Tag Archives: personal

Vacation and Books

The greatest value of vacation is it snaps you out of your normal routine. In the absence of the standard trappings of the 21st (as we were in rural Wisconsin and Minnesota for the entire trip), I brought a stack of books. The two books that actually got some attention were “Serious Creativity” by Edward De Bono, and “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker. Both are non fiction.

Serious Creativity is a book that sums up all the Lateral Thinking methodology that I learned last year in my leadership classes. The book largely overlaps with what we learned in the class, concept fan, provocations, random word, etc. While the book is great, I’m honestly not sure how much sense it would make to someone who didn’t also do 2 days of training on the techniques. There were a few new interesting bits in the book though, like the introduction of the 6 thinking hats (a much more interesting way to run meetings), and some comparisons of western and japanese biases around putting products into the field (which helps explain why there are so many cool new things coming out of japan all the time).

The first semester of my junior year of college was my death semester. I took the following 4 classes:

  • Advanced Quantum Mechanics. Yes, it was as hard as it sounds. This class was by far the most challenging, and rewarding class that I took. The class often produced up to 40 hours of homework a week, and the 24 hr take home final (which was 6 questions) took me 18 hours to complete (21 hours walk clock time, as I slept for 3 hours in the ITS Helpdesk before going back to complete problem 4).
  • Radiation and Optics. This was the 3rd and final Electricity and Magnetism class in the Wesleyan Physics Dept E&M sequence. While not nearly as challenging as Quantum, R&O was taught by my favorite instructor at Wesleyan, and was a hefty chunk of work by itself (6 – 8 hours a week).
  • 3rd Semester Ancient Greek. A 3 person class (which meant there were some occasions where it was a 1 person class) in which we translated 3 of Plato’s works. This represented the end of my ancient greek studies as I didn’t put in the work required to really get to the next level (due to Quantum swallowing most of my time).
  • My blow off class, Chomsky Linguistic Theory. Learning rules of transformational syntax, applying them to arbitrary English. The optional book for this class was Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct, which I bought. However, you may understand why I never actually opened the book while at school.

I had tried digging into the book a few years ago, and gotten about 50 pages in, before it went back on the shelf, though I still can recall much of the discussion on how pidgin languages are formed. I decided to start where my bookmark was an journey on from there. It turned out to be a great idea.

I’m about 3/4 through the book, hoping to finish in the next week or so. Pinker sets out in this book to explain why language can’t be a fully learned skill, i.e. there must be some innate structures / skills that let us acquire language. There are a few things that are a bit dated, as he goes to explain why audio transcribing software of the time (1995) fails miserably, however the bulk of the book holds up very well a decade later. It many ways it lays out some pretty reasonable explanations of where the hardware / software boundary of our brains lies, which parts are field programmable when it comes to language, and which parts aren’t. I love books like this, as they generate a lot of new random neuron firings, and make you think about all kinds of things in different ways. It’s like mountain biking for your brain.

It’s funny to think that such a fun and interesting book has been staring at me for 10 years, and it takes a week away to actually pick it up. But that’s what vacation is for, to break you out of your routine. 🙂

Poughkeepsie Farm Project

Yesterday, Susan and I went to the Poughkeepsie Farm Project’s annual plant sale. The Poughkeepsie Farm Project started in 1999, leasing a stretch of Vassar College land to create a Community Supported Agriculture program. There are a fixed number of shares to the CSA sold each year, which include a required number of volunteer hours on the farm, and then share holders show up once a week and pick up their bag of fresh vegetables off the farm. This lets the farmer share the risks and rewards of the farm, and allows the farm to run totally organically. If something hits the beans this year, and there aren’t many, that was the risk. If there is a bumper crop of tomatos, those are split equally between all the members. In addition to the CSA, the PFP helps run the farmer’s market in Poughkeepsie, runs programs for bringing Poughkeepsie Youth onto the farm for internships, and gives away 20% of the yield of the farm to local food banks. I first heard about the PFP through one of my classmates in my leadership class last year. She and her husband had been part of the CSA for a few years, and it seemed like a great idea to join up.

At the plant sale the CSA sells starter plants for you garden, each member is mailed a coupon that gets them 2 for free. Given that we had a bit of an aphid explosion on some of our tomatos and peppers, this provided a chance to back fill a few of the plants we lost. After we purchased our plants, we hopped in on a tour of the farm, which spans over 7 acres of fields. They have a 5 year crop rotation model on the farm, which helps replenish the soil, as well as confuse the insects. As soon as some bug figures out a good place to lay eggs for next year, their crop is changed out from under them, so they never establish. At one point we wandered through the asparagus beds, where we were encouraged to reach down and snap of a bit to taste. My god, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted asparagus that fresh, and that delicious, ever. Susan’s eyes lit up incredibly after that. While we’d both been generally into the idea of the CSA, the prospect of the kind of food that we’ll be flush with starting in 2 weeks, and running until November, washed over both of us, and we realized how great of an idea this was.

As we wandered around the farm, we also got the sense of being part of something larger there. The whole PFP mission, with bringing quality food back to the community, is very touching. It will provide a great many opportunities to volunteer beyond just working on the farm, which I’m looking forward to. In an era of styrofoam tasting vegetables delivered via your mega mart from who knows where, the idea that this summer we’re going to get a majority of our vegetables from 5 miles away, grown without chemicals, is very appealing. The promise of huge flats of organic strawberries in a month is something I just can’t wait for. 🙂

Weekend Projects

After three years, the idea that “we should really look at our spices, consolidate, and throw out old ones”, we finally began that project. What looked like an hours worth of work on Saturday, rapidly turned into a more extensive reorganization of the kitchen, which lasted most of the day. Following on the reorganization of our pots and pans a couple weeks ago, we now have a much more sensible placement of spices, baking materials, and our pantry. Perhaps I can even find what I’m looking for in our combined spice collection now. Hopefully this will also add inspiration to making more meals at home, as the kitchen is definitely getting more ergonomic.

Saturday also included “the great skating adventure”, whereby our two intrepid heroes thrust out into the world looking for a reasonable pond, or patch of ice to skate on. It’s been below freezing for a lot of weeks now which means frozen over bodies of water are all around. Even the Hudson is starting to chunk up here in Poughkeepsie. Our first attempt, the pond we took kayaking lessons on last year at the Stringham soccer fields, was crushed by very visible “Do not go on the Ice” signs. While the ice was probably solid enough, that little negative nudge was enough to make us pause. While we were sitting in the car, deciding our next move, I noticed heads bobbing back and forth over the far embankment. Hey… they’re skating, what piece of ice are they on? We pulled back onto Stringham, and found they were using the “Unsupervised Ice Skating Area. 2 Feet Deep”. “They” were 6 or 8 kids (middle school and high school), playing pick up hockey.

Putting on my new comfort hockey skates for the first time, and pushing out onto the ice, made me realize how much I was used to figure skates. For the first 30 minutes, I nearly fell every time I tried to accelerate. Non-existent toe picks made bad balance points. Susan’s first 30 minutes were all about humoring me; her skating skills were even rustier than mine. An hour later, with a game of tag under our belts, she was having a good time, and was able to move around pretty well on the ice.

I also spent a bunch of time optimizing my laptop development environment this weekend. Watching a few folks at work learn emacs for the first time, made me realize I’d never read the manual, and it was far past time to go through my 3 directories of elisp code, and consolidate it into something more sensible for me to manage. A few hours later, I was quite happy with the results, especially my modified two-mode-mode.

That led to the final weekend project, my Ruby on Rails address book, which now has a much nicer interface, and has phonenumbers added to the data model. I need to get a public demo site for that active soon. I’ve really fallen in love with Ruby, as it has made web development fun again.

End of an Era

8.5 years ago, I was about to graduate from Wesleyan University with my bachelors degrees in physics. I was starting at IBM a month later, and it was now finally time to get a car. As I had never owned a car before, I asked my big brother (who worked at TI) for opinions. Toyota and Honda we top of his list. After doing a bunch of research on the internet, I decided that a new, 1998 Honda Civic LX Sedan was the most car I could afford, and the best investment for the money. It was the end of the model year for Honda, and they were running a special financing deal for new college graduates, so it turned out to be a pretty reasonable deal. 4 years ago I stopped having car payments, and used that money to pay off student loans, then save up for a down payment on the house.

I am still driving that car today, though today will be the last day I do drive it. While I know I shouldn’t be all that sentimental for something like a 9 yr old Civic, the fact that it’s given me 109,000 miles over 8.5 years, has driven all over new england, and the mid atlantic states, and required very little investment in it in the mean time (exhaust, tires, and just recently a ball joint), has made me a little nostalgic for the car already. That nostalgia is tempered by the fact that there is a little whine in the wheel base from time to time, and the engine is not nearly as smooth as it once was (especially in the cold). And that, after 8.5 years, I’m starting to actually have to spend some money on it for repairs.

Tonight at 5pm I’m picking up my new car…. a new 2007 Honda Civic EX Sedan with Nav System. It is probably the most boring car upgrade in the history of upgrades, but in 2006 Honda redesigned the Civic completely, gave it a new interior and exterior look, and a bigger engine. It’s still a good small commuting car (getting 30 / 40 mpg city / highway), with a better use of interior space, and lots of fun gadgets (like an AUX jack for the stereo, a Factory CD player that plays mp3s, and a slot behind the nav system to take CF cards full of mp3s.) At 40 mpg, my Civic will be doing nearly as well as Susan’s Prius (which gets highway of mid 40s after the new tires on it) for long trips, like those to Vermont and Delaware that we do a few times a year to visit family.

I’m not sure that I’ll keep this new car for 9 years or not, but it is exciting to finally be getting a new car after all these years.

Calendars for Christmas

Earlier this week I ordered 25 calendars, and that, minus gifts for my wife, constitutes my Christmas shopping for the year. The calendars come from Shuttterfly, and are a series of pretty spectacular (if I do say so myself) nature shots I’ve taken with my canon digital cameras over the past 4 years. The idea came from my friend Mike, who upon looking at our honeymoon pictures, said “man, a bunch of these are really good, you should make a calendar”. A month later I realized he had a really good idea.

I haven’t yet broken down and gotten a really nice digital camera, instead deciding that pocket size is a good thing, as I almost always have my camera with me. With the exception of low light, and distance wildlife shots, opportunity often means more than equipment. If I had a nice big camera, I’d only take it with me when I knew I was going to take pictures. With my Canon SD500, I just stick the thing in my front pocket just about every time I got out for a walk or hike. Granted, opportunity gets easier with the fact that Susan and I take a vacation every year to somewhere new. 🙂

It’s also good that Susan and I have now convinced both of our families to pretty much give up presents at Christmas. Instead everyone picks a charity or cause they want to support, and donate to that. Beyond shedding the materialism of the season, it also saves a lot of stress of fighting with Mall traffic / shoppers, and panicking when you can’t figure out what to get for people. The holidays become more about the memories, and less about the stuff, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Random acts of usefulness

By now, just about everyone has heard of Google’s Code Search. After seeing Bruce Scheier’s blog post, I decided it would be amusing to search for my name on it, just to see if there was anything surprising.

While most of it was stuff I would have expected (though I was amused by the high percentage of links to gentoo repositories for the actually code, vs. upstream sources), I did come across 1 gem:

2002-01-04  Christian Queinnec  

	* All: Packaged all the previous perl files composing the
	enquete.pl suite. Put under CVS (with RCS old files). Written
	tests according to the "Building Perl projects with MakeMaker" by
	Sean Dague (highly recommended reading, I did not know any of
	these features of Perl before: shame on me!).

It’s always nice to know that you’ve done something useful. 🙂