Saturday, February 28, 2009

The problem with cars

Probably the single biggest thing that impairs our ability to have energy efficiency in transportation is that the vast majority of the cars on the road at any given moment are far, far, far too much car for what they're carrying. On a typical day driving down the road, if you look into the cars you're passing or being passed by, almost every one of them will have a single person and very little cargo. A car designed for that situation could get 75mpg without any new technology, but no one would buy it.

Consider whatever luggage you have, if you have any. Most people who have luggage have more than one suitcase: one smaller one of a size suitable for a weekend trip, a larger one for a week-long trip, maybe a backpack for overnights, and they can probably use several bags for even longer trips. But cars are too expensive to have several of them for different uses. So even if 99% of the time there's just one person and little or no cargo in the car and you're driving on flat, clear roads, you still have to buy a car big enough for four people, a load of groceries, your luggage, the one time you need to go pick up a really big box at Home Depot, the time you're climbing a hill in the winter, maybe even the time you need to haul a load of gravel or hook up a tow chain.

What's worse, though, is this. Suppose General Motors called up and gave you, as part of some research study, an experimental one-person car, just big enough to hold you and the stuff you need to bring to work every day or a couple of bags of groceries. This car is as safe as any other small car (in reality safety is an issue here but let's ignore it for now), and gets 75 miles to the gallon. Would you use it every day on the way to work? Maybe. My guess is only about half of people would. The other half would be afraid they might need to make an unplanned stop, or give someone a ride, or something, so they wouldn't use it most of the time in service of being prepared for the unforeseen.

And unfortunately I can't entirely find fault with that thinking. I myself routinely carry around a bunch of things I probably won't need 99% of the time so I'll have it that one time I need it. The unlikely happens all the time, because something unlikely to happen today is sure to happen eventually, and because there are so many unlikely things that could happen that it's likely one of them will.

So while it might make sense for an individual to have a pickup truck that gets 10mpg even though most of the time he's got nothing he needs in the back and no one in the passenger seat, when you view this from the point of view of the entire society deciding how to use its resources, we're wasting billions of dollars and countless pounds of atmospheric carbon to move around hunks of unused metal millions of miles a day for no reason. I don't think I've ever heard of any inventor working on a revolutionary new approach to transportation who's even really tried to address this dichotomy.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Phone clip

The phone clip arrived on Wednesday night and got a good workout during grocery shopping last night, and it's working great for me. It's comfortable, adds virtually no bulk, and lets me get the phone off quickly and put it back on quickly without fumbling with the clip itself. It's sturdy enough that I can feel confident it won't fall off -- probably even while bikeriding (when the weather is suitable).

Meanwhile, AT&T's announced plans to incorporate the Unicel network into its network by middle of the year. I wonder if, when they do that, my old phone will start working with my new SIM? They've also promised a 3G network over Vermont, which will be interesting. Still so much of the state has no coverage, but both AT&T and Verizon are making noise about 3G coverage. One can't complain about anything that brings more Internet to more of Vermont, but it's hard to take seriously the promise of faster distribution of faster networks when the basics aren't there yet.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Credit Card Debt Freedom Day

For my whole adult life it's been my intent to not carry credit card debt. Don't mistake me: I do use credit cards, but the plan is not to carry debt month to month on them, but to always have a plan to pay off anything put onto credit cards within a fixed and short timeline, ideally within a month so that no fees ever accrue. Carrying credit card debt is insidious: once you've got some, it's no big deal to add to it, and soon you don't realize how much you're really spending on finance charges, nor what impact it's having on your financial flexibility. Credit cards are useful if you can control them, and dangerous once you lose control.

That said, only about half of my adult life has actually been spent out of credit card debt. When I first moved away from home, it was impossible to avoid during that "just getting started" part of life, when there were college tuition debts and the necessities of life far outstripping the meager salaries. This is how the trap gets set. Once careers started to advance and salaries improved, we deferred some improvements in standard of living and turned the extra money to getting out of that debt, which is how we avoided that trap. (To be fair, we had much less school debt than most college graduates, and a few spots of good luck mixed in the bad luck most people have, plus not having kids made a world of difference.)

Moving from Alaska to Vermont incurred a little bit of debt, particularly since we arrived with no jobs waiting for us, but we got out of that quickly thanks to starting with some savings. We managed to mostly stay out of it for quite a few years, but then the process of building our dream house caused another big pile of debt. There were a lot of things, notably the kitchen, where it made sense to put in good stuff up front because putting in lesser stuff and upgrading later would considerably add to the overall costs.

It's been four and a half years since then and we've been carrying credit card debt this whole time. All along we've been planning to get rid of it, and have several times deferred purchases (most notably the audio part of the home theater system we set up for the house a few years back) in favor of getting out of that debt earlier. However, other things, like the costs associated with the MGB, have pushed back the date of credit freedom by a lot.

But there was always a plan. And today is the day the plan finally reached fruition. This year's tax refunds arrived and the last credit cards have been paid off in full. Hurray! In fact, the only debt we're carrying now is the house and car loans.

In anticipation of hard times, my plans for what to do next are fuzzy, and not focused on extravagance. (Except I do plan to finally go ahead with that home theater stereo system soon.) Mostly I'll be focusing on building up savings (both fluid savings and a higher contribution to the 401k) and paying down other debts (the car first, then increasing payments on the mortgage -- even a small overpayment on a mortgage adds up to huge savings over the life of a loan).

It's so nice though to be able to say I'm back out of the trap, and hopefully, will be able to stay out of it from here on.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Board of education anecdote

I know I have at least one regular reader in academe who will probably find this anecdote even more amusing than those whose experience with academe is limited to the student side of things.

In Alaska I worked for the school district and at a staff meeting I once heard an anedote from someone who'd been in the school district's administration for a long career, and been to countless board of education meetings. At one particular meeting of the board, one of the members of the board (from the "parents of students" side) got up and made a lengthy presentation, running about twenty minutes, about the serious problem of gingivitis and how the board needed to take decisive action to help make a difference about this problem. As the people who teach the children (who are our future) it fell upon the educational system to plant the seeds of change, yadda yadda yadda. Everyone nodded, listened as well as they could, vaguely agreed, and nothing at all seemed unusual about it: they get presentations like this all the time.

Right at the very end, he said something about gingivitis which made no sense. Eyebrows were raised, faint expressions of confusion were seen, but he was already heading back to his seat. Someone managed to stop him and ask him to clarify. Only then was it finally discovered that the whole time, he hadn't been talking about gingivitis at all. He'd actually been saying "gender bias" the whole time. Everyone nodded dutifully, and they went to the next agenda item.

What I find hilarious is that a twenty-minute presentation can be made during which not one thing said about gender bias wouldn't also apply equally well to gingivitis. That's how things are for boards of education: lots of lofty-sounding proclamations of grave importance that are so light on actual specifics and "brass tacks" that you can replace a single word or phrase and get another presentation that will be taken with just as much gravitas.

Not that this is something limited to academe. I'm sure a similar story could be told in corporate boardrooms, in halls of government, in the break rooms of hospitals, behind the printing presses at publishing houses, and in many other places. There is so much pontification out there that aims for the "big picture" and overshoots until all that's left is what C.S. Lewis described as a "hyperextended rice pudding" (admittedly talking about an entirely different big picture, but the analogy holds).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The spiral lollipop guild?

On a number of street signs around Montpelier there are stickers, about the size of a hand with fingers extended, on which a spiral is depicted. It's a simple spiral of a solid color, and the color varies from one sticker to another: some green, some blue, I think I saw one red. The spiral is on a white background, and has only one additional feature: at its outer end, there's a little tail, giving it a shape kind of like a lollipop, but with much too small a stick for the candy part. If you look at the image here, rotate it between a quarter and half turn, add a "tail" about a quarter as long as the circle's radius, and color it green, you'll have a good idea of what one of them looks like.

They're stuck (obviously by some third party) onto speed limit and other navigation signs with no apparent rhyme or reason. The only really consistent part is that the tail points down at an angle, though not always the same angle, but never straight down.

Someone went to some effort to produce these things and bring them around town and stick them in a number of places, but I have no idea who, or why. I tried using Google searches to find a picture of the same symbol, with no luck -- but that might not prove much, since there's not a lot about them that lends itself to unique keywords. Google also failed to turn up anyone else posting anywhere about anything like this, but again, the lack of good keywords might be responsible.

Is it some pop culture element of which I am ignorant (and there are surely many of those)? Is it a symbol of some belief or organization which wants to display itself but doesn't feel any need to make those of us outside the mystery able to find out the answer? Is it some kind of performance art, and if so, is my reaction what the artist intended?

I'm going to try to remember to take a picture of one of these so I can post it here. Maybe someone will know what they represent.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A new checker card

I've had the same debit card, which is also a Visa checker card that draws against my checking account, for about ten years now, maybe more. I have the entire sixteen-digit number memorized, along with expiration and verification code. So I was pretty annoyed to find that due to a data leak that probably didn't include it, but just to be sure, they're closing it effective almost immediately and issuing a new one. The hassle of finding every account that draws on it and updating it is bad enough, but having to memorize a new number and PIN is profoundly irksome. Still, better safe than sorry, and all that.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The owl stayed a while

On Friday I noticed an old friend outside my window, the owl that has been known to visit our land. I've seen him several times before, even gotten to watch him swoop down on the snow and pick up some unseen morsel, but I hadn't seen him this year. Owls are great for photographers because they'll sit there while you take their picture. This is last year's picture, about which I was quite happy, as it felt nicely framed and clear.

And this is this year's picture, which came out even better somehow.

He stayed there in one tree or another in plain view for almost five hours, disinterestedly watching the overexcited finches and otherwise not doing much. He seems plumper this year; I imagine it's been a good year for hunting.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Threatening science

Credulous people often subscribe to the meme "Science feels threatened by things it cannot explain" so widely the idea has gained currency in the general population, and I think this idea is so alien and ludicrous to scientists that they don't refute it with sufficient enthusiasm. So I was thinking of an analogy and this is what I came up with.

Gold miners feel threatened by the idea that there is gold as yet undiscovered.

To be sure, a gold miner, on thinking of the idea of lodes of gold not yet found, desperately wants to be the one to find them, rather than having his fellow gold miners find them. And a gold miner is surely wary of being fooled by any iron pyrite (fool's gold). But the idea of more gold yet to be found is not only no threat but the very lifeblood of a gold miner's trade.

Similarly, science isn't at all threatened by the idea that it has questions it still has to answer. The whole point of science is to take on those questions and find answers for them, and the very nature of science is that as-yet unanswered questions don't threaten its underpinnings, but become absorbed into its body. A scientist longs to find the question he can answer before his peers do, for that is how he gains recognition and respect in his field. All he doesn't want is to be fooled into accepting something that isn't real, for that's the only fool's gold in science.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Slightly less unhappy

Or should that be more less not unsad?

Now that I've bitten the bullet and embraced the new phone, it's actually not too bad. It's not that pretty, at least in white: the black one Siobhan got is a lot slicker, as would have been the ice blue, but the white is bland and boring. It has very little memory and most of that is clogged up with stupid applications I can't remove; the phone makes a big deal of selling itself as a Walkman with built-in MP3 support (not like you can buy anything without MP3 support these days) yet it doesn't even have room to load two songs until you expand the memory. (Expansion is on order, though.) And of course going back to predictive type is painful after a QWERTY thumbboard and a big stylus touchscreen; but I don't do many texts anyway. (And on my new plan, they all cost extra. On the other hand, I can do photo messages now.)

However, as a phone it's pretty good. Fairly good sound quality, lightweight, good battery life. The Bluetooth is nice and supports A2DP for my headphones (which is essential to use it as an MP3 player, to me) plus it makes a very simple connection to my PC to transfer files to and from (or I can use a USB cable, but once I set up Bluetooth, it happens automatically, so why bother?).

The PC software is free, easy to use, and fully functional -- far better than with the Motorola Razr where they tried to sell you a $50 piece of software and prevent you from loading things onto the phone in hopes of getting you to buy ringtones online. The software also can sync contacts, calendar, tasks, and notes. Though the limited memory means I can't actually sync tasks, but that's not important: I already have my old phone (now I'll have to call it my PDA or my "brain" again) for that. Contacts was the important part. The contacts sync was quirky: it wasn't very smart about contacts with only a Company name and/or phone number, for instance. But I was able to edit the phone contacts on the PC to fix that.

But the one thing that has made a bigger difference in making me feel less irked about this is that there's a clip for the phone in the style I have for my old Razr, the style I like. I've got it on order, in fact. This kind of clip adds nearly no bulk (which is important; these days, phone cases are often bigger than the phone), and lets me grab the phone and use it easily without fiddling with the case at all, and put it back just as quickly. The problem with this kind of clip is it has to be made specifically for the phone in question: generic "small phone" clips are far more popular because one will serve dozens of phones.

I also made a few wallpapers from my PC wallpaper that are a jillion times nicer than the "edgy" ones they include:

For all that, though, I still wish I could go back to a single device. Maybe an HTC Fuze. Ahhhh....

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Unicel is dead and I'm unhappy

And I'm still not interested in buying an iPhone.

So we stopped at the UnicelAT&T office in Montpelier to see what's up with our phones and along the way switched over to AT&T and got some new free phones (Sony Ericsson W350s). I immediately moved the SIM (excuse me, SmartChip™) into my Windows Mobile smartphone (a Ubiquio 503G) and found... nothing. In a few spots I get roaming onto AT&T (does that make sense?) and in most places, including the whole area around my house, I get no service. The same SIM works in my old Motorola Razr as well as in the Sony.

I'm going to do some research when time allows (hah!) to see if this is something I can fix. The Ubiquio supports virtually every protocol out there (Quad-Band GSM/GPRS/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900 MHz, WCDMA/UMTS Tri-band 850/1900/2100 MHz, HSDPA 3.6 Mbps), it's never failed to get a signal no matter where I've roamed, it's supposed to get solid coverage even overseas, but AT&T manages to stump it? If so, I'm trebly surprised. First, that they bought Unicel only to ignore its entire infrastructure of cell towers? Second, that their SIMs manage to disable all the roaming options that would work on those ubiquitous protocols that Unicel uses? And third, that whatever they do limit me to is something the Ubiquio, one of the most universally protocol-compatible phones out there, can't do?

If I am forced to give up on using my phone as my phone, this is going to be very disappointing. Admittedly, I don't do as much texting as I used to, but the idea of using interpretive entry again for what little I do do is maddening. Not having my address book sync to my address book is crazy. Having to wear a second device is nuts. And worst of all is my Bluetooth headset situation. I don't know if either the Razr or Sony will even be able to use it as a headset at all, since it's stereo, but even if it does, I can't have it playing music from one phone and able to handle calls from the other.

What's really odd, though, is that AT&T's own coverage map speaks only of GSM coverage in Vermont, and the Ubiquio offers the exact same support that the Razr does for all four GSM bands. There's no reason I can see this shouldn't work.

Of course AT&T has no sympathy; all they'll be able to suggest is I pony up $450 for an HTC Fuze. Which of course would be delightful to have, except for that $450 part. They don't truck with the whole unlocked phone thing. Generally speaking, I much prefer the way the rest of the world does it, where you buy a phone from whoever you like and a SIM from your provider and mix-and-match. People in the US prefer the convenience of getting a "free phone" (i.e., the price is rolled into the long-term commitment contract you sign up for when you get the service) to the cost savings of paying for the phone only once and getting to choose your own.

I am running short of optimism that I'll be able to find a solution to this. As far as I can see, I'm simply out of luck.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Motherboard and video

Thanks to some recommendations from a friend and some good prices, there's now a new motherboard and video card in Siobhan's computer, currently churning through installing device drivers. We were able to skip the "cheap temporary stopgap video card" approach and go right to the "final" approach.

Not only does it seem to be working, some things I never got working on the old one (like the front USB ports and floppy drive) seem to be working again. I had to rearrange a few drives to make everything fit but otherwise it was pretty easy. The documentation was great.

During the previous changes we replaced, one part at a time, every single piece of the system except the floppy drive and the drive cables. The drive cables have now been replaced, so the floppy drive is the only remaining part of the previous computer, even though there was never a time that the whole system was being replaced.

Only took me about three hours to get the new motherboard installed and working. Wonder how long the device drivers will take. Can't wait to see how good the performance is.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Starting to warm up

Spring is still a ways off and really the average temperatures aren't up much, but there's sunshine and in some places snow has melted, and that's all it takes in combination with the turning of calendar pages to get me thinking about spring. I've got a few projects lined up this year, in addition to the usual spring things, such as the building of a wall in the woodshed and I'm getting jazzed to do them. Plus there's getting back to woodcutting: I have a new axe to try out!

I'm still in that part of winter where I don't mind winter but I wouldn't mind spring either. By next month, I'll probably start being sick of winter. The ideal climate for me would be what you'd get if you took Vermont's climate, then subtracted a month or two from winter and added it onto spring and summer. I don't need it to be hotter or cooler in the summer; I wouldn't want it to be milder or much colder in winter; I wouldn't want to avoid the thunderstorms or snowstorms or anything else. I like the variety and the spread between the extremes we have; I just wouldn't mind changing the distribution a bit.

But even if you ask me in mid-March when I'm starting to hanker to feel warmth on my face and sit on the grass, I'll still say I like the climate here pretty well. And that's the worst it'll get.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Making things happen

Seems like at any time in my life there's at least a few people who have jobs they hate but who aren't trying that hard to change it, and I wonder why. I've never had that problem; I've certainly been stuck in jobs I hated, but I never felt unable to be at least trying to improve my lot. So I was wondering what stops other people, and I came up with a few reasons.

I promised to stay. I'm surprised how often I hear this one. Now I'm all for the idea of giving your boss a fair shake. If you made a commitment, you should honor it. But often people are standing by this kind of promise way longer than they actually committed to, or standing by it well after the job had failed to live up to its promises to the employee. You should be as loyal to an employer as it is to you. If this is your reason, are you really just using that as an excuse?

I can't schedule interviews because of my work times. If your job is during the same hours that your prospective new employers and you can't get time off, you might be able to work around this some of the time. Ask the new employer if they can do an off-hours interview: many won't be able or willing, but some might appreciate that you're trying to honor your terms with your current employer instead of calling in sick, and respect that. Or just call in sick if that's what you have to do. Sure, you will get fewer opportunities this way and it may take longer, but that's no reason not to be trying. If anything, this is reason to try harder since it'll take longer.

I don't have time or energy to look. Sounds similar to the previous one, but in this case, it's more about not putting in the time and effort. This one is very pernicious. My job is so stressful that when I'm done with the job, I am too tired, or emotionally exhausted, or stressed, to do anything serious. All I have the energy for is to relax: watch TV, play games, sleep, whatever. I need these things to burn off the stress. But it's a self-perpetuating cycle. It may be hard to break but it's the only way anything is ever going to change. You have to buckle down and make yourself spend some time on job-searching and interviews. For some people, the best way is to schedule that time. If you know you only have to do it on Mondays and Thursdays, maybe you can make yourself do it, knowing you can crash on the other five days.

I'm not qualified for a better job. Maybe you're not qualified for a lot better, but even without qualifications there's some hope of doing better because there are better jobs out there where you can learn as you go. Usually, though, this one is an expression of lack of self-confidence. Don't decide that you can't get the job: let the interviewers decide that. It's worth a try: why not roll the dice? Maybe you're afraid of getting a job where you can't cut the mustard, and then losing it, and that's a legitimate concern. But there are certainly jobs that you can try for where the important currency isn't skills but effort.

I'm afraid a change might make things worse. An insidious one because it can be legitimate. You're making a bet when you change jobs; it could indeed end up worse. But sometimes this is an excuse. The correct comparison isn't "will that job be better than this one". The correct comparison is, "will staying in this job forever be better than the next job, given that if I get it, and it doesn't work, I can try again to get another one". People tend to compare one day to the next, instead of multiplying the effects out over many years or a lifetime. The other thing people fail to consider is that interviews don't have to be one-way. You can be interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. Go into the interview not just trying to wow them but also with a plan to evaluate them and decide if they're going to be a good job. If they offer it, you don't have to take it.

I get too distraught when I don't get a job. This one seems like a minor one but I think for many people it's the biggest one even if they don't realize it or admit it. Each time they go on an interview they get their hopes built up, and each time they don't get the job, their hopes are crushed, and they get that much closer to giving up. You have to remember that there's usually dozens of applicants. No one can go into an interview with any certainty of success. Every interview is a long shot; they only lead to a job in the aggregate. That's not an easy way of thinking for a lot of people. They get daydreamy about how good the job will be and then it weighs down on them. I don't know a solution for this other than "stop being like that". Remind yourself over and over that each interview is not "me trying to get a job" in itself, but only as part of an overall process.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Big concerts

It's been a long long time since I've seen any headline acts at a concert. The only concerts I go to these days are small ones like The Bobs. Big bands that everyone's heard of, however, I don't generally see, not because I'm not interested. It's just that on top of the high cost and long drive, there's a huge crowd of noisy people crammed into seats that are, compared to me, tiny. There's not much opportunity to be comfortable enough to appreciate the music, let alone the performance.

Which is a pity because I really like concerts. In my youth I managed to go to a few, but usually I had to get nosebleed seats in Nassau Coliseum, both because I couldn't afford better ones and I also couldn't get to wait in line a day ahead. I didn't see many: Journey, Rush, Jethro Tull twice, Duran Duran, and that's all I can remember. In my adult life I got to a few big concerts with Siobhan in outdoor venues in Stowe, but avoiding the tiny folding chairs (which would probably have crumpled under me back then, still might) meant we were up on the hill, and since everyone else stood up for the entire show, we had to as well, which is hard on the back.

If I could get to a big concert of a big name, though, it would have to be Rush. After thirty years in the business they still put on a great show: lively, not overproduced and overchoreographed but not a dull recitation of their biggest hits, and their musicianship really shines through. And of course there's the chance to see Neil Peart reminding us how the rest of the drummers in the world only get to compete for distant second place. I saw them once long ago, in the tour after Signals, but I was so far up in the back of Nassau Coliseum that I might as well have been at home watching it on TV; even so it was a great show, I just wished I could have seen more of it!

Maybe I'll watch for a chance to see them and find out if there's a way to pony up even more for a good seat that's comfortable enough to enjoy the show, now that my financial means far exceed what they were in my college days. If it's a once-in-a-decade thing, maybe it would be worth it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

One of a kind

Why does the phrase "one of a kind" mean the opposite of what it says? After all, if you're only one example of an entire kind, doesn't that mean the opposite of being unique?

Now, if you were "a kind of one", that would be a very stilted (in modern parlance) phrase that would mean the right thing, analogous to "in a class by yourself" in denotation.

I'm sure there's some perfectly innocuous (and probably depressingly dull) explanation for the phrase's apparent contradiction of meaning. What I find more interesting is that I have used the phrase for decades without even realizing the contradiction, and so does almost everyone else. We all learned the phrase as a semantic unit at a young enough age that we didn't take it apart and try to figure out how its pieces work. By time we were old enough to do that, even in the habit of doing it, it was already firmly established and we never thought to go back and reconsider it.

I remember the first time I thought about how the town Stony Brook, near where I was born and raised, meant "stony brook" and therefore was probably named for an actual stony brook (and I even guessed right which brook it was, once I realized that). I was, at the time, in college (at SUNY Stony Brook in fact) and had known the place name my whole life. Sometimes outsiders can see these kinds of things far far quicker.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


So often (and not only in online text-only conversations, though that's where it's most evident) I get people asking or telling me things as if they were writing me a telegram with their last pennies, so they have to save every word. People particularly love leaving out verbs, but often enough they'll boil down an entire sentence to one noun. This may not be quite as silly as it sounds: if you walk to someone about 12:30pm with a sandwich in your hand on a plate and say "Lunch?" the meaning is fairly evident (the missing words are "would you like some..."). But most people carry around a lot of context and assume that everyone else shares it, whether they do or not.

Which is fine, really. I am even perfectly happy to accept that most people share more context than I do, so most people aren't confused or misled by these extremely short forms of questions nearly as often as I am. The positive-spin, arrogant reason: most people aren't thinking about two other things at the same time, they're only thinking of the one most immediate thing, whereas my mind's bouncing from topic to topic all the time. The negative-side, self-deprecating reason: most people have a native ability to read other people which I was born without.

What gets me though is why people seem so reluctant to elaborate. Ask for clarification all you like; by the time you're at the point of ambiguity, that door is already closed. Once they get to the point where they think one word is enough for a complete conversation, the "obvious" context is no longer on the table, or indeed anywhere near it. They will repeat the one word, or elaborate on it, but they usually seem unable to realize that there were other missing words that they might need to supply. They're already past those.

I merely wonder why people are so chary with elaboration in the first place. No one is charging them by the comma.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Debunking is no fun

Blessedly I am no longer on many people's mass-forwarded-email lists, but I still get a few selected emails forwarded on the premise of "isn't this cool?" and naturally many of these are hoaxes and urban legends. Due to my being in IT and known as a bit of a futurist, one in particular I get every so often is the one about a Popular Mechanics article from 1954 showing a hypothetical home computer of the year 2000:

If you haven't seen this one before, the gotcha is that it's a fake: the image is a photoshopped version of a submarine's control room, submitted to a competition run by

I recently got a copy of this from, of all people, my boss. It's hardly the first time I got one in my work email. I immediately sent back a brief response saying something like, "that's funny, though the image itself is a hoax, but it's still amusing" -- and I didn't even link to the relevant Snopes page. To my mind, I showed incredible restraint in only saying that little, but most people would probably say that I shouldn't've said anything. Correcting your boss is not good tactics and should be reserved for times when it's vitally important.

But I can't not debunk this kind of self-propogating misinformation. I don't know if it's a matter of principle or if it's a simple compulsion, but either way it's irresistible. And inevitably I get defensive. The recipient of my debunking is likely to get defensive because I'm pointing out how they fell for a hoax, and their reactions could range from umbrage to silence, but you'll never get back a "thanks!" for showing them the truth. And I anticipate that and feel like I have to defend my actions, and then I get indignant: why should I have to defend the act of debunking misinformation and stopping the flow of bullshit that dilutes the value of the best information distribution and collection device ever built by humanity?

Nothing good comes of this; it's no-win. Letting the hoaxes spread unchecked is bad, but there's no way to stop them that doesn't bring bad feelings both to me and the person I'm sending off to Snopes, and maybe even impair whatever relationship I have with that person. I just dread getting these things now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kindling my gadgetlust

Amazon has just released word of the second edition of its bookreader, the Kindle.

Want want want! This is bringing out all kinds of gadget-lust in me.

What's so great about the new Kindle?
  • It's 10.5 ounces and 1/3" thick
  • The screen is readable at any angle even in bright sunlight
  • It can hold 1500 books
  • Over 200,000 books and publications are now available
  • You can load text files and PDFs onto it now (free if you use the USB cable)
  • It can play audiobooks too
  • It has built-in text-to-speech so every book's an audiobook when you need it
  • It has a built-in dictionary
  • It has a keyboard for searches and annotations
  • Also doubles as an MP3 player and basic web browser (Wikipedia-compatible)
The PDF import shoots down the only reservation I had about the previous version, and the wonderful new form factor pushes me right over into lust. How can you not like an ebook reader that's not merely more powerful than a paper book but also smaller and lighter?

Of course in Vermont the lack of Sprint's 3G network means it would be much slower here until we get a 3G network, but it'd be usable.

Want want want!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Another video card down!

Siobhan's computer killed another video card, after only a few months more than a year. So it's time to look at both a short-term and a long-term solution.

The real limitation is that we've got an AGP slot. Long ago we poured a lot of money into a high-end video card that used AGP, the best video slot available at the time. It lasted for years, but it was a massive heat-producer and power-hog, and we'd put it into a fairly low-end computer, the kind that's more than adequate for word processing and browsing the web and watching videos, but nowhere near up to the challenge of high-end gaming challenges. But with this video card (which cost as much as the computer, back then) it was able to handle The Sims, which I didn't really realize at the time was a high-end gaming challenge, in terms of its video and CPU load.

The video card died at a time when we didn't have a ton of money lying around, so we looked to replace it. Since we had an AGP slot, we looked for AGP cards. The prices had dropped substantially, so we got a card that promised to be as powerful as the one it was replacing, and then some, but which cost a fraction as much, produced less heat, and consumed less power. All good things. But when we got it, the system didn't work very long before it crapped out on us again.

Testing revealed the video card was good, but all the strain and heat had screwed up the rest of the system too. So now we had a brand new AGP video card and needed to replace the motherboard, and still didn't have a lot of money. After several attempts to replace parts of the system, we ended up replacing the case, the power supply, the motherboard, the CPU, and the RAM. Over the course of a couple of months, we replaced everything except the hard drive, CD-ROM drive, and some of the internal cables. A real unity of the organism question.

The result was a good case with great ventilation, an overpowered power supply, but a motherboard that was still pretty low-end -- far better than what it replaced, but for its time, still not exactly a gaming system. More importantly, hampered in our choices by still being committed to AGP, which by then was almost totally out of use, as it is now.

I hate to replace this video card with another AGP, and continue to propogate this AGP thing indefinitely, with fewer and fewer choices that cost more and more every time. So the new plan is to spend the minimum possible for a used-but-working AGP card that's only intended to last a few months, then to replace the motherboard and the video card. This time it won't be the cheapest one that does the job. It'll be one picked to handle The Sims 2, which is clearly as demanding as anything out there. If possible, it'll use our existing dual-core CPU and the RAM we already have, though if it can't, that's okay. But we'll use the same case, drives, and power supply for sure.

Once again it'll be a new computer but with the same hard drive and OS so we can once again dodge Windows Vista. Exciting!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

My blog's banner

That banner up at the top, "Merely a forum of self-expression, not bound by any particular topic." feels like a cop-out to me. It's pretty lame. It doesn't just say nothing, it does it in that way that seems proud of itself.

The thing is, this blog just isn't about anything. It's merely random ramblings out of my brain. It's not that I wouldn't like to have some theme, but I don't have enough material on any particular topic to sustain it. I've already, in this recent revival, come close to running out of topics a couple of times.

So I think I want to replace it with something that's not being cutesy or precious about being meaningless. I'm just not sure what that should be.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A puzzle

I thought of this idea for a simple puzzle yesterday, but I'm surprised that I've never seen it before. I've been an avid puzzler since I was a child, and most puzzles of this sort I've already seen by now. Maybe I have seen it and just don't remember.

Where in this sequence should the digit 1 be placed?

8 5 4 9 7 6 3 2 0

To be clear, it can go between any two of the digits or before or after the entire list.

If your immediate reaction is to say "I hate number puzzles, I suck at these, I'll never get it," give it a try anyway. It might not be the puzzle you think it is.

Friday, February 06, 2009


That car in front of you, all covered in a layer of grime left by all that driving in snow covered in sand, the grime so thick it's obscuring the car's paint. And you know that your own car is just as bad. It hardly seems worth the time, money, or cold, to go to the car wash; the car will just be filthy again an hour later. But the image of a pressurized water spray causing the filth to just sheet off little by little, it's so compelling, it almost makes me want to do it anyway. Not one of the drive-through car-washes though; the kind where you park and just use a pressurized hose yourself, so you can see it happening.

As the season wears on, it becomes a mild obsession. I find myself wishing I had a way to keep my own garden hose usable through the winter, and somewhere to hose the car down (obviously I can't do it in the driveway, it would end up a sheet of ice). Sometimes at work (not usually until March though) they get out a real pressurized sprayer to clean off the delivery trucks right outside my window, and the transformation I see the trucks going through only reinforces the compelling obsession.

When the driveway is finally thawed enough and I can get the hose working to clean the car, that's one of the heralds of spring. (Though by then, the car's probably been mostly cleaned by rain anyway. The whole time you can readily clean the car, it's never nearly as grungy, and the act of cleaning it is no longer compelling, it's just a chore.)

Am I the only one?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Archos is dead, long live Archos

The Archos 605 WiFi 4GB I got for Christmas has shuffled off its mortal coil and is going back tonight.

Well, that's not true. I've had progressively more and more problems with it, but as of right now, sitting wrapped in its box, it's actually mostly working. On my last exercise ride, I used it to watch the end of an episode of ER. However, once I start using the SDcard slot I start getting errors writing to the "hard drive" (it's actually 4G of solid state Flash RAM but the system treats it like it's a hard drive).

It seems it get confused between the SD card and internal RAM, with the result that each of them corrupts the other. Since internal memory is only 4G you really need to use the SD cards for anything you're not streaming over WiFi. Once that corruption starts happening, the 605 starts needing to be "repaired", possibly including a reinstall of the firmware and/or the loss of any files on either the internal RAM or the SDcard or both, and often over and over, this becomes a real problem. Mine spent most of yesterday afternoon on a series of a couple of dozen reinstalls, plus redownloading all the "built in" data, and that's not even accounting for the stuff on SDcards I had to reload but never did.

I eventually got it working as long as I don't use SDcards, but I don't know how long it'll last. So we arranged to send it back for full credit. Thank heaven Amazon retains its sterling customer service. We'll be replacing it with the Archos 605 WiFi 80GB model, which right now is only $6 more. I know what you're thinking, $6 to go from 4G to 80G, what a deal! And it is. But you have to also consider that the 80G model is sizably thicker and heavier, and has no SDcard slot. I had originally gone for the 4G because I intended to mostly stream over the WiFi anyway so lighter was more important than more hard disk space.

I must admit that so far my luck with streaming things hasn't been great. Most of the time streaming music from TVersity has led to skips and grinding. I've fiddled with TVersity's settings and made some improvement but I haven't been able to eliminate the problem. And sometimes it just stops and the Archos has to be reset. I've been told that TwonkyMedia might work better; I was going to install the trial version and give it a try, but hadn't quite gotten around to it yet. The trick is balancing streaming to the Archos with streaming to the PS3, and also keeping in mind that the media server is an old slow machine so it can't really do as much transcoding-on-the-fly as a faster machine. So while I've had trouble with the streaming, it's still my intent to use streaming as the primary means of feeding things to the Archos.

Still, a larger hard drive has its uses. First of all, while I'm working out streaming, I can have lots of stuff on it. Second, this will be better for traveling with it. And finally, I'm told that I can expect much better reliability.

I still wish someone would make something tiny and light the way they make $20 1G MP3 players but with a tiny WiFi instead of the tiny memory. (If you can fit a WiFi adapter into a USB dongle, you can fit it into one of those tiny MP3 players.) If all it did was stream music to my ears as I walked around the house, that would be enough. Better yet, build it into the headphones. Feels like my cellphone, which supports my Bluetooth stereo headset, is 99% of the way there. But Windows Mobile won't map to file shares or play off UPnP servers. If it did, that'd already do the job.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Extended Phenotype

After being so impressed by The Selfish Gene, I got The Extended Phenotype for Christmas and started reading it recently.

The Selfish Gene talked about scientific concepts but was definitely geared for the lay reader. It wasn't light reading, but anyone with a modicum of knowledge in the sciences should be able to read it without any problem. The Extended Phenotype is rather denser and harder going, with more technical language. There's a glossary but it doesn't change that I have to go over paragraphs a few times and struggle at them, like reading a textbook and trying to understand. Dawkins doesn't hesitate to use words like pleiotropy, or assume that the reader has a basic idea of why haplodiploidism leads inexorably to sex ratios of 3:1; and he frequently refers to things any biologist would know but laypersons might not, without explaining them or with only a cursory explanation that one must struggle with to proceed. It's probably midway between a populist science book and a paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Like The Selfish Gene it's chock full of amazing and interesting anecdotes about animal behavior which are mentioned along the way to explaining or examining some question of inheritance. For instance, in explaining why an evolutionary "arms race" might lead to the cyclicality of locusts, he also gets to explain why both breeds of locust happen to have a cycle whose number of years is a prime number (13 and 17). His stories of those breeds of ants which take over another hive instead of forming their own, or steal workers from other breeds, lead to some fascinating issues of what evolutionary counters are and are not possible. And his explanation of why lions mate so remarkably often (on average, once every 21 minutes) despite the females not ovulating during most of it (copulation induces ovulation, in fact) makes one re-examine lots of assumptions about evolution.

I'm only about a third of the way through, and he promises the meat of the book won't come until the last chapters; so it would be unfair to say that so far the book feels apologist and unfocused, because that's intentional. I hope I'll feel as the author does that the end makes the earlier parts justified. Dawkins considers this his best work, and while I have often disagreed with an author about their choice of best work, I often find it a better bellwether than popularity. (A great example is Nietzsche, who liked The Gay Science far more than the much-hyped Thus Spake Zarathustra, and I entirely agree with him.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Damn Yankees

In most of the world, the word "Yankee" is a disparaging, even insulting word used to refer to people from the United States.

In most of the United States, the word "Yankee" is a disparaging word used to refer to people from the Northeastern United States.

In most of the Northeast, the word "Yankee" is a disparaging word used to refer to people from New England. (Though in some contexts the meaning is intercepted by a sports team's name.)

In New England, the word "Yankee" is usually taken as having a neutral or positive connotation, but I have heard it used from time to time with a negative inflection and connotation to refer to the residents of the most rural parts of New England, such as Vermont and backwoods parts of Maine and New Hampshire.

In those rural parts of New England, the word "Yankee" is universally seen as an entirely positive and glowing bit of self-approbation and self-congratulation.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Fatness categories

In ten days it'll be a year since the gastric bypass surgeries Siobhan and I got. My weight went from a high of 487 (two years ago June) to 420 before the surgery to 325 now, a total loss of about 165 pounds. Siobhan didn't have to lose nearly as much before the surgery since she was well within the allowable weight ranges for the laparoscopic surgical implements; she went from 327 to 305 before the surgery and is now down to 202, for a total weight loss of 125 pounds.

So I've lost more weight than she did (and more of it the "hard way", pre-surgery), but a little less as a total percentage of body weight (34% for me versus 38% for her). However, it's pretty close either way. Still, whenever people see us who haven't seen us for a while, they always coo over her weight loss, and then mine is kind of an afterthought, like, "oh, yeah, you've lost a lot too, didn't you?" but it's hers they notice immediately.

202 is still above the 'standard' weights published by insurance companies for her height, and even above more realistic 'average' weights. It's still "overweight". But it's not really "fat" anymore; in the informal, undefined, but everyone knows it when they see it, categories of fat, she's if not "normal" than at least closer to it than to the other end of the range. She can buy clothes in Walmart, and if that's not the definition of mainstream, what is?

But even after all I've lost, I'm still firmly in the "fat" part of the spectrum; I'm just in a different part of it. There's a psychological category boundary I haven't crossed in the minds of observers, and one I probably never will cross. I still can't buy clothes at Walmart, and if I ever am able to, it'll probably be just barely, and only from their "big and tall" sizes, where they have some.

I'm not really driven by the question of what other people think of me nearly as much as other people seem to be. It's certainly not even part of my motivation for the surgery or the diet or anything else. But even if it's not validation, it is kind of nice to hear someone notice and say kind words. I am only human, and this was a lot of hard work.

And while it's categorically not true that it's "easy" because of the surgery, it is true that the part done without surgery was harder. Even now, I still have to work harder than Siobhan does to get the same results. I need a lot more exercise to get the same effects, and my appetite requires a lot more struggle. Certainly those 70 pre-surgery pounds required a lot of effort and will and sacrifice, and it's nice to have that acknowledged.

Yet for all that I had to, and have to, do more and harder stuff, my results are a footnote, all because of some arbitrary boundary category at the edge of a Walmart clothing catalog. Sometimes that irks me.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


As long as I can remember, I've felt an urge to lock the car door and not press too much against it when the car's going around a curve, because the idea of the door swinging open and me falling out of the car while it was in motion seemed scary. It's not that this is an obsessive fear: I don't sit up thinking about it, I don't spend car rides with my teeth chattering. It's a very low-level thing, but it's curiously persistent. I've been doing this since childhood and it pops into my mind every single time I'm in a car, though only for the second or two it takes to lock the door, and then it's passed. (Unless I stop to think about why this happens, as I'm doing in this post.)

I don't know where this comes from. It's not like I knew someone to whom that happened, or even that I saw it happen in a movie and it made an impression on me. I have no particular origin for it. I suppose once I thought about it and thought "that would be bad" and then for some reason I can't identify it stuck. And has stuck through thousands of iterations, without ever getting bigger and turning into a real fear, but without ever going away either.

To a lesser extent I sometimes get the same reaction to the idea of having my arm sticking out of the car window, the threat of the car coming too close to something (a mailbox, another car, etc.) and catching my arm. I reassure myself that before it hit my arm it'd hit the side-view mirror and in all the years of being in cars, I've never seen a rear-view mirror get clipped by something in traffic. So I can still keep my arm out the window on a nice day. But the idea always pops in briefly.

Another thing like this is (stop reading if you don't want to be exposed to something gruesome) the idea of puncturing my eye accidentally with something sharp. Again, it's not like I sit around dwelling on it, or refuse to pick up scissors. This isn't some morality play movie about phobias or supernatural "everything means something" obsessions. The idea doesn't hold me very firmly but it also never fades. And again I have no idea why I have this idea at all. I don't remember ever hearing of anyone having this happen, or having such a thing make an impression.

(Closest thing I can think of is, as a very young child, I was in the car while my parents went to see The Godfather at a drive-in. I was more interested in the moon, which was red that night, than in the movie, which was completely uninteresting to a five-year-old. But a scene in which someone got shot in the eye through glasses made an impression. Still, I never wore glasses and never was around guns, and the 'fear' is more associated with humdrum things like paper clips and accidents than with anything as violent as that murder.)

Even trying to explain this, I feel like people will misinterpret this as being about obsessions. There's a sense that any worrying image that haunts you must be extended both in time and intensity; I don't know a word for something that's persistent like this, but not intense. So if I ask, do you have anything like this? I wonder if people will come back with actual obsessions or phobias.