Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday Morning Sing-a-Long...

... because this is much too cheery to wait for a late night listen.

In this day and age, there's a lot of hand wringing about how young kids are bombarded with inappropriate content on the TV. Moreover, kid-friendly programming has gotten a bad rap for being boring. Having two small children of my own, I've seen my share of it, and I think many adults would be surprised to find out that there's some really good stuff out there.

The cable TV channel Noggin carries Jack's Big Music Show, which exposes children to both great kids artists and some real musical greats, like Buddy Guy and Sweet Honey in the Rock. Just how good is the music? Get a load of this song, titled "Duck 4" by Leon Thomas III.

Is this not the second coming of the Jackson 5? I can't help but smile when I hear that refrain. From what I've read, Thomas's voice has been used in another musically oriented program on both Nickelodeon and Noggin -- The Backyardigans.

My job has been going well. I'm still learning quite a bit each day. The PHP framework they use is starting to make more sense to me. I'm learning a little about hacking cascading style sheets and learning the layout of the database that powers the site. I got my first new feature ticket, implemented it, and saw it rolled into production last week.

The paycheck pipeline is finally flowing as of last week, which has helped us to get mostly caught up on bills. The next stage is to start eliminating some of the debt so that we can get rid of some of the monthly payments.

I continue to ride the bus to work, reducing the cost of fuel, dodging the cost of parking, and helping to reduce my carbon footprint by the ton. I've gotten used to the routine, and early last week I finally bought me a 31-day pass to spare me the worry of fumbling for change on the way to work.

The bus arrangement has worked well in an unexpected way. About two and a half weeks ago, my wife's minivan broke down. It refused to start. We took it to one mechanic who noticed that a fuse kept getting blown and suspected the motor on emissions control pump, but he couldn't get the problem fixed, so we had to take it to the dealer. They were backlogged and couldn't get us in until the next week. It turned out to be a broken wire, which they fixed. During all of this downtime, my wife was able to use my car because I didn't need it.

The company I work for is a hosted blogging service for business, and in an effort to "eat our own dog food", we've all been given a public-facing company blog to write about our work. We've been encouraged to set aside a minimum of 15 minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays to work on posts. Given that I'm a bit more on the analytical side, I wind up spending more than that and wind up writing some after hours, which has eaten into the energy I have to write for my own personal blog.

There's a good chance that there will be techy topics discussed (for those of you who miss Half Nerdy Thursdays). As I become more advanced in my line of work and start implementing more gee-whiz features, I will probably write about those features when they get released. For loyal readers who are interested in the public blog, drop me a line, and I will give you the link.

My boss has brought me into the recruiting process, and I've interviewed two candidates by phone and one in person. One of the candidates' personal stories hit home for me. During the interview, he asked me about working conditions, and I added that since we were a blogging software company, he would be expected to maintain a work blog using our software. He mentioned that he had done some personal blogging and gave me the URLs.

I didn't look at them until after I had made a hiring decision so that their content would not color my judgment. One of them was non-anonymous and very open about personal details in his life, describing the crumbling of a marriage and a cross-country move away from his kids. It was a sobering read and one of those "There but for the grace of..." moments. I wonder just how many times this story has been repeated and not chronicled.

Another one of those "grace" moments came my way at the end of last week. I read in the news where Susie Student Loan Co., with whom I had interviewed in October and November of last year, let go of 117 employees here in the metro area. Some reports mentioned that IT workers were included in the mix. That company is in serious trouble now.

I'm slowly working on getting a life. I went out for drinks at a brew pub with my coworkers on a company social hour after work on Thursday this week. I'm hoping they have more of those in the weeks to come.

My wife and I had an extended discussion on divorce matters a couple weeks ago. I didn't write about it in my last big update because I was still trying to digest parts of it mentally and emotionally. We agreed that we should put the girls on my health insurance and that she should keep herself on her work insurance. I reiterated my stance that we don't tell the relatives anything until we have a timetable.

My wife made a confession. My daughters are enrolled in weekly dance classes at a school that's owned by the sister of my wife's preschool mom friend. The school has a competition team that travels nationwide, and this summer they are going to a competition at the Mouse's Amusement Park down in the central Sunshine State. My wife got invited to go along and bring the girls. She would be driving with the preschool mom, and the trip was supposedly cheap.

Her admission was that she had been using paychecks she had received for caring for her best friend's autistic daughter to save up for the trip. I was disappointed in the sense that she had been acting like she didn't know where money was going, but I didn't think it was worth the battle. In a way, it might be her last hurrah before she begins a very difficult life.

We ran the calculations on the state's child support calculator, and she said she had come up with a figure of $800/week, a figure about which she was skeptical. I reran the numbers and realized that she had entered my bi-weekly pay rather than the weekly value it asked for.

She said that she had been contemplating on letting me keep the house and moving out instead, adding that she and her preschool mom friend had looked at a couple places. The motivation is both practical and social.

From the practical angle, she's realized that by keeping the house, she would be taking on the extra work of things like yard work and the costs of keeping the house in good repair. As long as someone else was doing it and paying for it (read: me), it was okay, but the thought of having to deal with things herself herself didn't sound so attractive. It's kind of ironic because many years ago, when we still lived in an apartment, she was so fixated on getting a house, and I was resistant to the idea because of these things. The way she phrased that discussion reinforced the a hunch I've had about her staying in this marriage for utilitarian purposes.

The preschool moms with whom she is closest live in the neighboring township, which is served by a completely different school system. Moving there, she said, would ensure that our kids would would go to the same school as the preschool mom's kids. She also figured in times when she would be in a pinch, it would be better for her to have her friends nearby. Finally, she figured that her longtime best friend would move to the area eventually because the friend's church is over there.

She's ambivalent about the idea of moving because she figures she will probably have to rent, and that there are limited options in the other township, and what options there are are just about as much as our current house payment. She doesn't want to get an apartment because she is afraid the kids will make too much noise. And she wants them to have a yard.

I don't think she's totally convinced herself that this is the way to go, but it certainly changes the logistics because I had planned on being the one to move out and live somewhere really cheap for a while. I suspect in the next few weeks, we'll see if she's for real based on whether she starts bringing home those ubiquitous rental guide booklets.

Monday, January 14, 2008

My Maalox Moment for the Day

Ada Calhoun's blog comments on a story, that ran on the Jan. 10 edition of the New York Times, regarding a man who was ordered by a judge to stop blogging about his divorce. Just a heads-up to my loyal readers, but this blog might be going private sometime in the not-so-distant future. If I choose to do so, I will give advance notice so that no one gets left behind.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Dispatch from the Observation Car

I've gotten a few nudges from the net asking how I've been. It's been two and a half weeks since I last posted, so I can certainly forgive those who thought I might have abandoned this endeavor altogether. While things have been quiet, it's not for a lack of news in my life. It's just been that I've been too busy to relay it.

Lowering the Lifeboat

The three days after Christmas were spent wrapping up my work at the Titanic. With my coworker on vacation and the CTO and CEO spending the week at their homes, I had the office to myself.

I concentrated on documenting as much of my work as I could. Fortunately I had written a lot of specifications and developer documentation over my two years there, so much of it was just gathering it together and then uploading it to the company's internal document sharing portal.

My boss asked me to dig up status reports to give additional information on where things stood. Most of those e-mails were penned up in the company's old e-mail system, from which we migrated in the late spring last year. That system used expiring certificates as part of its authentication system.

My certificate has expired in late November last year with the passage of my two-year anniversary at the company, and I had requested that the CTO renew it. When I told him that I would not be able to retrieve the status reports without that renewal on that Wednesday (12/26), he finally got around to creating the renewed file. From there, I converted of the e-mails to PDF and put them on the sharing server.

I also did my last round of monthly system maintenance for a client and did the first stage of the rollout of security settings for that security audit. I left detailed notes on how all that was done. Hopefully the poor sucker lucky soul who winds up taking over my work will have a healthy trail of breadcrumbs from which to start.

Shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday (12/28), I got a call from the CTO, who asked me whether I was still in the office. I said that I was still busy sorting through paper documents to make sure anything that was company intellectual property would be left there at the office. He thanked me for staying on the extra time and wished me well.

I didn't get out of the office until just before 7 p.m. that night, hastily loading all my books and work materials into the trunk of my car so I could head for home. When I had triple checked that I had moved all the stuff of mine out of the office, I left my door key and electronic access cards to the building and the colocation facility near downtown in my coworker's desk. I closed the office door behind me with a deep breath and ceremonial solemnity. I quietly said, "It is done," and then made my way down to my car.

Software on the Circle

I agreed to meet with my new boss on New Year's Eve, even though the office was technically closed. He thought it would be good to get me started while the office was quiet and empty. He gave me a background on their hardware infrastructure and got me started with setting up a development environment.

Because they are a web-based service, the application is delivered via a web server. They have a close approximation to the web server environment set up as a virtual machine, so my first task was to get that copied over and running. Then I checked out the source code and got the quintessential "hello world" example working on a webpage.

By the middle of the week, I had gotten my work computer, a brand spanking new MacBook Pro with 2 GB of RAM. I have to say that this laptop rocks... big-time. It is going to be hard to go back to Windows anytime soon.

The rest of my first week was spent learning PHP, a dynamic language that borrows heavily on C, C++, Java, perl, and Bourne shell. Learning the syntax was easy. However the language has a vast array of extensions designed to help the developer do things quickly and easily. Developing an awareness of these features was a bigger effort, and there will still be much to learn in this area.

To help me learn the language, he gave me a list of 15 essential exercises that someone drew up as a way to learn a new language. My efforts were focused on creating command line versions of these programs and demonstrating them to my boss. He gave me useful feedback on how there were better ways to do certain things in PHP.

My next step was to create a web version of an exercise. I chose an exercise where the page performed an engineering calculation and then returned a result. By the beginning of my second week on the job, I had a basic request and response script set up.

The next phase was to create an AJAX version of the page so that the calculation query could be made and then placed on the page without having to do a full blown refresh. I also added JavaScript validators to the page to warn the user of invalid inputs. By the middle of the week, I was starting to implement a version of the same page using the framework that is being used in the website.

It would be an understatement to say that I've been drinking through a firehose throughout this time. I am learning new things and enjoying it. My boss seems happy with my progress, and starting next week, I will be taking on my first development project.

I'm coming in on the ground floor on the engineering end. When the company launched in early 2007, they chose to outsource development of the original version of the product through a local contracting agency. The first full-time engineering guy, my boss, hired on in September. Another contractor works mostly off site, but he probably will not go permanent. My boss has been very busy with interviewing prospective leads, and on this past Friday, I did my first phone interview for the company. After all of those interviews I've done over the past year, it was weird to be on the giving end.

I also really like the people here. The founders are down to earth and sharp. Although both come from more of the marketing side of things, they have treated us techies with much respect. The employees are creative, energetic, and happy to be there. The ones with whom I share office space have apologized several times about the noise, but I told them it's actually nice to be in a place buzzing with activity.

I've been commuting exclusively by bus. There is a bus line that stops at a location that is a four minutes' walk from my house. The trip is 9.3 miles, and it takes 37 minutes by the timetable, but I get a lot done because I can take my laptop with me. The $3 I spend daily for a round trip is about what I'd spend on gas driving, and it saves me the $8/day I'd spend to park at a nearby garage. It also reduces my carbon footprint.

All in all, I'd say that I've been busy, but mostly happy. I'm starting to take a look at the next big change of my life, which will be separation. My first paycheck from my new job will be issued this Friday, and that will begin the split of finances. I can start to see things fall into line.