worker bees and worker bees

I’ve been running a lot of experiments for Company O. this week. This activity generally (and ironically) necessitates a lot of walking. The computers actually being tested are located in a building a hundred or so yards from where I am sitting now. Something inevitably goes wrong during the tests that cannot be fixed from here. So, I end up walking back and forth between buildings at least once a day, often twice, and sometimes as much as 4-5 times a day.

I pass a lot of low ornamental bushes on my way between buildings. I think that they are some form of rosemary. They have a lot of small lavender-colored flowers at this time of year. Walking back and forth past them, I’ve come to look for the couple dozen honey bees that are usually buzzing between the blooms.

I feel both kinship and envy with those bees. On the one hand, I feel much like some kind of worker drone under pressure to produce… and there is definitely that whole long hive/flower-cubicle/machine room journey thing going on. At the same time, the weather has been lovely here for the last few days and I’d love to be outside moving around like the bees, instead of sitting inside.

I had my annual performance review today and I don’t know if I feel less like a drone or not. On the one hand, my manager said that I am doing well… but still with a lot of potential to take my performance to a higher level. In the greater group to which my manager and I both belong, I evidently was rated in the top two in a number of performance categories. If, on the other hand, my review scores were translated into a college GPA, it would come up just over a 2.8. Speaking as someone who had some kind of A average through college, this just feels a little low… but my manager also hinted at the possiblity of a raise during the next month or so. So what can I do?

I guess I need to keep being worker bee. It’s time to head back over to the machine room and check on progress

meet our tree topper… almost

Meet our new Swarovski Christmas tree topper. Well, almost. We ordered it off e-Bay last week — it’s not made by Swarovski anymore and unavailable in Swarovski stores — and it arrived yesterday. Unfortunately, the center six-pointed star fell off its mount fell off as I attempted to remove it from the box. No pieces were damaged, but this was a sad development anyway.

Fortunately, we have a couple avenues of recourse. Swarovski does offer to repair broken merchandise, either for free under warranty (probably not the case here) or for a fee otherwise. The e-Bay seller has also offered to let us exchange the tree topper for a similar one or take a $15 refund for repair costs. We haven’t decided which path to take yet, but we will soon.

proving that Murphy is still an optimist, even in the digital age

It seems that I spoke to soon in my last entry when I said that thing were going “pretty well” while upgrading my computer at home. Being the Geek that I am, I run more than one operating system on my computer at home. The second operating system install was a bit of struggle, but I think I have a fair amount of it up and running now. Something about this second install caused Windows XP some distress, however… and Windows XP would no longer completely start.

After about 30 minutes of frantic poking around, I bit the bullet and re-installed Windows XP. That second install went much faster than the first because the details of what to fix and avoid were still much on my mind. It still took a couple hours… and an hour or so more to retrieve all my personal files from a system backup.

I remember seeing a poster once about Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”) that stated at the top in large bold letters “Murphy was an optimist”. Well, it appears that Murphy is still an optimist, even in the digital age.

a neat trick

I’m writing my first entry using my new computer — I used some of that bonus money I got the other week to buy a new AMD 64-bit dual core motherboard/CPU/memory combo. I spent the last 24-36 hours putting all the pieces together and re-installing Windows XP from scratch. It’s all gone pretty smoothly so far; there were one or two small hitches in getting the sound card to work right, but those were fixed.

To get away from all that, Mrs. Geek and I decided to head out to see The Illusionist. Some may find the ending a little formulaic, but Mrs. Geek and I both really liked it. I’ve been a fan of Edward Norton since Rounders, Rufus Sewell since Dark City, and Jessica Biel since Ulee’s Gold. After reading glowing reviews from the New York Times and, this was pretty much a no-brainer for me… but Mrs. Geek took a little convincing. She was won over by the film and we had a very pleasant evening.

I particularly admire the way that director Neil Burger has put together the film. It has a very dream-like quality — from the smokey opening credits, through the sepia-tone palette of the film, and finally to the silent-movie era type fades. They combine to create a sense that this is more of fairy tale than reality.

The Philip Glass soundtrack definitely underlines this sense of dreamscape. I sometimes have a little difficulty approaching Mr. Glass’s work (as Harri3t can attest) but here Mr. Glass has opted against the collection of synthesizers, choral singers, and world music percussion instruments sometimes included in his film scores and instead stuck to fairly straight string-based orchestral arrangements. The repetitive, rhythmic melodies that Mr. Glass loves then become like those ideas that sometimes repeat over and over again in dreams — lending a beautiful context for the rest of the action of the film. I see from a movie poster that Mr. Glass also completed the score for the new Hilary Swank apocalyptic action vehicle, The Reaping. It should be an interesting contrast to hear what he’s done there.

Please go see The Illusionist. After a summer filled with fairly mindless action films, this is a pretty lush, romantic period piece that comes off a bit like a Yiddish folk tale. Consider it a nice grown-up night at the movies.

the death of the record store

I heard the other day that Tower Records has filed for bankruptcy protection for the second time in two years. Always a friend of a good record store and a believer in the social aspects of the shopping experience, I mourn this development. As a computer scientist and gadget geek, I see it as inevitable.

I suppose that some people blame Shawn Fanning and Napster for this development. After all, he’s the one who got everyone hooked on the idea of downloadable music, right? I don’t think so. Napster was an interesting bit of engineering, but it was hardly a supreme technical innovation. It was composed of a group of technologies that were all extant, sitting out there, and waiting to be combined. I can recall being a graduate student in the “systems” side of computer science and engineering talking with colleagues about Napster when it came out and remarking that “there wasn’t much to it.” I therefore regard the development of Napster or something like it as inevitable.

No, I tend to place the blame for sagging record sales on the fat, bloated entertainment cartels themselves. If the development of Napster was pretty much inevitable, why didn’t one of the entertainment cartels or an affiliated company come out with something like it? Would commercially supported Internet audio service really be such a bad thing? To a small group of companies dedicated to either controlling, influencing, or reaping large profit margins out of the entire distribution chain, a disruptive technology like the Internet can be fatal… if only because it seems too radical for anyone to embrace it. Record labels feared the idea of digital distribution rather than embracing it, and let lawyers attempt to litigate a solution. But it’s too late for that… Pandora’s Box is open and can’t be closed again.

I personally like Tower Records and its brethren like Wherehouse and Sam Goody. I like owning the media… when I buy a CD, I know that I’ll never have to worry about an arcane Digital Rights Management scheme that will prevent me from playing what I have the rights to play if I upgrade my computer. I also like the fact that CDs still possess higher fidelity than the bulk of the digital music available online… even through sites like iTunes. I even like the record store buying experience… there is something about wandering rows and rows of CD and DVD racks that makes the shopping experience more interesting and memorable. Perhaps I am behind the times.

I think that record chains must innovate if they are going to survive. The one thing that stores like Tower have going for them is human contact. Record shopping at its best has always been a social experience. Large chains need to take steps to revive this… because there is very little to distinguish a big box record retailer from something like Amazon. Unless chains like Tower can figure out how to keep customers walking through the door, they will go the way of the dinosaurs.

looking to the end-of-year holidays

My parents are discussing the idea of coming to spend some time out here at Chez Geek for Christmas. We talked about the idea of doing this last year, but my parents said no because Mrs. Geek and I were not yet equipped with a second bed so they could actually stay here. That situation changed earlier this year when we got an inflatable queen size mattress. My parents would get our regular Afton Plush mattress, and we would camp out on the inflatable in the office/den/guest room.

I’m very much liking this idea. Not only would this afford us the opportunity to decorate our own tree for the first time in a few years (and actually put the couple dozen blown glass ornaments we bought since then to use), but it would be nice to not travel for the holidays for once. We’ve hosted so few holiday occasions… and it would be nice to do one (though I will no doubt regret this statement come December.)

There are also other, more emotional considerations. I love visiting the Land Of My Birth, but family tensions were very apparent at Christmas last year. The situation with respect to my sister and her husband remains unchanged, and I’m not sure if I am ready to spend a week or two in that house with everyone again. At least I think we could have a more pleasant, relaxed time out here.

So here’s to hoping for a happy, healthy holiday season this year… maybe here for the first time.

got a 20 year reunion itch that needs scratching

My 20 year high school reunion is coming up sometime next year, and it has me feeling curious. Where did everyone I knew in high school end up? What has everyone been doing for the last 20 years? I’m in touch with a few people I knew during those days, but there are lot of folks from high school and college that I lost track of during the 1990’s.

Fortunately, Google comes to the rescue. I’ve been doing some looking around and actually located a few people I remember from high school. So far, I’ve found a surgeon teaching at Penn, an astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Lab, an artist who has been shown in San Francisco, New York, London, and Paris (though not solo… yet), a working comic book artist in NYC, a law partner in St. Louis, musicians who’ve toured with Dicky Betts, Chick Corea, and Maynard Furguson (as well as appearing on the Sex In The City soundtrack), a fitness center manager who got Paris and Nicole fired from one of their “jobs” on The Simple Life, a Fullbright scholar, an ad producer and record company publicist, a succesful interior decorator in the NYC area… the list goes on. It’s a wonderful list, except for the fact that it underlines how few of best and brightest from the Land Of My Birth actually ended up staying in the area.

This search has also caused me to reflect about the last 20 years to a certain extent. The first that occurs to me when I see this list is how little I knew about the people around me in high school. I wonder if some of that is self-centeredness… I was 10th in my high school class, and while dreadfully insecure about some things, I was also a bit of a pedant about others. Some people who I would have discounted as being marginal students in those days have actually turned out to lead very interesting lives. I should know better than anyone that sometimes it takes a little more time and the right circumstance for someone to bloom. Maybe high school wasn’t their time yet… or maybe we were just all too busy trying to figure out who we were to be completely in touch with the hopes and dreams of others.

Seeing the accomplishments of others, I also begin to wonder about the word success and how it applies to my life. My criteria for success have always been a bit fuzzy — a satisfying job, good relationships with other people, and the ability to enjoy some of life’s pleasures have been more important to me that position, title, or influence. Yet there is some part of me that is competitive… and that part looks at being in the lower half of the graduating class of a top tier University (though I would have probably graduated cum laude if community college grades counted toward my GPA), a fairly unspectacular Ph.D. from a respectable second-tier that took nine years (thanks to a little mistake that cost me my first attempt at a dissertation), and working in an a mid-grade engineering position at a large, well known software company. I’m still using some of the same furniture I bought as a graduate student 13 years ago (including the desk where I am writing this…) indicating that material success beyond a certain level still eludes me. It’s been a good 20 years, and a fun 20 years in most respects… but is that enough?

I need to shrug that last thought off. Of course it is enough… I wouldn’t be happy with my life if that weren’t true. I made the choices I did during the last 20 years for reasons that were perfectly valid at the time. I have no real regrets… except possibly one: couldn’t I have gotten to know all the interesting people my friends, acquaintances, and classmates turned out to be over the years? That would be a beautiful thing indeed.