Saturday, September 30, 2006

digg checked

Il fait brouillard. I think that's how you say it in French--it's a blustery, grey, windy day. Today I feel amazingly rested and at peace, despite what I thought to be an insomnial sleep last night. It is probably a combination of a new commitment to regular exercise, and the peace of mind afforded by the GTD personal management methodology (which has taken me a couple of years to get used to).

"Disengage, disengage, disengage." --Dune

It's a little later in the day now, and I have considerably less energy than at the beginning. Must be all the errands that I've been running about doing. Anyway I am now comfortably seated on the bus, on the way back home.

The September sun has a certain smell--the scent of crinkly brown leaves and cool air.

Is life not like a game? Who needs the fun of video game adventures when one has the daily quests--of solving quandaries, working within time limits, enduring and noting the limits of one's endurance, politics and intrigue or the purging or purification of both, romance, the generosity of noble or poor peasant, the underdog hero.

Life, death, struggle, romance, heroism--it's all there, hidden in the mundane of daily life.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

At present I feel a mixture of complacency and tension. Peace, about the work completed over the past few days, mixed with concern about an issue I was called about as I left the house. I'll need to investigate it when I get back.

But for the present I am sitting in a bus headed for the downtown library. There are four excellent books I am looking forward to borrowing, and two atrocious ones to be returned. Disposition: mellow, or tired--calm anyway.

The film I mentioned earlier--the one I found quite moving--I admired its characters because they sought meaning in their lives. They wanted above all not to waste their lives, so they made heroic attempts to guess at and follow their destinies.

I would like the same for my life. Not to drift along comfortably from start to finish, like deadwood, but to grab hold of life with purpose, whether one given to me or made up.

As a reminder to myself, here are my life's current four directions:

- Engineering beautiful software. Which reminds me, I have an unbeautiful software problem awaiting me that I will need to beautify.

- Cherishing my family. Need to do this more--to be grateful for the years I have to spend with my family.

- Random acts of kindness. One of the great joys of life--and one in which I am greatly out of practice.

- Being conscious of my human journey. Just noticing what is around me.

"It was a practice in which ordinary people in their daily lives took the tasks that lay to hand but treated them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality which lay before them. It is an approach to life which we have been in danger of losing, the sense of allowing the ordinary to break in on the ordinary."

-- Esther de Waal, quoted in Nora Gallagher's "Things Seen and Unseen"

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sometimes I'll watch a movie that deeply moves me--reminding me of days gone by, of my childhood. And my heart yearns for those simple, joyful schooldays. But it is in vain that we try to recapture the past. It is gone.

Or is it? It seems to me that there is a faint thread that ties us to the past: God. Whatever longings we have for the days of our youth, perhaps these are best fulfilled in God--the One who was there in our past, and in the now, and in our future. So perhaps to God are best directed these restless energies of longing awakened by stories.

And when we are old, the same God can connect us to our now and our future.

It's a funny thing how I look with fondness now on the days I hated so much: elementary school. Well the lectures and exams--these I do not miss. But the building--those floors, those walls--I breathe very low as my mind walks those familiar halls. Five years! That's a sixth of my life--nearly half my life at the time. The memory is reinforced by a visit to the school a few months ago.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who derives great pleasure from visiting places from the past. I must visit Ottawa again someday--Nortel, the Met church, my lodgings (what was the street?). The brain seems to enjoy retreading its old grooves. It is a bittersweet pleasure--the bitterness comes from knowing that the past is now out of reach, regardless of how ardent our desire to visit it. Time, unlike location, cannot be revisited.

And I do not need to go far to experience a place from the past. In this house, the house I've lived in since a child, there are corners and closets that I have not gazed upon in years. Let us go to one now.

Here is an object I have not looked at in a while. A ceramic chinese lantern. It has been on the earth perhaps as long as my 30 years. Still the same green and brown colors. And yet I have never noticed until this moment what is inside: something suspended by four threads, or steel wires. Perhaps it will be another 30 years before I examine the contents.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Qs for spiritual director

- what does it mean, in my circumstances, to carry my cross?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Today the priest talked about mortification and denying oneself. But he didn't give any examples. What does it mean for one to mortify oneself in this day and age, for the layperson? Something mild? Severe? Arbitrary? Inconvenient? Denial of luxuries? Denial of food? The unwilling volunteering of one's time?

There is a kind of naive, selfish giving that I like best--the extravagant, often anonymous Random Act of Kindness. Trouble is, I don't find these opportunities much these days--I am often preoccupied with things, and I rarely mingle with people.

"Solidarity is a consequence of genuine and right communication and the free circulation of ideas that further knowledge and respect for others."
-- The Use of the Social Communications Media, "Catechism of the Catholic Church", 2495

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Today it is sunny and cool, Victoria at its finest. It is the creative hour, and the evergreen trees proclaim New Things and New Beginnings.It smells like schooltime, with the smell of leaves indicating that some art project has been assigned.

It's funny--there are so many interesting things to do in a day, and so many interesting books to read, that there isn't time for it all. They can be seen as wasting one's life--these things--but they can also be seen as perfect bliss, or even as indicative that I am on the right path, that I am being what I was meant to be.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Am currently reading The Dispossessed by Le Guin. A quarter of the way through I found myself rather bored, but kept going and now halfway through find myself serene and meditative. Not the most exciting novel, but it does make you conscious of existence, which is always good. Sitting outside now; it is nearly midnight. Air is cool, reminds me of camping.

Alas, the foreshadowings of inertia that one starts to feel at 30 years of age--I begin to feel it. The first twinges, indications of the body slowing down. A gentle reminder of resolutions to live each day with purpose, or at least observantly.

It's funny--I return to my religion by an unusual path: tales of fantasy and science fiction. After reading a particularly good novel, I'm reminded of invisible realities or massive things, and find myself in a prayerful frame of mind.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

I wonder if poetry can be enjoyed silently--I'd always thought it needed to be read out loud. But of course it is difficult to do that in places, like on the bus. I'm headed to Centennial Square in downtown Victoria, guidebook in hand, ready to learn a bit more about my quaint hometown.

It is as it alway was; treed sidewalks escort us to the heart of the city. To think we are on an island! It is however a very large island, and this city, the capital of the province, is a dot on the tip of it. As I sit in front of my computer screen, very rarely do any groanings from the distant harbour penetrate the silence, though I do occasionally hear the blare of the ferry's whistle.

I begin to suspect that technology needs the "meat" of art, history, and religion; otherwise it becomes sterile and unsatisfying. The question is, how?

Today my mind is unusually clear and at peace. I do wish however that I had a good book to soak my mind in. I just have a couple of instructive financial books, a novel (Captain Corelli's Mandolin) that is repulsing me more than drawing me in, and a book of poetry for which I am not in the mood. Alas, if only I had a good, lengthy comic book!

- engineering beautiful software
- cherishing my family
- being conscious of my human journey

I used to have "random acts of kindness" in there, but three items is enough for me to keep in my head. Still I wonder if it is "big" enough or if it can sufficiently represent the totality of my life.

The first one may seem a bit mundane but programming is an activity I quite enjoy, something I've been doing since childhood. I have in the past expressed regret for studying Engineering Physics instead of Computer Science at university, but in fact the study of beautifully elegant, fundamental equations has brought a minimalist aesthetic of elegance to my programming style. I also owe this to some excellent, empassioned books on the craft of programming, in particular: GoF, PragProg, and XP.

The second point--cherishing my family--comes perfectly natural to me, as I'm sure it does to most people.

The third point--being conscious of my human journey--this is the all-encompassing holistic dimension. Basically this is about taking time to smell the roses.

I have just finished an enjoyable plate of fish and chips at Smitty's diner. And now what? How best to recharge for the remainder of the evening? I'll wander down to the comic stores to see if they are still open.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I was lamenting the difficulty of knowing what books to choose, but a simple google search for top 100 novels gives great suggestions. The BBC list contains books that look especially interesting to me.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Imagine that there are 1000 buttons on the floor, and you start connecting random pairs of them with thread. There's a beautiful phase transition that occurs if you plot "average links per button" vs. "fraction of buttons in largest connected group". The transition occurs at x=1.

SnagIt Capture

I learned of this phenomenon from the book Six Degrees which Yoz recommended. Here's the code I used to create the data for the graph above:

$last_component_name = 0

class Button
attr_accessor :component_name
attr_accessor :link_count
def initialize
@link_count = 0
def connect(other)
return if self == other
@link_count += 1
other.link_count += 1
if @component_name.nil? && other.component_name.nil?
$last_component_name += 1
@component_name = $last_component_name
other.component_name = $last_component_name
elsif @component_name.nil?
@component_name = other.component_name
elsif other.component_name.nil?
other.component_name = @component_name
renameComponent(other.component_name, @component_name)

$buttons = []
1.upto(1000) do |i|
$buttons <<

def renameComponent(a, b)
$buttons.each do |button|
if button.component_name == a
button.component_name = b

class Array
def random

1.upto(ARGV[0].to_f * 1000) do |i|

max_tally = 0
max_tally_component_name = ''
component_name_to_frequency_hash = {}
$buttons.each do |button|
if not button.component_name.nil?
tally = component_name_to_frequency_hash[button.component_name]
tally = tally.nil? ? 0 : (tally+1)
component_name_to_frequency_hash[button.component_name] = tally
if max_tally < tally
max_tally = tally
max_tally_component_name = button.component_name

fraction_in_largest_component = max_tally/(1.0*$buttons.size)

total_link_count = 0
$buttons.each do |button|
total_link_count += button.link_count

average_link_count = total_link_count/(1.0*$buttons.size)

puts "#{average_link_count}, #{fraction_in_largest_component}"

Heading downtown again, this time to the library. There is nothing to read at home, and the machine needs to be fed. Or perhaps in some somatic conspiracy my body is making sure that it gets exercised.

Problem: There are so many books in the library--how to know which are the page-turners (or life-changers)?

For me:

Page-turners: Nausicaa, Jonathan Strange, Harry Potter, Jane Austen.

Life changers: GTD, Seven Habits, What Color Is Your Parachute, Pragmatic Programmer, Extreme Programming Installed.

Renew the mind with distracted remembrance
The body with dance
The spirit with the word
And the heart with...

I did not know what to suggest for the heart; anyway, the other three forms of renewal will do good enough.

I know--"silent thought".

Renew the mind with distracted remembrance
The body with dance
The spirit with the word
And the heart with silent thought.

Evening comes, and again there is this urgent desire to go out. So I set out, bus tickets in hand. Tonight's destination will be in the direction of downtown; whether the stop will be downtown proper is yet to be seen.

Downtown it is, and I sit atop the steps of the War Memorial as I did one year ago. It is chilly, and with regret I remember my warm jacket hanging in my closet at home. Before me is a large triangular bed of foliage and tall ornamental grasses, neon pinks and greens. The sky is utterly black and starless.

Now what?

I do not know what must I do next, other than seek shelter from this blasted chill.

John Bracken, James Booth, Sean Stevenson--my companions from elementary school in Victoria BC--I am wondering where you are now.

It becomes clear as I walk that this excursion downtown has not been to see its picturesque sights nor to taste the delicacies of its fine restaurants, but to look inwards. This I will do.

When I was a schoolboy I remember dividing the class into two groups in my mind: the Blue Team and the Red Team. My classmates did not know it, but I was the leader of the forces of good (the Blue Team), both thwarting and being thwarted by Nathan, my nemesis and (unknowingly) leader of the Red Team.

The greatest magazine at that time was Dragon magazine, concerned with role-playing games. Expensive, and containing exquisite maps.

How I loved to construct scenes for my action figures, miniature landscapes and dioramas in which great battles or rescue missions were conducted. The winding carpet pattern, the undulations of the underbelly of a plastic car--these would be roads, factories, bustling cities in my mind.

Imagination trumped reality. Daring rescues conducted in miniature were far more interesting than homework and school lectures. Fruit candies were preferred to actual fruit.

Back on the bus now, where it is comfortably warmer. My heart emptied for the evening, I open my book, pouring its pages into my mind, numb from the day's business.

At present I find myself in a melancholy, poetic mood, and a quick glance inside tells me that perhaps a visit to some place of my childhood would do me good. So I wait to board the #26 bus--I may stop at the grounds of my old middle school, or perhaps the university.

I wonder what other inner forces drove me to seek a different environment this night. Some inner restlessness, a terrible fatigue. Anyway, my hope is that this short trip will bring me answers.

The cry of youth, romance, camraderie, sport, old memories good and bad, old best friends--these draw me.

I alight at the bus stop I had stopped at so many times before--that of my old middle school.

It has been 17 years since these 30-year old eyes have gazed on this building and its walkways. And through one of its inner windows at the top of the staircase I see a younger version of myself, in school uniform, staring back at me. Walking further I see, fronted by pavement stripes, the old gymnasium doors from which I emerged on graduation day, never until now to look back. I still remember my parting words (an ill attempt at humour) to my friends Jason Kwon and David Mortimer.

But the flag poles bear no flags now; the schoolhouse has been converted to an Earth and Ocean Sciences institute.