Friday, July 30, 2010

Mac Willems memorial service: 7/31, 1:00, in Des Moines

Hi people. I am posting to Twitter, Blogger, and Facebook for widest possible distribution. Please forgive me if this hits you more than once.

Mac Willems, one of my high school teachers, died this month. His memorial service is in the Seattle area on Saturday, July 31, at 1:00, at Midway Community Covenant Church in Des Moines.

Here is a map.

If you know anyone who would want to know, please pass it on by Saturday.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The end of Lost (with obscure spoiler alert)

I was fooled. I really thought in the last episode we were going to learn the golden light held a nanobot cloud from the future, trapped on the island by The Incident, which became sentient when the nameless one floated into the cave. And the crash was intended to unwind the events folded in and out of time, so that one timeline didn't happen (explaining the parallel time streams). Et cetera.

The masterful head fake when they flashed back to Season 1 finding the stones in the cave led me to believe we were coming to a final clash of good and evil of King-ian proportions, one that had indeed been planned from the beginning. In other words, a genre story. But instead, they punted on all the major story elements in cussworthy fashion.

The comparison to The Prisoner is apt. Remember when Rover takes off in the rocket ship? I thought we were going to see the smoke monster do something very similar. And Sawyer says "I'll be seeing you" in the last episode too (apart from the credit sequence, probably the single most quotable and quoted line from The Prisoner). But the difference is that The Prisoner was episodic and every storyline resolved in the space of one hour. There is debate about which order to even watch the episodes in because there is so little continuity.

There can't be any such debate about the right order to watch Lost in. It was all so plotted and deliberate, or really (now) deliberate-looking. It was building. But in the end the climax fizzled out.

So on the one hand, I think people will be studying Lost the way they study great art. But I take it as kind of a failed experiment in making art without catharsis, and ultimately without the unities.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Neverwhere on Wii Netflix Streaming

I watched the mid-90s BBC miniseries version of Neverwhere tonight. It's six episodes written by Neil Gaiman, one of our great writers. The story is about the under-world of London Below, and what happens when Richard Mayhew is dragged into it as a result of an act of kindness.

I had read the book first, so I knew how it went, but it was still good. Sure, you have to look past the cramped scenery, the dingy lighting, and the constantly panning camera so characteristic of the BBC, but you also have to give credit to the fine British tradition of surreal, fantastic (in both senses) television.

I got to watch this gem on my Nintendo! We received a disc for Wii that allows us to stream Netflix to our television. Alex is watching the complete run of Blue's Clues. As I might have mentioned, I caught up on Lost this way. There's 30 Days, Mythbusters, Monty Python...

The only bummer, and it is a major bummer, is the major missing feature: search. Onlline, Netflix streaming has search that will get you to any title available. On the Wii, it doesn't exist. The best workaround is to put stuff in your queue when online, then use the Wii to watch it. I suppose you could use Wii Internet (and this probably will basically work), but it feels pretty clunky.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Getting Getting Things Done Done

If you are, like me, a disorganized schlub, the last time you received formal instruction in "study skills" was fourth or fifth grade. Life was simpler then. We had workbooks that had blanks to fill in, book reports to prove we actually read something (in 4th grade I put a Paul Gallico novel on my reading log. I'm sure now my teacher had me dead to rights), TOPS cards to let us practice math with story problems. Instead of looking at girls you could run around the track (capped at 6 laps). You could even accidentally jam a pencil in your hand and get the lead stuck in there until you're almost 30.

But I digress.

Outlining and time management didn't really stick in there, and so for the next fifteen years, in and out of school, I managed to avoid learning it. I would write 10-page research papers over a weekend, and stay up real late playing video games before finals.

Not knowing this skill killed me for years and years. I can say this with perfect hindsight. I was good at times, just never as good as I could have been (valedictorian good? we'll never know).

I just never knew how bad off I was until I got to Amazon. Here I finally started to see that I had to do something or I was going to drown in minutiae and errands.

Thus, Getting Things Done by David Allen. I finished it recently and it's been a huge eye-opener and relief. The basic point is that your brain has a limited ability to focus, and when you haven't solidly nailed down your commitments and the projects that are important to you, they consume your focus with worry.

Instead you need to feel comfortable that every loose end in your life has a concrete action tied to it. The loose ends could be as complex as buying a house or as simple as writing an email. The point is to think ahead a little bit and figure out how easy the single next step would be to move that loose end forward. Then you have lowered the barrier (activation energy? A little chemistry there) to actually doing that thing.

Best of all, when there are less loose ends in your life, you get peace. You feel like Augustine, who could say truthfully that if he discovered Armageddon was coming tomorrow, he would still go hoe his vegetable patch today.

There are many ways to run a system like this, with a bunch of lists of things to get done. For me, a program called Shuffle made my phone even more indispensable. It's simple, but it does all I want it to in terms of organizing tasks and integrating with my calendar.

Any system you use to get organized? Tell me now, before I turn 30.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Alex's prospects

We had a meeting with Alex's teachers on Monday. On the bright side, his academic skills seem to be coming along nicely. Although he doesn't use language as much as we'd like, he appears to be cutting at a first grade level, and coloring, and writing words, and understanding sequences and stories. This is all very encouraging given his early speech delay. I have felt for a while like Alex is learning the same set of things that other kids would, but delayed a year or two.

In fact, the main barrier to his entering regular kindergarten now is behavior. He hits his teachers and headbutts, screams, and throws tantrums. His teachers are doing heroic work keeping everyone safe and putting him in time out. We are learning that Alex is set off when he doesn't have options.

He seems to respond well to structures like "X or Y" and "first X, then Y". So we are now saying things like, "Do you want to get out of the tub by yourself, or do you want Daddy to help you?" and "First put on your clothes, then we can have breakfast."

I've noticed lately that when we tell other parents about Alex's autism, they definitely look at us differently, like we're doing this heroic thing to raise a boy with this problem. I tell them that we're happy with how things have turned out so far. We got Alex into early intervention because Sarah was monitoring his development very closely.

But Alex is our only child so far. This is all we have ever known. I don't measure Alex against kids his age. I don't compare him to another kid who would be telling me stories and talking my ear off.

I wish he was. I can't wait until he does. I think he will someday.

Every parent is challenged. We have just had different challenges. We're not super-parents. We're just muddling through, picking our spots to place our effort, and praying for our child.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The secrets of your DNA

I've been reading an interesting book called The Language of Life. It is by Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome project, which provided a complete sequence of human DNA.

As a geneticist, Collins has a lot to say about an emerging revolution in the way we treat disease. His prediction is that within the next five years, you will be able to obtain your own complete sequence of DNA, in the billions of base pairs long, for about one thousand dollars. The applications are virtually endless, from genealogical study to disease risk prediction.

At this point, commodity DNA testing does not sequence the entire DNA strand. Rather, it checks certain small portions with a well-established cause-and-effect relationship with important diseases like cancer or diabetes. Collins found that he had an increased risk of contracting adult-onset diabetes. He made some lifestyle changes to lower his risk.

To me, this is the key point about getting your DNA sequence. You can learn your predilection for horrible disease, and then do something about it. For instance, Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, learned that he was marked for Parkinson's disease and has a chance now to do something about it. As time goes on, and more important tests and markers are revealed, there will only be more reason to have your DNA on file to check against these new discoveries.

This immediately hit my computer scientist brain though. I hate typing my password into the third-party Blogger interface. Who can I trust with the secrets of my DNA? How will it be kept encrypted and secure? How will I provide access to it for medical testing or genetic studies without my insurance company crapping on me? How can anyone anonymize information that distinguishes me from everyone else on the planet?

Some bright people are going to solve these problems. It's an intriguing area, and at least some of it can be studied before the first consumer DNA sequencer opens for business.