about it.
-We want to host our server in-house. Unless you're an IT company,  this is basically code for "Our server will support none of the technologies we claim it will support. The application you developed based on the parameters we gave will not work, and you will spend weeks modifying it to match the real capabilities of the server. It will be incredibly slow, and we will blame this on you. At some point, it will fail entirely, losing all of the data and code, and our backups will mysteriously not have been made, and we will also blame this on you." Unless your business is intimately bound up in the IT field, you have absolutely no business hosting in-house. Do you make your own paper?  Do you generate your own electricity and pump your own water? Then why do you think something that is just as fundamental and just as far outside your specialty, like server hosting, belongs in your office?
Wow, I guess this turned out to be more of a client rant than a general update. More later, I really need to go to bed now.


Friday, July 09, 2004


The only two things you really need to know about my boyfriend T for this post:
  • He comes from a family of hicks.
  • He hasn't talked to said family in years and becomes agitated when they're mentioned.

    So I did something sort of mildly evil today when I made him think about his family. See, it turns out that his father's name (or possibly his older brother's) is on the Florida felon's voter-purge list. So I got curious as to what sort of felonies his relative might have committed to have lost the right to vote. Turns out the county he grew up in (where most of his family still resides) has a nifty court webpage, with online-searchable court records. Given my penchant for ferreting out information on people and surprising them with it and with my AmazingInternetSkillz™, I couldn't resist searching first the name we found on the purge list, then every other name I could remember from his infrequent reminiscences about his family.

    It helped that, given that they're hicks (see above), they all live on the same street. (Baby, I know you're reading this, and I love you. But they are hicks, and you know it :P). All I had to do was go through all the cases for a given name/birthdate combination until I hit one that had document images that contained an address. If it was on that street, score! - I could assume every other case with that name/birthdate combination was the same person.

    So um, yeah. Wowie. Apparently everyone in his family makes a point of getting pulled over at least twice a year. Including him, incidentally, a habit I'm extremely glad to have broken him of - in the first year we were dating, I got very tired very fast of lending him money to pay off tickets and bailing him out of bench warrants, so I made him a deal: I got him & his truck 100% street-legal, and in exchange, he would never be allowed to break a traffic law again. I suspect he does still speed and run the occasional stop light, but to his credit, he's gone two whole years without so much as a parking ticket. But I digress.

    Then there were your battery cases (aunt & uncle), your bad checks (aunt & sister), divorce cases (aunt & cousin), evictions (aunt, uncle and sister), grand theft (sister), brandishment (brother), DUI & possession of cannabis (uncle), receiving of and trafficking in stolen property (uncle)...at least three of his immediate relatives have rap sheets as long as the proverbial arm. I'm not casting aspersions (I really can't, since one of my close relatives spent ten years in the federal pen for things we don't talk about (*cough* *cough* cocaine *cough* trafficking *cough*) - and given that the longest sentence I saw in there was 2 years and a bit, I guess my family has his beat in the criminal members area) but damn. It made for interesting reading, to say the least.

    T was a little put out with me when he got home and I demanded to hear the story of his brother getting arrested for brandishment - like I said, he doesn't like to think or talk about his family, and it bothers him that I can find out so much so easily - especially since he worries about his family being able to track him down. I can't help it though - I'm too curious for my own good, and then I'm too honest to keep from telling him that I searched and what I found. I did my best to reassure him, though - after all, the only reason I could find court records is that I had names, a county, and a street name, along with a general idea of what the right birthdates would be - in other words, a heck of a lot of information. Considering how often he's moved in the past few years, it's wildly unlikely that his relatives could come up with that much information - and even if they did, he'd have to be arrested or involved in a civil case to make his address a part of the public record.

    I guess there really won't be a right time to tell him about that project I'm working on to serve satellite photos of anyone in the US given an SSN, will there? (Note to T: I'm just joking, stop hyperventilating...)
  • |

    Friday, July 02, 2004

    Assholes Among Us 

    Went out to Tom's Pancake House for breakfast the other day. Had a nice breakfast, but as I was having a second cup of coffee before I left, this family came in. Four adults, three kids. Two of the kids were absolute angels - quietly coloring with the crayons the restaurant gave them, making no noise. The third - a boy of about five, old enough to know better - was screaming. Wordless, inchoate, 120-decibel screaming. Hitting his sister (who was ignoring him and coloring) and screeching wordlessly, over and over. For a couple of minutes I ignored it, then I started pointedly staring at the parents, who were clearly doing nothing to calm the child down (or take him outside, which is what my parents did when I threw a tantrum in a public place). After about ten minutes, the couple at the table next to them said something to the waitress, and she came over and tried to close the accordion divider that split the two halves of the restaurant partway, in an effort to mute the noise a bit.

    As soon as she walked away, the mother reached out and shoved the divider back into the wall. The child continued to scream. The waitress returned and tried to politely explain to the family that other people wanted to finish their meals in peace, and could she just close this divider partway so that they wouldn't have to listen to their son scream? I was one table away, I could hear the whole conversation, and she wasn't rude to them at all. The father responded, "Do you have a cage for us, too?" I was flabbergasted. So not only is it apparently acceptable to bring your screaming child into a restaurant and ignore him, but anything that's done to mitigate the sound is also considered an insult? They're allowed to force us to listen to their poorly-raised child screech, and we can't even try to avoid the sound a little? The waitress kept her cool, though (I myself was furious at this point, and I wasn't even part of the conversation), and calmly explained that she wasn't trying to put them down, but that the other guests would like to finish their meals in peace, and that she was trying to help them do that. She closed the divider partway again, and they demanded to see the manager. She agreed to go get him (very calmly) and walked away. As soon as she turned her back, the mother shoved the divider back into the wall AGAIN, and they decided to leave, ranting at the top of their lungs about people who don't understand children and so on. They had a loud conversation with the manager and then left, having finished their job of ruining everyone's morning.

    What is wrong with people? When I was little, I learned very quickly that it wasn't acceptable to throw temper tantrums at all, and throwing them in public was practically a mortal sin. Screaming like that would have gotten me whisked out of a restaurant so quick my head would have spun (and did, several times). Because I liked to be out "with the people", as I put it (and because I didn't enjoy having my meal interrupted), I learned quickly that screaming was not acceptable public behavior. Of course all children get upset sometimes for obscure reasons, and you can't expect to take them out and have them always behave perfectly. But when you do take them out, and they get upset, you can show consideration for the other diners and teach your child about acceptable public behavior by taking them outside until they calm down. By the time they're five years old (although I would say they should have learned how to act in a restaurant by then), you should even be able to explain to them why they've been taken outside and away from their food, so the lesson should sink in pretty well. And even if they refuse to understand, you're not subjecting everyone else in the restaurant to your child's misbehavior. But I've come to accept that common courtesy, if not dead, is on life support in America today. What blew my mind was that these people interpreted even the attempt to avoid their child's screeching as a personal attack. Well, I'm sorry, folks, but if you let your five year old scream for ten minutes at a stretch without trying to do a thing to calm him down or prevent other diners from having to listen to him, you are bad parents. The fact that you have bred does not impose any sort of obligation upon me or anyone else to consider your kid's wails to be the equivalent of Mozart - especially before I've had my second cup of coffee.

    When I left the restaurant, I made sure to leave an extra-large tip and to tell the manager that the waitress had been 100% right, that she was not rude at all and that the asshole family had been extremely rude while she kept her cool.

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    Marriage is love.