Alan Porter's minimal net presence

January 2012

On New Years Day, we flew from Macao to Malaysia. We spent a couple of weeks in Malaysia, visiting friends and family, but also relaxing. We spent a few days at a beach resort in the South China Sea. And one of the highlights for me, I had plenty of free time for reading.

We finished up our Asia trip in Hangzhou and Shanghai. It was very cold (even more so, having just come from Malaysia), but we still spent some time exploring outside. Finally, we returned to the US, and I immediately went back to work (roaming the halls like a time-shifted zombie) while the girls had a couple of days to adjust before getting back to school.

The rest of January seemed like it was all about Chinese New Year. First, our friends in Holly Springs had a party. Then the Chinese school had their annual show, where the girls performed in a dance. And then the Chinese-American Friendship Association of North Carolina (CAFA) had a larger show in Chapel Hill, where the girls performed their dance again.

At work, I made the shift from working on the stuff we were doing LAST year to the new and upcoming stuff. That meant I dropped everything that had to do with writing software, and instead I attended meeting after meeting. And here I was, trying to shake off the jet lag! Zzzz.

February 2012

At work, I found the new “feasibility study” phase of work to be unbearable. Again and again, I found myself in a situation where people were looking to me for answers, but all I was doing was relaying the questions to other people who actually knew those systems. Then I’d turn around and relay the answers to the question-askers. They would reward me by calling me an “expert”. This made my skin crawl. The only thing I became an expert at is running from cubicle to cubicle.

Just before Christmas, I had replaced my old iPhone 3GS with a shiny new iPhone 4S. But occasionally, it had been acting up. While I was in Malaysia, it started rebooting itself, sometimes a dozen times per day! I finally managed to catch it rebooting, leaving a weird pattern of corrupted video memory on the Apple logo boot screen, and so I took a picture of that. If the picture gets messed up before the thing can even boot up, then it’s truly broken. I took the photo to the Apple store, and they replaced it right away. Well played, Apple!

I attended an event called “Ignite Raleigh 3”. It was a collection of five-minute talks, with presentation slides that advanced automatically (20 slides for 15 seconds each). There is no room for a speaker to drift off-topic! These talks filled me with enthusiasm, and I knew that 2012 was going to be something special. It would take me a while to figure out what it would be.

I also attended the “NCSU FOSS Fair”, a celebration of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Again, I was over-stimulated by technology. Some of it was calling my name, while other bits of it I just admired from the sidelines.

March 2012

I read a blog post from a fiction writer who said “if you want to learn how to write, then just shut up and start writing”. I decided that this also applies to software. I had been wanting to bring my iPhone app development skills to the next level, and I finally decided that I should simply start something… anything… and let it challenge me into new learning situations. So I called a friend who had written a book and a calendar that fit into an aspirational program called the “16 Guidelines For Life”. We brainstormed a bit, and I started working on a mobile app that could accompany her book and calendar.

At work, the meeting madness continued to the point of absurdity. I called myself a “runner”, but a co-worker coined the term “aggregator”. I think that really describes what we were doing… assembling knowledge that is only known to small pockets of workers and publishing documents that distill that knowledge down to the point where architects and managers can decide what needs to be done, by whom, and when. I found it very uncomfortable and unrewarding.

One night, a lost dog wandered into our neighborhood and started making a lot of noise. We finally decided that he was not sick or threatening, but he was lost and upset. We saw his name tag said “Vampire”, and Sydney commented that her friend at school had a dog he called “Vamp”. So we put two and two together, and soon Sydney’s friend had his dog back… all because his name was very unusual!

I spent most of my nights and weekends in March working on my new iPhone app. From initial storyboards (the paper kind) to simple working frames to more elaborate canvases with proper artwork. That fiction writer was right… I was learning a ton.

April 2012

It’s April, and that’s tax time. I learned about a small company right here in town that does an online tax service ( I decided to give them a try. I think they would be very good for most people, but since I have an S-corporation, they did not have a way for me to count my corporate pass-thru earnings. So I fell back to my old favorite, TaxAct (no, I won’t use TurboTax, because I hate Intuit ever since their 2002 fiasco of writing activation data directly in track 0 of your hard disk).

Honestly, after I got my taxes done, I spent most of April working on my new iPhone app. Again, I learned a lot… about scrollviews and webviews, layering, gestures, page controls, core graphics, and some “dev/ops” techniques for improving my own work flow. I also upgraded the RAM in my Mac Mini from 2GB to 8GB, which made it feel like a brand new machine.

We spent Easter at Mimi and Pops’s house. We had an Easter egg hunt. But noticeably missing were my two grandmothers, who both live in town, but were not feeling well enough to venture too far from their homes.

Our hermit crab “Flicker” molted (shed his skin), climbed back into his shell, and then died a couple of days later. He had lasted longer than our previous crabs – we think his new terrarium home and Arduino crab cage monitor helped him stay moist through the winter. But we were sad to see him go. We want to get another crab (or two). This time, we will give them more sand to dig into.

Our third Indian Princess year is winding down, and so it’s time to earn that last “totem pole” patch. The tribe went camping at Jordan Lake. I learned something that will haunt me forever… when you hold a flashlight close to your eyes and shine it out into the darkness, all of those little glowing dots are not dew or moisture… they are wolf spider eyes looking at you! Yuck!

The kids and I started watching old episodes of “Red Dwarf” together. We’re smegheads!

May 2012

Our yard has totally been taken over by dandilions and strange weeds with fuzzy seed blossoms. At one point, it was so bad that we sucked up the seeds with a shop-vac to keep them from spreading any more.

The Indian Princesses went on our third (and final) Spring Outing. This time, we stayed at Camp Seagull, and we got a cabin with a very nice view across the Neuse River. We could watch the ferries and we could see the air show and fireworks at Cherry Point MCAS. Our tribe built a raft (the “Thunder and Lightning Barge”) which could accommodate the entire group of 10 Princesses and 10 Big Braves! This weekend was a very special time for Whirlwind and me. Too bad our campfire was rained out, but in return, we got to see a spectacular storm from the dry comfort of our cabin.

For the fifth year in a row, I attended CarolinaCon. Maybe the tricks are starting to surprise me less, or maybe my interests have changed, but this one just didn’t have as much impact as previous years have had. It was fun, to be sure. But I’m not sure it justifies being MIA for the entire weekend.

I was given a new PC at work. They had told me I would get a laptop. but when the IT guy arrived, he said it was a paperwork mess-up, and so I would get a desktop system instead. Apparently, that model sells for about $529… wow, what an investment in me! I wiped Windows 7 and installed Ubuntu 12.04. I am giving Unity a proper chance to win my heart.

I finished up my iPhone app. It’s ready to submit to the app store. But I need to finalize permissions on the artwork and referenced material first. So it looks like it might take a little while before I get the green light.

June 2012

Being a proper geek dad, I made sure that my kids (and everyone else who happened to be at the pool that day) could watch the Transit of Venus using a simple pair of binoculars and a piece of white cardboard. It was stunning.

A troupe of TriLUG-ers made the annual trek to South East Linux Fest, and I was in the middle of it all. It was fun, and I learned some new stuff, but I felt like it might’ve been a little anticlimactic, compared to years past. And where was “Dual Core”??

I am seeing a trend here. Indian Princess Spring Outing was “more of the same”. CarolinaCon had trouble justifying its weekend. SELF was “just OK, but not more”. Several events of this spring and early summer have simply been repeats of previous years’ events. Perhaps I am sensing a need to leave those things in the past and free up time to spend on something new. With that caution in mind…

I volunteered to help our NC Nearspace group launch its 7th balloon as part of “Maker Faire” NC. It’s true, we were pretty much doing what we had done before. But Maker Faire is a great chance to show some cool science to several hundred visitors. Rodney had acquired a tiny APRS transmitter (powered by an Arduino – what’s not to love?), and we used that in addition to the normal SPOT to track the balloon. There was plenty of drama as it drifted over Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, and finally popped at 87499 feet, dropping like a rock towards the base! The parachute finally caught it and blew it to Ramseur NC, where our man on the ground retrieved it in time for a dinner-time preview of pictures.

With the feeling of accomplishment just sinking in, our team was asked to do a repeat performance for the TechShopRDU Open House. This time, I told the gang that I did not want to just work the booth… I wanted to be part of the launch team and the chase team. We had a beautiful flight, rising slowly just 2000’ off of RDU’s runway 5L, reaching up to 80431’ and finally dropping into the tick-infested woods of Zebulon NC. Audrey and I joined the chase, even huffing through the woods in the 106° heat, until we had the balloon in hand. That was fun!

July 2012

Last year, our neighborhood friends Alicia and Mathilde moved to California. But over this summer, the girls got to spend a week in NC (without their parents!). We got to host Mathilde for one night… a slumber party where no one got much sleep!

As is the tradition, we spent July 4th at the beach. We celebrated Audrey’s birthday with a barbecue cookout, fireworks on the beach, picking out new hermit crabs (Blink and Barney), and a trip to the NC Aquarium. Audrey is now eleven… or is that elven?

We went to Winston-Salem to visit my “Nanny”, for her 96th birthday! Several family members and friends gathered for an afternoon party to mark the occasion.

Several days this month, the temperature got over 100°F. We tried to stay inside as much as we could. Occasionally, we’d cool off a little bit with afternoon thunderstorms.

Audrey’s girl scout troop used their cookie sales money to go to Wet-n-Wild water park in Greensboro. We spent the morning splashing in the waves and water slides, but at about lunch time, we heard thunder and had to get out of the water. We decided to leave the park and visit a local science museum instead.

Audrey spent a week at a Girl Scout science camp at Meredith College. She stayed in a dorm room and ate at the dining hall, and her days were filled with fun activities, from biology labs to design labs to computer labs and side trips to Cisco, the new NC Natural Science Museum and a girl scout camp. She met a lot of new friends and learned a lot of new things.

Sydney also attended a camp – hers was a day camp at the Raleigh Chinese Language School (北卡洛麗中文學校). They learned to spin Chinese yo-yo’s (diabolo), practiced some songs and dances, made watercolor paintings, and made lots of crafts. On Friday, they gave a performance for all of the parents. Since Audrey was away at Meredith, Sydney set up a tent in our bonus room and “camped” there!

Finally, at the end of the month, the girls started their new school year. It was a big jump for both of them. Audrey moved up to middle school, and so she has six teachers instead of just one or two. We met them at an open house, and they seem like a fun bunch. Sydney now becomes the big girl on campus at the elementary school. Fourth grade looks challenging, but just what Sydney needs.

August 2012

The road I take to work every day became a toll road.

We watched the seven minutes of terror as the Curiosity spacecraft landed on Mars.

Audrey’s teachers sorted the students into four “houses”, in the same way that they do in the Harry Potter books. We were pretty excited, trying to guess which house she would be in. I was surprised (but she was not) that she was chosen into Hufflepuff! (I would have guessed Ravenclaw).

I built a weekend project that monitors my garage door and sends a notification to my phone when the door opens or closes, or if I leave my door open late at night. It uses an Arduino to watch for a magnet on the door, and it has a Bluetooth serial connection to my home Linux server, which sends the notifications over the internet.

Sydney and I spent a weekend at Camp Rockmont (in Black Mountain, NC) with the Indian Princess Tribe. We were not lucky enough to win the “cabin lottery”, so we camped out in “tent city”. The nights were chilly, but the daytime was perfect for a spash in the cold mountain water. We did the zip line and the “gully washer” slide, and then we stood at the top of the high dive and stared down into the lake water for a total of probably two hours. We heard a bluegrass band play, and we played a huge game of dodge ball, and we heard stories by the campfire. On the second day, we summoned enough courage to finally jump in the water, and now we can’t get enough.

Four years ago, Foong broke her leg while fooling around on a kid’s bike. She had a small plate inserted with seven screws to hold her bones in the right position while they healed. As doctors usually do, they just left the hardware in place… no need to remove them unless they’re bothering the patient. Well, they were bothering the patient. So this year, she had the plate and screws removed. The surgery itself was straightforward, but she will need to stay off of her leg for a month while it heals.

September 2012

Foong spent most of September inside, healing from her knee surgery. She hardly left the house at all! Since it was a simple screw removal, she was not in any pain. But she needed to stay off of her leg for a month for it to heal.

That means I got double duty as the family taxi driver. I never really appreciated how many activities the girls participate in: scouts, dance, Chinese school, piano, more dance, and gymnastics. I spent a lot of time in the car, but then I also had time to read while I waited for them.

We year-rounders have been in school for a month already, but as the traditional-calendar schools opened up, the county tried to implement a new and complicated bus route plan, and it left us stranded several times. As if I wasn’t already driving the kids around enough, I also got to take them to school on several days. After a couple of weeks, they made adjustments and we were back on schedule.

On one Saturday, we did get a chance to go downtown for an arts festival called “SparkCon”. The most memorable part of the event is the chalk drawings on the street.

But honestly, between hanging around at the bus stop with the kids, running them to and from their school and activities, and reading Harry Potter, there was not any time left over in September for anything else.

We were very happy when Foong was able to walk without crutches again!

October 2012

This year has been very busy at work, and time has flown by without a thought of a vacation. We had this vague idea that we might take off in October during the girls’ track out from school.

The next thing we knew, they were home and we still had not made plans. So we threw together a plan to visit Orlando. Top on our list was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Harry Potter has been a big part of our lives in the last year, as we watched all of the movies, read the books, and Audrey was even sorted into the Hufflepuff house at her school.

But right before our vacation, we received the news that my grandmother had passed away. She was 92 and her health had been declining in recent months. She lived a full life, and she outlived most of her friends.

The funeral was in Georgia. So we quickly changed our vacation plans, told the kids to pack up for the funeral and we headed south. After the funeral, we surprised them with a letter from Hogwarts, and we continued south to Orlando.

We enjoyed five days at Universal, Sea World and Disney.

When we got home, the girls tracked back in to school and we got busy with our next project: Halloween. Sydney wanted to be an Oompa Loompa from the 1971 movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”. So we hunted for clothes and makeup. Audrey’s costume was a little tougher. She wanted to be a working traffic light, and so we needed to order parts: primarily colored LEDs from Hong Kong. Audrey and I spent many hours planning and testing electronics and soldering the pieces together. On Halloween night, they both looked fantastic. I went with them… dressed as, you guessed it, Harry Potter.

November 2012

Going back to work after Halloween was like going back to spend the summer with the Dursleys after a year at Hogwarts.

We were rounding the bend from fall to winter, and it was time to wrap some things up. I still had three more Harry Potter books to read, we were wrapping up a year-long effort at work, and I still had an not-quite-ready-for-release iPhone app in the works.

But before any of that could happen, we had to elect a president. After the election, it felt as if I had had a process consuming memory in my brain, and it had just completed, freeing up memory and CPU time for other tasks. It’s like when the refrigerator turns off and the noise stops, and only then you realize how loud it had been. I am happy with the outcome. Let’s hope that it later proves we made a good choice.

With the kids back in school and vacation over and my mind free, I set a goal to finish my iPhone app, Three Wishes for a Meaningful Life, by the end of November, and then submit it to the app store for approval before Christmas. The remaining tasks were mainly presentation related, and so it meant a lot of tweaking and re-tweaking.

Work became a frenzy of crazy fixes to very complex system-level problems. I became a real fireman, and with that, I realized that I had as much job security as I wanted.

The NC NearSpace group was asked to help launch and retrieve a balloon for a group of – get this – science fiction fans, who were doing a fund-raiser for charity. Helium is expensive, and so when you order a canister of gas, you have to be specific about whether you want $100 worth or a full canister. We ended up with a bit less gas than normal, and so our balloon did not have much lift. That made it climb very slowly, and so it stayed aloft for more than five hours, and it finally landed in a hunting ground near Emporia, Virginia. We only had about an hour of sunlight left to fish the capsule out of a tall pine tree.

Sydney had a birthday party at the new Cary Arts Center. I have to wonder who planned the accommodations… our (loud) party was in the meeting room right next to the lobby, while at the same time a fancy opera performance was going on in the main auditorium. We tried to keep our frivolity contained.

We wrapped up November like we always do, Thanksgiving with Mimi and Pops, with a side dish of birthday.

December 2012

December was crazy, as Decembers usually are.

I started off the month with the fulfillment of one of my 2012 goals, which was to release my second iPhone app into the Apple app store. The app is called “Three Wishes for a Meaningful Life”. It is a simple guide to better living through the building of positive habits and thoughts, and it is based on the work of my friend Denise Flora. My goals were to learn real lessons in app development and small project management, and to focus my efforts into a tangible goal. I learned a lot more than I had expected to, and I am happy that it is now available to everyone. But I am also happy that I can now practice my learning through some projects of my own making.

At work, everything got quiet as more and more people finally took all of those unused vacation days. I had a healthy sum of days, myself. But that last week felt like a ghost town.

As usual, we spent our Christmas at my parents’ house. We visited with all of the usual cast of characters, and we managed to follow a few of our own family traditions (like Christmas with the Griswolds).

Right after Christmas, we went to Washington DC for a few days of sightseeing. It was cold outside, and it even snowed briefly, but we spent most of our days inside the museums. So did everyone else… they were crowded. This time, we ventured off the Mall to see the International Spy Museum, which Audrey thoroughly enjoyed. The first half was about what I expected, a lot of small cameras and radios and a little bit of spy history… about time I expected to see an exit sign, I found that we were only halfway done! The second half contained more history, although less about spies specifically. Devote some time to this one to give it a proper viewing.

We came home in time to join our Malaysian friends for a New Year’s celebration. As always, a good time with excellent food.

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