The Commuter

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It’s 14 miles from my house to my place of work. I do this by car every dy, usually at day break. What I notice is not the number of cars on the road with me, but the fact that in each car, large and small, sits usually one driver.

In a world of abundant energy, this makes sense -who wants to walk to a subway station or wait in the rain for a bus? Our city planning is centered around the car, with multilane highways and huge parking lots which render walking a frazzling venture for only the very young or very poor. No car, no job. 14 miles is about 3-4 hours by walking, 2-3 hours by horse, an hour by bike, but a perfectly reasonable 20 minutes by car. It allows us to live in “the country” with large lots and trees, away from the city which is surprisingly empty of people before and after work hours. Very few people walk on the sidewalks of downtown. 

Last year, when gas went over 4 dollars a gallon, this meant 8 dollars a day to go to and from work. For people who live an hour out, usually because these homes cost less, this translated into 20 dollars a day (assuming a slightly more fuel efficient car), or a hundred dollars a week, or 400 dollars a month. Because of the economics of our car based lifestyle, the majority of people who make 40,000 or less live further out to share in the benefits of the American dream -a lawn, a 3-4000 square foot house. This 400 dollars a month or 4800 dollars after taxes easily translates into 10-20% of income. 

It was unsustainable for many, and the downturn in the economy, with slip in demand, brought a welcome reprieve to most who have managed to keep their jobs. The problem is that we have this moment to try to fix some of this, and likely we won’t. With the prices down, it makes sense to move closer to one’s place of work or move that work closer to the home. Walking distance is best. The problem is the suburbs and exurbs are not designed for bipedal commuting. Grocery stores are miles away, minutes by car but up to an hour by walking. 

When the economy revives, demand will spike, and gas prices will go back to where they were last summer. This is a sure thing. What to do?

The sensible thing would be to increase the gas tax, ratchet it up slightly to make it hurt less. This was something proposed by President Carter a generation ago, so that we could bank during times of plenty, to develop energy alternatives because America’s oil reserves had gone “past peak.”

What is peak oil? In any oil field, there is a finite amount of oil. In any country’s sovereign territory, there are only so much oil accessible with available technology. As the oil runs out of a field, it takes more money to extract this oil. As known oil fields are tapped out, money needs to be expended exploring and developing newer fields. Investments must be made in extraction technologies. The oil wrung out of the fields may cost more than simply importing it -this is what the US faced in the seventies. We had gone past peak and every subsequent year, less oil was available domestically, and more had to be brought in from abroad. 

This has had many consequences. For a while, North Sea fields belonging to the UK and Scandinavian countries kept prices down and we had the flush years of the 80’s and 90’s -exactly the times when we should have been banking this wealth for future times of need. Carter saw this, being an engineer, and understood it. But America became besotted with cheap oil which allowed for cheap food and cheap stuff -all byproducts of petroleum (ref Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan). It was made blind by 2, 4, and 6 year election cycles, when 10-100 year vision was needed. 

It is a closely held secret -the estimated reserves of the Saudi oil kingdom, but many experts believe that it has passed its peak. The hidden gift of this recession is cheap gas, but it is also a curse, because the impetus and economic incentive to purse energy alternatives while promoting conservation are gone when gas prices drop due to low demand. Think about this when you sit in traffic, idling that SUV along with everyone else sitting alone in their car. 

reference

The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler. 

The Monkey House

img_1488The NY Times, our nation’s crier, reported on people who chose to live with primates (link). They almost uniformly are charmed by the infant primate, but soon after a year or two, are overwhelmed at the onset of puberty, super monkey reflexes, and superhuman strength. The fascinating thing is how they remain attached, bonded, by the experience of raising the baby -changing the diaper, feeding the bottle, holding the infant chimp, baboon, or Capuchin monkey. 

It points to a switch that humans have in their makeup that reaches across species. The infant primate shares many features with human infants -but it’s mostly helplessness and cuteness (link). We are all neotenous apes (link)-apes whose infantile features are preserved into adulthood -possibly by the act of taming ourselves.

A baby is born unable to fend for itself, unable to walk, unable to find food. It is in our makeup to compensate for this to propogate the species.  It goes both ways. There is the great story of a toddler that fell into the gorilla exhibit. A mother gorilla came over and cradled the child until help arrived (link).

The NYT article goes on to how the people cling to their trans-specied progeny when puberty and adulthood brings out ape dominance behavior. This is what we do as we raise our children into adolescence and adulthood -despite the hormonally driven antisocial behaviors, they are still our children and we cling to them.

My First Computer

adamMy first computer was the Coleco Adam computer. It came in the winter of 1983 as a Christmas gift. I chose it over the Apple ][ and the Commodore 64 because this computer came with 80k of RAM based on a Zilog Z80-A processor running at 3.58MHz. It came with a daisy wheel printer which put out typewriter-like text, and had built in wordprocessing. 

I fancied myself a writer, and quickly began using it to churn out really bad science fiction, erotica, fantasy conversations with famous historical figures and chimpanzees, and long, simultaneously self pitying and self-aggrandizing essays about myself. Somehow, I have never broken out of this Kilgore Trout writing style.

I wrote my college essay on it -if I can find it, I will post it at some point. And, you could program on the BASIC language that came it it. I programmed LIFE (the computer problem, not the board game -link) but each generation took about 10 minutes, and I would have to let the thing run for days to reach a steady state. 

What was even better was that it was also a full blown Coleco gaming console, and you could play War Games which I did for many days on end fighting writer’s block. Buck Rogers came on the silly proprietary tapes that Coleco admittedly decided was a big mistake. 

In the end, I left it behind when I took off for college, like a sad younger girlfriend or a bad haircut. I moved up to a 512k Macintosh, but I still have a soft spot for the ADAM. Like everything in this navel gazing age, the uber geeks out there have actual conventions where they meet and commerce in this defunct, obscure relic from the 80’s. Some bright chap with too much time has actually got it to go on-line and act as a web server.

The Mandibulous -updated

cate-blanchett-picture-5My grandmother told me that a person’s face determines their character and behavior. I thought it was one of many old Korean sayings and fables that have been handed downs since the Ice Age, but as I have lived these two score years, I do believe that she had something.

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Our development is a balance of hormones which like the yin and yang symbol to the right, the male hormones -the androgens, and the female hormones, the estrogens, both exist in men and women and play a role in behavior. Their longterm effects are written on the faces. 

chyna-talk-060700-02The masculine jawline and heavier nose and brow ridges (frontal bossing) is a result of androgen influences. Aggression and sex drive seem to be associated with androgens, as well as increased muscle mass and low body fat. That is why Chyna Laurer formerly of the WWF looks like a man -she was taking steroids and it shows on her face with the heavy mandible, the thicker nose -and where it doesn’t show is the 3 inch long clitoris growing into a penis and the labia majora growing into a scrotum. Mudflaps indeed! The testosterone increased her muscle mass and decreased her body fat (she required breast implants after her natural breasts melted away). It probably also made her aggressive, both sexually and in general behavior. 

Cate Blanchett shown at top has many of the cardinal features of the mandibulous female -the strong nose and jawline, the deep voice, and brooding eyes under sharp brows. If she is anything like the characters that she chooses to play, she is likely very aggressive and probably always trying to wear the pants (which she does in the movies). stone001

Natural aging brings on mandibulousness -note Sharon Stone in her youth and a more recent picture of her. The decrease in estrogens brought on by menopause causes a relative uptick in the androgens -and thus mandibulousness. It’s a fact, that as our women age, they become manlier -women losing hair and growing mustaches is one of the biological costs of living past our natural evolved age of 20 or so. But, even one of our founding fathers, Ben Franklin, noted that mature women are the ideal first liasons of a young man as they not only have the experience but the urge -mandibulous. Here are more examples:

 

Mandibulous, and likely hornier than on the left

Mandibulous, and likely hornier than on the left

Mandibulous indeed!

Mandibulous indeed!

The gals with the soft roundish features, the girly girls, are not the ones likely to have the high hormonally driven sex drives, and are the ones most likely to gather fat around the hips and thighs and have a high brooding index -need to roost and decorate the house obsessively, eat chocolate, and have strategic headaches. It’s the tomboys who are the aggressors, and it is the MILF-y cougar who is strong of jaw and deep of voice who will likely tear your appendages off.

Addendum 2-25-2009

This idea is well illustrated in the recent SNL skit Cougar den (link).  All the characters are deep voiced, horny older women. Though meant as a caricature, they get it wrong. It isn’t that they are desperate for lack of sex -they are desperate due to an imbalance of androgen to estrogen. This is why you can go to Wal Mart and buy a back massaging wand with all those nubbly appendages on its round vibrating head. Men with back problems are not purchasing these.

Live Forever

The hyperbaric chamber reached mythical status when it was found that Michael Jackson slept in one at the height of his fame. Once the patient is sealed in the tank, the pressure in the tank is sent up to several atmospheres with increased levels of oxygen. This is useful in treating decompression sickness (the bends), carbon monoxide poisoning, and maybe some nonhealing wounds.

It sits in an unused part of the hospital, but I can understand its charms. It has a sci-fi movie feel to it, and the only way to talk to the person inside is via a telephone -COOL! It makes you think of pharoahs, pyramids, and immortality. It’s just a plexiglass pressure tank. 

Why do people want to live forever? It’s a supreme form of egotism. I rather like the view that being subjected to life is much like playing a round of golf on a municipal course on a sunny Saturday in the spring. It takes patience, a bit of smiling when you don’t want to, and the reflexes to duck when you hear “fore.” If this is life, then heaven is an championship caliber course in prime condition empty behind and ahead of you, with your favorite chosen companions, your stalwarts, playing by your side. 


The Indebted

The great international shrinkage is upon us. The shriveling, the destaturing, the descending, call it what you will. I watched the President’s speech last night, and gave it a B+. I think that I’m getting kind of used to inspiring speech from him -it’s called refractoriness. My 100 meaningful conversation rule applies to him as well as any friend (over course of a relationship, one should and can only have 100 meaningful conversations before the relationship ends), and with his books and speeches, the President is on #58 or so.

I have a very good friend who decided to divest from Western Civilization in 2001 after 9/11. He had been reading books about peak oil, and had recommended to me Mr. Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. He bailed out of his 401k’s and mutual funds, and put them all into gold and oil, did very well by the way, and now is building a compound off the grid in some undisclosed location in the Pacific Northwest. 

The only problem I have with that scheme -of going it alone in the woods with a lot of guns, plans for a vegetable garden, and long hours fishing and hunting, is that it completely disregards the lessons of zombie movies. ‘Nuff said.

It takes a community to survive these times. It takes caring neighbors and taking care of neighbors. We’re social creatures whose evolution was based on bands, small groups. Your neighbors and your relationship with them is your assurance of safety in the difficult times ahead. 

By some accounts, the recession will be over by this fall. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. 

Spaceward Ho! -the greatest game not yet on iPhone

 

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This is one of the greatest games ever created for the MAC. It came out in the early nineties, and it was one of those games that just ate up time. It is a resource management/conquering worlds game that was reduced to its barest essentials, but managed to keep certain elements intact to keep it interesting. 

 

It is such an efficiently written game that in the early ’00’s, the authors, Delta Tao (link) published a Palm OS version, which I used to play on my Tungsten T during my first years out of 

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training -usually during the dead time waiting for cases to go in the middle of the night. 

 

Resource management games are very old in the scifi-nerd culture. The problem is that when presented as a board game, an inordinate amount of time is taken up book-keeping. How many Quatloo’s can you keep track of while rolling the dice and moving imaginary fleets across the board? 

 

The game play is simple as clicking the keyboard. You start with a homeworld, and your mission is to explore and colonize surrounding worlds, mining the metal, and terraforming the planets so that your population grows on it and generates revenue. Terraforming, mining, designing and building ships takes money. Borrowing and saving also involves interest. space21

 

The game’s charms involve humorous graphics for the spaceships and funny sound effects for launching and exploring with the spaceships. The game quickly becomes interesting as you confront and battle against other players (both computer or human). 

 

It is turn based and requires a minimum of a learning curve. The shame of it is that Delta Tao has stopped developing it, right at the moment where farting applications are taking the world by storm. I can’t imagine it would take too much of an investment of time to convert it to an iPhone app. 

We can start by emailing Delta Tao to work on an iPhone version (help@deltatao.com). 

Addendum 2-24-2008

It works -Joe Williams -who the program icon is modeled after, replied “We’re talking about an iPhone version, and I’d say it’s highly likely, perhaps by the end of 2009.”

Will It Wash and Dry?

img_2010My iPod shuffle is so tiny it gets lost in my clothing. As such, it gets frequently washed and dried. The remarkable thing is that it still works! The same goes for my V-Moda headphones which after snc10296a spin cycle and drying, it came out in a tangle. Still works! I realized that so many things electronic are spindly and delicate that we’re used to taking care of them with the anxiety reserved for the moments watching someone juggle fine crystal, china, or your loved ones. It makes me quite happy to know that some things do take a licking and keep on ticking. Which is exactly what my Timex watch did after its stint in the wash and dry. Would be curious to find out other people’s experience laundering fine electronics.

The protonetbook

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Pictured above is the Psion Series 5mx. It was an upgrade of the original Psion Series 5, and no computing gadget has come close to matching its utility.

It had a touch typable keyboard and compact flash drive for additional memory. Its power laid in an amazing operating system EPOC OS that Psion built from scratch. It was rock stable -the kind of stable that you would hope satellites and medical life support equipment were based on. I could routinely run 10-20 programs simultaneously and it just would not crash. The Office suite fit in a space less than a meg of memory -I heard the word module was 22kB!. The elements from each -like graphs, tables, and text were hot linked and autoupdating. And you could convert it to word or rtf or xls.

It ran on 2 AA batteries and could print wireless via IR to HP printers with IR ports -I did this for three years during my residency -eventually creating a database of patient notes that I could look up and reprint for frequently seen patients.

When you wanted to use it, you turned it on. When you were done, you turned it off. No boot up, no worrying about viruses, no nothing. With a phone modem, you could check email and do some light browsing, particularly on WAP sites (the equivalent of todays mobile sites such as m.nytimes.com.

This all came to a sad end when Psion gave up the ghost after creating the inimitable netbook, for which it carries the copyright. Nobody can call anything else a netbook, although common usage is calling a whole class of crappy small laptops.

Why do I call them that. No matter how beautiful the gadget -like the Sony Vaio P series, it’s software determines how useful it is. If you got a Sony Vaio P, for example, you would turn it on, and wait 47 seconds while it booted up. What’s the point except to impress people with your stupid gadget purchase?

The Psion 5mx is so valued that you can still see them on ebay going for 150-200 dollars used. There is a site in England that will sell you pre-owned refurbished units or even NEW units (link). It is illustrative that a the netbook Pro, an “upgrade” that runs Windows CE 4.2 is priced way cheaper than a refurbished netbook running EPOC OS. 

As I have been unhappy with my iPhone as the sole portable device, I have been thinking about keyboarded solutions for blogging. The lack of wireless internet capability of the series 5mx keeps me from purchasing, as I have an Acer Aspire One which I use as a breakfast nook computer for updating Facebook. I am toying with the idea of a Nokia N810 with a bluetooth keyboard as a mobile blogging solution. 

If you needed to go to the unwired parts of the world with no wall outlets, but needed to write a journal of your journey, there is no gadget that I would take other than a Psion 5mx. This was exactly the reason why the fellow who purchased my Psion in Mexico bought it -he was a writer who made frequent trips to rural Mexico and needed a solid portable computer which recorded to a safe medium -nothing more safe than compact flash drive which I have laundered and used without a hitch. AA batteries can be found everywhere but wall outlets are dear, he told me, paying 250 dollars for a five year old unit with printer cables, modem, and other accessories.

Indulge Me

img_0812The indulgences are back (link to NYT article). Yup, the indulgences you learned about in world history in high school -the same that drove Martin Luther to nail his grievances to bring about the Protestant Reformation. Its absolution for sin that you can purchase from the Roman Catholic Church which works to intercede with the heavenly authorities to take a few years out of slow roasting. It lets you cut line in Purgatory. It turns Heaven into another place where you have to grease the maitre de’s palm. 

To me, its a sign of the times. You can buy anything if you have enough green, and this includes avoiding punishment in the afterlife. But what if you did something awful and you were poor? Does the Church take layaway on your soul?

This is why golf appeals to me. No matter who you are, out of bounds means stroke and distance. The red stakes means you get to drop for a stroke. Honor really means something on the hallowed greens. You can’t buy a scratch handicap. You play where you lie.