Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bang Bang Bang

The incredible Tracy Chapman. This song moves me. I defy anyone to watch this video, listen to these lyrics and Chapman's fantastic voice, and not be moved.

God Hates Westboro Baptist Church

Well, there's justice for you. Sometimes the system does actually work.

(Reuters) - A jury on Wednesday ordered an anti-gay Kansas church to pay $10.9 million in damages to relatives of a U.S. Marine who died in Iraq after church members cheered his death at his funeral.

Now look, I believe, most strongly, in the 1st Amendment. I think if you want to burn the American Flag, then it's your right to do so. But, don't be surprised when I punch you right in the nose, because that's how I exercise my freedom of expression. People should be accountable for what they say and do.

I think that Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church have the right to protest the War, the Army, the godless heathens (which they define as everybody but themselves), gays, and cheese sandwiches for all I care. Even if they are little more than a thinly disguised hate group. But, I think they should be held accountable for their actions and the pain that they have inflicted on the rest of us - and most especially the families of the fallen. I suppose it is ethically better that they should have to pay money, rather than having the utter shit kicked out of them, each and every one.

They'll appeal, of course. They'll claim religious persecution. They'll claim 1st Amendment protection. They'll use every trick they can find to tie up the legal system for years (at least one of Phelps' daughterwives is a lawyer, of the lunatic nutcase variety, if I remember right). It is unlikely that they'll pay a dime any time soon. But this is a start, and there needs to be more of it. The families of every fallen service member that these jerks have inflicted their particularly noxious brand of bile on, should band together and file a class action suit.

Or, we could all just line up and start punching them in their collective noses. Repeatedly.

Before anybody asks: I have no idea why Fred is wearing an 'Alaska' Sweatshirt in the Reuters photo. He gets an extra punch in the nose from everybody in Alaska, just for that.

Happy Halloween

Halloween. I was trying to think of a scary entry for today, but, you know, I just can't think of anything more frightening than the fact that George W Bush and his band of grim sycophants are still running the country. So there you have it. Booga booga. Be afraid, be very afraid.

A few more tweaks to the new machine and then I've got a new writing project I'm embarking on. You'll have a chance to be part of it. It's not intended for sale, I'm going to give it away in a very public manner. I've got what I think might just be a novel (heh) new idea in novel writing (actually, it's a bunch of old ideas applied in what I hope is an interesting way, combined with a thinly disguised parable on modern times) . If it eventually turns into something salable, well, great. If not, it will still be fun and interactive and interesting to me (and hopefully to you). I'll tell you more in a couple of days once I get it set up and running.

The Upgrade, part 2 (updated)

I won't belabor this whole upgrade process much longer, but there are a couple of things I want to say about it.

First, the bad part:
- A lot of my older software is no longer compatible, neither Pinnacle Studio 9 or the Pinnacle PCTV video box driver will load. There's an online Beta for the PCTV box, which I haven't tried yet, but it sure looks like I'm going to have to pay to upgrade to Studio 10. And for some reason I cannot find my Corel Paintshop disk, I have no idea what I did with it. I like this program much better than Adobe Photoshop, and it is seriously chapping my ass that I can't find it. If you see it, let me know.

- I hate how the Start Menu now works. I liked the old 'fly-out' menu of XP much better. There may be a way to make the Vista Start Menu/Programs menu work in fly-out mode, if so, I haven't found it yet.

- Some functions, such as disk sharing, have become a huge pain in the ass. I'm still not sure I've got the sharing functions working right. It is much less intuitive in Vista than under XP.

- Not even remotely impressed with the Windows Media Center. It has the most idiotic interface I've seen from Microsoft since Word 2.0 for MSDOS. What the hell were they thinking with this? It's like the whole WMC development team was out smoking pot behind the building or something. It's so dammed dumb that I'm not going to waste words attempting to describe it here.
Update: Ahhh! I suddenly understand - it's for TV! If you pipe WMC through a media server onto a TV screen and control it with a remote, then the interface makes more sense. OK, scratch what I said above, I'll go back and look at it when I get some time, maybe it's not so stupid after all. My bad.

- Windows Defender. It's not a total POS, but I'd get me some third party software if I was you.

Second, the good part:
- Uh, just about everything else. So far I like Vista, I've had almost no problems with it. I set up a machine for my dad a couple of months back, with Vista and didn't much like it - but it was a much less powerful machine and it was Vista Home Basic. Vista Ultimate on this machine is a whole different story. As I said yesterday, it does take some getting used to; the Vista interface is similar to, and just different enough from XP that it takes a while to figure out what's what. However, the help system is very good and as I get used to it, I am more and more impressed.

- The Aero interface is exceptionally cool (about the only downside, is that it makes my XP interfaces on the other machines seem instantly primitive). And you do have to have a fairly powerful machine to enable Aero, one of those $400 E-machines from Walmart isn't going to support it. There is plenty of integrated help in Vista to assist you in evaluating your machine's capability, and guide you in upgrading or tweaking your system to support Aero.

- I've heard some disparaging things regarding the Intel Quad Core processor and Vista, but I'm not seeing it. So far the Quad Core running under Vista Ultimate blows the socks off any other home machine I've ever used - and I've used and owned a lot of machines. I downloaded a Gadget (and we'll come back to Vista Gadgets in a minute) that shows the processor load across all four cores - then I started a number of processor intensive operations and watched the results. The processes were as follows: 1) import of 89,000 music files into WMP, 2) download and installation of a 127MB Service Pack for MS Office, 3) a hi-res label burn on the Lightscribe drive, 4) a 400MB file transfer from the firewire backup drive to the secondary internal SATA drive, and 5) I surfed the web while all this was happening (not processor intensive, but it gave me a feel for how loaded the machine was). It was as if the programs were running on four different machines, the Gadget showed Vista easily distributing the load across the cores and there was no appreciable slowdown in overall machine performance. Even with the Quad Core fully loaded, upload of my music files into WMP only took about two hours, this is about a 4 hour improvement over the old Dual Core/XP machine. Installation of the Office Service Pack went smoothly and quickly. I think the file transfer from the backup drive to the internal SATA drive took a little longer than it would have if it was the only thing running on the bus, but it wasn't significant. And the Lightscribe label burn worked perfectly. So, all in all, I'm impressed with both the Quad Core, and Vista's ability to use it - at least in my circumstances. It may be different for others, especially gamers.

- I prefer a clean desktop. About the only thing I ever have on the desktop is the recycle bin/trash can icon. I prefer my commonly used programs as shortcut icons on a toolbar docked on the Windows Taskbar, and I usually have the Taskbar in auto-hide mode. So, I wasn't too interested in the Vista Gadget Bar, but because I'm now using the wide-screen flat panel and I've got the screen room, I thought what the hell, let's give it a try. Hmmm, I've got mixed feelings about it. Most of the gadgets that come with Vista are silly crap, just more junk cluttering up my screen. I hate cutesy interfaces, i.e. notepads that look like a paper spiral notebook, clocks that look like kittens, etc, and that's what most of the stock gadgets are. However, there were some useful ones on the Microsoft Gadget Download page, and hundreds more available elsewhere on the web. Some are actually useful. Currently I've got a processor monitor and a local weather Gadget loaded - both of which I downloaded from the web instead of using the ones that came with Vista. The Gadget bar is obviously version 1.00 here. It needs some improvement: resizing and autohiding would be a step up, and some more utilitarian gadgets instead of the cutesy crap. The Gadget bar may stay on my desktop, and it may not, we'll see if it begins to annoy me after a while.

- Hardware integration. Vista's ability to handle new hardware is a major improvement over XP. All three printers installed perfectly and seemlessly as soon as the USB cables were plugged in. Same with both scanners, and the external firewire drive. About the only thing I had to fool around with was the Creative Live Ultra Webcam. The drivers loaded OK, but the Creative Webcam Center Software doesn't work quite right, and I can't turn the camera off. It's on all the time, which I don't like. I'll see if I can fix it today. The camera works fine with Windows Live Messenger though, so it's not real high on my priority list.

Well, I think that about does it for now. The good news is that I have successfully restored most of my core network functions and I've got full access to the main network printers and all of my data, the bad news is that I spent a buttload of money doing it, and I'll have to spend a little more to upgrade some software to run on the new platform. All in all, I'm pretty happy with both the Intel Quad Core processor and Windows Vista Ultimate. Is it worth it for the average Joe to upgrade to Vista? Probably not, but there's no reason to fear it either. And from what I can tell, Vista's bad rap is undeserved. It's not a revolutionary upgrade, but it's not crap either, with the right machine Vista is pretty dammed slick.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Upgrade, Part 1

First post from the new machine, woohoo!

As you can tell, I've got the new machine up and running in basic configuration under Windows Vista. So far, it's been fairly painless. So far.

First, the Hardware:
- the new machine is an HP m8100y series, configured as follows:
- Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 (2.66GHz)
- RAM: 3Gigs of 800MHz dual channel SDRAM (I've got another 2Gig sitting in anti static sleeve on my desk, I'll remove the 512MB DIMMS in block 2 and replace them with the 1Gig modules, giving the machine 4Gig total RAM)
- Graphics: 512MB NVIDIA GeForce 8500GT, TV-out, DVI-I, HDMI (major overkill for me, but it came with the machine)
- Harddrive: 500GB 7200rpm SATA, 3Gbits per sec transfer rate
- Blu-ray writer/HD DVD player & Lightscribe SuperMulti DVD/CD Burner
- Crappy generic sound card (yeah, we'll be replacing that)
- Personal Media Drive dock (don't know if I'll ever use it or not, but there it is. You can purchase 500 and 750GB portable media drives from HP, might be useful, might not)
- and the usual bizillion-in-one card readers, USB 2.0/Firewire ports, digital video and sound out, and etc, etc, and so on.

Also bought a widescreen, 24" Norcent flatpanel monitor. Which I'm looking at right now in splitscreen mode and it just plain rocks! The color and clarity are incredible, and size does apparently matter.

Second, the Software:
Windows Vista Ultimate - 32bit.


First impressions. The machine is goddammed fast, no doubt about it, and much quieter than my old one. I wasn't sure the fans were running at first, had to shine a flashlight in the back just to make certain. I like quiet so I consider this a big plus. Vista is slick and glossy, not too shabby and I think I like it (remember: first impression here, first impression). I have to admit I really like the look and feel of Vista, though it may take a while to get used it for long habituated XP users. Microsoft has done some extremely cool things with the interface, and some incomprehensible things as well. For example, it took me ten minutes to figure out how to get a top level view of my system (i.e. the 'tree view' in Explorer XP) because for some reason it's hidden under a pull-up bar in the left pane of Explorer. I don't mind that it's under the pull-up bar, but it sure would have been nice if there was a label or something pointing to it - finding the display is like finding an Easter Egg on a DVD menu.


Aggravating things:

- I could not get the system to connect to the network/internet. Could not. Weird glitchy problems, I'd get no connectivity, then limited connectivity, then back to no connectivity. It was making me crazy. The control panel was showing the router, but nothing beyond it. I checked the cable half a dozen times, rebooted the machine, rebooted the router, ran the trouble shooting wizard - nada nada nada. You know me, I resort to violence as the first option, but somehow I kept my temper and eventually it occurred to me to move the cable to a different port on the back of the router. Viola! Instant connectivity. Apparently when the power supply fried on the old server, it zapped the router port too (talk about catastrophic failure mode). However, the other 7 ports are fine (and unused, because everything else in the house is 802.11g wireless). The router appears to be functioning fine in all other respects, so we'll do without port #1 and just move along. Obviously, this is my fault for not checking first, and had nothing to do with Vista or HP.

- User Account Control (UAC pronounced 'Yuck!'), what in the hell were they thinking with this utterly asinine nonsense? UAC is what happens when people and governments sue the crap out of companies like Microsoft for every little idiotic thing - and so lawyers end up integrated into the software development process. For those of you not familiar with UAC, basically it is the single most annoying thing I've ever seen. UAC opens a confirmation dialog box for everything, i.e. "are you sure you want to start this program?" "are you sure you want to connect to the internet" "are you sure you want to be sure that you're sure that..." ARRRGGGHH! Hate it, hate it hate it. Talk about overkill, and it doesn't learn either - i.e. if you start a program once, you shouldn't have to answer the same damned dialog box every time. For somebody like me, it's aggravating in the extreme, for someone who is afraid of computers (like my 74 year old dad) it's downright frightening - he doesn't know enough to make an informed decision, so he thinks he's done something wrong or dangerous every time he tries to start Solitaire (he's got Vista Basic on his new machine). Now, you can turn UAC off, but it's not obvious how to do it and the dialog box doesn't help you at all. Microsoft's lawyers don't want you turning it off (but I'll bet you good money that it's turned off on every Vista box in Redmond). Like I said, you can disable it, and I did (and called my dad and told him how to do it), but I cannot imagine how anybody thought this was a good idea. Bad, Microsoft, bad! No biscuit.

- Norton Internet Security 2007 is not compatible, at least not the version I have. You need the Vista version. Argh!


Cool things:

- Hardware recognition: After making sure the machine was fully functional as purchased, and doing the requisite updates of Vista and the new version of Norton's, I opened it up and installed the 500GB SATA data drive from the old machine. The machine booted right up and I wasn't fast enough to F2 it into the BIOS Configuration page to set the parameters of the new drive (with a SATA drive this really isn't necessary, but it's a new machine and I like to check). Didn't matter, Vista immediately recognized that there was a new drive in the system, checked it's library for the proper driver, installed it automatically, updated the BIOS, and brought the new drive on-line without any effort on my part. Very cool. Same with two additional drives. So now the machine has 2TB of disk space and that ought to do for a while.

- Hardware recognition: Vista immediately recognized the Norcent monitor as a widescreen HD flat panel and recommended 1680x1050 resolution, which I accepted. The video is incredible. Once I get things up and running a little further, I'll show you some pictures.


Software update:
- First thing I did after upgrading the drives was download and install Firefox. Works great under Vista, I downloaded my usual slew of add-ons and a new one, Split Panel, which allows me to split my FF display into panels, which on the wide screen is pretty dammed cool.

- Vista needed a 66MB load of updates, and if you upgrade to Vista I highly recommend you do those updates right away. The updates fix a lot of the bugs people have been complaining about, so it's worth your time and bandwidth.


Things to do next:
- Upgrade the RAM to a full 4GB
- Install Another USB 2.0 card, the machine has six ports, but I need a least 8.
- Hook up and install the peripherals, 3 printers, 2 scanners, the WD external backup drive, the Pinnacle Video Box, camera, digital sound system, the GPS interface, etc
- Begin the software installation process, Office, Photoshop, DesignCAD, Corel, sigh
- Enable and configure the shared volumes
- Enable and configure the shared printers
- Import the music and video libraries into WMP, I'm definitely interested in how long this takes. I've got upwards of 420GB of music files, all super tagged, and on the old machine the import took about 7 hours. This machine has double the bus speed and the 4 core processor, and much faster throughput off the SATA drives, so I'm expecting a major improvement (fortunately, I only have to do this once, unless, you know, I have to buy another machine someday).

Additionally, I'm still working on outlines to two different books, and about chest deep in a research project.

As you can see, I've got things to do. And I've to get it done no later than by this evening, tomorrow morning at the latest. Thursday morning I'm starting writing full time come hell or high water. I'll post periodic updates of the upgrade process as I go along. See you in a bit.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Off to Anchorage (updated)

I've got to run into Anchorage today.

Yes, yes. I'm going in to buy a new server (mumble, mumble, curse, mumble), the old one was far more damaged than I realized (during repairs there was actual smoke, I nearly had to call for FEMA support) and I'm just not going to put any more money or effort into repairs. I've spent quite enough already, thank you very much, and I'm past the point of diminishing returns. So, new machine and while I'm at it, new wide screen 24" flat panel monitor - because I can get both for significant savings at the Elmendorf PX.

On the upside, expect a detailed description of my adventures as I integrate the new machine into my network; I'll be upgrading to MS Windows Vista Professional and the new Intel Quad Core Xeon processor.

I need to get this done ASAP. I've got a tremendous amount of configuration, software installation, and hardware integration to do in a very short amount of time. I intend to begin writing full time in two days - and I need this machine up and running no later than Thursday morning. Then again, I always work best under pressure and artificially imposed deadlines.

Wish me luck.


Update: Oh yeah, you may have noticed I've added a "Digg" icon to some of the posts. I've been playing with the site's basic HTML coding. I'm doing some investigation into social networking sites as part of a research project on data propagation and validation, which is part of a larger project involving next generation data encapsulation. The Digg icon is an experiment, it may stay and it may not, I'm just gathering data at the moment. Feel free to Digg me, or not, I'm cool with it either way. I have no real interest in my personal Digg or Reddit standings (really, I don't) or my site's position in Google rankings, however, I am interested in how these types of sites contribute to the propagation of information across the global grid. It is far easier for me to track my own posts, than somebody else's, hence the inclusion of a Digg icon. Again, feel free to Digg me, or not, either way provides me with useful data points.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Apparently, I'm not an Assburger

Via John Scalzi's Whatever, I took this online test to see if I tended toward Asperger's Syndrome:

Your Aspie score: 62 of 200
Your neurotypical (non-autistic) score: 168 of 200
You are very likely neurotypical

Not so much, I guess. But I do find that my profile is skewed in an interesting direction. I'm not disputing it, from what I know of myself I'd say it was fairly accurate.

Foolin' Everybody Management Agency

[Actual Transcript of Recent FEMA News Conference]

[Deputy Administrator Johnson steps up to a cardboard podium mockup. 'FEMA' has been hastily sketched out in magic marker on the front]

FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson: Allrightee then, let’s get this show on the road. First question.

[Women in janitorial coveralls raises her hand]
Janitor Girl : Saaay, have you guys at FEMA lost weight?

Harvey: Well Chertoff's still a fatass, but I've dropped ten pounds, thanks for noticing.

Janitor Girl: Well, you're looking good, Admiral, and I'm not just saying that because I clean your office and you sign my paychecks. I think you're like totally hot.

Harvey: Well, I am pretty hot that's true! And you know what else is hot? Wildfires! They're hot, hot, hot! [Sign Language Translator makes the stock rimshot sign] Anybody got questions about wildfires? [Johnson makes the thumb/pinky 'phone' sign at Janitor Girl, mouthing the words 'call me, later'] [Sign Language Translator makes the sign for 'Ho']

Bob from Accounting: Admiral, Bob Smith here, from the uh, er, Accounting Department News Agency. I'm a real reporter and I'm like totally not lying about that. [Sign Language Translator makes the sign for 'retard']

Harvey: Well, of course you're a real reporter, Bob, and this is a real FEMA News Conference and there really were Weapons of Mass Destruction. Wink wink and so forth and so on. Did you have a question for me, Bob? You should, I wrote it down for you, it's on that yellow sticky note in your hand. [Sign Language Translator makes the sign for 'Help! I'm trapped in a Chinese fortune cookie factory!']

Bob from Accounting: [glances at yellow sticky note] uh, this is Senator Craig's private phone number.

Harvey: Other side, Bob. Oh, and I'll need that back when we're done here. [Sign Language Translator puts her tongue in her cheek and pumps it back and forth]

Bob from Accounting
: Oh yeah, sorry. [flips note over] OK, my question is 'Are you hippy with FEMA's response so far?' [Sign Language Translator makes the sign for 'WTF?']

Harvey: 'Hippy?' Bob, I don't think that makes sense.

Bob from Accounting: Well, this whole deal doesn't make any sense, Admiral. And your handwriting sucks. [squints at the sticky note] Uh, let me rephrase that; are you happy with FEMA's response so far?

Harvey: Am I happy with the response? Hell yeah, I'm happy. I make like a bizillion dollars a year and I don't live in Southern California, and I've got like totally hot janitors hitting on me, what's not to be happy about? [winks at Janitor Girl] [Sign Language Translator makes the sign for ‘Asshole']

Bob from Accounting: Yeah, but there’s like a million people homeless and the whole damn state south of LA looks like Dresden after the firestorm. [Sign Language Translator pulls out a cigarette lighter and inches unnoticed towards Johnson, the crowd of ‘reporters' becomes suddenly more alert]

Harvey: Whoa there, Sparky, slow down! Let’s not go gettin' carried away. I think you’re forgetting who decides who gets promoted around here. Next question [Johnson points at a guy in a UPS Deliveryman uniform]

UPS Guy: Sorry, Dude, we're not supposed to talk to the customers. I'm just here to deliver this package. Can somebody sign for this?

Harvey: That's not really a question, try again. [Sign Language Translator lights the bottom of Johnson's shirt on fire]

UPS Guy: Uh, can somebody sign for this quickly, please.

[smoke is rising over Johnson's head and flames can be seen licking above his shoulders]

Harvey: Come on, Man, just ask me a question. Whoa, is it getting hot in here, or is it just the janitor? [Sign Language Translator belatedly makes the 'rimshot' sign again]

UPS Guy: Anybody else smell smoke? [puts down package and leaves, Sign Language Translator and Bob from Accounting follow him. Janitor Girl looks around for a fire extinguisher, but there are only cardboard props]

Harvey: Anybody smell smoke? Is that supposed to be a joke? I can't believe you would make jokes at a time like this. Are you totally insensitive to what's going on in Cahleeforniah? FEMA is in there pitching, and we've come a long way since Katrina. FEMA is making real progress. Goddamnit it's hot in here!

Janitor Girl: [still trying to help out] What progress have you made, Admiral?

Harvey: That's more like it. Nobody has drowned this time around, have they? No flooding. No collapsed dikes. I'd call that progress. HOLY SHIT, I'm on fire! [dances around, slapping at the flames, the cardboard podium catches on fire]

Janitor Girl: Um, I've got to go, there's a plugged up toilet in the Lady's Room.

Harvey: Bitch! How about a little help here?

Janitor Girl: Don't worry, I hear Bush and Chertoff are flying in. I'm sure they'll help. Gotta go now. [she runs out the door]

Harvey: [facing camera, his head fully engulfed in flame] Well, good night and thanks for coming. Remember FEMA is on top of the situation and you can count on us!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Jerkoff (s) of the week, maybe the whole year

Between 2001 and 2004, I was stationed onboard the Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser, USS Valley Forge homeported in San Diego, and so we found ourselves living in Southern California. We rented a house in the (relatively) small town of Fallbrook, about 40 miles north of San Diego off Highway 15 between Escondido and Temecula, up the hill from USMC Camp Pendleton and the Naval Weapons Station.

As such, in October, 2003, we were smack dab in the middle of the wildfires that raged across Southern California. We were surrounded by huge fires on all sides. During the week of the 20th, there were fires burning on Camp Pendleton to our west, fires north burning around Temecula, and to the east the sky glowed an evil hellish orange from the huge fires burning around Julian and Mount Palomar. The air was filled with smoke so dense you could hardly see and the smell of fire was everywhere.

At the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego, ships were kept in a high state of readiness, prepared to put to sea if necessary. On Valley Forge, we rotated the crew through duty cycles, keeping one quarter of our complement onboard (the minimum necessary to get underway) for 24 hours, and sending the rest home to save their families. About ten percent of the crew were directly threatened by the fires burning in Scripps Ranch, Chula Vista, and La Mesa and couldn't make it in through the fires to stand their watches. Some, who fled the fires with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, including our Captain who nearly lost his life saving some of his elderly neighbors in Scripps Ranch, ended up in shelters trapped in the chaos trying to save their families. We didn't hear from some of them for nearly a week. We made do, working around our missing shipmates, hoping to hell they were OK. Some critical specialists, like the engineers, stayed onboard the entire time, filling in for those who were missing, putting their duty and the ship above their own personal concerns (on the other hand, Navy families are pretty dammed good at taking care of themselves).

And so it was for me and mine. I packed up our utility trailer with our camping gear and filled the back of the jeep with our important papers and computer harddrives and emergency supplies. My wife loaded up emergency food and the things she would need to take care of herself and our six-year old son. I hooked the trailer to the Jeep and left the rig sitting in the driveway, ready to go at a moment's notice. Becky and I discussed what she should do if fire threatened Fallbrook (at that time we could see flames more than two hundred feet high to the east, across highway 15). We were basically surrounded, so we decided that if it came down to it, she would take the Jeep and attempt to cross Camp Pendleton and reach the Pacific Ocean (driving straight into the sea, if that's what it took). And me? I did one of the hardest things I've ever done, I took the truck and headed south to San Diego to do my duty, leaving her and my son to fend for themselves. South to Escondido on the 15 wasn't too bad, but I was stopped at a police roadblock just before Miramar. I showed my military ID and they shrugged and waved me through. There were flames fifty feet high on either side of the highway and I dodged fire trucks and fire crews for several miles. Seconds after I passed the the Miramar exit, a wall of flame a hundred feet high washed across the highway, and I sped south to the roar of F-16's and C-130's thundering off the runway at Miramar, heading out out to safety in the sky.

I made it to Valley Forge and assumed my duties as the ship's Force Protection Officer. There were four of us Officers onboard and we, along with the duty section Chiefs, gathered in the Wardroom to lay out a watchbill and divvy up responsibilities should we have to take Valley Forge down the channel and to sea by ourselves. We were all pretty experienced people, but getting a Cruiser away from the pier and safely out of the harbor by ourselves, without tugs, without two thirds of our crew including the CO and XO, wasn't something any of us wanted to do. I spent most of that night, and the following one, on the ship's bridge wing, watching the fires that raged in the dark above San Diego and reading reports coming in over our communications circuits. I spoke to my wife via cell phone when I could, she was still holding position at our house in Fallbrook listening to the sirens, watching the fires burning on the ridge lines above the town and waiting for the evacuation order.

After two days, the winds died down, the weather cooled, and the fire teams began to make progress. My relief finally made it in through the disaster and I gratefully headed home through the charred remains of Scripps Ranch and Miramar. The fires came within four miles of our house (4 miles seems like a large distance, but when the Santa Anna is blowing fires can cover that distance in minutes) but never threatened my house directly, and, thankfully we never had to put the ship to sea. When it was over, more than 500,000 acres had burned, hundreds of homes and billions of dollars were lost, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and 24 people had died - including a family who waited too long to evacuate, and were burned alive in their truck attempting to flee outside of Julian.

It was a close thing, and I was grateful that it hadn't been worse. But that gratitude turned to anger when I learned that the Julian Fire was started by some idiot hunter, who had gotten himself lost and fired a flare to attract help. It is not possible to get lost in Southern California, if you don't know where you are, sit down and wait, and within ten minutes there will be fifty people along up to see what you're doing. That was bad enough, but my anger turned to white hot rage, rage I still feel, when I learned that at least half the fires were set deliberately by arsonists. Pathetic, wretched little assholes whose daddies didn't buy them a pony when they were children, little paste-eating fucks obsessing over the fact that they were picked on by the cool kids when they were in junior high school twenty years ago or couldn't get a girlfriend or whatever. These sorry excuses for human beings wanted to make things worse because, like cockroaches, they thrive in chaos and disorder and because their sick deformed minds take delight in the tragedy of others.

And so it is again today with the current disaster unfolding in Southern California. Yes, it is beyond stupid that California refuses to mandate steps that would reduce the fire danger that the state faces every year, things like outlawing asphalt shingles and flammable house siding, things like calling tinder dry chaparral "wild life sanctuaries" and refusing to clear those areas or create permanent fire breaks. Refusing to mandate neighborhood emergency citizen fire fighting teams, and stationing permanent diesel water pumps and hoses at every golf course and neighborhood pond, lake, and swimming pool. Yes, there are many, many things that Californians could do to lessen the danger every year, and don't. But, this is no excuse for the actions of the arsonists. I hope the authorities catch these sick sons of bitches, and I hope that they are brought to swift justice. I think the death penalty is too good for these bastards, I think they should spend the rest of their pitiful lives at hard labor, rebuilding what they have destroyed. They love chaos, pain, and fear? Let them rot in it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fleet of Worlds

I'm an unabashed Larry Niven fan.

Ringworld is still one of my very favorite novels in any genre - and I actually own a first edition copy, the one in which Niven mistakenly has the Earth rotating in the wrong direction, it's a rare and valuable book. I'm a huge fan of the Known Space series. For years I eagerly bought anything with Niven's name on the cover. I loved his clean, crisp writing style. I thought his characters and especially the alien worlds he created were incredibly interesting - I still want to visit Mount Lookatthat and stare down into the 'vast searing black calm' of Plateau. And I want to explore the Ringworld via skycycle under the light of the heaven spanning arch. I want to battle the Kzinti and fly between the stars in a ramscoop.

Then, somehow, somewhere in the nineties, I started to become a little less enthusiastic about Niven's work, somehow the characters in his books started making intuitive leaps that I just couldn't follow, Ringworld Throne was dammed near incomprehensible to me. There were strange jumps of logic in The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring, I enjoyed both books but there were some chapters where I just had no idea how the characters made the leaps of logic that they had. I still don't get it, despite careful rereading. Crashlander, the fixup of Beowulf Shaeffer stories tied together with the story Ghost, was the same. The characters kept making logic leaps that I just couldn't follow, it became frustrating.

Maybe the change was Niven, or maybe my mind was just no longer agile enough to follow him, but somewhere a few years back I stopped buying Niven in hardcover. I still read him, but I waited until the cheaper paperbacks came out.

Then something funny happened. He wrote Ringworld's Children, I read it in paperback. Then went out and bought the hardcover, because I enjoyed it so much. Then came Building Harlequin's Moon, which he co-wrote with Brenda Cooper, and which was one of the best SciFi books I've read in years. Moon reminded me of the very best of the Niven and Pournelle collaborations. I went back to pre-ordering hardcovers.

Two weeks ago I got my copy of Fleet of Worlds, set in Niven's Known Space, two hundred years before the events described in Ringworld. Co-written with Edward M. Lerner. Once again, Niven shows that his very best work comes when he is working with somebody else. FOWs is outstanding For those who are fans of Known Space, FOWs is a complex tale of deceit, betrayal, furry alien love, freedom, adventure amongst flying worlds, exploding galaxies, and Puppeteers.

The story revolves around what is essentially a group of human servants, descended from a lost colony and enslaved by the deceitfully paranoid alien Puppeteers. The story ties together many loose ends from the Known Space series, reshapes things you thought you knew in strange and interesting ways, and revisits some characters that have appeared elsewhere in Known Space.

I will say that while the story does stand on its own, it will probably be somewhat less enjoyable if you haven't read Ringworld and the Beowulf Shaeffer stories. Also, the ending(s) is/are a little odd. Not the way the story ends, but that there are at least three small chapters past what I thought was the logical end of the book. I'm not complaining actually, I enjoyed those extra chapters and they provided some detail about things I wanted to know - but it really felt like the authors where doing the "oh yeah, and another thing" bit. Still, overall I thought Fleet of Worlds was outstanding, and very much a worthy addition to the annuals of Known Space. I sincerely hope Niven and Lerner do more work together in this universe.

I won't spoil Fleet of Worlds for you. If you're not a Known Space fan, you won't care. And if you are, you'll go buy this book right now.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Little Charity

As promised. This is the bowl I was working on last weekend.

I did this one for my wife, who will give it away as part of a charity fund raiser. Anybody who donates to the fund gets their name put in the pot, she'll hold a drawing at the end of the fund raiser and the winner gets this. This is a local deal only, specifically for the division she manages at her workplace - no, you can't get into the contest, sorry (though if it works well, I might hold a "Help Jim raise money to buy a new server to replace the one he fried last week" contest...).

As with most of my stuff, this is made from Baltic Birch Heartwood that I harvested in South Central Alaska. It's green turned, i.e. the wood is not dried first. Green turning requires skills and techniques different from turning kiln dried stock, and very, very sharp tools. After turning, the rough bowl is sanded on the lathe and then burnished (polished at high speed using a handful of damp wood shavings) which gives it a deep iridescent glow and satin smooth finish. Then I cut the filigree and texture the outside to highlight the heartwood veining patterns using a Foredom rotary tool. Following that, I add red salmon, carved from cross-grain cut birch scrapwood. The whole thing is soaked in Walnut oil several times to force out the remaining water, and then polished to a glossy finish.

I am particularly happy with how the cross-grain patterns make the carved salmon more interesting.

Update: just in case you're curious, this bowl is about 12 inches in diameter, and about 5 inches deep.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Things, they are gonna change, part 4

As most of you know, it is my post retirement goal to become Ultimate Emperor of the Universe. For those of you joining us late in the program, this goal is not because I fancy myself as some kind of megalomaniac, but rather more as a public service. I figure that if the human race is to survive as a species, somebody is going to have to step up and fish the stupid out of the gene pool and it might as well be me. Plus, I'm retired, so I've got time on my hands for conquest.

With that said, let's talk applied science. Specifically: physics.

Now, when I say "let's talk..." I mean that I'd like to address my neighbors here in the Matanuska Susitna Valley. Specifically those of you who believe that 'science' is like 'religion,' i.e. some kind of arbitrary belief system who's rules only apply to others and not to you. I'm talking specifically to those of you who spent your entire high school and college years covering your ears in science classes and going lalalalala, least you be exposed to something that would make you doubt that Noah and his seasick relatives could have shoveled shit fast enough to keep from being buried gunwale deep in dinosaur manure. I'm talking to those of you who stuck around school just long enough to learn some basic chemistry so you could drop out and start your very own meth lab. I'm talking to those of you who planned on becoming millionaires from your pro-ball scholarships and therefor were just to dammed cool to pay attention when your teachers were trying to tell you how the world actually works. I'm talking to all of you who just can't seem to comprehend, for whatever reason, a very basic concept of high school physics, namely inertia.

The classical definition: An object at rest remains at rest, unless acted on by an outside force. An object in motion remains in motion along a straight line, unless acted on by an outside force. There's a bunch of math that goes with this definition, but let's see if I can explain it in layman's terms so my mouth-breathing neighbors can understand it. If you take a four ton SUV, put a 300.375lb Valley Dweller in it (the .375lb is the weight of the Valley Dweller's 6oz cell phone), accelerate the entire mass to around 80mph on a frictionless surface like, say, the Glenn Highway into Anchorage during a major snow fall complete with freezing rain - well, then that entire mass is going to keep moving in straight line at 80MPH until it runs into something solid enough to stop it, like, oh, a bridge abutment or a tree or a whole shitload of other cars. But, but, but, I hear my neighbors objecting, what about...? So let's just get those questions out of the way right now shall we?

Yes, inertia applies even if you have a shiny, tricked out GMC Enormous Behemoth or Ford Titanic Leviathan with huge manly tires, a bumper-mounted winch, and 40 roof-mounted halogen lights bright enough blind spy satellites. Yes, inertia applies even if you have a car stereo system that causes caribou herds to stampede from over a mile away and no, the thumping base tones that are causing permanent damage to your brain stem will not melt the ice under your tires, sorry. Yes, inertia applies even if you have 4-wheel drive and generation XV anti-lock brakes and 'traction control' no matter what that Subaru TV commercial with the professional driver on the closed course says. Yes, inertia applies even if you have a Jeebus Fish glued to your tailgate giving the finger to people behind you and a 'God is my co-pilot' bumper sticker. Yes, inertia applies even if you're talking on your cell phone, even if the conversation is 'really, really important,' if fact, there might be a little extra inertia in this case. Yes, inertia is a bitch, that's just how it is.

It snowed last night, and we got more today. It's Alaska, it's October, snow isn't exactly a novelty. In fact, it starts snowing here every year around this time. Strangely enough, the snow is always slippery too, not once in my memory has the snow ever been not slippery here on Alaskan highways. Elsewhere in some alternate reality, snow might actually increase traction, I don't know, but not here. Here in Alaska, snow is slippery. You'd think Alaskans would, after years and years and years of slippery snow on highways, wise the hell up. I counted a total of 14 accidents today, on my trip into Anchorage. Major accidents. Upside down, tires spinning in the air, oopsy I'll have to call you back because the rescue crew is here to dig me out with the jaws of life accidents. Tonight it took my wife nearly 3 hours to get home because there were another dozen accidents. And what did all these wrecks have in common? Every dammed one of them involved 4 wheel drive vehicles. At least half the accidents ended with the vehicle upside down in the ditch. Not one of those vehicles was a Yugo, or a Geo Metro, or a shitty beater Ford Escort - and do you know why? Because people who drive Yugos, Metros, and shitty beater Escorts on icy roads are cautious. They are paranoid in the those little tin cans. They slow down. They pay attention. They understand inertia.

So, here's how it's gonna be: After I crown myself Emperor of the Universe, there's going to be some changes made to the driver licensing process. We're going to be adding some science, maybe something like solve for F=ma where F is the force required to stop the mass (m) of a four ton SUV (a)ccelerating like the puck on an air hockey table as it careens towards the ditch. Remember a couple of years ago, people wanted to keep drunks off the roads by adding breatholyzers to car ignitions? I'm thinking of adding something similar, the Physicsolyzer (tm), solve for P=mv, where P is the potential to hold up traffic for hours resulting from mass (m) stupidity times velocity (v) or the SUV ain't starting.

Or maybe it would just be easier to make everybody drive a shitty Ford Escort. Hmmm, I'll have to think about it.

Things, they are gonna change, Part 3
Things, they are gonna change, Part 2
Things, they are gonna change, Part 1

Quick Update

Like, I said in the previous post - this week is a bit hectic. Additionally, just for added fun, Murphy's Law is in full effect.

I spent all day yesterday at the VA, getting probed, scoped, and otherwise examined - with more today, for which I have to leave for Anchorage in just a couple of minutes. The bad news, my shoulder and neck are a mess, my knees are a mess, the nerve damage in my left arm is something of a mystery, and my hearing profile shows "classic sustained noise damage in the mid to high frequency range in both ears" and as such I qualify for hearing aids. Nice, I took a pass on the hearing aid thing for the moment. The good news, I have the blood pressure of "a seventeen year-old girl" - that's apparently very good according to the doctor. So, woohoo and so on and so forth.

Now just to make it interesting: I got up a full hour late - and didn't realize it. I thought it was 5:30 and it was actually 6:30. My son's homework would not print on the back-up printer in the office (the main printer rack in the den is still down, because the Goddammed server is still dead and I can't seem to fix it despite a new motherboard and power supply), and so I was running around trying to get the dammed homework printed out when I realized what time it actually was and that instead of having a hour, I actually had no time at all. Becky had a conference to go to and said she'd drop the kid off at school, giving me a couple of extra minutes. Great! Out the door they go as I rushed to gather up my medical records and headed out to get in the truck. Just then, Becky pulled back into the drive, something odd going on here - yep, flat tire on the jeep. Goddammit! Dump the jeep in the shop, wife and kid in the truck, drop the kid off at school and we headed into Anchorage. I managed to get Becky to the Hilton, where her conference was, and make it back across town to the VA only a couple of minutes late.

Now how my blood pressure was anywhere near normal I don't know.

Rushed home, so I could get the tire off the jeep and to the tire shop in Palmer before it closed. Then back home to remount it. By the time I got done with everything I had a killer headache and really didn't feel like posting. You can thank me later.

Anyway, despite the fact that it snowed last night and the roads are slicker than greased goose shit, I expect today to be better. And now I'm off to Anchorage.

Hope you all have a good day.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Full Schedule this Week

Posting here at Stonekettle Station may be a little light this week. I've got a fairly busy schedule - yeah, yeah, I'm supposed to be retired. You'd think I'd have some friggin' time, but no.

Actually I'm not bitching here, the VA has finally gotten around to me (can't fault them, I at least have all my fingers and toes - I'd be pissed if they gave me higher priority at the expense of some poor Dog Face who's missing significant portions of his anatomy). I've got a number of appointments at the VA this week, a bunch of medical exams to assess some ongoing injures as part of the disability assessment process. Hopefully this will lead to a fix for some of the problems two decades of Navy service have inflicted on me. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm in fairly constant pain these days, mostly low grade stuff, but it's irritating and distracting and I'd really like to get it fixed, especially the shoulder which is killing me at the moment.

So, anyway, I've got to drive into Anchorage for the next couple of days and I've got to leave early to make the appointments. On the other hand, I'm sure my visit to the Veteran's Administration will lead to some interesting posts, so hey, no downside here.

Today, I've got to finish a project in the shop, a carved birch heartwood bowl that I promised my wife she could have tomorrow. It's for a charity raffle she's doing at work. I'm fairly tickled with how it's coming out - I may even post some pictures of it this afternoon.

Once I've got that done, I've got to outline my project for NaNoWriMo. I have an IDEA I've been playing with for a while, it's been gathering dust and cobwebs in the idea bin. So my intention is to pull it out, dust it off, and flesh it out for National Novel Writing Month. I promised myself that I would get back to professional writing full time come November 1st, and NaNoWriMo is the perfect excuse.

So, what are you guys doing today?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hatcher's Pass

We decided to head up to Hatcher's Pass this morning, to see if there was enough snow for the kid to try out his snow board. Nope, not yet. But it was a nice drive. Hatcher's Pass is about 10 miles from our house, you can see it out the front window. The Pass was part of the original trapper/gold/mail trail from Seward on the Inland Passage to Fairbanks and points north. The Pass was also home to a number of gold mines, the most famous being the Independence Mine, which is now a state historical site. Nowadays the Parks Highway skirts the around the bottom of the Alaskan Range, making the pass road obsolete. It's closed in the winter, and barely passable in the summer. If you don't have a 4x4, don't even think about it.

This first shot is looking south from the lower pass, just below the mine. That's our house, right there, in the middle. That little dot. What? You can't see it? Yeah, well it's down about 3000ft and about seven miles away. As always, you can click on the pictures to get higher resolution enlargements.

The headwaters of the Little Su run through the bottom of the valley you can see in the above photo. Up close, it looked like this today.

Believe me when I say that water is Goddammed cold. How do I know this? Don't ask.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

And Another One

It's a day for pictures apparently. This is a little to the right of the picture in the previous post, about 6:30PM just as the moon was rising over Pioneer Peak.

And that's going to do it for today.

One More

Looking South, out my sunroom window towards the Knik Glacier. Just as I was heading back out to the shop the sun broke through the clouds, this is what it looked like:

See? I told you so

I warned you, I said it was gonna snow soon ('cause my lumbago was actin' up). We got an inch or two last night. It'll probably all melt off by the end of the day. Made Jumper happy though, she loves the snow (Jumper is the dog, the dog!). That's her in her stylin' snow boots.

My son and I spent the morning putting the plows and chains on the 4-wheelers, which is what I planned on doing this weekend anyway.

And the new motherboard showed up today. Woohoo. Guess what I'll be doing.


I'm going out to the shop to turn a bowl for my wife. She's giving away some of my work as a prize for a charity deal at her work. Got to have it done by Tuesday, so I'm off to the shop. Have fun with your day, I know I will.

Friday, October 19, 2007

30 Days of Cliche

"...an isolated Alaskan town ... is plunged into darkness for a month each year when the sun sinks below the horizon. As the last rays of light fade, the town is attacked by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires bent on an uninterrupted orgy of destruction"

Yeah, OK, I can see that, sort of. Vampires fear sunlight. During winter at high latitudes there is no sunlight for a long periods. Makes sense for the photophobic undead to winter over in northern Alaska. I'd bet you could write a whole story around the idea, a good story. I suspect 30 Days of Night, an "Uninterrupted orgy of destruction," isn't that story, but I think it could be done. Though it might be kind of hard to bite people on the neck when they're bundled up in long underwear and three layers of polar fleece topped by a hooded parka (yeah, that's right, when there's no sunlight for a couple of months, there's also no heat. It's 40 to 60F below zero, have fun with that, Bloodsuckers). Ever been out in that kind of weather? All that vampire drool and glycerin blood that movie directors are so fond of these days, would freeze your fangs. Biting somebody at those temperatures would be a lot like licking a metal flag pole. I don't recommend it, though it does present some interesting comedic possibilities for a vampire movie. This isn't my kind of movie, though I imagine I'll see it eventually just out of morbid (heh) curiosity, when it shows up in the bargain bin for $3. Reason I bring it up is that it's supposed to be set in small town Alaska. Hell, I live in small town Alaska, naturally a Vampire movie set in Alaska gets my attention, which brings me to yet another of my pet peeves. Where was this movie filmed?

Auckland, New Zealand.

New Zealand? Land of Hobbits, oh yeah, New Zealand looks just exactly like northern Alaska. Probably no shortage of quirky local oddballs willing to work for cheap either. Put some Carharts on 'em, add a bad Minnesotan or Canadian accent and some ersatz snow and viola, instant Alaskans!

This movie continues a long, long trend of making movies and TV shows supposedly set in Alaska pretty much anywhere else but Alaska. I will say that at least Auckland is something new, usually movies about Alaska are filmed in Canada or California. Need some examples?

Mystery, Alaska: A funny movie. I actually like this movie a lot despite the fake "Alaskan" accents (God sakes!), far too much winter daylight for the supposed location, and Mike Meyers. Filming location: Alberta, Canada
North To Alaska: I like this movie too, I'm just a sucker for John Wayne formula flicks. But for crying out loud, filmed in Big Bear, California, USA? Oh yeah, just exactly like Nome.
Men in Trees: Thank god this cliche-ridden piece of HBO crap didn't last past the pilot season. Minnesota accents and raccoons! Yeah, we've just got shitloads of raccoons in Alaskan, and no hair dryers. Filmed in British Columbia, Canada - and they can keep it.
Northern Exposure: Every town in Alaska is filled with billionaire ex-astronauts, angry female bush pilots, and philosophical radio DJ's - all desperate to highjack a real doctor from Outside, you know, because there aren't any doctors in Alaska, or Jewish people apparently. I hated this stupid show. Filmed in Washington, USA.
Alaska: Admittedly a kid's movie, but the pre-teen protagonists befriend a wild polar bear? Yeah, from the inside maybe. And just FYI, polar bears don't range south of the Brooke's Range. Idiots. Filmed in British Columbia, Canada.
Snow Dogs: Again a kid's movie. Typical Disney piece of crap. Poor acting. Silly, cliched done to death plot. Even the sled dogs are Hollywood fakes, prize team my ass. Filmed in Alberta, Canada.
The Call of the Wild: When I first moved to Alaska I was advised to always carry a copy of the Jack London novel whenever I went into the bush - because the paper pages make a dandy fire starter. Filmed in Washington, USA
On the Beach (TV version): Filmed in Melbourne, Australia, which I can see because the story mostly takes place there, but there is a critical scene where the submarine skipper and his XO explore radiation killed Anchorage looking for the source of a radio transmission. I don't know where that was filmed, but it sure as hell wasn't Anchorage, Alaska. I will say this about On the Beach, improbable science aside, this is one dammed scary movie - it actually gave me nightmares. Armand Assante had the part of a sub skipper down cold.

Now there have been plenty of movies filmed in Alaska, mostly documentaries where you just can't fake the location. But there was the big budget Al Pacino flop, Insomnia, which was filmed in Alaska, sort of. At least a couple of the location scenes were; the rest of it was filmed in Canadian studios. I actually liked this movie - not for Al's phoned-in acting and the whiny "I can't sleep because it's light out" bullshit - but because somebody shoots Robin Williams in the end. [I originally called this a "Dinero Movie." Sorry Bob, no insult intended. You rock, Sir]

And then, of course, there's Grizzly Man, actually filmed mostly in and around Katmai National Park, Alaska. A biopic, based on the king of all drooling misguided eco-freak whackjobs, Tim Treadwell, who managed to get both himself and his idiot girl friend eaten alive. Actually I would have preferred that they'd filmed this well made tribute to utter stupidity somewhere else, say like Malibu.

No matter where it was filmed, I doubt 30 Days of Night will be a big hit here in Alaska. All real Alaskans know that there's nothing to fear in the dark of the arctic winter, the real bloodsuckers come out in summer, when the sun is in the sky 24 hours a day - they are called Mosquitoes and they will drain you dry.

Oh, the horror, the horror!

From the Spam Folder

The last couple of days I've been getting this email in my spam folder:

We are here to tell you something wonderful!
You never believed that some medicine could make feel so sure in bed.
Here is MegaDik, that will start a new wave of your sexual pleasure.
Your penis will be leader of the world!

Um, don't we already have a dick as the leader of the free world?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Me, Shade Tree Mechanic

So Monday evening, there was this big puddle of fluid under the rear of my wife's Jeep Cherokee.

The jeep is an older machine, we bought it new a year after we were married - it was our first major purchase together. The red paint is a little faded nowadays, but it's always been a great vehicle. We've put nearly 300,000 miles on it traveling literally to every corner of the continent, from Florida to Maine to Alaska to Maryland and out to Southern California and finally back to Alaska. We've pulled our trailer and carried our canoe on the roof through the Bad Lands of South Dakota, across Maine's Golden Road from Dover/Foxcroft to the Down East Coast, the entire length of Highways US95, US10, US5 and 101, and the Queen's Highway across the length of Canada. It's started reliably in -40F weather north of Fairbanks and plowed through grill high snow crossing Soldier Summit in the remote Yukon. Like a mule, it climbed surefooted 4000ft up up the glare ice covered road out of Haines into the Chilkoot when other vehicles couldn't move, and done the same in 113F heat to the observatory on top of Mount Palomar in Southern California. I've used it to skid logs and pull 1/2-ton 4x4 pickups out of the ditch. There's not much on it I can't fix, and have over the years. It's gotten a little small for us in recent years, with the kid and the dog and etc. Nowadays I drive a GMC crew cab, and my wife mostly only uses the Jeep in the winter, when we've put her Mustang Convertible away. But it's still in decent shape, and I'm certainly not used to finding a puddle under the rear end.

Hmmm, says I to myself, that can't be good. I had just changed the oil last weekend, and my first thought was maybe I hadn't tightened down the new filter or oil pan drain plug properly. But in that case the puddle should have been under the front of the jeep. So what the hell was this?

Brake fluid. Double plus ungood. The left, rear brake cylinder seal had failed. Brake fluid was draining out through the hub and all over the garage floor. Oh yeah, says my lovely wife, the brakes have been acting funny lately. Oh really? How odd.

Now see, I hate working on cars. I can do it, I just don't like it. I love tools and especially woodwork. Working with wood is clean. The smell of cut wood is something I enjoy. Woodwork is my Zen. Cars? Filthy, oily, smelly mess even in the best of times. And no matter what the problem is - it's always in some impossible to reach spot on the vehicle, where even a four armed, humpbacked chimpanzee would have trouble getting it's hands into. And no matter how large my toolbox is, auto repair inevitably require some kind of special gizmo that I don't have. Always.

So I figured to hell with it, I'll just fill the brake reservoir and take it in to the shop. Great idea, until I got a couple of estimates over the phone and couldn't find a place to do the work until next week, late next week. Palmer is a small town, there's not a lot of options, and I sure as hell didn't want to drive it any further than that. Sigh.

So yesterday I pulled it into the shop and pulled the rear brakes. What a mess, the usual road muck and caked brake dust mixed in a slurry of hydraulic fluid. Nice. Front disc brakes I can change out in an hour, but rear drum brakes? Ugh, special tools, springs and cables and weird little doodads put together by some demented automotive engineer. Who designs this stuff? Seriously? Do they get paid more if they design a connector that instead of a simple standard cotter pin uses three springs, a flange, and a unique retaining pin that can only be purchased from NAPA? And requires a special spring compressor tool, 3 hands, and an arcane combination of cursing to remove? And it's positioned in the most inaccessible recess on the brake support assembly where it is impossible to position a worklight so you can see the dammed thing? What the hell is it with these people?

Wright's First Law: Engineers should not be allowed to wander around the universe without a keeper.
Wright's Own Corollary to Wright's First Law: All engineers should have a large burly assistant, with a mallet, who stands behind the engineer and stops him when the design complexity exceeds common sense.

So, anyway, I eventually got the brakes pulled. In the process I bashed the knuckles on both hands and additionally managed to nearly brain myself on the under carriage when a bolt let go suddenly. Ended up with a scraped forehead and a goose-egg, wonderful. I cleaned the various parts up using my grinder's wire wheel polisher. Degreased the mounting assembly. Made a list of the parts I needed, brake shoes, drums, hydraulic cylinders, new brake lines (hey, if I've got to do it, I'm dammed well going to do a complete overhaul) and etc. And headed into to town to NAPA. And the first question the guy behind the counter asks? What size drums, 9 inch or 10 inch?

WTF? Why? Why? Why, would there be two different sized brake drums made for a 1992 Jeep Cherokee Laredo? Why? What possible Goddammed reason could there be? Or course I hadn't measured them. So I had to run back home, measure the drums, and then go back to the auto parts place. Argh!

Wright's Admonishment to large burly Engineering Assistants:
smack the Engineer with your mallet occasionally, for no reason at all.

Eventually, after a third trip to NAPA, I got it mostly done. This morning I've just got to install the new brake lines, fill and bleed the system, and test it.

Test it. As in go drive around the block and test the brakes. So, if you don't hear from me, it's because I screwed something up. But, not to worry, I almost never do that. Almost.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

No! That's not true! That's impossible!

Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are related, or so says Lynn Cheney.

Ah hahahahaha!

"Obviously, Dick Cheney is the black sheep of the family," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.

Ah hahahahaha, again. Stop it! I've got tears in my eyes. Oh God, I can't wait for the late-night talk-show pundits to run with this one.

Dark Lord of the GOP, Dick Vader appears to be going through some kind of post-menopausal life-changing event. It began in August of 2004, when he and and his wife, Padame, ur, eh, sorry, Lynne Cheney broke with the President over the issue of gay marriage. Up to that point, his gay daughter, Mary, seemed to causing a massive disturbance in the Neo-Conservative Force, then suddenly Dick is all "Mary, I am your faaaather!" This has caused the Emperor no end of grief.

What's next? What other dark (heh heh) secrets is the paragon of conservative values hiding? Can we expect pictures of him marching in a San Fransisco Gay Pride rally? (And if my media server, which is where I kept my copy of Photoshop, was up and running such a picture would surface here and now. Stupid static electricity) Has he been doing a little quail hunting around certain airport restrooms? Will NSA data mining of his phone records show repeated clandestine calls to Cindy Sheehan? Who else is he related to? Jesse Jackson? Louis Farrakhan? Or gasp, Bill Clinton? The world waits and wonders.

How embarrassing. For Barack, I mean.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Holy Garlic, Batman, I'm a Vampire

In the comments of a previous post, Janiece and I were talking about some of the gags we used to pull in the Navy. This isn't a Navy gag, but it's as funny as anything I ever pulled.

The audio is in German or Dutch or something European, but it really doesn't matter.

The Divine Right of Presidents.

Wait. What?

Congress is demanding to know if phone companies turned over records of their customer's calls to NSA and other intelligence organizations.

The White House says no, the phone companies can't provide that information to Congress because it's a State Secret. It's National Security (cue patriotic Lee Greenwood song and flag waving. Everybody hold up their lighter, it's the flame of Liberty! Oh, I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free, la la la...). We, the citizens of the United States, can not, must not, know what information is being collected on us, because that will compromise our own safety. We, like children, cannot be trusted with our own safety. Only The Decider, with His Benevolent God-like Wisdom(tm), is intelligent enough and wise enough to manage the safety of The Nation. This is for our own good.

Among the questions, posed by the committee on Oct. 2, were what information the carriers gave the administration without a court warrant, whether they were paid for any of it and whether the administration asked them to install equipment to intercept e-mails.

Just so I'm clear on this. No warrant, no just cause, no reasonable suspicion is required for the Executive Branch to data mine my private information and monitor my private communications in direct violation of the 4th Amendment, and there will be no Congressional oversight of this process in direct violation of the Constitution itself? And furthermore, without any Constitutional checks and balances, we are to trust the benevolent judgment of one man, and one man only. A man who has demonstrated his selfless dedication to service. A man who has proven to be a brilliant military commander. A nation builder. A beloved liberator. A crackerjack economist. An educator. An environmentalist. Soldier. Statesman. Friend to the working girl, so to speak. That guy. We should blindly trust that guy's judgment.

And who do we have to blame (besides ourselves) for the fact that our freedoms and rights are brushed aside, for the greater good of "National Security" of course, at the whim of one man?

" Congress approved a temporary measure in July allowing spy agencies to continue intercepting, without a court warrant, phone calls and e-mails of foreign-based terrorists that are routed through the U.S."

That's right. Congress gave the President permission to continue this nonsense. Congress abrogated their Constitutional duty of checks and balances on the abuse of Executive power. Supposedly the intercepts are just phone calling records and emails from "foreign based terrorists." Speaking as a former Intelligence Officer, there are several problems here: first, the White House decides who is a terrorist and who is not, so in actuality Congress' approval of the temporary measure gave the President unlimited authority to decide who will be monitored. Now, since The Great Decider is too busy deciding big important things, he doesn't actually have time to pour over lists and records of un-American Americans, so in actuality it is the recently unfettered intelligence agencies themselves who now determine who and what to monitor. No potential for abuse there. Two, since it is impossible to determine in advance which phone calls and emails are from officially certified, grade-A terrorists - you have to monitor everything and everybody. Everybody, every single person, within our boarders becomes a suspect. Every phone call, every email, is a potential hostile communication. And it doesn't take long for this mindset to become policy and paradigm, i.e. you are a suspect, always. Don't believe me? Try to strike up a friendly conversation with a TSA agent. This is exactly the mindset the Executive Branch has regarding it's citizens. And finally, it's not enough to look solely at phone calling connections, you actually have to listen in to determine content - otherwise if the local Fraternal Order of Police representative, for example, uses his home phone to call a suspected terrorist's phone number, which happens to be in his calling area, soliciting funds - well, then that Cop ends up on the Sooper Sekret Doubleplusungood List. And now we've got to pull his calling records, and the records of everybody he talked to, and then their records and etc. Like some insane looping computer program playing the Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon, eventually all of us are suspects. Unless you listen in, which you have to do in order to filter out false contacts. You have to, otherwise the nodal mapping you're doing is useless. Wire tapping without Warrants violates so many Federal and State laws and regulations that it is impossible to list them all. In essence, Congress' action (or lack of action actually) gave the Executive Branch cart blanc to ignore the law. The director of National Intelligence claims the National Security Act of 1947 gives the President the authority to do this. Hmmm, no, sorry that's just flat out wrong. First, the 1947 Act established a number of Security and Intelligence organizations and gave the Executive some limited powers, subject to Congressional oversight, in specific crisis situations. Title V of The National Security Act clearly spells out the requirement for Congressional oversight. Second, the Act was modified by Congress in 1952 and later by acts in the 1960's, 70's and 80's in response to abuses by intelligence agencies. Anybody remember Watergate? This is specifically why the FISA court was established, along with very specific directives which put very, very specific limitations on domestic intelligence activities.

Now it gets better, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell "acknowledged the existence of the program in August and said telecommunications companies should be given immunity from lawsuits claiming privacy violations" (emphasis mine). Now, I guarantee you that the DNI's call for immunity is not out of any concern for the telecoms, it is for one reason and one reason only - to keep this entire issue out of the courts. Because if there ever was an issue that is Constitutional in nature, and therefore bound to end up on the Supreme Court docket, it's this one. And while Congress may have been derelict in it's Constitutional duty, it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court will be.

And that is what the White House fears more than anything else.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Buffalo Soldier

"Ollen Hunt was born in McLemoresville, TN, July 25, 1923, the youngest of 11 children. While serving in the Civilian Conservation Corp he attained the rank of Mess Sergeant. When the CCC was disbanded Ollen was drafted into the US Army 92nd Infantry Division E Company, 370 Regiment (Buffalo Soldiers) where he saw action in Florence, Poe Valley, and and other front line battles in Italy until the war ended..." - from the back cover of Buffalo Soldier, written by Ollen Hunt himself.

After the war, Ollen was sent to France and later to occupied Germany, not returning to the United States until 1957. He retired from the Army in 1963 and hired on with Northwest Airlines, which is how he ended up in Anchorage Alaska just in time for the Good Friday Earthquake. After Ollen left Northwest Airlines, he opened the Hof Brau, a legendary Anchorage restaurant, where he often carved the roast beef and served customers himself. Eventually he retired from the restaurant and, at age 83, wrote Buffalo Soldier, which, a short year, later is on it's second printing.

I'm four chapters into Buffalo Soldier and I can't put it down. It's fascinating. Utterly fascinating. I've been awed by the Buffalo Soldiers since I learned about them as a kid, reading about the 10th Cav and the Roughriders at San Juan Hill.

I met Ollen today.

He was doing a book signing at the Elmendorf/Fort Richardson Exchange. 84 years old, and the guy was in better shape than most people half his age. Funny, interesting, articulate. I got there just as he was setting up his table. He signed my copy of Buffalo Soldier and, since nobody was around yet, we talked for twenty minutes or so. Then the line started to form, and I had to move on, which was a dammed shame because I could easily have spent a couple hours with him. It was a privilege talking to him.

So, if you're looking for something to read, try Buffalo Soldier, just don't ask to borrow my copy.

Navy Speak

I stumbled (literally) across this listing of Navy terminology.

Each of the services has it's own terminology, but the Navy more so than any other. Nothing funnier than a member of a sister service temporarily assigned to a ship (usually a linguist or some other service specific specialty) trying to figure out what we're saying.

I'm happy to report that I knew all but about three of these.

My favorites:
Button Crusher, also Button Cruncher: a specially designed piece of equipment (possibly imaginary), built specifically for a shipboard laundry, used to pulverize buttons on navy uniforms. Unique in that buttons processed by a button crusher look perfectly OK when they leave the laundry but fall to pieces when touched by the recipient. One of the main reasons the most Sailors can sew.

CG: Constantly Gone. Guided missile cruiser (CG), especially during the Gulf War due to their lengthly underway time and extended deployments. (I was a cruiser Sailor, and believe me when I say this is a very true statement.)

Dit Dot Bomb: a form of hazing by taking the round paper cutouts left from a hole punch and putting them in a box or other container rigged to open and rain down on the Division Officer. When I first joined the navy, we still used 5-level paper tape to load programs and data into some computers (this was back when a 1MB disk drive was a fixed unit the size of a small refrigerator, and way to fragile to be used onboard a ship), we also often converted incoming message traffic into paper tape for storage. The chads (the little paper dots) punched out of the tape had to be emptied from the machines at the end of the watch. Every watch we'd end up with a full garbage bag of them, and that's an opportunity you just can't waste. In addition to dit dot bombs, we used to run this gag where a senior Petty Officer would assign an unsuspecting FNG to glue the chads back into the holes in the paper tape, because "this is our last tape" and we weren't going to get fresh ones until the UNREP (usually a week away). Usually, the gag would end an hour or two later with the FNG covered in little paper dots and glue.

Jesus Ring: The tiny spring-washer installed on flange fittings which, if removed carelessly, will fly off the bolt - eliciting a loud "Jesus!" from many maintenance people. Also Jesus Spring, i.e. the main recoil spring on a Colt .45cal pistol, because during a post range cleaning session, it was inevitable that at least one uncoordinated Academy Puke Ensign would fail to keep his thumb over the recoil follower and as a result would shoot the spring across the compartment, then it was assholes and elbows as everybody crawled around on the deck looking for it. Good times, good times.

KRT: Khaki Response Team - The group of chiefs and officers who inevitably show up during a crisis, just to get in the way and issue unnecessary advice and orders. For full effect, each member of the KRT should be holding a coffee cup.

Lobster: Term for women in the Navy because all the meat is in the tail. Sorry ladies.

Pillows of Death: Canned ravioli, often served for mid-rats (the 2300 meal for the those coming off the eve watch or those going on the dog or mid-watch). Proper Pillows of Death are served burned around the edges, dry, and cold. Goddamn, I loved these! Along with 8 hour old, burned coffee, the screaming heartburn would keep me wide awake for the entire dog watch on the bridge. Woohoo!

I'm off to Anchorage for the day. Got to procure a new mobo for the server and stop by the base commissary for the monthly grocery run. You kids have fun.