Archive for July, 2008

How do YOU explain file management?

July 31, 2008 10 comments

I’ve been in computer support a long time, and I think most geeks will agree with me that one of the toughest problems facing the non-geek user is “file management”.  You download a file, you save a file, you find a file, back up a file, delete a file, restore a file, all in folders on drives and network shares.  Files are of different types and have different extensions (not helped by default Windows settings that hide extensions). And don’t even get me started on jump drives in a networked environment, which Windows handles very haphazardly.  The problem is compounded when a web server is involved; users click on a button that says “Publish To Web” but they might as well be clicking on “δημοσιεύστε στον Ιστό” for all it means to them. Then there are picture and music management programs like iTunes and Picasa that add another interface layer to the file management puzzle.  The abstractions of file management aren’t that complicated but for some reason users block them out.

And yet I’m no better at explaining this important skill than I was at teaching MrsDoF to drive a stickshift.  (She figured it out herself, no thanks to me)  Most likely this is due to the fact that I’m not the sharpest graham cracker in the box myself but it’s still something I would like to teach more clearly.  If there were any single computer skill I would like to make more accessible to users, it would be an understanding of files and their various places to be and why.  What are your favorite ways of explaining file management?  Is there a favorite explanatory link to which you like to send users?  A particularly clear metaphor?  A parable?  A mystical retreat with candles and incense that results in file-management enlightenment?  I’d really like to know.

Categories: Geeky

Monday Morning Music: “For A Mistake”

July 27, 2008 5 comments

I caught Bruce Springsteen on 60 Minutes this evening. 

I’m interested in what it means to be an American,” Springsteen says. “I’m interested in what it means to live in America. I’m interested in the kind of country that we live in and leave our kids. I’m interested in trying to define what that country is. I got the chutzpa or whatever you want to say to believe that if I write a really good song about it, it’s going to make a difference. It’s going to matter to somebody.”

“I guess I would say that what I do is I try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality. That’s how my music is laid out. It’s like we’ve reached a point where it seems that we’re so intent on protecting ourselves that we’re willing to destroy the best parts of ourselves to do so,” Springsteen says.

Asked what he means, Springsteen tells Pelley, “Well, I think that we’ve seen things happen over the past six years that I don’t think anybody ever thought they’d ever see in the United States. When people think of the American identity, they don’t think of torture. They don’t think of illegal wiretapping. They don’t think of voter suppression. They don’t think of no habeas corpus. No right to a lawyer … you know. Those are things that are anti-American.”

Go read the rest of it – good stuff.  I love the part where he explains why he still gets up on stage, despite being worth “somewhere north of 100 million dollars…”

Categories: Politics

NOW, with mechanical brakes

July 25, 2008 6 comments

A few weeks ago the hydraulic disk brakes on my bike tried to kill me.  I took it to the mechanic (it’s still under warranty) and said; “Put mechanical disk brakes on it”.  He said; “Naww, you don’t want to do that!”  So I said; “OK, I’ll give ‘em another shot.” 

Another shot at killing me, that is.  Last week they failed again.  In the space of one mile they stopped working.  Better than the previous time when they just suddenly quit, spraying hydraulic fluid everywhere, but still.

I again requested, but did not expect, that the bike shop install mechanical brakes.  There are many reasons why they could have legitimately refused.  For one, there’s really no way for the shop to be reimbursed; warranties cover repairs, not modifications.  For another, there are millions of bikes with hydraulic brakes and they’re generally considered the top braking solution.

But Bloomington Cycle & Fitness, 712 E Empire St in Bloomington, IL, went beyond the call to reassure a nervous customer and installed some very expensive mechanical brakes to replace the hydraulics.  (Click the pic for a closer view).

So my thanks to them, even if they are not convinced of my sanity.  If you live in McLean County, Illinois and you’re looking for a good bike shop, give them a visit.

  • Here’s a forum discussion on the pros and cons of hydro vs mech disc brakes

  • And after a few days, having used both hydraulic and mechanical disc brakes on the same bike, here’s my comparison: The hydraulic brakes had MASSIVE stopping power, but not as good control.  The mechanical brakes have notably less stopping power, but much finer control.
  • Please note in comments below that I do not think hydraulic brakes have any reliability problem; just the particular set on this particular bike. 


A Rejunenated Classic

July 25, 2008 5 comments

I hate my Mac’s keyboard.  I find I end up uncomfortably holding my fingers so as to produce no pressure on the keys.  This causes strain on my wrist, and also some keys don’t reliably click unless you press them at the right angle.  So I wasn’t too torn up about it when I accidentally spilled a glass of water on my keyboard a few days ago.  They keyboard mysteriously stopped working, even after fairly extensive drying.  I needed a new keyboard

I knew I didn’t want another Apple keyboard, and the choices of other keyboards seemed uninspiring.  I could take a risk on some kind of ergonomic keyboard that some Amazon reviewers loved and others hate, or I could buy a cheap keyboard, and be done with it.  I was paralyzed by indecision and too many mediocre choices.  Then I thought back to what keyboards used to be like when computers cost $8000, and an expensive keyboard didn’t add much to the price point.

There will always be a soft spot in my heart for the ancient IBM model M keyboard.  For me, modern keyboards aren’t fun or comfortable to type on, while my old IBM keyboard (probably still in DOF’s basement) had a very satisfying click to it and was quite pleasant.  I could actually rest my fingers on the keys without worrying about accidentally depressing one, and I could always tell by the auditory cue whether the key had actually been pressed.  After a few minutes, I discovered that there is a company that still makes old-style IBM keyboards (they bought the technology from Lexmark).  A quick look around, and I was sold.  For any DOF readers who have been longing for a modern update to a long-loved keyboard, now you can have it…

UPDATE:  The keyboard arrived last week, and I like it quite a bit.  It’s been several years since I’ve used a Model M, but this seems to be a good facsimile of my old keyboard.  I’ve found that I can type quite a bit faster and more accurately than before.  Highly recommended!

Categories: Uncategorized

Scientific daydream

July 23, 2008 8 comments

It’s a hot Saturday, and young Holly Hypothetical is playing inside while her father Harold is sitting on the back porch, sipping sweet tea.  Flies buzz outside the screen.  In the distance he can hear birds, traffic, a train, a jet.  The Adirondack chair, for being made of wood, is surprisingly comfortable.  He dozes off.

In his Department Of Education-approved daydream, he sees his child sitting at a neat little table with a chrome lamp, doing her “science homework”.  A textbook is open, and her face shows a look of concentration and purpose. She seems strangely unaware of him as he walks behind her to look over her shoulder at the pages of the book. 

Her lamp glares on the shiny pages.  What he can make out of the text seems dry, carefully vetted by bureaucrats who have made a personal mission of stripping every last bit of revolutionary, disruptive excitement from the greatest discoveries of humanity. The child’s attention begins to drift.  Her phone vibrates and she eagerly snatches it up, texting her friend about something that happened at school.

Are the contents of that inferior textbook the only science she will ever be expected to learn?  Will that equip her as a citizen of a technological society, or as a human being in an amazing universe? 

Harold wakes with a start, knocking his tea off the armrest, drenching the cat, who bolts through the cat door to the yard.  He sits perspiring, eyes wide; Is that really how it is? How can Holly become an adult who goes further in scientific understanding?  Will she ever get beyond that horrid textbook?…

Recently I’ve had a few adults tell me they didn’t learn much about science in school.  I’m tempted to get lost in observations about school district leadership, but that isn’t going to change.  And federal education policy… well let’s just not hold our breath waiting on that one, OK? 

I’m not exactly sure what started it for me. I spent my childhood digging fossils out of a rock quarry in Iowa City, peering into an old microscope at pond water, and building galvanometers and induction coils.  My teen years were happily spent on the geology of central Washington and East Tennessee. Even today I always have a magnifying glass with me. So this post is for parents, kids, teachers, and anyone else who wants to fill in the gaps.  It’s not a universal prescription, just a few bright pebbles I’ve found along the way.  Pebbles I can’t stop looking at, turning over in my hands, hefting, studying, pelting the other kids in the class…

Most of what I’ve read about scientific literacy education goes something like this:

  • Here’s why science is important and you should study it

  • Here’s some fundamental concepts in science
  • Here’s some supporting information to those concepts

An interested person will learn a lot from that approach. But the important point is “interested person”.  The resistance that lack of interest places in the path of learning is almost impossible to overcome.  The propulsion that fascination and wonder give to learning is almost impossible to restrain.  As Dorothy Parker said; “There is no cure for curiosity”.  But how to start the fire?

Somehow it got through to me that science can be personal.  It’s the study of this table, that bird, the air I breathe, my body, this frog, that fly, those stars.  Because, while it is true that not everyone can (or would want to) work on protein folding projects or find the Higgs boson, in some respects everyone can do science.  Everyone can look at the world around them – not something from a textbook, but the actual world they can see and touch – in the context of complex spatial and temporal enormity. It’s so stunningly different from the traditional way, or the advertising way, that it’s as if the sun just came up for the first time.

Scientific literacy includes factual knowledge, yes, but it also requires understanding of how that knowledge is established. The attempt to carve out permanent boundaries around a set of ‘science facts’ is a misrepresentation. Science is a working model, not a finished sculpture to the ages.  This bothers some people who want a final answer.  They want to put it on the shelf and turn their back on it and have it be the same in their grandchildren’s time.  They want science to act like traditional knowledge, which stays put – and is reliable only in the same sense that a stopped clock is right twice a day.

One really important science idea is that if you look at any phenomenon closely enough, you can figure it out or somebody eventually will.  It may seem mysterious but it’s a lock to be picked, not a trick of the gods. “Looking closely” is not easy; it involves logically careful methods, accurate instrumentation, data collection, analysis and documentation.  When you’re done, and others have checked your work through a brutal process called “peer review”, you’ve got a bit of reality in your pocket, on which you and others can build.

Those bits of reality are hard-won, but they get no protection.  And that’s another important idea in science: that if somebody comes up with a better explanation, and they can demonstrate it in a way that holds up under attack, their explanation becomes the accepted one.  The old explanation, the one you worked so hard for, is tossed aside. While that may sound like a harsh rule, it means that our explanations and predictions steadily improve. 

Scientific Literacy is not the same thing as scientific expertise, however.  And this is where even scientists go wrong sometimes. That ever-growing and ever-solidifying understanding of the real world means most scientists are specialists in some particular field.  When you see a mathematician going on about how evolution isn’t logical, or a chemist dabbling in climatology, they’re out of their field and mistaking literacy for expertise.  And as soon as they do that, a religious organization or an oil company or a tobacco company will step right up to make sure they have a forum – usually not peer-reviewed, so no one’s checking their work – to broadcast their mistake directly to the public.

Which leads to another important point: the popular media is full of reporters who are working on deadline.  There’s nothing they love better than a pre-packaged story from a think tank, and if it gets them home earlier, they might not look very closely at how the story was funded.  And this should be motivationally important to young Holly Hypothetical at the study table.

Some children need nothing more than to hold a fossil in their hands, or to see Saturn through a telescope, to ignite a lifelong fascination in science.  But not every child will be motivated by geeky fun.  Luckily even nonscientists can find lots of practical uses for science, and here’s one.  There are a lot of people who have reasons to lie to us: corporations, used car salesmen, politicians, preachers and hucksters of every kind, and their lies can hurt us badly.  Kids need to know that science gives them a powerful baloney detector they can use in self-defense against liars of all kinds. 

So… wow!  Awesome mysteries of the universe explained, technological empowerment, and a super-powered lie detector!  Bring on the scientific literacy! 

If you can get someone interested in something, they will learn about it. But school systems are under tremendous pressure to cram facts into our children’s heads, like so many Styrofoam peanuts into a box. For an uninterested child, that’s like trying to push a rope uphill.  There is little time for the motivational magic of fascination and wonder, even though teachers do try to wedge it in where they can.  So it’s up to us:

Adults should model the behavior they want in their kids. Start reading the science section of your newspaper.  Subscribe to National Geographic, and maybe a science magazine like New Scientist or Scientific American.  Pin this month’s Geographic map on the kitchen wall.  Make more science-oriented TV viewing choices.

Wrap your observations in a larger context:  Notice the birds in your yard and mark up a map with their migratory routes. If you see unusual wildlife (like a fox in the city) or for that matter any wildlife, mark it on your calendar. Find out what they eat, and what eats them.

And there are some – what to call them? – scientific stories that can really throw open the gates.  Here’s an example of one that deeply affected me:

I was stunned by a Scientific American Libraries’ book, Powers Of Ten .  It was based on this video;

(I would love to see this 1968 film updated with better narration and music. There’s even an excellent Simpson’s parody, but it seems to have been pulled from YouTube.)

After reading the book I started thinking how narrow the traditional view of our existence really is.  Despite all the talk of God and eternity and infinity, somehow it was even more mind-blowing to ponder the fact that we can actually measure the dimensions of atoms and of galaxies.  All it took was to start looking at the universe with the confidence that eventually, we could figure it out piece by piece.

OK, “we” in the same sense that “we” win the Bulls’ basketball games.  But still; the universe is present in a cell in your hand, not in some vague philosophical way but in the continuity of scale.  The same chemistry applies in your hand as in the Pleiades.  The atoms in the cell are star stuff, forged from smaller particles in a dying sun billions of years before you drew your first breath.  That’s what I mean by temporal and spatial enormity, and our place in it.

Go outside and try some of the science activities listed below the fold.  Read a particularly exciting National Geographic article to your children.  Watch Scientific American Frontiers.  Read the biography of Marie Curie.  Watch the NOVA video Einstein’s Big Idea together as a family.  (It’s an exciting story spanning several centuries, full of discovery, intrigue, death, and even sex)

Teachers today have their jobs defined for them in terms of standardized tests but if a teacher accomplished nothing more than instilling an insatiable love of learning, it would be a job well done.  There’s no way to pursue wonder, awe, and excitement directly; this is only a little of the disorganized approach by which it came to me.  Below the fold are some suggested books, videos, resources and activities to get the ball rolling.  There’s definitely enough here to get started…


  • Go to a science museum in your area.
  • Mark up a map with migratory routes of birds you see in your yard
  • Perform science experiments with your kids (no, not on your kids)
  • Put a big office calendar on the fridge and ask everyone to write the most interesting thing they saw that day on it.  Record weather and animal life, too.
  • Give each of your children a magnifying glass. Ask them to see how many different kinds of ants they can spot climbing a single tree. Check out fossils, bugs, small rocks.
  • Give your kids 10X jeweller’s magnifiers.  Kids love to look at things really, really closely.  Have them look at a computer screen, a leaf, at woven fabric.
  • Go to public astronomical club events in your community
  • Learn about the geology of your area and take your kids to areas where it can be observed and collected. (Bring magnifying glasses!)

Video (most are available at your public library):

Carl Sagan
Cosmos DVD set – watch with your family, 1 episode/week
David Attenborough
almost any of his extraordinary video documentaries. Start with the “Life” series.

Books – some in print, some not.  (Most available at the public library, and Amazon often has used copies)

Carl Sagan
Varieties Of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science
Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Richard Feynman
Why Do You Care what other people think? Further adventures of a curious character
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman – adventures of a curious character
Phil Plait
Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”
Asimov, Isaac
Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
Asimov’s guide to Earth and Space – still in print
Occasionally you can find Asimov’s nonfiction works on Amazon.  He wrote hundreds of books in his lifetime, and while he is best known for science fiction, many are engagingly clear introductions to physics, organic chemistry, algebra, and other scientific topics.  Most are out of print today, but available used.  I would love to see them all for sale as ‘publish-on-demand’ – with today’s technology, there’s really no excuse for them being hard to find.
Philip Morrison, Phylis Morrison, and Office of Charles and Ray Eames
Powers Of Ten: A Book About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero
Reference books
700 Science Experiments for Everyone – An outstanding classic full of practical experiments, still in print after 50 years
Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil: Science Matters: achieving scientific literacy.  (Disclaimer: I have not read it, but it has good reviews on Amazon).

Also consider reading the fiction of authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Jules Verne, and HG Wells.  Even in made-up stories, the love of scientific discovery and achievement is infectious!

Free Web resources:

Feeling political? Here are some institutional efforts to promote science literacy

  • There’s a new foundation with some impressive names on their board of directors, but they’re at the ‘bootstrap’ phase.

  • The Federation of American Scientists has an excellent Public Interest Report.
  • The National Academies’ Press has a book of National Science Education Standards
    The Standards offers a coherent vision of what it means to be scientifically literate, describing what all students should understand and be able to do in science. The volume reflects the principles that learning science is an inquiry-based process, that science in schools should reflect the intellectual traditions of contemporary science, and that all Americans have a role in science education reform.

Man, I’m tuckered out… I’ll add more links to this post as they occur to me.  In a future post I’ll talk about more books and experiences that were personally meaningful to me.  Hope you found something good in all this.

Categories: Education

Movie Review; The Dark Knight (and a personal reminder)

July 19, 2008 5 comments

MrsDof and I went to two movies today: Mama Mia and The Dark Knight.  That is, she went to one and I went to the other.  Multiplexes do have their advantages.

TDK is a very, very, very violent movie.  But enjoyable.  I wasn’t as blown away by it as some reviewers, though Heath Ledger was. Incredible. As. The Joker.  The story line was dark and ugly but it dragged in places.  I found it distracting that “Gotham” was recognizably Chicago. There was too much gravelly-voiced speechmaking.  But did I mention that the whole movie was worth it just to see Ledger’s ‘Joker’?

The movie also would be a good starting point for discussions about the fabric of society, public morality, the limits of official decency, terrorism, exploitation, the boundaries of insanity, and lots of other fun topics.  I wouldn’t flinch at using it in a philosophy class because it is far more entertaining than most movies that have philosophical implications.

So there I was, sitting in a chair for two hours.  I have a chronic pain condition and don’t do chairs very well. Movie theaters are a challenge, and airplanes are just out of the question.  (The altitude seems to make it worse)  When I stood up, I was forcibly reminded that I have been letting my pain management slide.  This consists of stretching two or three times a day, upper-body strength training, and cardio.  These exercises are, themselves, unpleasant so that is why I tend to ‘forget’ to do them.

I made it out to the car and sat there with the windows closed, enjoying the 120 degree heat.  (I don’t think MrsDoF was quite as pleased by that part).  Now it’s an hour later, I’ve done stretches and am feeling a bit better.  After posting this I am going to go do cardio.

Anyway back to the movie: maybe my enjoyment of it was tainted by physical discomfort.  But on the whole I enjoyed Batman; The Animated Series more.  I think I’ll buy the set and watch it on my treadmill.

Update: Here’s MrsDoF’s review of Mama Mia!

Categories: Uncategorized

Dadburn gub’mint regulations!

July 19, 2008 4 comments

Many people don’t realize how bad things were before the invention of antibiotics.  Injuries in war and peace were likely to result in horrible death, contageous bacterial diseases raged through communities, and a bad sandwich could kill you. Babies died from things that are considered trivial today.  Not just occasionally, but often – it was a major reason why life expectency was only about half what it is today. 

Now suppose there was an industry that was doing something that makes antibiotics useless – in effect turning back the clock to pre-antibiotic days?  What do you think we should do?

  • Immediately step in with the full power of law to make them stop it!  Their profits are less important than keeping a major public health tool. 

  • Do nothing and hope the “free market” will somehow make the industry stop externalizing its costs against the public good. After all, government regulation is bad.

If you picked the second option, you are a Big-L Libertarian.  The thought of government inspectors walking around a place of business taking samples and writing things down on clipboards sets your teeth on edge.  The connection between agricultural misuse of antibiotics and a baby dying of a formerly treatable infection sounds like college-boy stuff to you.  How dare the government throttle a growing economy?!

Well that seems to be the position of the current FDA.  Misuse of cephalosporin drugs was widespread in 2001 when they bothered to look, and on July 3 of this year they just got around to issuing a rule to stop it, which goes into effect in October of this year.  Meanwhile, the industry has a chance to ‘comment’, which means they can try to stop the rule.  No hurry, guys, take your time.  You’re doing a ‘heckuva job’.

Cephalosporin, by the way, isn’t the only antibiotic being abused by the livestock and poultry industries, and we’ve known about it for a long time.  The problem is that in a competitive market, altruism does not apply and the gravitational pull of profit is irresistible.  The industry sure as hell won’t regulate itself.  Only external regulation can protect you and me and our grandkids from industries that externalize their costs to the commons.  And regulations – which we all hate, are funded by fees and taxes – which we all hate even more. 

We’re rugged American individualists, dagnabbit!  It’s our precious choice!  If only the germs would respect international boundaries, it wouldn’t be anybody else’s business how we raise our cattle.  Because if there’s anything we hate more than regulation and taxes, it’s thinking about the well-being of other countries.  After all, what happens to them doesn’t affect us.  Does it?

Categories: Politics


July 17, 2008 6 comments

Doh!  VW Bug memed me.  Not a terribly difficult one, so here we go.  The rules are:

  1. Write the title to your own memoir using exactly six words.
  2. Post it on your blog.
  3. Link to the person who tagged you.
  4. Tag five other bloggers.

Well here’s mine:

He liked bikes
Better than cars

Hmm… who to tag with this literary launch?.  I prefer self-selected taggage:

He tagged only
readers who volunteered

Categories: Humor, observations

The lacerating moment

July 14, 2008 8 comments

…the one you wish you could take back; would give anything to take back, or a least could have spent alone


Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
If I wrote that story now—
radioactive to the end of time—
people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn’t peel
the gloves fast enough
from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
to see me weeping in my room
or boring the tall blonde to death.
Once I accused the innocent.
Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy,
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.

By Vijay Seshadri

Tip of the hat to Benjamin Cohen at The World’s Fair.

Categories: observations


July 13, 2008 5 comments

It is possible to write a very, very long post about the impulsive college student in Florida who didn’t eat the Eucharist wafer that was given to him in Mass, but took it home instead, and received many threats so he returned it, but his apology wasn’t good enough for Catholic League president Bill Donohue, and then a college professor in Minnesota offered to desecrate a host if someone could get one for him, and the still-developing Donohue-fuelled backlash to that offer.

But I won’t; it’s been done, more eloquently than I can, and I have already probably read a thousand or so posts and comments on the issue.  Of more interest to me is the academic freedom issue.  Donohue (who is known as an ideological bully) wants the college professor (who is not known for subtlety in his criticism of religion) fired from his tenured position teaching biology.

Stipulated: the professor was rude and nasty in offering to desecrate a host, and it will do more harm than good if he follows through with it. No argument there.  But Donohue’s threats prompted me to send an actual letter, printed on physical paper, signed in ink, to the president of the university in question, supporting the rude college professor. (Yes, I had to look up the amount of postage required to mail a letter.  It keeps changing.  And find an envelope.  And go drop the finished envelope in a blue box on a street corner)

Adlai Stevenson said; “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular”.  That means no fear of physical violence, no fear of being blacklisted from an unrelated job, no fear, period.  And we’re rapidly moving toward a society where the greatest fear is of giving offense.  Let’s be clear: only offensive speech needs protection. ‘Defend to the death your right to say it’ and all that.

(If you want to make a sociological study of the politics of the Eucharist, start here.)

Categories: Politics