Saturday, October 20, 2012

I Was Bored. I Have No Other Excuse.

   Once upon a time, a culinary scientist was testing a new smartphone app he had created. With it, one could point the smartphone at any food item and that item would give information about itself – in its own words – that would help inexperienced cooks in preparing those items. After much work, the app was ready for testing. The scientist went to the local grocery store to try it out. First, he pointed it at a pepper.

   “I am a pepper. I was grown in Mexico. I am moderately hot and can be used in sauces for added flavor.”

   The scientist was ecstatic! He tried other items:

   “I am a potato. I was grown in Idaho. I contain starches and carbohydrates and if cooked at 400 degrees for one hour I will make an excellent baked potato.”

   Another success! Encouraged, the scientist tried more complex foods.

   “I am a tiramisu. I was made by a chef in New York from the finest ingredients, including excellent mascarpone cheese. I am the perfect dessert for special occasions and holidays.”

   Finally, the scientist decided to test the new app on an apple pie:

   “The CIA and the Trilateral Commission are using secret hydrogen bomb technology to undermine the continental shelf in order to cause earthquakes! Oswald didn’t act alone! He was helped by space aliens who used special mind wave technology to get rid of the President because he knew too much about Atlantis!”

   Confused, the scientist tried again:

   “The Norwegians are trying to corner the silver market in a conspiracy with a secret advanced race of super-intelligent rodent-beings so they can destabilize the internet in order to hide the truth about homeopathy!”

   Disappointed, the scientist went home to figure out what went wrong. Despite much tweaking, whenever he tried the app on a pie, he got the same kind of bizarre diatribe. One day, he mentioned his problem to a mathematician friend.

   “Oh!” said the mathematician. “I know what the problem is!”
   “What?” asked the culinary scientist.
   “Your app is working fine! It’s the pie that’s the problem!”
   “Really? How so?”
   “Well,” replied the mathematician, “as any mathematician can tell you, pie is irrational!”

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Theological Insights from Olympic Beach Volleyball

   While watching the Olympic beach volleyball competition recently, I noticed the American women’s team practiced a small ritual after each point. They would smack their hands together in a double high five, then hug, then do another double high five and then one of them would point skyward, apparently acknowledging the role of the Almighty in spiking the ball over the net and leaving the competition with a face full of sand.
   It was that final gesture which caught my attention. The volleyball player was pointing directly overhead… to what astronomers call the zenith point. This would imply that God is in a specific place in the heavens - for if, as some people state, God is “everywhere” there would be no need to point anywhere to recognize Him. God is just as much in the sand beneath the players’ feet as he is in the sky. But based on the pointing of the player it would appear that God was in the sky at a point directly over the London Olympic beach volleyball court at the beginning of the match.
   As the match continued, however, I noticed something intriguing. The American volleyball players continued to curry Divine favor, kept scoring and consequently kept hugging, high-fiving and pointing… directly overhead. As someone with an amateur interest in astronomy I found this fascinating. If God was indeed at a fixed point in the sky, that point would appear to move over time from our Earth-bound perspective as the Earth rotated about its axis. In other words, as the match continued, the volleyball player should have been pointing at a point in the sky slightly off the overhead point she was pointing to at the beginning of the match. Yet she kept pointing directly overhead.
   This could only mean one thing! Something profound in its theological and astronomical implications: God is in a geostationary orbit! Like a communication satellite, God is revolving in the heavens at the same rate as the Earth’s rotation. Thus, from our perspective, he remains in the same point in the sky at all times.
   It would also imply that in parts of the world opposite London, God is never in the sky at all! The Antipode of London (the point opposite the Earth from that city), in fact, is near New Zealand. Do religious New Zealand volleyball players point at the ground when they score a point on home turf? Is divine power unable to pass through the center of the Earth? If so, that would make New Zealand quite literally the most God-forsaken spot on the planet. That would make sense, I suppose. After all, could a creature as bizarre as the Kiwi have been intelligently designed by an All-Powerful Creator? This may also explain why the Olympic Games have never been held in New Zealand.

   So much to think about. So many questions. Maybe someday the American women’s beach volleyball team will tell all!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Why I Love My Kindle

Years ago, at the now-defunct Border’s books in Flint I spied a massive box, about the size of a steamer trunk, containing The Complete Works of Mark Twain. It carried a price tag of several hundred dollars but I was still drooling. It was something I would have loved to own, but the inconvenience of the size of the box combined with the steep price steered me away.

   Fast forward a good number of years. I now was working as a janitor at the Cardiovascular Center in Ann Arbor. I loved reading on my break time as much as ever, but taking books back & forth was beginning to become a hassle. Small books weren’t too much of a problem since I could always stuff them in my coat pocket in the wintertime but larger books and books during the warm weather months weren’t as convenient.

   I had been wondering whether one o’those newfangled electronic gizmos for reading books would be a good solution for me. I had first seen them on vacation several years earlier in Washington D.C. Many commuters were engrossed in reading them on the Metro. It looked like a convenient way to enjoy reading in busy, chaotic circumstances. I wanted to know more about them, and as it turned out the weekend supervisor at the hospital had just purchased a Kindle and she let me check it out. I was immediately sold. It was easy to read and easy to use. Plus, I could download lots of public domain titles from such sources as Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

   One of the criticisms of the Kindle (usually from those who don’t yet own them) comes from people who say they like the feel of holding a physical book. I completely understand that. Heck, I like physical books, too. But this isn’t an “either/or” proposition. Using a Kindle doesn’t mean you can no longer read regular books again. It’s something one uses in addition to physical books. Not in place
of them.

   So finally, last year, I saved up my birthday money and bought my Kindle. I’ve never regretted it. I’ve been reading an insane amount of material… much of it old and obscure historical works from the previously mentioned internet sites which are available for free. I also enjoy reading old technical papers from NASA which are posted on the history sections of their website.

   But one of the most amazing finds for my Kindle was an electronic version of The Complete Works of Mark Twain. Yes, not only was it available online, the price was a mere 99 cents!!! Naturally, I clicked the download button and within a few minutes I was the proud owner of a work I’d wanted those many years before. Cheap, easy, convenient. What’s not to like?

   Lest you think I’m merely being a shill for Amazon, I would like to state clearly there are certain things I DON’T like about how Amazon does business. One thing I don’t like is you can’t order a magazine subscription using a gift card. Seems kinda silly to me. I think it’s related to another thing I don’t like. Namely, you can’t just order a magazine subscription for your Kindle for a finite period of time. If you wanted to order a 1-year subscription to a given magazine for X amount of dollars, you can’t do it. You can only give them your credit card number and get an open-ended subscription and have your account billed indefinitely until such time as you actively cancel the subscription. I do NOT like that. I want to pay a given amount of money for a given good or service and be done with it. If I want more later, I’LL make the decision to renew.

    Heck, even on subscriptions to the print versions of magazines they will automatically renew your subscription and keep billing you unless you cancel it. I found that by going to the website of a magazine itself I could not only get a print subscription for a finite period, it was cheaper than the price charged by Amazon as well.

    That having been said, however, the Kindle itself has been a welcome presence in my daily routine. Not only does it excel in its primary role as an electronic reading device, it also has basic e-mail and web browsing functions. Nothing fancy, mind you, but it gets the job done when no other internet access is available. When I’m taking a break at work and need to let my wife know I may be late getting home, a quick e-mail from the Kindle does the trick.

   The Kindle I have is the one with the monochrome screen. Since I bought it, there’s now the Kindle Fire with full color display and (from what I understand anyway) a more powerful processor and enhanced internet connectivity. Yeah, that would be neat, but on a janitor’s salary money IS an object and for now my old reliable Kindle is handling things well. Along with the trusty old Sony ICF-2010 shortwave radio which I’ve had for decades, it’s one of the favorite material things I own.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Lesson

The most valuable lessons in life are sometimes those which happen when you simply think about everyday things in a new way.

 I remember in 1990 when the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed. I was working at the Public TV station in Flint at the time and we were required to sit through some videoconferences explaining the law and its ramifications. I figured it was only marginally relevant to me. I didn't have a physical handicap. Neither did the employees I supervised. If the new laws made the lives of disabled people a bit better, that was fine, but as far as I was concerned this was all stuff that would take place in the background.

 One of the immediate results of the ADA was the rather old building which housed the TV station was upgraded to make it more accessible to those with disabilities. One such upgrade was the addition of a push button outside the entry door which would automatically open that door when pushed. I had no problem opening that door anyway, so I figured it made no difference to me either way. But then we started airing telecourses for a local Community College. One of my jobs was to haul the weekly load of videotapes from a building located across campus back to the TV studio. On some weeks, these heavy tapes had to be carried by yours truly in an cumbersome box requiring all my strength to carry. And guess what? When I arrived breathless at the entry door and my hands were full, I was able to push the access button with my elbow, have the door automatically open and easily walk inside.

 I've often thought about that incident in the years which followed. In making things a little better for one group, we - sometimes in unintended and unplanned ways - make things a little easier for ourselves as well. Ever since, when questions of rights for minority groups have come up, I have tended to err on the side of wanting to maximize the rights of such groups. My reasoning is that not only would expansion of those rights be good in and of themselves, but there might, when one least expects it, be benefits for us all.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I've recently found out that people have posted comments to my posts only to have these comments disappear. Please know that I have NOT been deleting them. I don't know the cause of the problem but I will try to figure it out and correct it if possible. Thanks fer yer patience!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Some Thoughts and Another Damned Haiku

When it comes to my employment history, it seems I've lived backwards. The conventional wisdom is that one puts up with crappy jobs when starting out and after "paying one's dues" one is rewarded with a more enjoyable job and better working conditions.
Me? I once had a job I loved and excelled in. It was close by, I had understanding supervisors and I was well compensated. Now? It's a daily 125-mile round trip slog so I can clean toilets and deal with a sketchy supervisor who treats most of his employees like shit.
How bad is he? He refuses to let me have my 50th birthday off despite the fact I have plenty of vacation hours saved up and 23 years seniority at the University. What a dick.
Today, I toured the University of Michigan with my son. He is doing exceptionally well in high school and has a very good chance of being accepted. It was hard to contrast my grizzled survivor-mode existence with the optimistic the-world-lies-ahead-of-you vibe of the new prospective students taking the tour. There was a part of me that wished it could be me looking forward to college. All the knowledge. All the opportunities. All the freshness and excitement of new possibilities. But I had my chance. It's time for me to step aside and let the new generation have its chance. It's time for them to dream.
And time for me to get back to scrubbing toilets. Someone has to pay for it all...

Thinking of my son
On the cusp of adulthood.
The whole world awaits.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sign of the Times

This, I presume, implies their competitors' customers are some sort of inferior stale lukewarm coffee. Or something.
(Sign at a Marathon station in Davison, MI. January 2012.)