Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving in London

Thanksgiving setting

We're living our eighth year in London, overstaying our "two-year adventure" by quite a bit. But even though most of the kids speak with English accents and we've all grown comfortable with the British variant of the language, we still celebrate Thanksgiving every year. It is, by far, the best holiday -- a mostly non-commercial anomaly in a marketing-driven world. No gifts, no cards, just food and getting together.

This year, unusually, we celebrated on the day itself. I took Thursday and Friday off, just for the heck of it, and our guests were also available. We have to make a few adjustments -- the local "stuffing" is a lot denser, for example -- but turkeys are abundant now as we get closer to Christmas. Kathy picked us up some canned pumpkin for making into pies at a store in Hampstead that specializes in "American" food, and we can even find cranberry sauce in the shops now. Either Theresa is getting better at finding the fixings, or the English are picking up on our tastes.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

How to Wake Me Up

crisp day

I worked one of my rare overnight shifts, from around 5pm Thursday evening until 2:30am on Friday. One advantage of doing just one, instead of a whole week's worth, is that you end up only working four days that week. I had the day with Theresa on Thursday, with plenty of time for a long walk with the dog and then lunch at a local Indian restaurant before I had to head into work. Today, Theresa is working, which theoretically should have given me a quiet house to sleep in.

The dog had other ideas. About five hours after I went to bed, he tried to drag me out. When that didn't work, he bounced on me a while, then barked his head off for about 15 minutes. I pulled the covers over my head and tried to catch another few minutes of sleep. Dude went downstairs, broke through a puny toddler fence we foolishly believe will keep a 70-pound boxer out of the kitchen and proceeded to sift through the bin for snacks -- old, rotten snacks, like egg shells and last night's pasta. Apparently, it took some effort to find just the right thing because the garbage was spread all over the kitchen in an even layer of stinking slime. The evidence suggests that he rolled in it.

That got me up. Sleep and I have a strained relationship anyway, so five hours is about par.

Dude and I had an exchange of words -- I yelled my head off and he stood there, wagging his stubby tail. "He must be saying 'it's time for your walk' in a very loud voice," thinks he.

No, he's not very bright.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Early Morning Walk

It's going to be a week for doing unusual things. This morning, since Theresa is working and so is our normal alternate dog walker, I got up at 5am to take Dude for a stroll. It's was a freezing morning, with a hard frost, no clouds, and no moon. The skies are as dark as it ever gets in the city -- dark enough for me to see my first shooting star in months and to make out six of the Seven Sisters without trying (seven, if I look out the corner of my eye).

I had a ball, but there was no point in throwing it. It would just get thrown once, and neither one of us would see where it went. But there was plenty to keep the dog running. It's the time of the morning when the foxes, Dude's arch-enemy, have the run of the neighborhood. Once he caught the scent, he was off and running. Fortunately, he's a mediocre hunting dog, at best, and has no hope of catching anything. But it keeps him entertained.

By the time we headed it home, it was just before 6am and the sky to the east was glowing very slightly. It's going to be a long, dark winter.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sunday Afternoon

Sunday Afternoon

We had an unexpected gap of free time this afternoon. Theresa was scheduled to work Saturday afternoon and evening, arriving home around 10pm, and then the early shift on Sunday, which would have had her home around 4pm. Not much time left, after dog walking, church, meals, etc. It was going to be a very quiet (read: boring) weekend. Instead, she ended doing the two shifts back-to-back, working continuously from 1pm Saturday afternoon until around 8am on Sunday. That meant she'd sleep through part of the day on Sunday, but we'd have a couple of extra hours. We spent it doing something we haven't done in months -- dinner out with the whole family.

We walked about 15 minutes, in cold but clear weather, to a small Italian restaurant in Eastcote that offers the best mix of choices for even the pickiest eaters among us. Most of the kids had pizza. I went for linguine Frutti di Mare, a mix of pasta, mussels, squid and prawns. Theresa splurged on a monk fish dish.

It was just what I needed. I woke up crabby and anxious already about the week ahead, which will include my own overnight shift on Thursday. The dinner took my mind off that and made me feel more like I've had a weekend. It also reminded me that we're heading into a nice stage with the kids. All of them are old enough now to have real conversations at the dinner table. We're not battling to keep them quiet out of fear of disturbing the peace. We still played 21 questions, as normal (answer: ice cube), and a staring contest (I remain world champion), but the atmosphere at a family dinner is getting more and more "adult" every year. I'll miss the youngster stage, of course, but not that much.


Saturday, November 12, 2005

Learning GNU Emacs

I've been reacquainting myself lately with Emacs, which I've used off and on for nearly 15 years. The off part is because I occasionally think that it's ridiculous for a liberal arts-educated news editor to be using Emacs, possibly the most complex text editor ever devised and usually thought of as a tool for programmers. This monster of a program is dedicated purely to moving characters around, inserting them and deleting them. That's it. Nothing else. Yet it includes way more features than Word or even most professional publishing programs. It even includes its own psychoanalyst.

So once in a while I decide it's time to grow up and start using WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) programs such as Microsoft's Word, which I have to use it at work anyway, or OpenOffice on Linux. But that's equally silly. I can count the formatting attributes I care about on less than one hand -- italics, bold, centred and, um, that's about it. I rarely print, and in 20 years of reporting and editing, I've never cared what the output looks like, ever. Just give me a word count and off I go.

And nothing, with the possible exception of another editor called Vi, is more powerful at flinging words around than Emacs. It isn't very easy to learn, but once you do, it's easier and less distracting to use. I like how I can keep my hands on the keyboard at all times and jump anywhere in even the longest documents with a keystroke..

What got me back to Emacs this time was Tim Bray's ode to Emacs on the Mac, which I read after a long time exploring "Web 2.0" editors such as Writely. This time, I also picked up a copy of the latest version of O'Reilly's Learning GNU Emacs because I need a refresher and there's always something new to learn about Emacs. What I especially liked about this book is that it focuses on the aspects of the editor that are useful for any writer, not just for the programmer. The first two-thirds of Learning GNU Emacs is about writing features, such as the built-in outliner, searching, moving text around, and creating macros.

One side of Emacs that I haven't explored too deeply before is customising it. The book goes into the programming language that Emacs uses for customization, a variant of Lisp called elisp. Lisp isn't for the faint of heart. As the book points out, it's one of the oldest high-level languages and was designed when it was more important to be easy on the computer than on the programmer. The authors (there are several -- Debra Cameron, James Elliott, Marc Loy, Eric Raymond and Bill Rosenblatt) do an excellent job of walking through the basics of adding small features, customising the many "modes" that Emacs has and even developing your own mode from scratch.

I think I'll stay in Emacs for a while. For what I do, it still hasn't been beat.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005


It's 3:30 am and I'm still awake. Insomnia is a drag, and as I leave 40 in the distant past, the problem is getting worse. Now, even when I do sleep, it's fitful, never deep. I'm getting a tired of being tired.

I recently read probably the most unhelpful advice I've ever received for fighting insomnia: Don't. Just go to sleep when you're tired and wake up when you, um, wake up. Sounds heavenly. The idea is to reset your body's natural clock, to become in tune again with its circadian rhythms.

Unfortunately, it take weeks. I'm not independently wealthy, nor do I make a living at a job that could tolerate such flexibility. An author, in the middle of writing a long book, could maybe do that. Or a programmer working on a long-term project that doesn't need human contact for a while. But not me.

So instead I'm trying and failing to make myself tired by writing this. And in a couple of hours, I'll be sitting at a desk, pumping caffeine as quickly as I can into my system in an attempt to stay sharp, setting myself up for another fitful-at-best night's sleep. There's a circadian rhythm for you.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Guy Fawkes Day

Bonfire night, held every year on Guy Fawkes day in the U.K., is difficult to describe to our U.S. relatives. It's vaguely like Independence Day, commemorating when the English foiled a plot by Catholic conspirators to blow up Parliament. Had they succeeded -- and they very nearly did -- it would have been easily as devastating as 9/11. The plan was to blow up the building during the opening of that year's session, killing the king and every top noble in the country. The English celebrate the capture and burning of the conspirators every year on Nov. 5, or the nearest Saturday night.

Fortunately, the anti-Catholic aspect of the celebration has waned a bit. They hardly ever burn Catholics on those bonfires now. What they do instead is shoot off enormous quantities of fireworks, which are legal and cheap here. You can buy anything, up to and including the biggest chest-thumping rockets, at the local corner shop.

The noise begins a week or so before because the Hindu celebration of Diwali, which is also celebrated with copious amounts of explosives, falls at the end of October. The Asians are concentrated mostly a couple of miles away, closer to Heathrow, but the low rumble of thousand and thousands of fireworks in the distance adds to the illusion that we're near the front lines. In a week, the battle will roll through our neighborhood in its full fury.

For an American, where fireworks have been made illegal in most states, and expensive where they remain, the barrage is hard to imagine. Try to think what it would be like if every third or fourth house could put on a show equal to any managed by a small town on July 4th. On calm nights, the smoke hangs in the air like fog and you can hardly hear each other talk.

This year, like others, we trudged out in the drizzle and mud to try to watch some of the show. I took the kids and the dog to the middle of a large field, which gave us a view of several simultaneous displays. I had hoped we would be close enough to watch one of the biggest shows around -- a paid event in a park nearby -- but by 9:45pm or so, they hadn't started yet and the kids were getting cold and tired. We did manage to watch some kids diligently trying to blow each other up. At first, they were shooting their rockets up, like they're supposed to. When that wasn't entertaining enough, they started shooting them at each other. We moved before we became the next target.

We also had fun for a while making letters out of a flashlight for the camera. I put together Sullivan, above, but we made enough letters to make everyone's name, as well.

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