Friday, 31 October, 2003

Halloween

I hadn't planned to dress up for Halloween this year for two reasons:  I'm out at a client's office for work, and Debra is out of town at the Lone Star African Violet Council's annual convention.  But Wednesday I learned that I'd be at my normal office for the next 10 days or so, and I got an invitation to go to a friend's Halloween party.

Coming up with a suitable costume on the spur of the moment is somewhat difficult.  On this morning's bike ride I decided that I'd go to work as a tourist, so I donned a particularly hideous outfit (picked up on a Caribbean island after a few too many beers and too many hours in the hot sun), cheap sun glasses, Panama hat, beach shoes, and to top off the ensemble:  black socks.  I looked totally ridiculous, which was the point.

For the evening's party I resurrected a costume that I first wore back in 1999.  This, I think, is the best Halloween costume I've ever done.  The effect in dim light is truly frightening.  My friend had a little "haunted house" in his garage, and when I showed up looking like Scary Death Guy he put me to work.  I'd crouch silently in a dim corner and try to keep from laughing when just the sight of me there would cause somebody to scream.  The most memorable was a kid of about 10 who backed up into the wall with his eyes as big as saucers, shrieked like a little girl, and then after regaining his composure said, "You didn't scare me!"

I love Halloween!

Thursday, 30 October, 2003

Religion (continued again)

From time to time people try to drag me into religious discussions, and they aren't satisfied with my standard "I choose not to discuss my religious beliefs" comment.  They're left unsatisfied, because in my experience those types of people aren't interested in my beliefs except as a way to either bolster their own, or to make me look stupid by ridiculing what I believe in.  How do I know this?  Because they use the same arguments I used when I was trying to do that.  But since I've gone this far here, I guess I might as well go all the way with it.

The Old Testament describes a jealous and vengeful God.  I want nothing to do with such a being.  The New Testament describes a more reasonable being, but there's still that threat of eternal damnation hanging over my head.  To compound the problem there's no real proof that either Testament (or any other "sacred" text for that matter) is the actual "Word of God."  A God who would set me on this Earth without an instruction book and expect me to follow rules that I have no way of determining is a cruel jokester who doesn't deserve my respect, much less my devotion.  If the only feedback I get is my final score, then I choose not to play the game.  If I had some way to determine the rules, things would be much different.  But until somebody can show me objective proof that God exists and evidence of the rules I'm supposed to follow, I'm quite happy to continue with the kind of life I've lead for the last 20 years, hoping to surround myself with others of similar disposition.

I have more to say on the subject, but it'll have to wait until I sort out my thoughts a little better.

Wednesday, 29 October, 2003

Religion (continued)

(Continuing yesterday's topic)

I approached my study of religion perhaps a little bit too logically.  After giving the Bible a quick read I attacked the religion section of the school library.  There is an astonishingly huge number of religious beliefs out there.  I read through many of them, perused a few others, and finally gave up.  I was looking for logic and all I found was superstition and bizarre rituals.  The best piece of information I came across during that study was Pascal's Wager which, simply put, says (and here I'll use Jeff Duntemann's words from last May, because he summarizes it much better than I could have): Absent any rational proof of God's existence, it makes sense to live as though God is really out there.  That's a strikingly clear piece of logic for Pascal's time when the only known religions of consequence were Catholicism and Judaism.  But given the plethora of "mainstream" religions these days it suffers from a serious flaw.  Bowing to the logic of living as though God exists, what kind of life should I lead?  To what belief structure must I subscribe in order to be well received in the afterlife, assuming that one exists?  Worse than having no answer, the question has way too many answers that cover quite a range of behaviors.  Faced with a question that appears to have no answer, I did the only logical thing.  I gave up trying to find the answer.

In his May 26 entry, Jeff says:

If God does exist, what would He want of us? Some people who embrace Pascal's Wager profess faith in Jesus Christ to meet the wager (though I wonder if this could be considered genuine faith) while others simply pursue a life of gentleness, generosity, and love...and figure that any God who matches the template will be content with that.

That "life of gentleness, generosity, and love" is how I decided to live my life, but not out of concern with what might happen to me after I die, but because the people who live that kind of life are those whose company I value most.  The existence or not of God was and remains irrelevant in that regard.

I've heard it said that agnosticism is intellectual cowardice.  I ran across a quote one time, attributed to a religious figure, who said he had more respect for atheists than for agnostics because at least the atheist believed in something.  I've never understood that position.  That the existence of God is and has been such a hotly debated issue over the centuries means to me that there is no generally accepted observable evidence either way.  Belief or non-belief requires a leap of faith that has no rational basis.  Based purely on observable evidence, agnosticism is the only rational position.  My honest answer when pushed (and somebody would have to push hard) is that I don't have enough information to make the determination.

Tuesday, 28 October, 2003

Religion

Back in May, my good friend Jeff Duntemann began an ongoing discussion of religion (specifically, his religious beliefs) in his web diary.  At the time I had been rethinking (again) my own beliefs, and we exchanged a few email messages on the subject.  He recommended that I sort out my thoughts and post them here.  Some things take time.

I was brought up Catholic, although a somewhat toned-down Catholicism.  We went to Mass every Sunday and Catechism classes on Wednesday, said a blessing at each meal, and we all received our First Communion at the appointed time.  I even served as an altar boy for a few years, but that was about it as far as overt religion was concerned.  My grandparents were much more involved in the religion, and I clearly remember them saying a Rosary every night before bed when they came to visit.  My grandfather had a very deep voice that carried well through the walls of the bedroom and throughout the house.  I stopped attending Mass regularly when I went off to military school at 14.  No way was I going to get up on a Sunday morning—the only morning I could sleep in—to catch a bus ride to the church.  Especially not after a very frustrating exchange with a priest who had no patience for a 14-year-old kid who had the effrontery to question the Church's teachings.

I had a friend who attended the local Baptist church every Sunday morning and was really getting into it.  When he mentioned that lots of girls attended and that they were very interested in talking to us clean-cut military school boys in the rec hall after services, I figured I could give up some sleep.  Oh, boy, was that a shock.  The difference between a Catholic Mass and a Southern Baptist Sunday service is really something.  Like the difference between a symphony orchestra and a Grateful Dead concert.  And the sermons?  I left there every Sunday in mortal fear!  Those people were crazy!  Even though the girls were pretty, plentiful, and friendly, I just couldn't embrace the religious beliefs that were being shoved down my throat.

So I drifted.  For a while it was fashionable to claim to be an atheist, and I made a good one:  arrogantly and ignorantly proclaiming the non-existence of God to anybody who asked and many who didn't.  I got a perverse enjoyment of baiting people of faith, laying little logic traps for them and gloating when they fell in.  It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the reason they stopped discussing religion with me wasn't because they weren't secure in their beliefs, but because my arguments were childish and illogical.  Atheism was my religion, and I followed it as blindly as any caricature fundamentalist.  I was 20 years old before I figured out that I should keep my beliefs to myself until I had something intelligent to say.  When I finally did have something intelligent to say, I was wise enough to keep my mouth shut..

Monday, 27 October, 2003

Birthday

It was a subdued birthday celebration.  Debra treated me, my brother Jerry, and our friends Mike and Kristi to dinner at La Magarita's here in Round Rock.  Then we went home for birthday pie (apple pie is so much better than any kind of cake) and ice cream.  I hope somebody got some enjoyment out of the waitress putting a silly sombrero on my head and snapping a picture.  It's all in good fun, I know, but it was a bit annoying.

Debra did surprise me by ordering a Kenwood TH-F6A tri-band handheld radio.   It's a little handheld job that transmits on the 144, 220, and 440 MHz amateur bands, and will receive everything from about 100 kHz to 1300 MHz.  That includes AM radio, amateur HF and 6 meter, FM radio, Aircraft, and VHF and UHF TV (although why I'd want to listen to TV on my radio is a mystery).  I've had my Ham radio license for a little over 10 years, and this is the first new radio I've ever had.  I guess it's time to get involved now.

Saturday, 25 October, 2003

Overtraining

The biggest risk one runs when preparing for an endurance event, or even just exercising to "stay in shape" is overtraining.  Some people call it "burnout."  The cause is simple:  doing too much too soon.  Some of the symptoms include persistent tiredness, heavy feeling in the legs, inability to complete scheduled training rides, sleep disturbance, lack of appetite, constipation or diarrhea, anxiety, depression, irritability, loss of enthusiasm, and an inability to concentrate.  The cure is to stop or severely curtail your training.  Ask anybody who's tried, though.  Cutting down on your training when you feel the need to do more and more is very difficult.  It's best not to get into the trap, and most books on running or bicycling will give you hints for avoiding overtraining.

I was starting to experience some symptoms of overtraining (loss of sleep, especially), and during today's 38 mile  ride my legs were uncharacteristically sore and heavy.  So this next week I'll be doing the miles, but at a much lower speed in order to let my body rest a bit.  I'll see how I do on next week's ride, and decide then if I need to rest a little more.

Friday, 24 October, 2003

Quote on design

La perfection est atteinte non quand il ne reste rien à ajouter, mais quand il ne reste rien à enlever.
(You know you've achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.)

Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupery

Wednesday, 22 October, 2003

This is a porn site?

My friend David Stafford sent me email from the public library in Greenville, South Carolina.  The library's filtering software had blocked access to my Web site because the N2H2 database had it classified as pornography.  I sent them a friendly note asking them to review my site again, and within a day it was no longer classified as pornography.  Debra was glad to hear that, as I think she was a little nervous living with a porn merchant.

N2H2 claims to employ a full-time staff of real live people who review and classify submitted sites.  If that's the case, I wonder how I this site ever got classified as pornography.

Monday, 20 October, 2003

Smuggling banned items onto airplanes

Surprise, surprise. Somebody smuggled some banned items onto a commercial airliner.  Go here for the details.

I caught early reports of this story last week, but then went into my normal weekend news blackout and didn't get an update until today.  I wasn't at all surprised when I heard the early reports of box cutters and other banned items being found on commercial aircraft.  I've long held (and pointed out here) that the "increased security measures" are just hand waving by Congress, FAA, TSA, and everybody else that is designed to make the traveling public think that "something is being done."  Aircraft and airports are not noticeably more secure today than they were before September 11, 2001.  It's simply not possible, in my opinion, to beef up security in any meaningful way without reducing the number of travelers and tromping all over some of our basic freedoms.

What did surprise me was that the perpetrator, a college student named Nathaniel Heatwole, stood up and said "I did it," knowing full well that he faced some rather stiff penalties.  I suspect many of us have wanted to carry a banned item through the checkpoint and turn around to say "see what I did," but the thought of being pounced on as a terrorist by an airport full of nervous travelers and security personnel is enough to deter me.  I have to admire the kid's courage in facing the consequences of his actions, and thank him for demonstrating the inadequacies of the new security systems.  It's one thing to perform an anonymous act of "civil disobedience" and then try to weasel out of it when you get caught.  It's another thing entirely to act in full view and stand your ground when faced with the consequences.  Unfortunately, I suspect most young people today will learn only the lessons they want to learn—it's okay to break the law if you have a good cause—and not the more important lesson:  regardless of your dedication to a cause, you must face up to the consequences of whatever actions you choose to take.

Saturday, 18 October, 2003

Round Rock Outlaw Trail Century

Training for next spring's ride to South Texas continues. According to the schedule, today's "long ride" was to be 34 miles at a moderate pace.  But the weather was uncharacteristically warm and the Round Rock Outlaw Trail Century was being held at Old Settler's Park just down the road.  So I decided to splurge and do the 40 mile tour (I'm not anywhere near in shape to do a century) of northeastern Williamson County.

The Round Rock Parks and Recreation Department has learned a few things about how to host a ride in the past 15 years.  There was plenty of parking, registration was a breeze (although kind of expensive at $30.00), the route was well marked, and the aid stations at approximately 10 mile intervals were well stocked and manned by very friendly people.  Weather was almost perfect:  low 60's to start (8:00 AM), and getting up to 80 or so by the time the century riders finished.  And, of course, there were plenty of nice-looking ladies in their cycling garb—plenty of incentive all in itself to go for a bike ride.

I pushed myself during the second half of the ride and finished slightly faster than I've been averaging recently.  I was tired, but not completely exhausted.  I know I could have gone for 50 miles, but it's not a good idea to push that hard this early in my training.  I'll be doing long rides of 70 miles and more soon enough, but jumping that far ahead is a sure way to sustain an overtraining injury.  No thanks.  I'll build slowly.  Next week I'm back to the standard training schedule.  The "long ride" next Saturday is only 38 miles.

Thursday, 16 October, 2003

War on Terror?

When government is involved, it seems that the amount of useful work done and the nearness to attaining goals, is inversely proportional to the number of Congresscritters and bureaucrats involved.  NASA pulled off the Moon landing in part because everybody else was too worried about Vietnam and Johnson's War on Poverty to care about a measly few billion spent on space flight.  The War on Poverty, screamed from the rooftops by LBJ and his ilk, and blindly supported by millions of mindless idiots, has been nothing more than an expensive and ineffective wealth redistribution scheme.  Same thing for the War on Drugs.  Are there any fewer drugs and addicts on the street now than there were 15 years ago?  I suspect there are more.  Maybe the War on Drugs has slowed the growth of the booming illegal drug industry, but I rather doubt it.  So excuse me if I look with some suspicion on the War on Terror.  So far all we've done is roll over the armies of two third-world countries and tick off about 90% of the world's population.  There's no evidence (at least no publicly available evidence) that the measures we've taken since September 11 have made any dent at all in the possibility of another terrorist incident here.

A case in point regarding border security.  We were 2 hours out from home on the way to my annual reunion in Harlingen last spring when I discovered that I had left my wallet behind.  Rather than turn around I obtained a temporary license, without a picture, when I got to Harlingen.  Even without a photo ID I crossed the border into Mexico, figuring they might detain me on the way back in if they decided to check IDs, but I'd get out of the mess somehow.  On the way back across the border, the officer was asking everybody if they were citizens and viewing their driver's licenses or other photo ID.  When our turn came, Debra had her ID ready and presented it.  I shrugged, looked confused, patted my pockets and mumbled "now where did I put that thing?"  Debra gave me "that look" and shook her head.  The border guard said "Go on through, sir."   If a couple of half-drunk amateurs like us can muddle our way through a border crossing, I can't see that it'd be terribly difficult for somebody who is much more motivated.

Monday, 13 October, 2003

Do we really need 64 bit computing?

Is the upcoming 64-bit version of Windows XP Desktop Overkill?  I'm surprised that the author even quotes the short-sighted people who say things like "most Windows user do not need anywhere near the amount of addressable memory that a 64-bit OS supplies."  What idiocy!  Most users don't need the power and capacity that current 32-bit processors supply!  A 1 GHz Pentium with 512 MB of RAM is more than enough juice for all but developers and the most serious hard-core users.

But need isn't what it's all about, is it?  We don't need DVD players, cars that go 120 MPH, 3,000 square foot houses, or another Democratic Presidential hopeful.  But we have them all, and more, in spades.  The introduction of a 64-bit Windows version is a Good Thing, even if only a handful of people can make use of the considerable power it provides.  It's those people who push the limits and develop new and better applications.  If other people want the latest and greatest, more power to them—whether they need it or not.

To the poo-poo crowd:  go back to your 386 with 4 megabytes of RAM, fill your 100 megabyte disk drive with dirty pictures, hop in your Yugo and return that Betamax movie you rented.  But leave the technology commentary to people who have some clue what they're talking about.

Saturday, 11 October, 2003

New trees

Debra and I bought three oak trees last weekend, using the 50% off coupon she had for the garden center where she used to work.  For about $75, we got a 10-gallon chinkapin oak, a 10-gallon burr oak, and a 5-gallon live oak.  (Also called, I hear, a Texas oak.  I hear tell that this isn't a real oak tree.  It's kind of an odd beast:  deciduous evergreen with thick, tough leaves that shed in the spring.  They're all over around here.  They grow well in stands, and also standalone.  There are some magnificent specimens of this slow-growing, long-lived tree in Central Texas.  But I digress.)

The proper way to plant a tree, according to Debra (and as a Master Gardener, she knows more about this kind of thing than I do), is to dig a hole that's as deep as the tree's root ball, and two to three times the diameter.  For the 10-gallon trees, that means a hole that's about 40 inches wide and 15 inches deep.  The first 6 inches isn't much problem now that the rains have started.  But beyond that, it's Texas Toothpick time.  A Texas Toothpick is a rock bar:  6 feet of 1-inch steel with a pencil point on one end and a chisel tip on the other.  The thing weighs 20 pounds.  Pick it up, slam the chisel into the ground, pry up some packed dirt.  Repeat.  Scoop out the 3" of dirt that you loosened up and start all over.  It's hard work this time of year.  In the middle of the summer with the ground dry and packed, it's really tough.

Well worth the effort, though.  Now I have two more (albeit small) oaks in the yard.  (It started raining before I could start on the third.)  These should be quite nice trees in 100 years or so.

Monday, 06 October, 2003

Sendmail author on spam

Eric Allman, creator of Sendmail, has weighed in on the spam problem with a well written article about the current state of spam, possible methods of preventing it, and problems inherent with those techniques.  He doesn't paint a pretty picture.  With the spam doubling rate at something like 8 weeks, a spam filter that lets through only 1.5 percent of spam will, in one year, be letting through as much spam as it blocks today.  So if your filter is blocking 197 out of 200 messages today, in a year it will be letting 197 messages through!  It's a big problem.  As Allman says:  It's an arms race and nobody wins but the arms dealers.

Allman is the latest in the growing number of informed industry leaders who agrees that protocol changes are required.  They're not going to happen quickly, though.  He mentions a time frame of 10 years!  It looks like filtering is the only possible short-term solution.  Gah!

Saturday, 04 October, 2003

Women's Adventure Race

It's not every day that a guy can say he had a date with 450 women.  My friend Jason Mittman organized the Women's Adventure Race which took place today at Muleshoe Recreation Area on Lake Travis.  The race benefited the Young Survival Coalition.  Thanks to all of the sponsors and volunteers, Jason was able to present a check for $7,500.00 to the founder.

I volunteered to help out and ended up at a particularly difficult portion of the mountain bike course, there to call for help on the radio if anybody got hurt negotiating the rocky downhill.  Three women made unexpected dismounts going down the hill, but nobody was hurt beyond a few scrapes and bruises.

Approximately 450 women competed in teams of two and three, hiking/running 4.5 miles, mountain biking 9 miles, and tubing about 1/2 mile.  There were other events—puzzles and physical challenges—throughout, too.  This was not a hard-core adventure race.  70 percent of the women who participated were doing their first race, and the mood was very cooperative.  From what I saw, they all enjoyed themselves.  And I enjoyed cheering them on as they passed my checkpoint.

Friday, 03 October, 2003

Don't Call Me Anymore

If you want an idea of how hard it will be to pass anti-spam legislation, consider the problems that the FTC, FCC, Congress, and the President are having with the National Do Not Call Registry.

I was thinking the other day that this is a perfect place to show the power of the Internet and distributed computing.  Imagine a central server, similar to the Do Not Call Registry, but operated by private individuals.  Call it the DCMA (Don't Call Me Anymore) List.  (You can substitute your own "A" word if you like.)  People can log in and enter their telephone numbers to be put on the list.  That's the first part.  The second part is what shows off the power of the Internet.

The server has on it the phone numbers and locations of every known telemarketer.  People with spare computing time, who are tired of folding proteins or searching for aliens can sign up to have their computer assist in notifying telemarketers in their area of the people who no longer want to be bothered.  The distributed client program downloads a list of telemarketers in the local area, and begins placing telephone calls to those telemarketers with a recorded message.  The message would be something like this:

Good afternoon.  This is an automated message from the Don't Call Me Anymore List.  Mr. John Doe at telephone number (512)555-8692 has requested that you no longer contact him or his family with telephone marketing messages.  For more information about the Don't Call Me Anymore List, please contact us at (213)555-1234.

Perhaps even a longer message, just to get the point across.  Or repeat the name and telephone number to ensure that the person on the other end gets it.

There are a few problems to work through, here.  Perhaps the most important is verifying that the telephone numbers people input when they sign up actually belong to the person entering them.  There's also the question of what to do if a telemarketer who has been notified goes ahead and places a call.  We can't retaliate by spamming their phone number, but we could probably have them receive one more call, this one with a "second notice" message.

Of course, we'd make the Don't Call Me Anymore List available to any telemarketer who wanted it, and we'd have honeypot numbers on it to catch any telemarketer who obtained the list and then called numbers that were on it.

One nice thing is that the List would not discriminate by letting charitable organizations and political parties call with impunity.  Users could be given the opportunity at signup to block all, or allow certain types of callers.  If you don't mind receiving calls from charitable organizations, then you could choose not to block them.

Assuming that we could verify the people signing up for the free service, would this be illegal, or be considered a denial of service attack?  It would be an interesting thing to try, and I suspect a whole lot more effective than the government's solution.

Wednesday, 01 October, 2003

Odd lots

It's been a busy week.  Some odd lots to start the new month:

  • It is possible to get VGA cables longer than 6 feet (see my entry for September 22).  Lots of places online sell them.  My friend Randy Schafer over at Earth LCD was kind enough to send me a 15-foot cable, and suggest that I run the automatic setup on the LCD monitor once the cable was installed.
  • I gave up trying to debug with Visual InterDev (see September 25).  The ASP experts at my company all said it was a time sink, and that even if I got it running it might just stop working for reasons unknown.  I'm pretty tenacious, but I have better things to do than throw my time into a lost cause.  Apparently even Microsoft doesn't know how to get it working.  At least, nobody on their Visual Interdev Debugging newsgroup could help me out.  So it's back to Response.Write.  I'm sure glad I learned how to use Pascal's WriteLn statement for debugging 20 years ago.
  • Visual Basic is such a wonky language that I'm surprised people actually get useful work done in it.  The list of wonkiness is long and varied.  Irregular syntax, seemingly random use of parentheses in subroutine calls, the sometimes-optional set keyword, and the idiotic notion of using a newline as a statement terminator (with the requisite line continuation character, of course).  Most of these problems are fixed in Visual Basic .NET, but that silly end-of-line thing is still there, reminding me of my punch card days every time I write a program.  I have to think that somebody on the language redesign team at Microsoft proposed that it be fixed.  Either the team decided that fixing this wart would break too much existing code, or somebody with a lot of pull and a sick sense of language design decided that it should stay there.
  • From my house to the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, TX is 350 miles.  A friend and I are going to ride it next spring, in three days.  My training program started today.  I'll post periodic updates here as my training progresses.