Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Signs of Winter

Slanders to the contrary, Silicon Valley does indeed have a change of seasons. Here’s how to tell that winter is coming:

  • Sometimes, now, there are clouds in the sky.

  • We’ve started using the woodstove in the evenings.

  • Gabriel has come back to my bed.

  • The freeway medians are vivid with bittersweet.

  • I’ve changed my cell phone ring to “Ode to Joy” from “Take Me out to the Ball Game.”

  • The hills are turning green.

Sometimes, now, there are clouds in the sky.

Yes, we really go months without seeing a cloud, except the occasional feather-light cirrus floating mindlessly in the empyrean. The towering cumulonimbus clouds, grand and imposing, don’t form here from late March through, say, September. We do sometimes get a morning overcast, known as the marine layer, but it always burns off, leaving skies of a deep, dazzling blue seen back home only in the first weeks of October.

Now, given the legendary cloudiness of my native climate—which is more overcast than Seattle—you can imagine how strange this relentless sunshine is to me. I love it when the clouds return, casting dappled shadows over the hills, melting sometimes into soft watercolor skies.

The rain comes back with the clouds. On September 18, I woke to discover that it was raining—a gentle, brief shower that dissolved into sunshine before long. Then a month passed without rain. By late October, though, rain was coming regularly, omce a week or so: drizzles, downpours, squalls, even a little thunder once.

Along with the clouds and rain, the wind comes back in winter. Summer has light breezes and predictable wind patterns: the evening breeze is consistent. In the winter, cool gusty winds rise, and so do my spirits.

We’ve started using the woodstove in the evenings.

Nights are always cool in Silicon Valley; even in the hottest weather, night-time temperatures fall into the sixties or fifties. But since our house was built without insulation, the only way to keep it cool in summer is an elaborate system devised by Sonja. Huge fans keep the air circulating round the clock. In the daytime, all the windows are closed and covered with curtains, black mesh fabric, and blinds, a system that keeps some of the heat out; nevertheless, on the very hottest days, the upstairs can hit an easy 95 degrees by 5PM. At night, the curtains are fastened back, the windows and skylight are opened, and the cool air pours in. By midnight, the house is cool and comfortable, and by 3AM, I’m pulling up extra covers.

In winter, night-time temperatures drop into the forties, sometimes below, and daytime temperatures range from the fifties to the seventies.

Gabriel has come back to my bed.

All summer long, Gabriel takes advantage of the long days and warm nights to go hunting. It’s like having a teenager; she comes in for meals and demands to go out again almost immediately. She doesn’t want to be petted, either—also like a teenager. She was a feral cat, and although she loves me, she is still at heart a wild animal.

In Jackson’s short, wet summers, there were plenty of days when she stayed in. Not that she dislikes wet or cold weather; she has always loved going out in the rain and snow, and her thick fur keeps her dry no matter what. But even feral cats have an instinct for comfort. Besides, in the rain there is no prey to hunt.

When winter comes, she sleeps on my bed at least part of every night. Every year I wonder if this time she’s ever coming back. So far she always has.

The freeway medians are brilliant with bittersweet.

At least, I’ve always assumed it’s bittersweet. It grows dense and beautiful here, thick vines and shrubs of red-orange berries that last through the winter. However, I suspect that they may be the native toyon—the false holly of Hollywood. Bittersweet is out of its range here.

Edit: No, it's pyracantha and cotoneaster. Neither one is native.

I’ve changed my cell phone ring to “Ode to Joy” from “Take Me out to the Ball Game.”

When the World Series is over, so is the song. Sometime between the first day of spring training and opening day, when the Phillies’ prospects look good, I’ll switch back from the “Ode to Joy” to the “Ode to Frustration,” AKA “Well, at Least This Year They Might Finish Above .500” or “Please, God, Please Don’t Make Us Stay in Last Place.”

The hills are turning green.

This is painfully counterintuitive for the Northeasterner in exile. I’m used to the hills changing color in response to the seasons, but not this change. Back home, summer green (emerald nearby, melting to slate blue in the distance) gives way to the incandescent scarlets and golds of October, thence to the quiet russets and browns of November, then the pencilled landscapes of winter—slate-grey, slate-purple, and blue-white. By April there is a haze of red on the grey hills, and by the end of May it’s all green again.

Of course the deciduous trees turn color here; in fact, this year for some reason they were particularly brilliant. Or perhaps I’m forgetting what fall is really like. (By the freeways of San Jose, there we sat down; there we wept, as we remembered Jackson. . . . If I forget thee, Pennsylvania, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.) But there are very few native deciduous trees in California. Many of the native oaks here are evergreen, and they have strange, narrow, blackish-green leaves like strips of leather.

All summer long, the grassy hills here stay the soft color of a palomino horse. They’re vividly alive, the grass so pale the hills seem to be outlined in light. Every fold and curve is emphasized by the short-growing grass, and the crevices where water collects are dense with brush.

By October, though, a tinge of green shows here and there. Then the hills look like ancient horsehair upholstery faded with sun. As the weeks progress, the folds and crevices of the upholstery begin to show hints of their original green. Now, in the beginning of December, the hills are more green than pale, and every rain makes them a little younger. Here winter is the season of new life.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

TECHNONEWS: The Upgrade Cascade

Where have I been lately? Cursing computers and blessing NaNoWriMo, which has once again proved astonishingly helpful in unexpected ways.

Sometime in late September, the Lombard breathed its last. (Bad processor. Not worth fixing.) After trying alternatives for a month, I admitted that a new laptop wasn't a luxury, but a necessity. During the period of waiting, Apple came out with hot new iBooks. My new computer arrived 2 weeks ago, and I love it. G4, 1.2 MHz processor, 768 MB RAM, 30-gig hard drive, running OS X 10.3.3, also known as Panther. Built-in CD-writer and Airport card. Truly lovely.

One reason I put off getting Mac OS X for so many years was my fear of The Upgrade Cascade — the long, tumbling series of changes that must be made whenever you upgrade operating systems. It's expensive, time-consuming, and often frustrating.

It wasn't so bad with the various versions of Mac Classic: I'm still running some software on 9.2.2 that I originally bought or downloaded ten years ago for 7.6. Unfortunately, that tends to be simple game software—UltraDice, Solitaire Antics, Shanghai II. The more complicated software by which I earn my living always seems to demand the latest, most expensive innovations.

The last time I had an Upgrade Cascade was back in the fall of 1996, when I bought the Okidata 810e printer, a workhouse laser printer that I absolutely loved. Unfortunately, PageMaker 4.0 (the backbone of my business) wouldn't recognize the printer. Upgrade to PageMaker 6.5. PageMaker 6.5 wouldn't work with the older operating system. Upgrade to OS 8.1. My old version of Word (2.0, I believe) wouldn't work with OS 8.1. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. I spent a solid two weeks and a fair bit of money installing, updating, re-saving documents in new format, and learning the new software.

Life has been fairly eventful since then, so I did everything I could to freeze the computing world at 1999 or so. The desktop is a beige G3 running System 8.6 with 2 whole gigs of hard drive and 128MB of RAM, and with one USB 1.1 port. My lovely Lombard laptop ran 9.2.2. The printer worked with the desktop. Files from the desktop could be saved to Zip disk and copied to the laptop, and vice versa.

Like all sneakernet systems, it had its limitations. The laptop had Internet access, but the desktop does not, so I couldn't directly email myself files. The desktop would write to floppies, but the laptop had no floppy drive. I had to copy the files to a Windows machine and email them to myself. But for a few years I had a system that functioned.

Now, of course, I'm dealing with an OS that is not backward compatible at all. Moreover, hardware protocols have changed completely. Gone are the 9-pin printer cables, the ADB keyboard connectors, the SCSI ports. The new laptop has USB 2.0 and Firewire ports.

When the Lombard died, I had the tech guy transplant the hard drive into a USB enclosure. It worked fine with the G3 loaner laptop I had for NaNoWriMo (and which was donated to the laptop library by Karen Toensfeldt, a friend of mine from the South Bay NaNoWriters). Alas, the iBook couldn’t even see the drive; a techie friend fixed that by plugging both USB connectors of the Y-shaped cable into the laptop. I thought my troubles were over. (I also thought I was an idiot, but never mind that.)

Then I would start to transfer files, and after two or three, the laptop would crash. Apparently, the notoriously chipset-sensitive Panther OS doesn’t care for this particular USB manufacturer. Finally I realized I could transfer the files to the loaner laptop, hook it to the iBook with a firewire cable, and start it in target mode. This worked. Sunday night Alan Bostick came over with a firewire cable. You should have heard me crowing as the megabytes sped into the new iBook. My brain was coming back!

The process isn’t over. I need to install 9.2.2 on the iBook so I can run some of the older software in Classic mode. Also, I have ten years worth of backups on Zip disks, which apparently commit suicide when they see OS X. So I’m going to upgrade the desktop to 9.2.2, which will allow the desktop to see the hard drive. I’m going to copy all those damned Zip disks onto the hard drive and run them through the loaner laptop. Can’t link the iBook directly with the beige G3—no firewire port. Then I am going to burn every bit of essential data to CDs, see if I can trade the USB case for a combined USB/firewire enclosure, and use the 10-gigabyte hard drive as extra memory for the desktop.

And then I’m going to take a nap.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Quote of the Day

"You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty." Jessica Mitford (1917-1996)

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Thoughts from a Soldier on the Front Lines

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

Siegfried L. Sassoon...July 1917

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Hunter Thompson, Updated for Today

This may be is the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it -- that we are really just a nation of 220 290 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, John Kerry, for all his imprecise talk about new politics and "honesty in government," is one of the few men who've run for President of the United States who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon George W. Bush.

McGovern made some stupid mistakes Kerry espouses some wrong-headed opinions, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon George W. Bush does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.

Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to become President?