Monday, May 30, 2005

Tinkering with style sheets...

I just spent an hour that I will never be able to get back tweaking the style sheet of this blog. If you've been here before and have a long memory, you'll probably notice a difference. I'm curious to hear what people think. Because I'm a tinker, part of the reason I tweaked the style sheet was to see if what I did was an improvement for the end user, so I would really appreciate comments.

The basic goal behind the tweaking was to make it a bit more visually pleasant. I did this by making the text bolder and bringing down the intensity of the background, just a little. I also made the text larger - my theory is that most people reading the blog probably have decent screens, and it's a shame to waste all that width by using a tiny, cramped little font.

There's a meme going around the online publishing world that it's best to restrict the width of any given piece of text to make it more readable - never have a line with more than 10 words on it, or something like that. The idea is to make it easy for the eye to track back to the beginning of the next line. Unfortunately, the way people seem to accomplish this in style sheets is to use a tiny font, and then define the width of the text in pixels. The effect of this is that when those of us who do not like leaving noseprints on our computer display go to read the text, we have to zoom the text to read it. But because the width is specified in pixels, what happens is that we wind up with text that's got maybe four words to the line. Yuck.

Turns out that you don't need to specify pixels in a style sheet - you can specify the width as a percentage of the width of the browser window. W00t. So now the gentle reader is free to resize the text to his or her heart's content, and resize the window to produce the most readable width to the text column.

The downside of this is that the gentle reader may not want to have to tweak the window to get the text to look right. I think I've chosen a reasonable set of defaults, so that the gentle reader need not do so, but I am curious to hear from gentle readers as to their opinions on this innovation. Love? Hate? Needs further tinkering?

The weather's been interesting in Tucson recently. Here's a fairly nice picture from a recent dust storm (the first one I've experienced in Tucson, actually):

Missing the obvious...

Of course, the most important quality of a tinker is that we produce cool stuff that works, mostly because we enjoy doing it, although also in many cases because we can get someone to pay for it, and this allows us to put food on the table, and put the table under a roof somewhere.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Geeking out...

O'Reilly and Associates recently started publishing a new magazine, Make Magazine. This is the coolest thing since sliced bread. It's articles by people who are actually doing stuff, both high-tech and low. There's a challenge at the end of this quarter's magazine: build a water filter that will remove VOC's and microbes from contaminated water, using some plastic soda bottles, bamboo, unlimited coconuts, etc. Another article talks about how in Nicaragua people are welding specialized bicycles - a wheelchair bike for someone with a spinal injury, several different sales bikes, stuff like that. Also featured: adobe building techniques. Other articles talk about how to make VOC sniffer robots out of cheap robotic toys, for tracking down illegal toxic waste dumping. Very exciting stuff, if you're a geek, or have geek tendencies.

I've been thinking about building a robot out of a broken Powerbook, an iSight camera, and some USB-controlled stepper motors with wheels. In Make magazine this week there was an article describing how to make a teleprompter on the cheap. One of the big problems with the iSight is that you are never looking _at_ the iSight when you are using it - you're looking at the screen, so the person to whom you are talking doesn't see you face on. The teleprompter jig could fix this - you put the iSight behind the mirror. Now you're looking at the reflected image of your computer screen in the mirror, and the iSight is pointing straight at you, so you get a nice f2f experience, instead of a "that guy's not looking at me when he talks" experience.

Back when I was coming up in the geek world, we called people who did stuff like this (and also pure programming) "hackers." Nowadays, "hacker" means a hardened 13-year-old criminal who breaks into your computer using skr1pts that s/he picked up on the Internet, who probably doesn't know anything about programming, but just follows recipes, breaks into your computer, screws it up, and moves on to the next one.

I propose that we stop trying to reclaim the word "hacker." Vernor Vinge, in several of his short stories, uses the term "tinker." See The Collected Short Stories of Vernor Vinge, which I think is a boringly-renamed collection of what's in True Names, and Other Dangers and Threats, and Other Promises.
Wen Spencer has a book called Tinker that's about someone who meets this description pretty well. Good book, too, if you like romantic/elf/borderlands/geek fiction.

Anyway, I think tinker is a really good modern substitute for the old meaning of hacker. I think we just ought to give up on "hacker," because it's too late. We should just be tinkers and be done with the arguing.

So what is a tinker? A tinker is someone who is curious about how things work, and isn't afraid to break them to figure it out, who can put things back together in strange, unexpected ways, use things in ways that they weren't intended. A tinker is impatient with externally-imposed restrictions to learning. A tinker doesn't accept anything important at face value - if it's important, it's worth understanding. A tinker may have strange ideas of what is important. A tinker likes to share what he or she creates - to pass on what he or she has learned. A tinker never, ever cooperates with someone who wishes to prevent some kinds of tinkering. A tinker takes personal responsibility for making the world a better place. A tinker doesn't make the mistake of thinking he or she is always right.

Could it work? I don't know.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Party Line

In every spiritual practitioner's life, there should be people who totally dis them. Without these people, there is no hope of honesty. It is so painfully easy to fool oneself into believing that one has the right idea, that if people do not come along who whack us upside the head and completely refuse to buy into the party line, we can't help but go hopelessly off track.

I am blessed with many such people. There's a monk at Diamond Mountain, Lobsang Nyima, who sees me for the callow fool I am and never hesitates to throw down the gauntlet. Don't get the wrong idea. He's not some nice old fellow, genial but stern, steeped in books and learning, gently turning me back onto the path when I stray from the party line.

On the contrary, he's a former punk rocker from New York who loves motorcycles, thinks Anna Paquin is the most perfect being who could ever exist, isn't afraid to go out and dig ditches to pay the bills, and seems like a complete fish out of water in his new home, Bowie, Arizona. But he's not. There's a reason he's at DM (at least from my side!). I was debating something with Nyima a month or so ago, and he said something to me that really bugged me at the time, but later made me think: "geez, Ted, I can always count on you for the party line!"

The problem with any spiritual practice is that it's based on a teaching, and the teaching isn't what's meant to be learned. So you can learn the teaching perfectly, and never understand it at all. The only way to understand it is to put your fragile understanding under the hammer of adversity - to debate it with people who say completely unreasonable things that don't sound anything like what was meant, and with people who say completely reasonable things that don't sound anything like what was meant, and try to bash the ideas around until some deeper understanding arises. When that deeper understanding arises, then you have to bash the living crap out of it, because it's closer, maybe, but it's still wrong.

Lobsang Nyima does this quite nicely for me. So does my father. Tonight I got my mental butt kicked by a very kind teacher from DM who comes to Tucson every Wednesday to teach here. I'm actually writing this as a mental note to myself, because I haven't quite figured out how she kicked my butt, but kick it she did, and it seems important. We should all be blessed with such teachers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Loving Embrace of Summer...

Andrea and I are back in Tucson after three weeks of travel. Naturally, today is tile installation day, so we have a bunch of nice folks here making loud noises hammering tile off the wall so they can install new. Very sad - we wanted subway tile in our kitchen, but when the original installers installed it, they used traditional Tucson grout lines - about a quarter inch thick. Needless to say, this did not look good. Update: the banging has mostly stopped. Yay!

Anyway, Tucson is experiencing a major heat wave, but it's a desert heat wave, which has some unusual characteristics. I drove to Yoga class this morning with the windows rolled down, enjoying the cool breeze. This despite the fact that the temperature yesterday supposedly was around 103 degrees at sunset. When my yoga class (turns out it was just a practice session - Lisaji is still in New York) let out, the temperature was already 89 degrees, and although that is still fairly cool when the air is really dry, I switched to air conditioning.

I wanted to wander away from the serious topic of the previous post, although I am sure I will bore you with it again, and just describe an experience I had when I was in Oklahoma. A little context: my mother's family purchased a section (160 acres) of land near Claremore way back when (I'm not sure, but I think sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century). Claremore is in the part of Oklahoma that used to be referred to as "Green Country", although climate change has now rendered much of Oklahoma sufficiently green that I'm not sure this distinction is still made.

When I was a kid, the farm was a real farm - I remember harvesting potatoes with my great grandfather - Grampa Jean - when he was 80. His name was actually Eugene Dickerson, but I didn't know that when he was alive - he died when I was nine - so he'll always be Grampa Jean to me. They also ran cattle, although I didn't see much of that. I do remember working in the hay barn when I was a kid, and I think my first experience controlling a truck was when I was about 13, and I was tasked with driving the hay truck through the field as the larger and more muscular members of the family tossed bales up onto the truck or stacked them.

The southernmost 80 acres of the farm were where the cattle were run, and also where the swimming hole was. I remember walking out to the swimming hole when I was a kid, with Missy and JJ and Signe and Sandra. We'd go barefoot, which was really stupid, because the walk out was all broken rock, crab grass, and those nasty thistles that they have out there that look like little crabs, and bite into your feet with a barb that you can't get out without drawing blood. But we'd walk out and dive off the high spot into the deep part of the pond, and swim around for hours.

When Andrea and I were in Oklahoma two weeks ago, Sandra took us for a tour of the back 80 acres. It's so different. They haven't run cattle on it in years, and even the last time they did run cattle, it wasn't a very big herd. The grass is a thick blanket, entirely covering the areas of broken stone, which themselves are now covered in topsoil. Beavers roam the land, and the dams they've built I think are responsible for a lot of the change. The spot where we used to dive, which was nothing but broken rock, is now grassy and green, and the only rock you can see the rock is along the edge of the lake, where the land drops off straight down into the water, and it can't hold soil.

Wildflowers are growing everywhere. There are so many blackberry brambles that Sandra has certain favorites that she picks, and she leaves the others alone. She has a freezer full of blackberries that she picked last summer. The blackberries were in bloom when we went back, so they looked like great bonnets of lace strewn about the meadows. We saw a little baby snake, birds everywhere, maybe even a rabbit or two - I can't remember.

Land everywhere doesn't recover like this - Claremore really is green country - but it's hopeful to see something like this: to see that the damage done by overgrazing really can be recovered, and in a remarkably small period of time. The land out in Arizona where we're building our retreat center is similarly damaged by cattle grazing. I think it will take longer to recover than the land in Claremore did, because we get so much less rainfall, but it would be nice to see it covered one day in tall grass and oak groves. Seeing the back 80 in Claremore gave me hope.

Monday, May 16, 2005


When I was younger and less foolish, I became interested in mountaineering, in kind of a roundabout way: I read a series of four novellas that took place in Nepal, one of which involved the heros climbing on Mount Everest along with their guide, a Buddhist monk.

For some reason I became fascinated with climbing Mount Everest too. Not that I ever really thought I would, but I undertook to at least go look at it, and thought maybe I'd climb a less difficult peak nearby. In preparing for the trip to Nepal, I took a couple of classes in alpine mountaineering from a school up at Donner Pass called Alpine Skills International. I also read a ton of books on mountaineering, including a book by Heinrich Harrer entitled The White Spider, which I found incredibly moving, although, because the Nazi government, without his permission, used Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian, as an example of an ├╝bermensch, some consider the book to be politically incorrect. Don't judge Harrer by what you see in the work of fiction that is the movie, Seven Years in Tibet. If you're curious to know about him, read his books.

Anyway, one of the things that comes up when you read books about mountaineering is death. Mountaineers die, frequently. When I was in Nepal, I met a member of a climbing team whose friends had died on Pumo Ri in an avalanche a few days earlier, and another fellow, who really looked like he thought himself a ghost, who had nearly died doing a solo trek across the glacier that runs down the valley between Gokyo and Everest base camp. Reinhold Meissner, a much-beloved, much-criticized climber, lost his brother to a mountain near K2, and the story he tells of what happened is sadly haunting.

So mountaineers think a lot about risk. They even divide it up into two categories: objective risk, and subjective risk. When I was researching mountaineering, I found this topic quite fascinating. Subjective risk here means "risk that is caused by the person experiencing it," whereas objective risk means "risk that exists independent of the person experiencing it." Mistakes are subjective. Acts of nature are objective. Trusting an anchor you have set yourself, and tested carefully, is a subjective risk - whether you live or die depends on how well you evaluated the situation. Trusting that you will not be blown off the face of the mountain by an avalanche is an objective risk - you have no real control over whether an avalanche happens. If the way to the summit involves crossing under a snowfield, you just have to risk it.

Of course, part of the art of mountaineering is trying to turn objective risks into subjective risks. Harrer explains in The White Spider how he made it up the Eigerwand - the north face of the Eiger, which was one of the most dangerous unclimbed faces of his time. After careful observation, and based on the experience of other climbers who had tried to climb the Eigerwand, he was able to characterize the likelihood of an avalanche happening on a particular part of the face, so that when he crossed that part of the face, he timed his crossing to avoid being exposed to the risk of the avalanche.

So why am I writing about this? When I was reading all these books, I thought to myself, "I am not going to expose myself to objective risks. I am going to be smart, and not make any mistakes, and not take any risks that depend on parameters I can't control." I wound up not climbing, which was probably the right choice, but I think I'm not alone in thinking this way. I think mostly we live our lives with the illusion that most of the risks we take are subjective risks, and that we have control over them.

Nothing brings this home more strongly than the experience of being a passenger in a jet. There is no subjectivity to the risk. Of course, we pretend there is - we choose a particular airline, or avoid certain airframes, or certain airports, because that is all we can control, but any sense of control we perceive when we do this is a complete illusion, and one that, if we worry when we fly, evaporates the moment the pilot guns the engines.

The fact is that every instant of our lives is an objective risk. Think about this. A classic example of risk in our lives is our retirement savings. We put money into savings in hopes of using it when we are no longer able to work, or if we're lucky we get to where we no longer need to work. And we spend a lot of effort trying to avoid making mistakes - we see the risk of investing as subjective, and we try not to make mistakes. During the aftermath of the baby boom, this worked out so well that people generally talk about financial risk as something that can be managed. But really it can't, for two reasons.

First, you can stress out about saving for retirement, put all your money in low-risk investments (e.g., bonds), and then die of a heart attack or cancer at the age of fifty, and then your kids, if you had any, get to spend it, and you get nothing, because you're dead. That's not so bad if you wanted your kids to get it, I guess, but it's not retirement.

Or you can invest carefully, do a lot of research, and get blindsided because the companies that looked like safe investments looked that way because they very carefully and deliberately lied to you about their financial situation, using accounting tricks that, while definitely deceptive, were, in a formal sense, legal. A lot of folks who invested in Enron are learning about how to continue making a living past retirement age - even though they haven't keeled over from heart attacks, and even though they invested carefully, it didn't work out. Maybe they should have diversified more, but that would have just lessened the impact of the risk not panning out, and a more comprehensive financial collapse, which, lets face it, is perfectly possible, would prevent even clever diversification from saving you. And look at former United employees, who are left holding the bag because United can't pay their pensions anymore.

It can go the other way, too. Back in the eighties and early nineties, AIDS was a definite death sentence. People who had white blood cell counts below a certain amount, or viral loads above a certain amount, used to plan financially for their certain death. When the AIDS cocktails came out, and started actually saving peoples' lives, a lot of people who had planned on dying were suddenly in a position where they had to figure out how they were going to make a living.

Everything in life is like this. We make decisions because of a probabability that what we do will be the right thing, not because of a certainty that it will be the right thing. And we make mistakes all the time - calling driving a subjective risk assumes that we are in control. We think that accidents are mistakes, but really we make mistakes all the time. An accident is when two people make compatible mistakes at the same time, or when we make a mistake in really bad circumstances. How many times have you done something while driving and then later realized how much danger you were in as a result? If your answer is "not many," is it really because you are a good driver, or because you're not being honest with yourself, or not paying attention?

In every moment, the worst possible outcome is waiting for us, and the best possible outcome is waiting for us. We don't even know what the worst possible outcome is, or what the best possible outcome is, much less how to get to them, or how likely they are.

So if everything is an objective risk, it's hopeless, right? We should just sit back and take whatever comes, and not try to act in the world, because our actions make no difference, right? No, that's not the point. The point is that I know from looking back on my own life that I almost always let my fear of objective risk control the decisions I make. And if I once again look back on my life and look at the decisions I made that had truly amazing outcomes, those decisions were the ones I made where I deliberately or accidentally chose to ignore the objective risk. And recently, say in the past five or so years, I've been making a serious effort not to let my fear control my actions. And I'm much happier than I was in the years before that.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

You Are a Guardian Angel

A couple of years ago I was flying home from New York, I think after a teaching in New Jersey. At the airport, after I checked my luggage, I took an escalator up to the boarding area. In front of me on the escalator was an older couple, maybe in their sixties, but youthful for that age. About halfway up the escalator, the man lost his balance and fell backwards. And I caught him.

I was somewhat prepared for this, because my mother had taken a similar fall a few months earlier. She fell from some stairs onto tile, and knocked herself out. So I wasn't exactly expecting him to fall, but when he did I wasn't surprised.

There's a kind of seductive phrase that you hear from time to time: "guardian angel." It sounds really cool. If you ever read Family Circus in the newspaper, you may have seen that cartoonist's idea of a guardian angel - a nice person with wings, invisible, who catches the children (how old are they now?) when they stumble. My aunt, Florence, talks about angels too, and the way she talks about them leads me to believe that she thinks they are invisible.

They are not. Look around you. Maybe you're sitting at home, alone. Where are your guardian angels? If you're reading this, you're online. There are people sitting in a network operations center miles from you right now, making sure that your network connection is working. The road that leads to your house was conceived of, designed and built by a whole army of people, for you. The food in your stomach, or in your refrigerator, was grown for you, delivered to you, probably prepared for you by another, similar army. People are worrying about the quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and taking action, sometimes at great personal expense, to make sure that it is good.

But this article isn't about them. It's about you. The world thrusts itself at you - you can't stop it. Sometimes in pleasant ways, sometimes in very unpleasant ways. Sometimes you feel protected, sometimes you don't. But when you are out in the world, among the people, opportunities will appear to you to be a guardian angel. If you're lucky, it'll be something really amazing, like saving a guy from a really painful injury. More often, it'll be a chance to pay some small kindness to someone else.

Maybe when you're in the airport, your flight will be canceled, and you'll have to talk to the person behind the counter, and you'll be tenth in line, and the person behind the counter will have been yelled at by the previous nine people, even though he had nothing to do with the flight delay, and you'll smile at him, and the tension in his chest will ease a little, and he will go home feeling like he helped you, instead of feeling beaten up. Maybe you're the guy behind the counter, and you'll listen patiently to the mean people yelling at you, and help them to get home, even though they're being mean to you, even though there is no tenth person in line to smile at you.

My father and mother have a weird relationship. My mother tends to conceal things from my father, because my father isn't the person my mother wants him to be, and she has trouble accepting him as he is, and trusting in his good intentions. So even when he could help her, she doesn't tell him what's going on. Which is too bad, because in fact he has very good intentions, even though his intentions are not to be whom she wants him to be. He puts a lot of effort into taking care of her, making sure she has what she needs.

When Mary died, my grandmother needed my mother to fly out to Oklahoma to help out - my grandmother is completely disabled, and can't take care of herself. My mother is partially disabled, but was game to go take care of grandma anyway. She couldn't get a flight the next day to Oklahoma. My father isn't a whiz at travel sites (he has difficulty traveling). I was in a class at Diamond Mountain, and so not very reachable.

So he camped out on AIM, sending me pings every fifteen minutes, until I finally responded. He told me the situation, and asked me to figure out how to get my mother to Oklahoma as quickly as possible, because he knew I was a whiz with travel sites. While he was at it, he planted the idea in my head that I should be prepared to go take care of her if things got hairy in Oklahoma.

Things did get hairy. Two weeks later I was on a plane to Oklahoma myself. I don't know if he will appreciate being thought of as her guardian angel, and I'm sure she'd have trouble with the idea. I'm sure I'll hear from both of them about how they feel about this. But I think there's a case to be made for thinking of it this way.

Why bother, though? Isn't it just some kind of trick? No, that's what angels are. You may see yourself as ordinary, but you aren't ordinary. I think it helps to think of yourself as a real guardian angel, and I think it's true - it's not just pretending. If there are guardian angels in the world, there's no reason for them to be anything other than the people around you, and if the people around you are guardian angels, why can't you be one too?

Thinking this way helps to be happy when you're helping people who don't appreciate what you're doing, You're part of a secret conspiracy to make them happy, and it doesn't matter if they know. It just matters that you're doing it. If you think this way, it might make it easier to bear when people don't appreciate what you do. If you think of yourself as a guardian angel, you will start to see opportunities to be a guardian angel. It's a positive feedback loop.

Being a guardian angel isn't always easy. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do to protect someone is a thing that will make them angry at you, or make them feel like you are a bad person. You aren't omniscient - even though you're a guardian angel, you can't play God. But a lot of times we do things we think of as good not because we are thinking of someone's benefit, but because we are hoping they will like us. When what they need is something that will make them dislike us, we have to be ready to do it anyway. When our gut instinct tells us to get in the way, and our wish for approval tells us to back off, we have to get in the way.

A nice side effect of being a guardian angel, if you do it right, is that you start to see guardian angels around you. The person who does something to help you isn't just a nice person - they're looking out for you. It's personal.

The ultimate benefit, I think, is that eventually you realize that the people in your world who seem to be working against you may be doing so because they are trying to help you. The world we live in is a frightening place, and we are often afraid of the wrong things. So we make the wrong decisions. Our guardian angels are there to help us, by frustrating our goals, getting in the way of the mistakes we so desperately want to make.

Why mention this now? It's a practice - even though it's true, I don't always remember that it's true, and so I forget to to do it. Writing about it, like this, helps me to remember. The people who know me and read this will, because they are my guardian angels, point at me and laugh when I forget that I am their guardian angel, and this too will help me to remember.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Family Fun Time...

So one of the consequences of my Aunt Mary's passing is that my grandmother no longer has anyone to care for her, and as a consequence she is now staying at the Claremore Nursing Home. It's a pretty nice place, as nursing homes go, but it is a nursing home. She seems to be managing pretty well there, all things considered, but obviously she's not thrilled to be there. In all honesty, I think she's getting better care there than she did at home, simply because there's only so much one person can do.

I have to say that this whole experience is a real lesson in how not to let your life go, though. Grandma has always been very reluctant to relinquish any kind of control; even in the nursing home she's still trying to control everything. But of course nothing is under her control. So every action she takes actually further limits her control. She's afraid of the family selling her land, which is perfectly understandable, so she's managed to get the nursing home people to a point where they don't know who to believe. Which means that they won't help her when the time comes for her to sell her property to pay for her care - they aren't sure she is in her right mind, so the notary public there won't certify any papers she signs. Which means that in order to help her, we may be forced to do exactly the opposite of what she wants - to get a judge to assign guardianship. We can't even do her 2004 federal income tax.

The lesson here, which I think is a pretty sharp one, is that we need to be realistic about how our life is going *before* we get to the place she's at now. At this point, it's impossible for her to let go, and she's too freaked out to behave rationally, and no-one can blame her. But if she had planned for this five years ago, she wouldn't be freaked out - we'd be doing what she needs us to do, at her direction. I say this not to criticize her, but as a cautionary tale for myself and anybody else who happens to read this.

We all come to a point in our life where we are no longer in control, whether we want to be or not. What we do before that point has a huge impact on what happens when that point comes - whether we feel like things are spinning out of control, or whether we feel taken care of.

I think we need to live our lives, even when we are nowhere near my grandmother's age (87) as if things could fly out of control at any moment, and develop an attitude of accepting the small difficulties that come and dealing with them constructively, head-on, and not in a way that just puts the trouble off for later. I think if we do this consistently, then when things really do fly completely out of control, we will be in the habit of dealing with things as they are in the moment, and then we won't freak out quite so much. But maybe I'm just kidding myself. Sigh.