Saturday, November 12, 2005

Winning Immunity

How many times so far this year have you been sick? I grew up as a generally healthy kid, getting the occasional cold or flu, but nothing out of the ordinary. These days, though, it seems like every couple of months, there's some other local outbreak of illness and sooner or later I'm catching it. "Oh, there's something going around," people say, as if it's a foregone conclusion that we're all going to get sick again. I, for one, am tired of it. I don't know what I'm going to do about it, but I'll figure out something. Any positive change is better than nothing.
Container World
We city dwellers seem to live out our existence in large containers full of other people. We ride the bus or train to work, sit in cubicles, sometimes with up to three others in the same space, surrounded by people in their own cubicles. Inevitably there's someone somewhere in your department coughing and hacking because they've got a cold, spreading germs like a rainbird waters the lawn.
On the bus this morning, a friend of mine was complaining between coughs that he had been hit with whatever the illness of the week is (my wife and all my neighbors have had it, as well as several coworkers. I'm next, I just know it). My friend sounded terrible, as if he should be home with a cup of hot tea and a bowl of soup. Why would he go to work and spread it around? He evidently hadn't been at the new job long enough to accrue enough "sick days" to take time off, and as an hourly employee, if he's not working, he's not making money. It's tough to pay the mortgage without a paycheck, so off to work he goes.

So how do we battle this societal snowball? Liberals will tell you that we can package mandatory sick days into some national health care bill, forcing employers to incurr even higher per-employee overhead, thus driving the same employers to wring every last drop of productivity they can out of their workers, which will end up making them all sick more often. That's no fix. Conservatives, on the other hand, will figure out how to make a tax cut for giving employees time off for sick leave, which is essentially giving a tax break for randomly occurring productivity loss, which takes the responsibility for productivity off of the organization, again protecting their profits. That's no solution either.
How about we push for some un-legislated social reform, where people take responsibility for themselves and their affect on others by staying home when their sick?
Oh, wait, this is America, where taking responsibility for one's actions is... Oh, can't someone else do it? I'm overworked.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Where did the summer go?

What a summer it's been! I can't believe it's gone already. So much has happened, both in the world and for me personally, it's hard to keep track of it all.
Essay Interruptus
I started a post on the situation in Iraq some time ago, and was just working myself up to a froth of enthusiasm in my writing when Katrina hit. Along with the rest of the nation, I forgot (at least temporarily) about the situation overseas and concentrated on what was going on at home. We watched in horror as the situation worsened and FEMA failed to do its job. For that matter, most public service organizations failed to do their job. That is, with the exception of the media. I'm not the first, nor will I be the last to comment on the outstanding job the media did on reporting about the disaster. There's hope for that den of iniquity yet.
I have to take a moment to call out my pride for my wife's participation in the relief effort. It wasn't TV-quality heroism, but she and our good friend Kathy definitely did their part.
The story goes that we're somewhat more closely associated to a particular person in Louisiana than we are to Kevin Bacon (a friend of ours has a sister in law who... well, that's where I lose it). This particular someone has something to do with a children's charity in Baton Rouge, and they are getting a lot of refugee traffic; displaced children who may or may not have parents left after Katrina came through. By e-mail, a call went out for supplies specific to their need, and after three or four forwards, Jen and Kathy had a hold of it. The two of them have spent over a thousand dollars and many hours of otherwise useful time gathering, packing and shipping food, clothing, school supplies and whatever else seemed appropriate down to Baton Rouge. However much good the Red Cross is doing in the region, I can't help but think that the timeliness and direct response of everyone who answered the call in that e-mail was more help than could have been received from any large, general relief organization. I don't recommend responding to every call for help that comes in, as I'm sure scams are running amok on the Internet, but do a little research, figure out how to help, and do something. It's good for everyone.
Las Vegas, Round One
In May, we went with a group of friends to our favorite vacation destination in the western U.S., Las Vegas, Nevada. Of the eight of us going (four couples), only Jen and I had been there recently enough to know one end of The Strip from another. Two of the couples had never been at all.
The most straightforward thing to say about the trip is that friends don't necessarily make good traveling companions. Over our five day stay, we generally had a good time, but Vegas is one of those places where you have to turn yourself up to eleven to really get into the groove of it and experience it the way it's designed. Most of our crew seemed content to sit by the hotel pool and drink cheap cocktails rather than go out and do much. The times we did get out, communication within the group was so bad that often one couple or another got left behind somewhere to fend for themselves. Too many hours were spent looking for one another rather than doing things, and I'm not sure that anyone's expectations were really met for the trip overall. Cap that with one couple announcing that they had a bun in the oven (yay!), causing her to be somewhat emotional (hormones) and him to be very reactionary (more hormones, I suppose) made for a long trip.
Mind you, at the end of it all, we're all still friends, and the trip wasn't a total bust. But for future trips (read below), we're using a new ruleset when selecting travel partners, and setting expectations for everyone up front. When you try new things, you learn new things. Using what you learn is the trick, right?
These Things Happen in Threes
I have to say that I'm feeling a bit assaulted this year with the scythe of death. In April, my father-in-law Clark, who had been in a slow decline of health for several years, but was still living life, suffered a massive heart attack while at home. His wife, Nova, was quick to call the ambulance, and they were quick to respond, but it seemed that God had other plans for him, and, after three days of various attempts to revive him, he passed away with his loving family at his bedside, the lot of us crying and holding onto each other. It was Easter Sunday, which, as I remember, is Clark's favorite holiday. It's just like him to settle on that day for his time to go.
A few weeks later, in May, my mom's husband (my step-father, as it were), suffered a massive stroke while at home (why do doctors always use the word "massive"?). His wife (my mom) called the ambulance promptly, and they were prompt to respond, but again, God had other plans for him, and after only two days of various tests, he passed away with loving family in attendance. It was no particular holiday, but then Percy didn't care much for holidays anyway, so it was appropriate. He and Mom had been together for nineteen years.
After Percy passed away, two people within the scope of two days said to my wife, "Ooh! You know, these things happen in threes!" What a terrible thing to say, even if were true. Well, as it stands, Death struck a third time in my family.
Just last month, in September, after many, many years of declining health, my grandfather (my dad's father), passed away quietly in the nursing home where he resided. A year ago May, his wife passed away due to the long term complications of diabetes. Grandpa, ever the pragmatist (though not to the degree that Grandma was), was simply waiting patiently to go be with the love of his life. They had been married more than fifty years when she passed away, and he was somewhat lost without her. My one regret is that I wish I'd known them better. Listening to the people talk about them at both memorial services made me realize just how much we had in common with one another, and just how little we knew each other. It was a realization made too late, and I'd do things differently if I were able.
If there's anyone in your life that you wish you knew better, just get to know them. In my experience, people aren't as hard to get to know as you might think, and common ground is plentiful. Regrets are tough to swallow, and they rarely digest, instead sitting like a lump in your stomach until you finally cough them up.
The Yard Project That Won't End
After experiencing two family deaths in five weeks, I came to a realization that things around the house weren't getting themselves done, and that I should quit lazing around and get a few things done. A couple of years ago, we put a patio in our backyard and surrounded our front yard with a retaining wall. The front yard was more or less re-landscaped, but the backyard looked more like a jungle than anything else, and the huge mound of dirt excavated from the space the patio went into had more or less eaten what was left of our lawn space, now an overgrown weed patch.
Since my back was still having problems from the car wreck last December, I decided that hiring the work done was the only way it was going to happen. A neighbor knew a guy who did general laboring and put us in touch. After a little negotiation, a crew showed up and started working. With very little fuss, the backyard was stripped bald and the mound was distributed into spaces we were going to make raised gardens in. Hey, this is looking good, I thought. Progress is exciting.
To make a long story short, it turned out that Diego was a roofing contractor by trade, and just did general labor stuff when things were slow. I can't remember exactly how it went, but it wasn't long before we had a new roof ordered. From there, my wife insisted we paint the exterior (it needed it badly). Well, since the new roof was going on, how about putting a roof over the porch? Yup, that'll look silly with the brick facade. Tear that out. What's going up around the raised beds? We went from 2x6 lumber to stacked stone in short order. The extra expense was worth it, because it sure looks nice. Then sod went down in the back, and barkmulch kept the mud down until we can get bedding plants in. Things are really looking up.
But the cold weather is more or less here, and in Portland, when it starts to rain, it generally doesn't end until June except for one week in February where you get teased with clear, cold skies. Well, it's starting to look like that weather is here, and the house trim isn't painted, the pillars for the porch roof aren't done, the storage shed isn't built, the slate tile covering the area the brick was removed from isn't up, and we still don't have any bedding plants. Did I mention that the front of our house has no lighting? It's just over ten weeks until Christmas, and we have family coming for the holidays. Aaaahhhhhhh!!!
Las Vegas, Round Two
The second trip to Las Vegas this year was to celebrate Jen's 40th birthday. This time around, we stayed on The Strip, at The Aladdin. I'll say briefly that, while the casino and mall are nice enough, I wouldn't stay in the hotel again. It's not a bad hotel, it's just not a good one either. For the money you pay to get a room there, the room should be much nicer, and not reminiscent of a Motel6.
Once again, we found ourselves out of sync with our traveling companions, but not to the degree we had been on our previous trip. We had one good meal at The Commander's Palace in the Aladdin. The food there was excellent, and worth every bit of the large sum of money we spent on it. Another night, we ate at one of Emeril Lagasse's fish restaurants in the MGM Grand and about half of us weren't impressed at all. Couple that with Jen having an attack of food poisoning from something she ate earlier in the day, and the meal made for somewhat less than a fond memory. The wine was good, though.
I think I'm more or less done with Vegas for a little while at least. Our tastes in things to do and places to go run just high enough that we need to have a more flexible budget when we go there again, and, frankly, I find the trips down there essentially run between waiting around for something to happen and rushing to get to the next happening thing. I want my next vacation to involve a lot of lying around on a beach with nothing to worry about for a week or so. After I've become bored by that, maybe we'll schedule another trip to Sin City. And when we do, we're going to go in style.

Monday, October 10, 2005

No more anonymity

I've just changed the settings on this blog to block anonymous messages. This is really too bad, as I like hearing from whomever cares to read my blog, and not limit comments to those who have gone through the minor agony of registering themselves with yet another web site. But I'm getting inundated with adver-mail that smacks of bots (and poorly written ones at that. Who QA's this stuff?), and that's not helpful to anyone.

So, I want to hear from you if you are indeed a real person and have some real comment about what I've written, what I should write, or something else that's even remotely sensible. But posts that say,
"Yo, dude, this blog rocks. I've got this cool web site named #broadcast message. Check it out!!!"
will be blocked. I guess it's a case of bad apples spoiling the barrel.

The four of you that regularly read this blog will be happy (?) to know that I'm working on two (count 'em, two!) new posts that will hopefully get published soon.



Monday, May 09, 2005

Where are the revolutionaries?

Can anyone tell me what ever happened to the revolutionaries? I'm not talking about terrorists like those who attended the Boston Tea Party during the American Revolution, but small groups of free thinkers, gathering in cafes to talk about new ideas and deciding to change the world because they could make it a better place. We know them as The Impressionists or The Beats, and they changed the world by changing the way we think. They didn't do it by force of arms or law, but by appealing to our imaginations, made fertile by living too long with the status quo, yet lacking the insight or creativity to do something different ourselves.

Social and political structures see change like nature sees a vacuum; they abhor it. Those in power stay in power by making sure the infrastructure that put them there stays in place. Rich people don't want new monetary systems, and CEOs don't want public ownership of companies; politicians don't like term limits unless they keep other politicians from grabbing too much power, and campaign finance reform is to keep up-and-comers from being elected, not to keep incumbents from keeping their seats.

Chances are good that the political structure we have in the United States isn't going to change dramatically any time soon. As far as I can tell, even the 1920 decision to allow women to vote was more of an admittance that Congress had been reading the law wrong for over 130 years rather than any real change in the structure of the system. Sure, women finally got the right to vote, which was huge for every voter, but it just ended up adding one more facet to the body politic; one more group for the politicians to address on the campaign trail.

So I could go on musing for many long paragraphs about how we should abolish the electoral college, limit legislative bills to directly-related items and elimiate riders, or make the office of President a non-partisan position (oh, wouldn't that spin some hats?), but I would feel like I was wasting my time and yours, because those in power have a vested interest in keeping those institutions in the condition they're in, and you or I are not going to get them changed. Instead, I'm on about revolutions of a different sort, though ones just as sorely missed or missing.

In discussing this topic with a friend of mine, I brought up that the Internet has become the Paris of the Impressionists, and all the messageboards and e-mail servers are the cafes we gather in to bandy about heady ideas, grouse about whatever is wrong with our corner of the world, and while away the hours as the world goes by outside. If only we could order coffee and a pastry, we might never leave. The ideas, though, seem to be nothing more than talk, with most people waiting for someone else to take action so that they can cheer them on or deride them for not doing it "the way it should have been done," depending on the observer's particular point of view and the outcome of the attempt.

My friend pointed out that SourceForge has become ground zero for one kind of revolution; it's changing the way people think about the way software is created and distributed, and the status quo is certainly being upset. But, however much I like and support the concept of Open Source Software, I have to wonder just how much of society the OSS movement can affect. If, in some far distant future, the likes of Microsoft and Oracle have all gone the way of the dodo and everyone is running community-developed software on their portable supercluster hiptop computers, what will have really changed? Will Joe and Jane User really realize or care about the license attached to the OS they're running? The number of people using bootleg copies of Windows indicates no. Most people are oblivious to that aspect of computer systems, and are just happy if they can get their e-mail, play video games and surf the Web.

Of course, that's where the real revolution has happened. A dozen years ago, most people hadn't heard of the Internet, nor could they access it if they wanted to. Now people go into withdrawls if they have to go more than 48 hours without checking their e-mail box for messages from people they've never met in person; the English language (and possibly several others) has been altered by the insertion of a new verb, to google, referring to use of the search engine Google to lookup information; and firewalls are no longer solely a part of building construction.

But what of the rest of the world? Maybe, in that far distant future, Joe and Jane will casually check the Net for information on an off-world vacation. With Mars at opposition, it's too far to go during their break, so they'll be limited to Earth orbit, possibly the moon. They'll think back wistfully (and with pity) to our time, when no one but professional astronauts could go to orbit, and a few small-time revolutionaries came together to change that.

Mabye I'm complaining about a problem that doesn't exist. Maybe revolution is going on all over the world, and I, right in the thick of things, can't see the forest for the trees. It's likely that, in Paris in the early 1870s, lots of people sat around in cafes, talking about what ought to be done to change things, but never got out of their chairs to do something. Many of them sneered at anyone who actually tried to do something, saying how it would never get past the well-entrenched establishment. Maybe the layer of cream on the milk jug is just thinner than I would like to see it. And maybe, just maybe, I should find something to go do rather than writing about what's not being done.

Someone get me a cup of coffee, I've got a revolution to join.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Finding Life

There have been several stories in the recent news about discoveries on Mars that "hint at the possibility of life." Headlines aside, we're finding that space might be almost as interesting as we've imagined it to be. In a few short months, we've gone from using a language of skepticism on the subject of extra-terrestrial life to one of confidence; Peter Jennings himself did a two-hour Primetime Special on UFOs, flying saucers and little green men. This type of sensationalist fodder was previously reserved for the likes of Geraldo Rivera, and definitely wouldn't have taken up two hours of midweek airtime. If I were one for conspiracies, I'd think that the Feds already knew something and were prepping us for the news...

But I'm really not expecting any bombshell news quite yet. It's going to be a while before we can get our collective poop in a group and do some no-kidding search for life out there. Right now, the height of our science-- the beloved Mars rovers-- can't tell a water stain from a fungus fossil, and every interesting new discovery by the twins creates a flurry of arguments back on Earth about what it means and where it came from. However much I'm fascinated by all the fantastic pictures and other data that's coming back from the Ares-ian plains, it frustrates me that we can't be more sure about what we find there.

One More Robot, Then Send People

The big brother to the rovers Spirit and Opportunity is the Mars Science Laboratory. What it lacks in a catchy name, it makes up for in capability. It has instruments on board to look for organic compounds, further hints at the possibility of life past and present. It even has a high energy laser beam, ostensibly for vaporizing rocks so we can study how they're made up. What's not being said is that it could also be used for defense in the event of an encounter with the aforementioned little green men. Lock and load, baby, we're goin' to Mars.

All kidding aside, discovery of extra-terrestrial life is close; you can smell it in the air, literally. And, even though that life will very likely turn out to be strictly bacterial in nature, we should be making plans now to send people up there to study what we find. I don't mean paper studies of feasability concepts that keep consultants fat and NASA's budget drained, but actual build-a-ship-and-fly-it planning that will put people on the Martian ground within a decade.

Of course, left to their own devices, the risk-averse U.S. government will worry themselves into a state of inaction over the situation and send someone back to the moon instead. I expect Robert Bigelow to be there setting up hotels by the time NASA's ready to land and check in, and the two luxury suites will already be booked by Jeff Bezos and Burt Rutan. The moon's ready for mining and tourism; science needs to find another specimen.

Prizes seem to be the way to motivate people to do things. Indeed, Mr. Bigelow announced America's Space Prize on the heels of Rutan's company winning the Ansari family's X-Prize. How about a prize for going to Mars and back? Greg Benford seemed to like the idea enough to write a novel about it. Thirty billion U.S. dollars seems like enough to entice a lot of people to make the attempt, and with The Mars Society's head start, they would probably see a funding infusion that could ensure that they cross the finish line first.

Finding Life

However we get there, we need to get there sooner than later. We're beginning to fall in on ourselves, wallowing in squalor of our own creation. After the apogee of technological development, all we can do is consume resources until we've crumbled into a dark age that we might not crawl out of. Discovery of life on another world, particularly one right next door to us, would create a fundamental change in the way we view our creation, our universe, and our place within it. That critical change will be the driving factor for the next age of technological and sociological growth. Heck, if we're lucky, it will reduce the number of wars we have when people realize that we have more in common with each other than we do with the confirmed-to-exist space aliens, however microscopic they might be. Okay, so that's asking for a lot, but it could happen.

And what about the seas of Europa? It's been speculated that there are icthyoid-ish creatures swimming about there, surviving in the cold depths of a frozen-over sea on a tiny moon of a gas giant. If we find life there, what are we going to find orbiting Alpha Centauri, Altair or Tau Ceti?

We'll never know unless we go.