Archive for April, 2009

Mac Vs. PC anecdote

April 30, 2009 Comments off

Today I was called into a room full of people, who made a simple request.  Here were a laptop and a printer that had never met.  Could I make them work together?  More than a dozen salaried professionals were composing a document as a team and needed to print draft copies of it.

Well the laptop had Vista on it, looked about a year old, and belonged to a non-technical owner.  A half-hour later, with lots of failed attempts to get the computer and printer to talk, and lots of “CPU usage at 75%” hourglass action, (and in spite of having the installation disk for the printer), I finally gave up. HP and Toshiba were not destined to make beautiful prints together.

One of the people in the room had a Macintosh laptop.  She was also a non-technical user, and her machine looked pretty worn.  The keys were dirty and worn shiny, but she offered if it would help.  So I plugged in the USB cable, and nothing visible happened.  So she tried to print a document, and a “select printer” dialog came up.  It showed an Epson printer. 

“Oh,” she said; “that’s my printer at home.”  I had her drop down the list, and there was the HP Photosmart, status ‘ready’.  She selected it and printed.  Total elapsed time, about one minute.  I didn’t have to do anything but plug it in.

I asked her if she’d ever connected an HP Photosmart printer to her computer before.  “No, just my printer at home.”

Think about that the next time you see an ad comparing a Mac and PC.  How they perform when they’re new doesn’t mean a damn thing.  How do they perform after a year’s use by a non-technician?  Kinda throws that “Win/PC is cheaper” commercial series into a different light, doesn’t it?

(This blog post typed on a Linux machine.)(Earlier posts: My review of a Mac laptop and my review of OS-X)

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Useful safety tips (humor)

April 27, 2009 Comments off

Remember the scene in Ghostbusters where Egon says; “Don’t cross the streams”?  Here’s some more useful safety tips:

Fire is not necessarily your friend. Neither are dogs. Things with lit fuses should not be held onto. Beware the savage croquet ball. If it is -30 out, put on a coat before you leave the house. Just because the snow keeps you from seeing other objects the objects do not cease to exist. Clotheslines are the enemy of the bicyclist. If you don’t remember how you got on the ground or where the blood came from, don’t get up right away…

All guns are loaded. So are many bows. Trebuchets are for outside use only. The sharp side of the knife goes away from you. Pure reason does not trump brute force but surprisingly few people know what hot peppers look like when the teacher asks if you have enough to share with everyone… Move away from mysterious burglar alarms. Do not append ‘you moron’ to exposition directed at people who have just broken into your building. ‘We need to talk’ is overwhelmingly unlikely to precede good news… Lungs are unsuited for many possible atmospheres, including that of London, and anything with a high content of industrial cleaners. Youth will not save you from Newton’s Laws. Or Darwin’s.

It follows a delightful story about a break-in at a game store.  You’ll have to scroll down about one screen’s worth to get into the good stuff.
(h/t John Wilkins)

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Greg Laden’s Congo Memoirs

April 26, 2009 Comments off

Greg Laden’s Congo Memoirs are finished: he just posted the last one:

…My own research in the Upper Semliki valley involved looking at the spatial relationships between animals and plants, and animals and other animals, to try to figure out what caused the apparently spontaneous formation of animal trails. To many people, this seems utterly obvious, but on closer examination, it is not. (Trust me. I’m not going into that here.) The point of bringing this up is simply to note that one of the things I did was regularly traverse the landscape, on foot and alone, to record the distribution of fresh animal tracks, other animal spoor, and animal trails.

One day I was doing this and came across a fairly fresh set of lion prints. Three lions, possibly a male and two females, were heading east from the river. So I followed them.

After a while I found myself also following tracks of a research crew that was traversing the landscape looking for bones. This would have been Joan and two or three local guys and maybe an Earthwatcher or two … probably a half dozen people in all. It was clear to me that the lions were following the humans. At one point, the lions lay down for a period of time, and it was obvious that this was during the time that the humans had settled in for lunch. I could see that the lions were watching the humans eat their lunch from a distance of about 10 meters. I assume the humans did not notice this…

A few titles: “It had to be snakes”; “How to make an elephant turn invisible”; “The crater and the cocodile”; “The mountain giveth, the mountain taketh away”; “A hippo runs over Rudy”; “Kenyatsi, place of evil”;  “the lion, the tent, and the anthropologist”; “Gunfire at night” and many more.
Begin HERE.

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Movie review: “Milk”

April 26, 2009 Comments off

I may be prejudiced against gay films, from not having seen very many.  The few snippets of Brokeback Mountain (see MrsDoF’s review) that I’ve seen were, to say the least, not impressive. A gay documentary I saw recently was so poorly done that I refrained from reviewing it. Bits and pieces of other gay films I’ve seen on YouTube failed to attract me to the genre. I’ve long felt that in Hollywood, even home movies could win an Oscar as long as they were gay home movies. 

(To be an equal-opportunity grouch, I’m not much on any movies that have mushy scenes in ‘em.  And since most movies are bad, and there aren’t very many gay movies, it stands to reason that there aren’t very many good gay movies.)

So I wasn’t expecting much from Milk, the 2008 biopic of gay politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his assassin, Dan White (Josh Brolin).  And when, five minutes into the film, Penn is making out with a guy he just met in a stairwell, it seemed on track to be pretty trite/boring/preachy/etc.  But popcorn and a large box of dark-chocolate raisins kept me in my seat long enough to be pleasantly surprised; the film is actually a good docu-drama of a time in US history when gay rights began to show up on the national radar.

Maybe that’s a good reason to hit the concession stand.  At least at the historic Normal Theater, where popcorn is only a buck and theater-sized candy is two bucks.

The film did a good job of portraying the destructive side of gay promiscuity in the Castro district, and also the tragic motivation behind political activism and how even straight people began to realize the humanity in ‘queers’.  If relationships are forbidden, what’s left but furtive encounters?  One thing I liked about it was clips of news footage from the time.  I remember Walter Cronkite talking about gay rights’ initiatives in various states, and I remember Anita Bryant’s disingenuous expressions of “love” toward the gay community she was trying to push back into the closet. 

(A side note: it was actually Anita Bryant, and not any gay activists, who first got me thinking that maybe there was something to the idea of gay rights, after all.)

Milk stands up even as a political film.  As initiatives go down in flames, but then a vital one passes, the sense of dispair and triumph is as palpable as film is ever likely to make it.  So chalk up one good gay movie.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Earning trust vs. the myth of containment

April 26, 2009 Comments off

You may have heard of the Swine Flu epidemic, which has been found in Mexico, California (surprise) and New Zealand. It’s a nasty H1N1 virus that’s killing even young, healthy people.  Not quite bird flu (which fortunately hasn’t mutated to move from person-to-person yet) but bad enough.

Every time there’s an outbreak of disease, some wise person thinks of containment.  We found it in Mexico?  Don’t let anyone in from Mexico!  Yeah! It’s an age-old idea that you just snap the lid down on an area and (too bad for the people there) stop the disease in its tracks.

Except it didn’t work for plague in the 15th century, and it won’t work for swine flu from Mexico in the 21st century.  From the Effect Measure public health blog:

Add to this two additional cases in California, bringing the US total of lab confirmed cases to 11…

Now for the zombie idea (promoted to some extent by WHO) that we could ever bottle up an incipient flu pandemic by containing it at the source. As we have pointed out here too many times to count, that never was in the cards for a disease that hides itself in the background noise of prevalent respiratory disease, is difficult to diagnose, and for which there is little good surveillance in most countries. But because it was held out as a possibility, there is a faint whiff of recrimination in current news accounts…

All you have to do is look at the animation of world air traffic to know why: 

And that’s how it wound up in New Zealand! But there are other reasons as well, such as that in our transportation-rich world, people will move hell and high water to get out of a quarantine zone, all the while denying to themselves that their achy feeling and sniffles are the first two hours of swine flue.  For quarantine to work, a disease must have extremely short latency and be easy to diagnose.  That doesn’t work out to a lot of diseases. 

This is not to say we can’t improve the situation, but it’ll be a lot more complicated than just stopping people from traveling:

In the paper, “Modeling Targeted Layered Containment of an Influenza Pandemic in the USA,” members of the MIDAS Working Group on Modeling Pandemic Influenza concluded that a timely implementation of targeted household antiviral prevention measures and a reduction in contact between individuals could substantially lower the spread of the disease until a vaccine was available.

The groups coordinated efforts to each create individual-based, computer simulation models to examine the impact of the same set of intervention strategies used during a pandemic outbreak in a population similar in size to Chicago, which has about 8.6 million residents…


“…could substantially lower the spread of the disease until a vaccine becomes available.”  Not stop it, and if no vaccine is available, then the disease still ends up going wherever it wants to.  The simulations are hellishly complicated, including social network analysis, traffic, shipping, conventions, and probably the kitchen sink. 

There’s even a project to popularize the understanding of pandemics, all so the spread of the disease can be slowed.  To buy time.  That’s the game. Or part of it, anyway, because the vaccine must be created anew, manufactured in bulk, and distributed.  And people convinced to take it.  Which means the trust relationship with their governments must be carefully maintained in the off-season.  That means governments need to be competent and trustworthy.  Nepotism, cronyism, putting the “heckuva job” Michael D. Browns of the word in charge of federal agencies to pay off political debts… will end up killing people.  Maybe lots and lots of people.


  • You’d think at least political leaders would be safe from pandemics, wouldn’t you?
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“Man, I shoulda done somethin’ BAD!

April 24, 2009 Comments off

Once your children are raised, you look back with different emotions on a thousand little vignettes.  Some of them are memories of teacher conferences.  A teacher dissatisfied with one of our kids’ performance, trying to tell us… what, exactly?  That he should write in cursive?  That he should “show his work” on a page of forty identical problems?  That his sense of humor was disturbing to individuals (usually the assistant principal) who take everything literally? 

Let’s take that cursive example.  One of my kids’ fine-motor coordination lagged behind his age.  His third-grade teacher solemnly explained that “if it doesn’t learn to write cursive, he may have trouble getting a job in the future.”

Really.  I have witnesses. 

I was so stunned that I could hardly answer.  MrsDoF may have dragged me away before I said anything really regrettable.

Science education was – how to put this gently – pretty weak at our kids’ school.  There was the teacher who informed the class that the reason it was warmer in Summer is that the Earth is closer to the sun.  There was the textbook that, in the glossary section, defined “extinction” as “when an animal is dead”.  Or the teacher who downgraded one of my kids’ science projects because “the Van Allen belts didn’t have anything to do with space”.  The one who ridiculed one of my kids for not being creative enough to write about a triangular planet.  (Unlike his teacher, my son was well aware that planets can really only be more or less spherical.)  The one who just couldn’t believe that the child had read a book by Arthur C. Clarke called “Dolphin Island”.  (No, that’s not right; are you sure it wasn’t “Island Of The Blue Dolphins”?)  And don’t even get me started on the solar eclipse incident.

Anyway, they were our kids, and it was our kids’ school, so we did volunteer work there.  I taught a “great books” writing program for kids.  We tutored kids having trouble with their reading and math.  We monitored detention.  And that’s how I got in trouble. 

It was a sunny day, and I had a half-dozen boys in the room.  All their classmates were outside at recess.  They were supposed to sit quietly and… I don’t know, think about the awful thing that they’d done, I guess?  Fidgeting in class or something. 

I have no more tolerance for inactivity than kids do.  We struck up a conversation.  One of the kids was excited by his science class.  He mentioned Galileo.  And by chance I had a brass plumb bob in my jacket pocket.  (The very same bob, at right.)

All right, here we go.  I climbed up on a stool and tied the bob onto the frame of the projector screen.  It hung down toward the floor, swaying gently.

Everybody have watches?  They all had watches; most were stopwatches.  OK, everyone time how long it takes to do 20 swings.  They all gave a figure, and we averaged it on the board.

I pulled the string way out from the vertical, so it would swing a much longer arc.  Any bets?  A couple kids said it would take less time to complete 20 swings, a couple said more time, one said the same time, and one wasn’t sure.  I released the bob and they timed.  We averaged.

Same time!  A little swing close to the floor and a long, wild swing took the same time!  Lots of animated discussion on why this must be so. 

OK, more bets.  Suppose I shorten the string?  Longer time, or shorter time?  The same time?  The kids were shouting out their guesses, and the reasons for them.  I let the bob go.  They timed, we averaged.

Shorter time!  And one more time we tried the long swing.  All six guessed it would be the same as the short swing for the short string. Right!

Detention time was over; I let them go and they swarmed out the door.  I erased the board, untied the bob and stuck it in my jacket pocket.  The principal saw the kids leave, and shot a puzzled look in my direction.

I found out later that one of the kids had later jumped up in science hour, run to the blackboard and explained the whole thing to the rest of the class.  The teacher was shocked; that child was usually quiet in class.

Next week the Mrs and I were walking through the halls, carrying our helmets.  One of our more familiar kids saw us.

“Are you doing detention today?  Oh, man, I shoulda done somethin’ bad!

Later that month we were informed that they wouldn’t need us to volunteer for detention anymore.

It seemed to me that neither the administrators or the teachers had any enthusiasm about the sciences.  At the risk of stepping into political territory (like that ever stopped me before) they were more concerned with self-esteem than chemistry, electricity, physics, or biology.  And math took place in one concrete silo, never to bump into science in the other silo, which never seemed to make contact with history in the third silo, and so on. 

Are our classrooms demoralized?  Have we lost the ability to visualize kids engaged with learning?  I don’t know what it all means, and it was a long time ago.  Maybe everything is all better now – please share in the comments. 

This post is really a two-parter.  In the next Carnival, a short story about an imaginary classroom.  Not a proposal or a prescription, but for what it’s worth, the classroom I keep dreaming about in my waking hours.

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The unexplored country

April 21, 2009 Comments off

The video starts out with a quiet but moderately amazing stunt, and then goes somewhere that’s difficult to even imagine.
What are the limits?  How would we know?

Let there be Art!  and all that is amazing and beautiful…

(h/t to Neuron Culture)

Keywords: extreme cycling, artistic, Danny Macaskill

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Matrox Geekitude

April 21, 2009 Comments off

In my “Box ‘O Junk” I’d been holding onto a 10-year-old, 4mb Matrox Millennium PCI video card. It was just too good to throw away, and I’d use it someday.

“Someday” actually came.  Our LAN administrator needed to build a new server rack control desk, with three monitors to manage two racks.  An extra video card was needed, and that old card was on the HCL.  It works great.  The three monitors share common space and you’d never guess that there’s 7 years difference between the two video cards that control them. 

But referring to it as a “classic video card”, well that was just overly geeky.  At least I didn’t say it in Klingon.

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Idiotic statement of the week award

April 20, 2009 Comments off

I’m really not trying to make this into a weekly feature, but when something like this drops into my lap:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what is the responsible way? That’s my question. What is the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions, which every major scientific organization has said is contributing to climate change?

BOEHNER: George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide. And so I think it’s clear…

Oh, lordy, where to start?  I guess there’s no point in doing anything at all about climate change. Because cows produce carbon dioxide methane.  And won’t somebody tell John Boehner what a carcinogen is?

On second thought, don’t.  It’s more fun this way.

And it isn’t the little bit of carbon dioxide we exhale that’s the problem, John; that CO2 is part of the current biosphere.  It’s the gigatonnes of carbon we dig out of the ground, that hadn’t been part of the biosphere until we dug it up, that’s the problem.  That’s what is throwing off the balance.

Doesn’t it bother Republicans, even a little, when their top leaders don’t know a cow’s ass from a hole in the ground?

(h/t Dana)

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Columbine, ten years after

April 19, 2009 Comments off

This week is the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine massacre, wherein a couple of disaffected high school kids killed 13 people and wounded 23 others at their high school in Colorado. 

Papers are full of articles about the “lessons” we were supposed to learn from what is, fundamentally, a statistical outlier.  Think of it: there are something like eighty-eight thousand public schools in the US.  Occasionally one of them has a shooting.  It’s almost impossible to frame such rare events in any instructive way.

When the massacre happened my son remarked; “This will bring out the stupid in everyone” and it looks like he was right.  Hucksters of every kind came out of the woodwork selling video surveillance systems, metal detectors, even bulletproof backpacks.  School districts and police departments ponied up for hallway cops with drug-sniffing dogs.  “Zero Tolerance” became the norm.  Any hope of teaching kids about civil rights went right out the window, because our schools have become rights-free zones. 

Once in a blue moon, they may catch a shooter that way.  They may create many more, however.  Shooting up your school is an act of a deeply alienated kid, and it’s my understanding that rules times relationship equals a constant.  When you expel a kid for drawing a picture of a gun, you make that kid understand that he can’t trust you with his thoughts.  He just gets lonelier and more isolated from anyone who could help him, if he even needed help.  Kids draw pictures of lots of stuff, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with them.

But there has been one positive outcome: bullying is now considered a bad thing (unless the object of the bullying is thought to be gay – we’re still working on that).  The focus is all on the obvious victims, but not on the less obvious ones.  If anyone has any good suggestions on how to help bullies, the floor is open…

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