Archive for July, 2011

Indiana Jones, James Bond and Thirteen walk into a bar… (Movie review, Cowboys and Aliens)

July 31, 2011 2 comments

I’m glad I didn’t read any reviews before going to see Cowboys and Aliens. MrsDoF and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, then went out for frozen yogurt. So here’s my review with spoilers (fair warning).

It’s a big cast. You got your standard-issue cowboys, a mysterious stranger, a rich cattle baron who is kind of a jerk, his worthless son who’s a world-class jerk, a mysterious woman, a saloon keeper, a preacher, a boy, a dog, a knife, some Indians, some aliens – hell, that’s just scratching the surface. There’s got to be, like, ten movies worth of stories there if you wanted to flesh them out. It could be a series, told over and over from different points of view. Thankfully there is a main point of view; Jake Lonergan, an outlaw with amnesia and a hunk of alien hardware bolted to his wrist.

Of course you like Jake; he’s Daniel Craig after all. And you like the cattle baron, Colonel Dolorhyde. Well no, we don’t like him; he’s kind of a jerk, but since he’s Harrison Ford we suspect there’s a really worthwhile person in there and later we’re not disappointed. And Ella Swanson is Olivia Wilde, whose name I had to look up because I recognized her as Thirteen from House.

The physical environment in this movie is richly textured, right down to the wavy glass in the windows and the faded blue patina on the handguns.  I guess if you spend a hundred sixty-three million bucks, you can hire people to make sure about details like that.

The townsfolk are a pretty likable bunch too. You’re rooting for the barkeep and the preacher and the sheriff and his grandson. Once you’ve got characters you care about, you can do pretty much whatever with the movie and it will still work. So you throw some aliens at them. How, after all, would 19th-century people confront advanced and hostile aliens?

Here’s a spoiler: one outlaw with an alien gun strapped to his wrist isn’t enough, no matter how good a shot he is. You’re also going to need a Civil War colonel to provide leadership and work out strategy, and another alien from (let’s say) planet Thirteen to provide inside information and to do the surprising thing at the end. A few bags of dynamite could come in handy too.

Because brother, these are not your touchy-feely, well-intentioned scientist aliens from ET. No sir, they’re big, ugly, mean, have claws, and they don’t have anything at all like a Prime Directive. But they’re not invulnerable; if you hit ‘em in the right places they go down just like anyone else. The trick is getting them out in the open where you can hit ‘em. Which the humans and that one other alien (Thirteen) did, in spades.

Here’s another spoiler: the resolution reminded me of the Challenger disaster. Not sure how I feel about that.

Criticisms? Sure, I could make plenty. The aliens had a mining shuttle the size of a Saturn V, that looked like it would weigh about twenty times as much. A thing like that would have a bigger backwash on takeoff. That’s something Hollywood never gets right.  Alien behavior didn’t make a lot of sense, but I have to forgive them for that; we have Congress after all. Jake Lonergan seemed to be able to control the alien gun easily. Granted the targeting interface was pretty neat (no doubt DARPA is showing the film at their Fall retreat) but still.  The Indians were pretty clichéd but so was everyone else.

When I got home, I read reviews. ***Dave thought there was way too much potential back-story for the amount of exposition, and Danny Bowes at Tor.Com seemed to go on at length about how the movie pretty much sucked. And yet, both reviewers said they liked the movie.

So here’s what I think happened: both reviews illustrate that the characters are more important than the story. If you like the characters, and you care about what happens to them, the writer can get away with a lot. As Robert Peck says; “Fiction Is Folks”. It’s like how you choose pictures of yourself or your family; the facial expression trumps framing, focus, exposure, style – anything. With all its flaws, they couldn’t help liking the movie. Fiction writers, take note.


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Rido R2 bicycle seat review

July 30, 2011 7 comments

Discussion of men’s health issues follows.  If you are squeamish then I guess you’ll find out later.  Everyone else, read on:

Recently I began to have symptoms of prostatitis. Not the trivial symptoms they talk about on TV commercials, but bloody, disturbing symptoms that make you pick up the phone and call a doctor NOW, and go through painful and invasive tests over a six-week period. The short story is I don’t have prostate cancer but my risk is increased so extra vigilance is necessary.

Rido R2 bicycle seat

Rido R2 bicycle seat

An enlarged prostate can be damned uncomfortable.  I’m taking pills for it but that also means looking for something better than a conventional bicycle seat.

Non-cyclists often think that a softly padded seat is desirable, but it isn’t. The soft padding reduces control of the bike and distributes some of the load into the perineum area where it can damage the penile nerves and blood vessels. This does not cause any immediate pain or discomfort, whereas hard support on the ass-bones, even though harmless, feels a bit uncomfortable. So until recently some experienced riders found themselves “asking their doctors” about the little blue pills.

Prevention is better than cure of course. In the 1990′s bicycle seats for men were redesigned to reduce (but not eliminate) this hazard. My old bicycle seat had a well-designed “groove” whose function is quite obvious. But another, less well-known effect of a conventional bicycle seat is discomfort for guys with prostate trouble.   So I needed something more advanced.  I looked at noseless bicycle seats but some riders found they reduced control of the bike.  That may not apply to all riders – my balance is pretty damned good – but I thought for a first iteration I’d try an advanced-design seat with a long nose.

The Rido R2 is designed to support the body on the pelvic bones without allowing any pressure on the perineum. It is a hard seat; those “pads” are made of an extremely dense foam material.  The long nose can be angled downward somewhat and because of the pelvic elevation from the pads, the perineum is isolated from any mechanical pressure.  While the ass-bone pressure is increased the more important prostate pressure is gone which makes riding far more comfortable for someone with my condition. The seat works as well as a conventional seat regarding cycle control.

Update 1: After two weeks of use, I’d rate the Rido R2 A+ for control, about a B+ for comfort and B for pressure reduction.  Experienced riders will not have any problem with it but anyone expecting a cushy couch will be disappointed.  It’s appearance is fairly conventional which does matter a bit. Naturally I want that A+ seat in all respects so I will be trying other seats and reviewing them here.

Update 2: After six weeks of use, I am definitely going to try a different seat.  Probably the Selle SMP TRK or the Phenom TI Gel saddle from Specialized.  Neither are inexpensive but it’s a choice between a better seat and not riding.


  • REI bicycle seat design page
  • I got this one for forty bucks on eBay.
  • When you read comment sections on cycling forums, it is quickly obvious that a lot of guys are very uncomfortable with the idea of any seat designed to protect their sexual function.  I mean, they get really angry at the idea, which is weird. Guys, unless Ma and Pa Kent lifted you out of a little spacecraft from the planet Krypton as an infant, you are vulnerable.  I bet even Superman uses a bicycle seat with a deep groove, just to set a good example.
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The weirdness of the familiar

July 29, 2011 Comments off
Bagworm emerging from cocoon

Bagworm emerging from cocoon.

One of the advantages of riding a bicycle is that you see more than if you drive a car. (Pedestrians see most of all but a bike is a good compromise.)  Today as I rode past the East side of Milner Library I saw a tiny pine cone suspended in midair.  It was spinning around with no visible means of support as if to mock gravity.

It’s actually a bagworm whose cocoon hangs on silk.  The worm was trying to reel itself back up to the tree.  “Hey cool!” I thought, “I’ll whip out my groovy Canon G-11 and grab an awesome picture!”  But that didn’t happen.  As soon as I took my better camera out of the backpack, it fogged up with condensation.  It had been in an air-conditioned building all day and was about fifteen degrees cooler than the humid air.  It’d be a half hour before it could take any picture that didn’t look like London Fog.

Fortunately I also carry a Pentax W-80 in my pocket, where it stays warm and is ready for use, so at least I got some picture of the little bug as it spun around on its thread.  This bizarre little creature camouflages its cocoon with parts of whatever plant – in this case a pine tree – that it is infesting.  The plant is food, housing, and camouflage.  In one of the pictures you can see its tiny little claws reeling in the silk.  Or maybe letting it out, I don’t know but it was The weirdness of the familiar definitely trying to either get up or get down.  Either of which could be a sign of Funk.

But here’s the thing: when I see science fiction stories where one of the characters says; “This creature will be totally unknown to us – it’s from outside our galaxy” I pretty much lose the signal.  We’ve got plenty of weird creatures right on our own planet; in our ocean depths, mountain tops, and in strange places like Australia where there are egg-laying mammals with poisonous stingers on their tails.  Hell, we’ve found worms living under two miles of rock.  We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of weirdness where we live.

Some of these critters and plants and bacteria and stuff make compounds that could be really useful to us if we’d study them before cutting down their forests to grow more sugarcane, but there’s also just an opportunity for joy and wonder in it.  Because when you get down to it the only reason we don’t think tetrapods like us aren’t weird is that we are familiar.  You don’t have to step very far out of your ordinary frame of reference before ordinary things start blowing your mind.

I’m headed off to bed, but if you’ve gone all day without seeing anything freaky, then there you go.


  • I put up a couple other pictures of the critter from different angles.  They’re in my Biosphere album.
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Technological omen

July 24, 2011 4 comments

Saw this while riding to work this week.  If you’re a manufacturer of desktop computers, it’s time to start worrying when people throw out their desks.  Especially desks made-to-purpose for desktop computers.

Discarded computer desk

A discarded computer desk, obsolete in perfect condition

If your computer company has not established itself in the laptop/mobile devices market yet, start polishing your resume.

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Nighttime temperatures

July 22, 2011 2 comments
Comparative daytime and nighttime temps

Comparative daytime and nighttime temps

And this: Why 107 nighttime temps should freak you out

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Something in the way he moves…

July 21, 2011 5 comments

Scratchy enjoying music by The Beatles, played by his favorite human

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Not blogging feels like uncomfortable silence

July 17, 2011 6 comments

Les Jenkins has been Reflecting before carrying on, and anyone who writes, and in particular writes a blog, can relate.  He’s asking great questions that every thinking person struggles with: Am I doing what I should be?  Did I miss something?  Why do I write?

And I don’t know, except that when he writes, I feel it.  He seems to make sense where I live and yet still write in a way that engages people from other, different points of view.  I try to learn how to do that by watching him and a small handful of others.  Anyway I’m damned glad he’s out there.  He has been a friend to me even though we’ve never met.

My own blogging has dropped way off recently and there is a reason.  Is it possible to be too stressed out to blog?  At times like this I have a hard time putting anything, let alone my own thoughts and feelings, in words.  Ideas come to mind, but break apart before I can make them look like anything. Worry is a universal human thing, so here goes.

There’s been the whole weird thing with the surgery on my upper jaw, with bone graft to replace bone destroyed by a huge infection that, strangely, did not manifest itself painfully.  I only noticed it when a tooth collapsed into the, uh, sinkhole in my upper jaw and the adjacent teeth got wobbly.  Now I have a titanium pin bonding to the new bone graft, and if all goes well they’ll eventually connect a fake tooth.  But the loss of teeth was secondary to the concern that the infection was awfully large.  And then…

You know that “symptoms you should never ignore” list?  Woke up one morning and found myself with one of the really obvious ones.  Since then I have been knocking around from GP to specialists and had some really painful and invasive tests, and the upshot is… I am at  risk and will be taking medication that has nasty side-effects, and be checked about twice as often as most guys my age.  OK, great.  And there’s another whole battery of more general tests that need done, because my physical checkup 2 years ago was interrupted by a really, really bad day.

But the State of Illinois is playing billiards with its employees health insurance.  Richest country in the world, but we are having trouble doing something that much poorer countries manage with little difficulty.   I don’t know if I’ll have the same  health insurance company to finish the tests as who started them, or if the same hospitals will be in-network or if they can competently share records.

Here’s the thing – commercials on TV for “ask your doctor about” drugs make it look all clean and easy and then you go off on a cross-country trip on your Harley, right?  I’ll write about it sometime, but the reality is a lot messier physically, emotionally and financially.   You start thinking about people you know who have gone through things you counted yourself lucky not to.   Then you see blood ! where there shouldn’t be any and you really start to worry.

(More?  My roof is leaking, there is structural damage and the new roof will cost… well let’s just say it’s a good thing I don’t need to buy a new car for the next few years.  My ’89 Civic is running just fine thank you.)

So I’m trying to focus.  I’m reading your blogs, friends – you help me remember the larger world out there.  You help me focus on the meaningful plot twists, in a story whose ending is already known.  Meanwhile thanks for trying to make sense out of this ramble.


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Facebook vs G+, the Condensed Edition

July 10, 2011 6 comments

I wrote a TLNWR (Too Long, Nobody Will Read) post about Facebook vs G+, but before pasting it into WordPress, I realized the whole spiel could be compressed 70% with very little data loss. So now it goes like this:

When I first started with Facebook, my “Friending” came to a halt because I just couldn’t make myself put people I only knew professionally or casually – or hardly at all – into the same formerly meaningful category (friend) as actual close friends or family members. Because I knew that every time I shared something, it would be seen by people with whom I wouldn’t normally share that item, no matter what it was. For instance I wouldn’t normally share an article on cost/capacity evolution of memory technology with my wife. And I wouldn’t normally share anything I wrote about global warming or partisan politics to certain people with whom I generally avoid non- work related subjects. It works the other way too; if someone at work wants to vote for Sarah Palin, I’d just as soon leave that out of any professional conversations.

In other words, Facebook didn’t map at all to my actual social networks. Every time I clicked on anything, I had cognitive dissonance. Worse, even if I painstakingly set up sharing rules and security, I couldn’t trust Facebook not to dump all my settings at a whim. In fact they did just that – several times.

Now if one of my professional contacts were to Google me and find my blog, that’s perfectly OK – the point is I didn’t send them there. And my wife actually knows more about technology than she lets on in casual conversation, so there’s some overlap. But I don’t want one click going to everybody.

Enter G+: it maps to my actual networks, so there’s no cognitive dissonance. It’s intuitively easy to create Circles for work contacts, for work friends, for online friends, for relatives – anything. Then when I share an item, I just click on whichever circles apply and it’s all cool.

There are other reasons, like data (ex-)portability and hangouts and integration with Gmail and Picasa, but that was the big one.

There! I just deleted about fifty paragraphs that I wrote earlier. And it feels great.

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In which Tim Wildmon, American Family Association president, helps me buy a lawnmower

July 10, 2011 9 comments

I’d hardly distinguish myself from other men by saying that I truly hate mowing the lawn. It just seems like a terrible waste of time when I could be watching box sets of long-canceled TV series or something.

But then my lawnmower started making impractical-to-repair noises that added “shopping for a lawnmower” to the list of things I’d rather not be doing. You can get lawnmowers at lots of stores; what distinguishes one from another? And that’s when Tim Wildmon, Family-Values hero, stepped in to help solve my dilemma. I get their American Family Association letter by email, and they warn me about all kinds of threats to traditional families. Including, but not limited to Gay Marriage:

Dear George,

The nation’s largest pro-homosexual activist group, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), credited Home Depot for helping it pass gay marriage in New York State last week.

Home Depot says it is honored to support HRC calling it the “most aggressive state legislative advocacy campaign ever,” HRC it pumped more than $1 million into the effort. Just after the gay marriage bill passed, HRC issued an email asking “What was the secret weapon behind this incredible achievement?” It went on to say that “a group of dedicated HRC Partners who fueled the fight for marriage equality by providing the resources.”

Home Depot is one of those HRC “partners.” HRC’s secret weapon in passing gay marriage was Home Depot! Home Depot’s own website says it “is honored to say we support” HRC and other pro-gay marriage groups.

Over one-half million people have signed a pledge to boycott The Home Depot until it agrees to remain neutral in the culture and political war over homosexual marriage.

It is very important that you forward this alert to your friends and family members.


Tim Wildmon, President
American Family Association

Ah! Well that simplifies things considerably. If not for Tim Wildmon’s constant worry about the homosexual menace, I would never have known that Home Depot supports marriage equality. Thanks, Tim Wildmon!

Off to Home Depot I went, found a nice lawnmower from the same company that made my car, and went home to behead innocent little blades of grass.


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Cleaning it off is a lifetime’s work

July 7, 2011 7 comments

You know what a “cult of personality” is? It’s when your hero can do no wrong; when the great leader becomes more important than the ideas he or she is offering.

Most religions are cults of personality. God says don’t kill, for example, but he can order the Israelites to murder all the Midianites and it’s OK. Some political leaders have cults of personality, like Michele Bachmann. She can say any damn thing at all and her followers will right away start working on why that was OK for her to say that.

Fundamentalists love to diss atheism by claiming it’s a religion, which is kind of funny in itself. And quite naturally they’re looking for the personality of which atheism is a cult. Carl Sagan, maybe, or Christopher Hitchins or Richard Dawkins. These are all admired figures, so AHA! It’s a religion!

Not quite, and a recent Internet kerfluffle illustrates why.

Picture an Atheist conference in Dublin with a bunch of Skeptics talking about science-y stuff, and one of the awesome SkepChicks named Rebecca Watson had given a video review of the conference and her role in it. During the conference she mostly had a wonderful time, except for when some guy hit on her in an elevator – at 4am no less – and she uses the incident as an example to say more or less “Guys, word to the wise, that’s creepy, don’t do it.” (4:30 in the video).

Fellows, that is absolutely sound advice. If you don’t know why it’s creepy to hit on a woman at 4:00 in the morning after following her into a soundproof steel box, I just don’t know what to do with you. But a lot of guys who saw the video responded with mocking messages, and even threats, which pretty much proved her point that the atheist community has some consciousness-raising to do in its own ranks.

Enter Richard Dawkins, widely-admired atheist leader. He’s a brilliant author, a popularizer of science and atheism, and even a champion of women’s rights. And he was at the conference and heard Watson’s talk. So you’d expect him to shake his head and offer some clever Britticism about how rude/sub-textually threatening the guy was, right?

Nope: he completely dismissed the idea that the guy hitting on her in that setting was either sexist or threatening, in the most condescending language possible. He posited a hypothetical Muslim women who had been mutilated, raped, and persecuted as a reason why Rebecca Watson’s experience didn’t matter. Really.  Reading the comment you can almost hear him cramming his privileged academic foot into his mouth.

Never mind that Watson didn’t in any way compare her discomfiture in the elevator to the persecution of women in Islamist lands – he went there in her stead. It’s an amazingly tone-deaf response. Somewhat less surprisingly, he found himself in the middle of a well-deserved Internet Shitstorm, to which he has not, as of this writing, satisfactorily responded.

A few people defended him – possibly the same ones who wrote other condescending and even threatening responses to Watson. But many more condemned him on no uncertain terms. Some even went so far as to say; “I’m not buying or recommending his books anymore.”

That’s not a cult-of-personality response. Clearly, a popular atheist leader can step in it big time and have a big job cleaning it off. And that’s exactly as it should be: there’s no infallible throne in atheism, skepticism, or Humanism.

I hope Dawkins will apologize, and change his ways and tune. But if there’s anything to learn from this whole event (beyond respecting women’s dignity, personal space and safety), it’s this: your hero in whatever field is just an ordinary person who happens to have gone far in one thing. Martin Luther King was apparently not a model husband. Ghandi had some rather weird obsessions. And Richard Dawkins is still a brilliant author, if a bit tarnished.

And a common theme is that many of our heroes’ faults revolve around gender and sex issues. It seems to be part of being human and living in a screwed-up society. Most of us could live two lifetimes and never get it quite right – and a couple more might not help. Because even when we know better, sometimes we just say stupid or wrong things. Have you never watched your own words escaping? while another part of your brain is screaming; “SHut up! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” I wonder if even the “elevator guy” is trying to figure out how to apologize without making it worse.

Don’t worry, atheist community; we’re in no danger of having any perfect leaders. Don’t defend wrong things or make excuses for them. Be ready to call them on it when it’s all over their shoes. Be glad they’re only human; the other kind are much more trouble in the long run.


  • I edited the last paragraph a bit for clarity the morning after writing this post.  The last sentence originally read; “Just remember yourself when you do.” But when I woke up I realized the meaning was a bit obscure, which I guess is sort of an example in itself.
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