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Archive for the ‘General’ Category

What You Really Need for Retirement

Posted by hyperpat on December 23, 2013

If you look at advice from financial adviser after adviser, they all say you need to have 70 to 80 percent of your pre-retirement income and at least 10 times your earnings in savings in order to maintain your same living standard in retirement. Is this really true, or is there a certain amount of scare tactics in all all this advice (after all, you more you save and invest through those same advisers, the better their income will be!)?

 

Let’s look at what changes when you retire. The big change in income sources is from your paycheck to social security, pensions, and money you withdraw from your savings (instead of adding to those savings). The other big changes deal with what you do in retirement – at the least, there is no more daily commute to work, which might mean no need for two cars, but might also include more vacation type travel that you couldn’t do while working. Let’s put some numbers behind this.

 

Assume a total family income of $100,000. Out of this, you normally pay a net of about $13,000 in federal and state income taxes, plus an additional $7400 in social security and medicare taxes. In California, there’s also another $900 in worker’s compensation taxes. So your net after tax income is about $78,700. If you’ve been following the advice about savings, you’ve also been stashing at least another $5000 in your IRA/401K, and paying another $4000 in medical insurance, assuming a typical employer/employee split of this cost. So your actual cash income to handle everything else is about $69,700. This number matches up pretty well with the low end of what they say you’ll need in income, but will you still need this much?

 

As alluded to earlier, one of biggest changes when retiring is no more commute or need for a second car. Just how much does this cost? The annual cost of car is about $2500, assuming a typical car bought and held for 10 years. Gas for a 20 mile commute 250 days a year at 25 mpg at $3.35/gallon is $1340. Car maintenance is another $800 (tuneups/oil changes/smog checks/tires, etc). Auto insurance is another $600/year. Total cost/year $5240/year, which is not insignificant. Let’s reduce what you need to retire by this amount, leaving us with $64,500 that we need to find somewhere.

 

The other big change is hopefully you have now paid off your mortgage on your house, or, if not, you have enough equity to buy another smaller house (after all, there probably aren’t any kids to house any more) free and clear. This is probably the biggest variable in calculating what you’ll need; obviously if you’ve been renting all your life, you’ll still need to rent or take enough out of your savings to buy one. As a mortgage on a $250,000 house runs about $1250/month or about $15000/year, whether or not you’ll need to fund this in retirement is a big deal. I’ll assume for the moment you don’t need this, leaving us with only $49,500/year to come up with.

 

Social security at full retirement age for someone who earns $100,000 (and has earned similar amounts adjusted for inflation through most of his/her working life) is about $2500/month, or $30,000/year. This leaves about $20,000 that we need to get from our savings. Assuming you’re withdrawing at 4% from your IRA/401K, that means the account balance should be $500,000. Note that at this income level, your federal and state income taxes are near nonexistent. If you haven’t paid off your house, let’s add another $250,000 so you can buy one. This makes the total savings needed is $750,000, still quite a bit less than the advisers advocate.

 

So it would seem from all the above that the advisers are inflating the requirements by about 1/3 to ½, which is quite a bit. More might be better, but some people are being scared so much by the advertised numbers that they are delaying retirement, and possibly missing some of the best times of their lives.

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Posted in Economics, General | Leave a Comment »

Ayn Rand and the Gold Standard

Posted by hyperpat on December 22, 2013

This is the first in a series of posts that will look at the philosophical points Rand presented in Atlas Shrugged. I picked on this particular item to tackle first because its probably the easiest to debunk, and it’s an item that I flagged as invalid even on my first reading of this book back in 1965, when the US was still nominally on the gold standard.

Rand makes several references throughout the book that gold is the only ‘true’ money, that anything printed by a government is essentially valueless as governments can always print more bills, essentially creating value from nothing. But she is making a very basic logical error, that just because gold has been used for many centuries by many cultures as a yardstick of value, that gold has an intrinsic real value. This is obviously false. If you are standing naked on an iceberg, which would you rather have: a nice warm parka or a pound of gold? If you answer this by choosing gold, then I’m afraid you’ll not be around for very long.

Gold’s value is relative to what use it can be put to. Clearly it won’t directly help in a survival situation, and gold has very few everyday uses other than for jewelry and electronics. But if there was an Inuit standing on the other side of that iceberg who had an extra coat that he would be willing to give you in exchange for that pound of gold (because he likes how it looks, and he’s not freezing!), now that gold has some real value. This illustrates that the value of any gold you have is dependent on what other people are willing to exchange for it.

So why has gold been used as a currency standard by so many for so long? Gold has several properties that make it useful (but not essential) for this purpose. It doesn’t corrode (do you really want that money you stuffed under your mattress to turn into crumbling powder a year from now?), it’s not flammable and resists acids quite well, it’s quite malleable and easy to strike into coins that are easy to carry, it is relative rare and takes a fair amount of effort to find, extract and refine (if your money was based on, say, timber logs, then everyone could go chop down their backyard tree and presto! they have more money – except, when everyone does this, no one would want more timber logs) . It’s this last property that Rand seized on – governments can’t just create a new ton of gold whenever they want; the supply is limited and not likely to grow substantially in any human-life time frame.

But gold is not money! Money is merely a medium of exchange, a human invention to allow for the exchange of goods between various parties without the hassle of barter – my bushel of wheat for Joe’s ounce of salt, that I will then use to trade for Jimmy’s rabbit – barter as a system is unwieldy and does not scale with increasing population densities. Anything can be used as such a medium, from cowrie shells to, yes, salt (they’ve both been used as such). All that is required for something to serve as money is that all the parties in a society will accept the item as a marker of value, and the same people have pretty much the same appreciation of what the value of one unit of that marker is.

So what will change people’s valuation of the worth of that marker? Like almost anything else, the value of a currency is dependent on supply and demand. If a government prints more and more markers, supply goes up, but the value of each marker will only thereby go down if there is not an equal increase in demand. What causes the demand to increase? Production of more goods, things that have intrinsic value (food, clothing, housing, etc), and more people. If the supply of markers was totally static, population increase alone would eventually increase the value of the markers (only so many to go around!), so governments (or whoever is controlling the supply) do need to make more markers available over time. How many to make is not clear cut; clearly if way too many are made, you end up with the hyperinflation of post WWI Germany; too few can lead to a brake on growth and recessions.

But forcing a government to limit its marker supply to the amount of gold it has in its treasury (as Rand basically advocates) is idiotic. Money is a tool, and like any tool needs to be used correctly. Using gold as a basis for a currency does impose some limits that would help curb irresponsible spending, but the real answer is for the government to act in a responsible manner at all times – and if it doesn’t, it’s time for a new government, which will almost automatically occur if hyperinflation sets in.

The ultimate value of any currency is dependent on the people who use it having confidence that everyone else will accept it, will be willing to trade things of value for it. Here the Tea Party has some valid points. They are insisting that the US government limit its spending and have a concrete plan for how to pay for the things the government is funding. Both of these items are likely to increase everyone’s confidence in the long-term viability of the dollar. But adamant, no compromise allowed, stances on these issues to the point where the government must shut down does just the opposite, and can do real harm to our economy and everyone’s standard of living.

Posted in Books, Economics, General | 1 Comment »

Big Brother and Stupid Monkeys

Posted by hyperpat on October 29, 2009

It would seem that the monkeys who dominate executive boardrooms are incapable of thinking rationally. The latest case in point is a patent awarded to Amazon that specifies a method of computer substitution of one or more synonyms into electronically distributed text that will allow the later detection of unauthorized copies of that text (text of patent is here) .

Now I can almost understand the logic behind Amazon looking at doing something like this, as their site allows users to ‘Look Inside the Book’ and read a couple pages of the book, a feature that many users like as it is similar to a book reader’s normal method of book selection in a book store, where the reader can browse through the potential purchase to see if he really likes it. The trouble is, such a feature allows for multiple automated requests for excerpts, looking at different points of the book, and it then becomes possible to stitch these requests together to get the entire contents of the book – for free. And which could then be distributed far and wide across the net, with no income going to either Amazon or the author. Obviously this is even easier with ebooks, where the entire text is already available electronically.

But the idea behind the usefulness of this patent is that you can make synonym substitutions that do not alter the meaning of the text in any meaningful way, i.e., the reader will never know the difference. This is dumb and stupid on its face. “It was a dark and stormy night” might become “It was a caliginous and raving night” or “It was an obscure and disorderly night” – not exactly conveying what the original does. Authors, I think, would be very upset if their precious text is altered in this fashion, and would more than likely cry ‘foul’ and sue for copyright infringement, as clearly this method alters the text slightly and then attempts to sell for profit the end result, which at least would normally be considered plagiarism. And there really is no need to actually alter the text this way as there are plenty of other ways to uniquely digitally watermark text, say by changing kerning, spacing, pitch, or font for only certain words or sentences, that will not alter the meaning the of the text (with some caveats that some poetry depends on some of these characteristics – how it looks on a page – to achieve its effect).

Somewhere along the line, company execs need to get hip to the fact that the best way to stop piracy, whether it be books, songs, or movies, is not to add ‘security’ (whether it be DRM codes, ‘watermarking’, or whatever other method they might come up with) to the product, but to make the product cheap enough that it doesn’t make sense to go to the effort of illegally copying it.

But there is also a notable and frightening feature of this patent in that it specifically mentions that the requestor of the digital information can be uniquely identified and tracked. Now I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like the idea of anybody being able to determine what I’m reading. If the government starts doing this, then what’s to stop Orwell’s 1984 from coming true? Because once some authority can do something like this, it is a very short step from such monitoring to arresting the poor slob who has the temerity to read something that says nasty things about said authority.

Posted in Books, General, Writing | Leave a Comment »

Some Last Words on Australia

Posted by hyperpat on October 19, 2008

As I indicated in the prior posts, I used to live in the Miranda area back in 1954-1955, and went to school over in Cronulla. You might wonder why I was there in first place.

The answer is both simple and somewhat important even to current residents of the area. My father used to work for a construction company that specialized in chemical plants. In late 1953, construction was just about done on the Isle of Grain oil refinery just outside of London, England, a very large plant that my father worked on from 1951 to 1953, and the family at that time lived in Maidstone. In 1952, the Sutherland Shire council removed its opposition to the construction of an oil refinery on the Kurnell peninsula and Caltex subcontracted with my father’s company to do some of the engineering work for the planned plant. I think we were originally scheduled to move to Australia about November of 1953, but just at that time there was a major North Sea storm that flooded the plant in England, and my father stayed there a few extra months to help fix up the mess. But in March 1954 we packed up and headed back for a short visit in the US, then continued on to Australia.

Site construction had just begun by then (it started in Dec 1953), and at that time there was only a single auto-navigable road to the area that had just been built (it’s now Captain Cook Drive). Cronulla and the surrounding area had a much smaller population at that time, which is why I remember it as a far more rural environment than it is today.

The plant came on-line in February 1956, but the engineering portion of it that my father worked on finished somewhat earlier, and we left Australia in November, 1955. The plant itself added a major industrial capability to the area, and some have called its construction the beginning of modern industrial Australia. Others have been very unhappy about the ecological impact this plant has made on the area.

The Kurnell Oil Refinery

Posted in General, Places, Travel, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Australia, Day Seven

Posted by hyperpat on October 16, 2008

Bright and early the next morning, we headed up to Kuranda village and the Daintree Forest via the Freshwater Scenic Railway.

The Freshwater Train

The Freshwater Train

While the train was nicely appointed and appeared appropriately old-fashioned, I was a little disappointed in the amount of things we could actually see from the train windows, as a good portion of the route up into the mountains had heavy foliage on both sides of the track when it wasn’t otherwise obscured by the rock cliffs the roadbed had been cut through. But the train did make a short stop at Barron Falls, which is certainly spectacular enough:

Barron Falls

Barron Falls

At the Kuranda train station stop, we transferred back to our tour bus, which is certainly uniquely decorated, and finally reached Kuranda Village.

The Tour Bus

The Tour Bus

The major attraction here is the Butterfly sanctuary, which had something like 50 different kinds of butterflies merrily flapping their wings all over the place. These little guys were hard to get on camera, as they wouldn’t stay still most of the time, but we did get a few of them, including the gorgeously colored Papilio ulysses:

Papilio Ulysses

Papilio Ulysses

There was also the Cairns Birdwing:

Cairns Birdwing

Cairns Birdwing

We didn’t actually get to see this guy, but they had a specimen mounted in the display room.

Cosdinoscera Hercules

Cosdinoscera Hercules

It’s the world’s largest moth, with something like an 10″ wingspan (the larger female one shown here). The largest ever recorded had a wingspan of 14″.

Continuing from Kuranda our next stop was the Aborigine Cultural village and the rainforest itself.
Here we got to listen and watch a performance of native dances accompanied by the didgeridoo, a full half hour show that kept us spellbound:

Aborigine Dance Exhibition

Aborigine Dance Exhibition

These dances helped illustrate just how vibrant and ecologically aware the Aborigine culture was, a culture and people that have not been well-treated by the white settlers in this country, a treatment as bad or worse than that meted out to the Native Americans of North America. The country in recent years has moved to redress at least some of the most egregious treatments of this people, but Aborigines (and for that matter just about every other non-white group that has come to Australia) are still treated as at best second-class citizens. This is one record that Australia should not be proud of.

Of course, after that show, we had to learn all about how to play one of these weird instruments, which are formed from wood hollowed out by termites. The termites are heavily present in this area, and sometimes form six foot high mounds.

Didgeridoo Lesson

Didgeridoo Lesson

Next up was a lesson in how to throw a boomerang, absolutely essential knowledge for any Australian wanna-be:

Sylvia and Boomerang 1.01

Sylvia and Boomerang 1.01

My own practice throw was pretty poor, but I think I could get reasonably good at it with some practice. Some of the other people in our group did quite well at it, but there was one (isn’t there always one?) who managed to throw it almost straight up, and it returned practically on top of heads. I suppose that’s the reason that everyone except the thrower is kept inside a roofed wire enclosure, as getting hit by one of these things will certainly give you a long-lasting headache. We purchased a couple of boomerangs here to bring home, these being the genuine article, as opposed to some we’d seen in the various souvenir shops that may have been prettier (and a lot pricier, with some at $500 price tags) but certainly not as functional and strictly intended for tourists.

His..

His..

...and Hers

...and Hers

Next up was a spear throwing demonstration, both directly hand-held and using a woomera, a device that helps increase the distance they can throw. They didn’t let us poor tourists try this one, but it was quite impressive to see the distance they could accurately throw one of these things, and one of the demonstrators holds the Guinness record for an aided throw of 147.5 meters (1 1/2 football fields).

Spear Throwing 1.01

Spear Throwing 1.01

After a pretty good barbecue lunch we then seated ourselves in an old Army Duck for a little excursion through the rainforest.

An Army Duck

An Army Duck

These vehicles are over 60 years old, originally constructed for WWII action, and still running just fine today. Now if our auto industry would still make vehicles this way, you’d only have to buy one car for your entire life. Of course, that would mean the industry wouldn’t be able to sell nearly as many cars, which just can’t be allowed to happen in a capitalistic society. Of course, the top speed of about 5mph of these things probably won’t impress you, but they will allow you to get through some very rugged terrain and/or marshes quite well.

I thought the best part of this little jaunt was when the duck took to the water. While we didn’t observe any crocodiles poking their snouts out, there were turtles and snakes along the way. And our guide stopped at one point to demonstrate the extreme flexibility and sturdiness of the rattan wood, something I have memories of from my school days here, as rattan canes were used for discipline of extreme infractions (their use has now been outlawed in all schools in Australia).

Guide and Rattan

Guide and Rattan

After the rainforest, we took a stroll through the wildlife section of this attraction. While many of the animals were ones we’d observed earlier in Featherdale Wildlife preserve, there were some new ones, like this guy whom I unfortunately didn’t catch the name of: (Now labeled with correct designation thanks to a commentor):

A Quoll

A Quoll

We also got a better shot of one the big cassowaries here:

Cassorwary

Cassorwary

Sylvia got brave and actually went up and touched one of the kangaroos:

Kangaroos Can Be Nice

Kangaroos Can Be Nice

This day was still not done, as we still needed to get back to Cairns, for which purpose we took 7.5 kilometer Skyrail cable car ride over the rainforest (Sylvia once again surprised herself at calmly accepting this move to high in the sky).

Katoomba Skyrail cable car

Skyrail cable car

The views from the car were awesome, at some places just barely skimming over the tops of the trees, and allowing a view down to the forest floor some 200 ft lower, at others giving us a panoramic view of the entire area.

Over the river

Over the river

At the Top of the Forest

At the Top of the Forest

View towards Cairns

View towards Cairns

We finally got back to Cairns, and decided on a simple dinner, so we went to the local MacDonalds (yes, they’re everywhere). This allowed us to make a direct price comparison to American food prices. I found my standard Double-Quarter-Pounder combo meal at $14 AUD. Even applying the then current exchange rate, that translates to about $12.50 US, a lot more than the US price. Prices here are definitely high. After dinner,and this very long sight-filled day it was time to pack up and get ready for the flight back to Sydney in the morning.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, Places, Travel | 4 Comments »

Australia, Days Five and Six

Posted by hyperpat on October 14, 2008

We left Sydney early the next morning, with the usual idiocy of the airport, and arrived at Cairns about 11AM. By the time we got to the hotel, it was almost noon, but our room was not quite ready yet, so we checked our bags with the concierge and went for a little walk around the hotel, just to see what was there. Unfortunately, it was pretty hot, and after about a half mile of walking I found myself in bad shape:

Me at the hotel after our little walk

Me at the hotel after our little walk

From the way I felt, it was probably a case of dehydration, as I was very flushed, light-headed, weak, and felt hot even in the air-conditioned hotel lobby, which we returned to to wait till our rooms were ready. While waiting, Sylvia had some fun taking pictures of herself, trying out some the camera’s capabilities that she hadn’t really been aware of up till now. Once we finally got in our rooms, I took a little rest, which made me feel much better, and we decided to do a little more exploring, since it was now night and not as hot. We took a walk out to the wharf, scoping out where we’d have to go the next morning for our Great Barrier Reef trip, and returned via the Esplanade, on the lookout for a good place to eat. This was done in the rain that had decided to drench the area. While walking by all the shops, we came across one that had a stuffed kangaroo in the window display, and Sylvia naturally wanted to take some pictures up next to it:

Sylvia and Stuffed Kangaroo

The picture taking activity attracted the attention of the store owner, a nice middle aged lady, and we got into a conversation about where we were from and such. Eventually the talk turned to politics and the latest on the financial catastrophe happening on Wall Street. She greatly surprised us with how knowledgeable she was with the American scene, knowing more about happenings in our country than many people in the US. She knew who our Presidential candidates were, what their platform positions entailed, the general economic status of the country, the specifics of the current sub-prime mortgage lending mess, what our Congress’s proposed actions were, and had opinions on what effect those actions would have on her own country’s economic health. It would probably be impossible to find an American who could talk knowledgeably about Australian politics like this! We must have talked with her for an hour. After finding some dinner, we stopped off at the Reef Casino. Just like American casinos, it’s filled with lots of slot machines and a few gaming tables. Almost all the slots were pretty much the same type, a trend that’s also happening in the US. We tried our luck at a couple of them, putting in $5 in each one. Sylvia ending up going broke, but I managed to double my money on mine, so we broke even – not a bad result.

At the casino

At the casino

The next morning we got ready for our trip to the reef. While waiting for our boat to come in, we took some more pictures of the wharf and ships there, including this one:

Eventually we set out in our high speed catamaran, first to Green Island, then off to a mooring pontoon located on the edge of the this portion of the reef.

Our Tour Boat

Our Tour Boat

As you can see, this was a pretty large boat, which was good, as once we got out into the open ocean there was a pretty good chop and about 2-3 foot swells. The size of this boat did much to mitigate the rolling effect, though it was still noticeable, and we didn’t have any problem with sea-sickness. Even with the speed of this boat (I’d estimate it was doing a good 20 knots), it still took us about an hour and a half to reach the reef.

The mooring pontoon had an observation deck below the water, where we could observe the hardier folks doing some scuba diving:

Scuba divers at the reef

Scuba divers at the reef

A little later, after we’d had some lunch aboard the pontoon, we got into a semi-submersible craft and headed off for a little cruise over the reef. We were accompanied by this little guy:

Fish on side of submersible

Fish on side of submersible

Little is perhaps not the word for this fish – he’s about three foot long. The submersible itself:

The trip over the reef was great, giving us a great view of just how rich this coral community is, with lots of fish and some very uniquely fantastical coral shapes:

Corals

Corals

Some of the fish

Some of the fish

Heading back from the reef, we stopped again at Green Island. Green Island is what is known as a sand cay, built up by sedimentation over the corals over a long period of time. Green Island is one of the larger ones, and has developed quite a covering of forest.

Green Island

Green Island

All in all, this day was pretty relaxing (no long walks!). So that evening we headed out to the Red Ocher Grill in Cairns. This restaurant is somewhat famous for its selection of native indigenous fare, and we tried their sampler plate, which included crocodile, kangaroo, and emu as main dishes. The kangaroo we found to be most like beef, but more strongly flavored, and was the least favorite of ours. The crocodile was a little like chicken (doesn’t everything taste like chicken?), and although it was a little tougher than chicken, it was nicely seasoned and quite palatable. The emu was what we liked best, tasting somewhat like duck, but less greasy and with a little milder flavor.

Walking back to the hotel after our meal, another aspect of Cairns showed itself. This town is definitely a partying night-life town, with a large contingent of young people (many of them obviously surfer types) constantly out and about at night, frequenting the pubs and open-air musical shows. Quite a change from Sydney. But for us it was lights out, so we’d be ready for our next day trip to the Kuranda village.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, Places, Travel | 1 Comment »

Australia, Days two to four

Posted by hyperpat on October 8, 2008

After our exhausting first day, we tried for a little quieter second one, going on just a morning bus tour of Sydney’s city sights. Of course the highlight of this was the view of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge:

Opera House and Bridge

Opera House and Bridge

But equally interesting was the trip under the bridge, the trip through the Rocks district, the famous Bondi beach (where we managed a morning snack – a single piece of bread that was definitely a full meal in itself), the viewpoints that took in the entire city skyline and promontory points, the Botanical Gardens, the cathedrals, Darling Harbor and the Maritime Museum, Hyde Park, Sydney’s Chinatown (though it’s not up to par versus San Francisco’s Chinatown, it still illuminates part of Australia’s history), the ‘rich’ district and the various styles of home architecture, and including a very distinctive glass house:

Glass House

Glass House

Still, this only occupied us till about 1PM. So now we could relax for the rest of the day, right? Wrong. We decided to do a bit of a walkabout just in the area of the hotel, and found things like the Town Hall:

Town Hall

Town Hall

We also found something rather unexpected in our little walk, the entryway to the State theater, which is spectacular:

Theater Entrance

Sydney State Theater Entrance

But underneath all of the buildings in the district is where we found all the shops, from very high-end fashion stores to pedestrian Subway eateries. Just walking through all of this managed to occupy us for another four hours (and gave us more sore feet to go along with the ones acquired during the prior day’s excursion), as practically every shop demanded at least a look and various items considered for their souvenir qualities. So once again we ended up back at the hotel totally tuckered out.

The next day found us taking a tour up to the Blue Mountains with a major stop at Featherdale Wildlife Sanctuary. This stop simply wasn’t long enough to really see everything there, as they have representatives of just about every unique form of Australian wildlife there (not counting marine life – that’s a later trip). Most charming here was all the various types of birds they had present, from cassowaries, peacocks, kookaburras (a bird whose raucous call used to wake me up almost every morning when I was living there), and cockatoos to Australia’s very own penguins, the smallest representative of this genus in the world. Of course they also had the obligatory koalas, wallabies, wombats, and kangaroos, and a very nice (read: quite large) crocodile:

Crocodile

Crocodile

Continuing up into the Blue Mountains, we were treated to some spectacular views of the area (including the blue haze over everything caused by the great quantity of eucalyptus resin in the air), along with being able to get a very nice lunch in a local small eatery with very personable staff, who, when asked if we could get another one of the glass Coke bottles they had (our sons collect Coke memorabilia, and glass bottles, especially when marked with their place of manufacture, are almost non-existent in the US today), went so far as to open and quickly down one, just to provide us with the bottle.

Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

Once again, though, we found ourselves doing a fair amount of walking, both in the wildlife park and on a little mountain trail down to our lookout point where we took most of our pictures of the Blue Mountain area. After this little excursion we then took a little ride on the World’s Steepest Railway. This one my wife approached with quite a bit of trepidation, as she has problems both with heights and anything that even looks like a roller-coaster ride (and I’m not fond of those things either), but she did finally get on and take the ride down. It’s only a couple of minutes, and it’s actually pretty slow (about 7 mph), but boy, is it steep – while going down it seems like you’re facing straight down and falling down a cliff. It’s actually not quite that steep, it’s only about a 52 degree incline, but as people don’t normally descend at anywhere near angles like this, your inner ear screams that you’re falling.

On our way back to Sydney, we took a little excursion through the site of the 2000 Olympics venue, whose buildings are still spectacular, and managed to catch some views of Sydney as seen coming in from the west, a very different viewpoint from what we’d seen before, and our second trip over the Anzac bridge, which is just as unique as the Harbor bridge.

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium

Day four looked like we might get away from the walking business, as our selected tour of the day was the Sydney Aquarium, which was just across the street from our hotel. No such luck. The aquarium seems to have miles of walkways between an incredible number of various aquatic tanks which contain everything from various fresh-water fish, turtles, and lizards to sea-water corals, cuttlefish, and of course the walk underneath the shark tank, where there were representatives of that genus both large and small, along with rays and giant turtles. Having one of these great sharks swim right over your head is an experience. We ended up spending almost five hours in this little (?!) place. After a quick lunch we then headed up the street (and I do mean up – the road has a distinct upward inclination from Darling Harbor to George Street) to go to the Skytower, the tallest building in Sydney, with its own distinctive architecture that rivals Seattle’s Space Needle. The view from the top of this is spectacular, and provides probably as good an aerial view of the entire city as you get get from a helicopter. And as it’s a nice, stable platform (as opposed to said helicopter), it’s easy to take pictures from. Descending a little bit in the tower, we then took the OzTrek adventure, which includes a set of dioramas of what life is like in various parts of Australia and a movie trip with 180 degree screens coupled with one of hydraulic powered chairs that move appropriately to the scene on the screen. This was pretty close to a roller coaster ride in a couple of places (especially when the scene was one of white-water rafting), but nonetheless provided a very unique view of some of the other places in Australia that we wouldn’t otherwise get to see on this trip.

Skytower

We had planned on also seeing the Wildlife World (right next to the Aquarium) this day, but by the time we got back to the hotel after the Skytower and investigated the condition of our feet, we decided to skip this one at this time, figuring we’d have another day in Sydney later to catch this. Instead we packed up our suitcases in preparation for our early morning departure for Cairns, the next stage of our journey.

One other item that deserves mention here is the price of food. The hotel we were at was charging $60 AUD per person for their buffet-style dinner, $40 for breakfast. We found these prices to be outrageously steep. We did normally eat breakfast there, as it was included in the price for our rooms, and quality wise it was very good, but we definitely skipped on eating dinner there. Instead we did try some of the other restaurants there, which were still pretty expensive (we paid about $80 for the two of us in each one we tried), but still quite a bit cheaper than the hotel, and I think better quality. But a little more on eateries in my next installment.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, Places, Travel, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Australia, Day One

Posted by hyperpat on September 24, 2008

My Australia trip is finally a reality. After our lovely fourteen hour flight from San Francisco (preceded by four hours of getting there plus check-in and security/customs), we landed at Sydney at 6:35 AM. We now proceeded to spend two and a half hours getting our luggage, changing currency, and taking our shuttle bus to the hotel. We dropped our bags in the room, and went for a little hike in the rain to the local train station, where we boarded one of their electric powered trains and headed for Cronulla, another hour trip.

On the train platform at Cronulla

On the train platform at Cronulla

By the time we got there, we were already an hour and half late for our appointment with the principal of the elementary school that I attended in 1954-1955. I then proceeded to compound our problem by turning the wrong way out of the train station, eventually getting us to the Cronulla Public School, which unfortunately was not the right one. A very nice lady there got us straightened around, and after a two-mile hike (still in the rain), we finally arrived at the South Cronulla Public School, only two and half hours late.

South Cronulla Public School main building

Given how late we were, I fully expected the principal of the school to only give us a few minutes of his time. Instead, we got a shock. Not only did he take time from his schedule (very busy, as it was the opening day of the school term) to sit and talk with us, he dug up all the old records of the school (which stretch back to its founding in 1947, and even some records going back to 1943 when the school catered to infants only) and let us peruse them to our hearts content.

In the school staff room going over records

I couldn’t find any record of my own time there (the records were very sketchy for the first/second grades), but I did find the entries pertaining to my older brother Mike, which showed at one point that he had an injury that I’d was not previously aware of (a “poisoned foot”) that took him out of school for a couple of weeks, and a class photo of him for 1955 that I didn’t have in my current photo collection.

Mike's 1955 Class Photo

Mike is fourth from right in the back row. As far as I was concerned, this already made the trip a success. But the principal wasn’t done with us yet. Just after the kid’s lunch hour, he assembled all of them, put us in front of this crowd of bright, clean, and well-behaved students, and let them fire questions at me about what it had been like there fifty years ago. Then he had the students present us with some nice souvenirs of the school, and led us off to another conference, this time with just four of the upper grade students for some more in-depth questions. And then, as if he hadn’t done enough, he went and bought us lunch.

Myself with school principal and students

Myself with school principal and students

Now I don’t know how an American elementary school would react to having an alumni from fifty years back show up, but I must give a strong two thumbs-up to this man. He absolutely went far out of his way to make us feel welcome, and was genuinely interested in what I could tell him about my experiences in that school from so long ago. From what I saw of the students in this school, he also runs a pretty taut ship – I doubt if I could go to any public school in America and find such a bunch of decorous, disciplined, and bright kids. And this same feeling also applies to the teachers we met, as they were definitely set on working together to get the job done, and obviously were dedicated to seeing that the kids were getting the best education they could provide.

After we left the school, we took a short stroll through Shelly Beach Park. Back when I went to school there, this park and the beach were visible from the school grounds. Now there are too many buildings in the way. But it’s still a truly great park and beach.

Shelly Beach looking south

Shelly Beach looking south

Shelly Beach Bath

Shelly Beach Bath

Shelly Beach looking northeast

Shelly Beach looking northeast

This will have to do for now, as after finally getting back to hotel at about 6PM that night, we found we really were exhausted, with no energy left to do much else that day, and with the prospect of an early rise on the morrow for the first of our planned sight-seeing tours.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General | 3 Comments »

Fortress America

Posted by hyperpat on September 18, 2008

Over the last couple of days, we have managed to accidentally trip our home security alarm three times. While this is no disaster (and the offending family culprit has had a couple of lessons in just how to operate this thing), it got me to thinking about why we need to have this thing in the first place.

Back when I was a child, we lived in a couple of different houses in England, both of which most people would consider pretty high-end houses, large enough to require gardeners and maids. Did we have security alarms on these houses? Did we even lock the doors at night? Nope. And the same was true in our house in Australia, and later still our houses in Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Illinois. Did we ever get burglarized? Nope. But thirty some-odd years later, when we first moved into our newly purchased home in San Jose, we got hit in the first week! And this house was locked up tight. And although we’ve now moved to a new house in a very nice neighborhood, we feel it’s necessary to make sure every door is locked, every window has a locking bar, and we had this lovely security system installed. Nor do we normally go out for a nice stroll around the neighborhood at night. What has changed in the course of the last forty years to make this necessary? Has crime really become so rampant and all-pervasive that we have to turn our homes into fortresses?

According to the latest statistics, property crimes such as burglary aren’t any more common today than back in the fifties. But what has changed is our awareness of it. The nightly news almost always reports some robbery somewhere in the area, and kidnappings and muggings are also pretty prominent. Thanks to great advances in technology, all this information about the nasty underside of city living comes into our living room nightly in living color, often with phone camera shots of the acts in progress. And of course the news media play these incidents for all they’re worth, because that’s what sells newspapers and drives viewership numbers. We’re being trained just like Pavlov’s dogs to expect crime to occur. And this induced fear extends to other areas: few parents today will even let their children go out trick-or-treating without being right behind them, and many have started to track their children via mobile phone and/or RFID tag chips all day, every day.

Now as my own experience indicates, crime does happen. But when I really think about it, the incidence rate (once in 60 years) doesn’t really justify the fear and all the precautions (and the precautions themselves don’t necessarily stop the crime from happening). The scenario that Heinlein painted in I Will Fear No Evil of lawlessness so out of hand that you needed to hire security guards and drive around in the equivalent of an armored tank has not happened (yet) in this land of the free. And I sincerely hope it never will. But I do wish the news media would tone down the crime reporting a bit, and offer us more stories about people doing nice and helpful things for their community.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

The Real Web

Posted by hyperpat on April 20, 2007

My brother, who normally resides in South Carolina, has been visiting here for the last four days, courtesy of a seminar/work assignment that his wife had to do in southern California. As with the large separation we don’t get to have really extended conversations too often, these last few days have been pretty much filled with just such, on anything from family history to world politics. Which is great. It also gave my eldest son a chance to meet his uncle, which had never happened previously (which says a lot about how frequently we’ve managed to get together).

But the older I get, the more I value such family things. Back when I was a stripling and serving in the Air Force, it didn’t bother me that I was neither talking to nor visiting my father, as that relationship was very strained. But when I did finally re-contact my family, and found out that my father had died in the interim, it was a pretty large blow. There are many times today when I wish I’d been able to talk more to my father, and learn what he’d done and what he felt was important, when I was old enough to really grasp such things. Too much of my father’s life is a black hole, and that leaves something of a hole in my own life.

I suppose you can never really know everything about someone else. But life is a web of interconnections and happenstances, and when the web has gaping holes in it, it is less secure, less complete. A hermit’s life is hardly worth living.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

Fire Up Your Neurons

Posted by hyperpat on April 13, 2007

I’ve been tagged with the Thinking Blogger Award, kind courtesy of Fencer, whose own blog certainly qualifies for this award. This particular meme was started by Ilker Yoldas, and it’s rules are:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

Please, remember to tag blogs with real merits, i.e. relevant content, and above all – blogs that really get you thinking!

I had to scratch my head a little to figure out who else to pass this award onto, but my choices are:

Whatever by John Scalzi. Now Scalzi is a professional writer, and this blog is one of the top rated ones on the net. But if you haven’t seen it yet, do so now. Scalzi writes on a very wide variety of topics, has a very easy, conversational style, and his stated opinions on everything from the current status of the sf publishing market to why bacon taped on cats is a fun thing are always coherent and thought provoking.

Asking the Wrong Questions by Abigail Nussbaum. Her site offers insightful dissections of books, movies and TV shows.

CJWriter by Chris Levinson. He’s a relatively new author hailing from Australia, and his blog covers topics from global warming to some intriguing movies.

Sci-Fi Science Blunders of Infamy by Travers Naran. Makes you look at that Hollywood hokum with a fresh eye for just how much they get wrong.

A Modest Construct by Heliologue – odd words, music, prose sketches, reviews, and software critiques.

All hail the power of thought!

Posted in General, memes | 1 Comment »

The Value of Blogging

Posted by hyperpat on April 2, 2007

The blogosphere continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Some estimates put the current number of US hosted blogs at 60 million. This is a significant portion of the population, even if you remove from consideration the number of foreign bloggers, ‘spam’ blogs, inactive, and duplicated blogs – the number would probably still be something like 30 million. Some questions come to mind about this phenomenon:

1. What do all these people have to say? What subjects are hot?

2. Why has this medium grown so fast?

3. What value does it have versus things like print media? Will it eventually push things like newspapers to oblivion?

There may not be definitive answers to the above, but some things are fairly clear. People are writing about whatever strikes their fancy, from butterflies to canned soup, but some of the most popular topics are, not surprisingly, politics, wars, economics, and religion. A good chunk of these postings may not add much to the world’s understanding of causes and fixes for problems, and some of this material is poorly researched and validated, but at the very least some of these posts rival any information obtainable from more traditional sources, and also provide a good snapshot of current mass opinion on a host of issues that politicians had better be paying attention to. But there is also one subject area that is somewhat unique to blogosphere, namely computer-related material, reviews of this or that software, hosting facilities, how to get things done in the computer world. The depth of this material ranges from stuff for neophytes to some very sophisticated analysis of stuff that only propeller-heads are likely to understand. Certainly there are magazines and such devoted to this type of thing, but all too often reviews of software in these media are commissioned for pay, and are neither totally unbiased nor have they received testing on the incredible variety of computer platforms that exist today, so these blog posts serve a very useful purpose.

Which leads to at least a partial answer to why blogging has grown so quickly: it is filling a very real need for unbiased information that is relevant to its audience. But there are several other reasons which are possibly even more important. The first of these is the sense of community that the blogosphere engenders. Americans from the fifties to the nineties seem to be growing more and more isolated from each other (quick, now, when was the last time you had a substantive conversation with your neighbor?), grew inward to concerns about only their own families, and seemed to lose connection with their wider community. This seems to have left a feeling of there being something lacking in everyone’s daily living, and blogging has provided a means for filling at least one part of that hole, a way to connect to many other people in a non-threatening manner. To some degree, the blogosphere has become the new town-hall meeting or the gathering in the old hardware store. The other part of this is the feeling of empowerment; people who have felt that their opinions and their voice were not being heard can now get these words out there for the whole world to see, and the feedback that they can get is a validation that what they are saying is being heard and matters.

Now many established professional writers and journalists have denigrated the value of blogs, stating that they simply cannot match the accuracy of the work that they do, and can in fact lead to some very dangerous and unsupportable allegations and misstatements of fact (and there have even been a few lawsuits challenging just what can and can’t be said on a blog). It’s certainly true that getting all your news from reading blogs is probably not a good idea; that what you see in one place should be checked via some other source of information. But it’s also true that the sheer number of people involved in this means that subjects will be tackled that traditional print and TV media simply don’t have time or space for, and that benefits everyone. I doubt that blogs will ever completely do away with traditional media; there will probably always be a place for people who are dedicated to the full-time work of determining and reporting the facts, but neither should bloggers be dismissed as not having the chops to present issues that need to be addressed in a timely and well-written manner.

Which brings me to my final point. At least part of the allure of blogging is the dream that many people have of being a professional writer. Blogging lets people put their attempts at writing out there for all the world to see, without having to wait years to see it in print or submit their work to sometimes crotchety editors who insist on proper grammar and well-organized material. Of course this leads to some blogs that are almost unreadable and of little or no value. But the great majority of the ones I see, anyway, show a proper respect for the written word, and frequently do present their material in both a logical and persuasive manner. Such work shows me that that there are far more people out there than those who do get published who can write well enough that they could be published. The limitation is just how many things the publishing industry can produce and sell. It’s quite noticeable that since the advent of print-on-demand and cheap vanity publishers that the number of published books has risen steeply. Much of what is published today may not be world-class literature, and it’s certainly true that many self-published books could have used the services of a good editor, but at the same time I can’t help but think that the more things get recorded via the written word, the more our culture benefits.

Posted in General, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »

Silicon Valley

Posted by hyperpat on March 15, 2007

Why does Silicon Valley dominate the world of electronics innovation? Not that there aren’t many things that are developed elsewhere, but for the last thirty years or so this place has been the leader in developing new products, manufacturing methods, and even whole new industry segments. Other places have sent people here to see just what the ‘formula’ is, and to a certain extent have managed to copy it, but they are still trailing this place in terms of patents granted or almost any other measure of success.

Now clearly part of the reason is the local great schools: Stanford and Berkeley are both world-renowned schools that year after year graduate brilliant and usually well-grounded students into the local businesses. And this doesn’t even count the network of various local community colleges and places like San Jose State. But having these students wouldn’t do any good if the local businesses couldn’t induce them to stay in the local area, not so easy when you consider that this area is one of the highest cost of living areas in the country, and is plagued with some of the worst commute traffic.

Business inducements range from relatively high starting salaries to the incredible number of start-up businesses that offer stock options and other perks, along with the opportunity to work on something new and different to new employees. Money alone isn’t all the answer, though. Another major piece is how employees are treated: here, most companies really believe in empowering their ‘little people’, giving them the authority to make meaningful decisions about the company direction, and treating them with some respect rather than as interchangeable cogs. Flexible working hours, corporate game and exercise rooms, memberships in athletic clubs, help with day-care and other family obligations are all part of the parcel.

There is a positive feedback effect working here, too. With so many high-talent people working here, an idea percolates from one group over to another, sparking additional ideas. Networking between people in multiple companies is common, happening anywhere from the corporate cubicle to the evening watering hole.  And of course, the very fact that things are happening here attracts more people who want to be in on the action.

Now it doesn’t hurt that the Bay Area has what some people would consider the world’s best climate: never too cold, you don’t get soggy-drenched in the winter, hurricanes and tornadoes are almost unheard of, and typically there are only a few days in the summer that it really gets hot.  And if you really want to go flop in the snow, there are some really great ski runs located only a few hours by car from here. There are some pretty good cultural/artistic places/theaters/museums here, too, allowing you to be a geek and art-lover at the same time.

I first moved to the Bay Area in 1972, when I was still in the Air Force, and got stationed at Mill Valley Air Force Station, located atop Mt. Tamalpais, about ten miles north of San Francisco. This, however, was not the place to experience the Silicon Valley revolution, as, with 169 curves from the top to the bottom of the mountain, plus another sixty miles to get to the heart of Silicon Valley,  it was a major chore to make the trip. However, when I left the military in 1980, I got an immediate job with a firm in Sunnyvale working on (as one small aspect of their overall business) microcomputers for use on the Galileo space shot.  This was my first real experience with the excitement and rewards of working in the valley (besides instantly doubling what I had been making in the military).  It was also my first experience with something known as environmental testing; clearly, if you expect a circuit to work in space, it makes sense to test it here on the ground at both very hot and very cold temperatures, in a vacuum, pure oxygen or nitrogen atmospheres, drop it a few times (the g-stress test), shake it up some more, and in general abuse it in every way you can think of. This is a field I’m still involved with today.

But since that first experience with the Silicon Valley way, other than one side trip to Florida to get married, I’ve remained in the valley, one among many others who find this environment a great place to work.

Posted in General, Places, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »

Looking Backward

Posted by hyperpat on March 12, 2007

This will make my 100th post to this blog, and a total volume of words equal to a short novel. As such, it’s time for a little rumination on how well this space has met my original expectations.

When I started this eight months ago, my only real plan was to put forward of few of my pet hobby-horses to a wider audience than just my friends and family – things like various trends in science, the extolling of some the better science fiction works and the ideas embodied within them, a few riffs on the political scene, and just a general diary of daily happenings. In this I think I’ve been pretty successful. The other half of this, to interest other people in these things and get meaningful feedback and commentary, has not been quite as successful as I would like, not because those who have commented have not been intelligent, reasonable, and interesting in their feedback, but merely because there haven’t been enough of them.  I have found a few other bloggers with similar (though not identical) interests, and reading their blogs has enriched my life.

Now perhaps what I’m peddling is just not that interesting to large number of people. But I like to think it’s more a matter of publicity, of getting this site more well known. Which doesn’t happen overnight, given the incredible number of blogs out there competing for everyone’s attention.  Writing these posts has probably helped me focus and organize my thoughts, and given me considerable practice in how to present those thoughts, so I will continue slogging on, and wait for the fame and fortune that will surely be mine when this site gets discovered by the great unwashed masses 🙂

Posted in Daily Happenings, General | 4 Comments »

Don’t Pack It In, Stock It Up

Posted by hyperpat on March 8, 2007

There’s a disaster waiting just around the corner. Your corner. No matter where in world you live, there is always some hazard just waiting for you to turn your back to come snarling around and sinking its teeth in your throat. It could be an earthquake. Or a hurricane, tornado, flood, forest fire, blizzard, giant sinkhole, volcano, meteorite, lightning strike, famine, or pandemic. No one is absolutely safe – if not any of these natural hazards, then I’m sure your fellow man will be kind enough to supply the requisite level of destruction via war, revolution, or environmental poisoning.

The question is, what are you doing about it? Do you have emergency supplies stockpiled? Know what your escape route will be if needed? Have insurance? A passport?  A means to get news and communicate when there’s no power? Know where your local emergency center is (assuming there is one – and if not, why not?), who administers it, what services and personnel are dedicated to helping in times of trouble?

If you’re like 90% of Americans, your answers to these questions will show an abysmal level of readiness. As this is one area where what you do and how you prepare really, really counts,  and you can’t depend on government or other organizations to ‘fix’ this for you, then it’s probably time you got cracking.

And if everyone was truly prepared, when that disaster happens, which it will, everyone will have an easier time of recovering,  and be able to go back to enjoying life that much sooner.  Unless, of course, the disaster that does happen is a planet-killer collision with a really large rock, or the sun going nova – in which case no one will have to worry, forever.

Posted in General | 1 Comment »

Why Are We Here?

Posted by hyperpat on March 6, 2007

Usually somewhere around late adolescence most people start asking themselves just what the purpose of life is and just what they want to do with their own lives.  This can be a very depressing period, as even a cursory look at the state of the world would indicate that there are a great many people who seem to believe that rape, torture, enslavement, mutilation, destruction, and mayhem are perfectly acceptable methods of achieving their vision of what the world should be, and another large group who seemingly would like to do absolutely nothing except live comfortably in their own little cocoon without any effort on their part. For someone looking for some reason for being, for some guiding principle(s) around which to structure their lives, this picture of the world is not very enlightening or encouraging. This is probably at least part of the reason for the high teen suicide rate.

But there are reasons to be found to not only continue existing, but to put forward major effort towards personal goals. For some, religion provides a ready made set of answers and guidelines for living. Others find an answer in humanism, in trying to better the condition of all humans. Still others find hedonism to be attractive, living only for the day and personal pleasure. The largest group, however, are more than likely those who decide that the basic question is unanswerable, that there is no real, verifiable purpose except that which each individual decides is valid for themselves. And having put this question aside, they can move forward towards whatever goal meets their interests and abilities.

It’s a tough time in most people’s lives. Weathering this period is part of the process of becoming an adult. And, unfortunately, it is very difficult to help someone going through the throws of this period, as each person must almost necessarily arrive at their own conclusions about this question. But if you should so happen to be near to someone at this stage, being a non-critical listener, a sounding board that the person can bounce ideas and questions off of, may be the best thing you can be.

Posted in General, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

Dull Boy Jack

Posted by hyperpat on March 5, 2007

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything. This is not too surprising, as I indicated in an earlier post, as my working hours have been nothing short of outrageous. While I didn’t quite hit 100 hours a week for the last three weeks, I was running over 90. The end result of all this effort is a prescription for even more effort to finish this system and make it work right – but it’s no longer an all-out, do or die effort.

Now all this work has left Jack a very dull boy, and a not very happy wife.  Companies that think they can require this of their employees all the time and thereby achieve greater productivity are at the very least fooling themselves, as after only a little while of working these kinds of hours your brain turns to mush, stupid mistakes multiply, and the employee’s basic attitude becomes more and more pessimistic. In extreme cases, such policies lead to companies losing some of their best employees, which will end up costing the company huge amounts, both in dollars and in time lost while they try and train someone new for the position. Happily this is not my company’s attitude – they only request something like this when it is truly necessary and it looks like the extra effort will bring immediate benefits, but it’s still a drag when it happens.

But at least maybe now I can get back to posting here on a reasonably regular basis.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General | Leave a Comment »

A True Human Invariant

Posted by hyperpat on February 16, 2007

Every human culture and society has music. It seems to be hard-wired into the human brain, our genetic structure, and the human voicebox is one of the most remarkably versatile organs in nature. But why should this be so? What survival characteristics are enhanced by music, that it should be so deeply embedded? After all, it doesn’t seem to be helpful in putting food on the table (but see below), or building a shelter, or anything else you can directly point to and say “This helps us survive as a species”. Except perhaps courtship. Music can be used to communicate to others your availability and desirability as a mate, and is clearly used in this fashion in some other species. In fact, a large proportion of the songs that are produced deal directly with our mating desires.

But most people are not great singers or instrumentalists – and listening to some of the contestants on American Idol, I would think that some of the ‘singing’ done there would actively turn off any potential mate. Very few can write a song. If only a very small part of the population can produce, in one fashion or another, something pleasing enough to actively attract others, then it’s hard to see how music can strongly effect mating choices and thereby enhance survivability.

Perhaps we need to look at some of the other effects music has.

Now one characteristic of music is rhythm, and the typical frequency of rhythms present in almost all music is close to the normal human heart rate. Some studies have shown that the heart rate adjusts itself to be close to whatever the ‘beat’ of the music is. What most people consider to be ‘relaxing’ music has comparatively slow rhythms, similar to the heart rate when ‘at rest’. The converse is also true – music with accelerated rhythms produces a quickening in the heart rate. Right alongside the heart rate effect is the apparent effect on brain rhythms, which seems to follow a similar pattern (and leading to some claims that playing Mozart will increase your child’s intelligence).

One strong item which derives from this is the ‘synchronizing’ effect between the music and the actions of the person listening to it. People are not normally very good at accurately timing their actions – typical is perhaps getting within 10 – 20 milliseconds of when they wanted to do something – but when trying to, say, match the timing of words in a song, most people can get a lot more accurate, near 1 – 2 milliseconds. This might be a good ability to have! Especially when looked at in terms of a group of people. Imagine a group of hunters who need to coordinate their attack on a large animal. A song with a strong beat will allow these hunters to precisely time their actions, and be more successful in bringing down their prey. This accuracy in timing is apparently due to the ability of the brain to pre-process all the needed setup for the action before it actually needs to occur, based on the repetitive nature of the beat. So here is one benefit that can actually help us survive.

But music has a whole host of other effects on the human body, from skin galvanic levels to production of various hormones and other chemical facilitators. What survival attributes these effects have is not very clear. But apparently, over our long evolutionary course, these responses to rhythmically produced tones had some benefit to the individual’s ability to survive and propagate the trait.

But regardless of how it came to be, one of the strongest attributes of listening to music is pure pleasure, in some ways akin to a drug ‘high’ (possibly this effect is mediated by the same chemical ‘triggers’ in the brain). Music is addictive and (normally, when not played at 120 db) harmless, and I for one am very happy that today’s technology allows me to get my ‘fix’ almost anytime and anywhere I want.

Posted in General, music, Science & Engineering | 4 Comments »

A Negative Aspect

Posted by hyperpat on February 14, 2007

Woe betide the husband/wife who forgets that today is Valentine’s day. Such a transgression is probably good for at least a week in the doghouse. But consider what it would be like if the poor person had an alternative form of marriage instead of the traditional monogamous one, such as that depicted in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as a ‘line’ marriage, where there may be both several husbands and several wives, whose age range may be 16 to 90. Now of course in such a group hopefully at least one of the involved parties will remember what day it is, and ensure that all the rest of his/her cohorts of the same gender are reminded, but just think what it would be like to be the only one who forgot out of a group of ten individuals. ‘Doghouse’ wouldn’t quite be adequate – perhaps ‘Coventry’, that area set aside in the south forty for those who can’t abide by the customs of their society, would be more appropriate. A small downside to such living arrangements.

Posted in Books, General, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 4 Comments »

Positive, Think Positive

Posted by hyperpat on January 3, 2007

‘Tis a new year, and hopefully a great one. That’s one thing people can always have, plain hope. Now 99% of the time, all the hopes don’t pan out, and you end up with something less than envisaged, but that’s alright, new hopes will come along to replace those that didn’t make the cut. It seems to be something that is hard-wired into the human makeup. If that wellspring ever dries up, the end result is a broken person, a stick figure that looks human but is really a zombie. So, anyway, my hopes/projections for this year:

1. My family will end the year together and happy. There have been some rough times in the past, and there probably will be quite a few shoals this year, but so far we’ve muddled through, and finally it looks like there will be some conclusion to a few of the ongoing problems.

2. Congress will get hip to the fact that this planet is a very fragile place and start doing something about it: provide truly adequate funding to the space program,  develop rational plans to handle all the various eco-catastrophes waiting around the corner, initiate a major upgrade to the nation’s infrastructure to make it more efficient and less taxing on the world’s resources, and actually develop a road map for the future of this country that encompasses a time frame longer than the next election, with strong enough controls enacted that they’ll actually have to follow it. Yeah, I know – this is blue-sky dreaming. But I can hope.

3. While Congress is doing (2), they’ll also wake up to the fact that security is never a 100% guarantee, and repeal the most obnoxious intrusions into personal privacy and the almost limitless police-state powers they have granted to various federal agencies. This country was built by people who took risks, and one of the major reasons they did is that they could see the direct benefit to themselves, without fear of the government tromping all over them.

4. Wars will continue to happen. It’s a given. But perhaps there will be a few places where compromise and real discussion will break out. It would be very nice to see the almost 60 year debacle of the Israeli-Arab conflict get to a point where “suicide bomber” is no longer a revered profession and the reasons for them no longer exist.

5. I could win the $250,000 bowling shootout in May. This one actually has a real chance of happening, though the odds aren’t great.  It would certainly go a long way towards making my financial position tenable. Along these same lines, maybe I can at least get my chess rating back into the Class A category. Higher than this doesn’t seem to be in the cards – I just don’t see enough time to do the really heavy studying Expert and higher would require. But here again, I can hope!

6. I’ll get off my tail and actually finish writing a story, and be able to sell it. Even if I only get $2 for it, this would be an accomplishment I’d be happy with.

7. I’ll be granted a couple more patents this year. This one is pretty likely, as the applications are already in, the concepts are sound, the technology exists, and my company is already building systems that utilize the concepts.  Now I won’t get any great financial reward for this, and the patents are ‘group’ things, developed along with quite a few other people, but I like the feeling that I’ve help add to the world’s knowledge by developing something new.

8. We’ll be contacted by the aliens from Acturas IV about next Christmas time. Fermi paradox be damned, they’re out there somewhere, and what better time for humanity’s hubris to be taken down a couple of notches when it finds out that it’s not unique, that intelligent life exists elsewhere.

9.  They’ll actually implement a fix for Social Security and Medicare and develop a real, workable universal health insurance plan. More blue-sky stuff. While they’re at it, they’ll revise the tax code so Mr. Average Joe can actually figure it out.

10. People will actually act more rationally to world events, instead of reacting with hysteria over every blip reported by our excitable (and deliberately provoking) media.

You never know. It all could happen.

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