Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for August, 2006

A Scene Unhappily Come True

Posted by hyperpat on August 31, 2006

I was going through some of the junk around the house in preparation for the move, and I came across this item:

Astro-Fired

I sense the wired unrest

inside the quiet voice and harsh control

Deliberate decision, constant test

Drone of backward clock tick,

tick,

grinding taut flayed nerve

 

Last tick, ignition spark

A blossom fire, a black of smoke

Hesitant lift,

pause,

sudden lark

Embroiled in sound hard high

High,

catching eye, ear, throat

 

A sigh, a smoke, relax —

My last to watch, control, the flying thought of man.

They say they will not pay the tax;

More important things than dreams

Dreams

of my heart, mind, soul

I wrote this in 1965, when I was a stripling of 16, and long before the Moon landing and the later almost total dismantling of the manned space program. As poetry it may not be great, although neither is it bad; in fact it surprised me, as I’d forgotten this poem, and it’s better than I’d thought I was capable of at that age. But more importantly it highlights the fact that even back then I could sense the ambivalence of the American populace to the need for and the importance of space flight. That hasn’t changed in all the years since then, and I have to rate NASA’s public relations efforts a dismal failure. And that is something to cry about.

Advertisements

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, poetry, Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

A Really Universal Phone

Posted by hyperpat on August 31, 2006

What happened to the days when a phone was a phone? Today I see people playing games, taking pictures, listening to their music, surfing the web, anything except make phone calls on their phone. Now in some ways I can’t complain, as my job to some degree depends on cell phones using ever more powerful chips to do all these other functions, but it just seems to me that doing these other things is not what a phone was designed for, and it is not as efficient (or as pleasurable) to do these things with a tiny screen, a tinier speaker, and buttons so small you really should have a toothpick or something similar to poke at the keys.

I guess what I’m really complaining about is the phone’s interface. If somehow it could be hooked to a virtual screen driven by circuits in a pair of glasses, a bone induction sound interface, and had a voice command interface for your input, we would really be entering the age of the totally wired, totally on the go world, very similar to something like the society portrayed in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End.  To do these things, though, would mean even more, and more powerful, chips as part of the overall package. Someone needs to design these things soon, before the entire populace goes blind from staring at microscopic screens or be subject to major continuous finger cramps from trying to poke those buttons. And when they start producing these things, my company’s stock price will go probably go up, as there obviously has to be some way to test all these micro-circuits, and that’s what we do.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction | Leave a Comment »

Stone Age Music Companies

Posted by hyperpat on August 30, 2006

When are the music producers going to get it? Now I’m not referring to the artists, but to the giant companies that package and market music.

First these companies still set both restrictive and penurious clauses in their contracts with the artists, such that the poor artist rarely sees the full benefit of his work. While at the same time, these companies insist on pricing CDs at exorbitant prices. A $20 CD, containing perhaps 10 or 12 songs, and having perhaps only one or two of those tracks that the consumer is really interested in, provides only $1-2 to the artist, costs maybe $1.50 to manufacture, and is sold to the retailer for $8-9. This means the company gets something like $4.50-6.50 in gross profit, out of which (sometimes) some portion goes to promotion of the CD. Something seems out of balance here. And the artist must kowtow to the company demands for promotional tours, publicity events, etc, and can’t just hop over to a competing label.

Then we have the head-in-the-sand attitude of the company execs about the internet. It has taken them several years to finally admit that there might be a better way to market and distribute music, and to actively support digital downloading, albeit still with lots of restrictions on copying capabilities, a limited selection of their entire vault of songs (I mean, what if you want to get some of those hits from the 1940s? Darn few available), and pricing that is still too high, although somewhat easier to swallow on an individual track basis.

Maybe sometime they will finally get hip to what people want:

1. No proprietary formats. Apple’s format is OK, but if you want to play iTune songs on something other than an iPod, you’ve got a problem. And along side of this, some people want to able to get their digital tracks in the highest resolution possible, say 320 Kbps, instead of Apple’s 128K default, especially for things like classical music.
2. Ability to make copies to any medium the user wants (CD, DVD, iPod, CreativeMP3, etc, etc.). Limiting the number of copies allowed is probably OK as a partial preventative to rampant piracy, but the number allowed must be large enough to allow for any normal use. But whatever copy protection scheme is used, it must be fully and carefully checked out that it will not cause problems on whatever equipment it is being played on.

3. Pricing that makes sense. Probably about half of the current $1/track, and with a greater portion going to the artist.

4. Get the entire library of songs online, from all artists. If this means cross-licensing between these corporate giants, so be it. But people don’t want to have to sign up to several different services to get all the artists and tracks they want.

5. Cut the garbage lawsuit crap against those who have downloaded songs, even if they have done so illegally. This does nothing but give the music industry a bad image, and there is certainly some question about whether these lawsuits are really valid, anyway. Question: you own a vinyl, reel-to-reel, 8 track, cassette, and CD copy of a particular track, have paid for each of those formats in years gone by (If you think this is something that never happens, I have examples of just this in my own collection). You now download a copy of that track from, say, LimeWire. Is this illegal? Who knows? When the RIAA goes after ‘illegal downloaders’, they don’t even ask if you have a purchased version of the download – to them, that’s not relevant.

And finally, these companies should quit complaining that their declining sales numbers are all due to rampant piracy, and start doing some serious searching for artists and material that people really want to buy.

Posted in General, music | Leave a Comment »

When Herculean Efforts Move Molehills

Posted by hyperpat on August 29, 2006

Ok, the flap has died down a little bit now, but the whole airline security thing has really reached the point where we need to ask ourselves “Is all this really worth it?”. For many years travel by air has been by far the safest way to travel, and for anything more than a 100 miles or so it used to be the fastest, at prices that were at least competitive with other modes of transport. Now, however, we are looking at hour + delays in boarding the plane, a huge amount of money being spent on devices and people to inspect you and your belongings (which may not show up on your ticket price, but will show up on your taxes), and the safety factor being bought by all this effort is what? Will all of this deter a group of real terrorists from figuring out a way to destroy a plane? It might stop the casual lone crazy, but an organized group is much more problematic.

At some point, there needs to be a real risk/benefit analysis done, and people need to start realizing that there is never any guarantee of perfect safety in any endeavor.

Posted in General, Politics | 1 Comment »

Split in Half

Posted by hyperpat on August 29, 2006

Americans are lazy. Everyone says so. And they also work more hours than the average Japanese. Huh?

This dichotomy seems to be caused by several factors. First is the tendency of many Americans, when the work day is done, to become instant couch potatoes when they get home. They rarely read anything, they don’t bother to get involved in their local community, they don’t investigate the latest political issues and candidates, few vote, and many display an abysmal ignorance of what’s happening in the world. The TV has become their god.

But when they get up in the morning, and hidey-ho off to work, at least some of them transform into eager beavers, working steadily throughout the day, and at least sometimes going well beyond the ‘normal’ end of the work day to make sure that project is finished, that all the files are updated, that the ‘to-do’ list has every item scratched out. At least some of this is due to the attitude of the management: if you don’t perform at 110%, you’re likely to be on your way out. And job security is something that seems to be very precious to most Americans. And there is still some of that ‘Yankee work ethic’ hanging out there in the cultural milieu.

Seems to me there needs to be a better balance between the two halves of people’s lives. More fun in the workplace, at a less hectic pace, and more attention paid to what you can and should do at home. Maybe we should have a national week where all the TV broadcasts are turned off, and a mandated 20 hour work week during that same week. I wonder what the effect would be?

Posted in General, Politics | Leave a Comment »

2006 Hugo Awards

Posted by hyperpat on August 28, 2006

Ok, the list of winners was posted last night. Unfortunately, my choice of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War didn’t win, but he did manage to snag the John W. Campbell award for best new writer in his first year of eligibilty. For the novel category, the final results look like this:

Winner: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

2nd: Accelerando by Charles Stross

3rd: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

4th: Learning the World by Ken MacLeod

5th: A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

I’ve also read numbers 4 & 5, but I found I was quite disappointed in both of them, as my expectation level for both these authors is quite high. However, I’ve not read the winner or the runner up yet, and they’ll definitely go on my to-be-read pile.

Over in the Dramatic category, the movie Serenity managed to win out. I caught a piece of this one just last night, and found that it didn’t hold my interest. My choice out of the others nominated was Narnia, but it only managed to come in fourth. Batman Begins took 2nd, which I thought was well done, but does it really belong in the science fiction category? Wallace and Gromit – the Curse of Were Rabbit took third. Amusing but slight. And finally Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire took fifth. IMO, the weakest of the Harry Potter movies so far.

The complete list of winners and nominees for fiction can be found over on my website, HyperPat’s Science Fiction.

Posted in Books, Movies, science fiction | Leave a Comment »

What’s Your Plan B?

Posted by hyperpat on August 27, 2006

Everyone neeeds a backup plan to handle things when they don’t go quite as originally planned. The FDA has finally admitted that this just might be a good thing to have to handle contingencies associated with unprotected sex. Only trouble is, it only has taken them three years to approve the sale of the ‘Plan B’ pills without a prescription, even though there was no scientific evidence of any harmful effects. And they’re still yakking about the availability of these pills as possibly promoting promiscuous sex, and have still restricted the sale to those over 18. Since when does the FDA have a mandate to control everyone’s morals? On top of the fact that every study done on the availability of various contraceptives has shown just the opposite, that people who use these drugs are more careful in their choice of partners.

One of these years people are going to revolt against the ‘nanny’ government intrusion into private lives. And when that happens, a lot of Congressmen will be out of a job, and just may realize that establishing laws for the common good is one thing, but making laws that prohibit actions that harm no one is not good for the health of this country.

Posted in Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Fun the Old-Fashioned Way

Posted by hyperpat on August 25, 2006

Ok, when was the last time you went out square dancing? For most people, the answer to that is either never, or sometime back in high school. And that’s a shame. Modern square dancing is, first and foremost, fun. But it’s also quite a challenge. There are various levels of competence that have been defined: Basic, Mainstream, Plus, A1, A2, C1, C2, and C3. At each level, there are calls unique to that level, either more complex, or needing to be executed more quickly than at prior levels. The calls have been standardized world wide – if you can dance in the U.S., you can dance anywhere, and not feel left out. It does take concentration and some coordination, and the classes for the various levels run anywhere from a few weeks to several months, but it doesn’t require years of practice to become decent at it. There’s no requirement to move up a level if you don’t want to – if all you want to do is dance at the Basic level, that’s fine. Most square dancers seem to settle at Mainstream level, but there are some areas of the country (such as the Bay Area) where the average level is Plus or higher. I personally dance at the A2 level, but I didn’t graduated to that level till I had been dancing Plus for several years.

It’s a good way to meet people in a safe, non-alcoholic environment (you simply can’t do square dancing and drink). So for parents looking for somewhere to send their teenagers, this is a good item to consider. Even if the kids think that square dancing is not ‘cool’, ‘rad’, or whatever other term they use for that, after they get out there and try it, many will find that they like it. Note that the national square dancing program has almost no relationship to the quickie intro that most schools provide, and if your child has had exposure in school it will be more difficult to get them to try the real thing, but it’s probably worth the effort. Square dance club membership is also cheap, typically $20 or less a month – and what other form of entertainment can you get at that price? Of course, the outfits are a bit expensive (a man’s outfit is typically $50-100, a ladies $100 – 150), but you don’t even have to get those till after you’ve tried it and decided it’s something you really want to do.

So look up a local club in your phone book and go out give it a look-see. Trust me, you’ll like it.

Posted in General | Leave a Comment »

I Grow Old, I Grow Old…

Posted by hyperpat on August 25, 2006

…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

At least, that’s what T.S. Eliot would do. But how about the rest of us, faced with not just our own slide into superannuated states, but a good portion of the society around us. This aging of the population has some serious consequences, anywhere from Social Security no longer having enough income to pay projected benefits to having enough young people to fill the job positions vacated by those retiring. Does this problem have any solutions?

A few possibilities:

1. Open up the immigration gates so that the balance between young workers and older retired people can remain at near the current ratio. This has obvious implications that many may not like: people coming here from different cultures won’t necessarily think the way current ‘Americans’ do (remember that in some fashion, almost all ‘Americans’ were immigrants at some point), and their votes may change how this country is run; the influx may need to be so rapid that cultural assimilation may not happen, leading to a form of Balkanization of the populace, we may have to truly become a multi-language country.

2. We could kill off all the excess ‘old’ people. If you think this idea is outrageous, you don’t know your history. In many cultures, once a person had outlived his usefulness, he was frequently cut off from any support, or even voluntarily went off to die. In a way, if we do not adequately fund medical care for the elderly, this is exactly what the effect would be.

3. We could implement a mass campaign to get everyone capable of it to have lots of babies, quickly. Given the total world population, and the strain this population is already putting on the resources of Mother Earth, this doesn’t sound like a good idea.

4. Just have the government print money to keep those Social Security checks coming, and live with resultant inflation.

5. Force people to start saving a good portion of their income now, so that when retirement came, the government would not have to provide so much in benefits.

None of these ‘solutions’ are terribly nice, but I think everyone should be doing some serious thinking about this problem, as it’s not going away anytime soon, and unless someone can come up with better solutions, your old age may be very far from golden.

Posted in General, Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Poor Pluto

Posted by hyperpat on August 24, 2006

I see that our much hailed (and denigrated) ninth planet is no more. At the stroke of pen (or at least a bunch of votes), Pluto is no longer a planet. It meets all the new criteria for what makes a planet except one: it hasn’t cleared it’s orbital path of all the other orbiting junk (it’s orbit sometimes takes it inside of, and crosses over, Neptune’s orbit). Given the amount of controversy and debate over this issue, though (see Pluto Demoted, Loses Planetary Status), I don’t think it will forever remain dead stuck in its new status.

But the whole debate does point out that our universe is composed of many more types of objects than were even dreamed of just a short while ago. Now we have quasars, ‘dark’ matter, neutron stars, black holes, ‘proto’ stars (which Jupiter just misses being a member of), dwarf planets, and sundry other types of bodies. What else will we find out there? And will we ever be able to go and visit these things in person? I certainly hope so – but that will only happen if we put some real effort into not just getting into space, but living out there, making new habitats, becoming self-sufficient via the resources available out there, and breaking out of our little cocoon forever.

Posted in Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Where’s the Variety?

Posted by hyperpat on August 21, 2006

Just prior to going to the California State Open Bowling championship detailed in the prior post, my wife and I took a little vacation in Las Vegas. After all the pressure of getting our house ready for sale and trying to purchase a new property, we needed it.

Now Vegas is an odd place. It has only one reason for being there, and that’s gambling. When they started putting up the first major casinos there, everyone thought they were crazy. After all, it’s smack in the middle of the desert, and one of the most desolate areas in the United States. But the casinos have thrived, and with them the town – now one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. But I wonder how much longer the allure of the place will continue. It used to be that each casino had something that was at least slightly different from all the rest – different slot machines, different specialty card tables, better (or at least different) headliners for the shows, better deals on eats or rooms.

Now, however, it seems the only real difference between any of them are the contracted stars. All the casinos seem to have standardized on what slot machines they have – many of them are cross-linked to produce higher progressive jackpots. If all you want to do is play slots, there’s really no need to go to more than one casino. And they’ve made the slots incredibly complicated: play 20 different lines at 20 coins each line (which means you can be throwing $4 per play on on a penny machine), with five reels, four different kinds of wild symbols, 30 different main symbols, and a payout chart that you really need an Excel spreadsheet to decode. I don’t like these types of machines.

The tables are more of the same: minimum $5 tables whether you play blackjack or baccarat, about the only difference is whether they deal from a shoe with four decks or from the hand with only two (a very few casinos still offer single deck – but anyone who has looked at the odds knows that this makes only a tiny difference). Craps, roulette, all are standardized (unless you know the casino owner and have a couple hundred thousand to throw around).

Room rates and other amenities are very similar from hotel to hotel. The days of the $10 room with free breakfasts are long gone. And the headliners for the shows seem to move from one hotel to another, and ticket prices for seeing them are as high as what you’d find in New York or Los Angeles.

With all this sameness, I begin to wonder if there are enough dedicated gamblers out there to support all these giant casinos. And if the casinos die, the town will too.

Still, we had a good time there (almost broke even, not bad for a four day stay), and accomplished our primary goal: Relaxation.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General | 4 Comments »

Bowling in Bakersfield

Posted by hyperpat on August 21, 2006

Just got back from the California State Open Bowling championship. This was the first major tournament I’ve participated in, even though I’ve been bowling on a regular basis for about thirty years. Unfortunately, I didn’t do nearly as well as I’d hoped. On the first day, in the team event, I could only muster up a 172, 158, and 165, some really poor scores, and I didn’t have a single double in all three games. Very frustrating. Day two started with the singles competition, and it got even worse, a 165, 156, 166, with still no doubles and with the added scourge of opening every first frame. Finally we moved to a new pair of lanes for the doubles competetion, I changed both my line and my delivery, and things started to look up, with a 236 for my first game, and my partner rolling a 195. Perhaps we even stood a chance of winning something if we could just keep those kinds of scores coming in for the second and third games. And I was doing OK in the second game till the 10th frame, when I missed a stupid 10 pin and ended up with a 189 (making that 10 should have put me in the 200s again). And my partner fell apart, with only a 155 (he’d rolled a 258 in the singles competition, but it looked like he’d lost the line). The last game was not good, a 153 occasioned by three splits, and my partner turned in a 147. Still, the whole thing was fun, and I’ll probably play in next year’s tournament.

Posted in Bowling, Daily Happenings | Leave a Comment »

Sell this House!

Posted by hyperpat on August 14, 2006

I haven’t posted in a few days as there has just not been any time. Getting my house ready for sale, dealing with the bank about obtaining a new mortgage for the house I’m buying, getting the house inspections done, and of course just regular work have all combined to leave me no time for fun.

Today’s method of selling a house is a little different, too. Used to be you’d spiff it up a bit, get your broker to list it, maybe hold an open house, and wait (and wait). Now, you not only have to spiff it up a lot, but you have to present it (at additional cost for someone’s expertise in how to present), and get your inspections done prior to putting it on the market, so that prospective buyers can tell just what condition the house is in. The presenting thing also means you end up with a house you can’t live in! No mail laying around, kitchen table carefully laid out with full place settings, hide the dirty clothes hampers, move all your ‘excess’ furniture out to the garage so the place will look bigger, keep your shoes off in the house to protect your freshly steam-cleaned carpet, no unwashed dishes at any time, new decorations and paintings placed by your presenter that you must be careful with (they’re not yours), lawn meticulously mowed, trimmed, and weeded, etc, etc.

Yesterday we finally had the open house. And we’ll keep it on the market for this coming week, after which we fully expect to have at least a couple of offers, and then will take it off the market. No more of this waiting, waiting business. I just hope all the work was worth it.

But in the meantime, with a house so difficult to live in, we’re going to take a little vacation to Vegas and then head over to the State bowling tournament. A little play will certainly help this Jack.

Posted in Daily Happenings | 1 Comment »

The American Way

Posted by hyperpat on August 4, 2006

For the last few days, speculation has run rampant over Castro’s condition and what a post-Castro Cuba would look like. Whether Castro’s current problems will mean a transfer of power to his brother immediately or sometime in the future, however, I doubt if the basic structure of that government, its laws, or its economic and social conditions will change greatly, at least not for a long time. Americans like to think that dictatorships are inherently bad or evil, and that societies without a great amount of personal freedom are not viable in the long term. But they forget that any homogenous group of people generally get not only the government they deserve, but what they want, and dictatorships can be a very useful form of government. Apparently President Bush does not understand this point:

“If Fidel Castro were to move on because of natural causes,”

President Bush said on Miami’s Radio Mambi, just before the illness was announced, “we’ve got a plan in place to help the people of Cuba understand there’s a better way than the system in which they’ve been living under. No one knows when Fidel Castro will move on. In my judgment, that’s the work of the Almighty.”

Then, after the illness was announced Monday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow put the administration’s thoughts in further order. There would be no reaching out to Raul Castro, because “Raul Castro’s attempt to impose himself on the Cuban people is much the same as what his brother did. The one thing that this president (Bush) has talked about from the very beginning is his hope for the Cuban people, finally, to enjoy the fruits of freedom and democracy. … We stand ready to help.”

No government that is truly hated by the majority of its citizens has lasted for any great length of time. The very fact that the current form of government in Cuba has lasted as long as it has, without a large amount of protest from its citizens (not counting the expatriates in Florida and elsewhere), indicates that in some ways at least Castro has met the desires of the Cuban populace. It would be a serious mistake on the part of US government to attempt to externally change their form of government, or to try to foment unrest in the populace.  But I’m sure this administration will try to bull its way through to trying to do exactly these items, in the absolute belief that only our way is right, and the whole world should be just like us.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Science and Voters

Posted by hyperpat on August 3, 2006

Seems like the voters in Kansas have at least temporarily come to their senses, at least in terms of their Board of Education. While yes, Darwin’s evolution theory is just that, a theory, and there are some points of it that are still in dispute, overall this theory has stood the test of time and many, many more fossil discoveries, much greater understanding of how life forms are programmed by their DNA, and other experimental and discovered evidence. While Intelligent Design, however prettily it is presented, is no more than a belief, and inherently unprovable. As such, it does not belong in science textbooks. Now if high schools offered course in philosophy or religion, ID probably should have a place within those courses. But being presented in science books does nothing more than confuse students, as having a belief system presented side-by-side with something that has hard evidence and at least the possibility of being proven as fact destroys the whole basis of what science is about.

Posted in Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Censors and Prognostication

Posted by hyperpat on August 2, 2006

I’m re-reading Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, a collection of three of his stories that I haven’t looked at in about 15 years. What strikes me is that even though these stories were written in the forties, they are just as applicable to today’s world (if not more so) as they were to the world of the time they were written. The opening story “If This Goes On —” is actually frightening, depicting as it does the US as a theocracy, something that seems all too possible today with a significant minority of the US population being both highly religious and politically active. One point that is quite vivid from this story: he declares that all police states/dictatorships/absolute rule by a few can only survive if they control and censor the information available to their populace. China’s current attempts to control what appears on the internet come immediately to mind, but possibly scarier is our current executive branch trying to hide everything under the sun in the name of ‘national security’. The tree of liberty really does require constant vigilance, else it will be nibbled away by just such ‘insignificant’ or ‘necessary’ breaches of the people’s right to know.

This story was first published in 1939, and as such represents some of his earliest writing – which means it’s not as polished as some of his later works, and there are some definite attitudes displayed towards women that are certainly not PC in today’s world, but it still reads like it was just published, fresh, with a solid story line and a main character who is very real. I just wish I could write like that, and hope that his envisioned future never really comes to be. And it’s probably the weakest story of the three.

Posted in Books, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Sleepless in San Jose

Posted by hyperpat on August 1, 2006

I’m very tired today, having only gotten about three hours sleep. The cause for the sleeplessness, though, is at least hopefully good, as it looks like the owners of the place we placed an offer on will accept the offer (at a little bit higher price, naturally). Now the only problem is obtaining a bridge loan to carry the financing till our house sells. Fun and games. I just love filling out fifty forms in triplicate, with initials here, there, and signatures elsewhere. Buying and selling a house has become so complicated, with so many potential legal pitfalls, that everyone wants to make absolutely sure their tail is covered, along with state and federal government requirements, all contributiing to this mound of paperwork.

But we’re excited.

Posted in Daily Happenings | Leave a Comment »