Archive for July, 2012

The Thinker

Summoning the (minor) powers of The Force

One of the crazier theories out there is that reality isn’t all that real. We live in sort of a Matrix-like world, only, I hope, a happier version than the one Neo discovered when he took the red pill. The mind has power over reality, the theory goes, and we can shape reality simply by concentrating on what we want to happen. Then somehow it mysteriously happens.

It’s not necessary to smoke something or take the red pill to experience this world. In fact, it’s arguably quite mainstream. Most people call it praying. Somewhere in the world right now is at least one group of Buddhist monks, but probably dozens of them, meditating on world peace. Maybe that’s why we haven’t gone nuclear since Nagasaki. Lots of people believe in karma, both the good and bad kind, and spend much of their day practicing good karma. This includes smiling at strangers, taking time to smell the flowers and helping old ladies across busy streets. Then there is Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, which I learned about way back in 2004 when I saw the very strange movie What the Bleep Do We Know? (It turns out it was a movie financed by friends of Ramtha’s school.)

I’m the product of an engineer. If you know any engineers, you know what they are like: sensible, realistic, imperturbable types and certainly not prone to superstition or belief in the supernatural. In fact, we love to debunk these experiences. Engineers build bridges that never fail because they adhere to the known factual rules of physics. Consequently, I too am evidenced-based. I am spiritual but not religious, at least in any traditional sense. I take more faith in a large bank account balance than I do Jesus’s monition not to worry about the future, but to act like a bird. While I am intrigued by metaphysics in general, it’s been more a theoretical interest than something I’ve tried to put into practice.

Until recently. Lately I have been dabbling in, for a better word, The Force. No, I am not wielding any light sabers. But I have tried the power of positive thinking lately and I have been amazed by the results. Alas, I haven’t been able to use positive thinking to achieve world peace. But I have been able to use it to get better parking spaces.

No, I’m not kidding. It’s getting freaky. I have made a point for the last few weeks when I drive to some place of business to think, “I just know I am going to get there and a close in parking space will be waiting for me.” And when I get there I pull into the row and my close in space is waiting for me! Yesterday, I hit two stores. First, before I set out I decided there would be a close in parking space at the local BJs when I got there. When I pulled into my usual row, sure enough, the very front space of the row was open. I just drove right into it. When I walked in, the lines at the registers were pretty long. I told myself I would not have to wait in a line. When I pulled my full cart toward the checkout, a guy who wasn’t quite ready gave me his spot, next in line at the cash register. The lady ahead of me was just leaving as I started putting my items on the conveyor belt.

I then decided I didn’t want to walk far to get into my local Wegmans, so I decided there would be a close-in space waiting for me there as well, which seemed improbable as Saturday afternoons is their peak time. There are often cars circling the parking lot waiting for a space, kind of like planes circling Atlanta in a holding pattern. I usually park downstairs on their deck because it is too crowded on the main deck, so I went there without thinking about it. And I pulled into the first aisle and the second space was open.

This was just yesterday. But I have been using the power of positive thinking for about a week now. When I forget to tell myself that I will mysteriously find a close in parking space, I end up somewhere in the back with the masses. When I do remember, I drive down the aisle and my spot is waiting for me.

There appears to be limits to these powers, but it is happening with such freaky regularity that I would be scared if I was not grinning all the time. Could it have been this easy all along? I simply think what I want and somehow the universe will magically order itself to my satisfaction? Alas, I can’t seem to think my way to a fortune, but I haven’t seriously tried it yet, so maybe it would work. And I can’t part traffic like Moses parted the Red Sea. I get stuck with the rests of the crowd.

So my theory is that this phenomenon only works for small stuff, like convenient parking spaces. Why? Maybe it is because we all have this power, but we don’t believe it exists, and it only happens for small stuff no one really wishes for in an earnestness, like a close in parking space. It may be that too many of us expect the traffic to be bad, and that’s why it is, and that’s why I experience bad traffic too. I am just one mind of many projecting fears and concerns, and there are tens of thousands of drivers all around me also expecting traffic to be bad. So I can’t move those sorts of mountains. But the small things, like parking spaces, or front row center seats, or expecting bananas at half price, those sorts of things seem to happen simply by expressly wishing them to happen. Maybe it’s all serendipity or maybe because I am pushing the future with my unfettered and optimistic mind they just seem to happen.

It also doesn’t happen to people I know or care about. I guess this is the equivalent of praying, but there have been times in my life when people close to me have been in great mental or physical stress and have prayed/meditated/put out positive thoughts to relieve them of their pain. (“You will get well!” I will wish.) That never works. I can’t seem to change others through positive thinking.

The problem is that most of the time, I forget. I don’t mind walking from the back of the parking lot. In fact, I prefer it for exercise. So I don’t think to place a psychic reservation ahead of time. When I do, at least recently, I’ve had a better than eighty percent chance of having my wish delivered.

The hard part is turning off my engineer’s brain and simply letting the thought flow freely, with sincerity, conviction and absolute faith. When I can do this, it works. When I think, this is ridiculous, I am a skeptic it stops working. It’s like the left side of my brain seizes control and suppresses the right side.

So I am not sure how long this will last because intuition and faith are scarce commodities within me. But for now I am sailing a little more conveniently through life.

Try it and let me know if it works for you too.

 
The Thinker

Anti-government morons

It’s come to this: the anti-government morons are decrying “big government” using the Internet, which would not exist without big government.

Granted, not everyone knows or cares about the history of the Internet. Rest assured it was not spawned as an invention of private industry, or manufactured in someone’s basement. That was sort of tried in the 1980s and failed. Yes, the indispensable Internet that if you are like me you are virtually addicted to (and which also keeps me employed) is a product of the systematic application of your tax dollars chasing what any sound financial analyst back in the 1960s would have called a wild goose chase. As an investment of tax dollars its return is incalculable, but it has connected us as never before, made getting information incredibly simple, and has even help foment revolution in countries like Egypt. It will probably be seen in retrospect as the most brilliant use of government tax money ever and a key enabler of democracy across the globe.

Anyone remember Compuserve? Or AOL? They were private Internet-like networks for subscribers only back in the 1980s and 1990s. Compuserve was bought out by AOL in 2003 and added to their list of “hot” acquisitions like Netscape (cough cough). AOL is no longer in the business of dishing out content only to paid subscribers and sees itself as a “digital media company”. Content equals money so they are eager to get anyone on the Internet to look at their sites, not just subscribers. In part they do that by not associating their sites with aol.com, which is unsexy, and build sites like this one. AOL still frequently loses money and every six months or so it seems to undergo reorganization.

The Internet you enjoy today is a basically a product of the Department of Defense. Back in the 1960s, the Defense Department needed a digital way to connect the department with research arms at educational institutions. It threw research money at the problem through its Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which takes on great, hard to fulfill quests. Working with a company called BBN under a government contract, the first router was manufactured. It provided a common means to move data electronically over a network through this weird idea of packets. Being able to send packets of data reliably between places on the network in turn spawned the first email systems that also went over its network. In the early 1990s, Tim Berners Lee at a multi-national research institution in Switzerland (which most recently found the God Particle) thought email was too cumbersome for his tastes, and created Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which became the web. It was government that created the Internet and arguably it could only have happened because of government. Private industry was not interested in some decades-long research project to build an open network that they might not control. Where was the profit in that?

Arguably the Internet could not have happened without the space program. Huge amounts of government research money were thrown at developing electronic computers, needing to be ever smaller and faster, to facilitate the needs of the space program. The space program also developed a whole host of other valuable products we use today and don’t think about, like Teflon, byproducts of government funded research that were turned over to the commercial sector.

Public investments created our interstate commerce system, a system we now take for granted but which made it so much easier to move both goods and people across the country. This investment stimulated commerce, built suburbs, and made it easier and faster to see our great country. Public investments created and sustained public schools and universities, which allowed minds with lots of potential to reach actualization and be put to work for the enrichment and betterment of all.

For a couple of dollars per person per year, the National Weather Service provides non-biased, accurate and timely weather forecasts available to anyone. One of our most valuable federal agencies is also one of our least known or appreciated: the National Institute of Standards and Technology, formerly the National Bureau of Standards. Not only does it say how to define an inch or a pound, it also defines standards for more complex things, like data security. Defining it once by engaging the best minds on these subjects keeps everyone from reinventing the wheel. Standards save huge amounts of money and promote competition, but we take them for granted. By promoting open standards and interoperability, NIST and other standards organizations allow the private sector to thrive and we consumers pay lower prices and get more broadly useful products.

Does the government waste money? Most certainly. We waste billions in Medicare fraud every year, and arguably wasted hundreds of billions in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can understand why some would infer from these examples that that the government simply cannot manage any large problems. However, the government is tasked to manage large problems all the time because lawmakers think those tasks are important. Many times, the tasks are unique and have never been done before, and are inherently risky. For any risky endeavor, there is a likelihood of failure, thus it’s not surprising that government’s record is so spotty. However, by approving these programs, lawmakers are essentially saying they should move forward in spite of the risks.

Oversight is supposed to be the solution, but it works haphazardly. Congress has the responsibility but it seems poor at it. There are other mechanisms in place to audit federal agencies: the Government Accountability Office, inspector generals at every agency, reporting to the Office of Management and Budget and much more. What does not happen often is that a program is held accountable for achieving results, with the penalty that the program goes away if results are not achieved. Some programs have sunset provisions, but these are the exception. (You might want to review my thoughts on how to make a truly accountable government.)

Yes, I can understand that people don’t like to pay taxes. Yes, I can understand that they don’t think the government should be doing lots of things that it does, and want to eliminate huge chunks of the government and pocket the money instead. Doing so may eliminate a lot of waste and fraud by ending a bad program, but it doesn’t eliminate the underlying problems. Eliminate the EPA and pollution is not going to go away. It will get worse. Eliminate the FDA and you run the risk of having unsafe drugs. Eliminate Medicaid, food stamps and welfare and you run the risk of revolution. Eliminate transportation funding and expect more people to die from bridge collapses or find their cars falling into sinkholes.

The real question is whether the costs to society are greater or less because of government, because the costs will get paid either way. They will happen either through taxes or through costs like lowered life expectancies, greater crime, poorly educated children, fouled water and air, unsafe food and a crappy transportation structure. The private sector cannot rush into save us from these problems. They might, if they see some profit in it, but any solution won’t be in your best interest, but in theirs.

The really successful governments these days are those that meld the best of the private and public sectors. Look at Germany, with a progressive government and a huge welfare state that still lives within its means, is thrifty and is innovative in producing products the world needs. Thanks to its government, it is leading the way in getting energy from renewable resources. It did not happen in the absence of government, but because of government. It also happened because Germans believe in their government and support it, unlike large portions of Americans, who are trained to be suspicious of government.

Our imperfect government is a result of an imperfect democracy driven largely by unelected special interests. When it does not truly serve the public good, it becomes ineffective and corrupt. When it works with the public good in mind, as it did for the Internet, it can drive the future and make us world leaders, rather than laggards.

Whether you agree with me or not, that you are reading this at all is due to the fact that you, the taxpayer, invested in a risky venture that networked us together. Without this investment, the United States would now almost certainly be a second world country, because what would we produce otherwise that the world would want? It values our ability to innovate, and our innovation is predicated in part on massive research, far beyond the ability of the private sector alone to attempt. This kind of research can only be done by the public sector and our educational institutions. If we don’t make these investments, other countries will before we will, and we will be a far poorer nation because of it.

 
The Thinker

Advice for the lovelorn

I won’t claim that this advice is directed to anyone in particular, but it was inspired by reading this blog. Asplenia wears her heart on her sleeve, or at least on her blog. I am glad she remains anonymous, and also grateful that she reads my blog and occasionally leaves a comment. I’m not sure how many regular readers of this blog I have, but I suspect she has more.

Nor can I claim to be a fountain of wisdom on matters of the heart. It is true that I can point to a marriage of twenty-six years, but neither my wife nor I will claim we have had an easy marriage. I often think that if you have an easy marriage, something is wrong. Life is not designed to be easy; hence love should not be easy either. In my experience, love is more about continuous challenge than comfort.

No, love is not easy, so it might seem like it is something only the foolhardy should attempt. However, avoiding love is not easy either. There is nothing wrong with being single, just as there is nothing wrong with being married or in any heavy relationship. I don’t live in the delusion that I would necessarily be better single. Instead, I suspect I would be chasing other issues. Maybe I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me, and it would tug at my inferiority complex. For we are all relational creatures. Like it or not, we almost universally assess our self worth based on the quality of those relationships.

Asplenia is recently divorced and is actively searching for a new mate. She goes on lots of dates. Reading her blog the last year or so has been heart wrenching, so heart wrenching that it is sometimes hard to read her posts because they cut so close to the heart and often are so pierced with pain. It’s hard to put yourself back on the love market after a long marriage, particularly when you thought overall it was pretty good. It is hard to invest time in relationships, hard to think things are going great and then to find yourself dumped or disillusioned and back on square one. Asplenia has spent a lot of time riding reasonable expectation waves only to find them dashed. She has expectations for what a solid relationship should look and feel like. It is doubtless borne out at least partially by experience, but she also invests time in pondering the opinions of relationship experts, who she often quotes. If you have a hard time judging what a solid, intimate relationship should look like, these experts will sort it out for you. Good luck to her and the millions of others who deserve a terrific, long lasting, enduring and permanent partnership. Perhaps it will be an ideal one that checks off all the boxes the relationship experts tell us should be checked.

The temptation to keep looking for the perfect relationship keeps gnawing at most of us. Surely someone out there is better than what we got, or what we had, right? Surely, when I marry a perfect 10, I won’t end up getting someone who deliberately farts in my presence. Surely I will get someone who is not a spendthrift, and who can ignore a line of cocaine at a party? Surely there is someone out there without baggage, who will understand me intuitively, who is always kind and gentle and who never has a bad day, or doesn’t have a fatal flaw?

Maybe there are a couple of these creatures out there, but I haven’t met any yet. I think they are a myth, like the unicorn. On reflection, I’m not sure that even if I was fancy free and one of these wanted me that I should marry one of them. This is because I might feel the pressure to be perfect also and, well, not to give away a secret or anything, but I’m not perfect, and I never will be. I too am saddled with baggage, some light, some not so light. I too am the product of a mixed childhood and a mixed parenting experience, and it shaped my personality and I carry a lot of it into middle age. I will probably carry it into old age and to my grave. I will die an imperfect creature, as will my wife.

I am not sure where this desire to chase perfection comes from. Maybe it comes from going to church at a young age, where we learn God is perfect and we can be too in some nebulous afterlife. Meanwhile, if we rigorously follow the rules and spend much of our lives repressing our less than perfect aspects, we can sort of look perfect, at least most of the time. What typically happens is we give it a modest try, but we soon fail. This happens because, unlike God, we are programmed to be imperfect. But it also happens because perfection is just an idea, and what we think the perfect is is largely due to what others have told us all along should look like perfection. How did they know? Well, someone told them. And so it probably goes back to the point where us apes came down from the trees and started crawling on terra firma. All they really knew was that much of life was miserable, and hunting mastodons and spending evenings on animal skins wasn’t much to get excited about.

If we can’t be perfect, maybe we can look perfect instead. It may take losing forty pounds, or a nose job, or a tummy tuck, or spending three times a week at the local gym getting exhausted and sweaty. All that work doesn’t make us perfect, but may feed the illusion that we can become perfect, or at least more perfect than many. Sometimes it works, at least for a while, but just as often or more it fails because we discover some new flaw in ourselves.

Much of falling in love is based on a self-delusion. We see in others things that are not really there. It’s the phenomenon of psychological projection. To see our new lovers as the imperfect creatures they are is actually kind of hard, and perhaps makes it impossible to fall in love with them. We have to unlearn our innate talent at tuning out their flaws so early in the relationship. That stuff is supposed to come later, long after the wedding bells. And if we can deal with their reality, then we have to ask ourselves a harder question: can I live and love this imperfect person for maybe the rest of my life as he/she is? Is there enough commonality, shared interests, love and caring to make the relationship, on balance, good or very good?

It’s my opinion that wise people will realize this sort of relationship is probably as good as it is going to get. Surrendering to this reality won’t exactly bring total happiness, but it may bring acceptance that can lead to greater happiness elsewhere. This is because lots of things can make us feel happy, and a love relationship is just one of them. Surrendering to an imperfect loving relationship may allow a space to open up where we can be in a generally positive relationship. It may allow us the freedom to escape relationship-expectation hell for a while, or maybe forever, and wallow in the rest of life instead, which will have its challenges too.

Alas, I can’t claim the credentials of all the great relationship gurus that Asplenia reads, as my learning comes mostly from the School of Hard Knocks. But at least when it’s quiet, I can ask my gut. I may not like the answer it gives, but it has the aspect of feeling uncomfortably correct. It takes courage to accept not the best, but the pretty good. And that’s probably where we will find our optimal happiness, which won’t ever be at a hundred percent, at least not until our self-delusion phase wears out and we realize that perfection itself is a cruel illusion. However, with luck, maybe we can cruise somewhere around eighty percent most of them time. It may not be where we want it to be, but it may be what we need.

 
The Thinker

Firefox: must it be adios instead of adieu?

This blog post by a Firefox developer is making the rounds in the techno-blogosphere. Firefox developer Jono Xia makes the point that constant updates to the open-source Firefox web browser is driving its devotees nuts. It has made me switch from Mozilla Firefox to Google Chrome for most of my browsing. In Xia’s opinion, the problem is that Firefox developers have become enamored with features, and keep adding bells and whistles to the browser. Most actual users (like me) mostly want high usability and for new features to be introduced gradually. In particular, we don’t like radical changes to our user interface.

This should not be hard to figure out. Imagine if once a month you went to drive your car and the ignition key moved to a different location or that the turn signal had moved from left of the steering wheel to right of it. That’s how it’s been with Firefox for a while. But now these changes occur stealthily. It used to be you were told when a new version was available, and then had the option of downloading it. With the latest versions of Firefox, new versions download quietly in the background and appear the next time you restart the browser. This has its strengths. If there has to be bug fixes and critical patches I’d largely prefer to be kept ignorant of them. What I don’t want is to start my browser and find new tools on my toolbar, or that suddenly some of my favorite add-ons no longer work because they were not upgraded to the latest stealthily upgraded version.

Yet if you use Firefox religiously, this sort of stuff feels like it happens all the time. To say the least, it is jarring. Many if not most of us spend much of our lives staring at content in our web browser. A consistent user interface is good. This means browsing requires less thought and becomes automatic. Add irregular but relatively frequent amounts of change to the user interface and it becomes annoying and at some nebulous point intolerable. It used to be that a year or at least many months would go by between a major version of Firefox. Now it can be weeks!

I use Firefox on a Mac. I noticed over a period of months that Firefox kept slowing down. It loaded slowly. Pages reloaded slowly. If I had a half dozen tabs open when starting up it would take a minute or more for the data in the tabs to be refreshed. Moving from tab to tab was often slow and full of latency, where the current tab just hung there for a while with an hourglass cursor. Sometimes the browser just hung and I had to do a Force Quit to kill it, or would not shutdown when I shut the computer down.

These sorts of problems don’t happen naturally. They are a result of poor software engineering. I speak with authority here because I happen to have a master’s degree in software systems engineering from George Mason University. Granted, building a web browser is hardly a trivial task. There are so many aspects to integrate correctly. In short, it is a complex engineering challenge to make it work on just one operating system, let alone the many operating systems that Firefox supports. Mostly these problems point to a process problem, rather than a programming problem. Just as you can build more cars if you speed up the assembly line, but those cars may suffer something in the way of quality, to keep up with the competition you can push out new versions of a browser more quickly if you cross your fingers and hope that current functionality is not compromised in doing so. It’s clear that a lot of current functionality is compromised by Mozilla’s current approach.

I don’t know exactly how the Mozilla project is run. I certainly like its goals: create a browser that is platform agnostic, that won’t make anyone rich, and that rigorously adheres to the latest web standards. It was this approach that lead to the rise of Firefox in the first place, including a glowing review by me a full eight years ago when it was not yet official. At the time, Microsoft had put its Internet Explorer browser on the back burner. At least you could say that IE did not change a lot. It was quirky, but it was consistently. You could go years between new versions of the browser.

With Firefox, what seems to be missing is good and frequent regression testing. Regression testing means automated testing that tests when you add in new functionality that the current functionality still works. Mozilla is hardly alone in having problems with regression testing. It is a decidedly unsexy thing to do, but vital for good software engineering. It’s also a hard thing to do. I know this from personal experience. The regression testing tools out there tend to be very pricey (Mercury’s suite, now owned by HP, comes to mind) and, for the most part, annoying to use. Most of them cannot handle tiny changes in canned tests, like the change of location of an image on a web page, without failing the test. You are expected to create whole new tests. I am looking into one testing suite that looks like it allows test cases to be reasonably fault tolerant. If so, we can gain a whole lot of productivity doing regression testing.

Doubtless Mozilla is doing some regression testing, but it should probably do a lot more and probably have a much more well thought out process for doing it. If satisfying users is truly their primary goal, they may need more testers and fewer developers. It sounds like it is the other way around.

So I have been seduced by the Google Chrome browser. I won’t use IE. I just loathe it and I can’t quite put my finger on why but certainly it’s not a good thing that it is developed by Microsoft, and its bright blue theme jars me. Chrome, like Microsoft, is a product of another empire, just not one quite as evil, at least not yet, but certainly one targeted to encourage you use all things Google. It’s clear after you run Chrome for a while that it is a slicker product overall than Firefox. It’s also faster and better engineered. For example, each browser tab has its own CPU process. This has lots of benefits; the primary one being it is much less likely to crash. Firefox is catching up here, but even so it is still buggy and slow on my Mac.

I don’t want to love Chrome, but considering how much time I spend in a browser I have to have a browser that works fast, reliably and consistently. Chrome has not been perfect here, particularly with its user interface, which has morphed faster than I would like. But it is standards based, multiple-platform, fast and reliable.

I really want to go back to Firefox. It is the reference implementation for browsers, although maybe not so much anymore the way they throw out new features so quickly. There are certain Firefox behaviors I really miss, like the Bookmark manager in a sidebar. For right now I simply cannot revert. I hope Mozilla gets its act together, and listens better to the needs of its users.

So will it be adios and goodbye forever for Firefox? Or can I say adieu for now, and I’ll be glad to come back when you have your act together? For right now, I say adieu, but pretty soon it is going to be adios.

 
The Thinker

Perchance to dream

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on

The Tempest Act 4, scene 1

Do you look forward to sleeping? The evidence suggests that most Americans do not. There are too many modern world temptations, like your smartphone. In a way, perhaps it is good that modern life is more tempting than sleep. It suggests that life, however harsh it may be at times, is engaging.

Like it or not, sleep (or attempting to sleep) is how we typically spend a quarter to a third of our lives. Arguably, sleep is not productive at all. During sleep we cannot create anything, except possibly in our subconscious, and you don’t get paid to sleep. Perhaps you can learn a foreign language in your sleep. It sounds iffy to me. I suspect like most of us that when I sleep I want to sleep deeply, dream vividly and wake up rested and reinvigorated.

I actually attempt to get eight hours of sleep a night. More typically it is seven, and that includes the time it takes to get to sleep, rising to use the bathroom and trying to tune out my wife’s snores three feet away (earplugs help). I’ve attributed some of my success in life to following this strategy. The only problem was I was fooling myself. It turned out that when I thought I was sleeping, I mostly was not. More specifically, I was not dreaming. I have sleep apnea. It’s a condition where your brain goes so far into hibernation during sleep that it forgets to tell your lungs to continue breathing. This cannot go on too long before other parts of your brain detect the rise in blood pressure and reduced oxygen. It then sends a mini-jolt of adrenaline through your endocrine system that restarts your breathing and wakes you up, or at least kicks you out of an attempt to get REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the sleep where you actually dream. Waking up so often, even when most of the time I was not aware of it as such, had lots of side effects. I still don’t know all of them. It may have caused my arrhythmia. It has also meant rising to use the bathroom four to six times a night, a tendency to nod off in conference rooms in the afternoon and, perhaps most importantly, little in the way of dreaming. My dreams, when they occurred at all, tended to be short and full of untimely interruptions. I rarely felt rested, even after eight hours of “sleep”. No wonder: sixteen times an hour on average my body was kick-starting me awake.

That was then. Today I sleep with the help of a breathing machine, a common solution (but not a cure) for sleep apnea. It pushes measured amounts of air into my lungs when it detects I am done exhaling. To make it work, I wear a mask over my nose and mouth and then connect the mask via a tube to a machine next to my bed. Sleeping is not necessarily perfect with my BiPAP machine. There is the incessant noise, both the motor and hearing your breathing echoing inside the mask. After a month or so of struggling, I was able to get the mask working so that it does not usually leak air. It helps to clean my face and mask before bed so skin oils won’t interfere with the mask’s adhesion to the face. It also helps to have a flexible, clear plastic nose bridge so my nose does not become pinched by the mask. Just as I am aware of my wife’s snoring, I am also aware of the presence of my mask and the hose while I sleep. It’s hard not to brush against the hose when I turn in bed.

I can attach or detach a humidifier to my unit. I need it in the winter when the humidity is low. I don’t need it in the summer, except for now. Right now I am recovering from having my deviated septum fixed. My surgeon does not want high pressure air surging through my nose all night long, and possibly undoing my sutures. So I cover my nose with gauze and tape and breathe through my mouth instead. My mouth turns into the Sahara Desert anyhow, but less quickly with the humidifier plugged in.

As for dreaming, dreams are coming back, just slowly, almost with some prodding. I thought that once I was using the masks, my dreams would return automatically. Perhaps they have returned and I wasn’t aware of them. Instead, what I discovered is that my fragmentary dreams slowly became longer. Now nearly six months into treatment I often get long, languorous, florid, sometimes even glorious dreams. I also get the occasional nightmare. However, nightmares don’t hold the same terror that they used to. I find I can wrestle and talk back to my nightmares. As for my pleasant dreams, I am easily seduced to stay inside of them. Indeed, rising in the morning to plug into the Internet is often quite a letdown. It is so much more fun and nicer to stay in dreamland, if I can.

The effects of years of chronic sleep apnea are hard to measure. I coped as well as my body could while having little idea that I had an underlying condition. It’s not quite the same as torture, as no one was torturing me. However, in a way it is like being forced awake regularly all night. While now I hardly start the day with the energy I had in my youth, my days are definitely brighter now. I rarely feel the need for a middle of the day nap. I have more energy and can concentrate easier. In some ways I feel more connected with my soul. Sleep theory suggests we dream to incorporate experience into long term memory and to file away lessons learned during the day. REM sleep may be fantasy and nothing more than the mind unfettered, but having it again strikes me as fundamentally healthy and natural.

Do you have sleep apnea? Snoring can suggest sleep apnea, but many people snore without having sleep apnea. My experience suggests that if you awake three or more times a night, you have sleep apnea. If you find yourself falling asleep at your chair at work, it could suggest sleep apnea. (It could also be that you need a more stimulating job.) General tiredness and lethargy, particularly after getting what appears to be a good night’s sleep, could mean you have sleep apnea. Being overweight or obese are often associated with sleep apnea. In my case part of the problem is congenital: my throat is narrower that most people’s and my uvula is unnaturally large. Some health care specialists are suggesting that sleep apnea is being over-treated. Perhaps. I still think that if you have some of these symptoms and can afford it (sleep studies are not cheap, but usually are covered by insurance); it is worth the time, hassle and expense. It might save your life, as many cases of people dying during sleep can be attributed to sleep apnea. Perhaps the best reason is, to quote the Bard, perchance to dream. For me, this alone was worth the effort.

 
The Thinker

Putting the Oh! in Opera – Don Giovanni at The Barnes at Wolf Trap

Many years back I ruminated on the differences between musicals and operas. I tend to see a lot more musicals than operas. Musicals tend to be easier to find and although pricey, less pricey than an opera. On rare occasion we will see an opera, but never before on so unique a stage as The Barns at Wolf Trap, in Vienna, Virginia. Wolf Trap is an oddity: a national park that is basically an arts venue. Most of the business goes on in the huge open-air Filene Center, but there is also a smaller and air conditioned venue called The Barns where we saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni last night. This was principally because my daughter had gotten into the opera and wanted to see it.

Choosing to The Barns instead of whatever was going on at the Filene Center was a smart choice. The heat wave across the nation is hardly news. It was 99 degrees when we arrived at The Barns, peculiarly situated in a hard to get to toney neighborhood in Vienna. The Barns is a barn, sort of. At least the interior was full of rough-cut timbers. I knew the stage was relatively small, but it was smaller than I expected. The stage is not inset so you can look down, which means arguably the best seating is on the balcony.

Don Giovanni was first performed in 1787 in Prague. The Wolf Trap Opera Company is a very small opera company that performs to small crowds. There could not have been more than three hundred of us attending this performance. Whereas in 1787 little was available in the way of special effects, the company chose to update the plot and place it to 2014. This made for an odd but still satisfying performance that was incongruous in the present. For example, there were lyrics from Zerlina (Andrea Carroll) that really don’t translate in 2014 very well. To assure her fiancé Masetto (Aaron Sorensen) that is sorry that Don Giovanni tried to seduce her, she says he should beat her and rip out her heart, and she would not object! Technology itself was a character in this staging. Specifically Leporello (Craig Irvin), Don Giovanni’s (Ryan Kuster) assistant charged with chronicling all his adventures seducing women, has a tablet computer that he uses to keep track of his two thousand plus conquests. There was other integration of technology, principally allowing for fun dynamic backgrounds, including a humorous graveyard scene at the climax when the statue on the grave of the Commendatore actually does wink and turn its head. The technology actually improved the opera, which, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best works.

This opera company is hardly the Metropolitan Opera, but for a small company modestly funded and forced to perform on a small stage, they did a great job. I felt for the orchestra, jammed into a tiny pit in front of the stage. It must be a fire code or safety violation to cram them in like that. At least their union should complain. The performers were almost universally young, under thirty looking people, with great operatic voices that seemed too good for the rough-hewn walls of The Barns.

The story, in case you are not familiar with it, is that Don Giovanni, a Spanish nobleman who is channeling the Don Juan archetype, is enamored with seducing and bedding as many women as possible, then unceremoniously dumping them. For this endeavor he needs Leporello as a full time assistant to help with logistics and chronicle his adventures. Leporello is sick and tired of being his assistant, particularly when he never gets a chance to score himself. Don Giovanni is also something of a hot-tempered nobleman, and decides to murder The Commendatore after he angrily confronts him for bedding his daughter Donna Anna (Marcy Stonikas). Pretty much the rest of the opera chronicles Don Giovanni’s sad decline as his sins catch up with him. And yet this is not a tragedy. It is really a comedy, and the opera company went out of their way to make it funny, not to mention to take some liberal licenses with the material. Toward the end of the opera, Don Giovanni takes two whores to bed and we get a lesbian scene on stage while he performs an aria. Somehow I don’t think this was done when staged in 1787, but even so the lyrics are pretty racy, or at least suggestive at times. They weren’t entirely prudes in 1787.

Don Giovanni is one of Mozart’s better known operas, but having watched it in its entirety, I can say that although rife with great singing and lovely arias, the plot is a piffle, and it is full of the sorts of devices that make operas annoying for many ordinary folk. After all, it’s important to pad out the material to three hours so the audience knows it got its money’s worth. So you get the same lyrics stated and restated again and again. Thank goodness I did not have to know Italian and subtitles were provided. They did not have to change the subtitles very often. The result is an opera that is not terribly engaging, but made fun at times and more than endurable thanks to the cast and orchestra who were obviously having great fun with the material.

Sadly, we attended the last performance, and two performances were apparently canceled due to the power outages we experienced as a result of severe thunderstorms and our heat wave. I hope to enjoy both The Barns and this opera company again, as the ticket prices were reasonable ($60 each), we had a lot of fun, and did not have to drive very far. I’m hoping the next time we go we will see an opera with more meat on it than this one. Fortunately, the music and performance was so good this serious deficiency was easy to overlook.

 
The Thinker

A truly capital Fourth of July

It’s a curious thing: I have lived in the Washington D.C. region since 1978 and had never been downtown to see the Independence Day fireworks. Why? For years it was because I could not afford to get home sometime after midnight and then struggle to work before dawn the next morning. As I got older I found other excuses. For example, there is Washington’s legendary July combination of toxic heat, ozone and humidity. For most people, spending Independence Day in Washington D.C. means crowds, profuse sweating, scorching heat, oppressive humidity, long lines to use disgusting Porto-potties, little chance of hearing the NSO perform from less than a half mile away, eighteen minutes of amazing fireworks usually more than a mile away, then hour-plus long waits to get onto jammed subway cars for a long commute home. So much easier to stay at home, turn on the air conditioning, watch the fireworks on TV and listen to the NSO in stereo on your receiver.

July 4th, 2012 fireworks as seen from the roof of the Interior Building, 18th and C Streets NW

July 4th, 2012 fireworks as seen from the roof of the Interior Building, 18th and C Streets NW

There is a good chance I would have never made it to see the fireworks had not I got an invitation to see them from the terrace on the roof of the Interior Department building. The invitation was open to a guest and me as a benefit from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar for thirty years of federal service. The Interior building is at 18th and C Streets N.W. It’s virtually impossible to get closer to the reflecting pool, where the fireworks are launched, than from our building. In fact, there is probably no better viewing spot anywhere for the national fireworks, and that includes the Rose Garden. It is not eight stories up, and it is farther away.

Yet amazingly, there I was on the roof with my wife in ninety-five degree heat and oppressive humidity. It is not really July in Washington unless you have both of those factors, and Washington delivered an impressive scorcher yesterday. An occasional light breeze and a setting sun made it tolerable, along with free ice cream and hot dogs provided for attendees. Also provided: a free parking space in the basement.  It was a strange experience to present a pass and drive down a blocked off street, and then take a ramp generally used by higher graded people than me to a free parking space.

Up on the terrace, Washington was splayed out in front of and below us. Nervous looking National Park Service helicopters kept circling the Mall for signs of trouble. The heat and humidity smothered you like a hot blanket, but it offered a convenient excuse to get more ice cream. The crowds around the Washington Monument were nearly shoulder-to-shoulder at 7 p.m. More were streaming in from local Metro stations. Constitution Avenue, right below us, was blocked off. It turned out this was for public safety. Trust me, we were about as close as you should ever get to the fireworks.

My “buddy” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who gave me my thirty-year certificate personally the day before, was on the roof with the rest of us sweltering partiers. He gave a short speech, told everyone we were the best department in the government, patiently shook the hands of everyone who came close and posed for innumerable pictures. Also there were a few of my friends from the U.S. Geological Survey. Our director was rumored to be wandering around, but I never saw her. Mostly we ate, sat in large plastic chairs facing south and kept hydrated by drinking many bottles of free bottled water. A security detail kept a sharp eye the neighboring streets and us. In the distance you could not quite see planes arriving at Reagan National airport, but you could see their headlights. The humidity was quite thick, but somehow the Jefferson Memorial look splendid bathed in lights in the twilight across the mall. The city buzzed and pulsated.

I knew there would be a good show, but I thought I knew what to expect. I am no stranger to fireworks shows, and have been to places like Disney World that never disappoint. I can’t compare the experience to fireworks shows in other major cities like New York and Boston. I have to think they should be comparable. But I doubt they are quite as majestic. The nation’s capital has over two hundred years of practice, and it is down to a science. Certainly it would be hard to get as close to a fine a show as we were, a mere five hundred yards from the Reflecting Pool where the fireworks were launched.

The experience, which began promptly at 9:10 p.m., was truly once in a lifetime. The video I took with my relatively inexpensive camera (above) can give you some appreciation for it, but no video, not even one in BluRay with surround stereo sound can truly capture the experience. It is overwhelming! Even if you were blind, it would have been impressive because the percussion from the fireworks smashes you in the chest and shakes your body. Then there is the quality of the fireworks, made more impressive by being so close. There were so many colors, beautifully orchestrated and intermingled, arrayed against a temporal majestic backdrop. Up close you could see pulsating clouds of smoke shot through with new streaming rockets ascending into the sky. Frankly, the experience was quite stupefying. Eighteen minutes passed quickly. For a while it was hard to tell the grand finale from all that had come before it, because it was all so amazing. And then suddenly it was over. Puffs of smoke hung over the Mall, gently rising and heading east. And once we gathered our wits and belongings, we made our way back to our car in the basement. We were escorted through the barricade onto E Street, quickly got on the ramp, and found ourselves home at the surreal hour of only 10:30 p.m.

If you feel some jealousy, please realize that this was the first and only sizeable benefit I have gotten for thirty years in the civil service. No lavish employer provided holiday parties for us. We get one event, and it’s always a potluck. While we are unlikely to get laid off, we never get a holiday bonus either. Occasionally we will be let go an hour or so early the day before a national holiday. This is generally as beneficent as management ever gets.

Yet I don’t feel cheated in the least. This short but memorable experience more than made up for thirty years of being treated decently but never lavishly. In fact, I feel like I owe someone quite a lot of change.

Thanks Ken!

 
The Thinker

Ken and me

Ken is Ken Salazar, who happens to be the Secretary of the Interior. If you ask me, he holds the dubious privilege of being the most unrecognized member of the Obama cabinet. Previously a Democratic senator from Colorado, he was also Colorado’s attorney general for a while and a member of the state cabinet. Ken is basically a decent white guy, two years older than me (57) who tends to fade into the background in a crowd. You just don’t see Ken most of the time. Perhaps that’s why Ken often wears western style hats and bolo ties. It helps an ordinary white guy with short, grey hair and a mostly baldhead like him stand out a little bit.

Ken Salazar and his bolo tie

Ken Salazar and his bolo tie

To acknowledge my thirty years of federal civil service, I was invited yesterday along with about sixty others to a ceremony at the headquarters for the Department of Interior at 18th and C Street N.W. in our nation’s capital. I went for one reason only: Ken would be there and I had the opportunity to shake his hand while he personally thanked me for my service. I figured, how many times in life do you get to shake the hand of a cabinet secretary or any famous politician? This would be a first handshake from a cabinet secretary for me, although I did shake Bill Clinton’s hand in 1992, but he was just a candidate at the time.

This event was apparently not special enough for a number of others in my office who also reached the milestone. Yet, a number of us chose to go anyhow. It would have been nice to have been there to be recognized for some prestigious award, but instead we were simply being recognized for hanging in there. Thirty years of service is a lot, no question about it. However, it did not seem something sufficiently important to warrant the Secretary of the Interior’s personal time, attention and handshake. Ken decided otherwise.

Ken has had a challenging time as secretary. I was amazed he was not fired due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It was not that he caused the spill, but the spill exposed structural problems with the Minerals Management Service that existed long before he took office, which regulated offshore oil drilling. Specifically the event plus an incident in December 2008 (on the Bush Administration’s watch) showed that energy companies were illegally influencing certain MMS employees and, truly shocking for this civil servant, some of us violated ethics we were sworn to uphold. Salazar did belatedly split MMS into three bureaus that are independent of each other, to help prevent a recurrence of these practices, and the bad actors were fired.

In person, Ken Salazar surprised me. Ken is not a charismatic sort of person, but he is fundamentally a decent person, which is rare enough in Washington. I expected to feel treated a bit brusquely, almost in a condescending manner, by a man so much my better. Just the opposite was true. It turns out that Ken is one of those rarest of politicians: truly just one of the guys, someone who spent the vast majority of his life as an average citizen and thus feels both empathy and honest appreciation for us rank and file. As he repeatedly pointed out, the fact that government works at all is because people like me choose to invest our time and passion in it.

He spoke to us extemporaneously and at some length, both before and after the ceremony, getting into incidents like Deepwater Horizon that have challenged him. I think the lack of press made him a bit more loquacious and candid than normal. At length and after some patriotic music, we each took our turns on stage where he gave us our certificate, shook our hands sincerely and exchanged a few words with us, while a photographer snapped pictures. I’m sure he said something to me when my turn came, but I totally forgot what it was. All I could say was, “Mr. Secretary”. One of the recipients was handicapped. When his name was called, he came down from the stage to give him the certificate personally.

Ken even brought along family. Mostly they hide in Colorado, but they came to watch from the back of the auditorium anyhow. I suspect they are in town for the Fourth of July fireworks tonight. I expect that I will see Ken and his family on the roof of the Department of Interior building tonight, where I and the other awardees have been invited. More on this later.

Ken may fade into the background among Obama’s cabinet, but he is at heart a warm, generous and humble guy, simply doing his best for our country. This probably makes him far more effective as a secretary that many of the others with their Harvard MBAs and law degrees, which he does not have. (He does have a law degree, but it’s from the University of Michigan.) Ken is essentially a regular guy, and for that this regular guy is grateful.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist Casual Encounters: Now a crazily dangerous and illegal waste of time

(Warning: this blog post is Rated R.)

It’s day three of convalescing from sinus surgery. It was made more interesting when we lost power Friday night due to the massive line of powerful thunderstorms that blew through. This meant futilely trying to sleep in an un-air-conditioned house while my sinuses made all sorts of interesting gurgling noises. There was all this plus regularly hobbling to use the bathroom in the dark and changing gauze with the aid of a flashlight. We were relatively fortunate as these things go. Power returned eighteen hours later, before our refrigerated food went bad. Now I can feel miserable in an air-conditioned house.

There is also a lot of time to fill. Most of it is spent popping pills, changing the gauze under my nose and attempting but failing to sleep. I don’t have much attention span. Even web surfing to my favorite sites is boring. With so much time to kill and eager as ever to increase my blog’s traffic, I decided this was the perfect day to head back to that den of sin, shock and hilarity, specifically the Washington D.C. Craigslist Casual Encounters section to see what is new.

In November 2009, when I last reviewed the site, I declared it a complete waste of time, at least if you are a guy looking for a woman and are hoping to have a casual sexual encounter. I am happy to report that it remains a complete waste of your time for that purpose, but it remains sporadically amusing as well as frequently deeply disturbing. Let’s see what little morsels I can glean from Washington D.C.’s Casual Encounters section today. Anything new?

Well, this is interesting:

Cuckhold!!!!!!!!!! – mw4m (nova) Do you like watching a couple while being tied to a chair? If you are an older mature male drop us a line. We do this on evenings and weekends. Prefer you be in the Dale City area as we decide at the very last minute. Clear face with body pic to head of the line. Please put your age and exact location in subject line to eliminate spam. Thanks!

I don’t remember any of this cuckold business on their site back in 2009. Back then it was all about BBCs, an acronym for big black cocks. As we all know (?), African American men are all endowed with enormous penises. It’s true. Haven’t you seen Blazing Saddles? Make no mistake; there is still plenty of interest in BBCs on Craigslist. Generally, it is from some couple where the male is interested in seeing his wife take a big one. Presumably the wife is accommodating.

Anyhow, cuckolding seems to be the new “in” couples activity. Naturally in this ad, the poster could not bother to spellcheck. Cuckolding apparently involves a dominant wife and a submissive husband. The submissive husband, at least in the world of Craigslist, must submit in a humiliating way while another man gives his wife the sexual pleasure he apparently cannot. That’s probably because he does not have a BBC. Anyhow, there are two things that make this ad interesting. First, it has nothing to do with cuckolding. Second, WTF, you are going to let strangers tie you to a chair? This “couple” apparently lives in Dale City, Virginia. I imagine the call to Prince William County police is getting old. “We have a report of another naked guy tied to a hotel chair who has been robbed.” Any male who replies to this ad certainly gets what he deserves. Hmm, maybe it has something to do with cuckolding after all. You will be humiliated and likely robbed as well.

Being heterosexual, I don’t find much interest in reading male for male ads, but in the interest of fairness I glanced through these ads today, and judging from the volume of these postings the number of gay guys must be about 25% of the population, not 2%-3%, and a surprising number are in heterosexual marriages. Moreover, most of them don’t seem to be very concerned about picking up STDs. This one (warning: explicit content) is, sadly, typical (bring drugs):

boTTom 4 Top – m4m – 32 (suitland md) bottom latino some body hair shaved head looking for top with parTy favors poppers to come and get busy ….

And what are women looking for in a guy? Gullibility seems to be their prime criteria because as usual most of these “women” likely aren’t women at all. If they are women, they are likely whores. Most likely they are sophisticated email address collecting schemes. Some though are upfront that they are running an escort service, but isn’t the Dominican Republic a long way to go to get laid? I mean, if you are not Rush Limbaugh. Their ads will likely get quickly flagged:

Sexy girls!!!come and get it!! – w4m (washington, DC) Hi I have very nice hi end clean and cut girls available here in santo domingo willing to please your needs My girls will take care of you they know how to behave in public and you will have alot of fun. They are available for out calls I have hourly and daily rates. email me with any questions and for more info and pics of girls my girls are 18-25 please do not ask for any younger I do not have

Do you like larger women? How about much, much larger women? There seems to be plenty of BBW (Big Beautiful Women) posting on Craigslist, so many that I suspect these too are illegitimate and are marketers going for some tangent. Some guys are into women with “extra” which is fine, but I suspect most who would choose a BBW are likely desperate, or don’t understand that BBW does not mean twenty pounds overweight. Here’s a sample.

let’s do it all day – w4m – 40 ( Your place) Good morning! I’m hot and horny this morning and looking to make love to a well endowed man all day. Let’s order in sleep eat and fuck all day. I am AA BBW. I’m insatiable love oral and basically uninhibited. Let’s make our own heat wave. Got a friend? I may be open to that too. Safe play only…be ddf! Please provide a pic or you will be deleted. Also put how many inches you are and your city in the subject line….lol…gotta admit that’s kind of hot. Ex. 10 inches in Reston

Men looking for women still post a disproportionate number of ads. Still, you got to admire simple honesty when you see it:

Wanting To Lose My Virginity – m4w – 18 (Fairfax) Hi – This is not a joke and yes, I can prove my age. I’m looking to lose it before I go to college. Average build, white, swirly hair, clean (obviously) Let me know if you can help

Here’s a guy that will give you a place for you and your paramour or gang to have discreet whoopee. Only I’m betting the room is bugged and has a two-way mirror. Warning: you may find videos of yourself and friends posted to xhamster.com:

Need a place to play? – m4mw – 52 (Falls Church) Ahh, the summer: a time for passion. Like the other 3 seasons. Do you want a safe, private, lovely home to play? I’m glad to host you, Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning… No questions asked. A place for a tryst? GB? Your inner slut? I’m glad to watch, play, or stay out of the way. Your call. I’m cool, athletic, and smart. You will need to bring a partner: I’m not going to fix you up. M4T, T4M, w4mm, mw4mm and all the other possibilities…

Women are looking for other women, of course. As usual most are looking to explore and aren’t quite ready to acknowledge with their SO they are attracted to their gender. Ads, well, like this one:

Looking to explore – w4w – 25 I am very interested in meeting a woman for the first time. I am a MWF 25, petite, DD free and really ask for you to be discrete and DD free as well. I am available almost anytime this coming week after normal work hours. Please women only, I already have a man in my life and no he won’t be involved in anyway. Hope to hear from you soon!

BTW, I think she wants a discreet relationship, not a discrete one, although one at a time is usually a good idea.

And the most disturbing Craigslist casual encounter ad of the day? What could possibly go wrong here? (Address embedded in the ad has been redacted. Since it is so disturbing, I chose not link to it.)

rape me – 27 (arlington) I’m looking for a guy who wants to sneak in, come upstairs, find me naked in bed, and rape me. (202) I live at 2400 [redacted]. in arlington and i’ve left the door to my apartment unlocked. [redacted]. Yes i’m serious. it’s sunday afternoon and i’m real. [redacted]. i’m 27yo white and drug/disease free, you be too please. email me or call me if you are interested.

 

 

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