Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Next Bright Idea

I'm in the midst of trying to create a web site manager for use with small groups. I've put pieces of it together on several different web sites, but I have never put a whole package together that would solve most of the management problems for a small, not-so-tech oriented group.

The impetus for all of this is my experience in working with small organizations. Most small organizations and boards lack the institutional memory and resources to remain effective over long periods of time. Each time the leadership changes, the new board starts from scratch and reinvents everything. Most records are kept in dusty boxes in board members' basements.

Also, in many organizations, members don't have good access to resources that their group might offer such as upcoming events, contact information, a directory of members, news, etc. So I've been working on a web-based application to do all that. And believe me, it's not been pretty.

So far, I've put together an authorization and contact module to track changes in a group's membership. My next task is to add a content module that will enable a group to build and maintain a website. The mechanics of doing all of this is relatively straightforward.

The challenge is to create a design that is simple for users, but also powerful. Many contact and content management programs are out there. Some of them are even free or open source. Most of them, though, are far too complex for a small organization to implement without significant technical help, and most small organizations would be hard pressed to maintain any such program.

So I'm continuing to work this. I'm trying to make something that a reasonably intelligent person who has some web experience could deploy. That's a very difficult task, because most developers, me included, assume that our users know far more than they do. But at least I know my goal: a simple software package that even my mother could deploy. I may not accomplish that, but it gives me something to aim for.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Square Dance Weekend!

Tim and I just got back from a square dance weekend - an Advanced program put on by John Marshall and Mary Hutchinson. The weekend was held in York, Pennsylvania at the Yorktowne Hotel. Tim and I both enjoyed ourselves.

Advanced dancing is a program that can separate aficionados from the social butterflies, and I don't mean to impugn anybody's character with that remark. In my own experience, the conceptual leap from Plus to Advanced is greater than from Advanced to C-1. Advanced really opened up my eyes to the endless possibilities of square dancing.

The other dancers on the floor, for the most part, had much more experience than Tim and I. Most of the couples were older than us, and the floor probably moved more slowly as a result. That's not a bad thing, either. Many of the couples do not have regular opportunities to dance Advanced, so they eagerly look forward to this weekend. The reach of square dancing is declining, and I keep hoping that something will happen in America to rekindle its interest in this folk dance.

John had a number of dance surprises for us. While the level of the dancing wasn't particularly difficult, his calling demands a focus on his instructions, and a strong grasp of square dance call definitions. John always means what he says, no matter how confused the dancers are. He had us do several calls from non-standard positions, and he taught us some new moves, too.

Tim and I danced together. We were the only gay couple, and we alternated boy/girl each of the five dance sessions. The women quickly got used to one of us dancing as a girl. The men were a little more challenged by it, but by the end of the first session, were not have any difficulty with it. A couple of times, a guy would mistake our "changed" gender, but that didn't happen very often. And to the guys' credit, almost all of them would swing us when we were in the girl's role.

The Yorktowne Hotel is a great square dance location. It has hardwood floors in the Continental and George Washington Rooms. The hotel has composite flooring for other rooms that have carpeting. The hotel features a four-star restaurant, but also has a cafe and a couple of bars. This being York, the bars close very early. The guest rooms and beds are comfortable. Eating opportunities outside the hotel are kind of sparse within walking distance; however with a car, there are many places to dine.

So that's my report: I'm hoping for more dancing at the Yorktowne.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Beware of Food Columnists Bearing Recipes

Yesterday, I had a dinner party at my house. I invited all the boys, and proceeded to prepare some recipes that David Hagedorn had suggested last Wednesday in the Washington Post column, "Real Entertaining." This month's column was all about chicken, and I saw that roasted chicken on the front page of the food section, and I was hooked.

I had to have a dinner party. I had to cook a chicken. I had to read the recipes. They were seductively simple: full of promise. Chicken in a Pot, how homey! French Lentils, peppery, flavorful! Saffron Fennel, oh exotic! and Peach-Apricot Cobbler, simple, tasty, easy. I thought.

The challenge was not in the fine print. I suspect that Mr. Hagedorn presented his recipes with the very best intentions to his readers. I imagine his kitchen is more suited to food preparation than mine.

My biggest challenges were the bird and the cobbler. The chicken is first seared, then roasted for 50 minutes in a 250ºF oven. When I checked the chicken at 50 minutes, it was no where near the necessary internal temperature. I baked the chicken an additional 20 minutes, finally raising the oven temperature to 350ºF for the last 10 minutes or so. That did the trick, and the chicken had a wonderful flavor. You should check Chef Hagedorn's method for carving a chicken. It's easy!

On to the Peach-Apricot Cobbler. The recipe indicates that the cobbler should be baked in a medium cast-iron skillet. I didn't know how big medium is, and I guessed too small. The resulting cobbler didn't look very elegant, but none of my guests seemed to mind, and ate the whole thing. It's a very tasty comfort food recipe. I realized as soon as I added the batter to the (9") skillet that I was courting disaster. I stuck a baking sheet under the skillet, and it caught the overflow batter, which my guests also ate. Next time, I'll bake this cobbler in my largest (10-1/4") cast-iron skillet.

The party was a success. The food was fantastic. The guests were sent home fat and happy. I'll continue to read the Food Section. And I'll continue to have dinner parties.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Odd 'n' Ends in Wheaton

It's potluck for today's posting. I apologize to all of my (seven) fans out there, but life is just too busy to keep this up to date in any kind of dependable manner. You're just going to have to put up with it. It sounds like this blog may be in its death throes, but that's JUST NOT THE TRUTH!

Jerry peddled all the way to Wheaton on Wednesday from Arlington. He came here for lunch at Woodlands in Langley Park. It's an Indian vegetarian restaurant, and the food is just plain wonderful. Of course, it gives me heartburn for the next day or so, and I always eat way too much, but that's my problem. You should go there and eat!

Jerry is taking an Indian vegetarian cooking course in Arlington, so we stopped at the Indian market next to Woodlands so that he could buy some black and green cardamom pods. Jerry cooks authentically. In fact, Jerry is about the most authentic guy that I know. He's getting ready for a cross-country bicycle ride. You'll hear more about that in this blog.

In other excitement around here, Ron and I are planning a road trip for May. We're going to a naturist gathering for a week in Alabama (yeah, I rolled my eyes in disbelief, too), then on to Mississippi to visit his Mom for a few days. It's the second road trip for the Prius (the first one was a square dance weekend to Poughkeepsie, NY). This will be a couple of thousand miles, and I have all the guidebooks and maps. I'm psyched.

I'm also making a quick trip to Moscow, ID the last week in April. The Women's Center at the University of Idaho invited me back to participate in an event on the 30th. I'm very happy to be able to do this. I'm very fond of the University of Idaho.

Yesterday Tim and I made a pilgrimage to Suburban Hospital. Tim needed some repair work done. I got stuck in a social faux pas (and in the aftermath, learned about Buridian's Ass, and indeed how I appear, sometimes, to be (actually!) an ass. Tim's looking good, and we got his prescription filled for happy stuff so that he's in no pain. He should be able to start drinking shortly.

And that's the news from Bucknell Terrace. Oh, I should add that I went square dancing last night with Marshall's Deputies. We learned all about "weave" from quarter tag, waves, and t-boned positions. I still do the call wrong, but at least I know that it's wrong.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Facebook Life

I have a Facebook page, along with 175 million other people with too much time on their hands. I suppose if Facebook weren't around, the national productivity would improve by approximately 350 million person-hours per day. This works out to about 84 billion work hours per year, which doesn't include any weekends or vacation. Of course, some people, myself included, would consider the time spent on Facebook as time well spent. Right, Joe K.? Joe's also on Facebook, and one of my many friends, although I don't have nearly as many friends as Joe, which is kind of weird, because I'm retired and have all this time on my hands, and Joe isn't because he's managing my assets. I'm dressing in black these days, because it's slimming, just like my assets.

Joe and I have a mutual friend, Michael, who has 670 "friends." (You'll need to sign in to Facebook to see this link.) I'm not being ironic or scornful, I just think that Michael, a college student at St. Olaf, probably has too much time on his hands, too. For some reason, he "friended" me and I was quite taken up by the mystery of it all. When I mentioned it to Joe, he knew exactly who I was talking about. I'm thinking, Michael is awful busy.

Facebook is addictive for a couple of reasons: 1) So many people are now on it, that you can make connections that would otherwise be impossible to make. Because you can see the friends of your friends on Facebook, you can begin building a friend network, trawling all of your friends. Also, you can suggest other friends for the friends you already have, and this helps your friends make connections, too. My high school class of 1969 is having its 40th year reunion (which is about when Joe K. was born). I've been trying to connect up with my classmates, and it's been a wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking experience. I think all of us have matured, unfortunately, not all of us have survived. 2) You can peer into your friends lives in a small way, by looking at their walls, and reading their statuses. In fact little bits of their lives appears on your home page. It's a painless way to keep in touch, and a little mysterious, too. So I'll continue to tinker on Facebook. You should, too. Right, Joe?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

25 Random Things Since I last Blogged Here

No, I didn't disappear, I just couldn't get around to writing in my blog for a month or so. I apologize to my blog readers, everywhere. So here's the scoop:

1. I bought a walking stick. My knee has been a problem, so I went looking for a walking stick. REI carries a sleek one that doesn't make me look too much like an old geezer. It's adjustable, and it fits into my carry-on bag.

2. Because I was going on a sailing trip. Except that the walking stick looks like a gun, so I had to check the bag, anyway. But it was a very nice sailing trip with six other guys. Three of the guys were pretty experienced sailors. I pretended to cook. Actually, I made the food list and helped herd cats while shopping.

We sailed on a 40-ft monohull, the Wombat, and that's about as technical as I get. The captain would start talking about lanyard and halyard and mainsail, and I would hyperventilate. I had a small library with me, and I was working on those menus....

3. In the Caribbean. Ah, yes, this all took place in the Caribbean, more specifically, the British Virgin Islands. They use greenbacks there, too, but they only seem to go half as far. Markets in the BVIs are interesting places. The range of products is somewhat limited, but the prices are not. Near the moorings and anchorages, the markets cater to the sailors, and the products have a peculiar skew to them. More particularly, sailors apparently have a huge appetite for potato chips and alcoholic drinks.

One of the guys on the boat mixed rum punches every afternoon. It's a very civilized practice, and quite in keeping with local custom. His recipe is 1 part rum, 1 part tropical fruit juice, 1 part whiskey sour mix, a few drops of grenadine syrup for color, and a couple of dashes of bitters. Stir and serve over ice.

This is my second trip to the British Virgin Islands. This is a beautiful place, and well worth the visit, especially by sailboat. Check out the Baths and Gorda Peak on Virgin Gorda. Enjoy the beauty and the beach on Sandy Cay. Sail around the Dogs.

4. With a side visit to Puerto Rico. Before we found ourselves on Beef Island, we spent a long weekend in Puerto Rico. This was the first time that I had visited Puerto Rico, apart from spending many hours in the airport. We stayed at the Luquillo Sunrise Beach Inn. One of the guys, Lee, had lived in Puerto Rico, so he was our tour guide. He used to live near Fajardo, which is near Luquillo, so he knew the local area, and took us to all kinds of interesting places to eat.

Luquillo is outside San Juan, on Puerto Rico's northeast coast. The beach is very pretty, and we had a nice hotel. Every night, the local caballeros would ride their horses down the street in front of the hotel.

Lee took us to El Yunque Rain Forest and Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve. We also visited an unofficial nude beach, Playa Escondida, which is near the nature preserve. To get to the beach, park in the Seven Seas Beach parking lot, walk all the way to the west end of Seven Seas Beach, then walk north along the shore to Playa Colora, then cross the neck of land (there is a trail) separating Playa Colora from Playa Escondida. Public nudity is not permitted in Puerto Rico, so we were discreet (and respectful).

5. Sometimes conch tastes good. I once ate a conch fritter in Key West, and it seemed like a vastly overrated dish designed to separate tourists from their dollars. So when I saw conch on the menu in Puerto Rico (in a sandwich!), and on Tortola (in a fritter!), I was skeptical. The sandwich was outstanding. The conch was tender and tasty, just like my men. I think I had conch on three different occasions, and I was very pleased. It may be a tourist treat, but it's a tasty one.

6. Ron and I hosted a MGMC Potluck. Ho Boy! What a starry social gathering of Montgomery County's Gay A-List! About 30 guys showed up with dishes in hand. I made my famous Scalloped Potatoes. They were finished in approximately twenty-five minutes. I liked James's lemon pie, which he says consists of lemon juice, condensed milk, and Cool Whip®. I googled the ingredients. Tim (the other Tim) stopped at Whole Foods and brought some potato salad and some vegan General Tso's Chicken. I slapped them in some serving dishes to avoid potluck shame. They were both tasty, too, because it's okay to cheat at potlucks, as long as you don't serve it in the store container.

I provided half-time entertainment when I caught my pants on the arm of the couch, then stumbled and took a gracefully 2-1/2 reverse turn dive into the corner landing behind the China dogs, and missing the glass table with the cloisonne fish. The gargoyle was also unharmed. I ended up with bruises all over my right arm. I did not break anything, and my dignity remained somewhat intact. The guys enjoyed the party (so did I!), nobody got hurt, and nobody went away hungry.

7. I visited my dermatologist. She saw my peeling, sunburned skin and tsked a bit. Can't say as I blame her. I had a good excuse. She froze three spots, an old one and two new ones. She has a certificate hanging in the examination room that says she attended a workshop in 1994. Should I ask her about that? She's African-American, and I'm always the only white guy in the waiting room, usually the only male, too. I think she's a great doc. She asks lots of questions, carefully explains treatment options, and she spends time with me. That's my kind of doctor! She's already cleared up a nasty skin infection that I had had for fifteen years, cleared up a skin rash, and now we're working on those actinic keratoses that appear in fair skinned men of a certain age. She's using Solaraze on it. So far, I haven't noticed any difference in my skin color (it reddens and dries out the skin). But I've been on it less than a week.

8. A guy in the mall tried to sell me drugs. (I think...) I had gone to the mall for a haircut, but my guy, Joe, couldn't see me for several hours, so I thought I go to Bubbles, and check it out. I got an appointment there if I could just wait fifteen or twenty minutes, so I did. I sat reading in a public area of the mall, and this guy walks up and starts chatting, (which is annoying if you are trying to read The Economist) commenting on my clothes, the time, asking me what I'm doing. He finally says something like, "I could get something for you, if you know what I mean." I replied, "No, I don't know what you mean." He smiled and walked off, turned on by his cell phone. Yep, right here in downtown Wheaton.

9. And I got a haircut. Mai Li cut my hair at Bubbles. The salon has an astonishingly awful web site. It loads slow and the Flash just doesn't do that much for me. Mai Li gave me an okay cut. I think, though, she was probably more interested in pushing product. It's more expensive than the Hair Cuttery, but not much. Okay, I'm cheap. And what kind of name is Hair Cuttery, anyway?

10. I bought some jeans. My old pair has a hole in the crotch and is extremely thin in the butt. I've had to wear underwear the last couple of weeks. I got a pair of Wranglers, "loose" fit. Cambodian Made. They are a little bigger cut than I like, but I'll get used to it. The old pair was regular fit, and I think that caused them to wear a little faster in the aforementioned places. I'm a big boy! While shopping for jeans, I also picked up some $9.99 shirts (at Target), Woody Woodpecker, Superman, and Iron Man. I'm now girded with protection.

11. I've been square dancing because cortisone works wonders. It took nearly two weeks for the cortisone to fully kick in, but it has. The knee pain is gone, so I've been square dancing. John Marshall, Ett McAtee, Bill Harrison, if they call C-1, I dance! Tim's been quizzing me on definitions. At Ett's on Monday, I nearly lost it completely. Some of the dancers blamed it on the full moon, but it certainly was some gothic (horrifying?) dancing! Quantum physics came into play when one of the dancers created an indeterminate wave-field while attempting to orient her spin to a head or a side wall. Observation of the experiment didn't help as she hovered between the two positions. The field finally collapsed and she found herself in the wrong position, in a much lower energy state. Quarks at work. It happened at the Cherry Hill Campground.

12. I've been keeping my boys happy, at least smiling. I missed my guys! I'm glad to be back. I was kind of horny, too, because it is possible to be in the middle of the Caribbean, in one of the world's most romantic places with six other gay guys, and remain somewhat frustrated and randy all at the same time. I think this is only a guy issue. So I was glad to see the boys, and I'm making up for anything that I missed.

13. You can't buy a brief-styled swimming suit in the mall. What is the world coming to? Evidently, straight guys are interested only in board shorts. I looked at Macy's Penneys, and Old Navy. The sales clerks clucked at me, and told me to come back when the seasonal clothing was in. Yah! Every direction, nothing but board shorts. Unflattering! Hey guys, what's up with this? I found some online, but it's definitely not the same shopping experience.

14. I predict that the California Supreme Court will uphold Proposition 8. Ron and I took a walk earlier this week. We have a regular path through the neighborhood. We were talking about California, and the Supremes. I'm betting they will uphold "the will of the people" because the court is elected, and the voters will kick them out of office. An elected judiciary is a dangerous, sometimes timid creature. Ron and I often have really important discussions on our walks. Here are some possible outcomes: The court could overturn Proposition 8, which I think is highly unlikely. It may, however, leave the 18,000 same-sex marriages in California intact. I think there's a good chance of that.

My own personal druthers is to have the state offer civil unions that must be performed by civil officers, then let anyone who wants to, get married by their priest or rabbi. The church should not be validating civil contracts between people who want to establish a domestic or civil relationship with each other. Get the church out of marriage.

15. Scalloped Potatoes. I can't help myself. These potatoes are good. These are not your usual scalloped potatoes.

7 T unsalted butter, divided
2 lb Golden Yukon potatoes, pared and sliced (1/8")
1 medium onion, sliced (1/8")
1 small green pepper, chopped
1/2 lb mushrooms, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c flour
2-1/2 c milk
1/2 lb Gruyere or sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 t cayenne pepper
1/2 t Louisiana hot sauce
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 c chopped parsley (optional)

In a large, heavy skillet, melt 4 T butter over low heat. Add the onions, green pepper, mushrooms, and garlic, and cook over low heat until the vegetables are cooked down and soft, about a half hour. Stir the vegetables occasionally, while cooking.

While the vegetables are cooking, pare and slice the potatoes into a bowl of cold water. Drain and rinse the potatoes in a colander.

Butter a 13" x 9" pan with 1 T of the butter. Set the pan aside.

Stir the flour into the cooked vegetable mixture (keep the burner on low). Slowly stir in the milk, and bring to a boil over low heat. If you haven't already done so, you should grate the cheese, now....

While the sauce is cooking, arrange one-third of the sliced potatoes to cover the bottom of the prepared pan. Salt and pepper to taste. As soon as the sauce boils, stir in the grated cheese, and stir until all of the cheese is blended in. Stir in the cayenne pepper, hot sauce, and parsley. Remove the skillet from the burner.

Spread one-third of the cheese sauce over the potatoes. Layer one-half of the remaining potatoes, and salt and pepper them. Top with one-half of the remaining sauce. Top with the remaining potatoes and sauce.

Mix the bread crumbs and 2 T melted butter. Spread the bread crumbs on top of the potatoes. Bake in a 350° F oven for 45 minutes.

16. Why being condo treasurer is too much like work. Well, for one thing, I have to fill out spreadsheets and keep records. Then I have to pay taxes. I send out late fee notices. It goes on and on. If I pick up a few more gigs like this, I'm going back to the office.

17. I'm so gay. I grew a beard before I went to the Caribbean so that I could look like a pirate. When I came home, I went square dancing (with a bunch of gay guys), and they unanimously agreed that the beard should stay. One of the guys even told me that I looked hot. My profile on ManHunt has also been getting comments like, "Woof" and "Hey!". I'm going with the flow on this one.

18. I fell off the wagon, but the horse hasn't run over me yet. Cleaning the office has turned into a joke. I can't face that room. Tim suggested that I post a picture everyday on Facebook of the office, showing what progress I'm making in its cleaning. I may be reduced to that very soon. Stay tuned. This could turn very ugly very quickly. I'm thinking about it.

19. Three issues of the Economist remain pretty much unread. I'm rolling my eyes and wringing my hands. I'm so far behind. But I have to at least read this week's issue because it's the technology issue. All kinds of interesting stuff to read. I also like reading the obits.

20. This blog and every blog must be fed. I haven't written in here for nearly a month. I went on vacation, then I suffered blog fatigue. For those of you who wait breathlessly for each installment of my blog, I apologize. I hope that you haven't suffocated. The fact remains, I have to come up with something to say, and often I draw a total blank.

21. What are we going to do about Mexico? Ron and I watched a program on CNN about the drug war in Mexico. The United States should legalize drugs and regulate them in a way that effectively changes the government drug policy from one of criminal enforcement to one of public health. Legalizing drugs, although an imperfect fix, should have the same broad social effect as that of ending Prohibition. In the long run, we'll probably end up with more drug addiction, but possibly at a much lower cost to our society in terms of cost for police and prisons. The current "war" model keeps people out of treatment, and only enriches the cartels. It promotes a prison industry in the United States, and encourages gang wars in Mexico and other production and transit countries. It causes a huge human toll (over 8,000 murders in Mexico last year because of drugs). The best way to help Mexico's law enforcement in its drug war is for the US to end its drug war.

22. Computer envy. One of my friends (Brian J. you know who you are), has one of those teeny laptop computers. I get hard just thinking about his computer. Sleek, powerful, but small is really big when it comes to computers. I lust for it. Captain Rick on the sailboat also had a mini laptop (his was an Asus). In the meantime, maybe I'll forgo the swimsuit, and get myself a sexy computer, instead.

23. The Spanish Civil War and other light reading. I'm reading Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain, The Spanish Civil War 1936 - 1939. It's a slow, depressing slog, not so much for the writing, but for the subject. The Nationalists appear to fascist monsters who engaged in a policy of wholesale terror and killing, and the Republicans who were so factionalized that their response to the Rising was fatally weakened. Each page of this book is depressing, but I'm trying to continue through it.

24. Convention Insanity. Less than a month from now, hundreds of gay square dancers will be in Washington, DC for DC Diamond Circulate. The age of procrastination is at an end. The convention is already raising contention on the national list serve. I'm guessing we're in for a lot of griping over the next four weeks.

25. Reconnecting with high school classmates. I've been making friends on Facebook. Many of my new friends are from Moscow High School, classes of 1968, and 1969. The class of '69's 40th reunion will be this August in Moscow. I plan on being there. I'm trying to drag my twin brother along, as well.