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April Showers ... the Month in Review

The theater was frigid, the lighting booth more so, and once rehearsal was finished a short storm broke out. I had left my umbrella at home, but the drops from the sky lasted only a few minutes. The day was not a real pisser; nor was the month of April.

But one of the women living in the apartment behind me was.

I walked home from rehearsal with a certain eagerness and sense of necessity in my legs out of fear that the rain might return; steel-grey clouds covered the city and polarized the light. An after-the-rain aroma circulated through the air.

I set down my bag and other items and pulled a pound and a half of hamburger from the fridge; I had used the other pound and a half for a meatloaf earlier in the week and needed to use the remainder before it went bad. A wild rice and beef casserole was in order. Midway through browning the beef Andrea called and asked if I wished to join her and other cast members at the Essenhaus for dinner, but I had to declie due to the food preparation. Half an hour later I stood at the stove stirring tomatoes, hot peppers, and rice into the browned beef when across the parking lot a young woman, perhaps still drunk from the Mifflin Street Block Party, descended four levels of clanky metal stairs, positioned herself underneath the lowest level next to the garbage dumpster, lowered her panties to her ankles, raised her skirt, and squatted. She called up a greeting to someone on the fourth floor, went about her business, made sure of the quality of her work, and ascended the stairs again.

Brown ground beef (8–10 minutes) along with red pepper sauce and Worchestershire sauce. Cook rice separately (approx. 2 cups water) until tender and water is absorbed. Drain beef, stir in all ingredients except rice. Add rice when ready, spoon into 9x5 bread pan, and bake covered at 350(F) for 30 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle cheese on top, and bake another 5–10 minutes.

Less than an hour later my casserole was finished, I had a serving, and I went about my evening: “Kung Fu Hustle” was watched, a glass of coffee with whiskey and brown sugar was consumed, and conversatoins were held online.

The passive should be celebrated!

Now for April in Review or: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Out-of-Order.

The Ugly

Two weeks ago, while standing in the hall, one of my colleagues said I looked like Mr. Rogers; this was actually a commentary on the jacket I was wearing, for while it was not a sweater, it had certain sweater-like qualities. Shortly thereafter we met the department chair in the hallway, and when I asked him a serious question he broke out into nearly hysterial laughter; his face turned beet red and I expected him to have a heart attack or collapse to the ground as the result of a brain aneurysm. This little event, however, requires a small amount of backstory.

Fr. Schiller 1759-1805

On Friday the 8th and Saturday the 9th of April a short symposium on the topic of Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) was held. According to the schedule, Gerhard Richter, a soon-to-be-former professor in the department, was to act as moderator for the first session, which contained papers/talks by two of my more favorite professors. As luck or fate would have it, Gerhard withdrew from his responsibility; instead, another professor was to serve as moderator, but she, Sabine Gross, had lost her voice. So it was that our former Chair, Marc Silberman, began the conference by stating, “Good afternoon, I am Sabine Gross.”

Fast-forward to a week or so ago. Angela had just told me that I looked like Mr. Rogers. Her boyfriend, also named Steve and also doing a philosphically-oriented dissertation, was there as well, as were a few other colleagues. I had spoken to Sabine on Tuesday the 12th, but had heard that Wednesday or so that she had just injured herself by falling off a horse; thus, she was flat on her back at home and unable to move. When I saw Rob and chose to ask him whether he had heard about her condition, he broke into his face-reddening, blood-vessel popping laughter—it was quickly realized that he had, quite unintentionally it seems, confused horse and hoarse, and had assumed that I (incorrigible punster that I am) had been making a bad joke. Thus, when I asked whether he had heard from her, he replied, “No, of course not. She can’t talk!” He was not aware that her voice had indeed returned.

This was the high point of an otherwise ugly week in some regards.

Tax day was quickly approaching, and despite my desire to do my taxes early this year, the 11th of April arrived and I had not yet filled out a single form. For some reason the university is always slow in sending me my W-2 forms; this year they simply forgot. Of course I should have asked for duplicate copies back in February, but by that point the semester was underway and I had other concerns besides taxes. So it was that on Monday the 11th I expressed concern about my lack of said forms to our departmental secretary, who then submitted a request for replacement forms; alas, I was to expect a 10 business day delay in receiving them. Thus, I concluded, I should file for an automatic filing extension, but before doing so I decided to check out the e-filing opportunities available to me. The key point in all of them, both at the state and federal level, was that I did not actually have to submit a physical W-2 form. Armed with a W-2 from a previous year and the relevant financial information as provided by the university payroll office, I was able to submit the necessary data and complete my state and federal returns online.

One might ask why it is that I have not done electronic filing in the past, and the answer I came up with last week to that question goes as follows. It has often been remarked that the reasonable person adapts himself to the environment, while the unreasonable one tries to adapt the environment to him/herself; thus all progress is made by unreasonable people. I am, generally speaking, a reasonable person. I find tax forms (the paper ones) rather easy to fill out. It takes me little time. In this case as in many others, I felt no real desire to be an early-adopter.

That having been said, I’ll be filing electronically next year, but more on that later.

My duplicate W-2s arrived on the afternoon of April 15.

My social life is also in its ugly phase. It’s not “bad,” merely “ugly,” for I have a social life of sorts, just not an ideal one. It consists of biweekly LUG meetings (I’m still the president and must attend, though not for long, I hope), weekly Saturday or Sunday brunch gatherings at Lazy Jane’s, and occasional meetings with colleagues for coffee, a walk, or a movie. A somewhat naïve friend, who is in a long-term, occasionally rocky, but generally happy relationship, has several times recommended online personals sites, but she says this as someone who has never used them; wiser friends rightly dismiss them or at least recognize their limitations. So it is that I’ll just continue talking to my plants.

A few of my plants are not doing so well; a few have turned beige or even brown, but the majority are still bright green, especially the many pots of aloe vera populating my small apartment. Said apartment was clearly in the ugly category until recently; from time to time I would clean it a bit and reorganize things, but since it was just for me, or for perhaps for my brother or some other guest who did not really care about excessive neatness, I never put much effort into it. A colleague of mine, Corina, just had her birthday, and due to housemate issues in her apartment, holding a birthday gathering at her place was not an option, so she asked me to host. I of course said yes, and I had a few days to get things spic and span. I meant to do the cleaning on one of my days off, such as the 7th of April, but on the 9th I finally got around to it, and on the afternoon of the 10th folks were coming over, so I spent saturday alternating between cleaning and watching episodes of Stargate SG-1 as well as movies. Although my apartment’s ugliness was diminished, it was transferred to other aspects of my life; for a variety of reasons I did not get to sleep that night at all, and several computer problems arose, but that is a matter for the next section.

The Bad

At midnight between the 9th and 10th I finished watching “Primer” and decided to read a few reviews as well as viewer commentary; thus I visited the IMDB and got down to work.

Then my screen blanked.

I have a Dell Inspiron 2650 with a 14” LCD. It is a few years old. It has never had any real problems before that could not be attributed to software. I figured that I had had a random software crash. The system was not frozen; I could still toggle the Caps Lock and I saw disk activity. Going back and forth between X and the console can be a problem on these laptops. No key combination helped. I decided to see whether some random power management software—which I do not use—had come into play, so I lowered the screen, and brought it back up. Voila!

I had a working LCD again. For a few minutes, at least. Then it blanked again. Simply black. No sounds. No fading. Just a sudden shift from light to dark, the type that leaves an afterimage on one’s mind, even when no physical image is left on the screen. But this time I had a tool to combat it, so I closed the laptop screen and lifted it up again.

It blanked again. Sometimes it would last a few minutes, sometimes only a few seconds. Mouse movements had no effect. I rebooted but the problem persisted. I rebooted and went into the BIOS ... and it again went blank. Clearly not software.

I hauled out a 17-inch NEC MultiSync and attached it to the Dell, rebooted, edited my xorg.conf file, and suddenly I was good to go ... as least as good as one could be in this situation.

The NEC is clear, crisp, and full of contrast. It is brighter, sharper, and more brilliant than the LCD ever was, but I do not think the LCD was fading and then decided to die, I think it is merely the nature of LCDs. Armed with a working display I googled for help and managed to conclude that the problem lies somewhere with the backlighting, a hypothesis I confirmed by dragging a window and seeing its vague form move on the LCD—the LCD was still getting a signal and processing it, but I had no real way to see it.

At brunch Sunday afternoon I explained the situation to my friend Sebastien, and he related how he had researched a similar issue a few years earlier when dealing with his mother’s dead or dying laptop. His conclusion was that it was likely the bulbs themselves rather than the cables between the LCD and the laptop body. Were it the cables, I could likely find a position or angle at which the LCD would be happy; instead, its failure was consistent although the timing was unpredictable. Perhaps there is a short somewhere.

Luckily my laptop is still under warranty; like most computers Dells come with a 1-year warranty, but when I bought mine on sale a few years ago it came with a “free upgrade” to a 4-year parts and service warranty. Once I get all my data backed up and a secondary—yet ancient—machine running, I will give them a call. While I would be happy if they would send me to a local shop to have the bulbs replaced or even if they had me ship it to them for repairs, I would be even happier if they just decided to replace my old machine with a comparable or slightly better refurb that they have sitting around. Wishful thinking, I know, but a boy can dream, can’t he?

My computer troubles did not end there. After a few reboots of my laptop I could no longer mount one of my external drives, a 30GB Seagate in a USB 2.0 enclosure. My other external drive (200GB WD in a USB 2.0/Firewire enclosure) continued to work just fine, so I had to conclude that it was either the disk or the enclosure, not my laptop. I took it in to the department on Monday and hooked it up to an XP box, but it could not read the partition; then I realized that it was an ext2/ext3 partition. I took it down to Tony, the resident hardware geek in my building, and he realizd that it was likely a stiction issue, one common to certain models of Seagate drives. Thus we resorted to a variety of unsafe practices to get the drive to spin-up: dropping it; tapping it; applying a hard, sharp slap; suddenly twisting it; and hot-plugging it. The last option worked ... once. We got it plugged into a random desktop, but there was no other drive attached; we booted it with a Knoppix CD. Alas, we had no way to get the data off, so I took the drive upstairs, hoping that I could get it to spin-up again long enough for me to hook it up to another machine with a large disk, load Knoppix on that machine, and transfer my data. Alas, it was not to be, for it would not spin-up for me, so I returned to Tony with my disk and the enclosure. We found a 20GB drive (I only had 10GB of data on mine), got my disk to spin-up, loaded Knoppix, formatted the 20GB drive, and, due to the limitations of USB 1.1, left the machine to transfer the data—I would come back in on Tuesday to pick up my drive and the temporary drive.

I did so on Tuesday, but when I brought the 20GB drive home, my laptop could not read it—missing superblock errors ... oh my. It seemed to have been readable earlier in the day. Later I would discover that rebooting my laptop got rid of that error (I do not know what the cause was ... that is to say, why it was producing such errors even when the partitions were fine ...) but at the time I concluded that it was a drive/partition problem. Thus on Wednesday I took my old 30GB drive back in, played the hot-plug game and got lucky, booted a Knoppix CD, and got my data transferred to a desktop. I returned the 20GB drive to Tony and eventually transferred my data to my other external drive.

One further computer-related issue was to cause problems in my life. My brother came over a few weeks ago to pick up an old desktop onto which I had installed Ubuntu. This was after the birthday gathering, and in an effort to get my hardware out of the way, I stacked all my unused computers on top of my wardrobe; thus I had to take the computer down from there and in the process I caused a slight back injury. It was made worse by play rehearsal that evening, where I had to continually lift, rotate, and reposition a ladder. Over the course of the next few days my back got worse; this happens up to once a year, so it was not surprising, but it is always painful. At one point it was difficult to stand up straight, and sharp pains were shooting down my left leg. Painkillers do not really help, but two weeks later it is manageable.

To top it off, I do not think I will make it to Budapest this summer. Since last year it is what I have been saving for, for it is the 20th anniversary of the BSM (Budapest Semesters in Mathematics) program, which I attended in 1995, so it is my 10-year reunion of sorts. It will take place in mid-June. Unfortunately airfares to Europe are not particularly cheap this year. I can get to Frankfurt and back from Chicago for about $750, but flying to Budapest is at least $1,100, and the Frankfurt-Budapest train ride is about $100-$150 each way. Since I would only go for a week or two, it is difficult to justify such an expense, since I will not have an income during the summer and will have to pay my July and August rent with my June paycheck.

The Good

All is not hopeless, however (only my social life).

I will not be in Madison next year.

Dissertator Fellowship letter

Last December and January I decided to apply for an Advanced Dissertation Fellowship; in January the department passed my application on to the university. In February I was notified that I had received a one-semester fellowship, which I could take either in the fall or in the spring. I only had to let them know by April 15. Normally I would take it in the spring because it is easier to get a TA-ship in the fall ... we have about 10 more in the fall than in the spring.

At the beginning of April other circumstances conspired to convince me to alter that plan.

Fulbright letter

Last September I chatted with my advisor about applying for a Fulbright; he contacted some people he knew, one agreed to host me, and I went through the application procedure. My application made it out of the U.S., the first hurdle. On April 4 I received word that I had received a one-year Fulbright Grant to Berlin. It should pay 975 Euros a month, which is no fortune, but which should pay the bills in a city like Berlin, which is relatively inexpensive compared to similarly-sized cities.

Last Wednesday I visited the local GHC clinic to get my health form completed; on Friday I went back in to have the results of several blood and urine tests added to the form. That afternoon I put it in the mail.

This coming Tuesday I will take part in a writing workshop for folks who might apply this fall for Fulbrights—I am an interesting choice to give such a talk, for unlike the people who will attend, I waited until the last minute to do my application, and I attended no such workshop. Do as I say, not as I did.

This, of course, is good news (for me), but it does involve one little complication: I am moving out of my apartment in mid-August. What to do before going to Europe? I will probably visit my relatives for a few weeks before flying to Berlin a week into September; perhaps I can include California in that west-coast-tour.

I will not be eating casserole Sunday evening; as it is Orthodox Easter I will be joining Corina and Jürgen for food somewhere in town. As it is, this evening marks Walpurgis Night, a night I do not observe but which I always remember because of its celebration in Goethe’ Faust.

—April 30 2005