I went to Antarctica

June 18th, 2018 Comments off

A year and a half ago I went to Antartica.

Here’s a link to watch a video I made. Mostly posting this so (a) I have an easy link to give people and (b) to make sure this blog even still works.

Anyway, enjoy…


Mike’s trip to Antarctica Video

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Notes from a large island

August 9th, 2015 2 comments

London Skyline

Having just returned from my first ever trip to the UK, I wanted to share a few interesting observations about life that we noticed as visitors from abroad. This isn’t mean to be a catalog of all the well-known difference between America and the UK, more just a series of random observations (many certainly well-known to frequent travellers but new to me as a first-timer).


Sit-down service seems a bit slower then it is in the USA. We only dined at casual restaurants (no fine dining), but the length of time between when you get seated, asked for drink order, etc is longer then in the USA.

After the meal is over often the wait for the check is very long, such that you may even need to affirmatively ask for it, unlike the USA where the check is presented to you without asking. When you pay with credit card, the waiter or waitress will bring a handheld machine to the table to run the card; this is because normally all the cards in the UK are chip and pin, and you need to enter the PIN, or sign if you don’t have a pin). Generally you never tip, although some places add a 10% service charge automatically to the bill.

Additionally in restaurants, we did not get served tap water without asking for it, and many places charge, even for tap water. Food-wise, we noticed a lot of places serve a leafy green very similar in appearance and taste to arugula that is called “rocket” – it was quite good, has a nice spicy flavor. We didn’t get tripped up with any food terms except one, we had no idea what “courgettes” were – it’s zucchini. Bacon in the UK is not like American bacon (crispy and narrow pieces). Rather it is very similar if not identical to Canadian bacon. Pancakes likewise are smaller and thicker/fluffier then US ones, more like squished muffins.

While dining, we noticed a lot of people held their knife and fork differently then they do in America; generally if they needed to use a knife, they kept it held the entire meal rather then cut and put it down like we do in the USA.


Many (most?) pubs we went to only served beers from one specific brewery, i.e. Fullers or Brains or whatnot (the breweries apparently own many pubs or at least have exclusive contracts with them). In order to find a pub that served beers from many breweries, you need to locate what is called a “free house”

Almost every pub will have a beer engine, which is basically a pump system for drawing beers (as opposed to the traditional American-style tabs which use CO2 to dispense beer from kegs). This results in an exceptionally smooth pour; traditional english styles, such as bitters, golden ales and such are very popular. Heavily-hopped beers like we have in America are not nearly as popular. There also are not as many stouts and porters as we had expected. One surprise we discovered is that England has a massive small brewery movement; there are hundreds of small breweries that produce different bottled beers, but it is very difficult to find much variety at pubs.


Pubs close very early – at 11 PM. If you want to drink later, you have to go to a “club” (which we never did). During the day, there’s a much more relaxed attitude towards public drinking in the UK then we have in the USA. Several beers over a work lunch are common, and many pubs are very relaxed about allowing drinkers to spill into the public areas with open containers. It was quite awesome. Oh, and like with restaurants, tipping is almost never done.



Store generally do not stay open very late. Most retail shops seem to close at 6 or 7 in the evening, with just a few outliers. One very nice thing about shopping is you know exactly what everything will cost, since all taxes (VAT) are included in the sticker price. One of the (surprisingly few) terminology issues that we ran into is that the cash register is called the “till” in the UK. Another difference is that although we went everywhere with a backpack, we never got asked to check it; we figured that since CCTV is ubiquitous, that there’s no need for an anti-theft bag check at UK retailers. Many credit card terminals are contactless, and even the ones that are not are all chip-and-pin units.

Relieving One’s Self

It’s universally called the “toilet” not the “restroom” or “bathroom.” Most toilets have push-button flushers not handles like in the USA. Trough-style urinals are a lot more common then in America. Thankfully toilet paper is the same as here, although a few places had annoying “individual tissue” style toilet paper dispensers.


Street signs are almost always posted on the sides of buildings near the corners, they are not on poles or over the road like in the USA. If you don’t know where to look you will not have any idea what street you are on. Looking in the correct direction when crossing a street takes some getting used to since it is the opposite of the USA, but almost every major intersection has a “look left” or “look right” painted in the crosswalk which is helpful. When in a building, floor numbering starts at zero (making computer engineers everywhere smile), so the first floor is what the USA would consider the second floor. This was confusing for all of a day or so. One interesting thing we noticed is that there are no stop signs that we could see; stops are the “uncontrolled” type, not explicit.


The Tube is ridiculously easy to use, and goes everywhere; it is truly a distributed system so it is easy to navigate to almost any place in the city as opposed to many other transit systems where the lines only intersect at a few transfer hubs.
Cellular coverage (on the EE network) was solid through everywhere we went on the trip, and Wi-Fi networks are at ubiquitous as they are in the USA.

At the airport (Heathrow) the gating system for departures is very different then in America. There’s a large central area of the airport to wait – with seats and restaurants and shops, but the actual gate for your flight isn’t announced until about an hour before takeoff. At that point you enter a secured, set off gate waiting room where you wait to board. These rooms are very tiny and spartan (no shops, no toilets) and you can’t leave; your boarding pass and passport are checked before you enter this departure lounge.
Airport security is very similar to the TSA except that when you check luggage they still ask those questions about if you had control of your luggage at all times and if you packed it yourself (like they used to ask in the USA).


There’s no British accent, there’s more like a bunch of kind of similar accents, some easier to understand then others. People as a whole are polite and are quieter then in the USA; this is especially noticeable on public transportation. People dress the same as they do in the USA, they are not any more formal then we are. “Cheers” is used as the generic “have a nice day” or “thank you” substitute for ending conversations. One interesting demographic we noticed is that there is a very heavy Middle Eastern population in London specifically, a large number of women wearing Islamic style dress along with their male companions. London feels like a true world city, more so then even New York, there’s an impression that you are in an hub of world commerce and culture, everywhere you go you hear a ton of different languages being spoken.

A lot more people smoke – it seems like the UK is where the USA was maybe 20 years ago when it comes to smoking; that is, a lot more people do it, and it is a bit harder to avoid the aroma of cigarettes even in areas that are ostensibly smoke-free

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Memos from the apocalypse

October 15th, 2014 Comments off

A very generic corporate memo was sent out to folks recently, with information about the Ebola virus, because apparently people are worried about something that they have less likelyhood of catching then winning the lottery (meanwhile how many people don’t ever give something like the flu a second thought?)

Anyway with the Walking Dead premier on my mind, I decided that the memo could be improved with to make it a little more topical by referencing a truly scary virus….

From: Joe Smith and Jane Wilson <InternalCommunications@mygenericcorp.com>
Date: Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at 7:15 AM
To: Corporate Internal Communications <InternalCommunications@mygenericcorp.com>
Subject: Monitoring the Zombie virus: Health and travel recommendations for employees

To: Corporate employees and contractors
From: Joe Smith, Health & Safety, and Jane Wilson, Worldwide Security
Monitoring the Zombie virus: Health and travel recommendations for employees

Your health and security are our top priority. The Corporate Health, & Safety (CHS) and Worldwide Security teams continue to monitor the current situation with the Zombie virus.

Although there is no immediate impact to our employees or our facilities, we are asking employees and contractors worldwide to take precautions to keep you, your colleagues, and your families safe, as well as stockpiling ammunition, canned food and water for the inevitable assault by waves of shambling, moaning living dead.

As with any virus, please follow standard hygiene and health precautions:

Hand hygiene: Wash your hands frequently with soap and running water or use an alcohol-based hand cleanser before, during, and after you prepare food, before you eat, after you use the toilet, after handling animals or animal waste, when your hands are dirty, when providing care when someone in your home is sick, and after dispatching the rotting body of a former colleague with an icepick through her skull.

Respiratory hygiene: Cover your mouth and nose with a medical mask, tissue, or a sleeve or flexed elbow when coughing or sneezing. Throw the used tissue into a closed bin immediately after use. Perform hand hygiene after contact with respiratory secretions. If bitten, ask you manager to immediately sever the offending limb with an axe.

Personal health: If you develop a sudden onset of fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and the inexplicable urge for the sweet, tangy taste of fresh human flesh, please contact your health care provider immediately and notify your supervisor. Anyone with these symptoms should not come to work until cleared by their healthcare provider or after having their brainstem severed by a chainsaw or other cranial termination device.

Corporate Global Security is actively monitoring all business travel booked through the Corporate travel site. However, if you are planning any travel to or from a high-risk country, please notify your manager and next of kin in advance and refer to this important travel advice:

Defer non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Atlanta area, Raccoon City or other high-risk areas as defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Please refer to the CDC website for updates, warning levels, and notices for specific countries http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices.

Travelers flying from countries affected by the Zombie virus should inquire with the relevant embassies or health ministries about any requirements for entry at their destination, (for example, sweet katana skills) and prepare accordingly.

Check with the US Department of Homeland Security website for information about enhanced screening measures for travelers coming into the US who show signs of the Zombie infection.

Do not travel if you are sick. People with an insatiable desire for flesh or other Zombie-like symptoms may be taken to designated centers or have entry/exit denied, as well as be shot in the head.

If you require medical or emergency assistance while traveling, please contact International Assistance (IA) at 800-555-1212. Remember to always double-tap.

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My Cataract Canyon trip journal

July 23rd, 2014 Comments off

Jim, Mike, Don, and Robbie, the four who tamed the rapids and conquered Everest (plus or minus 50% truth in the above claims)

For Robbie’s Bar Mitzvah my dad, Don, myself and Robbie went on a 3.5 day raft trip (put on by Western River Expeditions) down the Colorado river through Cataract Canyon. It was a “guys trip” only – no Mom or Ann or Lindsay (Dave didn’t want to go). The raft trip would start out of Moab on a Tuesday morning and was scheduled to end on Friday afternoon. I was excited for the trip as I have never done anything like this, although I was nervous I’d be out of contact with “civilization” for 3.5 days (no cell service in the canyon!).

The map of our adventure

This wasn’t a private trip; we were placed into a small group of fellow travelers by Western River. Our group composed of 19 “adventurers” and 4 guides (more about them later).

We drove out to Moab from Nebraska, stopping in Rocky Mountain National Park on the way. Arriving in Moab a couple days early, we spent some time exploring the area, including a trip to Arches National Park and a Jeep safari into the “slickrock” area to the east of town. On Monday night we attended a brief orientation, where we learned some basics and checked out our fellow travelers (I joked we needed to decide who we would eat first if it descended into cannibalism), had a late dinner of Mexican food and enjoyed our last night in a real bed for a while. The trip left at 7:30 Tuesday morning

Onto the river…

After a short bus trip from Moab to the put-in point at Potash, we saw our rafts for the first time.
There were four rubber rafts strapped together to form a giant raft. The main raft carried most of our supplies (food, water, camping equipment, etc) with a metal rigging system that allowed for a massive amount of storage. This craft had a small motor and was the main raft. Two other rafts carried some supplies and were designed to be rowed in the rapids. The fourth craft was a smaller paddle boat. During normal cruising people could sit wherever on the boats; during rapids we used the two rowboats and the paddle boat (more on that later).

Typical scene on the raft as we cruise down the river on calm water. The green boat is one of the rowboats and the blue boat on the right with all the rigging is the “mothership”

Each person was issued a large “dry bag” big enough to hold a sleeping bag (provided by Western River) and our personal duffel bag. For stuff we wanted to have with us on the boat, we got a small dry bag that could hold things like sunscreen and a camera. The dry bags both work the same way, they are rubber bags where the tops fold over several times then you cinch them shut from the sides. This basically prevents any water from getting inside no matter what. We also brough beer and soft drinks; these went into a large group cooler (the tour just provided water and lemonade).

Western River provided us with 4 guides. All the guides were college kids, interestingly enough two of them (including the group leader Taylor) were originally from Olathe and were KU fans! In addition to Taylor there were Ben, Jon, and Ryan. The guides were amazing, they worked harder then stevedores and were incredible engaging and friendly. Even though they were college aged, these were not “party dudes” – they were incredibly responsible, and when you think about this, it makes sense, they have to run a group of tourists down what can be a risky situation out of contact for 3 days, which requires teamwork, the ability to improvise and make decisions within a framework but outside of supervision, and have responsibility for people’s lives. By the end of the trip everyone had a really great rapport with the guides and they were not outsiders; they were part of the group as a whole. They really had fun with each other (you could tell they were friends who enjoyed working together) and with us. As a side note, all the guides were Mormons, but interestingly enough they were worldly, they knew popular culture and interacted genuinely like normal (albeit very responsible) people their age.

Us bold explorers…

No, this is not the Roman Senate, it is a group of otherwise normal folks who have been addled by the heat into allowing themselves to be convinced to don faux togas for a group photo!

Our group consisted of 19 folks. I am horrible with names, so I do not remember everyone’s name, but I remember who everyone was. There were the four of us, then a father (retired), Eddie and daughter Leah (science teach in the public schools – how ironic is that!) from Massachusetts and Brooklyn respectively.

Another family was from Georgia, a mom, Janette, and dad, Bob, and their son. Mom did pricing for a brick company, and the dad was in some type of data processing. The son, Jeff, was a salesman for an enterprise software company. Jeff played football for Georgia Tech a few years ago (he was on their Orange Bowl team, as well as the team that lost at KU to Turner Gill) as a tight end and long snapper. Jeff’s girlfriend Mary-Ashley (“Mash”) came too.

These two families were probably my favorites to hang out and talk with among the group. It was great hearing football stories from Jeff, and Janette was just a hoot, a hard-drinking open minded southern tough as nails mom. Leah and Eddie were old school liberals who it was fun complaining about Republicans and telling them tales of how horrible Kansas politics were! Interestingly Leah and Eddie were the only folks I formally “came out” too – no one else asked if I was married or anything that would have given me a reason to say something. Not that any of that matters, just interesting.

The next family was a father, Alan, a cardiologist from Florida, and his two sons, River who was 10 and Merrick who was 18. They mostly kept to themselves. Next we have Bud, a dentist from Salt Lake City and his wife Kate. Then we have a urologist from Florida and his wife, whose names I don’t recall, and their grandkids, Jackson and Taylor, 13 and 11 respectively.

The group dynamics were really cool. Initially it’s all kind of “get to know you” stuff, but everyone really bonded rapidly through the shared experiences. By the first night we were all friendly “know each other” level, but by the second day and forward we became really close with everyone, really a strong, bonded group. I am not sure if all raft groups are like this, my guess is not, we got lucky, we had no assholes or antisocial folks, and we really became friends while on the trip. I know the way these things work it is very unlikely any of us will talk again except maybe a few emails to share photos, but for these three days, we were a little family, a little mini society and that was super neat.

Making camp…

The Silverman/Osborne homestead. The tents were just storage areas; it was way nicer to sleep on the cots under the stars

We started out from the boat ramp Tuesday morning and for the first several hours we motored slowly down the placid Colorado. The guides made a point of each going around to every boat and engaging everyone in conversation, to get to know us. Since we were above the rapid we didn’t need to wear life jackets (except for kids 12 and under – Robbie just lucked out!). The Colorado initially was calm and the scenery wasn’t too spectacular. We stopped for lunch mid-day on a sandbar and got our first taste of the level of catering Western River does for passenger (and how hard the guides work and how much stuff gets stored on board). They pulled out a table and prepared a lunch for us – cold cuts, all the fixings and side, and we ate buffet style on the beach. After lunch we drifted for a while and swam alongside the raft (this is when you peed – enjoy that lemonade, Phoenix!). By later afternoon we had entered the canyon and the scenery got more spectacular – large cliffs on either side of red and white sandstone with the geological layers clearly visible. Rising and falling, and rising again to incredible sheer heights, with random protuberances, spires, caves and rocks, these views would be with us the rest of the trip.

A typical example of the Colorado river landscape with the layered cliffs on either side of the river.

Tuesday evening we stopped at our campsite, a large sandbar on the east side of the river. Camp setup was pretty neat. All the tents, our dry bags (containing the sleeping bags and our duffels) and chairs and cots were transported from the rafts in a team line. The guides yelled “fire line” and everyone formed up a line of folks across from each other. Guides handed an item to the first person, who passed it to the person across from them, back and forth so all the goods ended up high on the beach quickly and no individual had to do more then stand and (easily) pass stuff to their neighbor.

So we then set up our own campsite. We got two tents per person, simple balloon tents then ended up just being used as dressing rooms because it was too hot to sleep inside them and sand got in them everywhere. We had simple fold-out cots that you attached legs to, these were our beds. So everyone picked a camp spot and set up their individual tents. Meanwhile, the guides set up the entire infrastructure of the camp; a complete field kitchen with gas grill, griddle, prep area, water service, and dish washing station.

The bathrooms were essentially large tanks the height of a toilet with a toilet seat on them, called “groovers.” Two were set up, one enclosed in a small tent, and the second behind a sand berm out in the open. You could tell if they were occupied because the tent flap was closed, or for the outdoor one, a floatation cushion was the “is it free” indicator – you took it with you when you went so if the cushion was missing, you knew the toilet was occupied. There was a small pump hand wash station nearby as well. Using the groovers wasn’t bad. They didn’t smell too much and there’s nothing like taking a shit while watching the river go by. And yes, guys only used them for number 2; if you had to pee, go downstream and feed the Colorado. This helped so there wasn’t as much “odure” to haul out – the toilet boxes themselves sealed up and were carried with us – you cannot dump solid waste in the river or a national park!

The meal service was pretty neat. The guides shouted when dinner was ready, and issued us all plates and silverware that would be ours for the duration. Dinner was not “camp food” – they cooked marinated chicken breast, with a side of rice pilaf, fruit salad, and grilled garlic toast – all fresh, all prepared right there. This was true for all meals; there was no processed or pre-made food, everything was made right in front of us – including the desserts, which the first night was freshly baked cake. Dessert time was also when Taylor would go over our plans for the next day, tell use what we would be doing and imparting any other news.

After dinner folks hung out, talked, had drinks, read and played cards. The guides set up a couple little soccer goals and produced a soccer ball and a spirited friendly soccer game was played barefoot on the sand (turned out all the guides were sports fans). Bed time was basically sunset. I hit the hay around then, but stayed up a while, just resting on my cot and looking at the sky. Thunderstorms were around us, so it was cloudy and I saw no stars. We didn’t get rained on, but the view of the lightning flashing all about the dark canyons and the distant thunder was just spectacular. The sounds, too, were inspiring. There was the normal camping insect sounds (side note – I didn’t use bug spray or get bitten the whole trip, very “biting bug”-free at least for me), but the coolest thing was some bird or other animal was screeching or cawing, this distant, wild inhuman cry that just echoed through the canyons as a light wind blew.

Hiking the loop…

Don was snoring at a level to wake the gods, so the middle of the night I moved my cot to a spot higher up on the sandbar and the moon had come out, which was ridiculously bright, making the camp and canyon visible in a dark way. It was beautiful.

The wind started to howl late at night – it seems like in the canyons, there are patterns where a wind blows during the day, stops in the evening and picks up late at night before subsiding again; perhaps thermally-driven.

Coffee call (cowboy coffee, just the grounds dumped in hot water, and deliciously strong) was early – you get up with the sun. Breakfast followed, fresh made pancakes, and we broke down camp, did the fire line again to get our gear (which was rapidly becoming infested with sand everywhere) back to the rafts as the guides broke everything down. When we left, all that remained behind were footprints.

A strange aquatic creature ascends from the murky depths

After rafting for an hour, we came to a tight loop in the river; this was a hiking opportunity. It was the first hike of the trip for those who wanted to go, 400 feet up a light trail, over the land bridge and back down the other side where the raft would wait. This was my first taste of desert mountain hiking and it was rough; going up you basically use various rocks as stairs with short windy paths in between, carefully bracing yourself and pushing up side to side, sometimes scrambling with your hands over tougher parts. It’s steep down too – you really need to be careful. It is amazing looking down and seeing how far you climbed, and the views were incredible. The climbing itself is way fun, a real mental and physical challenge. On the way up we saw a couple ruins from the Native American tribes that lived in this area over 600 years ago. First a granary – these small adobe brick structures were scattered all through the canyons in high up nooks. We also saw a few pictograms painted by the aboriginal residents. The climb was exhausting and at the top we enjoyed the views for a little while before climbing down. Going down is easier cardiovascularly but harder on the muscles then going up, as you constantly have to brace yourself and be sure of your footing. After getting down we went for a swim and the raft trip continued.

The remains of a native American cache used to store corn and other grains. These were common in the area, always located in hard-to-reach places high up in the cliffs.

A taste of Brown Betty…

Lunch was Mexican build it yourself tortilla wraps (all fresh ingredients) and after lunch we entered Canyonlands park. There’s a sign at the park entrance on the river warning of the rapids ahead that also has a box attached to it where rafters can reserve preferred sandbars for campsites. Our guides were headed towards this when another boat, rowed by a guide with a single family was also heading that way. We got into a little race with them, with the rower pulling like satan himself was pounding the pace drum and we were motoring – slowly because our motor wasn’t too big – the same direction, with the rower trying to cut us off. We won though and our guides sprinted up to the box to reserve sites for the next two nights

Thursday after lunch we had a taste of the first rapid. Here’s how it worked. Everyone had their life jacket on, cinched tight. Then the boats were separated. The main raft (with the motor) basically scouted and sort of managed the situation. No passengers. The two row boats each had a guide rowing and several passengers,these are smaller then the motor raft. The paddle boat was the tiniest, it has passengers who also were active paddlers while a guide gave instruction (left side forward, right side back!) and steered. The guides gave us all instruction on what to do if we fell in and basically how to be properly rescued.

This massive area of dead tamarisk trees looked quite spooky, even in the daytime. At night, they come alive and eat the souls of all who trespass

Although not too important on the first rapid since it was small, on other rapids, the skill and knowledge of the guides was key; you don’t just plow into a rapid, you have to come at the rapid at very specific angles, and shift direction and orientation at the right time to make it through safely the best way. Do this wrong and you hit rocks or flip. Do it right and you get a wild wet bumpy ride that is also safe. For bigger rapids the guides actually stopped in advance and scouted them out to plot a good course. For most rapids there is a known best approach but since the river changes constantly, there’s active skill and recognition involved, not just memorization.

The first rapid I chose the paddle boat; we rowed into to the rapid, called Brown Betty (all the rapids are numbered, and some have names too) and it was wet bumpy fun, but not anything “oh my god” – those would be the next day!

After this first rapid we camped on a large sandbar. Camp was set up early, so there was time to recreate in the hot sun. I hung out in the water and drank beer, some more energetic folks turned the small paddle raft upside down and made it into a waterside – you’d run from the beach, jump face first on the slippery raft, and folks would lift the other end of the raft while the slider was on it, resulting in the person flying through the air into the water. Afterwards they played “king of the mountain” on the bottom of the raft…supper slippery…about 8 guys including a few big folks like Jeff…and Robbie won! He was the king! Later some people (mostly the guides and kids) played football in the shallow water while everyone else watched and cheered.

As an aside it was so cool seeing Robbie have such a great time, he really was blossoming, sometimes he can be shy but here he was eager to have new experiences, he played with the other kids, tried new foods, went on all the hikes, jumped off the waterfall and basically really experienced the trip. Really nice to watch.

Playing in the Doll House…

Dinner was grilled salmon, which was awesome (and I don’t even usually eat salmon!). After dinner I played scrabble with Eddie and we talked politics. Digging around randomly in the sand I found a horseshoe which I gave to Robbie! Dessert was cobbler – as good as what you’d have in a restaurant!

At dessert Taylor suggested a hike the next morning up to a geological feature called the dollhouse, on the top of the canyon – this was a much more serious hike then that morning, and we’d have to start at 5:30 AM. Initially I didn’t want to but later I thought that it would be a unique experience, and I thought it would be good to challenge myself, so I said I would go.

That night I stayed up to see the stars (it was clear) and the sky was amazing – more stars the. I have ever seen in my life, a stunning ceiling of light, with the occasional satellite. Eventually the Milky Way itself became visible, which I saw for the first time in my life. It was really amazing, laying there, staring at the sky, with the roar of rapids in the background, finally falling asleep.

The moon was so tiny during the day, but at night, it was so bright not only could you easily read by it, but it actually woke me up when it hit my eye. (that’s amoré!)

Don woke me up 5:30 sharp the next morning for the hike. They were not kidding about the challenge (glad I brought extra water). To even get to the trailhead was a 2 mile walk on a path through sometimes dense brush. When we got to the base of the cliff wall, it looked like a mile high! (Actually it was about 1250 feet). Climbing this was intense; folks spread out and everyone kind of climbed at their own pace, with a guide leading and another trailing. There was little conversation, you had to concentrate on just moving upwards, through an endless series of switchbacks and boulders. It felt like doing set after set of “box step ups” over and over. You had to be really careful, the path was close to some really severe drops and a fall would probably seriously injure or kill. Every now and then you’d have to stop to drink some water, and it was cool these stops looking down and seeing “oh my god I climbed that far!” Then you look up and it’s like “ugh, so much further!”

After 30 minutes or so of really hard climbing we got to the top of the main cliff. This was just “half time” – we still had another half mile or so up a rocky path (speaking of paths, the trail is not always obvious; hikers leave piles of little rocks along the trail both as a guide and I think just to say ‘we were here’). We eventually got to a super quiet beautiful desert meadow, and approached the doll house – a rock formation which from the river looked tiny and high but now loomed humongous in front of us, easily a third mile around the base. Hidden in the base of the formation was a little cave called the ice box because it always stays cool; rumor is Butch Cassidy hid out there after a heist. After leaving the doll house, the group got separated where the trail loops around the base. My part of it, with Don, Robbie, Leah, Merrick, and Bud, and Ryan ended up kind of forging our own trail, including some pretty tight jumps down 15 foot rock walls (assisted by Ryan). This was pretty cool, we eventually made it back to the upper trailhead where we waited for the other group, which had Leah’s dad in it (although Merrick took off down the mountain on his own).

This photo is actually from an earlier hike, but gives some idea of the heights of the cliffs. The “loop hike” (this one) was I think about 500 feet; the doll house hike was over 1250.

The climb down was difficult, but the worst part was the long walk back to camp from the trailhead. Those two miles seemed like forever – I have never been so exhausted. Robbie developed a talent for spotting these little desert lizards and we saw a few of those along the trail. All in all we were gone for about 4 hours, probably walked about 6 miles, and climbed up and down over 1250 feet of rock and boulders. It was an amazing experience, I didn’t think I was capable of doing, but it was so much fun and a real sense of accomplishment. We even got cheers when we got back to camp. It was only 9:30 in the morning, and we had a long day of rapids ahead of us!


The next few hours were rapid time. There are 31 rapids and since we want through the one the previous days, that meant we had 30 to go, including all the big ones. Tired from the hike. I rode in one of the rowboats (where a guide rows). So, rapid after rapid. I sat both on the side of the boar or on the front (called “riding bull”), although most of the bull riding was handled by Robbie. No matter where you sit, you get wet. So, the rapids are like being on super choppy lake water – you bounce a lot since you are on a smaller boat, and get wet, but not terribly exciting. Some of the others, especially with rocks and drops, are more intense – there are huge standing waves and turbulence with massive bouncy wave where you ride high and just get slammed by a mountain of water. (this video from a few years ago, not of our group obviously, gives a fair example of the power of the rapids)

In between rapids, the boats grouped up and splashed each other with oars as they were nearby. We also rendezvoused with the other Western group for the big rapids. They were like a bizarro version of us, not nearly as cool though.

There were no flips on the rapids, but the paddle boat (which I wasn’t on at the time) got hung up on a rock for a bit and tipped, dumping Eddie and Janette into the rapids. Eddie quickly drifted to the shore, but Janette rode though two rapids in her life jacket. It was scary – she was fine, just swallowed a lot of water, but she said it was as scared as she had been in her life. Neither person was injured and they both have great stories now to tell back home!

After lunch we had a few more rapids to cover. I switched to the paddle boat to experience that and at the end we all stood on the boat and as we went over the last (pretty mild) rapid we all jumped in and laughed and floated for a while. The rapids were a lot of fun, a really memorable experience that felt mildly dangerous but that we were in good hands and could really enjoy ourselves.

Just chillin’ after a long day of rapids and hiking and sun and sand.

Thursday evening we camped at a smaller campsite that was a natural outdoor amphitheater with a dried up spring pond in it. It was the last night so everything was a bit silly. The guides outdid themselves by serving hors d’vours in “formal” wear – pants and even ties. We rafters had to be formal too, so at the request of our guides, we took the bed sheets from our dry bags and wore them as togas. Yes, a “toga party” in the middle of Cataract Canyon. Everyone looked ridiculous (especially Bud whose “toga” had little monkeys all over it), and our little “Senate” enjoyed steak for dinner followed by ice cream and bananas jubilee for dessert.

After dinner Taylor said that Western would set up a shutterfly account for the trip so that we could all share photos and videos (they had a go pro to get good whitewater action) but they can’t give out email addresses, so I went around and got everyone’s email so that we could stay in touch after.

Over and out…

I slept like a rock Thursday night – Friday would be the end of the journey. There was one last cool little diversion in order – a hike up a stream bed to a waterfall. The stream bed started out dry, and as we made our way further up, we started seeing pools of water, often filled with tadpoles. We also saw a ton of tiny baby toads hopping about; apparently this stream is part of their life cycle, with eggs being laid when it is high and then the tadpoles develop in the pools as it goes down, hopefully turning into toads before the pools dry out. After hiking a couple miles along the stream bed (which was beautiful, in a canyon shielded from the sun and filled with pools and green plants) we got to a small waterfall. I was not planning on diving in it from the cliff above (about 25 foot drop) but Robbie went right into it, and I decided on the spur of the moment, I’d never be back here, I should try it, so I did. Looking down at the water from above I kinda freaked out, got second thoughts, but then everyone counted down, “three, two, one” and I had to jump. So I did.

A panoramic shot of the area around the Dark Canyon waterfall.

After the hike back, we drifted down the rest of the river to what used to be Lake Powell, and what is now just a dried up lake with the Colorado running down it, due to drought. At this point we were all super filthy – almost four days of sand and sweat and grit and sunscreen and dirt and river water. I joked that we’d probably ruin the water pressure in Moab when all of use turned on the showers after getting back to town!

We got out of the river at Hite boat ramp, said goodbye to our awesome guides, and were immediately bussed to the tiniest “airport” I have ever seen – a strip of asphalt, and a windsock. There were a bunch of Cessna’s waiting to take us back up to Moab. Only 6 of us could fit in each plan, and the ride (about 45 minutes) was really interesting as the pilot flew along the Colorado. The giant canyon walls looked very small, and the mighty rapids we ran looked like little ripples from 7000 feet. The flight back also gave me a chance to see the rest of Canyonlands from the air, a fantastic fantasyland of colored rock shapes, like a Super Mario level.

Hite airstrip is lacking in the amenities. No Starbucks, but also no friendly grope from the TSA!

We landed in Moab at their tiny airport (which is about the size of Lawrence’s) where we were bussed back to town. The trip was over, we said our goodbyes and the real world returned.

Worlds big and small…

I didn’t approach the trip as any kind of opportunity for personal growth or anything, I just wanted to have fun and have a memorable time, which I did, but I did discover a few things about me.

I found that I really could survive (at least for a few days!) without being part of the Matrix. I am a person who is always on Twitter or Facebook or texting with friends or checking work email, and is wondered how I would be without that. It was actually fine – I didn’t miss it while on the trip. It’s like you are in another world, where that stuff doesn’t matter, like, well, an exploration, where the entire universe is your group and your experiences, and you are so immersed in what you are doing you don’t miss things from the outside and don’t even know what time it is; sunrise and sunset define the day. It is hard to think about the regular world; I missed Dave, but I didn’t have much time to think about it while actively on the trip.

I wasn’t too worried about the rapids, but the giant hike and climb to the doll house was something I didn’t expect to do. Getting up at 5:30 am – on a vacation nonetheless – for a grueling hike and climb? Not my style, but if did it, I wanted to see what it was like, and it was so much fun, and such a sense of accomplishment. The other moment was diving into the waterfall pool at the end. That was scary, so I am proud I did it, although it’s hard to understand the spontaneity of my thought process, I just kinda suddenly needed to prove I could do it, and I did.

Categories: Life Tags:

Mike’s favorite books of 2013

December 6th, 2013 Comments off

Following the tradition I started in 2009, and continued in 2010, 2011 and 2012 I present my annual list of my favorite books I read during the past year. As always, the lists tends towards history, science, and speculative fiction, but hey, it’s my list, so without further ado, and in no particular order…

The Abominable: A Novel by Dan Simmons

This novel starts out slow, and turns into an absolutely intense fight for survival in a harsh environment with stakes as high as they get. The attention to historic detail and the minutiae of 1920s mountain-climbing tech is fascinating.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Bryson could write about watching grass grow and it would be fun. He has much more interesting material here, chronicling one summer in American life, using as his hook Lindbergh’s famous flight. A remarkable look at pop-culture history.

On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

The best writer in science fiction today hits another out of the park with “Steel Breeze,” a story that combines a fight for survival on a massive generational starship, an encounter with a mysterious alien machine intelligence, and the politics of a world where human nature has been changed (or has it?) due to the influence of advanced software.

Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma

A refreshing and entirely new take on World War II, focusing not on the fighting itself, but what happened during the first year after. Of particular note, the author covers the entire world, Asia and Europe, focusing on the themes of vengeance, re-establishment of the rule of law, and the politics and implementation of the occupations.

Doctor Sleep: A Novel by Stephen King

The sequel to “Shining” is much less ‘horror’ then the original (although some old friends do make appearances) and more meditative. This is King, though, and he doesn’t skimp on the plot development or strong characters. A fun read with color villains and great heroes.

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser

Investigative journalist Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) digs into one of the biggest secrets of the atomic age: namely that our weapons were stored and controlled with less attention to security and detail then the average person’s LinkedIn password. An essential history of how we managed these weapons is told through the story of a near-disaster in an Arkansas silo where a nuclear weapon came close to accidental detonation on American soil.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

A teenage boy wakes up alone in a world that is empty and decayed, with no memory of how he got there. This is the hook for a mystery that extends very deeply into the nature of reality, linked to traumatic events in the boy’s family past as he discovers who he is. One of the most unique and fresh takes on this genre in years.

Odds Against Tomorrow: A Novel by Nathaniel Rich

Cross Nate Silver with Rick Grimes, and you might have the protagonist in this literate post-apocalyptic novel. The protagonist is a conflicted math whiz who uses his predictive skill to make himself rich forecasting disasters for insurance companies and other wealthy clients, becoming numb to the world, until he and the woman he cares about experience an apocalypse he himself predicted.

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner

Ostensibly the story of one of two drug-addled screwballs who managed an audacious hijacking in the early 1970s, Koerner’s book more broadly focuses on a history of the so-called “golden age” of hijacking, in the late 60s and early 70s, the age before metal detectors and when hijackers were generally non-violent. Both a history of the hijackers themselves and the story of how the system tried to respond, the book really brings alive that crazy, amazingly innocent (compared to now) era.

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

The premise is simple. The zombie apocalypse happens, and the only folks who are immune are meth addicts, and only if they remain addicted (sobriety means a quick death and turning into a zombie). A mix of delicious zombie gore and musings on the nature of society and addiction, this novel is both comic and touching.

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George

Look around; almost everything in your home or office got there because it travelled on a giant boat from somewhere else. Author Rose George climbs aboard the merchant marine and through her journey throws some light upon this little-known but essential piece of our world’s infrastructure, covering shipboard life, pirates, cargo handling, the the experiences of sailors and captains as they keep the flow of world commerce going.

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt

War is horrible, but it has rules, right? How these rules developed is a little-known story, featuring a very well-known President. Mixing military history, legal theory, and politics, author Witt tells the story about how fallible men tried to make what is essentially an inhumane activity as “humane” as possible.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

There are many histories of Elizabethan England, and most of them cover the the lives of the powerful, and a certain well-known playwright, but what was it like to actually live then? How would you go about daily life, what would actually make you laugh or cry, what might you do to fill your plate and where might you go to shit it out? This is history made real, and short of a time machine, the closest we’ll come to really feeling what it might be like to experience another time.

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov

In recent years there has been a lot of hype about how technology will finally be able to solve various problems that have been plaguing humanity. While no luddite, Evgeny Morozov takes a much needed pin to these balloons of hot air, explaining that technology is not a panacea and by itself cannot fix problems that at their root are not solvable via purely technical means. Sharp and witty, but backed by real thought and depth, this is some of the best writing on this issue I have seen in years.

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

Using the little-known diary of a German executioner as its primary source, the lives of 16th century Germans and their notions of law and justice are examined. This book is fascinating, because for the vast gulf of time, and major changes in legal concepts and morality since then, the humanity of the titular executioner and the people he served have stayed surprisingly constant over time. History at its most interesting.

The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom by Mark S. Weiner

There’s a fundamental difference between two different systems for organizing political life – tribal rule, and rule of law; the latter seems self-evidently much better, but there are strong pulls in human psychology towards the former. A fascinating look at the strengths and weaknesses of both systems, and how they can explain a lot of what we see in the world today; probably the best popular political philosophy book I’ve read in years.

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine

That the South lost the Civil War is obvious, but less obvious is the very specific ways that the Southern “system” was dismantled, socially and politically. Looking at both the debate in the North and the facts on the ground in the South, author Levine brings this turbulent era to life on both sides.

The Secret Lives of Sports Fans by Eric Simons

I am a pretty dedicated fan of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, and my euphoria when they win big and despair when they lose has always tickled my intellectual side – why do I feel this way, how does it affect me psychologically and socially, and is it similar to other “mass euphoria” like religion? This wonderful book demonstrates experimentally some of the deep truths about sports fandom and the inner lives of fans.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is one of the most entertaining science writes out there, and she doesn’t disappoint with this delightful trip down the digestive tract, from the mouth to the, uh, other end. It is rare to find an author who combines the childish fun of a fart joke with some interesting and genuine science, a real winner.

The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

A simple premise – the Earth starts rotating slower, the days start gradually getting longer. In “Age of Miracles” we see how this affects the world, through the eyes of a teenager girl with the usual joys and terrors of adolescence. The changes causes by the slowdown are well thought out and scary. Amongst the best speculative fiction novels I have read in a while.

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Zuk

As someone who is quite sick of pop-evolutionary psychologists saying that we do X or Y because the “cavemen” evolved to do it, or that we should eat this or that for the same reason, this book is a breath of fresh air. Zuk uses real science to show us how evolution really worked on human beings and separates the paleo hype from scientific fact in an engaging and informative style.

Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley

Phone Phreaks were the original hackers, and their story has never been told with as much verve as here. Combining an interesting technical history of the phone system in America with the personal stories of some of the most colorful hackers who explored the system, this book takes us to a more innocent time. The cat and mouse tales practically leap off the page; a real celebration of the spirit of learning and exploring that marks true hacker culture.

The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse by Sam Sheridan

Zombies, meteors, bird flu, alien invasions or whatnot, what would it actually take to survive? Sam Sheridan explores this, taking on the role of an ordinary schlub who decides to learn all the skills of apocalyptic living, ranging from extreme driving, tactical weapons, food preparation, and combat first aid. This is a fun and interesting book, it’s not a boring survival manual – the author’s sense of humor comes through as he concocts ridiculous scenarios but then learns what real-world skills might come in handy.

The Reach of Rome by Alberto Angela

This might be considered the Roman equivalent of “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England” noted above; both books do an amazing job of really giving the reader a feel for life in the past. Where this book differs is that it covers the Roman world more broadly, following the movement of a coin around the Empire, touching on dozens of different people as they go about their lives. It reads like fiction, although everything in the book is based on actual archeology. An amazing trip through time; a day at the chariot races, a trip to a garum factory and a visit to a doctor’s office…real life in the Roman world from patricians down to slaves.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene

If psychology and philosophy had a baby, it would be this book. A great exploration of how humans make moral decisions and how these decisions inform our political and social choices, Greene ends up with a full-throated defense of a form of utilitarianism as the best way for groups of people with different moral views to live in peace.

Categories: Books, reviews Tags:

Seven random pieces of advice for app developers

July 14th, 2013 Comments off

1. Don’t make me create a new account for your app or service. Seriously, I got enough of these damn things. Let me use my Google or Facebook or Twitter account to log in with OAuth. Or, at least make that an option.

2. Write release notes. “Bug fixes” is not a release note. List out the damn bugs. It doesn’t need to be copy and pasted straight from your Jira instance, but give us a little idea just what might have been fixed.

3. Every time an app is released with virtual currency that can be purchased via in-app purchase, God kills a thousand puppies.

4. Make something good and let me pay a fair price for it. No “freemium” bullshit. I bought Coda. I bought Tweetbot. They were expensive (relatively speaking). They were good. They were worth it.

5.Use Apple’s built-in shit. Don’t invent your own UI from scratch, Apple is better at it then you. And use the fucking APIs and OS features that make sense. Seriously, why are there still airlines that don’t use Passbook? And if you want me to share to social networks, use the built-in iOS sharing functionality.

6. Don’t force me into Landscape mode. Ever.

7. Don’t give me shit about jailbreaking my phone. It’s legit not to officially support non-standard phones, but intentionally blocking functionality is petty and insulting.

Categories: Computers Tags:

People are people

January 18th, 2013 Comments off

I read a lot of science fiction (currently finishing Alastair Reynolds’ amazing Blue Remembered Earth) as well as trying to get more into historical fiction. One thing both genres have in common is that people’s lives are really different. The technology is different, the day-to-day minutiae of getting though the day operates in different ways. How people communicate, how they access information, what they do is sometimes quite alien. It’s easy to get distracted by this, especially in science fiction.

“Blue Remembered Earth” is set 150 years in our future, and the technology, and the modes of living it has enabled, are quite stunning. However, I was thinking, imagining people from 150 years ago, in the 1860s, looking at us today. What would they think of our technology, our society?

The gulf is just as great, but all across time, there’s still more in common then different. People still take joy in being with friends, they still fall in love, the cozen and plot, embrace and hate, take a certain satisfaction in a good meal or a good shit, have daily work to get done, eagerly seek news of the wider world, love to tell and hear stories about other people, treasure family bonds, feel eagerness and passion for living, and are adapted to their environment and their social world.

It’s important to remember that. Societies may change (and hopefully improve) but people are people. Humans in the past were not stupid, humans in the future will not be smart. They have been, and will be, in all cases, people.

Categories: History, Life Tags:

My favorite reads from 2012

December 23rd, 2012 1 comment

It’s that time of year, bibliophiles – my list of the best books I have read during the past year. In case you are curious, here are my lists from 2011, 2010, and 2009.

Anyway, onward to 2013, and here’s this year’s list…

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
This is the best book I have read concerning why government in this country is so messed up. The authors have devoted their entire lives studying Congress and they refreshingly call out the current Republican Party’s shenanigans as the main reason the institution is so dysfunctional – all the more searing because these are not liberals or Democrats but rather conservatives writing the book.

Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
I have always loved “big dumb object” sci-fi, the genre where explorers come across a large, mysterious object and explore it (the most famous literary example is Arthur C. Clark’s “Rendezvous with Rama”). “Bowl” is a fresh take on the genre, with a human hibernation ship comes across a massive alien construct that harnesses an entire star as its drive system. Amazing concept of a habitat the size of a solar system and some truly alien intelligences mixed with old-fashioned sci-fi adventure and a sense of wonder. The first of a planned trilogy.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
Why do we use forks int he West while the Chinese use chopsticks? How did the butter knife evolve? What’s with all the ridiculous ways we measure things in cooking? How did the oven evolve? If questions like these interest you, you will find “Consider the Fork” fascinating. A great, accessible cultural history of various aspects of cooking and kitchens.

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body by Frances Ashcroft
Usually when electricity comes in contact with the body, bad things happen, but of course electricity is also necessary for life. Ashcroft explores how electricity works in the human body, and how various processes keeps us alive, and enable us to move, sense, and think. A fascinating exploration of the chemical basis of life – and what can happen when things go wrong.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
This would have been a great book even if Silver would have blown his election predictions, but the fact he was nearly perfect only enhances his reputation, and in his first book, Silver covers the nature of predictions, and how forecasting works across a variety of fields. The book is less about “how to predict” then how to think about concept of predictions and probability, and is just fascinating, thoughtful, and very well-written.

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
On one level, “The Last Policeman” is a well-done police procedural. However, it is much more, as the particular murder the protagonist is trying to solve has occurred against the backdrop of a massive asteroid that is only months away from ending human civilization. This presents a new sub-genre in the otherwise-tired pile of post-apocalyptic novels: the pre-apocalypse, and the thoughtful consideration about how our society would change with the end of the world months away is intriguing, and the dogged detective trying to solve a murder when the entire world is about to be ended is touching and haunting.

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger by Harvey Molotch
Security is always in the news, whether the lastest TSA outrage or another tragic shooting spree. Sadly, the usual way our society reacts to security issues is the way an over-stimulated immune system reacts to peanut particles and pollen – with an “allergic” reaction that usually ends up worse then the original problem. Moloch talks about how security works, and how real security is actually accomplished, focusing both on the obvious areas (airports) and places people don’t think about (bathrooms). This book is must reading for any American concerned with how we react to security threats.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This is the list of best book I have read in 2012, and so “Cloud Atlas” is included even though it came out in 2004. “Cloud Atlas” is a humane big-concept exploration of the human condition across time and space, and the storytelling method, with six stories wrapped in each other, layered like a Russian nesting doll, is both daring and well thought-out, and is one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read.

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David Randall
We all sleep. We all have had problems sleeping. If we’re lucky, occasional mild insomnia, but for some people, it gets a lot worse, none more so then a man who (apparently) murdered his wife while sleepwalking. “Dreamland” explores the physiology of sleep, what is it for, and what kind of crazy things can happen there, including chapters and dreams, sleepwalking, and more, written in a breezy style.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
A terrible disease, spread by mindless biters that has terrified humanity – it’s not the zombie apocalypse, but rabies, and this dread disease has been part of human culture through recorded history, oftentimes turning our most beloved companions into vicious killers. The history of rabies is surprisingly fascinating, giving rise to legends like werewolves, and one of history’s greatest scientific triumphs, the creating of an effective vaccine. Wasik and Murphy tell a great story, best read while curled up next to your dog, of course.

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
“Last Hundred Days” is a (historical) novel about an English academic who is mysteriously granted a position as a lecturer in a Romanian university during the last days of the Ceaușescu regime. Nothing is quite as it seems, and the protagonist is drawn into a vibrant and chaotic world of government officials, spies, dissidents and assorted hangers-on – not everyone being who they appear to be – all the while the regime and society slowly collapse around him, putting the lives of himself and those he cares about at risk.

X-Events: The Collapse of Everything by John Casti
The title doesn’t do this book justice, making it sound like a catalog of disaster or porn for survivalists. “X Events” is neither, but rather an examination of the systems that make both our natural and man-made worlds work, and the various way in which they may collapse. Carefully considering the various possibilities, the author not only describes the various disaster, but talks about the natural of systems, and how the various levels of complexity of (man-made systems) can make them more or less liable to fail.

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King
“Wind” is a book that is an absolute must for fans of Stephen King and the “Dark Tower” series, but even for a newbie, it can be successfully enjoyed as a standalone novel about a boy’s adventure in a fantastical world. In effect two complete stories nested together, “Wind” is fundamentally about a boy learning courage and overcoming doubt while going on a quest. It works.

The Drowned Cities by Paulo Bacigalupi
“Drowned Cities” is more then it seems on the surface. At its most basic level, it is the story of pre-teens struggling to survive in a future Washington, D.C. that has been flooded due to rising sea levels and is fought over by rival militia groups. This adventure story, filled with action and unforgettable scenes, works well enough simply at that level, but on a deeper level, this is a thoughtful book on the nature of war, on human nature, love, and what makes people do horrible things. As a meditation on violence, the book is very memorable, and imagining the horrible, hopeless world of child soldiers, drugs, and despair that exists in places like the Congo transported into what was America leaves an image on the mind that I will not soon forget.

Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter
A straightforward, revelatory telling of the story of Lawrence vs Texas, the Supreme Court case that overturned Bowers vs Hardwick and struck down anti-gay “sodomy” laws in America. Carpenter covers the case from the beginning to the end, including interviewing the original participants in the arrest that triggered the case – the police and those at the scene of the “crime” – followed by the case’s amazing journey, against numerous obstacles both legal and procedural, to actual make it to the Court. Both a gripping legal story, and the tale about how real people made fundamental change in America, this book could not be more timely given the current marriage equality cases that are before the Supreme Court

The Fear Index by Robert Harris
“Fear Index” is the one guilty pleasure on this list, a fun, smart thriller about a ‘quant’ – a computer-driven stock trader and mathematical genius who has built an intelligent system that ends up being a bit too smart. A thrilling, cautionary retelling of the Frankenstein tale for our time.

That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz
Why is “X” gross (poop, rotting food, an ugly person, etc)? It seems obvious, it just is. In the best tradition of popular science writing, Herz explores the actual mechanisms that drive disgust in humans, and what evolutionary pressures might have generated them. What kinds of disgust are inborn, and what have to be learned? Are there cultural difference? A fascinating, well-written, fun – and gross – book.

The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel of North Korea by Adam Johnson
North Korea is a fascinating country, being that it is the last totalitarian communist state on the planet, and mixes oppression with a cult of personality very alien to Americans. “The Orphan Master’s Son” is a story about life in North Korea, specifically the life of one individual, who rises, falls, and rises again to different stations in North Korean life, eventually ending up as apparently a famed general who can challenge the Dear Leader himself. A story of love, violence, and absurdity of life in a dictatorship, told with verve, a sense of adventure, and compassion, and quite possibly the best book I read in 2012.

The End of War by John Horgan
This is a very short book, essentially a long essay on war. Specifically, and optimistically, war as something that is not endemic to humanity and something that can be cured, like a disease. Whether you believe war is inevitable to the human condition or not, Horgan’s book is worth a read for being a clear, concise and well-argued polemic that we do not have to live with war and violence as the price of being human.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Carter
Technically an alternative history, “Impeachment” posits a world where Lincoln survived the assassination attempt only to run aground in a whirl of partisan post-war acrimony, ending in an impeachment trial. Carter’s very well-researched novel puts the reader in the middle of the swirl of life in Washington, with rumors of conspiracy mixing with the courtroom drama of the actual impeachment trial in the Senate. As Lincoln’s defense, rallies, powerful enemies try to bring him down. The ostensible protagonist, a female black legal clerk, has deep connections to the issues at hand that could save Lincoln, or bury him.

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Signs and portents

October 9th, 2012 1 comment

Imagine you care very deeply about a particular football game. You really want your team to win, but you can’t watch the game. You can’t even check on the score. You are close enough to the stadium that you can hear the roar of the crowd (usually) and you have access to a few random stats (but not the actual score, remember). You can see time of possession, and the QB rating for each team’s starting quarterback, and maybe turnovers. That’s it.

That is what it is like watching polls if you are a political junkie. You can get a decent idea of who is winning, but you are not sure, and there’s a lot of margin for error. But, you have an idea, and you kind of can tell the momentum. I think my team (Obama) was winning for while, based on the crowd noise, but it’s gotten very quiet as of late, and I notice we’ve turned it over a couple times in quick succession. But we don’t know the score, and won’t til the game is over in 4 weeks.

For my own mental health I should probably stop poll-watching and reading Nate Silver, but it is somewhat addictive, and frustrating at the same time. Are there really that many people who simply choose to ignore a year’s worth of political campaigning and change their opinion based on a 90 minute debate? Is the unlikeable, tin-eared plutocrat, who made gaffe after gaffe (47%, “severe conservative” “I like to fire people”) suddenly preferable to tired, adult Obama, who ironically has finally moved America into positive ground in unemployment and the economy after 4 years?

This is all the more frustrating because (in theory) Obama was leading for a while. It is a textbook example of loss aversion…I don’t think the frustration would be as bad if the two guys had been tied for months. It hurts more to blow a big lead (or pile of cash) then to lose a game that was close all along (ask any fan – or investor).

Ugh. Just depressing. And I know there is still time for it to turn around, but my confidence in the ability of the American people to make adult choices is not terribly high after seeing the polls (those polls again) seem to indicate that most viewers treated the debate like American Idol.

Categories: Politics Tags:

There’s some things remote control just can’t do

September 16th, 2012 2 comments

I go this evening to remote-control my computer at work using Timbuktu, and I notice something very weird. I can’t move the mouse – I can type just fine, but my mouse movements aren’t being transmitted, and even stranger, the pointer is wiggling slightly.

Bizarre. Figuring it was some software glitch, I restarted the Timbuktu process on my work computer. No dice. I switch from Timbuktu to Apple’s built-in remote control, and I am able to move the mouse, but as soon as I stop moving it, I see the pointer start to randomly jiggle around.

Something is really weird. I check the running processes for anything suspicious. Nothing. OK, maybe it is something in my user’s environment, so I switch to another user on the computer. Still we have the jigglies. At this point, I am pretty certain there is a hardware issue at play. In fact, I am pretty sure what it might be – when I left Friday night, I probably knocked my mouse into a position where the laser was tracking off the edge of some papers or a seam in my desk – so basically it was as if there was a person physically moving my mouse (the reason I was still able to use Apple’s remote control but not Timbuktu is because Timbuktu has logic built in to always give the user of the computer being controlled ‘ownership’ of the mouse if they physically move it; apparently Apple’s remote control doesn’t have this ‘feature’)

I can’t leave my computer in this state; I don’t want it to be unlocked and open for several days while I am away, and furthermore, my LCD displays could be damaged having the same image displayed continuously for days (yeah, LCDs get burn in also). What I needed was some way to remotely tell the Mac to ignore that mouse, act like it was disconnected. Alas, unlike a USB hard drive, there’s no way to “dismount” a mouse. Some Google searching and a browse through USB Prober didn’t come up with any solution. Rebooting wouldn’t work either, since this was a physical issue.

I’d like to think I found some magic solution, but what I did was very low-tech. I drove over to my office, saw that yes indeed the mouse was laying askew against some papers, and moved the damn rodent to a secure position, and drove back home. Problem solved.

Categories: Computers Tags: