March 24th, 2007

#322: Loads

Friday was a heavy day for me. I went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cleaned out my garage, and came back home with a load of stuff.

With the bit of driving I did in CR, it came to a bit more than 510 miles.

There were a few pieces of furniture left; several boxes of stuff; and the front fascia for my '86 Fiero project car. I ended up leaving some stuff for the building manager--my old chest of drawers, and some other things. The van was packed full as it was; I had wanted to bring two sets of shelves but really only had room for one. I had to abandon my old office chair--the one I got in 1994 as a cast-off from my then-employer--and a couple of videotape racks. Oh well.

I went for lunch at Fiesta Del Sol, the best Mexican restaurant on the face of the planet. They serve this utterly perfect salsa there; I ordered six servings of the salsa to go. Then I got to work on the garage.

The job just didn't seem as big as previous trips to get stuff from the garage. I suppose when you move literal tons of freight every week, it puts into perspective the job of moving a couple dozen items from garage to van. It took me a couple hours to clean out the garage, and then I turned in my key at the manager's office and went home.

I suppose I could wax sentimental about the closing of life's chapters, but I did enough of that while I was there. The important thing is that I no longer have to send $70 to Iowa every month.

* * *

Microsoft is discounting Vista licenses. If you have a copy of Vista, you can buy up to five additional licenses at a lower price. The problem is, the discount ain't all that much, and the operating system still sucks ass.

If all you're going to do on your computer is run Office, then you're golden; but those of us who would like to play games that worked on every previous version of Windows from Win95 onward are utterly screwed.

10% off? It's not going to help, guys. I don't know what others have to say about it, but I'm going to continue to tell people to avoid Vista at all costs until the compatibility issues are resolved.

* * *

Rule #348: Never eat gas station food. (Except hot dogs.)

I left the house at 8 AM for my day trip to CR. I stopped at the gas station for a few things, and decided, hey!--those breakfast sandwiches look good; I'll buy a couple instead of stopping at McDonald's. It saves me a stop and costs less to boot!

Big mistake.

There is no polite or pleasant way for me to describe what happened when I answered the call of nature later in the day. For such things I use a generic term: "gut malf".

For these situations I imagine the old-fashioned Mission Control consoles with the big mechanical pushbuttons that lit up, and I imagine a red one that flashes while a klaxon sounds:


..."malf", of course, being a NASA/engineer abbreviation of "malfunction".

It's when your gut makes audible loud and ominous gurgling noises, usually reminiscent of some kind of prehistoric beast, and you know that you had better start walking to the bathroom now before the sounds migrate to the left side of your abdomen, where the descending colon is, because once it hits that, you have only seconds--and if you're not already on the pot when that happens, you had better either have a strong sphincter, or another pair of pants to wear.

I was fortunate. The manager was at home and they like me there, so they not only let me use their bathroom but also gave me some Imodium.

As bad as being struck with egregious gut malf when you're 250 miles from home with no real "base of operations" is, it could have been a lot worse. It could have struck while I was still on the road. I could have had to go to the gas station down the street. Or any of a hundred other complications could have occurred.

Anyway, I know it was that evil gas station food. I'm never eating that crap again.

* * *

I chatted for a bit with the manager of the apartment building.

My ex-girlfriend and I shared an apartment there for about a year and a half. See, my ex, she had lived in the apartment over her Dad's house for a number of years, paying little (if anything) for rent or utilities. When her Dad had to be put in a nursing home, her brother and sister gave her an ultimatum: start paying the utilities, or move out.

The house was an old drafty wreck of a place and heating alone was hideously expensive. I offered her my spare bedroom, and all was pretty nice for a while.

Things being what they were, though, it all came crashing down in December of 2003, and I ended up moving back to live with my parents--which, it turns out, was a Very Good Thing since I have been able to be here for my Mom, especially in the wake of my Dad's death in January. (I now ascribe all this to Divine Providence.)

My ex--I refer to her as WWW, the "Wicked Wiccan of the West"--she moved out of the apartment herself not too many months ago. The landlady confided to me that the apartment was "filthy" after WWW moved out.

"Of course, it's all your fault," the landlady told me disgustedly, employing the ironic mode to indicate that she thought WWW was utterly full of beans.

So let me understand this. Rather than clean the place, WWW was content to live--for three years!--in the accumulated filth of my existence? Do I understand this?

When I left the apartment--when my name was struck from the lease--I left a mostly clean apartment behind. The bathtub had some accumulated soap scum, and there was a bit of cat litter left in the kitchen, but the place needed little more than a good dusting and some vacuuming in order to be perfectly acceptable for habitation. It certainly was not "filthy".

WWW fell in with a group of people which she played D&D with, and which formed the basis for her "coven"; and one of them, when she visited, had a body odor which was nauseating even to me. Her pungent body odor was augmented with the menthol from her cigarettes such that it formed a disgusting miasma reeking of sewage and Vick's Salve.

The D&D campaign--oh my God. I scarcely know where to start with that one; it contained all the worst elements of munchkin gaming. Each player had two characters, one of which was the player himself--in WWW's case she was a "twelfth-level wiccan".


The spell lists for these characters were basically up to the player, so WWW had a bizarre mix of Arcane and Divine spells in her spellbook.

...twelfth level? Okay, Chuck Norris might be 12th level, if he wasn't made of so much awesome that he transcends the entire concept of experience levels. But a 46-year-old overweight cashier from Iowa with delusions of grandeur is not a 12th level anything. In fact, in game terms, she's a zero-level character. (I make no bones about it: I am too. By definition, almost everyone is.)

And "wiccan"? A 12th-level wiccan? Does that mean that the Pope is a 20th-level Catholic? And the Dalai Lama--would that make him a 20th-level Buddhist? How many levels of "Muslim" did the Ayatollah Khomeini have?

In D&D, the higher your level, generally the more widely-known your exploits are. High-level characters do big things, and big tales get retold, so eventually the word gets out. A 12th-level character has probably done some notable things in his career, else he would not be 12th level.

And spell effects are pretty dramatic. For example, what would you think if someone laid hands on a person and that person was miraculously healed? Well, you'd start by suspecting fakery--faith healing is an old business--but when the claims turned out to be real, what then? If someone in the modern world could verifiably heal wounds with a prayer and a few gesticulations of a holy symbol that would make really serious news. By definition, a "light wound" (in D&D terms--about 1-8 hit points of damage) would be a mortal wound for a zero-level character--and casting "Cure Light Wounds", a first-level healing spell would be the equivalent of heaing someone with a gunshot wound to the chest!
I could give my usual discussion of the theory of hit points here, but I'll summarize. A high-level character might have 100 hit points, but if he sticks a dagger into his own head, he will die. A dagger does 1-4 hit points of damage. Hit points aren't literal capacity for damage but simulate the ability to dodge or "roll with the punches" to minimize the effectiveness of an opponent's attack.

So now WWW is living in a house with several members of her "coven", and I bet the place stinks like a stockyard. In more ways than one.

And now I know that God did me a favor in 2003. Thanks, God.

#323: Runaway

I think it was 1984 when Tom Selleck starred in that movie. It was a good concept--a future in which robots were common, and Tom Selleck played a cop whose job it was to deal with malfunctioning robots.

Gene Simmons (AKA scary tongue guy from the '70s band KISS) played the villain rather effectively. He was a guy who made chips which turned robots into killers. The movie had other neato things in it, such as this nifty pistol which took an IR snaphot of the person you fired it at, and downloaded that into the bullet before firing it--and the bullet would then follow the target.

Anyway, one of the nice points of the movie was Selleck's character, Ramsay, and his interactions with his domestic robot Lois (voiced by Marilyn Schreffler):

Ramsay: What did you give [Ramsay's son Bobby] for dinner?
Lois: Hot dogs.
Ramsay: Lois, you can't keep giving him hot dogs!
Lois: It is all that he would accept.

The natural interaction between man and machine very nicely underscored the prevalence of robot technology in that world. As science fiction I think it was underrated.

And when the villain has kidnapped Ramsay's son and left the apartment and Lois in disarray, Lois gets the best line of the film when Ramsay asks her what happened:

Lois: I'm sorry, but the dinner will not be painted in time.

#324: Video!!

I went to Best Buy today for a DVI monitor cable. $20 later I had one, and after fiddling with the computer for about 10 minutes I now have my desktop spanning this monitor and my 35" TV.

I'll have to try Diablo on it....

Anyway, I spent the afternoon dumping some downloaded anime episodes to DVD, and I am very happy with the output quality. It looked just fine on the big screen. Granted these are 230 MB video files, so they're not exactly low-quality. I expect other files may not be as good...

It took me 2 hours to convert 2 hours of video to DVD. I lose the nifty formatting options that mastering a disk offers. To be honest I haven't tried to master a DVD on this machine yet; it may convert video much faster than real-time--but I'm not entirely sure I care now. The TV-out option lets me record anything I can display on-screen, and that's a good thing to be able to do.

It sure will make the Creamy Mami project easier to manage.

#325: Bleah

Steven Den Beste comments about this MetaFilter thread:
Why didn't you study something useful? Of course your university doesn't have any "post-graduation resource bank"; except for people like Amnesty International I can't imagine anyone needing someone with these qualifications (sic).

Where do you find a job? How about McDonalds?

If I actually posted the above as a response on that thread, I'd probably lose my membership. But I was sorely tempted anyway, I was.
I don't blame him at all. Years after graduation, a friend of mine with a combined English and Philosophy major said, "What do you do with a major like mine? You DON'T!"


What do you do with a "human rights and social movements major"?


(Damn, I should edit the "gut malf" entry. Make it blink in red. That would be awesome.)

I know someone who got a scholarship to a university with an excellent reputation. It is not an ivy-league university but it's big, well-known, and highly respected. And what did he study?

Medieval European History.

And so the last time I talked to him he worked as a medical courier.

But I was thinking about all this and I realized that I don't have a leg to stand on. I went to DeVry University and studied electrical engineering there--good major, bad choice of school. I learned about as much electronic theory as anyone from a real school does, but most employers seem to regard the place is regarded as one step better than correspondence school.

The point being, I made approximately the same mistake as the rest of these bozos. I just made it along a different axis, is all. I'm a fucking stockboy for Christ's sake.

(No one calls it that, of course. But let's be honest about it; that's what I do.)

Before 9/11 I was doing a job that suited my major, that earned a moderately good salary, and which had decent career prospects. The only problem was that I was an avionics writer.

Technical documentation has taken a serious nosedive in the past decade, anyway. Paper manuals have given away to PDFs and SGML documents. Rather than hire dedicated writers, companies simply do the "Pointy-Haired Boss" thing and pile writing onto their engineers' "to do" lists. The engineers are salaried, so the added costs are incremental at best.

The company I worked for--Rockwell-Collins--was strategically removing all requirements for technical knowledge from its writing teams, anyway. Most of the technical work was being required of the engineers; technical writers needed only to know how to write--knowing anything about circuitry or technology was strictly optional.

One time I was given a task: write a theory of operation for a GPS navigation unit, to help another writer out. Time was very short, and my boss told me to get it in as quickly as I could. She didn't give me a hard deadline; but in one week I went from zero knowledge about GPS systems to a finished and polished theory of operation. One week.

In the end I really don't know what to think about it. Being smart, capable, and skilled obviously wasn't enough. Consistent performance--never missing a deadline, staying at or near the top of my team in terms of output--counted only as "meets expectations". For all of this, I found myself being shown the door a bit over a month after 16 terrorists singlehandedly brought the American airline industry to its knees.

And in the aftermath I could not find a technical job. I had bills to pay, so I became a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) and worked at a nursing home. And then I broke a finger--at home, worse luck--and couldn't work for three months...and when my finger was healed, the job market for CNAs in my area had saturated. There was no work for me at my employer, and no openings elsewhere.

The technical industry is well-known for its unwillingness to give a person the benefit of the doubt. If you lose your technical job, for whatever reason, if you find yourself having to take a non-technical job in order to pay bills, you might as well plan to make a career of it, because from that point onward you are tainted. It doesn't matter what your qualifications are or how the industry has been doing; your career is over.

I haven't even been able to get a job working at a help desk doing software support. I was an on-site computer technician for eight years and have an extensive customer-service background--all of which does me absolutely no good whatsoever since I worked as a CNA and then as a stockboy.

I make a point of not complaining about how life has been over the past six years, but it's hard not to get depressed about things once in a while. I can't do anything about the past, so pissing and moaning isn't going to do squat, either; but these days I find myself wondering what I could possibly have done differently which could have prevented me from being where I find myself.

I could have spent more time at the office, I suppose. (They say that when you're on your deathbed you won't regret not spending more time at the office, but I'm hopefully still several decades from that.) I could have moved to Kansas City and taken a job working for Garmin--they were advertising in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I could have done a bunch of things, I guess...but I made the best decisions I could with the information I had at the time. That's really all anyone can do.

Part of my problem is that I started my technical career in a different world. When I first became a computer technician, in 1990, there was still a USSR. The USSR just went away; and then there were a few years without much real difficulty. I moved upwards and landed my dream job, technical writer--but the entire world changed on 9/11; and the changes made me as economically useful to the airline industry as a Wright Flyer...and similarly useless to the technological field in general, apparently.

I guess I don't have the right to be critical of anyone's choice of major.