Thursday, November 29, 2007

Samurai 3000-2007 Katana

It's that time of year again, when we have left-over pumpkin decorations in need of disposal.

This year I decided to make multiple successive passes through a single target - and had multiple targets to eliminate. I first selected the one decorated in the lovely "barren oak tree" motif by my wife, shown here next to the same sword as last year.

I made several test passes in front of the pumpkin before moving in with offensive strike no. 4, per the inset below (fig. 3). Traditional sword strikes with the katana are designed to target soft tissues with large blood vessels, bleeding out the opponent fairly quickly. The are not designed for militant action against insurgent squash.

I failed to bring my pass down into the body of the gourd, instead taking off a thin portion of skin on the upper right and the majority of the stem. The next two passes encountered more success, but revealed a disturbing trend: the lower I cut, the more I favored the no. 6 strike.

This could be considered natural - after all, for right-handed katana use the no. 1, 2, and 6 strikes are the strongest. One may also observe within this diagram that between the no. 4 (neck: carotid arteries) and no. 5 (abdominal wall, intestines, descending aorta) strikes there is no strictly lateral movement: the bones of the arms and ribs make the gesture futile. Thus, time is not spent attacking in that attitude at intervening elevations and the swordsman is likely to drift into more familiar territory instead.

Said pumpkin was also sitting on a wall composed of cement. The further one descends into the no. 6 position, the more likely they are to encounter this wall. I'm not sure if I was too focused on the target to notice, or incorrectly believed myself to have accounted for the obstacle and adjusted my swing accordingly. Whatever the case, the fourth pass met with an unsettling CLANG- twing- *THUNK* -clatter-clatter and I became well acquainted with the interior handle construction of my sword - the blade of which was lodged 25' (7.6m) to my left protruding from some plastic buckets near the sandbox (the edged still remarkably intact, only lightly dulled and still formidable).

The tang reduces until it's screwed into a weight which was then epoxied into the pommel. That mount provided the tension to keep the rest of the stack together, and that's it. Everything else up to the tsuba/hand guard is cylindrically hollow allowing free movement - which may have done well to absorb shock, but drastically reduced strength and stability.

Well illustrated in the lower inset is the abysmal tang itself, measuring less than a ¼ the total blade width and breaking rather predictably exactly at that point.

I'm taking what's left of the blade and will mount that in the end of a bo staff for a home-built naginata. The handle remnants will probably be reassembled for use as a costume piece (snazzy lightsaber, or affixed to the scabbard as a non-functional safe-to-carry-anywhere traditional blade). The real difficulty will be convincing my wife to let me cut anything in the yard ever again.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Finger Kata

I can passably play the piano, which is to say that most of the time I sit down and attempt to sound competent on one I succeed. I started with limited lessons when I was nine (or thereabouts, I really don't recall), but didn't stick with it for more than a couple of months before realizing I just didn't have the patience for it on top of the trumpet. I continued to dabble since we had one in the house but refused to formalize the endeavor.

I stuck with brass instruments for the next several years until the continuing saga of braces (my teeth proudly displayed my recessive British heritage, requiring nine years of extensive orthodontics) curtailed the effort. This also put me into High School, where the physical limitations of the mitochondrial myopathy became dramatically apparent, and the social and familial stresses of the age/environment took their toll.

Exhausted, "misunderstood" (classic teen, eh?), and quite thoroughly frustrated, I approached the instrument differently: it became my release, a loud and dramatic voice of discontent, and from there eventually something a little more beautiful and less abrasive. No less dramatic though, I cite Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, John Williams and Enya as my primary musical influences in composition. If it wasn't dark, or over-the-top soulful (preferably both), I likely wasn't interested. I stuck with my own compositions or reverse-engineered (by ear) themes of the above named composers, increasing in technical proficiency as ambitions escalated.

A few select pieces by other artists came to my attention during this time, and were sufficiently complex that simply picking through it audiologically was not on option: I had to confront the sheet music.

Having played brass and sung for so long, deciphering a musical score was a straightforward process. However, I had only ever practiced this on the single lines corresponding to my instrument or part without ten fingers to keep track of. Learning piano music was hard. Eventually I made enough sense of things to commit the pieces to memory as patterns of sound and muscle movement and was able to discard the sheet music - I can, even now many years later still play these proficiently with very little warm up.

Fast forward to last Sunday, where I'd been asked to play a piece in church. The date had shifted a few times and now landed squarely behind a major point release and new client installation at work, tightly curtailing the amount of time to practice my piece. A new piece that I was still memorizing (sheet music continues to scare me). In the week and a half leading up to the performance where I could scratch together enough time to practice I did so until my back burned from the ram-rod straight posture and my fingers swelled and fingertips ached. I used every trick I know for rapid memorization, engaging as much of the brain as possible and going heavily synaesthetic (incidentally, part of the song smells like mustard, one passage feels like a piece of dry driftwood being pressed into sand before the glass and wire atop it sings, and I'm still not fully satisfied with the transition from the red-orange passage through the white/green bridge - but the folded steel and flash of yellow came out well). Finally I had it down.

Except for the nerves.

I can sing, dance, fight, or speak in front of groups and thrive on the adrenaline: but piano is still an intimate catharsis, and opening it up to share with others is a vulnerable and frightening act. My hands shook terribly throughout the performance, and tunnel vision threatened to turn the keys blue and started to ring in my ears. I played on, latching onto the coming landmarks at the beginning of each passage like life preservers. I did it too fast, made five huge mistakes, three of which affected the sound of the piece (I segued through the other two in-key), with one requiring me to stop, pause and assess, and then resume. My struggle was obvious to the audience of about 400, but in a church setting this is a supportive and understanding group in addition to being small. I am not satisfied with what I gave them - it was not as well as I had practiced.

It took me a few days to shake out of the experience as well: that much adrenaline and the feel of failure brought back many unpleasant memories from childhood and adolescence. I can forcefully re-route my response into a positive, "points for trying" or "good enough" take but I'd rather not: that's cheating. Synthetic happiness is not un-genuine, but it can certainly be counter-productive: I'm planning on beating this thing. First by practicing that particular piece well enough that I can get it by heart instead of by head - hopefully more resistant to the influences of the moment, or at least a more deeply ingrained headspace for me to get into. Secondly, by finding a way to conquer the nerves and be able to play as though in private - I should have taken some time in the couple of days prior to set up some post-hypnotic suggestions to help induce that, but didn't. I'll start there and then try to integrate the sensitivities into a more regular comprehensive pattern instead of having to pull a dissociative sleight-of-hand every time I want to play.

I'm glad I did it - everyone should get scared once in a while and be forced to evaluate themselves honestly from the perspective of the unfamiliar. 'Builds character.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ted the Caver

Happy Halloween!

I was recently directed to Ted the Caver, a re-envisioning of Thomas Lera's "Fear of Darkness" (PDF Link). While I was unimpressed with Fear of Darkness in its entirety (it attempts to tell too much of the story, and resolves around ideas stretched for me too far beyond my willing suspension of disbelief [probably based on the quality of writing] for its conclusion).

Ted the Caver shares some similar short-comings. Purporting to be the annotated caving-journal entries of a hobbiest spelunker, much of the presentation is weak - critical elements to the story are built into the same way one would do when writing prose fiction, not the way personal experiences are typically conveyed. In my own journal writing, and what I've seen in limited reading of those of others, elements from experience deemed important are granted priority and emphasis: brought up early in the entry, with associated events or ideas splayed out conceptually from that one center and expressed in terms of their relationship to it. The chronological prose and persistent use of limited perspective, when such is limitation is purely artificial, comes across as disingenuous and interfered with my ability to fully immerse in the story.

But only with the full immersion: I was still able to get into it, and at times became frustrated at the pace - I was impatient with the process of reading itself as I wanted to move ahead in the story without having to bother with the intervening language, but knowing it would diminish the delivery to skip ahead and stuck with it anyway.

That's partially where I want to give props to how the story is being presented on the web. The forced pacing lends a certain degree of realism, and helps make the characters more believable. The limited coincidence with factual events (which I'm sure acted as the story's genesis) also helps lend a degree of credibility. The choice to omit the (far-fetched) ending leaves an unresolved suspense and contemplation with the reader, a mental itch in need of resolution not forthcoming (very 1950's-horror-flick).

The other part I wanted to commend was that, in editing out fingerprints of the incredible conclusion, the remaining content becomes almost completely plausible. Gravity, geothermal vents, sulfur dioxide or hydrogen sulfide, and post-traumatic-stress disorder (based on the stress and fear during oxygen deprivation and attendant effects of volcanic gas inhalation) are sufficient to explain away the mysterious events. None of this diminishes the humanity of fear in the described reactions, and in fact made me that much more sympathetic.

All in all it's a fun read, and for Halloween is definitely recommended.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Momentary Updates

For a code slinger like myself it's a sore spot that I haven't been able to finish my wife's web site. The urgency has not been there, since most of her interaction with clients is done face to face - but now with an out-of-state potential client wanting to review her work I really needed to get a more substantial portfolio online.

Though still not exhaustive, it does a better job of making her work accessible than has previously been the case. I give you: Forever Moments, by Rachelle.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Invisible Technology

Technology becomes effectively invisible when it ceases to be noticed as a means for the fulfillment of thought (relegation to sub-consciousness is also acceptable).

Saturday, August 04, 2007


A dissatisfying or incomplete experience can leave the mind churning, testing out different avenues of resolution until some closure can be reached.

Apparently the vet I saw yesterday is one of 2 at that clinic, and this one has a knack for making my wife feel bad too - even when she's taking healthy cats in for regular check-ups.

I've also found out that a typical feline reaction to a scary situation is to turn on the charm, putting forth extra effort in order to mask their unease (perceived as weakness). I didn't know this, since our other cats do it differently: one of them acts scared and skittish, crying for attention and comfort, and the other one gets aggressive, dominating and taking charge. Apparently these cats are a little weird, and the other one behaved in the more traditional fashion. This led to a sudden surge in apparent vitality, which may have raised questions in the vet (who really should have known this). It also means that her increased affection was likely for show, and she was really quite afraid - and I missed an opportunity to comfort her more specifically (I was doing much anyway, but was perhaps misreading her response).

These things make me feel a little better about the awkwardness of the exchange.

Her passing has still been unsettling, though. In order to help soothe that, and remind myself about the appropriateness of the choice, I remember her mouth. She suffered from a persistent infection there as a element of her condition. This made eating and even drinking difficult, rendering one of her primary interfaces to the world an exercise in constant pain.

She would never let me check it while she was alive. It was just too tender. The previous vet (the nice one, who managed to show compassion to both people and animals) had let us know about the seriousness of the infection, and we took his word for it and helped her out as much as possible. After she passed though, I used the opportunity to do a brief post-mortem exam; not out of fascination or morbid curiosity, more to acquaint myself with the reality of her departure and dissociation of attachment to her remains (since anything meaningful to me had moved on).

Her mouth was one massive visceral abscess. I won't get more graphic than that - it was bad. This reminds me of the degree of suffering she was in despite her best facade, and secures my sense of justification in the course of action.

It was the right thing, even if it wasn't easy.

Friday, August 03, 2007


One of the things I do well is mitigate risk. I do this through careful analysis of a given situation, weighing possible and probable outcomes, considering the effort and complexity required, and optimizing to the shortest possible path of greatest gain for the amount of work, erring generously on the side of caution.

I do this extensively both in software development as a profession, and life in general. Only in life, I have an additional cheat - I get to change what I consider to be risky. Long have I embraced the following:

"Live never to be ashamed if anything you do or say is published around the world - even if what is published is not true." -Richard Bach

The latter, counter-intuitive portion of this quote, has been a pattern for my personal strength. I do conduct myself according to my beliefs and principles, giving as little room as possible for slight; but I also can remain centered and unaffected by the darkest intents and perceptions of others. In practice, this means there's almost no such thing as embarrassment, humiliation, fear of rejection, or justified reprisal. A very clear conscience.

Sometimes I don't get to cheat, and the risk remains. Some things are permanent, or permanent enough for the sake of mortality as to be irreversible. While my philosophies can at times contribute to an appearance of bravery and inner strength, I do wonder if it's also a crutch for detachment; a dissociation from negative consequence, incapable of emotional injury simply because the opposition lacks barbs effective against this psychology. I hope this is not the case, but this is complex enough so as to be difficult to objectively assess.

Today I was deeply affected by such an irreversible event.

I'm an animal person, raised in a menagerie and easily connecting to a wide variety of species. I like it this way, and readily invest my personal care and attachment to those creatures in my care.

One of our 3 cats, the last we acquired, began shortly after her adoption to suffer from a series of infections. This, as it turns out, was due to FIV (think HIV for cats). Chronic infection is the third and final stage of the disease, and may have been the reason for her donation to the animal shelter (cats, in an effort to mask their symptoms, will attempt to disperse and hide their elimination; among other things, this can make an ill feline a messy experience to live with).

After her initial diagnosis, we had the worst of her symptoms treated and she rebounded well. She even began to play with and be accepted by the other cats again, a very good sign of healthy integration. Six weeks later, the decline renewed. She had new symptoms this time, in addition to some of the old ones, and it's been apparent for some months now that she's been in great discomfort.

Discussing her condition with my wife, it was apparent to us that we had two (reasonable) options: attempt a continual regimen of care to prop up her compromised vitality, cyclically as necessary until no longer possible, or put her to sleep.

A longer life with some joy and much pain, or a very short and predictable end.

Whatever emotional protection or detachment I possess grants no solace here. Yes, she's of a less intelligent and capable species, a lower animal if you will. Her perception and understanding would never have extended to the quandary, the situation meaningless. That also lent no comfort as we decided that the most humane option would be the path of least pain.

Earlier today I took her to the vet, explained her condition, and saw the end of her life. Apparently most owners will wait longer into an animal's suffering before making this type of decision, only when forced into it - at least, this was my impression based on the reaction of the doctor. This response amplified quiet nagging doubts, making the choice all the more difficult to see through. I'm still struggling with it, but as the deed is already done I no longer have the recourse of changing my mind. Now it is my place to live with the consequences, agonizing and rationalizing, and wholly resigned to the absolute reality regardless.

To be perfectly honest, I hope I never become conditioned to this kind of situation. May it always bear my spirit to wounds afresh, stripped of protection and at its most vulnerable.

And may she rest in peace.

Monday, July 16, 2007

In the Can

As of shortly after 7am (MDT), all scenes for Chapter 2 are finally committed to the manuscript.

I tend to work on scenes piecemeal, having broken down the chapter into the events which need to occur to move the story forward, and then refining that into the appropriate narrative context and voicing for the characters and what have you. Usually a small text file for each, edited on the PDA or whatever machine I can get to. Stitching these together and officially adding them to the manuscript document (OpenOffice - don't trust MS Word with something of this magnitude) always leaves me with a little hesitation - once in this form, massive edits become more like reconstructive surgery than sculpting, and is likely to be far messier.

It's done, though, which still sees me making progress of a sort (however slowly). I've allowed a lot of things to interfere with the pace of my writing, and in hindsight I don't know if that's a bad choice.

I'll just keep doing what I can for now, and hopefully the work won't suffer too much as a result.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Monday, June 25, 2007

Best Noise Ever

First: an apology. I have several articles in the works, but none that I've had the time and concentration to bring to fruition and post. So this is a simple non-sequitor.

Back in the day when Mike and I shared an office, we tried to lighten the effects of stressful duties by taking time now and then for chess (taking a break from thinking to do other thinking - a lot of people didn't get this). Mike is good, and well read on the subject - he'll deny this, but only because the volume of works he's digested on the subject is < 1% of works available on the subject; but this still puts him ahead of 99.025% of the population. And he practices.

It was his interest to cultivate a worthy opponent, someone capable of presenting a challenge for him as he sought to master the various principles he studied. This means he also distilled the theory behind those principles and gave me some excellent tutoring as I tried like mad to keep up. Eventually I learned the subtleties of the playing field beyond the simple list of moves I'd always been aware of prior. Having a patient and skilled opponent was an excellent experience for myself, and I eagerly soaked it up.

So it was that we had a chess table in the office. At first this was a simple pedestal supporting a shallow box with a "3-1" style game board and sundry pieces within to support the same. The set was glass Staunton, attractive and simple. Being on a pedestal, however, and in a fairly small room, it frequently met with casual impact and predictable results. Most if it was inconsequential, a game aborted and pieces scattered. Finally, the shallow tray broke from its column (it was sat on, as someone adopted a squatting stance during conversation unaware of it behind them) and a pawn was decapitated.

It was replaced with a slightly larger de-coupled version - same clear/frosted motif of glass Staunton, but now free-standing. We assembled some decommissioned servers to hold it up, but it wasn't a terribly good fit (it needed to be on its own as we couldn't sacrifice the desk space). Eventually we happened upon the perfect item: a Foundry BigIron 8000 Switch (fully populated). This $250,000 (at the time) chunk of hardware was intended to be used by the company after moving to a larger building across the parking lot. While said building was still under construction, the switch was stored in the NOC general office. It was with their blessing that I purloined it for my own use, promising to turn the sensitive bits toward the wall and be very nice to it generally.

And it really was perfect - just the right size for the board and captured pieces on either side, black and somewhat imposing with an overtly technical aire about it. It was also solid enough to be unaffected by a casual bump, and obviously important enough not to receive a hard one.

Times were good, and the chess continued.

Then one day, in walks the CTO. He had apparently not been aware of the storage arrangements I'd made with the NOC, and stopped mid-sentence when he noticed what was serving as our table.

"Is that a...!"

This man is capable of firing off a pretty hefty blue-streak, and did so with such frequency that he liked to make sure incoming candidates in IT could take it. He would burst in during interviews, let something colorful about the current state of operations fly, and violate many an HR clause in the process; solely to ensure that they'd survive there if offered the position later.

In this case, he was speechless. I guess there was a "G" sound from somewhere in his throat near the beginning, and most of the vowels were a derivative of the letter "A", but that doesn't adequately describe what came out of him. And it wasn't just what was said, either - he took an involuntary step backward, eyes widening, face contorting into mortification and grief, and arms raising defensively.

He strode quickly out of the office and utterly refused to set foot in it again while we remained in that building (another six months).

I miss that chess table.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


I've accepted an offer, and assuming all goes well with the paperwork I'll be starting on the 29th (right after the Memorial Day holiday). I have the next ~2 weeks to spend with family, and barely a care in the world.

And last night - I resumed work on the book.

Life is good. Better than I deserve.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Updates, generally.

I'm sorry I haven't been here in a while. I have an excuse, but that always makes the apology seem less sincere, as tough it's followed on its heels with, "but I shouldn't have to be." I'll tell you what it is anyway. Not to excuse myself, I suppose, but maybe let you know how I've been. And I'll still be sorry.

The writing was a big deal, of course - for some time I was allowing the novel to consume all time not spent at work or tending to family matters. Then we were all hit by The Cold.

For over a month it took its turn rotating through the household, a long incubation followed by a 2 1/2 weeks of progressively miserable symptoms. By the time I personally finished with it, I was tending the afflicted and helping reduce the strain on my dear wife. See, by this time in the year, what with young kids and all, I only had 1 sick day left; we were loathe to use it all up by March or April.

After The Cold, family things seemed to stay busy - even the book began to languish somewhat, which is unfortunate because my health and cognitive outlook have been steadily improving and I'm really in a place now where I could probably make some serious progress. I'm pretty sure I was about to try, rededicate my efforts when the Reduction In Force showed up.

I have nothing disparaging to say about United Online or its various offshoots. They run the company well, the culture and environment are wonderful, and I highly recommend that if ever one has an opportunity to work with or for them, to go for it.

It just so happens that our division is trying to make sales of technology services to consumers at large. The offerings haven't been appreciably updated in the last 5-6 years, and the web has really grown up around them. Times are tough, revenues are slipping, and that means one or more of the following: find new revenue streams, reduce expenses, tough it out, or quit. They're trying to see if A & B can help with C.

This happened half-way through April. I've been busy with some contract work for a while and really only just beginning the search for new employment when it's already over; just like that.

I have an offer I'm considering - not a bad one at all - and am hoping to get one more early this week. Regardless, the family is OK, the career is OK, and hopefully writing (novel, journal, and here) will also be OK.

I'll let you know.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hypnosis and Trauma

The late Dr. Milton Erickson, a renowned psychiatrist and major innovator in terms of modern hypnotherapeutic theories and practices, once proposed that all learning is acquired in a form of trance. The conscious and unconscious minds align into a state of receptivity and thus of increased suggestibility, ready to accept the incoming information or experience as Fact and Truth. Thus, the sense of mental expansion felt during periods of intense focus while acquiring or applying knowledge, referred to commonly in pop culture as "the zone," is actually a type of waking hypnoidal trance. This theory is put into practice as an explanation for the efficacy of some encounters over others in forming lasting imprints, and to effectively address events within the memory by accessing the remembered trance state during which they were formed or reinforced. There are other, less deliberate conditions capable of inducing a similar selective focus, even contributing to hypersuggestibility (one of the goals of most hypnotic trance). Applications of extreme emotion, positive or negative, or adrenaline are especially effective.

Fear and trauma are a prime combination, snapping the mind into ultra-constricted awareness and attention to specific aspects of the given situation. Personal testimony provided by survivors of terrible events often include comments about how some small feature, perhaps even counter-intuitively and difficult to consciously reconcile after-the-fact, takes on increased significance disproportionate to other factors (try searching the web for "I just remember," quotes included). Beneath this conscious awareness, the sub-conscious performs similar singular attachment. The results of this extreme focus creates new triggers for the remembered trauma, and seemingly ordinary settings or items can reproduce the original emotional state and responses (one of the most disruptive conditions of flashbacks and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The victim/subject of this experience will be unable to "let go" or become selectively unaware of the triggers, and the gut-wrenching realism of the recall causes enough distress as to interfere with daily living, as well as essentially reinforcing the response to the original stimuli in a self-perpetuating pattern.

Interestingly enough, the sub-conscious mind thinks it's doing a favor by initiating and exercising these connections.

One of the primary duties of the sub-conscious is protection of mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. Its perceptions of what constitutes a threat do not necessarily agree with conscious opinion of the same, hence the seeming irrationality of many phobias and some behavioral disorders. Methods used for protection from the evaluated threat can similarly be at odds, capable of producing responses which one would not otherwise agree with. My old hypnotherapy mentor's materials included a case study of a woman in broadcasting who found herself suddenly unable to control her weight as she became more successful. All reasonable attempts at healthy diet and activity failed repeatedly, and the decline in her appearance began to interfere with that success (such is the business). Through therapy it came to light that years prior, during her communications schooling, she was informed by someone that she would "never get anywhere [in broadcasting] without sleeping with the right people." It was meant as a word of caution based on genuine concern and poor information, but stuck in her mind all the same. As she garnered attention for her efforts years later, her sub-conscious equated the impending success with the potential exploitation of her closely-guarded sexuality and formed a barrier to that negative expectation by lowering her appeal; all without conscious involvement or awareness.

Traumatic conditioning is much the same: a minor queue such as smell, the time of day or impressions of light and shadow, certain sounds, in addition to any overt similarities, can queue the sub-conscious to begin a protective response. Focus becomes selective once again and emotions and hormones run high, informing the conscious mind and primal instinct that fight or flight may be immediately necessary for self preservation. The similarity in physical and emotional reaction is so dramatically familiar as to force the recall of the original sensitizing event, bringing on the rehearsal of a deeply ingrained episode literally programmed into the mind.

Case in point, I recently had a minor weather-related accident in my car. The path of least destruction to others and property led me to a trajectory which damaged my driver's side C.V. axle and control arm, rendering the car undrivable and requiring extensive repair. I was not frightened or upset by the incident, though I did feel a little embarrassed for not judging the changing road conditions well enough and for the resulting financial setback. Once back behind the wheel, I found myself having moments of impending fear when decelerating for residential right turns: a startling, unbidden reflex out of sync with my (admittedly more cautious) thorough evaluation of the circumstances. It's taken me the better part of two months to unwire that reflex, and if not paying close enough attention or relaxing my efforts can still feel the sub-conscious intent.

No wonder then that severe, genuine trauma is capable of providing such long-lasting ill effects on the life and mental health of the sufferer. In an attempt to shelter a person from an anticipated real or imagined horror, it is possible for them to be adversely subjected to the same ill-affects they're trying to avoid. Due to the unintentional receptivity of the mind during the formation of the reflex, it's able to take root at surprising depth: easily enacted, difficult to remove. Common therapies attempting to soften the reaction through dissociative objective analysis (re-experiencing some elements in a safer environment, removing the reality of danger whilst maintaining triggers) can help, but may not ever be able to truly eradicate it. Could therapeutic hypnoanalytical techniques provide a better solution by addressing the triggers themselves?

I have not used hypnosis to remove my slight aversion to right turns, yet - I didn't think it disruptive enough to require such direct management. I also have not had opportunity to apply this to those suffering from any form of PTSD, though I'm intrigued by the potential. I'll have to give it a try on myself and report back.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Life on the Outside

I'm still having the occasional "less than stellar" day, but that has mostly to do with being out of shape and trying to do more than I once could. The results have been positive regardless, especially the lack of cumulative fatigue from exercise; every day the routine is getting a little easier.

Apparently during the years of reduced activity I relied heavily on my lead foot (right) for support, to the point of neglect on the left. As a result, the muscles in the lower left quadrant of the back are less developed than their right-hand counterparts, and while I'm not limping have still altered the pattern of my gait so as to not aggravate the disparity. This has led to some mild atrophy and loss of flexibility, which I'm attempting to address by altering my walk and intentionally shifting more responsibility off to the left. It takes some concentration, is a little weird, but after a full weekend of activity is already showing improvement.

Opportunities to work on the book remain fairly scarce and typically short, but I'm making progress nonetheless. The last main scene of Chapter 2 reached its conclusion last night, and after a couple rounds of editing will be committed to the manuscript. With a small lead-out scene and a short reflective conclusion I'll be into Chapter 3 where the tension just introduced launches the story forward.

One of the ill effects of being able to think clearly more often, however, is that I've become more aware of the significant amount of editing the book will require in order to have consistent voicing and good flow. I'm reworking some of what I've already penned in the interest of ongoing refinement, trying to fix those problems and concretely establish my own style. I won't go overboard though - I'm not trying to make it perfect out of the box, just correct the most glaring defects.

Obviously I've been continuing in my neglect to the blog (for the sake of the book). I do have some thoughts on upcoming posts though, if anyone would like to vote one way or the other:
  • Hypnosis and Trauma
  • Spending to Save: Investment and Return in IT Labor Economics

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Week II, Update

OK, I did get the stomach flu last night, but darned if I'm going to let it last long. And minus a few inconvenient interruptions, I still feel better than many of the days before starting the experiment.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Now Leaving Week II

I've been trying something new for nearly two weeks now, specific to the management of my long-term cellular metabolic disorder. 2 weeks ago yesterday I was on the phone with my old buddy Dan in Washington, updating him on recent events and findings (Dan is doing well by the way, having given his notice at Clipper so he can apprentice full time under Rod Chappel). Some of the particular secondary symptoms sounded familiar to him, so he took a look through a homeopathic reference he had on hand and came up with: candida (apparently pronounced similar to "Canada").

In homeopathic circles, this normally helpful strain of yeast (present in the healthy colon, and responsible for keeping incoming pathogens at bay) is commonly blamed for a whole host of primarily gastrointestinal symptoms. On the web (scoured via Google, as always) it's fingered by nut jobs for just about everything the human body can suffer, usually accompanied by rants against "the establishment" and even calling for a boycott on the immunization of children. There is, however, some valid medical information to be found amidst the stream, referenced here from our good friend Wikipeda:
"Colonization of the gastrointestinal tract by C. albicans may result from taking antiacids[sic] or antihyperacidity drugs. This colonization may interfere with absorption of Coenzyme Q10.[3]"
That last bit really caught my eye. From having read up on the various causes and manifestations of sub-sets of mitochondrial myopathies I recognized the enzyme as one (out of five) critical for the aerobic respiration facilitated by mitochondria, the deficiency of which can cause the onset of the malady. The gastrointestinal upset associated also coincided well with the acid reflux (and other conditions) I've experienced and thought to be ancillary. Taken as evidence together with the indicators for the mitochondrial issue, I thought this just might be a smoking gun worthy of further investigation and started looking up treatment options.

Most of the ones published and referenced sufficiently to appear well in rankings are associated with said whackos, advocating intensive homeopathy and massive lifestyle changes for the sake of "personal balance." Now, I'm used to alernative medicines - I grew up near Seattle and there are quite a lot of them in the local culture (and the culture which gravitates there wanting to appear local). As a practitioner of martial arts I am aware of the flow of ki (or chi, depending on the country of origin for your discipline) and have been participant in and witness to events and activities which I have not been able to rationally attribute to anything else. However, I fall well short of believing that these things can be used to master the universe around oneself in dominant fashion - in fact, it is only through the utmost stillness and focus of mind and body that an awareness of the subtleties of flowing energy can be detected. Extrapolating from that into its potential influences on the physical world, there just isn't enough force to make a truly tangible or impactful difference. Thermodynamics and Newtonian laws simply tend to outweigh the whims of thought.

This calls for the introduction of an additional agent in order to affect change. Most candida specific treatments have glowing, amazing, miraculous testimonials attached to them, right before you reach the, "and now you can feel the same way with this astounding (and large, complex) regimen of supplements starting at only $64.99 a month!" The dominant products come from Japan, where the condition has been recognized and studied in greater detail and with more scientific acceptance, supposedly. I may be willing to give things a try, but I wasn't expecting to have to shell out for slick packaging around something which sounded suspiciously like snake oil; they sounded nice and official, explained well the effects they were addressing, but not from a position of pathology (didn't say how the symptoms and causes were connected), nor did they disclose the mechanisms by which they purportedly acted to adjust conditions: only that they restored a natural balance of intestinal flora. What really turned me off was the add-ons marketed along with it - chemistry which supposedly increased the ability of cells to take in oxygen. I know from experience that my own blood-oxygen saturation doesn't fall below 96%, and if that's not high enough to penetrate the membranes of the tissues which rely on oxygen for so much of their natural function, then no little pill was going to be able to make a difference (there is a condition under which the membranes become too thick, related to scleroderma, inhibiting the transport of oxygen across the barrier - and this wouldn't help that either).

In order to make a real difference, I prefer to appeal to empirically repeatable practices with as much well-founded theory behind them as possible. Boiled down to the very basic essence of the thing and then building up step-by-step thereafter until implementing the whole - or as much of that whole is truly required for the end result. I needed a small starting point and measurements of change over time.

As it turns out, candida albicans has a natural control agent already present in the body: lactobacillus acidophilus. If something disturbs the acidophilus (why candida is referred to in short by its genus, and acidophilus by its species, is beyond me) the candida is able to grow unchecked and will start in on its ambitious disruption. It so happens that 14 years ago I picked up a nasty intestinal parasite (probably amoebic) from some well water at my uncle's ranch in Colorado. The experience was not one I'd like to repeat or wish on most anyone, and I'll save you the specifics of why. This infestation, though resolved, likely was the catalyst that led to the destruction of the acidophilus and thus the "cat's away" scenario.

Bringing us now to the experiment: for the last 2 weeks I have been taking acidophilus supplements in a concentration of 4bn organisms (2 tablets with breakfast and dinner, less than $6 for 100 tablets) starting with my evening meal on Monday, January 29th. The next day, contrary to my expectations, I felt different: my peripheral tissues felt warmer, and less pained. I didn't know there was such a concentration of casual pain, but its absence suddenly shed light on the situation. Since then the affect has increased, and I've had enough presence of mind in the evenings to make real progress on my book (recently passing the 10,000 word mark - slow but steady progress, and seeing as how I still have the day job and the young kids, an impressive amount of work despite its seemingly languid pace). Everyone in the family has had the stomach flu except me, not in itself extraordinary as I'm typically resistant to these kinds of bugs, but remarkable in the amount of sleep disruption it's caused. I've been up to my elbows in buckets and bed clothes and had to spend multiple nights without the CPAP, and though tired and a little distracted the following days was able to function and have still been absent that nonspecific malaise from before. I get fatigued, but under different conditions and feeling far removed from the prior dragging near-paralysis that was for so long my constant companion.

I get hungry before I feel hypoglycemic, have been able to fast for the first time in probably a year, and no longer crave sugars (candida is also an anaerobic organism, so it was robbing the GI tract and blood of the glucose that was also my only sustenance). My next step is the introduction of coenzyme Q10 tablets to replace the depleted reserves (theorizing that the glucose is now reaching my cells, but that the aerobic processes is still inhibited), and after a week on that to begin phasing in mild exercise. The changes already have been profound.

For some reason I'm not resentful that after more than a decade of decline, such a simple remedy was available. I'm not saying that I'm done, or that this is a truly permanent magic bullet - but the improvement has been unprecedented by everything else thus far. I'll enjoy it while it lasts for what it is.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sibling Cryptography

Brothers and sisters are good for a number of things whilst growing up (I had 4 of them). One role they fill particularly well is that of "someone to keep secrets from."

I'd say up until about age 14 or 15, the average American youth doesn't have any secrets worth keeping. The whole point of the magical "dear diary" is to pour out the superficial embarrassments and heartaches of adolescence, oblivious to the utterly transcendental nature of the competing pressures and fear of failure, and the difficulty of attempting to reconcile the need to affirm an identity distinct from others yet compatible with the limited society of one's exposure. The incompatible drives summed up well as "You can't understand how I feel!" and "Isn't there anyone who understands me?" Hormones don't help a whole lot.

Before tipping over into the juvenile portion of adolescence, however, the "tweens" and younger, life is a much simpler power struggle within the sibling pecking order. I can easily recall the formidable vehemence with which secrets were guarded, and the deviousness with which they were created solely for that purpose. I cannot bring to mind, however, the contents of those secrets. I'm sure they were naively inflammatory, along the lines of "so-and-so is mean" or "smells", or otherwise possesses objectionable qualities or exhibits diminutive aptitudes. These pithy epithets would then be lovingly translated into an immature cypher and safeguarded after some grand parade or announcement of their existence was put on.

The only reason the pseudo-clandestine article held any draw for the target subjects is well illustrated by a quote from The Simpson's:

Lisa: Dad, this isn't about glue. It's about territoriality.
He only wants the glue because I'm using it.
Bart: Oh yeah? Prove it.
Lisa: [hands him the glue] Here.
Bart: Hey man, I don't want your stupid glue.
Bart tosses the glue away
-- Bart vs. Thanksgiving (7F07)

Assertion of control over the artificial restriction reaffirms one's importance and viability in the competition for... whatever it is we were competing for.

The method of obscuring the text was invariably a form of substitution of letters for other letters, numbers, or symbols in a one-to-one relationship. Elaborate maps of the enigmatic keys would be refined and hidden, and the correspondingly enciphered material could then be allowed to fall into enemy hands in the knowledge that the sibling(s) would encounter prolonged frustration in attempting to comprehend the contents, and if eventually successfully would only be annoyed at the revelation.

The most amusing one I ever encountered was concocted by my sisters: the holy grail, the impenetrable Double Cypher. This involved substituting the letter for a number - and then that number for another number. The mathematical relationship of A = B = C being identical to A = C not only escaped attention, it resisted enlightenment when confronted.

With enough practice at the game and adequate source material, any simple substitution puzzle can be solved (forming the basis for the Sherlock Holmes' novella The Adventure of the Dancing Men) on its own. Once my brother and I entered determinedly into this altitude of the arms race it was time to move on to new forms of subterfuge.

Later, my older sister sought to confound the process further by introducing phonetic constructs. But by then it was outside of this petty rivalry and instead used to foster the darker side of Borderline Personality Disorder, allowing a descent into paranoid dysphoria in the loudest silent way possible - writing on walls of her room and all over notebooks in an intentional display of manipulative privacy: you weren't supposed to know what she was thinking, but you were supposed to know that she was thinking and it was bothering her (thus allowing for a projection of her emotional caretaking needs onto others without their explicit consent or even involvement, and without the insight required to fulfill the heinous responsibility). Heaven help he who dared trod on the meanings of said script, too.

I eventually inherited the room for an office (having moved into my Father's house by then) after she moved out and on with her life, and I took the time to decipher the scrawl before returning the walls to neutral colors. The thoughts were angry and hurtful, frequently dictating the dire consequences to issues outside of her control were they to resolve in a light unfavorable to herself (things that would "happen" or that she would do if she were not allowed to X, for example). Things that no one should have to suffer alone, real or imagined.

Not that there's much point to my anecdotal ramblings - childhood was carefree even in most of its assaults, people should care about and help one another, and it's pretty pointless to hide those things which give us cause and identity (as by doing so the possibility of caring connection is mitigated).

Today I suppose I've carried that into a general philosophy: aside from necessarily hiding the financially sensitive and authoritatively identifying bits and numbers assigned to me as a modern citizen, there's nothing in my life I choose to hide away from the world. Though some of this is probably the cynicism that the world wouldn't care to do anything about those things I so freely share anyway, being unimportant and uninteresting on any grand scale. Randomly useful perhaps, but not actually interesting.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Full Brain Programming

A Geek's Take on Multi-Hemispheric Neurology and Software Development

The Brain

The human brain is separated into two distinct hemispheres, split down the middle front-to-back. Anyone familiar with basic biology will have seen this on cross section diagrams, as well as the generalized labels of specialization for the two halves. While it's true that the functions of higher consciousness within the neocortical regions of the respective hemispheres differ, it's also important to note the operative similarities and redundancy in the design as well.

Each half is equally paired to sensory stimuli as provided by taste, smell, sight, touch, and sound, as well as input from the limbic and primitive sub-areas of the brain which process and filter reactions to those stimuli before insertion into consciousness. The redundancy is not perfect, however, in that the signals received are those generated by a fixed half of the body directly wired into the respective hemisphere. The simultaneity of the combined experiences prevent this from being a disorienting experience however (since anything we hear with one ear is generally heard with both, for example) and is reassembled into a single contiguous phenomenon, leveraging hemispheric disparities to be able to proved depth perception and rudimentary echolocation, etc.

The real divergence comes when one reaches the frontal lobes. These portions are responsible for housing operations dealing with conscious thought and complex reasoning, doing so with a high degree of specialization. The right tends more toward the spatial, intuitive, abstract, emotional and creative tasks, while the left provides language, critical and logical thought, and temporal referentiality (chronological awareness). These are not separations of "personalities" inherently conflicted with one another, nor a contest of dominance within which there is any "proper" way to think or behave. Personality is a construct expressed across both sets of functions, and what matters to the personality matters equally within them, in their own ways.

Hemispheric (Un)Cooperation

But they don't communicate very well with each other. Which is not to say that there is an inhibition or implicit miscommunication which will confound information as it crosses between the the two. There is also, to borrow hardware design terminology, no latency or bandwidth restrictions on the communications bus. This bus takes the form of the corpus callosum, a dense bundle of nervous (meaning "of nerves," not "anxious or excitable") fibers whose only duty is to provide a channel by which information and data may be exchanged.

The difficulty in exchanging that data is based on differing APIs: the right hemisphere has no mechanism to appreciate the number 5, although it can be familiar with the shape and sound of it, and spatial groupings which miraculously come to the same total when counted. Similarly, the left hemisphere cannot comprehend the color yellow other than as a word (non-pictorially), wavelength of light, or hexadecimal RGB representation (my favorite tends a little more toward the golden variety with a touch more red/less green, an #FFED00). How then is it possible for a word to evoke spacial concepts, or for creative concepts to be placed within the logical structures required by software development?

It's interesting to note here that complex structures are almost always based on abstract spatial relationships rather than strict logic, and it is the rigidity of rules in the medium in which they are represented which forces them to appear complex. Most accountants are left-handed, showing a clear preference for the abstract processing capabilities of the right hemisphere - meaning they're also cut from the more emotional and creative fabric of society, directly opposite of the bean-counter exactitude embodied by the more simple and stereotypical book-keep the word "accountant" usually invokes. Real rules of accounting are difficult for us right-hander folk to grasp at a glance because we make the mistake of attempting to process them solely in within the logical realm of the left hemisphere, rather than correctly mapping them into their true spatial connotations on the right.

How does one establish this ability to do that translation if the two halves don't speak the same neurological language?

Memory & Concurrency

The first way is through the parallelism of experience, mentioned briefly earlier, and then through concurrency of processing.

Memory is stored across the entire brain as coordinated by the hippocampus (found in the limbic system atop the brain stem). Even though there are very different types of memory we'll treat them under the generic class name here just to be easier on the science. An event/experience or concept is stored in the brain the same way it is initially represented, as a series of impulses in a variety of locations. The memory is committed to long term storage as this impulse pattern is reinforced by branching of the synapses, which is literal physical growth and extrusion on the dendrites of neurons. The formation or reinforcement of the connections created by this growth make it more probable that subsequent stimulation in similar areas will reproduce a similar pattern or portion thereof, like the path-of-least-resistance in any electrical circuit. Trigger cells, regular neurons which just happen to fill this particular role during the memory formation, are then specifically assigned to be the gateway to the reproduction of the pattern in its entirety. The number and strength of the connections to the trigger help determine the likelihood and ease with which it can be remembered. Thus all habit and practice in the brain changes its shape, and does consume massive amounts of resources from the bloodstream; it's OK to be tired if all you've done all day is think really hard.

Since the experience takes place in both hemispheres simultaneously, there is a temporal coordination: a time-index which can be used to reproduce coinciding patterns. Returning to the example of color, a child knows what ____ is long before it knows what "yellow" is. Putting the two together is a matter of hearing the word at the same time the color is physically present, in enough different contexts (different objects of the same color, different textures and materials, smells, etc.) that the color stands out as the sole common right-brain event which overlaps with all of the times the funny-looking big person has been making the same new sound with their face. Once this gels and is well practiced, remembering and interacting with the stored fact in a variety of partial contexts becomes easier because the whole pattern is subconsciously reiterated. Largely through the acquisition of language, the process of learning simultaneously with both halves of the brain becomes a simple habit.

Once enough patterns are stored in this fashion, dwelling on their recall while exploring new territory creates the opportunities for the synthesis of new associations based on the discoveries of either hemisphere, still effective across the whole because they've coincided temporally once again.

The Full Brain

How then to use this to the advantage of a software developer or any discipline requiring interaction with highly-complex systems? Making the most of the specialization of both halves must be done by engaging each of them fully in the task at hand through the channels in which they are most apt.

For me, I'm barely able to function when I crack open a new API regardless of whether or not I'm already familiar with the language. The features and structures required by the unfamiliar interfaces have to be walked through, step by step, module by module until I can grasp them categorically and generically. Even then it takes a fair amount of practice within that framework before it becomes comfortable and intuitive, which it manages to do all at once with enough of the right kind of exposure: it just clicks. It is then that an analog for the logical structures has been created, and I can leverage the spatial navigational strengths of the right hemisphere to make my way around the program seemingly blindfolded.

The spatial mapping happens piece by piece, understanding the code as its general "physical shape" (patterns of line lengths or syntax highlighting), its relative position within its containing file (amount of code above vs. below), and more nebulously it's "flavor." This is an intentional synaesthetic translation of logic into kinds of phantom sensations: how the code makes me feel regarding its elegance and efficiency, the degree to which it needs to reach out to other modules vs. self-containment/sufficiency, etc. These become aspects of spatiality, but not something that can be drawn well or represented in three-dimensions because it is abstract enough to be not so constrained. The process may sound exotic, but happens largely unconsciously, and most developers do it to some degree or another.

Once a portion is in place, others then build off of it by using it as a point of reference, and soon the entirety of the application has a feel to it as well as a virtual expansive layout. The whole of this "abstractification" is like defining a subroutine - a simple function which stands in for a body of logic and can be comprehended simply by identifying the name of that function in the future. This allows for a higher-level overview, essentially zooming out on the granularity of the code all the way to an architectural flow diagram. It's the reason those things are ever drawn in the first place, and these methods of whole-brain analysis are the key for reverse engineering or developing the visual/logical relationships which result in a usable, maintainable product without overloading the mind. Which means, for you non programmers out there, we have some secret tricks we do to make all the gobbledygook into something meaningful; participation in this field is not an automatic indicator of intelligence or even aptitude (just take a look over at TheDailyWTF, which celebrates "Curious Perversions in Information Technology").

The conclusion? Try bringing the unconscious analysis to the foreground and more intentionally leverage the kinesthetic aptitudes. There are several ways of doing this and even artificially jump-starting it (diagramming with a non-dominant hand, for instance). Perhaps in a future article I'll explore exercises and tests designed around that, but for now this should be enough food for thought to expand your universe just a little more. And if not, it was a free read.