Saturday, April 28, 2007

Still a Few Bugs in the System

The concept is sheer automotive anti-theft genius. A car senses that someone is trying to steal it and automatically initiates an error message that triggers a lockdown sequence to immobilize itself. Deep in the bowels of the car's onboard computer, where the would-be auto thieves can't see, it takes its own fuel pump offline, mimicking engine failure that would make it an unattractive target for the thieves who would be more interested in moving the car than diagnosing the mechanical problem. Basically, the car sees that it is under attack and plays possum until the bad guys lose interest. Very sci-fi.

Emp. Peng.'s Volvo apparently has had this feature since 2001. We learned this week that, however cool the idea is on paper, there are still a few bugs in the system as it exists in today's reality. Principally, a 2001 Volvo, while an advanced piece of engineering, is not quite smart enough to tell the difference between thugs attempting to commit grand theft auto and Volvo-certified technicians attempting to replace part of the throttle. Humans, on the other hand, are generally smart enough to know whether they are felons or Volvo technicians (not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive), but in our case, the humans failed to compensate for the weakness in the mechanical system by clearing out the onboard computer's memory when they finished replacing said throttle part.

Unbeknown to anyone, the shop sent me home Wednesday with a car that thought it was being carjacked, and the error message triggered the next time Emp. Peng. tried to start it, Friday morning. Now we know what the Blue Screen of Death looks like on a computer system that does not have a display; it is the Blue Volvo of Immobility. Unfortunately, in addition to not having a monitor to turn all blue, the car also lacks a user-operable Control-Alt-Delete.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

About that last one...

Rosa Brooks of the LA Times says most of what I meant in that last post, and says it better than I did. She also says it a little more tactfully that Christopher Hitchens. Thanks to ME for the link, even if it came to him secondhand.

Glad to see someone has said it

Christopher Hitchens has the cajones to say what should have become patently obvious by now: we are not one. We are not united in grief. Bad things can happen in the world without affecting us personally.
What, for instance, is this dismal rush to lower the national colors all the damned time? At times of real crisis and genuine emergency, such as the assault on our society that was mounted almost six years ago, some emotion could be pardoned. But even then, the signs of sickliness and foolishness were incipient.... If we did this every time, the flag would spend its entire time drooping.
He goes on to point out a quandary now faced by, of all people, the Russian trade mission, which lowered its flag after the Virginia Tech incident, only to have former Russian President Boris Yeltsin die in the middle of their solidarity. Oops. Bad timing on Yeltsin's part, dying within a week of a random violent act.

When my grandfather died, I noted here that it seemed obscene that the world kept on going, but that is one of the great lessons of grief: life has to go on in spite of any personal pain. Nothing teaches you that you are not the center of the universe quite like having everything go on like nothing is wrong while you are devastated. Our increasingly constant orgy of grief, moving from one tragedy to another, commemorating anniversaries and locations until time and space is one giant, constant memorial, robs people of this important demonstration of their place in the cosmos, while cheapening the grief we are supposed to be sharing.

Astronomers may have found E.T.'s home world

From what astronomers can tell, 581 c is a nice little planet, probably around half again as big around as Earth, a bit more gravity, temperatures amenable to liquid water and in fact not so different from the midwest (between freezing and 104 Fahrenheit). The orbital period is 13 days, so you get birthday cake every two weeks. Most important, it is there. For the first time, we found a planet outside our own solar system that fits our assumptions of what conditions are amenable to producing and supporting life.

581 c is the first extrasolar planet humans have found that falls into the range of being "hospitable to life"--a category which also contains Mars, so don't pack the space bikini yet. It is around Gliese 581, a dim star 20.5 light years away, in the constellation Libra. At Warp 1, that gives you a couple of decades to get into swimsuit shape, not counting the time it takes to develop warp drive.

As with so many scientific discoveries that sneak up on us, the first potentially habitable planet was not where we were looking for it. Gliese 581 is smaller, dimmer and cooler than the sun, and while plenty of extrasolar planets have been found around stars like Gliese 581--including one the size of Neptune around Gliese 581--planet hunters looking for earthlike planets tended to concentrate their efforts around stars like our sun. In the project that discovered 581 c, about 90% of the telescope time went to sun-like stars. The new planet was found in the other 10%. Makes me wonder what else we have been missing because we assume it can't be there.

Monday, April 23, 2007

From the Rookery

For the two years we have lived here at the Rookery, the North 40, which is in fact the south quarter acre, has been an ugly weed farm that I imagine to have been the bane of the neighborhood, or at least of the neighbor whose swimming pool looks out over the area. The former owners used the spot as a scrapyard and left the area crossed with ruts that I learned (the hard, but thanks to the extended warranty not expensive way) can eat a riding mower. Since I couldn't mow it and some idiot around here puts thistle seed out to feed the starlings and barn swallows that nest in my barn rafters, the weeds took over. For starters, the thistles topped six feet tall. For starters.

No more. The landscapers came out and brush hogged the area, kindly shaving off some of the taller bumps in the process, so I just have to fill in a few lower areas. Amazing how much bigger the property looks when you can get to all of it. Now that the area is clear, I wonder how we went two years essentially wasting more land than most city-dwelling homeowners have to call their own.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Spring has sprung, the grass is green...

...and when the grass is green, there is only so long one can put off mowing it. But that's just fine, because I got that chore done yesterday, and today was sunny, warm and so gorgeous I had an uncontrollable urge to skip through the mall parking lot on our way to pick up some Mother's Day cards.

Today was one of those days that was not going to get ruined by anything. I got to geek out on some sci-fi over my morning cup of coffee. There is something invigorating about dissecting why the toasters on Battlestar Galactica rebelled against their human creators yet accept second-class status under their human-form cylon counterparts (and if you understood any of that sentence, you know what I mean about it being invigorating). After that, I got to bury my bare toes in fresh-mowed grass, found some new blackberry shoots coming up, and finally got a bloom on a purple crocus. Good things came in the mail, some good news by phone, and it was just an all around fantastic day.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sales Help

As you may or may not have heard, a whole mess of CompUSA stores are closing, necessitating a massive clearance sale effort. We happened to be near one of the soon-to-be-closed stores today and stopped in to see what had not been picked over yet. As we expected, the good stuff was gone--probably snapped up on the first day by people flipping the merchandise on eBay.

When a store has the staple yankers and the timecard holders for sale, the 17 PA announcements of "Everything is on sale. We're clearing the store out to the walls" are pretty much superfluous. When there are price tags on the fixtures, for the fixtures, we get the message. We spent about an hour picking through what was left, which was not that much. After listening to a couple dozen reminders that the company was "Clearing the store to the walls," we finally saw something we wanted: a HD TiVo with DirecTV. We looked for a sales clerk--harder than you might think, since folks who are on the verge of unemployment are not overly eager to serve you--only to find out that it was not for sale.

Everything was for sale. Except the TiVo.

They were selling the shelves. Not the Tivo. Selling the discolored little plastic tags that hold the prices to the shelves. Not the TiVo. With a high enough credit limit, we probably could have bought a couple of the employees. Bit not the TiVo.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

For Irony, Press or Say "One"

Since about five minutes after the advent of the automated phone menu, I have hypothesized that none of the button-mashing these systems put you through has any effect on how your call is routed. The sole purpose of the options menus, I figured, is to keep you occupied so you don't realize how long you've really been in the queue, waiting for The Next Available Representative, who then asks you all the same questions the automated system just asked. It has come to the point that, when I am in a hurry (and who isn't in a hurry to get out of the purgatory of "press 5 for..."?), I'll hit whichever option seems likely to shut the automated system up fastest, since these folks have gotten wise to the trick of bypassing the systems entirely by pressing various combinations of 0 and #.

Shows what I know. I had to call the postal service today, since for what seems like the hundredth time since we moved in, we got our neighbor's credit card bill but not mail that we were expecting, and I've grown weary of waiting 3 weeks for time sensitive mail. The postal service, probably wisely, does not seem keen on giving out the phone numbers to the individual post offices, where my complaint might be most effectively routed, so I was stuck with 1-800-ASK-USPS, which connects to that most vile of automated phone systems, the voice prompt. You know, the ones that make you speak and confirm all of your choices, thus keeping you in the system twice as long as the dialpad menus. These voice recognition systems don't seem to understand, "Get me a human, you automatic piece of crap!" as a valid request. After a couple of runarounds with the USPS menus to find out that none of the options seemed to get me anywhere near a human representative, I started randomly choosing options. Wouldn't you know it, I resort to this in the one automated system on the planet that seems to actually record and display the information you give it. When I finally got routed through to some unsuspecting CSR, she started right in with, "I understand you are calling about a redelivery?" I had just enough presence of mind not to say, "Oh, is that what I chose?" and instead pulled something out of my hindquarters about how "redelivery" seemed to be the closest option to "My mail carrier seems to be delivering my time-sensitive mail to Neptune."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

At Least The Yard Looks Better

I hurt. It might have been the two wheelbarrow loads of fist-sized stones I took from behind the barn to the flower bed at the bottom of the driveway (about 500 feet one way, mercifully downhill), or it could have been the 22 wheelbarrow loads of mulch I loaded, moved and spread around the barn and the house. I think it is safe to say that the one load of leftover sod bits is not the problem. Whatever the cause, I am sore.

One of the 22 loads of mulch went to the newly transplanted azalea. I don't know what someone was thinking when they planted it, but "shade loving" does not mean "plant on the north face of a retaining wall, behind a hedge, under a tree." There's shade, and then there is never seeing daylight.

Did I mention I hurt?