Birthdays, Knowledge, and Never Enough Time

At my age, with birthdays often come reflections. Sometimes the reflections have value – “What will I do tomorrow?”. And sometimes they are like all philosophical BS…essentially zero value: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “How do I know I exist?”

You know…useless claptrap.

no oreilly

Academy Award winner for Best BS

There is Useful knowledge: how to drive, change a tire, figure out a tip, tie your shoe, do you taxes, run a meeting, etc. And then there is Useless knowledge: how many died in the US Civil War?, how long did Ramesses II reign?, what is the latest nonsense to come out of Donald Trump’s mouth?, what is the correct ignition timing be on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet, with a 327 cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor? (Hint: that last one is a bullshit question, it’s impossible to answer!)

Useful knowledge is something that you can use that has value beyond your meager existence. Useless knowledge may be of interest to you, but really, in the grand scheme of life, has essentially no value. I have lots of curiosities that fall into the Useless knowledge category. My interests are eclectic, and admittedly rarely Useful But sometimes Knowledge in the two categories can cross to the other side: someday, me knowing how to drive will become Useless. And knowing which early hominid skeleton was discovered in Olduvai Gorge might gain me notoriety in Trivial Pursuit, thus being quite Useful … for a few seconds.

Library_booksAnyway, I don’t write much anymore. Bam. Where’d that come from? Well, I came to the realization that I am 55 (actually…I know that…just had a birthday…but for consideration purposes…) and currently average reading about 100 books per year – some may be re-reads, but most are not. If I live another 40 years, that only gives me 4,000 books left to me to read! Panic!

So I made a temporal choice…temporary, I’m sure…to focus my “unoccupied” time of reading instead of writing. It’s not that I don’t have thoughts I want to record…far from that…I’m constantly narrating in my mind multiple many new blog posts. Not just the narrating, of course… there is always a LOT going on in my head! Multiple tracks. But there is simply not enough time that I am willing to spare to writing those thoughts out.

I try to not say the hoary “I don’t have enough time.” I could have enough time…I just choose to not use it for writing yet. And, in my current mind, that is a “yet”. Obviously, I’m writing now! But I’m busy gathering Useless knowledge: Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin, The Beer Bible by Jeff Alworth, re-memorizing how to calculate the day of the week for any date (easier than it seems…)


And working on some temporarily Useful knowledge: re-writing construction contract templates for my employer, learning how to best vacuum my pond, contemplating what “55” means to me…

Okay…that last one’s Useless.

Maybe I will write some more. Or maybe I’ll get back to reading amidst the multitudinous activities of my life. Meanwhile, this is so not my problem…!

25 Things About Me … Revisited

For Groundhog Day 2016, Facebook’s “On This Day” app showed me a note I posted on February 2, 2009. I’ve decided to share it here, unedited (though I want to) and add some 2016 updates in blue italics:
1. I am a geek – no surprise there. I am fascinated by gadgets, technology, you name it, though I don’t set enough time aside to follow up on those interests. And despite the uber-geek in me, I haven’t made the switch to Linux.
Steampunk brain[2016: Now I also like Steampunk…not a big leap there. But still no Linux. One challenging techno-problem came from replacing the battery in my son’s iPod Touch: 27 steps down and 26 back with the micro-est soldering I have ever done…I messed up the screen, but it still worked. Love to hate on CrApple.]
2. I am a coffee snob. I grind my dark roast beans and use an Aeropress for the absolute best coffee. I drink it black unless I’m either making a latte or out in the world and all they have is Bunn-made engine cleaning fluid. I’m not a connoisseur; I don’t like to spend $30 per pound, though I wonder if that would make a difference. I’d love to try to roast my own, but that’s a bit over the top.
aeropress[2016: Still haven’t roasted my own. My current go-to is an organic Sumatra dark roast from Costco…$16/lb. And I got a new Aeropress in December 2015 because it turns out that the one I was using for 12 years was not BPA-free, though their lab tests showed no leeching.]
3. I have ADD (ADHD without the H?). We discovered that when we were diagnosing our son. I just learned to cope on my own over the years (lots of coffee), but it helps sometimes in a job that has a lot of things going on at once.
[2016: The research keeps shifting. Now I don’t know. Nah. I know.]
4. I miss the military. Seems strange, but it was a part of my life for so long. Miss it, but I’m glad I’m not in it anymore.
[2016: I still miss it, but not as much; mostly when the Fire Rescue Specialists take it on themselves to renovate part of a station or mess with the thermostats. That’s brings the sailor mouth out of me.]
5. I can’t speak any languages other than English. Tried. Brain just doesn’t hold it. Makes me really appreciate those who speak English as second language because I can’t speak theirs.
[2016: I took a Spanish course last year. My pronunciation is apparently very good. My memory for it isn’t.]
6. Perhaps related, I seem to have a disconnect when it comes to music lyrics – I don’t hear them unless I concentrate. I can listen to a song for 20 years and suddenly think, “Hey, I just realized what Tone Loc’s saying in Wild Thing.” Probably why I like classical so much.
[2016: Classical is almost always what I listen to in the car. Sometimes NPR. Mostly classical.]
7. I’m still in love with my wife after 23 years; she’s the wisest person I know. I wouldn’t be where I am without her. And I’m immensely proud of all our sons.
[2016: It’ll be 30 years for us this March and every day is a great day. She’s still the one. And now I have daughters and grandchildren to be proud of with our family growing.]
8. I used to be a music bigot – only liked rock. Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate all kinds of music; I just don’t consider country or rap, well, music.
[2016: Still don’t. But I’ve added DJ for DFW Homeschool Teen Dances to my body of work, and have learned to listen to a lot outside my comfort zone. Sometimes the requests make my ears bleed…think electronic dance music/dubstep…]
9. I’m not religious and haven’t been for a long time. It never made sense and when I finally admitted to myself (after lots of research) that it never could make sense, I accepted free will and reason as my “guides.”
[2016: The “free will” thing was a leftover. Something that intuitively obvious shouldn’t need a special label, so… it’s not part of my vocabulary any more. Even if Kahneman is right. I’ve probably read more about religion – not just Christianity…flavors of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism – and more of their own books than most practitioners. I am a humanist.]
10. I like books – we have more than 5,000. Yes, I’ve heard of libraries, but I like to own books I like.
[2016: Well…there’s a bit of sad irony there in re-reading that bullet.  More than 5,800 were lost to smoke damage from a fire on July 31st, 2013. All but 19 that I managed to salvage (one of those is with a friend in St. Louis now), and a couple of boxes of pre-school books that were in the farthest attic, are gone. I’ve replaced some, but too many were irreplaceable. Several hundred had my margin notes. But I still like books.]
11. I regret three things (that I’m willing to share) – two are selling my TR-6 and not taking the PE. The former for the reasons I sold it, which were moot soon after (girlfriend hated it …and then me.) The latter, because while I don’t need credentials to prove my worth, it’s still hanging out there as something not done. The third? Voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980 instead of John Anderson because I didn’t think John had a chance. I never told anyone before – too embarrassed.
[2016: I took the PE in 2010 after studying for four months, and passed the first time – in a discipline different than my degrees. It was easier to learn civil engineering than it was to relearn mechanical. So one less (public) regret.]
12. Of all the medals I received in the Navy, I am most proud of my second Good Conduct Medal, because that means I did more than 8 years enlisted.
13. Chick flicks are okay. I don’t understand any guy who’s threatened by them. Oh, I like scifi, action, thrillers, dramas, (well-written) comedies and more too. Gore…not. Apparently I’m also one of the few that doesn’t think Jim Carrey or Steve Carell is funny.
[2016: I think Steve Carell made me laugh a couple of years ago.]
Pond plants Sept 17th 201314. I hate heat. Yeah, I live in Texas. But then so does my wife and I really like being with her!
[2016: In 2013, a few months before the fire, we converted our pool to a pond. I’m much happier now. Some of the $0.20 comets are now about 8 inches long!]
15. I used to program IBM and Univac mainframe computers in assembly code. I also wrote code for cutting edge virtual reality work at UConn, but passed on continuing because I wasn’t into hardware. Always wonder where that would have led.
16. I went 21 years before owning a king-size bed. And I really like high thread count sheets. It’s the small things (or big things when you count the bed).
[2016: Kind of liking microfiber sheets now. The bed back then was a Sleep Number. Now we have a Tempur-Pedic. Some days I think the old one was better. Some days I think this one, which is good because it’s the one we have.]
17. A senior officer at a mandatory fun social gathering once bought me a “Black”. As in Johnny Walker Black. I drink espresso and that is better than “Black”. When he wasn’t looking, I poured it in his glass, and he never noticed.
18. I’ve been profiled. I flew back to DC in December 2001 for a meeting. At each stop my luggage was searched and at JFK, they called several (Arabic sounding) names to see the gate agent before boarding, but waved me through when they looked at me.
19. Food is not important to me. I sometimes forget to eat, then don’t draw the connection when I’m light headed.
[2016: To be sure, I do like good tasting food.]
20. Chocolate, however, is another story. And the absolute best chocolate in the world is See’s. There is no discussion.
[2016: I should qualify that…the best commercially available. We’ve found some awesome chocolates made here in the metroplex, Dude, Sweet Chocolate being one of the very best.]
21. I hate the word “tolerance” when used in its social context. It implies superiority and most people don’t see that.
[2016: It’s worse now.]
22. Pet peeve – ATM machines, PIN numbers and the like. I just have a knack for picking up multiple double %*#@&^ redundancies .
[2016: add inappropriate apostophe’s]
23. On the way to Mardi Gras in 1985, I got pulled over by Gulfport MS police after waiting three hours in a parking lot for my buddy Chad’s (now bro-in-law) girlfriend. They gave me a breathalyzer that came up 0.00. Chad gave me a hard time for “sir’ing him a lot”. I told him: Yankee accent, Connecticut plates, Navy haircut in the deepest South you can get (right on the water of the Gulf) – no way I was going to be anything but “sir’ing him.”
24. I just missed meeting Pete Townsend, Roger Daltry and John Entwhistle of The Who when they stopped in at the McDonalds I was working at in 1980. I was on my break in the back, and the girl up front was too shocked to think to get me.
25. I once drove more than 135 mph in that TR-6 from #13 (mine didn’t look as good as the one in the pic). Top down and no roll bar – youth can be so stupid.
[2016: one of the edits I wanted…it should read #11. Must have shuffled them around back in 2009. I couldn’t underline “more than” either. As the original FB note embedded photo was only 7 kb, I’ll share this to show what I was talking about. Sadly…not me. Of course, I’d only be able to drive it with the top down when the weather is right in Texas. But I sure would drive it both days! Maybe even sort of fast.]

1971 TR-6

On “The Martian”, in both forms…

Martian movie posterLet me first say that I did enjoy Ridley Scott’s rendition of Andy Weir’s The Martian. It was one of the rare ones that didn’t scream at my normally_rubbed-raw-by-incessant_incongruities senses.

I don’t usually care about book or movie reviews beyond a mild curiosity, but this one on practically demands a response for its absurdity. Dan Kois says “Andy Weir’s The Martian gets the science right but leaves out what matters most.” Really? Not seeing that.

I found Mr. Kois’ review to be ridiculous on numerous points. He opens up his article with the comment that the film is “exciting and funny”. He says that one of the chief flaws of the book corrected in the movie was that the book had a “fanatic need to show its work“. Kois rightly observes that the movie “for the most part, zips along engagingly at a level similarly close to the surface”, but he’s right for the wrong reason. He likes that director Ridley Scott had “Matt Damon’s face, which in its expressiveness in moments of action connects us emotionally to Watney.” Among other observations, Kois mourns the book’s lack of “foreverness of our universe”, though acknowledges that the book was not aiming to convey that. Finally, Kois bemoans that The Martian is “a novel about outer space that never gives even a moment to the concept of the infinite.” These are the nits I choose to pick.

calculationsTo his credit, Kois admits that just because he doesn’t like the calculations or seemingly endless problem solving, there isn’t a place for them, nor are the fans wrong. And yet, he still had a problem with Weir showing his work. I found them to be integral to the story, and appreciated Weir’s efforts to get things right.

Kois says that “The Hab was intact (yay!) and the MAV was gone (boo!)” is not something someone would say, and claims that it reduces human emotion to “binary code”. He is right in that isn’t something someone would say, but he does not disclose that Watney did not say that – he thought it, which is more likely. I am confused as to how that can be construed to reduce human emotion, but Kois is entitled to his opinion. Taking that reduction further, Kois likens Wier’s Watney to a “stick figure”. I certainly did not see that either. And I might number among the minority, but the movie didn’t engage me to identify with the main character as much as the book did. Matt Damon is a skilled actor but the book was orders of magnitude superior – the screenplay and direction left Damon with little to work with. The rest of the cast are sadly, “stick figures”.

Again, lest I be misunderstood, the movie was an entertaining envisioning of the book. Still, in contrast to Kois’ assessment that the film was “exciting”, save for a brief scene in the beginning, I found the movie to be quite slow and uninspiring – completely opposite of the book. I must disclose that I actually snoozed during part of it! In my eyes, the book is eminently funnier than the movie. You’ll just have to read it to see. (I’m trying to recall a humorous moment in the movie but can’t – even Watney’s frustration with the Commander’s music choices is woodenly delivered.)

Martian book coverBack to Weir’s calculations, they pretty much had to be left out of the movie. But in print, they kept me (awake and) engaged. Contrary to an implication I’m probably reading into Kois’ review, I thought the calculations made the book more human, more exciting, and more accessible. Without them, Scott’s product delivers flat, shallow characters with no stories, and presents a superficial treatment riding “close to the surface”. I agree with Kois on that, but obviously not for the reasons he implies.

As to a concept of the infinite, the movie fails miserably where the novel succeeds. Not exactly “infinite”, but those pesky calculations convey the magnitude of the distance to be traveled to the Ares 4 landing site, the impact of food shortage, well…a whole freaking lot. The movie never conveyed (unless when I was dozing) the issue of caloric deprivation that those calculations provided and the dire circumstances of the travel to the other landing site.

The movie is one of the best science fiction movies made. The book (impossible dust storm as a cliche plot device not withstanding) is, as usually is the case, much better. You can skim the best parts if you want and not miss out on the story.

Ridley Scott did. And I’m guessing Dan Kois did.

Great movie…better book…and then there’s Marvin…

Reader’s Block

LibraryI used to be obsessed with books.

In addition to getting books I wanted when I wanted them,  I would comb the bargain sections of thrift stores or infrequently, yards sales to see if I could find an unappreciated treasure. A first edition; a signed copy; a reasonably rare edition…

I usually found more than I could read at one time and they stacked up, always with a hopeful thought of someday getting to them… An unfortunate fire in 2013 “cured” me, if one can be cured, or more to the point…wants to be cured. I can now see books and more books … and more books… and not feel the need to have them. The realization that I have maybe 4,000 or so left to me in my lifetime is sobering, and I find a need to choose what I read more critical. I still like books, and having crossed over to the e-version side, it’s so much easier to have more than one on the currently reading list.

Now, strangely enough, there are rare times when I can’t get into anything. I have three non-fiction books I’m reading now – one  an “assigned reading” for a management seminar, and the other two choices – and a couple of non-fiction as well as half a dozen others I’ve picked up and just don’t want to read now. classic_film_countdown_agif_by_angrydogdesigns-d3akwk4Chalk it up to foggy brain or fatigue, nothing seems to be able to grab and hold my attention for the past few days. It’s happened before, and is no less disconcerting now than in the past, particularly with that awareness of a ticking countdown. Sometimes it takes extremely simple reading to break the wall – YA fiction, juvenile fiction, things written on the same level of juvenile fiction (50 Shades and anything by George R. R. Martin come to mind), but sometimes even mindless reads like E. L. James or Martin don’t quite work.

I hope that a little rest and maybe a Tom Swift or a Clive Cussler can get me back on track sooner than letting this run its course.