I miss spam...

Once upon a time there was no spam. It was back in the old days when hardly anyone had e-mail.

Over the next several years spam exploded. I think the first spam e-mail I remember was a plea from someone from another country, for my help to access a fortune, for which I would earn a hefty percentage. Then there were the sex and porn-related spam messages. This past year the amount of spam made e-mail maintenance a major chore. It was like trying to weed the Amazon basin.

Then I switched to gmail. All traffic to my multiple mail accounts come in via gmail's spam filters. Where I had been getting dozens, if not hundreds, of e-mails a day, now I was only getting e-mail from people with whom I really wanted to correspond.

I was thrilled.

But now I have the habit of touching my e-mail several times a day (required in the spam days).

Usually nothing new is there.

I realize that spam gave me a mission, it was a dragon that needed slaying on a constant basis.

Now the dragon is dead. Scaly and uncouth as he was, I feel the lack.

There are other dragons I need to slay. But spam was the dragon that crouched at a critical gate to my world, the dragon I could not lock behind a door or cover with a sheet. Spam was a dragon that implied humans outside my own circle, who I could revile freely. My other dragons are either caused by me or people I like to love, so I cannot loathe with utter abandon.

There's no parting phrase that I can use, since they all signal a desire that the departed return or be blessed or go with God.

So here's to spam, gone now. To the dragon I loved to loathe.


I'm in love... with Ubuntu!

I love technology that works, particularly when it is free.

I typed "Ubuntu download" into my browser, and up came the link to download the CD image. Copy that to CD, then install.

It takes some time, but everything works well. In this case, "everything" is a Dell 4550 with a 80 GB hard drive that was being thrown away.

The internet works, documents work, all the ports and drives work - I'm a happy camper.

Now to go and do something with the technology...


I like easy

I do family history. Easy is not a term I usually associate with family history. But this week is different.

As background, let me explain why an organization would go to such pains to make family history/genealogy easy. The LDS Church (aka Mormon Church) has this doctrine that we have until final judgement to choose our eternal fate. Therefore they perform saving ordinances (e.g., baptism) for folks who didn't get around to accepting these ordinances during their mortal lives.

A major problem in recent years has been folks around the world repeating proxy ordinance work. The thing is it takes 17 manhours (between travel, proxies, helpers, etc.) each time ordinance work is done for a single individual. If we pretend that people's time is worth $20/hr, that's $340. So it's just plain wasteful to be repeating work.

The second major problem is Church members not doing their genealogy because it's hard. That's actually a more pressing problem than the waste.

Anyway, the Church has invested in multiple server farms, software algorithms, and complex databases to reduce duplication and make things easy. It's being rolled out at new.familysearch.org in stages, starting with outlying LDS congregations, finishing the LDS "deployment" in Utah, then eventually opening this stuff up to everyone.

New FamilySearch became available to Church members in the DC area this week. One "that was easy" experience happened with a young mother who had asked me to help her. In an hour I'd gotten her registered on the system, and we had her family tree extended out four generations, including confirming the dates she had already on hand with references now available on the internet.

The other "that was easy" experience was on Tuesday, when I went to the temple. I took the ordinance sheet I had printed at home (like how you can print an airplane boarding pass at home). The nice little lady at the counter simply put the paper under the scanner, and the printer immediately spit out the slips we use in the temple to track what ordinance work has been completed. It was the first time this lady had used the system, and she laughed out loud, it was so easy.

Easy is good.


Later High School Start Times

Do letters to newspaper columns count as literature? I don't know, but here's one I'm sending to the Washington Post.

At issue is the question of whether Fairfax County, one of the largest school districts in the United States and serving one of the richest per capita constituencies, will shift high school start times to almost 9 am.

Recently one of the 15% of parents who prefer the current schedule over the proposed later schedule wrote up her view that "Early Bedtimes Work, Too, for Sleep-Deprived Teens." She cited studies claiming later high school start times lead to no statistically significant improvement in academic performance, bright computer screens that make it harder for students to fall asleep (a non sequitur in my opinion), and that a schedule change alone will not solve the problem of tired teenagers ("High school students need 2.25 more hours of sleep than they get now. The new schedule would make up about half that deficit.")

She sees the glass only getting filled halfway and declines to consider that a benefit. I disagreed. We'll see if my view gets published in the Post.


I'm glad you published Patricia Velkoff's letter about the other side of later start times. But I notice she didn't mention any of the studies that show a substantial and tangible benefit to starting later.

I myself analyzed data on the impact of later start times on incidence of teenage car accidents. In the fall of 1998, Fayette County, Kentucky, changed the high school start time from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. In the year following this change, students averaged up to 50 minutes more sleep per weekday night. The additional sleep appears to correlate to fewer auto crashes involving teenagers, a >20% reduction if one controls for the trend seen in surrounding school districts that did not change high school start times. [Original research presented at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies' Annual Meeting in June 2002].

But I don't care about later start times because of a 20% reduction in teenage car accidents. I care about later start times because of the potential to help individual at-risk teenagers.

My daughter was an extreme example of the teenager who is helped by later start times. She always tested at the 99.9% level on standardized tests. Yet she was failing in her high school. We comforted ourselves that she could always take an extra year to graduate or, failing that, obtain a GED.

Happily, we were able to shift her to a school that started at 9 am. Her grades turned around, and she got a perfect score on the English SOL. This wasn't some elite school. It was Fairfax County's own Landmark Career Academy. After graduation, my daughter was able to qualify for a scholarship of more than $12,000 per year directly because of her improved grades (and her SAT scores).

I have two younger children who have yet to enter high school. Their teenage years will no doubt be tempestuous no matter what time high school starts. But I would be happier if they can be made 20% less tempestuous...

M. Stout Annandale, VA


I Love Lexi's Lounge (crossposting my blogs)

I finally discovered how to crosspost to my livejournal account and my blogger account!!!

Check out:

Lexi's Lounge: Publishing your blogs to Blogger and Livejournal

Life is sweet..

Of Pain and Beauty

Kosmo wrote a post on his blog, Genes and Demons, describing "a pain so bad your skin gets cold—sweat rising in a clammy sheen... Pain apocalyptic. Pain so many and so much that it is a color seen, red-black, at the edge of your vision. Pain like an organic mass inside you, a dead rabbit festering in your gut..."

It's a beautiful post, and turns out (horrifying though it is) the post was an actual journal entry.

I read the post, and it reminded me viscerally of the pain I'd first experienced two weeks after giving birth via VBAC, on a day when I had unwisely returned to work for a few hours to participate in a VTC.

I lay writhing on the floor that day, scaring my husband to death. I don't remember how long the pain lasted that first day - long enough for folks to get scared, call the ambulance, load me into the ambulance, take me to the emergency room, and get me installed in one of the ER rooms, covered with warmed blankets.

It was only then, lying in the ER room, that the pain began to ease. The doctor (a female, for what it's worth) came in and glanced at me from the doorway after checking her clipboard.

"Female. Fat. Fertile. Forty. The four Fs. It's your gallbladder."

There is a phenomenon that occurs in women after pregnancy. They tend to forget the pain their body has experienced. They remember that there was pain, but it becomes an academic recollection. My gall bladder experience fell within that blessed window of forgetfulness. I remember thinking at the time that this pain ("a dead rabbit festering in your gut") was worse than the transition contractions I had experienced only two weeks previously on an instant by instant basis. In addition, the dead rabbit pain lasted long minutes stretching into hours, where contractions only lasted a matter of seconds (90 max). Was my dead rabbit pain ever the four hour ordeal Kosmo describes? I can no longer remember.

Anyway, go read Kosmo's journal entry - it's stunning.

Holidays and a Memory of Joe Biden

You may remember that there was a shift in congressional power during the spring of 2001. Thanks to google, I was able to find the following succinct explanation online:

"According to numerous press reports, Vermont Senator James Jeffords plans to leave the Republican Party on May 24[, 2001]. His switch to independent status would give the Democrats a 50-49 majority in the Senate, shifting control from the Republicans to the Democrats. This would be the first time the Democratic Party has controlled a house of Congress since 1994."

I was taking a marketing class at the Naval Postgraduate School at that time, and my group was pretending that we were trying to identify new markets for the AN/AQS-20 Mine-Hunting Sonar. As part of that exercise, we were identifying which senators and congresspeople to court. So we were paying close attention when the Jeffords party switch altered the congressional calculus. Joe Biden became head of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on that day. He immediately had a new website up - a glossy polished thing back when polished websites didn't come easily. I just remember being amazed that he was so prepared.

I don't know why I'm thinking about that May 2001 website tonight. Maybe because all this political stuff reminds me of the Strength-Weakness-Opportunity-Threat (SWOT) analysis technique that I learned during that marketing class. Every strength, I observed, is the other side of something that was also a weakness; every opportunity involved a threat and threat involved opportunity. With the four individuals we currently have before us seeking the White House, there's a lot of Strength and Opportunity. They are all excellent individuals who would lead us firmly in particular directions.

[The cynical side of me wonders how much power the US President actually has, anyway, hemmed in as he/she is by the checks and balances the founding fathers put in place. Amongst all of us given the opportunity to cooperate (or not), I suppose the President and his/her running mate have a larger portion of governmental influence than any other single individual is granted by charter. If I consider us all as ants moving the country along, the President would be a particularly big ant.]

So this public servant is thinking about how politics overturned the congressional world back in May 2001. I'm glad that my job is insulated from the changes in the executive office. I don't have to prepare two sets of websites or viewgraphs or life plans to poise myself for the aftermath of the new President's inauguration in January 2009.

In fact, not only will I not have to be poised to jump based on the outcome of this election, I remembered that, as a public servant living near DC, I usually get an extra holiday when the new president gets inaugurated. Since January 20 (the traditional inauguration date since 1937) falls on a Tuesday in 2009, I really do get an extra holiday.

Now to turn off my TV and radio to concentrate on writing my fiction, where people's decisions about their leader had life-altering repercussions, tearing my protagonist's family apart. As I contemplate the mild political isometrics involved in our quadrennial examination of our national leadership, I remain grateful that my family will hardly notice the 2009 change in leadership in any substantial way.


Palin - Cool Speech

Before too many pundits have a chance to twist my head around, I just want to say I thought Sarah Palin delivered a very nice speech tonight. She didn't pull jabs, but they didn't seem mean (perhaps since I wasn't the target). I look forward to the spectacle that will unfold as we watch the four individuals running for President/Vice President over the next several months.


Points of View and Historical Fiction

How many points of view does one need in a novel?

I love the fiction of Lois McMaster Bujold. With few exceptions, she only presents one viewpoint character per novel. In her recent books dealing with couples she presents the POVs of both the man and woman, and in "A Civil Campaign" she stretched to include five different points of view. But all of Bujold's work with which I am familiar is speculative fiction (e.g., science fiction, fantasy).

So we come back to my current works in progress. Now that I've written my first draft of "Daughter of Heaven," I know the world and history of my main character, Elvira Cowles. She was one of Joseph Smith's wives. I have spent the past year researching the world and history of her husband, Jonathan Holmes. But I initially shied away from actually using Jonathan as a POV character because I didn't trust myself to achieve tension/suspense when looking into the minds of people who end up as husband and wife.

Then I thought about adding John Bennett as a POV character. This past week I finished reading "The Saintly Scoundrel," a recent biography of Bennett. Given the detailed model I have developed of the workings of 1840s Nauvoo (and the eternal marriage saga generally starting in 1832), I was fascinated. Prior to reading the biography, I wanted to have Bennett react with sorrow to news of Joseph Smith's death. I am pleased that the facts of Bennett's life make that plausible, perhaps even probable. And now that I know more about Bennett, certain other factoids really start to pop. Excellent.

Now to see if I can actually fit these three POVs into a workable novel-length treatment....