Thursday, April 28, 2005

'Actually, I'm a pretty cheery reaper' - The Whole Death Thing

Part of it was probably triggered by a death in my extended family. But most of it was just thinking about life as usual.

The first thought I had, a couple weeks ago, was that I've had an interesting life. Not to say that it's not still interesting, but basically, if a telescope fell on me or something, people would think of my life as having been interesting. And I find my own life interesting, too. Sometimes in the "may you live in interesting times" ancient Chinese curse way, but always interesting in one way or another.

More recently, I realized that I don't have an "I must do this before I die!" list. Most of the general, mundane things I figured on doing in life, I've done. I've got a wife, a kid, a house, a car. I've had a career or two of sorts. And the particular way all those things have played out has tended to be decidedly non-mundane, in terms of things like who my wife and friends are, where the house is, what work I've gotten to do, and so on. That's really what's made my life interesting.

So as a doddering 33-year-old, I find myself at peace with the concept of death. This is not to say that I'm particularly looking forward to it or thinking suicidally; I think life is more fun, and if it persists, I'm sure additional interesting things will happen. But rationally, if the telescope does fall on me, aside from mild disappointment at having probably missed out on a few things, I'm not going to really have regrets. I'm okay with who and what I've been and done.

Interestingly, this is a good thing in my opinion, because "life vs. death" is now one less thing to have on my mind, and my mind would certainly benefit from having fewer things on it. More on that topic soon, I hope - telescopes permitting.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Tiger, my precious!

I knew I'd have to buy Tiger sooner or later. But I just wasn't sure how I wanted to buy it.

A single DVD can be used to install it on any number of Macs, so the possibility of forsaking ethics and just buying one license was always there. On the flip side, there's a 5-license "family pack" that would be nice and legit, and since we don't have 5 Macs (nor do we want to - maybe 3, maybe 4, but not 5!), there'd be room for expansion. And the family pack lists for $199, quite a bit less than even two individual $129 licenses.

But there's no academic pricing on the family pack in the US, while a single license can be had for $69, and since we're only actively using two Macs, $69 times two would be far less than $199. But what if we got more?

And then, of course, there was Amazon, which had mail-in rebates for $35 off a single retail box, or $50 off the family pack. And an offer for $30 off my first purchase made with an Amazon VISA card. With instant online approval.

So I wound up spending $169 ($199 minus $30) up front, and will get another $50 of that back, bringing my total cost for a family pack to $119, and my per-license cost to roughly $24. 5 licenses for $10 less than the list price of a single one is... acceptable.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Internal (EP)

"Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger... IS WHAT I SHOULD BE!"

Thus begins Forthfading's impressive debut EP, Internal. Aptly named, it contains a half-dozen lucid, thematic songs dealing with the internal challenges we all face - hypocrisy, stress, lack of self control, lack of focus, fear of failure, and change.

Two vocalists (both can sing; at least one can also scream, growl and rap), two guitars, bass and drums. Hard. Loud. Musically tight. Sort of like an all-male Evanescence, but louder. Lyrically intelligent. No, I mean really intelligent. I could draw parallels to Carlos Castaneda, scripture, and other things... but I won't.

Track listing:

1. Treading Water & Tasting Victory (2:36)
2. Perfect Imperfection (2:34)
3. Know Where to Run (3:38)
4. Fear (3:21)
5. Push (3:39)
6. Sleeper (3:06)

Fear is a definite 5-star song for me; Treading Water & Tasting Victory, Know Where to Run, and Sleeper are 4-star; Perfect Imperfection and Push are 3-star (the noise is a little thicker than I prefer). Notice the lack of 2-star or 1-star songs? Yeah. No duds. Good songs that all work together.

They claim to be "new rock," but they're not as sophomoric as a lot of bands I think of as being in that category. New rock for smart-but-conflicted people, maybe?

Hmm, maybe that's why I like this so much...

Monday, April 18, 2005

Progress = Shinier Toys

Everyone's getting shinier toys, over time. Even the ophthalmologists, as I learned at this morning's eye exam.

Now, I'm not saying they've got toys of the same scale and quality as, say, astrophysicists. But something that can take pictures of the backs of my eyes... is pretty cool. (They look, incidentally, sort of like plasma spheres, but pinker.) Even if they wouldn't email the pictures to me. :(

Anyway, after testing all sorts of things with various machines (all of which, sadly, did 
not go "ping!") the doctor put a bunch of DelusionalDrops™ in my eyes, did some more tests, and pronounced me good to go, after which I went around town feeling very unfocused for a couple hours.

End results? Uncorrected, my right eye is around 20/25 and my left one is still almost 20/20. That's somewhere around 6/7 and 6/6 respectively, for you metric sorts. I can get glasses if I want them, but I don't have to at this point. Maybe if I get a job with vision coverage...

Friday, April 15, 2005

Egg-stremely worrisome news

I don't know if I like this particular news coincidence.

April 14: ABC News runs an interesting story about "Resurrection Ecology," in which eggs laid years or even decades ago by aquatic species were found by scientists in lake-bottom mud and actually hatched, allowing the scientists to do "then and now" comparisons between the species.

April 15: CNN runs 
a story about shelled eggs found in the fossil of a 10-to-13 foot tall carnivorous, bipedal oviraptorosaurian.

Now, from the CNN story, I can't tell whether the eggs are fossilized. I presume they are. I hope they are. But if they're not, I just want to issue a heartfelt plea to the scientists to 
not try to hatch them. I'm very allergic to 10-foot-tall carnivorous bipeds, you see. Make an omelet, scramble them, hard-boil them, make a really large amount of egg nog- I don't care. Just don't hatch 'em.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Shuffling Toward Legitimacy

I've mentioned before that I work part-time as a "casual hire" at the university. "Night watchman" stuff, of a kind, for about 12 hours a week on average. I've been doing it since roughly the start of the last school year.

One of the strange things about being a "casual hire" is that I'm relatively undocumented. Yes, there's a piece of paper in a file somewhere that says what I do, where, for whom. I even have a copy or two of it. And yes, I get paid and have pay stubs. I have email, I have a homepage, and so on and so forth - I'm even in the state's odd "retirement plan for part-time employees." But I don't have an office, a campus phone, union membership, or medical coverage, and no one outside my department can ever find me when they try to look me up in computer databases. It's almost like I'm a secret or something.

Gradually, though, I've been working on getting to the point where I can say "no, really, I do work here!" without getting looked at funny. Last semester I was visiting family at the main campus, 200 miles from home, and couldn't figure out how to get on the wireless network, so I swung by the offices of the folks I work for, and asked them. They told me to go ask the folks who handled the network, who in turn told me to go back and get proof of employment (which I did, after a couple people figured out what constituted proof of employment for someone like me), and then gave me a login that works for all the campus wireless networks. Handy. It also came with another email address and a "web portal" thing.

Yesterday, I stopped by the bookstore at the local campus to look at their software prices. I need to pick up a big software suite for some of the other stuff I do with academics in the natural sciences, and the retail price is hideously expensive. Of course, the bookstore lady couldn't find me in any databases or catalogs or directories. I decided to visit the campus center, found the ID place, and asked the girls there what was involved in getting an ID. They tried to look me up, couldn't find me either. But they said if I had a campus login, we should be able to find my university ID number through the "web portal," and sure enough, we did, and they issued me an ID. Which says I work for the main campus (which I do, since that's where the people who pay me are - I just almost never see them), and am "faculty/staff."

No distinction between the two. No mention of being part time or "casual hire." For all anyone knows, I'm just a particularly weird professor.  If anyone sees my ID and asks what I teach, I have decided that I am an "Abject Professor of Multidisciplinary Autodidactics."  If they don't have the vocabulary to get that, it's not my fault.  But at least now I can get a slightly less heinous price on that software. And come to think of it, Borders has its "educator appreciation weekend" coming up! :)

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Once again, I'm in three places at once!

A few months back, I told my beloved and very progressive long distance company to take a hike, canceled a bunch of "services" on my local line, and signed up for BroadVoice voice-over-IP service. A few days later, a little tiny box called an ATA (that stands for Analog Telephone Adaptor, not any sort of IDE drive technology or airline) showed up, and after connecting it to my LAN and a phone, I was able to make unlimited calls to something like 21 countries for $19.99/month plus tax. Pretty spiffy, huh? For another buck and a half or so, I got a second number somewhere completely different.

Anyway, about 10 days ago, I noticed that I had no dial tone on that line. Couldn't figure out why. E-mailed them, but didn't get a reply, so I called instead. (On my cell, ugh, since I have no "normal" long-distance service now!) It took the tech and me (okay, that makes two techs) a while, but eventually he got me into the ATA's web-based administrative interface and I noticed that it had gotten confused and thought that its "gateway" was my router, rather than my DSL modem. Changed a .2 to a .1 and suddenly everything got very very happy again.

Especially me.

So now I once again have my plain ordinary local number in Hawaii... and my number in New Jersey, and my number in Chicago. Yay. I should get business cards printed up listing "branch offices" or something. :)


SCIgen is a program which uses "context-free grammar" to automatically generate papers for computer science journals. The papers make about as much sense as ones written by humans...

Friday, April 8, 2005

What I'm up to musically of late.

I might ramble a little, so if I do, I apologize.

I heard The Hand That Feeds, the new single from Nine Inch Nails. Then I heard that Trent Reznor had taken the audio tracks from whatever pro audio application he used to make the song (on a Mac) and made them available in the form of a song project file for GarageBand 2... which I just happened to have recently acquired as part of iLife '05. Hmmmm, interesting. Downloaded it. Had fun turning various tracks off and on. Sounds different without drums. I haven't gone and changed any of the instruments totally around... yet. But I could if I wanted to. Which is really pretty neat.

Then the nice folks from the Department of Sociology at Columbia University emailed me the results of a project they'd done on social networking, and mentioned that oh, by the way, they were now studying how people's taste in music developed, and participants in that project could, after listening to and rating songs (or at least the first few seconds of songs), download the songs for free. I think I downloaded about a quarter of the four dozen songs they had. Out of the ones I got, I only really, really liked one - Fear by Forthfading. But I liked that enough to go check out their web site, and look them up on the iTunes Music Store, and wound up getting the rest of their songs from their EP. Good music, good lyrics. While I was at iTMS I also downloaded a half-hour or so of other music that it was offering up for free, of course.

Of course, I'd completely forgotten about Audioscrobbler, which is easy to do since it runs as a little iTunes add-on and never makes any noise at me about anything unless I remember to poke it. So I took a look at what it thinks I've been up to, which didn't really contain any surprises, then at its recommendations for me.

The recommendations are kind of interesting. If something's listed in "Under-Appreciated Artists" it probably means that I've only remembered to rip one song, or one CD, by an artist that's done a lot of stuff I like. (This isn't true in every case - sometimes I like a few songs by a given artist, and have them all already, but other people with similar tastes like, and have, many more.) If something's listed in "New Suggestions" it usually means I totally flaked and forgot to rip anything at all - or, if I go far down the list, past the first 25 or so, it could actually be an artist that's new to me.

Let's see, what else. Oh, I recently found a live version of Echolyn's "A Little Nonsense" on the iTunes Store, which was wonderful, since a live performance of that specific song at the WMMR 25th anniversary concert in Cherry Hill in 1993 was what introduced me to Echolyn (and made me a fan of them).

In other music news, my daughter has graduated from the conch shell to the trumpet. She even took it to school to show her classmates in kindergarten. Yes, kindergarten. She can't finger notes yet, but she can get good sounds out of it, tighten her lips for high notes, and all that. Five or six years earlier than I could, and four years earlier than I played anything other than a "flutophone."

Oh, and in closing, I just have to point out that I'm not aware of any pre-1932 recordings of Oops I Did It Again (popularized by Britney Spears), but even if I were, this one would probably still be my favorite rendition of that song.

I think that's everything for now.

Still Working on the Earth-Shattering Kaboom

Well-meaning scientists have managed to drill a hole in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that goes all the way to the bottom of the Earth's crust. Not content to rest on their laurels, they now want to keep drilling 'til they break through to the mantle.

Yes. The mantle. The hot liquid molten part. The "stuff that comes out of volcanoes" part. After all, it's not like we have enough volcanoes without them going and drilling a new one. What could possibly go wrong, anyway? Releasing stuff from the Earth's mantle... hmm... so maybe there's a wee tiny risk of it erupting violently, triggering tsunamis that go wipe out the East Coast and all that... ;)

But yeah, it probably won't happen like that.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Oh, poop.

 A decade or so ago, some of my friends and I got to be involved in hooking my parents' house up to the new sewer line on their road. It was a lot of work, since we went with human power rather than paying for a backhoe.

When I bought this house in 2002, I entered into a joint agreement with 5 other homeowners pertaining to a shared large-capacity cesspool, which happens to be located in my back yard.

At the time, no one told us that the EPA had passed rules in 1999 banning the construction of any new large-capacity cesspools (anything serving multiple houses, or more than 20 people, is considered large-capacity) and furthermore, setting a deadline of April 5, 2005 for removal of existing ones. We all found out that we'd have to get rid of it... right around February 28, 2005.

So anyway. We've all joined together, formed a community group to deal with it, gotten a civil engineer on board, who's filed plans with the EPA so we don't get fined $32,000 a day, and so on and so forth. The engineer came over today and managed to meet with a few of us and take a look at what we've got, the lay of the land, and all that.

Good news: we might be able to do some sort of gravity flow sewer instead of pumping uphill, if we can get an easement from a neighbor. (The uphill idea would have required one from a different neighbor that nobody knows.)

Bad news: it's still not going to be cheap.

Observation: we have a huuuuuge cesspool. Imagine, if you will, a hole about 10 feet across in solid lava rock, about 20-25 feet deep. Further imagine the top 10-15 feet of that hole not even having any poop in it, because of how huge the hole is, and the rate at which stuff seeps out.

Unfortunately, once we get done using the cesspool and switch over to sewer, apparently we'll be required to just fill it in with concrete or something, and not do anything truly useful like somehow sanitizing it and turning it into a bomb shelter, missile silo or secret underground clubhouse.

More news as it becomes available...

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Funding our local library

January: My daughter gets a library card.

February: She checks out Charlotte Zolotow's "William's Doll," illustrated by William Pene DuBois.

March: the due date comes and the book is nowhere to be found. My daugher has taken it to school. A day or two later, it comes home. It gets put in the car so it can go to the library, but then she goes somewhere with a friend, and takes it in the friend's car, where it gets left. Then, right around the time we figure out where it went, the friend's car breaks down and winds up in the shop - with the book still in it.

April: We got the book back today, and I returned it to the library. $3.90 in fines... thank goodness she doesn't have to pay fines at the adult rate. Sheesh.

Now with satellite imagery!

Google Maps now has satellite imagery. In some areas - including the island I live on - it's not high-resolution enough to zoom all the way in, but the pictures are very impressive. In others, it's quite good.

For example, here's an overview of the Air Force base a short distance from where I grew up - and you can zoom in another 3 levels from that. (Don't worry, folks, it's got cargo planes and Air National Guard tankers - nothing exciting!)

Saturday, April 2, 2005

Donnie Darko

Over at the Internet Movie Database, there are few surprises among movies IMDB users have voted as the best science fiction movies of all time. "Star Wars" is joined by "The Matrix," "2001," and "Alien" among others.

One surprise is a movie which is ranked in the top 15 of all time, despite having been written by someone fresh out of film school who had the audacity to insist that he be allowed to direct it, having cost only $4.5 million to make, and having flopped in its original limited box-office release, bringing in only $500,000, only to become a "cult movie" upon its release on video.

That movie is, of course, Donnie Darko, a sort of bizarre fusion of 1980s teen movies like The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller's Day Off and sci-fi thrillers. If you've seen The Butterfly Effect, this is the movie it was trying to emulate.

The plot? Simply put, a psychologically disturbed teenager has visions of a giant evil bunny-rabbit that tells him to commit acts of destruction because the world's going to end. Sound bizarre enough yet? If not, throw in wormholes, time travel, Patrick Swayze as a character you'll love to hate, Drew Barrymore, and some great one-liners.

If this movie's so great, why do I only think it deserves 4 stars out of five? Because ultimately, all the things that look like they're being taken care of in the movie aren't taken care of at all. Exactly how that comes to be, and why, I can't say without spoiling it. You'll have to watch it yourself.

Donnie Darko is rated R, probably because there's some violence, destruction, implied drug use and typical 1980s teen humor. In my opinion, it's just barely an R as opposed to PG-13.

Among our weapons are surprise, fear, and redundancy!

I'm not sure what a "Headquarters Headquarters Company" does. Maybe they handle all the forms that have to be submitted in duplicate? 

I saw these folks from the Headquarters Headquarters Company of the 2d Battalion, 299th Infantry, marching in the Royal Parade of the Merrie Monarch Festival today here in Hilo.

April Fool's Day

Not bad overall. Went up the mountain. Drove an Expedition (fullsize SUV) instead of the Explorer (midsize SUV) I usually drive. The Explorer is a lot nicer on the road; the Expedition just wallows along. But on the steep dirt road near the summit, the Expedition is a bigger, heavier, more powerful vehicle, so it doesn't bounce around as much.

Got up there, spotted some tourists, gave them a quick tour of the observatory. They were from the Los Angeles area. Got my work done. Gave some more tourists a quick tour. They were from New York, but had grown up in India. This was funny since I was in New York early last month, and in India last fall. Drove back down. Recorded my trip as Hilo-Mars-Hilo in the vehicle's mileage log, since it's April Fool's Day.

Watched part of the Merrie Monarch Festival, except when my daughter demanded that we channel-surf over to "Trauma: Life in the ER" on Discovery Health.

Eventually, got some sleep. 

Friday, April 1, 2005

Recipe: Saint George and the Graham Cracker Dragon

Special Consideration:   Kids
Servings:   300

Cryogenic crackers turn science fair attendees into "smoke"-breathing monsters.
Liquid Nitrogen (in a styrofoam bowl)
Graham Crackers (not iced)

Make sure you have an audience.
Break graham crackers into bite-sized pieces.
Use tongs to dip each piece into liquid nitrogen for 5 seconds
Use tongs to wave cracker piece in air for 10 seconds (cracker will appear to "smoke" or "steam")
Juggle cracker piece between hands until it is safe to touch (spots of frost on your hands mean juggle faster!)
Hand the cracker piece to someone who will eat it quickly
OR eat it yourself.

The continued gasification of the liquid nitrogen in which the cracker was dipped creates cold nitrogen. As the person eating the cracker exhales, the cold nitrogen causes the temperature of the air it mixes with to drop below the dew point, resulting in condensation of water vapor in the air, and clouds of "steam."

(Our outreach officer was quite worried when he saw me doing this, and told me to stop before our associate director noticed.  That's when I told him the associate director already ate one...)

Why I'm leaving Twitter.

I've stuck it out and continued participating on Twitter while Elon Musk has run it into the ground, made it progressively more inhospit...