Monday, June 26, 2006

Avoiding Boredom

I have a lot of plane travel happening on Wednesday. I went to the used bookstore today, and purchased some inexpensive books that may or may not interest me (very old science fiction and theology by famous yet unfamiliar people are both rather hit-and-miss).

Then I watched a David Copperfield video, tonight while waiting for my wife to finish something. And I had a great idea. A little bit of web searching produced a website with 72 easy card tricks. It only took a few minutes to copy-and-paste them to PDA memos. Now I can practice these in the airport and perhaps on the plane as well. I've never done card tricks before, but I should at least be able to learn a few well enough to entertain children.

The Pace of Inventions

Earlier this month I learned a new phrase: "technological singularity", used to describe a hypothesized future day when the pace of inventions forever skyrockets because of a sufficient advance in computer (or other AI) creativity.

Maybe, but the concept does not make much sense to me. From the admittedly little I have seen in my lifetime, the pace of inventions is too closely tied with the desire and ability to implement them. Inventions can happen like crazy but if they are not a Better Mousetrap nothing happens.

Consider white LEDs as an example. During my undergraduate college days, they were almost unheard of. Even green LEDs were rare and expensive (I had a friend that special ordered one for a stereo he was building). A few years later I saw LEDs used in traffic signals and knew something had changed. I did some research in an attempt to find what companies were on the cutting edge of LED manufacturing to perhaps invest in this new trend. (It was only the large, existing light bulb companies, so that insight went nowhere.) Today my wife and I own everything from flashlights to counter lights to camping lanters with white LEDs. The moral: in a practical sense they were invented ten years ago, but despite their obvious benefits it took them a while to become a Better Mousetrap.

Similarly, tiny robots that could fool cockroaches to play Pied Piper have been around for a half-dozen years. But only recently have they become news-worthy.

This effect is true socially, too. Here's an interesting article (warning: PDF) about massage stations like the ones I see at at airports, describing a company and their efforts to be the "next Starbucks".

Maybe militaries have the funding to hasten the pace of inventions when a neat idea for them comes along. And I admit that open source software has prompted me to do far more things with my computer than I otherwise would. But I expect that we'll see social changes that prevent any technological singularity.

For example, consider this diaglogue between a 14th century French noble and a visitor from the future (link):
"I'm told you don't have wars where you come from."

"Not really. Not big ones."

"Everyone's learned to get along?"

"Oh, no, not by a long shot. It's just that if anyone started a war, it would be over in an hour or two, and there'd be no one left to have won. We're not peaceful. We just defeated the point of fighting."
Real life is rapidly approaching that status, thanks largely to how terrorists have killed large groups of civilians (on 9/11 and elsewhere) and also forced Israel into a policy of assassinating enemy leaders. Those used to be big taboos in warfare, but the precedents are now thoroughly set. When dealing with Iran, who would repeat invading a Middle-East country now that nations can simply defend against nuclear attacks by killing leaders?

Compared to fifty years ago, non-nation groups are able to cause more death, and are being treated by international law not as pirates but as nations. Yet at the same time a nation without allies is able to be treated more like pirates. The military solutions of fifty years ago that each took a decade to become Better Mousetraps are becoming increasingly obsolete.

I just can't see a faster pace of inventions counteracting (or even successfully navigating) the continued effects of human unpredictability, even where nations have money to spend. The scale of one will simply transfer to the second, because technology solves problems rather than creating contentment.

Disney vs. the Masons

Sorry. Not funny. But when the post title came to me I couldn't resist.

Out of Town

Some people take summer relaxing very seriously. I have to mix work with pleasure, and attend a week long ministry-related conference.

Grantham, Pennsylvannia is not the most exotic travel destination (warning: link has sound) (second warning: there are so many things wrong about this Felix the Cat cartoon it makes my head hurt).

But the conference is quite worthwhile and I'll get to see friends from Rochester.

Blogging and e-mail use might be very light until I return in mid-July.

Bias in Station Wagons

A few days ago my wife made a comment about how many Subaru station wagons she sees in Eugene.

So the next day, while driving around town on many errands, I kept track of station wagons. A full 50% of the ones I saw were Subarus.

Have they taken over that niche market as other companies focus more on SUVs? Do they have great marketing locally? Now I'm wondering...


During the summer of 1993 I taught math at Summerbridge New Orleans.

Lately, of course, that particular Summerbridge has been inoperative. I'm no longer in touch with the program's staff or any of my fellow teachers of that summer. But I still correspond with some of my past students.

For a touching set of photographs about how parts of New Orleans were still suffering in late May 2006, follow this link and search the page for "New Orleans, nine months later" to jump to the start of the article.

(The title of this post is an in-joke, for those who have lived in or near New Orleans. The locals pronounce the name of their city as a single one-syllable word.)

My former student is doing well, and today sent me this list of non-excuses that show God can use anyone. I'd add a complimentary image and lesson: in the 4th chapter of Ezekiel the prophet is asked to lie on his side for more than a year, playing army men with a brick. (I'm politely omitting the even more unpleasant details.) Not only can God use anyone, but he might ask us to do really strange things. Considering that helps me understand the phrase "fear of God".

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Mix and Match Adventure Cool

Why are ninjas cool? I thought about this after a young co-worker of mine, who is planning on starting a family during the next few years, mentioned that if she and her husband have girls "they won't be girly, I'll raise them as sweet little ninjas instead."

I've decided ninjas are cool for the same reasons that pirates are cool.

As historical figures neither ninjas nor pirates are at all admirable. But people who joke about ninjas or pirates, or who dress like them for a costume party, or kids who pretend to be ninjas or pirates -- none of them are paying any attention at all to the historical realities of assassination, government dominance, pillage, or plunder.

And that's the first point. Ninjas and pirates are cool because people are free to re-define them. Some connotations remain of danger, bravery, and skill. Everything bad about the characters can be ignored or even reversed.

The second point is that both ninjas and pirates have many elements of "mix and match adventure cool" readily available.

What is mix and match adventure cool? I just invented the phrase while thinking about the first Star Wars film, the science fiction book Snow Crash, and the anime (cartoon) series The Last Exile. All three are delightful and ground-breaking within their genre. And each makes use of nearly all of the following:
  • sword fighting (light sabers count)
  • a handsome scoundrel who runs his own ship, and turns out to be a softie and sweetheart
  • a princess out adventuring instead of staying at home
  • a young male protagonist who find out he is not the most dangerous or capable fellow out there but can still make a difference
  • fighting done with small and agile vehicles (futuristic flying cars, including x-wings, count)
  • a rare ability to get somewhere is vital and heroic
  • honorable people suffering a setback due to betrayal, but eventually honor triumphs over corruption
  • an impersonal and heartless government that is set back or overturned
Clearly ninjas and pirates both have a head start on this list.

There are other examples of blending elements of genres to make something cool. The first Harry Potter book used a traditional British plot of an oprhan at a boarding school and combined it with the outsides of cute Dickensonian villages and the insides of fairy-tale castles.

Still, I wonder what else will appear using the winning combination of mix and match adventure cool? Maybe the next computer game to be as pervasive as Myst once was will involve a ninja or pirate protagonist and use all the bulleted items?

Some miscellaneous nifty links

My friends send me all sorts of funny and pretty and amazing things, which I can share. (Well, I'll share the ones that I can find online. I don't see any point to sending huge e-mails of pictures to folks.)

Someone also sent me this funny video (warning: link has sound). I realize that making fun of people who come from a superiority-esteem culture is as rude as presenting false criminal accusations against someone from an individual-responsibility culture, but still will pass this along since it is not about any particular real person.

Years ago, my father taught me how to fold a dollar bill into a bowtie. It turns out there's a website devoted to such things. Now we never need to leave a boring tip again!

The Citroen transformer is back (warning: link has sound).

Eugene is the sixth worst city for bicycle theft according to the Kryptonite company, but the number one green city according to The Green Guide.

If you spent too much of your youth playing video games, here are some nostalgic songs. (I'm old enough to only recognize the oldest of these games.)

When ZIP drives first came out, a big company tried to use them as the main drives for their PCs. The idea was that productivity would go up if every employee could treat any PC in the building as a terminal. Insert your own ZIP drive, boot the machine with all your own preferences and data, and start working! The idea didn't last long. But it did not die, either.

Falling Daily

Last night I had a dream about a red racer snake, a kind of snake which I had never heard of before. This particular snake was special: it was the first snake to be as well-trained like the dogs from Lassie, and was thus in show biz. It could follow, fetch, go where directed, roll over, play dead, and even (gently) shake. The snake itself was amazingly happy: it wanted nothing more that to meet, smell, and greet as many new people as possible. The snake's owner was also happy, since he got an easy deal in show biz: an appreciated star for which people have low expectations who travels well while on tour. I was just someone normal who got to meet the famous and friendly snake.

I dream most nights. Many of my dreams are scary.

Only twice have I had a dream that seemed to be a message from God, and both of these were about specific personal ways I needed to improve myself.

Three nights ago I had a silly dream in which I learned to skateboard.

Last summer I learned to play disc golf, but it never "stuck" with me. Disc golf can be good exercise if you run the course (basically jogging while throwing things). But I live too far from the disc golf course to go their to exercise -- the bicycle ride there and back would in itself be a nice amount of exercise. It can also be fun if you have a group of friends that play disc golf together, but I don't.

So now it's a new summer and I considered giving my silly skateboarding dream more attention than it deserved. After meeting a congregant for lunch yesterday I stopped by a local "board sports" shop and investigated buying a skateboard. They are not very expensive, so I wound up making a purchase and skateboarding home. (I had roller-bladed to my lunch appointment.)

The fact that I could simply get on a skateboard and go 30 blocks astounded me. The last time I had stepped onto a skateboard was freshman year of high school, and I could only go about 5 feet before falling off. Somehow I have more balance and coordination now than I did then. (My wife gives credit to our swing dancing.)

I fell once during that trip, big time. I didn't hurt myself since I was wearing my roller-blading wrist guards. Today I fell again, not leaning forward enough while trying to go down and up in a local skateboard bowl. Once I learn to kickturn more than a few degrees I can have fun at this skateboard bowl.

Besides the fact it's fun exercise with a low financial entry cost, I'm looking forward to how my swing dancing improves from time spent skateboarding. The skateboarding involves torso twisting (what swing dancers call "hip isolations"), which I'm lousy at. It also exercises my abdomen and shoulders more than other activity I normally do, which will help my swing dancing form.

A Week Gone By

Wow, it's been a whole week since I wrote anything here. What a week, too!

My math teaching is done for the school year. Final exams were given and graded. Students did pretty well.

Then I decided to collapse for a few days. My wife was out of town on a business trip. So I watched some movies. She does not enjoy watching movies as much as I do, so this was opportune timing.

I saw X-men 3 at the mall. That was surprisingly good. I had heard it did not meet the standards set by the first two because the old director had left to do Superman Returns. Probably true; it was not as good. But it was good enough, and thought provoking. The clever gimmick of the X-men comic has always been the flexibility with which "mutant" was used to represent any kind of social taboo -- originally simply being a teenager, and later many other issues. The movie handled that quite well, with a multiplicity of analogies but no overall message. My only regret was that the movie made Magneto a jerk instead of keeping him noble yet misguided.

Then I watched a new anime (Japanese cartoon). The local public library has someone on staff who loves anime, so I can freely borrow almost any good anime series. Like American cartoons, most anime is junk, but some of it is truly exceptional. Clearly exceptional is The Last Exile, the only anime adventure story I'd put in that category.

For those who care, the other two exceptional anime series I've seen are Haibane Renmei (about a girlwho is sort of an angel trying to figure out who and where she is; a deep story about sin, guilt, and forgiveness) and Serial Experiments Lain (a science fiction version of the Book of Revelation, confusing not only because that book is confusing but also because the viewer is not initially sure when characters are being made to hallucinate by the false Lain). The other I've checked out of the library and found interesting was Macross Plus, which almost (but not quite) becomes an interesting multi-faceted commentary on human impulsiveness versus mechanical precision, but unfortunately degenerates into guys fighting things with flying combat robots.

Besides movie watching, I cleaned up the house, prepared a sermon and led Shabbat services, attended a math department party in honor of three teachers who retired, and caught up on sleep.

I've stopped playing the computer game America's Army because my computer cannot handle it well, but while at the mall I picked up the old Call of Duty to try instead. I've only played it about half an hour, it seems a potentially decent substitute.

This summer my wife and I are participating in a "farm food box" program with Winter Green Farm. Every Tuesday we get a box of organic produce, and sometimes jam or other goodies. So far it's been fun, but of course it does not average out to be cost-effective until later in the season.

And that's almost all for now...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Power Bars

Power bars you bake yourself taste better than store-bought ones and are much less expensive.

One key ingredient is soy flour. If you can find a store that sells defatted soy flour use that! Then your power bars will have equivalent proportions of protein, carbohydrates, and fat to store-bought power bars. With normal soy flour there is more fat but the power bars are still definitely healthy.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Add to a large bowl (or mixer):
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 cup nonfat yogurt (we use vanilla)
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup brown sugar (not packed)
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup nonfat milk
Mix well, then add:
  • 2 cups gluten-free flour mix
  • 1 1/2 cup soy flour (defatted if available)
  • 1/2 cup nonfat milk powder
  • 3/4 cup almond meal
  • 1/4 cup flax seed meal
  • 3/4 cup chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup chopped nuts
  • 2 tsp xanthan gum
  • 1 tsp baking powder
When adding the dry ingredients, make sure then xanthan gum does not get wet until you really start mixing.

Mix well.

Bake in a jelly roll pan (a cookie sheet with walls) that has been sprayed with oil or has a silicon baking mat.

As with a bar cookie, it is done when it becomes firm and browns underneath (about 15 minutes).

Makes 16 bars, each with about 300 calories, 40 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams fat, 11 grams protein, and $0.30 cost. (Using defatted soy flour reduces the fat to 10 grams, and increases the cost to $0.50 per bar.)

For variations, the following work well:
  • adding dried fruit and replacing liquid milk with fruit juice (or a lesser amount of lemon juice)
  • adding cocoa poweder and replacing chopped nuts with peanut butter
  • adding molasses and spices appropriate for pumpkin pie or spice cookies

Monday, June 12, 2006

Divorce as Unveiling the Headstone

A Jewish friend is getting divorced. He and his wife are both content with what his happening. They are not happy, but the marriage died many years ago.

Their divorce is not killing the marriage. The divorce is not even the burial. Rather, for them it is like the Jewish custom of returning to the grave one year after the burial for the "unveiling of the headstone" -- a short ceremony that helps bring closure to the past year of mourning and grief.

In the first century, most divorces happened suddenly. If a wife was no longer pleasing to her husband, he would divorce her simply by delcaring them divorced. The Talmud mentions this declaration would be repeated three times, and could be about an issue as minor as bad cooking. Divorce rates at that time in the Roman Empire were incredibly high, and a divorced woman would often be finding herself in sudden financial trouble.

In Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-9, Yeshua teaches two things about divorce.

First, he says that God need not recognize the legitimacy of people's divorces. Speaking in the context of hyperbole, he says that a divorce which a husband declares is merely words. Thus it may be that a husband is promoting his wife's adultery by telling her to find another man, and another man she marries is also causing her to be adulterous since God has not legitimized her divorce.

Second, he clarifies (moving from hyperbole to practical rules) that sometimes God does agree with divorces. The basic rule put forth here and in later scripture is that a victimized spouse of either gender can blamelessly do a divorce. Yeshua mentions the case of an unfaithful spouse. Paul mentions the case of a spouse who leaves. It would be sensible to generalize these explicit cases to other abusive behaviors.

In other words, if your spouse kills the marriage, you can officially end the marriage with a divorce. God is interested in two people becoming a healthy "one flesh". This does not mean he is a sadist who refuses to acknowledge that a killed marriage is dead.

Yeshua's strong words were appropriate in a culture where most divorces happened suddenly, in rash moments, and killed the marriage. That culture needed to hear hard words about how much God valued marriages, so that husbands would be hesitant to declare divorces and would put more effort into having a happy marriage.

Perhaps our culture is approaching that condition. But this was not the case in my friend's marriage. Neither he nor his wife claim the other is primarily to blame that their marriage died years ago. In ways that even retrospect does not illuminate, together they did not do what was needed to keep the marriage alive. They regret that it died. But they recognize that it is not healthy to pretend a dead thing is alive.

In a way, they are looking forward to the divorce. Like the "unveiling of the headstone" it will help establish a boundary. Now they are mouring for their marriage, as is appropriate. As they prepare to separate they are becoming increasingly aware of what they lost. But their mourning needs to transition to life. The past few weeks have emotionally been much like sitting shiva. The divorce, like the "unveiling of the headstone" ceremony, will be an official statement saying, "You will always have some of this grief and regret and mourning, but it is time to get back into life again full-swing."

Second marriages are not literally adulterous. No branch of Judaism or Christian denomination tries to break up re-marriages. Even Yeshua recognized valid re-marriages.

All marriages are valued by God. I have known couples who even recovered from infidelity with help and grace from the Holy Spirt.

But not all divorce is sad. Sometimes it is just putting the headstone on a past sad event. Then the people in the divorce need support as ex-mourners, not condemnation as marriage killers.

If you know this couple, or a similar one, please be supportive in deed and in prayer. We all know the practical matters that need care and blessing (how children are affected, future parent-child interactions, that spouses initially divorcing peacefully do not bitter over time, etc.).

Diet Coke and Mentos

Another funny thing shared through e-mail, but a different friend.

Two hundred liters and five hundred mints. Impressive. (Warning: link has sound)

Remember, not everyone who wears a lab coat works indoors.

Beauties and Hooligans

My father once received as a present from a co-worker a fancy magnet that said, "I'm well known in actuarial circles." It was true, but also quite funny because the world of consulting actuaries in the U.S. is so small.

A friend told me by e-mail about this strange and similarly funny article. It is not funny that people get into fights. But there is something humorous about an article that mentions both "chess beauties" and "chess hooligans" so matter-of-factly.

Unrequited love! Salsa dancing! Fistcuffs! Chess! Beauties and hooligans! The Armenian defense minister! It sounds like a parody of a James Bond film that pays tribute to Simply Ballroom: perhaps entitled "When Chess War Leaves the Board".

I was at a housewarming party last week, at which two children briefly had a tug-of-war over a stuffed-animal Pikachu toy. In tribute to Doctor Strangelove, I called out, "You can't fight over Pokeman, you have to fight with them!". But no one at the party got the joke.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sharing Grades by Phone or E-mail

Due to Federal law, instructors at LCC are warned not to share grade information with students by phone or e-mail.

I recently found out (from correspondence with someone at the FERPA Family Policy Compliance Office) that this can be done legally with the proper written permission from the student.

This is nice to know. Students often want to know their grade information by phone or e-mail, or when absent they want their friends to being them back their graded work. Now I can put together a form to hand out the first day of each term, and be legally safe while also being more hospitable to students.

In practical terms, this written permission must include:
  • That the student is granting permission to receive grade information by phone, e-mail, or both
  • Which phone number and/or e-mail address to use
  • A comment (no response needed from the student) that e-mail addresses are not private because ISPs have the right to examine e-mail
  • When using the phone, whether grade information may be left as a phone message or if the student must receive it live
  • The signature of the student and the date
The first item is required because other types of permission may be granted. For example, a sick student may give an instructor written permission to send graded work home with a classmate. The "purpose of the disclosure" must be explicit in the written permission.

The second and third items are required because the instructor may only share the information with people for which the student has explicitly granted permission. The e-mail address the student has put in the college directory might be a shared e-mail address. Even if it is not a shared e-mail address, the student's internet service provider has the right to inspect the internet use of its clients. So grades can only be given out to the specific e-mail address given by the student on the permission form.

The fourth item is similar to the second, but for the phone. The instructor could leave a phone message with grade information (on an answering machine or with a person), but only with specific permission to do so.

The fifth information is legally necessary. The student must date his or her signature.

The Week to Come

My LCC math classes are done for the term, except for the final exams which happen on Wednesday and the grading that happens after that. As the sing-song goes, "No more classes, no more books, no more students' dirty looks."

But I have an ear infection, probably obtained after a particularly bad allergy night last week. So this weekend is not as colorful as it could be but has more naps.

On Wednesday I wake up early, because my wife is leaving for a plane flight and I have scheduled some last-minute office hours to help students with questions before the first final exam.

Web Sites as Graphs

Well, since everyone else is doing it... this blog as a graph.

Never Trust a Squirrel

The past week in Eugene has been one of very high pollen count. Since I'm trying to stay inside as much as possible, I have not been using our live traps.

The week before we caught a very cute opossum, and one not-as-cute squirrel (warning: last link has sound). Our squirrel count is now 11.

We also have seen a gray squirrel in the back yard for the first time. I'll have to make a phone call to ensure these are also legal to transport across town.

We also had a mouse in the house (warning: link again has sound) a few weeks ago, but have not heard it in a few weeks despite our mouse traps being still empty.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Catapult Glider

Rising gas prices are making commuting expensive, but there is no need to go to extremes...

Pictures From Old Books

Sometimes a picture is not worth a thousand words. Some signs are pretty abusrd.

But some pictures are classics. And others illustrate the classics.


Do not invite a penguin over for tea. It cannot hold the tea cup properly and will climb on the sofa.