WordPress 2.0 (It Works!)

Have you read my blog yet?

Yes, folks, if you’re reading this then I was able to upgrade to WordPress 2.0. Although it looks exactly the same on the outside (what you’re seeing now), the management interface is completely overhauled. It is much more like a WordPress.com account, for those of you who that means anything to.1

The new release of WordPress also comes with a fancy WYSIWIG html editor installed. I’m going to have to make some modifications to this (or wait until people update their plug-ins) before I can really make use of it, though. However, a lot of it is mostly eye candy; such as AJAX menu options and update notifications. All-in-all, worth the 30 minutes of upgrade work and it should make the work of writing, well, a little less work.

Just testing some other functions. No need to pay attention to the man behind the man behind the green curtain..

  1. It appears that footnotes are working, too! []

Eighties Revivalism

When is it pop-culture and when is it nostalgia?

Angela playing a game of Tetris on the NES emulator

Angela playing a game of Tetris on the NES emulator.

Angela and I have been spending a lot of our time off this holiday playing some classic 8-bit games on a NES emulator on my PC. Games like Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bro.s 1, 2, & 3, as well as Tetris and Dr. Mario.1 We’ve both been amazed at how much fun it has been to go back and play all the games we loved as kids.

It has occurred to me, that our generation seems to have an early sense of nostalgia. We haven’t waited until we were in our 40’s or 50’s (or even later) to decided we wanted to have bits of our youth around. Pop culture references are woven in our music and movies. Speaking of 8-bit gaming, I’ve listened to probably ten different renditions of the Super Mario Bro.s theme as performed by various musicians online (from guitar and bass solos to a capella groups to orchestras, with some being better than others). Also, I see Autobot and Decepticon stickers on automobiles2 (along with other references, like Thundercats, which just don’t quite make as much sense). Fox’s "The Family Guy" has at least five minutes of 80’s youth pop culture references each week (this past week with Stewie as the pinball in the Electric Company’s count animation has to have been the best yet, topping even the Kool-Aid man bit in the courtroom for us).

I suppose it’s all some product of the fact that it was my generation (more-or-less) that was responsible for the internet being what it is today and allowing access to everything, anytime we like. Naturally some of our youth found its way on there early on. Anyway, it seems to me that Generation X (or whatever the hell they call us these days) has decided to stay young a little earlier in life. In healthy doses, I think it’s incredibly cool. It’s not that I don’t want to grow and evolve as a person, it’s just that I don’t wanna grow up ’cause I’m a Toys’R Us kid. Maybe it can help us remind us of when our lives were simpler and we were all young idealist. We wanted to do what was right; whether it be help old lady’s across the street or fight Cobra. I know sometimes I find myself acting more like some shallow 80’s yuppie than anyone I would have actually liked when I was eleven years old. Maybe in thinking about what I did for fun back then I’ll have to keep that in mind as well.

  1. Emulators and game ROM’s abound, so just use Google. I have FCE Ultra on my PC which is pretty nice. Recently, I found RockNES for the Mac, which is got to be the best emulator ever. Just go buy yourself a cheap USB game controller and you’ll be rockin’ the 8-bit, too. []
  2. You can get your own stickers here. []

Ethical Shopping

It’s Christmas Eve, and since Angela and I are just sticking around town this holiday, we decided to go run a few errands earlier today. One of which was to go buy Staples to pick up some printer paper (I specifically say Staples, because they’re at the end of the street, about six blocks away). Okay, buying printer paper shouldn’t be a major life decision, and I don’t want the fact that I’m posting about it to make it seem larger than it is. However, it is typical of the many decisions that we, as consumers, make almost everyday. What do you consider in buying something like printer paper: buy recycled paper? buy the cheapest? buy the highest quality? buy a national brand or a local brand? and so on.

We ended up buy a few reams of Xerox 100% Post-Consumer Recycled Paper. It’s only 20 lb. and 84 brightness, which is thinner and duller paper than I usually like. However, it was on sale at Staples and, as the name implies, is 100% recycled (post-consumer content, which is important). We’ve made the decision that recycling our paper (among other household items) is important to us, and purchasing recycled paper goods helps to complete that cycle. Else, you’re really not realizing the full environmental benefit of your own recycling.

Most all of our our choices as consumers come down to so much more than just price and the goods themselves. There is meta-data associated with goods that reflects so much more than what is inside the package we’re purchasing. Of course, other than possibly the environmental aspect, one of the most common is buying from a source to help the economies of one group or another. Buying from local farmers to keep the money working close to home, purchasing from retailers who choose to pay a living wage instead of minimum wage, buying fair-trade products rather than the cheapest foreign made product. These are examples of ethical shopping1, or using one’s conscience to help make a decision instead of, or in addition to, the stuff inside the box.

We try and put our money where our hearts, minds, and mouths are. Of course, sometimes our priorities end up being in direct conflict with one another. Spending my money at a bookstore that donates money to progressive political causes (like, Barnes & Noble, for example) can’t be anything local, as there aren’t any here in Virginia, to be sure. Some even argue that consumers should just always buy the cheapest product and give any approximate savings to the cause they originally considered supporting. That’s a great notion, as it cuts down on middle-man costs. Unfortunately, in practice, where to you give your money to and how likely are you to actually go through with a 45¢ donation to them? Personally, I feel that just isn’t practice and choose to go ahead and buy fair-trade coffee (can’t ever get local grown coffee anyway) and buy goods made in places that pay workers decent wages rather than mail them a check myself2

So here’s a somewhat ordered list of the things, other than price and quality of product, that we consider in our household:

  1. Environmental impact: Buy recycled/ used goods; buy items which pollute as little as possible, such as recycled paper and vehicles with good fuel economy.
  2. Health: buy natural/ organic or non-preservative foods; such as free range chicken and no-pesticide vegetables3.
  3. Local: buy foods grown locally and goods made locally when possible; use local services, like our farmer’s market, Virginia grown buffalo meat, and the Staples down the street (yes, it’s a local chain, but it keeps decent paying jobs in our neighborhood, which it needs).
  4. Fair Markets: buy goods from business that pay living wages and through fair-trade markets, like Costco (who pays much better than it’s competitor Sam’s Club and their employees stay with them much longer), Gridge’s coffee, who sell certified Fair-Trade coffee, or Novica where you can purchase from crafts-people in developing countries.
  5. Progressive Causes: purchase from retailers and producers who also support like-minded causes, in politics, environment, fair-trade, etc. Barnes & Noble and Starbucks are two large corporations that donate overwhelmingly to progressive candidates. Ford is a automobile manufacturer who takes environmental manufacturing and green building very seriously.

Again, depending on the circumstance, those priorities move. Also, it’s rare when they can all be satisfied. However, we feel like at least keeping this sort of thing in mind does more good than bad. We are going to use up resources and we might as well make the act of doing so produce some additional end results that can help make the world a little better.

So does any of this matter to any of you? Do you have other things you consider or is your order vastly different from mine above? Let me know. I’d love to see how other people think about this, if at all (I may be vastly over-estimating how much my money matters).

  1. While this sort of thing has been on our minds for most of our lives, the term "ethical shopping" was one I first read in a piece in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago. It seemed to sum up the whole notion sufficiently. []
  2. Although, to be sure, it is possible. Kiva.org is a new site dedicated to making micro-payments to individuals and companies in developing companies. You can make both donations and loans. []
  3. Consumer Reports has a nice little article about when this makes sense and when it’s just not worth bothering (via Kottke). []

It’s The Holidays

I had written this post up a couple of weeks ago, and wasn’t going to publish it, but after my Christmas Plans post a couple of days ago, I though some might get the wrong impression. I’m no Christmas Hum-bug. I just think that people can be a little too pro-Christmas.

Stuart Calrson 12/21/2005 - Courtesy of the WashingPost.com

Stuart Carlson

I grew up in a town where you could never be Christian enough. Sure, I was (and am) a Christian; but that wasn’t the point. It didn’t matter if I went to church on Sunday, because I didn’t go on Wednesday1. It’s not unlike how these days, you can’t have too many American flags hanging around. You can’t have too many yellow-ribbon-magnets showing just how much you support the troops.

It seems to matter none that all these things don’t actually prove anything, other that you just care way too much what other people think of you.

Now, we have several conservative Christian groups boycotting stores because these stores are Anti-Christian. Are they really? Of course not. Anti-Christian stores tend to not have entire seasonal areas of floorspace dedicated to Christmas decorations. However, the fact that these stores only state Happy Holidays in their adds or in banners is a clear sign to these organizations that they are indeed out to destroy Christmas. When I was growing up, you had to be green, mean, and covered in fur and willing to steal toys out of little girl’s hands before any came close to saying you were out to ruin Christmas. Now, apparently wishing people Happy Holidays means you aren’t Christian enough and, therefore, you are a witch out to destroy baby Jesus’ birthday.

Christmas isn’t in any danger. Even my non-Christian friends, from atheists to Jews to Hindus, all seem to really enjoy Christmas; with many even saying it’s their favorite holiday2. Everyone is in a better mood and the decorations bring smiles to most everyone’s faces (unless your neighbor goes a little too far). However, the fact that New Year’s is just around the corner from Christmas, and the fact they at least a couple of religions have some relatively large holiday’s around the same time, results in folks just saying "Happy Holidays." Retail outlets would rather just be brief (advertising isn’t free, especially around December) and also be inclusive of everyone who might shop there.

I can remember when Christian groups used to accuse stores of over-commercializing Christmas, and they might have had a legitimate argument then. Some of the stuff we associate with Christmas is actually all pagan anyway (Yule was an ancient Germanic tradition that involved burning logs, hanging mistletoe, and at least in part, giving gifts) and they used to complain about those, too. However, no one’s saying even that anymore. They’re just upset at the branding problem. This is a perfect case of people taking offense when none was meant. This is way too much like over-political-correctness, even if from a group that complains about having to be politically correct.

Christmas isn’t going anywhere, but I wouldn’t mind if Bill O’Reilly, the Catholic League, & The American Family Association would. Their ruining the holidays for all of us.

  1. Of course, I am Presbyterian. We don’t have Wednesday evening services, known in my family as booster-shot-service. Of course, that fact was lost on most people in my hometown. I guess they expected me to just go to some other church that did or just sit alone in the dark on Wednesday evenings. In fact, to explain just how big a deal this is, in my hometown, most businesses other than my Dad’s law practice closed at noon on Wednesday so everyone could half half of a holy day off. Yeah, but I was the weird one. []
  2. I’m attending a Christmas party tonight at a friend’s home who happens to be a Jain. []

Plans For The Holidays

In case you’re in need of some instructions on how to comply with modern building codes in your Holiday (that’s right, I said Holiday!) preparations:

Holiday Plans - Engineering Document (.pdf link)

No, I didn’t create this. The title block lists Winzler & Kelly of Eureka, CA as the firm. I have no idea if they’re even real. I can tell by the fact that it references codes from the ’90’s, that it’s not very recent, either. However, I thought it might be a nice thing to share with anyone who appreciates decent engineering humor.

Happy Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/New Year/Festivus Holidays!

Didn’t you hear? Politically correct is the new subversive.

"Brotherhood of War"

Tae Guk Gi - The Brotherhood of War

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War

One of the great things about Netflix, is it can allow us to experiment with movies. Oh, sure, we could do that at the big blue & yellow video store down the street. However, they would never carry a film like "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War" (also at Netflix). Nevermind that it was the single most successful film in the history of Korean cinema, it isn’t going to rent much here in the states. However, Netflix has that whole long tail thing going, so it can afford to carry the low volume discs in addition to your Hollywood bankbusters.

I had read some good things about the Brotherhood and I thought that it might be interesting and educational for Angela and I to watch a film about the Korean War as told from a Korean perspective. Well, a South Korean perspective, at least. Before you start thinking way off track here, any Korean-American politics are left out of the film completely. The characters seem to be thankful, by almost indifferent to the Americans. One scene in the film contains some American military big-wigs who remain nameless. No, it focuses far more on how the Korean war was forced on the people living south of the 38th parallel in 1950. If you believe the film, and I’d say it gets this right, no one in the country went without being deeply and forever affected by their civil war.

So many reviewers keep comparing this film to Speilberg’s "Saving Private Ryan," the soaring WWII epic which begins with a marvelous and horrendous sequence depicting the invasion of Normandy. I can understand why, but the films quickly set themselves apart. Where Ryan is a soaring war epic with ensemble casts, Brotherhood is the intimate story of two brothers trying to stay close while everything they know is being torn apart. Ryan has all the traits the we westerners love in our heroes: strength, compassion, and valor. Brotherhood allows it’s hero to sink into darkness, allowing the senselessness of war eat away at his mind. This film is told with the operatic style typical of Korean cinema and television. The characters seem like raw nerves compared to Tom Hank‘s cool and collected Captain Miller; they cry and wail in a way that seems unseemly to western sensibilities. However, this over-the-top emotional expression also allows the viewer to become attached to the characters where their back story itself leaves us wanting to know more1.

Cinematically, the film is wonderful. The battle scenes, while sometimes hard to follow, are brutally real (except the CG airplane crash, that wasn’t too convincing). The vast landscapes of Korea that serve as backgrounds show us just how amazing this mountainous peninsula is. One scene of the younger brother chatting up a boyhood friend on a mountain side, while snow flurries all around them, could be slowed into a series of 24 postcards per second.

One aspect of the film which I had not counted on, was the political commentary on the ideology of the war. Many Koreans were simple villagers during this time, insulated by their work and small lives. They new little to nothing of governmental ideology and political parties. When offered favors or goods for signing papers or showing up at rallies, they gladfully accepted. Why not? The film touches on this in a major story arc that I won’t get into here, other than to say that one of the characters meets their end because of their unwitting alignment with the "wrong" party.

My wife’s maternal grandfather was considered to be one of the wisest men in his small village. He had gone across the Eastern Sea to study at a university in Japan, which was remarkably rare in those days for a Korean. He was routinely asked to help local villages and people, since he could read and write and provide aid in legal matters. He had left instruction with his family to never affix his seal or sign his name while he was away, knowing that unscrupulous people representing both communist and democratic parties could take advantage of his name and influence. However, in exchange for something (know one seems to know what) or at the lie that he had asked his family to do so, a family member did just that one day while he was away. Not long after his return, the rival political faction murdered him as a traitor upon learning of his new-found "alignment." This resulted in my mother-in-law and her family being forced to flee for their lives.

So now you can understand just how difficult it must have been for Angela to watch as similar events unfolded in this film. So often we watch, with detached concern, as the tragic events in a movie unfold. However, when the characters fate is the same as one of your very own family members, it becomes impossible to think to one’s self that it’s only a story. Angela watched the film, in tears and visibly shaking with hurt and rage. I never imagined that a film could truly hurt anyone, but I now know that some things are too painful to see realized like this. I had heard of similar stories of former GI’s breaking down and sobbing throughout "Saving Private Ryan.&qout; I can now understand a little more about what they must have felt, reliving the most horrendous moments of their lives. Moments that even the strongest of people can barely make it through and ever wish to see another day. I think that is what these two films have the most in common: the ability to give us all a small glimpse at what these people survived, even if told in two dissimilar ways.

Angela did make it through the film, although she did describe it as the single saddest film she’s ever seen. I’d tend to agree with her2. We also agreed that I owed her a number of romantic comedies to make up for it. I honestly can’t say that I enjoyed this film at all, although I did find it to be a great movie. I would recommend it to anyone who wanted to know more about what the Korean war must have been like for the people of that country (now two countries, still technically at war without ever having signed a formal peace treaty). It also helps to understand Korean culture and heritage some, both from the characters as written and the very foreign (to westerners) way in which they are portrayed. I think I understand my mother-in-law a bit better now, and I know that I have even more respect for her than even before, which is to say a lot.

  1. We only meet them days before war breaks out, and the flashbacks of brotherly love show us one afternoons events. I’d like to think that in remembering my own brothers, more than one fun afternoon would occur to me. []
  2. With Shadowlands, the story of C.S. Lewis and his wife, running a close second. It wins in the love story category. []

Calendar Girls & Boys

A new year is fast approaching and you’re going to need a new wall calender. Why not consider purchasing a "When Harry Met Maggie" calender from LuLu.com. You’ll get 12+1 full color photos of our two lovely and charismatic pooches to bring you cheer through the year. You’ll see them grow from young pups into full grown forces of destruction loving pets.

We’ve bought those calenders of Schnauzers or Airedales in the past and while some of the photos are cute, we wanted to make one that was more personal. So, I completely stole and idea from Heather and Jon Armstrong (of dooce and blurbomat fame) who are selling a great calender of their dog, Chuck (I’m linking out of guilt). Sure, they’re calender has better photography than ours, but many of you know our dogs. Not some out-of-touch, famous dog like that Chuck; who has no doubt let his internet-fame get to him.

Anyway, we decided that we could just make a better calender on our own and we’d have a great time, standing around the kitchen laughing about how our dogs are so wonderful. Of course, they’ll be there in person, barking and smelling bad to remind us how they might just be better in 2D.

And if you haven’t discovered LuLu.com, you really should check it out.

2005-12-16 Update: Looks like QOOP just added the ability to create calenders right from your Flickr account. They make quality stuff as well, but it looks like LuLu is still a couple of dollars cheaper (at least the budget option).

Reassurance

The worst part about being an engineer, is that a lot of your calls are because something has gone wrong. People are already upset due to the fact they are having to hire you and the very best outcome if that you can make everything as good as it was before. This was especially true when I worked for BellSouth. Then, by the time anyone reached me as the engineer, they were already really pissed.

In my new job, we get a lot of clients for new construction, and they just want things done as cheap as possible. That’s understandable; it’s a major part of my job to make a building stand for as little as money as possible. No, safety is never knowingly sacrificed. That’s also a part of my job. However, we engineers are taught that if we are just over-designing everything then we aren’t doing our due diligence to look out for our clients, and that is the same thing as stealing from them.

We’ve been working on a especially difficult job here in Richmond. This is one of those dream/nightmare jobs (depends on if it’s an even or odd day of the year) that has just about every twist and turn a structural engineer can imagine. It is a very old building (over 100 years). Further, it is made of wood and masonry, but will have steel, concrete, and reinforced masonry added to it as part of the re-use. It has been extremely time-consuming and difficult work to plan with our client to make this building meet the current building codes with the absolute minimum amount of work to be added. There were times when I would feel completely ridiculous showing the results of my labor to my boss, knowing how much we were asking the client to add to the structure of this building.

Now, with all that background in mind, let me tell you about the phone call my boss received yesterday. The client had hired two different engineers to take a look, both in the physical and analysis senses, at the building in question. Not only did they both agree with what we had recommended was required, they had also concluded that what we had come determined we had done it with about the minimum amount of work that could be done. Now, it was very possible the client might have found someone who would have said that none of this was needed and we were wasting time and money. There are people who believe that because buildings stood under existing laws and codes, that it is a waste to try and meet modern laws. Of course, that is, by definition, not practicing our profession under the law. Fortunately, these two groups or individuals (I don’t know who they are) and our company made a consensus that this is needed and it feels great to know that what I was doing was good work. My boss was ecstatic, as was I.

Office Christmas Party

Jason & Angie

Jason & Angie at this year’s SPA Christmas Party. Who knew I could look that smug? Copyright 2005 Scott Gutierrez

Last Saturday evening, Angela and I drove to Virginia Beach to attend the company-wide Christmas Party. We had most of the Virginia Beach and Richmond officesin attendance for a great dinner and the chance for us all to hang out outsid eof the office.

Scott Gutierrez, our company IT-man, also happens to be talented photographer and was on hand to take lots of photos. He’s very good at taking both staged and candid shots with his big Nikon SLR. Just as cool, he’s started a Flickr account for the company, with photos from the party as well as the construction of their new offices (he’s located in the VA Beach office).

After the dinner party, some of us headed over to Murphy’s Irish Pub down the street to catch a few beers before heading to bed. It was loud and smokey, but a few of us sat around and caught up, which is always nice.

Oh, and Scott, call her Angela if you know what’s good for you, man.


"Herman’s Head" Roll Call

One of our favorite games to play while watching movies or television is to try and name the actors in supporting roles, or at least where we might have seen them before.

Inevitably, every person that I say "I’ve seen them in something before," Angela will reply "they were on Herman’s Head. Herman’s Head was an early show on Fox (way back in 1991) in which Herman, a young professional, had four people in his brain that represented various base human emotions who would argue about all his decisions. Herman meets a girl and Lust and Sensitivity go at each other’s throats. When Herman has to be creative for a work project, Anxiety and Intellect duke it out. Well, other than Hank Azaria, most of the actors on the show have let a life of guest appearances on ER and Law & Order as well as minor supporting roles in films. That, and fullfilling Angela’s theory of Six Degree’s of Herman.