longing for the academic life

Back when I was in grad school, I used to refer to describe the appearance of the undergrads with the phrase “every year, I stay the same and they get a year younger.” I got to spend the last two days at my old graduate school at a symposium given by the research group I used to belong to there. In between presentations given by professors and students in the group to their corporate sponsors, I got an eyeful of the undergrads moving between classes. Was I ever really that young? Did I ever dress that badly? Grad school used to be very immediate thing in my life… now it is clearly in the past. That is probably good thing.

One the things that made me choose against going into academia as a career was that I was burnt out on the research process. After nine years of largely banging my head against a wall, I felt like I had no ideas left. I had zero patience for what I essentially felt was a mind numbing process of debugging a white board. (A roomate once told me that mathematics research was the art debugging a blank sheet of paper — we computer scientists use white boards instead.) I wasn’t sure that I would ever have the research itch ever again.

After the last two days, I’m not sure. I find myself less enchanted with the business driven needs of corporate culture. Yes, there are no shortage of problems to solve, but many of them are dumb problems that have more to do with with how the business is run, or worse, how a customer’s business is run. Academic research looked appealing once again and was interested in a few of the presentations I saw. One was an interesting spin on the general area I listed in my statement of research when I was applying for a professorship. Another was an idea I could have easily explored in my Ph.D. dissertation if I had another six months to work on it. A third was an idea by a colleague of mine that could tie in with some long abandoned research of mine that were supposed to be part of my original Ph.D. dissertation (the one that was scooped by about a year by some folks at Itty Bitty Machines.) I felt the research itch for the first time in about five years.

Perhaps there is a way to scratch it. There may be a paper or two to write about the results of meshing my colleague’s new work and my old work. This could be good — a new publication for my vita. That’s always a help.

here’s a cute little stocking stuffer

Ever since I finally put together a decent home theater system, Mrs. Geek has remarked that she doesn’t like all the different remotes we must use. True, the universal remote provided with the receiver/home theater decoder allows us to do about 80% of the things we want with the system. That remaining 20% includes some important stuff though, like setting the timer on the VCR. So, we keep about four different remotes on the coffee table in our living room and occasionally have to reach for more than one of them. Mrs. Geek occasionally remarks that this bothers her. She doesn’t share my love affair with pushing lots of buttons, I guess.

So, I’ve been keeping half an eye peeled for a real universal remote that can run absolutely everything. Finding such a device is not an easy task. The thing I usually hate about universal remotes is the three digit codes. The maker of the remote provides a book of three digit codes describing sets of commands generated by one or more remotes produced a given component equipment manufacturer. These codes are often broken down by manufacturer only, so there is usually a list of half a dozen codes for large makers like Sony and Panasonic. You get to try each code in the list until you find one that works with your equipment. Of course, the term “works” means that there always a few buttons on your remote that don’t work with your equipment, or buttons are missing that you really need.

I believe I found the remote I was looking for last week when I happened to spy the Harmony H659 Remote Control on the Circuit City web site. This remote has the virtue of bypassing the whole three digit code problem by allowing you to configure the remote over the Internet with a web browser. To do this, you log on to the manufacturer’s web site. Once there, you answer a few questions about what equipment you have and how it is connected and then download the necessary configuration information onto the remote with a USB cable. This is possible because the manufacturer (now Logitech) maintains a regularly updated database of remote configurations for specific models of A/V equipment. If that is not good enough, the remote also has a learning sensor on the back that allows it to learn signals produced by your existing factory remote controls. Any codes the remote learns are uploaded into the manufacturer’s database during the configuration transfer, where they can eventually be incorporated into the equipment database. Neat trick, don’t you think?

This approach also has other advantages, as well. Chief among them is the ability to reconfigure the buttons on the remote pretty much any way you want. The thing has a small LCD screen with six function keys that allow you to create an arbitrary number of custom functions that aren’t in the standard set of buttons on the remote. You can also re-map the functions of the regular keys the remote too. This is all done using a web interface that is far more intuitive than would be possible using the keys of the remote alone.

I ordered the remote from NewEgg last week and it arrived on Monday night. I then spent about three hours configuring the thing. Why three hours? Well, the basic configuration that allows you to “play a DVD”, “watch TV”, “play the VCR”, or “listen to the radio” at the push of a single button worked in about 20 minutes. I just want the remote to do more than that… like adding functions to the “play the VCR” mode of the remote that allow you to set the timer. Given the (sometimes) bewildering number of choices in configuration that the remote offers, figuring out how to best do that took some time and a little experimentation. Logitech could also use some better documentation and a somewhat better online configuration application. A little written guidance saying “ok, this is probably how you want to setup the remote to do [X]” would have done wonders.

Still, I have to say that it all works. The remote and the software let me do everything I want, so far… and without much trouble. Mrs. Geek is the real acid test, though. Hopefully she will find the new remote to be easy to use. She sat down this morning and turned everything on to watch the news during breakfast without any trouble. That’s a good sign.

a tale of two cookbooks

I picked up two new cookbooks recently: Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking and Giada Di Laurentiis’s Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes. Food Network connections aside, these are two very different kinds of cookbooks. Both are useful in their own way, but meet very different needs.

The Alton Brown book is more or less a textbook on baking. It is there to tell you about basic technique and try very hard to get you to be a better baker. Mr. Brown does this by taking first taking a few chapters (yes, this “cookbook” has chapters that you should read ahead of time) to discuss equipment, ingredients, and their relationships in the baking process. Why does this recipe call for eggs? What role does fat play in making a good biscuit? Why should you measure baking ingredients out with a scale? Mr. Brown tells you the answers to these and many more questions. After that, the book is organized into small groups of recipes that use one of six major mixing methods (Muffin, Biscuit, Creaming, Straight Dough, Egg Foam, and Custards). The recipes are not especially unusual, or interesting — this is a book about technique.

For a baking novice, I think this book is a godsend. It’s clear, concise, and well illustrated. It tries to teach me how to bake… which is something I don’t yet know how to do very well. (everoboto is a baking goddess who I want to be like when I grow up.) Based on what I’m reading in this book, I’m yearning to try to bake my Grandmother’s home made bread as well as improve my biscuit and custard making.

Ms. De Laurentiis’s book eschews this approach of concentrating on technique. Her book instead concentrates on a set of simple recipes to convey a sense of the everyday possibilities of the Italian-American table. Laid out in terms of courses and components (Antipasti, Sauces, Starches [Pasta, Polenta, and Risotto], Entrees, Cantorini [Side Dishes], and Dolci [Desserts]), the book attempts to teach a cuisine more by immersion than anything else.

I share the opinion with other commentators that this book has a major flaw: it is more about Ms. De Laurentiis than the food. Almost all the pictures are of the author, and not the food. The descriptions also have a little left to be desired; nothing in the book is horribly complex to prepare but some additional commentary about techique and consistency would be very welcome. That said though, I think this is a book I will used to add some Italian accents to the cuisine of the geek household. Alas, it will probably not be the last Italian cookbook I buy, only a waystation to better and more complex recipes.

I will close by mentioning a cookbook that doesn’t exist, but that I would have to pick up and read if it did: Gourmet Magazine’s Vegan CookingWith Ted Nugent. The good people over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency offer a tantilizing glimpse into the brainstorming meeting that might be used to develop such a book. I’d love to hear The Motor City Madman say “That’s where you’re wrong, chief. Plenty of people eat badger. I had badger for breakfast, actually.” Oh yes.

some days, I rule

After struggling and stressing all week, I can finally say that I caught a break and had a good day. Here’s how it all went down:

  • had a dental cleaning with no cavities: check!
  • fixed a software testing problem that was plaguing me all week: check!
  • fixed a problem that was holding up another guy all week half an hour after I solved my problem: check!

Ah… I’m having some fine amber colored microbrewed beer and I can already feel my blood pressure falling.

behold, the spork

The insular and obscure world of comparative domestic evolutionary implementology was rocked today with news of an exciting find: Mrs. John Jacob Astor’s spork. Reaction among the small community of scientists devoted to this field of study was immediate and amazed. “This is an incredible discovery,” said Professor Johnson Denning “because it literally forces us re-write the modern flatware family tree.”

The lowly spork was long thought to be a pop culture development from the 1950’s or 1960’s and introduced to the American table at the school lunch counter. As such, it was surely first rendered in plastic, not fine steel, silver, or gold. The appearance of this sterling silver example at a recent consignment auction at New York auction giant Sotheby’s completely turns that theory on its ear, however. The spork clearly appeared early in the evolution of American flatware, and only found widespread opportunities for survival as a plastic implement some fifty years later.

Upon hearing the news, proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design protested vehemently. “You mean they’re going to re-write the flatware evolutionary tree again?” said Professor Ava Marbury. “How can we trust in a ‘supposed’ theory of natural selection when the so-called ‘experts’ can’t even agree on what is descended from what and where key features first appeared. There is obviously intelligence at work… not random chance.”

Ok, ok… really. I was reading an article at the gym this morning about all the pieces of silverware we don’t use anymore, except in restaurants where there are no prices on the menu. To complement the article, they showed two pictures: one of a modern full place setting (including the shellfish fork, marrow spoon, and sauce fork) and the other of a full place setting from 100 years ago (including the oyster fork, chowder spoon, and salt spoon.) Among the other curiousities (like the asparagus tongs and the bacon fork,) there was the lowly ice cream spoon… which you see above.

I think I need to work on my table manners a little bit. I discovered from the article that I eat in the Continental style (fork always in the left hand, tines facing down, and knife always in the right, ready to cut food or push in onto the fork) but I’m a bit lax about putting my elbows in the table. I also doubt that I move my soup spoon away from me as I fill it with soup. I’ve certainly never used a marrow spoon… even when I’ve had veal osso buco.

Table manners are becoming a lost art in America, I fear. We are a fast food nation, where our forks and knives are often plastic. Our parents were the ones where instructed in proper table etiquette. I had a smattering instruction from my parents… but they were certainly not from the families that tended toward the formalities of “high tea” and multi-course dinners.

Of course, I suppose that I have to take this all in with a sense of balance. I can certainly use chopsticks (the oldest type of table implement still extant) far better than my parents ever could. I can recall one occasion where yours truly (an American of European descent) went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant with a foreign born Japanese (who lived in the U.S. since the age of 5), a foreign born Chinese, and an American born Chinese. Of the four of us, three asked for chopsticks. I was initially given a fork, but had to trade with the American born Chinese — he liked forks better.

life does go on

I finally got my car back today, for good. The total damage: just over $1200. Thank goodness for the extended warranty I purchased with the car. That saved me over $400. The tires came in Friday, but the Price Club would not let anyone else install them. The mechanic at the dealer let me have the car for the weekend (with the admonishment to not drive much), and the performed the final wheel alignment today.

I know I haven’t been writing here much lately. Things at Company O. have been VERY busy of late. Honestly, there hasn’t been much time to write at work and I’ve been pretty tapped out by the time I get home. After to an autumn and winter of job-related uncertainty and re-organization, it feels good to be finally “putting all hands to the pumps” as I believe the British say.

Looming changes are still afoot. Mrs. Geek and I are still talking real estate, and continue to discuss our choices. My resume has also been getting some interest from hiring managers at a couple large, well respected software companies. I am torn about what to do; I don’t want to change jobs now if I will be relocating in a year. I probably should ‘test the waters’ though… just to get back into practice searching for a job.

awash in red ink

*sigh* Ever have one of those weeks where scheduling and happenstance seem to conspire to drain your checking account? This is a week like that for me and Mrs. Geek, in spades. Following on the heels of a month full of unexpected expenses (accumulated doctor’s bills and cell phone charges, expenses for new eyewear, etc…), this week feels all the more like a real killer.

The biggest expense came due on Monday. As I have no doubt written here somewhere (oh, I do need to start indexing my entries), Mrs. Geek has gone back to school to take some additional grad classes to keep her professional certifications as a teacher in fighting trim. The bill for six credit hours worth of classes for the summer: $2500. Due date: May 2, 2005. Thankfully, these will be the last credits Mrs. Geek needs to earn for a long time.

Lagging not far behind that line item in the expense column of our personal ledger is maintenance on my car. My serviceable 2001 Mazda Protege has traveled just over 50k miles in the last 3.5+ years. That is about the right distance for it to need a little automotive love. I knew from the last time I had it in the shop that the love it needed was new brakes and tires. What I did not count on was that my car’s transmission pan gasket and front strut bearings are both leaking. Fortunately, those last two items are covered under the 7 year/70k mile extended warranty I got when I bought the car… which helps, but the bill will still likely rise over the $1000 mark.

My car has also been in the shop since Tuesday with no strong sense of when it will get back to me because of the tires. I figured that I would let the dealership do the 52.5K regularly scheduled maintenance, during which the transmission pan and strut problems were discovered, and replace the brakes. I thought I could do better by going to the local Price Club to get tires, however. Leave it to Mazda to put special tires on the Protege edition I own, however. Not only are the these tires not especially cheap, but they are also a tire size that said Price Club does not keep in stock. Figuring that I could still save a couple bucks, I decided to have the Price Club special order some replacement tires from Michelin.

The delay of ordering tires in itself would be fine except that the mechanics at the dealership are going to have to re-align the front end of my car when they fix the struts. To do that properly, they would rather do it with my new tires on the car. So… they want me to get the tires from the Price Club and bring them over, so they can mount them for free. The Price Club, being a place that sells crates of 10000 drinking straws and cases of Dinty Moore Beef Stew as well as tires, seems to be taking its sweet time as far as the tires go. I was told that the tires would likely be 3-5 business days last Saturday.

Hopefully, the tires will come in tomorrow. I can then talk the Price Club into letting someone else install them. Then I can get my car, and pay whatever MONSTER repair bill that I know will be shoved in my face, and life can finally go on.