Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Macro Lens on the Way for the 20Da

Luckily, I have a relative that is a professional photographer. I have been able to borrow all the lenses she wasn't regularly using in order to use the Canon 20Da.

Today I ordered a lens for myself. Since a lot of my work is close-up photography, I researched lenses and found one that looks like it's going to work out quite well. It's the 100mm F/2.8 Canon USM macro lens. It should be here within the week. Here's an example photo in macro mode on the Olympus 1020Z that I was using before.

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I'm hoping to get as good or better results with the new setup, even though the Olympus, despite being a point-and-shoot, is actually pretty hard to beat in terms of flexibility and photo quality.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Hall of Shame - Cheap Toys - Part 1

The post-Christmas season around the household here is always a good time to take stock of toys that work and toys that do not.We're very lucky to have the opportunity to either purchase toys or receive them from the many family members that live nearby.

The vast majority of these toys work really well. Some do not. This is going to be a post about one that does not.

It's the Battery Operated Road Race Set. It's distributed by Midwestern Home Products, Inc. P.O. Box 0591 Wilmington DE 19899. The item number is 06245. It seems to be a slot car track.

It says ages 5 and up. However, you have to be a careful adult with a deft touch to not break the thing putting it together.

And, even then,

1) both posts of the start/finish line broke apart while trying to attach them to the track. One post broke at the top somehow. the other at the bottom.

2) the catch fence feet, where they attach to the track, sheared off 20% of the time, leaving most of the catch fence barely hanging on to the track. This affects the racing because the catch fence keeps you from sliding off the track if you keep the car floored, which is about all you can do with the controllers that came with the track.

3) the places where the track fits together are frail. I had to bend the metal ins and outs back "in" the very first track layout. If you shear these off, you're done with that piece, as the electrical connection between the track segments can't be reliably made.

4) the box can't be used as storage due to the very cheap and flimsy packing material. You're on your own for storage.

5) the accessories mentioned on the box include two extremely small signs that are supposed to attach to the track. You would almost miss them if you didn't know they were "advertising billboards". That's supposed to be the accessories as far as I can tell.

6) The figure-8 layout is the only one that goes together without irritating gaps between track segments.

The cars themselves were the only positive thing in the box. So, trying to be a good sport, I played with this set with my little boy for a long time. The whole while I pondered frail, fragile, cheap, plastic toys.

This would have to be my first real encounter with something that did not seem to be play-tested at all whatsoever. For that, I'm quite grateful.

For a great link to a good read that includes a bit about Midwestern Home Products, check out Cheesy Toys #9.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Woodworking + Toddlers

9 December 2005 042

Here's Michael at his woodworking class. Normally you wouldn't expect woodworking and toddlers to be a winning combination. However, this woodworking class is a San Diego treasure. The class is held in a converted bus called The Wood Bus. See below for bus.

9 December 2005 039

Each child has a station with all the tools you need to make a little toy or object. The work area is adjustable up and down, and everyone does their own work. Everyone gets to choose their project. The bus is jam-packed with tools and plans and the woman that runs this venture is one of the neatest people I've met in a long time. She comes around to all the schools and teaches basic woodworking.

The day that this photo was taken, one of the parents at the school walked up to her and said "You probably don't remember me, but I took your class, and I am going to sign up my son for your next session."

Turns out she's been at this for 30-some years. She told me that the day she runs into a grandchild, she might think about quitting.

She's had two or three buses over her career as a woodworking teacher, and said that getting a new one requires a tremendous amount of work to outfit. After seeing the inside, I believe it. I hope we get to do this class again sometime. Michael totally loved it. He made a walkie-talkie with a flip-up antenna and a little plane with spinning propeller. What a great experience he had!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Everquest Fan Fiction - Trueflight

If you're not familiar with my D&D/Everquest/RPG character Trueflight, then this post may not make a whole lot of sense. If you're familiar with the game or fan fiction in general then this is just more Trueflight RP. Hope you enjoy!


They had the best table in the Heartwood Tavern. It was near the door, but out of the way of the draft. Despite the crowd, most of the Kelethin natives gave the table a wide berth. No one stood within two strides of the elf and the human seated there.

“Thank you for meeting with me, Trueflight” the young man said sincerely. He pulled his chair in closer to the table then glanced around, admiring the workmanship of the tavern interior.

“You’re quite welcome,” answered the elf. “You mentioned you wanted to talk about blacksmithing. You know I wrote a book on the subject. But, I can’t think of anything that I could tell you that wasn’t already in it.” Her arms were casually crossed, elbows leaning on the richly varnished table. The plain linen shirt was speckled with spark marks. Her hair, cut short, stood up in a series of reddish cowlicks.

“Well, to be honest, the reason I’m here is not exactly for a recipe, or for a process, or anything like that. I’ve read your book. I had it translated. It took some doing. Everyone wants elvish poetry. Try getting some nonfiction translated and everyone acts like it’s torture.”

“It was torture to write. It should be torture to read,” Trueflight answered, snapping off the cork from her bottle with her thumb. The human visitor watched her pour a glass, realizing the stories about her strength must be true. It usually took a heavy tool to wrench the cork from a bottle of elven wine.

“Want yours opened too?” she said politely, nodding towards the bottle that had been placed down in front of him earlier.

“Sure. Thanks. I guess they forgot the corkscrew.”

“They do that on purpose to confound the humans. By the way, you might not want to drink it all. The Heartwood doesn’t exactly follow the purity laws for Kelethin brewers. It’s about twice as strong as what others serve, but that’s not the issue. You look like you can handle a drink. The problem is that they don’t filter the water first.”

“Oh, thanks for the tip.”

She poured him a full glass and then set the bottle down in the center of the table.

“So, you don’t want to know about blacksmithing recipes. You don’t want to know about forging processes. What exactly is it that you want to know?”

“How did you lose your leg, and why did you decide to replace it with a piece of metal?”

Trueflight looked at the human and rubbed her chin.

“I won’t answer the first question. But I can answer the second.”

“Ok, fair enough.” He leaned forward, excited to hear the story from the source herself. A story that had not, to his knowledge, either been told or found out by anyone else.

“The adventuring life is a dangerous one. You yourself have several scars,” Trueflight began. “There’s one on your neck, another on your arm.”

“Yes, that’s true,” he answered, recalling the origins of both with gritted teeth. He rubbed the scar on his forearm with his thumb.

“Well, you can imagine that if you adventure enough, and if you take risks, that you will fall prey to some opponents that will best you. Normally my race restores limbs through the powers of our healers. It’s an area of study that offers great reward in terms of wealth as well as reputation.”

She paused to drink. He decided to try a sip. It was delicious. Whatever unfiltered substances were in the water, at that moment, he didn’t care about one bit.

“It’s good, no? Anyway, there came a time where I lost my left foot, ankle, and lower leg. I knew from previous study that the phase spiders could attach armor plating to themselves with a particular substance. This allowed the extra armor, regardless of origin, to bond to their ethereal form. Otherwise, the plating wouldn’t make the jump when the phase spiders phase in and out. This armor, or carapace, could be removed only upon the death of the spider. Most of the rest of the body would disintegrate.”

“Phase spiders. They’re rumored to be found in the necropolis of the dragon.”

“Yes, my friend. That is where they are found,” Trueflight confirmed.

“The armor plating, a carapace, was from the material plane, and not the plane of the phase spider. Traditionally, it was assumed that there was some sort of magical adhesion at work. However, I examined many of the carapaces recovered from the necropolis. There was no aura of magic, other than what had been cast upon the spider to kill it. There was only a particular type of phase spider silk.”

“Ah,” the visitor said, his enthusiasm hard to contain, “The spiders put it upon themselves with their own silk?”

“Yes,” Trueflight smiled, “That seemed to be what they had done. However, it had to be confirmed. And that took some patience, some luck, and almost two years of observing the phase spider in the wild.”

“So that is indeed what they do?”

“Yes. There are some things that must be done to the phase spider silk in order to make it work well with human skin, but the bonding worked perfectly on the third try.”

She moved her left leg out from under the table and lifted up the cuff of her pant leg. A ripple of whispers arose from the crowd. Several patrons stared with unmasked curiosity. Most, if not all of them, had never seen a maimed elf. Hardly any would ever see one again.

“This is a band of mithril. It’s three inches wide, a half inch think, and about two feet long. It’s curved like a lower leg and foot. The mithril sheet it was made from was folded over 500 times to give it a very springy and uniform quality. I can’t afford to have this metal fail.”

The metal seemed to grow out of her leg and then curve gracefully to the floor. It seemed to be undecorated, except for the very tip where the toes would have been. A filigreed triangular pattern could be seen gleaming in the light.

“What’s that design on the end?”

“Oh that. It’s a surprise,” she answered.

“And you didn’t write a book about all this, by any chance, did you?”

Trueflight pondered for a moment. She dropped the pant leg back down and swung both legs back under the table.

“I don’t rightly remember when the reports were filed. I’m sure it’s with the Ranger Guild.”

“Well that would explain it,” the human said. “I haven’t been able to access the archives. I don’t have the correct certification, or standing, with the guild.”

Trueflight looked at him with a raised eyebrow and took another drink. “Well, all you have to do is prove yourself. How hard can that be?”

He laughed quietly. “Well, these scars aren’t the only ones I got in efforts to prove myself to elves. I am coming to the conclusion that it simply can’t be done.”

“Nonesense,” she answered. “We have many decorated humans within the ranks of the guild auxiliary. You just haven’t come across the right mentor.”

“And who might that be?” He demanded.

“If you ask me nicely, then it might happen more quickly than you think.”

“Oh,” he said, suddenly embarrassed. “But you hardly know me. I’m just a bard, looking for lore. I got involved with these legends on a dare. There are many more deserving.”

“But they’ve never had the gall to ask me how come I don’t get a real leg.”

“So, you admire my gall?” he preened.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. Your gall might be delivered to you on a platter if you become too much of a smart ass.”

He decided to drink some wine instead of respond.

“Good choice,” she said, raising her glass. “Next stop, the guild hall. After that, it’s up to you.”

Monday, December 12, 2005

San Diego DMV Should Not Be Closed

The Department of Motor Vehicles should absolutely not be closed on a work day.

I motored on over to do some normal citizen-unit paperwork, only to find the DMV closed. Now, you might say, maybe I should have checked before I went. Perhaps, but it's a non-holiday Monday. Even the banks are open. Schools are in session. And, the parking lot had cars in it. And a lot of people walking back and forth from their cars to the doors.

About halfway to the door, a woman said "It's closed" in a very irritated voice. "They don't open until tomorrow morning."

I drove 20 minutes to find out that this DMV is open for 80% of the work week. Now, if it was a truly free service, I might not mind so much. But if you live in San Diego, you know how much you pay in taxes. For those of you who don't live here, it's a high-tax burden state and city. What a joke.

In the short time it took me to walk back over to my car, I counted 12 people walking back and forth. All were annoyed. 5 cars pulled into the parking lot while I was driving out. Obviously I'm not the only one that assumed that since it was a normal work day, a city office might in fact be open.

Lame, California. Get your act together. I've had quite enough of pension scandals, stripper money laundering scandals, wasted taxpayer money, terrible library schedules, fees fees and more fees, and now stupid state office schedules that incovenience the very people that are paying for all this.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Best email subject line of the day

The title of the email says it all. It was from travelocity.

"Book a Hotel in Las Vegas, Get a Free Survival Kit"

Survival kit? For surviving Las Vegas? Or for surviving something else? Survival from what? Obviously, from zombies. But could it cover nuclear war? Bird flu? Your typical set of in-laws? Mental illness? Bad food? Airplane food? Airplane travel? Bus travel?

Is it free or do I have to actually go to Las Vegas? Or, can I just book the hotel, get the survival kit, then cancel the hotel? Is the survival kit small enough to fit in my pocket? Car? Garage?

If I take this survival kit, will I be under obligation to accept others in the future? Will I feel social pressure to upgrade my survival kit? If I decide to have two survival kits, will this cause jealousy between the kits? If the kits are unhappy, will they fail to assist me in my next attempt at survival? Is there any guarentee of survival success with this particular survival kit, or am I on my own, yet again, with a couple of pressure bandages, some floss, a pair of plastic scissors, and alcohol-soaked swabs? Does the kit include tylenol to help with the survival-kit-management-induced headaches?

I should probably call travelocity and ask...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

World of Warcraft Day 7

Today I achieved the goal of reaching level 10, which allows you to train the necessary skills in order to get a pet. This is a big step forward because the Hunter class hallmark is having a pet. The pet can attack, defend, and generally accompany you on your adventures.

I put my talent points into archery-related skills. Talent points seem to be obtained once per level at level 10 and above.

I completed some quests and tried to tame a wild scorpion, which killed me. The animation for taming is several white hearts floating up from my waving hands. It looked like I was fanning some sort of really hot stew on a stove while getting my teeth kicked in by a pissed off scorpion. It was really quite funny.

Mining and blacksmithing are going well. My blacksmithed axe is better than anything I could afford or loot up to now. I don't know if that is typical, or I just haven't been to the "good" zones. No matter, I enjoy tradeskills and using what I make is always a good thing.

I am not a fan of the color palette, the choices of the graphical design of the horde races (and most of the alliance), or most monsters. There are widespread comments about the game looking cartoonish. I think they may have a point, but to me it looks less cartoonish and more like quickly-done comic book.

The brambles aren't brambles, for example. They're one-trunked enormous tree-like objects with a few thorns on them to identify them as brambles. I almost didn't get it due to the obviousness. I was looking for waist-high shrubs, not five-story thorned McDonald's arches.

The graphics that I've been most impressed with so far are things like the zeppelins. That's a pretty neat airship. Other than that, some of the houses and buildings are nicely done.

The dance animations (and many of the others) are almost all achingly anachronistic. The first time you see one, you might think they're funny, but if you're remotely interested in roleplay, it does get old. If you find yourself wanting a more RP feel, then go with an RP server. At least maybe people won't dance like they're at an 80s nightclub or talk like they're hanging out in front of Electronics Boutique.

Another issue that might explain some of the experiences I've had in MMORPGs of various types is this snippet from the very nice website The Daedalus Project.

"The graph above plotting gender against age highlights another very important gender difference. Male players tend to be between 12 and 28, while female players tend to be between 23 and 40. Rather than categorizing MMORPG players as male and female players, it perhaps makes more sense to think of the two main groups as younger male players and older female players."

Hence, the average of 30 for age of players often given by game companies is somewhat incomplete. There is a bimodality in the demographics.

The Daedalus Project is a well-done series of studies on MMORPGs and worth a visit by anyone that's ever wondered who the heck we are that play these games. Consider participating in the surveys if you can.


Monday, November 21, 2005

World of Warcraft Day 6

But, but, what happened to days 4 and 5?

Elementary my dear friends. I didn't get a chance to play on day 4 and 5. So let's fast-forward to Day 6 of 10.

This morning's session began at 6:30am. I wrapped up a centaur-culling quest where I had to burn their battle plans. Funny how they left them laying out in the open in their decrepit little huts. Silly centaurs. I was then joined by my orcish comrade Garoan. He chose the best face that an orc could possibly choose, and had stealthy powers.

With orc and troll power, we completed a quest called Encroachment, where we had to kill pigdog-looking people. The first set were easy to find. The other set were across the road, and therefore quite difficult to find. Really. Like Ren and Stempy, we pretended to take over the world. Or, at least that small corner of Razormane Land.

I realized, through trial and error, that I had to have a pick in order to mine copper from the copper mines. Geez. So I bought one, and mined some copper and some stone. Next step is to actually try and blacksmith something. I also bought a fishing pole, and trained up in some things that I probably should have already trained in, but no matter! Better late than never.

By the end of the morning (8:15am or so) I had worked through all of level 8 and reset my home base to razor hill, just for grins. Having a controllable bind point is nice. I noticed EQ pretty much added this as well.

So it was an enjoyable morning, despite the fact that Xorgo (sitting next to me at his PC playing EQ) complained almost the entire time that I was completing quests and levelling and stuff while he was killing no-exp frogs for a wood elf mask. I laughed at him with Troll-like snarking.

I like the mining, since it's basically foraging with a pick on top of a sparkly rock. I have a way to track mines as well as beasts, so the mines show up on your little map in the upper right.

I noticed that "regular" track doesn't seem to work with quest beasts. Only one type of track can be active at a time. Since the directions to the quested mobs tend to be pretty good, I started just leaving the mine track on all the time and taking diversions to mine stuff while on the way back and forth from various places.

I did die again due to brazen stupidity. I tried to find a heal potion in inventory, but that took more skill than I could muster in the short amount of time I was still alive.

I upgraded my quiver as well from a 6 slot to an 8 slot. Tailors can make backpacks, so I will be on the lookout for maybe getting another pack or two. Buying and selling the quiver taught me to put the pack into inventory first, then try and sell it. I think I accidentally had to buy back the quiver I wanted when I right-clicked it (to open it) and sold it instead.

So, only minor difficulties so far with the interface, mainly due to pilot error.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Xenosaga - Der Wille zur Macht

Having used my Playstation 2 for little more than a DVD player since I got it several years ago, I decided that since a Game Stop store opened in the neighborhood, that I join the legions of unwashed middle-school boys that clog up the place every time I walk by.

I strolled in with Michael once or twice. He grokked immediately that games were sold here, but it took some convincing that some were xBox and some were PS2 and you couldn't choose both at once. This is understandable since he's only 4.

I picked up Risk and Xenosaga. Risk is an electronic version of the board game. Xenosaga had a cool anime style chick on front and the subtitle Der Wille zur Macht. My rusty german gave me the impression that this sentence fragment meant something like "the will to do" or "the will to mightiness" or something like that. It sounded good, so I bought it. Both were used, so they didn't break the bank. In fact, the majority of the games in this store are used PS2 games, which is great - they buy them back as well as sell them.

So, Xenosaga follows the format that seems to be common on PS2. You get a long movie that introduces the plot. You play for a while in either quest/explore mode, with combat interspersed whenever you careen into a bad guy, and then more quest, treasure enjoyment, and vignettes that move the plot along.

The opening scene was quite reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The plot is wonderfully close to most manga. You just go along with it, and it makes sense. However, if I tried to explain it by using actual words, it would sound lame. But, it's not! Really. I had fun. I did the tutorial, beat up on some bad guys, and then started the game.

Problem. I don't have a memory card. I will need one, since in this game you level, and I don't want to start over any more often than I have to. So, I will be back to the closet-sized game store in the Rubio's shopping center to get a memory card for my PS2.

Any other game suggestions, send them my way. If you know of any games for little kids that don't suck too bad (4-5 years old) then let me know. Michael loves Grand Turismo and Crash Bandicoot.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Everquest DoN Cultural Armor Day 1

Mission to... Crushbone! Yes, crushbone. I had to kill legionaires, oracles, collect some grody orc-contaminated drops, and then turn them back in to the Tradeskill Quest Giver in Greater Faydark. I got a book on Wood Elven culture in return. Did I not look cultured enough? Well, if you've ever met Trueflight, you know the answer to that. Besides being light reading, the book gives some clues on making the rest of the background supplies for the quest.

The cultural armor is completed in four stages. There is an augmentation symbol that goes along with each armor stage as well. The armor is high AC and low HP, so the augment provides a bit of balance in this regard.

So. It turns out there is a dark blue to 68 mob in Crushbone now. I found this out the hard way, after being hit repeatedly for 930 points of damage. The lesson for the day? Don't kill the messenger. Orc Messenger, that is. Imagine my surprise when I whacked away without considering my ugly orcish opponent, and got killed on the table in the throne room! Killed! Me! DEAD

I met a really nice person who was factioning in crushbone (59 ranger) and we had a great time goofing off.

The mission or quest log seems exactly like World of Warcraft where it keeps track of your tasks and the stage of completion. I like this addition very much. You can share tasks, too - this made the "kill a bunch of legos" fun because the other person's kills counted towards my to-do list.

No discernible experience for turning in any of this stuff, but this part of the cultural armor quest is designed to be done at level 30.

For the next book (2 of 4) I head to Acrylia Caverns. I think I'll get all 4 of the books together first, then start on the smithing, just to save space and juggling inventory. I will have to do 2 levels worth of leveling, due to the fact that the last book quest isn't given below level 70.

So, that's the summary of this evening's fun and adventure in CRUSHBONE!

Another thing I noticed was the veteran rewards. I haven't played in so long, that all the new stuff really stands out to me - the veteran rewards are granted with respect to how long you've had the account active. I'm at 6.3 years, so I got (I think) six different AA type skills. Some of them are pretty nice.

So, if I can complete one of these missions per evening, then the book part might be done in a week or two. If I can run into nice people like the person I met today on a regular basis, then that's icing on the cake of new armor.

The cultural armor isn't as good as top-end raid stuff, but if you are interested in checking it out for comparison, it's called Wirewood.

Here is a link to the chest piece for those interested.

World of Warcraft Day 3

Day 3

More quest work and a bit of time spent hack-and-slashing things that roam around.
Professions picked.

I decided to go with mining/blacksmithing as a profession, but didn't work on any profession-related stuff other than training. I will probably do fishing as a sub-field, because I enjoy the idea of fishing.

6:30am started out and had the fortune of getting spam-invited into a group that was heading over to the next island for some sort of quest. I accepted the invite and tagged along. The location that I was in was a series of islands just offshore. I was collecting stuff for quests and generally soloing things on one island, one mob at a time as two = death.

The quest the group was after was that I'd signed up for, according to the log, so I joined in and fought whatever was pulled. There were three other people for a group of four total including myself. They were not talkative at all. There was no plan besides attacking voodoo-looking type mobs, which we did with abandon. The loot system isn't bad. If there is a quest item you need, then a copy exists for everyone. There was some loot that people rolled for. However, mobs are quite dumb. The don't run, they generally don't protect their own, they don't swarm. The aggro radius seems really small. Chain aggro hasn't occurred at all so far. It was like fish in a barrel this morning at the voodoo camp. The small island I was on was a bit harder, but the mobs popped in the same spot every time, and they were all equidistant with the aggro ranges non-overlapping. I could have stayed there indefinitely, as long as I was careful about catching aggro from the crab guys in the water near the shore.

Once the number of required kills was reached, one person simply started running back to town. Another person pulled a mob. The third person ran off in a different direction. I helped fight the mob, but the person that pulled it died. The mob wandered off, even though I'd hit it several times and it probably could have killed me. I'm not sure why that happened, but I'm glad I didn't have the minor inconvenience of running the short distance back to recover my dumb dead arse.

The reason I didn't get lost at this point, since everyone ran off before I looted the last quest item, is because the map system in WoW provides pretty much all location information on it. You have pointers back to the places that you've already been. I have tracking as a "hunter" (ranger) so I tracked to the nearest group member. People were disbanding as I swam to the island that I had been on earlier.

I thanked the group member (in a say) that I had tracked to for the group, and was asked if I was being sarcastic. I said "no, why would you think that? I appreciate the group and had fun".

There was no response from the other person. So, first group experience could have been played by computer-programmed in-game avatars, rather than people. It was very hard to tell if anyone was having fun while doing this brief expedition to the other island.

Getting your armor repaired, purchasing upgrades, etc is quite straightforward and doesn't tax the finances very much at this point. Completing the island-quests leveled me up to 8 at 8:15 am. I logged out near the fishing village having done quests, a group, profession training, and dying in the water to something that I should have been able to kill on dry land.

I read some of the realm forums and came away with a negative impression of the people that post there. I have to assume that people like me, who type in (generally) complete sentences, enjoy games, and try to be civil and social with other players are simply all in guilds, and post to their own boards there rather than public forums like the one at the World of Warcraft site.

I haven't been invited to a guild at this time - I would reckon it's pretty much required to join one in order to really take advantage of the PVP opportunities on the server that I am on (Agamaggan). It probably wouldn't be that fair of me to join one, since I can only play a few hours in the morning and the jury will be out on WoW until after this 10-day trial.

I am looking forward to being able to have a pet.

From Hunter Site

"What level can I start taming beasts?
You can start taming beasts at level 10 after you complete your Hunter quests. You will need to talk to your local hunter trainer and they will give you a quest to go talk to the hunter trainer that will teach you how to tame beast. You will then receive 3 taming quests each one has you tame a different beast that is local to the area you are in. After you complete the taming quests you will receive Beast Taming, Calling and Dismiss skills, these are in your spell book under Beast skills. You will then receive another quest to talk to the trainer in the main city for your race. After talking to that trainer you will have the Feed, Revive and Training skills. These are also under Beast skills except for Beast training which is under general skills."

It does sound fun. I hope I have enough time to level to 10, learn about pets, and do some mining/blacksmithing in the next week or so.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Old Photo


I have no idea how this photo survived the house fire that happened that year (1991). It must have been in my backpack or wallet, because that's the only things that survived. Maybe I'd given it to someone, and they'd given it back. Booth photos usually come in threes, I think, and this one has been cut from others - you can tell along the top. I wonder where the other ones are.

This was a particularly difficult year, most of which I really can't recall with any degree of accuracy.

So, it's amazing what you find when you start unpacking boxes from three or four moves ago...

World of Warcraft Day 2

Day 2

Start time 6:30am. Started out taking any quest I could find. Trained and sold stuff at starting city along the way.

Attained level 4 by 7:00am. Reached 5th at 7:30. Enjoyed waking up "lazy peons" with a blackjack given to me by a Foreman. The sound of a blackjack hitting troll skull warmed the cockles of my heart.

Reached level 6 at 8:10 then did some more exploring. Found four or five areas of troll population concentration. Encampments are tiny. I like the DAOC style directions that the local thugs give you. Nothing was hard to find in any encampment. The mobs are all quick work. The difficulty level of combat is very similar to DAOC. The "styles" or combat abilities are neat. I only have one so far, though.

All the other players in the zone seem to be quite busy. I've chatted towards a few other people, but they stop for a few seconds then run off. The game was easy enough to where I could continue a long-running conversation with Ken about a particular Bach CD that was profiled in BBC Music Magazine.

I've found miners and fishermen that want to train me, but I haven't taken that on yet. I'd like to get above the early levels and gain a few more class-specific skills before spending any of the limited time I have on that kind of skill. I finished up at 9:00am about halfway through the latest batch of quests.

I like the quest log system, that does help. However, the quests so far are single-step hunt-and-gather type stuff, so pretty easy to remember without the log. So, by 9:00 I had not dinged level 7, but I suspect it's close. Trolls are fun so far!

World of Warcraft Day 1

Day 1

15 minutes to level two with a troll hunter on one of the PVP servers. Took over an hour to patch the program, however. Seems exactly like EQ, except  greatly accelerated exp. Lots of babblebabble adolescent chit chat flying by about guilds and end game content.

Research showed that EQ currently has a little less than half a million subscribers. WoW has two million, and is about to be launched in China. By comparison, EQ2 has 278,000 subscribers as of this past summer.

In order to make any further progress in EQ towards finding a new guild (shok and KHS are empty), I have to do more flagging. No mid-tier and above guilds accept applications without at least elemental flagging. I could join a low to mid-tier guild, but that sounds like what I was trying to progress from, not to. I am going to experiment with monster missions and try to see how it goes. The DoN cultural armor quest looks quite fun (smithing quest). I'll start that soon, and see how it goes.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point examines how an idea or trend or fashion becomes "popular". There is a point in time at which things catch on, spread, and all of a sudden everyone is wearing poodle skirts or tie-dyed shirts.

While Blink (written by the same author) attempted to quantify the power of the unconscious in decision-making, The Tipping Point makes a whole-hearted effort at quantifying many non-intuitive ideas regarding epidemics. Like Blink, it's readable, enjoyable, and quotes plenty of solid research, uses historical and current examples to make points, and makes its arguements in a coherent and highly believable way.

Epidemics have three characteristics. The "thing" spread is contagious, little things can have very large effects, and big changes can happen in a short period of time. All epidemics have tipping points. There are three rules to epidemics. These three rules comprise the structure of the discussion of the book. First, the Law of the Few. Second, the Stickiness Factor. Third, the Power of Context. When it comes to epidemics a tiny number of people do the majority of the "work". If fads aren't sticky, then they die out before they can make it mainstream. The context of a fad or idea is sometimes more important than the fad or the idea. If there is metadata or assigned meaning or interpretation to something that's going on, then that context can drive the epidemic. It's like the difference between a fire spreading on a cold damp day vs. a hot dry one.

Now, if these things make perfect sense to you, here comes the hard part. Quantify and prove them. This book does a decent job of gathering enough anecdotes, studies, and statistics to cobble together a very compelling and believable arguement for tipping point characteristics. It's definitely worth a read.

Since it's extremely difficult to impossible to create a repeatable scientific experiment involving people as the subjects, most of what we think of as epidemics, people network and social theory, and other "rules" of human behavior are some of the most difficult to research without making fundamental errors. However, I appreciate people who try! The Tipping Point was fun to read and should resonate with readers of Linked, The Wisdom of Crowds, and other nonfiction work in this area.

Are Politicians Inherently Evil?

Are politicians inherently evil? The answer sometimes is yes. This may also explain why California voters shoot themselves in the feet over and over again. With Democrat friends like this in congress, who needs Republicans?


Richard Rider
The Libertarian Perspective #22 Oct 18, 2005

Evil in Our State Capitol

I've been involved in politics since the Prop 13 campaign in 1977. I've dealt with opponents of every stripe—from honorable adversaries to thieves, liars, incompetents, and idiots. But in all that time I've never felt I was dealing with a person who was truly evil—until last spring.

What was this evil? I saw four state senators, all Democrats, passively watch a tragic collection of distraught and sobbing police widows testifying at their pension hearing, suffering under the mistaken impression that the governor's proposed pension reform measure would cause them to lose all their benefits, leaving them destitute. These senators knew this was not true, but stayed silent for political gain at the expense of these widows' emotional well-being.

Here's the story. In February I was invited by a State Senate committee to testify as one of the three taxpayer advocates on a panel speaking in favor of Governor Schwarzenegger's plan for transitioning new state workers from the current defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan.

The purpose of the governor's proposed pension reform measure was to end the huge taxpayer obligation to fund bloated, guaranteed-payout pension plans, passed retroactively without funding. The full cost comes due years later, usually after the politicians have left office.

Such a modest reform is a crucial first step in bringing our runaway state pension programs under control.

Before we taxpayer advocates had our turn to speak, the labor unions presented dramatic testimony against the change. The dishonesty was stunning.

First, a union official flat out lied. He falsely claimed that the proposed measure would forbid the state government from providing either a death benefit (essentially group life insurance) or a disability benefit to employees. No employer in America, public or private, is forbidden from offering such benefits, and this union hack knew it.

Then this union boss brought forward eight carefully selected people, each of whom had a tragic tale to tell. The three police widows were especially moving. The other speakers were a burned local fireman, a shot-up policeman, a school bus driver having trouble making ends meet, and two school teachers—one working and one retired. Most cried, or were near tears. They weren't acting—these people were generally hurting, or thought they were.

Here's where the evil became apparent. Most of these people had been prepped to believe that they were going to lose their existing pension or disability benefits.

Several of the witnesses pleaded with the state senators to not take these benefits away. Police widows wailed that they didn't know how they would survive without the death benefit annuities that they and their kids were receiving. Yet not one of their legislative "allies" at this hearing would tell them that they were misinformed—indeed, that they had been lied to by their labor union bosses!

I can't emphasize this point too strongly: The measure proposed did not reduce any benefits for the existing employees. It would affect only those employees hired after June 2007.

As despicable as the union's misrepresentation was to its own members, the true evil I saw sat in the elevated state senate seats looking down on the presentations.

Five state senators watched these employee presentations, four Democrats and one Republican. The lone Republican, Tom McClintock, tried desperately to get the committee chair, Senator Joe Dunn, to allow the author of the bill (Assemblyman Keith Richman) to tell these folks that their concerns were totally unfounded.

Senator Dunn would have none of it. The cameras were rolling, and he wanted this dramatic testimony broadcast at any cost. Dunn knew the premise was false, but would say nothing.

The Democratic Party sells itself as the party that cares about people. But you'll never see four more uncaring people than Democratic State Senators Dunn, Nell Soto, Debra Bowen, and Christine Kehoe. Not one of these politicians would tell these frightened people that their benefits were and are safe. To allow those widows to leave the room crying—thinking that they were at risk of losing their husbands' death annuities—was the single most evil act I've witnessed in all my years in politics.

I found it ironic the Senator Dunn would try to make nervous testifiers feel comfortable by intoning that they should feel at ease because "this [Capitol] is your house." Well, I left "my" house feeling unclean and ashamed of our state politicians. I hope I never again witness such a reprehensible act.

The following is from a longer article at

Fabry: How are taxpayers affected by this? (This conversation is on defined-benefit pension plans for public employees vs. defined-contribution. Public sector and a few large, old-school manufacturing companies are the only ones still using defined-benefit plans. Unfunded liabilities killed off defined-benefit plans everywhere else in the US.)

Clifton: If public entities continue to use defined benefit plans, they cannot maintain their financial position without major tax increases. During the 1990s boom, state pension plans were flush and were actually overfunded. The politicians then moved to increase benefits. In 1999, former California Gov. Gray Davis (D) boosted public employee pension benefits dramatically--allowing many to retire at age 50 or 55 with 90 percent of their salary for life--without almost any debate.

Moreover, the benefit enhancements were retroactive. Neither employees nor the state had been paying for these benefits during the workers' lifetime. They were paid from existing plan assets, therefore increasing the unfunded liability.

While this plan was sold as a "cost-free" measure, the change actually cost California $10 billion in added liabilities over 20 years. Many states did this during the 1990s.

Those rapid pension asset gains should have been held without benefit increases to smooth over the down years that followed. Had this been the case, the resulting stock market downturn would not have had a major impact on the pension system. Unfortunately, though, politicians continue to use the pension system as a slush fund to garner votes from public employees.

Fabry: What do you see as the major roadblocks stopping reform?

Clifton: Public employee unions. It is really that simple. I spoke at the pension administrator conference last August and told them, "The crisis is upon us. You can be part of the solution or part of the problem." I offered to work with them in developing solutions. Instead, they continue to keep their head in the sand and want no changes to this antiquated system. At some point they have to realize they are holding onto a dinosaur.

When I testified in California in support of the governor's plan, what I saw was shocking: The public employee unions presented widows of slain police officers and injured firefighters and lied to these people, telling them that under the plan they were going to lose their survivor and disability benefits. Yet, the plan was for retirement only and would never affect these kinds of benefits. The senators holding the hearing knew this was the case and still let the circus continue.

At that point I realized the public employee unions would stop at nothing. For them, it is not about the retirement security of public employees, but about the power of controlling their workers' money as a slush fund for political gain. I was offended by the theatrics, to say the least.

But with all that said, the current system cannot continue. And it just is not sustainable for politicians to continue raising taxes on working families to pay retirement and health care costs for public employees, when these taxpayers are struggling to save for their own retirement and health care.

There will be a breaking point. Hopefully we can reform the system before we reach it.

Friday, November 04, 2005

New York Teacher's Contract, Teacher's Pay In Comparison to Median

Median income for family of four in New York for calendar year 2003: $69,354

For a single earner: $39,463

From CNN today: "The pay of starting teachers [in New York] would increase to $42,000 from $39,000, with a new maximum base pay of about $92,000, up from $81,000."

So the range of starting teacher pay is $42,000 - $92,000, depending on qualifications, experience, etc. This range has at it's midpoint (roughly) the median income for a family of four. The range is completely above the median income for a single-earner household.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

I finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell yesterday. Here are some of my thoughts and a few excerpts. I highly recommend this book due to the timely subject matter, the intensely interdisciplinary nature of the book, and the highly interesting and illustrative stories that enliven the otherwise dry results of many studies on decision-making. For the excerpts, I scanned an image file instead of transcribing.

First, here's a short article on where the ideas for the book come from.


Even larger version of the above article (in case you can't read the print) available here.

On to some excerpts! These include and expand the excerpt I brought to (Thursday) Night's Engineering Resources Discussion, AKA NERD.













I found the narration of the events of the Millenium Challenge to be almost magnetically interesting. Any one that's observed large-scale institutional behaviour is probably familiar with at least some of the things discussed in the previous excerpts. The book discusses many other case studies drawn from diverse industries and situations. I've pulled only one out of the mix. Next, we jump forward a number of pages to catch the tail-end of a discussion on chest-pain triage at Cook County Hospital in Chicago (the inspiration for the television show ER).


The references to frugality in decision-making? Occam's Razor strikes again. When presented with two or more solutions to a problem, the simplest is always best. Extra information can often degrade the value of the solution, and Blink attempts to not only qualify this assertion, but quantify it as well.



What a very interesting final sentence. I found it to be more than a bit chilling!

If you're looking for a readable, fun, valuable, current-concept book that will make you look good at both cocktail parties and on the job, this is your book. It didn't take long to read, there is a very good notes section as well as an index.

Blues at Ducks 28 Oct 2005

The St. Louis Blues visited the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (wikipedia article) this past Friday (game recap), and it was one of those games that gets your attention.

It reminded me of a particular Kings at Ducks game (George attended that one with me) where, in my opinion, the Ducks' season turned around, they suddenly gained confidence they'd never seemed to have before, and the team ended up marching all the way to the finals in 2002-3. They lost to New Jersey, but it was quite the season.

The Blues game was really similar. Now, I'm also a Blues fan. I've pulled for the Ducks, Leafs, and Blues for a long time, even before I actually could see the game played since Arkansas TV stations never carried it, and we didn't have cable.

My dad had an interesting theory about how people from not-so-icy places seem to gravitate to hockey. I think people just gravitate to good sports, and hockey is one of the most-perfect sports.

Anyway, the game was great fun - the Blues really did kind of blow up after they scored two early goals. The penalties ate them alive, sure, but even with even-strength, the Ducks just looked great. By the end of the first period, the Ducks had had 23 shots on goal to the Blues 8. It stabilized a bit in the second, then the Ducks went back to playing more like the wide-open gangbusters game of the first.

This time of the year is always a slightly bizarre time in sports. You have baseball's finals going on, hockey has just started, I think football is still going on (bleh), and if they started the NBA season a couple weeks earlier, you'd have every major sport competing for attention. That would cause, I'm sure, some sort of mental breakdown for people that like all those sports.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Good News from San Diego

New baby in May!

Due date: May 11th, 2006.

Notice the quarterly timing. February 14th, August 13th, May 11th... That's what you get with engineer parents.

NO guarentee that I will sign up for November 2008, though! These projects are big.

No complaints other than fatigue, which gets resolved with large amounts of (iron-rich) broccli and beef.

They do sonograms earlier and earlier, so I've already gotten the chance to see the little guy, and there was a lot of kicking going on. More news as it comes available.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Bad News from Little Rock

I got some bad news from Little Rock, AR today that might change some upcoming schedules and plans.

My mom's house burned badly this morning. The kitchen, living room, back bathroom and laundry room were destroyed. Some of the bedrooms are unburned, but I imagine smoke damage was significant. I may end up traveling out there to help, but that depends on how well my mother manages to deal with insurance and relocation.

New Fed Chair, thoughts about inflation

As many of you might be aware, the new U.S. Federal Reserve Chair was named today. Right before the announcement was made by President Bush in a news conference, I heard the following quote on CNN.

Kyra Phillips: "One thing has never changed. Greenspan's trademark ability to tell us anything we want to know in ways we cannot possibly understand."

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Her delivery was really quite perfect. Mildly sarcastic, yet believably earnest, in a way that Americans have perfected over the past 200 years or so.

So the new FED chief has been on record saying things that incline some of us out here in economics geekland to believe that he's much less hardcore about controlling inflation than Greenspan is. This is very significant, since inflation is the greatest enemy of the investor.

About the only "investment" that can "make" money in an inflationary cycle is being mortgaged to the hilt. However, this requires a priori knowledge (seeing into the future).

The reason mortgaging everything works in inflation (with fixed rate mortgages, that is) is because, for example, you take out a 100,000 dollar mortgage. You sit there with inflation rates climbing, and essentiall inflation largely pays off your mortgage for you, as prices rise quickly. You may end up paying the equivalent of a lot less "real" money at the end of the 15 or 30 years of the note.

If you rented, though, your rents would track inflation. If you owned your property outright, you are in a bunker, so to speak, but you paid up front in expensive (at the time) dollars.

Owning a home outright insulates you from pretty much everything except property tax. Renting leaves you owing whatever market or inflation sets the prices at, but you would assume that wages would at least try to keep up with inflation. This assumption isn't always true, though, as many of us either remember or can empathize with.

The problem with taking out loans to fight inflation is that the spread between the interest rate and the inflation rate is not in the borrower's favor. In other words, inflation has to go up, a lot, for the loan to be devalued over time, with respect to paying as you go. As inflation rises, interest rates almost immediately adjust, so you really have to get your loan well before inflation hits. This means you have to be able to either tell the future, or you know things that bankers don't.

So, what do we know that bankers don't?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Update

From my aunt:
This is the NOAA satellite photo taken a day after Katrina, the area is
close to the foot of Courthouse Road and Highway 90, Gulfport, the old
Handsboro and Mississippi City historic district. If you scroll around
you will see the pier/jetty jutting out into the water, that is the old
"rock pile" as we used to call it. The corner of Cournthouse Road and Hwy
90 used to house the American Legion, and the old historic Courthouse
(that made it through Camille but is seen here as a square gray blank,
only the slab left), as well as several well known restaurants (also now
only slabs). Note that 90 is almost all under sand, I am told much of it
was washed out underneath. The railroad tracks can be clearly seen to the
right of the photo, maybe a quarter mile from the beach. All of that
light tan stuff, is what used to be the buildings on the square gray
slabs you see. You can see the surge line by following the light-tan
debris pile. That debris pile is impressive, bear in mind what you see in
that light tan stuff is 15 feet high, and every gray square you see is
only a concrete slab that used to be under a building. The railroad
tracks are what stopped the surge from moving furhter inland.

Apparently the only tree that can survive these storms is the Live Oak,
those are the only trees you see still standing. And the concrete slabs.

Dawn the morning after Camille in 1969, my dad said "Let's go down to The
Rock Pile and see how bad it was", the family having weathered Camille in
a house built in 1906 on Pass Road, a mile from the beach. Standing there
that morning in the breaking light of day, (and being the tender age of
13), and seeing what Camille had brought to us, I always thought, nothing
could be worse, nothing could do so much damage in such a short time, if
I can see all this catastrophic damage and live through it, well I can
handle anything. Well apprarently me and about 10,000 other people who
remember Camille were oh so wrong!

That light tan debris line in the photo link attached here, represents at
least 10 times the force of Camille.

Katrina had an eye 32 miles wide, with Cat 4 winds at landfall that
stretched 125 miles each side of the eye. Storm surge of 35 feet at the
eye, and 15 feet on the "outer" edges. Those outer edges reaching a
breadth of about 40 miles. She hit Hattiesburg at 110 mph sustained, and
that is 70 miles inland.

What you see in this photo, which represents about 3 miles of beach, is
what you will find from Pascagoula to Waveland, over 40 miles of
coastline. Sometimes only three blocks inland looks like this, sometimes
almost a mile inland.

This photo was Gulfport. Check the NOAA website for more photos.
Waveland, Bay St Louis, Pass Christian got hit worse. Biloxi got it bad
too, being swamped by both the Mississippi Sound and the back bay.

Six weeks later and it is still just overwhelming.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Hockey is Back!

Copied without permission from CNNSI:

"TORONTO (AP) - The first shootout in NHL history went to the Ottawa Senators .

Daniel Alfredsson scored twice in the final six minutes of regulation and once in the NHL's new tiebreaker as the Senators rallied for a 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.

''It is exciting. It's nice to have a winner,'' Alfredsson said. ''Both teams battled hard for 65 minutes. I think it's right that the losing team still gets a point.''

Alfredsson tied it at 2 with 1:02 left in regulation, sending the game to overtime. After a scoreless five-minute extra period, Alfredsson scored on Ottawa's first attempt under the new shootout format.

Toronto's Jason Allison and Eric Lindros failed on their attempts against Dominik Hasek , but Dany Heatley scored on Ottawa's third chance, clinching the victory - and two points - for the Senators.

''I like the shootout. I think it's fun for everybody,'' Heatley said. ''We battled hard the last 10 minutes and Alfie came up big.''

Toronto coach Pat Quinn wasn't thrilled even though his team received one point for the loss.

''I'm not one of the ones that like the game being settled this way,'' Quinn said.

Toronto captain Mats Sundin didn't return after being struck in the face by a puck seven minutes into the first period. He left for the dressing room with a cut around his left eye, went to a local hospital and was released.

''The eyeball itself is fine. There's damage to the surrounding areas, but they weren't able to report if there is serious damage,'' Quinn said.

Sundin dropped to the ice after getting hit. He looked in obvious pain as blood poured.

''I don't know what the time frame is for him to play again. I would bet there is significant swelling,'' Quinn said.

Alfredsson tied it at 1 with 5:48 left with a shot that beat Ed Belfour from in front of the net.

After Lindros knocked down Ottawa's Mike Fisher with a check with less than four minutes left, Ottawa enforcer Chris Neil went after Lindros and received a minor penalty for cross-checking.

Lindros, playing his first game with his hometown team, received a rousing ovation. He then gave Toronto a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal with 1:31 remaining.

Hasek, 40, played his first game for Ottawa and his first for anybody since December 2003. He finished with 23 saves.

Belfour made 14 saves in the first period, including a spectacular glove save on Bryan Smolinski , and finished with 21.

Bryan McCabe 's slap shot on the power play beat Hasek to the glove side at 2:28 of the first to give Toronto a 1-0 lead.

Notes: Maple Leafs fans were given a miniature replica of the Stanley Cup. The Maple Leafs haven't won it since 1967. ... The Senators and play each seven more times this season. ... Toronto's Maple LeafsWade Belak didn't play because of a spider bite."

A spider bite! Wow! Just yesterday, while working in the garden, I had a near-skin-experience with a really really big black widow spider. See? I have so much in common with Wade. Except he actually got bit. I escaped.

So, hockey is back. I know, most everyone in the U.S. is probably going "Where was it?" or "They still play that?"

I'm kind of a finicky sports fan. I love rally racing, road racing, am lukewarm about circle track, don't especially enjoy watching thoroughbred racing, watch football once a year for the superbowl, and while I used to play basketball, and used to watch any basketball game on TV, I now despise the bling-bling wannabe rap-star BS that the NBA has allowed itself to become smeared with.

There are some interesting rules changes this year in hockey. The first is the controversial shoot-out to break a tie. I like it. Some, like Pat Quinn above, don't like the shoot-out at all.

Other rules changes are kind of nice, like the ones that really step up the calls on hooking, etc. Interfering with other players should be handled like it is in soccer. Although some people long for the Broadstreet Bullies days of hockey, I sure don't. I want to see a fast, skilled, elegant game.

The red line is gone, which means that penalties for two-line passes are, I guess, gone. Now you can have the long passes that can really tip the game quick.

Also, the enormous goalie pads are gone. There is some sort of limit for equipment size now. This is not a bad development, since some goalies looked more like sumo wrestlers than goalies.

If you ice the puck, which is a generally misunderstood thing in hockey (icing), then you don't get to change out players, but the other side does. This is critical, because shifts are short, and fresh players get a distinct advantage over ones that have been sprinting out there for minutes. This would seem to make icing the puck unpalatable, however I can see where it could still be a tactic in order to break up a strong drive. Risky, but I will be watching to see what happens.

The only game I've seen so far is Rangers vs. Flyers, and the Flyers led for most of the game, but then the Rangers came back. This was interesting, because for the first two periods of the game, the Rangers sucked. No discipline, lots of penalties, and Flyers skating around them making them look like... the Blues! The Blues were beat bad yesterday. I mourn. They don't look good.

The Leafs don't look good this season either. I mourn this too. Blues, Leafs, and Ducks are the teams I generally follow. I have low expectations this year, but I'm happy that the one sport that I both like and can actually get on TV (just try to find good rally coverage) is back!

And, another reason to celebrate. Outdoor Life Network has got the NHL contract. This means that my least favorite announcer in the history of announcing - the greasy self-absorbed hoky hockey huckster Barry Melrose, will no longer annoy me! yay!

Check out The Jester's Quart, a great column about hockey announcers that ran some time ago.

"I like Melrose like most of America likes Simon Cowell on "American Idol." He’s such a puffed-up dolt, and when any words leave his mouth, you know they’re going to be provocative. Well, provocative in the way the Iraqi information minister was provocative: someone who is full of sh-t, but who is absolutely captivating.

The other problem with Melrose is that he’s just waaaaaaaay too laid back. A friend of mine observed the Barry might have ingested a few icy pints the other night during ESPN’s first-round coverage. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I did notice Melrose stop in the middle of a rant about the Wild beating the Avalanche, count to four, and begin the rant again. No, that wasn’t a joke."

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Vandenberg AFB Rocket Launch

Here are some photos and a report from tonight's rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

I got the big lens, the tripod, and the remote shutter release switch hauled up to the Secret Garden at the top of my back slope. Everything fit together ok, but the camera acted like it wouldn't take photos once it was on the tripod. I tried a few test shots, and the shutter just would not release after focusing. I think the weight of the lens had something to do with it, because after shifting it around, it started working again.

Michael helped by dropping and breaking the flashlight (I fixed it in the dark, go spatial relationship skills!), dropping his lego car into the thorns, falling off the upper garden terrace three times, tripping over the tripod, yelling down at the neighbors to tell them all about the impending rocket launch, and despite all this being cheerful in the face of a whole *nine minutes* of waiting for the really bright, very dramatic rocket to rise in the north about an hour after sundown.

(Nine minutes for a 4-year-old being the equivalent of waiting 853 minutes for the average adult. Since none of us are average, you will have to perform your particular conversion factor on the back of that envelope sitting over there on your bill pile. )

Now he wants to go "to the rocket place!" which I suppose means we really must go to the Aerospace Museum at Balboa Park.

Photos here.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Listening to Teachers Complain

It's hard for me to sit and listen to complaining for very long. I was raised in a family and community culture that viewed complaining as one of the least desirable means to the end of solving a problem.

Now, I'm all for a good rant, but complaining is different. Complaining, to me, is either an immature way of asking for help, or a last resort when dealing with customer support at the phone company, as we've discussed before.

Once again, I was "treated" to a long-winded, negative soliloquay on how poorly teachers are paid, how hard their job is, and how evil people in Sacramento, California would even think of making any change whatsoever to teachers' pension benefits.

Now, there are literally hundreds of articles and probably thousands of talk radio shows that have expounded upon this issue at length. I hardly have any hope of accurately and completely summarizing all the salient issues and points that the teachers' union, taxpayers, parents, children, and teachers themselves care about or should care about. However, this sort of challenge has never stopped me before, so here's my quick take on it.

According to the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) Salary Survey, California tops the list in teacher salary.

Now, salary comparisons are extremely complicated. Using adjusted vs. unadjusted dollars, accounting for the fact that teachers are contracted for 10 months of the year, and factoring in district size, urbanization, and geographical region, you can spin the numbers almost any way you like. However, it's hard to see that teachers are "underpaid" when they make more than nurses, more than members of the police force, about as much as many computer-related professionals, and they make well over the average for all workers.

Since the definition of "underpaid" is fraught with controversy, let's talk about the specific reason I'm amused at the members of my family that teach. Yesterday, I heard the complaint that someone in the family who teaches middle school got "only" six weeks off last summer. It turns out that they went to a couple of teaching conferences. Six weeks sounds pretty darn good to me, and I'll tell you why. The average number of days of vacation that Americans took between 2000-2005 varied between 10 and 13. Complaining about six weeks seems... well, self-serving.

No one is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to teach. If the pay is too low for you, then find another field or another position. But be prepared for a big shock to your system, because a recent study by the National Sleep Foundation stated that 38 percent of all full-time workers spend 50 or more hours on the job each week. The reason given for this is that there are more workers in managerial and professional positions where the extra hours are considered just part of the job. This was/is definitely true in engineering jobs like Qualcomm, Apiary, Sequal, etc.

Imagine 50ish hours of work a week, and less than two weeks off a year. No spring break, no long Christmas Holiday, none of those extra bank-type holidays, and no breaks during the day. No "prep periods", little to no job security, low probability of any type of union muscle, probably no pension at all, and just try to leave at 5pm. You'll see how quick you're replaced in a post-bubble economy. Grading papers? Try working nights and weekends to keep up with baseline expectations year-round for a decade or two, then get back to me about how onerous grading papers really is.

Everyone in the US works too much and gets paid too little. Complaining incessantly about your particular job is exceedingly bad form, and shows that you don't have a grip on reality and lack the good sense to buckle down and join the club.

Another teacher in the family actually compared her hours to her banker husband. I thought that was pretty funny, a teacher comparing herself to banker's hours, and coming out ahead. They didn't seem to get the humor, though. I laughed.

It's like this every single time we have a family gathering. I have never heard any of these family members say anything positive about teaching. It's uniformly negative, and no other opinions are allowed. There is no way to express anything positive about teaching, or to state an opinion different than the extremely rigidly presented "reality" that these people describe, or to change the subject without sending them into a mini-rant about how "people don't understand how HARD and UNDERPAID teaching is!"

When certain other family members retired after 35 years, they got pension benefits of 55% of their ending salary.

The formula for workers covered by the California Public Employees' Retirement System is 2 percent of pay times years of service for those who retire at age 55 and 2.5 percent for those who retire at age 63. For teachers covered by the California State Retirement System, the formula is 2 percent of pay for those retiring at age 60 and 2.4 for those retiring at age 63. Those with 30 or more years of service get a bonus, although the pension can't exceed 2.4 percent of pay. So let's say you worked 35 years as a teacher and retire at age 60. 35 * 2% = 70%. Let's say you retired at 63. Let's use the maximum 2.4% * 35 = 84%. Doesn't sound too bad to me. Your pension is also often based off your best year, depending on which system you work under, and not like the private sector, where it's an average of the last 3-5 years of work. This is usually, but not always, inclusive of highest-paid years.

Since California's pension obligations have risen from $160 million in 2000 to $2.6 billion this year, something Wicked This Way Comes. Either take a hit in your pension now, when you have a chance to participate in the restructuring of your pension system, or take the hit later, when the state bankrupts itself paying pension benefits that are the best in the country. We're living on borrowed time here due to enormous expansions of spending during the internet bubble years. The spending didn't stop after the market corrected itself. The expansion was enormous, and teachers were one of the top beneficiaries of this increased spending.

From US News and World Report article on California back in 2003:

"In good economic times, governments got into the all-too-easy habit of increasing spending faster than the economy was growing. State government spending was up 39 percent from 1996 to 2001. In the four years Davis has been governor, California's annual budget has soared from $74 billion to $99 billion, a 34 percent increase. For a time, that spending increase was fueled by the Silicon Valley boom: Capital gains yielded $17 billion to California in fiscal year 2000. But did California's politicians and budget analysts really think tech stocks would soar forever? From fiscal year 2000 to 2001, state spending rose 14 percent even as the high-tech sector plunged downward. One of the lessons of California's woes is that progressive taxes, which may be desirable for public-policy reasons, produce dangerously volatile revenue streams--huge amounts in good years, next to nothing when the stock market is falling. States that rely on progressive taxes should be especially careful not to overspend when revenue comes gushing in."

I didn't hear teachers complain 1996-2000 about spending increases. The only thing you see teachers' advocacy groups talk about here is "in the last four years" and "over the past four years" and "since 2001". Why? Because if you cut off the chart from before 2000-2001, it makes things look a bit different.

Here's a bit from the "California Teacher's Association Talking Points on Special Election"

"In the last four years, California schools have suffered more than $9.8 billion in cuts. Statewide, these cuts translate to school closures, increases in class size, lay offs of teachers and support staff, and a devastating shortage of librarians, counselors and nurses. Many schools lack basic supplies and instructional materials. Schools are cutting art and music programs, extracurricular activities are no longer affordable, and after-school programs have been decimated."

Makes it sound really dismal, right?

Well, the NEA paints a different picture.

Go towards the bottom in the brief "bad news" section. "Public School Spending Has Declined: Public education spending per pupil has declined in California. Since 2001, per pupil spending in constant dollars has declined by 1%. "

That's not a misprint. That's 1%. Essentially, spending in California seems to have been held largely constant since the explosion of spending in the late 90s. The "9.8 billion in cuts" is a numbers game, playing with dollars that come from various sources, like not counting dollars that are no longer coming from the state, but come from the feds, changes in spending calculations due to NCLB, etc.

Yes, we're a populous state. Yes, we have a very challenging student population that includes a large number of non-native-english-speakers. Yes, we have an average of 23 students per classroom.

But, I have to say, the Culture of Malcontent here among teachers is embarrassing. Grow up, change jobs, or develop a positive attitude about your vocation. If all of these things fail, then please keep your polluted thinking to yourself, or else be prepared for me to vent poisonous diatribes about Evil Marketing Droids, fickle consumers, the HB-1 Visa mess, and the outsourcing of high-tech jobs overseas in return. If that's not enough, let me rant endlessly about the implosion of tech firms like Motorola, Lucent, the massive layoffs, and the erosion of wages for engineers when accounting for the hours and hours and hours of extra work we are expected to put in, and how impossible it is to keep our education current when science and technology seems to be moving at speeds faster than light. If I ranted like my family members rant, then we'd all be depressed. How come I have the good manners to keep most of that to myself under almost all circumstances, but *you* family members who know not who you are, *you* seem to feel completely at ease corrupting even the most informal family gathering with your ongoing misery? What gives you the special right to have "more important" misery than me? Nothing! Why ruin a birthday party with your self-indulgent whining? Do you not get enough attention at home?

Most engineers will not become wealthy. They will probably become comfortable. They will, on average, have to change job situations multiple times, and they often have to relocate. Engineering jobs are not uniformly distributed over the US at all. There are hotspots, and then there are vast regions of underemployment. Don't want to move? Sorry, too bad. Don't like getting laid off on short notice? Get over it. Don't like working on things that you'd never use? Tough! Uncomfortable with the idea of self-teaching yourself stuff at or above the University level on your own time? You better start reading.

Each job has its challenges, its rewards, and its own quirks of culture. I cannot believe that teaching is that miserable here in California. If it was, then 300,000 plus people are voluntarily submitting themselves to hyperbolic torture on a scale almost unimaginable. Life isn't fair and things are tough all over. Work to make your situation better, and if you are not happy, then find another situation.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Adventures in Astronomy

So in the process of trudging back and forth to set up the telescopes, the eyepieces, the laptop, the cabling, the camera, finding the extra battery, I returned to find the sliding glass door shut. Odd, I thought to myself, since I left it slightly open.

I pulled on the handle. Nothing. Locked. How extremely odd, since it's only me and Geneva here at the cabin, and surely she couldn't have...

...ah, but there she is, asleep on the living room floor, about 10 feet away from me, on the other side of the locked glass door. She has a blankie wrapped around her, and her milk cup nearby.

I look down at the doorframe and see it. The piece of wood that is the backup to the lock. She must have be so proud of herself for fitting it right back into the doorframe. And now, I was locked out.

Now, for those keeping track, this is twice. The first time, Michael locked the door while I was planting a potted lavender in the garden. The temperature then fell 38 degrees and it started raining. Then sleeting. We cowered in the honda and covered up with floor mats. Ken decided to finish an Everquest raid instead of driving straight up to the mountain, so it was nearly four hours of cold, thirsty waiting. With Geneva locked inside, crying, wet, and hungry.

This time, I was on the balcony. The only way down is to jump. There is no outside lock for the sliding glass door. The only real way to get back inside is to pound on the glass door until Miss Princess Lock Mommy Out wakes up. Which, of course, didn't work.

So, I pondered the universe for a while through the telescopes, although the last bit of equipment for photography was still locked inside. I looked at nebula, and stars, and the milky way, and saw satellites, and star clusters. I took a nap on the balcony, and then finally Geneva woke up.

Now, trying to get a toddler to pick something up is usually not too hard. However, she didn't get it.

"Pick the stick up, Geneva. Pick the stick up please. Pick the stick up, Geneva. Pick the stick up please! Pick the stick up, Geneva. Pick the stick up NOW!" etc.

She picked up her toys and showed them to me, through the glass. She picked up forks, an AC converter, part of the tangled mess of fireplace implements, the FRS radios.

Then finally she understood. She reached down and grabbed the small stubby handle to the lock-stick. And pulled. And pulled. And pulled. And, the little handle part popped right out.

Oh no! Next, coach child to put handle back in slot. Pull sideways on stick to lift it. Move out of the way so door can open.

This took... a while. A long while. She got bored. She got lonely. She cried and cried. "Mommy come back!" She wiped her sad little snotty nose on the glass and put her plump little hands up in a pathetic appeal for me to stop fooling around and come back inside so I could give her more milk. She brought her milk cup over, and dumped it onto the stick.

Believe it or not, she did finally lift the stick up a bit. Enough to slam the door back and forth to wedge it up out of the way. Thus averting me getting stranded until daybreak, which was only two hours away at this point.

Lesson learned: Little children WILL outsmart you, no matter how many cool techie toys you have.

First Light The Search for the Edge of the Universe

What a wonderful book about one of my favorite places.

The Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain achieves a well-deserved legendary status through the course of this book, which is divided into sections that concern active research at the complex, the history of the telescope, and an exploration of the so-called gadgeteers (engineers trapped in the bodies of scientists).

Richard Preston, the author, is probably better-known for his book The Hot Zone, which I read several years ago and view tepidly. Virus Hunters of the CDC is a far superior book concerning Ebola, Lassa Fever, etc.

However, First Light has a realistically reverential tone and explains some of the technology used in astronomy so well, that you actually do get a feel for what astronomers do.

The descriptions of their personalities, discussions, debates, disasters, and discoveries is very very good.

This book is so readable that I actually finished the paper version. This is notable because the majority of my current reading is audiobooks.

Each person profiled in the book was obviously interviewed multiple times, and great care was taken with getting their thoughts and background done right.

The sheer size of the telescope is difficult to communicate. The building is a vast towering dome of snowy white, sitting on the spine of Palomar Mountain. The foyer and the stairwells up to the visitor's gallery are art deco in style, and your footsteps echo several times. Voices are lengthened and made resonant. It's often cold, and the few exhibits in the small gallery are a hodgepodge of old and new. A computer with "this week's observing activities" sits beside a drawing of telescope that dates back a couple of decades at least.

If you remember those collage-type-posters, where stuff was pasted onto the paper, before printing became really cheap, then you get the idea of some of the presentations.

Looking through the glass wall towards the telescope, it's hard to see anything that looks like an optical tube. The massive U-shaped bearing supports something that looks like an oil rig.

The book describes the assembly of the bearing (largest ever made) and the massive pyrex glass plate that the mirror is made out of. The descriptions of it "coming to life" in this book are hands-down hair-raising. Wonderful stuff!

The mystery of how many motors runs the thing, the strange series of "rituals" that astronomers and caretakers have indulged in because "it seems to work" and the unexplainable oddities that happen late at night in the enormous machine are true gems of geekiness.

Chatter Inside the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping

Finished this audiobook after a number of weeks of listening to large parts of it while walking to the gym, walking the kids to school, and driving back and fort the cater to the whims of the Ham Radio Elite in San Diego County. More on that later.

The core communication of this book is the assertion, largely impossible to prove but intuitively believable, that the necessary condition for signal intelligence operations to be successful is the very thing that most directly contributes to its decay and situational and institutional failure.

This is different than saying signal intelligence is a victim of its own success. The condition of secrecy is a double-edged sword that magnifies rifts in individual and institutional personalities to the point of irreversible instability. It would seem to me that the only way to keep things working is high turnover. This limits temporal knowledge and tribal knowledge, and the wheel may have to be reinvented a few times, but any one person then has a temporally limited amount of knowledge to sell to the enemy or divulge to a journalist. We also get to take advantage of a burst of enthusiasm from signal intelligence staff as they come up to speed in their new culture. When the enthusiasm wears off, or when personal convictions or differences of opinion with goverment policy loom up, as happened with several individuals profiled in the book, either secrets are told or secrets are sold.

Compartmentalization, which was critiqued in the 9-11 Commission Report as part of the reason the plot wasn't discovered in time, is not necessarily a bad thing in terms of keeping the entire operation of the NSA, etc. secret. There is a necessary balance between communication between different types of intelligence and law enforcement, and keeping the wall intact. Information gathered for intelligence traditionally cannot be used for law enforcement. Modifying that "wall" was one of the reasons for the change to FISA, also known as the Patriot Act.

So, this book enjoyably profiled what's known about the institutions of signal intelligence, and discusses some of the more notable individual whistle-blowers and failures. The technology is not discussed in detail, although several interesting sites were visited. This is not an overwhelmingly political book, either. It's more of a story of the personality of signal intelligence from the outside looking to the facade of organizations that are vigilant about pretending not to exist.

A theme of the book is the examination of the US/UK club of countries that share intelligence and participate in the base building. These include Canada and New Zealand.

Parts of the book made me laugh out loud. The author is a well-grounded person, and his deft handling of Black-Helicopter-believing kooks that he encounters along the way is top notch. He also addresses the Privacy Lobby leaders, many of whom I've seen speak at DEFCON and other events, with pragmatic fairness.

Other books in the genre handle the history of the NSA and other agencies. Still other books cover the technology in at least a little bit more depth. This one attempts to define the personality of secrecy from individual and institional points of view. I enjoyed it very much.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Friday night lights at CCHS. First football game at new High School! Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Travel Blog

Aerial survey of Biloxi and Gulfport. I recognize several of those spots from my two trips there. The Streiff homestead on Pass Rd and Aunt Grace and Uncle Charles house is further inland than the clear line of destruction but I haven't heard from someone who has seen these homes firsthand. We are pretty sure Uncle Michael's house in Ocean Springs was destroyed.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Family Homes from Satellite Image post-Hurricane Katrina

Bridge Street off of Pass Road, Gulfport MS. Click on photo for notes that explain what's what. Lots of trees down but roof looks largely intact. This is my great aunt/uncle's house. They evacuated to North Carolina.



Inconclusive. Neighbors' homes demolished, pier gone, resolution not good enough to tell if the house is destroyed, damaged, or has only minor damage. Considering the damage to the neighbor's, I will be surprised if the house is in good shape. However, storms often do freaky things. This is my other uncle's home, and is right on the water. Click on photo to see notes of what's what. They evacuated to Birmingham, AL.

No communications into Gulfport yet, but I did find a satellite image of the Pass Road house. Minor damage in the back to the house (righthand side of photo faces ocean). The shop got whacked. We presume that they stayed and rode out the storm.


Notes on flickr show what's what.


Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Report - Music - Book Club - Aquarium

Whew. I worked those neurons a bit today, trying to remember the name of a song. It is a remake. I was sure it was redone by The Damned. I was right, and finally tracked it down on an obscure imported album.

The song is called Alone Again Or, and was originally done by a band called Love. It was also remade by UFO, who are pretty darn good, and then another of my favorite bands remade it - Calexico.

If you haven't heard of Calexico, then try "Alone Again Or" or "Si Tu Disais" by Calexico for a feel of their music.

Other stuff that happened today: I had an excellent time going to the park and meeting up with some other moms, who actually were having a book club, and it was really fun. Yay! Moms that think!

This made up for the absolutely disastrous attempt at going to Scripps Aquarium this morning. Four tantrums, shoes thrown at the other patrons, running, pushing, shoving, biting... we left about 11 minutes after we arrived. The only good thing about the visit was the giant octopus was moving around, and changing color for us. What an amazing creature.