Mar 29

Return to flight

NASA’s space shuttle program may be approaching the end of its two-year hiatus. This morning, the shuttle Discovery was moved from its processing hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where it will be mated with a redesigned external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. Discovery‘s rollout to the launch pad is scheduled for next Monday, and her launch is tentatively planned for May 15.

Mar 25

FridayQ: Birthday

This week’s FridayQ is about birthdays.
FQ1: When is your birthday? December 20, just a few days before Christmas. It’s the day before the winter solstice, except in leap years. In college, I often had a final exam on my birthday — but when I did, it was the last exam of the semester, so I didn’t mind. (My 19th birthday was a particularly memorable example.)
FQ2: Anything interesting happen on your birthday in history? According to the History Channel, the Louisiana Purchase was completed on 20 December 1803 when France handed over the Orleans Territory to the United States. Exactly 156 years later, I was born in the former Orleans Territory (now the state of Louisiana).
On my birthday in 1860, South Carolina (where I grew up, went to college, and got married) seceded from the Union, the first state to do so. Two years later, on 20 December 1862, Confederate general Earl Van Dorn disrupted U.S. Grant’s strategic plans by attacking Grant’s supply depot in Holly Springs, Mississippi. (I live in Holly Springs, North Carolina.) And while we’re on the subject of the Civil War, here’s a Gone With the Wind connection: Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh got married on my birthday (but not to each other, of course, and not in the same year).
In 1892, two gentlemen in Syracuse, New York patented the inflatable automobile tire on December 20. On the same day in 1945, wartime tire rationing was ended in the United States. So 12/20 has historically been a good day for tires.
The United States invaded Panama on my birthday in 1989. I remember waking up that morning and hearing the news on the radio.
FQ3: Anybody famous share your birthday? Do you have anything in common with them? I share my birthday with the following people:

FQ FUTURE: On your 100th birthday, what year will it be and what do you think you’ll be wanting as a present then? It will be 2059, and I’ll be wanting new tires for my wheelchair — unless it’s a hoverchair.

Mar 24

Dave Barry’s gadget bag

Gizmodo is a blog devoted to interesting gadgets like contact lenses that monitor your blood glucose level, or a bottle opener that counts the beverages you consume. A recurring feature on Gizmodo is “What’s In Your Gadget Bag?”, which asks a (presumably geeky) celebrity what bits of technology he or she carries around all the time. Recently, they asked humor writer Dave Barry this question. I was aware that he had used a Palm PDA (because he mentioned it in his column a few years ago), but it seems that he has upgraded to a Treo. “In accordance with federal law, I also have an iPod,” he writes.

Mar 22

Triangle Waffle

In Internat Use of Pancakes, Greg describes how his brain tried to interpret an IHOP sign with burned-out letters. I’ve experienced that kind of thing myself. When we see abbreviations (and a sign with burned-out letters is an abbreviation, albeit an accidental one), we fill in the missing information according to what we expect. And if we’re Internet geeks, that dictates the kind of information we fill in.

When I was working on Wake Forest Road, my daily commute took me past a sign that indicated the direction of Raleigh Community Hospital. But the sign didn’t have room for the entire name, so it said RALEIGH COM HOSPITAL. Inevitably, my brain parsed this as “ Hospital”, which makes no sense — but that’s how my brain insisted on interpreting it. I guess a lot of people had this problem, because the hospital eventually gave up and changed its name.

I can’t say that an IHOP sign has ever made me think of the Internet, but there was a time when I reacted that way to every Waffle House sign I saw. This was a decade and a half ago, when even dial-up Internet service was not widely available, and the World Wide Web didn’t exist. But things like e-mail and Usenet newsgroups did, and if you knew what you were doing, you could access them from your home computer. I learned how to accomplish this using a shareware application that was designed for running a BBS, but could also be used as a single-user newsreader and e-mail client. For reasons known only to him, the creator of this application named it Waffle.

Waffle included a UUCP program, which enabled computers running Waffle to exchange data with each other over dial-up connections. This meant several Waffle users could share the cost of a single dial-up connection, with one computer serving as a local hub that downloaded the e-mail and Usenet traffic for all of them. The other computers would then call the hub machine to download their data (and upload any outgoing traffic). It was slow, but it worked and didn’t cost very much.

For several years, I was part of a small community (about half a dozen) of Waffle users in the Triangle area of North Carolina that used this system to access the Net. I was using Waffle every day to check my e-mail, so you can imagine what kind of conclusion my brain would draw every time I saw a Waffle House sign. And that’s not the worst of it. There is a restaurant in Dunn called Triangle Waffle that made me do a double-take every time I drove by. (My local UUCP network of Waffle users didn’t hold meetings, but that would have been a good place to do it.)

All of this came to an end when the first ISPs began appearing in the Triangle. I dismantled my Waffle setup almost a decade ago. But when I saw that Greg was writing about Internet use of batter cakes cooked on a griddle, those memories came flooding back . . .

Mar 15

Coffee update

Monday, February 28, was our moving-in day at the new location in Research Triangle Park. There was plenty of coffee available that morning, because the management had provided coffee urns and trays of danishes to sustain us while we unpacked our stuff and put it away. But that was a one-time thing. On Tuesday morning I went looking for coffee and discovered the horrible truth: the new coffee clubs we were promised did not exist. Not yet, anyway. The only coffee in this building was inside vending machines.
I did my best not to panic. This has to be a temporary state of affairs, I told myself. Access to coffee is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. You can’t just cut off the coffee supply to office workers; they’ll scrawl revolutionary slogans on the whiteboards, set fire to the copiers, and eventually rise in open revolt. So I resolved to wait and see.
A week went by. By the following Monday, unrest had reached a level that management could no longer ignore. So an e-mail message was sent out to everyone in the building, announcing the location of the new coffee club facilities. I went immediately to that location with my mug in hand, and found that the message was somewhat premature. Yes, there was a coffee maker in that room. However, it had not even been completely removed from its packaging, and it was not connected to either water or electricity. With a shriek of frustration and rage, I slunk back to my office.
Today, two weeks after the move, I heard a rumor that the coffee club was finally operational. Initially, I was inclined to dismiss it. Then I saw that Brent Sienna had finally ended his coffee abstinence. Shortly after that, I read that a new version of Java has been released. Obviously someone was trying to tell me something.
Although I had seen no official announcement, I went to see if the coffee facilities were up and running. Lo and behold, they were. With trembling hands, I drew my first cup of workplace coffee since arriving in this building, added sweetener and creamer, and carried it back to my office. And it was good. I didn’t drink a triple espresso, so I wasn’t affected quite so dramatically as Brent was. But I wonder if it’s made me a bit hyper. Would I notice if my coherence or attention span were affected?
Dave Barry is famous for (among other things) pointing out that various phrases would make good names for rock bands. Well, lately, I’ve found myself doing something similar: I’ll sometimes look at a phrase and find myself thinking, “That would make a good name for a blog.” For example, wouldn’t “Not in the Face!” be a good blog name?
That particular thought came to me this morning as I was returning to my office from an errand that took me through a fire door to an adjoining building. I had to push it open, and I was careful to comply with the sign on the door that says OPEN SLOWLY, because if I were to fling it open quickly, I could hit someone in the face. On the return trip, I had to pull the door open, and I noticed an identical sign on that side of the door. Which makes sense, because if I were to yank the door open quickly, I might hit myself in the face. I’m sure that happened on a daily basis before the signs were posted.
Um . . . yeah. I’m definitely hyper.
UPDATE: What is it with the bizarre coffee-related coincidences? A few hours after I posted this entry, I got in my car and turned on my radio. The first thing I heard was a financial analyst discussing the stock price of Ciena, a company whose name sounds exactly like Brent Sienna’s surname. Oh, and I was sucking on a coffee-flavored hard candy at the moment this happened. Like I said, somebody is trying to tell me something.

Mar 11

Laughing rats

According to a new study, rats like to be tickled. They even make a noise that resembles laughter, except that it’s ultrasonic (so we can’t hear it).
Actually, after reading the description of the “tickling,” I think the researchers were just playing with the rats. One of the researchers says, “The animals became bonded to you and came back for more. Every possible measure of whether they like it shows yes, they love it.” That may have been news to him, but anyone who has pet rats already knows that they bond with humans and love attention. But the business about the ultrasonic chirps is interesting.