Archive for December, 2004

Christmas morning

December 25, 2004 Comments off

I’m going to try to reconstruct – from memory – the hour-long entry that got “poofed” when I tried to preview it at 5:00 am this morning.  Since my memory is a notoriously unreliable instrument, the final product may bear little resemblence to the original. But at least I remember the subject matter… sort of.

“It’s 4:00 am Christmas morning, and my knees are saying; “No sleep for you!”  So I’ll write while I wait for aspirin to go to work.  (I’m taking a break from ibuprofen.  Chronic pain is a b*tch.) …

After working, I usually don’t have the energy to decorate, but I really appreciate those who do – even the insane, over-the-top outdoor decorations.  For a few weeks a year, Normal, Illinois is Las Vegas…

Christians who are offended by “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” should chill out. The perfect antidote is at Reason Online: The True Spirit of Xmas; or how 4/5 of the country became an oppressed minority.  There are a lot of religious holidays that happen right around this time.  Isn’t Christmas the wrong season to get mad about trying to be nice to people of other faiths? (Tip ‘o the hat to SEB for the Reason link.)

Ditto for atheists and others who are annoyed by “Merry Christmas!”  Everyone repeat after me: “Live and let live!”
I know it’s a schlocky obligatory human-interest stuff but this story in USA Today really got to me: For troops, most precious gift is a few moments with family

The GIs leaving home will be fighting in Iraq and struggling with being separated from their families at Christmas. “Let’s just say that every soldier here is fighting two battles,” says 1st Sgt. Garren Fulmer, 39, an Army reservist and firefighter who is leaving his wife, Robin, and daughter, Riley, 6, in Overton, Nev. “My wife absolutely doesn’t want me to go to war.”

I have heard a couple interviews with Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and he makes a lot of sense to me.  ‘Long as we’re tryin’ to get our killin’ caught up to our enemy-makin’, I wish I could hook up world leaders with him.  Afterward, I’d assign ‘em a ten-page paper on “Why I will examine nonviolent strategies as serious alternatives.”  Here’s a sample to get them started – Christian Science Monitor: An advocate for peace starts with listening
Finally, if you got a new computer for Christmas, first read this:
AP: Hackers aim to sabotage holiday computing
And then this:
Secure online practices
Have a wonderful holiday, everyone!!!

Categories: Uncategorized

I am seriously annoyed

December 25, 2004 2 comments

I woke up at 3:30 this morning with ouchie knees, and took some aspirin. While waiting for the aspirin to work I spent an hour writing a Christmas-morning entry, complete with links, heartfelt thoughts about our troops, and an article about Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master who is teaching peace through personal transformation to Palestinians and Israelis at his practice center in France.  When I hit “Preview” to see how it would look, Expression Engine dumped it all.  It’s gone. 

Mental note: copy-paste the text into a Notepad before hitting Preview.  Better yet, write it in Notepad and copy-paste it into Expression Engine.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Categories: Uncategorized

Mission to Saturn’s moon

December 24, 2004 Comments off

Tired of Iraq, election politics, Christmas controversy, and flu shots?  Consider this: BBC News: The Huygens spacecraft is about to begin the final leg of its journey to Saturn’s enigmatic moon Titan.  We’ll sample its atmosphere, test its surface, take its temperature, and even get a good look at it.  With all the money we’re blowing on blowing each other up, it’s nice to think that even though our reach exceeds our grasp, our grasp never gives up.

Like any space probe, it could fail before it sends back any data – for every Hubble space telescope, there are a handful of Nozomi and Beagle 2 probes that just don’t make it.  But isn’t that to be expected when we’re reaching that far into the unknown?  The miracle is that any of them work.  It’s a reminder that somewhere in the heart of humanity, there’s a burning desire to know, to learn about the universe.

Categories: Uncategorized

Our Christmas-shopping experience: retailers take note

December 24, 2004 1 comment

You might think that buying a digital camera would be pretty simple, right?  I mean, how many different models can there be – four?  five?  But the search is complicated a bit by the fact that I’m buying it for someone else… MrsDOF. 

You see, she knows exactly what she wants in a camera, but she isn’t exactly the great communicator, if you know what I mean.  This has led to many trips out to stores… “Do you like this one?  How about this one?”  Just to give you an idea, originally it was supposed to be her birthday present in June.

We finally bought one – and it took her exactly six minutes to decide what she wanted.  This experience should be of intense interest to retailers, if any happen to stumble across my blog:

I’ve had a digital camera (Olympus C2700 Ultra-zoom) for three years now, and except for its bulk it has been entirely satisfactory in every way. But it’s a little techy-nerdy and I’m aware that MrsDOF prefers a simpler interface.

Prices had finally gotten low enough on the kind of cameras that she might like, so we went to one store (not to hame names, but it’s the store that “Sells For Less”) that had a good selection.  She handled several, decided, and she asked the clerk to get one for her.

“Oh, that one’s out of stock.”

Could we buy the display model?  No?  All right then.  (Here’s a tip, laddies… take a 3×5 index card and write “Out of stock” on it, and slip it into the price frame for that camera.  For a half cent you can avoid wasting your customers’ time.)

OK, so here we are at another store (big yellow tag.)  I pick up an Olympus.  The clerk (who is less than half my age) snaps to attention, leans across the display counter, and says, in a voice that one might use if someone had picked up a ticking bomb:

“Sir!  Just so you know, that camera doesn’t have a zoom of any kind!

Hastily I put it down, afraid it might explode.  No zoom!  Of any kind!  The Mrs and I look at several others, and finally find a Nikon 3200 that seems pretty nifty.

Different clerk: “I’m sorry, but that one’s out of stock.”

How about this one, then? 

“Sorry, but that one’s out of stock, too.  Pretty much only the ones with ribbons in front of them are in stock.”

There are “pretty much” about five models with ribbons, out of at least 25 different models.  The dangerous, no-zoom model, is out-of-stock, along with every other camera in our price range.  The clerk starts asking what features we’re looking for, and what kind of pictures we want to take, while I edge away.

“Yes, I know stocks would be low the day before Christmas,” I fume while we’re driving home. “That’s OK – but they should label the ones that are out-of-stock!” 

At home I show MrsDOF a few cameras online.  She reviews them with moderate interest.  One is the Minolta Dimage XG, a cigarette-pack-sized model typical of Minolta’s superb engineering.  Her face lights up:

“I like that one!  I could use that!”  Even after questions and other options, she comes back to it.  We have a “hit.”

I’m using the ultra-capable Firefox web browser, so I drop down the search-engine menu to eBay, and hit “enter”  (The name of the camera was still in the tool from when I Googled it.)  It’s $180 with 8 minutes left on the auction.  They have 16 of them, so there’s no rush – whatever they don’t sell, they’ll re-post.

“Are you sure?  There’s no hurry.”
“I like it.  That’s the one.”

A few clicks later, it’s on the way – with 2 minutes left in the auction.  I know the satisfaction rating of the seller because it’s right there on the screen: 98.8 percent.  I’ve talked to enough of the retail place’s customers to know their satisfaction rating isn’t anywhere near that high.

I also know that the old adage; “buy local because you might need service” doesn’t wash anymore.  This camera had a DOA warranty (Dead On Arrival) from the seller and 3 months refurb warranty from Minolta.  With electronics, if it lasts through the first month, you’re pretty much in for a normal lifespan.  By the time it fails, that model will be ten cents on the dollar on eBay.

But doesn’t the salesman give you needed information?  Not likely.  For good or ill, the days of specialty salespeople are long gone.  But I can learn everything I want to know by reading user reviews – actual users’ gripes about the product.  If it has any annoying features, I’ll know.  As for technical details, I can read freelance technical reviewers like Jeff Keller, who writes the Digital Camera Resource Page.  No salesman could possibly know that much about that many cameras.

Retailers should be thinking deeply about the online shopping experience.  Thinking what, I don’t know; but they should be thinking.

Categories: Uncategorized

Economy of language and hope for peace

December 22, 2004 2 comments

Our paper carries a trivia column by L.M. Boyd, whose grace and economy of language I have long admired.  Boyd can pack more into a short sentence than any other writer I know, even if some of his trivia facts are in the “interesting-if-true” category.  But here’s one that is true:

“If 23,000 Americans fell in combat tomorrow in one place, we’d certainly find out about it, but how long would it be remembered?  Forever, you’d think.  That was the approximate casualty count on Sept. 17, 1862, in Sharpsburg, MD.  It’s the American military’s catastrophic record, the greatest scream of all the screams in our history.  But except for locals and Civil War students, nobody hears it anymore, not even its echo.”

Boyd is referring to “The Battle of Antietam,” in which 12,410 federal and 10,700 Confederate soldiers lost their lives.  Such slaughter is nearly inconceivable;  few of us have seen even one violent death, let alone a long day of unrelenting mass carnage.  It seems to add insult that today, few people know anything about it.  If you doubt this, go ask 20 college students or just 20 random people on the street.  (Be sure to ask for the name of that TV show where Donald Trump fires young people, too.)

I once heard a young donut-shop clerk exclaim, one Pearl Harbor day; “We dropped a BOMB on JAPAN?!”  It may take longer before clerks in Japanese shops can say anything analogous to that.  But… it will happen.

It’s hard to find a silver lining in this cloud.  Forgetfulness makes us vulnerable as a nation to repeating our mistakes.  On the other hand, memory helps us nurse our hatreds.  How can we ever move past what their grandparents did to ours, or what ours did to them?

The Civil War killed one and a half times as many American soldiers as World War II, and eleven times as many as Vietnam.  But I don’t automatically distrust Southerners. 

Is it true that “time heals all wounds?”  Probably not, within a single human lifetime.  But our mortality puts a statute of limitations on hatred.  It’s a fact that our children don’t usually share our passions to the same degree; they will need to go find their own.  This is what’s wrong with “traditional cultures,” where change happens at a snail’s pace and “respecting your elders” is even more important than building a better future.

In the end we simply must study history.  And we should make it as interesting as possible for our kids.  But it won’t be the end of the world if they find it just a little dry.  In fact, it could be a hopeful sign.

Categories: Uncategorized

4 items - pick one

December 21, 2004 Comments off
  1. Original “Moral-Majority” conservative feels betrayed by Bushies, wants to get back to Reagan roots

  2. Must-read quote for bloggers and blog readers
  3. Boeing’s enormous new rocket and why it could be important
  4. I just finished reading a story that took me 3 tries…

1) Who is Chuck Baldwin?  He’s as Christian-conservative as you will ever hope to find, with serious credentials dating back to before the Reagan administration, and he has some very interesting things to say about the Bushies: “I am a conservative Christian, and the Religious Right scares me, too.”

2) I read this great quote about blogs today:

“Blogs can be a great way of communicating, but they can keep people apart too.  If I read only those of my choice, precisely tuned to my political biases and you read only yours, we could end up a nation of political solipsists, vacuum sealed in our private feedback loops, never exposed to new arguments, never having to listen to a single word we disagree with.” 
- Lev Grossman, TIME magazine, 21 June 2004, pg. 70.


It’s too easy to wrap myself in the warm-fuzzy comfortable agreement of friends while demonizing the “other side.”  Worst of all, it could keep me from discovering what I have in common with people who vote differently, believe differently, and live differently. This is exactly why I read blogs by writers with whose politics I disagree. 

I’ve long since given up reading controversial issues written by people who pretend to be “neutral” or “objective.”  If they aren’t really neutral, then their fictional objectivity is a lie.  And if they are really neutral, then they’re inhuman or just ignorant of the human side of the issue.  Better to find intelligent apologists for all sides, then read, and think.

FYI: I don’t even pretend to be neutral about issues that matter to me.  Being fair-minded doesn’t mean you can’t come to a conclusion; it just means you’re very careful how you get there.

Question: is it likely your favorite news outlet is immune to bias?  No?  Then you’ll have to work harder to get the whole story. 

3) Boeing’s new rocket can lift 13 tons into a geostationary orbit  This is good news for space science, and it could be somewhat redesigned (if we have the sense of purpose) as a replacement for the space shuttle.  Unfortunately, the rocket is currently booked for military purposes into the next couple years. 

No, I don’t have a problem with military missions – but couldn’t we just shoot one up there with a repair crew , a re-entry capsule, and some parts for the Hubble telescope?

Just for comparison (and it’s a bit apples-and-oranges) the original Saturn V from the 1960’s could send about 50 tons to the moon.  This “giant rocket” could fit in the Saturn V’s shirt pocket.

4)  I’ve been a fan of Robert Heinlein all my life, but one of his stories I could never quite “grok” is The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.  I’d try reading it, but then not be able to figure out where the story was going.

I just tried again, and I think I “got” it at last – it’s a hum-dinger.  Heinlein didn’t do supernatural-fantasy-horror very often, but this story is supremely creepy.  It starts out with the biggest of all detective-novel cliches; the troublesome client.  Then it dives into a harrowing and hopeless dark alley.  Who is the villain?  What’s behind the mirror we call reality?

I wonder if Heinlein ever read C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.  Or if Lewis ever read this story. The story lines are different, but they have a very similar feel.

No entry tomorrow, folks.  Have a great night.

Categories: Uncategorized

Cool Christmas history

December 20, 2004 Comments off

The history of Christmas is a bit more, uh, textured than you might have thought.  Check out the 20 December ‘04 New York Observer article, A ghost of Christmas Past haunts today’s work force by Nicholas Von Hoffman. 

Full of fascinating stuff.  For example, did you know:

In 1659, Massachusetts outlawed Christmas. A five-shilling fine was to be imposed on anybody “found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting or any other way.”

… or that Christmas used to be a destructive yearly riot?  Or that our modern Santa Claus was imported by the founder of the New York Historical Society in an attempt at social engineering?  It’s a fun read – check it out. (A toast of Christmas ‘nog to The Revealer for this one.)

Categories: Uncategorized

This week’s EE adaptations to DOF

December 20, 2004 Comments off

As mentioned previously, The University™ is moving its College of Business into a wonderful new building.  This means I’m carrying monitors, setting up a lot of computers, helping professors do their grading at alternate locations, and such.  So it’s nice to come home and put all that aside to play with Expression Engine.  But recognizing that not everyone (translate: almost no one) cares a whit about the software I use to produce this blog, it’s all in the extended text.  Click on the link to read the rest of it:

My experiments with EE are pretty much the dictionary definition of “scratching the surface.”  Just little changes one at a time while I get the hang of it. 

Next week, I’ll have several days in a row away from work.  I hope to import a lot of material from my old blog (no automated way to do it, alas… just cut-and-paste) and change the appearance of this one for a more distinctive look.  Here’s what I did yesterday and today:

Constantly playing with the link format: I have never liked the “underlined blue link” standard for web pages where all hyperlinks are in blue text and underlined.  It distracts from the visual flow of the text, giving undue emphasis to what may be an incidental reference.  So I’m trying to find a more subtle link format that still says; “Click me if you want to leave this page and see something about these words.”

The faint blue background with blue-black text is just visible enough on most monitors, but when stacked, it’s hard to tell which link you are selecting.  So if you’ll hover over any link on this page it should snap to dark orange with light blue text.  I hope the colors look good together, are readable by people who are color-blind, and by-gosh leave absolutely NO doubt as to which link you’re clicking.

All off-main-page links should go to the full, extended article text plus the comments and comment form.  If you copy the permalink for a reference, or if you click on “Read the rest of…” it should now deliver you to the complete article and such.

I think I got it figured out for the in-page-links, but the RSS is a project for another day.  If you are using RSS feed for this site, the links still resolve to only main body text but not extended text or comments.  You have to click on “read more” to get to the full package.

Off to bed – ridiculously early, because I’m beat.

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Merry Christmas, Macy’s

December 18, 2004 4 comments

By now you’ve heard that Macy’s has removed the phrase, “Merry Christmas” from its official store decor and replaced it with “Season’s Greetings.”  The official reason for this is to avoid offending people of other faiths and nationalities.  Predictably, a hue and cry has gone up saying that Macy’s is contributing to the “secularization of America.” 

One protest in particular caught my eye: Raleigh,  North Carolina church has spent $7,600 bucks for a newspaper ad calling on people to boycott Macy’s and Federated Department Stores: …

“There is a revival taking place in our nation that is causing Christian and right-minded people to say, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve gone too far,’ ” the Rev. Patrick Wooden Sr., pastor of the Raleigh church, told AP. “We’re not going to allow the country to continue this downward spiral to the left.”

I have to admit that one’s got me, well, puzzled.  $7,600 bucks is quite a stack of new books for kids in some inner-city school.  It’s who-knows-how-many flu shots for poor senior citizens.  It’s financial aid to help a single mother finish her education.  There must be something more constructive they could do with a stack of 76 one-hundred-dollar bills.  That’s some serious simolians. 

Now having said that, I wonder if Macy’s has gotten feedback from any Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, etc. who are offended by being wished a merry Christmas?  I’m guessing not, but if there have been, could it possibly exceed the number of Christians offended by not saying it?  It makes me glad I’m not the public relations director for a large company.

Being offended by a blessing makes NO SENSE.  If my graduate assistant, who is Hindu, wished me a happy day on one of her holy days, well that would be fine.  The fact that I am not Hindu makes no difference: she’s just saying I should be happy on that day.  It isn’t an attempt to proselytize me – she’s just being nice.  How could I possibly have a problem with that?

“Merry Christmas” is the same thing.  Christmas is a Christian holiday, and most Americans think of it that way.  It happens to coincide with the general season of many other religious holidays, so “Season’s Greetings” is certainly not a bad thing, but it conveys no good wishes as “Merry Christmas” does.

I’m not a Christian, but if you wish me “Merry Christmas, ” I’ll say “Thanks, you too!”  I certainly do plan on being merry on that day.  Any other day, though… look out!  :-)

Categories: Uncategorized

WHAT’S NEW comes every Friday

December 17, 2004 Comments off

Email newsletters are usually boring, but here’s one exception so good I look forward to it as a little treat that comes to me every Friday:  What’s New from Bob Park.  By Friday afternoon I’m tired, weary of bland, infoffensive over-edited university-speak, and ready for something funny and controversial that still has the virtue of being worth considering. 

Park is a professor of physics at University of Maryland, and director of the American Physical Society.  He lands every punch, and ends his missives with this caution:

Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the University of Maryland, but they should be.”

You can subscribe to his newsletter by following the link above, and unsubscribe by clicking on the “unsubscribe” link that is included at the end of every message.  It’s for fun and for information, not advertising, so the unsubscription actually works – but I bet you’ll enjoy the newsletter as much as I do.

Here’s this week’s “WHAT’S NEW:”

Just so you can get a flavor of the newsletter, I’m including this week’s entire message here:

WHAT’S NEW   Robert L. Park   Friday, 17 Dec 04   Washington, DC
The Missile Defense Agency said this week’s flop would not affect the decision to declare the system operational.  In the previous test, two years ago, the kill vehicle failed to separate from the booster.  That was unfortunate, but MDA said it didn’t affect the “success rate” because the interceptor never reached the “endgame”  .  This week, the Missile Defense Agency tried again.  This time the interceptor failed to make it out of the silo.  In April, a GAO report said the tests were not realistic.  The MDA director, General Kadish, director explained, “you can’t operationally test the system until you put it in place.”  So what’s the problem?  There are now 6 interceptors in place in Ft. Greely, AK, just hanging out waiting to be tested operationally.

General Kadish is said to be high on the list.  Under O’Keefe, top NASA positions were often filled by military men, but competition is stiff.  Although several former astronauts are rumored to on the list, the front runner is thought to be Bob Walker, a former Member of Congress who was chair of the House Science Committee.  He predicted the space station would produce a Nobel Prize, backed cold fusion, and introduced his Hydrogen Futures Act, which in the initial version violated the First Law of Thermodynamics.  He is now the Chairman of Wexler & Walker, a Washington lobbying firm tied to science and space interests.  A member of the President’s Moon-Mars commission, Walker has no science background, but then neither does O’Keefe, who has just accepted the job of Chancellor of Louisiana State University.  He says he took it for the money.

O’Keefe bore none of the blame for the Columbia accident, but it led to the Hubble problem.  The Columbia review called for using the ISS as safe haven in case of a shuttle problem, but that’s not practical for a shuttle flight to the Hubble orbit.  While O’Keefe pushed hard for the President’s Moon-Mars plan, he decided Hubble should go.  O’Keefe is going instead.  It’s time to start over.  Put the shuttles in museums, and drop the ISS in the Philippine Trench, but take care of Hubble till it can be replaced. In the meantime, if Tenet is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom after telling the President that weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are a “slam-dunk,” why not give one to O’Keefe? 

On ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings there was a report about Christian prayer teams organized over the internet from the World Prayer Center in Colorado Springs.  By praying in unison for specific targets they say the effect is multiplied.  They could pray for Missile Defense.  It will have as much effect as a test.

Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the
University of Maryland, but they should be.
Archives of What’s New can be found at

To unsubscribe send a blank email to
To subscribe, send a blank e-mail to:


Categories: News, Science & Technology