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.