Sleeping on the train, working during talks

The recent departure of a coworker brought me an unexpected trip to Denver this week. So I took the California Zephyr again--I haven't gotten sick of the train yet, and on short notice it was quite a bit cheaper than the plane.

Amazingly, I actually slept pretty well. I woke up a lot more often than I normally would, but I also got some good swaths of real sleep (with the bizarre dreams to prove it), and felt pretty normal the next day. I don't know whether it's because I've finally learned how to sleep on a train, or whether I just lucked out and got no obnoxious fellow passengers, or something else.

I remembered to bring a pillowcase (stuffed with my clothes) this time, which helped. Earplugs and a hat to pull down over my eyes were also good. And I kept a book close at hand--so instead of thinking on each reawakening "oh no, I'll never get to sleep again", I could think "maybe I should just flick on my overhead light and read a page or two"... and that would be enough to send me straight back to sleep.

My reading for the trip was Robert Sawyer's "Rollback", which disappointed me. A lot of the plot and dialog was transparently contrived to raise various issues.

I also had a copy of Brent Welch's thesis dissertation for some reason, but only made it through a dozen pages or so. I'm sure I'll make it through after I've put a few thousand more miles on it.

I got to Denver Sunday, which by coincidence was my dad's last day in Boulder. So he met me at the station, and we spent the day together. We did a little shopping in the morning, and then saw the Kirkland museum in the afternoon, well worth the visit. Every corner overflows with stuff. As I was looking through some ceramics in the basement, the director passed by with a dolly, explaining that he'd fell in love with a radio the other day, and, well, they obviously just didn't have enough, did they? Sure enough, a few minutes later he was back with a huge old-fashioned radio, which he wheeled off to storage, stopping to point out a bowl he was particularly pleased with on the way.

The two-and-half-day meeting itself was really dull. I mostly sat in the back and tried to do some work. But it's hard to do work that requires real concentration in that situation.

All my life I've been terrible at paying attention to lectures, so it's hard to be sure whether it's me or the speakers. If they start out wrong then I tend to tune out very quickly and never return. So the fact that the very first talk started with a good 10 minutes of organizational charts probably didn't help.

1 pint limit, heron, late snowfall, I want a circus

I had a good time with fellow linux-nfs people at the Arbor Brewing Company Thursday night, but forgot that 2 pints before bedtime seems to be 1 to many for me--on this occasion, at least, it was enough to wake me up sometime after 2 am Friday morning. I laid around a few more hours before giving up and going for an early start at work.

That made it a good day for menial work, so among other things I updated my laptop's Ubuntu Linux distribution to the beta release of their next version ("Hardy Heron") and debugged a couple small problems. It has lovely heron-themed artwork, and a wide variety of amusing new 3d desktop effects. In a few more days maybe I'll notice whether there've been more substantive improvements.

After a relatively warm week we got a big snowfall yesterday. I walked home, as the buses didn't look like they'd be keeping any sort of sane schedule. For 10 minutes or so of my walk (the broadway bridges up to Broadway) I was passing long lines of cars crawling along on their way home.

This morning Sara's uncle Ulrich stopped by on his way back from a conference. We had breakfast at Café Marie, toured Sara's lab, then got him an "Ulrich's" branded notebook at Ulrich's bookstore before seeing him off. The bookstore was a disappointment--the textbook section was closed off (is that normal or just a seasonal thing? I like browsing textbooks!), and they didn't have the small math or computer sections, or the big Dover collection, that I seem to recall them having before.

We watched a men's gymnastic meet with some friends in the evening. It's impressive for a while, but after I've seen a few people run through minor variations on the same few tricks, I start fantasizing about someone breaking the rules a little.

I think what the university really needs is a good circus school: something requiring just as much physical skill, but with real performance, creativity, and ideas mixed in.


My head started emerging from its fog Wednesday and Thursday, so I finally started feeling like I was getting some stuff done. Though the major thing I got done today was actually fixing a rather awful mistake I'd made a couple months ago.

It was in the 50's today. Of course, out of inertia I was still wearing my warmest down jacket.

California, Denver, and back

I caught my first train early Friday morning in Ann Arbor; it arrived on time in Chicago, where I found power and network and hung out for a while until it was time to catch the Southwest Chief to LA. There was about an hour delay leaving Chicago, but it made up the time overnight, and it was on time or early for the rest of the trip.

The trip across the country was nice. I'm not much of a scenery watcher, but the mountain crossing was dramatic. I passed the time reading magazines (I like to stockpile New Yorkers and National Geographics for travel, discarding them as I go), writing patches (mainly some cleanup of our nfs lock manager code), and watching some Buffy episodes dubbed in French. Like most of the Superliners Amtrak uses on their long-distance routes (but unlike the trains on the local route to Chicago), there are only 2 or 3 outlets, all in the café/observation car. So when my laptop's running low I camp out in the observation car in the one seat from which a power cable can reach an outlet without crossing the aisle and creating an obvious tripping hazard.

I got breakfast Saturday and Sunday morning in the dining car--it's a little overpriced, but pretty good--and ate the rest of the time from the café car. The food there isn't much more than what you'd get out of a high-end vending machine, but they have a few things I like.

Sunday we arrived in LA. Their train station is (like Chicago's, unlike Ann Arbor's) an interesting relic of a time when train travel was a much bigger deal. After a couple hours sitting in their awesome waiting room, it was time to board the Coast Starlight to San José. Another trip with big scenery: at times the train seems about to fall into the ocean. We got to San José on time, after dark, and I walked to my hotel. (One of the cool things about train stations is that they're almost always right downtown, so it's quite common to be able to walk out on either end.) I was pretty tired at this point, and as I had some vague idea that my reservation was at the same hotel as last year, I didn't learn my mistake until the receptionist caught sight of my handwritten note with the reservation information. She sent me on my way with a helpful map to my real hotel (just a couple blocks away), and after a few more formalities I got to take a dearly needed shower. Next time I do this maybe I should book one night in a sleeper if only to get access to the showers.

The Linux storage and filesystem summit started the next day, Monday. It went OK--I had some useful conversations, and got to meet some people I'd previously only emailed or known by name. I was very poorly prepared for my talk Tuesday. I'm not sure if it really mattered much--we got to talk about what we needed to, I think--but I was a little embarassed.

I once again had less patience for FAST; it's partly a deficiency on my part, but I find slide-driven presentations to big groups a really hard way to learn anything. So I went to a few presentations, but mostly sat outside and hacked and talked to Linux folks, which was way more fun.

Friday night I had a pleasant dinner with recent citi graduate Dean and his wife, and got to see their baby, still much too new to interact with.

Saturday morning I took Caltrain to San Francisco. I really didn't feel like doing anything more than just sitting around, eating a little, and maybe catching up on some email, but I was assuming it would be a simple matter to just walk until I found some pleasant place to sit with easy access to food, power, and some kind of decent network. That didn't really work out--I spent entirely too much time just wandering around aimlessly.

So I eventually just hopped on the BART to my next destination, Berkeley, where I planned to meet Marc, who I was staying with that night. Marc has these periods of a couple times a year where he has access to whatever expensive equipment his experiments depend on, and he and his collaborators seem to work till they drop every day for a couple weeks at a time. As he was in the middle of one of these big experimental binges, I wasn't sure whether I'd get to see much of him at all; but he managed to take a quick break for a nice meal of Dosas a few blocks from the train station before handing me some keys and directions to his apartment. I was still up when he came stumbling in from work around 11 or midnight, so we talked for a while before I went to bed.

The next morning I left while it was still dark and caught a bus for the Emeryville Amtrak station, where I caught the California Zephyr. Also a nice trip, with some impressive scenery, but it ran into some delays and arrived a couple hours late into Denver. My parents were there waiting, and drove me up to the place they're house-sitting in Boulder. The next morning we drove back down to Denver to pick up Sara, arriving on the train from Chicago. It was also late, but the estimate they had online was accurate enough that we were able to show up just a few minutes before she arrived.

Sara and I both had low-grade colds, so I wasn't sure how the visit in general, and the skiing in particular, was going to work out. But it was OK. Wednesday and Friday we went up to the nearby Eldora ski resort and puttered around on their easiest cross-country trails. I was in better shape than I expected.

I enjoy the slightly-out-of-control downhill bits more than the climbing, so next time I do something like this maybe I should go over to the dark side and just try downhill. Though I would probably be just as bad at it as the last time I tried that, some 20 years ago.

We also visited the local public library (a really neat building), toured the Celestial Seasonings factory, saw about half of the 1999 film "Temps Retrouvé" (very confusing, but possibly worth another try some day), and ate plenty of good food (the food at Boulder's Dushanbe Tea House, in particular, was fantastic).

On the way to catch the California Zephyr back to Chicago, we had just enough time to stop by REI's impressive Denver flagship store for me to pick up some new shoes (exactly the same model and size as the shoes I picked up at an REI in Tempe just over a year ago, and the only shoes I've been wearing for that time).

The train arrived on time, and we had a (second!) late dinner in the dining car before going to sleep in our roomette--we decided we should try a sleeper for once. The roomettes are tiny--just enough room for two seats, facing each other, which convert into a bed at night (a second bunk swivels down from above). It was comfortable enough, but I had trouble sleeping anyway. And it's awkward climbing in and out if you need to use the bathroom at night. But I might do it again if only for the access to a shower.

The roomette fare included dining car meals for both of us, so we also had a big breakfast and lunch the next day. The food wasn't anything out of the ordinary, but I enjoyed it all. (The service seemed a little odd; the person who brought me my order of polenta seemed to regard it as a great novelty. But the polenta turned out to be pretty good, so who cares?)

Our train was late coming into Chicago Sunday afternoon, partly I think thanks to the fact that their schedule, bizarrely, doesn't seem to take into account daylight savings time. But we caught the train to Ann Arbor with time to spare. It was crowded, mainly with college students, and again arrived a little late (mainly due to having to stop to transfer a patient to an ambulance--no idea why). Our apartment is a reasonable walk from the train station, but it was after midnight, we were tired, and we had some luggage to carry, so we splurged on six dollars for a taxi.

By this morning, unfortunately, I seemed to have developed a full-blown cold, so my first day at work was spent in sort of a pleasant haze. Hopefully I'll be able to get some real work done tommorow.

cold, travel, laziness

A lot has probably happened in the last few weeks, but I'm too lazy to write it down when I get home at night.

I saw a couple good movies with the French group: the diving bell and the butterfly, which was very interesting--I was skeptical about the idea of a movie whose main character can't move or talk, but they rose to the challenge--and Persepolis was also very well done, though I'm not sure it was strictly necessary--I thought the comic books on which it was based told the story just fine with much more modest means. They did a good job of transferring the drawing style to the big screen, though.

I walked home from Persepolis today, partly just as an excuse to keep an eye on the eclipse; the moon was full, the sky clear, and my walk home coincided with totality, so the viewing was good. On the other hand, there's a limit to how excited I can get to a moon that's a little darker and oranger than usual.

Tomorrow's my last full day at home--I'll do some work, run a few errands, spend the evening with my comic (excuse me, "graphic narrative") discussion group, then early Friday morning I get on the train to Chicago, then to LA, then (by late Sunday) to San Jose.

weather outages

The weather was terrible most of the week, so the only grocery shopping I ended up doing was one stop at the coop on the way home from work. So Sara finally went to Busch's today. I tried to make up for it by meeting her at the bus stop to help her carry the groceries back, and cleaning up the apartment while she was gone.

Tuesday night a particularly bad bit of weather knocked out our power. We went to sleep with it still out, so I don't know when it came back. In the morning my DSL was no longer working. This would be annoying for a normal person--for me it's a bit debilitating, as I also run a lot of services (this blog, for example--but more importantly my mail service) on my home desktop/server. I limped along for a couple days and finally just brought my home machine into work Friday. My ISP is still working on the problem; it looks like a bureaucratic screwup on AT&T's part, but it's hard to tell from the cascade of acronyms in comments the various techs regularly append to my online trouble ticket. The current claim is it'll be back Monday.

Anyway, I should find some more sensible hosting arrangement one of these days.

I did the French conversation group again Wednesday, and it went pretty well. I've also been listening to various French-language podcasts (well, actually radio shows from the Canadian and French national broadcasting services), but haven't found anything really engaging yet.

Yesterday Sara and I did a little shopping, visited her new School of Public Health office, and hung out with the jugglers for a while.

Today I've been mostly at home doing the aforementioned chores, catching up a little on the New Yorker, and getting a couple small pieces of work done.


Sara made biscuits for breakfast this morning, yum.

I walked downtown by way of Kerrytown this afternoon, worked a couple hours at the library, then took bus to a party with the French conversation group. The party was fun, the people were friendly, and our host made us crepes--yum again. I mostly sat in my corner and smiled and nodded, but managed a few conversations (and, for once, actually understood what was going on around me most of the time).

I got a ride back afterwards from a helpful postdoc who mentioned that he lived on "Highland Drive". I heard that as Highland Apartments, which are right in my neighborhood. But I looked it up after I got home and realized Highland Drive is actually completely on the other side of town, and much closer to where the party was. Oops.

Honestly, that's what it's like for me trying to get along in French. It's fun most of the time, but then there's always the occasional basic miscommunication that makes me cringe.

Uh, well, actually that may not be so different from my life in my native language. It's a question of degree, I guess.

We're running low on groceries, as is particularly likely to happen in the winter when I'm much less enthusiastic about the idea of, say, riding my bike down the street to the supermarket. But it's the anticipation that's the worst--once I get going I'm usually comfortable. So I hope to make a grocery run on the way home from work tomorrow.

geeky Saturday

This morning I flashed my OpenMoko phone with the latest software and--miracle of miracles--managed to make a call with it. Whee! So maybe next month sometime I'll actually start playing with it again.

I spent much of the rest of the day deleting code. It's hard to describe how satisfying it is to replace a piece of code by something shorter and easier to understand that still does the same thing.

So, what else has happened in the last few weeks?

I went back to my French conversation group the last two Wednesdays after missing a month or so, and I've started listening to some francophone podcasts again--I quit for a while when my music player died, but I figured out the Nokia 770 I'd written off as a mostly-useless curiosity actually works pretty well as a music player.

But I find myself pretty much at the same stage: if I concentrate I can understand radio announcers, or people that are making an effort to help me understand, but when I hear casual conversation between two French speakers, sometimes it's like a totally alien language. And opening my mouth is always a mistake. Is there any hope for me? No doubt the only real way to improve would be to have a real reason to. Which, um, I don't. My obsessions are a mystery.

I've been trying to decide what to make of Warren Ellis's "Global Frequency" comics. They consist of twelve stories, collected in two volumes. Each is exactly 22 pages, and tells a single story: a problem is presented and solved somehow. The solvers are the "Global Frequency" of the title, a worldwide network of specialists, centrally coordinated via cell phones by a dispatcher named "Aleph". She and the organization's head ("Miranda Zero") are the only regularly recurring characters. The crisis often concerns some military program gone wrong. The first and last stories concern forgotten cold-war doomsday machines that are accidentally triggered.

My main first impression is of how *short* the stories are. That's partly a result of the obvious page limit and the decision to make each story self-contained (there's no larger story arc that I can see). The basic outline seems to be: here's a problem, here's how it's solved. Maybe there's a minor surprise at the end (involving a suicide in 5 of the 12 stories, for some reason), but the plots are mostly straightforward.

The stories are obsessed with murder, suicide, gore, and violence. Like some other American comics, they strike me as basically escapist adolescent hero fantasies. (Save the world by browsing the web and talking on your cell phone!) I assume that's what they inherit from superhero comics. But the few older superhero comics that I've read also have some sense of whimsy. The newer stuff sometimes seems to be trying to look more grown-up by being "darker" and "edgier" and losing the sense of humor. That grates on me for some reason. But "Global Frequency" is well done. And I like the structure as 12 short self-contained units: they're sort of variations on a theme. It's fun to see how much they can do with the same basic recurring elements.

comics, etc.

Thursday was the first meeting of a comic discussion group. We'll see how that goes. Our plan for the year (assuming every-other-month meetings):

  • "Global Frequency", by Warren Ellis and various artists
  • "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel
  • "Yotsuba&!" by by Kiyohiko Azuma (first 2 volumes)
  • "Mister O" by Lewis Trondheim
  • "Palestine" by Joe Sacco
  • "Women and Children First" (from "Get A Life") and "Maybe Later", both by Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian

We'll see how it goes.

I own the Trondheim and the Dupuy-Berberian, and of the others all but "Global Frequency" look easily available from the library. So I stopped by our local downtown comic store, "Vault of Midnight", and picked up copies on Friday night. I was suprised by how busy the store was.

Today I did a little work, stopped by juggling for a few minutes, and did some computer-housekeeping (such as upgrading the version of Drupal I'm using for this blog).

2008, back home

The rest of the Arizona trip went fine. I once again skipped the Christmas Eve service at the local UU church. The gift exchange the next morning was good--among other things, I got a replacement for my favorite watch, last replaced in Hawaii. We went to the weekly Encanto park folk thing Wednesday night with Sara's dad, but struck out--the first performer was OK but forgettable, the second hard to listen to (mainly thanks to some iffy singing), and by the time we got to the third, which was actually good, I was just too worn out to appreciate it. Fortunately her dad ran through some of his banjo repretoire Friday night for us, in preparation for his Saturday morning gig at a local livestock show. So we still got to hear some good music, and I had fun trying to figure out how the banjo was tuned and what sort of picking patterns they use to get that busy banjo sound.

Friday night I got some earplugs, loaded up on food, and carried on plenty of clothing as nesting material, but it wasn't enough to get me more than two or three hours of fitful sleep on the red-eye back to Ann Arbor. We got back around 6, with the idea we'd catch breakfast across the street at Café Marie when it opened at 7, but instead we fell promptly asleep, Sara in bed, me on the couch. By the time we woke up it was a much more reasonable hour, so we called our neighbor Ajit before setting off for the café.

Sunday and Monday we did some reading, house cleaning, and cooking, the latter in preparation for a New Year's Eve. We had a few friends over, along with my parents who were making a planned stop on their drive to an extended stay in Boulder, my dad having just retired.

The party went fine, but when we got up the next morning the world was completely blanketed in white, so my folks decided to stay, putting off till this morning the next leg of their trip, to Iowa.

I was too tired to get real work done today, so I did a bunch of cleanup instead. I traded David a desk for a table, picking up four file drawers along the way, and tinkered with the arrangement of drawers and file drawers. Turns out the various modules that attach to these desks are all removable, which I hadn't noticed before, so I got to do some tinkertoy-like play for a while before launching into a huge collection of all the random crap lying around. I threw out a vast quantity of paper. When I left work there was maybe an inch-high stack left deal with.


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