30 December 2007

Lily's Eyes

"Lily's Eyes" is from the musical Secret Garden, based on the book of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This version of it, sung by Anthony Warlow and Philip Quast for a production in Australia, is the most beautiful male duet I've ever heard.

I was introduced to it by a fan of Philip Quast, who is probably best known for playing Javert in Les Miserables in productions in England and Australia (but not the London Cast version of the CDs). In the course of our discussions about various musicals, my friend and I decided that cast recordings of Broadway productions of any musical are inferior compared to recordings of productions elsewhere. If anyone knows where I can get hold of a copy of the Australian production of Secret Garden, I'm all ears.

This post inspired by Jeri. Apparently I was unfond enough after all. :)

29 December 2007

Noble Wraiths


They stripped away everything that made him who he was - took his memories, changed his body to match their own image - and expected him to become one of them. They failed. In the aftermath of their failure, he and they came to some respectful understandings.

Or so he thought. Until they betrayed him and tried to do the exact same thing a second time, as if no understandings had occurred at all. Not just to him, but to an entire shipful of his people. And when they failed again, they tried to destroy all of them.

Even after that he willingly allied with them against his own people. And even after he helped them that time, they betrayed him again.

Then, when he was exiled from his own people because of what they did to him, and the only option left to him for survival was to create his own army in self defense, in their paranoia they wouldn't allow him even that.

He who called one of them brother

Once upon a time he allied with one of them to escape a common enemy. The two together succeeded, and he was so impressed with the other's honor that he called him brother.

On the strength of that experience, he sought out the same one again later on for another alliance. In return he found no recognition of that shared experience at all. He endured imprisonment, their extreme paranoia, and the loss of his entire hive of loyal followers, all without losing patience. He helped save the life of one of them, someone of no importance to him whatsoever; to do so he worked without complaint among them and never once asked to be fed, not even when he collapsed from starvation.

They used him and put him back into imprisonment when they were done, and when they no longer need him they will throw him away.

So who are the actual good guys and bad guys of Stargate: Atlantis? Because I'm finding it difficult to sympathize with the humans of Earth. They have no honor, they never learn and they do their best to burn every bridge they encounter when they could be building them.

It would be much different if the wraiths consciously chose to feed upon the humans when they could choose other food sources - but they don't have that choice. Their only choices are to feed upon humans or to die. How are they evil by not choosing to die? And how much more fascinating a storyline could there have been, exploring the nature of a sentient race that must feed upon another sentient race?

27 December 2007


    When the soul of a child finds a parent and joins with a new body, there is much joy.

    When the soul of the child finds that its joy is met with pain and anguish, there is confusion and sorrow.

    When the soul departs - perhaps to find another parent, perhaps to return to the ether from whence it came, much sorrow is left behind amidst the relief.

The end result was a miscarry, not a medically induced abortion - but we had to wrangle with the questions just the same. In an ideal world, nobody would want to kill their own children. Unfortunately we don't live in that world, and sometimes you have to choose the least bad option. It's good to have as many options as possible to choose from during those times, including triage. And that's how I came to be pro-choice.

My views have shifted a lot in the decade and a half since then. More recently, someone asked me:
    How can you allow abortion if you believe it to be extinguishing an innocent human life?

My reply:

a) Life is precious. However, each individual living thing is not.
b) Human life is not more precious than other life.
c) My own children are precious to me. However, my children aren't necessarily precious to others, nor are others' children necessarily precious to me.

We are all part of the cycle of life - birth, growth, reproduction, death. Some living things eat other living things to live. Some of them hijack other living things to their own ends (disease-causing microbes, parasites). Living things fight over resources all the time - plants try to outgrow each other, ants have territorial wars, etc. Humans are part of the cycle too and no different.

So while an unborn child is a fully valid living thing from the moment of conception, it isn't inherently precious just by the fact that it's alive. It's mainly precious only to its parents and close relatives (and sometimes only its mother). Many other non-human living things would see it more as a resource to exploit (to eat, to hijack, etc.). And sometimes things go wrong all on their own while it's trying to form - and no amount of preciousness (inherent or otherwise) will save it then.

Also, an unborn child is not more precious than a human at another stage of their life cycle. Every stage is important in different ways. Sometimes it's necessary to find the most optimal outcome among many lives, and sometimes this means individual sacrifices.

And finally, there's one more side to it that many people seem to ignore. People seem to want to place the emphasis on physical life as the precious part. But life isn't just the physical body. The physical body is just a vehicle to carry the soul, which joins the body at conception. If the body dies, the soul is not destroyed - it just goes elsewhere. The loss of life is not so great when the soul barely began before the parting, and can begin anew.

The discussion from which the above excerpt came is well worth reading, as it's quite possibly the only civilized abortion discussion anywhere that represents the whole range of viewpoints. Go read and think. Then, for more, I also recommend Jim Wright's opinions on how to move forward.

26 December 2007

A Totoro

This is a Totoro. It's a forest spirit from the anime film My Neighbor Totoro; the plush toy came with my copy of the 1993 video from Fox Video. It's carrying a bag of nuts.

As anime goes, I'm mainly a fan of Rumiko Takahashi (Mermaid Forest, Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2, Maison Ikkoku, more recently Inu Yasha) and Hayao Miyazaki (NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). I saw most of those as bootleg fansubs back before anime was popular in the U.S., and I vastly prefer subtitles to dubbed versions. Back then anime was something we admired as an art form, with superior filmography and sound (Ah My Goddess! being possibly the best example of that). Then along came Sailor Moon in the mid-90s, little girls everywhere squee'd, suddenly everyone and their dog was watching it, and it all went downhill from there.

24 December 2007

Whack-A-Mole, only sillier

Tontie is a whack-a-mole game. It all starts out so simple. Use the hammer to whack the one-eyed mole as it comes up out of the hole. Collect money if it drops any. Lose life for missing. Sometimes get life back if it drops hearts instead of money.

Then it turns out there are different kinds of moles. Then it turns out there are also different kinds of hammers. Then it turns out that not all hammers can hit all moles, and some hammers need to whack twice instead of once to kill some moles. Then there are the treasure chests, explosives and ray guns.

The eyeballs with numbers are the worst for me. Not only do I have to stop and think about what button I'm pressing, sometimes I'm not whacking what I think I'm whacking - and sometimes what I actually whack is something I don't wanna whack.

In the end, it's still simple. If it has an eye, you must whack it before it disappears. (Unless it's a bomb. Those are all bad.) If you don't know what your hammer does, try not to whack anything that doesn't have an eye. And collect calculators. Those are important.

The level of silliness reminds me of the original Insaniquarium. Feed fish, get better critters, defend the tank from aliens using a ray gun. Also well worth wasting a few days if you've not seen this before.

23 December 2007

Aftermath of the Storm

I think the part that kills me most about being a community moderator is when people who have nothing to fear from me suddenly decide I must be some kind of megalomaniac despot, and that they have to cower from me. Especially when this comes right after other people practically had to beg me to do my job. Especially when they've known me for years. Has that really been what they've thought of me all this time?

None of them saw all the sides of it that I did, yet all of them judge me on what I should have done. Some think I was too harsh, some think I was too lenient. I think I'm glad that for most, the community is back to being an enjoyable place to be.

22 December 2007

Some Peaceful Scenery

Southeastern U.S. coast maritime forest meets salt marsh. To the right, salt marsh eventually meets river. This picture was taken at the northern end of Skidaway Island, during a summertime a few years ago.

20 December 2007

Translating Geology into English

The abstract of a recent geology paper, Dating the First Stage of Planet Formation, says:
    The Mn-Cr chronometer applied to bulk carbonaceous chondrites constrains the solar nebula volatile element fractionation, chondrule formation, and stage I planetary accretion timescale to within +0.91 to -1.17 Myr at 4568 Myr ago. The difference between the initial 53Cr/ 52Cr ratio of ordinary chondrites, defined by Chainpur (LL3.4) chondrules, and carbonaceous chondrites suggests that the former is coming from an isotopically evolved reservoir.

In English, what they said was:

The solar system first began to form about 4.568 billion years ago, though it could've been as much as 0.91 million years more than that, or 1.17 million years less than that. They figured this out by using the Manganese-Chromium dating method on some meteorites (rocks from space) known as chondrites. This is like the carbon dating method, except with manganese and chromium. It's done in a chemistry lab.

How this works: The chromium atom has 24 protons and also a bunch of neutrons. 53 Cr is a chromium atom that has 29 neutrons, and 52 Cr has 28 neutrons. 53 Cr and 52 Cr are called isotopes of chromium. A rock, when it first forms from moltenness, will start out with a certain amount of 53 Cr. As time goes by, the 53 Cr will gradually turn into 52 Cr through radioactive decay. By measuring how much of each type is in the rock (a ratio), it's possible to get a good estimate on how much time has gone by since it first formed.

The authors of the paper did all this on a special type of chondrite (the carbonaceous kind), and by looking at it, they think that the regular kind of chondrite started out from a pool of moltenness that had already done some radioactive decaying before cooling into rocks.

I've read a lot of science papers from all of the main branches of science, and I must say that geologists are by far the grand prize winners when it comes to obfuscatory writing. This is to hide the fact that geology is really so easy to understand that anyone could do it if it was explained clearly to them. I've seen 15-20 page papers, chock full of really big words and dense grammatical structures, that could've been written in 5. Since grant funds tend not to be justified if you only write a few paragraphs to explain what you did, though, professional geologists have to make what they do look bigger and more complicated than it really is.

The above was translated off the top of my head at the request of someone in a chat channel. I felt like putting it here, too, to make me feel smart - as a counter to yesterday's post which makes me feel like a failure. The only thing I looked up was how many protons chromium has. Therefore, take my accuracy with a grain of salt. ;)

19 December 2007

On Endings

All good things eventually come to an end. Everyone is on a different path. Sometimes those paths cross and join for a while, and friendships blossom, and then a while later they uncross and go off in separate directions. Sometimes they loop back around and cross again later, but not always - when they do, the two people that shared paths before might well be two completely different people with a different relationship the next time.

Letting go is good when an end does come. It's good to recognize when it's time, and to do it gracefully instead of clinging vainly on, which can sour the ending. And it's good to not think about endings while things last, but to enjoy every moment as they come.

And sometimes, a path can lead away not from another person, but from a community or an activity.

I came to a fork in my path a long time ago. I've never been good at letting go. Instead of making a choice, one or the other, I keep trying to do both. But with each new door that opens on the path I need to choose, the other path drags me back. I'm trying to go up the middle and I keep running into trees.

It's time I stopped that. RPoL was very good to me for the past four and a half years, but I can't do it anymore. I've been trying to deny the inevitable, trying to recall the enthusiasm I once had from ever greater depths, but it just isn't there. I need to let it go.

17 December 2007

My favorite kind of warning sign

Seen on the office door of one of the faculty:
(click to read.)

One of the biggest hazards of doing science in the field is tampering and theft by random passersby. It never helps to explain anything in the hopes that people will just nod along and leave things alone. Trickery and camouflage tend to work better. When I was in grad school helping a fellow student do some research with shorebirds, they had a box of tracking equipment that had to just sit out in the middle of an island. It was surrounded by a useless but official looking fence and plastered with "Warning: High Voltage" signs. Seemed to work pretty well.

And perhaps humor works well too. ;) The above sign, which is probably also out in the field attached to some electronic equipment too heavy to steal, reminds me of the birdwatcher's box.

16 December 2007

First Big Shoe Lift Test: Standing Around for Three Hours

Today as my takeout shift was coming to an end, I noticed several things:

a) I'm not sore. My back isn't aching, my butt and leg muscles aren't twinging, and nothing is throbbing. Also, all of my leg joints feel fine.

b) I can stand still. I'm not shuffling back and forth to counter the twinging that I'm not feeling. Also, although I'm still going through the motions of attempting to crack my lower back and knees every so often, just out of habit, I don't actually need to. And nothing feels like it's in desperate need of stretching.

c) I'm not totally exhausted. Apparently I normally expend a tremendous amount of energy just by standing around. Today I could probably have kept working for twice as long.

Maybe all this newly freed up energy can now be put to more interesting uses, like gaining strength and stamina! Or acquiring hobbies that aren't in front of the computer! Or fighting crime! Or even just catching up on all the hopelessly behind housework that I can never get done. (Or maybe I'm being hopelessly optimistic. We'll see, I guess. ;) )

In conclusion: so far this shoe lift thing seems like a really good idea. :)

15 December 2007

Beef Barley Soup

This is my one soup that has always gotten rave reviews from everyone who has ever tried it. I make a gallon at a time.

5 small red potatoes
5 carrots
5 celery stalks
a small onion
a small carton of mushrooms
stir-fry beef (I don't like stew beef; too much fat)
1 cup barley (not instant/quick-cook barley!)
some corn (I use frozen; just don't use canned)
some peas (I use frozen; just don't use canned)
some green beans (I use frozen; just don't use canned)
one gallon beef broth (If it's canned, like Swanson's, I would recommend a 2 cans broth : 1 can water ratio because otherwise it's too salty.)

black pepper
cayenne pepper
Worcestershire sauce

1. Cut the beef into small pieces. Brown in the bottom of the soup pot with some corn oil. Dice the onion and slice the mushrooms. Add those in too. Saute'.

2. Add the beef broth. Bring to boil.

3. While it's heating up, wash the carrots and celery and chop into small pieces.

4. Rinse the barley and dump it in when the water is boiling. Stir.

5. When it boils again, dump in the corn and green beans. Stir.

6. When it boils again, dump in the carrots and celery. Turn the heat down a bit so it's not boiling as fast. Stir occasionally.

7. Chop up the potatoes. About an hour after you put in the barley and brought it to the second boil, dump in the potatoes. Stir.

8. Twenty minutes later dump in the peas and turn the heat off. (I have an electric stove. If yours is gas, let it come almost to a boil again before turning it off.) Stir. Sprinkle in copious quantities of black pepper and paprika. Not as much cayenne (it's not intended to be super spicy - just give it a bit of a kick). A couple dashes of the Worcestershire sauce, though I've left this out before without any huge difference.

9. Stir and cover. Let it sit on the stove slowly cooling overnight. Put it in the fridge the following morning. Eat for lunch. :)

That last step about leaving it out overnight may sound scary but I've never killed anyone with my soup by doing that. ;) You can stick it in the fridge directly if you want, but you might end up endangering all the other food in there by putting in something that big and hot right away.

Also, it's important to let the flavors blend together. You can eat it right after you're done adding the spices, but it won't taste right at that point. (It'll be edible and all... the full flavor just doesn't show up until the next day.)

The order of vegetables as stated above is important too. Stuff will cook at different rates. It took me a while to work out exactly what order to do it. Total cooking time has to be at least an hour and a half or the beef won't be tender enough.

14 December 2007

That original moment of Ohhh three years ago

Two quotes I encountered yesterday in a long comment thread about treatment for mental illness:
    127. Once I got help it was like putting on glasses for the first time and realising that I wasn't seeing anything the right way.

    72. I understand the hesitation in talking to friends. When I first went on medication for chronic depression and anxiety, I was astounded at the change and told everyone I knew. It was a miracle cure for me. It was interesting to see the varying reactions amongst my friends. That was an eye opener.

    I'm still open about taking medication and seeking help when needed and I encourage others to do so. But I am sometimes less ready to blurt it out to just anyone. That's a shame.

There's a special kind of sadness that happens when one has an epiphany and suddenly the whole world makes sense - but the rest of the world has the opposite reaction. And one realizes that the joy cannot be shared with one's closest friends and family without losing them.

It happened that way for me too, when I first discovered that I'm not an ugly duckling among ducks and geese at all, but really a swan.

12 December 2007

Followup for those concerned...

To continue the story about my mismatched legs:

My chiropractor gave me a shoe lift insert today. He said to try that and see if it actually helps anything before pursuing anything more expensive. It's a piece of rubber, only about a quarter of an inch thick, but my body can tell the difference. My right hip is enthusiastically in favor. My entire left side seems skeptical so far. Guess we'll see how sore I am after a few days of this...

11 December 2007


(picture compliments of my brother, who has declared me weird for wanting it)
Meet Doggie. He was our most beloved pet. He was named after the stuffed dog in They Cage The Animals At Night by Jennings Michael Burch, which my mother read when we were children, and in turn told to us a little at a time during our afternoon naps. He once won first place in a dog show in the stuffed dog category.

Nowadays he lives with my mother. I think he spends his days guarding the end of her bed.

(This post was inspired by Janiece Murphy's giant schnauzer Boogie, who is big and black and recently seen on a white light-colored! couch futon!.)

UPDATE: For all the people landing here looking for a picture of Burch's doggie: 8th picture here. :p

10 December 2007

"Saturn car key won't go into ignition" revisited

I have a Saturn wagon. Last summer I talked about a problem where it wouldn't let me put the key into the ignition, and how I solved it at the time. An additional followup to that: after a while I discovered that I could get the key into the ignition if I just banged on the steering column from underneath. That was much less tiring than the wrestling I was doing.

Nowadays I'm not having that problem anymore - it magically vanished after I had a bunch of unrelated problems fixed at a place other than the Saturn dealership. (Incidentally, to follow up what happened there - the epilepsy was due to a jammed door lock switch. They replaced both, everything is working great now.) Did the ignition problem vanish because they found and fixed it too? Or is it just due to a change in the weather from summer super-muggy hot to late fall "reasonable"? I don't know.

Why am I writing this post? Because someone googled on "Saturn car key won't go into ignition" and only found my post about Saturn customer service. I thought I'd be helpful and link in every part of the whole saga. :) For the executive summary: try banging on it from underneath.

09 December 2007

On being shafted

Science research isn't exactly the most well-funded endeavor in the country. Especially when the research isn't medical or otherwise of direct human impact. Ocean research is fairly low on the priority list overall, even in the best of times. Education is likewise not exactly a high priority here. The politicians talk it up, but when it comes time to fund it, the money isn't there.

In the economic climate of the past six years, the entire University System of Georgia was well and truly squeezed. The state budget proposals called for more and more cuts each time, until whole universities would've had to close. Every institute-wide meeting we had was doom and gloom about our lack of ability to pay for anything. There was a lot of pressure on the faculty to find funding from other sources than the state. There were layoffs. My boss was constantly worried about keeping all his own underlings paid.

Meanwhile, living expenses continued to rise. The price of gas skyrocketed, both for cars and for winter heating. Rent kept going up, as did utilities and the cost of doing laundry in the complex's coin-operated machines. The complex started making us pay for our own water. Each individual thing was only a little bit, but it adds up.

So I got a second job. I did it to avoid asking for a raise. I considered it my part of the sacrifice of the hard times we were in, because even with the low pay, it was better to have a job at the institute than not have it. I thought it made sense that it was better to have a job at low pay for a long time, than to have high pay for a short time and then become unemployed, which almost happened with my previous boss when his grant funds ran out earlier than he expected.

Sometimes people from the institute would buy food while I was working there. They were always surprised and cheerful about seeing someone they knew, and I would tell them I was "just helping out a bit for some extra pocket money," and then they would pick up their food and obliviously go on about their lives, not stopping to really wonder why.

I also kept my heat ten degrees lower than is actually comfortable for me, ate a lot of butter, and stopped going anywhere other than work, home, and the grocery store in between.

Imagine my surprise when, last summer, I discovered that I was the only one who hadn't had a raise in those entire six years. Not only that, I was now the lowest paid research grunt in the entire institute - and quite possibly the lowest paid full-time employee period.

Tonight my boss met my other boss. It was the first he knew. I wonder if he'll be observant enough, recalling the rage that made it impossible for me to speak to him for two days, and the ensuing straightening wherein I got a 12% raise and was promised another 8% raise next fiscal year, I wonder if he'll figure out how it really happened.

The economy has improved in the past year or so. We have money now to repair our existing infrastructure, upgrade our docks, replace old vehicles, and even build a whole new building. The future is looking good.

But never again when I hear about funding crises will I just quietly understand.

08 December 2007

A tree in Georgia

This is a southern live oak. We have four or five of them in the campus quad of the place where I work. The grayish stuff hanging off it is an epiphyte commonly called "Spanish moss" - it's neither Spanish nor moss. Savannah has a lot of these trees lining its streets.

07 December 2007

Minor imperfections of anatomy

My left leg is about half an inch shorter than my right. Pictures of me as a kid show that my left leg wasn't straight up and down - it looked bashed inward at the knee. Somehow nobody thought of this as a problem. (Then again, our "health care" during my childhood consisted of "don't get sick.")

Nowadays, this means that I lean slightly to the left (even when I'm sitting down, apparently), that touching my left toe is much easier than touching my right toe, and that standing still is nearly impossible - I have to shift around a lot. Too much walking kills my right hip, which in turn kills every other joint in both legs when I try to compensate by walking different, and eventually my lower then upper back. Also, my present exercise routine tends to leave my right hip seriously sore for days.

My current shoes have soles that are an inch and a half tall. I've recently discovered that walking around with only my left shoe on feels really nice to my right hip.

06 December 2007

Quick housekeeping note

Normally, whenever someone posts a comment here, I get an email notification. For some reason this stopped happening two days ago. If you've commented on any of the older entries, please be aware that I'm not ignoring you on purpose - I probably haven't seen it at all. Feel free to drop a note here if you've commented on something older than the last 4 or so posts and you want to make sure I see it.

Thanks, and hopefully Blogger/Google will fix itself soon.

05 December 2007

Forms of roleplaying

Roleplaying games come in many forms. First, there is a whole category of sexual activities that are also called "roleplaying." That's not the topic of this post. There are also two categories of video games called roleplaying - cRPGs such as Diablo/Diablo 2, Neverwinter Nights, Elder Scrolls, etc., and MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Everquest, etc. Then there are the pen-and-paper style roleplaying games. In these, two or more people get together and create a story. One person generally controls the setting and plot, while everyone else controls a character (or several).

There are a multitude of ways that a group of people can get together to create a story. Tabletop is where people gather around a table, usually in someone's living room, and there is usually dice involved. LARP (live-action roleplaying) is like a combination masquerade ball and improv acting event - participants dress up as their characters and interact with each other as them. Sometimes there is a strong storyline, and the improv is mediated by a narrator or group of narrators; other times it's an excuse to pound on each other with foam weapons. People also sometimes play by phone or through the mail. With the advent of the Internet, there came email and Skype, and there are several ways to play online.

Chat-based games happen through Instant Messengers like AIM, MSN, Yahoo, or through IRC. There is also specialized software dedicated to them, such as OpenRPG. It's a good realtime substitute for when the group can't all meet around a table, it's slightly slower than tabletop, and it's limited mainly by participant typing speed.

Then there are the true online writing games. They take place through blogs, wikis, and forums. They run much slower than chat; there is no instant gratification of seeing immediate feedback from other participants. The tradeoff is that the writing can become very well-thought-out and elaborate. They range from games that are just like tabletop in feel, up to full-fledged collaborative writing.

The hobby is about 40 years old at this point. For some reason it's not well regarded, even among other geeks. I personally see nothing embarrassing about it, nor reason to avoid mentioning it in non-gaming social contexts. Roleplaying is group storytelling, and storytelling is as old as humankind.

04 December 2007

Universal health care in the U.S.

We actually do have universal health care here in the U.S. already.

It's in the form of public hospital emergency rooms. Those are taxpayer-funded and aren't allowed to turn anyone away, which is why the poor and uninsured go to them in such large numbers and not always for emergencies.

I think we need a better universal health care system now.

03 December 2007


Sometimes I'm utterly compelled to do something that, at the time of doing, is totally incomprehensible - but makes perfect sense in hindsight. And I regret doing it with every fiber of my being - but at the same time know that it's completely right.

The waiting has ended. Things have begun.