Tuesday, 31 July, 2001

Movie Review:  Planet of the Apes

My employer,Catapult Systems, sponsors monthly Fun Events for the employees.  We'll go bowling, see a movie, take in a ball game, go to the lake, or do some other activity.  It's a good opportunity for employees to get together away from work and have a good time.  Yesterday we went to see the new Planet of the Apes movie.

This is not high cinematic art.  It's a fun movie, but hardly a "good" movie.  Mostly it's one big chase scene with periodic rest periods in which the characters can preach the evils of racism or express their stereotypical racist views.  The costumes are very well done.  The acting is mostly uninspired.  Charlton Heston (who starred in the original movie) makes a cameo appearance as an ape, and Tim Roth does an excellent job as General Thade, leader of the Apes' military.

I wouldn't pay full ticket price to see the movie.  Go to a matinee, or wait for it to come out on DVD.

Monday, 30 July, 2001

The Catholic Church versus AIDS

I usually stay out of religious discussions, and avoid expressing opinions on topics related to religion.  Buttoday's news that the South African Catholic Bishops Conference, with full support of the Vatican, has strongly denounced the use of condoms is just too much.  In a statement issued after the conference, the Bishops said:  "The Bishops regard the widespread and indiscriminate promotion of condoms as an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV/AIDS."

I realize that the Roman Catholic Church's position on sex is simple:  abstinence prior to marriage,  monogamy after marriage, and no artificial means of contraception.  It looks nice on paper, I guess, but it's entirely unrealistic and impracticable.  It would seem to me that maintaining their insupportable position on condom use is "immoral and misguided," if not downright criminal.  And the assertion that "Condoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS. Apart from the possibility of condoms being faulty or wrongly used they contribute to the breaking down of self-control and mutual trust,'' just makes the Church  look stupid.  Would the Bishops really rather wipe out a majority of the population?  "Let the Heathens die," they seem to say, "if they'd follow our teachings, this wouldn't happen."  Is it any wonder that the Church has steadily been losing clergy and parishioners over the past 30 years?

Before you accuse me of spewing anti-Catholic propaganda, you should know that I was brought up Catholic and was married in the Catholic Church.  But the Church's unrealistic stance on marriage, divorce, sex, and women, among other things, has driven me away--most likely never to return.  At least not to the Roman Catholic Church.  My friend Jeff Duntemann has written more than once about the Old Catholic movement, which might possibly bring me back to the fold.

Saturday, 28 July, 2001

Star Wars ... An ASCIImation

Some people have way too much time on their hands.  Today I ran across an "Asciimation" of the first Star Wars movie.  This Java applet displays an ASCII graphics rendition of the major scenes from the first half of the movie.  Funny stuff, really.  Also interesting is how it's done.  Download and extract the swplay.jar file from the site and take a look at the Java code.  Then look in the data directory at the 1.6 megabyte text file that contains the animations.  Egads...who has time to do stuff like this?

This guy also came up with the Jet Powered Beer Cooler.  A man after my own heart.

Friday, 27 July, 2001

Another Trip From Hell

Yet another installment of "trips from Hell."

I was supposed to go to Boston yesterday so I could visit a client there today.  My flight was scheduled to leave Austin at 1:30 pm, stop in Houston, and then head to Boston, arriving at about 8:30.  Thunderstorms in Houston and a mechanical problem with the airplane left us sitting on the ramp in Austin without air conditioning for over two hours.  When I finally got to Houston on a different flight, there was only one more flight to Boston and it was oversold.  And when standby didn't work out it was too late to get a flight back to Austin.  So I got to spend the night at a shitty little Quality Inn by the Houston airport (do not stay there--the place is a dump) and caught a flight back to Austin this morning.    I'm scheduled to try the Boston trip again on August 6.  I wonder what can go wrong this time.

Of the dozen or so trips I've taken in the last year, I've experienced significant delays or cancellations with at least half of them.  I don't know how frequent travelers do it.  With a 50% delay rate, I'd go nuts if I had to travel more often than I do.

Wednesday, 25 July, 2001

Hoax and Parody Web Sites

I get the biggest kick out of hoax and parody web sites.  For parody, The Onion is my favorite.  Hoax sites come and go, and most lose their hilarity fairly quickly.  Somebody pointed out Net Authority a while back.  On their Info page, Net Authority claims to be "a group of individuals who have taken it upon themselves to govern the Internet."  The site is obviously a hoax, as the Forum section shows--any real anti-porn site would delete most of those messages.  When I first saw the site, though, the forum section didn't exist and it was a bit tougher to see through the hoax.  I finally figured that it was too well written for a bunch of fundamentalist whackos.

One of my favorite sites lately is Bonsai Kitten.  A friend of a friend sent me this link along with a very serious "please help us stop this cruelty" message.  She was completely taken in by the site.  I think that, rather than the site itself, is the funniest part.  Some people are so terribly gullible that I wonder how they survive in this world.

Tuesday, 24 July, 2001

Linux From Scratch

A couple of months ago (see my April 30 entry), I mentioned that I wanted to build a Linux system from scratch to see what all is involved.  I proceeded to build a minimal SuSE system to experiment, and then had to re-install a full system because I needed to finish up some work on the Kylix book.  Since then, the Linux system has been collecting dust as I work on other projects.

Today I ran across the Linux From Scratch web site.  These guys have put together a comprehensive book that describes how to build a Linux system from scratch, using a pre-installed Linux system as a starting point.  Yes, I know it sounds kind of silly:  why build a minimal system when you already have a full system installed?  But if you're interested in learning how all the pieces fit together, you don't necessarily have to start with bootstrapping from a bare minimum.  Maybe I'll try the bare-bones approach sometime, but this time around I'm going to follow the Linux From Scratch approach.  I'll keep you posted on my progress.  

Monday, 23 July, 2001

The Information Age

People often talk about the Information Age starting in the late 1940's or early 1950's with the invention of the digital computer, or in the 1960's when the use of computers became more wide spread.  I place the start about 100 years earlier.  The widespread adoption of the Morse Code and Morse Telegraph in the mid 1800's made it possible to send messages almost instantaneously across large distances.  In my mind, the ability to transfer, rather than store or process, information that defines the Information Age.

The Industrial Age was in full swing in the mid 1800's, and industrial societies were wrestling with the resulting social changes:  urbanization, increased leisure time, increased wealth, and reduced demand for unskilled labor.  These changes weren't as widespread then as they are now, but they were beginning, and the trend was noticed.  Whether or not people in 1850 could have predicted the extent of those changes 150 years later is somewhat less clear.

Today, with the ability to transfer information instantaneously between any two points, the Information Age is in full swing and we're seeing the start of some serious changes.  Major events anywhere in the world are known immediately by anybody with a computer connected to the Internet.  Intellectual property rights no longer enjoy economic protection.  Whereas it used to be prohibitively expensive to copy and distribute a book or electronic recording, it's now essentially free and possible for anybody with an inexpensive computer and scanner.  The global and free availability of all types of information is going to make huge changes in our society, and those changes are going to happen much faster than the changes brought about by industrialization.

Can we predict the effect of those changes 150 years from now?  Almost certainly not.  How about just 20 years from now--can we predict what those social changes will be?  I don't know if we can, but we certainly should be thinking about it.

Sunday, 22 July, 2001

Tour de France Webcast

I'm not a big fan of web casting, as I consider it a huge waste of bandwidth.  Listening to the radio over the Internet is cool in a geeky sort of way, but the signal to noise ratio as far as information is concerned is pretty poor.  Textual information is much more efficient.

That notwithstanding, I sure was happy to find that the official Tour de France web site (www.letour.com) has a live audio link.  There's no radio station in the Austin area that carries live Tour coverage.  The OLN channel on digital cable has tape-delayed coverage, but I don't get that channel.  The only major network coverage here is CBS Sports, which has a one-hour special every Sunday.  I still think web casting is a waste of bandwidth, but that doesn't stop me from listening in from time to time.

Thursday, 19 July, 2001

Drawbacks of Increased Credit Line

Several people wrote to remind me that a negative effect of having your credit card limits increased (see yesterday's entry) is that you can be denied credit--a car loan, for example--if you have too many credit accounts or too much available credit.  Excessive available credit raises a flag because lenders fear that you might actually draw against those lines and dig yourself into a hole from which you can't extricate yourself.  Just another reason to keep track of and control your available credit.  

Wednesday, 18 July, 2001

Unsolicited Credit Line Increase

Inserted in my credit card statement this month, along with all of the other junk, was a letter informing me that my credit limit had been increased.  "Congratulations," it reads, "because of your excellent account status, you've earned a credit line increase.  Now that your credit line has increased, you can make those purchases you may have been putting off.  Take a vacation, or get something special for yourself.  Whatever you choose, your higher credit line gives you more of the buying power you deserve."

I got a good chuckle out of this one.  Although it's nice to know that I could buy a new car if I had to, I just can't understand why the bank keeps raising my limit.  It's been years since I carried a balance on the card, so they have to know that I won't even come close to charging the amount they've given me access to.  Do they think that if the limit is high enough I'll start spending irresponsibly?  Weird.

Tuesday, 17 July, 2001

Peppers

Peppers.  Debra planted quite a few different kinds of peppers in the garden this spring, and most have done well.  Only the Ancho peppers didn't survive, and the sweet banana peppers didn't bear much fruit.  We're drowning in habaeros, though, and the jalapeos,  Thai chilies, gypsy bells, and cayenne peppers are doing very well along with the tomatoes.  The picture to the left is a small sample of what we pulled out of the garden today.  Although I've always liked peppers in particular and spicy food in general, I'm hardly a Chilie head.  I can handle a good jalapeno raw, but nothing much hotter than that.  We'll use hotter peppers for cooking, but not to eat raw.

Habaneros are especially dangerous because they're so much hotter than jalapenos--the most common of the hot peppers.  Pepper hotness is expressed in terms of Scoville Units--the dilution ratio at which people can detect the heat.  Cherry peppers (the "coolest" next to bell peppers which have almost no heat), for example, are detectable in a solution of 1 part pepper to 100 parts water, giving it a Scoville Units value of 100.  Jalapenos come in at about 2,500 to 5,000.  Habaneros, at the top of the scale, weigh in at 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville Units.  They're 20 to 50 times hotter than a jalapeno.  Ouch!  That's unfortunate, too, because habanero peppers are very tasty.  If you're interested in how your favorite pepper ranks, a good place to start is the Pepper Heat Scale.

There are more accurate and less subjective ways to measure the heat of peppers.  In this test, peppers are dried and ground, and then the capsaicinoids (the chemicals responsible for the heat) are extracted and injected into a High-Performance Liquid Chromatograph for analysis.  See the Chemistry and Scoville Units page for more details.  I do not recommend that you attempt the procedure described at the end of this page.

Chili peppers (not related to black pepper) are a New World crop that has spread across the world in the 500 years since Columbus first brought them back to Europe.  I found this surprising considering how popular peppers are in Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese dishes.  The Chilie-Heads page linked above is a good place to start if you're interested in learning more about the science or history of the genus Capsicum.  A more academic and less approachable article is  Peppers: History and Exploitation of a Serendipitous New Crop Discovery.

Sunday, 08 July, 2001

Baseball at the Metrodome

I flew to Minneapolis last night in preparation for a client visit tomorrow and Tuesday.  It's incredible how much cheaper it is to fly on Saturday and stay overnight.  We saved over $500 on the air fare, which more than pays for a night in the hotel and a day's worth of food.  It doesn't take care of what to do on a Sunday in a strange city, though.  For that I just set out in the morning and see what I can find.  It's like a 1-day vacation.  I don't plan anything in particular so I don't have to be anywhere at a given time.  Today I ended up at the Metrodome, about 20 blocks from my hotel, and watched the Minnesota Twins trounce the Cincinnati Reds.  I'm not much of a baseball fan, and truthfully would have been just as happy if the Reds had won.  The last major league game I remember attending was a Twins game in 1967 or 1968 at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, MN

At least in Minneapolis, baseball is pretty cheap entertainment--no more than a movie.  You can get a bleacher seat for $5.00, and the concession stands aren't any more expensive than the movies.  Plus, you can get beer at the game--something most theatres frown on.  I enjoyed the popcorn, hot dog, and beer, and marveled at the idea of watching a live baseball game on a hot summer day and not getting a sunburn.  Playing baseball inside.  What a concept.

The Metrodome is an interesting place.  Since I got there two hours before the game started, I was able to wander around and marvel at the immensity of the thing.  I had thought that the dome was fabric suspended by wire, but apparently it's 10 acres of Teflon-coated fiberglass that is kept in place by air pressure--250,000 cubic feet per minute.  However it's done, it's impressive.  But baseball and football should be played outside, don't you think?

Saturday, 07 July, 2001

Tour de France

The Tour de France starts today with the Prologue--a 5 mile individual time trial.  The actual Stages start tomorrow.  Twenty stages in twenty two days, covering 3,545 kilometers (about 2,140 miles) through France and a little swing through Belgium.  This is the premier bicycling race, and arguably one of the most grueling sporting events of any kind.  21 teams of 9 riders each--189 riders in all--will compete this year.  Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service team will attempt a third straight victory.

For stage-by-stage Tour coverage, you can visit Lance Armstrong's site, or the official site at www.letour.com.  One nice thing about the letour.com pages is that they have real-time updates during the stage.  Watching a bicycle race is a whole lot less exciting than watching golf (I think I'd rather watch paint dry), but I like being able to read the 5-minute updates.  I also like the 30-minute recaps on TV.  Last year MSNBC would run a piece every night at about 8:00.  I wonder if I'll be able to get that kind of coverage this year. 

The Copper Tank Brewing Company in downtown Austin is sponsoring Tour viewing parties on four Sundays in July (July 8, 15, 22, and 29) from 2pm until 5pm.  I'll have to attend at least one of those, not necessarily to watch the TV, but rather to visit with other cyclists in the area and maybe drink a little beer.  Copper Tank makes some primo brew.

Friday, 06 July, 2001

Southwest Airlines

I love Southwest Airlines--both the company and the flying experience.  The company, which is celebrating its 30th year, has always been profitable, continues to grow, and is regularly marked number one in customer satisfaction.  How can this be when most major air carriers have financial problems and unhappy customers?  One word:  consistency.  For 30 years, Southwest has provided friendly, inexpensive, on-time, no-frills service on popular routes.  They started in Texas and expanded slowly:  opening new routes only when careful research showed that those routes would be popular and fit within their business model.  They also fly only one model of airplane (Boeing 737), and limit most flights to about two hours.  The quick hop, quick turnaround model prevents them from having to supply meals, movies, and other expensive frills that drive up the cost of air travel.  So the company's profitable.

Why do I like to fly what some people refer to as Cattle Truck Airlines?  Again, consistency.  I know from experience (I've been flying Southwest since 1975) that they're almost always on time.  Their service is far friendlier than that of any other carrier.  I've encountered far fewer mechanical problems on Southwest than on any other airline.  And their fares, at least for the routes that I fly, are usually much cheaper than the other airlines.  The few frills (bad movies, barely-edible food, on-board music) that other airlines offer just don't justify the higher prices--at least not to this traveler.  And I like the first-come-first-served seating arrangements.  Since I usually get to the airport an hour ahead of flight time, I almost always get my choice of seats.  The assigned seating arrangement used by other airlines almost always ends up putting me where I don't want to be.

As long as Southwest can get me there on time, inexpensively, and reasonably comfortably, I'll fly with them. 

Thursday, 05 July, 2001

Farewell to Delores Keller

Debra's friend Delores Keller passed away Monday morning, after a long bout with breast cancer.  She was in her early 70s.  Delivered from the grip of cancer, she now rests easy in the hands of God.  Today we mourn Dee's passing, but we also celebrate her life.

For over 30 years, Dee lived in the same house on a cul-de-sac in South Scottsdale.  There are nine houses on that cul-de-sac.  In addition to her other friends, neighbors from five of those houses attended the service this morning.  Almost all stood up to share their memories.  She was a good friend to some, and a good neighbor to all.  She kept mostly to herself, but always had a kind word and a smile, and was happy to help whenever someone was in need.  She loved her dogs, and spent many an enjoyable afternoon with them in the park nearby.  Dogs often mirror their owners' disposition, and Dee's dogs were friendly, well-mannered, and obedient.  I didn't know Dee very well, but I saw that her friendship enriched Debra's life in many ways during the 10 years they knew each other.  For that I will be forever thankful.

Wednesday, 04 July, 2001

Visiting Friends

A pleasant side-effect to my unexpected trip to Phoenix was that our good friends Jeff and Carol Duntemann invited us out to their house for dinner.  They also invited our mutual friends Pat and Sue Thurman.  The six of us shared dinner, drank perhaps a little too much wine, and enjoyed hours of conversations ranging from silly to serious--moving up and down that scale throughout the evening.  Later we went up on the deck to see the fireworks displays over the city.  Jeff and Carol's house is in far North Scottsdale, and from their deck we could see a half dozen or more presentations that others were paying to see.  A thunderstorm coming in from the southeast added another dimension, with some spectacular lightning flashes adding to the man made pyrotechnics.  This was the most enjoyable evening that Debra and I have had in a very long time.

Good friends are very rare and precious gifts.

Tuesday, 03 July, 2001

Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix is hot.  When my flight arrived at 6:30 this morning the temperature was 85 degrees.  Yesterday's high was 116.  The highest temperature I heard reported today was 114.  Bullhead City (south of Las Vegas on the Colorado River) got to 121.  People will say "It's a dry heat," as if that makes it somehow cooler.  

I'm familiar with the Heat Index, and will accept that it accurately represents the effects of combined heat and humidity on the human body.  But in my experience it doesn't reflect the subjective feeling of heat.  For example, according to the Heat Index Calculator, a temperature of 90 degrees at 75 percent humidity (a typical Austin day during the month of May) gives a heat index of 109.  This is somehow equivalent to a temperature of 114 degrees at 10 percent humidity?  Maybe.  114 certainly feels hotter, and by a lot more than just 24 degrees.  Heat differences are not linear.  To me, the difference between 90 and 114 is a helluva lot more than the difference between 66 and 90.  At 66 degrees I'm comfortable outside without a shirt, and 90 is just starting to get warm.  But 114?  Cripes!  Whose idea was it to build a city in this frying pan?

Other than the summer heat, I love the Phoenix area.  Sparse as it is--especially compared to the lushness of the Texas Hill Country--the desert is a place of beauty.  I'd forgotten what it's like to see for miles, and be surrounded by mountains on all sides.  Even in the middle of the city you can find patches of desert, which fairly explodes with color in the spring.  Wildlife isn't as abundant as in Austin, but its scarcity makes you appreciate it all the more.  If Debra and I ever decide to leave the Austin area, we'll give some serious thought to moving back to Phoenix.

Monday, 02 July, 2001

Gone for a While

Coverage will be spotty here for a week or so.  Tomorrow morning I fly to Phoenix to be with Debra, whose very good friend passed away this morning.  I get back late Thursday, and Saturday I fly to Minneapolis on business.  I'm flying on Saturday again because fares are so much cheaper than flying on Sunday.  I don't know what I'll do in Minneapolis on Sunday, but I'm sure I can find something interesting.  If nothing else I just have to see the mall with the indoor amusement park.  I probably won't be posting here until next Wednesday at the earliest.

Sunday, 01 July, 2001

Discovering Heinlein

I didn't read much science fiction until 1989 or so.  Mostly I stuck with Robert Ludlum spy novels, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King.  Those genres anyway.  It's not that I disliked SF, just that I hadn't explored it.  Debra had the "Hugo Winners" books when we met, and I started reading SF there.  As you can imagine, there are still holes in my knowledge of the field.

One such hole is Robert A. Heinlein.  I read Stranger in a Strange Land about 10 years ago on the recommendation of a friend.  My friend was less than pleased with my opinion (a bunch of free-love, "I'm OK, you're OK" bullshit), and then gave me another Heinlein title--I Will Fear No Evil (incoherent is my kindest comment).  Looking back, I can hardly believe that I actually finished that book.  I figured that with those two "highly recommended" books, I didn't need to read any of Heinlein's lesser works.  After all, my friend wouldn't recommend two of the author's worst books, would he? 

Another friend recommended some other titles.  Friday I picked up Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I finished Troopers on Saturday and made a large dent in the other today.  Now I understand why the SF community holds Heinlein in such high regard.  I also understand why Heinlein fans were so disappointed with the movie.  I'll have to find somebody to steer me to the good stuff and away from the crap.  Some friends have told me that Mistress is the last of his good works.  I'll keep that in mind.