there but for the grace of God, go I…

Yesterday, I picked up the alumni periodical for the University where I did my graduate work and found profiles of two people I knew fairly well in a “best and brightest alumni” article about the graduate program that trained us. It unexpectedly gave me a twinge of panic, of regret, of something. Perhaps it was simply the recognition that no one would be writing a “best and brightest” article about me anytime soon. Or it was the recognition that my career as a graduate student was decidedly mediocre. While I am not usually one to be overly competitive, there is enough of the overachiever and straight A student to ask “why can’t that be me?” and “why didn’t I do better?”

The answers, of course, are rather straightforward. I’m a smart man, but I’m a much better engineer than a scientist. Academic work in the sciences involves making up tractable problems and then publishing ways to solve them. I hate that part of research. I’m much happier having someone else bring me a problem than making one up on my own. I’m also a little weak when it comes to advanced theory — my idea of a fun afternoon is not standing in front of a white board coming up with equations that define statistical models to describe machine performance. I did enough of that for my Ph.D. dissertation to last me a while yet.

All that aside, however, perhaps the thing that bugs me is simply that I didn’t keep a better sense of perspective about my career and career options. Others made sure to get a multiplicity of internship experiences, where I stayed at the University over the summers and helped engineer, then helped re-engineer, and finally administered a complex data acquisition system for the government. I did spend one summer working for NASA, but, nothing came of it… because, well, the work was something of a dead end. I also did little to keep my eye on publishing. While my vita doesn’t look awful, there are no citations for papers in top rank journals or at top rank conferences.

No, I was a pretty mediocre graduate student in the sense of preparing myself for a life in academia. The thing is, I knew this when I was in graduate school, but stuck it out long enough to get my Ph.D. I knew that the goal was eventually worth reaching as a personal achievement. I know that sounds odd to some… but being able to haul out the title “Doctor” to me is a profound achievement. The other two “best and brightest” obviously feel that too, but, embrace the academic life in ways that I can’t; they are assistant professors at big name institutions — true feathers in their respective caps as we all did our graduate work at good, but lesser known, school.

I guess I’m left wondering why, given that I know all this and have known it for a long time… what is bothering me? Maybe it’s that I started my current job three years ago tomorrow, and I’m uncertain about my future with it. I don’t mean that in the sense that I’m worried about being fired. Rather, I mean that I now know the dimensions and boundaries of what is possible in my current job… and I’m not sure what it has to teach me. I feel like I am growing slightly stale and repeating myself. I worry slightly about this because it is not conducive to maintaining a career over the long haul. One must always be growing and developing new skills. To do otherwise in a field like computers is to plan for your own obsolescence.

the roux in the gumbo

In honor of The Blues, the coming series of films on PBS sponsored by Martin Scorsese on that most fundamental of American art forms, I offer some select thoughts.

There are really about five kinds of people when it comes to the blues:

  1. There are those who think that Ralph Macchio really played the blues in the 1986 movie Crossroads(not to be confused with the Britney Spears film of the same name.)
  2. There are those who buy blues-influenced rock by the likes of Led Zepplin, the Rolling Stones, or Aerosmith, and think that is the blues.
  3. Some buy discs by the likes of John Hammond, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, or Charlie Musselwhite and think they know the blues.
  4. A few worship men with nicknames like “Blind Lemon”, “Leadbelly”, “Flathead”, “Cleanhead”, “Lockjaw”, “Blind Willie”, “Sonny Boy”, “Howling”, “Little Milton”, and “Mississippi” and claim to understand the blues.
  5. A select group living in basements create blues web sites and collect 78’s from long defunct labels like “Vocalion”, “OKeh”, and “Black Swan” because that 1927 recording of “Blind dog” Walker singing “Leaky Radiator Blues” just hasn’t gotten the artistic recognition it deserves.

More seriously though, blues is the underground aquafer that feeds into nearly all American forms of music: jazz, rock, and country. It is ultimately simple — a progression of chords across eight or twelve bars. Yet, it is also incredibly complex in the range of improvisational forms it inspires. It is the flour and oil that makes the roux of American music, and turns stew into gumbo.

The one thing that truly saddens me about the blues is that more of it isn’t being made. Where are the young artists of this new generation? There are the Jonny Langs and the Alvin Youngblood Harts of this world… but the old masters are passing away, and their like may not be seen again.

evil thoughts about famous people

Things have been mighty busy over the last few days, but, not busy enough to certain thoughts out of my head:

Though not normally conspiracy-minded, I sometimes imagine that this whole break up between B. Aff and J. Lo is just a little TOO convenient. After all, I think, what better way to draw off the media frenzy surrounding your wedding than pretending that it isn’t going to happen for a few weeks? This reckless bit of daydreaming is lent credence by the fact that there were official press releases all ’round when Ben broke with Gwyneth Paltrow. Yes, she’s been seen at the beach without the ring… but would you wear a Harry Winston ring to the beach and into the surf? I think not.

Of course, this makes one wonder where they might actually get married. I’m thinking at the “Pimp and Ho Halloween Ball” in Las Vegas. Ben and J. Lo could get out of a 1965 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce… him giving off his best Mack Daddy vibe in a white silk suit, furs, and big hat… her in even more furs, jewelry, a handmade white calf skin suede corset, stilleto heels, and a chinchilla thong (hey,where else is she going to wear it?) Puffy could have pulled this off better, I suppose, but Ben would do fine… provided he didn’t talk too much.

Finally, I have nightmares of Britney Spears doing a Christmas album in the next few years. I foresee new originals like “Would U like some candy, Mr. Claus?” and “(Lick UR) Candy cane”. I also foresee a press clipping something like this:

“When asked about her influences for a Christmas album, Ms. Spears replied ‘Well obviously, Mariah Carey has set the bar very high for Christmas albums, especially when it comes to the hem line of her Santa’s Helper outfit. You can be guaranteed that we will find a way to keep the Christmas album hot, fresh, and funky with something that will let a woman be sexy.’ When asked if this would be considered part of her unconditional support for all of President Bush’s decisions, Ms. Spears replied ‘I think so.'”

beautiful people, beautiful weddings

I don’t know if you have ever had people in your life you’ve looked up to just because their lives seemed perfect or beautiful somehow, but I do. The first of these I think was my cousin J. He grew up around the corner from me and is about three years older than me. He and his brother Jn. were childhood playmates to me and my sister. By high school age, however, our paths diverged slightly and he’d become popular. He was handsome, outgoing, a decent trumpeter, and a varsity soccer player. Not many people at our high school knew that we were cousins at first, so more than once I remember hearing “oh J., he’s SUCH a FOX”.

J. met and married K. some years later, and had two children. I was a groomsman in their wedding. and our lives began to re-connect a little more shortly after that. They have a beautiful marriage, two (or it might be three… they’re expecting another child any moment now) beautiful children, and from what I’ve heard, a beautiful house. They’re high energy people, always moving from here to there… and always unafraid to pay for the best… in dining, clothes, what-have-you.

J. is a lot more human to me now that he was in high school… because I’ve grown much more confident in myself. I see now that his life is not different from mine in many ways. I also see that his choices are not mine, and I feel that we can interact well as adults and as equals.

One way that I still look up to J. and K. though is their wedding. Their reception was held at a renowned hotel. The rehearsal dinner was in an upstairs banquet room of a restaurant and was exquisite. They looked comfortable an elegant through it all. J. still had musician friends in his wedding party who were professionals… I remember hearing so much good music that night. I remember so many good things about that night, and I somehow hope that my wedding can emulate that in some fashion.

All of this was driven home to me yesterday when Fiancee S. showed me a program and keepsake book from her friend I.’s wedding to her husband G. I. and G. are a beautiful couple in the same way that J. and K. are, I think. Certainly as I looked at the pictures of the two of them together, not only could you see how handsome and beautiful they were as individuals, but, you could also see how much they love each other. S. attended I. and G.’s wedding, and she thinks of it in the same way I think of J. and K.’s. I. and G. also have an adorable son. In short, they seem to be another of those beautiful couples that seem worthy of admiration and don’t seem to tread the earth precisely in the same way S. and I do.

I find myself hoping. I hope that amidst all the day to day stuff that comes with living, that S. and I have something together that shows as strongly as in other couples. I hope that our wedding will bring as much joy and be as memorable for those who attend as the weddings we admire. I guess I hope for a little magic… magic like J. and K. and I. and G. seem to have.

turning the big 3-5

I find a lot of my thoughts lately focus on my age. I’m turning 35 in a couple months and a fairly round numbered age like that usually gets me thinking about where I am in life and where I am headed. This will be the third time around for this type of introspection.

It happened the first time when I was 25. At that point, I was in graduate school and just beginning to wade into the the deeper parts of my Ph.D studies. The fact that I was still in school seemed to surprise me. I originally entered grad school with the idea of getting a Masters and fully expected to be working and in some kind of long term relationship when I was 25.

I was 30 years old when it hit me the second time. This time my life simply felt stuck. I was still about 18 months away from finishing up my Ph.D and I was hating life. I was doing (more or less) the same things with the same people as when I was 25. The Ph.D process seemed interminable. I was going broke and spent the previous few years living with someone I grew to seriously dislike. In the final analysis, the idea of being 30 didn’t bother me much… except that my life was aching to change, but showed few signs of changing any time soon.

This time around, well, I find myself taking stock of the changes in the last five years of my life and wondering what they mean. According to the timeline I set out for myself when I was 20, I’m running about 10 years behind schedule… not that it matters in the least. Yet, I find myself seeking out the contrasts between who I am now and who I was 10 to 15 years ago.

My first thought is to feel some wistful sense of envy for lost youth… mostly because I was 15-20 pounds lighter in those days. After getting past a sense of “I was young, the world was my oyster”, I take the next step and realize how… stupid (from my current point of view)… things can be for people in their early 20’s. Still picking the wrong people to date. Still looking just for all the “cool toys”. Choosing “quantity” in experience over “quality”. True, part of me yearns for the stronger sex drive that I possessed in those days, but that thought is alloyed by the realization that a) I had no sex life to speak of in those days, and b) my approach to life and to women at that time wasn’t going to get me get me too many dates any time soon. Perhaps there is an occasional wishful sense that time during those years could be better or differently spent, but, hindsight is always 20/20.

No, I like who I am right now, by and large. I like where I am and who I am with. There is a sense that my appreciation of life is perhaps, more refined — I’d rather spend an evening preparing food with friends for a dinner party than go to a loud club and drink cheap beer. I listen more to jazz than grunge or heavy metal. I still like a good amber ale or porter microbrew, but I’m equally open to a fine aged port or single malt scotch whisky.

I think that the only things that truly bother me about my life right now are the shape I’m in and my energy level. My life feels a little out-of-control right now, but I think that is because my life is changing in several important ways. Other than that, turning 35 seems to be a wake up call that says “give it up kid, you’re finally an adult… no longer delusional about being a kid just starting out in your twenties… you’re a grown up now, once and for all”.

electioneering 101

I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, what with all the other national political hoopla going on, but an important case that’s been on my mind was argued before the United States Supreme Court last week.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 was an attempt by Congress to significantly close a campaign financing loophole which seems to have a lot to do with the sorry state of national politics in this fair nation. Of course, I refer to “soft money” donations. I will rant about what soft money is and what it means, shortly.

First, however, let me describe “hard money”. It turns out that Congress and the United States Supreme Court have been interested in regulating the political contributions of large organizations for about 100 years now. Starting in 1907, Congress said and the Court affirmed that being a big and profitable company (or later Union) did not mean that you could reach into your Treasury and buy yourself an election with a huge contribution. No, businesses and unions could not give the money directly (but rather through a Political Action Committee) and they could only give a limited amount, so as to not have undue influence on the outcome of an election and thereby have undue influence on the elected candidate. This was how things worked until the mid-1970’s.

Things changed about 25-30 years ago. It was in the 1970’s that the Federal Election Commission decided that there was another type of money that businesses and unions could contribute. This was money for “party related” activities, like voter registration, issue awareness, and “party building”. Since, it was oh-so-fictionally thought that somehow these activities were not directly related to electing a candidate, no limits were placed on the amount of money contributed for these activities. Thus was “soft money” born.

“Soft money” has turned out to be a sham, and one that makes me sick. The parties have discovered how to solicit nearly limitless amounts of funds from wealthy individuals and corporations. They then use this money during campaigns for so-called “issue ads” that are so specific as to their message that they don’t actually say “vote for candidate X”, but, they do say “the other guy is part of a party that doesn’t believe like we do and you know what to do on election day”.

In return for these funds, there is no quid pro quo, but there is something almost as damaging. It turns out that people who make large donations to both parties do so for personal access to discuss issues that are important. So, if you are the NRA, for example, you give $100,000 and you don’t ask for a vote against the next gun control bill, but you do ask for a 2 hour sit down with the person in office to discuss your “concerns”. Meanwhile, the elected official across the table who was helped by “issue ads” that the money paid for listens patiently and then wonders where the heck he or she can come up with $100,000 during the next election for “issue ads” if he or she says no. This not only encourages the appearance of corruption and impropriety, it can consciously or unconsciously color the opinions of an elected officials because they spend a lot of time giving their unrestricted attention to large contributors only.

So, in light of the escalating importance of “soft money”, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was passed by Congress and signed by President G. W. Bush. The BCRA basically recognizes that there is no effective difference between “hard” and “soft” money in practice, and limits large political contributions across the board.

Since the political parties like having large sources of money, they are naturally fighting the constitutionality of the law. The Supreme Court heard arguments about it last week. Campaign donations are seen to be a free speech issue, and an area where the current court fears to tread. So, it is the monied interests as we have all to often seen of late, appealing to a conservative Supreme court for the ability to corrupt government in the name of “free speech”.

It all makes me sick. Check out a few articles at the Campaign Legal Center on the subject. There is evidently a lot of paper out there that reads like this:

From: Senator X
To: CEO of “Richer Than Sin, Inc.”

re: how are you?

Hi Bob,
Sorry to hear that your wife isn’t doing so well. Thanks again for the $100K, and I look forward to spending two hours to hear out your concerns on the pending bill at the lodge at Vale next month.

Senator X

Should a liberal democracy carry out business this way? I think not. Will it continue to do so? I think so…. and that scares me.

Boxes, boxes, boxes no more

The apartment that Fiancee S. and I have been sharing for the last 2+ months has been a mess. Now, it’s not like Fiancee S. or myself are slobs; we’re not neat freaks who test the tops of doorways with white gloves, but, we weren’t raised in barns either. No, the problem has been just related to the move in together and the integration required to turn two households into one.

Without going into too many personal details, Fiancee S. turned up with pretty much a houseful of personal goods when she moved in. She brought with her a full kitchens worth of housewares and sundries, a bedroom set, and various bits random furniture. It’s taken a significant amount of time to just sort through everything at hand (hers and mine) to see what we want to keep at hand, throw out, and store.

Me, I’ve contributed to the problem by being something of a pack rat… in particular with boxes. Too many years of moving from place to place in my college and grad school days taught me to recognize the value of hanging on to original packaging. Living by myself in the apartment that we now share allowed this tendency to grow wild. Some boxes that I really shouldn’t care about got saved, because well, I could afford to save all of them.

On Saturday, we took a major step toward sorting all of this out. We rented a truck and some storage space, and, we finally moved everything that we’re keeping “off site” into long term storage. This is the first time our apartment has been empty of boxes of stuff to empty, fill, or move since June.

Saturday was an absolutely AWFUL day to move stuff. It was sunny and HOT. Tempers flared at a few different points. There was a great deal of rushing about, and frustrations because the pile of boxes was too big or unwieldy, the truck used to carry them was large and unfamiliar, the amount of time to fill out forms was interminable, the few bits of furniture we had to move were too heavy, or the schedule we had to keep made it difficult to eat or properly hydrate ourselves.

Fortunately, all ended rather well. Yes, we were tired, sore, and dehydrated, but, it all got done without loss of life, limb, or property. Most importantly, Fiancee S. and I still like each other and will still be getting married.

And now? Now I get to go home to an apartment with a dining area that I can actually use for its intended purpose and not simply as a clearinghouse for stuff that needs to be elsewhere. I also return to an apartment that looks like adults live there… I get to feel like a grown up again.

That’s nice… at least until a “final” set of boxes arrive… but that is another story for another day.