Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The water cycle, and the money cycle

I live in a rural area and so I have a private water system (an artesian well) and a private septic system (a leachfield). Even so, I try to conserve water like a dutiful liberal; I don't run the faucet longer than I have to, I don't use a longer cycle on the dishwasher than necessary (though that's more conserving energy than water), and so on.

Sometimes I wonder about how much of a difference that makes. It's easy to see how if you're on a city's water system, and it only has so much water coming in, that everyone has to make sure their share is small enough that it doesn't get behind. But you need to go to a bigger picture to think about how individuals conserving water in rural areas are doing any good. After all, isn't all the water I run through my faucet going to end up in my leachfield and thus back in the same soil it came out of to begin with?

Sure, there's no border between my land and my neighbor's land that the water respects, so some of the water coming into my artesian well comes from my neighbor's land, and some of my leachfield seepage is going to neighbors too. One might speculate about whether these are usually in equilibrium, but even if they're not, does my water usage shift the equilibrium? If I use too much water, will more water leave my land than come in? And how do the choices I and my neighbors make affect the water supply for the entire area around me?

I know very little about the water cycle beyond the very simplistic view we all learned in school (which really doesn't say anything about how human usage patterns affect it, since it's all focused on rain and evaporation). I know enough to know I don't know anything, and to know that if I wanted to spend the time I could learn. But really all I need to know is that, while my water usage might not be as immediately linked to conservation as in the case of someone drawing from a reservoir, it does matter.

Sometimes the subject of macroeconomics strikes me the same way. When the government spends a lot of money, doesn't that money go back into the economy in much the same way as when individuals spend money, and thus stimulate it? When we talk about giving $4M to Haiti for reconstruction, it's not like we have a reservoir of money and when it runs out it's gone. Turning the faucet and letting $4M of money drain down the sink is part of the process that causes the money to get back into the money cycle and eventually replenish the well from which it came; but it's not very direct, and no one can be entirely sure how to tell how much of it will end up in the reservoir, whether it'll get bigger or smaller by time it gets back, and how that changes depending on where you send it after it comes out.

Of course, and perhaps ironically, we understand the water cycle -- a natural process that predates us by aeons -- better than we understand the money cycle -- an artificial process we ourselves created, albeit emergently. Economists argue endlessly about the relative merits of supply-side and demand-side economics (despite some compelling albeit inconclusive evidence) and the virtues of government spending, but no one can create a miniature yet realistic model of an economy and do experiments on it, so the evidence is always jumbled up with other variables.

And as with the water cycle, rather than get overwhelmed with trying to understand it all when there's so many other topics and so little time, I just do the little bit I know I should do, and take comfort in the fact that there's not much more difference I could make if I knew more, anyway.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Summer Cotillion

Today I'll break from my usual format and post a short short story, more like a prose poem, that I wrote as this month's submission to the Lusternia bardic contest. I think this one will make sense even to those unfamiliar with Lusternia.

Summer Cotillion

It was the peak of the high season, and at the grandest of the ballrooms, with gold chandeliers and gleaming green marble, the highest of high society was gathered, in their very finest gowns and suits. The ladies were resplendent in shimmering silks and satins, and everywhere you looked there was silver and pearl, gold and diamonds. Gentlemen, tall and stately, lined up in graceful arrangements as their elegant dances wove in and out from between the ladies like leaves cast in a spring zephyr. Arrayed in seemingly endless rows, the orchestra sat in their stately, crisply pressed crimson uniforms, their instruments in perfect synchrony as they wove subtle strains of grandiose harmony to punctuate the movements of the dancers, as much seeming to reflect as inspire it.

Yet my eyes scarcely drank in the first detail of this majestic display, for amongst the finery, she stood out like a rose in a field of daisies. Her hair shined under the light of a thousand lamps casting captured moonlight as if it had no purpose but to enhance the gloss on her silken tresses. Elegantly simple, her sweeping gown of satin and velvet rippled with her slightest movement like a thing alive, as if she had shrouded herself in the twilight sky. I crossed the ballroom floor of viridian marble to her and, silently, we danced, slow and stately, moving together as if we had been born under the same sun.

The music swelled as the moonlight waxed, Mother Moon straining to shine more brightly to better illumine the bright gleam in her eyes and the rosy blush on her cheeks. Around us, a gentle breeze carried other dancers to and fro as the tune took a more mischievious tone, but she and I were a world unto ourselves, caught up in each other. Starshine cast sparkles of light on her dress like seeds of light promising to bloom into moons and suns, if only she would smile upon them, but her smiles were only for me that night.

The band changed tempo to a slower dance, a gavotte highlighted with an austere arrangement of strings that carried through the summer night on every stray breeze. The air was full to bursting with starlight and Mother Moon's warmth, and the aroma of flowers and trees was carried between the dancers. There, between the trees and under the sky, we had no thoughts of the conflicts of the day, of battles or responsibilities, of guilds and gods. We were each completed by the other, and the rest of the world faded away as if no more than the memory of last winter's final storm, long since carried away by the burbling streams to the Inner Sea, there to join the dancing of kelpies and dolphins.

She pressed herself into my arms as the bard completed her song with a bow and a flourish, but there was always another song, for the music of life was as endless as our love, and soon we were laughing as we pranced together, giddy with the heady aromas of the forest around us and the intoxicating scent of each other's warmth and sweat and contentment. Her homespun skirts swirled around her as we twirled and cavorted, her laughter like the song of the forest around us.

At last, we fell into one another's arms, looking around at the summer night in the forest around us. Birds sang in the trees to themselves, to each other, to us, and their songs joined with the wind rustling the flowers and the trickling brook to create a harmony as grand as any orchestra. Her eyes were full of the light of Mother Moon and her cheeks rosy with summer's warmth, and above all, her smile shone with the light of love for me. For one night, we were each other's worlds. We did not need gowns, or ballrooms, or symphonies, or dancers strutting like peacocks. We had each other's smiles, the song of the forest around us, and the warmth of a Seren summer, and from that, we could create as many worlds of wonder and majesty as could be imagined. What more could anyone wish for?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Geek Week Game Day

We went to our first board gaming day during Geek Week at Langdon Street Cafe yesterday. It was a little hard to be there so long because my knee gets sore if I stay in the kind of chairs they have there for a while, and we were there about five hours, so by the time we left it was throbbing a bit.

Games like the ones being played there (Ticket To Ride, Dominion, Carcassonne, Settlers of Cataan, Domaine, etc.) are great fun, but they also somehow always seem to slip off the bottom of my list. The reason is just that the only time you get to play them is when you have some time, a suitable place, and a group of people. Usually any time when I have those things, I'd rather be playing roleplaying games, which are an order of magnitude more fun for me. It's like comparing Dunkin Donuts to a New York cheesecake: I like donuts, but I'd always choose the cheesecake if I had the choice.

Sometimes I think two-player games might be a good option since it's easier to have an evening with two people (me and Siobhan) than three or four, but even those evenings tend to be pretty full.

Thus, for a veteran gamer, I've played very few of these kinds of games and don't know much of the standards of how they work, which makes it hard for people to teach them to me when they're used to people who've at least played Settlers of Cataan or Magic: The Gathering. Yesterday I only learned two new games, Carcassonne and Dominion.

Carcassonne resonated with me right away, and I won both games we played. A lot of that was just luck, but I think I glommed onto some of the strategy right off. There's a lot of visual thinking that worked well for me. It's definitely a game you can jump right in with. I'd added it to my Amazon wishlist before I even finished the first game.

Dominion didn't make as good an impression, but some of that is just that the way it was explained didn't really click with me because of a lot of unstated assumptions that come from lack of familiarity with other games of a similar type. My first time playing any game is usually considered a learning experience only and I try to brush aside any frustration, though this time, the frustration kept creeping back: my only goal I set for myself was to get one Province card before the game ended, but I only even got to one point short of it twice in the whole game, and never made it. Generally speaking, I think I could enjoy the game if I played it again, and I wouldn't mind another try at it, but I doubt it'll be something I'll seek out, or choose over other games.

Too many fun things to do and not enough time. I need to become independently wealthy. Work gobbles up way too much time.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spring cleaning

It turns out mid-March is a very bad time to get a greivous injury, and I strongly recommend against it. The snow is virtually gone here -- just a few piles where the plow accumulated it in drifts -- and the list of things I want to get done is accumulating in piles as fast as the snow is melting. There are so many chores that accompany the start of spring, all the winterizing things being undone, cleaning out the culvert under the driveway, getting the summer gear ready. Then there's specific things this year, like restacking and gathering some wood from last year, fixing the bike that got bent up a little in my recent crash, replacing a blown light bulb in the living room, teaching Socks how to come when called, and a few projects I have in mind for this season. Plus I hope to get a few more hazard trees down this year. But the days are slipping by and none of it is getting started, let alone done.

Then again, even the things on my to-do list that don't involve physical activity precluded by my knee are falling behind again. I've got an adventure to finish writing, a creative writing project due by the end of the month for Lusternia, some software updates to do on my servers, a backlog of Lusternia designs to review, and I still haven't gotten to work much on learning Lusternian combat.

I need to be less of a social butterfly for a while and get caught up!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

80s Trivia

I graduated high school in 1984. It only makes sense that the 80s are my formative years and should have had a great impact on me. My music collection includes an awful lot of 80s music. And yet, going based on the trivia contest last night that was all 80s trivia, I slept through the entire decade.

Okay, to be fair, that's just because of the choices of topics. One round was on themes to TV shows and I didn't watch hardly any TV. Another was themes to movies, and that's where I scored my only half-point. Yet another round was also movies, this time identifying John Hughes movies, of which I've never watched any. The various rounds covered a very similar subset of 80s topics while leaving lots of others out. The only music round focused on prom theme songs (and worse yet, it was a shout-to-stop round), and there was nothing about history or then-current events, nothing about fads of the 80s like the Rubik's Cube or arcade games, and even the pop culture stuff fit into a pretty narrow range of possibilities.

So it turned out my only contribution to the team, other than recognizing Bob Seger's voice, was coming up with our 80s-themed team name variation, "Men Without Browncoats," with which I was never entirely satisfied anyway.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Turning a corner

My recovery from my injuries from my bike accident is, of course, gradual. There is never a moment when all of a sudden there's a big jump of improvement. However, in the last few days, I feel like I crossed a threshold that's hard to put into words.

For the first week, every step I took required me to think about the position and movement of my leg. Every time I sat, stood, got into or out or bed, or did just about anything else involving moving my body, was a conscious process. At no point could I really fall back on the habit and instinct that we all use every time we take any of the thousands of steps we take each day. My movements had nothing of normality to them, they were entirely newly-invented motions.

Somewhere around Wednesday, when I stopped wearing bandages and switched to bacitracin cream, I found I was starting to be able to make movements that were like my normal, habitual movements -- standing up, walking, sitting down, going up stairs, etc. -- but modified to accomodate my knee. In an odd sort of way, this transition made the aches more annoyingly noticeable because now they were impeding my movements; impossible things had started to become possible again and the swelling was getting in the way.

Recovery is going very well, though. I am totally sold on the bacitracin cream. All these years I thought the point of them was their antibiotic qualities, which I dismissed as being a wasteful use of antibiotics (which should be avoided due to antibiotic resistance). Maybe that's still true (though from what I understand, bacitracin itself is already almost useless for anything but this, so no big loss there). But the real point of the cream is that it keeps a wound covered and moisturized, so you can go without bandages, and thus avoid them sticking to the wounds, impeding movement and having to be peeled off regularly. At least in this circumstance it has made a huge difference.

My elbow scrape is now about a third of the size it was, with the rest now pink, new skin, and even the scraping on my knee is almost half replaced with new skin under what's peeled off. The swelling is also going down a bit, though the cold weather today (and the resultant need for long pants) is making it hard for me to keep up with the hot compress technique at work to keep that progress going. And I can now walk both up and down stairs (slowly and carefully) the normal way (one step per foot), and finding a position in bed that I can sleep in is nowhere near as hard as it was.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I am not Ruby!

I don't really text, or get texts. Once in a very, very rare while I might get a text I want to get. But with an unlimited data plan on my phone, it makes so much more sense to just use IM or email. I'd have to get about 50 texts a month to make it worth paying for any plan which includes texts at all, so it's cheaper to have every text, inbound or out, cost a dime.

Every so often (and by that I mean about once per month or two) I start getting texts from some random stranger who starts talking to me as if they knew me. For instance, here's one I got in January:
Where r u guys im in the lodge i went up the quad with jordan and then we went down nose dive so im here

Where r u
I got another round of them today:
Hey wait we arent doing anything right

U there

Hey ruby do we have friends with benefits anymore

I really like u...
Almost every time this has happened, and I've responded with a message like:
You have a bad number in your address book: this is not Ruby. Please stop texting me.
The response is virtually always for them to think that the person they mean to be texting is pranking them. Why do they always think that? Is that a common joke? Is it even the slightest bit funny? And if Ruby were to do it, would she type her words correctly with punctuation and capitalization?

Usually after wasting another few dimes of mine, they get bored. Today, after they refused to believe me, I called, got voicemail, left a message saying "Do I sound like Ruby? Please stop texting me." And about fifteen minutes later, they called to ask me who I was. (I didn't tell them any more than "clearly I'm not Ruby" though.) To what end, I don't know. Clearly I wasn't Ruby. I suppose they wanted to make sure Ruby didn't just stop some random guy in the mall and get him to say stuff into her phone. That Ruby, she's such a card.

Naturally, they followed up by sending an obscene and offensive text to me. I mean, what other option did they have? Clearly, getting on with their lives, or finding Ruby's correct number, weren't possibilities.

The bad news is that AT&T's only means of blocking texts and calls from a particular number is, amazingly enough, a $4.99/month option. The good news is that the very understanding and helpful AT&T customer service representative I spoke to credited me with 60 days of that service. So now they're blocked and they can't call or text me. I doubt they're going to remember 60 days from now and still want to keep bugging me. (If so, according to AT&T, it becomes a matter to bring to the police; AT&T can't do anything about it directly.)

The most puzzling thing is how this starts in the first place. No one else I know has had this problem even once, but I've had it at least five times. Is there some person who intentionally puts my number into other people's phones when they think they're getting hers? Or maybe Ruby's number is similar to mine and she just types badly. (I and Siobhan both have a vague memory that a previous time was also a Ruby, but it's been a long while, I don't have copies of all the texts in question, and that's an easy enough thing to not remember.)

In any case, I'm heartily sick of it, and I'm going to enjoy the next 60 days. But I sure hope I don't have to pony up another $5/month for that peace of mind, not just because of the money, but because of the principle: it's just wrong that I should have to pay for the right not to be sent obscene messages from strangers and then pay for each message.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Topographic navigation

Sometimes as a passenger as the car travels the rumpled hills of Vermont I look out the window and try to match up topographic features seen from different viewpoints. That hill's peak there, when I'm down in the valley will I be able to see it and which one will it be? From this perspective, where is such-and-such a road or river I know? If I can see that point from here, when I'm down there, what will where I am now look like?

And it's surprisingly hard. We get so used to thinking in terms of the roads, and the way they appear on a flat map, that topographic features aren't nearly as clear to us as we tend to imagine. From up on a high hill, it's easy to not realize how high the spot you're on will look when you look back up; I often find myself imagining I'm coming around the back of a high hill when I'm actually going right over the top, nearly. Features which look important from high places are often all but invisible down in the valleys where we spend most of our time. Heck, I find that without a map to cross-reference, I usually can't even tell if this hill I'm looking at is the same hill as the one I saw from the other side earlier, or the next hill down the range.

I suppose it's possible that I am particularly bad at this, but I suspect it's more likely that all of us who mostly navigate by roads are worse at it than we realize until we try. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if people who go hiking and mountain-climbing are a lot better at it, but still not as good as they imagine they'd be once they're outside the range of lands they are familiar with. Doing most of your navigation by road tends to make us think in terms of the roads so thoroughly that other landmarks don't get retained.

Of course maps are the great equalizer. When I bother to dig out a map and match up topological features I'm seeing with those on the map, a lot of this uncertainty vanishes instantly. But unless I make a pretty serious effort at it, figuring out the landmarks with a map doesn't stick; the next time I will find it just as tricky as I won't remember which peak or river is which, or being able to identify the same topographic feature from different vantage points.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Injuries update

Every day my injuries feel a little bit better. Getting in and out of bed is easier, I'm sleeping better, and I can move a little bit more easily (though if you watch me you probably wouldn't see it, since I'm still coddling my leg). Nevertheless, there were a few concerns that impelled me to go see the doctor today.

First, my scrapes are still seeping a yellowish fluid, but only in very small amounts. Siobhan wasn't really worried that this was a sign of infection because none of the other signs of infection were present (red lines, heat, and fever, particularly) even a tiny bit, but there was enough concern that it was better to settle it. The doctor confirmed my understand that that's normal for scrapes of this size, it's just serum.

Second, my knee has a fairly large swelling, maybe five inches across and almost an inch deep, surrounding the upper part of the scrapes. I've been icing it fairly regularly, but it hasn't really gone down. It is only a little tender (and kind of numb near the top), and it doesn't significantly impact my mobility, though it does make it a little harder to bend my knee as far. I thought it was a fairly normal repurcussion for the deep tissue damage and would settle on its own with icing, but we wanted to be sure. The doctor says it's full of blood, probably a few tablespoons worth -- in essence, it's a large, deep blood blister -- and that if we drained it, it'd probably fill up again. She did say that while icing has been a good thing up to now, I should stop using ice and switch to warm compresses, to help the blood vessels open up because right now what we need is for my body to reabsorb the blood. She did warn me I'm going to have the swelling for weeks to come.

The only problem I'd been having otherwise is that the bandages have been sticking to the wound and being not only painful to remove, but even while still stuck, making it harder for me to bend my knee because of it pulling on the wound. I tried using a Telfa bandage but even that stuck almost immediately. I asked the doctor about whether a cream like Neosporin would be good, but she said I should stop bandaging entirely and just switch to the cream. Not only does the cream keep the wound clean, more importantly, it keeps it moisturized. This lets the wound avoid drying out so much that it cracks, which causes both pain and reduced mobility. Leaving me without bandages will make it easier for me to move, too.

Only after I got home did I find out that, just to be absolutely sure, she'd like to see me get an X-Ray, so I've got a scheduled visit tomorrow morning. I'm sure it's just to make sure we didn't miss something more serious, but that that's very unlikely.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The planning horizon

In an average year we might have two or three trips planned, perhaps an overnight jaunt to a concert, a weekend getaway at the beach, or a trip to a con. This year has been unusual in that, after a trip in December, we've already had one to San Diego, Siobhan has one to Chicago soon, we have a trip to the UK in the summer, a weekend in the autumn for our vow renewal, and a con not long after that; plus Siobhan will probably have another knit camp, and it wouldn't surprise me if we end up adding a weekend trip or two in the mix somewhere to go to a concert or something.

Any one of those upcoming trips is bubbling around in my head, and plans are being made in a vague sense on each of them. Decisions are being narrowed down, ideas are being bandied about, possibilities are being explored. We may actually even make reservations or decisions. And one thing that definitely happens way in advance is budgeting.

However, when it comes to firming up plans, I find that I make a sort of transition in my process where I switch from having a bunch of pieces of plans floating around, each being pursued on its own, to where plans are being lined up and put into position relative to one another -- on dates and times, or into lists, or into sequences of prerequesites and successors. And that transition just doesn't happen until a trip is the next trip. I only make my planning structured on one trip at a time, so even if I'm having to think a lot about the other trips -- like right now we're talking a fair bit about the vow renewal this October -- I can't see the whole of its questions when there's another trip before it.

Or at least I don't. I probably could if I forced myself to. But I only just realized this year how my mind keeps the next big event at the horizon, so it doesn't deal with anything over the horizon except piecemeal.

It's only the fullness of this year's calendar that's made this effect so plain to me. San Diego planning had been precluding thinking much about the other trips, for instance. I don't think Siobhan's Chicago trip is going to create a horizon, though, since all I have to do is drop her off at the airport, live like a bachelor for a few days, and then pick her up at the airport.

Of course, right now, I'm too tired and worn out from being injured and busy (with the first greatly exacerbating the second) to even be thinking too much about the next trip, the UK trip. But that's going to start crystallizing in my head soon, I'm sure.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Pawn

At some point, the first of the Patrick Bowers books by Steven James, The Pawn, was available for free for the Kindle, and I grabbed a copy. On the flight out to San Diego, when I finished the other books I was reading, I started it, and just finished it recently. It's a modern crime novel, featuring an FBI agent who is tracking a serial killer, so you've got a good idea what kind of book it is.

On the positive side, it was engaging, particularly in the middle. It had a slightly slow start with some fairly clunky exposition -- particularly odd since, for a first book in a series, it starts as if you already know everyone. And the climax is so frenetic and so desperate to be exciting that it just comes off corny, plus you can't quite picture what's going on in some of it unless you are willing to work a lot harder than I was at it. But the story was gripping and fairly suspenseful.

On the negative side, a lot of it was very obvious and very clumsy. There was an abortive romance subplot that was about as subtle as something written by a fourteen-year-old. The storyline featuring the relationship the main character has with his daughter rotates between being trite, and being mildly interesting, and then rolling right back into trite. Generally, everything other than the main storyline is weak.

The main storyline, however, does manage to find a few new turns to put onto the track-a-serial-killer genre.

First, our main character not only isn't a profiler, he's not terribly keen on profiling, and instead focuses on geographic patterns. It's a pity we get so little about how that works -- the author doesn't want to bore the audience so all we get is a few metaphors that are less explanatory than those on Numb3rs, and a lot of prose about Bowers at work that doesn't explain the theory at all of what he's doing. But there are a few glimpses that suggest there might be something there.

Second, there's some interesting ties into a historical event that we all know, and which I won't name because that would be a spoiler. The book sheds a lot of light on an event we all think we know but don't really know that well at all, but it does so in the tricky way of fictionalizing a bit here and there, leaving the reader to wonder if the rest of it is fictionalized -- or the credulous one to believing all of it. It's a technique Michael Crichton liked to abuse, but here, it's not that hard to go find out how much of what's in the book is actual history, and how much is fictionalized. I wonder how many people will do that. In any case, the inclusion of that element provides an unusual twist in a serial-killer story in that it gives more background on the actions and lends them more significance on the global stage.

The imagery in the book never hesitates to approach the disturbing and then roll around in it for a while. There are some particularly gruesome flashbacks. I don't just mean visceral and gory, though there is that, but also depicting horrifying scenarios in uncompromising, and perhaps exploitative, language. The real question is to what extent they are gratuitous. They certainly explain some of the characters; but less agonizing detail might have done that anyway, but might it not also have blunted the impact? I could argue either way. I will say, though, that at times I felt uncomfortable enough to want to skim ahead, which I usually only do when I'm bored by a book. There are some people I know who I would not recommend read this book.

In all, there was an interesting and suspenseful story held back by some amateurish writing, a few clumsy side-plots (if they'd been omitted the story would have seemed too linear, but that doesn't excuse their weakness), and an unsatisfying ending that tried too hard to look like an action movie in ways that don't translate well into a novel. If I had the second book for free, I'd read it, but it would be on probation. I don't think I'll pay for it, though.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Today's shirt is the second-place entry in their derby titled Band Names Reinterpreted. I thought that, even as geekish as the regulars tend to be, it didn't stand much chance of placing, because it's so obscure. So I'm very pleased how high a place it took (and I enjoyed Woot's as-usual humorous copy text).

The not-very-well-known band They Might Be Giants took their name from the title of a 1971 movie starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. In the movie, a patient in a mental institution who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes wanders modern-day Manhattan getting involved in solving crimes, followed by his psychiatrist, a woman who happens to be named Watson. The film, in turn, takes its title from a quote from the Miguel de Cervantes novel Don Quixote, in which Don Quixote tilted at windmills because "they might be giants." This two-layers-deep trivia connection from a relatively unknown band to a classic, but not well-known, novel, is expressed in an image that doesn't go to any lengths to help the viewer make any of the connections. Even avid TMBG fans could easily miss the intent of the image.

Those who watched Pushing Daisies might be less likely, though. In an episode that was arguably one of the best in a show that almost always hit highs, much of the action took place in a field full of colorful, whimsical windmills, and in one of those windmills. In this episode, the dialogue proceeding along its own perfectly sensible (well, for this show) lines manages to come to a point, very suddenly and without warning the audience where it's going, where someone completely naturally exhorts someone else to make a little birdhouse in her soul.

The show then breaks for a commercial and when it comes back, we are treated to what amounts to a production number in which the characters sing TMBG's most famous song on their way to the field of windmills. It's a typical example of the show's brilliant melding of witty dialogue, complex allusions and interconnections that provide a wealth of things to discover, cheerful humor, and upbeat whimsy.

On the one hand I want to buy the shirt just to cheer on its production, but I have so many shirts... and everyone one I know who'd have the foggiest notion what the shirt is about has already seen it. (Or will read it in this blog!) So maybe actually buying the shirt is superfluous. Rewatching that episode of Pushing Daisies, however, is almost obligatory now.

Friday, March 19, 2010


The bits of my injuries that are most visible are the scrapes and cuts, and those are certainly ugly, painful, and nasty. Particularly when the bandages are off and they're being cleaned out. But they're also already recovering, and they're very shallow. (The knee's scraping covers a lot of area, but it's still shallow.)

But what's really impairing me is the deeper muscle bruising in the knee. Even there, what looks bad isn't the bad part. My walk is a shuffling hobble that's alarmingly slow, even with the cane (it's hard to adjust my cane stride to the opposite timing to when it was being used to ease the burden on my right knee). And I can't walk too long either before I need a rest.

But the biggest problem by far is sitting down, standing up, getting into bed, and getting out of bed. The deep bruising in my left knee means I can be moving just fine on that leg until the force on it happens to be just a little transverse, and then wham, it's a jolt of pain through me, the kind of pain Tylenol (or even hydrocodone) can't touch. It's hard to sleep with the chance that a small movement of my leg will activate that jolt of pain; the number of positions that I can get into, that I can stay in, and that aren't a tiny movement away from one of those jolts, is very very limited.

For a bruising and scraping they don't do immobolization, but sometimes I wonder if it might not be a good idea. If I could completely keep my knee from moving, that would make sleeping a lot easier. It wouldn't make getting up and sitting down easier; right now I can get up and down in ways that depend on a little more flexibility at the cost of jolts of pain, and with a cast, I would have a harder time getting up and down, but there'd be no jolts of pain. (And people would expect me to not be able to do it without aids of some sort.)

(Tomorrow I need a more interesting blog topic. Though "slice of my day" posts do get far more comments than essays and philosophy and science and politics, so maybe not! On the other hand, finding appropriate pictures for posts like this is tricky.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A bad spill

I was an active bikerider from childhood through college, including making the 7+ mile trip to the university each morning by bike for three years, and going almost everywhere else by bike, in Long Island traffic. The last few years I've gotten back into biking since I've been healthier, and it's good exercise, and fun. So all told, I've got a lot of biking experience under my belt. I've taken my share of spills and gotten my share of scrapes, but so far I've never had a broken bone (from bike spills or anything else), or anything else serious.

Last night, though, I had the most serious bike fall I've ever had. Even so, I got off pretty easy. Nothing that won't be fully recovered in a week or two, no broken bones, no sprains or strains, no cuts that needed stitches, and no lasting harm (except to my sunglasses). But I'm still an unhappy camper today, covered in bandages and 4x4s.

In addition to some basic skinned knuckles (despite wearing bike gloves), I've got three major areas of bandaging. The least bad is my elbow which got a fairly routine, though nasty, scraping.

The area that looks the worst is my cheek. Remember how I wondered about cheap versus good sunglasses, and last year, finally decided to buy good sunglasses -- RayBan Aviators at about $100? The hope was that they'd last a good long time and not degrade while I had them like cheap ones do. Well, they didn't degrade: on the last day I had them, they were as clean and scratch-free as the first. However, real glass lenses also break if you hit them hard enough, and I did. A few of the little broken bits of glass cut up my cheek, fortunately pretty shallowly, but it sure looked ghastly because it took me quite a while to recover from the crash, recover the dog, get my phone working, call for a rescue, wait for the rescue to come, and then get loaded into the car. By then the whole side of my face and beard were covered in blood, but the cuts themselves were few and shallow.

But what hurts by far the most is my left knee, which got scraped and also bruised deep down into the muscle. The muscle bruising means I can walk on it just fine but if I happen to turn just slightly wrong it hurts like the dickens. Getting in and out of chairs is far worse than walking, even up and down stairs; and getting in and out of bed is the worst. It also made it very hard to sleep since I had to stay on one side all night long (which I just can't do) and there were very few positions that didn't trigger one of those twinges of pain. I am yawning more today than on my 36-hour day.

This makes two dog-related bike injuries in a year, so even with the Springer ensuring that 99% of the time Socks can't knock me down while we ride, I can't keep exercising her this way without making some kind of change. 99% still means 2-3 bad falls a year which is way too many: it's inevitable I'll do some lasting harm eventually that way. Knee pads might be a good start, but I really need some way to avoid falling entirely.

The first thing is to not use the retractable leash as a backup leash. Last night, I had recovered from the first tug (which broke the Springer's breakaway) but got knocked down (and bad) by the second tug on the retractable leash which was hooked to the handlebars (very bad idea, in hindsight). I use the second leash as a backup to avoid her running off if she breaks the breakaway, since she's not adequately trained in "come" (nowhere near enough to counter the attractions of places she hasn't smelled yet, let alone the possibility of squirrels).

However, in this case, it was my downfall (pun intended). If I hadn't had it, I might have had to chase her in the woods; worst case, she would have gotten away and we would have had a stressful while to wait for someone to follow her tags and microchip to return her to us. But I wouldn't've taken the fall. And if she were well-trained in "come" it wouldn't even have been that. So the best solution is probably to train her assiduously in "come" and then take her with just the Springer's leash (always carrying both a regular leash and a spare Springer breakaway with me), so if she gets free, I can recover her and get her back onto the Springer.

I'm not sure if that would be enough. The scare of how much worse that fall could have been has me worried that the Springer isn't enough even without the second leash, and even with kneepads added in. Trouble is, I don't have an alternative exercise method for her, beyond what we did all winter: hope she exercised herself enough in the yard. (It worked all winter, though. Maybe it would work in summer as well. It's tempting: these daily bikerides with her are exhausting, and a strain in how much time they take, even discounting the pain and risk of more falls.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A new Torus

I finished setting up the new Linux box last night. It hasn't been physically moved into place: I'll do that tonight. But all the software is installed and working.

Now that the security problem is resolved, transferring over MySQL seemed very easy using mysqldump but I'm far from certain that it actually worked: very little was dumped, and when I tried to look at MySQL on the old system I see no databases. That was set up for me by someone else, so I don't know what's supposed to be there, but it seems like it was supposed to be more than that. I'm waiting to hear back from the person who set it up.

Transferring over CVS took a bit more doing since I didn't have the original directions by which I'd set it up. I had copied over the directories that I was CVSing but I wasn't able to get a connection without a password, and all my guesses about the password were wrong. Finally I found I did have the directions, and following them, I was able to get it not only working, but better than before. It used to always prompt me for my PGP passphrase, but now it doesn't. What a convenience that'll be.

To save myself reconfiguring a lot of things, I swapped IP addresses now so the new server (Torus) is on the same IP that the old server (Papyrus) was on. Right now they're both powered up, Papyrus still in the basement, Torus still upstairs. Tonight, after I do a DVD backup of Torus, I'll power down Papyrus (but keep it set up for a bit longer in case I need to recover anything from it), and move Torus down to where Papyrus was. (Poor Torus has had a nice roomy flatscreen monitor and is going to moved to an ancient CRT monitor when it gets moved, since the flatscreen is borrowed, but since I rarely access it directly, it doesn't really matter.)

Boy, does it compile, load, CVS, and shut down a lot faster than the old Pentium II it replaced. How luxurious.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Civil rights versus civil rights

Most legal fights involving civil rights end up being pretty clear-cut for most people. The typical civil rights case is about the freedom of some individual to do something important to them -- like to get married, or express his opinions -- against some larger entity or group which wants to prevent it. Or it's about some individual being hurt by the actions of some larger organization, like a corporation dumping toxic waste, or using unfair hiring or firing practices. People fall quickly into party lines: liberals tend to fall on the side of the little guy, and conservatives on the side of the bigger organization. Being a dyed-in-the-(sustainably-harvested)-wool liberal myself, I'd be inclined to say one side of the argument usually ends up being motivated by greed or intolerance, which is what makes it clear-cut.

Recently there was an interesting dispute in Burlington, Vermont, interesting because it doesn't shake out that way. Perhaps because of being so used to most issues dividing up that easily, a lot of people have come down instantly on one side or the other, and in many cases, once they do, they're stuck there. But it's almost random which side of the issue any particular liberal-minded person is likely to land on; whichever side they sympathize more with will crystallize their allegiance, but had the story been written a different way, they could just as easily have come down on the other side.

The issue at hand is a freelance photographer who has been taking pictures in the public market on Church Street. On one side, there are a number of people (primarily women) who've felt like his actions are "creepy"; on the other, there's his interest in pursuing his photography hobby. Legally, his rights to do so are clear: they're on a public street and have no reasonable expectation of privacy, so he doesn't need to get a release to photograph them, and he's been fastidious about not photographing people inside shops or other private places, only in the street itself. However, the coalition of shops on that street are just as much within the bounds of legality to get a restraining order against him banning him from those shops.

Both sides seem to me to be classic viewpoints for a liberal to sympathize with. On one side, the women who don't want him taking pictures of them have a very reasonable objection. Sure, legally he's allowed to take pictures, but if they find it creepy, and if he persists in doing it month after month, that puts them in the uncomfortable position of wanting to avoid a major shopping center and thoroughfare to avoid him. It is reminiscent of -- not the same as, not at all, but it seems like a metaphor for -- the kind of things we hear women talk about in sexual harassment cases, where coworkers or bosses (for instance) stay within the bounds of the law while creating a "hostile environment" in order to force the woman to be the one to have to change their life decisions, sometimes with great inconvenience, to avoid the situation. If you come to the issue from that perspective, such as if you read an article that focuses even a little more on that side, or if you happen to have just been reading something else on that topic, or if that resonates with your personal experiences, you're more likely to side with the shops and say the restraining order was a good move. (The fellow in question complicates the question by being, by some accounts, prickly and confrontational, though it's possible he's just being defensive. And the genders certainly muddle things farther: if it was a woman taking the pictures, I bet none of this would ever have happened.)

But on the other side, we have a guy who's trying to practice an art and a hobby, and doing it in what he describes as both legal and respectful. He's not taking candid pictures, and he's being strict about staying to people in public places. There's a well-established tradition of photography as an art, and public places photography is one valid subject: there have been art shows focusing on that very topic. They can't stop him from carrying out this basic freedom of doing a protected activity in a public place, so instead, a conglomeration of business and financial interests is applying leverage, almost fiscal blackmail, by banning him from not just one business but more than sixty businesses, an entire downtown shopping area in his hometown, as a way to punish him for engaging in legal behavior that they find interferes with their profit margins. It's not a First Amendment case, but just like the other viewpoint sounded vaguely parallel to a sexual harassment case, his viewpoint sounds vaguely parallel to a First Amendment case, in that business interests that can't bring legal pressure against a legally protected act are trying other methods, strongarm tactics. If you read an article that focuses on how this man's been put to great hardship for doing a protected act of artistic self-expression, or you've recently been exposed to similar cases, or you happen to have a similar experience in your past, you're more likely to sympathize with him.

Ultimately the case boils down to a civil right on one side (freedom from creepy, stalker-like harassment, and the presumption that the woman who finds it creepy has a right to feel that way, even if the guy doing it insists his intentions are not what she imagines) versus a civil right on the other side (freedom of artistic activity and expression, arrayed against a profit motive on the part of a number of businesses using the law as if it were a loophole).

And in that is an interesting question because there's no obvious right answer. Probably the nearest thing would be some kind of mediation -- bring the guy and some of the women into a room and help them find common ground and compromise -- but that wouldn't exactly set a precedent on how public policy could handle this situation more generally, for when the next time it comes up and someone's not as willing to compromise. It's easy to ignore the question of public policy and imagine that, if these particular people in this particular situation can be resolved, there's no bigger problem. But really, there's a hole in public policy, in that it has no way to deal with this situation that isn't depending on random citizens to be reasonable. It just takes one stubborn person to force policy to be the deciding factor, but how can policy balance these rights? That's not an unanswerable question but it's far from trivial. What's disappointing, though, is that reaction to this story has mostly missed the subtle balancing act that any public policy maker would have to do, to ensure their decision is going to work not just today but in the future. It's a great chance to see how challenging that job really is, if you just stretch enough to see both sides.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Adventures in Fedora security

It's not just Windows that'll do this to me, where I can spend an hour cruising through setting up a dozen complex things, and then grind to a dead stop on something very simple.

I just spent about five minutes getting Samba set up, and activating the hidden configuration settings necessary to make Windows able to access it via encrypted passwords, whereupon I could see... every directory except the one I wanted. And then I spent about two hours bashing my head against Samba. I rebooted, I tweaked settings, I restarted services, I redid chmod and chown and chgrp permissions, I moved hidden files, I rebuilt the entire directory and moved things around, and nothing came of any of it.

Finally on logging off and back on, I found Linux very helpfully getting around to telling me that there'd been 22 security alerts. And every single one of them was some pernicious villain trying to access a user's home directory via Samba! The cad! The bounder! The absolute rapscallion! Stalwart Linux, seeing I had shared a user's home directory explicitly, concluded that I couldn't possibly want to share it, and vigilantly protected me from it without so much as a notice, at least until my reboot.

On the other hand, Linux was just as forthcoming with instructions on how to fix the problem, now that it had finally thought to mention it. The precise command I needed to enable the blocked access was provided right there in the security alert, and once I executed it as root, bang, it all worked.

Too bad I blew most of the evening on that. Hopefully I won't have those kinds of problems setting up MySQL, CVS, or my compiler and runtime environments.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The coming of spring

The lawn is still mostly covered in snow, but the roof is clear. The roads are clear and some of them are getting quite muddy, but our road is still patches of ice and snow mixed with mud. We haven't seen any temperatures in the 50s yet, but the 40s are getting reliable.

So it may be a little early to be thinking about bicycles, but on the other hand, I have an antsy dog, so maybe not. Therefore, yesterday, I dug out all four bikes (four!) to fill up the tires, since the cold weather and months of disuse leaves them all saggy. The electric-assist bike has also been charging all night. While the weather today is chilly and rainy and a bit windy, and thus thoroughly unauspicious for bikeriding, it might be at least as suitable as the days near the end of the season last year that I went out. So I might take the dog out for a short ride.

Of course the bikes might need more of a tuneup than that, but this is a good start. I think I'll probably bring a bike to work pretty soon and start doing my rides there as well. As buried as I've been in work lately, with the elimination of positions dumping so much extra work on everyone and so many projects hitting us, it's always felt like I didn't have time for my exercise. But that's a fool's game; no matter how many 15-minute breaks I skip because I feel too pressured, I'm always going to be just as behind, and anyway, exercise is more important than meeting arbitry and impossible workloads. So it's time to get back on my regular schedule. If we fall farther behind, that's only proof that they've dumped too much on us, and we only have to do what's possible, not what's requested.

Another reason it's good that spring is nearing is that we're almost out of seasoned hardwood. There's a fairly large pile of the soft, half-rotted pine that makes such excellent firestarters and such poor firewood, but after that we have to tap into the other half of the split woodshed which would probably be okay but which is intended to not be ready until next season.

Given how much we burned, we definitely will need to buy one or two cords this year in addition to anything I manage to cut, but on the other hand, we cut our spending on heating oil a great deal, and that's compared to the last two years when we'd already cut it a fair amount, so I am pleased.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dangling modifiers

I have recently taken on a position which requires me to analyze small nuggets of writing for technical and mechanical errors, though not for poor style: terrible writing is perfectly acceptable as long as there aren't misspellings, grammar errors, or a range of other technical issues.

The definition of "grammar errors" we're using is not entirely strict. A few rules are considered to be "not worth fighting for" or to put it another way we are assuming those are battles which have already been lost. Dangling modifiers are the worst offenders. Sometimes a design will have a dangling modifier on almost every sentence. Consider this description of a table:
Crafted from a fine measure of blackened leather, the polished outer cover of this book fashions to hold a modicum of pristine white pages within its fold. Reinforced with two flattened pieces of wood to offer structure to the piece, detailed scrollwork frames the front cover in brilliant argentine ink. Made to portray the title and author clearly on both spine and front surface, the brilliant tint can likewise be found on a symbol placed centre-most to the cover page. Embossed with just a touch of the sterling ink, a perfect rendition of the Seal of Knowledge lies set upon the cover of the book. Inside, sheaves of immaculate parchment lie inset and lined with a soft blue, likewise utilising this same colour on the page numbers marked upon each sheet.
Every time I read a phrase like "fashions to hold a modicum", I want to stab someone. Nothing is ever black when it can be nigrescent. And sometimes it's hard to find a modifier that isn't dangling.

One day, joking with a friend about it, she commented about how someone else was upset that she didn't say she was leaving, or said it too briefly. So I combined the two and wrote this for her:
Faralil coruscates in a viridian ensorcellment of leavetaking, curving a scheme of merry departure in shades of opalescent harmony.
I think a few of the writers who make those designs would think that was beautiful.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Our new doctor

We met with a new doctor yesterday after many months of being in limbo without a clear idea who our PCP (primary care physician) was, after our previous doctor left and the health center reorganized with a focus on integrative medicine and a reluctance to take on our care after bariatric surgery. (This was probably just an excuse to shed a few patients since they're overwhelmed; they have fewer doctors now and they can't keep the same number of patients.)

We went into the appointment on the assumption that we were interviewing her to decide if we wanted to switch over to her -- even though things are tight, we still don't intend to just jump on the first doctor who has an opening -- while she was interviewing us to see if she thought she could give us the care we need. But before we were there too long it seemed clear to me that it was a good match.

She has an attitude towards "alternative medicine" which I think is spot on: suspicion but not complete refutation. What I would say about it is, everything used to be alternative medicine once, but over time, the stuff that worked got gradually understood and became just "medicine." We probably haven't finished that process: there are no doubt still discoveries to be made. But at the same time, everything that hasn't made the move from folk remedy and superstition to scientific medicine has had a lot of chances to do so over the last few thousand years, so while some of it has something to it we haven't identified yet, more of it is bunkum. The proper attitude is to be neither credulous nor closed-minded but simply skeptical.

She showed a clear interest in the value of scientific study, along with a healthy does of skepticism about those very studies -- an amount which almost bordered on worrisome, since she clearly has an axe to grind about the pharmaceutical companies and how they control (by funding it) so much of medical research. There's even a sign saying that pharma reps are not welcome due to the distortion of medical research by the pharm companies outside her door. But it seems plain she has good reason for these doubts, and she doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater: she's not opposed to medicinal treatment, just suspicious of when it's being overused, and that's perfectly reasonable.

She also is familiar with bariatric medicine, though not with the particulars of the MGB, but enough to seem entirely comfortable with doing the follow-ups that our doctor in North Carolina demands. In fact, it hardly even seemed like a question.

We're scheduled for a complete annual physical in May, and Cigna already switched us over to the new doctor, so I guess now we just have to tell our old doctors to send over the files. That was a lot more painless than I expected.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wigner's friend's cat

Of all the science concepts you've heard a dozen times and still don't know, probably the worst offender is Schroedinger's Cat. How many times has someone on a TV show explained it to someone else (and thus, to you)? Odds are, every time that happened, they told it wrong, and gave it the wrong point. To explain why, let's go back a step, and visit with Thomas Young.

The double slit experiment is simple. You have an impermeable membrane with two slits cut into it. On one side, a source of light; on the other, a screen.

If light is made of particles, then you expect to see two bright dots. Don't believe me? Imagine the same experiment but with a man throwing baseballs at a wall with two holes. While one or two baseballs might bounce in an odd way now and then, the vast majority will land in two spots. But if light is made of waves, you'll see an interference pattern as depicted above, and just like if this were done with water waves in a tank, because the waves spread as they pass through the slits and then interfere with one another.

Thomas Young used this experiment to "prove" that light was a wave, in 1803, settling a debate that went back to the time of Isaac Newton versus Christain Huygens (in Huygens' favor). And light remained a wave until a guy named Einstein had something to say about the photoelectric effect, but that's another story. What's really important here is something that comes along much later.

Take this same experiment, and make it so the light source is so very, very weak, that only one photon's worth of energy is being released at a time. So there's only one "chunk" of light in the experiment at any given moment. You still get the interference pattern. That single piece of light can interfere with itself. But that's not where it gets really weird.

Now fit the slits with a passive sensor that can tell you if the light went through one side or the other. This sensor does not deflect, absorb, or otherwise impact the light directly in any way other than by passively observing it, measuring it. And yet, the moment you add it, the experimental outcome changes. The interference pattern vanishes and you get two bright spots. The mere act of knowing where the photon went forces the photon to have only gone one place; as long as you don't know, it doesn't choose, but goes both ways, and thus interferes with itself. But wait, it gets weirder.

Put the light source very far away, so it takes several seconds for it to get to the apparatus. Release the photon, and then while it's in transit, flip a switch which decides whether the sensor in the slit is activated or not. The photon will change its behavior retroactively based on whether the sensor is there at the moment it arrives at the slit.

In a way that science is only beginning to glimpse, information is a fundamental building block of physics. Changing information is just as impactful on the world as changing atoms.

Where's the cat I promised? Well, Schroedinger, quite understandably, found this property of photons to be inexcusable. Physicists put up with it because it was subatomic particles doing this, and they could handwave away the effects on the macroscopic world -- the world of billiard balls and people and trains -- because all those infinitesimal immeasurabilities and uncertainties cancelled out statistically in the aggregate of the trillians of atoms in a single object. So you could still measure the path of a bullet and figure out where it would hit. In a way it's analogous to how Einsteinian relativity proves that Newton was wrong about kinematics, but you can still calculate the orbits of the planets, because at speeds much lower than the speed of light, the difference was too small to measure anyway.

So Schroedinger set out to show the science community that it wasn't like relativity: the problem was not something that magically went away in real world examples. He invented a "reductio ad absurdem" argument to demonstrate it. Place a cat in a box, with a single particle of some radioactive substance set to a detector. If the particle decays, the detector releases poison and the cat dies. If it doesn't, the cat lives. Since radioactive decay is, according to quantum physics, random and subject to superpositions of states (just like how the photon could be in either slit, so was therefore in both slits until we measured which one it was in), the particle was both decayed and not decayed, and thus, the cat alive and dead, the two states "interfering" with one another the same way the light waves interfered and caused a pattern on the screen.

His intent was to show, through the absurd consequence of the thought experiment, how there was a problem that needed to be answered. And many physicists generally take it that way. But some scientists, and virtually every screenwriter in the world who hears about it, takes it as being a real consequence of quantum physics, suggesting that there's some mysticism lurking just beneath the surface. So easy is it for people to miss the point that even one of Schroedinger's contemporaries, Wigner, made the same mistake. He posited an experiment in which his friend conducted the Schroedinger's cat experiment, looked inside the box, but hadn't yet told him the results. So, Wigner concluded, his friend was also in a superposition of states, and isn't that absurd? Therefore, he concluded, Schroedinger's idea makes no sense. Schroedinger must have groaned and said to himself, "duh, that was my whole point!" (Only in German.)

In fact, as we understand it, the detector that was attached to the poison vial would be sufficient to trigger the collapse of states, so the cat isn't in any superposition. Just like the slit sensor collapses the photon even before a person reads the output screen attached to it. A lot of people have put a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about a special role for consciousness into quantum physics (and there are other places where such ideas are worth consideration), but superposition of states doesn't depend on a conscious observer, just an act of measurement.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fedora Core 3 versus Fedora 12

Geek-out coming, so put on your pocket protectors.

Though my home network is a Windows network through and through, there's one Linux box in the basement. It runs Samba so I can edit text files on it from EditPlus3 on my Windows box, but otherwise, I access it through SSH using PuTTY. Its sole purpose is for doing coding and testing on a particular project about which I can say no more due to NDA-like restrictions. But all it ever runs is that project (and the associated compiler and version-management stuff), and MySQL.

And it's a real clunker, a Pentium II processor with (I think) 128M of RAM. It was sitting in retirement somewhere, having been replaced, when I suddenly found out (about five years ago) that I would need a Linux box for this project, and had to dig it out, dust it off, and install Fedora Core 3 on it. Things were dicey because back then I had only dialup, and getting an internal modem to work with Linux was very tricky back then (most modems were Winmodems with most of the smarts in software). It's a testament to the efficiency of Linux that it can still run on this ancient system. However, the compiler and test system I run on it sometimes bogs it down, and waiting for compiles and for the updated versions to load can be agonizing. Even CVS is painfully slow as it figures out what needs updating (and that's not all network traffic, since it didn't speed up when we got the T1).

A few weeks ago Woot had a woot-off that included, at one point, an eMachines EL1331G Desktop, refurbished and preloaded with Windows 7, for about $200. This has an Athlon 2850e at 1.8GHz, 2G memory, a 360G hard drive, and a lot of features that don't matter for this application (like a GEForce video card, lots of media slots, a DVD-RW drive, etc.). It would be fine to run Windows, Firefox, Office, and Money, but I wouldn't normally want to use it for games, SecondLife, or processor-intensive stuff. But as a replacement for a Pentium II system, it's hundreds of times more powerful.

Last night I did the obligatory range of emergency disks and Windows updates, and downloaded the latest version of Fedora (which is Fedora 12). I also gave a try at installing Fedora Core 3, figuring if I could get it to work, moving over all my stuff would be a cinch -- no question about compatability, just copy things over. But the FC3 install disks couldn't figure out what disk controller drivers to install. I could fight with that, but I think I'll try Fedora 12 instead. Probably the compatability issues for MySQL and the stuff I need for my project will be non-existent.

My intent is to try to do a dual-boot, with the Linux boot the default, just so I have the option to use it for Windows 7 experiments. After all, it only gets used for the Linux development system about 6-8 hours a week, so there's plenty of time to use it for other purposes. What other purposes? No idea. But better to keep my options open.

Tonight I'll burn the Fedora 12 ISO onto a disc and then try the install from it. I've never used Fedora 12, I don't even know if it has a multibooter in the install, but I assume so. Anyway, Linux and Unix are similar enough that I can get by when I need to.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Bruce Springsteen in the grocery store

Some celebrities are very easy to imagine living in isolation, sending their staff to the store for groceries, or having no idea what groceries they even have, just expecting when they go to the closet there'll be toilet paper waiting, and that a meal will appear every evening. Most of them, really. There's no conflict with the idea that they might be hard-pressed to go out into a store without being flocked with unwanted attention because they wouldn't have to go out into public.

But a lot of other celebrities, when they're not on tour, you have to imagine they go to the supermarket, and maybe even the mall. Some of them can get away with it, I'm sure. If you saw Bruce Springsteen in the supermarket, he could probably just be casual and if anyone asked for his autograph or started to natter on at him about how much they loved (or hated) his work, he'd probably be cordial and be able to get on with what he was doing quickly enough. (At least, that's the public image he projects, but since this is a public-image thing, he'd pretty much have to behave in accordance with it.) Or if he wanted he could say "nope, not him, I get that a lot" and pull it off.

But just try to imagine Jenifer Aniston shopping for shoes at the mall. Just to make it work, don't you have to picture a cordon of security goons at 50 feet away keeping the rest of the crowd away, or her shutting down the whole shoe shop so it's just for her? And even then, it's not really credible. Surely, she has personal shoppers who work for her personal shoppers. She probably tries to be appreciative of fans, since she loves to be appreciated, to a point, and then she's just exasperated. (Again, how much of this is deliberately-projected public image? And does it matter?)

Obviously, they can send staff to do most of their shopping, and handle many of the things that the rest of us do in public. But what about the things you have to be there for in person? Do celebrities go to special doctors that only see celebrities so there's no awkward moments in waiting rooms? Do they get special treatment in hospitals to avoid their treatment being interrupted by fans? Are they able to get their driver license photos taken in private or do they have to endure those awful long lines surrounded by gawkers? Flying first class avoids some of the difficulties of air travel, but what about the security checkpoints and the waiting rooms at the gates -- or do they always just take private jets (and if so do they have their own security checkpoints, or are private jets immune to that part)? Do they go to the same polling places as the rest of us to vote?

I guess one reason a lot of them live in one of a few enclaves of the wealthy (Beverly Hills, the Hamptons, etc.) is so that the places they have to go to do these things are used to it. They'll run into only other celebrities and people who are used to celebrities; any non-celebrity who insisted on gushing at them wouldn't last long. Still, some of them don't live in those enclaves, and they all have to travel.

I've never seen a celebrity in public, but I am inclined to think if I did I would probably not even say a thing, let alone gush at them, even if it was someone who I'd really like to chat with and who I think might appreciate it (like, say, Nathan Fillion, who rumor has it is a regular guy, a geek, and a roleplayer). I'm too shy even to talk to people I know sometimes, let alone a celebrity who probably gets harassed by strangers all the time. But there's always going to be people who will be pushy. I wonder if I overestimate how much there are, and a celebrity at a fame level of Nathan Fillion (let's say Castle-era, not Firefly-era) or even Bruce Springsteen (with the "regular joe" air about him) can get by on an occasional smile and autograph in the produce aisle no problem?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Laptop monitor repair

The laptop monitor failure I suffered in San Diego (but which had been building up before that) has now been resolved. HP's repair technician came out and was both courteous and professional. He also came prepared with a replacement monitor. He stuck it out to make sure that the new monitor fixed the problem and that the Wifi wire harness, which wasn't a perfect fit, still worked and gave a solid signal (it did). So HP earns back one of the "customer service matters" points it's lost recently, and all credit to them for that.

Incidentally, I seem to have reversed the polarity of my usual Computer Healing Touch (those of you who do tech support know what I mean -- the problem goes away once you walk into the room). While my laptop was in repair I looked around for something to use temporarily, and my first stop was the HP netbook that's in our office. But it won't turn on, the screen stays black and the keyboard lights nonresponsive, even though it was working last week. (Yes, I tried resetting everything, using an external monitor, etc.) I also sat down at a loaner on Al's desk, but it, too, had its screen wink out on me. It's enough to make a fellow paranoid.

But the new monitor is not only working, it's better. First, there's the brightness. Laptop monitors start nice and bright, then fade with time, but you don't really notice since it's so gradual. But when it gets replaced, you suddenly see how much you lost. It looks lovely. Second, the resolution is significantly higher. And it wasn't small potatoes before! I am having to reconfigure programs to use bigger fonts because it was hard to read, even with my vision. Right now it's running 1920 by 1200; the slider has two more positions but I am not going to try them since this looks like the native resolution.

When I talked to Al about the problem, back before it was fatal yet, he insisted we should also talk about getting me a new laptop, so I spent a few hours putting together the specs for a new one. Now I need to pin him down on whether he's changed his mind on this subject, or if maybe he already ordered it (I sent him the specs more than a week ago, after all). Things have been too busy to ask him so far.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Reading on the plane

No, not on the flight back, I was too exhausted and too busy hoping I might get some sleep to do any reading. But on the way out, I polished off two books. That probably sounds more impressive than it is, though.

The first was Wicked Lovely, which I had already started. To be honest, I skimmed over a lot of the bits in the middle that are more geared to the book's target audience (it's a publication of HarperTeen and it's kind of a teen girl romance novel). So why was I reading it? Because we're going to use its background for a bit of roleplaying to introduce a friend to the hobby. At first the plan was for Siobhan to GM, but on finishing the book I had an idea that will make both a good adventure, and possibly a good play for Lusternia, so I did a bunch of writing on that adventure during the week.

As for the book... I learned that it was originally a short story that got extended into a novel, and that is telling. There's about a short story's worth of story, but the padding, that's supposed to flesh out some of the characters, is mostly a lot of people walking around avoiding the inevitable. Some of the characters do get fleshed out, but the secondary characters, essentially everyone but the central four, remain very two-dimensional.

The writing itself is competent, and the setting, the modern world influenced by the world of the fey, is interesting (though not fleshed out as well as one would like -- perhaps there's more in the later books). For its target audience I'm sure it's a solid book (though for them, "fey is to vampire as Wicked Lovely is to Twilight" comparisons seem inevitable). It just didn't have enough to really sustain my interest. But I do have an idea for my own story that's consistent with both its feel and its setting (maybe not with the sequels, though) but full of more adventure.

After that, I read the free, non-humor essay-disguised-as-a-story by Scott Adams, God's Debris. Scott makes some very big claims for it in the introduction:
The target audience for God’s Debris is people who enjoy having their brains spun around inside their skulls.
The description of reality in God’s Debris isn’t true, as far as I know, but it’s oddly compelling. Therein lies the thought experiment: Try to figure out what’s wrong with the simplest explanations. The central character states a number of scientific “facts.” Some of his weirdest statements are consistent with what scientists generally believe. Some of what he says is creative baloney designed to sound true. See if you can tell the difference.
You might love this thought experiment wrapped in a story. Or you might hate it. But you won’t easily get it out of your mind.
A charitable interpretation is that one can make a comparison with those who thought the first Matrix movie was great not for the action sequences but for the philosophy. People tend to attribute a lot of profundity to their first exposure to an idea, not necessarily the best expression of that idea. People who thought the idea of the Matrix was mind-blowing are people who haven't run into those ideas before in any form.

But I am not sure I can even give Scott that much credit. The fact is, telling the difference between the baloney and the "facts" is not that hard at all. Almost all of it is baloney, and the same trick is used over and over and over to connect things -- simply avoiding connecting them, but saying them sequentially very fast. And it's not very compelling. Maybe some of it would be to someone who has never thought about these things, but I think even in that case, Scott is overstating the case and overselling the profundity and impactfulness of the ideas.

On the positive side, the PDF is formatted very nicely and reads excellently on the Kindle, almost as good as a native Kindle document, without even rotating the display (in fact it worked better unrotated).

In both cases, I don't intend to read the sequels. Instead, I've moved on to a modern crime murder mystery thingie that I got free, called The Pawn. It seemed like suitable reading for a trip, but I only got a bit into it before we arrived, and then I never spent any time reading after that (most of the time I might have spent reading I spent writing). So now I have to finish it before delving into something deeper.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Two for the price of one

I promised no more travel posts for a bit, but I do have to tell a bit about our Friday and Saturday. As previously noted, we went out to Ocean Beach, which was all right: the beach itself was relaxing, but the town was a bit goofy. The surfer-slacker-stoner vibe is so heavy, with random people playing random snatches of music on random instruments while riding skateboards, head shops and tattoo parlors everywhere, plus a heavy smattering of goofy tourist-trap stuff smeared on top, that it feels like it's trying too hard even when it's not really trying at all. Heck, even with the ocean breeze blowing hard down the middle of the street and me not near any particular shop, still the place smelled of incense at times. What really brought it down, though, is that everywhere there were smokers. And I don't mean pot like you might expect -- a little second-hand pot isn't gross and annoying like cigarettes are.

We'd been considering coming back after lunch to while away the afternoon before dinner at Hodad's, a now-famous burger shack that was featured on Guy Fieri's show, but Hodad's turns out to have become way too famous and always has a huge line (and people say the quality's also dropped off too). So we split to go to eat lunch at In-N-Out (because, being an east-coastie, I never had, and wondered what the big deal was -- I agree it's better than Wendy's and thus the best fast food burger, but not by a huge amount), then with a bunch of time to kill, took the bus to Old Town to visit a game shop with a good selection of roleplaying and board games. Didn't buy anything, though; but on the way back, stopped at one of those shops that sells knick-knacks and bought a few, notably the sunstone pictured here, which is a foot and a half across and weighs about 15 pounds, and which I lugged the rest of the day, as carry-on luggage on the planes, even.

After that we mostly just whiled away time at the hotel until we headed to the airport, hours ahead of our 9:45pm departure time. We had no real problems with the flights (on Continental, not Delta, this time), and even arrived almost on time, at about 9:30am local time Saturday morning. Unfortunately, though, neither of us got more than a few minutes of dozing here and there. So when we got home around 11, we had been up more than 25 hours.

We hoped to get a few hours of sleep before heading to pick up Socks, but at just that time, we got a warning about a fraudulent PayPal transaction, and by time we'd finished dealing with that, it was less than an hour until time to leave. Not worth going to sleep. By then, we'd gotten a second wind. So... basically, we never went to bed. As I write this, about 7:30pm, I've been awake for 34 straight hours, and I only feel about as tired as I might on a day when I had only six hours of sleep.

So the plan now is to go to sleep early, sleep late, and thus return in one fell swoop to our normal schedule, without jet lag. I wonder if I'll end up getting seven hours sleep as usual, or if I'll actually be able to sleep in. Normally I can't no matter how tired I am, but I've never stayed up this long before.

Friday, March 05, 2010

End of the trip

Yesterday's activity was a visit to the U.S.S. Midway, which was quite enjoyable. Unlike tours I've had of submarines, and the visits to the Smithsonian where I saw more planes than any human mind can absorb, the Midway had the advantage that you could see and touch stuff, get right up close to things. There were even planes and helicopters you could get into the cockpit and play with the controls. If not for that it might have felt a little redundant with seeing so many of the same planes back in D.C., and seeing the submarine back in Connecticut. (Though an aircraft carrier is nowhere near as cramped as a submarine, but a lot of the "they lived this way" stuff is still similar.)

Since the flight home is overnight tonight, the timing for the day is a bit odd. Checkout at the hotel is noon, but the flight out is at 9:45pm. So we have to pack up and close everything down fairly early, then leave our luggage with the hotel in storage, having little access to it, all day. We'll take the bus out to the Ocean Beach area, where we'll while away the afternoon before returning to the hotel to catch a shuttle bus to the airport in the evening. Then the flight home is overnight, getting in early in the morning. So (assuming that flights aren't rescheduled, delayed, overbooked, rebooked, etc.) we should arrive thoroughly exhausted (despite hoping to get a tiny bit of sleep on the plane, though it being full will probably make that difficult) but hopefully also in a position to change timezone again (though not as easily as the flight out here shifted us to this time zone).

The big gap in the day not only means no Internet access for about a whole day (and after that, crashing and sleeping to stretch it farther) but also limited, if any, access to computers. It'll also mean we'll have to carefully balance what we have with us for the day out with what needs to be packed already, or can be easily repacked. For instance, if we bring the camera to Ocean Beach, it is at the cost of being able to pack it in the suitcase that'll have to be done tomorrow morning (since the camera has to be buried deep within the clothes for safety, so therefore can't be added afterwards).

I am actually writing this post Thursday night and setting it to a scheduled automatic posting on Friday, since I don't know if I'll have time. Saturday's post might not come until quite late. Maybe Sunday I can stop posting about travel since you're probably bored of that by now (if you're even still reading!).

Thursday, March 04, 2010

San Diego adventures

Yesterday morning was mostly spent on attempts to get through the crowds here in San Diego that had gathered because of the Chelsea King story. It's very weird to happen by sheer chance to be a block away from the city hall and courthouse where a story that's making national news (and that I'm reading on WCAX's RSS feed) is happening. To get to the store to buy bus passes I had to pass, several times, through a stretch of sidewalk that was thronged with national press with their mobile news vans spiked with satellite dishes and boom mikes, and clusters of crowds, ranging from the anguished San Diegans who are reeling from this tragedy, to bearded men reading from Bibles and ink-stained notebooks about how this is all the fault of Howard Stern or Barack Obama or the false Pope, to the angry people who are shouting about the appropriate poetic forms of justice that should be visited upon the alleged perpetrator (and these people are neither shy nor squeamish about their gory ideas). One whole block was cordoned off in downtown just to bring him in for arraignment while ensuring the crowds didn't skip the legal process, in fact.

I hope this sounds neither trivializing nor condescending, but coming from a town of a few thousand to a city where a dozen buildings within sight of my window each have a population of several thousand every day, I am a little surprised about how personal San Diego is taking it. The photos I've seen on newspapers of the obviously heartfelt candlelight vigils, and the way I've heard locals talk about this, defies the way we who come from small towns where you don't have to lock your doors think that people in cities of a million people deal with crime. Surely, there are many crimes which the people here will shrug off as "that happens every day here" that would be shocking in Montpelier and lead to profound reactions from the community. But the Chelsea King case crossed a line that stirred up these people to an extent that it's easy for small-town folk to imagine cityfolk can't reach anymore, so jaded are they. I guess I shouldn't sell them so short.

During the afternoon we took the bus to Coronado Island, which is not actually an island, but a peninsula. A lot of it has a very strong suburbs feel, and the main drag is quite touristy, with a lot of restaurants and the kinds of shops that sell things no one would ever buy if they were near where they lived. We had a lovely lunch at La Terraza, though it was a bit upscale and expensive, and walked along the shops, then to the beach by Hotel Del Coronado, the huge, sprawling, iconic hotel on the beach that's famous for (amongst other things) being where Some Like It Hot was filmed.

We walked on the beach for a while, during which I stupidly got my shoes and socks wet, so spent a while barefoot while getting them mostly dried. In March, the ocean is too cold to swim in, though sure enough there were some people doing it anyway, and the inevitable surfer. But it's not too cold for wading. Heck, it was about the same as the beach in Maine in the low season.

The architectural style is distinctively southwestern with lots of that "adobe" style of building -- I don't know the proper names for it, but you know the look. For a while I was having mixed reactions, as if the whole thing were an affectation, which is obviously absurd: this is where that look comes from. I eventually realized why. My only other exposure to being amongst this architectural style was a business conference in Disney's Coronado Springs resort in Florida, which (obviously) was just layers of affectation on top of contrivance on top of fakery. The similarity of name is perhaps no coincidence: I bet whoever designed Coronado Springs was familiar with Coronado Island, since more than just the style matched, there were specific things that seemed to match up. Or maybe I'm reaching. Coronado is after all a pretty obvious name, and maybe the specific layouts of markets and restaurants I saw are simply more of the same style.

Dinner was at Miguel's Cantina, and mostly very good. The chile relleno was well-done; the tamale, a little bland, though the gravy on it was excellent. All in all, it was more like the Tex-Mex standard, complete with all those "combination plates", than like authentic Mexican. But we're supposed to get some of that tonight.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

RIP Hawthorn

It's not wholly dead yet, actually, but it's not at all well.

Starting early last week I started seeing problems with my laptop's built-in monitor. No stranger to laptop monitor problems, I immediately raised the red flag to try to arrange service, since my laptop is way out of warranty (I think) and I can't really do my job without it. (Even using a loaner is a problem. As an IT manager I use tons of software that the average user, who can be 90% functional on a computer with Office and a web browser, doesn't need. Just moving to a loaner takes me days.) Same day, on-site service is one of the main reasons we switched from Gateway and Dell to HP. In fact, it's not just one of the main reasons, it is the reason.

A side effect of this effort was that me getting a new laptop got bumped up and I spent some time this past weekend picking one out. But that couldn't be the answer since it takes weeks to get a new laptop, and I doubted the monitor would last that long. First, the left edge of it started to fade in brightness and turn red. There wasn't a clear boundary, oddly enough; about a quarter of the way across it would gradually fade from dim-and-red to the full brightness. This went away after a day, and then I started to get flickering, which got worse and worse.

So when it was time to head to San Diego, I considered leaving it home and sticking with just my Eee. However, I was hoping to use some of my "sitting around in the hotel with nothing particular to do" time on long-deferred combat training in Lusternia, which requires a computer with enough brawn to handle all my curing triggers, and a full-sized keyboard and screen for me to work with. I also thought I might do some writing, which is better with a full keyboard and a bigger screen also helps, though I certainly can use the Eee for writing (and have done so before, at length). Afraid that the laptop could go before the week was out, though, leaving me with nothing, I decided to bring both.

Yesterday around mid-day the laptop took its nearly last gasp. The flickering intensified, then all of a sudden, the screen went black. On closer examination, not entirely black. If you stare really hard, you can see vague outlines of windows and even some text. The backlight is gone, but the rest of it works fine. So it's creating all the images, you just can't see them. I closed the screen and gave it a thump and opened it and the image was back, though too red, which quickly "faded" to the regular colors. But 15-30 seconds later it blinked out again. Closing and reopening would revive it, and then it would blink out again. This persists after a reboot, too.

Probably there's an intermittent connection or hairline fracture, which works until the process of it working makes enough heat to make the crack expand enough to break the circuit. Or something like that. Definitely hardware. I was able to keep the system up through repeated closing-and-opening enough to get it shut down cleanly and move everything over to the Eee, and I've been working on that since. The Eee is perfectly adequate, but I can't do Lusternia combat on it for sure. So that, which I have been meaning to do since the T1 line (and in ways, for years before that), is put off yet again.

Al has scheduled an HP repair visit to the office on Monday, so I am without my main computer until then at the earliest. I sure hope they show up with parts, ready to do a real repair, not just a diagnose. HP support has dropped badly since they laid off a jillion people (including a friend and former employee of mine, who used to be the one to do these kinds of repairs for us, and who also used to typify HP's excellent customer service and get-the-job-done attitude that is sorely missed). If they're not ready for a repair on Monday, I'm going to be fairly crippled at work. I'll have to waste a huge amount of time moving to a loaner while I wait for the parts, and then move back, and then move to the new laptop. I'll be another month behind before this is all done.

(Except, in the very unlikely case, they have a loaner I can just drop my hard drive into and go. That would be ideal. But my laptop's old enough that HP probably doesn't have one that it would work in, and I don't think they offer that service anyway. I doubt any computers at my office, let alone any loaners, are suitably compatible either.)

I'm very much not looking forward to having to do everything on just an Eee until Monday, either. There's lots of software I don't have on it, and the slower CPU speed, which is absolutely no problem for web browsing, chatting, and writing, is a great limit when I get to multitasking with the intensity I usually practice. This is going to be a tough few days or weeks.