Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Use the Force

The Star Wars saga is over, unless you count the pod cast by by Star Wars fan father Roderick Vonhögen. There are those that haven't seen the series. These include my eight year old. He has known for some time that he has wanted to see them. I have decided that the time has come, and have started by introducing the movies to him, one at a time, in order.

But what order is that? Should it be in chronological order of presentation, or in episode order. That is, now that they are all available, does it make sense to start with episode one? Partly because the video store didn't have episode one available at the time, Episode IV: A New Hope was chosen. That's that.

I don't just set him down in front of the TV, however. I watch stuff with him. This is true even for stuff that I have seen before. I want to see his reactions to what is going on. If i've seen something with him, i will sometimes let him watch it again on his own. He likes watching stuff over and over. I guess i did too, when i was that age. If i don't watch with him, then something always happens, like two years ago with Jurassic Park. He may never watch that movie, because it gave him the creeps when he was six.

We just saw The Empire Strikes Back. I have to say that i didn't like it that much when it came out. Sure, i'm a Star Wars fan. So, when i say i didn't like it, i mean in comparison to the first movie, Episode IV. It doesn't mean, for example, that it rates lower than reruns of Let's Make a Deal game shows.

There is stuff in there that i like. I like the religion that Yoda spouts. Things like, stay focused, and commit yourself to success, and the unpredictability of the future. I've heard people complain that the religion of the Force is thin. Well it is. However, its a movie, not a book. After all, despite 10.5 hours of film dedicated to The Lord of the Rings, it is pretty thin compared to the books. Even if George had more of this religion developed, it could not be presented in the context of a movie, or six movies.

Then, there is stuff i didn't like so much. The ice planet Hoth. Planets are big complicated places. Look at the Earth, or Mars. Mars has Deserts, ice caps, canyon systems, volcanoes, and craters. Earth additionally has rain forests, cities, oceans, underground cave systems, etc. You don't need a whole planet to be all one thing. Painting a planet that is at all capable of supporting life as all one thing is very thin. All the planets in Star Wars seemed to be dedicated to just one idea or other. Star Trek suffered from this. Really, ten or twenty episodes could have been spent beaming down to just one planet.

There was little stuff. One day Luke rescues himself from a wild animal - cut off its arm with a light saber, but instead of staying in the cave where it was safe, he ventures out into the cold. Yet shortly after, he single handedly blows up an Imperial Walker in a dramatic daring feat. Its one thing to show character building, but this was before his Jedi training.

Yet, i sort of like how he lands blind on the planet Dagoba within a few meters of Yoda. Use the Force, Luke.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Ice Cream

Time heals all ills. A fairly short time covers ice cream headaches.

So, here i am, impatiently waiting for the ice cream headache to subside, so that i can wolf down the rest of the serving. The headache is severe. The ice cream isn't that good, is it? We're talking about severe pain. I know it will go away. But why court experiencing that sort of pain again? Its hard to believe that simple impatience covers it.

Perhaps nature will give us some sort of insight into migrain headaches through ice cream headaches. That would be, uhm, welcome relief for many.

Yes, time heals all ills. But while waiting for even an ice cream headache to go away, i'm thinking, just like AIDS.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


Last Autumn, i decided to teach my son how to do arithmetic. I would do it right. I went online and purchased a "how to" book, an abacus for myself and an abacus for my son. He was seven.

I joined a Yahoo discussion group that i found somehow. They're totally focused. I participated avidly for a bit, then got down to business.

The abacus that i'm talking about is the Japanese Soroban. The more common Chinese abacus has a dividing bar with five beads below and two beads above on each rod. It seems to be optimized for doing hexadecimal math - base 16. This used to be used in China for weights and monetary computations. You know, 16 ounces in a pound... that sort of thing. The Japanese abacus, called the Soroban, has four beads below the bar, and one above. It is optimized for decimal. Base ten. By an odd coincidence, that's what we use here in the US. We have a decimal money system, as well as decimal weights and measures. That's right, Congress passed a law in the 1800's proclaiming that everyone should use the metric system for weights, distances, etc. in the United States. That's why speed limit signs are in kilometers per hour.

One can add, subtract, multiply and divide easily on the soroban. I taught myself how to perform arithmetic on the soroban when i was about 17. After three months, i was quite proficient. Then i came on a chapter which told me that i no longer needed the physical instrument. Just imagine one, and move the beads. I was skeptical, but tried it. I went through all the exercises in the book in my head. That includes multiplying two four digit numbers together, and getting an eight digit answer. Or dividing a six digit number by a three digit number, and getting a three digit answer.

Two things struck me about the technique. I was always right. That is to say, after adding and subtracting perhaps a thousand numbers, and performing perhaps a hundred multiplications and divisions, i had not made a single mistake. Had i performed this on paper, i'd have made dozens of errors. It wasn't me. The technique is that good. The reason seems to be that it handles carries and borrows in a simple and immediate manner. There's nothing to remember.

The other thing that struck me was how fast it was. Addition and subtraction on the Soroban was about the same speed as an electronic calculator - which i owned in 1975. Addition and subtraction via mental arithmetic (anzan) was faster. Multiplication and division were faster on the calculator, as you'd expect.

Today, the draw of the abacus for me is that it has the potential to take the fear of math out of students. If there is no fear of math, then math based skills, like science, will have less or no fear as well. Technology is based on science. Our society is based on technology. Under no circumstances do i want my son to be incompetent at life.

Its been less than a year. My son performs two digit adds and subtracts. He's not always right, but he's much better than with pencil and paper. He's faster too.

My own mental arithmetic skills have disappeared from disuse. The brain is like a muscle. You have to use it, or it becomes weak. My mental skills have not come back, as yet. There are hints that it may, if i keep at it. I'm currently performing mixed addition and subtraction with ten five digit numbers, basically every day. Perhaps just one problem over breakfast. I'm still making mistakes from time to time. These stem from losing my place or getting distracted in the middle. Soon, however, i'll move on to multiplication and division. Then, square roots, logarithms and trigonometry functions. I once performed a problem like sin(23.7 degrees) to ten digits in my head. It took about 35 minutes, and i was correct. Those were the days.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Table Lookup

I went to an engineering school. While there, i hung out with a group of about 20 guys (some of whom are women). There were de facto spots to hang out. For three years, it was one of the on campus apartments, large enough to have its own living room. So, a bunch of us would be hanging out, deep in conversation.

Now, in computer software, there is hardly any duplication. If there is any, it can generally be relegated to a subroutine, and calls made to it. The advantage is that if there is an error, it can be fixed once. If there is a new idea, it can be applied once. That's the theory, anyway.

For a group of engineers and scientists, all with excellent memory, the same sort of efficiency could be had with conversations. Whole conversations would be given a label, and references could be made. No need to rehash the debates, a reference to the label was enough to carry all sides. If someone missed an interesting (referenced) conversation, someone could fill that person in, without the need to tie up the whole group. As a result, conversations became somewhat higher level.

Oddly, no one ever wrote any of this stuff down. So who knows what wisdom or tripe has been lost. Perhaps it would have been too much like documentation. Everyone knows that programmers don't like to write English. I thought that was true for me at the time. However, when the group project reports needed to be written, i volunteered every time, even when others competent with text editors and formatting programs were available. Of late, i find myself writing more English than anything else.

We really couldn't say that this task was too difficult, that computers and editors weren't available. In fact, we enjoyed free and unlimited computer time. Text editors and formatting programs were available. We have were able to cut a 9 track tape before we left with all our stuff. One hundred and thirty five megabytes fits on such a tape - which is alot compared with the amount of stuff you can type.

We might argue that it takes longer than a half hour to type up a half hour conversation. We could all remember everything, so why bother. Except that i can't remember any of it, as far as i know.

A quarter of a century or so later, this blog resembles those conversations from time to time, at least in form.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


I replaced a tire on my car today. You might ask if i got my money's worth out of the old one. You might just as well ask if i cheated death. Its the same question. And the answer is:

Oh yeah.

A couple days ago, i noticed when going under a bridge while in the far left lane, there was an echo off the wall from my car. It was a funny flappy sound, perhaps coming from the driver's side rear tire. I imagined a chunk of tire tread hanging loose, flapping in the breeze. Today i noticed that the car shimmied violently at low speed. So when i got home, i decided on an inspection. It looked bad. It was worn thin - well past legal. It had a bump on it that i could sort of detect, but couldn't really see without taking the tire off of the car.

Time was pressing. I knew that the spare was a spare because it was showing the steel belt. I wasn't going to put something like that back on the car in anything other than a dire emergency. That's right, i have a real tire for a spare - not a donut. The spare was in the trunk, and therefore handy, and the tire store was about to close. If i hurried, and rolled in the spare, they'd put a new tire on it. I could get it onto my car in my leisure.

So, home again, i pulled the suspect tire off the car. No flap of tread hanging loose. It was showing some chord, and there was a bulge. The bulge was big. Huge. What had happened was that a large section of the tread was no longer attached to the tire, and that section had expanded. It made me nervous to look at it. It could explode at any moment.

So i put the new tire on the car, and let some air out of the old tire. No use having it explode in my trunk. Or my face.

The tire store is open late twice a week. Perhaps next week i'll replace this new spare.

In the mean time, i'll put gas in the car tomorrow, and see if i can get another quarter of a million miles out of it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Comparative Magic Systems

The magic system of the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role playing game always seemed to me more or less haphazard. The lists of spells that wizards could cast seemed like a jumble of everything that the game designers could think of. Like the content of many early computer CDs: dumpware.

By comparison, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings Amber, and my own nameless variant of the D & D fantasy role playing games have underlay which seem to make sense of it all. Naturally, if it makes perfect sense, its not magic so much as science. These systems don't give everything away. My own system makes the most sense - at least to me. The magic system is called Lawful Magic - not because the players need to follow the rules, but because the system itself has rules and follows them.

So, Lawful Magic is powered by the individual. An organ, controlled by the brain is developed to a lesser or greater extent. So, some people have more potential than others. Many have potential that goes unnoticed or undeveloped. Magic is difficult, and may require a number of skills. Magic is deliberate. No one accidentally casts it, as with Harry. Casting magic takes practice, requires energy from the body, and due to efficiency issues, is essentially an intellectual exercise. As time goes on, new magic is researched and learned, and magic gains in power over time, the knowledge amassed in libraries.

Magic in Amber comes to a small pool of people - one family. A pattern is encoded genetically, and grants a fairly narrow range of tremendous powers. Magical power comes from desire.

In The Lord of the Rings magic is inherited from ancient god-like creatures. Through time, their descendants blood becomes less potent, and people become less powerful and live shorter lives. So ancient people like Tom Bombadil live forever and have personal power above all magic. The elves live forever and have significant magical powers. Men have less or none. Its an anti-Darwinian universe, where each new generation is less fit than the previous. It appears to be modeled on nobility from the dark ages, where inbreeding leads to such losses. That line is all but spent.

The Harry Potter universe has magic potential as genetic, and random. The power comes from emotion. Magic can happen by accident, for example, when angry or scared. The whole story seems to be about what happens when an evil person makes everyone angry and scared. Yet, there is a knowledge component, and as in my system, knowledge is power.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Speling and gramer

There aren't that many spelling mistakes in these postings. Oh, sometimes one will slip through. Though the spell checker is religiously run, every now and then i just skip going to church altogether. That happens, for example, when proof reading. This is done at the keyboard, and any corrections are made right away. Sometimes i think that, Oh, its only one sentence - it is unlikely that there are any mistakes, and so church is skipped.

Mistakes are still made. The contraction for it is is irregular. Does it have an apostrophe or not? Then, the spelling checker knows that both form and from are words. So, this very common typo slips through the automatic, but very stupid, checker. A grammar checker might catch it, but i've not seen one yet that is worth my time. They complain about all sorts of things that are exactly what i intended.

Then, there's style. Perhaps you've noticed the lower case first person singular pronoun. I try to consistently use upper case if it starts a sentence, whereas i use lower case if it isn't at that position.

Though i proof read my stuff, it usually happens just after i've written it. That means that while i'm reading it, i still remember it well enough to succumb to the temptation of reading what i expect to read, rather than what is really there. My next day proof reading is significantly better. Really, i should have someone else proof read my stuff, while i proof read theirs. That would also teach us both the rules of grammar and spelling that the other knows. Any takers? It could be done by email. There is a little, tiny email link at the very bottom of this page. Go ahead.

So why do i do it? Why bother? This isn't a paid assignment. This is just me rambling into the ether. There may not even be an audience. No one may be reading this at all. In the event that someone is reading it, i don't want to sound completely stupid. I want the reader to work harder to determine that i'm a complete idiot. Its pretty much that simple. Its style - like the goofy thing with the first person singular pronoun.

Some things to check: Remember to never split an infinitive. The passive voice should never be used. Do not put statements in the negative form. Verbs have to agree with their subjects. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing. A writer must not shift your point of view. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.) Don't overuse exclamation marks!! Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing. Always pick on the correct idiom. The adverb always follows the verb. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives. Thanks to William Safire.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Last June, from the 5th to the 10th, the BBC published the symphonies of Beethoven. They were available for free download for about a week. Early in the sequence, i downloaded the first symphony and listened to it at work. I wrote a short review of the piece and sent it by email to the BBC. They sent a nice note back asking if they could publish it, and, i told them that yes, that is what i had in mind.

I thought it was a little odd that i could download it for free during that week, but the license said that i could not then copy it. The exact quote is You may not copy, reproduce, edit, adapt, alter, republish, post, broadcast, transmit, make available to the public, or otherwise use this audio in any way except for your own personal, non-commercial use.. Naturally, i have to copy it just to listen to it. And, the best way to expand the BBC audience, in my opinion, is to make sure that BBC appears in the file names and allow free distribution. Oh well.

In August, i received a packet by snail mail that i wasn't expecting. In the large envelope were a couple booklets. One is the Concert Programme for Beethoven The 9 symphonies. The other is a small glossy booklet covering the 2005/06 BBC Philharmonic season. In it, they talk about next year's similar extravaganza: Tchaikovsky Symphony Cycle starting Friday, 19 May 2006. On three days, Symphonies 3, 4, then 1, 5, then 2, 6 will be performed. It sounds like a schedule of the firing order of a six cylinder engine. However, i can hardly wait. Now, its unlikely that i'll make the trip across the pond, but the booklet does give the prices for season tickets, and even has an installment plan for easy payments.

Overall, it appeared to me a first rate set of booklets for a first rate set of concerts. I was happy to receive them.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

What A Gas

Two sixty one nine a gallon? Feh. Its up thirty cents a gallon since last month! Feh, i say again. Something has to be done. What can be done?

A year or so ago, President GW Bush said that, "There is no instant cure for the energy shortage." This was and is wrong. He says these kinds of things all the time, and i'm embarrassed to be an American. My president is scientifically illiterate and must surround himself with illiterates for advice. Regan was charismatic, but his credibility was hurt when it leaked out that he had sought out and gotten advice from an astrologer.

My car, a 1988 Mazda 626 with a 2.2 liter fuel injected 12 valve engine and 5 speed manual transmission, regularly gets about 35 miles per gallon of regular gas. It has an EPA highway rating of 32 miles per gallon. It has achieved 41 miles per gallon on a tank of gas - getting 615 miles on 15 gallons of gas. It isn't modified for economy. It achieves better economy in part because of the kind of driving it has too do (nearly all highway driving) and because of the way i drive it. I like to use the cruise control. My measurements show that at about the same speed, using cruise improves my mileage by about 4 miles per gallon. That's about 10 percent. Further, when on cruise, it is annoying to pull up behind someone and have to change lanes to pass or alter the cruise speed. Sometimes, if approaching a car slowly, when the car gets even with the other car, they speed up to match your speed. I've even seen cars that will pace you so that you are clearly in their blind spot for miles. Worse, sometimes they pace you so that they are in your blind spot for miles. Its better to just go slightly slower than most traffic so that they have to pass you. I let them ride my bumper if they want. Their aggression is wasted on my cruise control.

So my car ends up going a little slower than the rest of traffic. I get to where i'm going in about the same time. I make very few rest stops, sometimes going eight hours between them. On long trips, the same cars pass me again and again.

And, i'm driving some 35,000 miles a year. It wasn't my first choice. I recall when my commute was about 100 yards with fondness. Its just how it is.

My measurements show that my car gets about 17% better gas mileage at 60 than at 70. By going 55 miles per hour, my car gets twenty seven miles per gallon while towing my 16 foot boat. Most SUVs don't get 27 MPG, but my car gets that while towing a boat.

At any rate, one instant fix to the energy crisis is to bring back the double nickles. Post Speed Limit 55 signs on the nation's highways, and the instant effect is more than 10 percent less gas consumed. Why wait for the national mandate? It is quite legal to drive at 55 even if the speed limit is 70. In many places, trucks and busses are required to drive that speed (not that they do). Then you can enjoy your own private ten to twenty percent discount on driving right away. If everyone does it, then demand goes down and, probably, prices go down too.

In the 1970's, conservation made up the lion's share of what it took to get out of the crisis. Wear a sweater at home in the winter, and set your house to 67 degrees F. That's too cold for me, so i set it as low as i can stand - about 70. But in the summer, i try not to use air conditioning. This summer, i have not turned it on once. This has come as a surprise to my friends. It's been hot. Well, i like it hot.

Of course, if you're buying a new car, you can choose one that meets your needs with the best fuel economy.

There's more. Over the past five years, I have been replacing burned out incandescent light bulbs with those screw in fluorescent bulbs. I've tried most brands now. Some take a second to flicker on, but there are brands that come on basically instantly. Unlike the long tubes, which for me seem to always flicker at 60 Hz, the screw in bulbs seem to burn steady. That means i can read by them. This is a good thing, since i want to use them where i need light for long periods of time. The 22 watt bulbs are supposed to be as bright as 100 watt incandescent bulbs - but they seem to me as a little less. Still, i can get bulbs that are bright enough for what i need, and i generally end up with more light everywhere rather than less. So these bulbs turn out to be about four times as efficient as the old ones. They also last much longer. I'd rather have bulbs that never need replacing and pay a few extra bucks for them. They claim that buying them saves money. The bright ones claim to save $75 over their life. My electric company says that lighting comprises about 44 percent of home electricity use. Since one fourth of 44 percent is eleven percent, that should mean that i'm saving about 33 percent of my electric bill. That's one third. Since i tend not to use air conditioning and have gas hot water, it may be more than that for me.

I have also begun a project to double the insulation in my Attic. I'm about three quarters finished. I'm doing it myself in late fall and early spring - where the temperatures are moderate. So far, it has cost about a hundred dollars. It has been worth it in the improvement in comfort alone for the half of the house that is finished.

I have installed a little switch on the vent for my clothes dryer. In the winter, I vent the hot and moist air into the house. In the summer, it goes outside. Its in the basement, and i probably wouldn't do it if i spent most of my time down there. It doesn't seem to add lint everywhere in the house, or even the basement. It may be adding dust, however, requiring more frequent cleaning. This hasn't been really measured, as yet. It was under ten bucks, and has probably saved me more than that - though this hasn't really been measured either.

I'd like to do more still. My roof and attic get very hot in the summer. This makes the upper floor hotter than it might be. Changing my roof tiles from dark material to a more reflective material should make my roof and attic cooler in the summer. There is also a design called a double roof. There is a space between the two roofs, and the air between them is allowed to connectively flow out - so there is always a fresh supply of ambient temperature air. Perhaps when the roof needs to be redone in a few years this could be easily and cheaply retrofitted to about two thirds of the roof area.

I'd like to add passive solar heating to supplement the heat in the winter. This is basically a panel that heats water with the light of the sun, perched on the roof. Perhaps hot water from it could feed the hot water heater too. Then, showers would last longer - because when the main tank runs out, instead of having to heat up cold water, it would get hotter water from the start.

Another thing i'd like to do is vent the heat from my basement dehumidifier to the outside. That wouldn't make it an air conditioner, but as i only run it in the summer, and the heat it produces is not desirable in my house - even in my relatively cool basement.

Most of these improvements would pay for themselves, decrease my cost of living, and increase my comfort level - my standard of living.

It's too late to redesign my house from scratch. What i'd like is a to have more of the living space underground. That would make my summers comfortable without air conditioning. There are some housing concepts out there that promise to cut heating fuel bills by ninety percent. The time has come, and the way for it to happen is for people to demand it. How do you do that? Shop around. If you are building your own house, build it right from the start. It demands something that has been traditionally difficult - consumer education.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

TA - Thinkers Anonymous

It started out innocently enough. I began to think at parties now and then to loosen up. Inevitably though, one thought led to another, and soon I was more than just a social thinker.

I began to think alone - "to relax," I told myself - but I knew it wasn't true.

Thinking became more and more important to me, and finally I was thinking all the time. I began to think on the job. I knew that thinking and employment don't mix, but I couldn't stop myself.

I began to avoid friends at lunchtime so I could read Thoreau and Kafka. I would return to the office dizzied and confused, asking, "What is it exactly we are doing here?"

Things weren't going so great at home either. One evening I had turned off the TV and asked my wife about the meaning of life. She spent that night at her mother's.

I soon had a reputation as a heavy thinker. One day the boss called me in. He said, " I like you, and it hurts me to say this, but your thinking has become a real problem. If you don't stop thinking on the job, you'll have to find another job."

This gave me a lot to think about.

I came home early after my conversation with the boss. "Honey," I confessed, "I've been thinking..."

"I know you've been thinking," she said, "and I want a divorce!"

"But Honey, surely it's not that serious."

"It is serious," she said, lower lip aquiver.

"You think as much as college professors, and college professors don't make any money, so if you keep on thinking we won't have any money!"

"That's a faulty syllogism," I said impatiently, and she began to cry. I'd had enough. "I'm going to the library," I snarled as I stomped out the door. I headed for the library, in the mood for some Nietzsche. I roared into the parking lot and ran up to the big glass doors... they didn't open. The library was closed. As I sank to the ground clawing at the unfeeling glass, whimpering for Zarathustra, a poster caught my eye. "Friend, is heavy thinking ruining your life?" it asked. You probably recognize that line. It comes from the standard Thinkers Anonymous poster.

Which is why I am what I am today: a recovering thinker. I never miss a TA meeting.

At each meeting we watch a non-educational video; last week it was Porky's.

Then we share experiences about how we avoided thinking since the last meeting. I still have my job, and things are a lot better at home. Life just seemed... easier, somehow, as soon as I stopped thinking.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Diet and Exercise

In early January (2005) i started running on the treadmill. It wasn't a New Year's Resolution or anything. It was just there, and available. I started slow. I knew i was out of shape. At first it was just whatever distance that could be achieved in ten minutes. After a month, it was fifteen minutes. Then it was a mile. Feh. Fifteen minutes for a mile. Back in the day, it was only six minutes. Five if it was only one mile.

After a couple months the mile time came down to twelve and a half minutes. No faster. I pushed forward by increasing to fifteen minutes, then twenty, then twenty five. Two miles in twenty five minutes. And there it stood. The goal was to run three times a week for twenty five minutes.

Summer came and it got so hot in the house that i couldn't run on the treadmill at all. On one of my first days outside, a neighbor was just finishing his run. I told him i'd been on the treadmill for months. He said that it was easier to run on the treadmill than outside. I thought outside was easier.

We were both right. I ran two and a half miles in under nineteen minutes on the first day out. Sure, i was breathing harder, but i could do it. So when a cooler night came up, i tried the treadmill again. I was stuck at twelve and a half minute miles again. What was going on?

There's no breeze on a treadmill. Without cooling, i'm standing still. So i tried the treadmill again, but with a box fan pointed my way. Instant improvement!

So, its been eight months. And i feel much better. Running fixes my blood chemistry instantly. I have energy again. However, i've only lost two pounds. That's because i can't seem to get on my diet for any length of time. When i'm on it, i lose a pound a week for twenty five weeks, then half that for another twenty. At the end, i have a total loss of thirty five pounds.

Its not Atkins or South Beach. Its not the GM diet or some sort of weird strict diet. I just stop drinking Mt. Dew while sitting at work. I drink water instead. That's all there is to it. Originally it was to cut out caffeine from my diet. It was giving me arthritis. Once cured, however, i could not resist temptation.

It takes nearly no time at all to find thirty five pounds once you've lost it.

The only exercise that makes me loose weight is pushing away the plate.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Before pod casts

Before pod casts, there were radio programs. Before pod casts there were audio books. Well, there still are radio programs and audio books. Pod casts are really quite popular. And why not? The listener gets to listen whenever they want.

So why didn't we record our favorite radio programs and listen to them on our schedule? Well i did. I've got this X-10 clock that can turn things on and off. And, a wall wart thingy that can respond to the clock, into which, you can plug in things. So my receiver and tape deck are set up. Set the tape deck to record on power up (a rare feature), set the tuner to the right station, and bingo. Then just play the tape whenever. Alright, rewind, then play the tape. Alright, the tape player in my car died, was replaced by a CD player, and this whole exercise is pointless.

If i have high bandwidth, i can download several hours of program, cut a CD, and play it in the car. Of course, the pod casts have to be in mp3 format, and certain combinations of settings used during recording don't happen to work on the car CD player. It just isn't a perfect world. But, my computer plays nearly anything.

I've found a way to listen to audio books for free. The first step is to download a book from Project Gutenberg. The next step is to convert it to wav files with a free program called festival. Then, these wav files are converted to mp3 via notlame or the equivalent. Then a CD is cut using mkisofs and cdrecord. My computer reads very fast, but not all that well. Still, I've come to understand the readings. I have somewhere around five hours a week in the car. That gets me through another book every week or so - perhaps forty books a year. Oh - i'm getting something like 70 hours of mono audio books on a CD. I'm using rewritable CDs, and have gotten two or three uses on each of several disks, so far.

My recent list includes all of Tom Sawyer, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Aurthur's Court by Twain, From the Earth to the Moon by Verne, the entire 8 volume Tarzan series and the John Carter series by Burroughs, Wizard of Oz by Baum, Dr. Dolittle by Lofting, Dracula by Stoker, Origin of the Species by Darwin, the entire Green Gables series by Montgomery, and several astronomy books from about 1900.

And yet, i still had time to read the (now) six Harry Potter books, and the Amber series by Zelany on dead trees.

There are hints on how to cut your own free books on my web site.

It's a new world.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

BASIC concepts

Some of the first programs i ever wrote were in the computer language BASIC. Certainly among the first programs that i wrote that i still have were in that language. So, i downloaded a BASIC interpreter for my Linux machine. My Linux distribution didn't come with one. One of the things that i did first was write a little empty loop, and timed it:

10 print time$
20 for i = 1 to 1000
30 next i
40 print time$

Line 10 print the current time of day. Lines 20 and 30 are the empty loop. Line 40 prints the time of day again. The idea is to subtract one time from the other, and divide by the loop count. However, this loop doesn't take time, so i tried again with 1000000. This also doesn't take time, which is was a surprise. So, i tried 1000000000. This took 33 seconds. That means that this version of BASIC on my 2 year old low end PC (an Athlon 1800+, overclocked a little) can execute 30 million empty loops per second. Yet, i remembered numbers like 300 loops per second.

At first, i thought, wow, this is a really fast version of BASIC. So i ran a benchmark that i have in several languages, including C. It turns out that this BASIC is about 380 times slower than C. That's about what slower BASICS were. So where does the speed come from? Well, it's been about 20 years since i last ran it. That was on a PC/xt, which was an IBM PC clone with an 8088 running at 4.77 MHz. My newer machine is about 12,500 times faster in BASIC. Comparing the best runs in C, the new machine is 36,000 times faster. It might be noted that this is a floating point intensive benchmark, and the PC/xt had an 8087 floating point accelerator. Modern chips have this built in.

Anyway, i ported one of my first big programs, a 136 line blackjack game. As I recall, it nearly consumed the entire memory of the 1975 vintage Southwest Technical Products 6800. It had 12 KB of RAM. BASIC consumed about 8 KB. The text of the BASIC program was about 3 KB, leaving 5 KB for variables and overhead. Not surprisingly, when it runs on my faster machine, there are no noticeable delays. Oh yes. An hour on the PC/xt is now a tenth of a second - which is about as small a time as the eye can catch.

As a point of fact, i like running really old software. If it ran at all on the old hardware, then it should run like lightning on new hardware.

Software comes in two classes. Bleeding Edge and Obsolete. Bleeding Edge is the new stuff that doesn't really work yet. Obsolete is the old stuff that works. If its old enough, then it also works fast.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Another blog

Oh, i also blog over at LiveJournal. Its a little annoying that to leave a comment you have to sign up. But, you can at least read for little effort. This other blog is entirely on astronomical topics. My essays have some attempted humor. You know, like this:
A neutron walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender gives him a beer, and the neutron reaches into it's pocket for cash. The bartender says, "For you, no charge".

OK, maybe not like that.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Harry Book Six Spoiler

So, everyone's read book six by now, or has heard enough spoilers so they don't have to. I can't recall a book, movie, or anything that has engendered this kind of response. People who have never read any of the books talk about the surprise ending.

Which is that it wasn't about 1200 pages. Sorry if this is a shock to you, but i couldn't help myself. The first book is, what, 309 pages? Book two is 341. Then 435 for the Prisoner. The Goblet is 734. The Phoenix is 870 pages. If you plot it and extrapolate, then book seven has to be larger than the entire collected works of Gilderoy Lockhart! But the Half Blood Prince is only 650 pages. I need new math. Perhaps Arithmancy.

There's another oddity concerning the series. Each of the books take about two days to read. It doesn't seem to matter how short or long they are. Its always about two days. Clearly, some magic is accelerating nearly everyone's reading speed. That's my proof that the books are, well, enchanting.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

for a buck

Here in Michigan, we have a chain of stores called The Dollar Tree. They advertise everything for a dollar. False advertising, or misleading at best. You can't walk into the store and get absolutely everything on the shelves, counters, displays, hand them a dollar and expect to leave with all that stuff. For one thing, the staff is not for sale, as far as i can tell.

Obviously, they refer to individual items as costing a dollar. I'll get back to that later. But first, the Dollar Store Quiz.

I bought an umbrella and a bag of pistachios at the dollar store. Which cost more?

The umbrella. It costs $1.06. There is a 6% sales tax in Michigan. However, there is no tax on food.

Just in case you're catching on, the quiz continues.
I bought a 3 liter bottle of pop at the dollar store. How much did it cost?

$1.10. There's no tax on food, but there is a ten cent deposit on soda. As an aside, its called pop in Michigan, soda in Connecticut, and in parts of Boston, its called tonic.

How much is a six pack of pop at the dollar store?

$1.60. That's right. The six pack is treated as a single item. Individual cans work out to only sixteen and two thirds cents each. There's no tax on food, but there is a ten cent deposit per can. So 37.5% of the total cost is deposit.

Over the last year or so, i've gotten alot of mileage from the Dollar Store Quiz. Soon, i hope to be able to use it to go to China.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Year of the Dog

If one looks at my profile, one sees:
Astrological Sign: Aquarius
Zodiac Year: Dog

I didn't write that in. Its part of the service, computer generated from my birthdate.

The Zodiac Year appears to be the Chinese Year. This is that thing one finds at a Chinese restaurant, typically on the place mat. One looks up their birth year and there it is. So everyone born in 1959 is Year of the Dog. I don't really know that much about it, but it doesn't seem likely that everyone born in the same year is going to have anything like the same kind of fate. For that matter, the same goes for people born in the span of about a month.

But just as the Aquarius sign isn't confined to the month of February (i was born in January), the Chinese New Year doesn't align exactly with the Gregorian calendar. I looked it up. The Chinese calendar is based on the Moon, and the first of the year happens a week or three after the second full moon after the winter solstice, depending on political factors, as near as i can tell. So, in fact, i don't know when the first of the year was in 1959. I might be a pig. Some place mats say i might be a boar.

And its really complicated. It turns out that the first full moon after the winter solstice in December of 1958 happens within hours of the solstice. Its so close that i don't know for sure which comes first. And then there is this other idea - well, i'm not Chinese. Is this New Year thing based in Beijing or does it take place where one was born? The answer could be wildly different in Ohio than China.

So what? If i don't believe that my fate has anything to do with the Chinese New Year, or astrology for that matter, then what difference does it make?

A friend of mine is into Astrology. He's certified to do readings. That means if one gives him their birth date, time, and location, he can figure out what the celestial sphere looked like above them when they were born. That's alot of math - or a few buttons on a computer. But, he can do the math. He could bring a calculator to the test, but not a programmable one.

So what? He tells you that you are going through a mid life crisis, and suggests how that affects your love life, etc. You should have known all that anyway.

And you should have. But you didn't. Why not? For one thing, you didn't think about it.

Another friend is into Tarot card reading. Its much less math, and he ends up saying much the same things. But for these people, the process doesn't tell your future. The process provides a focus for meditation. And, oddly enough, some of us, maybe most of us, need to be lied to in order for us to be told the truth.

And the truth is, the truth hurts.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Intelligent Design

When a Christian says that he believes that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, you can assume that this is taken on faith. When a scientist says that she believes that modern species evolved from earlier species, you can assume that it has nothing to do with faith. A belief based on faith is one where there is little or no evidence. In science, evidence rules. The phrase "scientists believe..." can be read "scientists interpret evidence to suggest...".

When one espousing Intelligent Design says that Evolution is "just a theory", they say this to discredit Evolution. The implication is that scientific theories are ideas that can be easily overturned, unlike a scientific law. Indeed, scientific theories are subject to investigation, and can be overturned by the discovery of new evidence. But this is true for scientific laws as well. For example, Newton's Laws of Motion have been modified to take into account Einstein's General Relativity. The resulting relativistic laws of motion involve more complicated math than Newton's Laws, and under most circumstances result in answers that are the same for practical purposes. Still, engineers keep in mind where such short cuts won't work and use relativity where required. For example, the Global Positioning System (GPS) does not work without Relativity.

More than anything, the thing that really distinguishes a scientific law from a scientific theory is complexity. Laws tend to be very simple, often mathematical statements. The Law of Gravity states how gravity works. Objects have mass, and that masses attract each other, based on how much mass, and how far apart the things are. The Big Bang theory of the Universe is a complex theory. It involves modeling of stars, galaxies, black holes, and other phenomenon and explains how the Universe got to look the way it looks. It also makes predictions on what it will look like in the future.

Good theories make testable predictions. At the moment, the predictions of String Theory are not generally testable. Sure, String Theory makes predictions, but for all practical purposes, these predictions can not be tested. For example, at least one version of String Theory predicts that General Relativity will need to be altered somewhat. However, the Universe isn't currently old enough for photons emitted at the Big Bang to have yet behaved in a different way from what General Relativity predicts to be measured, even in principal. So, String Theory is not yet a good theory. Perhaps this will change, one day, as the theory is explored.

On the other hand, Intelligent Design does not make predictions of any kind, testable or otherwise. It suggests that some unknowable supernatural mechanism created life. It does not suggest how this was done, nor does it suggest how to gain insights into the process. Since Intelligent Design isn't subject to investigation, it isn't likely to produce any predictions, ever - unlike, String Theory. From a strictly scientific viewpoint, it is a dead end, and one can safely ignore it without missing anything important.

President Bush has suggested that Intelligent Design should be taught in school. Fine. However, it should not be labeled science. Intelligent Design is slightly warmed over Creationism, and is therefore religion. Science had a hand in the technology needed for airplanes and radios. Religion did not. The evidence suggests that the arguably most complicated machines - living creatures - have evolved in a process that is highly random and minimally directed. On the other hand, a simple radio is the result of an intelligent design.

Friday, August 05, 2005

One good tern

For the past couple nights, i've been helping a friend in a local conservation project. The deal is that Common Terns are nesting under a nearby bridge. Though these birds are, like their name, common, their numbers in the Michigan area have been declining of late. If they are extirpated from the Great Lakes area, it would be a significant loss. The Great Lakes would be diminished in stature, and have to be renamed.

Observations have determined that there have been large losses in the nesting process. It seems that though the terns lay enough eggs, incubate them, and feed the juveniles, they leave the chicks at night an fly elsewhere. Though the location is pretty isolated and free from predation by dogs and cats and things, there are winged predators that have been eating the juveniles at night.

Unfortunately, the predators are also endangered. They are Night Herons. So, what do you do? It was decided that the Night Herons could find something else to eat. An intervention program was instituted. Just as the sun sets, baskets are placed over the juveniles, and held in place with a rock. Around sun rise, the baskets are removed. The adults are not real happy about this, and show their displeasure.

Jim had conflicting evening Audubon meetings. So for the past couple nights i've done the basket thing. The birds are hiding under rocks and bushes and things, so i have to pick them up and move them to a spot where the basket can be set. They are warm to the touch, really kind of warm fuzzies. It works out pretty good, as Jim doesn't have to be out so late to put out the baskets. It's got to be easier for him to take them off in the morning. Jim has asked me if i mind doing it. Of course not! After all, it's an opportunity to pick up hot chicks.

Planet X

Naturally, with three similar objects announced in a couple days, there is bound to be some confusion. On top of that, there seems to be no end of confusion as to what is a planet, and who gets to say if an object is one or not.

The three new objects are 2003UB313, 2003EL61, and 2005FY9. There. Is that all clear?

2003UB313 is currently 97 AU from the Sun in a 36 AU by 97 AU orbit. It's diameter is thought to be in the range from 2300 km to 3200 km. Larger than Pluto. Look for it in 280 years at only 36 AU. It should be at least 4 times as bright - perhaps 16th magnitude. I can hardly wait!

2003EL61 is currently 51 AU from the Sun. Its about 1600 km in diameter - 70% the diameter of Pluto. It's mass is 32% the mass of Pluto. The mass is known because it has a little moon in a 49 day orbit.

2005FY9 was also announced. Its also about three quarters the size of Pluto.

The newly discovered objects are not planets, at least not yet, according to the IAU - the International Astronomical Union. We could each decide what is and isn't a planet, but the resulting confusion of terminology would be bad - perhaps the end of life as we know it. The IAU hasn't had a chance to admit more objects into the planet club as yet, at least in our solar system.

What will the IAU say? Well, for one thing, there is no IAU approved definition for the term planet at the moment. IMO, this is bad. For one thing, it means you can't predict how the politics will play out. So, all you can do is prepare several new versions of your basic astronomy textbook, and release the correct one when the IAU gets around to voting. If you want to preprint them, expect to send many of them to the recycling bin.

For the ancients, a planet was a wandering star. This definition worked pretty well. You look up into the sky, and if it looked like a dot, and it moved around, then it was a planet. That implies the following definition: planets are naked eye point objects that move. By this definition, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are planets. If the ancients had noticed Uranus, it would be one too. Of note is that Pluto, Neptune, and the Earth are not. The ancients also considered the Sun and the Moon as of the seven heavenly objects. Again, Dirt... I mean Earth wasn't one of them.

With the advent of the telescope, and some hard work, people got the idea that planets are spherical things that orbit the Sun. The proposed definition that i like preserves this, but adds some constraints. One does not want every grain of sand that happens to orbit the Sun be called a planet. One convenient lower limit is the size a body must be before it collapses to at least more or less a sphere under it's own gravity. That happens at around a diameter of 700 km (434 miles). At the large end, if an object is big enough, it undergoes fusion, and therefore is a star. That happens (with Deuterium?) at about 13 times the mass of Jupiter. So, an object that orbits the Sun, but not also another body, that is at least 700 km, but less than 13 Jupiter masses is a planet. The shortened version is "a spherical non-fusor in orbit around a fusor". Under this definition, the current nine planets remain planets. Ceres, Varuan, Quaoar, Sedna, and at least two of the new ones, 2003UB313 and 2003EL61, and a few others are planets. Vesta isn't, as it is only 525 km, for example, even though it's pretty spherical, as far as i know.

Other people say that Pluto shouldn't be a planet, but rather a Kuiper Belt object. IMO, fooey. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are gas giants, but they are planets too. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are terrestrial planets (rocky), but they are planets too. There isn't any reason that Pluto can't be studied as a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) along with other KBOs even if it keeps it's membership in the planetary club. IMO, the concept and definition for planet-hood is a public sort of thing, and ought to have the simplicity that the public can cope with. IMO, it's a good thing that the public has some sort of clue that planets are like the Earth, only "out there", rather than that they are "points of light that move". For one thing, it brings a little bit of astronomy down to Earth.

As for Planet X, planets don't really have numbers. Pluto was closer to the Sun than Neptune from 1979 to 1999. During that time, it was the 8th planet. If my favorite definition is approved by the IAU, Ceres becomes the 5th planet from the Sun, and Pluto becomes Planet X, the 10th planet from the Sun. However Pluto is currently at 39 AU and 2003UB313 will be only 36 AU in 280 years, so the numbering will continue to change.

If you disagree, well, YOU'RE WRONG ...i mean, sure, i'd like to hear your opinion.