Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

After finishing 1984 I had a simple goal for my next book: find one that doesn't give me nightmares. Is that too much to ask? I clicked over to the popular fiction section at our library's eBooks collection and went hunting for my next book. I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (TGWTDT) by Steig Larsson was available. That book was popular, wasn't it? I decided to give it a try.

Alas, I failed: while TGWTDT was quite readable, it was also quite disturbing (though in a different way then 1984).

Everything about TGWTDT seems to be taken to the extreme. There's extreme violence (especially against women). Extreme revenge. Extreme closure. Even the plot is detailed to extreme. Is this a book about the ethics of the publishing world? A women trying to struggle against society's norms? A love story? A hunt for a murderer? A cold case mystery? A tale of corporate greed and excess? Yes. Steig Larsson, like Eric Larson apparently can't help but include intense detail in his books. This makes for a story that's a little tedious to get into, but once I was hooked, I couldn't put it down.

It's odd, I've still got mixed feelings about the book as to whether I liked it or not. I certainly found some of the plot lines riveting, and I suppose the thoroughness of the character development worked for me. At first, all the Swedish names and places through me off, but by the end of the book, I had most of it sorted out. But, I'm bothered by how cliche some of book turned out to be. And there's no denying it, the book was too brutal for my tastes (it did have the original title Men Who Hate Women, which shows where the book's head is at.)

In the end, I'll chalk this up to a book I enjoyed but wouldn't recommend. And I made the mistake of watching the movie trailer; yeesh. I should have known better. I had images of all the characters in my head, and I didn't need to corrupt them with Hollywood's interpretation of the book. (Not to mention, how could you possibly pack a book of this ridiculous scope into one movie? And why would you bother to try?).

I will say that it gives me hope that Larrson's trilogy is a best seller. This is anything but a quick read, and to know that people stick with it gives me hope in society.

Still, one book from the trilogy will be enough, thank you very much.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Space Inspired Goodies - Problem Solving, That Moment, and One Heck of a Good View

A few Space related stories I've stumbled upon of late...

Problem Solving, Astronaut Style

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Apollo 13 is when a team of engineers has to figure out how to solve a CO2 crisis threatening to kill the crew:

As Apollo 13 sped toward Earth, mission control was beginning to worry about a new problem. While the lunar module had enough spare oxygen to accommodate Swigert as well as the intended lunar module crew of Lovell and Haise, carbon dioxide was beginning to build up. Normally lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters absorbed the gas from the air and prevented it from reaching dangerous levels, but the canisters onboard the Aquarius were being overwhelmed. The Odyssey had more than enough spare LiOH canisters onboard, but these canisters were square and couldn't fit into the holes intended for the lunar modules' round canisters.

Mission control needed a way to put a square peg into a round hole. Fortunately, as with the lunar module activation sequence, somebody was ahead of the game.

As reported in Lost Moon, Lovell's book about the Apollo 13 mission (cowritten by Jeffery Kluger; republished as Apollo 13), Ed Smylie, one of the engineers who developed and tested life support systems for NASA, had recognized that carbon dioxide was going to be a problem as soon as he heard the lunar module was being pressed into service after the explosion.

For two days straight since then, his team had worked on how to jury-rig the Odyssey's canisters to the Aquarius's life support system. Now, using materials known to be available onboard the spacecraft--a sock, a plastic bag, the cover of a flight manual, lots of duct tape, and so on--the crew assembled Smylie's strange contraption and taped it into place. [See photo, Breathing Easy]. Carbon dioxide levels immediately began to fall into the safe range. Mission control had served up another miracle.

Best of all, the story is true. Now that's problem solving.

Recently, I caught Michael Massimino telling a Moth Story about his own problem solving in space. It's not quite as life and death as the C02 crisis with Apollo 13, but it still shows all the great hallmarks of a good space hack: there's a team working feverishly at home, lots of improvisation, and at the end of the day, a couple of fearless astronauts need to pull it all off. A great listen.

That Moment When Impossible Stops Being Impossible

My Brother passed me this video: How do we measure the distance of stars?. It's a well done and includes a great explanation to a tricky problem. But what I truly love about the video takes places 2 minutes and 39 seconds in. Seriously, hit play on the video below, skip to 1 minute 40 seconds or so and sit back and watch:

Did you catch that? That's the moment when the questioner goes from thinking something is impossible (measuring the distance to a star) to realizing it's totally possible. I adore that feeling. For me, it frequently happens when I'm debugging. The software's doing something it absolutely, positively can not do. And then it all clicks, and in an instant I realize that I was wrong.

If you don't have a pursuit that gives you this opportunity to be so wrong, and then so right, then you're missing out. It's a rush.

The Earth, Live and on TV

Curious what an astronaut sees when he looks out the window? Sure you are. Just head over to NASA's HDEV page.

Here's the feed now:


Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

If you visit this page, you can get audio to accompany the video. The audio is apparently chit-chat between the crew and mission control. I caught a random conversation about dumping urine. Hey, gotta pee in space, too. Definitely a great resource.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Beauty in 15 Random Bits

I found this approach to generating random, yet pleasing looking images to be just too cool not to fiddle with. The developer behind Invader.Fractal has put together a slick demonstration of what happens when you randomlly fill out a 15 bit grid and then mirror it in rendered form.

Using the concept, I whipped up a bit of JavaScript code to do the same thing. You can find that code here, and you can see it in action by visiting this page. Here's a screenshot of my toy page in action:

I'm a fan of the power simplistic images can hold but even I never imaged that such a simple algorithm could give life to such interesting characters.

Thanks to Christian Kellermann's post, which pointed me to Invader.Fractal in the first place.

Gillette - The Best a Traveling Man Can Get

When it comes to shaving, I think every individual has a responsibility to at least try shaving with a double bladed safety razor. Compared to the latest Gillette gizmo based razor, they are dirt cheap (how about a 2 year supply of blades for $13.00) and wicked sharp. Sure, you may not like a safety razor, but it's only marketing mind games that are keeping you from trying them.

But, there's a context where safety razor greatness fails: travel. Those single edged razor blades are a no-no through TSA. Incidentally, even blades I've been using for a week or longer are still incredibly sharp, and tossing them in the trash feels like a waste. At some point, I'm going to have to figure out a use for all those used blades (throwing stars may be a bit much).

Anyway, when I travel, my safety razor stays at home. Sure, I could bring the shaver and pick up blades at my destination, but that seems like a hassle I don't need.

For travel, I like to bring along my aging Gillette Sensor Excel. The Sensor Excel was apparently introduced in the early 1990's, so this bad boy is considered Old School. As such, it's compact and bell and whistle free. No ergonomic design here, or batteries required; just a basic handle that takes a basic 2 blade cartridge.

Normally, I wouldn't be making such a fuss about an outdated razor, but I was excited to find that another company, Tri-Flexxx is making blades for this handle. I was able to buy 24 cartridge at a reasonable price tag ($1.20 each, versus say $2.60 or $4.25 for cutting edge tech). Because I only use these for travel, and even our longest trips only use up one cartridge, this 24 pack should last and last.

Here's what the setup looks like in use:

It's official, the Sensor Excel is my favorite travel razor. It's compact, affordable and gives a solid shave. What more could I ask for?

Incidentally, I don't bother to carry shaving cream when I travel. I'll typically use the freebie shampoo to shave with (and wash clothes with, too). And if that's not an option, I'll scrounge up some other option (check the Net, there are tones of options: conditioner, baby oil, olive oil, even peanut butter). Leaving the shaving cream at home means one less thing to carry in the Dopp Kit or worry about passing through security.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Black Squirrels in Arlington - Blame (or Thank) Canada

This past Shabbat, as I was walking home from shul with a relative newcomer to the area, we saw a black squirrel. I started to relay a story that my Brother had recently told me about their origin, but quickly realized I verify what the heck I was saying before I started spreading it as fact. So here's what we know about black squirrels in the area:

In a nutshell: Where did Washington’s black squirrels come from?

They came from Canada, specifically from Rondeau Provincial Park, a peninsula in Morpeth, Ontario, that juts like a uvula into Lake Erie.

The first batch of black squirrels — eight in number — was sent to the National Zoo in 1902 by Thomas W. Gibson, Ontario’s superintendent for parks. Smithsonian secretary Samuel P. Langley, in his report to Congress that year, wrote that the squirrels were accepted “in exchange,” and, indeed, checking Canadian records, Answer Man discovered that Rondeau park received an unspecified number of gray squirrels from the Smithsonian. (They are “doing nicely,” reported park caretaker Isaac Gardiner.)

We also know that the squirrels were released into the "northwestern part of the zoo."

The juicy bits of the story appear be lost to history. Mainly: was the exchange done for scientific reasons, or was it pure hubris? And was the introduction intended to spread outside the zoo, or was that an oops?

In the end, the National Zoo got lucky. The squirrels do well here, living in peace with their gray neighbors and haven't upset the ecosystem in a significant way.

But that's not something we should take for granted. Lest we forget the lesson of Thomas Austin who in 1859 wrote this off hand comment about another fluffy creature he thought would be a good idea to introduce into his neighborhood:

"The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting."

And thus started Australia's famous Rabbit outbreak. By 1900 the rabbits had reached plague proportions, with the country scrambling to figure out how to contain the problem. One novel (ridiculous?) solution: build the world's longest rabbit fence (yeah, this failed). In the end, biological warfare did the trick, with the myxomatosis virus being strategically used to wipe out 99.98% of the rabbit population (without harming humans or other species - wow!).

So yeah, the National Zoo got lucky. Let's not try that trick again.

A Cork Board Mystery

These hand written directories, found at the Willington Rest Area in Connecticut, are absolutely fascinating:

What kind of soul takes the time to write this information down to help out strangers they'll never meet? And these are posted in a highway rest stop, which most locals wouldn't have a need to visit.

When we stopped at the rest area a group of Scouts (perhaps this troop?) was offering up free coffee, doughnuts and bagels. Maybe they are responsible for this info. But somehow, this doesn't strike me as writing from the hand of a Scout.

Regardless, I'm both impressed and give a bit more hope for our society.

And don't tell me you can't think of novel ways to improve your community: in this case, all it took was a pen, paper and some time.

Monday, September 08, 2014

A Head Scratcher

When comparing these two different hair products I was left, well, scratching my head. Seriously, what's the difference between 'disheveled' and 'messy'?


I'm telling you, I'd rather be sent on a Maxi-pads buying mission then attempt to purchase men's hair styling products. I just don't get them.

Anyone want to explain?

Just Hanging Around

Name that Fruit: Sort of pear shaped, but grows along the trail

Yesterday, I'm hiking along the Potomac Heritage Trail when I came across this odd looking fruit:

And it wasn't an isolated case, all along the trail I noticed these fruits:

That looks like something you'd buy at the grocery store, no? Alas, all my on-trail Googling failed me; I couldn't get a positive ID.

Once home I did a Google Image search for Green Fruit Growing in Pairs and what do you know, an image popped up that matched my specimen:

Apparently, I had found a PawPaw fruit. And with further Googling, I learned that it's no surprise that I found them where I did. According to this NPR Story they are known to grow along the Potomac River:

Recently, I heard about a secret snack. Kayakers who paddle the waters near Washington, D.C., told me about a mango-like fruit that grows along the banks of the Potomac — a speckled and homely skin that hides a tasty treat.

A tropical-like fruit here, really? Yep. It's the only temperate member of a tropical family of trees. You can't buy the pawpaw in stores, so for years, the only way to eat them was straight from the tree.

So, what looked like a tasty fruit was in fact a tasty fruit. And not just any fruit, but the largest edible fruit that is Native to the US. And to nosh on one is to enjoy the same treat that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did. Historic, yum!

I've been hiking the PHT since at least 2009 and I'd never seen any evidence of these guys. I suppose that speaks to both my ignorance as well as the joy of hiking. Even if you've covered the same ground multiple times, there's still new discoveries waiting to be made.

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