For those who need a laugh

In these times of crisis, it’s useful to remember that though America’s heights have not always been dangerous, an unfortunate few of our population have suffered a disproportionate number of height-related accidents. I’m talking, of course, about our cows. It was only a few years ago that the University of Virginia’s Great Cow Prank was revealed to be the work of the president of the NASDAQ.

Anyone who was an investor in tech stocks over the last few years will be unsurprised to find that the head of the NASDAQ, America’s principal high-tech stock exchange, has a warped sense of humor. However, few tech stocks tanked as dramatically as the poor cow, who according to the article at A&S Online “died from a combination of complications including shock, dehydration and an overdose of tranquilizers administered to calm it during the rescue.” Much like some venture capitalists I’ve met.

And speaking of people needing a sense of humor: the much-discussed Clear Channel list of “songs not to play” on their hundreds of radio stations nationwide has done two things for me. First, it’s given me a head start on finding songs to arrange for the Sloan “E-52s”. Second, it’s given me another opportunity to plug KEXP, the Seattle noncommercial station whose playlists are second to none. If they’ll play Gastr Del Sol for me, they’ll play anything…

On a more serious note

Keep my sister in your thoughts today. On a good note, it’s her birthday (yay!). On a bad note, her dog had to be put to sleep yesterday.

Euripides in Boston

It was Lisa’s birthday yesterday. Night before last I was reading Greek tragedy–the “translation” of Alcestis made by Ted Hughes shortly before his death–and thinking about Lisa. No, not in the context of a Greek tragedy! I’ve got a couple of bad analogies here, so if that sort of thing causes you pain you might want to skip this and go read Bruno (not only is Chris a much better writer than I, but his work is illustrated).

No, I was thinking that I know a lot of people like Alcestis. Queen of Thessaly, she gave her life so that her husband, Admetos, could live (he was “doomed to die young.” Her husband in his grief showed hospitality to Heracles, and in response Heracles went, wrestled Hades, and brought Alcestis back to life. Typical deus ex machina ending, I suppose.

Except. Many of my classmates’ spouses, including Lisa, gave up comfortable lives elsewhere to make enormous sacrifices so that their significant others’ lives could improve. In Lisa’s case, she gave up friends, familiar surroundings, and two incomes in Washington, DC to come to an uncertain income in a city with a much higher cost of living. Whatever Heracles watches over those between employment saw to it that she got a lucrative job, one that has already sent her to Italy once. But that doesn’t lessen the enormity of her sacrifice.

It occurred to me that I’ve not said “thank you” to her publicly. So thank you, dear. I’m no Admetos, but you out-Alcestis Alcestis for me.

Continuing in the face of Death

Another Alcestis resonance for me this week was more obvious. How did Admetos have the strength, knowing that his wife gave her life to save his, to throw open the doors to welcome Heracles?

I think that all of us, as we struggle to continue with life “back to normal, but not business as usual,” have to figure out for ourselves how Admetos did it.

Coming or going?

Lisa (happy birthday, love!) and I have been doing a lot of walking around Boston the last couple of days. We both wanted to get out of the house and away from the TV after the last few days.

Saturday started with a walk from our home in the North End to Tealuxe on Newbury Street. We walked through Quincy Market, past Faneuil Hall, into and through Boston Common and the Public Garden, and past some very expensive shops on Newbury (including what Lisa says is an outpost of the best coffee store in Milan). All this before breakfast–maybe a little much, but it felt good to get out and do some walking.

Our normal breakfast at the Tealuxe in Harvard Square was a personal pot of tea and a scone for each of us. The Newbury St. Tealuxe actually serves food (albeit just sandwiches), so I varied it with an egg, cheese and bacon sandwich that had been pressed in a grill. We shared a pot of Golden Tippy Assam tea. I ended the meal with a cinnamon scone. Afterwards we walked to the Boston Public Library, just around the corner in Copley Square. It all seemed a bit over the top, maybe, but at the same time it was incredibly important–we were celebrating being together and being alive.

Saturday we also started seeing monarch butterflies. One dogged our steps returning to our apartment along Richmond Street. Sunday, we walked to school so I could pick up some readings for my classes, and we saw another one as we crossed the Longfellow Bridge. It fluttered along beside the bridge, careered across the traffic, and over the other side of the bridge. When we saw it, it was winging lazily across the Charles.

There were more of them. Practically every five minutes–on Massachusetts Ave, in the shadow of Calder’s Great Sail… I couldn’t decide, and it seemed very important at the time: had they been there all along and were just leaving? Or had they just arrived from another place, just when we most needed to see them?

The work goes on

If ever I needed a reminder that life does not stop with a tragedy, it was this week. I got the reminder in the form of my project for my Entrepreneurship Lab course. Our project plan is due today at 5. I’ll be offline most of the day as a result.

My work still feels trivial, though, in comparison to the work happening in New York and the Pentagon.

What Not to Do

Update: My sister, always more articulate than me, has written in ten lines what I avoided saying in everything below.

The article this morning in the New York Times reported that Arab Americans have been subjected to harassment and threats. Last night’s version for me was a little more graphic. As I left my apartment building to make a run for some needed groceries, I saw a young muscular man in his mid-twenties wearing a t-shirt, obviously homemade. The t-shirt said on the front, “Die Raghead Scum.”

In the corner store, I heard a soft spoken talk show host explaining that this wasn’t really America against terrorism but the civilized world against terrorism, because you didn’t know who would be next. I agreed with this assessment, but then he went on to say, “There’s a surprisingly small number of countries in the world that are civilized. Outside of the US and Canada, Europe and Japan, most of the rest of the world are barbarians.”

I expect to see xenophobia and racism in the next few weeks that will excel the worst excesses of the Gulf War. But against whom? In the absence of hard evidence, we strike out at those we fear because of differences.

And they’re not making it any easier for us. The reports of Palestinians in the West Bank firing their guns in the air after hearing what had happened is only one reminder that we are already deeper in ancient conflicts than most of us realize.

But if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that an eye for an eye does not end anything. How can it? How can one loss of life ever repay another?

What To Do

Give blood. If, like me, you can’t because you pass out (shameful truth), give money to relief organizations.

At “MIT”, the Red Cross isn’t taking any more donors because their infrastructure can’t handle it. Don’t give up if you’re turned away–come back later in the week. The survivors are going to need a lot of help for a long time.


UPDATE: Just for the record, Lisa is OK. She was originally supposed to travel by train to NJ today but last night decided to postpone it until tomorrow.

UPDATE: Forget about everything else. Here’s the story on

Dave Winer has a good weblog of news stories as they come in. Use your common sense to sort through news and rumors. Don’t trust anything that isn’t linked.

If you haven’t yet done so, check out my sister’s article from yesterday. This is a big difference between us, I think. While I might be very comfortable discussing J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition), she’s much happier discussing J2A (Journey to Adulthood)–something that has the potential to make a much more profound impact on people’s lives.

Wireless in Kendall

Nevertheless, I’m not going to let that stop me from continuing to geek out here. Today I’m writing this from the local chain bakery, where, thanks to the relocation of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, I now have wireless access to the campus network.

This isn’t wireless hijacking, like you used to be able to do sitting in Carberry’s from their neighbor’s network. The E-center director and staff are fully aware of where their signal goes, and have joked about charging the neighboring restaurant businesses a referral fee. It’s true–normally I’d stay at school while I drank coffee and caught up on email. This is much more civilized.

It’s experiences like this that make it easy to appreciate what Justin Hall meant when he wrote on Dave’s website that wireless would be the next big thing. In this case, it’s helping Sloan expand the boundaries of its campus to less sterile, institutional spaces where we can work in a little more peace. And that’s a good thing.

Stripping away the finish

My parents had only one item that was damaged during the move–their piano. Or more specifically, the finish on their piano. This is nothing short of miraculous considering the thing was stored in an unheated (closed) garage from September 2000 to August 2001.

The finish on the piano had always been kind of eccentric–“crazed” in the technical sense. A black grand piano, its back was covered with fine cracks in the lacquer that I had always thought were intentional. When it came out of storage, though, you could tell that it wasn’t intentional–the area that had been covered by the folded back lid was less cracked and a different color than the rest of the lid, and the cracking of the finish had accelerated badly. A number of the ivories had come off the keys, as well.

They had a piano refinisher come to look at it, and that’s when they got their first surprise. Based on the serial number, he believed it dated from the 1920s. Based on the color of the wood, which you could now see through the finish, he believed the case of the piano to be mahogany.

My parents sent it away to be refinished in its natural color. I spoke to them last night and they were thrilled. The piano case is a beautiful burled mahogany that was hidden for years under a bad ebony finish.

Sometimes, particularly as we try to pay the bills and live on one salary in one of the most expensive cities in the world, I wonder whether I did the right thing coming to “MIT Sloan”. But I think that I’m going to like the way my finish looks when I’m all done.

I Feel My Luck Could Change

Today’s title music: “Lucky” by Radiohead. Brilliant brooding and despairing track from OK Computer with lyrics that tilt from the hopeful to the despairing. Just don’t ask me who Sarah is, that part’s not so appropriate for today:

I’m on a roll, I’m on a roll
This time, I feel my luck could change
Kill me Sarah, kill me again with love
It’s gonna be a glorious day

Appropriate music for me to face 15.402, Corporate Finance, again (I dropped it after a few weeks last semester because of the workload).

I hope that my luck changes with respect to my waitlist position for 15.828 New Product Development — # 26 to get into a 55 person class. Naturally it’s a class I need to finish my management track, and naturally it won’t be offered after this semester. I guess it’s time to apply some of the patience I talked about yesterday.

I did have a good first meeting of my Entrepreneurship Lab class (15.399, for those who are following the MIT course numbers). This is a wild class. You get teamed up with people from a pool of other Sloan students, MIT engineering students, and Harvard Business School folks, and go work on a mission critical project for a startup for eight hours a week. I found a like-minded HBS guy who wants to work on software projects too. It’s going to be a glorious day.

Seeing Elephants

Reading “beer hunter” Michael Jackson’s story about the Belgian beer Delerium Tremens today, it occurred to me that he’s got a great job. He tastes killer beers from all around the world and writes about them in a weblog. How do I get some of that?

And What a Time It Was, It Was…

First day of classes today. Going into the second year at “MIT Sloan”, this is starting to feel more like a vocation and less like a vacation. Maybe this is because last year I had classes that started at all hours of the day, some days without classes in the middle of the week, and lived four blocks from school. Result: a very irregular sleep schedule. This year I have what is (for me) a more rational schedule: classes from 1 to 4 four days a week, and two evening classes from 6 to 8 or 8:30. And no Friday classes, at least until I start TAing. Also, I’m finally getting into classes that really cover my passions. More on that as I get there.

Preserve your memories

The title of the essay today is from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends Theme” from the album of the same name. I always seem to think about S&G when September starts, probably because of the last verse of “April Come She Will”:

August, die she must:
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold.
September, I remember:
A love once new has now grown old.

At one time I thought it was a depressing thought, as no doubt Paul intended it. Now, though, I think it’s pretty cool. I want my love to grow old! Really old! As old as I am!

What got me on this train of thought was Eric Norlin’s latest brilliant and cranky Titanic Deck Chair Rearrangement Corporation missive. He’s usually pretty allusive to the other things he’s working on (and thus, at least until I finally read some Gonzo Marketing, pretty elusive for me); I’ve wanted to recommend his work before but couldn’t find the right way to do it. But yesterday he wrote about a bit of an epiphany he had:

How silly is it … our nonsense about quarters and fiscals and 52
week highs?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Wall Street.

But remembrance begs the question: When do we give the gentle drift of
time its proper due?

I think it’s an excellent reminder for me as I enter the new semester to make time for what’s important.

Little changes, big changes

My classes for the second and final year of my graduate program at “MIT Sloan” start tomorrow. This didn’t really hit home to me until I came to school this morning to register and pick up my course packets.

As always, a disconnect between the professor’s syllabus and the availability of the course materials. Today’s breakdown? I need to read and be ready to discuss a case for tomorrow’s class in Finance Theory II, but the course packet containing the case won’t be ready until later this week. More on that in a minute.

Other changes? Well, other than everyone being a second year, and things going well on the “e-MIT” website rebuild (a significant change compared to recent days), I noticed a wrenching upheaval in the food trucks that line up for lunch along the construction site behind Building 68. Moishe’s Chicken, the falafel vendor who fed me gyros at least once a week last year, is gone. In place of his truck is a poor imitation, the Jerusalem Falafel truck, which offers dry, cold lamb shawarma in place of hot, fried, juicy lamb gyro. I suspect that I’ll have better luck with the kebabs; still, to develop a routine like that and then have it change out from under me is a bit jarring.

The Change that Never Comes

Speaking of jarring changes, I was thinking this morning how inefficient the whole course packet/photoduplication of materials thing really is. We have e-books now (even if they have a tendency to land computer scientists in jail); failing that, we have the Web, Acrobat, and other e-textual systems. Why am I still spending a mint (in excess of $250 today, with two packets still not ready to be picked up and paid for) on photocopied course readers?

Well, one obvious answer is that copyright law mandates that I pay that much. Since the fair use rights of professors were amended to require written permission for use of copyrighted materials in classrooms, occasionally with steep fees attached, we’ve all been paying through the nose for the privilege of course materials that are more up to date than textbooks and less up to date than the Web. Don’t get me wrong; I respect the right of copyright holders to be reimbursed for their work. I just wonder whether there might not be better ways to redistribute it.

That brings me to the second part of the answer, which is that right now it’s damn hard to deliver all the materials a professor may want to incorporate in teaching a class online without resorting to paper. The packet for one of my courses includes forty-three readings from twenty-one different sources, and that’s Part I. I can’t imagine negotiating online distribution rights for all of that content.

The amazing thing is that the readings are that diverse. Given the cost of negotiating to get the readings reproduced, I would have expected the readings to be drawn from a narrower pool of suppliers. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see how that’s already happened to an extent: look at the dominance of Harvard Business School cases in the curriculum of MBAs, regardless of their distance from Soldier Field.

With all of this as background, it’s easier to start to imagine the wrenching amount of change that’s going to be necessary for “MIT” to implement the OpenCourseWare initiative. But that’s material for another day.

Authorial voices

It’s been fun working with “Esta” on this site–both helping her get started and thinking about how my writing style is changing in response.

When I started writing regularly on this weblog earlier in the summer, I didn’t know whether I could sustain a regular schedule. I found, much to my surprise, that it was hard to avoid writing. I guess once you start thinking there’s an audience out there, it becomes important to keep talking to them.

In college, this sort of prose was rarely my specialty. I used to like poetry, primarily because it was an art form that allowed me to turn my short attention span to the advantage of my writing. (See my last poem for an example.) Now I find that I have more attention that I can pay to these sorts of things.

I’m about to face the severest challenge to keeping this page on a steady footing–school is about to start again. I’m already working on three website revisions, a bunch of new arrangements for the “E-52s”, and trying to ensure that my schedule is straight for the semester–and it hasn’t even really started yet. Days like yesterday, where I let Esta’s words fill in for me, may be more common.

This is by no means a bad thing. Esta’s by far the better writer in the family and is more likely than I am on any given day to say something frightfully interesting. Also, her good writing is apt to kick me in the butt and make me write something meaningful.

I just realized that I’ve spent an entire essay breaking the fourth wall and talking about my own writing, something that I hate it when other writers do (see Piro’s rants at Megatokyo as an example). Maybe I’ll replace this later today with something better.

Anyway…finished arranging Pyramid Song yesterday. One down, fourteen to go… 🙂

Phasers on “Bore,” Mr. Spock…

There appears to be a conspiracy that is drenching me in Star Trek this week. Yesterday it was Wil Wheaton; last night I channel-surfed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which I haven’t seen in its entirety since it was released in 1978. It definitely has its up and down moments. There was one period between commercials that consisted of absolutely nothing but the Enterprise flying into the V’Ger cloud, with the crew members’ jaws on the floor. About five or ten minutes worth of this…. Between that and the video-game warp effects, I had a hard time not laughing. It’s a shame. This and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan were about the only two movies in which you could still take the aging actors seriously as the crew of a starship.

Peaceful Coexistence

This morning the Register pointed to a flub on the part of Microsoft I had heard about but not seen yet: Windows XP running on an old Macintosh!

The image, apparently part of the tour video of Windows XP, shows a user looking at the XP startup wizard running on a monitor sitting next to a pre-blue and white Macintosh tower machine (the Reg thought it was an 8000 series tower, which were made when I was in college!).

The funny thing is that Microsoft has poured so much time and money into the Windows XP launch and the user experience, and yet they missed this in a very public part of the prospective user experience. There’s a Zen point to be made here: you can’t control everything, and (as the DOJ will tell you) you can’t own the whole dialog. Isn’t it better to admit there are other operating systems out there, now that you own 19 out of every 20 desktops? Can’t we all just get along?

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I, in fact, run Windows 2000 on my Mac, through the magic of Virtual PC. But only when I absolutely have to…

Getting back into life

Back again. Yesterday was definitely a catching up day. I spent the morning doing laundry, getting a few groceries, and getting locked out of my apartment (thank goodness, our leasing agent down the street still had keys for the building and could let me back in).

I went down to school afterwards and discovered that I couldn’t get online. Every year MIT cycles the MAC address records on the DHCP server to ensure that graduated or expelled students aren’t leaching high-speed access from the Institute, and I had to re-register my card. Only problem was, I couldn’t connect to re-register it: the nameserver addresses they had given us were either wrong or offline, or I just couldn’t get to them. Another item on the to do list for today.

Another ongoing project: got to get our HP 2100M printer (from Lisa’s work) accessible on our wireless network. I need to get the JetDirect card working, which should keep me occupied for a while. I also need to arrange some tunes for the “E-52s” (and updating the web page). This should help keep me busy until Lisa gets back from Italy (work–she’ll return on Friday).

Whatever happened to…

The morning’s surfing turned up a couple of names that I had been wondering about. Philip Greenspun dropped off the map last spring after his company kicked him out and his VCs started suing him. He’s apparently teaching again and getting linked to by Dave. I never got a chance to work with Philip when “e-MIT” was working with “ArsDigita”, but secondhand gossip suggests that he never strayed too far from his passion for teaching. Hope that he can turn his current misfortunes into a renaissance in his other life.

A more surprising link: Blogdex has had Wil Wheaton’s blog in the top ten for a few days now. Yes, that Wil Wheaton. It turns out he’s an articulate, web-literate 29 year old trying to find meaningful work and avoid being miserably typecast for life. That doesn’t sound familiar at all :). As I fight through trying to understand myself in my world, newly expanded by a summer at Microsoft and entering my second year at “Sloan”, I sometimes feel a little typecast myself. Good luck, Wil, and I’m sorry I laughed at your character. (Though I do have to give you a shout out for helping to popularize the alt.adjective.noun.verb.verb.verb newsgroup naming convention, as in alt.ensign.wesley.die.die.die. A web pioneer even in 1992.)

The rest of Asheville

I spent the rest of the week with my parents and their boxes. I moved quite of few of their boxes from one side of their storage room to another as we tried to find a few of their items that remain hidden.

I also made a trip to the family house in Madison County, where my dad grew up and where my grandmother lived until her death in January this past year at the age of 95. The one item that my wife and I wanted to keep from her house was an old Singer sewing machine–the kind on a wooden table with a wrought iron base. Grandmother’s machine must be nearly as old as she was, but the mechanism still turns smoothly. As we were retrieving the sewing machine, we also found an the original copy of one of the property deeds, listing my great-grandfather Zeb Jarrett as a witness. Hopefully I can get it scanned at some point.

Esta arrived on Friday and we followed with the obligatory all-hands family meal at my Uncle Forrest’s. It was a good time–lots of stories, lots of news (my uncle finally got the county to pave the road in front of his house!), lots of fun.

I think Esta and I use blogging as a surrogate for talking to each other sometimes. It says something that in the entire time that we were there, although we both had access to dial-up lines, neither of us updated our blogs. We were too busy making each other laugh with old jokes.

Now it’s Sunday evening and I’m stuck in an airport. This seems to be emerging as a theme recently. This time it’s Newark. I should have looked more closely at my “miracle cheap” ticket–that it went through Newark on Sunday night is going to add another couple of hours to my trip. My flight was supposed to get into Boston at 10; now I don’t expect to get home before midnight, and it’ll be a minor miracle if I get into bed before 1 a.m.

Still, I have to laugh. Having a late flight in Newark on Sunday evening is a bit like owning a stock that’s lost a lot of its value in 2001. You really aren’t in trouble relative to everyone else in the airport unless your flight is much later than everyone else’s. It’s kind of a sliding scale for expectations.


I’m finally here. Found myself thinking on the way in, as I was stuck on a non-moving Blue Line T train, that the cities I’ve lived in have had the underground transportation systems that they deserved. Washington, DC–the silent meditation chamber, where everyone ponders what they’ve done or are about to do (except for the tourists, who can’t sense the tension). In polar opposite, getting onto a Boston train for me is like I’m already home, even if I’m saddled with heavy luggage. The train is crowded, smelly, too warm, but colorful and people for the most part seem relaxed and human. And the Airport station on the Blue Line smells faintly of fish.

Asheville, Day 1

I’ve unpacked a lot of boxes, unwrapped a lot of china, and heard a lot of jokes today. I must be in North Carolina.

First order of business this week is helping my parents unpack and get settled into their house. So far so good. A little minor damage here and there (turns out packing tape should not be used to secure things to a varnished wood cabinet if you don’t want to lose some of the finish–word to the wise!), but otherwise a-ok.

I visited with the “Liars’ Club” (not the real name of the organization), a group of folks who are approximately my uncle’s peers and who meet weekly at the Denny’s in Asheville to tell stories, the more ridiculously unprintable the better, and help each other out. One of them was running for City Council. One reported that he and his fellow shipmates had succeeded in their quest to get the president to declare March 1st a US Navy Asiatic Fleet Memorial Day. Some just told dirty jokes.

I always wondered who hung out in Denny’s at lunchtime on a weekday. It turns out to be, well, just folks.

A Joke That Wasn’t Told Today

From time to time I give up on The Onion. Then they run something like today’s “Bush Vows to Wipe Out Prescription-Drug Addiction Among Seniors:

“Older Americans tend to give in to peer pressure,” Lakewood said. “They just do what their doctor tells them because they want to ‘be cool’ or ‘live,’ and win their doctor’s approval. They also want to fit in with all their other elderly friends, who, no doubt, are doing these prescription drugs, too.”