My Zunivers

31 August 2005

Units of Folly

A couple of weeks ago, I read this article. The article makes a major mistake. I'd expect that maybe a journalist could make such a mistake because, as I pointed out once a few months back, they often do. But it's not just the jornalists who make this mistake. I've had a number of my fellow graduate students in physical sciences, and even scientists themselves, make the same mistake on this topic.

During the week after the article came out, my conversations on hybrid cars went something like this:

Person 1: "blah-blah-blah hybrid cars blah-blah-blah"

Person 2 : "Speaking of hybrids, did you hear that there are people who are working on cars and getting 250 miles per gallon?"

Nate: "Yeah, but they made a mistake. They're not just running gas, they're plugging the cars into electrical outlets."

Nate takes one of those pauses that he takes to breathe, and then doesn't get a chance to finish his thought before Person 1 or Person 2 patronizingly explains to him, as if he does not know it, "Yes, they plug into the walls, and that means that they are getting some of their power from outside the car, so they are really just transferring pollution to the power plants, but we can solve that by finding cleaner sources for electricity. And running off of wall charging is good enough for most people's commutes, but since it actually has an engine and can be called a hybrid people won't be turned off from buying it. So you're wrong, Nate. There's no problem with what they are doing."

Nate, perturbed that he's having yet another person explain what he already knows about there being no problem with plug-in cars and upset that he's trying to point out a mistake being made in a calculation, not a problem with what the people are doing, takes time to compose himself.

"I know all of that," Nate grumbles. "I'm just trying to point out that they aren't getting 250 miles per gallon of gas if over three quarters of their miles are coming from a source other than gas. They're getting under 50 miles per gallon of gas and 200 from charging batteries in the wall. That's not 250 miles per gallon of gas, it's less than 50 miles per gallon of gas."

Another example of the same mistake that I've had trouble explaining to the same people is cost of vehicle ownership. My wife and I added up all of our vehicle expenses, including gas, oil changes, repairs, inspections, registartion, and the price we paid for the car. Then we divided by the distance we've driven since buying the car.

A number of my fellow graduate students were perfectly fine with this, but they objected to my comparison of this result to what people with car loans pay per mile for their cars. I include monthly car payments and inital loan payemnts and fees as part of the cost off ownership, but the objecters did not. So they conclude that my wife and I pay more per mile than a person with a car laon, because gas is abit more and there ar emroe repairs, while I say we pay less because we don't shell out hundreds of doallrs a month jsut on payments. Yet the same people who won't include car payments in teh vehicles cost find it perfectly logical, and in one case necessary, to include the purchase price for a vehicle bought without a loan. It goes without saying that I didn't even bring up the word depreciation with these people, even though in fact the current value of the car is held as an asset that you can liquidate and so can be included as such in the calculation.

The common mistake in these two examples is in the units, but it's not one of the normal mistakes that we make with units. Normally when we do a calculation we take all of the numbers, we do the math, and then we accidently use the wrong units. NASA has lost space probes in this way. It happens.

In my examples above, though the mistake is different. In the examples, we have an idea of what we want to quantify and the units we need to get some desired bit of quantitative information. The mistake is that in striving towards an answer with those units we may not make sure that the units are the correct ones to give us the answer we want to know or we may not have starting numbers that represent all of the things that must be oconsidered to properly give a number to go with the desired units.

In the second example, which is easier, we want to know the costs per distance but the example makes a mistake. The cost per mile of ownin ga car must include the cost of the car. If you have a house, you don't say that the cost of owning a house is simply the utilities plus the maintainence, do you? No, you include the mortgage. And you can do a lot of other number fudging by including or excluding equity, which basically measures depreciation, and remaining balance on the loan, giving you a host of numbers to pick and choose as your calculation's result (although I would only count two of them as correct, and if I did the numbers then I would label which number I used). Your dog does not cost you food, shots, and vet bills. Your dog also costs you the price you paid for the dog. Your trip to Dairy Queen is not free just because the ice cream you bought required you to pay no extra money between purchase and complete consumption. Your trip to Dairy Queen costs more than the gas you paid to drive there, too.

Do you get it? You don't even need to think about opportunity cost.

Shifting gears, in the first example we want to know the distance traveled per unit of fuel consumed. The mistake here is not accounting for all of the fuel and coming to the ridiculous number of 250 miles per gallon of gasoline. Sure, that is indeed how many miles said cars get on one gallon of gasoline. But how many miles would it get for two gallons? It's nowhere near 500 miles per gallon unless you stop the car and plug it in for a while. If you just keep driving for another gallon, you'll only go an extra 40 or 50 miles. And so on until the tank is empty. It's only the first gallon that gets the extra miles.

Miles per gallon is an excellent representation of miles per unit fuel only when gasoline is the only fuel being used. After all, if you have a horse pull your car for 100 miles and then drive a gallon of gas, you don't claim that your car gets 130 miles per gallon of gasoline, do you? It's technically correct, but it doesn't provide the information you want to know. So the problem with the 250 miles per gallon hybrids is that the value of 250 miles per gallon does not represent what we want to know, miles per units of fuel consumed. We need to include all fuel sources in some way and no matter how we do it we will need to convert some units. No economic, technological, ecological or sociological argument is going to change this, although the infomation provided once we get the calculation correct is good for forming and evaluating those types of arguments. (I can't do the conversion, by the way, because I don't have all of the numbers I need.)

The only reason why I still have respct for my fellow sciencey types who make these sorts of mistakes is that, as I said, these aren't the normal mistakes that are made with units. They are more abstract mistakes and they are easy to make. The potential to make them is all around us. You can make 8 cakes with a five pound bag of flour, unless you make other things with the flour, too. The eight cakes will weigh eleven pounds, more than a bag of flour, because there are other ingredients. The only reason why we don't make these mistakes is because figuring out how many cakes we'll get form a bag of flour, or how much one bag of flour's worth of cakes will weigh, isn't something we do every day. Neither is figuring out how fuel efficient our vehicles are or crunching the price per mile that we pay for our cars.

So, I forgive my fellow nerds. I just wish they'd let me finish my thoughts before they tell me what I already know about hybrids.


I met Katrina tonight, while out for my walk. She's "far away" but weather systems are large things compared to people. On my evening walk I had a warm, moist breeze coming at me from the southeast. Counterclockwise, around the strom center. In the past two hours this steady wind, only five miles per hour or so, has pushed the temperature up a few degrees.

And there was rain. It was that sort of drizzle that you get on a muggy evening in the tropics-- the kind that falls on you and everythng but never evaporates because the air won't take more water. The air was already picking up the smell that it gets when there is a constant exchenge of water between the air and wet surfaces. The drizzle really does evaporate, it just evaporates from objects at nearly the same rate that the atmosphere condenses water vapor on teh sme objects. As in much of nature, the equilibrium is dynamic rather than static. Dirt and such are lifted off of the ground, and you can smell it in the air. The tropics are here.

I do want to remind all of you to think about how to help the hurricaned. What they really need right now is food, water, and shelter. Send those things, or even better send money. Not to me, to people who can help.

After the affected people get into their own (probably different) homes we can start worrying about things like clothing and toys for their kids. Right now, if you have stuff to spare and you are feeling charitable, give your excess posessions to your local homeless shelter, soup kitchen, the Salvation Army, or whoever actually can use it. Only donate blood if your local area can use your blood type.

Remember, a gift is only good if it can be properly used and appreciated.

30 August 2005

Choirs and Rains

I had my first choir rehersal tonight, and it was quite fun. My voice is a bit rusty, but I had lots of nearby help. And the music for the year is absolutely fantastic. I won't let you in on too much, but if any of you are wondering about that opera version of Night On Bald Mountain then you should come to the first concert. My old roommate is probably going to crap himself with joy when I tell him about that piece. Well, maybe he'll just be happy. The point is that it's quite exciting for people like us, and I'm happy to be a part of it.

I'm also wondering why I never joined a choir before now. I think it has something to do with overcoming fears and overcoming insecurity. Besides the music, that's the second reason why I joined. Personal development. It's just like when I started graduate school and when I started writing-- I'm not terribly good at it but I can work on it and have fun, if I just get over myself and get started. And so with singing as well.

All very exciting.

In ohter news, I want to point out that I was not wishing death upon poor New Orleans visitors who could not get out of town. I do have pity for them. I don't have pity for people who could have easily left but did not. It's also very sad that Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where my wife lived for a few years earlier in life, was one of the worst hit places in terms of winds. I hope that town is okay.

29 August 2005


First off, we hope New Orleans survives the storm. I'm concerned about the people, but quite frankly I have little sympathy for anyone who stayed around, given the mandatory evacuation orders. Stupid gets what stupid deserves. Or so our uncaring sides hope, anyway.

Second, tomorrow is the first day of the semester at school. For the first time in 20 years, I'm not starting any classes. It's nice. Now I just need to start getting some research work done.

28 August 2005

Heidi Lives

I forgot to mention, Heidi came back to life. I gutted her and then put her back together without her case. She started up just fine, except that since we flashed the bios I will need to reinstall the operating system.

I am still accepting donations of old computers. We found one that had a PIII cpu in it but no heat sink, and we suspect that whoever tossed it took off the heat sink and thought that they got the cpu. Of course, it's no good to us without a heat sink, so it's sitting unused.

Did I mention that I'm still accepting donations of old computers?


I had a rather nice week, what with my sister coming to visit and such.

On to the two points of order....

First, Americans tend towards idiocy, as shown here. The article is about a lawsuit filed to force companies to put a warning label on fried foods because the frying process often produces acrylamide. This isn't a mystery, really, because what you have when you fry is a whole lot of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the basic building blocks of organic compounds, at high temperatures, which speed up many chemical reations.

I like this quote:

"I know from personal experience that, while these snacks may not be a necessary part of a healthy diet, they sure taste good," Lockyer said in a statement. "But I, and all consumers, should have the information we need to make informed decisions about the food we eat."

In other words, we must provide more information because more information means better choices. I'm sorry, but I don't agree simply because I don't accept that all informaiton, specifically that given to the public about products, is equal. You see, when it comes to food, the "information means better choices" concept has given us such marvels as peanut butter lables that say "may contain peanuts" as if we couldn't tell from that fact that it's butter of peanuts and, gasp, implying that maybe sometimes it doesn't contain peanuts after all.

So I don't see how adding a warning to any fried food that "This product may contain acrylamide, which has been found to cause cancer in lab rats in the State of California" is any better than simply saying "Fried food might not be healthy." In fact, I don't know why the latter would even need to be said because I've never met a person who thinks fried food is healthy.

And I also don't see why we should mark the foods that "may cause cancer" instead of marking the foods that "may not cause cancer."

Second, I just wanted to point out that he's said it. In public. Here is is.

Nay-sayers, beware.

23 August 2005

I'm Tired Of Titles

I've been very stressed for the past few days, so I haven't been here. That means all of you had more time to do other things, so there.

Before you read any more here, I suggest that you take a look at Nick's recent blog post, found here. It inspired me this evening.

Today was a busy day. Verily, this week is a busy week. And tiring. My wife has graduate school orientation this week, so she's quite busy at times of day that I normally forget exist. She's also been busy at the times I do know exist. That's a very obtuse way of saying that this week is the week of dragging my butt out of bed early, for me.

This afternoon I had to give a presentation for my research group, an dit didn't go very well. I am no longer bored wiht the topic, but I am having a very hard time understanding it.

This afternoon I also had an "audition" for a choir. Yes, an audition. A main reason for the auditions is that there are actually two choirs, one for people who really know how to sing (you need to be really good to get in) and another for the rest of us (you have to be really bad not to get in). Other reasons are to meet the director and have him go through some part placement and ear training. Blah-blah.

I started out by havign to explain why, after 20 yaers of school, I was only now interested in choral performance. I have a few answers, but the two main reasons are that I really love classical music and I'm tired of regretting that I've never performed it. Thinking about my classical music collection, I tend towards organs, large symphonic pieces, and choral music. I can probably learn faster how to sing better than to leanr the organ or some symphony insturment, so choral music it willl be. Anyway, the rest of my adventure consisted of some scales and arpeggios, sung with little dynamics, followed by a valiant demonstration of how I cannot sight sing (although I would have done better if I had realized it was not Emaj but rather C#min; ear thing). I also enjoyed pointing out every mistake that I made along the way, which I think made a good impression.

Based on how my voice sounds now, the director said that I will end up as a tenor once I learn how to sing properly. A surprise, really, but actually not, because it's easier to expand vocal range upwards than it is to expand it downwards (basic physics applies here).
In all I was told that my voice sucks, but I have a good ear to work with it, so I should show up for practice but sit with the baritones not the tenors because I'll crack my voicebox if I start at tenor. I was also told to brush up on my Russian. So, barring such thigns as prohibitively expensive music (of which there is much published) I should be set to go.

And thus I enter the realms of real music.

Tomorrow morning I get to get up early and go do physics. I need to fill in all of the gaps from my presentation today.

19 August 2005

A Teulogy?

Heidi is dead. She was a god computer while I knew her. She will not be replaced.

No, honey, that doesn't mean I'm giving up on my baby computer. What I mean is that Heidi will, like the Phoenix, rise again. Linux works for me, so I've got to get somethign together soon. If anyone can give me access to parts on the cheap, please let me know. If you're tired of your spyware problems on your Windows McComputer, I'm willing to take donations of hardware.

I'm looking into the PII or PIII CPU range. IDE, please, because I don't have any SCSI parts stuffed into my desk. I can deal with getting my own ancient RAM. Heck, we can't even figure out what kind Heidi has, it's that old. I don't need keyboards or mice or monitors. I dont' need an operating system. I don't need a CD drive or hard drive, for that matter, although a hard drive would be nice if there's enough controller space going around to let me put in a second hard drive. I currently have multiple floppy drives in multiple sizes, and I can't give the things away, but I expect that I'll end up with yet another one soon enough.

I was looking online and found the perfect computer. It was a Sun server with 72 UltraSPARC III processors. It cost $750,000. Oh well. Someone was selling a slightly smaller server on ebay, one that takes four PII or PIII chips. That would be cool, but considering the parts that it still needs to be a really nice computer, and then subtracting that from my budget, I got approximately a negative number (I blame the SCSI). Ditto for the custom built P4 machine, which had such cool gizmos as a front LCD display with termperatures and such. Actually, ditto for doing nothing.

On the bright side, tonight was trash night, and I happened upon two interesting items. One is a slightly dated but nonethelsss useful medical dictionary. The other item is a 140 foot-pound torsion wrench. Cool stuff. Too bad the wrench doesn't fit into my tool box!

17 August 2005

.xxx Delayed in the Normal American Way

The new .xxx domain has been put on hold. Again.

The argument for it: Online porn could eventually be forced to go there.

The argument against it: It doesn't do anything right now to keep children from getting to porn.

The reason for the delay? 6000 letters against the plan sent to the Commerce Department.

I'm less intrerested in whether the plan goes through than I am in the following quote from an article I read:

"ICM executives said they were disappointed by the last-minute criticism of a plan that had been debated openly for 18 months. 'We are, to say the very least, disappointed that concerns that should have been raised and addressed weeks and months ago are being raised in the final days,' ICM Registry Chairman Stuart Lawley wrote to Paul Twomey, chief executive of Marina del Rey-based ICANN."

What else do they expect in America?

(The article I read was an LA Times article printed today in the Chicago Tribune. The websites require registration, so I didn't bother linking.)

16 August 2005

Sleepless In The Valley

I didn't sleep very much last night, so I'm posting now, while I'm awake, instead of later, while I'm not. I went to bed at 3:30, but I didn't fall asleep until after 7:00. I think it was the ice cream with chocolate fudge sauce. I'd really like it if we would just never have that stuff in the house. Ever. I resist the idea of buying it, and I might start resisting more strongly. There's something to be said for self control, but there's also something to be said for not giving the alcoholic a liquor cabinet and not giving the binge eater too much ice cream and chocolate.

The sunrise was, by the way, absolutely ugly, since the sky was filled with clouds. And because the sun was rising.

Heidi has been running for days now without a reboot. Days. I'm hoping that those days turn into weeks. Chelsea can go about a week before her OS (WIndows XP pro SP2) crashes. Heidi has a more stable OS (Fedora Core 3) so hopefully she'll get longer sprints. Sadly, this sprint ends today because I need to open her up to do her retro refit. Or not. I may still just go with some kind of crackle paint. To spray that on I need to gut the case completely. And take it home. Or not. I could just take home the pieces that I have, since the case is one of those good old fashioned cases where the covers come off and then you open the case.

By the way, if anyone could tell me the command line to get the up time for a Linux computer, I'd appreciate it. I know that there is one, I'm just not sure what it is. Thanks awfully.

[Update: 8/16 Heidi is now having some kind of power problem, and I can't get her to boot.]

Nothing Much

I may have found a choir, but I'm too scared to join. Just thought I'd give you that update. I'll let you know if I decide to do it.

Research has been really depressing and boring, but I'm starting to warm up to it a bit. I think it might be okay. I'm not going to name any names, but there are a lot of scientists I've had to read whose scientific work, although excellent, is ruined by the fact that their writing and explaining abilities are lacking. Although not unversally true, many great scientists are excellent at making their ideas, even if complicated, easy to understand.

And with that, I go to work some more on my presentation.

A Qualification

A qulaification on my last post is in order. I do not object to the consideration of "moral issues" when considering politics and politicians. I do object to having those things be the only focus, as if they are the only important things.

It reamins, however, that having a country like the USA with lax morals might be a better option then losing the USA in the process of focusing on moral issues. I'm not saying that it's currently happening (I'm also not saying that it's not), but I am saying that such a choice could happen.

14 August 2005

Political Lines and Time Lines

One thing that I've been thinking about recently is this: Are the lines framing much of current political debate hiding deeper issues?

I thought about this because I was considering how many people I know, and even some of my family, involve themselves in politics. Most of them are "issue voters" who vote based on a candidate's stance on a few social issues. These issues, like abortion, are all connected to moral values that come from religious conviction. Sadly, other thigns are not considered, as far as I can tell. As one of my friends put it, "Yeah, but when I vote I don't consider economic policies because I don't see any moral issues." And I've gotten more than a few stares, of the "What kind of liberal nut are you?" type, when I've said things like "I don't care if he's pro-life, he'll screw the economy" or "He may be a Christian but his attitude towards environmental resources stinks."

At first glance, it may seem that this is entirely a problem of the political right.

That's wrong.

During last year's election, I knew a large number of Kerry supporters. They're reasons for supporting Kerry often involved statements like "He's not a Christian wacko," "He started a war that's killing innocent people," or "Bush is stupid." I hope that the people who make the first statement face the fact that they are making a political alignment based on a decision about religion, just like the fundamentalists they whine about. I hope that everyone who makes the second statement realizes that they are making a decision based on one issue and some morals. (And I hope that Christians could realize that the issue of "Where do morals come from for those who dont' believe in God?" is a non-issue here-- no matter how much you argue about their source, non-Christians, atheists, and such do have morals and often quite good ones in Christian terms.) I hope that everyone who makes the third statement realizes that they are choosing their political alignment based on a very personal value judgment.

(And for the anti-religious liberals in the high towers of academia, I point out to you that it's the general public that is dumber than you, not just the Christians, the conservatives, or whatever else is your target of the day. It would be wise to consider that and then only speak if you are prepared to follow it up with a dose of what are you going to do about it. Oh, and the same goes the other way around for Christians, although that kind of partisan intellectual snobbery seems to come more from Christain college students then from their professors.)

Lest I be accused of straw-manning, I will point out that I know some people, conservative and liberal, who have more broad political thoughts. They are, at least among people I know personally, a minority.

Anyway, the reason why I'm concerned about all of this yimmer yammering about religious values and moral issues and blah-blah-blah is that there are things that we need to consider that are, quite possibly, far more important.

We only have one planet, so the environment should be an important issue for our country, especially considering the enormous rate at which we could be contributing to messing it up permanently.

Our economy is about to go shambles because of energy needs. Because so much of our energy comes from oil, our foreign policy is about to go with it bcause things are gogin to get absolutely ugly in the next five years (and that's assuming you don't think they are ugly now). The worst-case scenario is that we go after oil through military means. Does anyone care?

We have a unique constitution. Which does the president pledge to do-- uphold, preserve and defend the constitution or make morals into the law of the land? Does the individual freedom that we have deserve no attention? Is it right to pick the Christian for being a Christian even if that means the erosion of some of our civil freedoms? Is it right to vote against the Christian just for being a Christian even if that means the erosion of some of our civil rights?

What about the horizons in technology and information? Where is the serious discussion about the government's role in the ethical use of exisiting technology like implanted RFID tags? People who talk about national ID cards are called wackos no matter what their stance, so anyone who brings up the RFID tags must be certifiably loony. And what about all-electronic currency? Our currency is already a fiat currency, so there's nothing between our paper money and binary digits except infrastructure, whioch is developing fast, and confidence. How are we going to face these things if we don't take them seriously?

Is it right to be so interested in "moral issues" or discussions of religion, from either side of the debates, that these bigger things fail to ever be a concern?

I think not.

Many people want to blame the fact that we argue about "moral issues" to the other side. Christians get blamed for wanting to limit women's rights. "Liberals" get blamed for a wrong definitoin of personhood. Obviously, in abortion, gay marriage, or whatever, if there were no disagreements then there would be no argument and we could promptly move on to arguing about something else.

I think the deeper problem is that people lack foresight. Political views in the general public are reactionary rather than proactive.

Did you notice what I said about the environment, the economy, the constitution and such? Each thing there strongly invoves an element of the future. "Moral issues," although they often invovlve arguments (sound and valid or not so) about the future, are things that we are facing now. Abortion is now. Gays asking for marriage is now. The erosion of the family is now. (Actually, it's the past hundred years, but if you don't want to believe me then don't let me pop your conservative bubble.) War in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which people are dying, is now. Contrast these to the things that I think are more importnat: Climate problems are later, we're comfortable now. Energy problems are later, we have cars and indoor cliamte control now. Great tensions over oil are later, we have enough now. Erosion of freedom is later, we're pretty free right now. New technology is later, we don't have it now.

For some reason we, as a nation, can only talk about the past and the present. We can't look to the future. We're more interested in runaway brides then we are in any of the big issues above.

And you know what? Those future related things may well be moral issues, too. that's why I've bene putting quotes arround the "moral issues." They're not the political issues related to morals, they're the ones toted as relating to morals. Caring for the environment, tending the economy, preservign freedoms, properly using technology, and many other things are moral issues. We may not know exactly what's going to be around the corner, but prudently preparing for the future is also a moral issue.

So, what's it going to be? How do we make our political choices? Who do we support?

I can't answer that for sure. But I can say this-- look to the future when you make your choice. Take a creative look, not just a look at the consequences of the "moral issues" of now. Look to things not yet considered, the things you don't hear about in the open every day. You know, there are people who talk about every important future-related issue that I listed above. Those people don't have the loudest of voices, but those voices may be the most wise.

12 August 2005

And More Stuff

If you really want to drive yourself batty, you can take a look at this game. There are some strategies involved, but I'm not going to share them.

11 August 2005

A Few More Quick Things

Help! I'm too lazy to post any original content! So while I work on my presentation (I found the proper information) you can all have fun away from here.

News: here

Sick. Just Sick.

A book I've been waiting for: here

Thanks to the Wheaton College Alumni Association for letting all of us know that it's finally coming. I had only heard some rumors and stirrings from people who I know who know people who I know and who I don't know who are authors of the various articles. Confused? Well, just read... when it comes out in a few weeks.

Music bug gotcha? Try this.

Naked music. It's all legal and free, and a good resource for a church choir that is into singing classical music.

Need a laugh? Here's one.

I guess only some of us will find that one funny. It's the t-shirt from the 2004 Linux Beer Walk. Don't ask. Nerd thing. That and Penguin mints (link currently broken). And Bawls. I only know a few people who are familiar with Bawls. They are all real geeks.

One final word: If you're using Windows, cut me a break. Go get Linux. It's cool, and it's worth the learning curve. You can turn a POS Celeron PC from roundabouts 1997 into a mean machine, especially if the people who threw away that POS Celeron PC added some extra RAM for you. And, if you're lucky like me, you'll find an old 486 to gut for parts to pimp your cyber ride. I now have a 250MB tape drive and an ancient 5.25 floppy drive. I'm not hooking them up, although they don't make those cables anymore so I kept them. I'm just putting the new finds into the case. A little bling-bling for Heidi. I might even paint the drive fronts in bright colored paisley. Or maybe some crackle paint in terra cotta-- the whole case. Hmmm....

10 August 2005

A Few Quick Things

I'm supposed to give a presentation for my advisor and some fellow graduate stduents, and I can't find the bloody paper that the presentation is supposed ot cover.

It seems that high school students are all in favor of making academics more rigorous. Or so the spin goes. At any rate, I still don't think that our country's falling educational standards are going to be changed unless all levels of our educational system, and the whole of culture, are in some way involved. One key thing is that we need college degrees to be meaningful again, rather than just a hurdle to overcome to get an okay job. Only then can a more rigorous high school diploma get its chance to shine. Without reform across the secondary and undergraduate levels, what one level does isn't going to help the others, at least not in this aspect. Sure, you might say, we will get a better pool of college applicants. But if the standards for coellge are not also raised, we will have more schools opening up for this "market" and then as many or more people getting unnecessary degrees. I've already posted, way back, about what I think of unnecessary college degrees. I'm perhaps obsessed with this point, but that's only because it seems like such basic economics and yet I hear no serious discussion about it in the educational community. (Read here.)

I was not impressed by the brave men and women of the space shuttle Discovery. Let me qualify that. I'm not impressed by their overcoming things like heat tile insulation sticking out. I'm not amazed by their surviving heat tiles that may have had issues. I'm not amazed that a piece of foam fell and off the tank adn didn't hit the orbiter. (In fact, I'm dismayed, because I thought that one of the things that the engineers spent a lot of time working on was making sure that the foam wouldn't come off.) I'm not amazed that they came home safely because I am pretty sure that most or all of the bad things that happened have happened before. When they happened before nobody batted an eyelash because nobody knew about them or knew that they would be a problem.

The NASA people talk each other up and pat each other on the back (literally) like a winning high school football team. You didn't know that the NASA people act like that all the time? You should see them work sometime. "Look, the rocket engines turned off!" Cheers erupt. "Look the satellite, they just let it go!" Cheers erupt. "Look, a little green light came on, so the satellite is working!" Cheers erupt... except for Bob who realizes the light is one of HIS lights and that it came on two seconds early. Bob's not cheering because he's going to have a lot of explaining to do.

Really, the whole thing was a circus. I'm not going to place balme, although it falls on one of NASA, the media, and the American public as a whole. I'm amazed by space flight as a whole, but let's have a reality check here: There was nothing special about the survival of this most recent flight.

07 August 2005

Cars and Tunes

Okay, we're going to fix the car, for about $500, probably. Oh, and maybe we'll get the alignment done, so that the car stops eating her tires. Then we're going to save buttloads of money and get a second car. I'm shooting for the $6000 to $7000 range, and we can probably find a used Mazda 626, Dodge Stratus/Chrysler Sebring Sedan, or what have you for that price. Now's not the time to buy a hybrid, because I'm a very cheap person and I don't want to spend the money on a new car, but someday I'll get one.

So I still have a few months to learn how to drive a manual, just to keep that as an open option. But, you may protest, manual transmission cars cost more to fix because htey need new clutches and such. Yes, but they are cheaper to insure. People who drive manuals get into fewer accidents, and the insurance people think it has something to do with the fact that driving a manual transmissions requires a bit more attention on the part of the driver. Also, many manuals can get better gas mileage, but I doubt that I'd get better mileage because I'd constantly be shifting for performance rather than fuel economy. And then there is the fun factor. That fun would include teaching my wife how to use the thing. Persoanlly, I think she would like it, but she wouldn't be able to eat breakfast in the car every day.

I've had a change of heart recently, and I have to tell you about it. The album Thrive by the Newsboys is definitely one of the most important Christian albums of the decade. A few years ago I didn't even like the Newsboys, but they've grown on me. Thrive, with most of the music by Peter Furler and most of the lyrics buy Steve Taylor (who remembers Meltdown?) is both musically and lyrically advanced. Although in no way the same as my favorite Christian album form the 1990s, Rich Mullins' The World As Best As I Remember It, Vol. 2, it sort of follows in the footsteps. On both albums, the music is good to innovative and the lyrics are fun and deep. And both albums are the only Christian albums I've ever found where the songs are basically all in place and you can listen to the complete albums solely for the sake of listening to good songs (rather than listening as backround music or whatever). So, if you haven't heard these albums, check them out.

I'm off to see the wizard, so Kudos to you.

06 August 2005

Poor Car? Poor Us!

Our car is losing oil. I found some under her tonight after she had been sitting for a couple of hours. It wasn't a whole lot-- half a teaspoon at absolute most (There is a 6 inch spot on rough pavement, rough enough to have deep channels holding the oil rather than letting it spread; the roughness is why I think it could be as much as half a teaspoon even though it's only a six inch spot.)

I'm gogin to go check on her ain a few minutes to make sure that she hasn't lost more. I do care a little bit about the birdies and fishies in the nearby creek, so I'll put some paper down if it's a continuous leak.

I don't care about the car. I understand why people can stand to get rid of their cars even if they are emotionally attached. Personally, my feelings wouldn't be hurt if our car died tomorrow and we had to get a replacement immediately. For the past few thousand miles she's been driving me absolutely batty. I don't care about the recent $700 of work, I just want her to get out of my hair. I have better things in life to do than wonder every day whether or not I'm going to get home without walking.

Oh, wait, cars cost money. Oh well. There goes that idea.

05 August 2005

Family Band

Honey, read your e-mail before you read this. (There's a reason.)

My dad has done it. He has jumped off the deep end with the rest of us.

How so?

He's the last person in my immediate family (biological) to become a musical tinkerer.

My mom sings quite well. When she practices for a while she can get her voice range well over two octaves. In fact, it goes to almost three. In many cases she can choose to sing either tenor, alto or soprano. She is familiar with multiple parts of Handel's Messiah. She can make the air vibrate, but she can also sing clearly when singing quietly. And she can do that at all pictches in her voice range. Also, I know that she dabbled in the guitar before I came along.

My sister has a beautiful violin. She's taken lessons from a very good teacher who plays in a symphony orchestra and is in high demand on the local folk music scene. She stopped playing a long time ago, but the violin is aging gracefully. My sister now sings in a choir. I couldn't convince her to join a choir that requires auditions, but I know she'd be able to do it with just a little sight singing practice. She can sing high. In fact, it was only in the past few years that she proudly told me that she can finally sing higer than I could sing back in my boy soprano days. We're talking exceeding A6 here, full voice. She can sing powerfully, and she can follow a tenor line and haunt the bejezuz out of half a church building when she feels the need. Think of it as a one voice harmonic addition that makes any Baptist hymn sound high-church.

I have always enjoyed singing, even when my voice changed and it cracked a bit. After being a boy soprano, I am now a baritone/bass 1. I've also been keen on inturments. I took lessons in trombone. I taught myself straight harp on a diatonic harmonica (and I can play cross, but I have a really leaky wood-core harmonica right now so I can't practice). I can sort of play scales and simple siongs on trumpets, bugles, recorders (soprano and alto), pennywhistles, and fifes. I've owned two electronic keyboards, an I know a few tricks on keyboard insturments. I played a few notes on a harpsichord once. In high school I was allowed to play with the church organ. I own an accordian that I sometimes use it to squeak out a bad rendition of "Puff, The Magic Dragon." I have a chromatic harmonica somewhere. I've messed around with my sister's violin and my mom's guitar. I've played some things on an electric bass. I, along with my mom and sister, have basic and intermediate handbell skills (I never played in a choir, but it's really easy). I want to try out a bassoon and learn the bagpipes. But the best thing of all-- I don't know how to play any insturment well enough to say that I really know how to play it, except maybe the harmonica.

I, like my sister and mom, can read music. I think that we all know what he C clef is and what turns looks like. We know a piano when we see one. We understand the ralationship between fermatas, stocattos, and what to do, based on your surroundings, when you're feeling flatulent.

In music just as in the rest of life, I understand the theory and can't put it into practice.

My brother likes to sing. He's just a wee kid, so that's all he's had time for development to much more. I was his age when I started learning how to read music, though, so maybe I should have mom get him a book on music theory.

None of us can play our armpits.

Anyway, that's my family's musical status. Until recently, when something very interesting happened.

My dad bought a drum kit.

My first thought was "Oh. My. Goodness."

He was nice enough to explain to us what drums mean to him and why he wanted to get a set. I can't share that, as it is personal information, but now it doesn't seem weird. I mean, who isn't freaked out when their dad buys a drum kit? Or a surf board or a convertable, for that matter. My dad doesn't have the latter, though. But it's actually a very cool thing in this case, not only because the drums mean a lot to him but because he shared the fact with his family.

So, once he gets it put together, my dad, who I will now accidently call Ringo until he can't stand it and I force myself to stop, will be on the way to being a drummer. I wish him the best, and I happily welcome him to the family's world of musical dysfunction (well, dysfunciton on the male side anyway, since the women seem to know what they're doing) where every note has an equal chance to be a lemon.

04 August 2005

Test Results

Okay, first is the physics test. It wasn't really a test.

My wife was talking to me, and she said that she told a student working on an energy conservation problem that, I quote, "The potential energy is turned into kinetic energy, and then the ball moves." I corrected her, pointing out that the potential energy plus the kinetic energy adds up to a constant at any point in time, which can be arbitraily set to zero.

Then I got confused, and I said this. I had no intention of being such an idiot. I was just struggling with whether it was

A + B = constant = 0


A = B (which in my mind always first turns into A + B = -0 rather than A - B = 0)

Now, on to the test results.

I took a test, and I have the results here. I only took this test because I saw it in like three places. The first couple of times I refused, but then I said "Hey, this is stuff that Real Folks™ are doing." So I did it. And you can read about it here, and then go try for yourself.

Heidi is, by the way, now living on my desk at school. I am installing the OS, probably for good. I'm using Fedora Core 3 for no good reason other than I like the name and I found it easy enough to play with different packages. I need to get her hooked up to the network, and then I can fly, or do research, or something. Hopefully I can get her printing soon, as that is hard to come by in our department. So is Linux, believe it or not. I woudl think that more physics geeks woudl be computer geeks, or at least computer geek wanna-bes. They sort of are, but most of them don't do Unix/Linux. What a shame.

I have also fixed my flight simulator's joystick delay issues, so I can fly it now without getting frustrated. I'm playing with Lock On which is a delightful simulator. Right now I'm only using the A-10. The game has a nice flight model. I can actually "skid" the aircraft, something that I've never had a simulator do before. Come on, people! I'm talking about the Fleet Defender and MS Flight Simulator 3 days! Anyway, it's just enough fun that I won't play it all night and all day but not so boring that I'll never play it. That, I find, makes the perfect video game. Now, to figure out the several hundred controls....

So, I haven't been posting recently, and now you know why-- all of hte above and a round of fatigue. Fatigue begins again tomorrow because I'm not going to get enough sleep tonight. Cursed sleep disorder.