Archive for January, 2006

Rest In Peace, Challenger Crew

January 29, 2006 Comments off

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, in which a shuttle crew was killed and the nation was gifted with another of those iconic images, the enormous sky-burst framed by out-of-control SRB’s.  I was working at Kinko’s at the time, and everyone stopped to watch it happen over and over on television.  It was an awful thing to see.

Later a congressional inquiry board stumbled around the problem, to have their rogue member (Richard Feynman) finally illuminate how the accident took place.  But like all ‘reasons’, it was not the only weak link.  As with many disasters, it turned out to be symptomatic of an organizational malaise resulting from a once-vital agency degenerating into a technical bureaucracy.

As a kid I was seriously pumped by the Gemini and Apollo space programs, and the idea of manned spaceflight in general.  But the Challenger disaster, horrible as it was, got me thinking and comparing.  Not that I have any problem with explorers dying – every explorer knows that risk and takes it willingly – but it was about that time I began to think about the wonders of robotic space probes.

The manned space flight program truly is driven by ‘the romance of it all’.  For a fraction of what it costs to have a few people spinning around the planet in low orbit (doing almost no science at all) we could fund a blizzard of robotic missions to explore everything from Earth’s climate to the solar wind.  Some of that is being done now, but far too little and too close to the budgetary edge.

Our robots will bring back a wealth of scientific knowledge, and likely also cheaply discover the economic rationale for manned space flight in the future. At the same time, spin-off advances in robotics very likely would transform our whole society as earlier spinoffs in electronics did from previous programs. 

Sooner or later, our robots will find something out there we can use to make a profit. (Remember, Columbus was looking for a trade route!) Once profit is found in space flight, the problem won’t be funding it; it will be regulating it.  In the meantime, manned space flight is just another boondoggle.

Not to dishonor those who do go into space, or who died going there.  But… imagine what we could do by putting our energy behind the highest return.  It might even shorten the time until manned spaceflight becomes really common.


Federation of American Scientists’ Space Policy Page of Challenger accident links and resources.
University of Maryland Professor of physics Robert Park explains the economics – and the value – of robotic missions

Questions that robotic space missions could help answer include:

  • Is global warming anthropogenic?  To what extent?  What other factors might be involved?

  • Where are all the asteroids?  The comets?  When are any of them likely to collide with Earth?
  • What is the condition of the Yellowstone Caldera? (We might want to keep an eye on this one)
  • How are ocean fish stocks doing?  Are numbers of African elephants rising or falling?  How about other endangered species?
  • Is there life on Mars?  (ironically, sending humans there might make it forever impossible to find out, by contaminating that planet)
  • Why is the climate of Venus so hellish?
  • What is the fate of the universe?  (Yes, this question is scientifically addressable)
  • Are there advanced civilizations “out there”?  (A robotic SETI station on the far side of the moon could be exquisitely sensitive)
  • An Earthquake just happened.  Is a tsunami on the way?
  • Where is deforestation happening that we don’t know about?
  • Where are all the ships?  (tracking them could be very useful in WMD interdiction)
  • Where are the resources in our solar system that might fuel and supply long manned space missions?
  • …and many more.

Wingnuts claim victory as ‘Book Of Daniel’ cancelled due to poor ratings

January 27, 2006 2 comments

You remember Don Wildmon, founder of the suspiciously-named ‘American Family Association’?  He and James Dobson of the equally misnamed ‘Focus On The Family’ are gloating over NBC’s decision to cancel ‘The Book Of Daniel’ after only four episodes.

“This shows the average American that he doesn’t have to simply sit back and take the trash being offered on TV, but he can get involved and fight back with his pocketbook,” said AFA founder and chairman Donald E. Wildmon. link

Even with the mega-pubicity thoughtfully provided by Wildmon and Dobson, Daniel pulled fewer than 7 million viewers on the first night, and dropped 1.1 million viewers after four episodes.  Offended religious blowhards aside, that is not a sign of a show that is likely to succeed.  It is a sign of a show that sucks1, however.

NBC’s decision to cancel the show in spite of its allegedly anti-Christian bias2 suggests that network executives, soulless creatures that they are, weren’t trying to undermine Christianity.  After all, another network (headed by equally demonic beings) ran Touched By An Angel for years because it delivered a heartwarming message they could really endorse: “We can draw in a lot of viewers so advertisers should give us lots of money”.

To be fair, Wildmon and Dobson were able to convince four tv stations (out of several hundred) not to air Daniel.  So they may have contributed a tiny wiggle on the ratings meter. The station manager of Joplin, Missourri’s KSNF, explains why most stations didn’t cave in to religious pressure not to carry the show:

To illustrate a point, Hoffmann said that in addition to “The Book of Daniel,” he has fielded complaints from viewers about the advice that conservative James Dobson dispenses on “Focus on the Family.”

“If I took off every show that some segment of the population found offensive, I’d have no programming,” Hoffmann said. link

By far the funniest criticism leveled at Daniel is that it is a false portrayal of Christianity:

Charlie Burnett, pastor of Harmony Heights Baptist Church in Joplin, said he didn’t need to watch the show to be offended by its content.

“The show is damaging to those who don’t know anything about Scripture or Christ,” Burnett said. “They’ll get a false picture of what the Scripture portrays.”

I couldn’t agree more; people should try to get an accurate picture of what the Bible says.  In fact, religious leaders who get huffy and ‘draw a line in the sand’ over gay marriage while supporting candidates who screw the poor and lie to start wars should think about their own false portrayal of scripture.  If I remember correctly, Jesus suggested something along those lines once.



  1. Wishful thinking on my part.  Lots of shows that suck draw in tons of viewers for some reason or other (the stupidity and poor taste of the viewers comes to mind).  Survivor sucks, but it panders to the public’s desire for fake drama, titillating situations, and partial nudity. Touched By An Angel certainly sucked but it was a guaranteed hit because fundies also can’t resist pandering, no matter how artless.  I wish shows that suck would always fail for that reason alone. 

  2. Daniel was produced by a Christian, but apparently he was the wrong kind (gay) for the likes of Dobson and Wildmon.  They didn’t like his portrayal of Jesus as a helpful, compassionate friend, either.
Categories: Uncategorized

Playing in Peoria

January 25, 2006 10 comments

I’m in Peoria, Illinois to provide technical support for conference registration.  We got all set up today and tomorrow is the avalanche of high school music students and their teachers.  Dinner was something called “salmon BLT” which is grilled salmon in a bacon/lettuce/tomato sandwich on toasted herb bread.  (I am definitely making one of those at home!)  Here’s a snap of the Peoria bridge over the Illinois river.

Picture below the fold (46kb) is a street scene from the 5th floor of the hotel. 

Categories: Personal

Their faith just ‘blew up’ when…

January 23, 2006 2 comments

You may have heard of Utah senator Chris Buttars, who sponsored a bill to require science teachers to include a carefully scripted disclaimer before teaching evolution.  Why do you suppose he did it?

From The Revealer – “…claims Buttars, it is simply about the lack of scientific consensus on evolution, and nothing to do with how he’s promoted the bill—by labeling his opponents zealots of “‘this religion of atheism and secularism,’” and deciding to sponsor the bill after hearing the complaints of one of his constituents, the mother of two children whose faith “blew up” after being told that they were “evolved from a lower kind.”

Which reminds me of another quote:

“A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.”
- Arthur C. Clarke

Many Christians know about evolution but still get along just fine.  Apparently Buttars’ faith isn’t that secure.  Maybe he should ask them for advice.

Categories: Religion

Car commercial

January 21, 2006 18 comments
An old-fashioned car door handle.  Even covered with ice and snow, you can get a good grip on it and pull when you need to.
Car-door handles as they are made today.  The flimsy little panel tilts upward unlatching the door so that, under ideal conditions (no ice), the door opens easily.  It does not afford pulling on the door.

Camera shows a woman scraping thick ice off her windshield in a freezing wind.  With some difficulty she unlocks the door and tries to open it, but the flimsy faux-handle tilts upward, unlatching the door which is frozen shut.  The dome light comes on but there’s nothing to grip to pull the door open.  Exasperated, she says; “Oh, no, please!  I’m late for work!” and starts trying to pry the pry the door open with her ice scraper, chipping the paint.

Just then a clean-cut man in a suit and tie walks up carrying a clipboard.  He is smiling and magically appears warm and comfortable;

“Good morning, maam!  How are you today?”  Before she can answer he launches into his spiel: “I’m from XYZ car company, and we’re taking a survey of the features consumers want on our next model car!  Do you want GPS navigation?  A twelve-speaker stereo?  A DVD player?”

The astonished woman drops the ice scraper, grabs his necktie, and pulls him eye-to-eye with her:

I want a real #@!!!% car door handle I can pull on!!!

Camera cuts to survey guy standing next to a frozen car in a parking lot.  He looks like he’s been beaten up by a dozen or so car owners.  He smiles weakly at the camera; “Introducing the 2008 XYZ Urban – a car with real door handles!” 

Survey guy pulls on the handle, there’s an ice-crunching noise, and the door opens.  He gets in and closes the door, and looks at the camera through the window.  His voice is muffled but we hear him say loudly; “So you can pull the #@!!!% door open when you need to!”  (drives away)


  1. All my old cars had real door handles – all my Beetles, my ‘67 Dodge Coronet 440, my ‘66 Rambler Classic, my ‘68 Fiat 124. 

  2. I’m pretty fond of wind-wings, too.
  3. How about simple light and wiper controls on the dash instead of some complicated, multi-functional stalk on the steering column?
  4. Anyone have any other suggestions?
Categories: Design, Geeky

Watch what you say in Saudi Arabia

January 19, 2006 1 comment

The context of the article is that Saudi Arabia is slowly advancing toward modern freedoms, but still:

…a Jajran judge sentenced a 16-year-old Ismaili schoolboy to death for blasphemy.  This was commuted on appeal to 14 years in prison and 4,000 lashes, to be administered publicly in 80 weekly sessions of 50 blows…
-The Economist, 07-13 Jan, p. 8 of special report on Saudi Arabia, Glacier in the desert.

Or this charming tidbit:

A school fire in 2002 that killed 15 girls whom religious police were reported to have stopped from fleeing the building unveiled, led to the sacking of the Wahhabist head of girls’ education and the department’s absorption into the education ministry…”

These little examples will stick in my mind the next time I gas up the car. 

Categories: Politics

Using a text editor instead of a word processor

January 18, 2006 7 comments

One of my favorite pompous, arrogant things to say is; “When I need a machine to tell me what I want to say, throw in the dirt, because I’m dead”.  I like to do all my writing in a ‘text editor’, which is to a word processor what a paring knife is to a ‘Kitchen Slice-O-Matic Multifunction Blender™’.

Microsoft includes in Windows™ a very basic text editor called ‘Notepad’.  It’s a little too basic, in that it does not show line numbers (which are useful when writing HTML code) or other search/handling amenities. 

Check out Notepad++.  It has excellent line handling, and a wonderful macro recording feature for reducing that 50-keystroke URL you are always typing down to one hotkey.  In other words, it turns ‘clickity-clickity-clickity…’ into ‘Bam!’ and you can keep writing.  If you type a lot, saving keystrokes is always welcome.  The editor is very configurable so you can customize it for your preferred language and methods.

If you often find yourself swearing at Microsoft Word, you might enjoy using a text editor. 


  • Text editors do not have functions like spell-check, fonts, bold, italic, or grammar checker.  Using a text editor is like using a typewriter only you can cut-and-paste.  It’s just you and the words, which is a refreshing change from a talking paperclip butting in to ask if you want to fix your grammar.  Later, if you want to, you can paste the text into a word processor to make it all pretty for people who are more interested in style than substance.

  • Many text editors are designed as programming tools, and Notepad++ is no exception.  But their very stark simplicity makes a non-distracting writing environment.
  • Some might observe that my grammar and spelling could use a little ‘checking’, but I just don’t care.  If someone is likely to miss the whole point because I misspelled ‘etymology’ then it isn’t likely I’ll get through to them anyway.
  • There’s a whole passal of free software links at Unqualified Offerings.  One of their recommendations is ‘Open Office’ as a Microsoft Office replacement.  I use Open Office and recommend it.
  • When you install it, be sure to set the file type ‘.txt’ to associate to the notepad++ program.  In ‘My Computer’ click on ‘Tools, Folder Options, File Types’ and change the association of .txt to the Notepad++ application.  That way, anytime you double-click a .txt file, Notepadd++ will open it. 
  • If you write in HTML (or any of several other languages) you can turn on color-coding for that language.  It really cuts eyestrain for handling tags and other functions.
  • Also, turn on word-wrap in your text editor, so your lines will display more readably on screen.
  • Many people are uncomfortable with freeware, but let me tell you a little secret – it’s often better than the software you pay for.  The most common reason a piece of freeware gets created is some programmer is frustrated by the bloated commercial product, and writes a lean, simple, high-speed application that does ONE THING really well.  And, since there’s no way to make money on it, he or she just puts it out there for free. 
Categories: Geeky, Software

Listen to your local leftie

January 16, 2006 10 comments

It looks like the US Senate is positioning for another unconstitutional handover of war-powers to the president.*  It’s Iran: they’re getting ready to build nukes.  Of course they say their nuke plant is just for electricity, which is like saying you only want a shotgun to use it as a can opener.

Iran has good reason to want nukes; a foreign power has invaded, and now occupies two countries that border on their country.  Under the same conditions we’d be scrambling to build nukes.  But the bigger problem is that Iran’s president has been spouting off all kinds of imflammatory rhetoric.

In our country we have some experience with a trash-talkin’ president, so take my advice, Iran; this guy is bad news.  No matter how much fun it is to express your hatred of Americans, you need somebody more moderate at the helm.  Hatred needs no care or feeding; it takes quite good care of itself.  Find a president who will emphasize your better selves.

What’s bothering me is that this is all so unnecessary.  For decades, us radical wierdos have been telling the US not to support monstrous dictators and thugs.  The Shah of Iran comes to mind, since his disregard of human rights radicalized the very people who now run Iran.  Think also of Saddam Hussein, Somoza, Marcos, Noriega, and Osama Bin Laden as examples – every one of them came back later to bite us in the ass.  And every single one of them was on a human-rights watch list.

So next time you get ready to brand your neighborhood leftist whacko as un-American, consider:  we are looking out for future threats as well as present ones.  One sure way of spotting a leader we shouldn’t support is if they are corrupt, dismiss human rights as antithetical to security, or especially if they practice or endorse torture.  A quick check with Amnesty International now could save a lot of trouble down the road.


  • This would be a really good time for our military not to be tied up occupying a country that wasn’t really a threat to us in the first place.  But we were all branded un-American for saying so back then.

  • This would also be a really good time not to have burned a lot of international bridges by ‘with-us-or-against-us’ rhetoric.  Trash-talking feels soooo good, doesn’t it?
  • Seems us leftist whackos have also been saying we needed to conserve oil and develop alternative energy sources, with the eventual goal of telling the Middle East what to do with their oil (luckily oil is slippery).
  • One place where many leftist whackos got it all wrong was in opposing nuclear power at home.  We need nuclear power, and lots more of it, for the reason mentioned above.  Hmm… who knows how to build really good nuclear power plants?  Oh, right… the French.  I’ll just munch on some ‘Freedom Fries’ while I try to figure out how to rebuild our once-strong friendship with that country…
  • I’m using the term ‘leftist’ ironically here, unless you believe that everything to the left of the Radical Right is Leftist.  I’d make a poor hippie.
  • * Found the link on Socialist Swine, who observes that the Democrats are doing a lousy job as a supposed ‘opposition party’.


Categories: defense, Politics

War Of The Worlds

January 15, 2006 1 comment

I rented Steven Spielberg’s version of War Of The Worlds this weekend.  Short version: it is a stupendous movie with one giant flaw and a number of small flaws:

  • The lead role was easy enough that even Tom Cruise could handle it.  But having his famous face on screen was a constant distraction, like a giant pimple on the face of a Cover-Girl model.  Cruise is a screen personality, not an actor;  Spielberg should know enough to keep screen personalities off the screen in iconic stories. 

  • While we’re on Cruise’s character, top shiploading crane-operators make $100K/year or more.  They’re hardly ‘average-Joe’ workin’-class guys.  Leave it to a pampered moviemaker not to know this.
  • Spielberg said he buried the tripods ‘to be different’ from other versions of the story.  I don’t care how good alien technology is; if you bury it for hundreds or thousands of years, it won’t work well.  At the very least, it will have dirt on it.
  • If you vaporize a 180-lb human in a half-second, the steam explosion would knock everybody else on the street off their feet and shatter windows a block away.  And why did their clothes remain?
  • Once again, movie children are nearly immune to hypothermia.  And people can fall nearly a hundred feet and still get up and run away.
  • The aliens are obviously quite practiced at space travel, but never heard of pathogens on planets teeming with life?  H.G. Wells’ Martian aliens might make that mistake but Spielberg’s aliens came from a completely different star system.  They were experienced spacefaring creatures.
  • The scene where the giant tentacle (capable of skewering a pickup truck with ease) sprouts a knife blade before stabbing a human is just idiotic.
  • It was very obliging of the giant-eyeball tentacle to hold still while Tom Cruise hacked it off with an axe.
  • I could go on, and on, and ON with this part but the message to movie producers is to save the ‘suspension of disbelief’ part for when it’s really needed!  You get a better story that way. 

But there were some really cool scenes:

  • I liked the scene where Cruise spits out two hand-grenade pins after being pulled down from the tripod’s giant sphincter.  Then the soldier yells (as he was trained) ‘Everybody down!’ even though they’re in a basket and there’s no ‘down’ to get to.

  • The scene where the little girl sees bodies floating down the river was well done.  There won’t be enough therapy in the world for that kid.
  • The movie does a great job of imaging the terror of attack by a technologically superior force.  I fancy it’s a lot like that in third-world villages when B-52’s are dropping bombs.
  • Speaking of which, this would be a movie you’d let little kids work up to, not start with.  Get a sense of how well the child handles scary scenes, because there are a lot of them in this movie. 
  • The movie did a very good job of illustrating that many people just don’t act rationally when the stuff is hitting the fan. 

Mega-disaster movies always stop with the immediate threat, with only a nod to the aftermath.  Like the thousands of people slowly freezing to death in Pakistan after last year’s quake, it’s hard to dramatize.  Another aspect would be changes in society 20 years after the threat.  In Independence Day  you wonder: how will society change as it absorbs alien technology?

Movie makers are creating an entire universe, and they often get carried away with the power.  The worst example that comes to mind is George Lucas’ meddling with Star Wars after the original three.  Every moviemaker needs someone (or several someones) to tell them; “Woah, Sparky!  That won’t help your story!”


Categories: Movies, Reviews

Trillion-Dollar War

January 14, 2006 5 comments

What goes into the cost of a war?  Soldier’s salaries, compensation, tanks, planes, munitions, rations, intelligence, lots of stuff; it’s all in the GAO report that Congress gets each year as they prepare to slip in their pet projects.  But that isn’t the whole story; the Pentagon sees only a fraction of the total cost of a war.

Soldiers in Iraq aren’t working at home, but their spouses are, and probably trying to manage children in the process.  When a soldier dies or is severely disabled, his whole life’s earnings go with him.  Economic activity spurred by that lost income is also lost.  Spouses and children may lose educational opportunities, default on mortgages, even go into debt as health insurance becomes scarce.  Guardsmen in Iraq aren’t home when hurricanes strike.  And since wars are fought on borrowed money, interest must be paid.  International trade suffers.  Every interconnected thread of the economy supports the loss, and many of the threads break.

“Scholars may differ in the minor details, but any serious study of the costs of the Iraq war will come to estimates in the neighborhood of $1 to $2 trillion,’’ said Joseph Stiglitz, editor of “The Economists’ Voice,’’ in a statement Thursday.

Stiglitz, a Nobel Laureate and former chief economist at the World Bank, published his own assessment of the cost of the Iraq War on Monday. Stiglitz’s paper was co-authored by Linda Bilmes of Harvard University…
- – Study puts ultimate cost of Iraq war at $1 Trillion

There are a lot of ways to frame the question; “What is the best use of a Trillion dollars?”  Other questions include; “What is the best use of our military flexibility, which is now tied down in Iraq?” and “What does accountability mean?”  How about “How much has our country been weakened by this debacle?” 

Categories: Uncategorized