Shallow Thoughts : tags : humor

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 22 Apr 2024

Tactical is the New Black

[a so-called 'Tactical Pen'] My new binocular came! And something curious came with them: a "tactical pen".

It seems to be quite a nice gel pen, with an aluminum body and a locking retractor. But the "tactical" part is less clear.

Me What makes it tactical?
Dave Maybe that it's black?
Me Tactical is the new black?

And of course, my mind couldn't help wandering off to explore what might make the difference between a tactical pen and a strategic pen. Maybe something about how long the ink reserve lasts? Or how long it takes to click the clicky retractor thing?

Oh, well, it was free when buying the binocular from B&H, and it really is a pretty nice pen.

On the binocular:

Read more ...

[ 16:06 Apr 22, 2024    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 03 Jul 2023

Marketing Impact


A neighbor has a huge RV emblazoned with the monicker:


I guess FUZION is a somewhat appropriate name for Los Alamos ... even if the town is a lot better known for fission. And the town isn't particularly noted for spelling excellence, so that part's okay.

However, would you want a vehicle that's an "IMPACT EDITION"?

Maybe it's just me, but impact is something I generally try to avoid in vehicles.

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[ 13:44 Jul 03, 2023    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 13 Jun 2023

Would You Want a T-Rex as a Handyman?

[Trex1 Handyman Services] I saw this truck at Home Depot in Santa Fe.

I have to wonder: would you want a T-Rex as a handyman?

I mean, aside from wanting to eat you, it doesn't seem like it would be very "handy" with those little arms that can't reach anywhere.

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[ 16:18 Jun 13, 2023    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 03 Jun 2023

A Questioning Attitude is Cultivated

[Don't Dart. Cross Smart. A Questioning Attitude is Cultivated.] At the bottom of the truck route (the main highway going up to LANL), the lab keeps a sign, usually advertising things like Motorcycle Awareness Month or Work Safety Month. I think they change it more or less monthly.

A few days ago, this curious sign appeared.

Don't Dart.
Cross Smart.
A Questioning Attitude
is Cultivated.

It includes a logo of the Institutional Worker Environment Safely and Security Team, or IWESST.

I have no idea what they're trying to get across with this sign. If you want to cross this 55mph highway, don't dart across it because it's smarter to saunter slowly? And what does darting, or crossing, have to do with a questioning attitude?

Or does this relate to some deep secret known only to LANL badgeholders, so if I figure it out they'll have to kill me?

Well, I guess they've succeeded in one respect: they have me questioning the sign.

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[ 17:58 Jun 03, 2023    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 23 Dec 2022

A Festive Tree

[Festive tree at the end of Knife Edge trail] Dave and I took our bikes to Knife Edge trail last week to see how it stacked up as a biking trail.

Answer: most of it is ridable, except for the short "knife edge" section that inspired its name ... but it's pretty rocky and bumpy, making it not as fun as other nearby trails. Still, it's a beautiful place with great views.

But there was a reward at the end. Someone had decorated a piñon tree at the very end of the trail. Even better, they used edible decorations — popcorn, berries, pretzels, and what looked like seed balls. Should be popular with the local wildlife!

If you can't make it to the end of Knife Edge, have a festive holiday season anyway!

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[ 18:29 Dec 23, 2022    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 04 Dec 2022

Door Bunny

[Door Bunny] I've been down for a week with the Flu from Hell that's going around.

We think it's flu because the symptoms match, and because I got knocked out by it, while Dave caught a much milder case — and Dave got the double-dose-for-seniors flu shot, while I only got the regular-for-younger-folks shot. (Our COVID tests are negative and there's no anosmia or breathing impairment.)

So I haven't been getting much done lately, nor writing blog articles. But I'm feeling a bit better now. While I recover, here's something from a few months ago: our annual autumn visit from the Door Bunny.

Read more ...

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[ 08:27 Dec 04, 2022    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 08 Jul 2022

Not Only Not a State, but Not in North America Either?

[North and Central American rivers in New Mexico] New Mexicans are used to people thinking we're not part of the US.

Every New Mexican has stories, like trying to mail-order something and being told "We don't ship outside the US".

I had a little spare time and decided I'd follow a tutorial that's been on my to-do list for a while: Creating Beautiful River Maps with Python. It combines river watercourse data from with watershed boundaries from the HydroSheds project using Python and GeoPandas, making a map that is, as promised in the title, beautiful.

Read more ...

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[ 18:05 Jul 08, 2022    More mapping | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 01 Oct 2021

Piñon Tree in Bloom

['Blooming' piñon tree ] Saw this outside the White Rock library. It's not every day you get to see a piñon tree in bloom!

(Okay, so it's actually a chamisa growing under the piñon.)

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[ 13:03 Oct 01, 2021    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 14 Jun 2021

Bear in White Rock!

[teddy bear at the White Rock dump] Bears have been in our local news lately -- along with anti-bear measures.

A few weeks ago, the County Council voted to invest a sizable chunk of money in bear-proof garbage roll carts for every home in the county.

While this is probably a good idea up in Los Alamos, down here in White Rock it's silly. We almost never see bears here. But apparently people on the hill don't believe that, or are convinced that if Los Alamos residents all have secure roll carts, the bears will migrate down the hill to White Rock and start becoming a nuisance here. (Really! -- that was the argument for buying roll carts for White Rock too.)

Anyway, I've scoffed at this ... until yesterday. I was at Overlook Park at the weekly R/C flying get-together, and as I was packing up to leave, carrying planes back to the car, I saw a bear! It was sitting on the fence at the Collection Center (that's the current euphemism for what they used to call a dump), just chilling out. Didn't seem scared of me at all.

I was able to snap a quick photo and still escape with my life. Whew.

Maybe we do need those roll carts.

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[ 18:38 Jun 14, 2021    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 16 Mar 2021

A Junco Goes "Umbrella Fishing"

One memorable sequence from Sir David Attenborough's stellar Life of Birds documentary is that of a black egret (or black heron -- I've seen both, but aside from color it looks remarkably like the North American snowy and reddish egrets), "umbrella fishing".

[grey-headed junco, 'umbrella fishing'] I never thought I'd have a chance to see that in person. But it turns out black herons aren't the only birds to do that. This winter, we saw a grey-headed junco doing essentially the same thing in our back yard!

This little junco performed its umbrella trick almost like the black heron from Life of Birds, though it didn't hide its head underneath. Still, it might some day: it was still perfecting its technique as we watched over the course of a couple of weeks.

Read more ...

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[ 14:38 Mar 16, 2021    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 03 Apr 2020

E is for Esquibel -- or is it?

As you drive from Española east to Chimayó -- in non-COVID-19 times, you might be heading to Rancho de Chimayó, the area's best New Mexican restaurant -- many of the street names, of course, are Spanish.

[Eh Ski Vel Ln] That's no surprise: this area is one of the oldest white-settled parts of the United States (of course, the Puebloans had been living in the area for centuries), starting in 1598 when Don Juan de Oñate declared it the capital of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, though the capital moved to La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís (modern-day Santa Fe) twelve years later. The area remained under Spanish, and then Mexican, rule until 1848 when it was ceded to the United States.

So you're driving along, moving from the little village of Santa Cruz into the equally small Cuartalez, passing street names like Avenida Fernandez, Calle de la Capilla, Fresquez Ln, Je Martinez Ln, Calle de Esquibel -- and then right after Calle de Esquibel, there's another street sign: Eh Ski Vel Ln.

Read more ...

[ 12:25 Apr 03, 2020    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 02 Jan 2020

Horseshoe Crabs in New Mexico

[Horseshoe crab tracks in snow] On a recent hike to Escobas Mesa, I happened upon these tracks.

"Look! Trilobite tracks!" I exclaimed. But upon examining them more closely, I saw I was wrong. They look a little like trilobites, but they're clearly the tracks of a horseshoe crab.

Either way, quite a rare find in the snowy mountains of New Mexico.

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[ 19:23 Jan 02, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 01 Aug 2019

Silly Moon Names: a Nice Beginning Python Project

Every time the media invents a new moon term -- super blood black wolf moon, or whatever -- I roll my eyes.

[Lunar Perigee and Apogee sizes] First, this ridiculous "supermoon" thing is basically undetectable to the human eye. Here's an image showing the relative sizes of the absolute closest and farthest moons. It's easy enough to tell when you see the biggest and smallest moons side by side, but when it's half a degree in the sky, there's no way you'd notice that one was bigger or smaller than average.

Even better, here's a link to an animation of how the moon changes size and "librates" -- tilts so that we can see a little bit over onto the moon's far side -- during the course of a month.

Anyway, the media seem to lap this stuff up and every month there's a new stupid moon term. I'm sure nearly every astronomer was relieved to see the thoroughly sensible Gizmodo article yesterday, Oh My God Stop It With the Fake Moon Names What the Hell Is a 'Black Moon' That Isn't Anything. Not that that will stop the insanity.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

And then, talking about the ridiculous moon name phenom with some friends, I realized I could play this game too. So I spent twenty minutes whipping up my own Silly Moon Name Generator.

It's super simple -- it just uses Linux' built-in dictionary, with no sense of which words are common, or adjectives or nouns or what. Of course it would be funnier with a hand-picked set of words, but there's a limit to how much time I want to waste on this.

You can add a parameter ?nwords=5 (or whatever number) if you want more or fewer words than four.

How Does It Work?

Random phrase generators like this are a great project for someone just getting started with Python. Python is so good at string manipulation that it makes this sort of thing easy: it only takes half a page of code to do something fun. So it's a great beginner project that most people would probably find more rewarding than cranking out Fibonacci numbers (assuming you're not a Fibonacci geek like I am). For more advanced programmers, random phrase generation can still be a fun and educational project -- skip to the end of this article for ideas.

For the basics, this is all you need: I've added comments explaining the code.

import random

def hypermoon(filename, nwords=4):
    '''Return a silly moon name with nwords words,
       each taken from a word list in the given filename.
    fp = open(filename)
    lines = fp.readlines()

    # A list to store the words to describe the moon:
    words = []
    for i in range(nwords):    # This will be run nwords times
        # Pick a random number between 0 and the number of lines in the file:
        whichline = random.randint(0, len(lines))

        # readlines() includes whitespace like newline characters.
        # Use whichline to pull one line from the file, and use
        # strip() to remove any extra whitespace:
        word = lines[whichline].strip()

        # Append it to our word list:

    # The last word in the phrase will be "moon", e.g.
    # super blood wolf black pancreas moon

    # ' '.join(list) combines all the words with spaces between them
    return ' '.join(words)

# This is called when the program runs:
if __name__ == '__main__':

    print(hypermoon('/usr/share/dict/words', 4))

A More Compact Format

In that code example, I expanded everything to try to make it clear for beginning programmers. In practice, Python lets you be a lot more terse, so the way I actually wrote it was more like:

def hypermoon(filename, nwords=4):
    with open(filename, encoding='utf-8') as fp:
        lines = fp.readlines()

    words = [ lines[random.randint(0, len(lines))].strip()
              for i in range(nwords) ]
    return ' '.join(words)

There are three important differences (in bold):

Opening a file using "with" ensures the file will be closed properly when you're done with it. That's not important in this tiny example, but it's a good habit to get into.

I specify the 'utf-8' encoding when I open the file because when I ran it as a web app, it turned out the web server used the ASCII encoding and I got Python errors because there are accented characters in the dictionary somewhere. That's one of those Python annoyances you get used to when going beyond the beginner level.

The way I define words all in one line (well, it's conceptually one long line, though I split it into two so each line stays under 72 characters) is called a list comprehension. It's a nice compact alternative to defining an empty list [] and then calling append() a bunch of times, like I did in the first example.

Initially they might seem harder to read, but list comprehensions can actually make code clearer once you get used to them.

A Python Driven Web Page

Finally, to make it work as a web page, I added the CGI module. That isn't really a beginner thing so I won't paste it here, but you can see the CGI version at on GitHub.

I should mention that there's some debate over CGI in Python. The movers and shakers in the Python community don't approve of CGI, and there's a plan to remove it from upcoming Python versions. The alternative is to use technologies like Flask or Django. while I'm a fan of Flask and have used it for several projects, it's way overkill for something like this, mostly because of all the special web server configuration it requires (and Django is far more heavyweight than Flask). In any case, be aware that the CGI module may be removed from Python's standard library in the near future. With any luck, python-cgi will still be available via pip install or as Linux distro packages.

More Advanced Programmers: Making it Funnier

I mentioned earlier that I thought the app would be a lot funnier with a handpicked set of words. I did that long, long ago with my Star Party Observing Report Generator (written in Perl; I hadn't yet started using Python back in 2001). That's easy and fun if you have the time to spare, or a lot of friends contributing.

You could instead use words taken from a set of input documents. For instance, only use words that appear in Shakespeare's plays, or in company mission statements, or in Wikipedia articles about dog breeds (this involves some web scraping, but Python is good at that too; I like BeautifulSoup).

Or you could let users contribute their own ideas for good words to use, storing the user suggestions in a database.

Another way to make the words seem more appropriate and less random might be to use one of the many natural language packages for Python, such as NLTK, the Natural Language Toolkit. That way, you could control how often you used adjectives vs. nouns, and avoid using verbs or articles at all.

Random word generators seem like a silly and trivial programming exercise -- because they are! But they're also a fun starting point for more advanced explorations with Python.

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[ 14:24 Aug 01, 2019    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 13 Oct 2018

Tape Rabbit

[Packing tape rabbit] I had to mail a package recently, and finished up a roll of packing tape.

I hadn't realized before I removed the tape roll from its built-in dispenser that packing tape was dispensed by rabbits.

[ 20:11 Oct 13, 2018    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 26 Mar 2018

Dust Storm Burma Shave Signs

I just got back from a trip to the Chiricahuas, specifically Cave Creek. More on that later, after I've done some more photo triaging. But first, a story from the road.

[NM Burma Shave dust storm signs]

Driving on I-10 in New Mexico near the Arizona border, we saw several signs about dust storms. The first one said,


Dave commented, "I prefer the ones that say, 'may exist'." And as if the highway department heard him, a minute or two later we passed a much more typical New Mexico road sign:

New Mexico, the existential state.

But then things got more fun. We drove for a few more miles, then we passed a sign that obviously wasn't meant to stand alone:


"It's a Burma Shave!" we said simultaneously. (I'm not old enough to remember Burma Shave signs in real life, but I've heard stories and love the concept.) The next sign came quickly:


"What on earth are they going to find to rhyme with 'roadway'?" I wondered. I racked my brains but couldn't come up with anything. As it turns out, neither could NMDOT. There were three more signs:


"Hmph", I thought. "What an opportunity missed." But I still couldn't come up with a rhyme for "roadway". Since we were on Interstate 10, and there's not much to do on a long freeway drive, I penned an alternative:


Much better, isn't it? But one thing bothered me: you're not really supposed to pull all the way off Interstate 10, just onto the shoulder. How about:


I wasn't quite happy with it. I thought my next attempt was an improvement:

but Dave said I should stick with "GET MUCH OLDER".

Oh, well. Even if I'm not old enough to remember real Burma Shave signs, and even if NMDOT doesn't have the vision to make their own signs rhyme, I can still have fun with the idea.

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[ 16:05 Mar 26, 2018    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 26 Sep 2016

Unclaimed Alcoholic Beverages

Dave was reading New Mexico laws regarding a voter guide issue we're researching, and he came across this gem in Section 29-1-14 G of the "Law Enforcement: Peace Officers in General: Unclaimed Property" laws:

Any alcoholic beverage that has been unclaimed by the true owner, is no longer necessary for use in obtaining a conviction, is not needed for any other public purpose and has been in the possession of a state, county or municipal law enforcement agency for more than ninety days may be destroyed or may be utilized by the scientific laboratory division of the department of health for educational or scientific purposes.

We can't decide which part is more fun: contemplating what the "other public purposes" might be, or musing on the various "educational or scientific purposes" one might come up with for a month-old beverage that's been sitting in the storage locker ... I'm envisioning a room surrounded by locked chain-link containing dusty shelves containing rows of half-full martini and highball glasses.

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[ 11:04 Sep 26, 2016    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 08 Jun 2015

Adventure Dental

[Adventure Dental] This sign, in Santa Fe, always makes me do a double-take.

Would you go to a dentist or eye doctor named "Adventure Dental"?

Personally, I prefer that my dental and vision visits are as un-adventurous as possible.

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[ 08:54 Jun 08, 2015    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 30 Apr 2015

Stile style

On a hike a few weeks ago, we encountered an unusual, and amusing, stile across the trail.

[Normal stile] It isn't uncommon to see stiles along trails. There are lots of different designs, but their purpose is to allow humans, on foot, an easy way to cross a fence, while making it difficult for vehicles and livestock like cattle to pass through. A common design looks like this, with a break in the fence and "wings" so that anything small enough to make the sharp turn can pass through.

On a recent hike starting near Buckman, on the Rio Grande, we passed a few stiles with the "wings" design; but one of the stiles we came to had a rather less common design:

[Wrongly-built stile]

It was set up so that nothing could pass without climbing over the fence -- and one of the posts which was supposed to hold fence rails was just sitting by itself, with nothing attached to it. [Pathological stile]

I suspect someone gave a diagram to a welder, and the welder, not being an outdoor person and having no idea of the purpose of a stile, welded it up without giving it much thought. Not very functional ... and not very stilish, either!

I'm curious whether the error was in the spec, or in the welder's interpretation of it. But alas, I suspect I'll never learn the story behind the stile.

Giggling, we climbed over the fence and proceeded on our hike up to the very scenic Otowi Peak.

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[ 11:38 Apr 30, 2015    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 16 Apr 2015

I Love Small Town Papers

I've always loved small-town newspapers. Now I have one as a local paper (though more often, I read the online Los Alamos Daily Post. The front page of the Los Alamos Monitor yesterday particularly caught my eye:

[Los Alamos Monitor front page]

I'm not sure how they decide when to include national news along with the local news; often there are no national stories, but yesterday I guess this story was important enough to make the cut. And judging by font sizes, it was considered more important than the high school debate team's bake sale, but of the same importance as the Youth Leadership group's day for kids to meet fire and police reps and do arts and crafts. (Why this is called "Wild Day" is not explained in the article.)

Meanwhile, here are a few images from a hike at Bandelier National Monument: first, a view of the Tyuonyi Pueblo ruins from above (click for a larger version):

[View of Tyuonyi Pueblo ruins from above]

[Petroglyphs on the rim of Alamo Canyon] Some petroglyphs on the wall of Alamo Canyon. We initially called them spirals but they're actually all concentric circles, plus one handprint.

[Unusually artistic cairn in Lummis Canyon] And finally, a cairn guarding the bottom of Lummis Canyon. All the cairns along this trail were fairly elaborate and artistic, but this one was definitely the winner.

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[ 14:01 Apr 16, 2015    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 18 Jan 2015

Another stick figure in peril

One of my favorite categories of funny sign: "Stick figures in peril". This one was on one of those automated gates, where you type in a code and it rolls aside, and on the way out it automatically senses your car.

[Moving gate can cause serious injury or death]

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[ 10:19 Jan 18, 2015    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 27 Sep 2014

Petroglyphs, ancient and modern

In the canyons below White Rock there are many wonderful petroglyphs, some dating back many centuries, like this jaguar: [jaguar petroglyph in White Rock Canyon]

as well as collections like these:
[pictographs] [petroglyph collection]

Of course, to see them you have to negotiate a trail down the basalt cliff face. [Red Dot trail]

Up the hill in Los Alamos there are petroglyphs too, on trails that are a bit more accessible ... but I suspect they're not nearly so old. [petroglyph face]

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[ 21:47 Sep 27, 2014    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 24 Aug 2014

One of them Los Alamos liberals

[Adopt-a-Highway: One of them Los Alamos liberals] I love this Adopt-a-Highway sign on Highway 4 on the way back down from the Jemez.

I have no idea who it is (I hope to find out, some day), but it gives me a laugh every time I see it.

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[ 10:50 Aug 24, 2014    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 05 Aug 2014

Privacy Policy

I got an envelope from my bank in the mail. The envelope was open and looked like the flap had never been sealed.

Inside was a copy of their privacy policy. Nothing else.

The policy didn't say whether their privacy policy included sealing the envelope when they send me things.

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[ 13:22 Aug 05, 2014    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 06 Jun 2014

Santa Fe Highway Art, and the Digestive Deer

Santa Fe is a city that prides itself on its art. There are art galleries everywhere, glossy magazines scattered around town pointing visitors to the various art galleries and museums.

Why, then, is Santa Fe county public art so bad?

[awful Santa Fe art with eagle, jaguar and angels] Like this mural near the courthouse. It has it all! It combines motifs of crucifixions, Indian dancing, Hermaphroditism, eagles, jaguars, astronomy, menorahs (or are they power pylons?), an angel, armed and armored, attempting to stab an unarmed angel, and a peace dove smashing its head into a baseball. All in one little mural!

But it's really the highway art north of Santa Fe that I wanted to talk about today.

[roadrunner highway art] [horned toad highway art] [rattlesnake highway art] Some of it isn't totally awful. The roadrunner and the horned toad are actually kind of cute, and the rattlesnake isn't too bad.

[rooster highway art] [turkey highway art] On the other hand, the rooster and turkey are pretty bad ...

[rabbit highway art] and the rabbit is beyond belief.

As you get farther away from Santa Fe, you get whole overpasses decorated with names and symbols:
[Posuwaegeh and happy dancing shuriken]

[Happy dancing shuriken] I think of this one near Pojoaque as the "happy dancing shuriken" -- it looks more like a Japanese throwing star, a shuriken, than anything else, though no doubt it has some deeper meaning to the Pojoaque pueblo people.

But my favorite is the overpass near Cuyamungue.

[K'uuyemugeh and digestive deer]

See those deer in the upper right and left corners?

[Cuyamungue digestive deer highway art] Here it is in close-up. We've taken to calling it "the digestive deer".

I can't figure out what this is supposed to tell us about a deer's alimentary tract. Food goes in ... and then we don't want to dwell on what happens after that? Is there a lot of foliage near Cuyamungue that's particularly enticing to deer? A "land of plenty", at least for deer? Do they then go somewhere else to relieve themselves?

I don't know what it means. But as we drive past the Cuyamungue digestive deer on the way to Santa Fe ... it's hard to take the city's airs of being a great center of art and culture entirely seriously.

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[ 12:40 Jun 06, 2014    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 30 May 2014

Punctuation Reveals Truth in advertising

This ad appeared in one of the free Santa Fe weeklies. It's got to be one of the funniest mis-uses of quotes I've seen.

Does she not know that putting quotes around something means that you're quoting someone, you're introducing an unfamiliar word or phrase, or you're trying to draw attention to the quoted phrase and cast doubt on it or make fun of it? That third use, by the way, is called scare quotes. Like you'd see in a phrase like this:

One expects lawyers to have a good command of English, and to pay attention to detail, so ... what should we think?

"Injured" isn't an unfamiliar word, so it has to be either the first or third use. And whether she's soliciting clients who only say they're injured, or she's casting doubt on the injury, it's hard not to read this as an offer to help people pretend to be injured to collect a payout.

Which I'm sure happens all the time ... but I don't think I've previously seen an ad implying it so strongly.

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[ 13:32 May 30, 2014    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 02 Feb 2014

Windshield Washer Fluid Freeze-out

I'm nearing the home stretch of a move from California to New Mexico. (I'll be writing about that eventually, but right now I'm in the middle of Moving Hell.) Since we're about to drive our cars out to a place that's getting freezing temperatures, Dave got the bright idea that we ought to replace our windshield washer fluid with a type that doesn't freeze at 32°F.

Easy, right? We drove down to Pep Boys -- and couldn't find any. All they had was marked as 32°. So we asked the gentleman at the counter.

Pep Boy: Sorry, we only carry the 32-degree kind. We're not legally allowed to sell the other kind.

Us: Uh, what?

Pep Boy: We're not legally allowed to sell the antifreeze type because it hardly ever gets down to freezing here.

Us: But what do people do when they're driving up to Tahoe or something?

Pep Boy: They start with the tank empty, stop partway up and buy some, and fill up there.

Us: ...

We drove down the street to O'Reilly's, to double check. O'Reilly's sells a concentrate with additives (methanol) for subfreezing temperatures. Just add water. Wait, what?

I did a web search when we got back home. Sure enough, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has made it illegal to sell pre-mixed windshield washer fluid with methanol, because the methanol evaporates contributes to "ground level ozone and air pollution", according to The Hanford Sentinel: Looking for winter windshield washer fluid? Good luck!

It's illegal to sell pre-mixed. But it's legal to sell concentrate -- even though the concentrate contains far more methanol than pre-mixed would have.

Words fail me.

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[ 19:30 Feb 02, 2014    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 06 Jan 2014

Government accountability

Do you ever get annoyed at how government takes your tax money and tosses it around, without much accountability as to how much money goes where?

[COST $7557022.00] Well, in New Mexico they want to make sure you don't get that feeling.

When you drive by a highway construction project, the cost of the project is right there -- down to the nearest dollar. (With no commas, so be careful when counting those digits that you don't run into the car in front of you.)

$7557022.00. Now that's accountability!

(We won't talk about the completion date of fall 2013 and the fact that this photo was taken in early 2014. I hope that doesn't make the costs overrun to $7557022.50 or even $7557023.00.)

[ 21:18 Jan 06, 2014    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 15 Dec 2013

Hi-Fi Internet

On way home from a trip last week, one of the hotels we stayed at had an unexpected bonus:

Hi-Fi Internet!

[Hi-fi internet]

You may wonder, was it mono or stereo? They had two accesspoints visible (with different essids), so I guess it was supposed to be stereo. Except one of the accesspoints never worked, so it turned out to be mono after all.

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[ 19:35 Dec 15, 2013    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 13 Feb 2013

Why should I stop here? Oh, that's why!

[Railroad gate caution sign]

I love warning signs. Especially when they have funny pictures on them illustrating the drastic consequences of ignoring the sign.

This one is by the railroad tracks in downtown Mountain View. In case you weren't sure what that funny wooden arm was for.

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[ 20:15 Feb 13, 2013    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 02 Feb 2013

Leave it like it is

[Tree with floating brick border] I guess the brick and concrete border was a little too small, and the tree just ignored it and kept growing. Tree: 1. Landscapers: 0.

And the neighbors, bless their hearts, didn't try to remove the border -- they left it intact as the tree continued to grow and raised the border higher and higher.

It's wonderful -- makes me smile every time I walk past. It reminds me of a great David Wilcox song, Leave It Like It Is.

Go, tree!

[ 12:22 Feb 02, 2013    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 23 Jan 2013

Mahatma of Spain

[Mahatma authentic Spanish rice] The silly things you find ...

Found this in Mom's pantry. "Mahatma Authentic Spanish rice."

Maybe it's just my ignorance that when I hear the term "Mahatma", Spain is not the first country I think of. But it says Authentic! So it must have something to do with Spanish culture, right?

Maybe it's named after that famous palace in Spain, the Mahatma.

I haven't tried the rice yet. I'm not sure whether I should serve it with curry, or tacos. I know! I'll make some curry tacos!

It's been pointed out to me that tacos aren't associated with Spain either. Whoops! Blame my nortemericano upbringing -- "Spanish rice" is what's served with Mexican food here, and cuisine from Spain is rare.

[ 16:10 Jan 23, 2013    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 25 Nov 2012

Keeping track of the deer

[DEER DB] I saw this sign on a fence around a debris dam.

It's good to see that LA County cares so much about keeping track of the local deer population that it maintains a special database for them.

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[ 11:20 Nov 25, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 19 Nov 2012

Wind-up car

[Real drivable wind-up car]

I saw this car on Bascom the other day. Very cute! Nicely done.

(Usually I GIMP out the license plates of cars in photos, but in this case I don't think it's needed.)

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[ 20:17 Nov 19, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 05 Nov 2012

High Schooler's for a Better Community

[High Schooler's for a Better Community (HSFBC)] It's great to see high school kids doing public-spirited community projects like trail maintenance!

But I have to wonder if this particular group might do better spending some of that time working on studying their punctuation rules ...

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[ 12:13 Nov 05, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 05 Oct 2012

A great team name: the Edison Chargers

I just love Edison elementary school's team name.

[Edison Chargers]

[ 21:19 Oct 05, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 13 Sep 2012

A difference of opinion regarding golf

[2 parking lot signs: ] The parking lot for Fremont Older Open Space Preserve adjoins a golfing range. There seems to be some difference of opinion regarding the responsibility if an errant golf ball should hit a car. One sign declares

DANGER: Flying golf balls, Park at your own risk
while the one right under it, put up by the open space district, advises
Golfers are responsible for damage caued by golf balls

I just hope I never have to find out who's right.

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[ 22:50 Sep 13, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 26 Aug 2012

We've taken care of our supplier problems ...

[3 adjacent stores: Scales 'n' Tails, Aquarium supplies, and Sushi Dake]

I love these three storefronts right next to each other.

At least it reduces any freshness problems the one on the right might have had with its previous suppliers.

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[ 22:29 Aug 26, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 19 Aug 2012

They put handicapped parking in the darndest places ...

[Handicapped people, park in the bushes] In my rambles, I've sometimes noticed that handicapped parking isn't always as convenient as it ought to be.

For instance, in one vista point up on Skyline Blvd, there's a handicapped parking sign way off in the bushes and down the hillside, far away from the parking lot where everybody else parks. Makes me wonder how you'd get a wheelchair through all that coyote brush.

[Handicapped people, watch out for the slope]

Or this sign, in the Verdugo mountains. I'm not sure I'd want to park in a spot that needed a warning sign like that!

[ 16:34 Aug 19, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 04 Aug 2012

Sing-along machismo

Wired last week reported on a British study on songs people are most likely to sing along to in pubs.

The study concluded that the most popular songs were the ones with "a male vocalist with a loud, clear high-chest voice, without many vocal embellishments."

As to why that was, the lead researcher

suggested that singing along to these songs promotes a kind of "neotribal bonding" among participants. As for why female vocalists' songs weren't popular, Pawley speculated that, whereas women will happily sing along to men, men may feel that voicing a woman's words threatens their masculinity.

So what was the number one singable tune found in this study?


Queen's "We are the Champions".

I wish Freddie Mercury, that rugged bastion of straight he-man masculinity, was still around to read that. Bet he would have died laughing.

Now excuse me while I go belt out some "Bohemian Rhapsody" while no one's listening.

[ 18:47 Aug 04, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 11 Jul 2012

Disregard this fitness claim!

[Sketchers self-contradictory advertising] I noticed this oddly self-contradictory message on a box in a shoe store.

It says:

The key to Shape-ups LIV by Sketchers is the diagonally curved bottom. It helps guide you back to the body's barefoot stride.


Doesn't the second paragraph contradict and cancel out the first one?

I was curious, so I did a little poking around. But all I found was accounts of Sketchers being pressured to pull an advertisement aimed at teen girls, in which it makes different claims regarding a different Shape-up shoe. Supposedly the advertiser was also putting stickers on shoeboxes saying "Disregard all fitness benefit claims."

But the box I was reading was an adult shoe, unrelated to the teen advertising cartoons, and the sign isn't a sticker -- it's part of the printing on the box.

So it's a mystery. To be honest, I was already primed to disregard any fitness claims I read on the front of a shoebox. But I guess it's glad that the company uses valuable advertising space to remind everyone to discount the company's own claims.

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[ 21:09 Jul 11, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 02 May 2012

Extremely strange seatbelt warning sticker

I bought a Miata yesterday! My new baby. It's a 2000, in a lovely color Mazda calls "twilight blue mica". (You can see Miata pictures here, if you're so inclined.)

I'd forgotten how much nicer sports cars are to drive. I retired my last X1/9 more than a year ago, and have been driving mushy street vehicles since then. The Miata surprises me every time I get into it with its immediacy -- throttle, brake, steering, everything happens now.

It does have some used-car glitches that I need to sort out (some of them maybe even severe), but in general it's a great car: in stock trim it handles a lot like the street-prepared X1/9, even on crappy Kumho tires. Of course, that could be new owner infatuation talking. Ask me again in a few months. :-)

[extremely strange seatbelt warning] But really what I wanted to write about was the extremely strange warning sticker that came plastered to the driver's side window. I didn't really look at the sticker until the second day after I drove the car home, and then did a double-take. It says:

While use of all seat belts reduce the chance of ejection, failure to install and use shoulder harnesses with lap belts can result in serious or fatal injuries in some crashes. Lap-only belts increase the chance of head and neck injury by allowing the upper torso to move unrestrained in a crash and increase the chance of spinal column and abdominal injuries by concentrating excessive force on the lower torso. Because children carry a disproportionate amount of body weight above the waist, they are more likely to sustain those injuries. Shoulder harnesses may be available that can be retrofitted in this vehicle. For more information call the Auto Safety Hotline at 1-800-424-9393.

If you look at the photo I took of the sticker, note the shoulder belt anchor at the right edge of the frame. It's a normal stock shoulder belt, just like you'll find in any car -- this is a 2000 model, for crying out loud, not a 1970.

A web search on the error message led me to Section 27314.5 of the California Vehicle Code, which states that

27314.5. (a) (1) Subject to paragraph (3), no dealer shall sell or offer for sale any used passenger vehicle of a model year of 1972 to 1990, inclusive, unless there is affixed to the window of the left front door or, if there is no window, to another suitable location so that it may be seen and read by a person standing outside the vehicle at that location, a notice, printed in 14-point type, which reads as follows:
... followed by the text on my sticker. It goes on:
(2) The notice shall remain affixed to the vehicle pursuant to paragraph (1) at all times that the vehicle is for sale.

So the dealer must have put this sticker on. But why? Reading on:

(3) The notice is not required to be affixed to any vehicle equipped with both a lap belt and a shoulder harness for the driver and one passenger in the front seat of the vehicle and for at least two passengers in the rear seat of the vehicle.

The dealer must not have read as far as paragraph (3).

I also found that, despite the fact that the DMV's website still links to the page I linked above, that statute was in the process of being repealed by CA Assembly Bill 2679. Except that if you click on "Read latest draft", apparently they changed their minds again in the latest version of AB 2679 and are now going to keep the warning in.

Maybe instead of leaving it unchanged or striking it, they should change it to make it clearer that it only applies to cars without shoulder harnesses installed ... if there are any such cars. Haven't shoulder harnesses been mandatory in US cars since the early 1970s? Wikipedia says they've been mandatory in the front seat since 1968 ... but the citation they give for that goes to a page that no longer exists, so that may be off by a few years.

In any case, anyone buying a car so old it doesn't have a shoulder harness and only "may" be able to have one retrofitted to it probably understands there may be some safety issues in a 40-year-old car, and doesn't need a warning sticker.

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[ 21:05 May 02, 2012    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 02 Feb 2012

Watch out, or you'll end up in Pleasant Valley

[Pleasant Valley State Prison sign] I love this sign, along Interstate 5 near Coalinga. Pleasant Valley State Prison.

I guess if you have to be locked away, Pleasant Valley doesn't sound like the worst place to be.

Do Pleasant Valley ex-cons have a hard time getting respect when people find out where they did their hard time?

I love picturing the local parents trying to strike fear into their kids' hearts. "If you don't straighten up, Junior, you're going to end up in ... PLEASANT VALLEY!"

Or the local judges -- "You're not getting off this time. No, I'm giving you ten years in ... PLEASANT VALLEY!"

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[ 18:07 Feb 02, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 08 Nov 2011

Increase Your ... Pancakes?

This coupon showed up on a Safeway receipt.

[Increase your ... pancakes?]

Everyone I've showed it to has the same reaction as I did: stacks of pancakes! Oh, wait, the headline says ... oh, I see, I guess those are supposed to be coins.

I'm not sure what the lesson is ... maybe that you should show your ad to a few other people before publishing it.

Or maybe the program is actually for cafe owners looking to increase their breakfast sales ...

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[ 12:26 Nov 08, 2011    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 07 Dec 2010

Android/Eclipse Spellchecker is a bit confused

I've been doing some Android development, using the standard Eclipse development tools. A few days ago, I pasted some code that included a comment about different Android versions, and got a surprise:

[The word 'Android' is not correctly spelled. Change to 'Undried'?]

What do you think -- should I change all the "Android" references to "Undried"?

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[ 11:09 Dec 07, 2010    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 23 Oct 2010

The non-dairy dairy

On a recent desert trip, we stopped in Jean, NV for some prime rib.

[Non-dairy creamer packet] They had creamer containers out on the table in case you should order coffee. It was their own brand of non-dairy creamer. I wonder who really makes it?

[Non-dairy creamer packet]

Silly question -- the non-dairy creamer comes from a dairy! And includes "sodium caseinate (a milk derivative)".

Leaves me full of curiosity about the cows at this dairy ...

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[ 17:39 Oct 23, 2010    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 08 Aug 2010

Can you read this?

[Can you read this?]

Got this in the mail. Awfully thoughtful of them, don't you think? I'm sure all the people who can't read it will call right away.

[ 21:00 Aug 08, 2010    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 29 Jul 2010

How to save on modeling fees

[Terrible's ad] At the Terrible's Sands Regency in Reno, Dave noticed this ad on the table in the room. "Wait -- isn't that the same guy, twice?"

Sure enough -- not just the same person, but the same photo, with different hair and neck pixeled in.

I guess Photoshop/GIMP artists are cheaper than photo models these days.

We spotted the same model in other ads around the hotel, sometimes masquerading as other races as well.

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[ 17:28 Jul 29, 2010    More gimp | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 29 Dec 2009

Slow news day?

Waves breach sand berm My favorite headline from today's paper:
Waves breach sand berm
What sort of sand berm, you wonder, that merits a headline in the paper? No doubt a critical one, protecting the town from the ravages of the sea? Well, maybe not:
"The situation is not unusual," he added. "It happens every year."

I guess it was a slow news day.

Mmm, melamine

The full-page ad on the back of the main section was good, too.

Mmmmm ... melamine candy!

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[ 12:42 Dec 29, 2009    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 17 Oct 2009

Fossil Hunter -- Real Tools!

(I meant to blog this last month and never got around to it, but it was so fun and silly that I want a public link to it.) [Dinosaur fossil kit! With real tools!]

For my birthday, Dave got me this Dinosaur Fossil Kit. With REAL TOOLS! proclaimed the package.

(A few weeks later I was at the dollar store looking for something else, and found out where he'd bought it.)

It's an egg-shaped clod of mud. The REAL TOOLS are a little plastic pick and a paintbrush. You pick away the mud to reveal little plastic dinosaur bones, which you can assemble to form a dinosaur.

Okay, it's stupid. But it was also kind of fun. I have the little dinosaur sitting on the stand beside my terminal.

One of the foot-tabs is missing on mine, so it doesn't always stay in the stand. But that's just one of those hassles that we paleontologists put up with. Not every skeleton will be 100% complete. We scientists also know how important it is to document every step of the process.

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[ 19:38 Oct 17, 2009    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 18 Sep 2009

A new theory of orbital dynamics

[PGE billboard: Solar Power: Making planets orbit and bagels toast] This PG&E billboard just went up down the street from where I live.
"Solar Power: Making planets orbit and bagels toast."

And here all this time I'd been under the impression that orbits had mostly to do with gravity. Somehow I'd missed the influence of light pressure when writing my orbital software.

Or is the sun's gravitational influence considered a part of "solar power"? Can we look forward to the upcoming generation of gravitovoltaic solar cells?

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[ 20:13 Sep 18, 2009    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 01 Sep 2009

On the difference between techies and non-techies

It's so easy as a techie to forget how many people tune out anything that looks like it has to do with technology.

I've been following the terrible "Station fire" that's threatening Mt Wilson observatory as well as homes and firefighters' lives down in southern California. And in addition to all the serious and useful URLs for tracking the fire, I happened to come across this one:

Very funny! I laughed, and so did the friends with whom I shared it. So when a non-technical mailing list began talking about the fire, I had to share it, with the comment "Here's a useful site I found for tracking the status of California fires."

Several people laughed (not all of them computer geeks). But one person said,

All it said was "YES." No further comments.

The joke seems obvious, right? But think about it: it's only funny if you read the domain name before you go to the page. Then you load the page, see what's there, and laugh.

But if you're the sort of person who immediately tunes out when you see a URL -- because "that's one of those technical things I don't understand" -- then the page wouldn't make any sense.

I'm not going to stop sharing techie jokes that require some background -- or at least the ability to read a URL. But sometimes it's helpful to be reminded of how a lot of the world looks at things. People see anything that looks "technical" -- be it an equation, a Latin word, or a URL -- and just tune out. The rest of it might as well not be there -- even if the words following that "http://" are normal English you think anyone should understand.

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[ 21:48 Sep 01, 2009    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 07 Apr 2009

Helpful Error Messages from ALSA (not!)

Today's award concerns clarity of error messages.

My desktop machine has been getting flakier for a week or two. Strange messages at boot, CDROM drive unable to burn reliably or verify after burning, and finally it culminated in a morning where it wouldn't boot at all. Turned out (after much experimentation) to be not one but two bad IDE cables -- and these were the snazzy expensive heavy-duty cables, not the cheap ribbon cables, in a box that hadn't been opened for months. Weird.

Anyway, since I had the system disk out anyway (to recover data from it) I left it out, migrated my data to the newer, bigger disk and installed a new Ubuntu Intrepid. Been meaning to do that anyway -- running two disks just adds to the noise, heat and power usage and doesn't really add that much speed.

It took a couple of hours to get the system working the way I want it -- installing things I need, like tcsh, vim, emacs, plucker, vlc, sox etc. and cleaning up some of the longstanding Ubuntu udev and kernel configuration bugs that keep various hardware from working. I thought I had everything ready when I noticed I wasn't getting any sound alerts, so I tried playing a sample .wav file, and got a rather unusual error:

(clavius)- play sample.wav
ALSA lib confmisc.c:768:(parse_card) cannot find card '0'
ALSA lib conf.c:3513:(_snd_config_evaluate) function snd_func_card_driver returned error: No such file or directory
ALSA lib confmisc.c:392:(snd_func_concat) error evaluating strings
ALSA lib conf.c:3513:(_snd_config_evaluate) function snd_func_concat returned error: No such file or directory
ALSA lib confmisc.c:1251:(snd_func_refer) error evaluating name
ALSA lib conf.c:3513:(_snd_config_evaluate) function snd_func_refer returned error: No such file or directory
ALSA lib conf.c:3985:(snd_config_expand) Evaluate error: No such file or directory
ALSA lib pcm.c:2196:(snd_pcm_open_noupdate) Unknown PCM default
play soxio: Can't open output file `default': cannot open audio device

What does that mean? Well, it turns out what it means is ... my user wasn't in the "audio" group, so I didn't have write permission on the sound device. I added myself to "audio" in /etc/groups and sound worked fine in my next session.

Now, I've seen some fairly obscure error messages in my time, but this one may just win my all-time obscurity award. 9 lines and 744 characters to say "Can't open $device."

And with all that, it still managed to omit the one piece of information that might have been helpful: the name of the device it was trying to open (so that an ls -l would have told me the problem right away).


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[ 14:23 Apr 07, 2009    More tech | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 01 Apr 2009

Pluto Visits the States

This is a reprinting of an article I wrote for my monthly planet column in the SJAA Ephemeris:

Is Pluto a planet, or not? Maybe you caught the news last month that Illinois, birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, has declared Pluto a planet. It joins New Mexico, Tombaugh's longtime home, which made a similar declaration two years ago.

When I first heard about the New Mexico resolution, I was told that they had declared that Pluto would be a planet within the state's boundaries. [Size of Pluto and Charon vs. the US] That made me a bit curious: would Pluto even fit inside New Mexico? I looked it up: Pluto has a diameter of 2300km, while New Mexico is about 550km in longitude and a bit more in latitude. Not even close (see Figure 1). Too bad -- I liked the image of Pluto and Charon coming to visit and hang out with friends. Though at Pluto's orbital velocity (it takes it just under 248 years to complete its 18 billion kilometer orbit, meaning an average speed of 23 million km/year or 63,000 km/day) and its current distance of about 32 AU (4.8 billion km), it whould take it about 207 years to get here.

But it turns out that's not what the resolution said anyway. Both states' resolutions said roughly the same thing:

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO that, as Pluto passes overhead through New Mexico's excellent night skies, it be declared a planet and that March 13, 2007 be declared "Pluto Planet Day" at the legislature.

RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE OF THE NINETY-SIXTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, that as Pluto passes overhead through Illinois' night skies, that it be reestablished with full planetary status, and that March 13, 2009 be declared "Pluto Day" in the State of Illinois in honor of the date its discovery was announced in 1930.

So the law applies to anyone (though it's probably not enforceable outside state boundaries) -- but only when Pluto is overhead in New Mexico or Illinois.

But wait -- does Pluto ever actually pass overhead in those states?

New Mexico stretches from 31.2 to about 37 degrees latitude, while Illinois spans 36.9 to 42.4. Right now Pluto is in Sagittarius, with a declination of -17° 41'; there's no way anyone in the US is going to see it directly overhead this year. Worse, it's on its way even farther south. It won't cross into the northern hemisphere until the beginning of 2111. But how far north will it go?

My first thought was to add Pluto's inclination -- 17.15 degrees, very high compared to other planets -- to the 23 degrees of the ecliptic to get 40.4°. Way far north -- no problem in either state! But unfortunately it's not as simple as that.

It turns out that when Pluto gets to its maximum north inclination, it's in Bootes (bet you didn't know Bootes was a constellation of the zodiac, did you? It's that 17° inclination that puts Pluto just past the Virgo border). That'll happen in February of 2228.

But in the Virgo/Bootes region, the ecliptic is 8° south of the equator, not 23° north. So we don't get to add 23 and 17; in fact, Pluto's declination will only be about 7.3° north. That's no help!

To find the time when Pluto gets as far north as it's going to get, you have to combine the declination of the ecliptic and the angle of Pluto above the ecliptic. The online JPL HORIZONS simulator is very helpful for running data like that over long periods -- much easier than plugging dates into a planetarium program. HORIZONS told me that Pluto's maximum northern declination, 23.5°, will happen in spring of 2193.

Unfortunately, 23.5° isn't far enough north to be overhead even from Las Cruces, NM. So Pluto, sadly, will never be overhead from either New Mexico or Illinois, and thus by the text of the two measures, it will never be a planet.

With that in mind, I'm asking you to support my campaign to persuade the governments of Ecuador and Hawaii to pass resolutions similar to the New Mexico and Illinois ones. Please give generously -- and hurry, because we need your support before April 1!

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[ 20:09 Apr 01, 2009    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 14 Mar 2009

The new gtk file selector fstab viewer

[New gtk 2.14.4 file selector] When I upgraded to Ubuntu Intrepid recently, I pulled in a newer GTK+, version 2.14.4. And when I went to open a file in GIMP, I got a surprise: my "bookmarks" were no longer visible without scrolling down.

In the place where the bookmarks used to be, instead was a list of ... what are those things? Oh, I see ... they're all the filesystems listed with "noauto" in my /etc/fstab --the filesystems that aren't mounted unless somebody asks for them, typically by plugging in some piece of hardware.

There are a lot of these. Of course there's one for the CDROM drive (I never use floppies so at some point I dropped that entry). I have another entry for Windows-formatted partitions that show up on USB, like when I plug in a digital camera or a thumb drive. I also have one of those front panel flash card readers with 4 slots, for reading SD cards, memory sticks, compact flash, smart media etc. Each of those shows up as a different device, so I treat them separately and mount SD cards as /sdcard, memory sticks as /stick and so on. In addition, there are entries corresponding to other operating systems installed on this multi-boot machine, and to several different partitions on my external USB backup drive. These are all listed in /etc/fstab with entries like this:

/dev/hdd   /cdrom  udf,iso9660  user,noauto               0  0
/dev/sde1  /pix    vfat         rw,user,fmask=133,noauto  0  0

[Places in the gtk 2.14.4 file selector]

The GTK developers, in their wisdom, have realized that what the file selector really needs to be. I mean, I was just thinking while opening a file in GIMP the other day,

"Browsing image files on filesystems that are actually mounted is so tedious. I wish I could do something else instead, like view my /etc/fstab file to see a list of unmounted filesystems for which I might decide to plug in an external device."

Clicking on one of the unmounted filesystems (even right-clicking!) gives an error:

Could not mount sdcard
mount: special device /dev/sdb1 does not exist
So I guess the intent is that I'll plug in my external drive or camera, then use the gtk file selector from a program like GIMP as the means to mount it. Um ... don't most people already have some way of mounting new filesystems, whether it's an automatic mount from HAL or typing mount in a terminal?

(And before you ask, yes, for the time being I have dbus and hal and fam and gamin and all that crap running.)

The best part

But I haven't even told you the best part yet. Here it is:

If you mount a filesystem manually, e.g. mount /dev/sdb1 /mnt ... it doesn't show up in the list!

So this enormous list of filesystems that's keeping me from seeing my file selector bookmarks ... doesn't even include filesystems that are really there!

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[ 12:59 Mar 14, 2009    More linux | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 10 Mar 2009

Classic cellphone billboard

[anti cell phone law billboard] On 101 southbound a little south of University Ave in Palo Alto, a new billboard cropped up a month or so ago. It says:
Senator Joe Simitian: Your cell phone law sucks.

Well, that's not ALL it says. Actually, it says quite a lot of other stuff. In small print. So much so that if you actually tried to read it, you'd be virtually guaranteed to veer out of your lane and into another car.

I loved it. It's so classic. For anyone who hasn't heard, California has a new law this year that bans talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving. And honestly, who would think that it was possible to read a billboard like this while driving -- except one of those people who veers their SUV into your lane because they're too immersed in their cellphone conversation to pay attention to the road?

(For a better photo or if you actually want to read the text, the LA Times has the billboard story and photo; here's the Mercury news take, with more details on the 75-word message (no photo).)

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[ 21:53 Mar 10, 2009    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 14 Nov 2008

Great Advertising

Usually I just delete spam after seeing the subject line. But I couldn't resist one that arrived this morning:
Subject: You'll be saying WOW every time with ShamWow

Wondering whether the seller was familiar with the meaning of the word "sham", I just had to take a look.

[ Funny shamWOW ad ] I couldn't tell anything from the text -- it was all just random verbiage to try to fool Baysian filters. But the mail also attached two images, img001.png and img002.png. The first was a big grey starburst thing; the second, at 348Kb, was the actual ad (click on it to get the full-sized version; the thumbnail here doesn't do it justice).

There are just so many things to love about this ad, starting with the name "ShamWow" itself. I love the mixture of fonts and bright colors, with the slightly lopsided hourglass shape of the ShamWow! logo. I love the "AS SEEN ON TV" bug -- a charming image that hasn't changed a whit since the 60's, maybe even the 50's. I love the unidentifiable grey and yellow flat things with unreadable text on them -- they look like file folders and folded papers, but they're probably two different colors and sizes of ShamWow -- covered with a square announcing "10 Year [unreadable]", which made me wonder if they were selling auto loans or securities. But if you magnify it you find that the third word is probably "Warranty". I love the presumption that you'll think that 20x the weight of a small cloth object is a lot of water (is it? I have no idea, let me grab a paper towel and a gram scale). I love the blurry red and white "CLICK FOR DETAILS" button.

But what I like best about this image is that it's a PNG but it's full of JPG artifacts. Now, I'm not very picky about jpeg artifacts. (You'd think I would be, as a de-facto GIMP expert, but I'm really not.) I shoot DSLR photos in jpeg rather than raw mode because most of the time the difference just isn't enough for me to care about. I use jpeg for most of the icons on my web site if they don't need transparency, and I lower the jpeg quality level to make them load faster. I'm not a PNG snob (actually, I'm more likely to use GIF than PNG for web icons). But really -- this ad image is a wonderful example of jpeg artifacts and why you can't just turn the quality down arbitrarily far.

I could even understand using extreme jpeg compression because they were sending out a hundred quotillion spam messages and wanted to reduce bandwidth. But they're not sending a jpeg -- they've converted the low-quality JPG back to a 348Kb PNG before sending the spam.

All I can figure is that someone designed the ad and saved it as JPG, making it really small. And then someone in the business saw lbrandy's great cartoon on JPG vs. PNG -- and said "Oh, no! We'd better use PNG instead! And loaded up the JPG and saved it as a PNG with default settings.

(For further reading on PNG vs. JPEG and image file size optimization, you can get an overview of formats at my Image Formats for the Web and some detailed tutorials at the Bandwidth Conservation Society; or chapters 2 and 8 in my GIMP book, soon to be out in its second edition.)

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[ 11:54 Nov 14, 2008    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 22 Aug 2008

College Pays

[Mediun earnings] One of the local community colleges sent out glossy flyers advertising their program, with the tag line "College pays for itself; don't put it off!"

To prove how valuable college can be, they include a helpful table showing the "Mediun earnings" for people with various education levels.

West Valley actually has a decent sciences program, and some other interesting programs like Park Management (ranger training). But I suspect I should stay away from their English and Statistics classes.

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[ 16:47 Aug 22, 2008    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 11 Jul 2008

Paving notice

They're repaving the streets where I live.

[Repavng notice with no time, date or contact info] They left this flyer on our door to alert us. It's good of them to keep us informed.

I guess they don't want us to ask any questions. It's helpful to know where the cars will be safe.

I wonder when we should start parking somewhere else?

[ 14:49 Jul 11, 2008    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 02 Jul 2008

Not a combination I'd think of

There's a store down the road from me that offers an unusual combination of items. It always makes me stop and wonder when I pass by.


It must be my naivety and lack of marketing accumen, but it never would have occurred to me that cigarettes and pure water were two products that ought to be sold side by side.

The most amazing part is that another store just a few blocks away has started offering the same combination! (Though their sign is much less striking.)

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[ 23:56 Jul 02, 2008    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 05 Jun 2008

Quote of the Week

From a BBC story on the wife of France's president:
She said her husband was so bright he appeared to have "five or even six brains".

Raises all kinds of intriguing followup questions, doesn't it?

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[ 21:46 Jun 05, 2008    More headlines | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 29 Mar 2008

Keyboard Cable by Rube Goldberg

Dave and I were helping out with replacing the keyboard on a friend's computer. Isn't it funny how keyboards never come with cables that are quite long enough to go from the front of a desk to the back, down and around to the computer that sits underneath?

This particular desk has a backboard that makes the cable take a more circuitous path than most, and when we unplugged the old keyboard, we discovered that it was plugged in using an extension cord.

[keyboard cable by Rube Goldberg]

And what an extension cord! It's a PS/2 to 5-pin AT plug adaptor ... connected to an AT to AT extension cable ... connected to an AT to PS/2 cable on the other end. Each of the three pieces is yellowed with age, but to three different colors.

Unfortunately the mass spectrometer is on the fritz again so we weren't able to establish accurate Carbon-14 dates for each of the three pieces.

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[ 13:09 Mar 29, 2008    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 20 Feb 2008

A Curious Advertisement

[Ad: Parenting Instincts] I encountered the curious ad (shown at right) in the Sunday paper.

The bold text says: "You use parenting instincts every day. Trust the one that says he's not learning the way he should." The small print isn't any clearer: basically, if your child is having trouble learning and might need a different approach, call this phone number right away.

The image shows a spoon, rubber banded to a toy airplane. The spoon is overflowing with ... what? It looks a little like dog kibble, or possibly deer or rabbit droppings. Or slightly furry peas. All I can tell for sure is that the pieces are dark (perhaps brown) and almost but not quite spherical.

And why has one fallen out? Perhaps the pieces of kibble are metaphorical children. And your child has fallen off the spoon, and won't be getting to go for a ride strapped underneath a jet.

So, parents, if your child seems to be struggling in school and you think he or she may need a different approach to learning, don't let your child fall off the spoon! Put some dogfood in the spoon and rubber-band it to a toy plane! Then call the number. Act now, before it's too late!

Maybe if you call early enough, they'll even let you use their spoon and toy plane.

[ 20:34 Feb 20, 2008    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 06 Dec 2007

Shampoo marketing

[citrus shampoo] I bought a new bottle of shampoo. Like many shampoos, its label tries to promote it as a natural, healthy alternative for natural, healthy hair. To this end, it proclaims that it's "enriched with orange fruit extract and provitamin B5".

Leaving aside the question of "What's provitamin B5 and why should it be good to rub it on the outside of a dead keratin layer?", I like the colorful, natural, healthy looking picture on the front of the bottle.

The picture shows two halves of a sliced orange; a wedge of lime; and ... a watermelon?

Now, I know I'm not a botanist, but somehow I'd been unaware up to now that watermelon was a citrus fruit.

Amazing what you can learn simply from browsing the supermarket aisles!

[ 17:38 Dec 06, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 14 Oct 2007

Handicapped parking

The SF Chronicle's solicited reader comments on San Francisco's new parking meter proposal.

My favorite response:

What about the handicapped cars that get to park for free? That needs to stop.

I'm visualizing the poor cars limping in on their flat tires and wobbly CV joints, motors puffing blue smoke ... and then they finally find a place to rest, and ... dang, no hands to put coins in the meter!

[ 23:50 Oct 14, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 10 Oct 2007

Safeway Math

The local Safeway has an interesting exercise in applied consumer mathematics in the sugar aisle.

[sugar cube price comparison]

Sugar cubes come in two sizes. You can get a one-pound box for $1.68, or a two-pound box for $3.86. Of course, the larger size is always a better bargain, right?

Let's check that. 1.68 times two is ... carry the one ... $3.36. Compare to $3.86 for the two-pound box ... um, why exactly should anyone buy the two-pound box instead of two one-pound boxes?

But you don't even have to do the math yourself. Safeway has already calculated the price per ounce and helpfully provides shelf tags giving you the numbers:

[1 lb price] [2 lb price]

You might think this is a one-time oddity, but it's actually been the case for at least a year. In fact, several months ago the price premium for the 2 lb box over the 1 lb actually increased. I guess plenty of consumers are jumping at the chance to buy sugar cubes in the large economy size.

[ 16:29 Oct 10, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 14 Sep 2007

Science Complex

The new semester started last week. I'm taking a class that's held in a new building:

[Science Complex]

When Dave first saw the building, he laughed. "No wonder they're complaining that fewer students are taking science and math classes -- they're sending the wrong message! They ought to call it 'Science Simple'. Then they'd get lots of students signing up."

[ 22:12 Sep 14, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 21 Aug 2007

Oh, you wanted to use your LCD monitor at one pixel per pixel?

Dave and I are helping my mom shop for a new computer to drive a 22-inch widescreen monitor, 1680x1050 (long story, more on that later). This is how we find ourselves in Circuit City staring at a candidate PC on the lower shelf running a 19-inch widescreen at 1440x900. Unfortunately that's not the resolution we were hoping to check.

There's an unplugged 22-inch LCD on the shelf right above it, just like the one we're trying to get working. A salesguy comes by and ask if we have any questions, so I ask him, "Is there any way we can plug that monitor into this computer to see if it works?" and explain our mission.

He's amenable, and plugs it in, but Windows doesn't notice the new monitor. I try Display Settings but it's still maxed out at 1440x900.

I ask the salesguy, "Can we try rebooting or something? Maybe that'll make Windows see it."

He looks puzzled. "But it's already running a widescreen monitor."

I point to the Display Settings window. "But it's only running at 1440x900, and that's the most it'll let us use."

He says, "Oh, you wanted to run that 22-inch at full resolution?"

Me: "Well, yeah."

Salesguy: "But ... then your text will be small!"

[ 11:42 Aug 21, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 27 Jul 2007

Hydration Research

I don't usually spend a lot of time reading the sides of Diet Coke cartons, but maybe I should. There's some good scholarly writing there. For instance, did you know that, according to the Diet Coke carton,

[Coke's hydration research]

"It's true. Research shows that all beverages contribute to proper hydration. That means [ ... ] Diet Coke helps you stay hydrated all day long."

I'm visualizing a big laboratory full of spectacled scientists in white lab coats, cages full of lab rats with hanging water bottles filled with hundreds of different beverages. The sign outside the building says "School of Hydration Science".

I wonder which journals publish the peer-reviewed hydration research papers?

Non-diet Coke cartons have almost the same note, except they leave out the "Research shows" part. I wonder if that means the lab rats didn't stay properly hydrated with regular Coke, so they had to toss those data points out of the final paper?

[ 20:24 Jul 27, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 10 Jul 2007

A Fast Paste Environment

I got email from a recruiter yesterday alerting me to opportunities for "Engineers who are interested to work in a fast paste environment with talented and passionate people!"

The email came from a reputable place and was well targeted, not random spam like a lot of recruiter email. I don't know, though ... It's good that they're talented and passionate, but I've seen (and debugged) code that resulted from fast pastes, and the result is often not pretty. I think I'd prefer to work in a place where they designed the code from scratch rather than just pasting it quickly.

[ 15:52 Jul 10, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 08 Jun 2007

Artificial Hand

What's up with portable radios that get great reception when your hand is on them moving them around, but the minute you let go, the static comes back?

I have a great business idea: some entrepeneur should make an artificial hand you can drape over your radio to get that effect to stay.

(Please no one mail me explaining capacitance. And in fact, it turns out it works pretty well to lean a long metal bar against the wall next to the radio. But I bet people would buy an artificial hand antenna anyway!)

[ 12:59 Jun 08, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 27 Apr 2007

Gnome Knows Best

"Would you take a look at this?" my husband asked. I glanced over -- he was on the Gnome desktop on his newly-installed Debian Etch system, viewing some of his system icons with pho. Specifically, an xchat icon, an X with some text across it.

"So?" I shrugged.

He pointed to his panel. "But it's really using that icon." A little yellow happy-face-with-blob thing.

He right-clicked on the panel icon and brought up a dialog. "See, it should be using /usr/share/pixmaps/xchat.png. Now, I run pho /usr/share/pixmaps/xchat.png ..." And sure enough, the image it said it was using wasn't the image it was actually putting in the panel.

That jogged a memory. "That happened to me once back when I used Gnome. Try a locate xchat | grep png. I think it was using an icon from somewhere else -- that might find it for you."

Sure enough, there were several xchat png images on his system. I suggested going one step further, and actually viewing all of them:

pho `locate xchat | grep png`

We stepped through the images, and sure enough, we found the icon he was seeing. It was at /usr/share/icons/gnome/32x32/apps/xchat.png (with a larger sibling at /usr/share/icons/gnome/48x48/apps/xchat.png).

Good of Gnome to pretend let the user customize the icon location, even though it actually doesn't bother to use the icon specified there! At least you get a nice feeling of empowerment from pretending to choose the icon.

Later in the day, continuing to fiddle with the desktop settings, Dave burst out laughing. "You've got to see this. It's so Gnome." When I saw it, I had to laugh too. You may think you know what you want, but Gnome knows better! If you've ever tried to customize Gnome, you'll laugh, too, when you see the short video we took of it: Gnome knows best (764K).

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[ 19:21 Apr 27, 2007    More linux | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 17 Mar 2007

A New Open Source Adventure

[The Last Mimzy] I opened the paper and immediately noticed the ad at right.

The ad doesn't include any plot details, but I didn't need them after seeing the ad.

Obviously this must be a movie about two children who boldly install Debian Linux on the family PC, and the adventures that ensue.

Indeed, a check of the official web site -- which I can only read with View Page Source because otherwise all I see is whines about needing Flash 8 -- contains the following synopsis:

Based on the acclaimed science fiction short story by Lewis Padgett, The Last Mimzy tells the story of two children who discover a mysterious box that contains some strange devices they think are toys. As the children play with these 'toys,' they begin to display higher and higher intelligence levels. Their teacher tells their parents that they seem to have grown beyond genius.

Cool, finally a Linux movie! (You can see the Debian logo at Wikimedia if you're not already familiar with it.)

[ 21:57 Mar 17, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 13 Mar 2007

Appropriate Starch

Holder's County Inn, a local diner chain, has new menus. All dinner entrees now come with choice of soup or salad, fresh vegetables, and "appropriate starch."

Invoking Dave Barry, I thought, wouldn't that be a great name for a band?

Or perhaps a phrase to save for fiction writing. "Sir," she replied with appropriate starch, "your participles are dangling."

[ 11:36 Mar 13, 2007    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 26 Jul 2006

Math Skills

I just got back from the local Safeway, where a one-pound box of sugar cubes costs $1.49.

A two-pound box, same brand, is $3.99.

What a deal!

Even better, the two-pound price is up: it used to be $3.49 a few months ago (no change in the one-pound price).

I guess too many people were jumping on that incredible $3.49 deal, so they had to raise it.

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[ 17:25 Jul 26, 2006    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 09 Jul 2006


On my wall I have a calendar with pretty pictures of wolves, and assorted wolf facts for each month. July features a wolf howling. In the lists of facts is:
If conditions are right a wolf's howl can carry 10 miles / 16.09 kilometers.

I wonder why wolves are so much more precise when they're howling in metric?

[ 18:09 Jul 09, 2006    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 07 Jul 2006

Carrot Nanotubes

I put a "baby carrot" out on the door ledge to see if the squirrels might like it. (In summer, we're not getting many squirrel visits. There must be something pretty yummy growing in the neighborhood. Notch comes by every second or third day, eats a few pieces of walnut then waits expectantly for take-up (a whole walnut she can take away and bury). A male youngster we suspect is Notch's also comes by every day or two, to eat a few nuts and drink water. We haven't seen Nonotchka for months, and I fear the worst.)

Turns out squirrels have zero interest in carrots. We put the carrotlet into the nut dish and forgot about it for a few days, and discovered something interesting: carrot raisins!

[carrot nanotube]

Turns out carrots are mostly water, and they shrink even more than grapes when you let them dry out.

I'm going to let it dry out some more and see what happens. I'm hoping for fame and fortune as the first person to create carrot nanotubes.

[ 10:32 Jul 07, 2006    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 07 Jan 2006

Who Says GIMP Skills Can't be Profitable?

Slate's "Today's Papers" column brings us word of a Wall Street Journal article (alas, subscribers-only) describing a new service: Friends Beyond the Wall Photos. For a small fee, an image from a prison photo can be combined with photos of families, vacations, or posh cars to make it look like you've been on holiday with the kids rather than behind bars! No more need to explain why those visiting room photos have such a drab background!

And here I thought learning GIMP skills was just an amusing hobby.

[ 21:41 Jan 07, 2006    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 07 Jun 2005

Zeno's Stump

A house down the street just sold. It had an interesting large tree in the front yard, some sort of yucca: an odd looking desert tree with several thick branching trunks, spiky bayonet leaves and sometimes big clumps of white flowers.

The new owners apparently didn't like the stark desert tree. No sooner had the For Sale signs come down than a crew was at work with chainsaws.

The upper parts of the trunks, and all the foliage, were quickly cut off and tossed in the street. Then the real chainsaw games began.

It turns out that the trunks of this tree (at least four trunks, connected at the base) are each quite a bit larger in diameter than a chainsaw's blade. Even going from both sides, a chainsaw can't really cut through them.

It's been a couple of weeks since the top bits of the yucca tree got dragged away. Every day, we hear chainsaws in the late morning, and chainsaws again for a while in the afternoon, as workers whittle at the tops and edges of the stump containing the bases of the four trunks. Every time I go by, the stump has gotten a little smaller: a few inches here, a few inches there. Chips and slivers of wood join the pile in the street by the curb. Hand saws and axes sit wedged at strategic places in the stump.

I'm finally seeing Zeno's Paradox in action. You remember Zeno's paradox? You're trying to get from A to B in a finite time: so first you must go half the distance, which also takes a finite time. But to do that, you must first go half that distance; and since you can divide the distances in half infinitely, you can never get to the finishing line, because it would take an infinite number of finite time intervals.

The pile of wood by the curb gets larger every time I look.

And yet ... somehow Zeno's Stump doesn't look any smaller.

[ 22:09 Jun 07, 2005    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 19 Feb 2005

Me, as an icon

Me! From the Abi-Station Icon generator.

[ 19:40 Feb 19, 2005    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 19 Nov 2004

Bentonite Magma!

Reading the ingredients on a bottle of calamine lotion turned up something interesting.

Funny, it didn't feel quite that hot going on!

(And yes, calamine implies that my earlier comment about poison oak being gone only means that the visible leaves are gone. Oops! Current theory is that it happened when Dave touched the baby newt while moving it off the trail, and that the newt had been crawling in poison oak. Though it's slightly possible that it could have been the newt itself: it turns out that California newts are indeed poisonous, though only if you eat them. From that page: When a predator approaches the newt strikes a warning posture showing its brightly colored underside. This is a warning that the newt is poisonous. If the predator continues the newt will secrete white milky oil out of the skin on its back. If the predator eats the newt, the predator will die quickly from the poison. The newt will then crawl back out of the animal's mouth and continue on its way. )

Unrelated to newts or poison oak is another humorous picture I took a while ago and have been meaning to upload: No Swimming.

[ 11:55 Nov 19, 2004    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 17 Aug 2004

Windows XP Starter Edition

The new XP Starter Edition only allows three apps to run simultaneously.

Do viruses and spyware count toward your limit?

"We're sorry, but you can't log in, because you've already reached your process limit."

[ 19:40 Aug 17, 2004    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 19 Jul 2004

Great joke from Yosh

Q: What's the difference between Kerry and bin Laden?

A: Bush is willing to cut short his August vacation to stop Kerry.

[ 10:34 Jul 19, 2004    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 10 Jul 2004


Carla (I think it was Carla, anyway, under a differnt nick) got foulmouthed on #debian-women tonight. She was quoting a line from a doggerel song:
When you're sliding into home, and your pants are full of foam, diarrhea.
I thought that was gross, so I countered with:
When you wish your bird was blue, and there's nothing left to do, dye a rhea.
Later, she posted another line:
When you're running up to first, and your stomach's going to burst, diarrhea.
So I countered with
When you need to make a plot, and Illustrator you have not, dia free-a.

[ 21:00 Jul 10, 2004    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]