Tuesday, January 31, 2006

There's a Reason It's Called Work.

I was off last week. Didn't go anywhere, just stayed home. It was great. I relaxed, played with the kids, did alot of reading and worked out at the gym. S and I actually got to go out for an evening without the munchkins (a very infrequent occurance).

I read "Cell" by Stephen King and "The Cosmic Landscape" by Leonard Susskind. I've always been a big King fan and have read most of his books. This is one of the better ones of his more recent works. Somewhat like "The Stand" (although much shorter) but with a more modern twist. As usual, strong sympathetic, well developed characters. Not the strongest of endings(which was also a problem with The Stand) but over all a very good read.

"The Cosmic Landscape" is a nonfiction book by one of the worlds leading theoretical physicists. It's basically an introduction to quantum physics, String Theory and the origins of the universe. In the introduction he states that the book was written for the lay person. If your definition of a lay person is: a college graduate with a bachelors degree in physics, chemistry or biology and at least one or two higher level math courses then I suppose it is. I have a biology degree and a graduate degree and found some of the book tough to follow. The book purports to be a refutation of the theory of Intelligent Design. I'm not sure it succeeds on that level.

The proponents of intelligent Design claim that the universe is so complex and finely tuned that it couldn't have formed by accident. Suskind's answer is that there are essentially an infinite number of "pocket universes" out there with every conceivable combination of physical and chemical propperties. Our universe, and probably several others have the right combination to support our type of life. Most don't. Many of the universes fail. Some could perhaps support different types of life. Problem is, we can't see any of these pocket universes or really prove that they exist. They are all traveling away from our universe at at least the speed of light so we will never be able to see them or determine their physical makeup.

That's the problem with theortical physics. In an attempt to determine the make-up and building blocks of our own universe and explain the physical properties that we observe different theories are developed. But most can't be proved. Experiment physicists have just about found the smallest particles that can be found with the current generation of linear accelerators and as Suskind points out, you'd have to have an accelerator as big as the galaxy to be able to identify the tiniest particles that make up the building blocks of life. Just because the concepts make mathematical sense and the equations all balance doesn't mean that's the way things actually work. It's mostly just conjecture.

Also, who cares if these other universes are out there. We live in this universe and that aint gonna change. We're not going to be able to develop a worm hole or quantum tunnel into another universe. I'm no proponent of intelligent design. I think there was probably some sort of Big Bang and when things settled out our type of life evolved. If after the Big Bang the physical properties of the universe were different a different type of life may have evolved. It could have been conscious beings made entirely out of energy who raced around the universe at the speed of light. Who knows. Maybe those beings do exist in one of Leonard's pocket universes.

Putting aside the whole intelligent design thing I did find much of the book very interesting. I think string theory is fascinating. It's amazing how much we've been able to find out about the particles that make up our universe and how they behave. If you have at least an elementary backgroud in science you may find this book enjoyable. It's not easy reading but is worth the effort.

Somehow I've gotten sidetracked. What was the purpose of this post? Oh yes. I'm back at work this week and guess what? It Sucks! It's very busy, not very rewarding and totally stressful. Most of the people I work with are unhappy with their jobs. Everyone complains. Everyone is taken for granted. No one seems to appreciate what you do or tell you thanks, nice job.

I hear these self help types on TV and the internet telling us how we shoudn't stay in jobs that make us unhappy. We should do something that we love. Find something rewarding. Take a chance. Start a new carreer. To those people I say: Fuck Off! For most people on this planet it's not an option. We don't have the knowledge, the expertise or the financial means to just quit our jobs and try something else. We have bills. We have debts. We have obligations. We have wives with credit cards. We can't just chuck it all and go to Tahiti, become alcoholics and pretend to write that one great novel that we just know is inside of us.

I'm tired of people telling me that my job should be fulfilling. That it should be fun. That's B.S.
There really is a reason why it's called work. Because it is work. It's not supposed to be fun. If it was fun it would be called something else. Like, oh I don't know, maybe...fun?

By my calculations, if I don't win the lottery I'm stuck in this job for about another 20 years. How can I possibly survive? Red wine, Bass ale and single malt Scotch.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Bested By A Second Grader

Growing up I was always into video games. When I was little there weren't very many. Pong on Atari was probably the first one I played. Space Invaders, Asteroids and Defender soon followed. I mastered Pac Man and could play it indefinitely. Then came Galaga, Centipede and a host of others.

In college, there was one particular game called Robotron that I played endlessly. I was the champ at this game. I played it so much I developed elbow and forearm pain that I termed "Robotron Elbow" I had to ice my arm down after each gaming session and take a bunch of tylenol or aspirin for the pain. This went on for months.

After college I lost interest in video games until Nintendo 64 came out. My wife bought me one for Christmas one year. This was before we had kids. I loved it. I would stay up till 3 AM playing games every night. Wave Race was a favorite. So was Star Wars Rogue Squadron. I quickly became addicted again. S would look down at me from upstairs, sprawled on the family room floor, legs cramping, sweat pouring from my face and say "don't you think it's time to turn that thing off and come to bed?" The Nintendo 64 soon became a source of contention in the house.

S: All you ever want to do is play video games.

Me: You bought the machine for me. I didn't ask for it. What do you expect?

This was probably not the wisest response I could have given. The silent treatment then ensued. This is worse than a knock down drag out argument.

Me: What's wrong

S: Nothing

Me: Are you sure? You're kind of quiet.

S: I'm fine.

After a few days of conversations made up entirely of sentences with one or two words I realized someone would have to give in. Somehow I knew it wouldn't be S. Eventually, to restore peace to the house I cut back on the game playing. Things got back to normal and all was well. Then we had kids.

A first became interested in video games about age 3. He was hilarious to watch. He loved racing games the most. He would stand infront of the TV jumping up and down in place while he played. When he needed to turn whatever car he was driving he would turn his whole body to the left or the right. At this point I could beat him in any game, every time. Life was good.

He gradually got better. He played a wider variety of games with increading levels of complexity. When Gamecube came out he wanted one of those. When Playstation 2 came out he wanted one of those. How could I say no? Video games soon became his life.

He gradually got better. I think he was 6 when he legitimately beat me in a game for the first time. By age 7 it was about 50/50. A is now 8. He routinely kicks my ass in just about any game out there. About the only game I can still win is Star Wars Rogue Squadron III. But A never wants to play that game. His latest favorite is Crash Tag-Team Racing. I win about 1 out of every 10 races. Video games aren't so much fun anymore. Not when you're routinely humiliated by a second grader.

Occasionally, A will ask my help with a game. It's usually one of those single player games where you're a character who has to find his way through multiple levels, fighting bad guys along the way. He'll get stuck on a level he can't beat and then he'll ask for help. I beat Rhino for him in the Ultimate Spiderman game and figured out how to beat Electro. He then took the controller and continued on with the game.

It's good to know he still needs me for something.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


For Christmas, S got me a Sirius Satellite Radio. It's a"plug and play" type that uses an FM modulator to broadcast the signal to the car radio. I decided to install it that day.

I went to the garage (where it was about 25 degrees out) and proceeded to install the antenna. It attaches to the roof of the car with a powerful magnet. You then have to run a wire under the rubber edging along the back window, into the trunk and then up through the car to the dash. Simple enough, right? Wrong. The rubber edging around the window is very rippled and dried out since the car is about 7 years old. I couldn't get the wire to stay under it. Finally I got it to stay by ramming it under inch by inch with a popsicle stick, ran the wire up the driver's side of the car behind the plastic molding and found that it was about 5 inches too short to reach the dash. I drive a midsized car. How can the fucking wire be too short!? I had to pull the entire wire out, start over and run it up the passenger side where it reached the dash with about an inch to spare.

By this time I'd spent about an hour outside, my fingers were numb and S started peeking into the garage to see if I was still alive. She new better than to interrupt me or actually try to talk to me when I'm in the middle of one of my "projects". Once started I must move forward to completion without interruption, food, water or even a pee break. If I have to stop in the middle I loose all momentum and the chance of successfully completing the project in anything under 9 hours becomes infinitesimally small.

After successfully installing the antenna I mount the receiver on the dash, plug in the power source and turn it on. The instructions say (yes I actually use instructions sometimes) that at this point I should get a signal from Sirius saying that all is well and instructing me to call them to activate the service. Of course, I had no signal.

I called customer service and got a barely understandable representative who was probably based somewhere in Indonesia who proceeded to outline the different payment plans and options for the Sirius radio service.

"But wait" I said. "I'm not getting a signal. The radio isn't working".

"We have a one year plan, a two year plan or a lifetime membership for $599 Dollars. Or, you can pay month to month".

"I know English is not your native language but please try to understand me when I say: The Fucking radio does not work!"

"Please hold"

After five minutes she comes back on. "I'm sorry sir, I don't think I can help you with this. Let me transfer you to our product support department. Please hold".

Ten minutes later I'm sitting in the car, blue fingers, blue lips, bladder about to burst. I open the garage door and start the engine to get some heat. Then inspiration hits me. I back the car out into the driveway and voila. The signal appears. The car fills with sound. It's the weather channel, telling me that it's cold and snowing in the Midwest. No shit.

It never occurred to me that satellite radio wouldn't work in a garage but apparently it doesn't. There needs to be an direct signal from the satellite to the antenna. You'd think that they would mention this in the instructions. "Note: radio must be installed outdoors you idiot!"

Despite the installation hassle I really do like the radio. So many channels of commercial free music to choose from. I like the Chill channel 35 the best as well as most of the electronic/dance channels.

And, there's Howard Stern too. I tried listening to him one morning. What an idiot. Why he's getting paid 100 million dollars and a share of the company I'll never know. He's one of the least funny and talented people on the planet. "King of All Media"? How about King of bad 80's hair! His only interests seem to be lesbians and hookers. Have you read any of his books? I tried reading "Miss America" and lasted about 20 pages. One of the most boring and juvenile books I've ever encountered.

The other weird thing about Howard is his resemblance to Alan Alda. They look and sound remarkably alike. Alan is basically Howard, without the hair, 20 years older and a little more whiney. Alan Alda must secretly be Howard Stern's dad, or at least an uncle. Maybe he's his older brother who was given up for adoption when his mom had him out of wedlock at age 14.

One thing about the Sirius radio you need to know. The FM modulator isn't stellar. I frequently get background hiss, static and bleed through from other stations on nearby frequencies. It would be better to wire the unit directly into the car stereo so you don't have to broadcast over an FM frequency. Unfortunatley, my car stereo doesn't have that capability. Maybe in my next car.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Black Jack

I have a cat. A diabetic cat. An insulin dependent diabetic cat. His name is Jack. He is Black.
Say hello to Jack:

I never thought I'd have a diabetic cat who needs insulin shots twice a day but here he is. We first noticed something was wrong when his hind legs stopped working properly. They kept slipping as if he was walking on ice and they didn't move with the front legs in a coordinated fashion. He couldn't jump up on the bed anymore (a bonus if you ask me) and he seemed extremely thirsty all the time. We couldn't keep his water dish full enough.

Then the real problems began. He didn't seem to be able to make it to the litter box anymore and started peeing all over the house. Strangely enough, he wouldn't pee just anywhere. He had to pee on something that was laying on the floor. Preferably a blanket but he wasn't picky. He peed on newspapers, plastic bags or any other relatively flat object. He woudn't just pee in the middle of the floor. There had to be something to pee on. We took Jack to the vet, tests were run (many expensive tests) and the verdict was returned. Dr. X-ray, your cat has diabetes and you will need to give him injections twice a day for the rest of his life.

At this point I thought to my self: This is the perfect opportunity to get rid of this cat. Now don't get me wrong. I like cats. I've had a number of them over the years and we've gotten on quite well. Particularly Tigger, an orange tabby who looked like Moris the cat and at one point in his life had to have been the worlds largest and fattest cat. Tigger was a house cat and was declawed but still managed to sneak out on a regular basis to go hunting. The way he got out was this. He was so strong that he would butt his head into the screen door in our kitchen repeatedly and eventually tear a hole in the screen just with the force of his head. I don't know how many times I had to replace that screen.

When I was single and lived alone I appreciated having a pet around for company. However, once I got married and had kids the pets gradually became a nuisance. I had enough to deal with without the added aggravation of cleaning up cat puke off the rug every few days. . It was always difficult to find someone to watch him when we left town. And one of my best friends is allergic to cats and has to be heavily medicated before he can come over. The hassle factor of having a cat quickly out weighed the enjoyment factor which the cat provided (which was actually very little; he is, after all, a cat. How much fun can they be?) And now at last a chance to live a pet free existance.

Yeah right. When I informed the munchkins A and N that Jack would have to go they promptly burst into tears. "No-o-o-ot Ja-a-a-a-c-c-k-k! sob sob! It was almost as bad as if I'd told them we were getting rid of the Playstation2 and all the TV's in the house. My wife, S, gave me the look and I new right then that this cat would remain a part of our household no matter what the cost!

It's 4 months later. Jack eats special (ie expensive) diabetic cat food, gets his insulin twice a day and has made a complete recovery. He can walk again, jump up on the bed and pees in the litter box. And I only have to clean up puke off the rug about once a week.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Speculative Fiction

The family went to Florida for a week over Christmas break. I however, had to stay home and work. It wasn't too bad. The house was quiet. I wasn't constantly tripping over toys strewn about the house, and I got several nights of uninterrupted sleep (no children coming in at 2 AM claiming they just had a really bad dream and "can I sleep with you and mom?").

I also had time to do some reading. I mainly read science fiction, horror and fantasy with some mainstream novels, historical novels and a smattering of nonfiction thrown in. Lately its been British science fiction and there's some really interesting stuff out there.

First up: China Mieville

I hadn't heard of him before but I saw "Iron Council" in the book store, thought it looked interesting and bought it. What a wonderful book. I immediately went out and bought his other Bas-Lag novels "Perdido Street Station"and "The Scar". All three novels take place in the same world and if you're going to read them I'd recommend going in order starting with "Perdido Street Station". This is "literary" science fiction (or fantasy actually) at it's best. Mieville has created a world which has drawn comparisons to Mervyn Peak's "Ghormenghast" with good reason.

New Crobuzon is a once great city which over the centuries has fallen into decay. At one time the civilization must have been extremely advanced but much of the technology and knowledge has been lost. Some primitive steam driven machines and crude punch card computers are about all thats left. Magic or "Thaumaturgy" has developed in it's place. While reading these books I was also reminded of the world in Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series. Those books take place in a future world which has "moved on". Most technology has been lost and the people have reverted to an existence out of the American Old West.

Mieville's prose is beautiful and elegant but with a hard edge. His descriptions of places and events seem very real. One can feel the filth and decay; can sense the misery of the masses struggling to merely exist. The human and nonhuman species which populate New Crobuzon are mostly the downtrodden, the miserable, the lost. They're struggling against a corrupt and oppressive government only interested in maintaining power and a way of life for the priveledged few. Themes of racism, slavery and revolution are prevalent throughout the stories. New Crobuzon could be London 1000 years from now with all of societies ills and problems over the last 300 years alive and well.

The nonhuman species in the books are very well imagined. We don't actually know where these species come from. One or two may be actually alien. Some appear to be demons or beings that reside at least partially in another plane of existance. Many of the species seem to be mutated from insects or plants. There is an implication that there may have been some great disaster in the distant past (nuclear? thaumtaurgical?) that created these beings. This is never clearly stated. Then there are the "remade". These are humans who have for the most part been convicted of crimes and been punished by having their bodies surgically altered. Additional body parts and even machines have been grafted onto them and then they are made into slaves. The relationships between the human and nonhuman species are interesting and at times very moving. There is one cross species relationship in "Perdido Street Station" that is intimate and quite heartwrenching.

These three books taken together create an epic fantasy that ranks in the class of Peak or Tolkein. I hope Mieville's next work continues an exploration of this facinating world

Mieville's first book "King Rat" is something altogether different and yet it shares some common elements with the Bas-Lag novels. It's a take off on the "Pied Piper" tale. The setting is quite similar to Neil Gaiman's London in "Neverwhere". There are people living underground. There is dirt and decay. There is magic. Some of the main characters are insect or animal "gods", similar to characters in Gaiman's "Anansi Boys". I suspect "Neverwhere" influenced Mieville when he wrote "King Rat" and Gaiman was in turn influenced by King Rat in writing Anansi Boys. All three books seem to fit together.

Mieville also has a book of short fiction called "Looking For Jake" which I haven't yet read but plan to soon. He has also written a nonfiction book entitled "Between Equal Rights- A Marxist Theory of International Law" from Brill Academic Publishers. At $80.00 it's quite an expensive book so it may be some time before I try and tackle that one. Based on the title I think I know where Mieville's political leanings lie. Theme's of socialism are quite prevalent in the Bas-Lag books.

If you're looking for some interesting and beautifully written speculative fiction that will not only enthrall you but make you think as well then Mieville is for you. In future posts I'll talk about some other authors I'm currently reading.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Life Philosophy From the Mind of an 8 Year Old

For Christmas my oldest son "A" presented us with a calendar that he made at school. Each month the calendar had a different popular saying or phrase. The begining of the phrase was already on the calendar and the child had to complete it.

For example: Don't count your chickens... before they hatch.
A stitch in time... saves nine.

You get the idea.

Most of A's responses were rather mundane except for one. October's phrase.

If at first you don't succeed... you're hopeless!

That pretty much somes up A's attitude toward life. I'm raising a real overachiever.