holiday angst

I’m home sick today and watching The Myth of Fingerprints on DVD. I originally saw this movie at an art house movie theater in the Land of my Birth when it came out in 1997. Living far from home, I projected my own sense of holiday nostalgia onto the film; the familiarity of the surroundings — the clothes, the contours of the land, the weather, the shapes of the houses — was the key attraction. Eventually that was eclipsed somewhat by a broader sense of the dysfunctional family conflicts within the movie… though some sense of nostalgia remains.

I was watching the film today to get in touch with my own sense of angst about the upcoming Christmas holiday. Mrs. Geek and I started making plans earlier this week for a 10-12 day trip back to the Land of my Birth for Christmas and New Years. Why so early? We don’t want to repeat the mistake of $500+ a person round trip airplane tickets. So far we’ve found tickets in the $375-425 price range.

Making those plans really stirred up a sense of the alien in me though. We were going back for a decent amount of time in the hope that we could see some childhood friends of mine, as well as take a trip or two to see some of Mrs. Geek’s relations. Yet, my parents house will be different this time back… my sister and her husband and their son are living with my parents. That lends a certain change in dynamic to the visit from how we will interact (Mrs. Geek and my brother-in-law do not always get along well) to where we will be sleeping (my sister and her husband have taken over my old bedroom.)

I feel like I’ve been away from the Land of my Birth for long enough that I’m not sure I really fit in there anymore. This past week makes it 14 years since I’ve moved away. For much of the 1990’s, I would return there to rest and relax amidst the pressures of completing my degree. Now, the place where I live is my home and sanctuary… and my parents house is at once both intensely familiar and somewhat unknown.

I’ll be seeing my parents again in about a week as they wind up a three week long traveling vacation. Hopefully, talking to them about some particulars will sort out some of these feelings.

keyboard snobbery

I was reminded yesterday that I’m a keyboard snob. Since I use my computer a lot, including document writing for work as well as the odd entry here, the feeling of the keys under my fingers is rather important to me. Keyboard preference is not something that usually comes up in conversation, but yesterday I was instant messaging with an acquaintance who just bought a 12 year old keyboard on e-Bay and he was waxing poetic over it. When I heard what he got, I had to agree with him.

When it comes to keyboards, I tend to believe that older is better and the keyboards that IBM made for their original PCs were some of the best ever made. Part of this is because the first three computers I either owned or used were made by IBM. Much of is also preference — these old keyboards have a certain heft and solidity of construction, and the buckling spring key mechanism IBM used is vastly superior to the rubber dome technology found in so many cheap, modern keyboards.

The keyboard I use at home is an IBM model 1391401 made on July 25, 1989 (there’s photos of one made a month later here). I rescued it from a University dumpster about 8 years ago. It was originally attached to an IBM PC-RT that was headed for the scrap heap. It is somewhat amazing that I can still plug it into a computer motherboard that I bought 2.5 years ago and it still works. After all, the fastest computers you could buy in 1989 were probably about 33MHz, had 1-2MB of RAM, had a 15-30MB hard drive, and ran DOS with Windows 3.0. This keyboard is sort of the computer hardware equivalent of a woolly mammoth.

After the instant messaging session I had yesterday, I threw the words “ibm keyboard” into Google. I see that I am not the only old keyboard aficionado out there. People still pay upwards of $50 for good, reconditioned 1391401. As the fan sites all say though… it’s probably a worthwhile investment because the folks who have them will still probably be using them a decade or more from now.

too much stuff

During a recent by my parents to the apartment that Mrs. Geek and I share, my Mom looked around and remarked (more than once) that “you have a lot of stuff”. This tended to annoy me a bit after the second or third time she said this. Finally, I said “Mom, I’m 36 years old. Think about all the stuff you had when you were 36 years old.” That seemed to put things in a different perspective for her… at least to the point that she didn’t comment about it again.

She’s right, of course. Mrs. Geek and I do have a lot of stuff. If a Zen-like lack of clutter is what you seek, you will not find peace in our apartment. Most horizontal surfaces are covered with mementos or bric-a-brac of one kind or another. Some of this is because Mrs. Geek and I are too busy too clean as often as we should. Some of it is due to style: Mrs. Geek loves to keep lots of family photos and mementos at hand and I keep the cooking gear and electronic gadgets at hand. Some of it is due to circumstance: we inherited much of the useful contents of house where Mrs. Geek grew up when her Dad sold the place two years ago.

Having lots of stuff has its pluses and minuses though. Being surrounded by familiar things is a comfort, true. They are a pain to move, however… and moving is on my mind. We won’t be pulling up stakes right away, mind you. Mrs. Geek and I are thinking that some kind of property purchase is in order in the next year though.

I’m really not looking forward to moving, at least when it comes to the physical act. With all the battling that Mrs. Geek and I have been doing in the “war against boxes” since we met, I am still a little battle weary. I’m not eager to try to pack every damn thing up again when we move… not to mention cleaning out the apartment. Professional movers would be a godsend of course, but buying a house is expensive… and money may be tight.

Until then, I just try to remember to take deep breaths. If we find the right place to live, it will all be worth it. The reality of actually doing that is starting to sink in, however. Big changes are afoot… or will be, in a year’s time. Yes, deep breaths. I must remember to take deep breaths.

godmothering

Hey y’all! It’s Britney Spears again shouting out to my fans anywhere! Thanks so much for all the love! I’m a Mom!!!! I can have a smmmmoooookkkkeeeee!!!! And because I got a C-section, I’m still gonna be all tight and toned “down there” when I’m having totally awesome sex with my gorgeous hubby K-Fed! Oh wait… will the scar show when I’m wearing my signature halter top and low riders? Hmmm… I’ll have Felicia find the best specialist to fix that.

I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m writing today. I need to find a Godmother for Sean Preston. He’s so totally awesome!!! I’m a Mom!!! Yeah!!! I asked Madonna, or Miriam, or Madge… or whatever she’s calling herself these days. She said no! Can you believe it??? Oh well, she’s not gonna get asked to do a duet on the next album. I guess I’ll still kiss her in public though… my hubby thinks that sort of stuff is h-o-t hot!

I’ve decided to ask Kim Cattrall and I wanted to share the little letter I’m sending her. I hope she says yes!

Dear Kim,

Girlfriend, you need to help me out here. Sean Preston needs a Godmother! Kevin and I are hoping you’ll step up and do this for us. We think you’d be totally awesome at it! You were a great mom to me when we were filming
Crossroads
. Kevin thinks your sex book was HOT (we used the position on page 47 to conceive Sean Preston, we think… if that helps.)

Since Madonna turned us down, Kevin has been lobbying for us to ask Jenna Jameson… or maybe one of the strippers at this place just outside Vegas where he and his Frenso buddies went for the Bachelor Party. Then I reminded him of some of those sex positions you used on Sex In The City and he changed his tune, let me tell you!

If you could just let us know real soon… I’m afraid some of that pimp posse Kevin hangs with is going to tell the “evil tabloids” that we’re asking Jenna Jameson.

Love you much, y’all!

Britney

I’m such an awesome writer! I’m a Mom!!!!! Yeah!!!! Well, I have to go and have my first Red Bull since New Years!

Peace y’all!

Britney

marching penguins

I see that the film March of the Penguins has been in the news recently. Moralists and cultural conservatives are heard to “ooh” and “aah” about march of the Emperor penguin as an example of the virtues of monogamy. Intelligent Design adherents point to the march as an example of complex elegance that only a hidden “designer” could create. These penguins are a sign of God’s hand… an example of the natural world revealing God’s law to us.

It’s a rosy picture, and one that I do believe for an instant. I got to see the film about six weeks ago while Mrs. Geek and I were visiting The House of Mouse. One of the things I continually thought about as a I watched the movie is about how the penguins’ march seems to be anything but the handiwork of the maker that Intelligent Design proponents talk about. Think about it: a group of flightless aquatic birds hike 10-20 miles across ice sheets to one of the harshest environments on the planet to mate and lay eggs. The female penguins repeat this trip at least three more times, the males at least once. Timing plays big role in the trips — all the birds need to arrive more or less at the same time to create the biggest pool of possible mates to choose from, and if anyone is late getting back with food, baby penguins die.

It seems to me that part of the theory of Intelligent Design is imposing a human aesthetic on nature. The classic example is the eye: it is a structure too complex and elegant to be the handwork of anything but an intelligent designer. So, in this case, Intelligent Design proponents say that the birds’ behavior cannot be anything that just happened by chance. Those observations are based on a human sense of what nature is capable of when left to itself over time.

If that is the case, I should be able to bring my own experience to the situation and make some relevant observations. One that comes to mind is local optimization: the notion that if you are trying to improve the efficiency of a complex behavior, you yourself choose to do the best with whatever you see right in front of you at any given time. There is no need to step back and consider the larger assumptions of what you are doing, or interact with anyone else to know what they did or what they’re currently doing to decide what you have to do. Another is the concept of local points mimumums and maximums: when starting at a particular point on a curve, a local minimum or maximum is a nearby point on the curve that is lowest or highest — not necessarily the one that is the highest or lowest for the whole curve, just the highest or lowest point nearby.

Where does the penguins march fit into all this? Well, if we consider the choices that the birds made in the past as a struggle to find a high point in a curve representing their ability to survive, the march is an attempt to find a nearby maximum. The shape of that curve is largely dictated by the local conditions. The method they are using is a local optimization. So, some migratory birds arrived on an ice sheet some time ago, nested, found that they lived longer if they were further inland, started migrating back and forth, etc… Given the low odds of survival out on the ice, a more “intelligent” approach to this situation would be to not go there at all… or have a spare stomach to fill with food to keep from being hungry on the trip… or have a way to detect predators below the ice to allow penguins to live right near the edge of the ice sheet.

No, I have to say that the penguins march is an evolved behavior… one designed to make the best of a tough situation. It is one of those design compromises like bumblebee wings (which are aerodynamically incapable of allowing the bee to fly) that no sane engineer would go looking for because it’s just too ugly. If I see any sign of a “creative force” or “intelligent designer” in the natural world, it is in the fact that living things have found ways to live in some of the most hostile environments imaginable… using some downright awkward and outlandish solutions. That’s the true miracle, and says something about the nature of life… and the beauty of the natural world.

feeling a weird kind of violated


And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. And when you are praying, speak not much, as the heathens. For they think that in their much speaking they may be heard.

– Matthew 6:5-7, Douay-Rheims Bible

I had planned to write about something else today, but then something happened at the office this morning that just absolutely deserved an entry.

It started when I got a phone call at my desk at Company O. from an unfamiliar phone number. When I picked up, I discovered that I was talking to some kind of sales flunky for a financial advisor and stock broker. The broker guy is somehow affiliated with the company that runs the Company O. 401k plan. He is here “on site” a couple days a week. The sales flunky wants to know if he can send me the broker’s card. Sure, I say and I give my home address.

After that, things take an abrupt turn from run of the mill annoying to weird. It starts out when sales flunky telling me that broker guy is also affiliated with Schwab and can get me access to funds with a minimum $50K buy in. When I tell him I’m not interested in that, he asks me what I would be interested in. I beg off, saying I don’t have time to discuss this. He asks “Is everything ok with you?” I say yes. He then follows up with “Can I pray for you?” Not sure how to react, I say “sure” — figuring that this is something he’ll be doing on his own time. It turns out that it isn’t something on his own time; he launches into a 50 word prayer for my well being. At that point, I just say “thank you” and hang up.

Let me preface my reaction by saying that I don’t have the best prayer life right now. I try to exchange a few words with the Almighty everyday… but I certainly don’t attend Mass on Sundays with great regularity or pray as much as I could. That said, I feel sort of weirdly… violated… by this phone call. My spiritual life is a deeply personal thing and my relationship with God is something I don’t share with just anyone. I therefore feel that hearing this guy pray with me on the phone during the middle of the day… well, it’s like suddenly being kissed by someone who you don’t know, and don’t particularly care for all of a sudden.I keep thinking “who is this person and why is he doing this to me?”

The part of that bothers me even more is the fact that I cannot help but see this in a socio-political context. This random sales flunky seems to feel empowered by the way things are in this country right now that he wants to bring Jesus into his everyday dealings with people. My problem with that is that the people who spout about that sort of thing generally seem to adhere to a very conservative, materialistic form of evangelical Protestantism. So when I am hearing this guy pray for me, I’m listening to one of the core believers in the George W. Bush vision of America… and well, that scares the bejeebers out of me. The fact that this is also a sales call for a representative of Big Wall Street, Inc. underlines some kind of social linkage where we live under of the thumb of “Jesus Inc.” In that world, there is an approved church franchise on every corner and at every shopping mall, the executives are richer than sin, the workers in the trenches make minimum wage, and billions and billions are served.

Perhaps, I am being unfair to this sales flunky. Maybe he’s just feeling full of the Spirit and trying to spread the good vibrations. I hope that’s all.

a long standing wedding mystery solved

It seems odd to say that there is still fallout happening from my wedding about 15 months ago… but there is. One of the few remaining mysteries that Mrs. Geek and I occasionally comment on regards an electric knife that was on our wedding regsitry. We initially set up our registries with two major dealers in housewares with large online presences about two years ago. Why so far in advance, you ask? It was to anticipate the various parties, showers, and other pre-wedding madness ahead of us.

One of the first items to disappear off the list was a Cuisinart Electric Knife. We know because we were checking the lists occasionally. Were we bad people to do this? We still don’t know.

We then began to wonder when the knife would appear. At the engagement party? No. At bridal shower number one? Nope. At bridal shower number two? Nada. For Christmas? No sign. For our birthdays? Not there either. Finally, we figured that it had to turn up at our wedding. It didn’t.

Finally, we decided to take matters into our own hands. We got a Bed, Bath & Beyond gift card for our one year anniversary and used it to buy the electric knife. All was well for about a month. Then we went to a birthday party where friends put down a large, grey bag containing, guess what? The electric knife. They were meaning to give it to us at a couple points during the last year, but had just moved and weren’t able to find it.

So, I returned one of the electric knives and got a 7″ Santoku knife instead. I could have gotten a stainless steel roasting pan that is an unfulfilled item on our registry list, but I didn’t want to tempt fate.