Archive for the ‘Odds and Ends’ Category


Approaching the grid again

April 22, 2009

As I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve been off the blog grid for a while now.  My day job has been unusually packed with work (a good thing, for sure) for the last several months, but I’ve also been working on a few “extracurriculars” since late 2008, and especially since January.  Something had to give, and my blogs were it.

The first project was the birth of my second daughter, Lucille in January.  I think my wife and I have gotten into a decent rhythm now, so I think I can start working in things around that.

The second project is really related to the first.  My wife started back teaching last week after being on maternity leave since January, so the week before that was spent trying to give her time to get caught up with the school emails and getting her plans together for the first week back.

The third project is the Kalamazoo X Conference, being held this Saturday.  That has really been a draw on my time in the last month especially, but it’s something I’ve been involved with since mid last year.  Don’t get me wrong – I am very excited to see it come together as it has, but I will also be very relieved to see it done with.

I’ve been maintaining that once April was over and done with things the insanity should drop back down to a more manageable level, and I’ll be able to get back to some of the other projects that have unfortunately been sitting idle.  What do I have in store?  A software project for an endeavor with my brother and dad, revising a novel that my wife and I wrote, a home automation project, a software development “approach” project – basically I have work for at least the next two years.  From all of this I will also be returning to more regular (and frequent) blog posts.

Thanks for your patience, and stay tuned for more.


Lucy, she’s home (Part 2 of 2)

January 21, 2009

So, as you may recall from Part 1 of this post, everyone got the green light to go home on Wednesday (the 14th).  One of the required checkout items was a car seat inspection.  The nurse looked up our model in her book, making sure that there weren’t any outstanding recalls issued for it.  After everything checked out we asked her for a brief refresher on how to buckle Lucy in (after all it had been 6 years since we last used this car seat).  Pack-horse Dad walked down to the lobby carrying almost everything, while Mom got to ride in a wheelchair.  (Sheesh, who’s going through labor now?)

I pulled the car around while everyone waited inside (it was a bright sunny day, but bitter cold out).  Everyone got buckled in and we pulled out of the hospital parking ramp.  We went about half a mile, stopped at a red light waiting to turn, and then BAM!  We got rear-ended – luckily not all that hard, just enough to push our car forward a foot or two.  My wife jumped.  I jumped and went for the horn (don’t ask; I don’t know why that seemed to be the sensible reaction, but it did).  Lucy slept.  The other driver and I pulled into a parking lot to inspect the damage.  The other driver’s car had no visible damage – well, at least no visible NEW damage.  It looked like she had close contacts with at least a couple of fire hydrants already – the bottom third of her bumper didn’t exist.  Mine had a small scratch on it, but otherwise was unscathed.  We let it go, and continued on our way home.  (We would call the nurse that inspected our car seat later that evening to thank her, and explain what had happened less than a mile from the hospital.)

After letting the adrenaline wear off for a few minutes, I made the comment to my wife, “It’s a good thing that happened when we were driving home, as opposed to on the way to the hospital.”  Her eyes got REALLY big, and she said, “Oh jeez, I would have told you to just keep going.  It’s not a crime to drive away from the scene of an accident if you’re the victim.”  After giving it a few more seconds, she added, “Either that, or I would have gotten out of the car and ripped someone’s head off.”  Yep, that’s the wife I know and love.

We spent the next couple of days getting Lucy’s blood drawn to make sure her jaundice was clearing up.  By Friday, though, her bilirubin levels were still going up, so our pediatrician recommended that Lucy be admitted to Bronson Methodist Hospital, the other major medical facility here in town, since they still had their pediatric unit (Borgess used to, but not anymore).  My wife and I were disheartened to learn that we would have to go back to ANY hospital, but we knew it was for the best, and the odds were good that she would be out in a day or so.

We checked in to Bronson at 7pm Friday night and they had the room already set up for Lucy.  Lucy would be on a biliblanket, but she would also be under two sunlamps.  Being doused with light would make the bilirubin water soluble so Lucy could just pee it out.  The light therapy doesn’t work unless the light can reach her skin, so she was stripped down to her diaper and put in an isolet (basically an incubator) so she would keep warm.  The lights were extremely bright, so to protect her eyes they needed to give her essentially a sleeping mask.  Now, you can’t just put a mask with elastic strings on a four-day old – that’s just asking for trouble.  What you CAN do apparently is attach self-adhesive Velcro to her temples, and then put a piece of felt across her eyes.  Basically, Lucy would be on a weekend sunbathing vacation.

The plan was to have Lucy lie on her back on the blanket to maximize her exposure to the biliblanket and the lights above.  What we found, however, was that Lucy likes sleeping on her side – a lot.  We’d place her on the blanket, and she would almost immediately bring her legs up to her chest and roll – well, fall – onto her right side.  We’d set her back up and she’d roll/fall over again.  To make sure that SOME part of her stayed on the blanket, we started to put her on her back just to one side of the blanket so that she would fall onto it.

That worked for the first night, but then we got the bright idea to roll up a pair of cloth diapers and place them at her waist level on either side to keep her in place.  That way her back would be completely on the blanket, and the overhead lamps could do their job.  As a colleague of mine pointed out, we were chocking her like you would an airplane tire.

The meals were the other interesting thing about this stay.  Technically, Lucy was the one who had been admitted to the hospital, so she was entitled to the meals.  However, since she being breast-fed and couldn’t take solid food yet, all of those meals went to my wife.  My wife would do the job of converting eggs and hash browns, chicken sandwiches, and steak and potatoes into breast milk.  It was highly entertaining calling room service to order those items on behalf of a 5-day old.  It was even more entertaining having the food service person show up and confirm that he or she had the correct room by asking “Order for Lucille Gilbert, born 1/12/2009?”  “Yep, that’s us!”

Being that this was the pediatric unit, everything was decked out with murals and fun things to look at – ceilings, walls, and floors.  It also meant that there were lots of kid-friendly things available for the patients (and presumably their families).  I mean, if you were a 10-year old stuck in a hospital for an extended period of time, the last thing you want to do is flip between the Weather channel and C-SPAN all day long.  Our room (and I assume all of the rooms on the floor) had a DVD player hooked up to the TV, and the unit had stacks of family-friendly movies that you could check out.  They also had a Wii, a Playstation 3 and an XBox360 that you could play with.  Unfortunately, convincing arguments for why my 5-day old wanted to play Guitar Hero (let alone HOW) eluded me, so those resources went untapped during her stay.  Sigh.

Saturday came and Lucy’s bilirubin levels had dropped a good chunk, and by Saturday night it had dropped enough that they turned off both of the overhead lamps.  Lucy was discharged late Sunday morning, and we were eager to get home.  Much to my relief, no moving violations were involved in the second drive home from the hospital.

Lucy continues to do well, and we’re all adjusting to a fourth family member.  My wife could really use a six-pack of bottled sleep right now, though.


Lucy, she’s home! (Part 1 of 2)

January 19, 2009

For most of the last nine months, my wife and I have been working on getting ready for a new arrival, and no, it was not my new computer.  We found out in April that she was pregnant with our second daughter.  We were thrilled, but we knew there was a lot of work to do ahead of time.  Budgets would have to be analyzed, rooms would have to be rearranged, and tubs of baby clothes would have to be cracked open.

Sigh.  If only we could bottle sleep.

Then TheProject came along.  Probably the single largest project I’ve been involved with.  Huh, it starts in November.  Double-huh, I’m the Lead Developer/Solutions Architect/Deployment Guru on it.  Oh look, it’s slated to be deployed on 1/19.  Ahem.  Can you see where this is leading?

  • Theoretical date of delivery for Baby Gilbert: 1/27
  • Realistic date of delivery for Baby Gilbert, which takes into consideration that our first daughter was two weeks early: 1/13

Yeah.  With my luck, my wife would go into labor the week that TheProject was slated to be deployed.  Needless to say, the Project Manager was a little, um, concerned.  So, more plans were laid – notes were kept up to date, backup developers were briefed, and gift bags of Valium were pre-ordered (it’s considered bad luck to have the PM wig out, right?).

About a week before the deployment, my PM happens to catch me in the hall.  Here’s how that fateful weekend went:

Friday 1/9, 4:30pm.  PM says, “I’m fully expecting to get an email from you this weekend saying that your wife delivered.”  I chuckle.  “I don’t think I want to take that bet.”

Saturday 1/10: No baby.

Sunday 1/11: No baby.

Monday 1/12, 6am: No baby.  I think to myself, “Woohoo!  PM’s bet was wrong after all.”

Monday 1/12, 6:05am:  Wife says, “I’ve had two contractions this morning.”  I reply, “Uh, were they the Braxton-Hicks type?”  Wife replies, “Uh, no, I’m pretty sure they weren’t.”  I think for a second, and say the most intelligent thing I could come up with at that moment, “Huh.”  I then run downstairs and craft email to PM and team explaining that I may be leaving early today to head to the hospital.

Monday 1/12, 8:40am:  I drop my first daughter off at school, then I call Wife.  “Hi honey, how are you doing?”  Wife replies, “Well, the contractions are coming about 7 minutes apart now.”  I use the same intelligent response as before, “Huh.”  I was then able to follow it up with something slightly more useful, “I guess I’m working from home today.”

Monday 1/12, 8:45am:  I arrive home, craft another email to team explaining that I’m working from home, and then scramble to get the last minute things ready for the trip to hospital.

Monday 1/12, 10:45am:  I’m still at home, and the contractions seem to have leveled off, so I decide that I can probably do an 11am conference call with PM and a partner after all.

Monday 1/12, 11:00am: “Hi everyone, this is Mark.  I may have to leave the call suddenly because my wife is having contractions.”  Collective “awwww!” ensues.

Monday 1/12, 11:30am: “Ok everyone, my wife just let me know that I have to wrap it up now.”  Everyone wishes me well and I hang up.

Monday 1/12, 11:50am: I call the hospital to give them a heads up that my wife has started labor, the contractions are close enough and strong enough that we don’t want to wait any longer, and we’ll be coming in soon.  Of course, as soon as the nurse answers the phone, that message gets condensed ever so slightly to “Hi, this is Mark Gilbert, my wife and I are coming in.”  It only took me three more tries to provide the nurse with enough information that she figured out what the h*** I was trying to say.

Monday 1/12, 12:30pm: Check into the hospital.

Monday 1/12, 3:37pm: Lucille “Lucy” Gilbert was born.  Hang on a second – did I just miss something here?  Like the whole labor thingy?  Oh wait.  Hang on.  I think I remember being mangled by my lovely wife during each and every contraction.  “Here’s an arm, do with it what you need.”  “Yes, dear, you can have both arms to squeeze.”  “Please dear, try to grab the side of my leg, not between the two.”

The payoff was definitely worth the effort, though:


Many thanks to the wonderful L&D staff at Borgess Health – they were awesome.

The rest of Monday was fairly quiet by comparison.  Lucy got cleaned up.  Mom got cleaned up.  Dad finally got to eat lunch about 5pm.

I sent around a quick email to everyone letting them know that Lucy had arrived.  Our eldest daughter was nice enough to call my brother and my sister-in-law to let them know the good news.  I found out later that the message to my brother was something to the effect of “Uncle James!  Lucy’s out – she escaped!”

On Wednesday the 13th, everyone got the green light to go home.  But of course, nothing is ever that easy.

(to be continued)


The Dangers of a Well-Read First Grader

July 5, 2008

My wife, my nearly-6-year-old daughter, and I were having dinner with my brother and his fiancé.  When the meal was wrapping up, my wife asked my daughter to take her plate, cup, and silverware into the kitchen to be cleaned.  Now, this is a well-established rule in our house – we all police our own dishes after a meal, but sometimes my daughter is sometimes given to a little “push back”.  Normally the push back is phrased something along the lines of “Aw, come on.  I don’t wanna clean up my plate.” (insert whine here)

This particular dinner, however, she managed to come up with a new way to phrase her complaint.

“Come on Mom.  You need to show a little compassion!”

After the adults picked themselves off the floor, and the riotous laughter died down, my daughter reluctantly carried her dishes into the kitchen.


Greetings Moonling!

May 18, 2008

For many months now, I’ve had my homepage set to iGoogle.  Not unlike MSN Live, MyYahoo, NetVibes, and a plethora of other personal portals, iGoogle lets you drop widgets onto the page to show you the weather, sports scores, stock picks, and the cute bad-grammered cat of the week.

One feature of the customization options that iGoogle provides is the ability to select your page theme, which mostly consists of a banner image that appears at the top, but can also translate into similarly-styled buttons, colors, and even a coordinating footer.  This by itself is not out of the ordinary; several of the other portal sites allow you to choose a background/header image from online galleries, and even upload your own.

What makes iGoogle stand out is the ability to have dynamic themes, where the image can change several times throughout the day.  What’s more, iGoogle lets you upload your own theme, and if they approve it (the themes are reviewed to make sure lewd or otherwise inappropriate content is not uploaded), makes it available to the entire iGoogle community to select from.

About two months ago, I decided to try to make one of my own, titled “Greetings Moonling!”.  It was finally approved this past week, and has already been used by nearly a thousand people (the theme is in no danger whatsoever of being one of the most popular; the top ten “Hottest” themes have user bases measuring in the hundreds of thousands).  There are seven panels that show up throughout the day, with these three actually forming a short story:


What Are You?

Watch The Toes!

The big blank spot at the top is reserved for the Google search box and controls.  Here is a screen shot of it in use on my home page:


Originally our hero (as I have been referring to the alien) had a mouth, but since my drawing skills are rather limited at this point I couldn’t get one that I liked.  As a result I decided to leave him mouth-less, and try to convey emotion and intent via his arms and especially his eyes.  It seems to work well for Scott Adams‘ title character, so why not another?

He was a lot of fun to draw.  I haven’t decided what else is in store for this little green guy, but there are a few possibilities, one of which is that he’ll make occasional appearances here and on my technical blog.  I’ve also considered creating a second iGoogle theme, or even extending the one that is there with additional panels.

The last couple of months have seen an explosion of new themes introduced for iGoogle.  There is even a major subset of “artistic” themes now that highlight the work of world-renowned artists such as Dale Chihuly, Anne Geddes, Oscar de la Renta and even the great Jackie Chan (yes THAT Jackie Chan).  I highly recommend iGoogle, even just for this feature.


One thing that annoys me when I’m sick…

May 18, 2008

…is cold medicine that’s hard to open.  Don’t make me get my utility knife, and risk slicing my fingers off trying to cut through the easy-to-open plastic blister pack.


First Readers vs. Software Testing

April 21, 2008

At my wife’s suggestion, I read “On Writing” (2000) by Stephen King this past week.  King makes several interesting points and observations about his writing career and the craft in general, but there was one in particular that really caught my attention – the use of “first readers”, a person or persons who are willing to read your early manuscripts and provide feedback on how the story is coming together.

King writes about soliciting feedback from first readers,

Plenty of writers resist this idea.  They feel that revising a story according to the likes and dislikes of an audience is somehow akin to prostitution. (p218 )

What struck me here is how showing your work to another person (or a group of people) ahead of when you formally release it is universally considered a GOOD thing in software development, but apparently not when writing fiction.

Now, I assume that what alienates most writers from using first readers is not grammatical or spelling errors (such as using “they’re” when you mean “their”), but rather stylistic and thematic errors (“Tom shouldn’t have said that” or “I don’t understand Sally, her motives don’t make sense”).  To translate that to software, the former category would be considered bugs – you click the Save button, and the application generates a wonderfully insightful message such as “An error has occurred”.  The latter category might be things like “I don’t think it makes sense to put the Save button there; it should go here”.  The latter type of feedback is commonly generated in a formal testing phase or what is a called a “usability” phase.

In a usability phase (or a usability study), the software developers put real users (those people who will be ultimately using the software day to day) and let them try the software out.  The general goal of this phase is to see to what extent real users can use the software to get their jobs done.  In other words it tries to answer the question “does the intended audience ‘get’ it?”

With writing, putting your manuscript in front of real readers would seem to serve the same general purpose.  As King points out, having several people give input can sometimes lead to conflicting points of view, but “…if everyone who reads your book says you have a problem … you’ve got a problem…” (p217).  The goal here is not to revise the book so suit the whim of everyone who reads it, but to see if the readers “get” the story you’re trying to tell. 

I view the craft of writing as the art of telling a good story.  For me to be a good storyteller, I need to connect with you in some way.  I want you (my audience) to laugh at the jokes my characters tell; I want you to cry when they get hurt; I want you to say “whoo-hoo!” when they overcome enormous odds to save the day.  I don’t think it’s fair for me to expect you to do all the work to “get” my story.

I may have a good piece of software in my head, but if it’s throwing errors at the wrong points, uses color schemes that can only be described as “screaming”, or the screen flow causes you to beat your fists against the desk in frustration, then I have some work to do.  Likewise I may have a good story to tell, but if my characters are stilted, my dialog is atrocious, or my themes are trite, then I have some work to do.