Thursday, March 31, 2011

Science Textbooks are Bullshit

Let me tell you a little story about my time at Wooster. I've taken three science classes, which were indisputably the sort of watered-down stuff that's suitable for liberal-arts majors, so let it be clear that I'm not speaking of textbooks for the people who're actually majoring in it. These are the sort of overview textbooks that you're supposed to get for 100- and 120-level classes, and they are worthless.

The story goes like this. My freshman year, I took Geology of Natural Hazards, which is a 105 class. The textbook cost $128. I used it about a dozen times in the first week. After that? Not at all. We didn't refer to it in class and we didn't need it for the class. I ended up selling it back for $55, which at a loss of $73 was still the best price I could get, and getting a B+ in the class.

Next year's class, History of Life (Geo-100) wasn't as bad, but I still shelled out $40 for the Encyclopedia of Earth and used it only a handful of times. Grade: A.

This year, I decided I'd had enough of this shit, and declined to purchase the textbook for my Astronomy of Stars & Galaxies course. That would've set me back anywhere between $60 and $80. I initially planned to make it up by periodically pilfering my friend Tadd's book, but after the first week I didn't even bother with that.

Results? The final grade isn't in yet, but I'm sitting pretty with two test scores of 92.8% and 103.3%.

My empirical study with limited sample size has shown me...


Thank you and good night.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Top Six Webcomics (Not Named XKCD)

XKCD is the undisputed king of webcomics, both in content and popularity. We know this. However, there are approximately six kajillion other webcomics out there, and a few more that I've become quite fond of. So, in descending order, here are the top six that I've found. You'll have to excuse the slightly hipster-ish nature of this post, bit I swear to God, nobody has ever heard of some of these, including my favorite. (I get to differentiate myself from hipsters by not holding that up as a virtue!)

Webcomic #6: Sandra and Woo!

They've helpfully put together a sample for new readers. Click to expand!

Consciously inspired in part and influenced in large by Calvin & Hobbes, Sandra & Woo chronicles the adventures of a grade-school girl and her talking raccoon, as well as a coterie of her friends. The comic is a German/Indonesian collaboration between writer and artist, whose drawings are reminiscent of Japanese manga, but very technically detailed. The comic has periodic story arcs that'll last a dozen or a couple of dozen strips, which can be as lighthearted as exploring an abandoned building Final Fantasy-style, or as serious as a panegyric on human rights violations in Burma. I enjoy watching Woo (the raccoon) and his animal friends more than I do the humans in the comic, but the humans are still interesting and generally well-drawn. Woo isn't a sanitized Disney animal, either; as you can see in the first comic up above, he's frequently shown killing and eating prey. That isn't glossed over for younger readers, which I've always found appealing.
Now, it's not the greatest comic; the strip's FAQ tells us the writers have stopped focusing so much on Woo and Sandra since around fall '09, in favor of the human families of Sandra's friends, which I think is generally less interesting. That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't a very technically accomplished and very good comic.

Webcomic #5: Scandinavia and the World!
I don't know a thing about Scandinavia, aside from odd tidbits that I picked up last semester from living with a Norwegian, and the fact that I cannot for the life of me spell 'Norwegian' without help from Google.
This is still funny, though. A Danish artist turned comic-strip writer created this comic, in which the characters are all personifications of countries, or rather the stereotypes of those countries. There's a lot of in-joking about Scandanavian stereotypes (the main characters are Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), but Humon (the artist) always explains the jokes at the bottom of the page, which are sometimes funnier than the comic in question. The strip itself is funny, obscene at times and often devastatingly accurate in its characterizations, which aren't limited to Scandanavia. The USA frequently makes appearances as a well-meaning but immature dude (my favorite strip has him charging into Iraq while yelling "LEEEEEROOOOOYYY JENKINS!!!!!!"), and by this point most of Europe has also had cameos. The stereotypes Scandanavians apparently have about the U.S. tend to vary between puzzlingly wrong and devastatingly accurate.
By now, the strip has its own mythology, with lots of relationships between the various countries and even some children. The hilarious thing is that all of the relationships do have some bearing in either history or stereotypes. It's a little hard to keep track of if you don't know all of the various Scandanavian islands and principalities offhand, but that makes it no less fun to read.

Webcomic #4: Edmund Finney's Quest to Find the Meaning of Life!
The most wonderfully unconventional of the comics, this one chronicles the travels of Edmund Finney through a fantasy world populated by aliens, pirates, time-traveling diners, giant walking eggs, talking turkeys, miniature witches, trolls that live under the streets and every other weird thing you could imagine. There's no overall storyline to the comic, which is a little saddening because it could make an excellent serial, but the various encounters Edmund has with various strangers are really funny by themselves. The comic is very well-drawn, too; artist Dan Long has a very distinctive way of drawing faces that I don't think I've seen anywhere else. He's created a world where everyone plays by different sets of really weird rules, and Edmund is the only sane person wandering through it all, trying to find the meaning of all of this. The comic is frequently critical of bits of everyday life, particularly advertising and/or the media, and can sound preachy at times. However, that's more than offset by the wonderful silliness in nearly every comic. I'd recommend this one to webcomic readers of any taste.

Webcomic #3: Surviving the World

STW is unique on this list in a couple different ways. First of all, it's the only photocomic I know that's worth reading, and second, it's the only webcomic anywhere (probably) that's actually taught as an accredited class at a real live university. (Sorta.)
From creator Dante Shepard, STW is exactly what it sounds like: Little bits of wisdom about and commentary on the art of getting through life.
Some of it is helpful, some of it should not be applied practically by any sane individual, but the comics are generally pretty good. It's always fun to watch Dante's face in the sidebar, too, which can be anything from scared silly (above) to massively goddamn creepy (see link in title). Published every day, and usually early, it's a great way to get your humor fix in the mornings.

(By the way, folks, here's where the hipsterism starts; both these last two are entirely obscure.)

Webcomic #2: Daisy Owl

Sadly no longer running, Daisy Owl is still my second favorite webcomic because of its uniqueness. The strip didn't go for a punchline or an easy joke, preferring (much of the time) to try more offbeat humor or just plain ridiculousness. Example: The main characters are a bear, an owl and the owl's two human children. The children were originally space babies developed by the government, who were shot into orbit accidentally, crashed in Owl's backyard and were adopted by him.

The art is sporadic; most of the comics are like the one above, with no backgrounds and lots of blank space, but every so often will come along this wonderfully detailed drawing extravaganza. The humor isn't for everyone, but I found it both really funny and really endearing. Sadly, the strip started feeling forced towards the end, and it shows in the last big storyline; the artist ended up stopping Daisy Owl because he was feeling the pressure of coming up with a new gag every few days. The early and middle of Daisy Owl, though, are excellent.

Webcomic #1: Freefall

Let me tell you a little story about how I reacted when I found Freefall. The comic has been updating every three days since 199-freaking-9, giving it a massive backlog of comics (over 2,000 right now, for those scoring at home). The day I discovered it, I read all 2,000 comics in less than 24 hours.

Freefall is a science-fiction webcomic, combining the best elements of hard sci-fi (no "magic" technology, just extrapolating from what we already know) with excellent, detailed characters, original ideas and complex, intricate plots. The comic takes place on a world that's in the process of being terraformed, a sort of frontier existence. Many of the main characters are robots; others include a squid-like alien, a wolf/human hybrid A.I., and the occasional human. The development of the characters themselves has been fascinating to watch, but I've never seen a comic that gets inside the heads of non-human entities as well as this one does. They have realistic goals and desires, and worldviews that aren't just a human perspective grafted onto a robot body. This comic reads like the creator really did get inside the minds of some robots and give them their own unique perspectives, which is really incredibly rare.

Now, the comic isn't perfect. Each strip covers only a fraction of a day or a conversation, and the strip attempts to mimic the lives of these characters as closely as possible. This means that in its twelfth year and its 2,000th strip, Freefall has advanced less than six months in in-comic time. Major plot threads will take a long, long time to resolve; the current plotline, which deals with stopping a robotic war, has lasted for a few months now and is still only in the exposition. Nevertheless, it's an extremely good webcomic that's hindered only by its formula, and contains dozens of distinctive and believable characters. Whether it's main characters Sam Starfall (squid), Helix (robot), Florence Ambrose (Bowman's Wolf) or recurring contributors like Qwerty, Dvorak, Sawtooth Rivergrinder, Edge, Blunt (robots) or even the occasional human (The Mayor, Mr. Konada, Winston Thurmad), every single one is a pleasure to read. I highly recommend plowing through the archives; you might be done sooner than you think possible.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Moondance: From The Mixed-Up Files Of...

I've had a bit of a lull in cranking out new blog posts for the past few days, for a bunch of reasons. Between being home for a few days, having a massive amount of rum cunningly concealed in Coke on Saturday night and then being still drunk/hungover for most of Sunday and fitting back into college life and work, I haven't had a lot of time or ideas for "just writing". So in lieu of that, I ask for your patience (dear readers) and present you instead with this little chunk of verbiage that I wrote sometime over winter break and has been sitting in a file on my desktop. Enjoy. Or don't, or however you please.


The terror of the empty page is what they call it. Infinite options waiting to be shaped and formed. Dynamic whitespace, you might say. It’s as if the computer dumped a mound of blank white potential in front of me, and here I am with a potter’s wheel and a mind to make something. Only, I’m not sure I know quite how. It’s weird, really. There’s this drive, a focus, an impulse to create spurred on by the maddening chase music now playing at 2:43 AM in my room in Milwaukee, but I don’t know what to create. How can I? How can I make these words, these lifeless bits of ink and paper that are created as easily as I can drum my fingers upon the keyboard, into something with the depth and, dare I say, grit of the visions in my head? How do I mold it into a vase of my choice?

And then I realize, it’s not the description that makes hay for the writer. It’s not the carefully chosen metaphors or the sliding scale of thoughts laid out neatly for the reader. It’s the characters you’ve got to have. But making flesh into paper is nearly as hard as the reverse, and whether you’re drawing inspiration from the mad curmudgeons in your real life or the media personalities people put on and take off as needed, you still need to create something in the end. There is a face and a voice to be put to it, a personality and needs and desires. The writer’s block was never an issue with me, but knowing quite what to do and quite how is the trick, I think.

It’s like dancing in a darkened room, you know? The room of someone you don’t know all that well, and you’ve just been invited up for the first time and you’re waiting for them to come upstairs to show you where the bloody light switch is. And there’s all this junk around on the floor, a chair here and a stool there and a radio and a trunk and a glass bowl that’ll shatter if you even breathe on it. Somehow, you have to find the way between these things without falling over and breaking your face.

So you step to the left and you turn to the right, reach back two feet and grab hold of the dresser, spin in, turn about and tread on your partner’s toes, and you’re off and dancing in the night-black space! You step and then you turn, you whirl and you twist, always you’re dancing ‘round those barriers you don’t even know exist.  And it really is a dance, because even though you can’t see anything around you, somehow you always know where to put your feet. There’s a right place to be, a right time to turn, a right step to take. There’s a right word to find, always is. The tip of a brush wafting down a canvas with the greatest care, barren landscapes bursting into bloom.

That’s what finding the right word is like. Turning backward, spinning, slipping but never quite falling, always yanking yourself out at the last moment. Searching for that one thought, maddeningly elusive though it be, that will perfectly describe the idea spinning in your head. Never settling for less, secure in the knowledge that the right word is out there, somewhere, buried in the back pages of some dusty dictionary. All you have to do is find it.

" are my master and I LOVE you!"

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: Dead or Alive?

The Cat who Walks Through Walls seems like nothing so much as two entirely separate books that have been welded onto each other, which happen to share a pair of main characters’ names and personalities, but are otherwise massively different in tone and temperament. The list of differences is astounding.

Both books chronicle the adventures of one Richard Campbell, retired Colonel in a futuristic military, and his lovely wife Hazel/Gwen, but that’s about where the similarities end. Book I begins like a murder mystery: a stranger attempting to deliver a message to Campbell is instead shot dead at his table, killer unknown. The pair are hounded out of their home in a space habitat and onto the Moon (year 2177), persecuted by some unknown but powerful force that gets them evicted and periodically sends goons to kill them off. This book establishes rules, cultures and characters; an entire culture on the Moon is given life so that the heroes may move about through it. The setting is a hard sci-fi one, where delta-vee is important and spaceships travel amongst the various human habitations in the Solar System. Economics and money are prominent themes in the development of the world and the way that the characters move through it.

Then at some point near the middle of Cat, Hazel/Gwen reveals that she is several hundred years old and the plot takes a wild right turn into where-the-hell-are-we. Book II begins by yanking all the characters we’ve met so far onto a previously unmentioned planet several thousand light-years away, introducing such things as instantaneous travel, rejuvenation technology, human cloning, and most importantly, time travel. The back cover quotes do well to compare Heinlein’s world to Douglas Adams’, although not nearly as zany. It’s closest to the environment Adams creates in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish and Mostly Harmless, where the past is constantly changing and time is mutable. The history and culture built up in Book I is largely forgotten, as are most of the characters. An entirely new cast of characters is introduced, the mystery from the first book is forgotten and everyone gears up to prepare for a wholly different mission. The Time Corps is introduced, as are its enemies. Richard is a hard-nosed, former military man who is at his best when pursued, and the chase in Book I lets him show it off. In Book II, he’s constantly being confronted with startling new ideas, and is reduced to the role of spectator.

It’s a freaking weird thing. And there’s so much that goes unexplained, or possibly was explained in passing but I was too busy gawking. We never learn who the man was that died at Richard’s table, what he wanted or who killed him. Nor do we learn who blows up Time Headquarters or why, or whether Big Important Project #2 actually succeeds. The entirety of the second book is spent getting Richard to fight in this war, but we never learn why exactly he is so essential to this scheme (as opposed to any random schmuck from the Time Corps), and the actual plan and execution is shoved into the last three pages. Adding to the confusion, Richard refuses to accept on faith most of the things he is told (it’s about a hundred pages from the time his wife tells him she’s 400 to the time where he accepts it), continually questions everything he’s told by everybody, and casts doubt on whether the events in the book that other characters tell the reader is happening are actually happening as we’re told. He questions places, dates, names, ages and everything else under the sun.

Towards the end of the book, we’re told that the universe is actually run by fiction writers, and that the events of the universe are in large part driven by what these writers do or do not do. Writers, it’s said, create the characters that they describe, somewhere in the multiverse. The second-level implication that Heinlein, the writer, abruptly changed what he wanted mid-book and invented all these characters, is there for the taking. It’s not hard to suppose that Richard is even getting curious abut the events of the book, and whether there is some writer guiding his every action. Richard, after all, is a writer himself, and there are certain similarities between his tendencies as he describes them in the book, and the world that Heinlein creates. For instance, Richard mentions at one point that he’s never really had villains in his books; concordantly, there is never a clearly defined antagonist in Cat. Or rather, there are several, but it’s never made clear which one of them is responsible for the book’s events.

I don’t know. It’s a startling idea, veering more into science fantasy than science fiction, and there’s a lot to like about this book. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s looking for lively discussion and a lot of startling writerly stuff. It just feels like Heinlein put it down halfway through, walked off the job for a year or three, and then decided what he really wanted out of the story and came back to write an entirely different story. The Book II 'verse does make sense in the larger context of Heinlein novels--many of the characters introduced therein recur from other books, and the larger concept of the World-As-Myth is the underlying concept that holds several of his books together--but for someone who hasn't read all of them, it's rather a startling turn from one mode of telling a science-fiction story to a completely different one.

Like something that has nothing to do with cute stuffed foxes.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What Will the Packers' Defensive Line Look Like in 2011?

Johnny Jolly's latest boneheaded decision to use and possibly sell codeine has unequivocally ended his playing career with Green Bay. A second suspension from the NFL wouldn't be out of the question, but the greater question is whether he'll be able to avoid jail time after his second offense... and there's absolutely no reason to keep him on the roster now.

So, what now for the Packers? Fans had speculated that Jolly could provide a boost to the Packers' defensive line corps, which isn't the surest thing going into the season. Let's take a look at our players and their prospects for 2011.

First, The Goners:

Cullen Jenkins, #77, DE: 6'2", 302 lbs. Age: 30. 

 Jenkins, one of the team's few remaining players from the Mike Sherman era, will almost certainly leave the Packers in free agency. He's played out the four-year contract he signed in 2006, and while he nearly always had some sort of nagging injury, Jenkins registered a career-high seven sacks this year while starting just eight games. In addition, judges that he had the second-highest percentage of pressures per rush of any interior lineman. The Packers have shown little interest in re-signing him, and he can play virtually any position except nose tackle (since 2006, Jenkins has played as a 4-3 DE, 4-3 DT, 3-4 DE and 3-4 nickel rusher). Jenkins will get a huge payday someplace, and the Packers seem content to move on with whom they have.

Justin Harrell, #91, DE: 6'4", 315 lbs. Age: 27. 

Oooh, boy. Well, unless the Packers are completely insane, Harrell will get no more than a look in training camp and will not make the opening day roster. Despite having every physical tool you could want from a DE, Harrell has not recorded a sack in four years of play and has started only two games (2007). In addition, he's been active for just seven games in the past three years due to various injuries. No, he'll be released, and good riddance to him.

The Big Names

 B.J. Raji, #90, NT/Nickel Rusher: 6'2", 337 lbs. Age: 24

After a nondescript rookie season in which he was hindered by a high ankle sprain, "The Freezer" moved from DE to NT, recorded 6.5 sacks and had an unforgettable pick-six against Chicago in the NFC Championship game. Because the Packers played in their nickel defense about 75% of the time last year, Raji lined up more often as a nickel rusher and not at his usual nose tackle spot. He was a rock at any position, however, and often played more than 60 snaps a game. In the first game against the Vikings this year, he played the entire game as one of only three healthy linemen (Cullen Jenkins was a game-time scratch) and performed well. He's the surest thing on the Packers' line right now.

Ryan Pickett, #79, DE: 6'2", 340 lbs. Age: 31

 "Big Grease", a ten-year veteran originally drafted by St. Louis, isn't used as much under Dom Capers as he was in the days of the 4-3 defense. More run-stuffer than pass-rusher, Pickett recorded just one sack last year in limited playing time, as Capers tended to send Jenkins and Raji onto the field in nickel packages. Pickett signed a four-year contract last year and will make a modest $2.7 million in 2011, but he isn't really needed at DE except for depth purposes. His base salary will be $4.5 million in 2012 and $5.4 million in 2013, and it'll be interesting to see if he's still in the Packers' plans at that time. It's important to note that Pickett is looked up to as a leader in the Packers' locker room, particularly on the defensive line.

Howard Green, #95, DE: 6'2", 340. Age: 32

Identical to Pickett in height and weight, Green was signed just before the Packers' victory over New York and provided depth throughout the season. He's kind of just a big guy without much short-area quickness, but he proved difficult to move against the run and made the biggest play of his career in Super Bowl XLV, bulling through Steelers guard Chris Kemonatu to knock down Ben Roethlisberger and cause an interception. Green was picked up for a song as a "street" free agent, and there's no reason the Packers wouldn't bring him back in camp. With a summer of conditioning and game-planning, he's worth at least an extended look as a reserve.

Mike Neal, #96, DE: 6'3", 294 lbs. Age: 23

There's a lot to like about Mike Neal. He's phenomenally strong, and although he was pretty raw in his rookie training camp, he appeared to be developing a good arsenal of pass-rush moves. I remember watching the Green Bay-Washington game in person and just being awed at how he, Jenkins and Raji were dominating the Redskins' offensive line. After the game, Mike Shanahan said that that Packers' defensive line corps was the best one in the league.
The problem is that Neal couldn't stay healthy. After a solid training camp, Neal suffered a rare abdominal injury and was out for the first three games of the season. He forced a fumble in the fourth game (Detroit) and recorded a sack in the fifth (Washington), but injured his shoulder and went on injured reserve. It's a bit early to call him injury-prone, but, well... The Packers appear to be counting on him to replace Jenkins, which he is completely able to do, in my opinion. But if he never gets on the field, the Packers better have a backup plan before the season starts.

C.J. Wilson, #98, DE: 6'3", 290 lbs. Age: 23

A promising rookie, Wilson was fairly stout against the run in training camp and then bulked up as the year went on. He appeared in garbage time against the Falcons in the divisional playoff round and recorded a sack of Matt Ryan, the Packers' fifth of the game. He was active in 15 regular-season games and actually started in the Super Bowl. Wilson was used a lot during a four-game stretch when Jenkins was injured and showed some potential as a hard-nosed run defender. We'll see what he can do in this training camp, but he has every chance to earn a starting spot.

Jarius Wynn, #94, DE: 6'3", 285 lbs. Age: 24

Beaten out by Wilson for the last spot on the line in 2010, Wynn was resigned almost immediately after Harrell tore his ACL in the first game. He's hung around the Packers for two seasons now but hasn't shown all that much; he's not stout against the run, and while he does have some pass-rush capability (he recorded the only sack of Brett Favre in the first Vikings game), Wynn simply appears too light to play as a 3-4 DE. He'll hang around in training camp this year, but if the Packers draft a DE (as seems likely), Wynn will be the first one to get cut.

Sum Up: What To Do?

The Packers will have a passel of decent players (Pickett, Wilson, Green) on the line, but if Neal gets hurt, this would be a pretty nondescript group except for Raji. Neal and Pickett are penciled in as the starting 3-4 DEs, but drafting another player with pass-rush capability would enable this line to dominate opposing offenses. I've come around to the idea of 'drafting to a position of strength'; the Packers aren't exactly weak on the line, but by beefing up their depth here they could conceivably be unstoppable. Adding a player like Corey Liuget, Phil Taylor, Cameron Heyward or J.J. Watt could do that.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Writing in the Real World: Proposing a New Class

I have a lot of respect for the curriculum at my school; it’s varied, the professors are generally good, and the offered topics are pretty darn interesting. But there’s a hole in the middle of most COW students’ educations in the current class list. If I were on whatever board decides to institute x new class in a given year at the College of Wooster (where I live, breathe and work entirely too much), I would fill this need.

The class: English 101: Writing in the Real World. Full class, half-credit class, quarter-credit or occasional workshop, whatever. Wooster could use this.

We’ve got non-fictional writing and British Literature and Shakespeare and Faulkner and Intro to Fictional Writing and Violent Modernism and the American Novel and a dozen other English courses, but for some reason we don’t have this one very basic one.

It’s not like this is without precedent. Wooster has a Math 110: Math in the Real World, because you probably aren’t going to use sine waves and trigonometric parabolic hoopla once you leave college, unless you enter a fairly specialized set of jobs. You’re going to be balancing your bank statement and taking out a mortgage and calculating how hard the power company screwed you over this month. It’s a little island of pragmatism in the college curriculum, an acknowledgement that part of the mission of this school is to prepare students for something beyond academia.

So why not have a real-world writing class? The amount of things you’ll need training or instruction in how to write is pretty much infinite. Cover letters, résumés, reports for your boss, applications for grants, research for whatever job, grad school applications, summaries, abstracts, even blog posts. Knowing how to write, say, a good cover letter could get you a job. Knowing how to write the summaries and do the research your boss wants could help you keep it.*

And it’s not like English majors are exempt from this need. In two years studying English here, I’ve learned how to write a short story. I’ve learned to analyze film. I can edit anything. I can write creative nonfiction, a newspaper article, a research paper, a historical analysis, any kind of persuasive essay you might want. And when I went and interned with the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce last semester, a.k.a. the closest I’ve ever been to a nine-to-five office job, almost none of that applied. Sure, I had a general writing background to draw on, but knowing how to write summaries and consolidate reports would’ve been nice before I had to do it as a job.

There are drawbacks. Simulated grad school applications and the like would be a dull topic. The professor would have to be careful not to dumb the class down too far, or make it too hard for the majority. It wouldn’t count as a writing credit, else it’d be flooded with non-literary types eager to take their one “W” class and be done with the whole discipline. And the professor would have to be versatile enough to handle all the different assignments.

The College may be best served by making this a quarter- or half-credit class, or even a workshop that meets a half-dozen or so times in a semester. I know the Career Center provides many of these services to individual students, but I don’t think that they have the resources to serve all of the people on campus who would benefit from this class. This would be a good resource for teaching large numbers of Woosterites the writing skills that we’ll actually need out there in the world.

And helping us not get killed by leopards.
*I know that the I.S.’s take care of your research skills, but what they are not is concise. Bosses like to be presented with reports distilled from data; nice, concise summaries of a given set of information. It makes their lives easier. I’m not sure I.S. provides that, exactly.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Subj: Rest??!?!

Dear My Body,

I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing, but we haven’t slept for two nights now (three depending on how you count it) and I’m sick of this. I have a responsibility to keep us functioning, and I can’t do that on close to zero sleep. Kindly figure out a way to help us relax, please.


My Brain

Re: Rest??!?!

My Brain,

I don’t know what you mean by that, but you best calm down. Okay? And besides, don’t act like this is my fault. You’ve been lying awake and stewing about God knows what, last few nights, and that has nothing to do with me. You need to get it together, man. Don’t place your shit on my premises.

-My Body

Re: Re: Rest??!?!

Dear My Body,

No need to get all riled up about this. I’ll dial down your hormone levels. But seriously, if I walk into a wall or something today that I don’t see coming, ‘cause I’m too tired to see it, I’m filing suit.  –My Brain

Subj: Re: Re: Re: Rest??!?!

Um, that wouldn’t happen. And I’d just like to point out that both of you have been ignoring us, but we’re doing our job as professionally as always. Just keep those blasted contact lenses away from us, please.

-My Eyes

Oh Highly Esteemed Brain,

Let me just remind you that it was your brilliant plan that put us here in the first place, OK? You were going to go to DC, see potential employers, do interviews, hand out material for what, like a week? But you didn’t know how long you were gonna stay, you ended up imposing on your ex’s family, and now we have no ride home. That ain’t my fault. You stewing about it, well you just keep in mind, that’s your problem. Ain’t got nothin’ to do with me.

-Your Loyal and Obedient Servant, Body

You just smacked me in the face! In the FACE! What the FUCK!


Whoops. Involuntary muscle spasm. –Body

Temporary miscommunication, boss. Nothing we could’ve done. –My Arms

What… what is your problem? Okay. So I didn’t have much of a plan for staying here, but you know what? The ride thing? NOT MY FAULT. That damn woman from the ride board was supposed to be our ride back, but she left us all in the lurch! Arms, why didn’t you punch her or something?! She was our ride back and she just left us, so now I have to scramble, which is one reason why I’ve been stewing! Once again, NOT my fault!

-Your Irritated Leader

…Okay. First of all, you just admitted that you have, in fact, been stewing, which is why we’ve been losing sleep.

Whoa, wait, hold on, I never said that!

Second of all, it was still your goofy-ass plan that put us here in the first place. And third, I’m compelled to report this entire conversation to Human Resources.

We’d also like to point out that even if we wanted to do physical harm to anyone, you spoke to this woman through e-mail. So, y’know… -Arms

Wait, no, you can’t do this to me! Wait. Body. Calm down. You don’t have to report anything. This was just a disagreement, right? Happens all the time. No need to go to the higher-ups, it was just a misunderstanding!

Hah-HAH, now you changin’ yo’ tune!

Come on. Be reasonable. There must be some misunderstanding. There must be some kind of mistake. I’ve been waiting in the rain for hours… you were late! There must be (there must be some) misunderstanding…

Ooookay, I was being metaphorical when I said ‘tune’. And wouldn’t you agree that this is a problem?

What, are you serious? What’s a problem? There’s nothing. The song thing, I just blipped out for a second. No problem.

Well, you obviously have a fear of authority figures. And isn’t this entire conversation evidence of some kind of split personality disorder? I mean, honestly. Assigning anthromorphic personalities to parts of your corporeal form? And having them communicate through e-mail? I really think you should go in for counseling, Brain.

What the… You aren’t qualified to make those kinds of diagnoses! Who’s been telling you this? How can anyone that’s not me be telling you anything?

Well I hate to break this to you, Brain, but Human Resources is in the subconscious.

…oh. Oh fuck.


Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. All right, we’re running away to Alaska. Everybody move, move, move!

…the hell is all this? I'm not going anywhere until someone tells me what's going on. –My Legs

Dammit, guyszzzzzzzzzz...

We are experiencing technical difficulties, so here's a picture of an otter.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Awesome Words That We Should Use More Often

Now that I'm on record grouching about words I don't like, it seems appropriate to have a few that I do!

Here's the list I've come up with over the past few days. Some of these are good synonyms, some replace words that we overuse, but most of them are just hella fun to say:

Scrumptious, brutalize, foist, kowtow, jaundiced, indubitable, evince, quark, avuncular, visceral, bask, great (when it's used like large, as in "You great pillock!"), wildebeest, maul(ed), ziggurat, berserk (especially when it's pronounced ba-zurk), gibberish, bumbling, aplomb, naughty (in a non-perverted context), eviscerate, schmuck, dossier, squabble, hurtle, ungodly, amok, thingamabob, cornucopia, smorgasboard and defenestrate are some of my personal favorites. The addition of any one of these can singlehandedly brighten up a sentence.

This article from Merriam-Webster lists some other favorite words that people tend to enjoy. I particularly like flibbertigibbet, kerfuffle and persnickety.

This guy's page sports words like Brobdingagian, hullaballoo and demonomania.

And of course, every kind of British slang--words like pillock, ponce, twaddle, blinkered, bugger, collywobbles, git, snog, wanker or gobsmacked could stand a bit more use on this side of the pond.

If you have any pulchritudinous phrases or words to prestidigitate, feel free to deposit them in the comments, ye scallywag!

 Edit: shenanigans!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Should the Packers Take Brooks Reed at #32 Overall? Eh...

Brooks Reed is one of those prospects that's been getting a lot of hype in recent weeks in Packers circles, mostly because ESPN's Mel Kiper has the Green and Gold picking him at No. 32 in his most recent mock draft. The idea seems to have caught on among Packer fans, who might be seeing the Arizona defensive end as Clay Matthews 2.0. Reed certainly looks the part; physically, he's about as tall as Matthews and ten-ish pounds lighter, has the same flowing blond hair and displays some of Matthews' hyperaggressiveness in rushing the passer. For a variety of reasons, though, I'm not sold on Reed as our first-round pick just yet.

From the scouting reports and YouTube highlights (in a minute) that I've seen, Reed gives a ton of effort on every play, and possesses ungodly short-area quickness that helps him a great deal on the pass-rush. But that's about where his pass-rushing ends. He can bull-rush the devil out of a running back or a fullback, but he doesn't appear to have developed a lot of moves yet. Take a look at this highlight reel of his that I found:
When he slices around the corner, he looks hard to stop, but most of the tackles in the video never seem to get a hand on him. I'd be concerned about whether he can get past NFL tackles who have better feet and the ability to control his rushes. You can see in the video that a few of his sacks come when he's lined up against running backs, who simply don't block him, and then there's one against Iowa (black and gold) where the guard and the back both ignore him and let him through!

Here's another clip, this time rushing from a linebacker position:

You can see that the tackle takes a while to get his initial punch on him, and then there's nothing he could've done but hold him. The clip speaks to the explosiveness that Reed has in getting past tackles, but I think it also shows how much he relies on that explosiveness to make his pressures. He can bull-rush, that's certain, but that'll only take you so far against NFL tackles.

Obviously there's no measuring the impact that time and coaching could have on him, and one suspects that Kevin Greene and Co. could improve his game considerably. But right now, I don't think he'd be quite as impressive in a Packers uniform as he looks on tape.

There are a number of other things he has going for him--he's aggressive, competitive, goes to the whistle--and some things that aren't; the reports are that he tends to overrun the play and is a real straight-line guy. Watch this clip of him vs. Iowa. (I'm not cherry-picking clips here, by the way; these are the only three I could find on YouTube).
You can see on the very first play, he gets a free release off the line and has a straight shot at the QB. The QB turns and runs, Reed can't change direction and misses him, and then takes himself out of the play as the QB scrambles for a first down. There's a couple more like that, where Reed seems to have trouble changing direction in the backfield. Based on this, it's hard to figure him doing all that well in coverage as a LB.

Iowa was statistically one of his better games (five tackles, two sacks), but the sacks came against air or RBs. When the tackle gets his hands on him, Reed has a hard time getting off the block. He displays a decent spin move, however, and is able to bull-rush the tackle at times.

The biggest question is, will he be able to stand up and play as an outside linebacker? All the Clay Matthews comparisons tend to ignore the fact that Matthews played a hybrid LB/DE position at USC and thus had some experience that helped him in Capers' 3-4. Reed, on the other hand, was a DE for most of his college career. The Packers would have to assess whether Reed has the athleticism to play OLB. It's not necessarily a matter of what the coaches can teach him, so much as it's about what he can physically do.

Despite all of the above caveats, I do like Reed as a pass-rushing prospect and I think that with time and coaching, he could develop into a solid edge rusher, a bit like Aaron Kampman was in 2009. I'm not sure, however, that he's worth the #32 overall pick. If Thompson traded back into the second round and maybe picked up an additional second- or third-rounder in the process, I wouldn't have any problem with the Packers selecting him there.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What Is Writing?

According to one of my favorite authors, Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, Podkayne of Mars, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Cat who Walks Through Walls), writing is the following: 
"Writing is a legal way of avoiding work without actually stealing and one that doesn't take any talent or training. 
"But writing is antisocial. It's as solitary as masturbation. Disturb a writer when he is in the throes of creation and he is likely to turn and bite right to the bone . . . and not even know that he's doing it. As writers' wives and husbands often learn to their horror.
"And--attend me carefully, Gwen!--there is no way that writers can be tamed and rendered civilized. Or even cured. In a household with more than one person, of which one is a writer, the only solution known to science is to provide the patient with an isolation room, where he can endure the acute stages in private, and where food can be poked in to him with a stick. Because, if you disturb the patient at such times, he may break into tears or become violent. Or he may not hear you at all . . . and, if you shake him at this stage, he bites." -Richard Ames, of Robert Heinlein's The Cat who Walks Through Walls.
Heh. Heh. Um.

How about a few more?
"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." -Ernest Hemingway
"Every writer I know has trouble writing." -Joseph Heller
 "Good writing is like a windowpane." -George Orwell
"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards." -Heinlein

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.  -Mark Twain

 Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.
-William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"
Wise. There are more:
"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean." -Robert Louis Stevenson

"If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works." -John Dos Passos
"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit-detector." -Ernest Hemingway

"Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind." -Rudyard Kipling

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stupid Words That Everyone Uses Too Often

I love words. I love using them, playing with them, running around in circles in the woods with them and bundling them into sentences like duffel bags into an overhead luggage rack, but some of them just drive me batshit crazy. People (coughNFLcoaches, corporatespeak, /cough) use them too often, they become clichéd and lose their meaning, and they just plain become unsightly to the ears (there isn't, sadly, a word for that as far as I know). Here's a few of the ones that drive me nuts:

Brace Yourselves, Readers: He's On A Rant

“Internalize”. What was wrong with "think about"?

“Sociopolitical”, or more often "Socioeconomic": This is code for "I don't know what's going on with this big complicated issue, so I'm just going to throw out this word like a Japanese fishing net and hope that what I want to say gets covered somewhere underneath".

“Cultural”, or “cultural context”: Means "I have no idea why the Tunisians did that, but there must be some logical reason, so I'll just file it under 'cultural context', or 'shit from other places that I haven't a clue what it means'".

“Societal”, or “societal pressures”: "There's a reason why X boy did Y thing. But we don't know whom to blame, so we're just mashing it into the 'society did it' category. See, this is what happens when we don't even know what our own culture is doing anymore."

“Patriarchal” or sometimes “hierarchical”: Feminists, I sympathize and it's probably completely true, but one more sentence about patriarchal structure, oppression, desire, needs, construction or bombast in my required readings and I really will scream.

“Opportunity”: This is all right in normal parlance. But in NFL coachspeak, it's not only a half-assed synonym for "chance", but it's also like "Any time we had any hope of doing something, it's an opportunity. When we screw up, it's, 'we didn't take advantage of our opportunities'."

^"Didn't take advantage of": Is it so hard to say "WE FUCKED UP, BUT GOOD?!"

“Challenges” and “Goals” are NOT the same things. Can we please stop shoehorning them into one small box? And "problems" is another word that gets stretched outside what it's supposed to do. When you have an earth-shattering crisis on your hands, it is no longer merely a problem! Escalate yo' language, bitches!

“Looking forward”, “moving forward”, “something to work towards”: I suppose it makes sense that coaches on the gridiron are spatially oriented in their flights of linguistic fancy, but for the rest of us, trying to accomplish your ambitions isn't like walking on the sidewalk, right? "Backwards", "we took a step backwards" and so forth work on the same principle. When did success become linear?

"Execute" is, apparently, a fancy way to say "Doing what we wanted to do, the way we wanted to do it". Put another way, it's like saying "We had this terrific plan. All we had to do was do it."

"Stupid". Yep, I'm guilty too. Way, way overused, and usually inaccurate. I prefer "silly" because it's fresher and more emasculating, slipping in the suggestion of 'childish' without being the first one to name-call. Perfectly bitchy.

If you've any suggestions (or clever replacements for "stupid" that you can apply to me), feel free to foist them upon me in the comments.

Suggestion A for "words we should use more often": Brutalizing. Photo taken at Milwaukee's Beans & Barley, where this was apparently a problem.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Recalling the Bums: Not a Good Idea

I'm reasonably sure I don't need to establish my credentials for being firmly and completely against Scott Walker's abolition of collective bargaining for public school employees, which is already starting to show negative effects in Shorewood. But I certainly don't think we should be talking about recalling either Walker himself or the state senators who supported his bill, never mind the ones who fled the state to prevent it from initially passing.

My reasoning is simple: I believe that the recall process should only be used in cases of gross incompetence by the recallees, or if they are convicted of criminal charges and sentenced.* And despite all the partisanship in Wisconsin at the moment, I don't think that what Walker and his posse did deserves a recall effort. Is Walker grossly out of touch with the people of Wisconsin? I think so. Did he just pass a bill that will seriously hurt Wisconsin, as a state? I think he did. But I don't think he can be considered incompetent to hold the office of Governor, nor are the senators in question unable to carry out their respective duties.

The current spirit in Wisconsin is one of punishing the other side. Republicans want to fine, disempower or evict the Democrats for fleeing the state and holding up the legislative process; Dems want the Repubs' heads for passing budget repair and hurting the state in the process. But there's a time and a place for showing the other side that you disapprove of their actions while in office, right? It's at the ballot box. We can and will throw the bums out if they aren't serving the state well, but shouldn't we give them a chance to lead first? It seems to me that punishing politicians who displease us before they've had a chance to serve out their term is counterproductive at best and openly partisan at worst.

And punishing the other side doesn't just extend to the politicians. Whether through vandalism, boycotts, Facebook disapproval or... more boycotts, Wisconsin citizens are attempting to punish businesses-or in the case of Sendik's, individual citizens-who voted for or contributed financially to The Other Side. Of course, people are perfectly within their rights to do so, and maybe even have moral justification for doing so. But you'd have to explain to me how such actions are anything more than a reactionary impulse, born out of resentment over Walker's union-busting. I don't think that kind of action serves either the Democrats' political agenda or the good of Wisconsin as a state, nor is it intended to do either. It's about sticking it to the other guy because he just stuck it to us. And that's just wrong.

Boycotts and recalls won't help the state and they won't help what the Journal Sentinel called a "chasm of mistrust" that seems to have split Wisconsin. If we do nothing but punish the other side because they passed a bill we dislike (or from the other perspective, held up democracy), how are we supposed to put Wisconsin back together? In three years and change, voters will have a chance to tell Walker to go pound sand. Or if you believe that Walker will do too much damage in that time, he'll be eligible for a recall vote after one year in office. But I believe that all the recall efforts will do is to drag out this issue for another year, and make it harder for the state government to actually function as a government. I think what we're seeing now is lines of partisanship being drawn that won't be undone by a recall election, and that's bad for the state as well.

-Andy Tisdel

*Yes, of course 'gross incompetence' is a broad charge. I define it as when the Governor (for example) is no longer able to function as Governor, whether through a medical condition or a conflict of interest, or his or her committing criminal acts. And of course, if he morphed into Qadaffi or criminally abused the powers of his office, we would be within our rights to impeach or recall him. I just don't think it should be done simply because we disagree with him. Having the power to recall is a good thing, but I don't see using it for this reason.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi

When I read the initial news on Saturday that the Daiichi reactor had broken down, my first reaction was something like this: "Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. This is the third major nuclear disaster of the modern era, and we'll remember it as such."

I'd like to urge my readers to wait before turning this into a judgment on nuclear power and its dangers, however. We're a long way from knowing what exactly happened at Fukushima, or what happened to the reactor's defenses. We won't really be able to know until the units have calmed down and are safe to examine, which won't happen anytime soon. Any legislative action can only be premature, although Fukushima will almost certainly result in fewer and smaller subsidies for the next generation of US nuclear plants.

While we're waiting, here's a quick glossary of some terms you might be reading in the news:

*Isn't Showing Off His Residual Term Paper Knowledge At All

-Spent fuel pool: When fuel rods are removed from a nuclear reactor, they're kept in a concrete-lined pool for around five years (in the US) to dissipate thermal and nuclear radiation that the rods are still giving off. These pools are usually on the grounds of the reactor that produced them. The Washington Post, among other outlets, has reported that at least one pool's water level dropped to the point where the rods were exposed.

-Boiling Water Reactor (BWR): All the Fukushima reactors use this design, which uses water both to cool the core and to moderate the nuclear reactions in the core by absorbing neutrons (or a 'moderator'). In a BWR, the water is allowed to boil in the core, creating steam which drives the turbines of the plant. It is one of two most common types of reactor, the other being a Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR).

-Core meltdown: When a nuclear plant loses its coolant and moderator, water, the core can overheat and melt down if the coolant isn't restored. That's what the Japanese authorities are attempting to do by pumping seawater mixed with boron into the reactors.

-Iodine-131: a radioactive isotope that was released at the Chernobyl meltdown, and was responsible for an estimated 4,000 cases of childhood thyroid cancers, all but two or three of which were cured. The most commonly accepted explanation is that the iodine passed through cows into milk, which was then given to schoolchildren. It has a half-life of around eight days. It can be blocked by taking potassium iodide pills; the body's thyroid gland absorbs iodine but has a limited capacity for doing so, and ingesting a harmless iodine isotope prevents the body from taking in the harmful iodine-131. There are reports that it has been detected around the Fukushima plant.

-Cesium-137: Another Chernobyl isotope, Cesium-137 has a half-life of around thirty years. It was also detected around Fukushima.

Another Caveat...

The most likely explanation that I've heard for the disaster is that the tsunami flooded the generator building in the Fukushima complex, cutting off power to the reactors, and that the emergency generator building failed as well for the same reason. U.S. reactors would still have safeguards if this happened to one of our reactors in the same situation.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Correcting the Post and the Journal: Mixed-Oxide Fuels

While the coverage provided by the Washington Post and other large media outlets has largely been very good at detailing the parts of the nuclear industry that need to be detailed, in the wake of the disaster in Japan, this morning I found a small but important error by omission that I think deserves some correction.

Both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal reported in their articles today that the danger of a nuclear accident at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi unit 3 could be heightened by that reactor's use of mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). The Journal went into some detail about how MOX tends to burn hotter than conventional nuclear fuel, so there would be more residual heat in the reactors, which might make it more dangerous to try and cool down.

This is all correct, as far as I know, but both papers omitted something about the making of MOX. The Post and the Journal cited a program called "Megatons to Megawatts", an ongoing effort between countries with large nuclear stockpiles to draw down their stockpiles and convert highly enriched uranum (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU), the latter of which is suitable for commercial nuclear reactors.

Four Problems

1. The Journal cites M2M as part of an international effort to reduce nuclear stockpiles, and says that the MOX in the Fukushima reactor was produced in that program, while the Post is vague about the nature and scope of the program. As far as I know, the M2M program is solely between the U.S. and Russia. It's entirely possible that the fuel was resold to Japan by the U.S., but the articles imply that this is a global effort. As far as I know (again), Russia is the only one of the eight nuclear powers that's having its stockpile reduced in this manner.

2. Also according to the link up above from the United States Enrichment Corporation (which was started by the U.S. government but is now privately owned), the M2M process primarily involves turning HEU into LEU. The UNEC website's main page, FAQ and FAQ on the actual process don't mention plutonium. However, the Journal says that MOX is produced in part by "mixing low-enriched uranium with plutonium that has been recycled from a global stockpile of defunct nuclear weapons", while the Post says that MOX is a "mixture of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide, produced from recycled material from nuclear weapons"*. These do not appear to be supported by the facts of the process, although again, it's quite possible that I'm wrong here.

3. Here's the big omission: MOX can be produced commercially, through the use of a spent nuclear fuel (SNF) reprocessing plant. It doesn't have to come from old weapons. As I wrote in my term paper last semester, upon being removed from the reactor, nuclear waste is made up of around 0.8% U-235, 1% P-238, 93.2% U-238 and 5% other actinides, which aren't readily usable. If the fuel is reprocessed, however, the U-235, P-239 and U-238 can be recycled right back into the reactor. That mixture, now called MOX, will give you around a quarter of the original fuel's energy-not bad for recycled nuclear waste. Reprocessing isn't done in the US for a combination of political and economic reasons, but it is popular in several other countries, including Japan.

4. MOX is more common than one might think, if you consider an informal definition of the fuel. When I met with Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spokesman Scott Burnell in the course of my research last year, he told me the following:
"In a certain way, every reactor towards the end of a given fuel cycle, when it gets close to having to refuel, in a sense it’s running on MOX. Because plutonium builds up in the fuel during operation. And at the very end, I mean very end, the last few weeks of a given reactor’s operational run, it’s plutonium that in large part is powering the core. But again, it’s doing so in keeping with our regulations. So with MOX you’d simply be starting with plutonium from the get-go.”
 In other words, plutonium is transmuted from U-238 during the normal operation of a nuclear power plant, and builds up in the fuel on its own. It doesn't have to come from old weapons.

That's all I've got. Hopefully, both papers will make these corrections in their future reporting, and otherwise continue their exemplary reporting on the rest of the topic.

*The Post is technically correct in this statement--they could be referring to just the uranium oxide as having come from nuclear weapons--but they're being extremely vague about it, and could just as easily be referring to both the plutonium and the uranium.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chasing Dolphins in the Bahamas

Well, it's a lazy Sunday and I've got a folder full of junk I need to get off my desktop. Hmmm... photo time!

These are a combination of pictures taken about four-five years ago, when I went (briefly) on an Earthwatch trip to the Bahamas to help a scientific team look for dolphins, whales and other cetaceans. A few of them are mine, most of them aren't. You can tell mine in one of two ways; a) they will have the date in the right-hand bottom corner, and b), they will suck. Enjoy. (Clicking on them will make them 'uge.)

The street where we lived.
Our beach was exactly how you'd expect the Bahamas to look. That's our search boat in the background.
Like I said. Exactly how you'd expect.
That's our skiff; don't know as it had a name. It was substantially smaller than the whales.
Skiff, and clouds. We picnicked at a sandbar one day, which I think is where this came from.
Our first cetacean. A Disney cruise ship, way off in the distance.
A bit closer. See how it dwarfs that island? The ship was MASSIVE.
The island in question, closer up.
Fish!! That may be me in the background.
This is Eddie, assistant to the survey. A master of karate, and friendship to every one!
No, seriously. He was a master of karate.
My half of our surveying crew.
Our teenage liason bravely dove into whale feces! There she is, handing a sample to us on the boat.
Chez Science. Also, dog.
We went kayaking in what I think was a mangrove swamp. This is getting ready.