logo Ming the Mechanic - Category: Diary
An old rigid civilization is reluctantly dying. Something new, open, free and exciting is waking up.

Friday, May 7, 2004day link 

 London next week
picture I'll be in London the 12th and 13th. In part going to the blogger event here. I have some time for meetings if you can't make that one.
[ | 2004-05-07 15:21 | 3 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, April 27, 2004day link 

picture For many years it has been my intention and my ideal to live in the present. Be here, pay attention, take time to smell the roses. Most that I've learned about myself, about others, about philosophy and metaphysics, about being organized, about solving problems, about dealing with conflict, being effective, and about health, happiness, and even enlightenment - it all adds up a very simple truth, the value of BEING right here right now. As opposed to getting lost in mental abstractions and worries about the past and the future; things one should do or that one must avoid; whether one is right or wrong; what other people think, etc.

Why is it so hard, then? I've experienced plenty of proof. The peak moments of my own life were when I was really there. Big complicated problems evaporated the moment one actually showed up to face them. In working with a great many counseling clients, the outcome that made a difference was always that the person actually showed up in the present, rather than going in circles about the past and the future and what they mean. The most inspiring and alive people I've met have invariably been those who basically just were present. The magic goes deeper than words can easily convey.

But currently, for me, it happens much too much in glimpses, rather than as an ongoing thing. For a down-to-earth example, my desk is usually a mess, as is the pile of stuff lying next to my bed. Most of the time I'm just frustrated that I might not be able to find the note I was looking for, and I just step around the pile, or deposit something else on top of it. But once in a while, like every six months or so, I suddenly look at the pile with some degree of shock. "How can anybody work with their papers like that?!?" And I dig into the pile and sort it out. Which isn't really a big deal once I get around to it. For that matter, five minutes of sorting it once in a while would probably take care of it. But when I look at it after six months I get horrified to find ridiculous items at the bottom of the pile, taking most of the space. You know, like, I've wondered for months why the papers always tip over, and when I finally look, there's a pair of headphones and an alarm clock lying at the bottom. Which is easy to fix, they don't even belong there. No problem once you actually look.

Maybe your desk is spotless and you don't have that problem. But I bet most of you, like me, do the same thing in many other less obvious parts of your life. Like, I have a great time just hanging out with my family, and I notice I hadn't done that for a while. I look in the mirror, and actually notice myself, and realize I hadn't done that for months. Or I think about a person I'm fond of and realize that I haven't been in touch with them for years. I go lie under a tree and look at the clouds, and remember I hadn't done that for several years.

Now, if it is years between that I actually show up in the moment, to be present with a certain chunk of life - life can zip by pretty quickly. I am, what ... I have to calculate .. 44 years old, and I'm not quite sure what I did the last 25 years. Oh, a lot by various counts, I'm sure. But I didn't entirely pay attention. It is a bit of a waste if it is weeks or months between where I notice where I actually am. But then, when I notice, despite that the circumstances are different, it is always the same Me who's there. That's at least some comfort. No matter how much I forget, *Now* is always here to get back to.

I suppose that noticing it and worrying about it is some way of dealing with it. But better would be if I actually stayed for once. There's obviously no other real place to be. It is always now, and it always will be. Everything else, however pressing it might seem at times, is flimsy and secondary in comparison to reality. Just mental mirages, an incestrual misuse of my powers of abstraction.

Some people never leave the mental world at all, and will to their last breath hold on to the belief that their self-referential ideas are what is real, and the magic of the present Now is just some fuzzy primitive myth. I don't plan on doing that. I know I exist. I will open my senses more to that. Glimpses are not enough. Life is an amazing thing - no reason to waste most of it by not paying attention.
[ | 2004-04-27 05:48 | 10 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, April 6, 2004day link 

 Winds of Change
picture There seems to be a lot of change and possibilities in the air right now. I used to think that things happened just to me, and it didn't have anything to do with anybody else, but at some point along the way I realized that they didn't. That I often find myself plugged in in some way, where I can sort of tell what direction things are moving in within the mass consciousness, simply by noticing what's going on for myself. Not all the time. Some periods more than others. But typically I would find that if I shared it with others, I'd run into many others who had similar experiences. And mostly we're talking about a general pattern, where one can't really point to any direct causes. But sometimes things really flow and move and progress. And other times things are stuck, and projects don't really get anywhere.

Recently, I've run into a remarkably increased amount of promising business projects, re-connections with people I've known in the past, and assorted synchronistic coincidences. Suddenly a lot of things are moving, and new possibilities come out of the woodwork. Not that they're necessarily getting finalized, but they're certainly popping up. And that compares to preceeding months where everything was sluggish. Now big things are in the air, and previously forgotten doors suddenly swing open.

And it doesn't seem to have much with what I linearly do, or how much work I put into it. I spent most of the last two weeks in bed, being sick, reading. Didn't seem to make a difference, and hardly anybody noticed.

Then again, maybe it is just me.
[ | 2004-04-06 15:59 | 5 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Saturday, April 3, 2004day link 

 An interesting life
picture An old friend from highschool wrote to me recently. Actually it took me a moment to place who he was, as I hadn't thought about him for a moment since then. But we were hanging out a bit even if we weren't in the same classes. He was a friendly sort of oddball, who was restoring veteran motorcycles and driving them around, mostly in his front yard.

He had recently been to some kind of anniversary gathering in our old school. I don't know why nobody invites me to those things, other than that they never bother to look on the Internet, but that's another story. Anyway, as he was looking over the list of people there, he realized that most of our schoolmates had the equivalent of Danish .gov addresses. I.e. they were working for the local city, county, government agency of various kinds. Good, solid very boring jobs, close to where they grew up. Paper pushers, planners, looking like their parents.

And my friend here had led a rather different life. Lived in a dozen different countries. The deserts and jungles of South America, being a deepsea fisherman in Alaska, leading construction projects in various exotic places, being a community agriculture activist in South Africa, marrying a girl he met in Cuba. Speaking a whole bunch of languages. Wrote a book about his life.

So, he wrote to me because he found my weblog. The way was interesting enough, as he was looking up "Cede & Co" to see who really owned his company, and he ended up on one of my pages, and recognized my name.

But, to get to the point, he was happy to find that there was at least one other person who had been leading some kind of interesting life. OK, he's obviously ahead of me in terms of exotic places, but it is not a contest, and the point is how one leads one's life. Would it bore you to death to stay in the same stable job for most of your life, doing very ordinary things, getting a good mortgage, and feeling very engaged because you join the parent council on your kids' school? Or is life an adventure, a mystery, a challenge, a journey of transformation? Not that one has to put down half of the western world, but I tend to get along best with people who are on some kind of adventure.
[ | 2004-04-03 04:08 | 3 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

picture I finally got around to installing a spam solution on my server. It took a while because I hadn't really gotten around to researching it, and didn't realize how good they've gotten, and that some of the best solutions are free.

What I installed was MailScanner and SpamAssassin. I had to rework my Sendmail setup a little bit so that it has two queues, one incoming that MailScanner picks up from, and one outgoing that the messages are delivered from to local accounts. MailScanner does some good things on its own in catching suspicious messages of various kinds, including the most obvious spam that includes attachments that nobody would ever send in e-mail. And for spam it calls SpamAssassin, which uses a whole bunch of methods for giving each message a spam score. Including real-time access of databases of messages that have been identified as spam by others very recently. SpamScanner is also wired for connecting up with a full-featured virus scanner, but all of those seem to be commercial, so I'm not going to spring for that just to be nice to my windows mail users who don't have a virus scanner of their own. Besides, I'd guess that that would use more server processor cycles than I'd be happy with.

The short conclusion is that it works remarkably well. Otherwise I was personally counting on the built-in Bayesian spam filter in Eudora, which at first worked wonderfully, but as more and more spammers started including ridiculous amounts of random content, and as they started spelling their keywords in inventive and insane ways, it had stopped working. Meaning that despite catching hundreds of spam messages every day, other hundreds of messages made it through to my mailbox.

Now SpamScanner and SpamAssassin give messages a score, which Eudora uses in its spam assessment. And they also put a flag in the subject line of likely candidates, like [link]. I hadn't really meant to leave that feature on, but since it is almost always correct, it is actualy helpful. It allows me to simply have a last filter in my list of mail filters that throws everything with that flag into my junkmail folder. The result being that only a handful of spam messages make it through to my inbox every day. And those flags will make it easier for other mail users on my server to filter their messages.

So, ahhh, a little breathing room again. I'm less likely to throw real messages away just because the sender used a subject that sounds spam-like, like "Hello Flemming".
[ | 2004-04-03 03:08 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Wednesday, March 31, 2004day link 

 FutureHi Blogging
picture I'm one of the contributors to FutureHi. Took me a while to get around to posting anything, but since Paul is out of town this week, I finally got started.

I actually find it difficult to post to several different blogs. One reason I wouldn't think of dividing my own blog up into several, with different themes, is that I have trouble switching around, or deciding what goes where. What I really like about the blog format is that you just can post whatever's on your mind. And it probably turns out afterwards to have some interweaving common theme, but I'd rather not have to sort that out in advance. You know, I've always been horrible about writing anything on command. If somebody asks me for an article on a certain subject, and with a deadline of publishing - that just never works for me. Whereas if I can just write whatever presents itself to me, without worrying about what it is about, and where it fits, and only minimally worrying about the inteded audience - then my writing flows really easily. Writing for another blog is not quite as bad, but it still takes me a considerable amount of energy to switch my mindset a bit. Even though FutureHi is already very compatible with stuff I'd write about anyway. Just need to pay more attention to the graphics.

Oh, another difficulty is that it uses Movable Type. Which I suppose is fine as far as blogging software goes. And it has lots of plugins one can use to add functionality. But as it is now, I'm seriously missing some of the features of my own NewsLog program, particularly in turns of graphics. It is standard in my program that you can upload pictures to go with an article. Alternatively you can also grab a picture from a URL, which is probably what one does most often. The pictures get stored automatically in a separate directory for that article, so filenames will not collide. And you can resize them easily while uploading. You can choose their position in various ways. And then the HTML for the pictures is created automatically. The default Movable Type does none of that, other than allowing you to upload files from your disk to a common directory. For me these are really essential features.
[ | 2004-03-31 02:42 | 0 comments | PermaLink ]

Friday, March 19, 2004day link 

 BlogWalk 1.0
picture So, I spent the day at BlogWalk 1.0 here in Enschede, The Netherlands. We didn't really walk and we didn't particular blog much along the way either. But we met at the Telematica Institute and did Open Space and various kinds of group discussions, also over several meals. Just 17 people or so, which gave a good opportunity for staying relatively focused and getting to know each other. Subject mainly being weblogs in knowledge management contexts, but also weblogs in general. So, looking at what functions weblogs might play in institutions and enterprises, and what might be the obstacles to make it happen, or the steps and positioning that might make it work. Obviously the people who are in charge in many organizations have no clue what weblogs are, or, if they do, might have a lot of fears and concerns about how dangerous it would be if people would actually rather freely talk publically about what they do, and even mix it in with their personal life and other interests. What if they reveal company secrets, or make the organization look bad, and that kind of thing. There are problems like that, of defining the lines between private and public, what should be shared and what not, but mostly it is just that people don't understand how it works, and don't realize that it could be a powerful tool for information sharing and relationship building. And in many cases as effective a knowledge management tool as anything else that is out there. There are fancy KM systems that often are not that easy to use, or that stuff can get lost in easily. Whereas a weblog is rather easy, and you don't have to worry very much about where exactly a certain item fits, and you can usually find old items very easily when you need them. And weblogs build up relationships and one's relations help filter information, and various self-organizing things go on that are useful. But is hard to explain the blogosphere to somebody who's totally not tuned into that kind of things, and haven't tried it, and particularly to managers who're afraid of losing control. And, despite that most of the hardcore bloggers can see quite well how it can be beneficial for various kinds of organizations, there seems to be a scarcity of good studies or success stories to show as evidence. Which is important both for the academics studying the phenomenon, and for anybody who tries to introduce a tool like weblogging into an organization.

Anyway, a very enjoyable event with great people. You can find some comments from some of the other guys at TopicExchange.

These BlogWalk events are loosely related to and lead up to the next BlogTalk, which is a bigger event held in Vienna, next July 5-6. And I should be making it there this year.
[ | 2004-03-19 17:40 | 3 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, March 18, 2004day link 

 BlogWalk 1.0
So, I'm on my way to BlogWalk, a small, informal gathering in Enschede in Holland. Mostly Knowledge Management professionals and academics. A couple of good friends of mine among them, who hopefully succeed in showing up. And some interesting new people to meet and converse with. It is not entirely clear what I'm doing there, but no reason to let that stop me. The focus of the conversation is "weblogs in a knowledge management context", which I can certainly hook into.
[ | 2004-03-18 00:01 | 0 comments | PermaLink ]

Monday, March 15, 2004day link 

 Hash Haring
picture Yesterday Birgit and I were the "hares" in a Hash House Harriers run. You know, HHH is this drinking/walking/running/socializing club, with chapters almost everywhere in the world, particularly where you find english-speaking expats. The job of the hares is to lay a track, primarily using flour, which everybody else then can (barely) follow, while they run or walk. It could be done live, but that would be a bit tricky unless one knows the area really well. So we found that it took a surprising amount of preparation to scout out an area, and a trail that is interesting and that ends up where it started without repeating itself. So, we started with a nearby park, and managed to find a surprising number of somewhat hidden paths to lead people around on, along ditches, railways, climbing over some minor fences and that kind of thing. Worked out quite well, it seems. We got away with just a couple of "down-downs" in the obligatory after-run ritual. A down-down is the punishment of having to drink out a glass of beer while a certain silly song is being sung. And the hares will traditionally be under close scrutiny, and likely to be called on the spot for anything they might have done right or wrong (doesn't really matter which).
[ | 2004-03-15 06:19 | 0 comments | PermaLink ]

Sunday, March 7, 2004day link 

picture Today we drove to Lourdes. Which is a little town in the foothills of the Pyrenées visited by more than 5 million people each year, as it is a major catholic pilgrimage site. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, well placed next to some spectacular mountains. But it is also a strange town. There's almost nothing but lots and lots of hotels and souvenir shops there. And it all leads towards The Grotto. Which is a little cavity in the side of a big rock, in which you find a small spring. And it is the water of that spring that has been reported to produce lots and lots of miraculous healings and miracles in general. And I'd believe that. Well, whether the water really does anything or not, I don't know. But there's an impressive atmosphere set up for the purpose, and enough people who believe it and take it very seriously, that miraculous occurances would quite naturally occur.

On top of the rock where you find the grotto there's a large and spectacular cathedral-like church with an impressive set of stairs leading up to it, and a very impressive entrance. We were obviously there outside the season, as there wasn't really that many people, and it was clear that the whole arrangement was expecting tens of thousands of people at a time. You line up for the entrance into the grotto, where I suppose you'll know what to do if you're a good catholic. The rocks are black and smooth from being touched by millions of people. And you buy large candles that you can light and leave in an area for that purpose, together with a prayer.

So, we did stock up on healing water from Lourdes. You can buy many kinds of containers in the shops, which you fill yourself from the spring, but we didn't go for the 5 liter models, just some little ones. And the water tasted nice and fresh.

For more about Lourdes and the visions of Bernadette Soubirous that started the whole thing, read for example here or here
[ | 2004-03-07 15:09 | 9 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Saturday, March 6, 2004day link 

picture Max and I spent the day driving around a bit and looking at old mysterious places. The old medieval walled city of Carcassonne, Nostradamus' house in Alet-le-Bains, Quillan, and Rennes-le-Chateau, the most famous mysterious place around here. See here or here if you don't know the story. It involves Abbe Berenger Sauniere who found something strange while restoring the old church. Documents or a treasure, exactly what isn't exactly clear. But he came to a considerable amount of money, allowing him to fix up the place, decorating the church in strange ways, adding various buildings for himself, such as the Magdala Tower on the picture. He traveled in occult circles and had unusually many celebrity guests for a priest in a small country church. An enormous amount of stories and speculation exist about what he might have done. It involves possible hidden treasures from the Visigoths, the Templars or the Cathars.

Very interesting to finally go there and walk around in his house and his tower and in the church. Well, if I didn't know that it is supposed to be a strange and mysterious place, I'm not sure I would have caught it. It takes some scholarly knowledge and close observation to notice that the church is arranged in unusual ways and that the inscriptions are remarkably strange. I wouldn't say that the place particularly indicated great wealth. I mean, there's a little church, a house, and a tower. Without knowing the story, that might not seem unusual.

But, generally speaking, there is a mysterious and deep aura over many parts of the Lanquedoc region. Mountains, caves, forests, rivers, medieval villages, castles, ruins, ancient history, war, massacres, alchemy. So, plenty to keep exploring in the future.

On the way back we drove past Montsegur, the location of the last stand of the Cathars, before the last bunch of them were burned alive. But, well, it was getting dark, and it way up on top of a very steep mountain, so that will have to be another time.
[ | 2004-03-06 18:20 | 5 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Friday, March 5, 2004day link 

 Nadia finds Google
picture My daugther discovered Google. I guess she has seen us searching for stuff, so she knew that was something to do. So, she decided on her own she wanted to look for Cindarella. She found Google, but she couldn't spell "Cindarella", so she spelled one of the five or so things she can spell: her own name. Which right away got her to some story from my weblog. And in less than 10 seconds she had a picture of herself on the screen. Which she thought was very cool.
[ | 2004-03-05 13:59 | 14 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, March 4, 2004day link 

 Machines de Spectacle
picture Today we went to an exhibition of "Machines de Spectacle" in the Abattoirs modern art museum. Which was great fun. It was a collection of strange machines, small and large, of rather unusual, eh, uses. On the picture you see the piano catapult. Which, as you might expect, has the very useful function of throwing used pianos through the air, obviously to a very effectful and noisy landing. They unfortunately only do that once per week, so we didn't see it today. But most of the other machines were demonstrated. Snow machines, an organ using flame throwers as pipes, smell machines, mechanical chairs, machines that make and serve chocolate sandwiches or tequilas, egg canons, pie throwers, and much else. Very entertaining art.
[ | 2004-03-04 13:50 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

 Blogging Context
It is somehow harder for me to blog when I'm more busy. Which is maybe obvious, but also weird in that it is often that I ought to have more things to blog about. My friend Max is visiting right now from Brazil via Germany. We're having good meetings and going around doing interesting things. But that takes a good deal of the day, and I'm also behind on work. And blogging usually requires a certain overview for me. That I've somehow checked on the latest news and newsfeeds and hung out by my computer for a while. Even if it isn't necessarily news items I blog, and often isn't directly related to what anybody else posts. But it is much harder for me to just go and do a quick posting, if I hadn't had the time to take a reading of the current online atmosphere. I know other people do it differently and can blog under any circumstances. But for me, even if the actual writing of blog post doesn't take much time in itself, it has to fit in a context where I've had time to explore various things and been able to think about various things. Which requires a certain distance. I can't go directly from a deep, interesting face-to-face discussion into writing a blog post, even if the subjects brought up are intriguing and worth sharing. I can't blog meaningfully while sitting listening to somebody speak, as some people can, even if the technology is available for it. But, hey, we have our different styles.
[ | 2004-03-04 06:25 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Saturday, February 28, 2004day link 

 Snow and Crime
picture It snowed last night. It snows very rarely here, so it is an event every time. We rushed out and had a snowball fight and made a snowman before it melted again.

Then, after we got in again, a little later, I walked outside and realized that somebody had made off with our two bicycles. Locks and all. Which is a bummer, as that is basically our transportation, and the cost isn't exactly trivial for us. Plus it is always an uncomfortable feeling when somebody has invaded your space and stolen your things. Here we're talking: behind a big closed iron gate one needs to roll aside, and at the end of our driveway around a little corner.

We had otherwise been snickering about the French paranoia about burglars and thieves. Everybody seems to lock their gate with a key whenever they go in or out, and they live behind closed shutters, and, I'm sure, multiple locks and alarm systems. And warn everybody who will listen about the dangers of leaving anything not secured, and how bad people are roaming everywhere. Despite that we haven't seen any. OK, we roll down the shutters too when we leave. And we lock the front door when we leave, which we didn't take very seriously in the U.S., where we didn't even think much about leaving a car unlocked in the street. So here we're a little more secure, but locking the gate seemed a little excessive.

Guess we have to change our mind a bit. Lock the front gate all the time. Chain bicycles to something stationary behind the gate. Maybe I should dig up that box of X10 video cameras I never have gotten around to playing with, and watch the perimeter at all times. Make sure anybody who touches the fence gets electrocuted. Dig a mote filled with piranhas. I don't know.
[ | 2004-02-28 17:57 | 5 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Alright, so having a mobile phone with a camera I of course need to have a moblog. "Moblog" is an even worse word than "Blog", but that's somehow what it got to be called. It is essentially that you can make a posting on your blog while on the go, from a phone or PDA. Typically it is done by having the latest picture in a sidebar, which then links to the gallery of past pictures. So it becomes sort of a different track, with smaller snapshots of things one is doing, without having to be able to say something clever about it.

I had in mind programming it myself, so that it could be integrated with my NewsLog blogging program. So, the first thing needed was a gallery. And there's of course no reason one should only be able to post to it with a phone, so I made it so one can upload from a normal file too, or grab a picture from a URL. And so one can edit the titles, delete mistaken pictures and stuff like that.

OK, then the aspect of how we get from my phone to a file on the server, if I go that way. I could make my own approach, but I glanced at other people's suggestions to see what might be the best practices. Like this how-to guide by David Davies.

So, I set up a separate e-mail account for the purpose. No problem to send a picture from the phone to an e-mail address. Then I'll put a password in the subject line, which will ensure that no random spam gets posted. And I'll put some descriptive text in the message itself.

Now, picking up e-mail from a pop account, and finding an attached picture, is not quite as trivial a programming task as it might look like. It is no wonder that most e-mail programs do something different and often screw up each other's messages. The standards are rather complicated, and everybody doesn't keep them. So this part took the longest time. I used PHP's built-in IMAP functions, which is based on a common IMAP library. Which exposes a lot of the dirty detail, rather than just doing the job for me, like handing me the attachment no matter where it was hiding. For starters, I made it so that it at least picks up the text and attachments the way my phone sends it. Which happened to be two different ways depending on whether it was a photo or a drawing. Next I'll try sending pictures from my normal e-mail programs and debug what goes wrong with that. Anyway, I made the program pick up mail once per hour, as the mail pickup is rather slow, and I don't want to overload anything if there ends up being many of these accounts.

You can see the current result in my right sidebar. Just a few pictures so far, but you get the point.

And for you other guys who use my NewsLog program, I need to work out a few more details, then this functionality will be available for you too. I.e. you can have a picture gallery, and optionally post to it via e-mail. Only hurdle for that part might be to acquire an extra e-mail account for the purpose.
[ | 2004-02-28 17:10 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, February 26, 2004day link 

picture I finally have another cell phone. Which I was in two minds about. We've actually been doing perfectly fine with just one cell phone for the family. Which is strange, as we had five cell phone accounts in L.A., and that seemed about right. But it is a bit in the same category as that we had three cars to drive, and it was hard to imagine much less. But now, if I hint at that we maybe should find out how to have a car soon, everybody else says "A car!?! What on earth do we need a car for?" And if I suggest that I might get one more cell phone account, it also goes: "What would you possibly need that for?!" We've gotten used to living a bit more simply, and are actually quite happy with that. So I'm hesitant to restart the "arms race" of trying to keep up with the things one is "supposed" to have, as one thing leads to another, and new things create new needs, and it doesn't really end.

But what makes the difference now is that I'm being paid for watching servers again. Which means that to seem to do my job I need to be reachable all the time, and that I can have my servers send me pages when something needs attention. And preferably also that I can look at various monitoring webpages, and that I can log into a server and restart something. And an IM program like ICQ would be really nice. Then I can actually go somewhere without being constantly worried about what might be going wrong in the meantime.

Last time I made a serious attempt at getting most of that to work was two years ago. A bluetooth GPRS tri-band GSM phone (Nokia 3610i) and a Palm handheld with an added bluetooth module, so it could talk with the phone. Which sounded like it would do what I wanted. But the phone seems to have a buggy bluetooth implementation, so it would tend to disconnect often. And the bluetooth module for the Palm sticks out at the end, so I can't really put it in my pocket like that, and the connector to it broke as well. I did manage to get a persistent GPRS connection to work a few times, and I got ICQ to run on the Palm. Which was great for about two minutes, until the Palm shut off, which it does if you don't touch it for a little while. Which killed my idea of having ICQ running in my pocket. And the always-on net connection over GPRS only worked for me in Europe. In L.A. I was using Cingular as provider, and they had just started implementing GPRS and it worked badly and slowly. So I was pretty much back to just receiving pages by SMS.

And my drawers are full of other, earlier attempts of attaining always-on connectivity while being mobile. Several Palm devices, like the VII which had built-in wireless, except for you couldn't do anything very useful with it. Various kinds of cards for my laptop. A CDPD cellular modem, which had trouble finding a signal just about anywhere. A Ricochet card, which worked wonderfully all over L.A. and in various airports, for about a month, until the original company went under. And then a long string of mobile phones, going back to almost 20 years ago when it was a $2000 suitcase you could indeed carry, but it wasn't exactly handy.

So, I don't quite think it is the holy grail yet, but my new Sony Ericsson P900 actually seems to work. It has a big color screen and a built-in PDA. The bluetooth and GPRS actually works. I can run an IM program and it actually keeps running after I put it back in my pocket. I can run a terminal program and log into servers with SSH. I can actually look at a webpage in a somewhat useful way. And as a bonus it has a built-in camera and it is easy to send a picture or video by MMS or e-mail. And MP3 player and other goodies. Anyway, the picture thing is particularly cool, as it means I'll be able to do a moblog and post pictures on my blog on the fly without having to first go home and download my camera and upload by ftp.
[ | 2004-02-26 07:47 | 11 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, February 24, 2004day link 

 We're not in Kansas
picture Just another of our little ongoing discoveries of how daily life in Toulouse, France is different from life in Los Angeles.

The day before yesterday some fliers were handed out on the block, inviting us to an open house Friday in a building in the neighborhood, which apparently is a former factory that is going to be a center for an artist's collective called Mix'Art Myrys. They want to meet their future neighbors and shake hands and see who we are and hear if there's any issues we have with anything. How very nice. It is actually quite a common thing here that when there's some kind of new semi-public project of any magnitude there will be public hearings and all the stakeholders are invited to participate and voice what they think, etc.

But now, yesterday night, we get another set of fliers in our mailbox about the same thing. This time from the Mairie, the mayor's office. Handed out by what obviously was some public office workers. They included a statement from the mayor that he was very surprised that Mix'Art Myrys had decided to move into that old factory, as he had advised them against it, and he was very much against the idea, even though he thinks that alternative cultural activities should generally be supported. And it included contact information for calling telling the Mairie if we really don't want these guys to move in.

But the killer is then the added information that apparently this is some kind of squatter group. They had previously illegally moved into nothing less than the old Prefecture, a key government building, and stayed there for three years, running their artist collective and having exhibitions, etc. And they apparently don't have any kind of authorization to move into this new building. Meaning, they don't own it, even though they're in some kind of talks with the owner, and it isn't zoned for this use, and the Mayor doesn't really want our quiet neighborhood to be subject to the activities that this group apparently is known for. Which I'm not quite clear on what is, as the website is kind of cryptic, but it includes theater for kids at least.

Now, if this were the United States, and some sort of large anarchic art group was making moves to take over an abandoned factory without permission, and they'd even done it before - we'd be talking tanks and tear gas, and some dead bodies would be quite likely. Instead we get a letter from the mayor pleading with us, the local citizens, to support his case and voice our opinion. Which apparently is what decides things. And everybody, the government officials and the anarcho art squatters, are apparently very intent on having an open public dialog with everybody, having everybody over for tea and cookies, to sway them with good arguments.

I suppose we'll go and see what actually happens.
[ | 2004-02-24 18:09 | 9 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, February 19, 2004day link 

picture Birgit and I went to the opera last night and saw Verdi's opera Aïda. Which was marvelous. I don't think I've been to the opera ever before. It is kind of something special. At some points there were around 100 people on the stage, with fancy Egyptian themed outfits and props. And a whole orchestra, and, well, those people who can fill up the whole big room with their voices. Not that I could hear what the heck they were singing. It was Italian, for one thing. The French translation showed up on little screens in various places, and was in the program. But I guess one needs to be quite well prepared before one goes to the opera. We had at least read the plot in advance, so we had at least the general idea of what was going on. The performance was in Halle aux Grains, which was an excellent venue. And Toulouse, being a very cultured city, seems to be a good place for big opera productions with big names. I tried to take pictures and little videos at first, but it is sort of a little tacky to sit and fiddle with one's camera in the opera, so I gave it up.
[ | 2004-02-19 06:12 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Monday, February 16, 2004day link 

 Middleclass Poverty
picture Now that it looks like my own economy is looking up a little bit for the moment, I can more comfortably write about the ups and downs of poverty. No, not the kind of poverty where you're living in a cardboard shack in the third world and there are no crops, no food, and no clean water, as I haven't personally experienced that. But the kind of poverty one can experience in a rich western country when one is trying to make ends meet, and they don't quite meet, no matter how fast one runs, and one never quite manages to do things the logical and sensible way.

A lot of things in a capitalistic society are arranged to provide economic incentives to do things the "right" way. You know, you get fines of various kinds if you do it the "wrong" way. And maybe a lot of that makes sense if you're sitting with a spreadsheet and calculating how to distribute your funds over the next couple of years. But it often becomes a very cruel arrangement when one lives from paycheck to paycheck and somehow has dug oneself into a hole one can't just step out of.

A typical example is that you have a car, but you can't afford the insurance. Can you really be considered to be poor if you have a car and live in a house with a yard? Well, in some places you'd be considered rich. But if you live in Los Angeles you've probably gotten the idea that those are the basic necessities of life. So maybe it is an old car, but you have one or two, unless you're homeless. So, for the example, there was a period of time where I couldn't afford the $4-500 per month for car insurance, so I didn't have any. And I got stopped by the police, and in court the judge gave me a fine of $800 and graciously he gave me a few months to pay for it. Now, if I was the spreadsheet person with money in the bank, I can quickly make the calculation that it would be cheaper just to have the insurance and anything else I'm supposed to have. But if I'm just somebody who didn't have the money? OK, then I owe another $800. Does that motivate me to pay that plus the insurance I couldn't afford? Well, yes, but it certainly doesn't make it easier. So, I didn't pay that either. So at some point when I had parked somewhere, the car got impounded by the police. Which costs $10 per day in storage fees, plus a few hundreds of other fees, plus you have to pay everything you owe to get your car back. Which took me a couple of weeks to come up with, and it was way over $2000 at that time. And I still needed to go and get insurance.

To a lot of good citizens that just means I'm an idiot and I could just keep my stuff in order in the first place. So, I'm trying to explain that there's a different kind of world, where it isn't just a matter of "keeping it in order", but a matter of how expensive it is to be a little behind rather than a little ahead, and how difficult it is to keep up with the Joneses, even if badly.

Another example. After I went bankrupt 12 or so years ago I was quite happy with not having any credit lines. Declaring bankrupty was a relief, after realizing my fixed expenses were more than $7000 per month, and that there were no way of meeting them, let alone eat, if I earned less than that. Even if I earned what under other circumstances would be considered a very handsome living. So since then the policy was to not buy anything I didn't have the money for in cash. But, well, sooner or later we got credit cards again, for the convenience of buying things remotely. And I paid them every month in full, until some point this year where things were wearing a bit thin, and they ended up more or less maxed out. Not a lot of money, but $4000 or so. Which I didn't pay very much attention to at first. But now recently, where I only had barely what we needed for survival, I noticed what it actually was costing, even though I hadn't used these cards for a long time. I also notice that things were carefully arranged to make it really expensive to be close to the maximum. Each month I paid the amount suggested by the credit card company, on time. But each month each of the cards still went "over limit", which added a $30-40 extra charge for each card. Notice, I'm not using those cards, just paying the monthly amount. Still it was more than $200 per month. And now recently my U.S. checking account was out of commission because of my problem with Budget Rent-a-car, so I couldn't pay the cards at all for two and a half months. That ended up costing about $800 in charges for those same credit cards. And this all, of course, motivates me to "keep my things in order". Yeah sure.

One thing takes another. A bit of a vicious cycle. So if you just are busy with work and life, and trying to pay your rent and your car insurance and avoid that the electricity gets turned off, and so forth, then at the end of the year I might notice that I don't really have the $20K that the IRS would like to be paid. So they add a lot of charges and fines to it, and make an agreement with me that is carefully calculated so that I never ever will finish paying off, as I'm only paying the interest.

And, well, with all of that you don't really get around to doing sensible things like putting money away for your retirement, or even having one month worth of expenses in reserve. Because there's always some kind of emergency you need to deal with. Or when one month there isn't, you decide to then get health insurance, which leaves you stuck with another $600 a month. Or you decide to buy a new computer or go to a conference or something.

Mind you, I haven't really made less than $60K a year for the last 18 years, and often twice as much. I've never worked less than 80 hours a week in that time. And it is not like we've had an extravagant lifestyle. Old cars, second-hand furniture, hardly any clothes shopping, kids in public schools, lower middleclass neighborhood. And at the times I've been having job jobs together with other more normal people, I've noticed how lots of them who earned less than me seemed to spend all the time talking about their mortgages, their retirement accounts, their stock market investments, their $40K cars, the college funds for their kids, and their vacation in Bora Bora, and mysteriously they seemed to have their affairs perfectly in order.

So, am I just a little stupid and bad at math? Oh, that might be, and lots of people will probably conclude that. But that isn't my main point here. OK, for some folks it comes completely natural to do the right thing, and they seem to be in synch with the economic rules of society. But there are lots of other well-intended and hard-working folks, most in dual-income households, often in a much lower pay range than what I'm usually blessed with, but who also are stuck in similar or worse vicious cycles. Having bad credit and therefore getting worse rates on everything. Owing back taxes, having credit card bills, car payments, and spending way too much money on stupid late fees, and never quite getting their heads above water.

There are various possible avenues of answers, of course. One could make a lot more money so that one could comfortably pay for the same lifestyle one's neighbors have. One could succeed in adopting a regimen where one keeps a sensible budget and sets aside reserves. One could get a stable job with a company that draws your taxes every month and sets aside retirement money and profit sharing for you. One could simplify one's life greatly and grow one's own food and forget about cars and cable TV. One could dream up a different kind of society that doesn't keep most of its citizens stuck in a rat's maze.

Anyway, poverty sucks.
[ | 2004-02-16 17:59 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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