Skeptics, Scientists, and Christmas

"Why are you such a skeptic?" Was the question I was asked, and not without a little consternation. As if skepticism was an illness, or at least a dirty word. I didn't have a good answer. I'd never really thought about it. "Why aren't we all skeptics?" seemed like the better question. The benefits of practicing healthy skepticism seem to outweigh the problems a hundred to one. (Never tempted to buy something from an infomercial? Check. Not wasting money on the lottery? Check. Saving time and sanity not listening to Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity/Glen Beck? Check.)

When did skepticism become such a bad thing? Without skepticism, would we still be doing lobotomies and letting blood? Would we have any of the advances of modern science? It's been hundreds of years since Galileo was branded a heretic; why are we still fighting the same battles?

But I digress. The answer to the original question is that I am a skeptic because I've seen the evidence and I don't know how else to be. Based on evidence, I believe in tachyons, mesons, and gluons. I believe that the universe is 13.75 billion years old and earth is about 4.74 billion years old. Based on the lack of evidence, I don't believe in intelligent design, ghosts, horoscopes, aliens, crop circles, homeopathic medicine, or chiropractics.

If you believe in one or more of those things, I don't think you're an idiot. One of the realities of being a healthy skeptic (at least one with any friends), is to accept that people might have beliefs that run counter to your conclusions, even if you've seen the same evidence. Even ardent skeptics may allow powerful non-skeptic elements into their lives. This is healthy; this is normal. This is how we survive a violent, harsh world, and have done so for as long as we have existed.

Chiropractics is a good example. I have a lot of friends and co-workers that swear by their chiropractors and their every so often back adjustments. For those most part though, I don't think these friends buy into the core chiropractic tenet that all health problems can be traced problems with the spine. At the same time, as a skeptic, I can see, rationally, how spinal massage by a trained specialist could, if not improve health outright, positively affect a person's perception of their own health to the point that they do in fact feel better. I'm not going to begrudge anyone a belief that improves their overall quality of life.

Besides medicine, the other area that tends to get skeptics in trouble is faith. Skeptics who are tentative about belief are ridiculed for having too little faith, while skeptics who are faithful are mocked by the hardcore skeptics who reject the "opiate of the masses." It's sad on both accounts. Believers should remember that their faith was probably founded by a skeptic -- someone who challenged the traditions and status quo of their culture and their time. Similarly, The ardent skeptic should remember that the world is scary place, and those that look for comfort in a spiritual place aren't doing so out of delusion, but because human wisdom is finite and progresses at a finite pace, leaving many questions unanswered. While some people believe out of tradition (and could benefit from a bit of skepticism themselves), most of the faithful believe because of the balance it brings their lives.

Think of the Christmas holiday, for example. This is a skeptics favorite holiday, because it abounds with logical discontinuities. Christ wasn't born in December, He was born in the spring. There weren't three wise men, and it took them years to reach the Christ child. Christmas is mostly likely a pagan holiday re-purposed by early Christian churches. Many Santa Claus traditions are scary and somewhat racist. And on, and on, and on. But you know, what? Who cares? What's wrong with giving gifts to those you love? What's wrong with a little celebration during what are some of the darkest and coldest days of the year? What's wrong with reflecting on the previous year and looking forward to the next? Even if you're a skeptic and wholly reject the premise, you'd be hard pressed to say that we'd be better off without Christmas.

Overall, the reality is that faith and skepticism can readily coexist, despite those on both sides that angrily suggest otherwise. The two really can't be compared. My own faith is led by individuals of very significant intelligence, who no doubt approach practical matters with healthy skepticism -- and yet I know they have no doubts with respect to their religion convictions. As for me personally, my own skepticism has led me to enjoy the beauty and the mastery of the world through science. Knowing why a sunset produces such brilliant red hues does nothing to diminish its beauty.

If one looks over the millenia of recorded history, it may seem that science has answered the bulk of the important questions. I imagine that skeptics and scientists in every enlightened age have felt some sense of triumph of reaching the pinnacle of understanding. If there's anything we have learned, though, is that there is so much that we do not know, and may never know. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of skepticism, to accept that what you know today may not be true tomorrow. Science gives us the means to survive the world, but it is by faith that we persevere.

(comics linked from xkcd.org)


What's fair about it?

I hear the word "fair" a lot in politics and the news lately. Mostly when it comes to taxes. So, I'm wondering, what is fair? Is it fair for someone who makes more than a quarter million dollars per year to pay proportionally more taxes than those who earn less? You know what, I think it is.

Less than 2% of tax paying households earn more than $250,000. Less than 2%! You know what that tells me? That those 2% are very hard working, but they are also benefit quite a bit from living in this country. How many people in the word earn that much money annually? A tiny, tiny, TINY amount. Undoubtedly, such wealth is attainable, in part, because we live in this country, and we enjoy the benefits and protections of it. I don't think we realize how much our system of government enables the generation of wealth. It only makes sense to me, then, that those who have benefited so greatly should also return some of that wealth to bolster the system that enabled their success.

I understand that high taxes can be a detriment to business and a healthy economy. I get that. But the reality is that if you earn a quarter of a million dollars a year, a slightly higher tax bracket isn't, in any appreciable way, going to interfere with your happiness -- unless, of course, it's all about the money. And, if you do make that much money, and you are unhappy with how the government would spend it, you are encouraged to give it away yourself, to the causes and the people that you think deserve it the most.

I know that no one likes to pay taxes. And I think it's a healthy battle to try and keep tax rates as low as possible. But at the same time, the incessant whining is getting old.


Thanksgiving with the Vissers

Me: "How big is the turkey?"
Dad: "22 pounds?"
Me: "22 pounds?!"
Dad: "I got the smallest one they had!"
Me: "Where'd you go? The mutant turkey store?"
Staci: "It's a teenage mutant ninja turkey!"


Mom: "Will you let the dog out?"
Me: "No, she doesn't want to go outside."
Mom: "She looks like she does."
Me: "It's 5 degrees outside. She only thinks she wants to go out."


During thanksgiving dinner:
Kelly: "You spit all the time."
Bryan: "I only spit if I'm outside."
Kelly: "You make that same snotty noise, though."
Bryan: "I don't spit, I just swallow."
(collective moan)
Dad: "Okay, we're not talking about this!"


Weston (1.5 years old) was covered in blue frosting from Mom's birthday cake:
"It's like he ate a Smurf!"


Me: "What sound does a doggy make?"
Weston: "Meow"


Me: "Do you think Kelly and Bryan will name their other children after towns in Southeast Idaho?"
Staci: "You mean like Preston?"
Me: "How about Malad?"
Staci: "Or Virginia if it's a girl."
Me: "Portage!"


Staci: "I've never heard this song before."
Me: "It's got Kanye in it."
Staci: "I was just trying to imagine a conversation between Jared Leto and Kanye."
Me: "I'll bet they didn't say much."
Staci imitating Kayne: "George Bush hates me."


Button, Button, Who's Got the Button

Sometimes my job is absurd. I end up doing things that I shouldn't be doing. Take, for example, the process of picking out computers. As the software guy, I figure that my job is to tell the system engineers how fast a computer I need. It's their job to figure out how to mount in the rack, what kind of cables they need to plug it in, if it needs a UPS, and everything else. As far as I'm concerned, the computer could be banana shaped and use a platoon of gerbils for power. That's not good enough for the engineers, though. They seem to want my opinion on everything. Plugs in the front or in the back? How many connectors? Which company should we buy it from?


So, for 6 months, I wrote e-mails to that effect every time they asked me. I would repeat my performance specs and say, "that's all that matters to me." Well, six months later, and they still haven't picked the computer they're going to buy. Maddening, I tell you. In the end, I ended up calling a vendor I liked, asked for a demo machine, and after I saw what the manufacturer could do, I told the engineers exactly what I wanted.

What's even more maddening is that sometimes they don't ask for my input at all. The latest issue was the joystick. Our customers use a joystick to send commands to the software that I write. It's a pretty important piece of the system. A few months ago, I got an e-mail that they had picked the joystick. "Great!" I thought. Then I opened the pdf. It look like something you'd see at an arcade, and it only had 2 buttons.

We'd had the button discussion before. I told them we needed at least 8 buttons, and 10 or 12 would be better. So I call up Mr. Engineer:

"Why does this joystick only have two buttons?"

"Because that's as many as the vendor can put on it in our schedule."

"They don't make any other joysticks with more buttons?"

"They might, but they can get this one to us fast."

"But, we talked about this, we need 8 buttons!"

"Sometimes we have to make compromises."

"I AM compromising, I wanted 12 buttons. 8 buttons in the bare minimum."

"Okay, let me talk to them."

He calls back a few days later:

"I can get you four buttons easy."

"But I need eight."

"How about six? They said that with a little work they can do six."

"Then why didn't you just say six to begin with? Wait ... nevermind... I need EIGHT."

"The company is in Britain. They're worried about export problems if they make a new design for us. They said they can do six."

"Sounds like we need to find another vendor to me..."

And on and on. So, what did end up doing? I searched the web for another vendor. Turns out there's another one, NOT ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, that was really eager for our business. They even flew out and had a whole bunch of demo units for us to look at. Sigh. Now I'm developing a rep for being a PITA. All in a days work.


Combat Landing

Like most people, I complain about my job. I complain about our customers, management, IT (especially IT), the general ratio of work to pay, and pretty much everything else that come to mind.

In reality though, my job is pretty damn cool. One of the cool things about it is that I get to work in, on, or near various airplanes from time to time. Sometimes, I even get to fly in them as we test our software, and that's always an adventure.

As routine as air travel has become, flying on these airplanes for work reminds me of how truly remarkable it is every time one one of these metal beasts lunges into the air at hundreds of miles an hour. On these work flights, my job is usually to sit and observe and not touch anything. I do get to wear a cool headset, though. One that blocks out the roar of the propellors but lets you listen in on the chatter between the pilots and the tower and crew on the plane. It sounds kind of like the trucker talk you'd hear on the Dukes of Hazzard, just a lot more sophisticated -- and, as a side note, they really do say, "Roger" and "Copy" quite a bit.

On this last flight, they had installed satellite internet on the plane and were testing it out. For some reason, they thought it was important to see how far they could bank the plane before they would lose the connection. I lost my connection with reality at about 50 degrees of bank. It didn't help when they swung it around to bank at 50 degrees the other way. The only thing keeping me from throwing up was my intense fear of throwing up.

The fear intensified when I heard the pilots talking about doing a "combat landing." In a typical landing, the plane slowly decends and makes a couple of nice gradual turns to line up with the runway. In a combat landing (well, this one at least) the plane flies over the tip of the runway at a ninety degree angle to the way it should land. To the untrained eye, this might look like the plane is trying to land on some random airport building. But, as the plane crosses the tip of the runway, they immediately throw it into a steep bank and make a tight 270 degree turn. At the end of the turn, the plane levels out, and it should be going a lot slower and be lined right up with with runway for a landing. Of course, I didn't know any of this before they did it. At the time, all I was aware of was being really low to the ground and the wing tip pointed straight down.

I survived though, breakfast and honor still intact. Commercial air travel doesn't seem all the bad, now that I think about it.


Unmitigated Disaster...

This week has been just ridiculous. Simply absurd.

Last Sunday afternoon I left for Roswell, NM, yet again, because my customer "didn't have time" to install the latest version of our software. I was there for less than 24 hours. I landed at 8:00 pm Sunday and left on the last flight out at 3:45 pm Monday. I sat down at their computer at 7:00 am Monday, installed the latest version, and it worked without a hitch. I was so mad about being there that I couldn't even be excited that it worked. After all, I had spent days and days in our testing lab making sure it worked, but they couldn't even bother to install it to test it themselves.

When I got back, I had three days to write some code for a HD video capture card (it was supposed to be more, but I wasted all that time getting ready for and traveling to Roswell). In this case, the capture card came with a software development kit (SDK) from the manufacturer that we had to pay 5000 bucks to use. For 5000 bucks, I figured that it would probably be the easiest thing I'd ever done. Well, the SDK consisted of about 40 pages of documentation and about a dozen sample applications -- none of which came close to doing the very simple thing I needed. On top of that, the sample applications very devoid of any useful comments. The comments that were included said things like, "//bill was too lazy to fix this, so I'm going to hack around it too", and my personal favorite, "//NOTE: convert ignored for now do [sic] to excessive laziness."

It took 3 twelve hour days to get it figured out. Talk about cutting it to the wire. On Friday afternoon, the co-worker who needed the capture card stuff spent the afternoon in my office as we integrated his code with mine. He left at 6:00. I left at 10:00. Enough said about that.

And then, something not about work at all. This afternoon, I decided to fix my bathroom sink. About a year ago, the puller that raises and lowers the drain stopper stopped working. In my own extreme laziness, I just pulled out the stopper altogether and have been operating without it for about a year. Not a bad deal, really, except that I've dropped a lot of pills down that drain that I might have been able to rescue. I'm guessing the fish downstream of me are well medicated.

So, for whatever reason, I picked this afternoon to fix the stopper-puller-thingy. I remove all the junk from underneath the sink. I fiddle with the stopper mechanism for about 30 minutes, and then it's off to Lowe's. I find the part I need. I buy said part and return home. At home, said part does not work with my old drain stopper. "Universal" my eye. Shoot. I go to Dick's Hardware (yes, it's really called that), and find another stopper. I buy said stopper. This one works. Whew.

I am reassembling the sink drain, specifically the p-trap, when one of the pipes breaks. This isn't cheap plastic crap people, it's chrome plated galvanized drain pipe, and it cracks and splits apart as I am tightening the connectors. Sigh. As sewer gases waft out the open drain pipe, I realize that I have to go to Lowe's again. In contrast to the stopper, which you can live without, the sink is basically unusable if the drain isn't hooked up, and I'm going to need to buy a new p-trap.

Fortunately, the new p-trap installed without incident. I'm still not sure it was worth it, though. Why is it a universal law of home repair that every task will require at least 3 trips to the hardware store? Well, I hope the world sleeps better knowing that I now have a functioning drain stopper puller thingy.


Lying, Cheating, and Stealing

Have you ever met someone famous? Yeah, you probably have. Up until 3 weeks ago, the most famous person I had ever met was this guy:

No, not ALF, the other guy. I was twelve, collecting money for Primary Children's Medical Center, something they called "Pennies By the Inch." Man, I hated that fundraiser. You were supposed to go around and suggest that people donate a penny for every inch of their height. Not only was it mathematically challenging for someone with a weak command of the twelves time-tables, but there's also no heavier way of donating to a charity.
Anyway, we were knocking doors like little Amway people in a local trailer park. Behind one of those doors was Alf's grouchy owner. Surprising to say the least. Apparently his mom lived there. Unimpressive on many levels, I know.

Then, I met someone truly remarkable. And I don't mean met as in "saw at Sundance" or the "he came and spoke at my ward once". I actually sat down and had a meal with Dick Rutan:

I can tell you're impressed. Old guy in a flight suit, real cool, right? Well, this is one serious dude. A real life John Wayne of the airplane world. He flew jets in Korea and Vietnam. In the latter conflict, his job was to take out gun emplacements. Meaning that he would fly around until someone was stupid enough to shoot at him, and then he would dive in and blow them to bits. He did get shot down once, but he was able to nurse his plane to the gulf of Tonkin before he ejected so that he'd be picked up by the Navy instead of the Vietcong.

When that was all over, he left the Air Force and kept flying. It worked out well because his brother designed and built airplanes. In 1986, he was the very first person to fly around the world non-stop. Then in 1997 (at 59!) he did another around the world flight in a plane he had built himself back in the 70s.

He's now 72 years old, and he flew his plane from LA to Portland to meet with a group of us doing a demonstration of some pretty cool airplane stuff that I'm sure you're not interested in. After the demo, we all went out to dinner, where he regaled us with even more stories from his life (definitely not PG). He also offered a toast:
"A toast to lying, cheating, and stealing.
If you lie, lie only to keep a friend.
If you cheat, may you cheat death.
If you steal, steal the love of a beautiful woman."
Cheesy? Under normally circumstances, most certainly. But from someone like him, I'll allow it.


I Pity the Fool

I pity the fool that goes to see the A-Team and expects and sort of adherence to any of the laws of physics. Normally I'm a stickler for such things. (Which is one of the main reason's I loathe Die Hard 4.) But for some reason, I was completely unbothered by a flying tank, millions of bullets flying but no one getting shot, and Liam Neeson in yet another role very beneath him. Basically, the A-Team lived up to every expectation one could have of an 80's action tv show.

Oh, and Jessica Biel was in it, which wasn't bad either.


I Have a Quota

Some people enjoy receptions. Generally we called them "women." I have a quota for the number of wedding receptions I will go to in a year. The quota is currently set at two. Yes, two. How did I arrive at such a number? Well, it's an average of how many receptions I end up attending each year. It's kind of like going to the dentist. More than twice and you should be taking better care of your teeth.

It's not that I don't like the people that are getting married. If they were having a BBQ, I would probably come. I'm also not trying to get out of buying a gift, since I generally like giving gifts. But, getting dressed up on a Friday/Saturday evening and then walking through a long line saying hello to people I don't know isn't on the list of favorite activities. Actually, that sounds suspiciously like a funeral. Except funeral food is frequently better. (Funeral potatoes, people?)

So, which receptions will I attend? Relatives' and roommates'. But I've already been to two this year, so if you want me to come to yours you have to get married in 2011. But, don't be sad, it's just one less hand to make and one less awkward hug. So that you can get on to more fun activities.


What Have I Done?

I was really hungry when I got home from work. Too hungry. I did something I shouldn't have. I made Macaroni and Cheese. And then, I did the unspeakable. I added sliced hot dogs.

And I liked it...


You've had too much to think...

One of my best friends, Nathan, is getting married in a few weeks. That's pretty remarkable because he was perhaps the most commitment phobic guy I've ever known. On the other hand, watching him be single made me wonder if being single forever would really be that bad. Despite the level of our raucousness, Nathan's kept himself surprisingly marryable. Ashley hasn't had to do much work to get him into husband shape -- if he were a house, he's basically just needed window treatments and a little paint. The whole process has made me wonder about my own marryability. (Yes, I know it's supposed to be written marriageability, but it's my blog, ok?)

If you haven't gathered, marryability is basically the credit score of a single male. It's a function of age, status, income, maturity, spirituality, hair follicle density, fashion sense, culinary talent, waist size, horsepower, fuel economy, taste and everything else you can think of. The younger you are, what you lack in maturity and income, you can make up for in potential and sheer fun. The girl sees you and says, "Ah, I can work with this."

As you age, what you loose in some areas you gain in others. Your hair thins, but now you've been on cross-country road trips, you have a degree, and your clothes still mostly match. At this point, the girl says, "Well, I'm going to have to train him to not do a, b, and c, but his car is paid off and he only quotes The Simpson's about half the time." Of course, this process continues until you reach the riper ages of male singleness. At this point, you've been single so long unless you make a conscious effort to stay marryable, you may acquire so many odd quirks that no one can put up with you.

For example, around age 30, every male loses whatever instincts they had once had to change my sheets regularly, do the dishes, wipe the counter, not be flatulent, avoid wearing sandals with socks, shower daily, eat vegetables, vacuum periodically and every other thing your mother insisted you do for the first 18 years of life. Basically, if left to your druthers, you'll turn into your father, except as becomes when your mom goes out of town for several weeks: unkempt, jaundiced from a canned chili/Mountain Dew diet, and wearing 90's era Doc Martin sandals with a t-shirt tucked into jean shorts.

To prevent this from happening, you have to at least make an effort to keep up appearances, even if just seems like a bunch of hassle. I say at least because if that's all you do, your marryability will still go down. The reality is that we age, we get weird. We get weird because the world is constantly changing around us, and we simple can't adapt to everything. Some stuff we readily accept, like switching to MP3 players instead of CDs. But you know there's some dude somewhere caressing his collection of Aerosmith cassettes/Bee Gees 8-tracks/Pink Floyd LPs and wondering how the world got so off track. That dude's marryability index is plunging fast.

The reality is that the older you get, to stay as marryable as you were at a younger age, you have to bring more to the table. This is not just to make up for what you've lost, but also to offset all your extra baggage that someone is going to have to put up with. I'm not saying you need to grow biceps the size of your thighs or read the Divine Comedy in the original Italian to woo a mate (such pursuits are actually non-stop detours to Douche-ville.) But you've got to keep yourself up to date, as inane as it appears sometimes. Returning to the house metaphor, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a house built in the 70s, but selling one with the orange shag carpet and faux wood paneling is going to be tough. They're fun and quirky, but remodeling is a huge hassle and can take forever.

Yes, yes, I can hear the chorus of, "But I want someone who accepts me for who you I am." Well, that's baloney. You don't want anyone whose standards are that low. And as for the fairer readers of this blog, I have no comment on your marryability. I am, after all, trying to keep my own marryability index high as possible.


Land of enchantment...

I just rolled into the house from a week of work travel and a weekend of vacation. Strange how you can not have a care in the world, and the next, you're surrounded by piles of bills and laundry, simultaneously trying to find something for dinner while contemplating the week ahead. Sigh.

I spent the week in Roswell, New Mexico. Yes, the alien place. And no, my visit was completely terrestrial. Even so, there is something a bit off about the place in general. There are only two flights there daily, and the nearest town of any notable size (Albuquerque, Lubbock, or El Paso) is more than 3 hours drive away via US highway. With a population of about 45,000, this is the kind of community that really feels the effect of a down economy. People do what they can to get by. Little restaurants spring up everywhere, long established business get shuttered. Everything seems tainted by the malaise of disaffection.

I've seen a lot of these places in my travels. I thought I knew what to expect. Roswell was something else, though. I was struck by it the moment the airport was visible on the horizon. The airport was covered in commercial aircraft, parked wingtip to wingtip. Dozens and dozens of DC-10s, A-300s, 737s, and even a huge contingent of colossal 747s sat in the dry desert wind, doing nothing, and airline ghost town. Over the next few days as I worked around the airfield, I never really got used to seeing all those hulking birds parked around the runway, like used cars waiting for buyers.

I had high hopes that a week in Roswell would be a nice escape from the fickle Utah spring weather. In some ways it was, as the sun was out everyday, but the nights were bitterly cold, and my spring jacket wasn't nearly insulating enough for 40 degree weather at 8:00 am. Finally, on Friday, I even broke down and bought some hand lotion for the last 24 hours of my time there, because my hands simply couldn't handle the dryness anymore.

Roswell strikes me as fundamentally an agricultural community. From above, you can see that the town is surrounded by large green circles of crops, marking quite a contrast against the beige desert floor. The town itself is stretched out along the single main street, like something out of American Graffiti. On the outskirts you have the modern accoutrements of modern civilization, Subway, McDonald's, Walgreens, but as you near the city center, the stop lights are 200 feet apart, and the streets are lined with classic buildings, which you imagine were once soda fountains and barbershops, but are know struggling to be eclectic boutiques and coffee shops.

This is where Roswell takes another turn for the odd, since a disturbing number of these stores have alien paraphernalia hanging in the windows. On Friday, with my work completed, I walked a few blocks of main street and stuck my head in most of the shops. Most were simply trying to lure people, and the aliens painted on the windows had nothing to do with the incense or indian jewelry inside. Others were clearly local people trying to capitalize of the dumb tourists looking for a silly memento to send home. A few places, though, were clearly run by true believers. In one store, I picked up a few shirts for my little nephews, and the proprietor was quick to suggest that I pick up a recently published children's book about UFOs, so that I would be able to explain to them all about aliens.

It wasn't all weird though. Roswell had some surprisingly great food. Though the places were really run down, the food and the service was excellent. As you may have heard, New Mexico is known for it's chiles. I had green chile enchiladas and a relleno one day, and liked it so much that I had red chile enchiladas with another relleno the next. And in perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip, I had really excellent chicken saltimbocca that rivaled anything I've had in SLC.

All in all, it was probably one of the more interesting trips I've had. Roswell has a lot of personality. I still don't understand why they call it the land of enchantment, though.


Best 3 out of 5?

This afternoon I was in the backyard, trying in vain to cut down this shoulder height wild grass stuff near my fence. It's not actually a weed, but some sort of tall ornamental grass that serves to at least partially obscure the 87 Pontiac rusting away in the neighbor's backyard. As I hacked at the mound of grass for 10 minutes with the hedge trimmers I thought to myself, "Do I know anyone that has a scythe?" No one came to mind. But then I remembered my favorite scythe wielding movie character:

I'll bet reaping burns a lot of calories.


We've Reached an Accord

I bought a new car last week. And that's not "new" in the sense that I bought a 3 or 4 year old used car which was new to me, but "new" in the sense that I drove off the lot in a car that only had 32 miles on the odometer. When my friend Nathan found out I had bought a new car he said, "I didn't know you were in the market for a new car?!". I replied: "Neither did I."

Well, that's not true. My old Honda Accord was ten years old, so every few months or so, I would think about what it would be like to drive a new one. When I got an e-mail from the dealership advertising 0% financing (which hadn't happened in the past, well, ever), I thought maybe it was a good time to take a test drive. So I did, and when I saw the final price for the car I wanted with all the necessary accoutrements, I bought it. So yes, it was technically an impulse buy, but maybe a little less impulsive than it could have been.

Of course there has been some buyers remorse, particularly when several thousand dollars of value disappeared as I drove off the lot, but that remorse very quickly evaporates when I slide into those heated leather seats and climate controlled environment.

Here's to you, 2010 Honda Accord, may you serve with the same distinction as your predecessor.


Up In The Air

Boy, what a debacle this week has been:

  • Boss walks into my office at 1:30 PM. "I know you're busy, but can you travel to Akron Ohio?"
  • "When?"
  • "Today."
  • "Today? They're two hours ahead of us. That means I need to be on a plane, like, now..."
  • "True..."
  • I'm in Layton at this point, so I race home, pack a bag, and haul to the airport. I get all the way to the TSA check in when I realize that I don't have my wallet. So, I run back out to the parking garage and somehow, amazingly make the flight.
  • My flight from Atlanta to Akron leaves at 8:30 AM. I get to work around lunchtime in Akron, and spend my day working in a freezing cold aircraft hangar.
  • There are basically no flights back home, so I'm booked on a 6:30 AM flight Friday morning, but the folks I'm working with want me to come back in Friday, which I decided I should probably do.
  • Another day in the freezing hangar. I was supposed to fly home early that Morning, so the secretary does her best to get me rescheduled to leave that night. Well, the east cost is buried in snow, and the travel system is a total mess across the board. The best they can do is to move my flight to Saturday morning.
  • I wake up in a panic at 5:50 AM, 30 minutes before my flight. Luckily, I checked in the night before, and I make it to the airport with enough time, I hope, to make the flight. Except there's one problem. Atlanta was "buried" in three inches of snow, and both flights to Atlanta that day were canceled. I get my rental car back, get my hotel room back, and spend most of the day catching up on the sleep I missed.

  • Not wanting a repeat of yesterday's near miss, I wake up at 4:50 (ungh!) I get to the airport promptly at 5:40. (I remember, I checked.) I get to the check in kiosk, and it won't let me check-in. WTH? I look at my itinerary, and I realize, with total dread and disbelief, that the Sunday flight leaves 16 minutes earlier than the Saturday flight had been scheduled to leave that day before. Of course, if I had checked in earlier, that wouldn't have been a problem -- one thing, though, the agent who rebooked me the day before had told me check in with him in person. Bah, if only I hadn't listened.
  • Well, I try to make a gamble. I have a copy of Saturday's boarding pass. I figure that if I can get through security somehow, they might still be boarding (It's 5:55 now.) Well, in what is surely a sign of the competence of TSA, my boarding pass from the previous day totally gets me through somehow. I get to the gate, but just like the ticket counter, NO ONE IS THERE. (What airline is this?) After about 10 minutes, someone finally wanders by. I milk my situation for all it's worth, and they get me rebooked, With only one extra stop now.
So, there you go, a total mess. Some of it caused by the airline, some of it because of the weather, and some of it, my own fault (though I still really think that airlines need to list the check-in time on the itinerary instead of the flight time - especially if no one is at the gate.)

Hopefully I'll be home sometime today. Happy Valentine's Day all!


Why I Don't Own a Mac.

I might be what you call a computer expert. I don’t mean to boast in saying that, but I imagine that others would find it to be true. Here are my credentials to see if you agree: I have two degrees in Computer Science. I’ve been writing software professionally for 5 years. I’ve taught computer classes at the college level. Every computer I’ve ever owned (5 so far), I’ve built with my own hands. I worked for a school district, providing network and desktop support to teachers and administrators. Basically, if it can be done with a computer, I’ve done it.

I am also a Windows user. That’s actually kind of odd when you think about it, because I grew up using Apple IIs and Macs in school. I used to sign up for “computer camps”, where I would spend two weeks of the summer going back to school so I could have unfettered access to the computer lab. In Junior high, I won desktop publishing and computer aided design competitions, both using Macs. I even still organize my desktop icons like I’m on a Mac (hard drive icons in the upper right corner, trash in the lower right.)

So, why don’t I own a Mac now? There are lots of reasons; none of which really matter to you probably, because for what I need a computer is different than for what you need. In my situation, I have issues with Macs’ cost, hardware variety, software availability, and tweak-ability. And as I figured, none of those things matter to you (except for cost, probably.)

The really big problem I have is with the attitude of superiority that seems to exude out of Apple lately. I think that’s always bad news. The best thing that happen to Windows was the explosion of Linux and the development of OS X, because that led Microsoft to develop a truly worth competitor in Windows 7. The other problem with superiority is that is breeds the attitude that “our way is the right way”. This does a huge disservice to the users of their devices, because they end up being oblivious to the alternatives. When I was a kid, I loved the Apples and Macs because they helped me to do things I had never done in ways I never thought possible. They opened up a whole a new world. And now, I expect that freedom with any device that I spend a lot of money on or use on a daily basis.

The really odd thing is that I don't think I can find that freedom in a Mac anymore. Sure, if I want to do something that's included in Apple's wonderfully designed suite of programs, I'm set, but what if I want to do it differently? What if I want to do something else entirely? My options are then really limited. It seems a far cry from Apple's "1984" ad.

In case you were wondering, here's a list of the things that vex me:

Why do songs in the iTunes store have DRM? Why do they cost more than those on Amazon? Why can I only use iTunes to put songs on my iPod? Why can't I take songs off my iPod using iTunes? Why did Apple reject the Google Voice app from the iPhone and hundreds of other useful apps? Why is it so hard to troubleshoot Mac problems? When a new version of iTunes comes out, why do I have to download a whole new 100 MB app instead of a few megs up program files? And why do the old versions stick around and clog up my hard drive? Why do mac laptops require expensive connectors to be hooked up to standard projectors and TVs? Why do Mac users believe they can't get viruses? Why can't I use whatever hardware and peripherals I want with a Mac? Why can't I use whatever language I want to write Mac applications? On what planet does it make sense to drag a CD to the trash to eject it? When I plug a non OSX drive into a Mac, why does it create all these extra useless files? Why can I tell when a movie has been made using iDVD, an album made in iLife, or a Facebook profile pic taken from a mac laptop? Why does Quicktime still insist on the horrible .MOV format that isn't compatible with anything other than Apple devices? Why does so much software stop working when Apple upgrades OSX to the next version? Why does Apple think anyone will be satisfied with the iPad?


2009, A Year in Review

So, 2009 was a banner year. So great, in fact, that it took the better part of a month to get started on this post because I didn’t want to do all the writing involved. Finally I thought, “to hell with this, I’m just going to post pictures.” So, here you go.
  • January: this time last year, I was recovering from a post Hawaii hangover. It was rough. My sister had lived there for only a few months at that time, and it was good trip. As you can see, I was unhappy about leaving:

2009-12 HawaiiIMG_1268

  • Around Martin Luther King Day, which my company doesn’t give us off, was the annual trip of debauchery and chicanery to Bear Lake. Photos of the sauna omitted for everyone’s sake:2010-01 Bur Lake
  • After the Superbowl, we destroyed gingerbread houses using various pyrotechnics. Thus, the ginger shrapnel tradition was born.2010-01 shrapnel
  • In February, in an effort to evade the long winter, we headed south for Febtober-fest. No beer steins involved, just plastic yellow construction hats we found in the trash.2010-02 Febtober
  • The big news in March was the arrival of the first nephew/niece in the family. It was a nephew in this case, Weston. I was able to screw this up royally by comparing his appearance to that of the young (old?) Benjamin Button. Let’s be honest here folks, it takes a few months for them to really “cuten” up. 2010-03 benjamin button
  • As always, winters in Utah are generally epic, and the snow last year bore that out.

2010-03 Snowboarding IMG_7486

  • Unfortunately, while I was busing enjoying the powder, my roommate of the last 2 years was hatching his escape. He bought a house, and in early May we threw the last house party of that era. 2010-04 party
  • I was so distraught that in May I fled again to Hawaii, were I began to turn into a tomato.

2010-05 HawaiiIMG_0429

  • I don’t really remember what happened in June. I spent most of it moaning about how I wished I was back in Hawaii and traveled for work to the hell hole that is Palmdale California. I did manage to replace the two roommates with a new one. He knows his burgers: 2010-06 burger
  • In July I spent my first 4th of July in Salt Lake Valley. (I was seriously spoiled by the Idaho Falls firework display growing up.) It was a good time in the SLC, particularly because I discovered how to smoke BBQ spare ribs on my grill. I also learned that I need to go back to sparkler school.

IMG_0923 (Large) 674 2010-07 July

  • Soon after the 4th, we traipsed to NYC for a week and had a truly fantastic time. Broadway, Statue of Liberty, Coney Island, Little Italy, we did it all in the span of about 6 days. The highlight was definitely sharing a double bed with a groping snorer.

2010-07 NY 2 2010-07 NY Hat 2010-07 NY

  • We returned, and summer resumed it’s normal pace. Rafting with the ward, demolition derbies, and another year of Lagoon Season passes. Our motto? “I’d Bump That!”

2010-08 Jackson2010-09 Demo DSC00076

  • Then finally, in late August, it came. The day of days. My 30th birthday. It was basically a roast. In fact, I think I made ribs again. The running joke all year was how I was in all the pictures because I didn’t take any of them. (Hey, it’s not my fault my camera was broken during the cankle debacle of Havasupai ‘07). So, my friends immortalized me by illustrating me.

2010-08 Birthday 2010-080013 0022

  • After that, it became costume season. And I happened to come up with the greatest costume ever. And one that probably sent up a few red flags at NSA. The dance you see is the “terrorist shuffle.” The red heels help with that, but are not required.

2010-10 Greatest Costume Ever2010-10 Greatest Costume Ever Shoes

  • After Halloween, things got pretty quiet, with a lot of trips home to visit the family. And I’ll admit I mostly came for this little guy. He is the clear winner in the battle for “Coolest of 2009”

2010-03 Weston 2010-08 Weston


Work Follies

Some may think that writing software is a joyless enterprise.  In reality, it’s far from that.  Unfortunately, the humor is pretty nerdy, like below:

Someone in our software department found a bug in our software where one of the buttons was turning read instead of green.  The person who sent me the bug thought he knew how I should fix it, but after I asked him some questions, it became totally obvious that he wasn’t paying attention when the button turned red (which is his job, btw). So he was basically worthless in explaining how I could reproduce the bug. 

So, I did what we usually do and asked him to send me the software log files. I poured through the logs and quickly found several potential problems, completely unrelated to what he had told me hours before. I copied the pertinent lines from the log into an e-mail, highlighted the important part in red, and sent the e-mail off.

A few minutes later, I got this response:

Good info you found in the logs.  I will talk to a software person in the morning to see if we can make sense of why of those items are red in the log.  I’ll let you know what I find out. 

I was going to reply that it was me who made the lines red, but I didn’t have the heart, and I’m kind of interested to see how this turns out.


The Year in Film

The 2009 cinema year was a lot like my life, not particularly noteworthy or remarkable, except for a few really amazing films which saved the year from being entirely mediocre.  Looking back a year ago, I remember thinking that 2009 could be a really amazing year for movies, with some of my favorite franchises getting new attention (Star Trek, Wolverine, Terminator, Harry Potter) as well as new movies from great filmmakers like Tarantino and Michael Mann.  In the end though, it was the quiet movies we didn’t know much about at the time that ended up saving 2009.

Rather than trying to order every film (an impossible task when you get to the best films of the year), I thought I’d split them up in to three groups: disappointments, honorable mentions, and the best of 2009.  In the comments, I fully expect you to lambast me for my poor taste and act outraged for neglecting your favorite film of 2009.


These films are not necessarily bad, but they failed to live up to expectations, much like my dating life.  And just like my dates, these are movies that I wanted to like (because of the cast, director, or source material) but I was left wanting.

Public Enemies – Johnny Depp made a very dapper John Dillinger, but the on and off again documentary style shooting of this movie proved distracting. Bale was also good, but very one dimensional compared to what we have come to expect from 3:10 to Yuma and Batman (raspy voice aside.)  I really don’t think I’ll ever see this movie again.

Wolverine – Jackman reprises his role as my favorite X-Man, but he spends the whole movie being angry and/or confused.  We end up missing that wry humor and his interaction with the other characters that made X-Men 1 and 2 so great.  Despite it’s problems, this move has it’s fun parts and is entirely watchable. I imagine I’ll see this one in the gym occasionally or at a co-ed movie night where people are trying to appease the masses with a little violence, a little love, and no R rating.

Terminator: Salvation – For someone who has had so much experience with Terminators, you’d think Bale’s John Connor would have figured out the plot to this move in about 5 minutes.  But that’s not the problem with this movie; the real tragedy is that we don’t get to spend more time with Sam Worthington’s character as he struggles with his own identity as a man/machine, which I found very compelling.  It was also nice to see this movie with a PG-13 rating to expand the visibility of the franchise, but this is very certainly no Terminator 1 or 2.

Men Who Stare At Goats – This movie has the who’s who of ensemble casts: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, but was released at the end of August where movies go to die.  It makes sense when you realize that everyone is playing a character from a previous movie (George Clooney as seen in Burn After Reading, Jeff Bridges as The Big Lebowski, Kevin Spacy from 21, and Ewan McGregor as a Jedi.)  That would have been fine, but the supposedly true parts of the story are simply too unbelievable and confusing.

Honorable Mentions

Not every movie can be the best, so these are the ones that surprised me by being much better than expected.

The Blind Side – I’m really tired of the “overcome all odds” sports movie.  I realize that sports can be a good vehicle for life lessons, but in the end it frustrates me that we are so entertained by the stories of athletes, whose struggles, in the grand scheme of things, are significantly less meaningful than the struggles of our artists, scientists, teachers, and public servants. And I guess that’s why I enjoyed the Blind Side, because it didn’t try to make some grand statement out of Michael Oher’s story. Sure, there are Hollywood elements, like the horribly miscast younger brother and the ruse that Michael Oher was a gently giant that didn’t know how to play football.  (The reality is that he was a natural athlete born with that killer instinct required to play pro football.)   There are also the cliché elements of racism and classism, but the core of the story is about a family taking in a young man and helping him succeed.  The love they feel for each other is truly genuine, and the director wisely does not toy with that emotion.  From beginning to end, you know that things are going to work out, and it’s wonderfully satisfying when it does.

Star Trek – After watching how Terminator and Wolverine both fumbled their respective franchises, I was worried that the same might happen to Star Trek.  Fortunately, that was not the case. The casting is excellent, and the special effects are really amazing but still believable. (For once the engine room of the Enterprise isn’t built around some miscellaneous glowing orb.)  All in all, I would say that this movie is a great revival of the Star Trek universe, despite Abrams retcon trick and the fact that this film seems to be much more action oriented than Roddenberry might have intended for his franchise.

The HangoverMy sister will be upset that The Hangover is listed here instead of I Love You, Man, but I have to go with my gut.  I saw I Love You Man with Staci in the Spring and cried I laughed so hard.  Then a few months later, the roommates and I were excited to go catch Public Enemies, but when it was all sold out we ended up seeing the Hangover on a whim.  We were expecting some juvenile gross out humor, but what we got was that and so much more.  We haven’t laughed that much since 2008’s Tropic Thunder. 

The Best

Zombieland – Finally, the US has produced a competitor to Shaun of the Dead.  Sure, this movie contains nothing that hasn’t already been done in the zombie genre, but it does it with so much more heart and humor than all of its competitors.  Woody Harrelson is a lovable hic (I generally hate hics), Abigail Breslin has come a long way from Miss Sunshine, Jessie Eisenberg plays Michael Cera as well or better than Michael Cera, and I would totally make out with Emma Stone.  Toss in a zombie clown and perhaps the best celebrity cameo ever, and you’ve got a film that I will watch every Halloween season.

Avatar – I had serious doubts about this movie.  Like most people, I’m wary of too much CGI, (ala Polar Express), and I’m equally concerned about anything that is released in 3D (flashbacks of Captain EO).  Avatar overcame my fears however and is honestly the only movie this year that can be accurately described as an experience rather than just a movie. It’s also fair to call it “Dances with Smurfs" because the story is instantly recognizable and the characters are, well, blue.  Despite this, I was still totally sucked in. Because the story is recognizable but still well told, you can spend the bulk of the experience immersing yourself in the world that Cameron created.  The planet Pandora is breathtaking in its complexity and completeness, showcasing Cameron’s attention to detail and desire for scientific accuracy.  His use of technology to produce hyper accurate facial expressions and movements of the CG characters draw you deeper into the story rather than being distracting.  You also end up feeling a real connection to Sam Worthington (making me wish, again, that we had seen more of him in Terminator.)

District 9 – I’m a total sci-fi junkie, and this movie scratched exactly where I itch.  This movie had  a small budget by today’s standards, and yet blew it’s competition out of the water. Everyone makes the inevitable connections to illegal immigration, apartheid, and segregation, but the message of the movie is far greater than that.  I never expected that any film would make me sympathetic to 8 foot tall insect-like aliens, but this one did.  It also reminded me that sci-fi movies are supposed to have a conscience.  This movie would have made Badbury, Roddenberry, and Asimov proud.

Inglourious Basterds – Great movies require great villains.  Inglorious Basterds has the best in years in Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter.”  The first 30 minutes of this where he is introduced, if released on it’s own, would win every award offered for short films. Despite the occasional art-house feel, the film is both entirely fun and quotable while clearly on par with the likes of the Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape.  Sure, Brad Pitt is over the top, but he plays an alternative Steve McQueen to a ‘t.’  I’ve already seen this movie three times and I think several more are in the future.

The Hurt Locker – The Iraq war has to be the most politicized war of the last decade, and yet this film provides an honest look at the war in Iraq without a hint of political message. Set in the early days of the second Iraq war (when we didn’t know there weren’t any WMDs and Saddam was hiding in a hole), we follow a bomb disposal unit during the last few months of their tour of duty.  The movie uses a cast of relative unknowns to provide an unflinching look at the high stress work these soldiers engage in every day.  The first time I saw The Hurt Locker, I basically held my breathe until the movie was over.  The second time, I was even more impressed that anyone would volunteer to put themselves in harms way the way these men do. The Hollywood elements of the movie are few and far between, and most of those are added to protect the actual tactics of soldiers that work to diffuse IEDs every day.  What Band of Brothers did for the American experience in WWII in Europe, The Hurt Locker does for our modern conflicts. 


**I know, I know, there are some glaring omissions on this list. Live with it. I’m still getting around to seeing “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, “500 Days of Summer“ (taking applications for a young single female that would like to watch it with me), “Up” (same offer applies), “Moon”, and “Up in the Air.”