08
Nov
14

Talking Cars

Tom Magliozzi of the National Public Radio (NPR) program Car Talk died on November 3rd, 2014 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77 years old.
I’ll admit that when I heard this news on the radio, I started crying. Those of you who know me also know that I cry at a lot of things: the big, life-changing things and quite a few little things. Nemo’s clownfish mom (spoiler alert!) dying in the first ten minutes of Finding Nemo? I cry. About every other StoryCorps segment on NPR? I cry. So – I have this tendency.
Still, I don’t typically break down blubbering when the famous die. For instance, though the death of Robin Williams was a terrible tragedy, my eyes did not immediately start leaking in response to that news1. And yet, there I was, rolling into the parking lot at work on Tuesday morning with tears streaming down my cheeks. Others have done the job of eulogizing Tom better than I can2, but the guy was a feature in my life for as long as I can remember, so I feel obligated to say, well, something.
I don’t really know when my parents started listening to Car Talk, but I was young. Young enough that I don’t even distinctly remember how I reacted to the program other than a vague sense that I liked it, and that it was on most Saturdays. It’s not as if the whole family would gather around the radio and sit rapt as Car Talk “wasted” one of our perfectly good hours, but it was/is a constant presence in my memories of weekends growing up. I remember my Dad always doing this ridiculous little dance to Car Talk’s bluegrass intro music3. I remember someone, maybe my Mom, commenting that perhaps Tom and Ray shouldn’t laugh at their own jokes so much. This admonishment made me try to stop laughing at my own jokes, though I don’t think it stuck. I remember going away to college and occasionally flipping on this little clock radio my parents got me on Saturday mornings to listen to Car Talk – then realizing it made me a little homesick. I remember going away to grad school and listening to Car Talk almost every weekend. At that point, it had become something that centered me a bit and reminded me where I had come from and what I was doing there in Oregon. Some small part of my mild success during my first year of grad school should be attributed to the Magliozzi brothers.
More recently, my Car Talk listenings had become more sporadic. Maybe I was finally settling into my own identity, finally re-defining my home as wherever my wife and I were rather than back in Chippewa Township4. Whatever it was, I was catching my Car Talk fix going to and/or coming back from the Berkeley Bowl. I’d catch a horse eating someone’s steering wheel on the way in, and if I was lucky, a Katherine with a K5 telling Tom and Ray about the whizzzzz—-wub—–wub—wub–wub-wub-wubwubwubwubwubwubwub sound her car was making when going around a lefthand turn that was greater than 90 degrees, oh, but only during the winter months. And on odd-numbered days. And only on even-numbered days if it had snowed the previous day. Stump those chumps, Katherine, stump them good.
And now, well, here we are with the Magliozzi brothers down to half strength and retired to boot. Mr. Berman, the often-good-naturedly-maligned executive producer of Car Talk has stated that there are enough unique Car Talk segments to fill eight years of re-runs. I sincerely hope that he is incorrect, and that the edited re-runs we now hear continue to be run for many years beyond that. After all, my wife and I are expectant parents of a daughter that I hope will have her sense of home and humor partly defined by the voices, laughs, and intellects of the Magliozzi brothers. Thanks to both for many years of entertainment, knowledge, and memories.

1 And to be clear, I’m a big Robin Williams fan. Even went to see Patch Adams, though I’d like that time back please.
2 Try these for good stuff from people who knew Tom personally:  NPR story, Car Talk memorial
3 If you’re interested, the piece is called ‘Dawggy Mountain Breakdown’ by the David Grisman Quintet. Oh, and thanks Dad, I have inherited your dance moves.
4 Yeah, that sounds like pop-psych crap to me too, but hey. Oh, and Chippewa 4 life playas! FOR LIFE! I’ll always love Oakville Road.
5 Obviously.

18
Jun
14

Knees, Rabbits, and Super Rabbits

The thread of a conversation:
First, my lovely wife and I were lying on the couch after watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation1, when I commented that her knees were kind of small. She claimed that her knees were normal and in fact that it was my knees which were unusually large and weird. We agreed to disagree. She then started wondering how it was that knee replacements are done2. Are all the ligaments and tendons cut and re-attached?  I suggested that perhaps they were moved out of the way and that only the ones attached the joint itself were removed.  She replied that if the joint was titanium, then biological tissue could bond to it and vice versa.  She revealed that she had learned this while reading The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, which describes the original experiment involving a rabbit and a very thin piece of titanium being placed over its healing leg bone so that the process of how bone marrow produces new blood cells could be observed but not be exposed to the environment.  Creepy.  The scientist3 found that the titanium was bonded to the bone as the bone itself healed.  My wife expressed sadness that a rabbit had been subjected to such a trial.  I agreed, though I suggested that the rabbit had likely been further experimented on to determine the extent of titanium’s ability to bond to bone until the skeletal structure of the rabbit was mostly made up of titanium. Horrifying as this must have been at the time for the rabbit, it now had super powers like Wolverine4, and once it had escaped, it could use its powers both for good and to visit a righteous vengeance upon its oppressors and bunny oppressors everywhere. Soon, as its skills developed, all the warning its enemies would receive was a slight rustling in the brush, and then a brief silence as the rabbit launched itself5 through the air toward the jugular of its foe.  Later in its evolution, I concluded, the intensive training and its unique bone structure would allow it to achieve sub-orbital flight with a single hop.  The only warning its enemies would then have was the sonic boom the bionic rabbit would create as it re-entered the troposphere6.  Unfortunately for them, this forewarning would be unlikely to save their lives.  One hop later, and the only evidence that the bionic bunny would leave behind was the resulting carnage and a few errant hare hairs.
“It needs a name”, my wife said.  “Ellie Junior”, I responded.  “Not very superhero-like”, she responded.  I promised to come up with something more appropriate if something of this sort ever came to pass.
And then I went off to brush my teeth.

 

1 Eye of the Beholder, Season 7.  A good one.
2 My father recently had one of these, so this wasn’t completely at random.
3 Dr. Per-Ingvar Branemark.
4 Snikt, snikt.
5 Hop!
6 Note: the bunny would require specially-made goggles.

15
May
14

Doodling

I think everyone doodles at some point.  Probably during a meeting that should have been over a half hour ago.  Anyway, I doodle, and if I’ve figured out the tool for adding an image to a post, you’ll be seeing an example in the space below.  For a more talented doodler whose style I approve of, go here.

Tricolor!

Tricolor!

17
Aug
13

Hey Abbott

About eight months ago, I promised readers of this blog a post on beer.  My strict publication schedule has finally brought us to that post in a timely manner.  Rather than write on beer at-large, I have decided to approach things a beer at a time – and then elaborate too much in the usual fashion.

Earlier this week I imbibed a brew from the Ommegang Brewery1 of Cooperstown, New York.  They call it “Abbey Ale”, and it is styled after the Dubbel ales produced by those wizards of beercraft, the Trappist monks of Belgium. Here is some information that greets the viewer of this 750mL, $9.99, corked bottle of beer:  8.2% ABV, a silhouette of two monk-like creatures clinking their goblets together, and the following script, “Ale Brewed with Licorice Root, Star Anise, Sweet Orange Peel, Coriander, and Cumin”, followed by, “Rich, Fruity and Aromatic Burgundian Brew”. All very nice, though it is this label information that has made this beer the second (maybe third) Ommegang brew that I’ve tried. Cumin, weird. Coriander, weird. And I dislike licorice. I also wasn’t sure what “Burgundian” really meant in relation to a beer, and I’m still not sure2.

Still, their Three Philosophers ale was ever-so-tasty, so I trusted the brewer if not this particular brew3.  So, I bought it, brought it home, carefully considered it, removed the cork, and poured half a glass in such a manner as to not disturb the settled yeast carcasses over much, yet produce a healthy ‘head’ of bubbles on the poured glass.  I read somewhere that this last bit (the pour) is crucial.  CRUCIAL.  Hard to say if I accomplished the first goal of the pour, though I can attest to achieving the second part.  Anyway, my impressions of this fancy brew once I had a sniff and a taste were – mixed.  All the visual cues were pleasing.  Nice carbonation and attractive color, a warm brown with a touch of red.  The problems started as soon as I lifted the glass toward my face.  The aroma of the beer had a fair amount of that anise/coriander in it, at least to my nose, and this is not what I’ve been conditioned to expect in smelling a beer.  Persevering, I took a drink, and was greeted by much the same.  All the herbs, so proudly displayed in the label text, were equally proudly displayed in the taste and odor of the brew.  This is not to say that the herbs completely dominated the beer.  I’ve had beer, fruity beer usually, in which that occurs, and it is akin to an assault.  No, here it is more akin to a slightly-too-firm handshake.  Not unpleasant, but perhaps a little uncomfortable.

Now this bottle cost me about eleven dollars, so I’m clearly not a particularly frugal person, but I’m also not such a spendthrift that I would let the rest of the bottle go to waste just because I didn’t like the first sip.  Luckily, because the herbs, though assertive, are not overpowering, the beer improves with continued imbibing.  You might ask, doesn’t every beer do this?  The short answer is yes of course4, but the point I’m trying to make here is that the unusual flavors of this beer grew on me.  By the time I was half a glass into the bottle, the taste and aroma of the beer became familiar, less obtrusive.  When I encounter a beer that is a little off-putting to start, it is not common that by the end of the bottle I end up rather liking it.  I think that if I had (1) a more open mind about how beer was meant to taste and smell, and (2) liked anise/licorice, I might have enjoyed this beer thoroughly from start to finish.  As it is, however, I don’t think I’ll be buying it again.  At least not at that price.

1 Also the brewers of a licensed promotional beer for Game of Thrones called the Iron Throne Golden Ale.  A quote from the brewer, “With a Lannister currently on the Throne, it made sense to do a delicate, but piercing Golden Blonde Ale with Noble hops.”  Well spoken, sir.
2 The only thing I could come up with after a bit of looking around is that good Burgundy wines are almost always hailed for having very complex and rich flavors.  I believe this is the quality that Ommegang meant to attribute to this beer.  Still, it is so unclear to the reader that I can only assume that the brewer was just attempting to piggyback on the good name of the Burgundy wine region, despite this brew having nothing to do with it.  Very odd.
3 Made this mistake with Dogfish Head Brewery once at the Oregon Brewers Festival.  The brewers of the very fine 90 Minute IPA also make the Black & Red.  Stay far, far away from that one my friends.  Syrupy, heavy, very fruity, high alcohol, and very, very minty in the middle of the hot Oregon summer.  Mint?  What?
4 Well, to a point anyway.

02
Aug
13

Header Mark II

You, a reader of my blog, are now enjoying new and improved(?) scenery at the top of the page courtesy of my recent trip to Acadia National Park. Pictured is what I believe to be minuartia groenlandica, or the mountain sandwort.  Translated further, it is a plant (wort) that lives in alpine to sub-alpine environments amongst granite ledges and the gravel that results from those ledges’ erosion.  Aptly named and described by its wiki, I think, since this is exactly the kind of place I found it. It is relatively rare in Maine because the state is on the southern end of the flower’s range and the environment that it likes isn’t found in too many places there.  The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (more specifically the Bureau of Geology, Natural Areas, and Coastal Resources within the aforementioned Department1) says that it hasn’t had a documented observation of one of these since 2002.  This suggests to me that either they haven’t bothered looking, or 2002 is when the particular webpage I am looking at was written.  Maybe both of these things are the case.

Anyway, I found all this out by searching the Internet, which is fantastic. I know that statement kind of makes me sound elderly, but I think anyone with half a measure of curiosity should be able to take a step back and wonder at the combination of clever technologies that allows me to start with a digital picture, type “tiny white flower Pemetic Acadia National Park” into Google, find a picture of the same flower captioned “mountain sandwort” on the hikenewengland.com webpage, type “mountain sandwort Acadia” into Google to get to a pdf describing “Focus Areas of Statewide Ecological Significance: Acadia East and West”, which gives me the scientific name of the flower, etc, etc.  Real life is science fiction.  Sort of.  I suppose I won’t be truly mesmerized until I can snap a picture of something relatively obscure like this flower, have my camera wirelessly transmit that picture to a server on the internet, which will run a sophisticated image analysis algorithm on it to identify the flower, compile the sum total of human knowledge on that flower, attach a few other pictures of the same species and related species for reference, and zip all that back to me in, say, a quarter of a second.  You can actually do this with Google Goggles, but it works only a very small subset of the world so far.  Until they get their act together2, I will have to find other things to marvel at.  Shouldn’t be too difficult.

1 Bureaucracy, what bureaucracy?
2 I mean, come on, right? Clearly, they are just twiddling their thumbs down there in Silicon Valley.

25
Jun
13

The Value of Empty Space

If memory serves, my family was sitting around after dinner one evening back during the W. Bush years, and the subject of space exploration came up.  The context, I believe, was that the President’s Moon base and manned Mars mission proposal had been publicized not too long beforehand.  One of my aunts wanted to know what we thought of the proposal.  The ensuing discussion boiled down to the two positions that always seem to come up when human exploration of space is discussed by anyone: (1) manned space exploration is cool, is cheap relative to various other budget items, and usually invents a bunch of useful technology along the way, and (2) the manned space program is billions of dollars we could be spending to try and solve all our very real and immediate problems here on the homeworld.  I was backing position #1, but my memory is that I was a bit outnumbered and definitely out-articulated1.

Of course, it became clear the President’s proposal was largely meant to sound dramatic and ambitious rather than actually be dramatic and ambitious.  No wonder, given what else was going on in January 20042.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget did get a mild bump in inflation-adjusted dollars during the Bush presidency (about 15% over the course of eight years), but not near the kind of investment that would be needed for the task3.  President Barack Obama’s re-focus of the projects dropped the Moon base, but kept the manned Mars mission on the distant horizon (2030’s).  I was always a little ambivalent about the Moon base – sort of a we’ve-already-been-there thing – but the extended timeline of our next great manned mission, combined with the not-so-selective austerity measures taken by Congress, has allowed NASA’s budget to slowly shrink both in current and inflation-adjusted dollars.  I argued/am-arguing that this is a bad thing. As for why, and why we shouldn’t just pile NASA’s money into aid programs and the like, here are a couple of reasons.

One, NASA is cheap4.  About one half of one penny of every tax dollar to pay for the entire organization.  This amounts to about $18 billion out of the $3.5 trillion annual federal budget. 12% of the budget goes to “safety net” programs, not including Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.  A weirdly unpopular 1% of our federal budget goes to non-security-related foreign aid.  So by a pretty conservative estimate, NASA gets $1 to every $26 spent on the betterment of our fellow (pre-dominantly American) humans.  If one slices and dices further, the ratio becomes even larger.  Large chunks of Social Security/Medicaid/Medicare are clearly meant to prevent poverty and human suffering.  If it is just the manned space exploration part of NASA’s mission that is the problem, then the ratio goes up again. I’m not discounting the value of spending money on aid programs, far from it, but perhaps there are better places in the federal budget to go looking for funds than NASA5.  As for how much to spend on NASA, 1% is a nice, admittedly arbitrary ballpark figure that Neil deGrasse Tyson recently mentioned to Congress.  A whole lot can get done for that kind of money.

Two, NASA is valuable.  Personally, I think the idea of sending humans flying through the passively hostile emptiness of space to visit (and perhaps stay in the future) other astronomical objects is of intrinsic value. Few things are as difficult a task or as inspiring an achievement.  In more practical terms, NASA projects and research have a tendency to spawn useful technologies.  The best tasting of these: freeze-dried (Space) ice cream6.  These projects also produce a wealth of fundamental science, which can be interpreted as science for science’s sake (enough justification for me) or perhaps a little more optimistically as knowledge about our universe that might change our world 20+ years from now.  Beyond these reasons, I see manned space flight as crucial to our survival as a species.  This is meant both directly (“Well, there’s an asteroid the diameter of Texas headed this way and no Bruce Willis to take care of it.  Guess we should’ve colonized Titan after all.  Oops.”) and indirectly (“Sorry Mr. President, but spending half a trillion dollars on the new F-885 fighter/bomber didn’t poll as well as spending that money on terra-forming Mars.  Fortunately the Chinese and the Russians had the same problem, so we should be ok.”7).

At a more basic level, and this gets back to the intrinsic value part of my point, it would be a terrible shame to ‘see’ all of these other worlds, all the myriad of strange and beautiful things that clever astronomers have enabled us to observe, and never go to any of them.  It’s akin to continually looking at a map, observing all the lovely towns, roads, rivers, mountains, oceans, and shorelines, then folding the map up, popping it back in the glove compartment, and turning the car toward home.

 

1 “But, but, uh, SPACE! It’s awesome.  And our descendants could be Jean-Luc-Picard-ish.”
2 We may have been fighting a couple of wars, and there may have been an election ‘coming up’ by USA standards.
3 There is an argument to be made that sufficient funding (in aggregate) was in NASA’s budget already, but this supposes a flexibility that NASA might have had but did not want to have.  The simple version is that, yeah sure, we might have been able to do the Moon base and manned Mars mission over a reasonable timeframe, but at the expense of cancelling or delaying pretty much everything else NASA had previously been tasked with doing.
4 Yes of course I mean this in relative terms.
5 For some insight into where the money goes, and thus where it might come from for NASA and and other worthy programs, check out the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
6 Sadly and contrary to popular belief, Tang and Velcro, among other items, were not invented by NASA scientists.  For various actual technologies, check out the NASA Spinoff website.  The 1977 edition has bonus sideburns and moustaches in the photos.
7 I can fantasize, right?

15
May
13

Avoiding Graphing With Calculators

As anyone required to buy a graphing calculator for pre-calculus knows, those calculators’ second-most important function was to allow their owners to play games. I can honestly say that I did almost none of this because I was a good student1 and was too cheap to buy the data transfer cable for the TI-82.  However, I was definitely fascinated by my classmates’ ability to play Pong in the back of class.  Or at lunch.  Or in the hall.

Technology has of course continued its inexorable march since the days of my TI-82 usage (circa 1998)2, and now the proud owners of the TI-83/84 series of graphing calculators can play a version of Portal in the back of class.  For the uninitiated, Portal is a gaming classic that came out in 2007 and was published by Valve after Valve hired the group of students who wrote and coded the original ‘portal’ concept in 2005.  The player controls a protagonist who is “armed” with an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, which is a teleportation device that allows the player to place the entrance and exit points of the teleport.  This can lead to some entertaining physics – stepping through an entrance portal on the floor with the exit on the ceiling above causes the player to fall faster and faster and faster as the player goes through the floor up to the ceiling, falls to the floor again, back up to the ceiling, etc, etc.

Anyway, all this good, clean, thought-provoking fun is available to slacking TI-83 owners everywhere thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of one Alex Marcolina (handle: Builderboy2005) at UC – Santa Cruz.  I figure Builderboy2005 is going places in the future.  In addition to figuring out how to program the game, he managed to shove a 2-D version of Portal into the 24kB3 of user available RAM in the TI-83.  That’s efficient programming.

1 Or at least I was deferential to authority.  Must be all that the fluoride in the drinking water impurifying my precious bodily fluids.
2 What, you think those graphing calculators come in handy after pre-calculus/calculus?  Hahahahahaha.  No.  Or at least you can become a physicist without ever using one.  Of course, you just graduate to more complicated crutches like Mathematica and Matlab.
3 This massive pool of RAM was only recently surpassed by a cutting-edge desktop computing device called the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I.  In 1977.  Though you did need the optional expansion card interface to get the extra 32kB of RAM.  This thing also had the same processor as the TI-83, albeit at about a quarter of the TI-83’s blistering 6 MHz clock speed.  You have to love Texas Instruments’ business model.