2008-01-31

Қазақстан Республикасы (Republic of Kazakhstan)

How likely would you think that a Stateless Immigrant, yours truly, would meet a Kazakh national running an outdoors parking lot across the street from the office in Ottawa, Canada, where yours truly is working from this week?

Apparently, in this life, the probability is 100%.

2008-01-30

Battle over a dandelion

Cryptic haiku for those in the know.

The sands have run out,
And no replacement in sight.
There will be battle.

2008-01-29

Not so stealthy anymore

Looks like I went from one boaty car to another, but Grand Prix is supposed to handle better.

The thing is, it snowed all morning in Ottawa, and there was a lot of slush on the roads, and my tame Pontiac G5, that handled like a boat under the best of conditions, had no ABS, which was complemented by mediocre all-season OEM tires, so I was slippin' and slidin' all the way back to the hotel from the embassy!

Making a left turn, while slowly accelerating from a dead stop, I spun out at about 10 kmh, and was floating perpendicularly to traffic for a few seconds... That was scary!

After I ruled the poor beast in and brought it safely to the hotel parking lot, I called Enterprise, and the Grand Prix is what they gave me instead.

It seems to have a slightly stiffer ride (stiffer than a water mattress is not much, but it's an improvement), and the tires have somewhat deeper tread.

And it looks cooler than the G5.

Still I hope that it won't snow anymore and the roads dry up tomorrow.

2008-01-28

Driving in stealth mode

I am in Ottawa this week, and my rental car is a 2007 Pontiac G5 sedan, silver, the tamest-looking Pontiac I ever saw (even the Aztec has more character). Because there is snow and sleet on the roads, I did not have a real chance to find out how well it handles, but my hopes aren't too high. It does have some power though, and surprised me on a highway on-ramp, when in complete contradiction to previous performance it suddenly went into high-revs and accelerated so fast I had to break not to rear-end some van.

Need I even mention it's an automatic? The first five minutes driving were weird, with my left foot constantly tapping on the floor, looking for the clutch pedal, and my right hand trying to shift...

Online hostilities ceased

This just in: I got bored with the online dispute, and simply asked for money back. Seller obliged on the spot, so I went through with the mutual feedback withdrawal process and consider the issue closed.

2008-01-27

A brief history of... plagiarism?

In the dark past of my commie youth, about age 14 or 15, I was very inspired by a popular science book by V. S. Barashenkov called A universe inside the electron (Вселенная в электроне).

I loved the book, as it very clearly and precisely outlined the evolution of scientific thought about the origins and the future of our universe, its structure on the very large and very small scales, general relativity and quantum mechanics. The book was specifically addressed at young readers with no more than high school knowledge of physics, but it was far from elementary. The illustrations were copious, fun, and to the point. In short, it was a cool book.

Many many years later, after Feynman's memoirs rekindled my unsteady interest in physics, I thought, let's check out that book I read back in school! Thanks to not very effective copyright enforcement on the Russian internets I was able to find the full text of A universe in the electron. I read it, and found it cool yet again, even though this time around I was reading it--supposedly--as an adult. It is a short book and an easy read, so it was very soon finished.

Same day, I was looking for some fiction books to read on the plane (we'll get to that in a bit) in a used bookstore, and stumbled on a paperback copy of A brief history of time by Stephen Hawking. It was on my Amazon "wish list" for a long time, so I got it.

How large my surprise was to find out that my childhood physics book seemed to be a very loose abridged adaptation of Hawking's text! Granted, some of the anecdotes about famous international physicists were replaced by matching ones from Russia, but some, like the "Pauli effect," were not! My impression was that about 50-75% of Barashenkov's text was not original.

Given that there is only that much to be told about the workings of the universe to non-specialists without confusing them, and also that there is a limited number of humorous stories about physicists, I almost feel bad being harsh on A universe in the electron, so I will leave it to the unlikely bilingual reader to confirm or rebuff my claim.

Provincial survival guide

Chapter 2: Finding amusement

Get yourself into a flame war (bar fights are so passe).

To be honest, I can't take full credit for being involved in the online hostilities over an eBay transaction, as I did not provoke the situation, but nevertheless when opportunity came, I bravely accepted the challenge!

Here's basically what happened: I buy a cheap cell phone on eBay as a backup in case of the impending demise of my RAZR. Cheap as in 7 bucks.

The seller (bargainlot2300) charges 13+ dollars in shipping and handling (which was clear from the item description, so I am not complaining about that), but at the checkout, they slap another 3+ bucks on for "insurance." The line item "insurance" is mandatory and cannot be removed from the automatically generated PayPal invoice.

I send the seller a formal invoice request through eBay, asking to remove the insurance charge from the invoice, because I don't feel like paying over three bucks insurance for a seven-dollar phone. I receive no answer.

Then in about two days, an invoice comes, and the insurance is still on it. I reply to the message repeating my request. Nothing.

In another few days, a new invoice comes, and--you guessed it--it is still the same invoice, with no communication from the seller.

We repeat this dance two more times over the following ten days.

On day 14 after winning the auction, I decide to pay for the item. I feel kind of miffed, having had less than satisfying customer experience, so immediately after completing the payment, I give the seller negative feedback, mentioning lack of communication and desire to accommodate.

Ten minutes later (what happened to the 48-hour latency?) I get slapped with a negative feedback, claiming I never got in touch with them! I send them a message telling I sent five messages and received no response, and that now I paid for the item, I'd like to have it please.

Now the real fun begins. The seller sends a request to "mutually withdraw feedback" to me and tells me that they won't ship the item until I withdraw my rating. Before this, I was merely mildly amused, but this was just too much fun to not take the challenge!

I sent the seller a message through eBay repeating that I have paid for the item and would like to have it now pretty please, had this request rebuffed as expected (ah yes, bargainlot2300 communicates exclusively in all caps):
PLEASE MUTUALLY WITHDRAW THE FEEDBACK SO I CAN SHIP YOUR PHONE.
YOU HAD 100% PLEASE KEEP IT THAT WAY.

THANKS
-bargainlot2300

At which point I go "Gotcha, sucker!" and report him/her to eBay.

The dispute resolution is still pending, but the entertainment value it has already provided me is hard to measure :)

More leftover cuisine

Nothing special in preparation (took me about 3 minutes), but came out quite cool, surprisingly.

I took the scraps of a garden salad mix, topped them with one rotisserie chicken leg cut in strips and an "improved" sesame soy-sauce dressing out of a bottle.

The improvement was that I mixed 2 tablespoons of the ready-made sauce with as much spicy Russian horseradish made with red beets (for color I suppose). The beets in the horseradish gave the dressing this intense raspberry color you see in the picture, and the horseradish itself helped offset the excess sweetness of the sauce.

2008-01-20

FUDCon Raleigh 2008

Last weekend, Fedora User and Developer Conference (FUDCon) was in town, and I attended the second day of the event, the actual un-conference.

The first (Fri, Jan 11) and third (Sun, Jan 13) days were hack-fests, and I only ducked in for an hour on Friday to have lunch with the people I know from my Fedora involvement, and went back to work.

The un-conference on Saturday was a lot of fun, as was the obligatory FUDPub after the "official" part was over. A bunch of photos were taken on all three days, and here's what I found on Flickr so far.

At the FUDCon, I attended talks by Michael Tiemann (Bringing Fedora into the enterprise), Mark Webbink (Open Source legal Q&A), and Kevin Sonney (Fedora.tv). Then I spent some time helping out with logistics of getting people to the right rooms, and then it was already time to go to the pub!

We started out at the Flying Saucer, where Fedora paid for the first round of drinks and food for everyone (really nice of them). From there a bunch of us proceeded to the Hibernian Pub a few blocks down the street, where we were biding our time until the karaoke night would open at Cody's next door.

It was really great to see all the folks I only get to see once or twice a year at events like this, and it's a shame I did not get to spend more time with each of them.

The less fun part was catching a cold from all the hand-shaking and hugging, but by now I think I am mostly over this, too.

2008-01-07

Women are...

As the figure of speech goes, the circumstances conspired against me. In less than a 36 hours' timespan past weekend I have been exposed (or rather exposed myself) to three quite different male comments on women, which made me experience a gamut of emotions running from outrage and frustration to feeling vindicated and empowered.
  • Myra Breckinridge, a 1970's satire based on a Gore Vidal novel I did not read;

  • "The women issue" chapter in Tom Peters' Re-Imagine book I finally took up again after finishing Feynman's memoir and a few other books;

  • La città delle donne, a 1980 Federico Fellini film that sat on the shelf until there was nothing else left to watch and the alternative was to return it to Netflix unseen.

In that order.

You see that I did not plan for this. But as I said before, the circumstances...

The funny thing is that the piece that made an honest attempt at advocating women's interests--Peters' "hear the women roar"--was the one that caused me to interrupt myself with all sorts of outraged exclamations while reading it.

To give the author credit, it did not happen until well into the chapter, as I was mostly silently nodding my head in agreement while Peters brought women's accounts of being ignored or dismissed in the marketplace, be it as decision-makers, professionals, or even customers.

I have a few stories of my own that went very similar to what the women shared with Peters, so let me give you an example. Once I was in a furniture store with a male friend who was helping me by driving me around town back in the days when I had just moved to the States and did not have a car. A male salesperson swoops down on us, and after an obligatory inquiry as to how I am doing this fine Saturday afternoon he proceeds to ignore me completely, only addressing my male friend, who after a while says, "Listen man, the lady's doing the buying, I'm just helping her get around." Needless to say, I did not buy anything in that store that day.

Another time, I arrived at a posh conference hotel, stood in line at the check-in for ten minutes with everybody else, finally approached the counter, only to be asked by the clerk--without a greeting, mind you--"Is that your husband?" with a motion to the gentleman who was in line behind me. My comment that I am one of those extravagant women traveling without a male escort went unappreciated. Oh, and I got no apology either.

I could continue, but you must be bored, O my gentle reader. So onward!

Reading through the variations on the same theme in Peters' book, I felt at first that there must be hope, if a "management guru" recognizes that something must be wrong with a marketplace that dismisses and ignores a huge customer demographic, just because they do not have a penis! Well, he did not quite put it this way, but that was the gist of it.

And then Peters went on to present his ideas of how this can be remedied, and why it makes economic sense. "We should do this, and we should do that," he'd say, and something began to feel wrong. The feeling of something phoney going on got stronger as I realized, that I (or any woman for that matter) was not part of the "we."

And then I slammed my fist down on the page and literally screamed: "So am I supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy in my ovaries while you are mentally jerking off to how great you are for preaching about the poor huddled women's plight to your actual audience, a bunch of men?"

Having reached my respectable age, I probably should get used and not get all upset about this sort of thing, but somehow I can't.
I felt betrayed.

Compared to the above experience, Myra Breckinridge, with its irreverence towards traditional gender roles almost seemed liberating, never mind that it was an all in all mediocre movie.

La città delle donne -- may cineastic deities forgive my mentioning it on the same page as Myra Breckinridge -- made a worthy ending to the unintended exploration of male's perception and ideals of women.

Picturing scores of women across the spectrum running from whores to madonnas, and from femmes fatales to homely housewives, plus everything inbetween, I felt that Fellini did not even attempt to make a value statement on what he saw and felt towards them, beyond utter confusion and insecurity.

And in a way, seeing this confessed chauvinist say "I don't know what women are anymore, I give up," felt strangely appeasing. The more I think about why it did, the more I realize that no matter how grotesque and sometimes demeaning Fellini's portrayals of women are (in this and other movies), his acknowledgement of inability to fit them all neatly into a simple scheme leaves room for recognition of their (and mine) individuality.

And that is sometimes all one can ask for.

2008-01-02

Haute (leftover) cuisine

Having a few days at home for myself and some leftover holiday food, I ventured a post-holiday breakfast:
          • Poached eggs topped with caviar
          • decorated with spicy eggplant puree
          • with pan-fried sweet potato wedges on the side.
Came out quite nicely, don't you think?

Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!

For two nights in a row, I went to sleep at about 4am, because I could not stop reading "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"

Part of it is that it's extremely easy to read, because it is based on interview transcripts, and the language is so engaging.

But mostly, it is the fascinating character that Feynman was, always trying things out, believing in a possibility of discovering something new in any area of life he'd come in touch with, be it mixing wall paint, trying to detect smells on objects like a bloodhound, or cracking combination locks on safes in Los Alamos.

Happy new year

It's been a nice holiday break. Back to work tomorrow.

By the way, on the 31st, when I happened on a Saturn dealership and could not resist--took a SKY for a test drive. A turbo. And managed to red-line it, so the rev limiter kicked in :) That was fun.

I did not get a chance to really try it out handling-wise, but it has a feel of a lot of electronics between the driver and the road. No "right-now" feeling that I am now used to from Bonnie. Suffice it to say that when going about 60, turning the wheel quickly about 5 degrees left and right does not result in anything. Some computer decides that you ought to be going straight. So you go straight. I have no idea how this will impact the handling in a slalom. Maybe some of the electronics can be turned off, but the salesperson did not know.

Now in the next few weeks, I want to test-drive a new Miata and a Z4. My only real hope for a true sports-car feel is the Z4, if I remember the new MX-5 right from test-driving it in Summer 2006.