Archive for the ‘General Musings’ Category

I despise movies that make no sense.

Let me rephrase it. I despise movies that make no internal sense.

As an appetizer before my main course, here’s an example that twists my knickers.

In both Men in Black III and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there is an implausible image. In each of those cinematic ventures, there is a scene on the Moon. In those movies (and probably more), the camera shows an Apollo-style lunar lander. However, the lander still has the ascent stage attached to it which would be an impossibility because if the ascent stage was still there, the astronauts would not have been able to return home.

(Source: Men in Black III corrections and Transformers: Dark of the Moon corrections)

As a fan of science-fiction, I have no issue with movies that bend the laws of physics, as long as they do it consistently. Spaceships in the universe of Star Trek and Star Wars can travel faster than the speed of light, but they give explanations for it. The Enterprise has warp drive and the Millennium Falcon uses hyperdrive. Even time travel doesn’t bother me that much as long as, again, it is done consistently within the universe of the story. I know there is no way for an object to travel back in time, but that doesn’t diminish my appreciation for the television show Doctor Who.

All this brings me to today’s version of “nerd rage“. Last week, I saw the animated movie Mr. Peabody and Sherman. I could go on and blather about how Hollywood has strip-mined another aspect of my childhood for their gain, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Instead, allow me to ramble about the cinematic implausibility in that movie.

I do not have an issue with a talking (and bow-tie wearing…because bow ties are cool) dog. I do not have an issue with time travel. The genius canine and the WABAC machine are reality-bending items, but they are necessary for the story. So, I am fine with those reality-bending items (just like I am okay with the TARDIS and the Babel Fish).

What made me slap my forehead was the scene in this movie concerning the manhole.

Early in Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the duo are in the era of the French Revolution. During a chase scene that takes places in the sewers outside Versailles, Mr. Peabody causes an explosion that blows the manhole covers into the air.

So far, so good.

However, the explosion was all part of Mr. Peabody’s escape plan because the manhole cover falls through its own hole and lands on the baddie thus allowing the dog and his pet adopted boy to skeedaddle away.

See my issue?

It is a physical impossibility for a manhole cover to fall through its own hole. That’s way manholes covers are round. A round manhole cover is cannot fall through its own opening and that keeps sewer workers safe (see here and here for sample explanations).

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Unless Jamie and Adam over at Mythbusters have busted this idea, I will continue to slap my forehead over this scene (and all others like it).

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Nothing quite like mining the posts of yore when trying to dream up a new thing to ramble on about. Hey, Hollywood does the same thing (see here and here for examples) so I am in good company.

Today’s post harkens back to a 2011 post where I listed off all the books I read in the previous year.

Instead of looking back, I will look forward and tell you what is on tap for me for this year.

Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed. A Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the events and people that led to the Great Depression.

Redshirts by John Scalzi. A brilliant take on the Star Trek trope of how the security folks on an away team (the eponymous redshirts) always get killed. But, it is so much more than that.

Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jonathan Eller. I told you that one day I would get around to this book.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Instead of sitting through the movie John Carter of Mars, I thought I would go right to the original source about tales of Barsoom.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. Yes, I know it deals with zombies, but since I did sit through the movie starring Brad Pitt, I thought I should read the real book (which is always – with one exception – better than the movie).

The War With Mexico by Justin Smith. Another winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Macroscope by Piers Anthony.

Collision 2012 by Dan Balz. A recounting of the 2012 Obama vs. Romney presidential campaign.

The Run to Chaos Keep by Jack Chalker. The sequel to his The Demons at Rainbow Bridge.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings. I hope to complete this book about the origins of World War I before this anniversary year is out.

Under the Dome by Stephen King. This one has been on the shelf for quite some time. This may be its year…or next year.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. Because I want to be even more depressed about that state of American politics than I already am.

Wish me luck and we’ll see how many tomes I can drop off the list.

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In these days, we live in times dominated by the now.

There is the twenty-four hours news cycle with its breathless breaking news.

There is the Internet which serves up any and all information at lightning speed.

There is streaming media that allows us to binge on any movie or television show that ever existed.

With that in mind, I came across a trio of stories that reminded me that humans do have the capability to look beyond this moment and take the long view.

Over at Oxford University in England, they have an experiment that has been running nearly continuously since 1840. I first saw the story about the bells over at i09 and there is even an entry over at Wikipedia about it.

There is another experiment – this one has only been going on since 1930 so it’s a baby compared to Oxford’s bells – that is being done at the University of Queensland (Brisbane, Australia). This product of a scientific mind is watching pitch drop. Pitch, while looking solid is actually viscous, which just means that it if left to its own devices (and gravity), it will form a drop…just like water, but much, much slower. However, in the years since this experiment started, it has only dripped eight times. What is even wilder (to my mind) is the fact that no one has ever seen the drop of pitch actually drop. Want to be a part of history? Click here to see the live Internet feed of the pitch drop experiment. It makes paint drying look like a demolition derby.

A newcomer to the land of The Long View is the musical piece entitled As Slow As Possible. It is a piece of organ music with no set instructions on how long each note should be played. Somebody (or a group of somebodies) saw that as a challenge and in 2001, an organ in Halberstadt, Germany, began playing the composition. It is scheduled to end in the year 2640. The last time a note changed was in October of 2013 and the next change in notes will not take place until 2020.

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Being the Dog

In 1993, at the dawn of the Internet being widely available, Peter Steiner created a cartoon for The New Yorker magazine with the caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The point of the cartoon was to show that the Net gave a veneer of anonymity to its on-line citizens. Once your computer was booted up and you logged on to your bulletin board system (BBS) of choice, you could be anyone you wanted to be.

Two decades later, I have this question, “Can one still be anonymous on the Internet?”

The answer is increasingly becoming, “No.”

Julia Agwin has come out with a book entitled Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. One of the assertions she makes is about all the information that data brokers know about your on-line activities and what that says about you. In addition, there is all the information that Google, Facebook, and all the other social websites amass about you (or that you give up willingly).

Then there is this case. Someone had created a humor account on Twitter that poked fun at Goldman Sachs, the investment banking firm. Calling itself @GSElevator, the account dished out gossip supposedly overheard in the elevator at Goldman Sachs. After three years of managing to keep the identity of @GSElevator a secret, the anonymous tweeter was finally unmasked. It’s not that important who the creator of @GSElevator is as it is my purpose in this post to ask, again, if one can still remain anonymous on the Net.

Probably not.

So I guess my shot at being a dog has passed.


March 7, 2014 Update

To the above list of stories, I would like to add the following article that semi-touches on my theme of remaining anonymous on the Net. The digital currency Bitcoin was said to have been invented by an individual named Satoshi Nakamoto. This person – or perhaps group of people – has never identified himself or herself and has thus remainined anonymous over the years.

Now comes the news that Newsweek magazine has uncovered the identity of Nakamoto.

Here’s my question. Has Newsweek actually proven my point that remaining anonymous on the Web in the 21st century is now impossible or has the magazine shred the privacy of a person who just happened to have the last name of Nakamoto?

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Today as I post this it is Election Day.

Of course, as I currently live in capital city of Thailand, Bangkok, I am twelve hours ahead of my local polling district located in Loudon County, Virginia. The polls open at 6:00am, which will be six in the evening for me here in Bangkok. One of the things I will miss about not being able to vote in my polling place – which is actually a trailer park – is the tradition. When the polls open, an official (whose name I have never learned even after years of casting my ballot) would come out and scream at the top of his lungs, “THE POLLS ARE OPEN!!!”. Because it is 0600 and people in the nearby trailers are still sleeping, this loud oral tradition never ceased to cast a smile on my face right before I cast my ballot.

Instead of listening to the happy loud oratory of an election official and having dedicated citizens cross my name of huge rolls of printer paper, I had to make due with checking my marks on my absentee ballot (with my beautiful wife as witness).

Now the reason I am mentioning this whole election thing is because I wanted to share something. While some of my rants on this blog space (such as here and here and here) may make it appear that I am on the left of the political spectrum, there are also some writings of mine that throw barbs at the current occupant of the White House (such as here and here and here). My point here is that while you may try and guess how I would vote in today’s election as the Old Dominion has a governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state delegate on the ballot, I can tell you without fail that you would be wrong. I am proud to say that I do not cast my precious vote based on the letter (say “D” or “R”) that follows a candidate’s name.

In today’s election, of the four positions I could make my choice for, I selected candidates from three parties.

Ask yourself this, when is the last time you did not vote a straight ticket?

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My heartiest apologies for being away from this blog for the past month. Circumstances beyond my control left me unable to continue my writings. The details are too queasy to delve into, but suffice it to say that I can confirm that the following pair of sentences are undeniably true.

1) When health experts warn expats living in Thailand to wash all of the fruits and vegetables bought in local markets, they really mean it.
2) The hospitals in Bangkok (okay, granted that my dataset consists of one) are Western in quality, cleanliness, and professionalism.

With all that said, I’m glad to be back (and upright).

While I was away, I noticed that the internal workings of the United States government have ground to a halt (almost like my insides…oh, wait, I wasn’t going to go into the details…sorry). This gridlock-slash-shutdown-slash-default seems like the perfect hook to let you in on my latest epiphany.

When I was growing up, I came of age (politically speaking) in the Era of Reagan. Back then, I blamed the Republican president for the budget deficits and national debt that were a hallmark of the 1980s.

In the 1990s, when the red ink turned black, I tipped my hat to President Clinton for his (or at least his advisors) financial acumen.

Now, even in my mid-forties, I am not so bound by ideology that I cannot see new facts and revise what I once knew.

I have now (slowly, but surely) come to learn and appreciate that it is the Congress – and more importantly, the House of Representatives – that controls the budget. The chief of the Executive Branch may be able to offer legislation and a budget plan, but it is still the responsibility of the People’s House to actually allocate the money.

With this new perspective in mind, I belatedly offer my ire to the Democratic-led House of the 1980s for busting the budget and give my appreciation to the Newt Gingrich-led GOP House of the 90s for helping to rein in spending.

What this now means for me in the current situation as the nation I was born in has shuttered most of its windows for the past two weeks and hurtles towards becoming a deadbeat nation is that my contempt is wholeheartedly reserved for the party now controlling the House of Representatives. The current leadership has to know when it has the votes, when legislation will pass and in what form, and what will be able to move through the Senate and make its way to be signed by the President. Any toying with the full faith and credit of the Unites States government simply to achieve a political goal that has been rebuffed over forty times is folly.

I give credit where it is due and blame where it is due. I have been able to change my mind. I hope it doesn’t take the current House leadership decades to do the same.

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Are you happy?

That’s a tough question to answer because it all depends on what your definition of happiness is. Does being happy revolve around family, career, love, creativity, or none (or all) of the above.

If it’s tough to gauge how happy an individual is, it must be mind-boggling nuts to determine how happy a whole country is.

Well, it’s apparent not that bonkers as CNN brings us this story about the 2013 edition of the United Nations (UN) Happiness Index.

For those of you who enjoy reading press releases from international organizations, this is your lucky day as you jump to this link here and read until your heart’s content.

For those who want to jump to the actual number and see where the various countries lie on the Happiness Spectrum, hop on over here.

Here is what I found interesting personally about the UN numbers.

My country of current residence, Thailand, ranks number 36 (with an overall score of 6.371 and with 10 being the highest possible score). This ranking is particularly appropriate given my fascination with the number 36 (see here and here and here for examples).

For comparison, the United States of America, my country of birth, ranks 17 (score = 7.082)

My last country of residence, France, clocks in at #25 (score = 6.764)

Denmark took the top spot with a score of 7.693 while the last spot, down at number 156, was held by the African country of Togo with a score of 2.936.

As for me, I can blog, I can eat, I have a roof over my head, I work, I write, and I have a loving family nine ways to Sunday. That makes me happy.

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Wave the Bloody Sheet

I never had the assistance of domestic help as I was growing up. Okay, there was the cleaning woman who came by our house every two weeks to help out my sainted mother, but that’s it.

Even when the Mannski Family left the United States and landed on the Continent, we never took advantage of any domestic help. Okay, this was mainly because it was as prohibitively expensive as it is in the States, but we knew co-workers of my fantastic wife who did avail themselves of this option.

Actually, I’m glad we never hired a maid or helper because I know I would have felt particularly awkward having someone walk around my living space cleaning and dusting and vacuuming while I was trying to write or edit my work.

Well, all that has come to an end here in Thailand as we have had to hire domestic help and my trepidation of feeling awkward has certainly come true. While I certainly feel terribly odd about having another person wash my dishes or mop my floor when I have two perfectly good working hands and feet, this is not the main source of feeling like a fish on a bicycle.

No, it’s the conversation. Even putting aside the fact that I speak no Thai and she speaks little English (oh, why couldn’t we move to another place where they speak French) and so our dialogue sounds like it came out of a Dick-and-Jane story, this is not the source of my awkwardness. It’s the subjects of which we speak. While it would be dandy if we could stick to cabbages and kings and sealing wax and things, this is not the case.

But first, some background.

Ophelia, my youngest child and only daughter, lost a tooth during the night here in the Land of Smiles. Her missing piece of hardware was a molar so there was some bleeding. Nothing to be too worried about.

The next morning, as I was on the computer continuing my work on David’s manuscript, our maid came over with the bloody sheet. She showed me the linen with the red splotch and asked, in her halting English, “Her first time?”

Because our maid’s English is not all that good and is heavily accented, it took me a few tries to understand what she was saying. I finally did decipher three words and finally understood that the “Her” meant Ophelia.

I was still somewhat paying attention to my editing task and so my mental process was working on a reply that revolved around the fact that my daughter had lost several teeth during her short life. I actually thought it was odd why our maid thought my grade-school daughter had never lost a tooth before.

Then I saw the blood on the sheet and it hit me like a Tooth Fairy with a sledgehammer what our maid was really asking about.

She was asking if this was Ophelia’s first period.

More than watching someone wash my socks while I sat at the computer, our maid and I had now moved way past “awkward” and into the land of downright “stomach-churning uncomfortable”.

Why a complete stranger (and one I was paying) would even broach the subject of my daughter’s menstrual cycle is beyond me?

Maybe this culture has different attitudes that I’m not aware of.

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As I have written before, my previous vocation was that of a software tester.

As I have written before, there are reasons why it is important to test products before they go out the door.

This post has a pair of stories that, once again, show the importance of having folks in the quality assurance (QA) department look over products before the customer get their hands on them. Yes, QA takes some extra time, but it takes even more time to recall flawed products and do damage control.

Story One…The stereotype about Americans is that they are bad at geography. There may be something to that canard as the people at Nike didn’t even know the states that make up the United States. Nike decided to make a shirt to honor the Carolina Panthers, a professional football team that plays in North Carolina. So it was a tad embarrassing for Nike when they unveiled their shirt and it had the outline of South Carolina.


Story Two…The Hippocratic Medical Oath says to “do no harm”. While there is no Software Developer Oath, it should also state that a piece of software should “do no harm”. Whether it is a new piece of software or an update, a developer’s code should not poorly affect a user’s hardware or existing software. So, it must have been partially embarrassing to Sony when one of their upgrades to the their PlayStation 3 game console caused the on-screen navigation to vanish.

The story from BBC News about the Sony issue even included the following quote from a disgruntled user, “You’d think they test these things out, right?”

You’d think.

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I’ll admit it. When all was said and done, I was smug.

But first, some background. For the past two years, the Mannski Family has been living in France courtesy of a fabulous job opportunity offered to my wife. Because of her exquisite ability to speak the French language, she was a no-brainer to be the winning candidate for the position. Along the streets of Paris, she had no difficulty at all dealing with the locals whether it was the guy at the cable TV office, the police officer, or the person she bought bread from. The story for me as a tad different. I had taken French in middle school and high school so I had a fair-to-middlin’ grasp of the Gallic tongue. I was able to squeak by in te grocery store as I could ask where the lettuce was, but if the conversation went any deeper, I was lost. Over the past two years, I spent a good deal of time using pantomimes and doodles to get my point across to my non-English-speaking audience. It was rather frustrating to be face-to-face with someone and not be able to convey my point because of an issue with translations. As I would express my frustration to my employed wife, she would sympathize, but I don’t think she could ever fully empathize with me. For her, language was never a barrier.

Jump to the present day and the playing field is now level.

Here in Thailand, the Thai script is beyond my comprehension. The letters used by this script is like nothing I have ever seen. Looking at all of the road signs and business marquees and understanding NONE of it makes me now understand what a functional illiterate person must feel like.

At the moment, I only know two Thai phrases: “hello” and “thank you”. Those two quivers in my linguistic quiver do me no good when I am in the fruit and vegetable market and am looking for asparagus. This is where pantomimes and doodles come in handy…along with a great deal of patience from my Thai listener.

So, to attempt to talk with someone and have it end up as a frustrating endeavour is nothing new to me. The story is different for my wife. A few days ago, she was finally able to see what life in France was like for me.

After an excursion to a local grocery store – that quite honestly looked quite similar to a Walmart – Mary and I saw that we were running late and decided to grab dinner at McDonalds. My wife decided to order while I watched our shopping cart to make sure no one walked off with our durian. She was set to order (for the kids) chicken nuggets, cheeseburger, and Big Mac. She was going to get a chicken sandwich and I was set to try a samurai pork burger.

From my vantage point outside the eatery, all I saw was my wife doing a whole bunch of pointing. Later, she told me that the cashier spoke not a lick of English and so she had to order solely by pointing to each item that she wanted. The cashier would also point to each item and my wife would nod when the cashier arrived at the right item. Mary told me that it was quite aggravating to not be understood.

As the cliché goes, “Welcome to my world!”

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