Dispatches from Maine

Just another person of little note writing about ordinary things. That I reside in Maine is icing on the cake.

03 April 2008

ACCU, Day Two

The intellectual feast begins today! The keynote, by Tom Gilb, earned a pretty ruthless reception by the audience, particularly when he referred to there being no resources for guiding large projects with Agile. He indicated a book would be forthcoming, meanwhile the woman two rows in front of me rose to say the book had already been out for four years. She wrote it! The general level of hostility rose over time to be sure.

After the keynote I went to the session "Santa Claus and other methodologies" by Gail Ollis. The focus here was to explain how to evaluate and select methodologies. There was a particular focus on detecting flaws and salesmanship in methodology training. I wonder if part of the problem of software development is that we are still having trouble refining working processes, rather we always tear down the temple and rebuild it anew. I am guilt of that myself, but as we focus more on refactoring and less on rewriting from scratch shouldn't we apply those principles to our methodology development? The session was rock solid and worth attending.

Having being lakosed the night before I went back to my room for a nap, but wound up talking to the family instead. iChat, with its built in video conferencing is just wonderful! Better rested, though hungry from having skipped lunch, I returned to the conference for the remaining two sessions.

"Snowflakes and Architecture" by Steve Love was quite interesting on two levels. First, I realized that we are not as well educated in the language and practices of modern software design as we ought to be. There is still a lot of resistance to interface based programming, a style which results from the dependency inversion principle, except as it applies directly to COM. I have often wondered if the aversion to interface-based programming is a classic baby-and-the-bath-water reaction. Since COM was both inflexible and slow it may well have ultimately bred resistance the very core of its programming model. The wrap-up of the presentation was a description of the "hexagonal architecture", now commonly called the ports and adapters design. All in all a very engaging and interesting presentation.

The final session paid for the entire trip, insomuch as I am concerned, it was "Error Handling and Diagnosability" by Tony Barrett-Powell. He is a maintenance developer with Oracle responsible for a particularly gnarly multi-threaded service. Handling, reporting and analyzing errors is, as he says, "Really, really important to me" or "I am really serious about this." The Play State object is particularly interesting for for tracing the progress of database transactions and then reporting detailed diagnostic information, when used in conjunction with dynamic logging levels, the value to *******, where I work, is particularly valuable. Since we sell a very database-intensive application which works with user data, the part we rarely have access to, the information provided to tech support and/or development would be invaluable. He also made reference to "Patterns for Generation, Handling and Management of Errors" (PDF and More ... PDF) which I fully intend to search out and read.

As Steve and I were both exhausted from our lakosing the previous day, we snuck off to The Plough, a pub around the corner from the hotel, for a quiet dinner.

(Pictures soon on Flickr)

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ACCU, Day One

Finally the conference was due to begin! Steve and I were conducted to the Oxford Paramount in time for registration and our first sessions. I had signed up for Tom Gilb’s “Evo” seminar. We, at *******, used Evo several years ago for a number of projects. While it did a good job managing the detail level, it generally fell down for long term project management. For instance, with Evo we were never able to answer: How is the project against its total schedule? There were also defects in the small software application used to store the task, or time box, level estimations. There were a number of great ideas we took from Evo, however, including choosing a lower available effort level for a developer. Our Evo tutor, Niels Malotaux, encouraged us to limit “effort hours” available per week to twenty six.

While this seminar did provide some very useful insights, Gilb was too self-aggrandizing and too negative about other methodologies. I did like his shift away from the old Evo time boxes, six hours per task as we were taught, and toward “front room” and “back room” development. More than that the idea of establishing measurable, stakeholder-focused benchmarks in conjunction with requirements development. In our case, at *******, we could apply this concept to record the time of several common GIS edit operations and then set a goal for improvement by the next release of the software. A particularly time consuming task in **** is copy-and-paste from one layer to another. We are able to measure the time it takes to transfer a collection of objects from layer A to layer B for our internal customer, then set a goal for improvement. This type of operation is extremely frequent and would have immediate value for both internal and external customers.

After the seminar I changed into my suit and made for The Alfred Lodge on Banbury Road. The Oxford Masonic Centre is a very large facility with multiple lodge rooms along with conference rooms and dining halls. The large hall was quite beautiful with several pieces of 19th century furniture including the painted stands used by the Master and Wardens (pictures soon to be on Flickr). The Junior Warden, assisted by another Brother, examined me that I might proved myself as a Freemason. Afterward we made for the in house pub where I had a soda, since I wanted to pay attention to every detail of the ritual, and was treated as a long lost Brother. The ritual that evening was a double Entered Apprentice Degree which was sufficiently distinct from the American version as to be only mildly recognizable. The concepts are still almost the same, but the language is completely distinct. Unfortunately, there was not enough time for the lecture expanding on the symbolism of the tracing board.

Following the degree work we adjourned to the dining hall for the Festive Board. I have enjoyed this dinner, similar in Maine to our Table Lodge. The most moving and engaging part of the Festive Board was the chain and Entered Apprentice’s song. The song itself can be found in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, but the ritual really added a great deal to the moment. I reminded the new initiates, as well as all of the brethren, of our obligation to reach out and assist our brothers. I was allowed the honor of giving the response from the visitors.

My experience at The Alfred Lodge reminds me of the simple power and beauty of the Craft. No matter where you go in the world, you are not without friends. I hope to be able to share the chain ritual and song with my own Grand Lodge, perhaps encouraging them to renew this ancient practice.

After lodge I went back to the hotel and shared a birthday pint with Steve. Unfortunately, it was not “soon to bed” as I was soon lakosed.

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30 March 2008

England, Day Four

Yesterday we left behind London and made our way to Witney to stay with Steve's family. As always the company and the food is delightful. For a late dinner yesterday we had a kind of shepherd's pie with spinach and seafood as a filling along with a delicious white Bordeaux. I ordinarily do not like white wine, but this was quite dry and very good.

In the morning I was on my own, so I made immediately for Oxford. There are no words to adequately describe Oxford. As an American I recognize that even our oldest history is quite young, barely four hundred years at the maximum. In Oxford there are pubs that old and all but a few of the college buildings are far older still. I went first to Blackwells bookshop, spending more than two hours purusing their second hand books collection. Last year I had the good fortune to find a copy of "Emulation: A Ritual to Remember" by Colin Dyer. This time, however, though there was only one Masonic title, there were several excellent Russian and Soviet history books. A bonanza for Tandy as it were.

I went right next door to the White Horse and had a ploughman's platter for lunch. Is there any better feeling than sitting in a small English pub reading a book by Dyer, his biography of William Preston? I doubt it. After a delicious lunch, and pint of bitter, I toured the Ashmolean Museum of Science and the Bodleian Library's Milton exhibit. The Milton exhibit rekindled my interest in his and Blake's work. The artistic elements, drawings, woodcuts and typefaces, were all out of the Art Deco and Arts and Crafts period. Very beautiful.

Having spent six hours touring museums and exhibits, Steve was due to meet me in town. I went over to the Kings Arms, very near the Bodlean, and had a pint of fine Cornish Bitter while waiting for him to arrive. Soon enough a huge table of American students appeared and it was momentarily hard to determine which country I was in. I read a bit more of the wonderful Dyer book on Preston, what an interesting man Preston was. I had long held the impression that Preston's dispute regarding the powers of immemorial lodges was based on some important, concrete topic (see Wikipedia), but it turned out to be a somewhat more personal dispute where, perhaps, he made the wrong decision and refused to own up to it. He took the 'passage to Ethiopia' as it were in Masonic terms.

Steve arrived in the midst of my reading about this controversy. Hungry as I could be we went to The Bear for fish and chips, delicious, and then to a few more pubs. We wound up at a pub called "The Cricketer's Arms" in Oxford. A large gray cat wandered in and went up to the patrons looking for a scratch behind the ear. We enjoyed out hand-drawn Old Speckled Hen and relaxed for the remainder of the evening. Then in the words of Pepys: so to bed.

(pictures are at Flickr)

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England, Day Six

Steve's parents were eager to show me a quaint English country village, which is how Witney appears to my eyes, so first thing today we were off to Burford. The village was truly beautiful as we sat around having tea at beside the stream running through the village.


Nick-nacks museum

lunch of roast beef and yorkshire pudding

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England, Day Five

The goal for today was to spend a few hours at the Ashmolean Museum. When I came to England last year the entire museum was closed for repairs and upgrading, so I never had the chance to tour the collection. I rose fairly early, just after seven thirty in the morning, and was due at Steve's parents for breakfast. Suddenly my problems resolved and I had access to work email. After more than an hour reading and responding to email, I suddenly realized it was Saturday. No one would care what I had to say about for several days! I packed up and headed off to meet Steve.

The bus ride was notable for the picture I took of the only toll along the road from Witney to Oxford. The pictures are on Flickr and show the toll being 1p ($0.02 US) per axel. The bridge is only thirty feet long, but that is a pretty inexpensive toll. Once in Oxford, Steve and I spent several hours touring the museum. My favorite household item is a set of six dinner plates with an almost Burma Shave expression on them:

What is A Merry Man

Set him do what he Can

To Entertain his Guests

With wine & Merry Jests

But if his Wife do frown

All merriment Goes Down.

The plates are dated 1738 and are obviously quite humorous. There was also a collection of Beadle's staves or rods. In old Lodge records from the founding in 1717 to the start of the nineteenth century the Tyler was also referred to, occasionally, as the Beadle. Americans best understand this position was the old colonial town crier. The beadle's staff was an important defensive item when walking through the town at all hours. These staves are far more beautiful than the normal painted wood version, and are likely to have been of a more ceremonial nature within Oxford.

For the second day a museum made me late for lunch and it was 2:00pm before we made our way to a pub. FIrst we tried Jude the Obscure in Jericho, but it had stopped serving a few minutes before we arrived. We turned toward St. Giles road and found ourselves at the door of The Royal Oak. It was the penultimate quiet English pub with comfortable chairs and great ale. I had a delicious hand drawn stout, making up or the complete lack of stout, other than Guinness "extra cold," thus far on my trip. Steve and I shared a ploughman's and fisherman' platter and resolved to return soon on Monday for lunch again.

From there we stopped in at the Lamb and Flag then returned to Jude the Obscure. We were both fairly tired, so we were soon back to Witney and to bed.

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England, Day Three

Having spent most of the previous day geocaching for work, we elected to get right out and find the spots requested by the family. We were charged to take a photograph of the Peter Pan Statue in Hyde Park and another at Platform 9 3/4 within King's Cross Station. We rose before 7:00am for another delicious breakfast and headed for the local Tube station.

The morning was crisp and sunny as we walked through Hyde Park for the first photograph. The statue was very near to the Tube station we emerged room, so finding it was a breeze. We wanted to wander the park, but there was more to be done. Back into the Tube and we were soon at King's Cross Station. The platform was easily found and quite accessible. Having captured both of us on film, much to Steve's consternation, we wondered what to do next. Steve convinced me to go the United Grand Lodge of England Library on Great Queen St, Holborn.

It had long been my plan to spend at least a day at the Grand Lodge Library, but the jet lag/late arrival on the first day ruled out Tuesday. Then Wednesday was first recovering and then geocaching. I had all but lost hope of even seeing the Grand Lodge. We skipped right over lunch and went directly to the Holborn Tube station.

We had hoped to tour the facility, but there was some activity going on which prevented their normal tours. We were shown to the library and museum. Impressive does not do it justice. The collection within the museum is quite diverse, but my favorite objects remain the early operative 'tracing boards'. While Steve wandered through the museum I got right down to business, registering as a reader and requesting texts. One of the books I wanted to see had gone missing from the collection, something the library is likely to encounter often as they finish computerizing their entire catalog. This setback and the inapplicability of the first few texts was starting to dim my hopes of finding the ritual text I was seeking. Then I selected one of the titles I had noted down a few months ago, while using the UGLE Library online catalog. The text must have been fairly rare as my request had to be authorized by the Librarian, which it was, and shortly I was reading my eureka text. I will write more about this item later.

Poor Steve wandered around the museum for several hours while I did more research. At 2:00pm we rushed back to the hotel for our luggage, and my Past Master's Jewel, which was stored in the hotel safe. Back to the Tube, off at Victoria Station and the coach to Oxford. The English hierarchy of bus and coach I am finally beginning to understand!

(pictures are at Flickr)

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27 March 2008

England, Day Two

Probably owing to our commitment not to sleep before 9pm, we actually managed to get a solid twelve hours of sleep. Both Steve and I feel like we are on local time already. We dragged out of bed to what has to be the finest hotel breakfast which could possibly meet our eyes. There were three buffets with cereal and fruit, eggs and accoutrements, and a selection of smoked fish. It was delightful and really filled us up. Furthermore, the Hilton staff were just wonderful keeping the buffet going even though we arrived three minutes before closing. I would certainly stay there again.

Today we spent a lot of time taking the Tube from place to place. Our mission today, from *******, was to drop off a geotag in a cache somewhere in London. We selected the Winchester Geese Cache primarily due to its proximity to a Tube stop and its fascinating history. The site was all it was billed to be. There were ribbons and poems hung on the gate by the hundreds, perhaps more numerous than that. We registered in the cache log and headed back into London to find a nice pub.

The Cloud...How I hate that company. Their web site offered a wonderful deal £9.99 per month with access from cafes and pubs all over England. Their coverage map looked great, so I signed up excitedly before leaving the US. The reality turned out to be quite different. Their coverage map is terribly out of date and once connected the network is dreadfully slow. I had made an appointment to video conference with my wife and daughters at 4:30pm, after their half-day at school. Steve and I wound up twice ordering pints while I settled in to make a connection. Then finding the coverage to be absent or too slow to use, we left our pints hardly half consumed as we headed for another location. I am particular irritated that I had to leave behind one of my favorite English ales: Bishop's Finger.

After finding a coffee shop with the Cloud operating, I had my text chat with the family as the connection was far too slow for video. We returned to our hotel to drop off our bags and seek dinner. After some discussion we elected to have dinner at a little Persian restaurant two blocks west from our hotel. The food was simple, but wonderful. We particularly enjoyed the viciously hot tea and nearly too sweet baklava.

Following dinner we quested for a fine pub to relax in for a few pints. Though we walked all over Kensington nothing suited our fancy until we returned to The Warwick Arms. The comfortable leather chairs and quiet conversation epitomizes the English pub and made our evening complete. It also might have been the hand drawn Fuller's ESB followed by a Bells, but who can tell!

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England, Day One

We arrived at 9:30am to a cool, gray skyline with a drip of rain here and there. It looks much like you would expect England to, although last year, thanks to global warming, the weather was gloriously warm and completely precipitation free. We grabbed our bags and made for the exit.

Lucky for me I was traveling with and real Englishman, Steve, who steered me away from the taxi stand, my preference, and onto the London Tube: mind the gap! We took the Tube from Heathrow to Earl's Court and then walked the remaining three blocks to our hotel. The walk was exhausting for me since I had brought toys, more on that later, leaving me in the larger bag with no wheels. The Hilton Olympia looks to be a 1960-1970s era hotel which has been mildly refitted, but is not particularly beautiful. After we dropped our bags off we wandered down Kensington High Street looking for Vodafone, SIM cards, and a pub, ale and lunch.

The young lady at Vodafone, Natalie, was helpful and had us up and running in no time. Steve was given an unlocked Nokia by a fellow at work while I was given a monster Sierra Wireless. My phone was a beast: slow, high power drain, bad cell reception and complicated. Steve lucked out in a a big way. In the end, however, we were able to call each other and numbers within the UK which was the critical goal.

Must of the rest of the day is a complete blur, owing to my being so tired. We had a lunch at a pub off of High Street on Kensington, wandered around a bit and then settled into the warm leather chairs at The Warwick Arms.

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26 March 2008

Off to England

After some back and forth for forgotten items, Steve and I finally arrived at Concord Trailways in Portland. We both prefer public transportation to driving and the cost to park for two weeks in Boston is outrageous. Since I am going to be in land of Real Ale for an extended stay I fortified myself with a does of Maine's own beverage: Moxie. I like it quite a bit, but it still tastes like Crest and Coke. Cheers!

The attraction bringing us to England, other than the great beauty of the land itself, is the ACCU Conference. The conference is ostensibly about C and C++ programming. It delves much deeper than that into the issues attendant on large scale software development efforts: design and architecture. As a software architect, this information is at the heart of what I do on a daily basis for *******. Last year the sessions covering architectural analysis, team coaching, and software cost estimation were insightful. At the other end of the spectrum there were many sessions which resurrected the important lessons of computer science and applied them to the craft of software development. Few accomplished this task more effectively than Andrei Alexandrescu and John Lakos. Suffice it to say that I find it difficult to choose my schedule as there are so many valuable, overlapping sessions.

Having arrived at Logan Airport in Boston, we learned our flight was delayed. Not by a few minutes, but by three hours! Poor Steve has wretched battery life on his Latitude (hate those machines), so we were continuously tethered to power sources. Why is it that airports never have comfortable seating and power in the same place? The airport WIFI infrastructure was also not particularly great. Though it teased us with promises of flight information, the link always returned us to the front page.

Our flight finally boarded at 11pm and we settled into our slightly dilapidated seats. Apparently our scheduled plane had a problem, leaving us with a model previously headed for retrofit. The staff on board were plenty nice, as always, and we had a relaxing flight to England.

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24 March 2008

My 50% Camera

While performing my final packing for my two week trip to England for the ACCU Conference next week, I realized my older daughter wandered off with my camera. It is a bulky, unwieldy beast, a Canon A560 or some such, and I had been planning to retire it before heading of to paradise at the end of April. Borrowing my wife's fancy 8mp camera seemed like no big deal to me, but before I knew it we were standing at Office Depot looking at a new model.

200803241225.jpgI was puzzled by this turn of events because Tandy is our head of finance here at the Ratliff Household and is tight with a buck. Not penurious the way my friend Amos is, but careful nonetheless. I picked out a new Casio Exilim 7.2mp, which I had been eying for at least six months, and walked out of the store with a new camera.

With new toy in hand I had to ask why. The answer was something else. Apparently, Tandy thinks about numbers when she is doing her crazy-early Master's swim program. Recently she realized that we two have been together for more than 50% of my lifetime. No, not 50% of my adult lifespan, the whole shebang! She wanted to buy something special for me to commemorate the event, but as I thought about the kind of forbearance it takes to spend almost nineteen years with me I wondered if I ought to be buying her something! I understand my turn comes around during this summer.

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14 July 2007

Freemasonry in Pennsylvania

A few weeks ago I packed up the wife and kids into the RAV4 and made for Pennsylvania to visit family. Despite being a Freemason for more than ten years, I had never manage to sit in lodge in my home state. Over the past two years, however, I have had to the pleasure of hosting Wor. Bro. Norbert Slezak, a Past Master from Victory Lodge No. 694 in Butler, at several lodges in Maine. This past winter I even seated him beside me in the East while I presided over a Master Mason Degree at Triangle Lodge No. 1 in Portland. Suffice it to say he has been very eager to return the favor, having been well treated by the Brethren of Maine. When he found out I would be coming down he sought out a degree for me to attend.

It was more than just a "degree." Bro. Slezak drove more than an hour from Butler to Connellsville to join me in witnessing a Master Mason Degree. The brethren of King Solomon's Lodge No. 340 were working their very last degree at their building on South Pittsburgh Street in Connellsville. The lodge had joined with three others to construct a new, single floor facility scheduled for dedication during the summer break. It transformed the degree into a significant historical event. It was easy to see why they were headed for a new location. Their building was quite old and had been wounded terribly by a lightning strike a few years ago. The bolt had cut a gash into the building and admitted a great deal of rain water, causing further harm to the building and leaving significant interior damage. Echoing two common issues facing lodges all over the country economic changes in the region had shifted the membership from the town center into the outlying areas while an aging membership, an upper-floor lodge and no elevator had gradually eroded attendance. the decision to create a new lodge hall sounds like a wise one.

As for the degree work itself, I cannot say for certain. The work was so completely unlike the Maine ritual, which is derived from the Webb Working of the mid-nineteenth century, that I was in no position to judge. This was not a surprise as my own research into the development of Masonic ritual made clear that Pennsylvania zealously guarded its working throughout its history. There were many phrases and words in common, but the differences were even greater including differences in our famously fixed elements like the sign and due guards. The only moment when I the two rituals merged was a brief section of the "working tools" lecture. In a general sense it had more in common with the English style of working, yet still substantially different in specifics from Emulation, which I have read, or Ritus Oxoniensis, which I have seen.

As I had been so long absent from Pennsylvania I had forgotten the odd Pennsylvanian sense of being "northern." In Maine, whether you are "northern" or "southern" depends on where you live. If you are from Calais, near Canada, then south of Bangor is "southern." If you live around Bangor then the line of demarcation only shifts to Brunswick. If you live in Portland then anything south of New Hampshire is "southern." Pennsylvanians, on the other hand, have this sense that they are the north pole of "northerliness" with every point outside of the state being "southern."

This issue arose in the context of my use of the due guard before speaking to the Master or answering his summons. One of the Past Masters was explaining to the brethren after the meeting that this was a "southern" style of ritual. Just hearing the statement flung me right back into the old sense of the entire world being south of Pennsylvania! I explained to the brethren that Maine could hardly be considered to be "southern" and that I had seen the practice in other States as well. However, neither Colorado nor Florida use the due guard in the fashion that Maine does. If the practice is common to Maine but not common to Florida, a person can hardly call it a "southern" practice.

The whole discussion made me miss my home state terribly, but no sooner had I returned to the Great State of Maine than the nostalgia was firmly expelled and I was glad to find myself back in my adoptive home state.

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24 June 2007

Bravo Bennigan's!

It is just a fact of life that chain restaurants are never going to have that level of service you associate with a local place. The staff is simply not all that invested in the establishment, but while returning from Pittsburgh the Bennigan's off of I-81 in Wilkes-Barre revealed a new low.

Now I believe, with all sincerity, that you need to treat wait staff right. My wife has even more strict rules than I do because she worked as at Friendly's when we were in college. With all that in mind, a big pet peeve of mine is when you ask "What kind of beer do you have?" or "What's on draft?" of your waiter and receive "Everything!" as a reply. Even the famed Bukowski's in Boston does not have everything! With proportionality in mind, I have started to reply with some extremely rare beer, say Thomas Hardy Ale or Otter Creek Hickory Switch Smoked Amber Ale. Honestly, "everything" normally translates into three kinds each of Miller and Bud, which leaves me ordering iced tea. The scene is now set for...Bennigan's.

We had just finished the drive from Pittsburgh to Wilkes-Barre and stopped in for a rather late lunch. Since my big drive was over, I decided to opt for a beer with lunch. This was, with all seriousness, the dialog which resulted...

Me: "What do you have on draft."
Waitress: "We have, like, twenty kinds of beer on draft. What do you want?"
Me: "Um."
(I paused with the hope that she might have a list.)
"How about any wheat beers?"
Waitress: "We have Sunset Wheat and Yuengling."
(Sunset Wheat stinks and Yeungling is not a wheat beer)
Me: "How about anything German?"
Waitress: "Yeah. Uh. We have, like, Killians and Guinness."
(Wow. Keep in mind here that "Bennigan's" is a faux-Irish chain. IRISH! For God's sake the name of the first beer is Killian's IRISH Red.)
Me: "I guess I will have the Sunset Wheat."

What followed was, without debate, the third worst dining experience ever. Poor woman, I hope there is a better life ahead for her than being a miserable, grouchy waitress. In any case, steer clear of Bennigan's in Wilkes-Barre.

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