Entry 24: Duplicitous Databases and Invasive Internet Cafes
Sat, Sep 2, 2006
One advantage to living in the capitol of Oregon is that the state fair is held here—just
up the road, in fact. (Although, frankly, everything in Salem is "just up the
We decide to splurge ($9 each entry) and see what kind of chickens and cows they have
in Oregon. Surprisingly, they also have quilts here. And bunnies and a Hall of
Gadgets (where they sell amazing miracle cookware and cleaning ointments and vinyl
siding). They even have those foot massager things, where you insert a quarter, put
your feet on a metal plate and it shakes them back and forth at high speed until your
shoes shoot off in opposite directions. Why do you see those only at State Fairs?
They also have the Amazing Deep Fried Sweets booth, featuring both Deep Fried Twinkies
(as seen in Entry 20) and Deep Fried
Snickers Bars. Naturally, Robert has to try the Deep Fried Snickers, because "it's
candy—not like a Twinkie!"
And here's his official tasting report on deep-fried Snickers: "UGH!"
Seems that Snickers is a candy bar, and when subjected to high heat (such as say,
might be found in a deep fat fryer) it melts. Into a sticky, gooey, chocolate, caramel
and peanut mess and ends up as a pretty disgusting snack (even without the chocolate
and powdered sugar Robert declined).
The theme for the State Fair is "road trip" and there are cakes decorated in a "road
trip" theme, along with vegetables crafted into various car-related vignettes ("Potatoes
on the road!").
We wander among the booths that offer various things for sale, meet the Green Candidate
for Governor of Oregon, sign a couple of petitions, and buy a license plate holder
(one of those things that you can get only at a State Fair, oddly enough).
There's one entire corner of the fair given over to Mexican booths with Latino music
and food and displays. We hang out there for a while because it's fun listening to
people speak Spanish.
To top off the evening, we watch insane people try to kill themselves and win fabulous
prizes. This is also known as "bull riding," and involves cowboys who tie a rope around
bulls and then climb on top and see how long they can hang on, while the bulls do
their best to fling them into the bleachers.
Only about a fourth of the riders manage to stay on for eight seconds (the minimum
to qualify). The scary thing is when they get tossed and the bull is still stomping
around the arena. All he has to do is to step on you and it's pretty much a guaranteed
Fortunately, these are spry cowboys who sprint quickly out of the way. Sometimes the
bull doesn't want to go back to his holding pen after he's flung off his rider, and
instead races around the arena charging at the spectators. We root for the bull, but
he never wins.
Monday, Sept 4, 2006
We decide to spend Labor Day dealing with all the boxes we packed our stuff in. We
decide to use FreeCycle (a
very cool service that lets people reuse your castoffs for free) to set them free.
It's somewhat painful, as some of these boxes have been in the family for years (a
few date back to the 1994 move!). But we really don't have room to store them, and
after checking FreeCycle for a few days, it looks like it won't be tough to get more
when we need them.
Of course, to offer them on FreeCycle, we have to know how many boxes we have ("heaping
mess of boxes" is apparently not an acceptable description). So, for the record here's
what it took to move all our crappe from Seattle to Salem:
1 ea teeny box (1 cu ft)
41 small (1.5 cu ft) boxes
49 medium (3.0 cu ft) boxes
1 ea largish box (4.5 cu ft)
1 ea slightly different largish box (4.6 cu ft)
Total: 218.6 cu ft of stuff
Once toted up, we put a notice on FreeCycle and by the end of the day, a guy drops
by to pick them up and we bid farewell to our faithful moving companions. *sniff*
Highlights of Laura's week are getting a main door key that works (the first one she
got didn't), an email account she can use (they first gave her a login name, but no
password) and a voicemail box with all outgoing greetings aligned (it formerly belonged
to two different people—one male, one female—so callers got really confusing results).
Laura is working for the Micro Enterprise Resources, Initiatives, and Training (MERIT)
program. Hoo boy, does that convey what it does or what? What it does is help people
start very small businesses. Anyway, the program is currently running in Marion County
(where Salem is) and Polk County (also where Salem is—there's this big river, the
Willamette, that runs through town and divides the counties, so depending on which
part of Salem you live in, you might live in Marion County or you might live in Polk
Marion County has most of the businesses and developed areas of Salem (including us),
so MERIT is moving along quite nicely. Polk County has all the rural areas and subdivision
housing and strip malls. It's not so much moving along as crawling. And, as you might
expect, it's tough to find folks who want to start up their very own small business
and build it up.
In Marion County, a typical class might consist of 12 to 15 people, but in Polk County,
getting three people together is an accomplishment. And that's exactly how many they
had for the training in Dallas (almost every city in Oregon is named after another
city someplace else: Salem, Dallas, Redmond, Portland, Newport, etc.).
Laura gets to teach the class on how to complete a feasability plan (aka: "Am I Nuts
or What?") to these folks, who were all women. They were also all without any resources—no
jobs or savings, so it's not at all clear how they will get money to start their start
Laura thinks that if the women get some confidence in their business ideas, then they'll
be motivated to get a job or mortgage the farm (or the car or maybe even the neighbor's
And as if this weren't difficult (and depressing) enough, Laura got handed a computer
problem. There's this database that's used by everybody in Oregon to report to the
Small Business Administration how it's doing.
You will no doubt be deeply surprised to find out that a database designed by and
for the US Government is a poorly functioning piece of poop. And yet it is.
In fact, it was so hard to get any useful information out of it that Laura's boss
had another database built to try to get useful reports.
If you had any elements of surprise left, you would again be shocked to discover that
this new database also sucks rotten eggs, plus it requires that all the information
be entered in two places (doubling the suckage factor).
Laura's task is to figure out how to take this stinking pile of suckage and turn it
into a sleek information powerhouse that can deliver some useful knowledge. Or at
least decrease the volume of suckage.
Laura thinks it's mostly a matter of hammering on the first database's report function
until it submits. Robert suggests she hammer on the programmers until they fix the
problem they caused in the first place.
Two of Robert's work-related things collide in our living room this week.
Thing One: Next week is the big ATNI conference, bringing together 57 Northwest
Indian Tribes. They get together and give presentations and work up resolutions and
who knows what all (we'll know next week, and we'll pass it along, but this week,
we're clueless). This is a Big Deal and everyone is very anxious for it to go right.
One of the things that needs to Go Right is the technical side. They offer an "Internet
Cafe" (which doesn't serve coffee, so it's really more of an "Internet Roadside Stand"
but that doesn't sound as cool) at the conference. This is a set of four computers
that participants can use to check their e-mail and look at funny videos on YouTube.
This used to be handled by some of the seven folks who don't work there any more.
And haven't since last year. So Robert is confronted with four large tubs of computers
and cables and gear and told "Here's the Internet Cafe!"
Robert's first mistake is thinking that they were speaking accurately. What they MEANT
to say was "Some of this equipment is used for the Internet Cafe, but there's also
many random parts and spare equipment you need to sort through."
Such as, for example, 20 keyboards and 15 mice (one of which had been chewed on by
an actual mouse—making it extra authentic). And six computers from the early nineties
(which someone had "donated" and will cost $10 each to get rid of).
So, from this mess, he has to assemble four working computers (oh, and did we mention
that most of the computers are password-protected and nobody can remember the passwords?).
Thing Two: Robert still doesn't have an office, in the sense of having a desk
or a stapler or a chair. He can squat at the Portland offices of ATNI, but that's
a little bit surreal. The two ladies who work there like to have the TV on while they
work, and it's tuned to various daytime talk shows. So the whole time Robert is working
at the conference table, he's listening to discussions of topics that are important
to people who watch daytime TV ("Is Tom's baby cute or what?").
The strangest show is one that covers other daytime talk shows (in case you
can't be bothered to watch the other shows), which gives you a summary of the important
happenings on those shows ("Rosie O'Donnell makes a joke!").
In any case, there's not really room in that office to set up a bunch of computers,
and the atmosphere isn't conducive to careful cabling and configuration. (Plus, setting
up computers involves a good helping of bad language, and Robert doesn't really want
to scorch the walls in someone else's office.)
Thing One plus Thing Two equals: Pretty much something straight out of the
Cat In The Hat—every single flat surface in our living room has a computer
or a monitor on it and looks like something out of Brazil (the movie, not the
country). Wires are running everywhere and keyboards and mice are perched at gravity-defying
angles among them. (The cats, by the way, think this is great fun as they chase each
other around in the maze of wires and equipment.)
Laura comes home, looks at the living room, and pours herself a tall vodka and tonic.
Finally, Robert has sorted the four tubs down to two tubs of actual needed things
(anybody want 16 keyboards?) and is ready for the conference.
The cats are disappointed, but Laura is relieved.
Coming attractions: Robert is off to an Indian Conference at a casino! Laura is off
to compare notes with other VISTAs in a hotel without private bathrooms!
Who will have the ritzier room? Stay tuned...
Robert & Laura
Mid-Life Crisis Trip