Saturday, May 31, 2008

This One is for Tom, Cat, Anais, and the Other Kink-Minded Souls

A recently published survey by Men's Health purportedly ranks my city of residence as the "most sexually satisfied". It goes without saying that I wasn't part of that poll.

Newspaper publishing empire Gannett owns the local major daily in the Circle City and puts out a weekly free newspaper/social networking website targeted at the younger, urban hipster demographic. It's sort of like the alternative weekly newspaper, sans the political commentary and massage parlor ads in the back.

Anyway, this weekly newspaper decided to capitalize both on the news of this survey and the debut of the Sex and the City movie to publish a voluntary sex survey of its own in this week's edition. By the author's own admission, the survey has more entertainment value than scientific merit, but the photos that accompanied the article (right sidebar, just below "related posts" section), were mildly amusing. The title photo, not provided on the webpage, was a pose that parodies the painting American Gothic.

Personally, I think the woman would have looked better in leather than a bunny outfit any day.

UPDATE: Heh...

Blogging the Personal: The Fine Line Between Intimacy and Exhibitionism

I finally got around to reading a very long story on personal blogging that ran in last weekend's New York Times Magazine. Written by former Gawker blogger Emily Gould, the story is a painfully meandering account of how her experiences with being public about very private matters led to emotional turmoil, regret, and ultimately resignation.

Although my own life is far removed from the elite and elite wannabe media social circles in which she traveled, there were some passages where her own sentiments have crossed my mind a time or two. The commonality is that we both chronicled some very intimate portions of our lives. I'd like to pull out select passages and offer up my own thoughts.

Blogospheric Social Network

Gould writes:
Some of my blog’s readers were my friends in real life, and even the ones who weren’t acted like friends when they posted comments or sent me e-mail. They criticized me sometimes, but kindly, the way you chide someone you know well. Some of them had blogs, too, and I read those and left my own comments. As nerdy and one-dimensional as my relationships with these people were, they were important to me. They made me feel like a part of some kind of community, and that made the giant city I lived in seem smaller and more manageable.

I came to this blog via a different direction. None of my friends prior to starting this blog in July of 2006 know of this blog's existence, and I'm sure if any of them read the story from start to now, their jaws would drop somewhere near ground level. As time progressed, I developed a small network of blog friends, with reciprocal readerships. Although I'm not as active writing in this space, there is a select group of readers with whom I keep in regular touch via IM and e-mail. Moreover, some of them I have met a time or two in real life. I can't deride my own friendships as being "nerdy and one-dimensional" because the scope of our conversations have transcended the original focus of this blog.

The Propriety of Divulging Private Information

Gould writes:
As Henry (her boyfriend) and I fought, I kept coming back to the idea that I had a right to say whatever I wanted. I don’t think I understood then that I could be right about being free to express myself but wrong about my right to make that self-expression public in a permanent way. I described my feelings in the language of empowerment: I was being creative, and Henry wanted to shut me up. His point of view was just as extreme: I wasn’t generously sharing my thoughts; I was compulsively seeking gratification from strangers at the expense of the feelings of someone I actually knew and loved. I told him that writing, especially writing about myself and my surroundings, was a fundamental part of my personality, and that if he wanted to remain in my life, he would need to reconcile himself to being part of the world I described.


One of the strangest and most enthralling aspects of personal blogs is just how intensely personal they can be. I’m talking “specific details about someone’s S.T.D.’s” personal, “my infertility treatments” personal. There are nongynecological overshares, too: “My dog has cancer” overshares, “my abusive relationship” overshares.

It’s easy to draw parallels between what’s going on online and what’s going on in the rest of our media: the death of scripted TV, the endless parade of ordinary, heavily made-up faces that become vaguely familiar to us as they grin through their 15 minutes of reality-show fame. No wonder we’re ready to confess our innermost thoughts to everyone: we’re constantly being shown that the surest route to recognition is via humiliation in front of a panel of judges.

But is that really what’s making people blog? After all, online, you’re not even competing for 10 grand and a Kia. I think most people who maintain blogs are doing it for some of the same reasons I do: they like the idea that there’s a place where a record of their existence is kept — a house with an always-open door where people who are looking for you can check on you, compare notes with you and tell you what they think of you. Sometimes that house is messy, sometimes horrifyingly so. In real life, we wouldn’t invite any passing stranger into these situations, but the remove of the Internet makes it seem O.K.

While my own wife does not know about this space, there is a question that gets raised by commenters here and on other anonymous personal blogs... Is it right for us to talk about our personal lives and matters that involve our spouses without their consent? Are our motives noble?

Those of you who have read this blog far back enough may realize that my arrival here was driven by criticism of my posts to a semi public forum about extramarital relationships. I had come there out of curiosity because I was considering starting one of my own. When I started venting and "oversharing" my own personal details, some of the readers accused me of wanting female attention and using that space to fulfille that desire.

Indeed may of the forum members were women, but I don't think I came there seeking their attention or approval. I was trying to puzzle out how to deal with dissatisfaction in my own marriage, and I was quicily losing hope in believing anything could be done to fix it. The forum was a place where I could be open about this aspect of my life and seek some advice.

The Fleeting Feeling of Blog Oriented Validation
Gould writes:
In my old job, I’d been able to slowly, steadily learn the ropes, but now I was judged solely on what I produced every day. I had a kind of power, sure, but it was only as much power as my last post made it seem like I deserved.

Blog readership on a personal blog feeds on how captivating the narrative remains. Keeping the narrative alive requires frequent posting. For some people, writing a post flows naturally, so the stream of updates comes regularly.

I tend to be a slower writer, thinking over my thoughts quite a bit before putting them together. In the days of working for the Titanic software company, I had a lot of spare time to reflect on the areas of my life that were disappointing and depressing. The luxury of putting together longer posts was there.

Over time, I watched my readership grow to as much as 70 unique visitors per day. The peak was about this time last year as I was trying to hammer out an offer with the Online Payment Subsidiary of the Big Online Auction Company. The tension between my wife and I was very strong, and I suspect that there was as subset of the population that was enthralled or appalled enough by the drama to keep reading.

After the marriage was pronounced unfixable in July last year, the blog became a journal of my job search, which involved a lot of traveling and a lot of agonizing. Although not as big of a draw, I was able to sustain about 40 visits a day. With things being much quieter here, I've finally dropped below the 20 visits, much of that is loyal readers who've noticed an RSS update and some other people arriving here for searches on chronic masturbation or some term from one of Schnarch's writings. If the guy ever wanted to to ensure better search results, he could buy my blog. :-)

Love for the Haters

Gould writes:
The commenters’ compliments were reassuring. And though I was reluctant to admit it, there was even something sort of thrilling about being insulted by strangers. This was brand-new, having so many strangers pay attention to me, and at that point, every kind of attention still felt good.

Although not as common now, I got my share of negative commenters on this place. Granted, they weren't the level of the Great Online Friend Meltdown over at Desperate Husband, but there were some anonymous snipers who seemed to think that I could do no right. I learned to handle these commenters in stride, listening to the merits of their arguments with an open mind. I don't think I ever reached a point where I developed an emotional need for their feeback like Gould says she did.

How Truly Social is a Net Relationship?

Gould writes:
But while my actual participation in life shrank down to a bare minimum, I still responded to hundreds of e-mail messages and kept up a stream of instant-messenger conversations while I wrote. Depending on how you looked at it, I either had no life and I barely talked to anyone, or I spoke to thousands of people constantly.

This could describe my life up to and including this blog. I'm sure my wife and her friends believe that I live in a form of isolation, with no friends at all. Indeed my wife has asked me a couple of times in the past year when was the last time I talked to some of my college and high school era friends.

Prior to exploring the questions of my marriage and career, I spent a lot of time reading and commenting on political blogs. Prior to that it was reading and posting on USENET newsgroups focusing on railroads and computing.

One of the most jarring aspects of self confrontation during this blog has been to realize just how isolated I had become both personally and professionally. My change of jobs has forced me to break out of the professional shell. Still a work in progress in the building of a real-life personal network. As my wife and I go our separate ways, this will be essential for me to continue on the progress I've made and to avoid seeking out an unhealthy and unbalanced rebound relationship.

The Struggle to Stay Motivated

Gould writes:
On Heartbreak Soup, I was reduced to writing about not having anything to write about. I wasn’t cooking much, or reading much, or thinking about much of anything besides how miserable and emptied out I felt. When I posted about a week spent wandering around dead-eyed in Florida’s artificial beauty the week after the funeral, one reader left a comment recommending specific brands of antidepressants. Soon after that, I lost the will to blog altogether.

The will to blog is a complicated thing, somewhere between inspiration and compulsion. It can feel almost like a biological impulse. You see something, or an idea occurs to you, and you have to share it with the Internet as soon as possible. What I didn’t realize was that those ideas and that urgency — and the sense of self-importance that made me think anyone would be interested in hearing what went on in my head — could just disappear.

I worry about this every now and then. The lack of posting on this space has made me wonder sometimes how long I will be able to keep the blog going. The limbo-like estrangement stalemate has my personal life on hold for another month, and I respect the fact that most of my readership would find the technical aspects of my work to be an eye-glazing experience, so I try not to spout off on that too much.

I've also wondered at times whether I fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum, perhaps as an Aspie. Some have described my more analytical posts as "cold" and "detached". A few readers noted how obsessive I was about discussing Schnarch, and I believe that a lot of my success as a software developer has more to do with my ability to focus and understand a problem and then hammer at it relentlessly than out of truly clever creative genius.

The Suppression of the Embarrassing

Gould writes:
Late one night, I unlocked Heartbreak Soup and wrote one last post there. In it, I talked about how a single blog post can capture a moment of extreme feeling, but that reading an accumulated series of posts will sometimes reveal another, more complete story. I talked about how taking the once-public blog and making it private, though tempting, felt like trying to revise history.

Knowing that the worst of my online oversharing is still publicly accessible doesn’t thrill me, but it doesn’t scare me anymore either. I might hate my former self, but I don’t want to destroy her, and in a way, I want to respect her decision to show the world her vulnerability. I’m willing to let that blog exist now as a sort of memorial to a time in my life when I thought my discoveries about myself and what I loved were special enough to merit sharing with the world immediately.

I've wrestled with this question a few times over the course of this blog. The person I was when I started the blog is not the same person I am now. Sometimes I don't like seeing that person, and some of the early posts focused way too much on the day-to-day matters of my sex life.

I've been tempted at times to take down the sexual posts or even remove the references to the affair discussion boards. In the end, I believe that I would betray the significance of the transform that took place. And by reading others' personal blogs, I realize that flawedness is the natural state of humanity. To deny it or suppress it in disclosure presented as intimate would not be differentiated, and so the old posts remain.

Even if I do move on and stop writing for this blog, the blog itself will remain intact. I think it might prove helpful for others who are lost and trying to figure their own lives out. They might not reach the same conclusions or take the same path as me. The bottom line is, we all figure out or own paths and live with their consequences. But at least they could see where jarring things up might take them.

For all of you who blog about your private lives, what's your take on all of this? What sort of issues have you dealt with over the lifetime of your blog?

Parsing Bug Double Take

I use SiteMeter's free web counter to monitor traffic statistics for my site. The log gives some basic information on the browser and platform the visitor is using. This can usually be determined from the HTTP header submitted by the browser. I was a bit shocked to see this for operating system field:

I know that there is a small, and vocal, community of OS/2 users out there, and that IBM has been trying to prod them gently into moving on, but I was highly skeptical that someone might be browsing my site with such an ancient operating system. Then I looked at the browser string.

Apparently SiteMeter parsed the rendering engine version information, found "OS/2" in the string and concluded that must be the OS, even though the platform in parentheses is X11/Linux.

Admittedly it must be tough to write heuristic algorithms that can interpret these strings, given that there isn't a formal standard for them. Heck , even Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 still uses "Mozilla" in its identifying string "for historical reasons" that date back over a decade.

Friday, May 30, 2008

I May Not be Working With (Ruby on) Rails, But I Feel Like I Laid Ten Miles of Track

About two weeks later, and I'm still working like crazy, even if I'm not technically under the crunch.

With the template customization and rendering engine pretty much complete, I started work on the next batch of tasks. One was to fix some issues in the way reader comments were handled, and the other dealt with a feature request from the higher ups.

The feature request proved to be an interesting project because it involved dusting off some knowledge I had picked up on a hobby project about five years ago, and it involved learning about Amazon's web services. This is going to be a pilot project of sorts to see if some of their cloud computing services can be used to offload some background computation tasks.

I started work on the new project at the end of last week, labored on it over the weekend, and polished most of it off by the end of this week. In the meantime, I fixed the comment handling stuff so that it could make it into this week's release.

After surveying my effort, I estimate that I wrote about 900 lines of new PHP code and refactored close to 300 lines more of ugly legacy stuff. I don't keep hard statistics on coding productivity, but that's a new record for me I think. It's given me a sense of accomplishment and a case of sleep deprivation.

In a way, I am reminded of the story of crewmen for the Central Pacific Railroad setting a new record for laying miles of track in a single day.

I've got some downtime coming this weekend, and I'll be in single daddy mode because my wife decided to go pay her friend over in the Land o' Lincoln a visit to see her recently born baby boy. The next few weekends will be busy ones because I'll be working my daughters' dance recital next weekend, and then a birthday party for my older daughter, who will be turning a big five years old on the 20th, the weekend thereafter

I'll break out of the work posts this weekend, because I've got a few things to write about that I've been saving up.

Stay tuned...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Moving on to the Next Projects at Work and at Home

For all practical purposes, my portion of the customization project is done. Last week, I made some minor adjustments worked on a couple of other bugs as I waited for my coworker to wrap up his end of the project, which was to migrate the clients' settings from a file system repository to a database. He hit several snags along the way, which resulted in a delay in the migration to the next release, which is on Wednesday. There is still a small cluster of bugs relating to the handling of post comments, but they are more annoyances than critical issues. They will get resolved on a maintenance schedule in the near future.

Today, our development team met with some higher ups to plan for the next project, which will be run under a full-blown scrum system, complete with backlogs, sprints, and daily meetings. For the last month or so, we've already been operating under a limited form of this with the sprint backlog and daily meetings. What we lacked was the coordination that scrum requires from stakeholders. Starting with today's set of meetings, we are now operating with the buy in from both the strategic and service sides of the company, which is a good thing.

This past weekend was special for a couple reasons. First, it was the first time in almost a month and a half since I'd had a weekend where I didn't have a boatload of things to work on. Second, it was the first weekend I've had where I was alone. My wife and the kids left for the Volunteer State on Thursday morning. On their schedule was the wife's best friend's daughter's wedding and some tourism.

I kept busy by getting chores done. The lawn was looking awful because I hadn't mowed it in three weeks. The house was aclutter. My wife had baked the multitier wedding cake and made the icing so that she could take it with her to decorate, so the kitchen was a mess. The laundry backlog stood at five loads, with a wet load left in the washer and three or four loads of clean but unfolded clothes. By the time they returned on Sunday afternoon, the house was looking pretty good.

In the midst of the silence, serenity, and solitude, a realization hit me... Work had engulfed so much of my mental energy that there was little room left for emotional awareness. I was able to put work aside for a few hours each day for the time I spent with my kids, but otherwise that was it. Without them around and without the need to work on code, I felt... depleted.

Under all of the borrowed functioning supplied by my work and my kids, there wasn't much else to keep me going. I searched the local entertainment papers to see what music was playing in town, but didn't find anything appealing. I did manage to spend a few hours at my coffee shop, which helped. In retrospect, I should have booked a massage at the massage school, but that's 20/20 hindsight.

I think another thing that leaves me sapped is the status of marital limbo. My wife won't be moving out until sometime in the summer, so our lives still have a high degree of integration. If I'm not at work, I'm almost always at home watching the kids. I'm want to start building a social network of my own, something that extends beyond work. In another week it will be a year since my wife and I did anything sexual, so that also doesn't help much.

This weekend was a wakeup call for me. While things have gone well at work, and there will be more challenges and rewards ahead, I have been neglectful of the full breadth of my emotional needs. I can't expect to let my work be my emotional fuel because if I go through a rough streak, there won't be much to hold me together. Following the advice of Drunken Housewife many moons ago, I'm going to get put on medication because I won't have the strength to make it through the strains of separating.

The image above was a therapeutic exercise. You can view a higher resolution version of it by clicking on the graphic. To make it, I took a screen capture of some of the most complicated source code I had worked on the last few weeks. I juxtaposed it with a text overlay, a statement of my feelings over the weekend. The source code editor is aware of the underlying language and color codes the text based on the underlying function of the text. The overlay text is written as a programming language comment, with words color highlighted to convey meaning. I thought about printing it and sending it to PostSecret, but I thought it would be better to get this out into the open.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Death March in Greater Detail

It's been a couple weeks since I referenced the death march in this space and about a week and a half since I gave a brief update.

I didn't get much of a break after that initial release because the project wasn't done. What we had accomplished on 4/30 was the first of three releases.

First, a little background on big picture. The original blogging application, as developed by the outsourced developers, ran on a single server. The separation of application, business, and presentation logic was awful. A number of modules that were responsible for talking to the database also emitted HTML. When things are that tightly integrated, you lose a lot of leeway in customization, the kind of customization that potential customers have been clamoring for.

To make that kind of customization possible, we developed a template language, a way of describing where things should appear on a page, and how they should look. I came up with the syntax and created a processor based on XSLT, an XML transformation language, for turning the template into bona fide HTML.

With a processor in place, I had to go rework the old database querying code so the HTML emitting stuff was replaced with cleaner interfaces and then wrap that into a nice module that collected the data and presented it to the template -> HTML processor.

Templates were designed to be easily changeable, but we realized that not everyone would want to hand-edit XML files. So my boss worked on a JavaScript user interface that would allow a user to add, configure, rearrange, or remove elements from a page. The user interface wasn't capable of working directly with the full-blown XML files, so I was given the task of creating server-side functionality that would edit the files on behalf of the user interface. Much of that new functionality was ironed out in early April, so I saw my to-do list grow by leaps and bounds.

The software engineer we hired on in late February was responsible for writing a program that would generate the new templates for existing networks. He was also responsible for wiring in the customization interface into the administrator pages that create new blogs.

Phase I was the switchover to a new page rendering system, using a collection of page templates generated from settings in the old system. Phase II took place on 5/6, introducing a beta release of a user friendly template editor. It was not feature complete, lacking support for removing and reordering elements on a page. Phase III on 5/8 rolled out the last two missing features.

The editor still has some bugs, which should get ironed out with a Wednesday release. In addition, templates will get patched to repair a glitch in the original migration script. The glitch was caused by my coworker violating a key portion of the template language specification. I took ownership and wrote the fix because he wasn't clear on how best to remedy the problem. We also will migrate the low level storage of templates from file system to a relational database, which is in the other developer's tray.

I've held out pretty well through all of this, not only in fixing issues with my own code, but helping coworkers troubleshoot integration issues. On 4/29, the day before we went live with Phase I, my boss called me into the office in private and said he was pleased with the effort I had put into the project and was impressed with how much I had learned. He said that while the group would celebrate as a whole when the product went live, he wanted to give me something to show his appreciation. He handed me a gift card for a restaurant he heard me mention a few days back, a brewpub that I was especially fond of.

This past Thursday, the CEO awarded the group with a very nice gift -- Krups Beertender B95. It chills 5 liter kegs of Heineken, and it includes a display for temperature and supply level. We fired it up Thursday afternoon and sampled the first glasses during an in-office happy hour on Friday afternoon. True to geeky form, I started a temperature measurement table on a whiteboard and then generated a graph of the cooling curve.

When my boss, a geek himself, saw the graph and the regression formula for estimated the cooling time (13 hours to get to 36 oF), he said that made his day.

Once we wrap up the bug fix release this Tuesday, we'll move on to the next project, which should be easier to break up into smaller pieces so that we avoid this kind of a crunch cycle. We also have an interview with a very promising candidate from the Chicago area on Monday afternoon, so we'll have more help on the way.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Some Thoughs on This, the Eve of a Primary Election

Tomorrow, my state holds a primary election, which includes on the ballot the selection of party nominees for the presidential election in November. At least on the Democratic side, the race is still undecided, so the national profile of this primary is uncharacteristically high.

The junior senators of Illinois and New York have been spending a lot of time and money here in the hopes that a win will help shift the momentum in their direction. The significance of this primary is a rarity.

You'd have to go back to one year before I was born to find a time when this state's primary mattered. It is also an irony because this state's electoral votes have not been awarded to a Democrat candidate since 1964. On most leap-year Novembers, ours is the first state to be called for the GOP.

I normally don't discuss politics in this space. For one thing, this blog has always been first and foremost a personal pursuit. Second, my readers come from a wide range of experiences and beliefs, and I really don't want to complicate the conversation with tangential topics. I'm going to make an exception here because I think my views on politics have been evolving, much as my own perspectives on life.

First off, the confession, which may come as a shock to some of you. I was once a conservative, both in the fiscal and social sense. Given the "redness" of this state, that's not too much of a stretch to believe.

There are a couple of facets of personal experience that helped reinforce this worldview. Those familiar with my personal story my recall that I was born in the late 60s to young parents. They never fully embraced their roles as parents, so the real parental figures were my paternal grandparents, both of them very Republican.

My grandmother was a GOP backer by lineage. My grandfather a Democrat for pretty much the same reason. My grandmother once told me a story about before they were married, my grandfather defaced her Wendell Willkie campaign button. The story went that his support for FDR and the rest of the party vanished after he was drafted.

I started to develop a sense of political awareness about the time that the Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I was delivering newspapers for the afternoon daily in my neighborhood. I knew that the political Zeitgeist was unpleasant, for it was the twilight years of the Carter administration. My grandparents spoke fondly of "Ronnie" and my grandfather disparaged the nightly news coverage for bias.

After entering college, my views began a centerward drift, especially after working two summers abroad in the summers of 1990 and 91. The Clinton years pushed me rightward for a while, but as the internet became more mainstream, I started to take on a more libertarian bent, perhaps of the South Park Republican variety.

In some areas, I didn't quite fit the rigid mold of a conservative. Rod Dreher's writings on the Crunchy Conservative resonated with me. I had always been a strong believer in recycling. I tried to use public transportation when available. I liked adult alternative and folk music. I cringed at suburban sprawl. Going to our friends' evangelical megachurch seemed awfully awkward.

As the Clinton years drew to an end, I was starting to grow weary of the polarization. By the end of the 2004 election, I just had to unplug altogether. Political commentary seemed to be one side getting bent out of shape ove what the other side had said or written. I cut back severely on my news consumption and stopped reading political blogs altogether.

Between 2004 and 2006, I started to shift focus inward. I was in my mid-30s, feeling like an underachiever and inadequate on a lot of levels. I didn't know it at the time, but I was going through the early stages of a process that would lead me to start this blog.

The discussion of Bowenian differentiation of self in Schnarch's Passionate Marriage had a disruptive effect on the way I viewed politics. The strong emotional interlocking between two members of an emotionally gridlocked couple is similar to the polarized politics of the last 20 or so years. Neither partisan camp seems to be able to remain calm in the face of the other sides agenda.

Schnarch writes about raising the level of differentiation by "operating from the Best in yourself." That includes reaching out to the non-wounded side of someone else. To me, the central theme of Barack Obama's campaign has been grounded in this idea. He proposes a progressive agenda, not throwing it in the face of his opposition, but rather inviting them to share in the benefits it will bestow on all, not just a limited set of aggrieved classes for whom he seeks a reliable vote.

If Obama is a path to differentiation, Clinton is certainly a study in emotional fusion. Her latest incarnation, as a fighter for the working class, is a direct appeal to reptilian instincts that animate the Jacksonian tradition in American Politics. She promises not a transformation of politics, but an all out war against her political opposition. Instead of a broad political consensus and a mandate for change, she aims to rack up enough microtargeted groups to get her just past the goal line.

I can't say I'm in total agreement with all of Obama's policies. Indeed a president's ability to enact an agenda is constrained ultimately by the political makeup of the legislative branch. Promises are meaningless without the votes to back them up. I believe that the message he is running on is more likely to give him a coattail effect than Clinton. Indeed there is a worry that if she is the nominee in November, she may have a negative effect in the local races.

So with all of that said, I will be declaring myself a Democrat tomorrow at the primary and casting my vote for the Junior Senator from Illinois. Although my views on Clinton seem pretty harsh, I do not wish her ill. My disdain is for the poisoned political tradition that she wishes to perpetuate. I don't think that's what this country needs.

If you're registered to vote, and have a primary election tomorrow, by all means get out and vote, regardless of which candidate you support.