Archive for August, 2009

Along came a spider…

August 31, 2009 Comments off

I’ve always been amused that one of the most popular children’s books is about a spider named Charlotte.  It was probably written for kids who didn’t own a magnifying glass.  I certainly like spiders, inverse to my affection for flies.  But cuddly they aren’t.  We get backyard residents like this one every summer:

Someone asked me what kind of spider this is.  It’s the eight-legged kind, but I’m pretty sure it’s harmless.  Unless you’re a fly, which is what the glob in front of the spider looked like as I went to get my camera.  This is all that was left when I got back five minutes later.

Categories: Uncategorized

Sunday Afternoon Sermon: biblical environmentalism

August 30, 2009 Comments off

The Pope Formerly Known As Ratzinger is a constant source of amazing facts, and here’s his latest: atheists are responsible for environmental degradation.  I bet you didn’t know that; it was certainly news to me.

Let’s examine the biblical approach to environmental protection, shall we? In Joshua 17, the people of Joseph had been “richly blessed”, by which they meant they had more children than their land could support. They complained to Joshua that they didn’t have enough land and what did he tell them?  I’m paraphrasing here:

“Go up into the hills, kill the Perizzites and Rephaites, take their land, and clear the forest for your crops.” When Joseph’s people complained that the hill people had Chariots and other weapons of mass destruction, Joshua said; “You are numerous, you should be able to prevail”.

There are several lessons here, which have not been lost on the religious and powerful. One is that if another nation has something you want, you can kill them and take it because God is on your side. Another is that natural resources are there for you to plunder.  Another is that if a natural resource doesn’t happen to provide exactly what you want, it is OK to destroy it without understanding what it does in the larger scheme of things. (In biblical times, there were great forests in the the area that is now Israel.)

It’s understandable if you didn’t hear about this passage in Sunday school; it isn’t exactly something evangelical Christianity would like you to spend too much time thinking about.

You know what’s responsible for environmental degradation?  Human overpopulation.  The only reason we didn’t destroy nature before was that nature kept kicking our asses.  Now that we can live twice as long, we’re kicking nature’s ass just by our sheer numbers. Which is a poor idea since population control will happen, as my college biology professor used to say, “one way or another.”

We’re smart enough to protect ourselves from disease and starvation, but there’s no way to fix “we’ve run out of world”.  And we are running out; of fish, of clean water, of favorable climate, of biological support.  If we want a world overrun by opportunistic parasites and diseases, we’re halfway there.  If we want our precious cities flooded, we’re on the way.  When you’re on the road to destruction, change course.

The tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control our numbers, we can choose to use only clean technologies, and we can insist on non-exploitive use of technology.  But we need to excommunicate the destructively religious and the heedlessly capitalistic.  Put them on an island that isn’t very far above sea level, and let them ponder global warming.  Or at least, when they start misdirecting the issue, don’t let them get away with it.


  • h/t to PZ Myers and Les Jenkins.

  • By the way, it’s not just the environment that is harmed by the Pope’s anti-condom theology.  Worldwide people are dying of AIDS because the pope just can’t wrap his brain around wrapping a condom where it belongs.  Here’s the problem: it’s nice that the ARV medicine cocktail is now widely available to poor people, but HIV is already becoming resistant to it and with the passage of time more people will suffer and die. As Science Blogger ERV says; “Know how we can shut this nightmare down? CONDOMS.”  Yet somehow the Pope is allowed to parade around telling everyone how “pro-life” he is.
  • Glory!  The blessed Digital Cuttlefish delivers the smackdown in verse, with Atheists over-consuming, says man on gold throne.
Categories: Uncategorized

A bit of a chill

August 30, 2009 Comments off

MrsDoF used to tell me; “You’re gettin’ old!”  And I’d growl back; “I’ll tell YOU when I’m gettin’ old!”  Seems lately my body is telling me.

I like real maple syrup; I put it on oatmeal and pancakes, and we actually sneak a small bottle of it into restaurants to use instead of the flavored corn syrup they provide.  This morning, I wanted to refill the small bottle and the big bottle was new, so it had never been opened before.

The cap on the big bottle is about 4 cm across, and to open it the first time, you have to break the shipping ring locked onto the bottle itself.  The required torque has always been well within the range of what I could apply with my bare hands, but apparently not anymore.  After trying for a few moments, I had to scrounge around and find a “jar opener” thingie to assist. 

My doctor was very matter-of-fact about “the onset of osteoarthritis” but a big part of my employability over the years has been my ability with tools and mechanical things.  Now just as I seem to be slipping a bit mentally, it’s sink-or-swim on making a living with what’s left of my brain. 

Then last night I had a massive episode of dizzyness, but I’m feeling better now.

Oh well, maybe it will make me less attractive to the hordes of zombies when they finally attack…

Categories: Uncategorized

Gmail has decided I am spamming myself

August 30, 2009 Comments off

I noticed late this week that I was not receiving email notifications of comments from threads here in the Decrepit zone.  After spending two hours looking through menus and logs in Expression Engine and not finding the cause, it occurred to me – doh! – to check folders on my Gmail account.  They weren’t in Spam, but Gmail Trashed them for some reason.  OK fine!  I selected them and clicked “Move to Inbox”, whereupon Gmail dropped them all in Spam, where I had to go rescue them a second time.  I’ll be, as they say in disaster movies, “monitoring the situation”.

I hate to miss your comments; usually they’re the best part of a thread!

Categories: Uncategorized

Unapproved self-esteem

August 28, 2009 Comments off

I’m fresh out of Elite tonight; tired, busy, missing the point of half the conversations I find myself in.  And it’s nothing new; it happened all the time when I was a kid.  See, I really didn’t much like the company of other children.  They weren’t interesting and they weren’t safe to be around, but adults were both.

My dad, a professor at the University of Iowa, knew loads of interesting people.  I got to meet experts in technology, and information sciences, and he knew a geologist and a paleontologist and a chemist, and lots of people in education.  They even seemed interested in talking to me.  I’d go to the university and “help” grad students with learning studies; it was the early ‘60’s and education theory was bustin’ wide open.

Yeah, guinea pig, I know that now.  I must have been volunteered for a lot of experiments.  But I got to mess with fossils, telescopes, and timed puzzles, and interesting apparatus that tracked how fast I could dope out the sequence of a coin-dispensing machine (pretty damn fast, as it turned out).  I never met James Van Allen but knowing he was there at the university made me feel like I was in on something.

I didn’t really play with toys as a kid.  Dad brought home what he called “take-aparts”.  These were usually broken machines, even pieces of old audio-visual equipment.  I’d make stuff out of pieces, hook them together and power them up – sometimes burn them up.  Occasionally I could get them working as designed; I was the only kid I knew who owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I figured out how to hook it up to the record player, and a big microphone that weighed about two pounds, and spliced and dubbed weird tapes.  By using a tube I could record tiny sounds and amplify them.

I did have some “toys”, though.  These were actually pretty serious pieces of equipment.  I always had a pocketknife, and a magnifying glass, a jeweller’s loupe, and a couple nice telescopes and two microscopes.  One, a binocular dissection scope, I still have and use, 45 years later.  I’d shave off layers of leaves and look at the cells.  I’d capture bugs and put them under the dissection scope, and just watch them walk around, guiding them back into the field with the end of a pencil.  I’d haul my high-powered microscope down to the quarry and look at the water at a thousand X, reflecting sunlight through the slide with the little mirror at the bottom.

Someone gave me a wood-burning kit for Christmas.  It was a craft tool that you could use to burn patterns and pictures into wooden surfaces.  But it closely resembled a soldering iron, and that is what I used it for.  I used batteries and low-voltage fans and little motors, and made a small generator with some magnets that I pulled out of a couple old speakers.

As I said, I did not enjoy the company of other kids.  Mostly I just found them dangerous to be around; I wore bifocals, and was uncoordinated and small, and completely uninterested in games.  President Kennedy had decreed that children should have Physical Education, but therein lay the danger.  I’d kick at a ball, miss it and fall on the ground, and that was sure to get me pushed into the mud after school.

Not that school itself was any refuge.  The biggest source of pain in my life was my performance there.  I tested poorly in everything, and whiled away my days in an agony of boredom.  Worst of all I was a big disappointment to my parents and teachers, who felt that because I was “intelligent” (whatever that meant) I should be getting A’s.  The school arranged for me to leave the regular classroom for an hour three times a week, to take part in a remedial reading class.

Thing is, I could read just fine, just not very fast and couldn’t make sense of numbers at all.  I’d struggle with arithmetic and get very inconsistent results.  Once in a while, I’d succeed, but success backfired in the worst way.  “I knew you could do it if you’d only try!”  Dyslexia, diagnosed almost thirty years later, doesn’t work like that.

My dad must have suspected something was up.  He’d slap a copy of Scientific American on the principal’s desk and say; “My kid reads this at home!” Legend has it my student file contained the comment; “Father difficult to deal with when angry.”

There’s no arguing with educational wisdom; I didn’t get out of remedial reading class until a teacher caught me with a Time magazine hidden inside the approved remedial book.  She reasoned, correctly, that maybe inability to read wasn’t my problem.

I didn’t feel very good about myself.  Educators went through a phase where it became important to nurture a child’s “self-esteem”, but luckily that didn’t get rolling until after I got out of grade school.  I say lucky because I found another way to shore up my state of mind: the concordance between the real world and what I could find in films and books.  Our home was practically a library, and there was lots of real world outside it.

I dissected an unfortunate frog (anesthetizing it with ether) and found that its innards coincided perfectly with an introductory anatomy book that I’d found somewhere.  I looked at the moon with my Edmond 3-inch reflector telescope and found that it really did have mountains just like the book said.  The microscopic critters I found in quarry water moved around just like the ones I’d seen in films.  The fossils I found in the quarry were, you guessed it, identifiable as the same ones in the book.

The inside of a tiny amphibian’s heart, mountains on another world, bizarre little creatures too small to see, fossil remains of the Devonian era; I didn’t have to take anyone’s word for it. I could see them for myself.

How did that make me feel better?  A short description might be “smug superiority”, a very unapproved kind of self-esteem.  I was in on a secret they knew nothing about.  Sure, my schoolmates were bullies.  But I had figured out that they were ignorant and worse; they couldn’t learn anything that someone else didn’t teach them.  When they got out of school, their education would come to a screeching halt.  I couldn’t seem to learn very well in the classroom, but I looked forward to the day when I could get out of school and learn to my heart’s content.

And you know what?  I’m still not contented; there’s too much interesting stuff out there (and in addition to books and magazines, the Interweb is there to feed my addiction).  Just one thing’s bugging me, though: I wish I knew how to inspire kids to want to take an interest in something.  It makes me sad to see kids and schools still trudging past each other in the same old way.  It still comes down to a system turning out a product, and a few lucky kids who step off the moving walkway and find their own interests. 

I’d be damned interested in what inspired you when you were a kid.  In the age of the Interwebs and the Googles, there must be some way to bottle it and give it away for free.  Any suggestions?

Categories: Education

How I’m doin’, three months after

August 25, 2009 Comments off

It’s been a bit over three months since a perforated intestine and resulting major emergency surgery knocked me on my ass.  But as bad as that ordeal was, a large number of people both online and in realspace have been very supportive and helpful, a positive experience of human nature that simply has no downside.

People often ask how I’m doing now.  In the best of times I have never been comfortable with that question, but in surgical recovery, it’s even weirder.  Who really wants to hear about which pains are merely annoying and which are scaring the hell out of me?  But occasionally it is OK to take stock, if only to reassure others who might be going through the same experience.  So that’s what this post is about and why it continues below the fold.

I was surprised how much strength was lost; in spite of regular workouts, I am nowhere nearly up to full strength yet. Recently I regained the ability to do situps, and did 15 yesterday.  That’s a long way from my previous record of 100.  I’m doing cardio and low-back exercises, but using 3 lb weights instead of 15 and 25.  My shoulders are both very weak and I can’t do pushups or pullups.

I am still using suspenders instead of a belt. In spite of applying magical oils that are supposed to help, my surgical scar is a lot less flexible than the surrounding skin, which makes wearing a belt or bending at the waist very uncomfortable. That is one factor limiting sit-ups and low-back exercises.

A couple flights of stairs is about all I can do at one go, otherwise I use the elevator which is new for me.  I am back on my bike, riding easy in the low gear range.  I’ve only made short rides on level ground on my unicycle; no charging up the library ramp or anything like that.  We’ll set aside the sound track from “Rocky” for later.

I’m still eating pretty carefully, and certain foods are off my list forever.  For example, I like popcorn, but not that much.  And I’m not taking aspirin for any reason.  Well if I have a heart attack, I’ll munch one.  But being unable to take NSAID medications means my arthritis and chronic pain is much less controlled.

Though I lost 26 lbs in the first three weeks, my weight has stabilized at twenty pounds below what it was on the day of the surgery.  Given my reduced eating habits, it’ll probably stay there. 

My mind has cleared quite a bit though I’ve never been a master of concentration and memory anyway.

The thing that worries me most is that internal pain has not gone down to less than the day before the original perforation.  The surgeon could not give a definitive answer to the obvious question.  What’s “normal”, and what should I be feeling like at three months? Diane suggested that the pain could be nerve damage from the perforation, surgery, and infections, which if true would be fine with me because it wouldn’t be dangerous.  The other possibility, that there’s a chance of a recurrence, truly frightens me.

Takaway lesson: I’ve had other surgeries, but major emergency surgery with no pre-operative preparation is the worst.  Avoid it if you can.  :P

Categories: Uncategorized

A depressing score

August 23, 2009 Comments off

I took the Pew Research Center Science Quiz, and got 100%, so I should be happy.  But I’m not, because the questions were really easy (every single one has been in the news lately) and I read the “scores by demographic” part.  It gave me that “we’re all doomed” feeling.


Categories: Uncategorized

Survey Idiocy

August 23, 2009 Comments off

Last week I bought four pair of pants online at Wal-Mart.  Since I already knew the size and style, it was very easy.  Then in my inbox this morning, I found the following message:

Thanks for Shopping at!

Was your visit enjoyable?  We certainly hope so.  In fact, we’d appreciate your help in making the shopping xperience on our website even better by telling us what you think.  It’s easy and should only take about 10-20 minutes of your time…
(Emphasis mine)

Ten to twenty minutes? Hey, Wal-Mart web marketing division: are you all insane? 

Why don’t companies apply even an atom of common sense when making web surveys?  I’ll give you three minutes maximum, jokers.  Surely you know that one of the main reasons people shop on the web is quick convenience.  What kind of randomization do you expect to get asking for “10-20 minutes”?  Any marketing survey that long has simply not been well-designed.

Oh, and the three minutes it took me to write this blog entry?  That was the three minutes I would have spent filling out their survey if it had been the right length.

Categories: Advertising, business

Movie Dedication: “Idiocracy”

August 22, 2009 Comments off

MrsDoF and I just fininished watching the Mike Judge comedy, Idiocracy, a dystopian comedy about an average man and a prostitute sent 500 years into the future – where they learn that the human race has become dumber with each passing year.  Stupidity had became the norm when smart people started sensibly limiting their family sizes while idiots kept on turning out babies without a thought.

In the future, no one drinks water because Brawndo, a Gatorade-like beverage, has replaced it.  The world is buried in garbage and the most popular TV show is “Ow, My Balls!”  In this society, the dull-normal soldier and the prostitute are now the smartest two human beings on the planet.

I wonder if Idiocracy was the inspiration for Wall-E, the story of a little robot cleaning up the mess humanity left behind.  And I’m not sure if Mike Judge dedicated the movie to anyone, but I would like to dedicate Idiocracy to:

Radio gasbag Rush Limbaugh, who set the standard for broadcast xenophobia.  For TV and radio syndicated moron Glen Beck, who (recently) believes we already have the best health care in the world, and is sure that Barack Obama is a fascist and a socialist at the same time.  Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who could see Russia from her house, thought Africa was a country, couldn’t recall any Supreme Court cases other than Roe v. Wade even though she claimed to read “all” the most important news magazines including The Economist.  Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, who believes in Obama Death Panels.  Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who wants to stop health care reform at any cost.

To Senator James DeMint, who thinks that America will become like Iran if we extend health care coverage.  Senator James Inhofe, who doesn’t seem to know the difference between climate and weather, but is certain that global warming is a fraud.  President George W. Bush, who thought the jury was still out on evolution, appointed incompetents to life-and-death administrative positions, and who quoted bible verses about “Gog” and “Magog” to the French president to try to convince him to join our invasion of Iraq.  To Florida governor Charlie Crist, who believes his letters to God have kept Florida safe from hurricanes during his administration. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who wouldn’t believe a black president can be American unless he travels back in time to watch the birth himself. And special mention for President Ronald Reagan, who appointed industry hacks to environmental positions, and who believed that the invisible hand of the “Free Market” would somehow automatically look out for the future well being of our citizens.

These are not minor figures.  The sad thing is, I could go on for hours listing morons in high places. There’s Bobby Jindal and Chuck Norris and and Mike Huckabee and Mark Sanford… just an endless list.  It’s ever sadder because we’re not a dictatorship or a monarchy; every one of these people got where they are because huge numbers of people follow them, listen to them on broadcast media, and voted for them.  And yet somehow, after watching the movie that seems to have been dedicated to them, I have to try and sleep tonight.


  • I tried to find a YouTube clip of President Not Sure’s speech about how it used to be cool to be smart, and how movies once had stories where you cared who’s ass it was and why it was farting, but no luck.

  • My sons insisted I watch this movie; blame them!
  • Of course, it’s a comedy so we shouldn’t notice any internal contradictions.  Such as; in the stupid future, everyone’s lives are managed by an incredibly advanced Minority Report-style integrated IT system that works with mind-boggling efficiency, right down to remotely disabling electric cars driven by people harboring fugitives whose presence has been detected by omnipresent scanners.
  • Did I mention that Mike Judge is a genius?  I’ve heard King Of The Hill has been canceled, which is a shame.  So much could have been done with Bobby’s adolescence, Hank & Peggy’s transition into middle age… 
  • Johan Hari: “Republicans, Religion, and the triumph of unreason
Categories: Uncategorized

What not to say at any stage of a job interview, and a wireless mouse

August 22, 2009 Comments off

The local computer parts & service store, Computer Deli, has a “Help Wanted” sign up.  I was inside buying a mouse this morning, and overheard this conversation:

Applicant: “The sign said you have a job opening?”

Owner: “Yeah, sales and light computer service…” (Banter leading to handing questioner a job application)

Applicant: “Yeah, I gotta do something; the Post Office is driving me crazy.  It’s work work work work work.  I mean, there’s a reason people go postal.”

Yeah, let’s hire that guy…

The mouse is a cordless Logitech V220, which works very well on my laptop.  I heard the conversation above while studying the package, looking for the battery size (I won’t buy things that take button batteries).  Then in ultra, uber-tiny micro print in one corner on the back, I saw some specifications; luckily I carry a magnifying glass.  It’s an AA battery, which should last a long time on such a low-power device.  At the college, we’ve been using wireless mice with two AAA batteries in them (Professors normally work about 15 feet from the podium) that are working fine in their second year.

Since the V220 normally works 20 inches from the laptop receiver, it would take something like n-12 power to cover the working distance as the podium mouse.  If the back of my envelope is calculating correctly this morning.  Perhaps someone more awake than I can correct…

Categories: Uncategorized