Thursday, August 30, 2007

Again, missing the point on Vista

Larry Dignan, in his blog over on ZDNet, is continuing to miss the point on what's really wrong with Vista.

Microsoft's announcement that it is preparing a Vista Service Pack 1 beta in two weeks is curious on many levels. Although Microsoft delivers improvements via service packs I can't help but consider Vista SP1 a do-over.

He goes on to explain that most of what's supposedly coming in SP1 should already have been in the base OS, and that it's fundamentally "an indictment of Vista 1.0".

I can't complain about a new service pack for Vista (though I could certainly complain about the fact that it's about six months later than it should have been). And like everyone else, I really do wish that Vista was more stable out of the box, and had fewer compatibility issues.

But the real problem with Vista isn't its mediocre stability or its broken compatibility with so many different devices and software packages. It's that as a user, you don't get enough in return for the underlying changes that broke compatibility and that decreased stability. All things considered, taking the good with the bad, Vista is arguably better than XP. But it's not enough better to make it interesting. It's mildly better. It has a couple of really stupid features, and half a dozen fairly nice ones.

But note carefully: it took the world's largest software company, and some thousand of the world's best developers, five years to release a slightly improved version of Microsoft's most important product.

That's as clear a signal of an impending "inflection point" as I've seen in my career. I'm not entirely clear yet on what it means, but there's no doubt that it means something big. The times, they are a changin'.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Pentax K10D

Up until recently, my digital SLR was a Nikon D50: a basic, but basically functional DSLR. I liked it, and liked it well enough to take almost anywhere – right up to the point where I took it up Mt. Adams a month ago, and then like an idiot (a lot like an idiot, according to my wife) left it in the trailhead parking lot. Once I gave it up for lost, our deal was that I couldn't buy a new one until I made all the arrangements to get our roof replaced, but then Caedmon began showing signs of arriving early, and I took advantage of "unexpected circumstances" to acquire a new camera in time for his birth. I'd initially been planning to go with the Nikon D80, but at the last minute I decided to go with the Pentax K10D instead. My father is a longtime Nikon aficionado, and honest to God, we spent more time discussing my switch to a Pentax camera than my switch to a Presbyterian church. Priorities, you know.

So now that I've had the camera for a couple weeks, and have mostly put it through its paces, I thought I'd give some initial thoughts on it.


  • It's got a weatherproof body. Since most of my photos (so far) are taken in situations where the camera might indeed get wet, and I already lost my first D50 to a leaky water bottle, this is a major plus.
  • The vibration reduction (built into the body itself!) seems to work pretty well. I can take pictures at 1/10 second or slower and have them generally show up clear. From what I can tell, this is even better than the results I got from my very expensive (and now lost) Nikkor VR 18-200 lens. And as a result, I plan on using the Tamron 18-250 lens, which is about $300 cheaper than the equivalent Nikkor, and is a tad more powerful.
  • It's about $100 cheaper than the D80. Not a huge price differential, but worth noting.
  • It has a dust-removal system on the sensor that seems like a pretty cool idea. Can't say that I ever noticed the lack on the D50, but it's a nice thought.


  • The automatic white balance setting needs a ton of work. My Dad swears by setting the white balance manually, but I never noticed much of a need to do so on my D50. But indoors with the K10D, if you leave it on the "automatic" setting, the resulting pictures end up way too warm. You can address this by setting it manually, of course, but then you have to remember to change it again when you switch lighting.

    As an example, this picture was taken using the "automatic" white balance setting. Notice how yellow everything is.

    Just a second later (after I'd realized the white balance was wrong), this was taken using the "Tungsten" white balance setting:

    And this is (of course) what you get when you forget, leave it on "Tungsten" and use the flash:

    You can override all of this, of course, if you shoot RAW and fix it on your PC – but that's rather a pain.
  • The built-in flash is very uneven, and doesn't work as well as the Nikon. Pictures that I've taken with the flash, even at short distances, tend to be badly underexposed.

    For instance, this picture was taken with my Dad's Nikon D200, with the built-in flash:

    And this one was taken with my Pentax K10D, again, with the built-in flash:

  • Pentax doesn't have anything like the same "depth" in their accessories that Nikon has. None of the stores around here have anything but the barest selection of Pentax lenses. If I want to get anything decent, it's gonna have to be off of Amazon. Given that I'm probably only going to need a couple of basic lenses, this isn't a huge problem for me. But it's worth noting.

So would I make the same decision now? Hard to say. Possibly. If I can find workarounds for the problems I've noted, I would be very happy with it. As it is, I'm only moderately pleased. Anybody out there have any suggestions for me?


We're slowly getting to know Caedmon, I think, and he's getting to know us. We're still learning, of course: sometimes when we think we've got something figured out, he'll change it up on us. Like last night: we thought we'd figured out how to get him onto a three or four hour schedule, and then he managed to maneuver us into feeding him maybe every half hour or so. I still don't quite know how he managed to pull that one off – but it made for a long night. (And now that we're well into the middle of the day, he's sleeping, well, like a baby.)

Most of the time, though, we seem to understand each other. It's easy to tell when he's hungry, of course: he turns his head hard, looks over one shoulder or the other, and opens his mouth wide. It's called "rooting", but you'd almost think that he'd just spotted a tasty breast hiding behind his head and was trying to catch it unawares. By watching him closely, it's usually possible to tell other things too: like which end the gas he's about to emit needs to come out of, or whether he's really done with the bottle (sometimes he likes to fake you out), or when he's just bored and wants to be held. He peed on us four times yesterday, though: given that the instrument in question is uncovered for perhaps .3% of the day, he must have an exquisite sense of timing. That's a behavior I'd like to figure out the cues for.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be going through this process with a baby that Galena and I had given birth to ourselves. Because we're adopting Caedmon, there are aspects of the bonding process that we don't have available to us. We can't search his face for signs that he might have my nose or Galena's cheeks; we can't blame his constant farting on any genes he may have acquired from me, or his fussing on the super-ego he inherited from Galena. When he yawns, he looks just like Emmanuel, his birth father: he doesn't look like me. I told a friend recently that the bonding process with an adopted infant feels a little like physical therapy after a brain injury: you can still get there, but you have to work at it more, and you have to learn, and take advantage of, different neural pathways.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a letter to the (still unknown) birth father in the packet we put together for our adoption agency. This is how I put it in that letter:

In our journey through infertility, Galena and I have had to say goodbye to much that we have desired greatly. It has been exceedingly painful to know that I'll never be able to fall in love with my wife's cheeks on my daughter's face. I will never be able to argue with Galena whether our child has my grandfather's nose, or Galena's eyes, or whether our son's particular strain of stubbornness comes from her side of the family or mine.

But when we say farewell to these things that we hold so dear, I believe that we also open ourselves to the mystery of divine love. It is natural to hold close the child of your own flesh and blood: it is supernatural to entrust your child's care to another. It is understandable to desire a child of my own flesh and blood; it is a gift beyond words for someone to give me theirs. Adoption is a sometimes painful demonstration that, as human beings, we can be more than our biology, more than mere nature: that grace may sometimes still turn us into something that we might be but were not. As Jesus said, "Until a seed dies, it abides alone." And I believe that in precisely this way, God will honor your sacrifice, and will bless your child.

I know that Galena and I won't be perfect parents. Like all human beings, we will make mistakes and will be impatient. At times we will fail to show to our children precisely the grace that God has shown us. But we will also love the child you fathered with everything we have: and the child you helped to bring into the world, we pledge our honor to shepherd through it.

As I consider what adoption means, to me and to Galena, to you and to your partner, and to our child, I remember what the apostle Paul once said, that we are all God's children by adoption. It is an astonishing gift – once our eyes open to see it – that we are able to partake of the divine life in this fashion. I hope one day to tell our child this story.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On the Water

Keith and I played hooky today and went fishing on the Puget Sound. It was a fishing trip I "gave" him for his birthday a year and a half back, and we finally got around to scheduling it. We're both kind of lame that way. But the weather today was the sort that has fooled any number of unwary visitors into moving to Seattle after a short summer visit: gorgeous blue sky, perfectly calm water, mountains everywhere you looked – and a fish on the line every few minutes.

Matt McCulloch, the owner and principal guide of Tyee Charters, was perfect: he swore just enough to be interesting, knew exactly where the fish were and how to get them, and understood a lot more about Internet marketing than I expected. When we weren't talking about the best depth to run our lures, we were talking about SEO and AdSense. Turns out that small business owners use the Internet to market themselves. Who knew?

We only took two fish home, but we pulled a lot more up to the boat: either they were too small to keep, or they were Kings and hence out of season. But it was as good a day fishing as I've had, and I recommend it.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Whining about Vista

Over on ZDNet, Ed Bott has posted a defense of Vista that amounts to damnation by faint praise. He rightly points out that XP had roughly the same problems in its introduction that Vista is having right now: not enough drivers, buggy third-party drivers, minimal support-by-Google-query. I think he's missing the point, though. Vista was supposed to be better than XP, and as an operating system, it's nothing short of disappointing.

There are two things I actually like about Vista: integrated desktop search, and reasonably cool photo management. XP doesn't come out of the box with either of them, but MSN Desktop Search is a reasonable substitute for the former, and Picasa is a pretty good substitute for the latter. On the whole, I do prefer Vista to XP. But not much. A little. I suppose. So if Vista is a mildly improved OS, why did we have to wait five frigging years for it? Yes, I know that they rewrote the whole thing underneath. I'm very pleased. But it doesn't actually help me in any interesting way.

Like I said in an earlier post, MS needs to be careful. There's a real opportunity here for Linux here – and given the recent popularity of everything Apple, an even bigger opportunity for OSX.

And I'll be damned if my brother doesn't think the same thing. Scary, that.

Oh, and on a side note: my Pocket PC phone successfully synchronizes with my Vista desktop about 10% of the time. It's probably because all the relevant software is written by different companies that never talk to each other. (Hint #1: it's all written by Microsoft.) Or because it's a 1.0 release and MS hasn't had a chance to get everything figured out. (Hint #2: MS released the first version of ActiveSync eight years ago.) Or because Microsoft doesn't have enough resources to troubleshoot these sorts of problems. (Hint #3: MS has ~$50 billion in cash reserves.) Or because this isn't a very popular configuration. (Hint #4: Almost every professional I know has a Windows CE-based phone.)


Sunday, August 19, 2007

At Home

Wow, they say that having a baby changes you, but you can't really explain it until it happens to you. Eight days ago I was a reasonable, reasonably intelligent human being. Now I find it entirely normal to discuss dirty diapers around the dinner table with my closest friends and family. The color of Caedmon's piss has become a topic of some moment between my wife and I. We measure each ounce of liquid this little guy consumes, and count up how often he wets or dirties another diaper. We get up multiple times in the middle of the night to help him do more of this.

Damn good thing he's cute.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Provoked by Unprecedented Dilation

I've been exceedingly negligent the last week or so in my blog postings, but it turns out that I have a good excuse.

Galena and I have been trying to have kids for the last five years, to no avail. We didn't quite push it to the limits of medical science, but we came pretty close. To paraphrase Terence, nothing that is medical remained foreign to us, and we became intimately acquainted with a profusion of drugs, procedures and three-letter medical acronyms. A little over a year ago, we concluded that begetting our own children wasn't going to happen, and we began looking into adoption.

For the record, adopting a kid is a great deal more work than making one on your own, and not nearly as much fun. Think of it as college without the parties. You go to classes; you write a lot of essays; you're assigned insane amounts of homework. You submit to being examined and prodded and tested in every conceivable way. If it took this much paperwork to have a kid in the normal way, the human race would be extinct in two generations.

In a journey filled with irony, the most ironic moment came last March, one week after our adoption agency had finally approved us, and put our names on their year-long waiting list. Dorothy, a 16-year old girl from our church, knew that we were looking to adopt; she invited us to have coffee with her and her 18-year old boyfriend Emmanuel. It turns out she was pregnant, they had decided not to have an abortion, and they wanted to know if we would adopt their baby. Swallowing hard, and with damp eyes, we said yes.

According to the ultrasounds, Dorothy was due on September 7, but we wondered all along if maybe she was further along than the doctors thought. We were excited then, but not entirely surprised, when we received a call last Friday afternoon that she was having contractions. We hadn't quite finished assembling the nursery, and hadn't purchased all the diapers or formula we'd need, but otherwise we were mostly ready. Galena ran home to grab the car seat and we headed to Dorothy's house to assess the situation.

The situation, though, seemed to need very little assessment. Dorothy's back was hurting her, and she was having very irregular contractions, but she was otherwise fine. We had dinner with her family, took a walk with Dorothy and a friend, took some pictures, and then headed home.

The next morning things were pretty much the same: some back pain, very irregular contractions. Dorothy was getting tired of not making any progress, so she scheduled a visit with her midwife that afternoon to see what the situation was. Given the irregularity of the contractions, we all assumed that Dorothy was maybe slightly dilated – a centimeter or two – and that active labor wouldn't start for some time.

So when we got to the birth center, the midwife took Dorothy into another room. We heard later that the examination went something like this.

The midwife felt around, got a funny look on her face, then stood up and asked Dorothy, "Will you be offended if I swear?"

"No . . . but why?" Dorothy asked.

"Because you're fully f***ing dilated! You're ready to have this baby."

(Later, we were trying to remember if anyone had sworn during the labor. The midwife raised her hand guiltily and said, "I think I was the only one – but I was provoked by unprecedented dilation!")

In other words, Dorothy had already bypassed the first three stages of labor and was ready to proceed straight to the fourth and final one: pushing. The midwife broke Dorothy's water, and 35 minutes later, with nothing more offensive or disturbing from Dorothy than an occasional "Ow! Ow!", our joint son was born. His name is Caedmon Dante Christian Smith. Emmanuel, his birth father, caught him, and placed him on Dorothy's stomach. Caedmon howled briefly, fussed for a while longer, and then calmed down.

Like all newborns, he was more grey than pink, and like most babies who are somewhat premature, he was covered with a whitish gunk that has an official name I've since forgotten. But he cleaned up amazingly well, and apart from a slightly crooked nose from pushing his face too hard against Dorothy's pelvis, he's perfect. I'll say it: he's beautiful.

We didn't get to hold him right away, as Dorothy and Emmanuel were quite understandably fascinated with him.

But we've held him plenty since, and I'll always be grateful to Dorothy for letting us be there at his birth.

Birth at a birthing center is quite different than at a hospital. My grandmother says she was allowed to dangle her legs after six days; the midwives had us up and out before six hours had passed. Caedmon, along with Dorothy and Emmanuel, spent the next three nights at the Bellevue Embassy Suites. This was something we had agreed to at the beginning, as the two of them wanted to know something of what it would be like to be parents, to get to know him, and to figure out how to say good-bye. We spent many hours there the first couple of days, before figuring out that we also needed to give Dorothy and Emmanuel some space.

I can't describe how hard it was to say good-bye to Caedmon each time we left the hotel – but then I can't imagine how hard it was for Dorothy and Emmanuel to hand him over to someone else permanently. Even so, as hard as it was, they signed the last of the paperwork yesterday, and today they brought Caedmon home to live with us. He's going to have a huge extended family, as you can get a sense of when you see how many people came to visit him during his stay at the Embassy Suites. But we're looking forward to being just a small family for a few days.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Open Vistas

I've been using Vista as my primary OS, and Office 2007 as my primary productivity suite, for over a year now. My initial take, after a month or so of exposure to the betas, was that MS had made a fairly serious strategic mistake with both of them. Over a year later, that first impression has settled into a firm conclusion.

I will say, there are things to like about both platforms. Vista's Aero interface has some nice eye candy. I like the built-in search, and its photo and multimedia organizing capabilities. Outlook 2007 has some nice UI tweaks. Word 2007's blog integration isn't perfect, but it's the best alternative to composing it all in HTML that I've found.

But these are minor pleasantries, and they come with some serious annoyances. Apart from being buggy, which is kinda expected, they both have significant performance problems. The graphing engine in Office 2007 makes some nice looking charts, but it's astonishingly slow. Chart-heavy spreadsheets that would refresh sub-second in Excel 2003 take 10-15 seconds to refresh in Excel 2007. Even after I've figured out where everything sits, I still hate the new ribbon interface. I'm a heavy keyboard user, and although you can still do most things through the keyboard, Office 2007 requires more keystrokes, and significant pauses between those keystrokes. I've got a dual proc, dual core Xeon desktop, and it still takes so long to refresh the ribbon on each keystroke that I could swear MS put the delays in on purpose.

With regard to Vista: I can't say enough how much I hate User Account Control. Yes, of course, I can turn it off – and I would, in a second, except that our software has to run well on Vista with the default settings. And of course, tons of software that I need to run still doesn't work right with Vista. It was only a couple days ago that I finally got my hands on a version of Cisco's VPN client that worked consistently. Zango's network team had to completely redo our wireless infrastructure to allow Vista laptops to connect. My PolyCom video-conferencing software still doesn't work right.

The biggest problem with Vista, though, is simply that it's underwhelming. From a user's perspective, there's a little bit to like about it, but nothing that makes it interesting or revolutionary. It's light years away from what MS originally promised. I've got it running here at work, but I can't figure out why I would spend the money to upgrade my home desktop.

I'm hearing pretty much the same thing from lots of different sources. I do know a few people who like the new ribbon interface – God help them. But I don't know anybody who's excited about Vista. I don't know anybody's who's purchased it, and trust me, I know lots of geeks of the must-have-it variety. Friends I've known for years, friends who upgrade automatically to the latest beta/service pack of anything, are still running XP. If this sample set is any indication, Vista inspires nothing so much as apathy. Nor does anybody seem to care about the next version of Windows. Why should we, if the delta between XP and Vista (three steps forward, two steps back) is any indication of what awaits us?

And here's where Microsoft's missteps might cost them. I've actually started getting interested in Linux. I've got Ubuntu running on a second desktop in my office, and when I replace my current home desktop, I'm planning to switch my old machine over to Linux as well. I've even been wondering about whether Macs might be any better. I'm not ready to make the switch yet, but you'd have to know me to understand just how revolutionary it is for me to be getting tired of Microsoft software.

It's worth nothing that I still don't think Linux is quite ready for mainstream use, even compared to Vista. Open Office is OK, but Evolution can't replace Outlook. (For starters: if it knows that an email has been deleted, why the **** does it still list for browsing? And why does it hang every time I try to delete an email from Exchange?) But the thing is, Linux doesn't have to be that good. For most purposes, honestly, it just has to be good enough to run FireFox and a mature version of Google Gears. With those two, and the services that Google already offers, I could get 90% of my daily work done, as easy or easier than with Vista.

And Microsoft definitely needs to be worried about that. I'm not switching, not yet. But the fact that one of their most loyal customers is thinking through what it would take to make that switch should make Microsoft very nervous indeed.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Books to get a Bible study out of its rut

A friend of mine asked for some suggestions for books for his Bible study/small group to read through, and because I can't think of anything better to blog about today, I thought I'd share my suggestions.

The Challenge of Jesus, by N. T. Wright. N. T. Wright is one of my favorite Biblical scholars writing today: he's no fundamentalist, but he's plenty orthodox, and as learned as they come. This particular book is a popularized summary of his exhaustive, six-volume series Christian Origins and the Question of God: it's reasonably easy to read, and accessible to the intelligent lay person, but represents a great deal of research and learning.

Jesus of Nazareth, by Pope Benedict XVI. I'll confess, I'm only partway through this one, at least partly because I have to stop and think every couple pages about what he's just said. I've been a fan of the current pope since I read his work on eschatology in seminary, and this particular book is fascinating. Among other things, it's wonderful to discover just how much Christians do have in common about the central facts of their faith.

The David Story, or Genesis, by Robert Alter. Alter is one of my favorite translators and commentators on the Hebrew Bible. He has an amazing ability to draw out hidden literary gems from the text. Read his explanation of "type stories" – and you'll never read John 4 quite the same way again. The difference between the story of the woman at the well, and the stories of Moses or Jacob meeting their wives, tells you everything you need to know about how John viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism.

On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius. Quite apart from the eminently worthwhile introduction by C. S. Lewis ("On Old Books"), this is a fascinating little work that carries some significant theological punch. It helped put the nail in the coffin of Arianism, all the more so because he wasn't so much defending orthodox Trinitarian thought as explaining it.. I'll share one little tidbit: when I first read it, I couldn't help but recognize how much C. S. Lewis had taken from Athanasius in his section on the Trinity in Mere Christianity. It was a bit like meeting someone for the first time, and discovering that they'd been best friends with your best friend, and you never knew it.

Confessions, by St. Augustine. Of course.

Monday, August 6, 2007


I just watched the video of the Defcon 15 "outing" of reporter Michele Madigan. Wow. I didn't know one conference room could hold so many pathetic, hypocritical, self-righteous losers. Listening to the socially challenged Defcon attendees hooting and hollering insults at her as she tried to make it out the door made me sorry to be a geek. I'm well aware that folks of this sort are, shall we say, narrow in their focus – but it still stuns me that nobody in a conference room full of black-hat hackers could fail to spot the irony in all that rhetoric about "trust".

I think deconstructionism can sometimes be a useful tool in pointing out the self-contradictory assumptions in a given position, though I'm not a fan of it as an overriding philosophy. But in this case, you really don't need anything as subtle as Derrida to point out that outrage over the violation of black-hat hacker trust is just ever-so-slightly problematic.

Michele, I doubt you'll ever read this, but here's my apologies. We're not all like that.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Wizard of Id

Last weekend I drove down to Mt. Adams with an 18 year old friend who recently graduated from high school. It was his first time backpacking, and for it being his first time, he did very well: he made it over the 10,000 foot level before deciding he'd had enough. I continued on and summitted a few hours later. The weather was astonishing and clear, and counting the one I was standing on, I could see six glaciated peaks of the Cascades. I'd have some nice pictures to post here if it weren't for the fact that I was a serious dumb-ass and left my camera in the Cold Springs parking lot. Sigh.

Since I got back, though, what I've spent the most time thinking about isn't my summit (though that was nice), but the music we listened to on the five hour trip each way. I've known for a long time that most rap and hip-hop is pretty raunchy, but I've never sat down and actually listened to the music with someone who listens to it regularly. And although I couldn't understand most of the lyrics, what I could understand was fairly shocking. Nobody who listens to it would be surprised, but I guess I was.

Here's a sample of a given set of lyrics:

money, hoes, cars and clothes,
thats how all my niggas know
blowin dro on 24's,
thats how all my niggas roll


Girl, you looks good, won't you back that ass up
You'se a fine motherfucka, won't you back that ass up
Call me Big Daddy when you back that ass up
Hoe, who is you playin wit? Back that ass up


Nigga came at me wrong so we got him done
Fuckin' with the fam', I'ma give him some
Spent that co'ner, he didn't run
Sunday had a whole church singin' a song
"Why'd they have to send my baby home?"

My friend could tell I was a bit surprised by these songs, and asked me if I was offended. I wasn't really – it takes a lot to offend me – but I was certainly mystified.

One way to describe most of the songs that shocked previous generations is to say that they lacked a super-ego, e.g., they didn't exhibit any particular morality. When Prince sang about "Darling Nicky" masturbating with a magazine, he was certainly lacking a substantial moral sense, but he still (however passingly) was interested in a particular woman. And I believe that just being interested in a particular woman, for whatever reasons, has something of good in it, however short it falls of the sort of patient, giving love that has to be the foundation for marriage, family and indeed, society. "Darling Nicky" is a real person, is a person, and to that extent is good.

What's astonishing about these songs is that they lack not just a super-ego, but really, any hint even of "ego". They're not just missing out on patient, sacrificial, self-giving love: they're unaware even of the concept of "enlightened self-interest". They're not ego, let along super-ego: they're sheer, unadulterated id. They celebrate nothing recognizably human: at best a woman is a "girl", but more typically a "ho" or simply an "ass". These songs don't even celebrate casual sex: there's no celebration, no ego, only rage and anger, only id. Everywhere is a nihilistic despair, barely hidden, barely under the surface. No person living by these ideals could possibly be happy.

I should also note that these songs are ultimately self-contradictory. To take one almost innocent example, they celebrate the autonomy of the person who can afford large, flashy wheels on his car ("24's") – and fail to acknowledge that these wheels are symbols that have meaning only in the context of a particular society. In other words, the symbols of the individual's freedom from society are themselves dependent on that same society for meaning.

But most especially, as I think back on these songs, I feel sorry for my friend. He's grown up in a world where these songs could reasonably be understood to represent life as it should be lived. That's as sad as it is frightening.