Thursday, December 31, 2009

New drums

The Rock Band 2 drums arrived yesterday. They look very similar to the Rock Band drums I had already (and will probably be selling on eBay soon), and the differences are relatively minor. They're wireless (a mild convenience), they have a sturdier foot pedal (lots of people had trouble with the old one, but it was fine for me), they're a little more adjustable, and the heads are quieter (so you're hearing more of the sound coming out of the PS3 and less of the actual drumstick on the drumhead).

But the big differences are in ways they can be more like a real drum set. First, their heads are pressure-sensitive, so they can tell if you're tapping lightly or hard. And second, you can add on a set of cymbals, which I did last night. The droll thing about this is neither has any real impact on Rock Band gameplay. The three cymbals simply are alternatives to three of the main drumheads -- you can play either the blue drum or blue cymbal, and the effect is the same. And the impact doesn't change the sound you hear in the game either.

In Rock Band 2, going into "overdrive" means you get a few seconds to play anything you like, ending on a crash cymbal, and in those few seconds I'll be able to play all eight different sounds, at any intensity I feel like. I think the same might be true during a Big Rock Finish, but not sure. I've always made an attempt (at least when I know the song or am "feeling" it) to make my drum fills fit in -- the game doesn't care if you just tap one drum once, but I try to sound like a real drummer playing a real fill and fitting into, or contrasting with, the song's underlying rhythm. (I can't say I always succeed.) But in Beatles Rock Band you don't even get that. Thou shalt not deviate from canon! Overdrive (actually "Beatlemania") is triggered by a single cymbal hit, there no Big Rock Endings (or, I suppose they might call them Really Big Shows), and at no time do you get to change the songs.

However, in either Rock Band 2 or Beatles Rock Band, there is a Drum Trainer mode that lets you play free-form; you can even go out into the PS3 and play an MP3 and then come back and drum along with it (or just activate a metronome). In this mode, all eight drums do different things and are pressure-sensitive. Drum Trainer mode also includes a set of "standard rhythms" to play along with to train yourself in basic drumming techniques.

And in most ways, that's as close to playing real drums -- in the sense of "just goofing around" as well as the chance to play at learning -- as I need or want to get, as I would ever get it if I bought a real drum set like this one (with this). About the only difference is I need the TV for this so I can't just play on my own while the TV is in use.

Maybe I'll find some time to try to learn real drums and start there. I know that no matter how tricked-out a Rock Band drum set is, it isn't real drums. It's more so than Rock Band guitar is real guitar -- a lot of drumming is about keeping rhythm and getting your limbs to work independently of one another, and you do that in Rock Band drumming, while guitar playing uses almost entirely different skills from Rock Band guitaring -- but even so, it's still a million miles away. But really, given how many other things I want to do with my time, I am really not going to learn real drumming anyway. If I can dork around with it and feel like I'm playing drums, that's enough for me.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What songs can you play on a ThinkGeek electronic rock guitar T-shirt?

One of my Christmas presents was an Electronic Rock Guitar Shirt from ThinkGeek. It's a t-shirt with an electric guitar on it that you can actually play. Turn on the included mini-amplifier, turn it up to 11 (yes, it really goes to 11), then press on parts of the guitar neck with one finger while strumming with the included magnetic pick, and the shirt belts out power chords recorded from a real hard rock guitar.

(The one problem: strumming with no fingering plays an open E, which means if your finger misses, you don't get nothing, you get a very wrong chord. This is far too easy to do. It'd be better if an open strum did nothing so you could be sure what you play will sound like what you want to play. I know this shirt is never going to be played on stage at Madison Square Garden or anything, but it's a bummer trying to show it off only to hit a desperately-wrong chord.)

To my surprise, not only does the guitar-shirt not come with any suggestions for songs you can play on it (despite the claim that its limited range can play many real songs), I can't find any lists of songs people have played with theirs, on ThinkGeek's site or on the web in general. If such a site exists, Google doesn't even know about it.

So I'm going to collect them here. Hopefully this title will jump out at people on Google. If anyone reads this and has any they know, post them here and I'll add them to this page. As of this writing, I've only had time to play with it a little so I only figured out one song-bit which works, the intro riff to Smoke On The Water, but it works brilliantly, sounds very authentic. I bet there are a lot of others I just haven't had time to figure out.

Smoke On The Water intro riff: A C D, A C D# D, A C D, C A
Communication Breakdown intro riff: open E (x9), D A D; the entire rest of the song is these three chords
Rock You Like A Hurricane intro riff: EEE, CC, AA, C, DD, repeat
I Love Rock And Roll intro: EE EE G AA BB G EE (thanks to Sarah Antonelli for that one)
Crazy Train (not yet tested): F#F# AA EE F#F# DD EE F#F# C# F# D F# C# F# B A G# A B A G# E

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Studying for trivia

Every month we play trivia at River Run. It's a very informal sort of game, not a lot of rules, no real prizes other than bragging rights, nothing but a lot of fun. But this month, the usual game is replaced with a New Year's Eve Trivia Smackdown. There will be actual money involved ($10 per person buy-in), fixed team sizes (exactly six, no more no less), and probably a more rigidly controlled environment.

I am looking forward to it. I wouldn't want to play like this all the time; I like the normal way the game runs, the informality and just-for-fun quality. That's how it should be. But once in a rare while, this style might be a nice break, or change of pace.

It does mean I feel obligated to try to study and be prepared. Generally, there's no point in studying because you don't know what she's going to ask, and there's nothing to focus on. You just try to make sure your team has at least one expert in sports, one in science, one in entertainment, one in history, one in literature, etc. And we have a pretty good spread there; we're weakest in sports, with only one person who knows more than a smattering, but we're strong in music, history, and entertainment, and pretty good in most of the other categories.

There's one topic that comes up regularly that you can study for, though: headlines. So I've been trying to cram on headlines. I haven't been reading in depth in the news any more than usual, because I can only throw so much time into it, and so much brainpower. But as I go through the news feeds I am looking for headlines which are likely candidates -- ones where a key word or few words could be left out to make a good question. I am transcribing these into a text file, partially so I can use it to study and cram, but mostly because the act of transcribing it is the most likely thing to make me remember them. That's just how my mind works; back in college sometimes I would go through the agonizingly wasted effort of copying things longhand out of textbooks onto paper which I would then throw away (as I'd never end up using it) just because I knew that, tedious as it was, it was the most effective way to lock it into my memory.

Even so, I'm going in with the expectation of losing: the $10 I'll put in is the price to be in the game, and the $60 I could win is immaterial. (Our team takes second more often than anything, and while we, or at least I, might be more prepared than usual, I expect the other teams to be at least as much more prepared.) It's still not about winning, even this time; it's just a different flavor of fun.

Monday, December 28, 2009

People who habitually leave the subject line blank

There are a few people at work who just never fill in the subject line on emails. They clearly see other people doing it, they must be aware of it, but they can't be arsed. I can't help wonder, are they convinced it's so absolutely trivial that anyone who does is being petty and wasting time? Or are they just so selfish they appreciate that other people spend the time to make their inboxes readable but don't give a crap to make sure that other people's inboxes are?

Still, a blank subject is in some way better than a message whose subject contains the first five words of the message and an ellipsis. This makes me imagine they have a workshop with lots and lots of drawers and bins, all clearly labelled "This bin contains..." and you have to look inside to see what's inside. Why is that worse? Pragmatically it's precisely the same: both messages tell you nothing at all about what's inside until you open them. But somehow it's more offending when someone goes to the effort to write something but ensures it's completely devoid of value. At least a blank subject might be simple selfish laziness. A useless subject is unavoidably dumbness.

While I was writing this post I got another email with no subject. Fate, why do you hate me so?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Beatles Rock Band

Game play in the Beatles edition of Rock Band is quite similar to the main game, at least in terms of playing the instruments. The one striking difference for me is that there are no drum fills. In Rock Band: Original Recipe, the way to activate "overdrive" is a brief interlude in the song where you can improvise and end on a crash cymbal. In The Beatles Rock Band, you don't get to improvise, you just have a special crash cymbal note to activate it (and it's called "Beatlemania" of course). I suppose I can vent my desire to improvise with the freestyle mode, especially when I have the cymbal set installed: for all practical purposes, it's like a full toy drum set. (You can even play along with MP3s.) The other big change is harmonies but with only one microphone we haven't tried that (nor could we without more singers, as I don't count as a singer even in desperate times).

The real differences are all outside the song play. One "bad" element is repetition. To complete each "chapter" of the story, you play a set of 4-5 songs, then you unlock a challenge which is... playing precisely the same 4-5 songs again. They don't really have enough songs to go around to make it any more than that, but it feels a bit clunky.

The cool thing, though, is the rewards. In the other Rock Bands you would earn cash to buy new clothes and instruments, plus advance through a career by earning a tour bus, roadies, etc. which increased your available venues. None of that applies since you're playing out a career that already happened. So instead, you're earning memorabilia. Each song lets you earn one or two photos with trivia captions that tell you about the period in Beatles history you are currently playing. Earn enough photos and you also earn a prize, which is some bit of video or audio or both that you might not have seen (I understand some of them are archival footage that hasn't been available until this game). There are also quite a lot of Trophies to earn, some very easy (you get one just for playing any song in each chapter, for instance) and some mind-numbingly impossible.

The transitions and effects are really cool, and it's also very neat to be playing actual shows in actual venues and seeing the actual performers in their actual outfits and with their actual instruments. I wonder if some of the animations are based on real video from the Ed Sullivan show, for instance.

I'm surprised by how many add-on tracks there are. I might have to buy Abbey Road, my favorite Beatles album (and one of the very, very few drum solos in their ouvre), after I've gotten more of the included tracks under my belt.

Incidentally, I'm getting used to the drum throne. When I get my positioning right, I actually get much better results on the kick drum, with my foot being less sore and my accuracy improved (despite the fact that it seems The Beatles Rock Band is more picky about timing whenever the kick drum is simultaneous with another beat), but when it's not quite right, my accuracy plummets. I'm guessing on how to adjust it so there might be further room for improvement, though I have to retrain myself each time I adjust.

Today I'm going to try out Rock Band 2, after a lot of importing and calibrating and stuff.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Today's hot drummer

Hardly anyone would disagree if I singled out such drummers as Neil Peart, Keith Moon, or Gene Krupa as amongst the most amazing drummers of their times (though of course Neil's time isn't over yet!), in the same way people speak of Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen when talking of guitarists.

While I'm not as disconnected from modern music as I used to be, and I dip my toe into the stream of modern culture fairly often (though admittedly neither deeply nor for very long at a time), I'm not nearly in touch enough to be able to say, or even speculate, about who are the drummers out there now that stand out as the best in their field. The ones amazing people with great drum work, or innovative techniques, or otherwise bringing attention to the usually-taken-for-granted rhythm section.

(Actually, I'm not even sure who are the hotshot guitar players right now either. I've heard about Orianthi as an up-and-comer, but who else? Or is the current music landscape such that there wouldn't be any small group you could single out as "guitar gods" anymore? Maybe it's too contentious, or maybe no one even thinks that way, or it's not guitarists people coo over nowadays.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Feliz navidad

I won't belabor the list as badly as I did last year, but here's what Siobhan got me, in no particular order:I got a lot of things for Siobhan that weren't on her list this year, and all of them went over well. I'll let her give the list if she likes!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday menus

Since I grew up in an Italian family with big holiday meals, there was always a pasta course which was usually my favorite part (though part of that is because, like many in her generation, my mother couldn't cook a moist turkey to save her life). But with Siobhan and I, even if we have friends over, it's still hard to justify that many courses. So our tradition has been that we spread out the holiday meal over various holidays. Thanksgiving is the traditional turkey and stuffing; Christmas is something fancy we've never had yet (and sometimes involves taking a risk on a recipe we might not end up liking); and on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day, I make something Italian.

This year I kind of spaced off on my part, partially because Christmas Eve's a workday this year; so all I planned was to make store-bought, but good-quality, raviolis (Celantano) on New Year's Eve, along with a nice loaf of Italian bread. Then I forgot to put them on the shopping list. Then Siobhan forgot to think about what to have for dinner for Christmas Eve. So we're amending the plan with an extra store stop tonight. Which means for New Years Day I don't get off as easy as originally planned; going to make a lasagna for that.

Christmas Day's meal, by the way, is a potato gnocchi and wild boar ragu which was the only thing I turned up in a search of elaborate Italian recipes I'd never tried which sounded like something I might like. With not liking seafood, my tastes are really more about Italian-American food than actual Italian food. (But the idea of trying for Italian meals for Christmas is also part of why I was dropping the Italian-American dish on Christmas Eve.) The wild boar should be arriving tonight by Fedex.

There will also be eggnog, an antipasto, roasted walnuts, and a cassatta cake, which is an Italian cheesecake made with ricotta cheese and ladyfingers for the crust, a recipe I got from my Nana.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Toilet paper in hotels

Every time we travel, whether we're staying in an ultra-fancy upscale full apartment, a cozy but run-down B&B, a motel that's seen better days, or a low-cost clean Super 8, no matter how good or bad the service is, no matter what the facilities are like, one thing always holds true: they're always inexplicably skimpy about toilet paper. If there's a half-roll in the morning when we leave, there's probably a half-roll when we get back, too. At best, there's one roll ahead. Often, they'll have more soap in the pipeline than toilet paper.

Maybe they fear if they leave more you'll use more. I suppose there might be some psychological factor to that: people are probably unconsciously, or even consciously, skimpy in a shortage. But I doubt that factor really adds up to very much. They certainly don't worry about that when it comes to any other supply. If they put one more roll into each room and maintained stocks from there, it wouldn't cost them any more, except a one-time cost of one roll per room. It wouldn't significantly change how much gets used up per day.

Toilet paper is not a big ticket item for hotels. Every little bit counts, sure, but many of these hotels are far more casual about much bigger costs. I wonder what's really behind this oddly uncharacteristic (in some cases) bit of skimpiness.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Are children reading?

It's easy to make fun of the lack of literary merit in huge-selling book series like Twilight and Harry Potter, and bemoan how fast they go from books to movies. But you can't deny that millions of kids are reading them voraciously, at a time when we take it for granted that kids don't read for pleasure; they're too busy with video games and the Internet and texting and instant gratification of all kinds.

So what I'm wondering is, how often do those books lure kids into reading? How many kids are there who might not otherwise have gotten the idea of reading as a leisure activity, who got drawn in by Harry Potter, and then moved on to the "harder stuff"? In short, is Twilight a "gateway drug" to reading?

Then again, it's almost certainly true that the much-bemoaned decline in reading-as-entertainment amongst kids is probably nowhere near as bad as we imagine. How many of my classmates read for pleasure when I was in grade school? Probably fewer than an idealized nostalgia would suggest. And how many are reading now? Probably most of the children of the people who were reading when I was a kid; probably more than our jaded cynicism of the present would indicate. I don't doubt there's been a decline but it's probably not as bad as people imagine.

Still, if Harry Potter is luring more kids into the larger world of fiction as fun, we can forgive him his recycled storylines and overeager moviemakers. Maybe lots of kids will be reading next year's flash-in-the-pan on the Kindles and Nooks sitting under their Christmas trees. That would be nice.

Monday, December 21, 2009


By the way, if you weren't sold on watching Avatar from my previous post, there's one more thing I have to point out.

If you've seen a trailer you know that there's a precious mineral in the ground which is why the Earthers want in. Since it never turns out that its presence is (at least obviously) connected to anything else in the movie, it is simply a MacGuffin.

But what's great is that it is called, by the characters, completely seriously, unobtainium. With a straight face.

This is not something I expect from James Cameron. I would love to find out how they came to decide to use that name.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Changing mailboxes

A few years ago we subscribed to so we would never change email addresses again. We use the plan where our addreses forward on to whatever our current email under our current ISP is, which unfortunately is currently Wildblue's half-arsed "you can just use gmail" system. Which would be fine except gmail's POP3 support is even more half-arsed and broken. For instance, you can't have two clients read the same mailbox via POP3, because each one makes the emails unread so the other one doesn't get it. That's right, in this day and age you can't read your emails from your PC and your smartphone, and gmail acts like that's okay since you should just be using your browser anyway.

When we get the T1 from Fairpoint, we will be closing up our Wildblue account as soon afterwards as possible. But Fairpoint doesn't provide email addresses with the T1 service. So for $6/year more, I'll be upgrading our POBox account to the one where we get actual mailboxes there.

And since POBox is on an annual subscription and my payment is due tomorrow, I'm going to upgrade today, so that the costs will be clearcut, and to save the hassle of doing another payment. Incidentally, that means I will be able to simplify my smartphone's email handling too.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


This review is free of any spoiler except things you could tell just from seeing the trailer. If you don't even see the trailers, skip this review!

Another review said that it makes sense that James Cameron took no risks with the story in Avatar since so many risks were being taken with the film techniques, and there's good sense in that. The story is eminently familiar. A followup review called it "the best FernGully remake ever!" and that's quite apt. There are also elements of many familiar stories about aboriginal peoples, along with every cliché about them being in touch with the natural world. Yet for as familiar, or derivative, as the story is, it's done remarkably well. With a very few noteworthy exceptions, even when the movie is being corny, it's still being emotionally moving.

While the overall story arc and the morality plays at its heart are very familiar (though timely!), there is a lot of well-developed and somewhat original stuff in there, which people can easily overlook because they're so caught up in how the broader strokes are familiar. In particular, the biology of this alien world, though it includes a few familiar elements and a few things that are inexplicably similar to Earth, but many other things that are really nicely inventive. I bet the movie won't get enough credit for those.

Visually the movie is beautiful, and remarkable not merely for the technical achievement but also simply because it is gorgeous. The world we're seeing is simply lovely in a lot of ways, having been beautifully and imaginatively envisioned, and the filmmaking entirely lives up to that vision. In particular, the bioluminescence and the colorful flying creatures are amazingly well-done. There are any number of scenes that would make fantastic posters. As a work of art the movie is impressive just for its visuals and that alone is worth seeing it in the theater.

We got to see it in 3D and this is perhaps the best instance I've seen of 3D in a work of fiction being used in a way that organically is part of the story. Usually, 3D movies are just agonizingly forced with scenes of things flying towards you for no particularly good reason, or characters flying around just so we can see them flying around. The 3D in Avatar feels entirely like they were making this movie and it just happened to be in 3D because they had 3D cameras. There aren't any moments where it feels like what happens happens so they can use the 3D; instead, everything is in 3D in a way that draws you into the scene even when the scene is just people walking through a silent forest. There are certainly moments where 3D adds to the thrill, but they're all scenes that would have been thrilling anyway, and would have fit in perfectly in the 2D version of any action movie.

The movie did run a little long. And some of the characters were just present enough to be tantalizing but not enough to be developed. There's a researcher who seems to have a character arc we only get by catching a few glimpses on his face; maybe more about that arc got left on the cutting room floor. A few characters have changes of heart that seem unexplained or inadequately explained. If I'd been making the movie, I would probably have made the same choices about where to spend the time available, so these criticisms are not that heartfelt. Still, they are worth noting.

Another thing I like about the movie: it does not lend itself to sequels, to becoming a franchise. Not that there isn't going to be one. I am sure they'll find a way. But I bet it'll be disappointing. The transformation of the characters (notably the main character) is the story, and now that it's done, what would the sequel be about? Another parallel transformation of someone else? Or his life after the transformation, lacking what made the first movie special? This is a perfect recipe for the disappointing sequel. (On the other hand, if anyone can take a fantastic but self-contained movie and find a way to make a fantastic sequel, it's the guy who made Aliens and Terminator 2, arguably the two best second-movies-in-a-series in action movie history, both following movies that were conceived and executed as complete-in-one-movie.)

I would strongly suggest any action or science fiction movie fan make sure to see this one in the theater, and ideally with 3D. Seeing this one at home (even on a big HDTV) isn't going to be the same.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Climate change: what if we left?

Even if it's too late to avert many of the consequences of climate change, even if we act far more decisively than we're likely to act, one thing I wonder is, what would happen if humanity died out tomorrow?

(Well, let's not bum out everyone's holidays, let's have us die out in January, I guess.)

I mean sudden and complete extermination, with no other effect. Feel free to posit something suitably gruesome, but to avoid mucking up the question with nuclear fallout or anything, let's say it's a super-fast, super-virulent plague that crosses the globe in a few hours. Everyone dies too fast to do anything stupid, so the world is just left to fend for itself.

I am not enough of an expert in climate change or meteorology to offer anything more than a wild guess about what would happen. A lot of mankind's technology would keep running for hours, days, weeks, some of it for months. But carbon emissions would plummet. While some unattended things would cause greater pollution than while they were attended, for a while, most things would stop running or stop producing emissions fairly quickly. I'd guess that within a week, carbon emissions and all other forms of pollution would have dropped off to a percent of current levels or less.

A few very splashy incidents of pollution, as unattended power plants, factories, dams, etc. broke down would cause some heavy devastation, but the most dangerous of those would shut down quietly on their own without anyone running them, and even the worst of those would not amount to a fraction of the damage we do to the world each day when things are working fine. And after a week or three, those would have run out, there'd be fewer and fewer exploding plants and huge leaks.

But since the energy pipelines of the climatological systems are long and broad, the climate would probably keep warming for at least a few decades. However, I tend to think, and again this is wild conjecture, that the biggest impacts would be largely averted. There would still be climate change but it would not be intense enough, or long-lasting enough, to exceed the abilities of most species to adapt to it.

None of this would change if, to make the scenario more interesting (at least to roleplayers and authors), a handful of humans survived in the post-apocalyptic (but in this case, more pleasant than pre-apocalyptic, in some ways) world, getting by on stocks of canned food, bottle water, and eventually on a few crops and hunted game, living in the ruins of Walmarts. One could even posit that, after a hundred years, this small seed of humanity could start to rebuild their numbers and even vestiges of their civilization from the ruins.

Supposing they didn't also forget where they came from (their Kindles and iPods would still work as long as they could find another box of batteries somewhere, and they could still read Wired and the New York Times, so I doubt the mass amnesia of 80s post-apocalypse movies would settle in within two generations), they could even start to rebuild some basic technologies. It would be many decades or centuries before they had power plants working (or enough people either to man or use them) but they would eventually have some technology with the capability to cause pollution and carbon emissions. Would the world have recovered enough that, provided they didn't make the same mistakes right away, they could avoid recreating the oncoming climate change catastrophes? Obviously, provided they didn't learn from our lessons, they would eventually get to enough people and enough advancement to recreate the conditions, but after how many generations?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Climate change

Reading the news reports from Copenhagen and comparing them with the scientific projections about global warming, it's hard to continue to maintain an optimism that the human race can pull itself back from devastating climate change.

It seems like that optimism is itself an ethical obligation. We'll only make the hard choices and the big sacrifices it takes to save our bacon if we believe it's not too late. We've come perilously close to large-scale self-destruction before and some would argue that we pulled back in time (there are still nuclear warheads out there, but the threat is arguably not what it once was, for instance), so it's not too hard to put a brave face on this self-imposed disaster deadline, too.

But this is a different kind of problem in that the climate is so large a system, with so many "pipelines" of energy, that the screwed-up inputs we put in during the last hundred years are still working their way through it, and the effects of things we did that long ago are still being felt.

One could make an analogy to medicine. Some conditions, when you first see visible, discomforting systems, it's still time to treat the underlying problem. Others, by the time you can feel the problem, the best you can do is limit the damage or ease the suffering, but the problem is too entrenched to be reversed. If the past threats we've placed on ourselves were more like the former case, this one is more like the latter.

There's no question that we have to act, and far, far more decisively than we are. That in itself is a source for a measure of despair. Consider this recent quote from Frank Lucas, ranking member of the House Agricultural Committee:
"During a time when our country is suffering from the worst recession in decades with double digit unemployment, when study after study predicts that cap and trade policies will cause higher energy costs and lost jobs, and when polls show that Americans are more concerned about those lost jobs than policies that address climate change--now is not the time for our President to make promises to the international community," Lucas said. "The U.S. should not act based on the expectations foreign governments may have regarding what the U.S. should do on climate change."
In addition to being shortsighted (given how much hope there is that green investments could also revitalize the economy through expanding new sectors) it's achingly frustrating. If we made this our #1 priority it would probably still be too late, and Lucas wants to put a short-term (albeit serious) problem ahead of one whose effects will still shape the world in a hundred years.

But if you really take a frank look at the numbers, and you don't try to put a brave face on, the facts are clear. Even if we cut carbon emissions by double what Copenhagen is asking for (and probably won't get), and even if everyone went along with that, global temperatures will still rise within the next fifty years enough to cause irreversible changes in the biosphere.

Yes, this is going to change the shape of the globe. Low-lying cities like New Orleans will either be lost, or more likely, have even more resources poured into keeping them around rather than resettling them, making them increasingly expensive to maintain. Millions of people will have their lives displaced and destroyed, or will lose them. Countless artifacts of history and art will be endangered. The worldwide economy will be splintered in the attempt to adapt. And probably, humanity will find ways to deal with all of that (this is the thrust of a very glib article in Wired recently published).

But meanwhile, ecosystems will be lost irretrievably. Pollution problems will be concentrated. Plants and animals that are barely holding on with the little habitat they have left will lose migration corridors, be forced farther into smaller spaces as humans move to avoid places rendered uninhabitable, or lose habitat when climate change goes far faster than geological change.

This isn't just sentimental agony, the fear that we'll never hear the call of this bird or see the bloom of that flower or walk in the other kind of land again. It is also compound interest on our self-destruction. Economic problems with a lifespan measured in years caused us to create climate changes with a lifespan measured in decades, and dealing with those are going to cause us to create further damage to the biota whose problems will be measured in centuries.

One thing we can do is clench our teeth and put on the brave face and force some optimism that we can still avert some of the damage, maybe enough to save... this, or that, or the other thing. But only if we act decisively now. If I were a politician or someone with influence that's what I'd be doing. But inside, I'd be secretly thinking, "It's too late to really avoid the important damage, and the only consolation I have is that that will be someone else's problem."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Public restrooms

In D.C. I saw a few advances in public restrooms that make good sense in a time of flu viruses and the threat of further epidemics. First, sanitizing gel is available in many public places, which is a great idea. Hospitals have been doing this for years, and more public places should. Even better, the dispensers are touchless, which I hadn't seen before, but once you see it it's obvious.

The other one was more surprising. More simple and more clever in a way. The public restrooms in a few places could be operated in part with your foot. The toilet flush was a foot pedal; and on the inside of the restroom door was a sort of "hook" you could easily tuck your toe under to pull the door open without touching it. So you could go in and do your business and leave without having to touch any surface that anyone else had touched.

What is particularly nice about this is once you see it you think, why didn't we always do it that way? After all, the door hook probably costs a few dollars, and can be retrofitted onto virtually any bathroom door. The flush pedal is probably a little more expensive and more tricky to retrofit, but it wouldn't cost any more than a handle if it were designed in. (Even the automatic-flush toilets, which probably cost a lot more than manual, still need a manual control.)

There are a few other things you do in a public restroom that might not be so easy to make foot-operable, and unless you can eliminate all the hand-touches you still depend on people washing their hands to prevent them infecting other people. But even if you only eliminate some of the chances for the person before you (who didn't wash his hands) to infect you, that's a good step, particularly if you did it by installing a $5 gadget that will last for years and took minutes to install.

(And yet for all this, restroom stalls still almost never have coathooks anymore, and half of them don't close properly. Are those things so hard?)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sand County Almanac Experience

In rereading A Sand County Almanac recently, I found myself using the built-in dictionary in the Kindle to look up many of the names of birds, plants, and other natural features in the book, because often Leopold talks at length about his experiences in ways that are evocative enough to someone like me, who can't tell one kind of trout from another, let alone birds or trees, but which must be even more so to those who would know a sandhill crane by silhouette or call. This put me in mind of a product that, if someone made it, I would gobble up.

I imagine a copy of Sand County Almanac in which every reference to a place, a bird, a plant, a fish, etc. is linked to more materials about it, so someone like me (or even more so, a city kid who lives where they haven't even seen a tamarack) could have some tiny glimpse of the experience that Leopold describes. Make it so you can drill down to even more detail. If you see the word "tamarack" and don't know what that is, right there, you have not only a picture of a tamarack and some basic definition info, you also have connections to other things mentioned in the book. Places they grow, what else lives there, and which of those things live in the tamarack, or eat from it, or depend on it. Selected art that features the tamarack. Images, or even video, of tamaracks in the Sand Counties, including historical images where available from the time Leopold lived in. All of this connecting to all the other annotation information in the book.

When Leopold talks about a place, if paintings, pictures, or video of that place can be obtained, or if the place still exists, include those, along with links to everything else referred to in describing the place: its history, what it looks like there now, what lives there and what used to live there, etc. When he talks about the call of a loon or the dance of the woodcock, give me audio and video of those birds.

Tie all of it together with more information about the state of conservation efforts related to each thing, so if the reader finds a story about the sandhill crane interesting, in finding more information about the crane (which he might never get to see in real life), he is not only given a greater emotional connection to the crane (by getting to see and hear it), he also learns where cranes still live (maybe motivating him to go see them?) and where they no longer live, and what's currently being done about preserving more of those places.

I can imagine some people might object that no amount of MPG video is ever going to be the same as standing in the marsh and seeing a crane, and Leopold would have certainly agreed with that sentiment, and did so at length in the book. At the same time, Leopold argued very clearly that taking photographs is a great way to extend the experience of the natural world, and the feeling of connectedness with it that tends to lead to a conservation ethic, without overburdening the natural world. (Build roads through the wilderness to bring in more hunters and campers, and soon, you have no solitude, no game, and no wilderness. But a given amount of land can give the experience to hundreds of camera-hunters without being worn out by the process.)

I think Leopold would heartily encourage something that gave a city kid a chance to have a "not nearly as good" experience of the crane marshes (with the caveat that he hoped it helped lure them to go experience "the real thing" later) because something's better than nothing. An absolutist "all or nothing" approach is never going to sell the idea of the conservation ethic; Leopold's book itself is a living testament to the idea that you have to engage the imagination, the enthusiasm, and the emotional connection, before you can engage the ethical sense.

While he decried the overuse of gadgets, even the ones he used, he was realistic enough to know that the problem was when their overuse drew people away from the experience. The man who wanders through the forest with a laser scope to get a few quick shots at great range at ducks is using the scope to avoid getting as close as another hunter who was relying more on his skill. But so far as I know he had no similar reservation concerning film clips whose charm helped bring people into the woods that would not otherwise have gone there. And this idea would be just that in a much grander scale.

It would be a huge amount of work to prepare something like that, though, and to do it right. I doubt enough people would pay enough for it to make it a viable enterprise, particularly given that the market would mostly consist of fans of the original book (you would want to have read the book on its own once before you explored my version) and while there are a lot of us there aren't enough who'd pay enough for this "experience" version.

Maybe. I have a bad head for what is and isn't saleable. So someone prove me wrong and make it, okay? I'll buy one, I promise.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Smallpox in the blankets

During our visit to the National Museum of the American Indian on Friday, one interesting point was made that I hadn't thought about. Everyone knows how, amongst the many awful things that the Europeans did to the Native Americans, one of the worst was the smallpox infestation in the blankets. Europeans, crammed into cities, had lots of experience with deadly diseases (and had provided those diseases the ideal conditions to spread and mutate), and had developed resistances to them. The Native Americans, spread out in small tribes, had neither the diseases nor the resistances to them. The Europeans didn't intend to devastate the "Indians" with disease; they had no idea that they were doing it. But doing so did fit in with the general pattern of how the Europeans treated them.

Because of the differences mentioned above, it was far more likely that the Europeans would bring deadlier diseases. But there's no reason it couldn't've happened the other way around. What if, by chance, the Native Americans happened to carry a disease to which they'd built up a resistance, but which would tear through the unprepared Europeans? Because of their crowded cities and poor sanitation, a disease completely unrelated to the ones they'd dealt with in the past might have ripped through Europe after the first return voyage bringing "Indians" and their artifacts back. If it were deadly enough, and unrelated enough to European diseases, it could have made the Black Plague seem mild by comparison.

This suggests an alternate history I've never seen explored or even proposed. It could go so many different ways. What a rich ground for exploration of story possibilities.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Eldon Luxury Suites

I never wrote about the hotel room because every day there was the day's activities to write about, so it's time to come back to that.

Usually we stay at cheap, simple motels, along the lines of Super 8, particularly on trips where we're going to be out all day doing things. Because the hotel is just a place to crash at the end of the day. It just has to be quiet and safe, and have a bed and shower. And most trips, the restaurants are as big a part of the plan as anything else we're doing, and in many cases bigger.

But this trip, the restaurants weren't a big part of the plan. Sure, D.C. being a big cosmopolitan international city has lots of fine restaurants and ethnic food, but it doesn't really have its own characteristic style of food, so there was nothing that if we didn't have it then we would never get to have it.

Between that and having a whole week, and considering the limited availability of hotel rooms in the area at low prices, we thought it might make more sense to rent a suite that had a kitchen. That way we could make our own meals some of the time, which would save the amount we'd spend extra on the suite. We had one booked, but they changed the zoning (or just caught the renter on ignoring zoning) and we had to give it up, so we switched to the next best price, which was the Eldon Luxury Suites.

It's priced comparable to other rentals of rooms with kitchens (or was at the time; the price has gone up, but we had locked in the lower price) but it's absurdly swanky and upscale. And I couldn't mean that more. Think of any one of those absurdly "fashionable" home design things you've seen on TV shows or at home fairs, the stuff that seems only to have a place in apartments of Manhattan high-powered business professionals who never cook but only entertain. (People like that seem fictional to me, though I know it really happens.) Well, all of them are here, jammed in next to one another.

Marble floors, and just about anywhere else you can think of shoving marble. The kitchen has all stainless steel appliances including a dishwasher... this is in a hotel, mind you, a hotel room with a dishwasher. A marble shower with one of those three-function showerheads (the huge square main sprayhead, a separate handheld sprayhead, and an array of tiny mist jets to hit you all over all at once, though at least not from the sides too) and glass walls. Recessed lighting everywhere. Absurdly trendy non-representational art in the halls. One of those trendy sinks that is a big bowl on top of a shelf instead of recessed from a shelf (I just don't get the appeal of that), and this one looking like an old-fashioned china bowl that has been painted black except for three roughly circular spots where the old pattern shows through (what's up with that?). Toiletries that were all labelled "Keiji: Memory of Senses" (what does that mean?).

It wasn't all goofy, though. There was also a wall-mounted HDTV with DirecTV HD (though not a DVR). It was only 720, and we rarely used it for much, but it was at least a kind of trendy swankiness that I could appreciate.

The room also had another nice feature we never used: a great ninja attack escape route. It happened to be right over the entrance, so if you opened a window in the kitchen (and they're the kind that slide up leaving plenty of room to slip out) it led you straight onto the glass balcony over the entrance. There was even another room that also opened onto the same balcony on the other side, so in case of ninja attack, you could get out, cross over to the other room, and sneak in there. Fortunately, the ninjas didn't find us so we didn't have to use it, but it's nice to know it's there.

It was perfectly comfortable, even when we spent more time there in the evenings recovering, and the shower was very nice, and in all, the room was ideal. (Except for the cab snafu.) But I kept feeling kind of out of place. People really live like that?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Homeward bound

With a train departure at 7:30 in the morning, we prepared last night for an early departure by doing as much as possible in advance so we could be out fast in the morning. We had everything packed except about three cables, three toiletry items, two articles of clothing, and a few food items from the fridge. We checked out ahead of time so we could just drop off the keys and go, and the hotel arranged a cab to meet us at 6:45 so we could be at the train station by 7am as Amtrak required. That way we could set the alarm as late as 6am.

Ultimately we woke up early enough that we ended up sitting around killing time. It left us a chance for one last pass through the continental breakfast, and I got to read some of my email and the comics. Then we went down to turn in our keys and the desk clerk commented on how he'd been just about to call us for our 6:45 wakeup call.

This set up red flags for me, but he assured us the cab would be there on time. When 6:45 came and went, and we asked, despite that we'd been very clear last night and again mentioned that the cab was supposed to be at 6:45 (just before he assured us it would be on time), he had actually arranged the cab for 7. He called to expedite it, but even so it arrived only about two minutes before 7.

I wasn't too worried since the actual departure at 7:30 meant a 7:00 arrival left plenty of slack, but one can't help wonder if Amtrak's got reasons for asking for that much lead time. Siobhan was far more worried because she's a worrier by nature. Every minute her lips got a little tighter. The cabbie was brisk and businesslike, there wasn't much traffic, and while we didn't get a seat at the waiting area at the gate, we otherwise arrived with time to spare.

The train was fully booked on the southern end so we were packed in pretty tight, but that eased up at New York City, and I got a window seat in a row to myself. However, at that point, we picked up a family with a small child who was periodically crying. I drowned it out with Christmas music on the Bluetooth headphones, but Siobhan just grimaced more and more as the day wore on.

This time I have some soda in my bag, so if we can wangle a bit of ice, I should be all set, and even if we can't, I can get by on gradually-warmer cola. We got meat pies from Acadiana last night for tonight's dinner, but they don't do po'boys at dinnertime so we couldn't get a few of those for lunch. Fortunately, a half hour stop at Penn Station in NYC is more than enougn to run upstairs and get some Taco Bell (which is, sadly enough, a treat since we can't get it back home, and awful though it is, it's a familiar, desirable kind of awful -- as unrelated to Mexican food as a corny summer popcorn movie is to inspiring theater, and in the same way, both are desirable on different days and in different ways).

Spent the latter half of the train ride writing; turns out to be a good place for that, and I guess after a while since last time I did it, I was ready. And now, at last, back home. Traveling is double-good because coming home is just as nice as going away was.

Friday, December 11, 2009

DC Day 6: National Mall

Bitter cold and wind made this perhaps a poor day to choose for a visit to the western reaches of the National Mall. We had to stop in at each museum and visitor's center just to warm up. The very nice lady at the USDA visitor's center seemed pleased to have a few visitors, so we didn't explain we mostly came in for some federally-funded warmth and shelter.

Our first stop was the White House. Embarassingly I misread the map and picked the wrong building, thinking I was just seeing the White House from a different angle than the familiar facade. Further along towards the National Christmas Tree we found my mistake and the usual view (and a bunch of Japanese tourists living out the stereotype of photographing willy-nilly; we kept seeing the same group doing the same thing elsewhere).

We didn't go up in the Washington Monument, or down the mall to the Lincoln Memorial, but we did stand next to the monument (in part for the shelter from the wind!) and took pictures down the reflecting pool towards the Lincoln Memorial. Then we museum-hopped (for warmth) back to the National Air and Space Museum to catch the shows we hadn't yet seen.

In the planetarium, Journey To The Stars was amazing, an excellent use of the audiovisual capabilities of the planetarium to give a very informative and complete tour of the life and significance of stars in only a half hour.

Black Holes wasn't as good; it was a bit too busy being breathless to actually tell you much about black holes, though the graphical demonstration of the curvature of spacetime was effective. But how could you do a half hour about black holes and a journey into one, and not mention Stephen Hawking or time dilation or tide locking, even by reference?

The Imax 3D film Space Station was amazing. I had no idea how much of the prep, flights, assembly, and life on the space station was being filmed in Imax in 3D all along. I expected five minutes of actual in-space Imax 3D footage padded with lots of ground film, but easily more than half was genuine "you are there" 3D film in space, ranging through assembly up to the Expedition Two.

Of the many museums on the mall, there isn't a single one which holds zero interest, but one must make choices when there is limited time. The museums you do not visit are not unvalued, just ones you couldn't fit in. The one we didn't have time for that was nearest the top of the list was the National Museum of the American Indian. At least that was the plan, but having had a little time to see some of the space films yesterday we finished early enough today to get some time there. Only a few hours, clearly not enough, but more than we expected to get.

The architecture of the museum itself is striking, evocative of cliffside dwellings of the southwest while still feeling modern and integrated into the surrounding buildings. A lot of the space inside is not yet used for exhibits, so two hours was enough to at least see all three of the main ones. Each exhibit was very well done, though it didn't click together as impactfully as the sum of its parts. Perhaps that's because of our going through at a moderately quick pace, though. But the museum we visited recently at Foxwoods was more potent to me.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

DC Day 5: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

The main building of the National Air And Space Museum we visited yesterday is strikingly provisioned with various important aircraft and spacecraft, and generously at that, but it's still mostly exhibits with explanations and educational material about air and space science and history, built around the artifacts. The other half of NASM, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center which we visited today, is the opposite. There are a few educational exhibits, but mostly, it's just a mind-bogglingly huge room (a hangar, in fact) full, overfull, brimming over, with aircraft and spacecraft. Sitting and hanging and stacked up one on top of the other. So many you just stand there agape trying to find a way to focus on just one thing for a while, before you acclimate enough to start figuring out how to approach it.

It's really hard to imagine what it's like from pictures or words, because it's just so huge, and so full, and so overwhelming, that these things don't really encapsulate it at all. Most summaries just highlight some of the most prominent things present: an SR-71 Blackbird, the space shuttle Enterprise, the Enola Gay, a Concorde, etc. But it's the sheer diversity of things that's most striking. And it's not just airplanes of every sort, and helicopters, and spaceships. There's also a surprising number of missiles, and gliders, and aerobatic planes, and engines, and satellites, and other smaller artifacts of all sorts. (Seeming somewhat out of place amongst them: the model of the mother ship from Close Encounters. But also cool.)

We had enough time after viewing the exhibits to see a couple of IMax movies too. "Fighter Pilot: Red Flag" was great, following a huge multinational air force combat simulation over two weeks, mixing gripping high-speed flight video with a well-balanced insight into the people inside and behind fighter jets, and what motivates them. "Forces of Nature" wasn't nearly as good: it attempts to bring us an IMax view of volcanos, earthquakes, and tornadoes, but since no one's really able to film those with IMax cameras, they pretty much just went ahead and made a movie anyway from what bits they could get. The highlight here is the three scientists they focused on who are researching these things, and their successes (especially the new theories about earthquakes in Turkey and predictions that come from them) but that would have been just as good as an ordinary DVD. We also rode the simulators, but they're really weak: just five-minute poor-quality videos in a room that tips and jolts.

The big downside of the Udvar-Hazy Center is that it's off at the airport, nowhere near the public transportation system. It takes about two hours to get there through multiple steps of the public transportation system, and they don't run during the whole time the center is open, so you can't be there the whole day that way. Siobhan arranged rides to and from through a time bank. It's also true (and a bit annoying) that you can't drop someone off at the building; we had to be dropped up the road and walk the rest of the way.

But what got really bad was the traffic. We left at 4:10, but our ride, having left around 3:30 to pick us up at 4:30, didn't arrive until almost 5:30, and we didn't get back to the hotel until after 8:30, because a few accidents left the whole Beltway completely paralyzed. The ride was not just agonizingly long, but for me, even more uncomfortable because of a constant stream of idle chit-chat of the kind that makes my brain feel soggy, along with a smattering of talk radio and that kind of classical music radio that is selected to be as reminiscent as possible of mayonnaise. There were several points we had to spend outside in surprisingly cold weather, too, making the trip even more miserable.

But it was worth it. The Udvar-Hazy Center is a must-see place.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

DC Day 4: National Air And Space Museum

I heard on the intercom today that the National Air And Space Museum is the single most popular museum in the world. And that's a great thing, because it warms my heart (or at least its cockles) to think that a lot of people have an interest in this stuff.

Our first experience was less than fully positive, though. The security checkpoint people objected to my swiss army knife, though not even the National Archives people objected to it. Which is fine, but inexplicably they have no coat room, no lockers, not even a box and some tags. They only could suggest bringing the knife back to my hotel room. That meant a very long and time-consuming slog across the Mall to the Museum of Natural History where I left it in a locker, then another slog back, and we lost almost an hour.

After that, though... wow. They don't pull any punches. In the room you first walk into, there's the Spirit of St. Louis, and the space capsules from the moon landing and the first orbit, and SpaceShipOne, and the plane in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and... on and on and on. And that's just the first room. Everywhere you go there's an original this and the first manufactured of that and the actual the-other-thing used in some historically important moment. There are examples of every kind of airplane from the original flyer the Wright Brothers used at Kitty Hawk up to the most cutting-edge fly-by-wire slipstream designs and even a collection of unmanned drone aircraft. And spaceships from Goddard's first experimental assemblies through the Saturn V and Skylab to the Hubble and ISS.

There are exhibits about the entire history of aircraft from the ornithopters and gliders to computer-aided design. We spent a little extra time investigating the Ford Trimotor since Siobhan's character in one of Joe's roleplaying games owns one, and it's a lot larger than I imagined. They even had a platform you could stand on that shook you like you'd be shaken riding in one, and I really feel sorry for my character doing 18-hour flights like that. Plus the noise would damage your hearing in no time, it's literally 10 decibels louder than being up front at a rock concert.

With one day to spend (and the limits of endurance of my feet and knee) we got through all the exhibits but none of the extras (Imax films, simulator rides, and the planetarium), so we'll come back on Friday to finish those off. That'll probably be a half-day and we'll spend the other half on the Mall, seeing the stuff at the west end (Lincoln Memorial, National Christmas Tree, White House, and Washington Monument), or at least some of it.

I think most people should probably dedicate at least two days, though. I skimmed through a lot of sections just because some of it was educational materials that are fascinating but things I already know pretty well. While I was enraptured to see the device on which the cosmic background radiation was first detected, the printout on which the discovery was recorded, and the pigeon trap with which they tried to eliminate the noise that was actually the biggest discovery in observational astronomy of the century, I didn't need to read all the text explaining about the event because I already studied that in college, and saw it in various TV shows, and read about it in various books. I only stopped to read maybe a quarter of the educational stuff and saw about a quarter of the films, because the rest was stuff I knew pretty well beforehand. (The section about aircraft carriers and their planes was one where I read at least half of it, since I didn't know that stuff very well.)

Of course there are a lot more aircraft and spaceship to see tomorrow at the Udvar-Hazy Center, "America's Hangar," which I think is just a collection of craft, not exhibits. (But so many of them it'll probably still take a whole day.) One thing they don't have in either of these is a full-sized, full Saturn V, like I saw at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Though they did have a single thruster, and mirrors to make it look like all five.)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

DC Day 3: Spy Museum and National Archives

After another complementary continental breakfast we headed to the International Spy Museum. This isn't a Smithsonian museum, it's a private, for-profit museum, and unsurprisingly it's a little more slick, more 'entertainment' and in some ways a bit corny, but fun corny. They set the tone in the first two minutes -- literally. They bring you into a room with case files up on the walls and tell you to choose one of them as your cover story, and memorize it. A clock is ticking down the time you have to memorize your pertinent details. (Mine: John Campbell, an American clothes salesman, age 34, born in Mandeville, Jamaica, and currently en route to Budapest for two weeks.) Be sure to get it all because you'll be asked about it later. I actually didn't just memorize mine but started to elaborate on it so I could lie convincingly about it, but the only way you were asked about it later was in multiple-choice questions on a computer screen, during which you pass through security checkpoints, get your mission, and complete it.

The museum itself was a lot of fun and also very educational, and got me enthused for playing espionage roleplaying again. The first section went through spy techniques and gadgets, and if anything, the impressive thing about spy gadgets is not how real ones fall short of James Bond stuff, but how clever and potent they are -- even old stuff from the Cold War and earlier. A few things I saw were things that, as a GM, I would approve in a cinematic or futuristic espionage game, but would probably have been dubious of in a realistic one... but they were real, and in some cases, decades old.

There was also some interesting stuff about spy techniques. Some of this was stuff I knew but it was interesting to go over it again, and some of it was new. For instance, I knew about passive sonar arrays built to track submarines, but I didn't know how the signatures of different ships were recorded for later comparison as visual images, nor did I know how the system was turned over to scientists after the Cold War so it could be used to track whale migrations.

The museum went on from there to a history of espionage, from ancient Roman cryptography, right up to the modern challenges of online cyberterrorism. At times it was a little dry and in a few places (especially near the end) it bordered on being sensationalistic with scare tactics, but most of it was downright fascinating. Throughout, you saw artifacts related to the topic at hand, heard recorded accounts from the actual participants, saw video clips of the events discussed, etc. Some highlights: the masterful disinformation campaigns preceding the landing at Normandy, a section on the role of female spies as far back as the Revolutionary War, detailed coverage of cryptography and codebreaking, and a few short films from WW2 on the "loose lips sink ships" theme that are cringeworthily ham-fisted in their propaganda (it sure was nice of the Nazis to choose an instantly-recognizable symbol that cartoonists could exploit a million ways by having anything take that shape, from subs in the ocean, to the antlers on a pair of mounted moose heads).

They also had a one hour "spy experience" game where you would play out the process of trying to stop a terrorist threat, but we didn't go for that, in part because they were cagey about what was involved and I thus wasn't sure how physical it would be, and in part because of the cost. But I'm still not sure if maybe we should have gone for it. The gift shop was extensive, but while I wanted to want something there, I just didn't.

After a lovely lunch of authentic Mexican cuisine at Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, we went to the National Archives where we went through the Rotunda looking at lots of interesting original documents from our nation's history, including the big three, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. We also toured their public archives exhibit which includes a smattering of additional historical documents of interest (not just paper but also audio and video) mixed through a selection of explanations of the purpose of the National Archive, and its challenges. Particularly interesting was a section about the challenges before them in the Digital Age, not just because of a huge display made of a jumble of antiquated computer equipment (motherboards of ancient computers, 8¼" floppy disks, laserdiscs, and more), but also for the very interesting questions of how they can keep up with a mountain of digital data that changes second-by-second and is hard to authenticate -- though they didn't really offer a lot of answers yet, but the depth of the question is fascinating on its own!

So many people spent so much of their time at the big documents taking pictures of them, and I just don't see why. Okay, I can sense the "hey, this piece of paper is the same one John Adams touched" thrill, and how it's different to be standing in front of it looking right at it than to see a picture of it, but then taking a picture of that moment doesn't give you anything that all the (far better) pictures of it you've already seen (or could download online) didn't already give you. All it does is slow things down for everyone else. Not so bad now when the lines are very short, though it must suck when the lines are so long they have to use those velvet ropes. Just look at it with your eyes, and when you get home, look at a picture online, it'll be far better than yours anyway.

Monday, December 07, 2009

DC Day 2: National Zoological Park

Today we went to the National Zoo. Having worn ourselves out the previous day we paced ourselves a lot better, despite a lot farther to walk (and most of it up and down hills); however, I didn't think to wear long pants (only brought one pair and was saving it for... I don't know what, I suppose a day with worse weather, rather than a day spent mostly outside) so towards the end of the day I was pretty cold. Of course, that's partially because in addition to the zoo we did a few hours of walking around the area around it.

Some of the park was closed for renovations or for the "Zoolights" exhibition, and we weren't really adequately warned about it. Looking at the map we tried to find a "loop" route that would let us see everything without backtracking, and there isn't one -- the design just doesn't allow for it, though one little path would have made it possible. The guy at the information booth, when asked about it, noted we would have to go back through Lemur Island, but he didn't mention (despite the obvious lead-in) that the whole area around that was closed. So we ended up doubling back on almost every step we took at least once.

Despite that, and the fact that we skipped the Bird House and the Invertebrates hall, the zoo was a lot of fun. With the cold weather a bunch of animals were hiding, but most of the ones who were out were in fine fettle and some were in their thick winter coats. We saw the pandas (how could you not?) plus all the big cats which are my favorite. The apes were unusually interesting (usually I don't find them that interesting) and the small mammal house (though half-closed) was lots of fun (the meerkats were particularly active). They had an especially broad lizard and amphibian collection. The kid's farm had a giant pizza which was cute, showing kids where all the parts of their pizzas come from (and thus subtly bringing home the idea of the biota as a flow of nutrients and energy, in a way a five-year-old can appreciate).

I always feel a little guilty in zoos because I feel like I have to ask myself if I'm being exploitative of nature. And then I reassure myself that modern zoos take excellent care of the animals, and are a potent force for protecting animals in many ways (educating the public about them is only the most obvious), and that in both the sum and the details, zoos are entirely a force for good for animals and nature. But I still have to ask myself each time and I get a little nervous and have to reassure myself, particularly if any of the animals seem at all uncomfortable, or out of place.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

DC Day 1: American and Natural History

Boy, are my feet killing me.

Today's expedition took us to the National Mall where we saw a large number of very important buildings at a distance, including the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument. We also took in not one but two of the big Smithsonian museums.

The morning took us to the National Museum of Natural History where we saw exhibits on mammals, the history of Darwinian evolution, sea life (including a really giant real giant squid), the obligatory dinosaurs and Ice Age extinct creature skeletons, gems and gemstones (yes, we saw the Hope Diamond, and a lot of far more interesting gems), and a handful of other things. We lunched on overpriced sandwiches in the Fossil Café and bought sets of travertine dice (they didn't wonder out loud why we bought in sets of three instead of two) there before moving on.

The afternoon was spent at the National Museum of American History which is probably the single museum you'd think of first if you thought of the Smithsonian as a single museum. We saw Julia Child's kitchen, a variety of steam engines (ranging in size from a working steam engine less than an inch across to a single piston three stories high), various cultural treasures (the ruby slippers, the original Kermit the Frog, C3PO's costume, a scarf with Lincoln's blood on it, Edison's early light bulbs, the original Star Spangled Banner, Amy Carter's dollhouse, an Altair 8088, parts from the superconducting supercollider, and so on), and exhibits on American science, transportation, presidents, home life, money, inventions, and other subjects. All we bought in the gift shop there was a popout map of Washington DC we'd tried to buy back home before we left (but couldn't find).

Now we're trying to figure out how to get dinner and some groceries, ideally without leaving the living room or putting on shoes. We might skip on the groceries and get delivery (and have them bring some extra soda).

Saturday, December 05, 2009

On the train

Though I will be posting this from somewhere else, I am writing it on the train. While it has many unexpected comforts and conveniences (like 120V outlets at every seat), it is not only thoroughly free of WiFi, it even manages to avoid having good cell phone coverage, and not just in the wilds of Vermont but even here in Massachusetts. (Not that my netbook can use cell signals, but even my phone has been uncharacteristically offline.)

Though the seats and legroom are comparable to an airplane, and the ride is a lot rougher, the train still contrives to feel far more comfortable. Is it the quality of the air? The thin and artificial air of a jumbo jet is sometimes cited as the non-obvious cause for that curious sense of exhaustion and grouchiness that accompanies air travel. Is it the scenery? Probably not, because a distressingly large amount of the scenery is litter-strewn back ends of people's yards, and anyway. no one can deny the majesty of the view from an airplane. It's probably not the periodic stops since I haven't gotten off the train anyway.

Maybe a large part is just that there's plenty of room for everyone to have their own row, and I hope this continues to be true all the way to D.C. (Even so, I did have to change seats once because the person in front of me is a smoker and no amount of discreetly-applied spray could purge the stink. This unfortunately leaves me in a row between windows. If we change seats when the train changes direction in Springfield, maybe I'll remedy that.) People also seem more chatty on the train than on a plane, so I've had to wear headphones and listen to music more than I intended by this point (in turn forcing me to recharge my phone already -- I had a spare fully charged battery, but since they gave me that 120V, I'm using it instead). Nevertheless, I have my own space to spread out my netbook, phone, soda, M&Ms, Kindle, fanny-pack, and other jetsam, without feeling crowded, and that makes a big difference.

We brought way too much food, or so it seems four hours into the thirteen. I've been snacking on hard-boiled eggs, a clementine, and a candy bar, and lunched on a bologna sandwich. (Yes, I chose bologna. Don't judge me. Bologna may be bland, but you never get a bit of gristle, it's never undercooked, and it weathers travel very well. You can count on bologna. And with a nice mustard, its blandness serves well as a substrate for the mustard's tang.) Dinner will be cold sausage pie (actually a quiche, but the family recipe calls it sausage pie). I've no doubt we'll end up in the hotel well-provisioned with leftover snacks, which is fine, it won't go to waste (though we'll still need a supermarket trip tomorrow, for beverages if nothing else).

The railroad staff are supremely friendly without being pushy.

About the only problem, apart from the lack of WiFi, is that the snack car only serves the expected mix of overpriced, poor quality stuff. Hauling your own food is a limitation but one we can overcome, but hauling enough beverage is untenable, so I'm forced to pay $2 per 12-oz can of Diet Pepsi, which isn't even cold, they just give me a cup of ice with it. As I go through about a can every 2-3 hours, that would add up, so I'm switching to tap water, though that's kind of nasty and also isn't very cold. It would be nice if I could just get the ice; it would make the tap water far more palatable (and I could even bring some of my own soda). But they probably wouldn't hand that out without a purchase.

Of course, this trip is thirteen hours, and that's the big cost of train travel relative to airfare. It's not as big a cost as one might think, though, particularly on this trip. The train station is not even a half-hour from home, and at the other end, a half-hour or less from the hotel; there are no layovers and no time spent going through security checkpoints or staring at a belt in baggage claim. The airport is more than an hour away at either end, and takes at least a half hour and usually more to get through, so there's about two more hours of overhead on the trip already, and it's even more when there are layovers. In the end, traveling by air would have taken enough of a day that it effectively would take all day, just as the train does. I'm just trading a few hours of relaxing in the hotel to recover from the flight and the airport, for a few extra hours on the train, failing to build up as much need to relax in the first place.

Admittedly this balance won't be the same for many trips. You might live nearer an airport, and at your destination, the airport might be as near to your hotel as the train station, or nearer. Your flight might be direct, or the train route might have layovers. Some train travel might have checked luggage and baggage check instead of letting you haul your own bag into the overhead. Some train stations might even have long lines or security checkpoints, I suppose (ours barely has seats). The point is, it's easy to be misled by the "flight time" compared to the actual travel time door-to-door; and even when there's a difference, if it's not enough to get you there in time to do something once you get there other than crash in the hotel, it might not matter. So train travel might be worth more of a look than first glance would suggest.

Addendum: We're now in Penn Station, and still no WiFi. The train is nearly empty but due to some flights being cancelled we're expecting to get a full train, so we're compressing down to a single row. Better to be compressed on our own terms in our own time than after the flood comes in. Even with this, it's still more roomy than an airplane, and more comfortable, though not hugely so. I wonder how many of these people will be with us all the way to DC. Maybe most of them are bound for Baltimore or Philadelphia and we'll have an empty train again this evening.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Man as a part of nature

Reading A Sand County Almanac, and earlier reading the companion essay collection, has put me in mind of the big question of ecology and environmentalism: is man part of the system of nature? It's easy to make an unhelpful answer to this question which is factually true but misleading when it comes time to make policy. The companion essays glanced at it, but never bit into it, even when talking about the ways that Aldo Leopold addressed it, which is a disappointment.

At one ridiculous extreme, there are people who not only refuse to eat meat, not only refuse to eat root vegetables and anything which didn't fall on its own from a plant, but who wear gauze to make sure they don't accidentally harm an insect by breathing it in. One wonders why they don't cripple their immune systems to prevent them from harming bacteria. But even more absurd than that is those who would prevent a lion from killing a gazelle.

At the other ridiculous extreme is those who say that, since the earth's history is littered with the bones of species now extinct, usually at the hands (claws?) of other species, then anything man does is fine since it's just evolution continuing to happen. Why is it different when we build a dam that destroys the last of some fish (and let's say it's a fish we don't eat or use in any way), than when some species of wolf finishes off the last of a species of rabbit?

Both of these are deliberately exaggerated extremes (and yet I've heard both used as actual arguments made in earnest). But if you get right down to it, the latter viewpoint has some factual basis: we are animals, we are part of the ecosystem, and if our evolutionary advantages let us outcompete a lot of species and kill them off for our own benefit, that's different only in quantity, not in kind, from many previous extinctions all the way back to when one replicating molecular structure caused another one to stop replicating. It's true, but it's not helpful when it comes to making policy.

The simplest answer to that viewpoint is the simply utilitarian or economic argument. When we extinctify species left and right, when we pollute water tables, when we wash soil into the sea, etc. we are not only harming other species, we are harming ourselves, often in ways we don't see right away. First, there are the practical ways: maybe that bird we just extinctified would have produced a cure for cancer, or will turn out to be a key check on a bug that will otherwise cause a plague, or is an essential part of a food chain that we're part of. Then there's the more poetic ways that A Sand County Almanac evokes so compellingly: maybe the world we create without that bird will be poorer in ways that speak only to the experiences of a person's life, the lessons they'll learn, the joys they'll feel.

But while a practical case like this, focusing on how our behavior might be bad for us, can be more than enough to steer how we set policy, it's brittle. It's far too susceptible to arguments that the benefit to us of destroying some part of our environment is more than that of preserving it.

Here's an oversimplified example to make the point. Suppose you own a stand of marketable timber, good trees that will produce valuable lumber wood, and that take 50 years to grow. Which makes more practical sense: strip-harvesting it, or harvesting it sustainably? A young person just discovering environmentalism will almost always say sustainable harvesting is more financially sensible in the long run and insist strip-harvesting is only done by those who are thinking in the short term. But even if you think in a time scale of a thousand years, strip-harvesting makes more financial sense. A 50 year growth rate corresponds to a non-compounding 2% interest on investment. If you strip-harvest and then put the revenue in a plain old bank account, you'll accrue more money every year than sustainable harvesting, and that's even if the stripped land's value is ignored. (Obviously, there are other investments easily obtained with far higher than 2% return rates, and then compounding makes an even bigger difference.) If you bet the entire justification for environmentalism on practicalities, you run a real risk of running into situations like this, where you suddenly find your tactic justifying exactly the opposite of what you intend.

So we need an ethical element to our consideration of environmentalism, but that means we have to address the question of whether man's obligations to the world of which he is a part are in some way fundamentally different from the obligations of every other part of that world. After all, the essential fact of how nature works it that every part of it does what's best for it, and any harmony or synergy that arises is entirely emergent. (That includes cooperative and altruistic behaviors; when a mother spends its own energy suckling her young, that's still a result of her genes seeking their own benefit, and the same analysis works for all other forms of altruistic behavior in nature. For more analysis of this conclusion, see The Selfish Gene.) So how can we ethically justify man, as a result of his respect for this system, defying its most fundamental truth, making himself its exception? Doesn't that go the opposite direction from the desireable goal of reminding us all that we are part of it and cannot escape that fact?

Some writers have proposed that because we are able to understand the system and our place in it, we suddenly have a new obligation towards it. Aldo Leopold flirts with this answer, and it's probably the best one we have, but it's still not very compelling to me. It reminds me of the conundrum of Christian missionary work, and has the same problems as its justifications. For instance, it implies that anyone who manages to remain ignorant of ecology can therefore be forgiven any sins made against it, so oblivion is just as ethically sound as correct behavior. Which leads to the even stickier idea of "potential to understand" and any way you go there you just replace one ethical dilemma with another.

The more common answer is that a difference in quantity, if large enough, becomes a difference of kind: to wit, since our ability to change our environment is so much greater than that of a wolf, bacterium, or dinosaur, at some "critical mass" of power, our ethical imperatives suddenly and fundamentally changed. Again, this only works if you don't look at it too closely. There's no way that this ethical imperative can have a "sliding scale", that it's okay for one species to do something because it's tiny and limited, but as species become bigger and able to make more impact on the world around them, they gradually inherit more obligation to do so responsibly. Should we expect army ants to spontaneously generate ethical considerations more than we expect butterflies to, and do we consider them unethical for not doing so?

As a point of philosophy (or perhaps it would better to say "of sophistry") I don't have a satisfactory answer. All I can do is make a hodgepodge of these (and similar) answers that do not withstand a rigorous logical dissection. But I feel certain there is one I just haven't put my hands around, and maybe that no one has quite worked out yet. (Most writers who talk on this subject aren't really trying: they're content to make arguments that aren't rigorously logical and unassailable, but are instead persuasive, which is a different thing, often more useful.) Sometimes I can almost glimpse it, but it always falls apart, or turns out to be something else.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Washington, D.C.

Saturday morning, Siobhan and I are boarding a train to Washington, D.C., where we'll be staying for a week while we visit several of the Smithsonian museums. So I might not be blogging much next week, if at all. I'm not sure how much time I'll end up having, not to mention energy.

We plan to visit several of the Air and Space museums, the Spy Museum, the zoo, and the museums of Natural and American history. Some of those are on the National Mall so we'll certainly see, from a distance, the big landmarks (the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building) but we aren't planning to visit them since our focus is on America's Attic. This is going to be one of those vacations where after it's done you need a vacation to recover!

This will also be our first long train trip; before this the longest I've done is a few hours, but here, we'll be on the train from Montpelier all the way to Union Station, 13 hours. We're aiming to avoid using the train snack bar for food because we assume it'll be overpriced and mediocre-at-best food, though we'll need to use it for beverages. (There are no stops on the route long enough for a meal.) As gastric bypass patients we need to eat multiple small meals, so we're planning things that can be easily carried in a backpack without being crushed, don't need to be kept cold, but will be satisfying. On the way out, we'll have sandwich makings and sausage pie (essentially a quiche made with Italian sausage and cheese). On the way back we'll have stuff from Acadiana like po'boys and meat pies.

We won't be renting a car there (too expensive), we'll be using public transport. Most of the time the buses will do fine, and some things we can walk to. We'll need a cab to and from the train, and there's one trip to an air and space museum that's near the airport, and to which there's no convenient bus, so we're trying to arrange a ride. It's because of that that we haven't been able to firm up our schedule: we need to put that on whatever date we can get a ride or two, and arrange everything else around it.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Christmas lights on the porch

Last night I halfway put up the outside Christmas lights. Only halfway because my ladder, wonderful though it is, won't quite get me high enough for the rest of the way.

The deck in front of the living roomThe idea is to simply have them lining the edge of the porch roof, all the way up to the peak and back down. Nice and simple, and I think it'll look great. Trouble is, the peak is too high. I'm not sure precisely how high, but it's either 14' or 16' from the deck, and that's another 3' or so from the ground.

My Little Giant ladder can get pretty nearly up there, but I can't quite do the peak or the two hooks near it because to get it to stand secure it has to be nearly straight up (otherwise, the slope of the roof makes me feel like it's going to slide down) and I'd have to be near the top of it to reach the roof. I'm not confident enough in the stability of the platform to do the drilling and setting of the hook.

My friend Al is supposed to get me a taller ladder, probably a 20' one, this weekend. (Of course I won't be here this weekend, but that's another story.) But I'm not sure if that will be any better because the same problem will come up: the ladder will need to be nearly straight up and I'll need to be at the very top of it.

What would be better would be a stepladder, like my Little Giant ladder in its A configuration, but tall enough to reach, because then I could position it anywhere, not limited by the roof's slope. Failing that, a straight ladder of sufficient height to reach from the ground instead of the deck would let me get to work from straight ahead, not above me. But that would still require the ladder to reach with a few feet to spare, and I think even a 20' won't be enough.

For now, the lights go up about a third of the way and then hang in midair across the gap to a third of the way up the other side, then back down. It looks all right, if a bit tenuous. Maybe that's as far as it'll get if I don't find a way to use the longer ladder comfortably.