I haven’t done this in a while, either

My string of avoiding business travel came to an end today; I’m at the Hilton Pearl River, near IBM Palisades, where I have a two-day meeting beginning tomorrow.

So far, the trip has been pretty smooth, though I took my chances this morning — my flight from SFO was at noon, which didn’t give me enough time to go to the office. But instead of staying home, I worked out at the JCC after dropping Jeff off — then, when I came home, I did a bit too much e-mail. So I didn’t leave the house until 10:15am…and it was raining hard. Luckily, there weren’t any accidents or delays on my way to the airport, and I got to the gate almost five minutes before they started boarding the flight.

I hadn’t flown American on business for close to a year (since they dropped the SJC-JFK non-stop and JetBlue came to town), but I’m Platinum for Life, so I was still able to request an upgrade, and it cleared, somewhat to my surprise. Transcontinental Business Class isn’t what it used to be — the meal choices were a warm roast beef sandwich or a salad with chicken. I went for the roast beef, and it was OK (I had brought a turkey sandwich with me in case I didn’t get the upgrade — it would have been just as good). At least they still have the warm nuts. And I didn’t have a seatmate (which astonished the flight attendant — she said there were many people in coach unhappy because their upgrades didn’t clear). And we arrived at JFK about 30 minutes early — though we had to wait for our gate.

The drive to the hotel wasn’t bad, either. As soon as I arrived, I saw one of my colleagues sitting in the lobby — she had thought she was staying at this hotel, but her admin had booked her into a different hotel. She was waiting for a taxi. I commiserated with her a bit until her taxi arrived.

I had a quick bite from the bar — if I’d read the room service menu, I probably would have had it in my room, instead. Unlike most hotels, this one doesn’t rip you off if you order room service — the items are the same price as in the restaurant or bar. They do add a 19% tip and a $2 service charge, but that’s not unreasonable for the convenience.

Tomorrow is going to come early — I plan to take the shuttle to IBM Palisades, and it leaves here at 7am. So it’s time to call it a night.

Making little robots

IBM is a big supporter of National Engineers Week, encouraging us to go out and visit schools to help interest students in technology. Last year was my first year as a participant, but the only classroom I visited was my son’s classroom — and, while I probably did some good, one of the goals of NEW is to reach out to kids who are more at risk than the kids at Kehillah are likely to be.

So this year, I volunteered again, and today was my day to go visit a classroom. I didn’t go alone this time; instead, I went with a colleague, who used to be a substitute teacher — and we visited her daughter’s 5th grade classroom. It was a very different experience — instead of fifteen well-behaved teenagers (yes, it can happen!), there were 29 kids, some of whom were very quiet and shy, and some of whom were, well, let’s just say “boisterous”.

But the kids were interested, especially once we started the activity — we broke the room into four teams, each of which had to program one of their number to perform a simple task. They had a few elementary actions to use (things like “move left foot forward one foot”), but that was more than enough to give them opportunities to make some fun mistakes. And they did — telling the robot to move the same foot forward several times in a row, or forgetting to have the robot get up before starting to walk.

Eventually, all of the teams succeeded at their tasks, and there had been no injuries, even though I’d forgotten to tell them about the Three Laws of Robotics.

I was glad I wasn’t on my own today, but I may volunteer to do this again in another school later this spring. It beats debugging my code!

Not the most thought-provoking book of the week, I hope

I picked up Dave Barry’s second novel, Tricky Business, yesterday. Somewhat to my surprise, there wasn’t a single booger joke in the entire book; however, other bodily secretions played pivotal roles in the plot. Not that there was a lot of plot — but what there was moved right along; the whole book only took me a couple of hours to read. And there were two things which made the book special for me:

  • I lived in South Florida for eight years, and so the local color rang true, and
  • I borrowed the book from the library.

Go thou and do likewise.

About that cheese sandwich…

Mark Bernstein recently wrote that even a posting about a cheese sandwich might well be worth reading, as well as writing. But I hardly ever eat cheese sandwiches, so I haven’t even had that as an impetus to write lately.

I guess the last cheese sandwich which made an impression on me was a long time ago, on a trip to Washington, DC, with my cousins. We made the mistake of stopping at a place called the “Virginia Inn” somewhere around Ashland. I was probably 12 at the time, but I still vividly remember the so-called grilled cheese sandwich that they inflicted on me — it was cold and greasy, completely inedible, and I’m pretty sure it cost upwards of a dollar (and that was back when a dollar bought something). And it took forever for them to deliver it, too. The place has since gone out of business, and rightly so.

This blog hasn’t gone out of business, though I have been awfully quiet lately; I’ve thought about posting, but never when I’ve been near my computer with time enough to write something. I’ve been trying to do Technical Stuff at work (of late, my most effective programming tool has been PowerPoint, and that’s a sad state of affairs for someone whose title is “Distinguished Engineer”), and, as is always the case, programming tasks expand to fill all available time and mental capacity.

And I’ve been reading books at home rather than sitting on the computer till all hours; I decided it was time to work on some of the backlog which I’d picked up at Worldcon last August — perhaps after I finish those books, I’ll find the piles buried elsewhere in the house from previous years. So four of the last five books I’ve read were old SF:

  • Age of Miracles by John Brunner — not one of his best by any means; the characters were almost as cardboardy as typical Asimov, and the ideas weren’t nearly as enticing
  • The Jagged Orbit, again by Brunner — this was far better, although not as good as Stand on Zanzibar or The Shockwave Rider. The dystopian future Brunner conjectures here, with the US becoming a very segregated and heavily armed society, did not come to pass — but it sure resembles the descriptions of Iraq in the news this week.
  • Rogue Star by Frederick Pohl and Jack Williamson — perhaps this book would have made more sense if I’d read the first two books of the Starchild Trilogy before reading this one. But I doubt it.
  • Jack of Eagles by James Blish — this was my favorite of this batch, a fast-moving tale of one man’s discovery of his psi powers, a conspiracy aimed at world domination, and how he triumphed. The copy I bought was a UK edition, printed in 1975 (and, interestingly, sans copyright notice), but the book was clearly set in an earlier era — the protagonist was going to be evicted because a girl let herself into his apartment (stealing a passkey to do so), and by 1975, that would not have been very believable. A quick check on Amazon reveals that the book was actually written in 1952, which makes the setting much more understandable!

The other book I read recently was nonfiction; The Holy Thief by Rabbi Mark Borowitz. Borowitz started life as a nice Jewish boy in Cleveland, but after his father died at age 14, he went to hell (more-or-less literally), beginning a career as a criminal which sent him to prison twice. The second time, he realized that he was on a death trip, and turned back to Judaism , eventually becoming the rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles. I almost literally could not put the book down and finished it in two sittings; Diane had a similar reaction. By coincidence, while we were reading the book, Jeff was in LA on a class trip from school, where they visited Beit T’Shuvah, although he didn’t get to meet Rabbi Borowitz. This book will be the Shir Hadash book group book for June — highly recommended.

Cakeoff

The USER group in Computer Science at work has a weekly “Tea Time” gathering every Thursday afternoon, where people from the USER group and related areas gather for an hour or so of food and talk. I don’t know how long the gathering has been happening — I first heard of it when I joined Almaden Services Research in 2004 — but I’ve been a frequent attendee.

People take turns hosting, and so the cuisine varies, although it’s very rarely nutritious — or, to put it more directly, people like to bring dessert. Today, a colleague and I split the hosting duties, trying two approaches to chocolate cake.

Hers was a variation on Gourmet’s Double Chocolate Layer Cake, using a cream cheese frosting for a contrast. I made the Simple Chocolate Sheet Cake that Al suggested, as I’d done for Diane’s birthday last year, although this time I remembered to put the vanilla in the frosting.

There was a definite contrast between the cakes. Her cake was much more complex and subtle, with many flavors and an elegant presentation (she even brought it in a box). My cake had one, rather unsubtle message: chocolate!. It was very dark (and the frosting was even darker), and there were no distractions like cream cheese or strawberries. And it was still in the cake pan, because I didn’t have anything big enough to transport it in.

We had thought about taking a poll to see which cake people preferred, but didn’t get around to it — both cakes vanished, with people going for seconds of both, so I guess we both won.

I wonder what next week will bring.

Did you leave these?

When Diane came home this afternoon, she found a mysterious potted plant on our doorstep.

There was no note, and no indication of who left the plant or why. The best guess we have is that it might be related to the March of Dimes mailing which arrived today from one of our neighbors; at any rate, the card in that mailing had flowers on it.

Or maybe it was a SuperBowl party thank you.

Whatever the reason, it was certainly one of the nicer things we could find on our doorstep!

Weekend Update

Yesterday, we went to San Jose Rep to see The Immigrant, a play about the experience of a Russian Jewish immigrant in Hamilton, Texas, where he started as a fruit peddler and ended up as a respected member of the community (and the only Jew in town), owner of the local department store.  I wonder how similar his story was to that of my grandfather, who was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant and eventually owned a grocery store.  Even without that connection, I would recommend the play.

Today, we hosted our annual Super Bowl party — as usual, we had more than enough food (most of it of dubious nutritional value, especially the stuff I picked out!), and far too much beer (one six-pack, untouched).  The commercials didn’t seem to be up to the standard I expected of the Super Bowl; the best commercial, by far, was from FedEx.  Other notable commercials included the ones from Hummer, Sierra Mist, and the Bud Light magic refrigerator commercial.  But most of the commercials went in one eye and out the other — I’m glad I wasn’t paying for them. 

The best news, though, is that my father-in-law is no longer homeless.  He and his girlfriend moved into their apartment yesterday after their stuff arrived from Valley Stream — they were lucky to be able to lease an apartment in the complex they wanted (Fellowship Square in Tucson) with only a six-week wait.  They’d been staying in hotels, with friends, and with family, but they said that moving from place to place every week or so was getting tiring, so I know that they’re happy to be firmly grounded again.

…. _… …_._

Thanks to Jason for pointing out the demise of Western Union’s telegram service on Friday.

I never sent any telegrams, though Diane had to send one to a Realtor when we were bidding on this house (she was in Florida at the time).  Today, of course, she’d send a fax (even back then, faxes were almost available — somewhere in my files, I have a FedEx ZapMail receipt for some part of the paperwork we had to deal with).  And we got at least one congratulatory telegram at our wedding.  But I guess telegrams had already outlived their usefulness when Western Union started to deliver them by phone.

If there still were telegrams, though, I might have considered sending one today to mark Jeff’s 16th birthday.  Happy birthday, Jeff!

Recent Reading

One nice thing about the long plane and train rides on my trip to Finland was that it gave me time to read (especially on the flight home, when the power at my seat wasn’t working!).  And the lack of English-language newspapers encouraged me to read the books that I’d brought with me instead of blowing my time on USA Today.

On the flight to Finland, I mostly read magazines I’d brought along to read and discard, as well as doing some reading in preparation for the session, but I did squeeze in one book, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, by John Mortimer.  Since Leo Kern is no longer with us, I guess this will never be turned into a TV production, but I could hear him thundering in my head anyway, along with the rest of the cast (especially She Who Must Be Obeyed).  This was a quick read, but definitely fun — recommended.

In Tampere, I found myself eating dinner alone most evenings (my IBM contact recommended I stay at the Tampere City Center, which was quite nice, but almost everyone else was at a slightly less-expensive hotel, the Cumulus, four long and cold blocks away).  Fortunately, the dining room was well enough lit to let me read while I waited for my meals; the book which kept me company was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  I enjoyed Bryson’s wandering around cosmology, evolution, and other scientfic topics nearly as much as I’d liked his Notes from a Small Island, and considerably more than I’m a Stranger Here Myself, which, as a collection of columns, was less consistent than the other books of his that I’ve read.

I was sufficiently busy throughout my stay in Finland that I didn’t finish the Bryson until the end of my flight to Frankfurt.  So I started Neil Gaiman’s American Gods partway across the Atlantic.  I’d been meaning to read it for quite a while, probably ever since I saw it win the Hugo at ConJosé, but I knew I’d need a concentrated chunk of time, and the flight seemed like the perfect opportunity.  I’m not sure I got out of my chair after starting the book — and, even though I was exhausted when I got home, I continued reading it, and finished it on Sunday.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been that intensely involved in a book or had finished a long novel so quickly.  I strongly recommend the book, and am planning to read more of his stuff soon.

I enjoyed getting back to reading SF so much that I decided to read another novel almost immediately, Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep.  I’d seen MacLeod on many panels at Interaction, where he struck me as intelligent and entertaining, so I put him on my “to read” list, and put the book in my briefcase, where it made several long trips without being opened.  But I pulled it out after this trip, and started it a couple of days ago.  I didn’t have quite as much free time available to read it as I might have liked, so I had to split the book over several evenings, but it was well worth the time — lots of ideas and politics, not to mention sex, drugs, and some awful lines from SF of the past.  This book is the first of a series, and I’m looking forward to reading the others. 

But not yet — I’ve also been getting the library at work to buy books for me (not fiction, at least not deliberately so), and it’s probably a good idea to finish them and make them available to folks on the waiting list.  So the next book I plan to read is Freakonomics, which made its first trip in my briefcase on Friday night.  I’m on jury duty next week, so I may have some good blocks of reading time available.