Sunday, July 31, 2011

Breaking News: Congress Gets Its Head Out

Good news!  Sorta.  It appears in late news that both the House and the Senate can come to some kind of an agreement on how much the debt limit can be raised, and how much spending will have to be cut in the future, and everyone can agree that we need it and it should be done.

I agree and disagree.

The United States owes a bunch of money.  I'm not thrilled to see that China holds approximately an 8% stake in our economy.  It'd be interesting to know exactly how big a stake in their economy we hold.  If we have any, agree to cancel each other's holdings out with a straight across trade, and if there's any left over, make paying that off a priority.

Any other nations out there that hold stakes in the US economy, pay them off too.  Get rid of them.

I say I disagree because we have a AAA credit rating we don't deserve.  We're underwater on payments, and lots of them.  I wonder whether anything is ever really too big to fail.  Gigantic banks took a bath - and so did the rest of us - during the economic disaster of 2007-8, and yet we've survived that even though we declared that some of them were too big to be permitted to fail.  Well, so what if they do?  The world keeps turning.  Trillions of dollars of value has been "erased" since the recession began, and where did it go?  It never actually existed in the first place, it was just value that was stated to exist.  Economies rumbled and banks folded and value was gone.  Arbitrary value is worth less than the paper it is stated on.  And stated value is no way to do business, not between businesses, not between governments, and it's certainly not collateral against which you should draw a loan.  What if you have to default a payment on the loan?  The collateral turns out to be worthless, so what do the creditors collect on?  That's not a pleasant scenario.  At that point, they own you.

Spending is out of control.  When we're many trillions in debt, that's out of control.  There's got to be some stuff we can stop buying, some tax breaks we can stop giving.  Who's not paying that used to?  Get 'em back on the books.  Who's drawing more than he's earned?  Write him off.  Do it now.  Ask those questions of everybody, every company.  Keep doing it until we're making more money than we spend.

On a related note, Japan's markets opened up sharply higher, probably influenced by what is clearly good news, but I still think it's too early to say whether this is a completely good thing.  We didn't get here over the course of a few years under one president, and it won't be one president that fixes things.  This is a long haul scenario; economies are big, unwieldy, and a bit like cats - they don't always go where you want them to go.  Too many individual viewpoints making things difficult.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Toyota Pickup

For a couple of decades, Toyota Motor Corporation built a compact pickup they sold in the States as, simply, the Truck.  Sometimes they called it the Pickup.  It didn't hardly need a model name, it fit the bill of "truck" so nicely that I thought, as Toyota apparently did, that a name was superfluous.

The rest of the world knew it as the Hilux, but in my opinion that was about as misrepresentative a name as you could stick on it.  The roots of that made-up name suggest high luxury, and let me assure you that it was highly luxurious only when compared to walking.  By the middle 80s you could equip your Truck to a level of moderate comfort, way below the level of coddling present in all but the most basic pickups on the market today.  But the base model with no option boxes checked yielded a bench seat inside, a 4-speed manny tranny and no radio.  No radio, and when's the last time you ever saw a car or truck that didn't have a radio?

My truck came to me with no radio.  There was a little block-off plate over where the radio would go, and a super-handy little pocket below that.  Since I got the radio installed at a Circuit City, that pocket went away and was covered with...a little block-off plate!  Dammit.

The Truck - the one in my front parking pad right now - was available from 1983 to 1994 with the venerable 22R engine, both carbureted and fuel injected as the years wore on.  It's no barnstormer, not highly powerful and not even very popular for hotrodding.  But it is solid.  It has longish throws, decent displacement for a four-cylinder, and plenty of torque down low.  It's exactly the right engine for a small truck.  You could have the short bed, at six feet long, or you could have the long bed, which was over seven feet long.  The longest bed you can get on a brand-new Tacoma is six feet; get the Double Cab and that goes down to five.  That's not a truck, that's a large wheelbarrow.

The old Truck is even thrifty.  A couple of years ago, when it had just turned 22 years old, I took the truck on a middling road trip and whistled up over 39 miles per gallon.  That was over 200 miles of driving that it did it, too.  That's good for a new Corolla, and this is a battered old carbureted pickup.  No fancy continuously variable transmission, hybrid electric parts, any of that.  It worked great.  That's an uncommonly high number, but with little effort I can keep the mileage in the middle 30s, no problem.  Like Steve Jobs likes to keep saying about whatever new gadget his eggheads have generated, "It just works."

Where are compact pickups now?  The current Tacoma, Toyota's "compact" offering is really more in line with the old T-100, the truck they were trying to pass off as a viable alternative to a fullsize pickup back in the 90s.  The T-100 wasn't a bad truck, but cursed with too-modest power and a peculiar not-this-nor-that size class.  Americans didn't know what to make of it, and it only stayed on the market five years.  Though it dwarfs my old truck, the new Tacoma with its tiny bed is less of a truck, not as useful in my opinion.

You don't see many T-100s on the roads.  You do see plenty of Trucks like mine though, and older.  Toyota sold them everywhere.  It even got a nice little cameo as the Dream Ride in Marty McFly's garage in Back to the Future.  You could dress it up and have a fun, sporty looking runabout truck, or dress it down and have a basic blue-jeans-and-tee-shirt truck, fit for work work work and when that's done more work.  Mine's done a bit of both.

My truck has about 200,000 miles on it, and it's about done with its first clutch.  When I get both kids fully comfortable driving a manual, I'll replace it.  That'll be fun.  It's about due for its next paint job and I'll take it back to its original color.  It'd be nice to have air conditioning but to be honest in 24 years I've never had it break, so I do have the avoided headache of frustratingly dead AC to be thankful for. 

I've had my Truck for 24 years, since it was sold off the new car lot in 1987.  I think it's got another 24 years left in it.  If we're still burning petroleum fuels by then, I'll reassess whether it's time to buy another truck.

I wonder if it will have a model name.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Digging Under the Cushions

The August 2 deadline has a little bit of give.  Apparently, Obama & Co. have found a hidden piggybank, rooted around in the lint trap in the dryer, and fished out a few extra pence from whatever dark and forgotten corners might hide in the American economy, and came out and said that we could keep going...for about an extra week.

I'm not as reassured by this as, perhaps, they hoped I would be.  Rather, I'd like to see that we had a budget already hammered out.

I blame the Tea Party.  Now, it's easy to say I blame Republicans, but I don't.  And it's just as easy for a Republican to blame a Democrat for our current state...though the numbers don't really stand in favor of the Republican's statement.  Ouch.

The Tea Party Republicans are highly ideological.  They have a calling and a mission, and seem to be more highly motivated to stick to their guns than previous generations of politicians.  And I'm never fully comfortable with the extremely ideological - they're less likely to admit they might be wrong, or worse, that you might be right.

The most important factor in all the debates is that neither side is entirely wrong.  It's also the most difficult aspect of the whole situation - you can't simply denounce the other guy's view, because then you're an ignorant dunderhead.

I've been of the opinion in the past that in situations like this, you should simply choose one guy's idea and everybody back it.  Everybody pursue it as if it were handed down from God on stone tablets.  With that kind of support, virtually any organizational idea is going to work, simply because there's no naysayers trying to make it stop working.  And unfortunately, US government is made up largely of naysayers.

I fear for us.  It's difficult under the best of conditions to get a simple small group of three people to agree on where to have lunch, getting a nation of 300 million to agree on this budget plan or that one is just monstrous.

Maybe we could just take a poll.  Everybody with a budget idea trot it out in plain English.  Get it described in 500 words or less, the equivalent of two pages of double-spaced type.  Then everybody in America phones in his preference, Door Number One, Two, or Three.  And whichever comes out on top, that's where we all go and everybody works toward it and no griping allowed.

I like that.  When I seize power - er - am elected King - er - President, I'm going to recommend that as a new governmental process.  That way nobody gets to complain about this politician or that one.  You voted for it, you get to brag that you're just as smart as half of the rest of the country.  If your choice doesn't win, maybe you didn't understand the question.  Call it government by crowd sourcing.

But until that happens, Get Off Your Ass, Congress.  Obama, I'm looking at you, too.  Find the middle ground.  Find it now.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Irony in the News

Amy Winehouse, the young lady with the surprisingly throaty soulful voice, is dead.  This is the same lady who brought us the song "Rehab," in which she says "they tried to make me go to rehab, I say no, no, no."

Shoulda gone, Amy.  Twenty-seven is far too young to burn yourself to the ground.

Tamagotchi toys are somehow still around.  A fad item if ever I saw one, the damned things are still on shelves, definitely in Japan and to a lesser degree here.  It's supposed to be a virtual "pet" kind of thing, it chirps and beeps and demands you pay attention to it from time to time.  How far away are we from having a Tamagotchi app for smart phones?

How much money could you have saved, just getting the Tamagotchi?  It's not like I see many people using their smart phones as phones.  You could skip the phone features and probably get by.

Anders Breivik is the guy who killed over 80 people in Norway last week, bombing a building and shooting dozens of young people at a camp outside of Oslo.  His idealogy: defeating the growing "Islamization of Western Europe."  His target: native Norwegians, because they were permitting the so-called Islamization to happen.

Way to win followers, Andy.  Good job.  Now all the pro-Islam groups have to do is point out how they haven't been killing any Norwegians, and they win points.

Even if the US Government does somehow pull its head out of get the the deal deadline approaches, the final outcome of the debate becomes more and more moot as the loss of confidence in worldwide markets adds to the instability already present.  Which is to say, if you leave it too late, whatever you come up with may be too little.  It'll be as if everybody simply went to the beach and didn't bother with the debate.

That's not entirely accurate of course.  A positive solution is obviously better than a negative one, but this back-and-forth bickering is rattling the confidence of the entire world's bankers.  That's, you know, bad.

Now that NASA has retired its Shuttles and the United States doesn't have much in the way of heavy lifters for space launches (but we aren't entirely devoid of hardware that can get the job done), they trot out an ambitious new Martian rover mission.  Good timing, guys.

I think it's important to keep sending missions to space.  I think it's crucial to establish a permanent, self-sufficient base on the Moon.  This will take many decades to accomplish, which is why it's important to get it underway now.  Whatever form the new US space vehicle will take, whip it out.  Let's get that thing in the air.  How ignominious it is to have ceded the vast majority of manned spaceflight capacity to the Russians, when it was their manned missions that goaded us to such stunning heights in the first place.  What other country has ever landed a man on the Moon? Not one.

Let's get back to flying soon.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Open Letter to the United States Government

Politicians are fighting hard for the agendas that they believe most represents that of their constituents, and arriving at no common ground, as the deadline for a budget edges ever nearer, and the US comes closer and closer to defaulting on its debts.  This is intolerable.  The United States must not be permitted to wallow in indecision and infighting, with the rewards of such unproductive activity being the termination of America's status as the world's last superpower.  Where we were once the economical, military and even ideological touchstone of the world, we stand on the brink of becoming its largest cautionary example.  Even now there are other countries that are suffering under such burdens as we find ourselves, and to permit the condition to continue is to invite long-term disaster.

Greece, for example, has been stuck in this loop of imminent default for a while now.  The net result is that Greece is getting poorer and poorer as tourism falls off, investment dries up, and their economy accelerates down a slippery slope that seems to be destined for nothing short of utter dissolution.

I don't want that.  I don't want it for Greece, and I most assuredly don't want it for America.

So find some middle ground.  The quickest solution is the one that hurts everyone equally.  You can't have the best solution, THERE IS NO BEST SOLUTION.

Raise taxes to bolster revenues.  Do it now.  This will affect me negatively.  I accept that.

Cut spending to reduce costs.  Do it now.  This will affect me negatively.  I accept that, too.

Quit bickering and sniping at each other.  We got here because we got here - it doesn't matter who did what when; there have been Republican presidents and there have been Democratic presidents, and here we are.  Deal with here and now, NOW, so we still have some leverage when we need it down the road.

Do NOT spend one moment thinking about how your next election campaign will be affected by what you do.  As one person, you represent a vanishingly small portion of the population.  How DARE you place your own job security ahead of that of the entire country.

Get going.  Do it now.  Or step aside and make room for someone who can.  That's what elections are for, and you can believe I'll be voting in the next one.

People Are Jerks recently priced iPads at $69.

It's not the bargain you think.  In fact, from where I sit it's still about $68 more than I'm willing to spend on an iPad.  In my world a notepad is more my speed, and I'm not old enough for full-blown curmudgeon status yet.

Of course the $69 price was a glitch, a typo.  Somebody messed up somewhere, leaving off about $674 worth of price.  Being up front with what they were doing, Sears sent messages to all the purchasers that there had been an error, their order was cancelled, and their accounts had been credited back the purchase price.  No harm, no foul.

Or was there harm?  At least one shopper insists that she ought to get the product at the price specified.  Balderdash, says I.  In a free economy, I'm not required to sell you anything and you're not required to buy.  Any judge would take one look at the circumstances, chalk it up to human error in spite of the computerized nature of the glitch (the price only came up on, not in stores) and say the whole incident is over and why are we still talking about it?

Because some people are jerks.  I don't say I think it's $68 too much because that's all I want to spend, I say that because that's how little I want it.  If it's worth having, it's worth paying for.  If it's worth paying for, it's worth paying everyone involved in the design, engineering, production and shipping of the device.  All those people thought the thing was worth making.  If you want it, pay what it's worth.  If you don't want to pay that much, then you don't really want it.  You want to steal it, to somehow put one over on "the system," to become the alpha shopper who gets more than anyone else.  That's "Me First, Me Only, Me All the Time" thinking.  If you insist on getting it at the super-reduced-somebody-got-fired-over-this price, you lay the added burden of covering the rest of your unit's cost on other shoppers.  If that's totally okay with you, you're a sociopath.  To insist on your own wants with utter disregard for the rights, needs and wants of others is a hallmark of sociopathy.  To a psychiatrist with you, immediately.

Then there are the people who cruise along in the slow lane on the interstate, rolling along until a gap opens up in the exit lane, and they dodge in and slam brakes so they can jump to the front of the line.  It's not even my exit, and it makes me grit my teeth.  I swear, the things you see when you don't have a gun...or a ticket book.

How self-important do you have to be to completely disregard the hundred or so other drivers you just passed, waiting in the self-same line?  If you were at a convenience store and decided to cut to the front of the line, rest assured someone would encourage you to take your rightful place at the end - possibly by force.  And I wouldn't say he was entirely wrong to do it.

All of this touches on the social contract, which let me tell you is a gigantic big subject that I'm trying to boil down to less than 10,000 words.  I want to write on it and I'm sure there's something there for everyone, but when I get going I sometimes start yelling and pounding keys while glaring daggers at the Google News homepage.  So it's coming, but I don't know when.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Dodge Caravan

It's a car, it's a van.  It's a Car-a-van!

Hokey?  You bet.  I don't recall ever seeing that as actual ad copy, but I have seen it from time to time in magazine articles discussing the Caravan.

When it first came out, the Caravan was a serious paradigm shift.  Building a tall wagon on the chassis of your company's econobox?  Crazy.  And a front-driver?  That's not a van, that's a...well, we didn't know what to call it.  And at the time neither did Chrysler Corporation, calling their mutant freak grocery getter the T115.

There's some debate as to whether the Caravan really was the first minivan.  It depends on how you want to define the term minivan: compact van on car chassis or large volume/tall wagon but smaller than a typical van.  If you want to go with the former route, the Fiat Multipla comes close, using significant elements from other cars including its spiritual ancestor the 600.  If you want to go the latter route, the VW Type 2 comes close, borrowing heavily from the Beetle's drivetrain but missing the boat significantly in the chassis department.  The Type 1 chassis wasn't up to the challenge of the Bus.  And back in the USA, the Chevy Corvair "Corvan" and its relatives have a viable claim to "first minivan," but I can't find enough information about the chassis commonality to be able to give a ruling.

Anyway, with two little kids getting bigger in the back seat of the petite and pathetic Hyundai Excel, it was time to go bigger.  Damning the cliches I went shopping for minivans.  I read everything I could find.  I already knew I didn't want the spacy Toyota van with its awful engine placement (under the driver's seat!) and dodgy reliability record, and the Nissan Quest was too new for there to be any in my price range.  I was hoping for something like a Dodge Colt Vista, having had a great experience in one belonging to my uncle, it got pretty good gas mileage and unlike all the minivans on the market, it didn't really look like a minivan.  It looked like a wagon.

None to be had.  I got a Caravan.  At the time it was five years old, the paint had a chip or two and the seats looked great.  We put our baby seats in and drove away.  I didn't look back at the Hyundai at all, not even for a second.

The Caravan is, once you accept that all the minivan jokes have some element of truth in them, a blast.  It's not fast (unless you get the turbo, and then all bets are off!), it's not fashionable, it's not economical.  What it is, is good.

How fast is fast enough?  If you're going fast enough to get a ticket, then that's fast enough.  If you want faster, you don't want a minivan and are in the wrong car.

Fashion is as fashion does, for a lot of folks.  If you're the kind of person who makes a statement via how you raise your kids, well, that's your style.  Rock it.  Pile out that soccer team.  At the time I had my minivan I was totally chuffed to be a dad.  I wore T-shirts we had made with the kids' handprints and footprints on the pocket.  The minivan was my Dadmobile.

Economy is just a little out of the Caravan's reach.  Like Top Gear proved with a memorable challenge of a Prius around their track, and a BMW M3 pacing it, if you're asking it to do what it isn't meant to do, performance will suffer.  The original engines in the Caravan were a little out of their league (though the larger 2.6l Mitsubishi engine was adequate), especially where power-hungry American drivers are concerned.   So they'd put their foot in it and wonder where all the gasoline went.  On its best day my Caravan delivered about 25mpg on an all-Interstate leg of a long trip.  But when you're moving a lot of anything, the Caravan could often do it all in one go, thus saving trips.  Two trips with great fuel economy is worse than one trip with mediocre fuel economy - no wasted empty return run.

So now what can you do with it?  You can go camping.  We made a tent (from scratch!) to attach to the back of the van, and I built a bed that covered the wayback bench.  Small kids under the age of six buddied up sleeping on that bench and Sweetie and I slept in the tent, with the van's rear hatch wide open.  With the hatch up the tent was walk-around tall inside, and with a night or two of practice we could fold and stow that tent in record time.  Once in Michigan I felt a raindrop and we went into hurry-up mode, folding and stowing the tent at lightning speed.  The tent had maybe a hundred total raindrops hit it before I got it put away, even as other campers were barely becoming aware that rain was coming.  That was a great trip, more on that another day.

Pull the seats and the Caravan has more room inside it than I have in the back of my long-bed Toyota Truck.  I capitalize "Truck" because it's from the awesome generation when Toyota's Truck was so generic it didn't need a name.  My Truck has a cap on the bed, so there's limited height - really limited.  You don't get on your feet inside this thing, you can't.  You crawl, or hop on your knees.  At the generous hatch, you slide your plywood in.  If you got the Grand Caravan (I didn't), you slide it all the way in.  Can't do that with the Truck, either.

Another thing about that height.  You can move around inside the van.  You have to, it's designed with seats that aren't next to a door.  So it has to be tall.  Being tall, you can move around any time you want.  On the road, Sweetie could unbuckle (illegality alert, don't try this at home, I do not advocate doing this yourself), make her way all the way to the back of the vehicle, open the cooler and make sandwiches.  As a road trip ride, it rules.  And I did enjoy the sandwiches.

Right up until the time my Caravan's injection computer went totally toes-up, I enjoyed that car.  In spite of the cricket's chorus of chirps and squeaks from the interior panels, in spite of the paint peeling off in huge flakes as big as my hand, I liked it.  It was a relatively neutral palette against which my family could paint their own personalities, and the car itself didn't distort the picture at all.  It was just there, a tool for achieving our ends, and it did that pretty well...

Right up until it died.  And that was the end of that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Michele Bachman Can't Be President

She makes crap up.

It's one thing if you're a fiction writer, but even so some of the stuff you say has to be halfway plausible.  Bachmann's not the best in the business on that score.  There's one quote in that link where she admits that she's not a "deep thinker."  Got that right, sister.  I confess you're some kind of thinker; I'm leaning toward "knee-jerk."

And then there's just the Deep Left Field thinker: “But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”  No, Michele, they didn't.  The founders did spend a lot of time and use a lot of ink on slavery issues, but mostly what they were trying to do was keep the peace.  There were lots of concessions made in favor of slavery, lousy laws passed, Dred Scott denied, granted, and denied his freedom again.  It was a real hairball.

Interesting to note that at the time the diehard conservatives were Southern Democrats, hellbound to maintain the status quo, and it was the Republican softie Lincoln who did the unpopular anti-business thing that upset so many people.

But my take on Bachmann and the main reason she can't be President of these United States is this: she's a big noise in the Tea Party.  And say what you will, but the Tea Party is a divisive element in American politics at this time.  It seems to attract the more polarized and more polarizing candidates (I'm looking at you, Palin, you and your whole airtime-hogging family), people who are great at generating sound bites and derailing the train of thought in Congress.  Can we focus on running the country again, please?  Less of this crap about whether gays should be allowed to marry or not?

If your whole argument of whether gays shouldn't be allowed to marry is Bible based, step aside.  Church and state, separation of: go read that.  We've got bigger, more important fish to fry.

Bachmann's got some weird ideas about how people work, how government works, and how people and governments should work together.  While I'm fully in favor of weird at most times - it makes life more interesting than everyone all being the same - I sure as hell don't want it in government.

Monday, July 18, 2011

How Do I Make Him Love Me?

I like to answer questions on Yahoo! Answers, and I see this one a lot.  I'm going to take a crack at answering it from the man's point of view.  It is, after all, a guy the girl is trying to attract, so asking the question of another girl is missing some important insights.

I've come to realize that there are three people in any successful relationship.  There's you, there's your partner, and there's the composite personality between the two of you: "us."  "Us" is the single most important part of the successful relationship.  If there's no "Us," there's no relationship.

"Us" is the embodiment of the love and security between the two people.  There are many ways to define "love" in this context and I'm not even going to try to address them.  But security is the ability to rely on your partner to provide support, be emotionally accessible, and not represent a threat.  How you define "threat" is up to you, but if you consider your partner a threat in any sense of the word at any time, then something's not quite right.

So: how to find the "Us."  Let's look at these three subject headings: support, emotional accessibility, and for want of a better term, compatibility.  I say compatibility because the term "threat" covers quite a lot of ground beyond the obvious physical connotations, and compatibility brings in a bit more while leaving some of the less relevant bits of "threat" out.  We'll get to that.

Does he support you?  I'm not talking about the lowest common denominator of financial support, picking up his share of the bills and the rent, that's low-grade stuff.  Does he support you.  Is he aware of when you're having an off day and try to make it better?  Whether or not what he's doing is successful is beside the point.  Women and men communicate in completely different languages and he's going to get it wrong from time to time.  If the guy is attentive to your needs and taking them into account when decisions get made, there's an "Us" there whose well-being he's trying to protect.  You matter.  That's a really good sign.  If, on the other hand, he's reluctant to even pony up for the rent, then you have a serious problem.  Your partner isn't willing to offer support for anything that isn't completely his in the first place.

Emotional accessibility is a woolier subject.  It's the other side of the coin of supporting you, it's making himself available for you to support him back.  If you find you're the one doing all the talking at the end of a busy day, and his pat answer is "fine" or worse, "same as yesterday" when you ask him how he's doing, he's not willing to let down his guard to let you become more of his life.  Popular sexologist Susie Bright memorably said, "It's nothing to tell what you don't like about something.  It's much more revealing, says so much more about you, to say what you do like."  So if the only opinions he offers are negative ones and his most positive statements are in fact neutral, you haven't been invited into the sanctum sanctorum.  You are still being presented only with your partner's public face.

Compatibility is the simplest factor to consider, though it covers the widest range of individual traits.  If you really like a lot of bedroom calisthenics and he doesn't then that's one point of contention.  Maybe you like to stay home and he likes to go out.  These are the obvious, external things, behavioral things.  There's also the internal stuff - maybe he provides the support you need but you'd rather he didn't.  Many people prefer not to have their independence challenged.  It's not always clear what someone might take as having their toes stepped on.

So this brings us to the ultimate point: How do you make him love you?  This is the part that you really don't want to hear.

You don't.

Keep reading!  You can make him love you but the more important question is, why would you?  To make that happen you have to change your own behaviors to better suit his natural state, and you can endeavor to change his behaviors to suit your natural state, but that places both of you under uncomfortable, unnatural stress.  Unless something happens to make your personality/-ies shift to this new state and take it on as a natural state, you're going to chafe at each other until one or both of you realizes that the relationship is the source of the stress.  Once that realization is made, it's over.

And there you are.  If you're trying to make someone love you, you're really the only one in the relationship.  Your partner is in it for funsies, not for keeps.  In my experience as a man, there's strong sexual attraction that feels like the base of a relationship but is really just hormones, and there's friendship.  To have a good friend that turns out to make a good mate is the base of a strong relationship.  It worked for me.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What if Homosexuality is Genetic?

Sweetie and I were talking about this in the car on the way to work.  A lot of the debate surrounding homosexuality stems from two camps, those who say homosexuality is a choice, and others who say it is hardwired.

It's not hard to find the core of the two different groups.  The ones who say homosexuality is hardwired are gay themselves.  The ones who insist it's a choice are adamantly not or, paradoxically, were.  More on that in a bit.

Part of the problem surrounding homosexuality is that it's still treated as if it's something to be ashamed of.  Gay people keep their orientation hidden, "in the closet."  Coming out of the closet is difficult and traumatic, and it happens in stages.  Perhaps the most difficult stage is the very first one, the one where the individual admits to himself that he's gay.

Why should that be so difficult?  Let's suppose for a moment that homosexuality is unequivocally hardwired, you are or you aren't and it's not because of anything you did or didn't do.  It's not because of anything your parents did.  But the society you live in is straight, that is to say, not gay.  It's not even gay-friendly.  There are precious few parts of the country that are frankly gay-tolerant let alone -friendly, so it's a difficult hurdle to face: "if I accept this as fact, life gets harder."  But life is already difficult if you're denying a portion of your own identity.  Do you live with internal denial or external denial?  Internal denial is abstract, a dissatisfaction with or even hatred of the self that cannot be focused because it is about the self.  Internal hate crimes are actually more damaging, but in one's own imagination, they're not as scary as a lynch mob.  To come out is to face the possibly irrevocable alteration, maybe even dissolution, of relationship with family, friends and society at large.  A gay person coming out may be throwing himself, so to speak, overboard into an unknown, unforgiving sea.  It's no surprise that many people who might otherwise identify themselves as gay choose not to, and either suppress or disassociate themselves from their identity.

Homosexual behavior is observed in many species besides just humans.  Great apes, assorted social bird species, and others cross what is considered the "normal" line of sexual behavior into what is considered homosexual.  If we don't consider these animals to be sapient, that is, self-aware and able to make conscious decisions about actions beyond mere survival, then it's hard to say that what they are doing is by choice.  But it's also observed that such behavior doesn't usually take precedence over heterosexual behavior.  It has been observed in some animal populations, however, that there can be a distinct proportion of the population that is homosexually oriented, preferring the company and attentions of members of the same gender to the exclusion of potential mates.

Just like in humans.  Except the zebras and elephants and dolphins and bed bugs aren't as hung up about it.

Then there are the people who somehow become not gay after having been so.  How they achieve this is up for debate.  But it does bring up a very salient point: you can choose a sexual orientation.  Choosing doesn't mean changing your native state, the orientation with which you're born, but it does mean that the self determination of the personality isn't subverted by the biological predilections of the neurochemistry.  Mind over matter, as it were.  Brains over biology.

This is difficult to express.  I could, for instance, shoot myself in the foot if I decided it really, really was in my best interest to do so.  But the natural aversion to pain and the survival instincts would make it an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.  I could choose - this is weird to write - to be gay if I thought it were necessary (!?) but under the circumstances in which I now live, the idea is almost incomprehensible.  It's nearly impossible to imagine a life situation in which that would become necessary.

And yet, that is exactly the life situation in which gay people find themselves.  The lack of societal acceptance, the extraordinary stresses under which they live can force them to seek a means to alleviate some of that pressure.  Like an animal in a trap gnawing off its own leg to free itself, drastic measures can be taken.  A gay person can suppress his native state and choose a different orientation.

That cannot possibly be healthy.  Life changes undertaken in such conditions could not be assumed to be permanent, nor would you expect them to be normal.  Once the stress lets up, the native state may well reassert itself, or the stress itself changes form and causes other problems in the individual.  But sometimes the stress doesn't let up and causes other rifts.  It's a good chicken-vs-egg question when you hear that a woman, after her divorce, has come out as a lesbian.  Did latent homosexuality stress the marriage to break up, or did the stress of the breakup initiate a self-preservative change of orientation?  It's a truism that women hold their sexuality in a different way from men, not to mention their relationships in general.  And indeed American society seems to accept homosexual women more readily than it does men.

And speaking of society, what does this mean to society if homosexuality is in fact genetic?  Well, for one thing it means parents can relax.  It isn't anything they could have prevented.  It just happens, like other things that people have tried to train out of their children, like left handedness or a lisp due to a deformed palate.  People don't fret over left handedness anymore; deformed palates are a routine medical correction.  At one time left handedness was looked at with suspicion, somehow associated with the devil.  A lisp was associated with low intelligence.  We know neither of these things are true, they're just abstract societal constructs.

But about that lisp...if sexual orientation is a manifestation of a physical state, then maybe it's something that could be treated medically.  If sexual orientation is genetic, could it be treated genetically?  Could some clever researcher whip up a tamed cold virus that goes into the body and modifies the individual's genetic code so that he is no longer gay?

Could it be tested for in utero?  Search for certain markers here or there and determine whether the child is going to grow up gay or straight.  Straight ones get born, gay ones don't.  That would be a hell of a question to pose before the religious right: if homosexuality is wrong and abortion is wrong, is it wrong to abort a fetus that will grow up to be a gay person?  I'd love to watch the feathers fly on that debate.

My parents never tried to "correct" my left handedness.  Thank goodness.  I am so preferential of my left hand that I am even more aware of the left side of my face.  I can't think as clearly if I cannot move my left hand.  My right hand is good for dumb things requiring little coordination; when using that hand for anything more complex than carrying firewood I almost can't speak - I have to concentrate on what it's doing.

Now imagine that kind of preference that defines your sexual orientation.  That's where a large part of you lives, the natural instinct for finding companionship.  Now imagine that your good hand, the one you use for writing, for holding hands, for everything, is tied down.  Unwelcome.  You must use the other hand.  That's the only hand society will tolerate.

That is what I think it must be, to be a gay person forced to live an unnatural life.  Miserable.  Handicapped, freakish, awkward.

I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

International Nude Day: It's Here!

Okay, now you can strip.

I asked Sweetie if she would shoot a picture of my naked pink butt for International Nude Day.

"Not for love or money.  Not for any reason.  That's a no, now and forever."

Not a lot of room there for negotiation.  And I'm okay with that, I was pretty much joshing when I asked her.  So if you landed on this page hoping to see something to satisfy prurient interests, go fish.  None such here.  If however you are looking for a little encouragement, I'm here to help.

You were born naked.  That's an indication that either God or Nature (depending on your theological leanings) has designed/evolved you to your current state with all you need.  Anything beyond that is optional.  Hey-hey: clothing optional!

I also point out to smokers that they were not born on fire, and therefore are not optimized for smoking and should stop.  Limited success on that score.  Moving on!

Baby steps: get home after a day at work and take off your shoes and socks.  Do it immediately.  Sit down and scootch your feet on the floor, really get into that surface.  Feel the floor.  The smooth-grippy surface of a hardwood floor, the pop and bristle of carpet.  You're taking in sensations from a direction you've learned not to take them.  It's time to change your perception a little.

Now that you're in the groove, if you're comfortable, you can take off everything.  We're not running around the neighborhood terrorizing the crazy cat lady down the street and jeopardizing property values, we're just taking a tour of the house.  Curtains closed, all by ourselves.  This is how my work day usually comes to an end, the first thing that happens is all those hot dirty clothes come off.  Good to peel all that off, it's almost a symbolic representation of the changing of the paradigm.

Shucking off your workday clothes is like shucking off your workday mindset.  Like a workplace personality, there's such a thing as a homeplace personality - the person you are when you aren't at work.  You can't get much farther from work than when you're walking around nude, unless you're the activities director at a quality naturist resort.

I'm still holding out hope for an evening skinny-dip tonight, after dark so no one has to put up with my aforementioned naked pink butt.  But when you think about it, swimming is one of those things practically perfect for the dissatisfied nudist.  Few things make less sense than taking everything off, so you can put unreasonably snug or unpleasantly ugly garments on, just so you can go swimming.  If you could skip the bathing suit, you could just peel off, jump in and swim.  Then when you came out, you'd towel off and be dry.  No weird wet swimsuit clinging to you and making you feel clammy for an hour afterward.  Doesn't that make more sense?  It sure does to me.

Hmm.  I think I'll research whether there's an International Skinny Dip Day.  Let you know what I find out.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Hyundai Excel

My automotive history is made up of mostly economical compacts.  The first car my wife and I owned between us is no exception.

We each brought a car into the relationship, one of which is still with us.  But the first car we owned together was a Hyundai Excel.

In the 80s the United States got its first taste of the burgeoning megacorporation that is Hyundai.  We'd never heard of Hyundai before in spite of the fact that a lot of the rest of the world had been contending with Hyundai for decades.  We were so unfamiliar with them, they made a point of correctly pronouncing their name in the commercials ("rhymes with Sunday").  And when they came to the US, they brought one product to the hotly contested entry-level market: the Excel.

The Excel was available as a three-door hatch, a five-door hatch, and a four-door sedan.  I never saw many of the sedans.  It came with one engine, an anemic 68hp four cylinder that drove through either a five-speed stick or a dreadful three-speed auto.  My experience with the five-speed was that the Excel was not designed for races, I wonder how people saddled with the slushbox felt.

It was also sold as the Mitsubishi Precis for a few years.  One wonders what Mitsubishi was thinking to smear their own name like that.

My Excel colored my experience of Hyundai so that to this day, 15 years since I saw it last, I still don't trust Hyundais.  I don't care how much better they're supposed to be, what I remember is how awful they were.  In its time with me, the Excel went through three front axles, a clutch, assorted ignition problems.  It's supposed to be an economy car?  It might be good for someone's economy, but it was pretty hard on mine.  The fuel mileage wasn't even that good.

The Excel had a couple of things going for it.  It had air conditioning that worked.  In east Tennessee that's pretty important, and when you've got a couple of little kids it's almost a necessity.  Of course if the air conditioning was on when you went up a hill, you could just about forget any gear higher than third, unless the hill was pretty shallow.  I learned to treat the car almost as a glider, gathering momentum on the downhills to swoop farther up the uphills.  It helped, but 68hp was the limiting factor.  It wasn't a powerful car.

The design of the trunk was excellent.  Excellent.  In spite of its diminutive outer dimensions, the Excel's trunk was capacious.  It wasn't until a later experience with a Chevy Malibu that I started to consider it small.  And being a hatchback, the Excel had a trunk cover that rose with the hatch, unless you removed a couple of little tethers.  Then it stayed put.  Remember that couple of little kids I mentioned?  Yeah: that trunk cover was perfect for changing diapers, fixing snacks, all kinds of stuff.  And the hatch worked as a kind of awning to work under, so if you were changing diapers in the rain, you got it done and stayed dry.

It's weak praise when the car's most positive feature is its luggage compartment cover.

Since then Hyundai appears to have discovered that minimalist econoboxes aren't the path to riches, at least not in the US.  The Accent which was introduced to replace the Excel is by all accounts a better car and has been since the first day.  The base engine in this year's model is actually a little smaller than the engine that was in mine, lo all those years ago.  But it makes a lot more power.  In 2008, JD Power and Associates named the Accent the most dependable sub-compact car.

But I'm not having one.  I still don't trust Hyundai.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Flash Mobs

There's a phenomenon that's kind of under the radar, at least it is for me.  I guess if you watch "Glee," which I don't, you've probably caught wind of it.  It's called a flash mob.

In Glee, in musicals, and now suddenly in real life, groups of people spontaneously come together to sing and dance.  While I love a good musical, I love good music with dancing.  The cause of that might be that I'm entirely too self-conscious to let myself go and dance, so I have to get the joy of that vicariously, watching others do it.  But I can sing (not as well as I used to so I keep it kinda low), and I can sing along with the music and maybe fantasize that I'm flying and floating along with all those beautiful people.

Flash mobs are just groups of people who come together on an agreed-on cue, do some performance of some kind, and disperse.  Boom, done, that's it.  No passing of hats, no playbills or announcements.  If you're there to catch it, good for you.  If not, look for it on YouTube.

Seriously.  Look for it on YouTube.  There are so many flash mobs, from small and relatively amateur all the way up to gigantic and very professional, with lots of cameras there to capture the moment and good recordings so it doesn't sound like it was recorded with a cell phone.

Norris Little Theatre did one for Independence Day.  It was a little too small, in my opinion, to have the impact that it could have had.  Too bad and I have no one to blame for it but myself - I played a part in the last play, and I survived a few Arthur Murray courses.  I could maybe have held it together long enough to do one little flash mob.

Then there's the gigantic flash mob that involved the Black Eyed Peas, Oprah, and one seemingly hyperactive fan at the front of the crowd.  There's Oprah filming the performance and the crowd and the one ecstatic fan.  Then suddenly more fans around her are dancing.  Then more.

And then, amazingly, the entire crowd is dancing.  They're all in on it.  The only one who didn't know what was coming, apparently, was Oprah.  A nice sendoff, really, for the lady who kept surprising her audience members with impressive gifts: here's one back for you.

Sweetie sometimes gets woken up in the middle of the night.  More often than not, it's the cat who sleeps curled up on my shoulder, stretching and walking across Sweetie's belly.  Nice kitty.  So there she was wide awake and cranky at the cat.  She stumbled downstairs and fired up Youtube.  What she found, she loved.

Here's a few Sweetie recommended to me:

Frozen Grand Central Station

Do Re Mi in Antwerp

James & Abby's Wedding  This one might be my favorite.

What's the point of a flash mob?  Well, it's fun.  And it sure looks like the people watching are having fun.  And who doesn't want to have fun?  If you have the option to give somebody a boost, isn't that a great thing to do?

Sure it is.

Okay, I guess I should participate in the next flash mob.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jumping Spider: Lunch

Sweetie's camera, a Canon Powershot A2200, is great for macros.  Son #2 had it out in the yard on Saturday morning and found this:
Phidippus Mystaceus, snarfing an earwig

You really need to click the image and zoom in for the full effect.  You think this little guy is cute now, wait until he fills the entire screen.

Jumping spiders have a few interesting qualities that make them more engaging than other spiders.  First of all, they're hunters.  They don't spin a web and wait for something to blunder along - usually me, on my way to the car.  They go out in search of their food, and get it.  So you never see one just sitting around.  If he's sitting, he's thinking about where he's going next.

And their eyes, their many many eyes, are more aware of you than the myopic little specks on the webspinners.  The jumper's eyes are big and almost personable.  Move around close to him even up to several body lengths away, rather (his body lengths, not yours) and he watches you.  He watches you, and you can see that he's watching.  His body moves up and down, tracking things that are close enough to be worth noticing.  If the light is right and your eyes are good enough, you can see tiny flickers of light coming from the jumper's eyes.  That's not a flicker of light like you might think, it's a reflection from inside the spider's eyes.  The eyes are so big in relation to the rest of the head that the lenses are completely fixed, but the spider can steer the retinas from inside to achieve better focus and keep things in the narrow field of view.  He really can look around and watch what he finds interesting.

This one is sitting on a crank wheel that's an inch thick.  So he's maybe a quarter-inch long.

Here's that first one again, enjoying his meal

Jumpers comprise the largest portion of the spider family, with over 500 different species.  They're found pretty much everywhere except Antarctica, even on the slopes of Everest.

Okay, Sweetie's taking her camera battery out of the charger.  Looks like she's off to find more spiders.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

International Nude Day

Hands off those buttons!  We're not there yet.

International Nude Day - also called National Nude Day in New Zealand - is July 14.  That's a week off, so you've got some time to prepare, to psych yourself up.

Time to choose what to wear.  Ha ha ha.

My mom will probably throw her hands up in frustration at this.  She didn't raise me to be running around in my birthday suit.  Oh well, Mom.  You did your best.

I haven't gotten up to much in the way of naked shenanigans, to be completely frank.  There was a memorable excursion into an especially deep snowfall one January night when I lived in a house whose yard had considerably more privacy than where I live now.  Getting in touch with my inner Finn, I soaked in as hot a tub as I could stand until I couldn't stand it any longer, then dashed outside to roll in the snow.

That was both a shock and a revelation.  After a few seconds of rolling in the snow, I had to dash back inside, but that brief exposure had wrenched my body temperature back to neutral.  I've gotten similar results from a jump from the hot tub to the in-ground pool at a condo in Gatlinburg on my birthday, which was awesome in that my mom got to witness that (a distant "Oh!" of dismay as we jumped into the pool told me Mom had seen us leaping into the cold pool.  Don't anybody leer, it was in a public place.  We had our swimsuits on.) and could only shake her head at our insanity.  The beauty of the hot tub was that we could heat up again and jump in again.

The next morning we did it again, but we had to crack the ice off the pool before jumping in.  It was that cold.

So what could you do on International Nude Day?  Well in many parts of the States, not much.  Anti-nudity laws on the books mean whatever you want to do, you're going to have to do it at home or in a relatively secluded location if you don't want not-like-minded individuals complaining to the local constabulary.  Getting arrested is bad enough, getting arrested naked is just awful.

I'm guessing.  Never been arrested, myself.

But back to the point.  Nude beaches, nude resorts, your own back yard if you don't have neighbors close by.  The bedroom, the covered porch.  Relax and read a book.  Feel the wind in your toes as you read.  Not the newspaper, I find the news troubling enough that I prefer to have all my armor on if I have to see what's up with the world.

There's a spot on the shore of the lake around here that's perfect for after-dark skinny dipping.  It's an excellent spot for a quick dip but for one little problem:

July 14 is a Thursday.  Skinny-dipping feels like such a weekend thing.  Can't we push it back one more day?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Chevy Citation

Back in the 1980s - it might have been 1980 exactly - I went away to a Boy Scout camp for a couple of weeks.  It was an okay campout but not my favorite.  In fact, in retrospect it's my experience with Boy Scouts that pretty much ruined camping for me.  Not that I ever saw much attraction to camping, here I have a perfectly good house with refrigeration, plumbing, electric lights and a door on the bathroom.  You want me to give all that up why?  That last question never got answered to my satisfaction.

Anyway.  Scout camp, two weeks.  Get back and drag my sorry self and my gear toward  That's not the family car.

Up until this point the family car had been few different things.  There had been an Opel Kadett from 1967 and a SAAB 96 from 1970.  The Opel was a tiny little two-door sedan, conceived in its present form as GM's answer to the Volkswagen Beetle.  The SAAB was a slightly larger two-door sedan, and it looked like nothing else.  I have compared it to a VW Beetle, if the Beetle were made of Play-Doh and allowed to stretch and smooth out a bit on a warm day, but that's really not fair.

So I was expecting a ride home in either of these cars.  A dinky little German econobox or a slightly less dinky Swedish...hmm...I've never known exactly what kind of car you'd call the 96.  Anyway.

Dad led me to a Chevy Citation.  I was very excited.

By now the Citation isn't well remembered.  It had a few bad recalls that tainted its image, and it was not powerful, and none of its problems were well addressed by GM.  But at the moment it was an utterly new car, beautifully silvery gray and exuding that indefinable aura of freshly minted wheels.  It smelled new, of course.  And wonder of wonders, I got my own door.  A four door car, at last.

I'd been hearing ads for the Citation on the radio, and seeing them on the TV.  GM went all-out with the Citation's ad campaign, educating the public on just how good front wheel drive is for the average driver, how much roomier it makes the car, et cetera.  From the back seat, I could see they had a point.  There was still a hump between the rear foot wells but nothing like what was in the Opel.  The car seemed outlandishly wide, but after years in the back seat of compact European cars, anything would have felt big.

In later years I discovered the Citation, though billed as a compact car, had more interior room than a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.  I believed it.

The trunk was crazy.  It was huge, with a flat floor and access into the interior through a seatback that folded down and, really weirdly, I didn't see any exposed metal back there.  The old cars were pretty bare in the trunk, but the Citation presented you with more carpet.  It was a finished space.  I felt almost guilty to toss my grungy backpack and crusty boots in there.

It didn't take long for some of the charm to wear off.  Dad had chosen a car that had neither air conditioning nor a radio.  Eventually we had a radio installed, but in the Citation the radio slot was vertical.  I had never seen that before, and I still don't recall if it required a special radio or we simply got used to reading the dial sideways.  But air conditioning simply never appeared, and that stunk.  The DC area gets pretty hot and muggy in summer, and when we took long road trips in that car we were tearing along at interstate speeds with all the windows down.  Subsequent research suggests that the fuel economy doesn't suffer as much from running the air conditioning as it does with running with windows down.   And of course the rear windows didn't roll all the way down anyway.

The rear seat had a few other unpleasant surprises.  In typical in-town trips you might not ever notice, but on long highway rides you'd discover that the seat belts takeup reels didn't do anything but take up.  When Mom noticed this she stopped calling them seat belts and started calling them anaconda belts.  Exhale and the seat belt would cinch up a tiny bit.  Shift a little, cinch up a little.  Eventually the seat belt had a tight grip on you and you couldn't move another inch, at which point you had to release it, let it all the way into its reel to reset, and start over.

The Citation was saddled with the Iron Duke engine.  The Duke isn't a bad engine on its face but it had several features that made it less than stellar.  For starters at 2.5l displacement it was a biggish four-banger, but for all that displacement only yielded 88 horsepower.  So for all of your gritted-teeth tolerance of the big four's vibration and rocking, you got very (very) modest power for your pains.  You could opt for the 2.8l V6 which was good for 40hp more, but I don't think my Dad has owned anything but a four-cylinder car in the last 40 years.

The Duke eventually morphed into what was called the Tech IV engine (ridiculed as the Low Tech IV) and finally saw yeoman duty as the base engine in the Chevy S-10 pickup.  The Duke wasn't all frowns: back in the day you could build a Duke with power out the wazoo if you didn't mind wrenching your own: the Duke is a Pontiac design, and Pontiac was at the time the GM brand with the most sporting image and hardware.  The Super Duty Four started with a heavier-duty Duke block with thicker castings, bigger bearings and a solid forged cranked to replace the lighter duty economy minded hardware.  Choose your parts right and you could build a Duke that would displace over 3.0 liters, pump out a mighty 300 horsepower, and shock the daylights out of anybody looking into the engine bay and seeing an Iron Duke under the hood.  At the time it was even a halfway economical thing to hotrod, since there's some parts commonality between the Duke and other Pontiac engines of the day.  The Super Duty Four is still available from Kansas Racing Products.

But we didn't have the Super Duty Four.  We had a Duke.  It got the car down the road.  It ran through a four-speed manny tranny, which also got the car down the road...until the time one of the shifter cables snapped.  Dad shared that story: "Well, the shifter just laid right down.  Flop.  I waggled it this way and that until I felt it go into a gear and I thought, hey, maybe I can get somewhere.  Turned out to be second gear and I figured that would probably suffice.  Drove it all the way to the shop in second gear.  Took about half an hour to go five miles."

I liked the Citation in spite of its foibles.  As much as I like the Citation, I liked the Citation X-11 even better. With vastly superior handling and a functional active hood induction system, the first X-11 spanked the contemporaneous European sport sedans with its power and handling.  It was surprisingly quick and nimble and was a force to contend with on the rally circuits.  If I had the parking space and could have a Citation today, I would.  If I could have an X-11, I most definitely would.  Though history has been unkind to its memory, I liked the Citation.  It was a good car.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Too Big for One Post: part 2

A couple of decades ago I was poring through that mainstay of American coffee tables, National Geographic, and found an article on the universe.

It wasn't as big an article as you might think.  It didn't even take up the whole magazine.  That part didn't cross my mind until much later, but let's stay focused.  It did include a map.  I can't recall if it was an insert, which by itself is one of the most awesome features of NG.  With one magazine subscription alone, you could slowly paper your bedroom with posters of stars, maps of distant countries, arrays of sharks and whales.  It was a source of decor, albeit a somewhat dry and highbrow kind of decor.

Anyway.  The map I found wasn't of anything you could walk to.  It was of the universe.  Again I say, I'm surprised they were able to find a piece of paper big enough.  The map featured an image of the local star cluster, shrunk to fit into a scale of the galaxy, shrunk to fit into a scale of the local cluster of galaxies, shrunk to fit into a scale of a broad array of galaxies, shrunk to fit into a scale of the known universe.

The known universe surprised me and being a much, much younger and rather more naive person then than I am now, I marveled at how the known universe seemed to fit into a fairly well-defined cylinder.  That cylinder was a mere 28 billion light-years across.  If you were to write that out longhand, that would be "17" followed by 22 zeroes.  If you could hop into your Volvo and start driving, it would take you 334 quadrillion years to drive from one edge to the other.

I say Volvo because you're going to want something both sturdy and safe.

Anway!  Twenty-eight billion light-years, really?  That's all?  At the time I couldn't understand how scientists could be so sure.  It didn't make sense.  Now I finally get it: light speed is the limiting factor.  We only know about 28 billion light years worth because we've only had this universe for about 14 billion years.  Light goes this way for 14 billion years, and that way for 14 billion years, and we only see what's up to 14 billion light years away from us because anything farther away than that, the light hasn't reached us yet.  The known universe is so sharply bounded because any farther away than that and the light simply doesn't exist for us, not yet.

Imagine peering into a large optical telescope, observing the far distant reaches of space, and suddenly seeing a glimmer where none was before.  The light of a star has made its debut for us here on earth, a star no one ever suspected.  That would be quite something to experience.

The actual experience would be much drier than that. Hardly any heavy-duty astronomy takes place with people looking through eyepieces anymore.  The telescopes are monitored by optical recording systems that don't blink, so no awakening star will be missed.  It might be missed of course, the recordings have to be examined by humans so there's plenty of room for error, but any light coming from the edge of the universe is going to be awfully faint.  The naked eye combined with the world's most powerful optical telescope simply can't see anything that dim.

So the point here is that there may well be a lot more to the universe than what we can see simply because it hasn't been seen yet.  And the likelihood of recognizable humans being around to see anything new isn't high in my opinion, all of humanity sits crouched on one lonely rock dangerously close to a large asteroid belt, a rock that itself hasn't experienced a large meteor strike in quite some time.  Anything could happen.  Apophis could happen.

Next time: wondering about time.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fireworks Show

Every Independence Day there's a run of pictures in the papers, of fiery streaks against a black sky.  I'm going to best them two ways: first, there won't be a black sky in the background and second, I'm publishing on the actual day.

What good are fireworks against a light sky, you ask?  Well, not much good.  But I'm not doing actual fireworks.  If you'll recall, we gave Sweetie a camera for Mother's Day and she's been really putting that thing to work.  Sweetie takes walks in the evening after work, shooting pretty much whatever strikes her fancy.  Mostly her fancy turns out to be super macro closeups of flowers and insects, and the results are like living in the editing room at National Geographic.

On with the show:



Yay! (applause)






All pictures by Sweetie

That's it from me.  Everyone have a safe and happy Independence Day, thank a soldier, don't drink and drive.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Seriously Beneficial Bug

It's not really a bug per se.  It's a spider, a really small jumping spider that has a taste for mosquitoes.
This little guy.  In real life, two could sit on your thumbnail, side by side.

It appears he has a taste for human blood, but being who and what he is and entirely too small to actually get it from the humans themselves, he's got to get it by eating mosquitoes.  His fangs are really tiny, but a mosquito's feeding equipment is well adapted to get blood from animals including humans.  The spider's is well adapted for getting nourishment from bugs.  And when this spider smells blood, they go into a feeding frenzy, killing more and more mosquitoes without necessarily stopping to eat them or even if they've recently had a blood meal.  He just goes on a rampage.  They even seem to show preference for Anopheles mosquitoes, the ones most associated with transmission of malaria.

So if you've got a fear of spiders, maybe you could dial the dread back a notch.  This one is nothing but beneficial to humans.

This breed also shows a preference for being around humans.  Researchers discovered the spider would spend more time in close proximity to a sweaty sock - that is to say, close to something that smelled like humans - than in close proximity to a clean sock.  Given the option, the spider would choose to be near where it perceived humans might be.  Probably expecting an unwary mosquito to come blundering by, I reckon.

If you see a spider, don't hurt him.  He might be doing you a favor.