Older blog entries for nutella (starting at number 196)

Made it!
Life became too hectic (and the home wireless connection too flakey) for me to write any more before leaving the mid-west. I've now been through a week at the new job back here on the left coast and am thoroughly enjoying myself. It doesn't hurt that I came back in time for the beautiful autumn weather. The company has me ensconced in a furnished apartment in the wilds of Foster City. Not only is there a cable modem but there's good wireless access as well. Life is good! Driving through the city as I arrived was kind of weird as I've been gone for long enough that my memory is a little hazy in places plus there's been some changes. No one told me that the Fell Street off ramp was shut! Two years ago, you say!

The journey over here was quite enjoyable although, thanks to a last minute appointment, much quicker than I would have liked. I had no time to detour through Yellowstone so it was I80 for most of the way. I started off on the tollway past O'Hare and then I88 southwest to pick up I80 near the Iowa border. I made a brief stop at the Herbert Hoover site in West Branch. This was a nice way of ending my stay in the mid west as they maintain a few acres of authentic tallgrass prairie next to the museum. Apart from the Hoover exhibits there was also a display on the Circus with a variety of acts being illustrated. The most bizarre was a series of pictures of JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy. I had heard him mentioned in Robert Rankin's books but had dismissed him as the author's creation [shudder]. I managed about 800 miles on the first day and finished up in Cozad, Nebraska. This will be memorable for me as I was woken up at 1:30 am by armed police and questioned (in a fairly polite way) before it was realised that I wasn't the person they were after. It just so happened that a serial rapist, wanted in 3 states, had checked in to the room opposite me and, coincidence of coincidences, had picked my surname as his alias. The night clerk, alerted by some dodgy looking i.d., had recognised him from one of those Most Wanted shows. I was allowed to snooze in another room until the SWAT team had been called in and the gentleman escorted away. Apparently there was $10k and at least one firearm in the room.

The next day I took a detour up US26, following the North Platte to Chimney Rock and then on to Scotts Bluff. The latter is simply stunning as you can drive to the top and look out over the plains beneath and glimpse the mountains further to the west. It is no surprise that this was a big landmark for the Oregon, Mormon and Californian trails. While I was this far from I80 I decided to make the most of it and stopped at Fort Laramie in the southeastern corner of Wyoming. This is very well preserved, much better than Fort Davis that I had visited in 1996. I then cut down I25 to Cheyenne and made it across the Continental Divide (twice) and as far as Rock Springs before it got too dark.

The next day I took another detour up US30 to Fossil Butte. Despite having taken geology at school I don't get that excited about fossils, no matter how large or well-preserved, but the setting is really beautiful, especially in the morning light. I took the hike on the Fossil Lake trail through the aspens and is was marvellously peaceful. I then looped south through Utah and back to Wyoming to rejoin I80 at Evanston. With my tank nearly empty I pulled off to refuel in Echo, Utah. This entailed stopping at the Echo Cafe to ask Frank to open the gas station down the road. Frank took off his hat and apron, locked the cafe and drove down to meet me. We chatted while he filled my tank and then I followed him back to the cafe where he cooked an excellent cheeseburger and dispensed the history of the town (he is the semi-official historian and has seen it all) and good coffee. This was just what I needed as I had been rushing far too much. Sitting waiting for the food and then sitting over the coffee and conversation was highly therapeutic. I headed through Salt Lake City, thus merging with the route I had taken migrating west in 1997, and onwards. I again stopped at the viewpoint for the Great Salt Lake and this time I also stopped for a look at Bonneville Salt Flats. I spent the night in the Scott Shady Court motel in Winnemucca (cheap and comfy). The next day it was over the Sierras, across the valley and back here. Woohoo!

17 Sep 2005 (updated 18 May 2009 at 21:17 UTC) »
"I noticed - it is getting about time to leave everywhere"
I thought that today would be the beginning of my last week at my current location but I've just received some good/bad news that means I will have to hang around until the 28th (otherwise I would have had to fly back here to take care of that matter). Life is pretty darned stressful at the moment. Unlike my last two departures my current immediate boss has quite been unpleasant and has sucked away large chunks of time with strange demands. Thankfully Friday will be my last day at work and then I can sit on my rear until I drive out. I am not the only one leaving at this time and, due to my paperwork snarls, I have been beaten to the post by one of my colleagues. I envy him having a partner to help him through his transition. For myself, I am always reluctant to impose on friends, but when I have done so I have been touched by how eager they have been to help.

My apartment is gradually becoming boxworld again, reversing the process of four years ago. As before I am trying to take the opportunity to clear out rubbish I have been hoarding. I have brought home a mere four boxes from work, but that is probably because I am relying on the electronic versions of many documents. I decided to recycle or give away the paper versions of anything I have on disc. The pile of papers I had chosed reached nearly five feet in height.

In order to maintain some balance I should repeat the commentary I made before leaving my last address, listing the things I will miss. Uncle Pedro already has his own well chosen list for this area but I had the disadvantage of not being a downtown dweller and having to survive up in the burbs. Here we go;

  • The scenery
    I liked the rolling fields of southern Wisconsin and got to know these reasonably well when I was dog sitting in Racine. Otherwise I had to mentally move from enjoying the grand vista of hills and ocean I had previously seen to enjoying small patches of preserved prairie.
  • Nearby lake
    I'm glad I have been only a stone's throw from the lake. Being too far from water and marooned in the middle of the country makes me feel weird.
  • Weather
    It has been nice to have four seasons again. It is just a pity that the messy part of winter and the humid part of summer are over-represented.
  • People
    My biggest regret is having to leave so many great colleagues behind. I will miss them all. On the plus side, at least one of them will end up in the same area as me, two others are trying to do the same thing, and there's an outside chance that a good friend will also be moving back over from the east coast (woohoo!). It will also be good to see those I left behind when I moved inland.
  • Food'n'stuff
    I'll miss the easy availability of Greek and Indian food. I look forward to asian food being more accessible and more authentic.
  • Entertainment
    I haven't made enough of this in the local environment. Most of the entertainment I have enjoyed has been while travelling.
  • Interesting characters
    I agree with pedro that the cult of personality surrounding Daley is fascinating. I have almost completely quit watching television so there are few personalities I remember. The only one I remember is the amazingly peppy weather person (and I can't remember her name). On NPR it will be the voice of Abby Ryan every weekday morning and Friday's This American Life.
I'll save the GAR for another time.
Handed in my notice today
and it feels reeeally good. Left coast here I come!

This has been a weird day. WEIRD! Yes, all together now "Weeeeird!". Yup, that kind of weird.

I don't know if I should be celebrating or dying from stress. I'm pretty sure the answer is "both". I just want to fast forward to a month from now when I should be settled-in back west and I'll have dealt with the INS for the last time and I will not be trying to fake the "yes, of course I'm taking the project with the October deadline very seriously" kind of thing that I have to go through at the moment. Even the technician of mine who has seen pretty much everything that life has to dish up is laughing at my nonchalant act.

A word to the wise. When you are passing through a phase in your life which might best be described as weird, it is not a good idea to watch films, not in your native tongue, that are kind of surreal. Uh huh. You have been warned.

"Baldrick, you wouldn't know a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on top of a harpsichord singing 'Subtle Plans Are Here Again'."
At work (and outside it) I am told that one of my strengths is that I can pull together pretty diverse and scattered facts to come up with good working hypotheses. Because I do this more by instinct than by any formal method I feel obliged to spend a fair amount of time trying to find statistical means to show that my associations are real. Also, it has only been with the passage of time that I no longer simply grasp the first plausible idea that comes along but can tear that first model apart and try again in a new direction. Both of these checks (quantification and looking for alternatives) are required in real life or otherwise free association is just an open invitation to paranoia. To be able to solve problems in this way I find it necessary to first dig around in the machinery of the problem, just to see how the different components function, and then I stand well back so that I can take it all in and see how the pieces interconnect (I'm no good at pure "top down" or "bottom up" solutions). The main problem with living life this way is that I miss the middle ground. Either my head is up in the clouds or I am staring intently at the floor. I really do overlook the obvious things floating under my nose. I miss really obvious jokes while searching for an obscure punchline. Another big problem is the level of indirection in human communication. Depending on how close people are, personally and socially, they use different levels of openness in communication. That is something I have to work really hard at. I'm at my most comfortable in very small groups (one or a few close friends) or in crowds as I can understand both the crowd's consciousness and that of my friends. I have difficulties in room-sized groups of people I know vaguely as it requires too much of a superficial level of politeness. This is not to say that I am not impressed by people who really know how to work a room. I just don't know how it is done. Today, in that regard, I was in the presence of an artiste. Wow.
"Your disguise is as convincing as a giraffe wearing dark sunglasses trying to get into a polar bear's-only golf club."
"Like doing science back in the 80's..."
The above is a quote from one of my technicians describing the conditions at work. Our company has been paralysed by zotob for the last three days. This is no big secret as the gatehouse has had large signs draped across it ordering us not to turn on our computers until IT has given us the say so. The two main classes of response have been; a) "The sky is falling!" and b) "Hurray! We are free!". It is has been a glimpse of a little of what could have happened if the Y2k pessimism had come true. No corporate e-mail or calendar (and no access to the "database" of old e-mail). No outside access. No access to (most) programs stored on file servers. No access to data that people recommend we store on servers ("because it is backed up every night"). My office Linux box (and a colleague's Mac) worked just fine but couldn't get out because a link in the firewall includes a Windoze box. Most of my co-workers have never held an opinion (positive or negative) about Microsoft but the opinion they provided most commonly has been "This virus was written by Microsoft to force us to upgrade from Windows 2000!" which was a big surprise to me. The alternative explanation "This virus was written by the antivirus software people to keep themselves in business." was a very definite second. Armies of IT people have take three days to get the 10s of thousands of PCs working again. I am guessing that there will be consequences. Probably the nicest side-effect was that people talked to each other face to face. I haven't seen that happen in a long time. We actually got to know the people that work in the adjacent lab or the office on the same floor. We all had something in common. Hurray!
Randomist Expositions
  1. Rant. At work Microsoft Excel is king. I have mentioned the numerical inaccuracies in the statistical procedures but I also hate having to deal with the limitations, especially the age-old 256 column limit and the inability to use available memory effectively (I'm going to show you a useless small fraction of the sheet and then pop up Out of Memory error boxes every time you try and do something). There's also the inability to insert a "This cell is blank" code or any kind of missing value. I feel the strong desire to create a little PostgreSQL database to generate the tables (e.g. 8000 rows x 320 columns of indirect data) but, to create a solution that is usable by everyone it has to run on local machines and so needs to be done in Excel. Why, Jim, why! The irony is that these tables will end up in JMP which is a comparatively database friendly program.
  2. Subversion. While working on half-year performance evaluations I introduced my technicians to My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable. I am pretty sure that this is a firing offence. Since I am on my way out one of my technicians revealed that they used a couple of books; Perfect Phrases for Performance Reviews [Max & Bacal] and Effective Phrases for Performance Appraisals [James Neal], as low-tech buzzword generators and had been commended for their reviews by our management. I need to create scripts for automatic generation of evaluations based on these texts.
  3. Observation/Question. I could't remember the URL for the above site and so typed MNFSIU into Firefox's address bar (mis-remembering the name as "System"). I was sent to an unrelated site and wondered how the target site had been decided. It turns out that the site is the first result if you try MNFSIU in google. Can anyone confirm that Firefox tries to use google to resolve partial URLs? Okay, I just suffered from an uncharacteristic bout of non-laziness and RTFM and it does appear that Firefox uses google in "I'm Feeling Lucky" mode for its "Browse by Name" capability. Interesting.
  4. Sad. I had to say goodbye to my summer intern this evening. They were darned good. EF I'm gonna miss you! Since she was planning on returning next year I felt obliged to fess up and explain that I probably wouldn't be around.
Seize Power!
Seize Power! This is the only way forward. I've been trying to be too polite which means that nothing's being done. Maybe something would have happened in six weeks or so. With what I have to deal with on a day to day basis I've had enough and told them to get on with it and take the quicker route. Thanks to this I'll probably not last until the end of the month. Hurray! Naturally, as soon as I triggered this great leap forward I heard news about another important thread in my life and that appears to be moving more quickly than anticipated. This probably doesn't make much sense to someone who doesn't know what's going on in my life. It isn't really meant to, but basically I am in this frame of mind except that this time it is a geographical reversal.

Mea culpa I forgot to acknowledge the cocktailmonkey's birthday. Many happy returns to you and I am glad to read that you had a great day. If the events in the above paragraph come to pass I should be able to offer you (and sundry monkeys) tea or crêpes or TNICNAZ in person, in about a month or so.

GPS-empowered odometers are the new digital watches
On Saturday I took a trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (the National Parks website seems to be b0rken at the moment). As I was crossing the visitor centre car park a couple on bicycles swung in from the road and stopped nearby.
Husband: "Honey! 47.98 miles!"

I shouldn't have been surprised that all of the car parks near the beach were full ("come back after 4 p.m.") but the ranger on duty at the inland centre was very helpful and pointed me to the Cowles Bog Trail which, at a little over 4 miles, takes you through the lakeside vegetation and over to Bailly Beach. At around lunchtime the trail was deserted and the sandy soil and resulting plants reminded me nicely of hiking in the Bay Area. The beach was strange as it is set aside for people to pull up in their boats, and there were many many boats anchored in the surf, each with a family group on the sand adjacent to their boat. It is a strange place for a picnic as, at the western end of the beach, there's a coal-fired power station that intermittently spits out an impressive amount of yellow smoke. Nevertheless it seems to attract plenty of people with big boats. I was sure that I saw Steve Martin playing in the water with some kids, but then again I was sure I ran into Red Green and Harold on the trail on the way back to the car. Having seen the volume of sand I tipped from my shoes before getting back in the car I am now convinced that the supposed inland migration of Mount Baldy is caused by this kind of transport.

A nice side-effect of the trip to the shore was that I could take the skyway to and from the city (I294 is a total mess at the moment) and see the skyline in toto. In fact I could also see it through the haze when I was standing on Bailly Beach. Chicago's skyline always impresses me and reminds me why I was attracted here in the first place.

"Mr. Duckman, I don't believe I've ever cut myself on a urine sample before."
One thing about hiking in the heat, but with a cool lake breeze, is that you don't realise just how dehydrated you are. Until later.

If this is really going to be my last year in this area maybe I ought to nip over to the state fair in Springfield next weekend. I was reminded of this by a big poster in the mall advertising the 400 pound cow made of butter ("a state fair tradition for 70 years"). Alas, I couldn't find a web image of this state tradition, although it looks as if Iowa has their own butter cow, and typically it weighs in at nearer 2000 lb. Hurray for the Hawkeye State.

Nothing particularly important, or even coherent, to say but another month has slipped by. A couple of important processes are reaching satisfactory conclusions. I'll write more when I am able.

I'm reading The Salmon of Doubt and am enjoying it. I had initially misinterpreted some of the early reviews and had thought that the organiser of the book had tried to create a new Hitch Hikers book with unused fragments of Mr. Adams work (maybe something akin to Trail of the Pink Panther) but thankfully it is just a collection of those fragments, some Hitch Hiker related, and more like Last Chance to See.

Once again I am back from house and pet sitting up in Cheeseland. Gus continues to excel at flatulence and drool production. Personally I just enjoyed the commute in the sunny mornings and evenings, and especially the views of the big clouds that seem to be this part of the world's forte.

I had a good conversation with a colleague in another department who is interested in Linear Programming and other similar problems I have been playing with. He pointed me to some useful packages. Much of this is written for R, which seems to be gaining more and more ground. I was interested to hear that he believed that the understanding that the statistical functions in Microsoft Excel are seriously broken is now more prevalent. Since other commercial packages, such as JMP are rather pricey there seems to be a move towards R (and maybe e.g. Gnumeric). Hurray!

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