Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Decline of Western Civilization

Exhibit #236,814

My local Blockbuster doesn't have room on its shelves for The Fabulous Baker Boys, but it does have room for F.A.R.T.: The Movie. The proprietors of this store have decided that more people in my neighborhood would prefer to see a movie that "dares you to pull its finger" than to see Susie Diamond do her thing in that little red dress.

Another item on my list of grievances: this store has Escape from L.A. (a piece of junk), but NOT Escape from New York (a wonderful piece of junk). When I asked the manager why they had the sequel but not the original, she stared at the DVD box for a second and said, "Well... this one's newer."

As Homer Simpson might say, Quentin Tarantino must be rolling over in his grave.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

"The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Lawyers"

Another leak at the NYTimes. This is getting ridiculous. Who's providing the leaks to these treasonous weasels? Howell Raines fills us in.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Unintended Consequences

This morning one of the smoke alarms in our house started beeping intermittently. Apparently, a battery was running low, but since this thing is wired directly to the electrical power in the house, the battery is backup. Well, I don't have any 9V batteries in the house, and the beeping was driving me crazy, so I removed the dying battery (beeping continues), pulled the thing out of the wall (beeping continues), and buried it under a mattress where I will soon forget it. The annoying beeps are supposed to motivate me to do something about the situation NOW, but since I can't, I had to dismantle the thing to retain my sanity, and will have to try to remember to buy a new battery and re-install the alarm. It could be weeks or months before that happens, and in the meantime, we have no smoke alarm upstairs. This stupid, annoying safety feature has resulted in the unintended consequence of providing much less protection than if the battery had been allowed to die without warning.

A similar thing has resulted from child-proof caps on medications. Elderly people and those with arthritis had a difficult time opening them, so many people simply left the caps off entirely to avoid the hassle. It's more likely that a child will get into an uncovered bottle of medication than one that has a simple lid on it, so the stupid, annoying safety feature created an even more dangerous situation than the one it sought to prevent.

Same thing with seat belts. The cars that incessantly beep at you if every seatbelt in the car isn't fastened forces drivers to fasten all the belts in the car, and then people are too lazy to undo them and just sit on top of them instead of buckling themselves in.

One can easily draw an analogy to gun safety laws, designed to keep us poor benighted fools from unintentionally harming ourselves or others. Laws, for instance, that make it more difficult to access a loaded firearm when a violent predator breaks into your home. Or if your government decides to disarm people entirely in the name of public safety, it results in the unintended consequence of breeding many more wolves hungry for defenseless sheep.

These things happen because of human nature, not in spite of them. Nanny-types see the relationship between laws and safety as infinitely linear -- or even exponential -- every measure taken will result in more safety. But, in reality, the relationship is more like a parabola. You can do sensible things to promote safety up to a maximum point, after which anything more results in a decline. This is why we have unintended consequences. I wish the safety nazis would figure it out and leave things to common sense instead of trying to legislate danger out of existence. But that's human nature, too.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Back Home

Got home last night around midnight after quite a long drive. I was supposed to have flown up north for a vacation with family, but couldn't muster the nerve to get on the airplane. I've got a full-blown case of flying phobia. It traces back to a very bad experience I had a few years ago on a small prop plane flying from eastern Oregon to Seattle, during which we hit a bad patch of turbulence -- passengers were coming out of their seats, and the woman behind me was screaming and crying. Looking back, I realize that we were in no real danger, but it was so distressing that, gradually, I got more and more nervous about even the slightest turbulence. Last Friday it peaked during a slightly bumpy 50-minute flight from Albuquerque to Phoenix, and even though I was facing only a 2-hr flight from Phoenix to Boise, I could not get on the plane.

Irrational fears are kind of fascinating. As a physicist, I understand well the mechanics of flight and how safe air travel is. I know that turbulence has caused planes to crash only in the rarest and most extreme cases, I know that planes are very robust flying machines and don't plummet out of the sky, and I know that during turbulence the plane is moving up and down maybe a few inches to a few feet -- uncomfortable, but not dangerous at all. And yet this knowledge is absolutely powerless to assuage the paralyzing terror I now have of getting on an airplane. You just can't fight panic.

So, I cancelled my visit and decided to rent a car and drive home from Phoenix. Turned out to be an enjoyable trip. Before heading out, I subscribed to this service and put hours of William Shatner's Star Trek recollections on my iPod. Shatner's a ham, but he's a good traveling companion. I've always liked road trips, which are a great way to see your own country. It was interesting to see the gradual transition of landscape from Arizona to New Mexico to Texas, and I now know the one state in which I would least like to live: Arizona. Especially Phoenix, which is big, ugly, barren, and hot as Hades. I had to wait outside for an hour for the airport shuttle to arrive, and felt like I was being slowly cooked. However, I did find 113 F dry heat easier to take than the 98 F humid heat of central Texas. Like the shuttle driver said, better to be a chicken than a lobster. Drove through Tucson, which looked nothing like I imagined (at least from the interstate), and gradually transitioned to landscape that very oddly looked like a cross between the lunar surface and Washington-state farm country. I liked the huge saguaro cacti though. Got a slight pang of concern when I saw a sign for Cochise County, where they've been having a lot of trouble with violent border-jumping criminals. I-10 hugs the Mexican border for quite a stretch, and from there I could see the big fence. Border patrol vehicles were here and there. Looking south, you wonder how anyone could survive a long-distance trek through such landscape, and yet it's done all the time. Somewhere in New Mexico I hit a huge dust storm, and lost visibility for a short while. It fills you with awe to approach a wall of dust from a distance and realize how enormous it is.

By the end of the first day of driving I got to El Paso, and called it a night. Next day I realized how mountainy that area is. I've done the drive to Ft. Davis many times, but didn't realize that the mountains stretched even further west. It's a pretty drive. And you know you're in Texas because people immediately start tailgating. In Arizona and New Mexico, drivers keep a respectable distance. In Texas, you're driving on the interstate at 85 mph in the slow lane, nobody for miles in the passing lane, and some jerk still huffs and puffs on your bumper. It's the only thing I dislike about Texans. Speaking of weird driving habits, I don't understand why Mexicans drive well below the speed limit. The illegals in the U.S. always drive slow, because they don't want to give police any reason to pull them over (do they realize it does give police a good profiling tool?). But you see a guy in a nice car with a license plate from Chihuahua and know that he crossed the border legally, so why does he drive like a slug? Maybe it's because they are in the habit of not giving their own police reason to pull them over and demand bribes.

Anyway, here I am back at home, temporarily beaten back by fear. I know where it comes from, and I know how to eventually defeat it. Like this guy says, you can't do it directly. But I'm confident that by next spring I'll be back in the air.

One last note. Never again will I travel -- even by air* -- without a handgun. Talk about feeling vulnerable. There are long stretches of nothing between big cities in the U.S., and I also never want to be that close to the border without protection ever again. Even when further up north, there are plenty of psychos and scumbags on the interstates, and a finite number of state police to come to the rescue. Besides, as Carnaby pointed out, I missed a golden opportunity to openly strap on the ol' .45 in New Mexico.

[*Legally stowed in checked baggage, of course.]

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

From NM With Love

I'm still at my conference in New Mexico, and thought I'd check in briefly. I'm enjoying the lectures quite a bit and getting lots of ideas for research. The conference resort is fabulous, but the climate is the real highlight of the trip. Mornings are cool; afternoons get warm and sunny (but dry!); then the clouds roll in and we maybe get a little rain; a little while later the clouds disappear and we get a perfectly clear and cool evening. Paradise. Plus, New Mexico people are pretty relaxed and down to earth. It's a great place.

Meanwhile, I have had an epiphany about the nature of genius. I have had the distinction of spending time with a man who represents the stereotype -- a Nobel laureate physicist, who is incredibly brilliant, knowledgeable, well-spoken, and figures things out with lightning speed. He is also hugely egotistical, unpersonable, and intimidating as hell. Three days ago I met this person, who is also incredibly brilliant. However, you will never meet a more humble, personable, self-effacing man. A man, who after solving a problem that even Einstein believed to be unsolvable, still thinks he has something to learn from people, and will listen attentively and take notes when a junior researcher is giving a lecture. It was a genuine pleasure to listen to him explain how he arrived at his famous solution. He admitted that at one point, when he didn't understand a particular mathematical concept, he simply opened an undergraduate textbook and figured it out. It's then that I realized that genius doesn't always live up to its stereotype. It often involves lots of work, an overwhelming drive to solve a problem, and an unshakable faith that it can be solved. In other words, it has a lot more to do with character than capability. (If you aren't convinced, watch this movie.) Incidentally, the "legendary" stuff described in the article above is, in fact, quite truthful.

So, that was my big epiphany. Well, sorta. I had already figured out that the most brilliant students were, in actuality, just the ones who studied 12 hours a day and never gave up on figuring things out. But I didn't realize how much that extended into the realm of genius. I think that principle pretty much applies to every aspect of life.

(P.S. I get to visit a big, super-secret government lab tomorrow. If you don't hear from me in 30 days, alert the conspiracists!)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Hey Google! Eat My Shorts!

Via Say Uncle, stop using Google. I concur. I'm going to MoveOn to

Say, that would make a catchy, um, catchphrase. Google? No! MoveOn to Almost even rhymes.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

New Springfield Arriving, Etc.

I sold the Champion yesterday. Hope the new owner likes it.

In a moment of financial panic, I decided not to get the TRP. That was a mistake. It's not that I can't afford it -- I can -- but I am a compulsive spender in recovery and sometimes get confused about what constitutes a legitimate expenditure and what is frivolous. The TRP wouldn't have been frivolous. I enjoy going to the range, mostly to shoot with a .45 and the AR. The Champion was fine as a first handgun, but I never used the thing for its intended purpose (concealed carry), and at the range I found myself abandoning it in favor of my husband's full-sized Kimber. He likes to shoot his Kimber, too, so instead of imposing on him every time we go to the range, it made sense to trade up from the seldom-used Champion to something I'd really enjoy and actually use. I should have bought the TRP. But, that's that. Now that I'm clear-headed about all this, I felt no grief at all about ordering a Springfield Custom Loaded Trophy Match, pretty similar to this

Who knows when the darn thing will actually arrive. I leave for my big journey at the end of the week, and hope it might be here when I return.

This has been my first post in a while. I have been flat-out busy at work finishing revisions on The Big Paper, working on two other projects, and meanwhile preparing for the New Mexico conference (sponsored by a certain government facility with conspiratorial ties to UFOs -- whee!). There's even a lead on a faculty job at a small, but ideal, institution nearby, which means I have to update my terribly out-of-date resume and start writing letters. Ugh!!! The upshot is: I'm too busy and tired to post anything much. I hope that changes in the near future.

Oh, yeah, and Happy (Belated) Birthday America! I'm so glad I came back to you nine years ago.