Thursday, December 30, 2010

Skeptic Tales of Nerd Culture

Patton Oswalt and Phil Plait topped my despair with whipped cream and put a cherry on top. Here I am on vacation in my little house in the woods, remembering how unpopular I feel here, trying to get back in my hermit vibe with the internets and my chores. And all over Twitter is commentary after commentary about Patton Oswalt's Wired story about Geek Culture.
I’m not a nerd. I used to be one, back 30 years ago when nerd meant something.... I can’t say that I ever abided nerd stereotypes: I was never alone or felt outcast.
Well 30 years ago I sure as hell was alone and felt outcast. I took a test online recently and it said I am 100% pure nerd. No dork, no geek, pure nerd. Right now. And finally I am starting to feel less alone and outcast. Well, I mean I did back in Austin, but not so much today.

Phil Plait is having a contest where he's invited people to sum up the story of how they got to be a skeptic in a single tweet with the hashtag #SkepticTale. Here's his.

Telepathy. Clairvoyance. I believed them all… until my life got a little Randi. #SkepticTale

Well fabulous. Like I didn't feel like a loser already. I don't have a TALE. I never did believe any of that woo-woo crap. I was raised out here in the freaking woods by an engineer and an English major and a naturalist grandmother and similar aunts and uncles who identified every plant and animal I ever saw and taught me how things work. Sure they took me to the Episcopal church, but I didn't ever take it seriously. I thought it was like Santa Claus. Just a story they tell so they have an excuse to go hang around in the fellowship hall after church and visit with their friends and make business contacts. I would look at the portrait on the wall of my great- grandfather, an Episcopalian missionary, and remember stories my mother told of what a great asshole he was, always trying to gain the admiration of his congregation by giving them his own children's food and clothes. When I was in high school and became adept at analyzing English literature it became more and more annoying to sit through church because I disagreed with the sermon based on simple matters of language interpretation. I started paying attention more and it dawned on me that some of the people really BELIEVED whatever the man up front said, even if he was obviously wrong. That kind of gave me the creeps and I didn't really want to participate anymore. I didn't make a big deal out of it. It was just sort of like Office Space. "I'm not going to quit, I'm just not going anymore." I had a couple of cousins and aunts and uncles that seemed to feel like I did, but we didn't talk about it. It wasn't like we had a non-believer support group, but there was at least an example that made me think I could get away with it. As for the UFOs and telepathy, really? No, I never fell for any of that. It just didn't seem logical given what I knew about nature.

My home town is too small to allow for any kind of culture other than the one standard American Dream conservative one. I was always an outcast in school, but I wasn't part of any nerd or a geek culture. Oswalt describes himself as otaku, which as far as I can tell is basically addictive personality disorder. I just don't have that kind of attention span. Unlike Patton Oswalt my '80s were a wasteland of being isolated and alone with nature and writing, science and English. The only example of otaku in my world were ornithologists and herpetologists. There was a shy man obsessed with red-cockaded woodpecker man who would lurk around our woods with his binoculars and a charismatic rattlesnake expert who would dissect the specimens we saved for him in our freezer. There were no people my own age interested in anything in particular that I could tell. I knew a few guys who were good at video games and knew one kid who could do a Rubik's cube in 3 minutes. But that was middle school. By high school nobody did anything but go fishing and chew tobacco, get drunk and listen to country music. My best friend in high school got a Holy Grail script book and we studied the lines, but we didn't really obsess over it. She was addicted to starlight mints and Diet Coke and had otaku potential but I think it was squandered in our town.

I was the only kid in my school who had a computer. I used it to write the copy for the year book. I had to figure out how to get the carbon typewriter forms to go through a dot matrix printer. That's pretty damn nerdy, but with nobody else doing the same thing it was devoid of any kind of culture or coolness. It was just what I did. My dad was an early adopter and would hand down technology. My mom's side of the family was writers, so writing seemed like a normal thing to do -- using a computer to do it was the logical combination. I didn't know what else it could do. It was an IBM PC with Wordstar and two floppy disks. My dad had Zork on his Radio Shack computer when I was in middle school but by the time I got to high school it was of no interest. I was the only kid in high school with a reverse polish notation calculator, and the only one with straight As. I was unpopular and summarily abused, but it was all just inconvenient and not that big a deal. Bath oil slipped into my purse or a feminine napkin in the pages of my Calculus book were clearly a sign that somebody was trying to embarrass me, but I didn't really even care who did it. I suppose after 12 years in school with those same people I knew they weren't going to get any more interesting. Some that were interesting early on actually STOPPED being interesting on purpose to be more popular. This baffled me entirely.

While Patton Oswalt and his friends were consuming media I was actually entertaining myself with creating. I learned to knit when I was just an infant. I did cross-stitch and got a sewing machine for Christmas when I was 11. I would stay home alone in the summer and make horrible, ill-fitting, clothes. I became a photographer in the 7th grade after I took a shop class that included darkroom techniques. I learned to read sheet music in middle school band and played French horn. When I got to college I immediately joined the newspaper staff and kept writing and doing photography while struggling to become a bona fide engineer. That didn't pan out so I settled for scientist. Even at Georgia Tech, a place that should have been full of nerds and geeks I guess I fell in with the ones that weren't otaku. They were kinda well rounded people. We worked out at the gym, went to band parties and football games, played intramural sports and studied like crazy. It was 1990 before I met anybody that played Dungeons and Dragons and I was pretty apprehensive about it. The whole thing seemed quite silly to me. I was busy with my creative pursuits and it seemed kind of dumb to me to spend that much time and energy on anything that didn't MAKE anything. Plus I was uncomfortable with any kind of ceremony. The whole thing just smacked of pomp and circumstance and I was a little embarrassed for those people. Of course that role playing guy now gives talks at video game development conferences and has made a better career than me off his geek culture teenage years.

So I am exactly who Patton Oswalt is complaining about in his article. I am a fraud. I am not a geek. I am some kind of pathetic geek groupie. I follow Oswalt on Twitter but I've never read one of his books. I enjoyed Neil Gaiman at w00tstock but I had to look up who he was before I went. I follow Felicia Day on Twitter, too, and I enjoy The Guild, but I've never played World of Warcraft. I love Firefly and Dr. Horrible and even have a trompe l'oeil lab coat t-shirt. But the only line I can quote is, "Home is where your heart is, so your real home's in your chest."

I'm not a real good skeptic either. I'll watch Phil Plait's TAM talk on YouTube, but I would be nervous about buying a ticket to go hang out with all those people in person. I'm just too much of an introvert to think I'd enjoy meeting them when I can just read what they say online so much easier. But I like knowing they exist. I'm experimenting with the idea of fitting in. Being able to skip ahead and get the Cliff's Notes for geek culture online opens up doors I never had before. Some of these geeks and skeptics might be friends with me even if I'm not a gamer or a comic book reader and have not stood up to any anti-vaxxers. There is some real science and technology crossover with some of this geekiness and skepticalness. I know my Monty Python enough to be puzzled by the cheese launched by SpaceX, the bizarre crossover of technology news and geek culture where Elon Musk amused himself by putting a secret cargo on the first commercial craft to go into orbit and come back. There was no cheese in the cheese shop. Why would you use ACTUAL CHEESE as a tribute to a sketch about not having any cheese? What were they trying to say? They envision being added to the sketch? Something like this:

After John Cleese waiting for his Camembert says, "I don't care how excrementally runny it is, hand it over with all speed!"

Michael Palin replies, "Yes, sir. Ohhhh."


"The cat's eaten it."

"Has he."

"She, sir."

 Then Elon Musk imagines, "Le Brouere?"

"Sorry, sir. We've shot that into orbit."

Really? That's not adding anything.

But I digress. Oswalt's idea for A-pop-alypse that obliterates otaku is fine with me. I support the elimination of this kind of obsession. I never did trust it. I am wary of people who go to intense effort to copy stuff. Like the cosplay people who recreate costumes from video games and TV shows. I am not scoffing at it. I spent about 40 hours helping a friend make a very excellent Bender.

I found the engineering challenges rewarding. But it niggled me a bit that we put that much effort into something that was utterly derivative. But because my friend understands geek culture better than me he knew Bender would make him beloved. So I'm still just a groupie, or maybe a roadie, or even a consultant to geek culture. I wonder how many other people are like me? Not committed to the obsession, just amused by it obliquely? Are we worse or better than the truly obsessive ones?

All the other reactions I read today were otaku types who seemed to take personal offense to some characterization of them in Oswalt's article. I think they're missing that Oswalt's JOB is to say stuff like that. If he gets you riled up, better press for him. He's doing a show in Austin in a couple of weeks. I bought a ticket a while back. I have to go by myself, though, because all of my friends think $40 is too much to pay for entertainment. Well, huh. Let's see. If we make it sound uncool to get all your geek cred online then maybe some people will decide they'll get better cred by shelling out for the actual show and ticket sales increase? I say brilliant, Patton Oswalt. That may be what I did -- buy a ticket to a show for better geek cred -- I'm not sure exactly. I am just on a mission to try to get out more and that seemed like fun. I really like the Paramount.

I am not the least offended by his article though, even though I'm the one he's talking bad about. And I do not think he'll begrudge me coming to his show. Those people who are misinterpreting it as a personal attack on their culture are no better than the minister who was twisting the gospel to suit his theme. Oswalt may have just put me down by implying I'm inferior to him because I didn't read Watchmen in the '80s. But I don't care. We were clearly in different situations then and we have to both make the best of what we ended up with. I choose not to take offense. I like him enough to pay $40 to see him just because I like the word usements that he structures. (That's a Steve Martin line from LA Story, which isn't listed as one of the geek qualifiers, but it's a quote I use a lot. I'm such a wanna-be half-assed geek.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cool, man, the dude is in the grid! Tron Legacy Review

I just got back from seeing Tron Legacy at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin. I talked a friend into letting me go to his office Christmas party. He works for Red Fly Studio, the kind of place that gives everybody a Friday off and rents out a theater for them all to see Tron together at 9 am. I think a lot of those weary game designers just decided to sleep in. But Daniel and I took full advantage of the menu on the company tab and had mimosas and french toast and the whole bit. I was really excited to be anywhere but at work. I had a blast.

So what's the deal with Tron? I prepared for my outing by watching the original. It was a little bit weird with the reverse-religious overtones to renounce the creator. And the idea that a programmer can make a program that is good enough to boss him around yet he isn't smart enough to quit the damn thing exceeds my ability to suspend disbelief. Other than that it was ok. I did note at the end that the soundtrack was recorded by the London Philharmonic. Real instruments. Make a note.

Tron Legacy then is set in some kind of present-day timeframe but in an alternate reality where Ducati and Coors are a logical product placement combination. That made me laugh out loud. Once the scene shifted to The Grid I started getting more and more amused. Apparently it was just me though. People jaded by video games had no reaction to the blatant sex-role stereotyping of this imaginary microworld. The notion of gender was summed up in stacked wedge heels and eyeliner. Of course there were only 5 female type characters in the whole film, but every one of them was wearing heels and fake eyelashes dammit!

Most other reviews make reference to the bad screenplay and the good effects and soundtrack*. The screenplay didn't bother me. There was precious little dialog and it was all expected quips a la James Bond or any other action movie. But so what? I was already so distracted by the visual and sound effects I was immune to it. The inked-in effects from the light cycle races of the original were upgraded visually to liquid metal a la Terminator and sonically with flanger pod racing effects a la Star Wars. Then for good measure they threw in a lot of 20-50 Hz signal generator for low bass whenever something big moved. This sounded awesome at the Alamo with plenty of subwoofer power. But it just cracked me up because they kept talking about stuff on computer scales, like cycles on the order of microseconds. There is nothing in that frequency realm that has any business in low bass range. Again my suspension of disbelief was challenged. Not in a bad way, it was just funny. It got me in the mood for Jeff Bridges to deliver one of his lines a la Lebowski.

This one didn't have any of the awkward intelligent-design nonsense of the original, it had another corny moral at the end. It was somehow proper that the whole thing be summed up in a platitude I flatly don't believe in it since I couldn't take any of it seriously the whole time. But since 99.999% of people do believe that children are then end-all be-all of existence I hope it doesn't offend them that this silly movie ended that way. It didn't bother me a bit. So much fun.

Now I have to go to work, dammit.
The Alamo Drafthouse on S. Lamar has a free-to-play original Tron game in the lobby.
* Soundtrack note: The Daft Punk soundtrack is on sale on iTunes and there's even one song you can download for free. I must admit the whole time I was thinking, "How are these guys cooler than Tangerine Dream?" They sound the same to me.

Addition: Rotten Tomatoes interview with Quorra character says her character was androgynous. ?!?!?!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why Do People Seek Information About Environmental Health Risks?

Guess what?! I am offering you the opportunity to advance science communication from the comfort of your own computer! Just fill out this survey for my friend Sonny's pilot study. It's for his doctoral research at UT. (Yes, I have a friend. Stop acting surprised.)

* Update: Survey is closed. Next part of the study is underway. Thanks for your help.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Steve Martin at the 92nd Street Y

I was going through the Dr. Fun archives to see if I could find something to go with my catty blog about Ironlisa and I found this one that perfectly suits todays news about Steve Martin. Here are two good stories he linked to on Twitter so you can read what happened on NPR and and I'll add this comic as a "Here, here!"

My Self-deprecation Pet Peeve

***** As an early career scientist, striving to move humanity forward with solid, data driven results I want to thank the memebers of the media- both conventional and virtual, who chose to respect the embargo of my research. I am excited to share my results in person today, Dec 2, 2010 @ 2pm EST. This is only the begining...****.

From the website of Felisa Wolfe-Simon, PhD

This is the scientist that presented her paper at the NASA press conference today, the one that got all the buzz from mainstream press guessing NASA was gonna bring out Marvin the Martian like that zoo guy with the adorable cubs on The Late Show. It was definitely a let down for the USA Today crowd. And frankly as a person that has probably taken all the same chemical oceanography classes she has I don't really get it either. Plankton are all the time taking the wrong element out of seawater and putting it into their shells. They can make do with something else in the same column on the periodic table. So what she did was try to make something living in mud she collected from Mono Lake, where the pH is 10, take arsenic instead of phosphorus out of the growing medium she put it in. Not a great leap for an oceanographer to think of that. And it worked. She grew some bacteria in an arsenic broth and tested the DNA. The big news today was that the arsenic was substituted for phosphorus right in the DNA.

Well ok. That's a good topic for a paper. I don't know that it's a whole lot more interesting to me than ordinary stuff like Dr. Hay's discovery that seaweed poisons coral if the parrot fish aren't there to eat it. It just happened to be funded by NASA so she got a press conference.

I was out having lunch at the Japanese place by myself when the press conference started. I got a link from Spaceflightnow's twitter feed for live streaming to iPhone and I put in my headphones and watched and listened while I ate my bento box. The video kept dropping out but I could still hear them. I laughed out loud when she said there was only 20something femtograms of phosphorus in her sample. FEMTOgrams? She said that's not nearly as much as you would expect from adding up all that should be in the component parts. I got what she meant, but that still cracks me up. Femto is the one after pico, 10 to the -15 power. That's a decimal point, 12 zeros and a 1. A quadrillionth of a gram. Sometimes in the electronics biz we used capacitor values in femtofarads, and that is about the only time I've EVER heard anybody find a use for that little of something. I'm actually more impressed that they can measure elemental ratios that precisely than I was with the actual ability of the bacteria to grow in arsenic.

In the body of her talk and in the question and answer section Felisa Wolfe-Simon, PhD kept pointing out how much younger she was than everybody else. She would remark that somebody else was "VERY experienced" and how she was "an early career scientist." It started to get on my nerves. I'm sure people don't do this on purpose. One of my favorite professors at FSU, a good 10 years younger than me, introduced a Professor Emeritus speaker at our Thursday Chemical Oceanography lecture one day -- "Dr. Winchester is very experienced and has been around so much longer than me..." and I muttered under my breath, "Oh, stop bragging." Dr. Froelich next to me BURST out laughing. I was so embarrassed. But I get that they mean it to show respect to the older people, it just comes across weird to me.

So how old is this woman? What is she going on about? I googled "How old is Felisa Wolfe-Simon" and I got a link to her website. Oh how cute, her banner is the symbol for iron with lisa after it. That would be like if my website was named Somehow it doesn't have the same ring to it.

Her CV is on the website, so I can kind of guess how old she is. She got a bachelor's degree in music and one in art in 2000, so if I'm generous and figure she finished when she was 21 like I did then she's 31 now. Seriously? And she's going on about early career? By the time I was 31 I was a complete washed-up has-been! So yeah it kinda tweeked me when this lively speaker kept pointing out to all her weathered colleagues on the platform that she was planning to build a whole career on this one discovery that frankly reminded me a little bit of 8th grade science fair when the person next to me at the state science fair in Athens did "The Effect of Alcohol on Earthworms." I was expecting a terrarium with a community of earthworms and they would routinely dribble some alcohol on the soil and see if the earthworms would crawl away from it. Yeah, no. They got a styrofoam cup of red wrigglers at the bait store, picked some worms out and dropped them in a glass of gin. It wasn't even a beaker or a flask or something sciency looking. It was along the lines of a Flintstones jellybean jar. "Conclusion: Earthworms sink in alcohol." Now I grant you her conclusion, "Bacteria grown in arsenic without access to phosphorus will use arsenic in their DNA instead," is a lot more advanced than "They don't float." Especially given that whole femto thing. But she did PUT them in ARSENIC. They don't normally live like that anymore than earthworms live in gin.
I'm just in a pissy mood and have been for a while if you can't tell. Probably since about 2000 honestly, when my career options dwindled to varying degrees of demeaning. I'm annoyed that this ingenue got paid to go to graduate school in Oceanography without even a Bachelor of Science degree and I had to pay my own way. I'm annoyed that at 21 she understood the hoops you have to jump through to be a professional scientist and I just skittered off on some doomed entrepreneurial path of destruction. Why didn't anybody TELL me?! I guess it wouldn't have mattered. I can't just go along with stuff like that -- career paths laid out like a damn board game. I just never was one to grab the tail of the elephant in front of me and walk the line. I mean, that's his TAIL! I'm not touching that with my NOSE!

Of course maybe things would be different if I'd spent my 20's gestating in the womb of academia. Instead I was out there making the world safe for digital television and cell phones and shit like that. By the time I was 31 I had already made the most money in a year I will probably ever make. It was already becoming difficult for me to get consulting work because I was too old. People were glad to hire a new grad to do something they'd never done before, but at 31 they expected me to have an specialty -- to have done one thing over and over again. Well fuck that. That's just not what I do. I do things that haven't been done before! I'm an innovator, a problem solver, a generalist. Well I was. I guess that's just how I think. Clearly the opposite of Ironlisa who looks at people as occupying different steps on a staircase of ... what? I just don't get her model. In my experience if you have a bunch of narrow niche experts and no generalist who can translate one to another the real innovation never happens. They can't communicate. As an relative imbecile I can still advance the process. Let's call me the enzymes. Or for the people that didn't take chemical oceanography, I'm the Chance cards in the board game. Or I would be if I was allowed to play.

I waffle between wanting to be involved in interesting things and wanting to be a hermit. Today I guess I was forced to think about whether I feel like swimming after all those ships that have already sailed. I know I could catch up and scramble up into the dingy and tag along. But the water is cold and choppy and nobody messes with me here in the lagoon of my virtual desert island. There is foraging to do before dark. Bon voyage, HMS Career Path!

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Where I dropped my iPhone in Barton Creek.
So I kinda dropped my iPhone in Barton Creek today. I have had a migraine since Wednesday but I said to hell with it, I'm going outside anyway, so I headed down the big hill to the creek. When I got down there my head hurt pretty bad so I climbed out on this rock to think about going back home. I took out my phone to see if I could take a picture of the rock I was sitting on and the neat rock wall background at the same time. I took some pictures then I wanted to wipe the screen off because it had some greasy marks from my last round of Angry Birds. I had on these new arm warmers I got that cover up the back half of my hands. I  just rubbed the phone on my pants like I usually do, but the arm warmers made by grip different than usual and the phone just SHOT out of my hands and went PluNk! into the water.

I looked down and saw it down there with the last picture I took shining up at me. Maybe it was the migraine that made me so calm. I didn't even cuss. I considered getting out my other camera to take a picture of it, but I decided that it was more important to get it out of the water as soon as possible. I climbed down off the rock and took off my shoes and socks and my backpack and the stupid arm warmers and waded out there and got my phone.

Where I got in the water
I realized I was going to have to go all the way in when I got up in waist deep so I took off my hat and glasses and put them up on the rock. And I just bent over and picked up my phone. I came up and flung my hair out of my face and immediately pushed the OFF button. But off is tricky. You hold the button then you have to slide a thing but I couldn't see because of the water in my eyes and I couldn't tell what it was really doing. I climbed out of the water, took the case off and dried the phone on the arm warmers and put it on the rock while I dealt with being soaking wet on a 50° F day. There was a man and his two toddler sized girls up on the waterfall about 30 yards away but they hadn't notice me. So I kinda crouched down behind the rock and stripped off my shirt and put on the dry jacket in my backpack. Then I climbed back up on the rock to get my hat and glasses and put my socks and shoes back on. Only then did I get out my camera and take some shoddy pictures of the whole scene. I was not in my best form today and my art suffered for it. I apologize.
The wet place my butt made on the rock while I was
putting my shoes back on

I went quickly back up the hill to get in my car to go home and dry out my phone and myself. It's a 300' hill in less than a third of a mile, so I didn't get cold except for my butt. These Mountain Hardwear pants I have are amazing in their ability to shed water. Apparently they do it by channelling all the wetness to the butt. My butt was absolutely freezing by the time I got up to the top of the hill.

I was thinking the whole time about how I was going to dry out the phone and hoping no water got to hot circuitry before I got it turned off. When I was within sight of my car I heard a little bwooo noise. WTF? I have MAIL? It's not even OFF?! Crap! I got it out and pushed the power on/off button again and it didn't do anything. That means the display is crapped out and other parts are still working. Not good. Not good at all. I hurried home and put all my wet clothes in the washer and got on my laptop and made an appointment with the Genius Bar before I even took a hot shower. Next opening was at 5pm. Gave me an hour to get dried off and over to the mall. The mall the weekend after Thanksgiving. Gawdhepus.

I got to the Apple Store 10 minutes before my appointment. I checked in and stood like a statue amid the milling masses. Right at 5 Megan came and said she would help me. I gave her my phone with the visibly fogged camera lens and she went in back to open it up. She came back and said there was water all around the battery. She said it was a goner. What happens in that case is they sell you a whole new phone. But it's the same price I paid in June when I got a new 2 year contract. It doesn't re-up the contract or change my upgrade options later. It's just a straight up $199 and I just pretend it's my same phone with the remainder of my original warranty and AT&T contract and everything. That's not bad. I mean, I did basically throw it in the creek. I should expect to have to buy a new one. Apparently it is important that you give them the old one though. I don't know if you get that deal if you just LOSE your phone. So as far as dropping my phone in the water goes, that was actually pretty lucky.

Downtown view from my kayak on Town Lake
I had my iPhone out last Sunday kayaking on Town Lake and if I'd dropped it right here there would've been no getting it back. I have a wrist strap on my camera. Maybe I need a special sport case for my phone with the same kind of countermeasures. I'm going to work on that.

So I was out of the mall by 5:20 and on my way home with my new phone. Megan said it was a 4.1 phone so I would have to upgrade it to 4.2 and then right click the icon to restore from backup. I was a little nervous about Angry Birds. Would I have to start all over?! I was up to level 6-13! I got home and plugged it into the Macbook Pro.

Looks like Megan knew what she was talking about. iTunes wouldn't let me restore my old phone setting until after I updated the firmware. I renamed the phone "Into Oblivion" and set it up as new, then did the upgrade to 4.2.

Once I had it finished setting itself up I right clicked on Into Oblivion and selected Restore from Backup and went to make a cup of tea and get a slice of apple pie.

When it finished it was Into a Deep Sleep again. I anxiously started up Angry Birds and it asked me if I wanted to log in as me or start a new game. Log in! Log in! I put in my Apple password and it restored my game the way it was when I charged my phone at 12:45 this afternoon. Whew! I only lost one level! And it wasn't that hard. I can totally do it again. 

So all in all dropping my phone in the creek was a good exercise in how well Apple's back up and restore works. All my notes are in there with Helvetica defined as the font, my desktop pictures were put back the way I had them. Not only are my contacts there, even the list of recent calls is accurate. Everything is exactly the way it was at 12:45 this afternoon! It even put the pictures that were taken on the phone back in the default folder. (Which I'm not sure is the right way to do it because it takes too long to download when it has to reject duplicates. I need to delete those and sync a different folder. Anybody have tips on that?)

Now that it's glove weather everybody be careful with your phones! They're slipperier than you think!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Helvetica for Notes!

I wasn't in a rush to upgrade to iOS 4.2, but when I plugged my iPhone into my lappy and the upgrade window came up and outlined some of the changes I squealed with joy! New Fonts for Notes! Oh, yeah baby! Download that thing!

Helvetica is SO much nicer for a grocery list than Marker Felt. The writing on an iPhone Note is tiny, like 7 point. It's idiotic for it to simulate what you might write on a white board. I am SOO HAPPYYYYY to be able to change it to Helvetica.

You can pick from three fonts now in Settings -- Chalkboard, Helvetica, and Marker Felt. Chalkboard is at least better than Marker Felt, but Helvetica is the real deal.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Fate of the Universe Depends on a Shoe Box Diorama

Today's Calvin and Hobbes was the one where Calvin reflects on the fit his mom threw over a missed assignment. He just wanted a shoe box to make a desert scene diorama that was already due today. So it's one day late? So what?
Calvin: It's not as if lives hang in the balance, right? The fate of the universe doesn't depend on turning in a shoe box desert scene on time! 
 Hobbes: That's keeping things in perspective.
Calvin: Even if lives did hang in the balance it would depend on whose they were.
Things have been really stressful at my job recently. And I'm constantly mystified why my coworkers are burning the candle at both ends like they are. Lives do NOT hang in the balance with our product. Not even a little bit. It is completely imagined stress they have imposed on themselves compounded by the customers also inflating the importance of what they do.

I blame elementary school. We were trained from a young age that a deadline is a deadline even if it's totally arbitrary and of no consequence whatsoever. I guess as adults we try to make our career seem important even if it's just not. But since I've only been doing my job for 6 months and I'm not that invested in it as part of my personality I guess I have more perspective. I have had lots of jobs where I really busted my ass, like that 115 billable hours during the first week of the Atlanta Olympics. I mean it was happening RIGHT THEN and I had to take care of stuff RIGHT THEN! But this job? It's all about getting insurance companies to pay for medical services. And the insurance companies have a firm policy to just not pay. If we miss a deadline with this software what's going to happen? An insurance company is going to NOT PAY for another day? THEY NEVER PAY! I checked online and saw that my doctor still hasn't been paid for my annual exam in June. Humana has sent me 5 letters asking for information about my previous insurance. I have told them I didn't have any, and they concede that their computer shows that, but they can't stop the automatic mailing. And they can't make her get paid. It's just idiotic. I am really not motivated to bust my ass over something involved in that whole medical insurance fiasco. I am happy to work on it 40 hours a week, maybe two Saturdays a month, but unlike the Olympics I am not billing my hourly consulting rate that was 3 times what I make now. And there is no televised coverage with international implications for my hometown if we come off looking like a bunch of noobs.

Which reminds me of my old days working on the first digital television systems. It was a frantic business to kludge prototypes together to get them into the field for testing by the deadline promised by some lying salesman. (They liked to tell the customers the engineers already invented something that we hadn't even considered and then we had 3 months to make it. They denied that it was lying, they said they were telling a "future truth.")

So one day one of my coworkers in the lab told his wife on the phone that he'd be home around 8:00, unless there was an emergency. This puzzled her as she was a nurse. "An emergency? Like what? Somebody can't watch TV?" She had perspective.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one that makes a lot less money solving technological problems than I used to. I wish that in light of our diminished value we could adjust our response to pressure and stress. What if all of us engineers and scientists could just imagine our little career world as a diorama in a shoe box? We could step back and look at it in the context of the wider world and decide that it's just sand and glue in a stupid box that smells like a Chinese shoe factory and it just doesn't really matter. And that's ok. We all still need a job so we can get some of that fabulous American health insurance. But we better have something else going on in our life to get some balance. Even if something else is just playing video games, at least you're not giving all your talent away for a fraction of its value. Keep some back for yourself.

I know it's an engineer's nature to work on something right up until the last minute. Tag line of the sports car club at Georgia Tech -- Designing Tomorrow the Night Before. That's fine if you're creating something fabulous. But for those of us with demeaning or meaningless jobs, let's try to foster an environment where we can have some perspective. Be innovative and diligent for 8 hours and then GO OUTSIDE.

I am particularly annoyed by how seriously people take their jobs because of how NOT seriously they take their life AFTER work. Yesterday was my birthday and I couldn't get ANYBODY to make plans to hang out with me. I got one tentative agreement to go to a movie then a text 30 minutes beforehand saying he wasn't in the mood to go out. Then the movie turned out to be sold out anyway. I salvaged the evening by finding a Facebook friend I haven't seen in three years who happened to be in Austin for a conference. He met me out for a beer, but I'm still taking the night as an example of how unreliable people are these days. I have another friend who just moved to California and he's astonished by how flakey people are there, so I know it's not just me. (There are exceptions. I have one friend in Tallahassee who is a man of his word. Just that one that I can think of right now though.)

Lives hang in the balance. Our own. And they are not balanced. Let's get some perspective. And don't be a flake.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Contrails and cocktails*

Today I was reminded of an old Cary Grant/Leslie Caron movie from the '60s called Father Goose. It's set during the war in the Pacific on a tropical Island. Leslie Caron steps off the bank of a creek and gets bitten by a snake. She and her student rush back to Cary Grant and she starts drinking to dull the pain of dying of snake bite. When she continues to not die while getting increasingly drunk and maudlin the student finally goes down to the creek to see what kind of snake bit her. (Spoiler alert) It was a stick. She brings back the stick with thorns on it to show it to Cary Grant and he says, "That's not a snake." And the little girl says, "But it looks like a snake!" and Cary Grant tilts his head and squints at it and says, "That looks like a snake!" And Leslie Caron doesn't die and just has a hangover instead. Now I have to tell you that when I watched this movie I was extremely bothered by the fact that nobody questioned the presence of a poisonous snake on that island. I knew the story of the invasion of the brown tree snake on Guam and was skeptical that there were any poisonous snakes at all in fresh water on small isolated Pacific Islands during World War II. The brown tree snake wasn't accidentally introduced to all those little islands until AFTER World War II. And it's venomous, but not deadly. But anyway, that was the plot. Overreacting that a stick was a snake when any herpetologist could have told them there are no snakes.

There wasn't a missile launched off the coast of California yesterday. And there wasn't a lot of press about a missile in the world news. But there was a lot of buzz around the US about a contrail a news helicopter filmed around sunset yesterday. He thought it looked like a missile launch. The Navy said they didn't fire a missile. The Air Force said they didn't see any missiles on radar. And no oceanographers came forward to claim a mystery missile splashed down in the Pacific disturbing the great garbage patch.

I read the progression of news on IEEE Spectrum, which I tend to trust as a more scientific source than most others. I follow them on Twitter. They post links to new stories when something is going on. (I used to fork over $105 a year dues to be a member of the IEEE so I know it's actually a funded institute with paid writers. That's the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in case you wondered. It's one of the largest professional organizations in the world. And yes, they let physicists in too if you are working as an electronics engineer and have a member vouch for you. I notice Dr. Ian O'Neil cites the IEEE in his article too.) They started out with "Whose Missile Was Launched 35 miles West of Los Angeles?" But they quickly realized that "whose missile?" was the wrong question. One of the first things the author did was check to see if there were any official warnings to mariners and pilots to watch out for something shooting up through their airspace. There was nothing. The Navy doesn't just shoot stuff into space without making sure everybody is cleared out of the way. One of the commenters in an early IEEE story said the same thing I was wondering, where's it supposed to have come down? Seems important but nobody really addressed it in any of the stories I read.  So it was pretty easy to eliminate a missile as the source of this trail in the sky at sunset. The right question was "what makes this contrail look like a missile launch?" Then it was just  question of finding an expert in contrails to see if what was unusual to our untrained eyes was normal to them. Yep. Normal. Just an airplane.

Conveniently enough I just happened to reread an old Bad Astronomy article earlier today explaning why the moon looks so big on the horizon. Apparently our brains suck at judging size and distance in the sky. So I was primed for the thorough explanation by the contrail specialist. Good day for the critical thought process.

Contrail from the Atlas V Rocket that launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Why is it so squiggly?  Because the engines are moving around to keep the rocket going straight? I don't know enough about rockets or  the atmosphere to really say. This contrail appeared in the hot moist air on top of a cold dry layer -- evidenced by the sundog. The conditions right for a contrail were only in that one layer. Which makes me think a real missile would be more likely to exhibit a limited contrail and not a continuous one like you'd get if a jet just flew along in that same layer horizontally. Which is what the news footage of the supposed missile launch showed -- a very long contrail.
Contrails at sunset can look like a lot of things they aren't. These aren't meteors.

*Somebody should make up a cocktail called The Contrail. It could be huge in bars in LA this week.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Friday, November 5, 2010

My Blood Pressure Goes to 11

I'm having one of those days where things that have NOTHING to do with me fill me with UNSPEAKABLE RAGE! And then I get on here and type it so it becomes unreadable rage. I have figured out that I have some kind of abnormal emotional reaction to shit that has nothing to do with me. It's why I cry when I watch TV shows and absolutely can't watch horror films. So here's what happened and what I found out about it scientifically.

While I was waiting for a doctor's appointment this morning I was scrolling though my Twitter feed and read this:

@Sheril_ Sheril Kirshenbaum
In Indianapolis, Sci-Tech mags are clearly 'men's interest.' Business too. 'Women's interest' on separate wall.

I opened the picture and she's not kidding. Two signs reading "Men's Interest" bracket "Science and Technology" and "Business." What the FUCK? What if I'm interested in those things? Am I a man now? What the hell is in the Women's Interest section? No wait, I already know. I'm waiting in a fucking gynecologist's office. There's nothing in there but magazines with beaming pregnant women and toddlers on the cover and headlines like "How to Teach Good Manners: No More Biting, Kicking, or Hair Pulling." I would give my left ovary to have them throw in a MacWorld, Discover, Astronomy, Popular Photography, or Car and Driver, all magazines I can see in Sheril's picture.

Then they called me into the exam room and took my blood pressure. 110/90 the nurse said. What? I was just there the week before and it was 110/60. Why'd it go up so much? Just because I got all mad about that sex-role-stereotype-promoting bookstore? That's so weird.

After my doctor's appointment I shot off an email to my mom giving her an update on the doctor thing and I told her about the bookstore. When I got home from work I had an email back from her saying maybe it was overreacting to the insult (I'm sure I am. I'm not normal) so I went to look for the picture on Twitter so I could send it to her. That's when I saw this.

@astroengine Dr. Ian O'Neill
WTF @CNN? Asking the "As a member of the public, why should I care?" question during the #NASA #EPOXI mission conference is horribly trite.

"As a member of the public, why should I care?" FUCK YOU, CNN! You can kiss my public ass, you incredible bastard. Who the FUCK would say that? Didn't your mama ever read the magazines in the goddam gynecologist's office? I shot off a reply to @astroengine to see if he could count how many people flipped off that reporter. If I had been there I would have hollered, "BITE ME!" without being able to stop myself. (Dr. Ian O'Neill is the person that made my rocket video go viral. We've never corresponded though. I just read his articles at Discovery and his blog. I don't know Sheril Kirshenbaum either. She believes we're in for a war against science and I think it's already started.)

Now I didn't really give a damn about Juan Williams. I don't care about Fox News or what they pay people to say on there. I let people go on about it and kept my mouth shut. But THIS, pisses me OFF! I don't want to see this CNN person fired or anything. They clearly don't have a grain of respect for anybody who is interested in something they aren't interested in, so they couldn't possibly be worried they they would insult us. I don't expect they asked the question to be malicious, they probably weren't raised with any exposure to scientists. They are just a smart-blind nincompoop who doesn't realize their own incompetence. I accept that 99% of the people in the world are not like me and I try to not be a dick. But I've had just about e-fucking-nough of this bullshit. If I can sit in an office full of baby-centric propaganda and be polite about it then you, CNN reporter, can sit quietly in a press conference your boss accidentally sent you to thinking you had a grain of competence and professionalism and wouldn't make an ass out of an entire news organization. I bet your boss won't make that mistake again.

So anyway, I read Ian's tweet and I got incensed and I started to write this blog then I realized I had an opportunity to do some science. So I jumped in the car and went to the grocery store to use the blood pressure machine.

Well will you look at that shit? 149/86?!! I did it again and it was 143/91, so it's not all that repeatable, but I'd wager it's 149 plus or minus 10 over 86 plus or minus 10. Which still doesn't get me anywhere near my normal blood pressure of 110/60. I asked the pharmacist if they ever had it calibrated and he said no. But it's probably not off by THAT much. My blood pressure shot up something like 40% just because some CNN ass clown insulted my entire profession? That's AMAZING! I really didn't know there was such a strong physical correlation to emotional reactions. Want to bet that reporter doesn't care about this little discovery either?

As for the reporter's actual question, there is just a fundamental problem in the asking. If the rest of the public doesn't care, they can just ignore the thrill of a spacecraft being repurposed to fly by Hartley II. We -- scientists -- understand that not everybody is equally interested in things. I work with hard-core computer engineers and I don't think even they would be that excited about this asteroid data even though I'm really thrilled by it. I didn't mention it to them. When I stop working Friday afternoon to watch the shuttle launch I don't expect them to watch it with me. But I do think they'll understand enough to let me take a break to follow it. But for somebody to come to a NASA press conference and blatantly demean our excitement by saying this giant step of exploration doesn't interest you?! And you want us to justify ourselves by lowering our accomplishment to terms so simple your rudimentary brain can grok it? What were you thinking they were going to say? "Well just look at it! It's so SHINY! And it's shaped like a peanut!" Somebody colorize it green and we'll say it makes you horny. Dub some 8-bit music on that video and make a line art triangle shoot dots at it and disappear off the top of the screen and reappear at the bottom. But you have to give us a minute to make it mainstream. We're still having fun with the actual science.

There are things people care about that other people just don't get. I don't ask people why they care about procreating. I just don't get it, am never going to get it. I don't want a baby. I am uncomfortable with the whole concept. So I won't go to baby showers and that CNN reporter can call that NASA mission conference their last.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

w00tstock 2.9

Adam Savage threw up a tweet yesterday saying there was still time to get tickets to w00tstock 2.9 in Austin, Tuesday Nov 2. Well it was the first of the month and I was flush with cash so I busted out the debit card and reserved a seat. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect at w00tstock. People watching YouTube videos together? Sounds like what I do anyway with my IM friends sending me links off Reddit. So I might as well go do that in public.

The venue was the Paramount, an old movie palace like the Fox in Atlanta. I worked on the house sound system at the Fox with Dr. Patronis so I wanted to see how it compares. And the neighborhood isn't completely unfamiliar to me. It's only 6 blocks from my doctor's office. Coincidentally the ticket was the same price as my insurance copay, but w00tstock was a hell of a lot more fun than a pelvic exam.

About 5:30 this afternoon it started raining. This threw off my whole plan. The traffic was snarled the way I planned to go so I went another way, found the theater ok, but couldn't find a place to park. Finally I found the Alamo Drafthouse parking structure and walked quickly and randomly three blocks to the theater in the rain. Will Call handed over my ticket. Paul and Storm had just gotten started when I got to my seat.

The Paramount struck me as a fetal Fox. It has a close family resemblance to the Fox, but it's just a tiny version of it. The Fox seats over 4600. The Paramount doesn't even give their seating capacity on the web site. They don't have the Moorish theme going on like the Fox, but the Paramount has it's own style of gaudy plasterworks and a grand proscenium. Seating is arranged like the Fox with orchestra, mezzanine (called the loge at the Fox. Same definition in the dictionary), and balcony. I got the back row of the mezzanine because I like not having people kick the back of my seat.

The stage was set up pretty simply with 4 mics and monitors across the apron and a screen in back that was presumably a projector connected to somebody's Macbook Pro. I felt right at home, like I was in front of my own computer, right down to the custom icons. Somebody downloaded the OSX icons from too. They had Homestar as their hard drive icon where I have Marshie. Renaming my computer parts after characters from Earth Girls are Easy is all me, though, I guess. Theirs was still Macintosh HD or whatever boring default name it has. (I  diverged from my Earth Girls naming pattern when I named my iPhone "Into a Deep Sleep" because it cracks me up when iTunes says "Syncing Into a Deep Sleep.")

Paul and Storm did a song about the inventor of the chicken nugget and then one about a nun wrestling league featuring the Assaulter from the Altar, the Nundertaker and other aptly named contenders. It was my favorite kind of fun with words.

The sound reinforcement was pretty good. The space was acoustically very easy to work with I think. Lots of things sticking out here and there to prevent nasty reverb. The house sound has small front clusters and lots of small speakers on the sides that were properly delayed so everything was very understandable.

In addition to the loudspeakers they had two American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters up front. They had a LOT of fun with these guys. I enjoyed watching the signers, particularly because one of them was an incredibly good looking man. They signed out all the song lyrics no matter how fast Paul and Storm sang and they did all the stories, including spelling out elephant spunk in a Neil Gaiman story, which required using all the letters. When Adam Savage said cocksucker there was a single gesture for that. Towards the end of the show they took great delight in making them spell out elephant spunk about 20 times, but even Adam Savage was too polite to make them do cocksucker but about three more times.

I was glad I'd done a little internet work before the show so I knew what was expected of me. This pirate song video went a long way to helping me keep up with the last number which they stretched out over 20 minutes with "[blank] is the name of my [blank] tribute band" jokes. For example, Adam Savage might end a story with "...sometimes a cable tie will do, but sometimes you just have to have a hose clamp." And Neil Gaiman would pipe up with, "Hose Clamp is the name of my '80s metal cover band." (Only funnier. I made that one up but the actual ones were better. My eyes were streaming with laughter.)


After the show I went onto the cold streets and tried to go back to the parking deck a different way than I came, thinking I went out of the way before. I confess to walking around a few blocks before getting out my iPhone to study the aerials on Google Maps to find the Alamo Drafthouse with the nearby parking garage. When I got to my car I found I'd left it unlocked. Way to go! Glad I parked in an attended lot within sight of the guy in the little booth. I am really out of practice with this going out in public thing.

I have to get up tomorrow and figure out how to set up Microsoft Windows Server 2008 Remote Desktop Licensing so I should stop writing. I considered taking a sign with me to w00tstock that said "Rumplestiltskin, where are you?" to try to find me an IT guru who could spin this straw into gold for me but I know myself too well. With the exception of the girl in the Will Call window I didn't say a word to anybody. Well, I hollered, "FAKE! GAY!" at the Red vs. Blue guys, Rooster Teeth, when they said they are more comfortable with YouTube comments than an actual audience. (I like people to feel at ease.) And I'm pretty sure nobody made eye contact with me over the course of a 4 hour show.

What do you get when you fill a theater with introverts? w00tstock!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

150,000 people who won't vote for Sarah Palin

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear
MythBusters - World’s Largest Sample Size
Rally to Restore Sainty and/or FearThe Daily ShowThe Colbert Report

Since they stopped putting The Daily Show on hulu I've gotten a bit out of touch. I should make more of an effort to go watch it on I hope the Rally for Sanity was fun for everybody who attended. They certainly seem good natured and patient and willing to go along with having people say things to them like "180° out of phase." Good work Adam and Jamie.

Having worked big events like the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 I know the kind of serious concentration it takes and the exhaustion that follows. I'm going to cut the technical help a lot of slack on this one. The typo in the embedded caption -- just not even a problem. They used the initial caps right! That's impressive by itself!

David Mitchell Signs Some Boobs...

I never did understand peer pressure. Or autographs. See how awkward it can be? Although it definitely makes the point that there are no bad experiences, only good material.

I do wonder what the proper protocol is these days when you see somebody you know out in public (oh, is that why they call them pubs?!) but they don't know you. With Twitter you can run into people who aren't even on the tele and recognize them. "Oh, Hi! Great to see you. I follow you on Twitter. That's so cool that you took a picture of that thing you saw the other day." ?? Really? That's what I've got? That's so lame. But if you DON'T go up and say Hi to somebody you follow on Twitter isn't that even MORE like you're a weird stalker?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

House on Haunted Hill on Chuck

House on Haunted Hill playing on a TV in the Buy More in this week's episode of Chuck.
I had to stop multitasking on my computer when I heard a familiar scream. I brought the Hulu window to the top and moved the slider back and sure enough, that's House on Haunted Hill on the TV in the Buy More on Chuck! This is an old movie written by my grandfather, Robb White. I guess it's in the public domain now because it's always on Hulu. I recommend it for a Halloween watch! It's the only kind of horror movie I like. There's nothing supernatural in it. Just Vincent Price being a dick.

When if first came out in the theater they had a plastic skeleton rigged over the screen and they would pull it out into the audience with a fishing reel. It didn't take long before people heard about it and brought slingshots and stuff to abuse the skeleton. Somebody tries to do something original and people just have to ruin it....

Speaking of ruining it, the 1999 remake of this movie was horrible. They injected the whole thing with supernatural woo woo and just ruined the thing I liked about it the most. It gets 5.2 stars on IMDB but the original gets 6.8. It gets 98% on the Tomato Meter at Rotten Tomatoes.

Thursday night there's a special live Rifftrax event for this movie. I just found this when I pulled up Rotten Tomatoes. I guess I have to go!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Different School of Thought

A Jehovah's witness just rang my doorbell and read to me from her bible. She interpreted the passage from Matthew as saying that if we pursue happiness in anything that isn't spiritual it won't be fulfilling. I told her, "Thank you for that message of hope, but I am from a different school of thought. Have a nice day." She said have a nice day back, closed her bible on her bookmark and went away.

I'm sure I said it just because it's a common expression, but "different school of thought" really is the perfect phrase for what I meant. Thinking is fulfilling to me. Spirituality just kind of give me the creeps.

Sure, thinking doesn't always make me HAPPY. When I think about people it can make me angry, or sad. When I think about computer programming I get confused, and then when I get really confused I become incredibly sleepy. But when I think about things besides people and technology -- geology, hydrology, biology, physics, anything ruled by natural processes -- and learn new things about how the world interacts with itself, it very reliably makes me happy. There are a LOT of schools for natural and physical sciences and WAY more than one book. And they don't make you go out on a rainy Saturday with the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics to read integral tables to strangers. I hope it catches on.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Watermarked paper for proponents of paperless

One of my friends went on a rampage today retweeting remarks about going paperless and it reminded me of something I made two years ago. If you are forced to print something you might as well use watermarked paper like this. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


My brother is color-blind. But smart-blind is by far the greater disability. Ever since I read this article about the Dunning-Kruger effect a few months ago I've been paying attention to this. I recently availed myself of the opportunity to do some first hand investigating into the matter. There was a guy on my favorite online dating website that answered the question, "What do you think about healing crystals?" with the answer, "I think they work." But he claimed to be an intellectual and he only wanted to meet women "if their smart." He was online, so I started a chat with him. I opened with a remark that he'd attract more smart women if he knew the difference in "their" and "they're." Yet he kept talking to me. Turns out he believes in astrology, thinks the government has a secret 20 year plan to try to take away all rural land ownership to force people to live in cities, and he thinks global warming is a hoax to increase taxes. He honestly believes he is smarter than everybody else and wants to meet a smart woman.

Dunning-Kruger effect! I never realized how that applies to people who believe mis-information. This guy is SO STUPID he thinks he's brilliant, therefore also believes that everybody else in the world is a lot smarter than they really are. The government is perpetrating a plot to take away my land? Impossible. I have met people that work for the government. Again I say, impossible. They are not competent to pull that off. I need no further argument. I stated as much to this fellow, that government employees at their most brilliant can still only do something that can be completed in a single fiscal budget cycle. A 20 year plot is untenable from a budget standpoint.

He logged off suddenly when I stated plainly that 2 years of studying oceanography with the people that actually collected the data makes me qualified to say definitively that anthropogenic global warming is real (I may have used all caps. I was trying so hard not to be a dick, too.) Anyway, the next day I got two long emails from him. All I can say is that I'm glad I was able to waste so much of his time. I didn't actually click any of his links. I knew it would just make me mad. At the end he informed me that I have a lot to unlearn.

When I was trying to find the link to the original article about anosognosics I found this one about ignorant people contradicting scientists over their methods for predicting climate change. I identify with this article a lot. I didn't struggle through three classes with Dr. Philip Froelich without a healthy appreciation for what we know, what we don't know, and what we might figure out soon. Having some smart-blind git telling me I have a lot to unlearn makes me a little bit angry. It's so hard for scientists to explain climate change to ignorant people because it's REALLY FUCKING COMPLICATED. I mean, damn, anybody remember the phase diagram for ice from high school? Try to tell Sarah Palin that water expands when it freezes AND when it gets hot and she probably won't believe you. Not even if you were Lord Fucking Kelvin.

So first the smart-blind thing made me angry, and then later it made me sad. There are SO many people in the world like him. A colleague at work showed me the dancing parrot video on YouTube because she thinks it's funnier than the ninja cat. Well the parrot has twice as many views as my rocket video, so I guess that says a lot. Ninja cat, on the other hand, has FOURTEEN TIMES as many views. As much as the Japanese like the sonic boom sky ripple, they like a stealthy cat more.

And then it made me mad again when I read this tweet from Phil Plait:
The comments on my UFO posts are always amusing, but people accusing me of not knowing Jupiter are awesome.
And sure enough there was a comment where somebody contradicts Phil Plait.
There are NO reports of balloons and Jupiter was not actually visible in the NYC night sky according to the National Weather Service. ALSO, the daylight sightings would not be Jupiter either? I suggest some calming tea and maybe read Richard Dolan’s UFO & the National Security State 1973-1992. ‘We have never been alone.’ -Major Robert Dean
Oh shut up.

There's another one that was suspicious because he questioned if you could see Jupiter from New York, but that guy was just being innocent, not ignorant. Somebody gave him a nice response.

@20 NAW: “But can you really zoom a news camera in to get that nice of an image of Jupiter in the middle of New York city?”
Yes, a TV camera can show Jupiter very well, since it has a nice zoom and keeps steady. The city lights don’t bother the planets nearly as much as other nighttime objects. You only need 8x zoom or so to see the moons. Most binoculars will do, if you can hold the darn things steady.
I remember watching an outdoor sporting event on TV (I think it was the Winter Olympics), and coming out of commercial, there was this beautiful shot of Saturn. You could clearly see its rings and color bands. Then, the camera zoomed out to show just the dot and then the bright landscape that’s normally shown. That was wonderful.
And then the original commenter replied
@24. AliCali: thanks, never really being to a large city and/or working with a camera like that, I didn’t know.
See? Isn't that civil? Everybody is learning? Accepting each other's expertise?

You need to go watch the video. It made me go "Nuh UH! That reporter can't be that STUPID! And the cameraman TOO?!" I looked at Jupiter with binoculars the other night. I could only make out three moons, but that's exactly what it looks like, what they show in the video. I think the part that struck me as smart-blind was not that the reporter didn't know it was a planet and moons, but that she didn't know anybody to ask! And she didn't CARE! She just went on and on about it without feeling self-concious that she couldn't find out what she was talking about. There is almost no strange phenomenon I encounter where I don't know an expert I can ask about it. Be it biology, electromagnetism, geology, astronomy, computers, psychology, construction, weather, sewage, skydiving, cars, food....

But other people just don't care that they don't know, like the Fox News person, or they think they are so smart they contradict and criticize people that are probably smarter than them. Like this other comment on Phil's blog.
....your post in no way proves that the observed phenomena was a combination of balloons and Jupiter. Therefore I respectfully respond with some reasonable steps someone could take to actually prove the point that you falsely claim to have demonstrated. You know, the sort of things a science journalist should be expected to do.
First, you need to compare the location of Jupiter that night to the time and location of the video. Shouldn’t be too hard.
Second, you need to establish that the Fox News video camera has a powerful enough zoom to see the moons of Jupiter in Chelsea. I am actually a bit skeptical of this because of light pollution, but I have no real idea how powerful their zoom is.
Finally, any account has to also deal with the other objects that we seen after dark (ie, the earth cam footage) and the photos that have found their way to flickr. There is also the footage of the pyramid shaped object from the 13th, but that footage looks a bit hokey to me. Still, a thorough scientific analysis would not simply ignore it.
I am not claiming that there isn’t a conventional explanation for this event. Rather I hope that I have shown that you have not proved your assertions. 
OK, that guy is just a dick. Sounds kind of like the same sort of jackass that graded my GREs and gave me a 30th percentile on the written section. Phil Plait says it's Jupiter, it's Jupiter. He's not on the stand in a capital murder case, he's just refuting an patently idiotic Fox News bit. Now shut the fuck up.

As for the pyramid shaped object, you must have missed this Tree Lobsters post.

See, now I'm angry again. Smart-blind blow-hards need to be dealt with. I don't have any idea how to do this. The best I can figure is that children should be exposed to smart people, namely scientists, as role models from an early age. Give Phil Plait a TV show, good idea. Neil DeGrasse Tyson on a sit-com, excellent. (Twitter says Bill Prady asked him to be on Big Bang Theory) Hopefully these smart people will have an influence on people who don't have any cultural exposure to brilliance.

I have developed a new litmus test for guys on the online dating site. I ask them, "Who is the smartest person you know?" If they can't think of anybody, that's bad. If they say, "Hmm, I'd have to say I am the smartest person I know." Epic fail. If you don't know somebody smarter than yourself, and you have a masters degree, then you either went to the worst college in the country or you are just smart-blind. Why would you take instruction from somebody you didn't think was smarter than you?! I mean, outside of high school where you don't have any choice. I did have one or two high school teachers that I thought were smart. But before college I pretty much relied on my family for smarter-than-me role models. I'm trying to think of a smart TV character from my formative years.... There was that nice white-haired guy on Wild Kingdom. He knew a lot about animals. I thought he was cool. And Dr. Who. Oh, and Dr. Mr. Spock! Fascinating.

From the Autumnal Equinox. Jupiter is the speck. I don't have a TV camera.

Update Feb 4, 2015
Jack Klaff, @jackshebang on twitter, posted this John Cleese video about this topic on January 28th. John Cleese is friends with David Dunning!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pears Pie

I'm cooking again! 
I got my kitchen set up so I can start making real recipes with my fancy gadgets. I hope I haven't completely lost my touch. To try to get my inspiration back I've been watching Good Eats on Hulu. I used to enjoy watching it back when I lived in Atlanta 6 years ago when I had a real TV with cable. It's nice I can enjoy it now with nothing but my iMac.

Pear Pie 2009
Last year in Beachton I made Pear Pie. Meaning a pie containing just one pear. I picked it off my pear tree and I ate the pie all by myself. I used a frozen pie crust because my Cuisinart was boxed up in a mini-warehouse. It was a good looking pie and delicious. When I saw similar looking pears at the green market Saturday I bought them. I bet the ones back home probably just rotted on the tree. That makes me sad. 
Still Life After Marketing Oct 16, 2010

The following recipe for Pears Pie is based on Alton Brown's  Super Apple Pie recipe I watched on Hulu.  I copy/pasted the recipe here with my changes.

For the crust:
  • 6 ounces unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 ounces vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 5 to 7 tablespoons applejack {I decided not to buy a $20 bottle of booze to make one pie. I just used 5 T ice water.}
  • 12 ounces all-purpose flour, approximately 2 3/4 cups, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
For the filling:

  • 3 to 3 1/2 pounds apples, mixture of Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Braeburn and Golden Delicious, about 6 large apples {I used 6 crisp pears that they called Asian pears at the green market. I got a basket of them for $5. They weren't exactly the same as the apple pears I grow back home. Not as crisp. But they were not nearly as soft as a Bosc pear.  The skin is tough like the pears back home. They had a bit of a flavor note that reminded me of the smell of epoxy resin. This brings back fond memories of my uncle's boat shop so I didn't care. Let's eat 'em.} 
  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided
  • 3 tablespoons tapioca flour {I got regular Minute Tapioca in the pudding section at HEB, the grocery store nearby}
  • 2 tablespoons apple jelly {I used Guava jelly. I just thought it would be good with pears. Plus it was on sale.}
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider {I used Swedish pear soda. I had some cans of it I got at Ikea.}
  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground grains of paradise {I used whole allspice, ground ginger and ground nutmeg from a brand new jar that cost half as much as whole nutmeg. My nutmeg grinder is in Beachton and I couldn't find one at the store.}

For the crust:
Place the butter, shortening and applejack into the refrigerator for 1 hour. {I portioned out the butter and Crisco in little pieces on a plate and put them in the refrigerator for about a day. It comes out to a stick and a half of butter and 4 tablespoons of Crisco. I got the kind that comes in fat sticks.}
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, salt and sugar by pulsing 3 to 4 times. Add the butter and pulse 5 to 6 times until the texture looks mealy. Add the shortening and pulse another 3 to 4 times until incorporated.
Remove the lid of the food processor and sprinkle in 5 tablespoons of the applejack {ice water}. Replace the lid and pulse 5 times. Add more applejack as needed, and pulse again until the mixture holds together when squeezed. {I left it real dry. 5 T only} Weigh the dough and divide in half.  {I just guessed. I knew my pan was smaller than what the recipe called for so it wouldn't be a problem of not having enough.} Shape each half into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to overnight. {I did it the night before. This is the same Cuisinart technique my Aunt Dorian taught me when I was a teenager.}
For the filling:
Peel and core the apples {pears}. Slice into 1/2-inch thick wedges. {I squeezed (squoze) two limes over the pears as I cut them up to slow the browning.} Toss all of the apples with 1/4 cup of the sugar, place in a colander set over a large bowl and allow to drain for 1 1/2 hours. {I left this while I went to HEB to look for tapioca flour.}
Transfer the drained liquid to a small saucepan, place over medium heat and reduce to 2 tablespoons. Set aside to cool. {I didn't have much juice and I don't trust my stove to not burn stuff up so I didn't concentrate this juice.} Toss the apples with the remaining sugar, tapioca flour, jelly, cider, lime juice, salt and grains of paradise. {I put the tapioca in a coffee grinder with about 7 allspice and whirred it up good. I put some ginger and nutmeg in there and gave it another whir. It was the consistency of flour with medium grind pepper in it like you'd use to coat chicken. I added that to the pears with the two spoons of guava jelly and one of the pear soda but no more lime juice. I shook in a few dashes of Angostora bitters too. I love that stuff. I did remember to add some salt and 1/4 cup of sugar. See photo below.}
For assembling and baking the pie:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Remove one disk of dough from the refrigerator. Place the dough onto a lightly floured piece of waxed paper. Lightly sprinkle the top of the dough with flour and roll out into a 12-inch circle. Place into a 9 1/2 to 10-inch tart pan that is 2-inches deep. {I used a 9" pie plate that fits in my pie keeper. I can't eat up a whole pie so I probably have to take it somewhere to get somebody to help me eat it.} Gently press the dough into the sides of the pan, crimping and trimming the edges as necessary. Set a pie bird in the center of the bottom of the pan. {I found a pie bird at HEB for $3.95. This was after I'd already cut up the pears. I'd searched online to see if I should go to Williams Sonoma at the mall but they didn't have them on the website. It's pretty amazing that they had this obscure item at my grocery store.}
Place the apples {pears} into the unbaked pie shell in concentric circles starting around the edges, working towards the center and forming a slight mound in the center of the pie. Pour over any liquid that remains in the bowl. (Mine wasn't really liquid so much as gritty goo. Man oh man was it delicious though.} Roll out the second pie dough as the first. Place this dough over the apples, pressing the pie bird through the top crust. Press together the edges of the dough around the rim of the pie. Brush the top crust with the reduced juice everywhere except around the edge of pie. {I just used it straight out of the pan it drained into. It beaded up on the greasy crust. I saved the extra in a jelly jar to use as a sauce.} Trim any excess dough. Place the pie on a half sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake on the floor** of the oven for 30 minutes. {I did it on the bottom rack for 20 minutes since my pie pan is a little smaller than specified. I didn't have any parchment paper either.} Transfer to the lower rack of the oven and continue to bake another 20 minutes or until the apples are cooked through but not mushy. {I took it out and put my pie crust edge protector on it. I moved the rack up one notch and put it back in for another 20 minutes.} Remove to a rack and cool a minimum of 4 hours or until almost room temperature.
**If you're using an electric oven with coils on the bottom of the oven, place the pie on the sheet pan on the lowest rack over the coils, NOT directly on top of them.
My flavorings and thickener for the filling. Salt and sugar not shown.
Bottom crust done. Pie bird deployed.
Pears arranged in the pie plate.

Rolling out top crust. I guess I haven't forgotten all I knew because it didn't bother me at all when my crust looked like this. I knew I had more than I needed so I just kept rolling.
After rolling it as thin as I wanted it was fine.

Ready to go in the oven. I didn't use the flash and it was hard to adjust the color in this picture.
After 20 minutes I put this thing on there and put it back in one rack higher.
 I just pulled the extra rack out of the oven for cooling.
Not sure what my plan is for eating the pie yet. I'm a little worried about where to leave it overnight. I've been hearing something running around in my ceiling downstairs. I'll be really really mad if I go down to the kitchen and find the rats ate my pie.

* Update: I ate a piece of the pie. The allspice was too strong for the delicate pears. I think next time I might go with just the bitters and maybe a little ginger. The pears were done al dente and the crust was flakey and nicely browned on the bottom. There was no runny liquid. The moisture was the consistency of warm jelly. I might put more liquid in next time or less tapioca.