Friday, February 27, 2009

Free Knowledge!

Did you know that MIT offers free course material for 1800 courses online, no registration required? It almost makes me wonder why anyone would pay tuition to go there in person, if you can essentially take the courses for free and learn as much as you want to. You only have to pay if you want to get the diploma.

Of course, with their open courseware, you don't get access to the faculty, so that's something. You also don't get a diploma, no matter how much you learn. And that's what MIT is really selling - the diploma, the credentials.

But hey, if you really wanted to learn, there are certainly worse places to go.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Replacements

We're getting to the point where many things in our house could stand to be replaced. Not that everything NEEDS to be replaced right away, but more and more things are showing their age. I guess that's what happens after you've been married 14 years.

Our toaster oven (which gets used almost every day) no longer dings when it's done toasting. It still toasts things just fine- but we have to watch it to see when it's done, which is kind of a pain. My coffee maker has developed several drip-related quirks, none of which are endearing, so a new one is on its way to the Ward abode, compliments of the nice people at Gevalia. 

We just picked up a new vacuum cleaner because our old one (insert suck-related pun of your choice here). And our TV has cleverly developing a few spots where the picture gets kinda greenish. Most of the time it's not noticable, but sometimes, it is. Plus, the couches are getting less comfy... the list goes on.

So, we've got a list going of "Things To Replace Someday (soonish)." Let's call it our little contribution to the economic recovery.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas...

I've decided it would be fun to become a dogmatic supporter of the Iron Sun theory. This theory basically posits that our Sun is not actually a mass of incandescent gas, as They Migh Be Giants claim, but in fact has an iron core.

I just really dig the idea of maverick scientists (or anyone else, for that matter) pushing against the conventional wisdom and advocating a theory that contradicts the accepted model of solar activity and formation. I can't really tell which model is best supported by the data. I just like the idea that there's more than one idea out there.

And hey, if some white dwarf stars are giant diamonds, why couldn't our Sun be made of iron?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Everything's Not Broken

With all the doom and gloom in the news about the banks, the auto industry, the economy in general (and healthcare and education and... you get the picture) it's easy to conclude that everything is broken. It shouldn't have to be said, but I'm quite certain this is not the case.

Let's bear in mind, for starters, that the news is necessarily limited to reporting on the unusual and sensational, no matter how objective, fair, and balanced the journalists strive to be. As the great G.K. Chesterton (himself a journalist) observed:

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding... That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles.

Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

So yes, there are problems and many of them are big. People fall off scaffoldings. Scoundrels make off with $50B. People are losing their jobs. But this does not mean everything is broken.

For example, small banks are generally doing just fine (which pleases my Distributist sensibilities to no end). And democracy in America is working - we just witnessed the peaceful transfer of power between Bush and Obama. Not just any old power - the presidency is arguably the most powerful position in the world (at least in the top 3 or 4, right?).

And for all the complaints about education and healthcare (many of which are quite justified, I'm sure), we still manage to save lives, produce new medical breakthroughs and provide world-class education to some of the most creative and intelligent people around. Students from around the world still come to America for college. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

I'm not saying everything is good. I'm just saying everything isn't broken.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Tin Ear Award Goes To...

A pet peeve of mine is marketing and advertising that uses terms like consumers or product. As in, "Hey there Mr. Consumer - try my product!"

Um, no.

Worse yet is directions on food packages that warn "Heat before use - caution, product will be hot." On food packages! 

Seriously, don't do that. Food is for eating, not for using. People who refer to food as a product (and who try to tell consumers how to use that food-product) have spent too much time in the marketing bubble. Lingo like that simply doesn't belong in the conversation between seller and buyer.

Anyway, a package of cream cheese caught my eye the other day.

Do I really care what consumers prefer? Isn't there another word for consumer, a word that's maybe a bit more human? Like, maybe people?

Friday, February 20, 2009


"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."
- Shunryu Suzuki

I believe this quote by Shunryu Suzuki is typically understood as a compliment to "beginners mind" (aka Shoshin), and an admonition to approach life with an openness to possibilities. But like most Zen principles, it cuts both ways.

I first came across this concept in Garr Reynold's book Presentation Zen, and I initially saw it as a compliment to experts. It seemed to me Suzuki was saying the expert sees only the true possibilities, while the beginner is distracted by many false paths. The beginner must sort through many possibilities which the expert immediately (and correctly) rules out. 

But yes, the expert fails to see some possibilities that the beginner is willing to consider. Like I said, it cuts both ways.

And that's your moment of zen for today.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


One of the fun things about digging through old boxes in the basement is that we occasionally come across something worth keeping, like really, really old books.

The book in this photo is an edition of Ivanhoe published in 1888. I believe I got it from my grandmother.

You probably can't read the writing on the front cover. It's a quote by Thomas Carlyle which says "May blessings be upon the head of Cadmus, the Phoenicians, or whoever it was that invented books."

Here's a closeup:
Blessings indeed!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Parking Fail

Some buddies and I were out at a Turkish restaurant last week (YUM!) and saw this message on the parking meter. Obviously, we all had to whip our our handy-dandy cellphone cameras and capture the moment, in order to submit it to the Fail Blog.

The sun was so bright I wasn't sure I successfully captured the Parking Fail photo, but it turns out I did (plus, the word Fail was blinking, so the timing was kinda tricky).

Anyway, there it is. :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Went to see Slumdog Millionaire on Valentine's Day, and all I can say is wow.

You probably already knew it was a remarkable movie. It's getting tons of critical praise and is lined up to win a million awards. So any praise from me is just a drop in the ocean, I know. So let me just say I really enjoyed it.

One last comment: Best ending credits ever (and I'm including all the Jackie Chan blooper reels, which I LOVE).

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Escalator

This video just made me laugh.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Not Clever!

Can I just say that monkeying around with President Obama's name is not particularly clever? 

Seriously, calling him Obama Bin Laden, or Barak HUSSEIN Obama, or referring to an "Obamanation" or "Obamunism" - it's just not as clever as some people seem to think it is. Honestly, it's not clever.

I think Mark Twain once said something along the lines of "Never make fun of a man's name. He's heard it a hundred times before, and each time was funnier than the time you did it." (I paraphrase).

Make fun of the way. he. talks. Or laugh at him for bumping his head on Marine One (hyuk, the President sure is tall! hyuk hyuk). Or, go ahead, make fun of his name - just don't spend too much time complimenting yourself on how clever that is.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New Field Notes Book

I carry around a little notebook everywhere I go... including just going downstairs (I use Fields Note Brand, if you're curious). I use them to capture everything from ideas for books and articles to lists of things to do. OK, they're mostly full of ideas for books and articles.

Anyway, these little notebooks last me about a month before they're filled up and I need to get a new one. There's always a sense of loss when I have to retire a full notebook, although it's tempered by the excitement and sense of new possibilities in a new, blank notebook.

So, it's new Field Notes time... a day of mixed feelings to be sure.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Economic Stimulus Package

Thought I'd make a few comments about the Economic Stimulus Package ('cause I'm sure everyone wants to know what I think...). Frankly, I'm not entirely sure what to think, for the simple reason that it's difficult to find a clear, fair and balanced description of the thing, much less a cogent assessment of the thing's merits. With all due respect to Senator McCain, I don't care if the bill is bi-partisan or not. I'm more concerned with whether or not it will help.

So, when President Obama describes the part about investing money to make government buildings more energy efficient and weatherize homes, I say Yay! That sounds like it would create jobs now, save money in the long run and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Yay! And when he says there are no earmarks in the bill, again I say Yay!

But making government buildings more fuel efficient is not the whole package (oh no!). What else is in there? Plenty. Is it too much or too little? I don't claim to know.

And when the President talks about economists agreeing with each other, um, I get pretty skeptical. In fact, I was sceptical even before the Cato institute ran this ad, which was signed by like a million economists.

My conclusion? Nobody knows if the bill will work or not. Anyone who is certain about the bill's impact or outcome (positive or negative) is on shaky ground.

We may philosophically like this bill or we may distrust it. We may see it as a confirmation or a repudiation of our beliefs. We may criticize it for being too partisan or not partisan enough. But I'm pretty sure we don't really even know what's in it, let alone whether it'll help or not.

My bottom line - I like some parts, and distrust some other parts. But the people who seem most opposed to it are generally the people whose ideas led to the situation we're in now. So I'm interested to see how President Obama's approach works out...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Barriers To Innovation

A friend of mine just hooked me up with a video about bureaucracy at NASA - all I can say is "Yup."

The movie gave me chills, because it reminded me so much of my own experience as a young engineer with the Air Force. I've been that guy who keeps getting asked "Why are you doing that? Don't you know it's not your job? Why don't you just keep your head down and color in the lines?" 

And when the young engineer's boss gets asked "Are you supporting her?" (with the clear implication that the answer had better be a solid No)... well, it reminded me of meetings that were held to discuss yours truly.

Interestingly, the NASA process diagram (at the 4:00 mark) is basically identical to the one the military uses. I bet we could switch diagrams and nobody would notice.

So, watch the movie - it's worth the time. Laugh because it's funny, and cry because it's true.

My first thought was to check out the blog and see if that crew was involved - sure enough, there it was!

Just for fun, here's the DoD's equivalent process diagram (any questions?):

Monday, February 9, 2009

Thesis 1.0

Well, I submitted the first complete draft of my thesis to my advisor. Now I get to wait and see what kind of changes he's going to suggest (and I'll continue tinkering with it, of course).

It's hard to believe how soon my little sabbatical in academia is coming to an end! Graduation is less than 7 weeks away (and thesis defense is only 3 weeks from now!)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ready to lead...

I'm still still digesting the inaugural address. As I continue to think about it and review it, one phrase really jumps out:

"Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more."

"Ready to lead once more..." That short phrase says so much. It talks to our recent history of international relations, as well as our more distant past. It talks to the larger story of America's role in the world. And most significantly, it says a lot about what leadership really is.

What I think I hear the President saying is that leadership is a choice. America's position in the world is not a birthright. It is something we must prepare for, something we must decide to do. And by telling the world we are prepared to lead, I hear him inviting them to follow. It's not a demand or a declaration of what they must do. It's an announcement of our readiness to engage with the world in a different way than we've used in the past 8 years.

I like it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Oh Crap!

There's never a good time for the sewer to back up and flood one's basement, but four days after installing new carpet has got to be at the top of the list of Really Bad Timing.

Here's what happened: After dinner on Tuesday, I walked down to the basement to change the kitty litter. Instead, I was met with sights and smells which I will not describe out of deference to your gentle sensitivites, dear reader. Also, I personally don't want to relive that moment (or any of the moments in the hours that followed). 

The next three hours were spent cleaning, going to the store to buy more cleaning supplies and to rent a Rug Doctor (tm), calling Roto Rooter, and doing more cleaning. After that, I washed my hands a dozen times or two.

The good new is it looks like our cleaning efforts were effective and the new carpet is going to survive. That's a relief. The other good news is that the Roto Rooter guy (named Adam) was able to come out within an hour of our call, and since they were just here in June, the work was covered under their 12 month guarantee. Also a relief!

But what I want to know is what kind of person designs a system such that, when it fails, you end up with a basement full of poo? Was that really necessary? I'm not a civil engineer or an architect, but I've got to think it's possible to design a waste removal system that does not involve that particular feature. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Do You See What I See?

A recent study reported that caffeine can cause hallucinations. Usually that sort of experience requires either psychiatric problems or illegal substances. Kind of exciting to think it can be done with just a couple extra cups of java.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Do you ever wonder what the opposite of a terrorist is?

I'd guess the opposite of a terrorist is a comfortist.

Maybe that's the key to winning the Global War on Terror (are we still using that term?). We could develop and deploy a Comfortist Brigade, running around the world bringing people comfy chairs, Mac & Cheese and soft, warm towels. 

Monday, February 2, 2009

Obama via Wii

Until this past Christmas, I'd never owned a game console (I don't count the used PS2 I bought on eBay for $30 last year, 'cause I only played with it maybe twice). I didn't have an Atari when I was a kid, I didn't get an Xbox when I was a bigger kid. It's just not something I ever got into.

So, when the Wii first came out, I remember being a little bit surprised by just how much I wanted one. It was an odd feeling. I'm not the type to lust after technology, but there was something about the Wii that really grabbed me. 

Long story short - we got one for Christmas last month. My lovely and amazing wife consistently trounces me in Mario Kart... and probably every other game we'll ever play (she's a way better gamer than I am).

But I mention all this to say that we also downloaded the Internet Channel for our Wii. The resolution for reading text is awful, but it works pretty well for videos (except for videos where we have to download Flash 8 or 9 - 'cause apparently the Wii can't do that). And the point of this whole thing is this: one of the first videos we watched was President Obama's first Weekly Address, via YouTube (you can also get it here).

I think it's fantastic that the President has made the jump from radio to YouTube. An educated electorate is such an important part of a healthy democracy, and anything that allows leaders to speak directly to citizens is a good thing in my book. The videos are worth watching, regardless of one's political persuasion.

And it cracks me up that I can watch the video in my living room, using my Wii. What a cool new world we live in.