Monday, August 30, 2010

The Dark Corner

  When I worked making retail store software from 1994 to 2007, there would inevitably be people who would try to cheat by buying the software for 1 store and then run it in multiple stores. Normally, these people could be caught pretty easily because they would call for help from 2 different numbers so we knew the programs were being run in more locations than was paid for. Once there was a customer from the south who we suspected was putting the software in multiple locations, but all the calls for help came from 1 person’s cell phone, so it was hard to prove. One day, this person was calling for help installing a label printer. It was the 3rd label printer this store needed to have installed in the past month and we had only sold them one. I talked to this person and told them the printer was defective and we needed the serial number so we could arrange to swap it out. After a lot of cat and mouse, the owner called my owner and left quite a few curse filled messages on the voice mail stating that he had purchased the software and it was nobody’s business where the software was being used and where they got the printers from and the software wasn’t that good anyway. My owner called back to say that the software was purchased for use in only one location and he wouldn’t support the programs since the purchase agreement was being broken. This led to another curse-filled message and we didn’t hear from that customer for a long time. My boss was upset, but I knew that they would call back eventually. I said, “This software is in our dark little corner of the world and when this customer needs help, they’ll have to come in to our dark corner and then you'll get paid.” Sure enough, 6 months later the customer got a new computer, installed the software wrong, and couldn’t print labels. They called my owner, and in order to get help paid for all 4 stores the software was being used in. The ‘dark corner’ theory proved true.

  When my owner sold the company to a group from Indianapolis, I found out it wasn’t ‘our’ dark corner after all and I was as much a visitor as the customer. While the new group told me I’d be involved in future development of the software and that the software development would be in Indianapolis and Des Moines, my assistant in Des Moines was let go and all the programmers were hired to work in Indianapolis, where all the new development was being done in a programming language I had no experience with. I would occasionally be given small assignments in the new language, but my main job was to document everything that the current software did and do any work that was needed on it since none of the new programmers knew the language the software was written in. I knew that this job was a dead end for me and found a new job after 6 months of looking.

  When I gave my notice, the company didn’t want to hire a new face to work on the old programs that was being phased out anyway so there was no turnover of assignments to speak of. They offered me an hourly rate to work part-time for them and I agreed without negotiating since I didn’t want to leave them in a lurch. I did give the name of a previous assistant so they could see if he wanted to work part-time for them because having to interact with a company I had worked 13 years at but pushed out of was not something I cared for. I worked a few jobs a year for them for the last 2 years, and they would send a lot of emails asking how the software worked so they could rewrite it in the new language. I answered these questions for no charge. As time went on, the requests and the part-time work lessened and I’ve picked up different part-time programming opportunities.

  A few months ago, I got an email asking a few difficult questions from my old place. I spent an hour researching the answers and sent them back. This was at the same time as I was looking at getting a new computer. I had a couple of programs that were installed on my laptop by my old employer. They had an unlimited license and so I wrote to my old boss to see if I could get the software loaded on my new computer. I was told sorry they were not allowed to install software on any non-company owned machine. I was put off by the curt answer and wished I had charged for all the free questions I had answered. A creative mind would have found a way to help me out instead of finding a reason not to, but I was in their dark corner of the world and their rules applied. If one hand washes the other then I had some dirty hands.

  Last week, I got an email from my old boss hoping I had been doing well and had a nice summer, and by the way, could I answer a couple of questions about the old software? Then followed an outlined, bullet pointed list of observations of the system, attempts to coerce the system to behave a certain way, the result of the attempts, and questions in bold and italics.

  I replied by saying my summer had been good and that I wished my old boss had also had a nice summer. I expressed how happy I would be to answer the questions and gave my fee for answering them, but provided no answers. I haven’t heard from my old boss and I probably won’t get my fee but that's OK. They have the source code and more than enough programmers in Indianapolis to get the answers themselves. In the meantime, I've found that I have my own dark little corner and if my old employers want to get something out of it, they’ll also have to pay.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dog Day Afternoon

Queenie (4/1/1994 - 8/25/2010)

  On Monday I wrote about how sick my dog Queenie was. When I came home yesterday, Kathy said she had been laying on her side all day and Kathy had to wash off her backside when Queenie ‘went’ on herself. I made the call to the vet for a 4:30 appointment today to have her put to sleep and told the kids. We have been laying her on a towel to make cleanup easier. I needed to wash her off again last night and this morning. I took her upstairs to sleep in our bedroom and I could her snoring in the night.

  I got up, took Queenie outside to lay in the backyard while I walked Tuffy, and brought her into the kitchen while I hung out before I left for work. She picked her head up a couple of times, but she didn’t want to eat or drink any water. I went to work and told my boss and my bosses boss that I needed the afternoon off today and why. My boss’s boss also has a 16 year old beagle and we commiserated for awhile.

I left work a couple of hours early and got home at 3. I sat around on the kitchen floor where Queenie was lying and just kept my hand on her head. She had her eyes open but barely moved. At 4:10, Kathy, Matt, and Ben said their final farewells and I picked Queenie up and put her in the car. When she went outside, she picked her nose up a little to sniff, but only for a second. I laid her in the seat beside me and rubbed her head as we drove to the vet’s. I must have hit every red light and even got stuck behind a tractor for half a mile, but this one time I didn’t mind. We got to the vet’s, I carried her inside to the room and the vet came in with the syringe. I kept rubbing her head and looked her in the eyes while she got the shot. I could see the life go out of her eyes and even though they stayed open, she was gone. It was very peaceful.

  In retrospect, I was 2 days late putting Queenie to sleep, but I’m comfortable with my thinking there was hope for a recovery and it’s not like I’d get a gold star for perfect timing. I’m pretty emotional over losing my dog, but I was blessed to have had such a great companion for 16+ years. I had a dream once where I was walking Queenie and all my dogs. We were all young and bouncy and it seemed very real. I think that was a glimpse of heaven and it gives me something to look forward to.

  When I got home, Tuffy looked at me strange with a ‘Where’s Mommy?' expression, but got back to his goofy self on our walk. When Whitey’s mom Happy passed away in New Jersey, Whitey was normal for about a week until he lost her scent. I expect the same thing to happen here.

This is how I'll remember my awesome dog Queenie.

  A couple of my co-workers talked about how we can put our animals to sleep to save them some pain and suffering and wondered why we can’t do the same for parents and loved ones instead of watching them slowly waste away, sometimes when they are in incredible pain and may not even know who or where they are. It sounds good, but the knife cuts both ways. I knew a fellow who had inherited a dog when his grandfather died but shortly after he moved in with his girlfriend to an apartment that didn’t want pets and so he had the dog put to sleep. I could see a guy like that making sure he had a copy of a parent’s will and then bringing them to Dr. N. Ditall for a ‘special’ treatment ('end it all', get it?). The only question is how long would the line be.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The way of all dogs

Queenie as of today, but this is not what I see when I look at her.

  Last week I wrote that my 16-year old beagle Queenie had not been walking since we got her back from the kennel after our vacation. She was eating some chicken and cat food last week, but now she’s not eating anything. In the mornings, I carry her outside and she’ll stand up to go to bathroom, but then moves a couple of feet away and lays down. I take her son Tuffy the 14 year old half beagle out for the normal walk and when we get back, Queenie is still laying where she was left and I carry her back in. Being in the kennel for a week didn’t help, but Queenie has been in failing health since April with a uninary infection, a tooth infection, and a couple of episodes of lethargy that seemed to be stroke-like. The week before we went on vacation, the vet gave her an antibiotic shot and she couldn’t walk more than a block after that.

Whitey 1974-1987. Whitey was the gentlest dog I've ever met. He never growled or snapped.

  In New Jersey when I was a kid, we had a german shepherd named Bullet who started getting thin and vomiting. After a week, my dad took her away in a box and I never saw her again. In 1987, my 13-year old beagle Whitey stopped eating, couldn’t stand up to go to the bathroom, and passed away in the house when I was at work. The last New Jersey family dog was Puff, a happy sort of border collie mix. He was my parent’s dog when I moved to Iowa, but I used to visit and walk him 4 times a week for years before that. On Sunday’s, Kathy and I and infant Matthew would take Puff for a walk to the Dunkin Donuts and get donuts. On the way back, I’d throw Puff pieces of donut. Puff was bright and happy and my dog Tuffy reminds me a lot of him. One year when we went back to New Jersey to visit, Puff was all skin and bones and couldn’t even walk half a block. He had some sort of cancer and he passed away within a month.

Puff 198? - 1999. Puff loved to walk to get a Dunkin' Donut.

  I’ve known this day was coming with Queenie, but it is still very hard to face. I’ve made up my mind that if she is in a lot of pain or can’t get out of the way of going potty, I’ll take her to the vet for a shot. I don’t think I’d be too upset if I woke up one morning and she didn’t. I’ve learned to be pretty callous in these matters when a decision was asked of me. In 1991 my grandpa(96) was dying of cancer. My aunt asked me if she should put him on life support and I told her I didn’t see the point of it. When my aunt was in the hospital with terminal cancer 5 months later she signed up for life support before she asked me.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Iowa State Fair Chess

  I had been planning to go to the Iowa State Fair on Wednesday to play in the annual State Fair Speed Chess Tournament, but our church’s fall festival committee meetings have been on Wednesdays this year and I forgot to reschedule it at our last meeting. I was resigned to not going, but then fortune smiled on me when committee stalwarts Monica and Eldon Schneider were not going to be able to make it to the meeting and Monica told me there was going to be a church affair that would occupy a couple of other members. I jumped at the chance to cancel the meeting and made my way to the State Fair after work last night for the tournament. I missed it the last 3 years due to family vacations and working in Marshalltown and not wanting to drive down for the afternoon.

  Most people go to the fair to see the bands, livestock, the butter cow that this lady makes every year, or to be able to eat anything that can be put on a stick and smothered in grease, but I am there to play chess and try to win the coveted blue ribbon for winning first place. In 2005, I tied for 3rd with David Skaar, but lost the tie break game and had to console myself with yet another participant ribbon instead of the 3rd place white ribbon. In 2006 I did manage to win the 3rd place ribbon but it was a hollow achievement because my youngest son Ben (10 at the time) won the blue ribbon for first place, and my oldest son Matt (13) won the red ribbon for second place. So even though I could claim I was the 3rd best speed chess player in the state, I was also only the 3rd best speed chess player in my own home. When I mention this to some people they say I should be happy I’m such a good teacher, but I’d have felt a lot better if I finished first and people thought I was less of a teacher for only having the 2nd and 3rd best chess players in Iowa (and my house). Most of the best players in the state are not competing at the State Fair, but I don’t think that diminishes the bragging rights for winning a statewide tournament.

  I drove down after work, parked and paid my fair entry fee. It was over a mile walk from my car to the administration building porch where the tournament was. There were 8 people signed up for the tournament. Since Ben is retired from chess and my wife couldn’t take Matt, 2 of my biggest competitors were already out of the way. I caught another break when Tim Harder, a strong player from nearby Pleasant Hill, showed up after 5:30 and wasn’t allowed to enter. There were 2 little kids, an adult who was quite a beginner, my nemesis from 2005, David Skaar, class player Dr. Carl Peters, and rising scholastic player Cub Noble. The 8th player was Jonathan Narcisse, who is running as an independent candidate for Governor, is a successful businessman, has been on the Des Moines school board, and is on the Steve Deace show on WHO 1040 talking politics on a regular basis. It is vitally important not to get too far behind your opponent on the clock. In this tournament, each side gets five minutes for the game and there is no delay, so if you get really low on time, a lost opponent can beat you by just making random moves that don’t immediately lose and make you waste valuable seconds taking pieces they just shove in the way of yours.

  In the first round, I was able to beat one of the little kids fairly easily with the black pieces and then managed to outplay Dr. Peters in Round 2 with the white pieces and wrap the game up fairly quickly. I outrate Dr. Peters by 200 points and he is not as good in speed chess as in regular over the board chess. I got to play the other little kid in round 3 and beat him with black. At this point the only undefeated players were Skaar, Narcisse, and myself. Next up was Skaar and I had the black pieces again. David takes care of his elderly father and this is the only chess tournament he plays in except for internet chess. I’ve never beaten him with Black, but this time I won a piece right in the opening, won another piece and was cruising to victory when he started making some random moves with his rook. That got me looking at the clock and I saw that I only had 45 seconds left while he had 2 minutes. I went into overdrive, made a queen and started checking David because if I could get him to make an illegal move I’d get an extra 2 minutes as his penalty. He didn’t make any illegal moves, but used up so much time making sure his moves were legal that I was able to collect my wits, capture his remaining pieces, and checkmate him with 3 seconds left on my clock.

  Now I had the white pieces against Narcisse. We started right away after my game with Skaar finished, which was a mistake on my part. I should have taken a minute to take a few deep breaths and slow my mind down after the frantic finish of the previous game. Also since we were playing on an outdoor porch, it was very hot and sunny and I could have used the iced tea I had brought with me. I started OK against Jonathan, but moved too fast, got too fancy for my own good and missed a check that lost me a piece and went down quickly. As it turns out, Jonathan outrates me by 200 points but hasn’t played in a tournament in 13 years. He just plays at the Borders Book Store club in Des Moines on Tuesday mornings. I managed to beat the adult player who was just a beginner and then played Cub Noble from Ankeny in the last round. We played a few quick games in Des Moines last November and I beat him a couple of times, but lost the last game we played when I got more involved with giving him pointers than just playing chess. During the middle of the game, Cub attacked my bishop with a pawn and I completely forgot about it, made an inconsequential move, and lost my bishop for nothing! What a maroon (as Bugs Bunny would say). Luckily, I managed to keep his king from castling which kept one of his rooks from getting in the game so I wasn’t really behind a piece as long as I could keep the rook in the corner. Cub got very low on time, gave me back the piece, and I checkmated him just before he ran out of time. Jonathan beat David to go 7-0 and I was in second at 6-1. David and Cub tied for 3rd, but David won the tiebreak game to take the white ribbon.
From Participant to 3rd to 2nd.
There is only one step left in my Iowa State Fair Chess Journey.

  I was disappointed at not finishing first, but happy to get the second place ribbon. One problem with playing chess is that if you don’t get the desired result, you can only place the blame on the guy looking at you in the mirror. But I had a great time playing and catching up with tournament organizer Ben Munson, Skaar and the other players, and meeting Jonathan Narscisse in person. Jonathan outplayed me and deserved first. I told him I’ll vote for him for governor and I’ll put up a yard sign for him if he’ll give me one. It would be great to have a chess-playing governor. And if he wins, he might be too busy to play in next year’s tournament!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cleaning up from vacation

  We left from New Jersey at 6:30 on Sunday and arrived in Marshalltown, IA at 12:30 Monday morning. It was the quickest we had ever made it back. Normally we get stuck for an hour or 2 around Chicago, but this year it was smooth sailing. It was a relaxing vacation. Except for a rainy Thursday in New York, we spent every day at the beach. I read a couple of chess books, and a book by Norman Vincent Peale, “Enthusiasm Makes the Difference”. Peale’s writing reminds me of an old-fashioned version of the sermons of Joel Osteen. I watch Osteen’s TV show every Sunday (except these last 2 when we were travelling) and both men have a basic message of doing what you can and trusting in God to work out the rest. They both also advocate praying for what you want as if you’ve already received it.

  After a couple of hours sleep, on Monday morning I picked up 16 year old Queenie and 14 year old Tuffy from the vet where they were kenneled. Last year, we kenneled them for 2 days and when we picked them Up, Queenie could barely use her back legs. After a couple of weeks of gradually lengthening her walks, she got her strength back. This year I can barely get her to walk out to the curb and back. She lays on the ground with her back legs splayed out and will only walk if I pick her up and carry her outside. I’ll keep trying to get her back walking, but I’m afraid that where I used to think she had years or months left, now it may be down to weeks or days.

  Today I got back to work and it was as if I’d never left. It is nice to be getting back to my routine. I managed to keep up with my exercise resolutions until Friday, when I started going to bed before I finished my exercises. Today is the first day I’ve biked 2.5 miles and did my 30 push-ups since last Thursday. I’m even a blog behind my 2 a week schedule. I’ll probably play in a chess tournament this week which will help me catch up. As nice as it is to be on vacation, I’m looking forward to getting back my normal routines.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Easy come, easy go...

  Before we left for our week in New Jersey, I checked my bank and credit card balances. I do this at least 5 times a week, so it is a habit, an obsession, or just paranoia. I’ve never had a problem, except when my credit card has been charged for the World of Warcraft on-line game 3 times in the last month. The credit card people told me that this happens a lot since that company allows people to enter a credit card once for their game play and then just charge their time against the card, but they don’t check against addresses and sometimes people just transpose the numbers. They removed the charges the same day, but it seemed weird to me.

  When I was checking my bank account balance, I saw that an old employer deposited several thousand dollars in my checking account. I had given them access to my account when I worked there for direct deposit and when I did some contracting work for them they paid me using the same direct deposit. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep the new found money but I figured they would contact me to let me know they wanted their money back and I would send them a check. I did get an email from the accountant at the company letting me know they mistakenly deposited money in my account. 2 days later a debit was made to the same account. I didn’t know that when I allowed these people to make deposits to my account, that they could also make withdrawals. I called the bank (Wells-Fargo) and they told me that once I allowed the company to make direct deposits, they could debit my account any time they felt they had a reason to. Not only that, but once I allowed the company access to my account, I cannot remove this access unless I closed the account completely.

  When this accountant started working with our company, I figured he was incompetent based on vendors that would stop their service because they didn’t get paid. I also had enough trouble getting paid from my contract work that I had to insist on getting paid up front. It will be a major annoyance to close my checking account an re-open it, but it will probably be worth it when this moron ‘accidentally’ makes a withdrawl from my account.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On the Road and at the Shore

  We drove from Iowa to New Jersey over the weekend. Except for my getting a speeding ticket in Pennsylvania, it was fairly uneventful and was even a very quick trip thanks to not getting stuck driving through Chicago for the first time ever. This is my first vacation in 3 years. I did take a week off last August to accompany Matt to the tournament of HS chess champions in Indianapolis and also play in the US Open, but I only left the hotel for 1 day to see the Indy 500 racetrack, so I don’t count that as a vacation. Kathy and Matt have gone coast to coast in the last week after spending 5 nights in Irvine, CA for this years’ HS champion tournament (Matt had a great tournament with some national attention), having a 3 night layover in Marshalltown to allow Kathy to clean up from my Mr. Mom role and pack for the drive, and driving to New Jersey this weekend.   Going on vacation is a good way to see how valuable you are at your job. If some emergency comes up that no one can handle and you can’t be contacted, your bosses will be ticked off. If no one knows you were even gone, the wrong boss will start wondering if you are needed at all. I hope that there will be small amount of pain at work from my absence, but not too much. My boss was on vacation for the last month and I had to make a demo web site for my boss’s boss late last week, so my work vibe will probably be linked to the success of the demo.
I wore my cap backwards so I'd fit in, but I should have left the Iowa T-Shirt at home.

  So far, the vacation has gone well. Since the hotels at the beach are mostly high priced fleabags filled with loud parties all night, we have stayed at the Holiday Inn in nearby Tom’s River. They put us in a smoking room, but the room doesn’t smell like smoke so it is no big deal. I’ve stayed in ‘non-smoking’ rooms that reeked of smoke and when I complained, I was told that the room was just switched to a non-smoking room. What a coincidence. When we got to our room, we saw a tiny refrigerator sitting in the hallway, Kathy asked the front desk if we could have one, and we have a complimentary refrigerator for the week. The Holiday Inn seems to be much better run this year. In 2005, the room we were in reeked of urine. When we called the front desk, they didn’t seem too surprised and sent up a guy to spray the air-conditioning vent with some sort of super Febreze. What struck me was that everyone was so casual about the problem. It must have been a commonplace situation.   The beach was just as nice as I remember it. There are a few things I feel as if I could sit and watch forever and the waves rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean is one of them along with watching the people at Sub City make subs during lunch hour and standing in New York watching the live freak show pass by. There are a lot of carnival games and rides on the boardwalk. I got myself a little Yankee basketball and also won a towel from the New Jersey National Guard for doing 35 pushups. I wanted to do 54 and get the t-shirt, but I went too fast and hit the wall. They grade you on age, but the chart stops at 41. I might have been able to get the t-shirt if they had a chart for 49 year olds, but I’ll give it another go on Friday in the morning before I wear myself out in the ocean.

Notice the poor form of the guy on the left and how fired up the other old guy at the end of the video got. He looks like he's ready to take the challenge also.
I was 20 pushups short of getting the T-shirt, but at least I got the towel and not the weenie prize, which was a little bottle of National Guard hand sanitizier.

  While gas is $2.50 in New Jersey, Marlboro cigarettes go for $7.95 for a pack and $79.22 for a carton! They are $4.95 in Iowa. This is all state taxes, of course. It is a vicious cycle. The states raise taxes on cigarettes because the majority of people don’t mind picking on the filthy smokers. But the state governments budget the cigarette tax money based on current sales, people cut back on their smoking (or get their fix from illegal cigarettes from North Carolina), and the state has to raise the cigarette taxes again to recoup their money. If cigarettes are so bad, the states should just outlaw them, but they are addicted to the tax money just like the smokers are addicted to their cigarettes.   When I was a kid, I used to hear that Americans travelling behind the Iron Curtain would give sticks of chewing gum to the locals instead of tips because chewing gum was such a delicacy. I wonder if soon foreigners will be giving out Marlboro’s as tips in America.
I feel like a different person when I'm in New Jersey.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Vacation Time Stories

  My family is getting ready to take our more or less semi-annual vacation to the Jersey Shore and visit my brother, so I thought I’d share a couple of stories from past New Jersey trips.

  3 years ago we went to eat lunch at the boardwalk in Seaside Heights and got a pizza pie from one of the ‘3 Brothers from Italy’ stands. We’ve always liked their pizza and they have a large covered eating area where you can get out of the sun while you eat. When you order a whole pie, you get it in the pan and get the paper plates separate. There was a couple a few tables over that also had a whole pie. It must have been a slow time of the day because we were the only people in the place. While we were eating our pie and relaxing, the other couple left and only ate half their pie. After about 15 minutes, one of the ‘Three Brothers’ walked around and wiped off the tables. When he got to the table with the half a pie, he picked up the pan, went back to the ovens and put the pan (still with the pie in it) on top of the oven. We waited a few more minutes and someone came by and ordered a slice. You guessed it. A slice form the discarded pan went into the oven, on to a paper plate, and into the customer’s hands. I’ve never looked a slice of pizza the same way. I was sort of hoping someone would leave a half a cup of lemonade around so I could see where that would go. We won’t be going to ‘Three Brother’s from Italy’ for pizza anytime soon. Even if we ordered a whole pie, there is the possibility that 2 people would have left half a pizza each.

  There are a few stores 2 blocks from the beach where you can get beach supplies, groceries, etc... One year my brother met us at the shore and did not bring anything with him so we went to a store owned by an Indian lady to get some beachwear. The Indian lady’s son was working in the store and my brother asked him if he got to go to the beach much. He smiled and said that he went every night after the store closed, but his mother had never been to the beach. We asked her and she said she had owned the store for 19 years and indeed had never been to the beach. Then we went to the convenience store around the corner to get some Gatorade. It was owned by an Asian couple. My brother asked the lady how long she had worked there and she said she’d been there for 30 years. My brother then asked her how many times she had been to the beach and she said, “What beach?”

Progress on 2010 resolutions
Blogs                60       (out of 104)
Stationary Bicycle 395 miles (out of 525)
Push-ups 6080 (out of 8000)
  The stationary bicycle and push-ups are starting to get a little boring. Next year's fitness resolutions will involve lifting weights and hitting things.