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Changes

The last few weeks have been very long, but still very, very good. Almost exactly two months ago, I found myself with the opportunity to leave my employer of nearly four years, Washington State University. WSU has proven to be an excellent incubator for me over these last few years, but I know full well I had been ready to go for months, even prior to beginning my job search in earnest. At some point, I had begun to feel that the University had become an impediment to my further professional growth, and I increasingly found myself strongly disagreeing with the direction of the higher leadership at the institution, whom it seemed was continually making decisions that I felt were neither sustainable, nor fiscally responsible for a state-run institution.

While I was ready to move on, the decision to seek a new job was also strongly driven by a new opportunity my wife had created for herself. Due to an unfortunate situation with her advisor for her graduate program, she decided to stop pursuing a Ph.D. at WSU, and instead complete her Master’s degree in Zoology and complete her Ph.D elsewhere. Earlier this year, she was given an excellent opportunity at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, working under Dr. Darryl Felder, a researcher focusing on decapod crustaceans. It is an amazing opportunity, that will have us moving, six days after this post, to the heart of cajun country.

As for me, I have spent the past six weeks or so working for Meebo. Meebo has been finding itself in a period of really aggressive growth over the first half of this year, with a half dozen people joining on the front-end JavaScript team alone this year, including myself. It’s been an exciting place to be, and though Meebo’s engineering is based in Mountain View, California and New York City, I have been lucky enough to be brought into the company as one of the first full-time remote engineers.

Working remote is definitely a change, though my experience in the open source community over the last decade or so, and especially on the YUI project over the last three or so years, had taught me a lot about working with people you communicate with primarily via e-mail and chat. Still, it has been an adjustment, as my desk is ten feet from my bed, and as my fellow YUI contributor and recent Meebody, Tony Pipkin (@apipkin) recently tweeted:

New office attire: basketball shorts and a plain white t

At Meebo, I have transitioned to being a pure JavaScript programmer. When I need a server-side component, I pass those tasks off to someone else, which is a bit awkward. I have to e a lot more proactive about making sure that my server-side counterpart is aware of my requirements early enough that they can be scheduled, since I’m not in Mountain View, I need to communicate really clearly and with written specifications, because miscommunication can result in the wrong thing being implemented because of ambiguous language.

I’ve been assigned to the Ads product at Meebo, which means that any where you go with the Meebo Bar, when the ad pops up, that’s code I now own running. Advertising is a nuanced business, but I have long been convinced that the best model we have at scale for monetizing content is ad sales (it doesn’t scale down to, say, the size of this blog, however), thought there is an incredibly amount of nuance to that business that I had no idea existed. Comments for another post, however.

In six days, Catherine and I will watch as everything we own gets loaded onto a truck, before we follow that truck out of town for a drive across the country with our two cats. The kind of change that we’re looking at has grown to be incredibly intimidating, even though it’s exciting. Starting work on the 25th, right after we get down there (and incidentally, possibly a week before our possessions arrive. A 6-14 day delivery window is really inconvenient).

I’ll be looking to get involved in a developer group down in Lafayette, and I’m looking forward to getting familiar with the area. And I definitely plan to start blogging regularly again come August.

Codification of Common Courtesy

The Open Source community had a pretty sad movement start last week, in the form of the Open Respect Declaration started by Jono Bacon, but plenty of others have gotten involved. And the Decleration is certainly not bad, just it seems as if it’s the kind of thing that should be wholly unnecessary.

I understand that it is not. Noirin Shirley posted on her blog about an unfortunate and abhorrent experience she had at this year’s ApacheCon in which she was sexually assaulted by another member of that community. What’s worse, the comments on her blog have more than a few where people feel she was in the wrong for calling out the member who assaulted her.

Now, I know that Open Respect is about much more than simply the misogyny present in the Open Source (or any Technical) field, or gaming and other traditionally male-dominated sub-culture. As a group, we tend to dismiss out of hand any opinion that runs contrary to our own, usually to the exclusion of any real discussion, let alone reasoned debate.

The Open Respect Declaration is, quite simply, a request that people behave reasonably. To disagree in a manner that doesn’t insult one another, in spite of the strength of conviction on our opinions. To behave as the meritocracy that we have always claimed to belong to in tech.

Last week, I was at YUIConf, held on the Yahoo! Campus. While there, I spent significant amounts of time with people from Brazil, met dozens of Indians and Middle Easterners, and yes, even an (admittedly small) number of women. I believe I conducted myself in a respectful manner, and I am aware of no real problems with serious disrespect which occured at this event. However, that is simply my perception, and while I am reasonably observant, I am also not one whom is generally subjected to disrespect.

We are a sub-culture which is full of holy wars. vi-vs-emacs. Unix-vs-Windows. jQuery-vs-Everything Else. And I am certainly more opinionated than most on these subjects. I can, at times, be somewhat abrupt in my discussion, but I do strive to at least allow for the other person to be wrong. Or right. I’m argumentative, but it’s not really about winning, it’s about the debate. Sometimes it’s unsuccessful and unproductive, and I’m constantly working on making the debate more approachable for those people who shy away from anything resembling conflict.

Ultimately, Open Respect is something that should apply to any situation, not just Open Source and other technology fields, and hopefully this little movement that’s started can help make those members of our community who, intentionally or otherwise, behave hostilely or rudely, recognize their behavior, and begin to correct it.

Washington State Elections for 2010

The State of Washington is in a pretty difficult place right now financially, like many states. Now, we’re not as bad off as say, New York, or California, but Washington State University has faced over 10% budget cuts each year for the last three years, and many other state-funded agencies have faced similar, if not greater cuts.

So, it is little surprise that at least half the State Initiative Measures are to do with new taxes, either the repeal of recently passed ones or the state requesting the right for new taxes. I’m going to do a bit of discussion of each of these initiatives, presenting my views on them, in part to think my way through the issues.

Politically, I am a fiscally conservative Libertarian, which is the basis of where most of my opinions come from.

I-1053

This initiative appears to basically serve to remind the Legislature of other restrictions passed via Initiative in years past regarding increasing taxes. It’s basically a way to remind the legislature what the people expect of them, without actually changing the people in office. A complete waste of time, and I may simply abstain from voting on this issue.

I-1082

Gets the state out of the business of Industrial Insurance. I’m in favor, as it lowers the scope of government, but still forces the maintenance of insurance for industrial operations. How will this affect things? I’m not sure, but it should simplify government operations.

I-1098

This initiative would, for the first time institute an income tax in the state, though they’re being very sneaky in the way they’re going about passing it. Namely, as written, the tax would only apply to individuals earning $200k per year ($400k for a couple), and the proceeds would be used to lower B&O taxes for small business and property taxes.

First, this initiative can only benefit me as a small business owner and a homeowner.

Yet, I’m opposed. Why? Well, first off, it’s uneven taxation. Now, I’m not arguing for a flat tax, but if you’re going to institute an income tax, institute a fucking income tax. Especially since the government would have the right to expand that income tax to more people. I would say that, within 5 years or so, the middle class, who this law is supposedly meant to help, would be paying this income tax.

I have seen and read several things on the wisdom of readjusting wealth distribution to narrow the gap between the middle class and the highest ends, and I generally agree, but I just don’t think this is the way to do it. If anything, the work people like Jason Calacanis are doing with groups like the Open Angel Forum, like investing in startups and innovation, is probably a better way to do it.

I-1100 & I-1105

These two initiatives seem to be tightly linked, with I-1100 seeming to deal more with the role of the State Liquor Control Board, and I-1105 being more about privatization of the distribution and retailing of alcohol. As it stands, the State of Washington maintains a monopoly of the sale of all package liquor. Bars can carry liquor, but they can not sell bottles, which was a bit odd after having turned 21 in Montana, where that’s a bit more common.

In Washington, grocers can only be licensed to carry beer and wine, and a non-consumption license is not that hard to get, based on a local short-lived sandwich shop that sold beer, but couldn’t let you drink it. If this initiative passes, the license for the sale of liquor held by grocers will allow them to sale package liquor in addition to beer and wine.

The opposition to these initiatives take a few points:

  1. It will cost people jobs.

    This is, in part, true. These initiatives would close the State Liquor Stores, and distribution mechanisms, but at the same time, in privatizing it, things will likely be even, in particular because private liquor stores will probably remain open later than 6pm.

    There is also a bit of discussion about it hurting the bars, but I’m not convinced. *Most* people who go out to bars drink Beer anyway, and bars tend to be busy, so I don’t buy it.

  2. It will result in more drunk driving.

    Doubtful. If people are buying liquor to take home, they’ll probably be doing it when still sober. Even if this results in the sale of more liquor, which it may not, I’d be interested in seeing what justifies this argument.

Actually, I’m going to leave it there, because the rest of the arguments against are basically rehashes of the second point above. Current state policy toward spirits is unreasonable, as it unfairly singles out liquor in a way that only makes sense in a moderately prohibitionary way. The State will still be able to tax spirits, in fact the initiatives seem to talk a fair amount of the liquor control board having that right, but it will greatly increase the overhead the state needs to incur in managing spirits, allowing the liquor control board to spend more time.

I am wholly in favor of these initiatives. I don’t think increased availability of alcohol will be a problem, because it’s not exactly unavailable. Grocers and gas stations can sell beer and wine until 2 am, as can bars including liquor. If anything, this might encourage more consumption in situations where a person doesn’t need to drive and risk themselves and others.

I-1107

This initiative repeals taxes on candy, bottled water, carbonated beverages and other foods defined by a fairly complex set of standards. The argument against is pretty straightforward: the state needs to raise funds, and this is meant to help with that.

The for argument is slightly more complex. First, the laws passed by the legislature do some pretty crazy things, like applying taxes to products made by Washington companies, but keeping similar product imported from outside the state as tax-exempt. Then there is the standard argument against raising taxes. Now, generally, I’m against raising taxes, but I’m also generally against the government offering more services. I know full well that if we want more services, we need to be willing to pay for it, and most people don’t, which is why we’re in this economic mess right now (at least in part).

The main reason I’m opposed to this legislation is not the increased tax burden (which I’m not pleased about), but it’s rather that this law feels like an attempt to mandate behaviour via taxes, which is unsustainable, because if you succeed in changing people’s behaviour, your income goes away, but also it’s not the role of government. I would, quite frankly, have been more in favor of (though still likely opposed) to a blanket sales tax on food items.

Liberty and Air Travel

There was a post from over the weekend regarding and ExpressJet Airlines pilot who refused additional TSA screening while entering the airport in uniform, and was not allowed to reach his job. What kind of secondary screening? Specifically the new Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) systems being installed at some airports, because he didn’t see a reason to allow the TSA to see his naked body. And, then, because he wasn’t willing to be coerced into allowing the TSA agent to molest him, he was forced to leave, but not before being subjected to (probably) unlawful detention and a lot of questioning.

In the end, his supervisor heard about it from the TSA before he was able to get in touch, and his employment is now potentially in question. That’s the short version, you probably ought to read his long version as well.

I understand why the TSA wants to go this route. Almost anything short of patting down anyone getting on a plane can be circumvented. Ceramic blades can be used instead of metal to get through a metal detector. You can load explosives into your underpants and horrifically burn your genitals in a failed attempt to set them off. You can get a job as a ground crew member at an airport, which doesn’t generally require daily security screens. But, it becomes quite a bit harder to sneak a weapon onto a plane without someone storing it internally if you’re using AIT or pat downs.

And yet, we’re really not much safer. The TSA certainly hasn’t been the starting point of any of the successes in the war on terror, those successes generally coming from good old-fashioned police work.

We’ve sacrificed a lot in the name of security, and have gotten no safer. Much of that, has merely been minor inconveniences, like sending our shoes through the x-ray machine, or ridiculously small liquid containers in carry-ons. Some are big inconveniences, like the no-fly list that can thwarted by any decent fake ID.

But a line must be drawn somewhere, and if we’re going to draw it anywhere, it must be on these AIT scanners. Even ignoring people’s health concerns, which seem to have basis, the privacy concerns are just as important. I have an upcoming trip in a few weeks that I’m flying for, and frankly, I am hoping fiercely that I’m not forced to choose between making my trip and facing this sort of coercion.

John Clark, Spokane WA Defense Attorney Dead

John Clark, a defense attorney in Spokane, WA who was well known in the area as being a near tireless proponent for the rights of the accused in the legal maze, has finally laid down his head Friday at the age of 58, losing his two-year battle with cancer. John and his wife Ellen had been friends of the family for near 15 years, through my younger sister and their daughter, and I’d always known the man to be vibrant, excited, and honest. And reading the news stories, it’s clear that others view the man the same.

John was a brilliant attorney, who often took on amazingly difficult cases pro bono publico simply because he felt that it was the best thing to do. He won some, like the case of the 17 Spokane area teenagers arrested for protesting police brutality in 2007. He lost some, like the case of Ken Olsen, a Spokane Area man convicted of trying to make Ricin because he was found to be in possession of Castor oil, and happened to be going through a rough patch with his wife.

John even spoke at the sentencing of a man who held a knife to his throat to coerce a pharmacist into handing over painkillers, not to demand the book be thrown at the man, but to request leniency. John truly believed every single person is redeemable, and did everything in his power to ensure that they would get the chance at a fair trial. John is part of the reason that I find such interest in the law, and in the rights of individuals under the law. He was a firm believer that the role of law was to protect the rights of the individual, and the passion with which he spoke against new attempts to reduce individual liberty was inspiring.

Spokane’s legal community, and it’s accused, have suffered an enormous loss. And those of us who knew him, miss him greatly.

News Stories * KREM, Oct 8 * Spokesman Review, Oct 8 * Spokesman Review, Oct 9 * Spokesman Review, Oct 10

Free Software Ethos

Last week, Jono Bacon posted a question to his blog asking about why we’re passionate about Open Source. It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so when the post was put up, I decided shortly thereafter that I needed to put my thoughts down.

I’ve been using computers since about the age of five. Admittedly, this was 1988, quite a bit later than many of my contemporaries, but such is life. At the time, we used to frequent a shareware shop, picking up 5 1/4” floppies with various programs (mostly games), or grabbing things elsewhere. Actually, I spent an lot of time playing Nethack, which means I’d also encountered my first violation of a free software license, since I know the source code was not included on the floppy of nethack we had in our house.

My first real introduction to Free Software came in the form Linux, specifically a Debian install disc included with Maximum PC (a long-defunct computer magazine), which based on the Debian Timeline, I think must have been Debian 2.0 “hamm”, though it might have been “bo”, putting this sometime in 1998. At the time, I really messed up that first install, forcing Debian to install every package in the disc’s repository, even those that conflicted. Needless to say, the system was wholly unstable, but the little bit I could play with it, and what I’d read, made me intensely interested in Linux as a platform.

It was more than that. I’d known, pratically since the first moment I sat down at a computer, that I intended to work with them. It didn’t take long before I was trying to learn everything I could about the system. Of course, we were running DOS on a 286, so the closest thing to a development experience we had was a GW-BASIC interpreter, still I played a lot with BASIC, and trying to examine other things about the system. We didn’t have a Modem at this time, so I was not very attached to the whole BBS scene, except through a friend or two, which if anything, simply slowed down my introduction to hacker culture.

The time I was growing up was the heart of the “Don’t Copy That Floppy” battles for mind-share. For the record, I had done my share of piracy as a kid, but part of that was simply lacking the resources to pay for things, especially shareware, which usually involved mailing checks places. I think that it is part of what made Free Software so interesting. Here were people building an entire Operating System for the love of it, and even in the mid-90s there were a handful of people who were able to make a living at it.

There was something freeing in using Linux for me. First of all, development tools were simply at hand. Getting a C compiler on DOS was difficult and expensive, until I lucked upon a free copy of Borland C++ 4.0 that someone was looking to get rid of. There was more to it than that. There was something cloying, exciting about using Linux for me. I felt as if I was in control.

It was around this time that I started my first open source project, a simple program to add, subtract, multiple and divide matrices written in C because I didn’t trust that my TI-83 was doing the right thing. I was about to say I should see if it still compiles, but it looks like I borked the links to the tarball at some point. I’ll need to correct those…

It was exciting, releasing something that I’d written, and posting it up to Freshmeat, but what was more exciting was receiving patches from contributors. I received a bunch patches from a half dozen or so other contributors, patching bugs and adding bits of functionality. I had a bunch of changes, and I even packages it up for Debian, though I never aggressively sought sponsorship for the package.

I switched to Linux as my primary OS when I got to college in 2001, and stuck with it ever since. Throughout school, I’d follow the various bug trackers for software I was using and try to do my part filing bugs, doing a bit of triage, and periodically trying my hand at fixing bugs, though it was until I was getting out of school that I felt comfortable actually fixing bugs in some of the larger programs that I used on a daily basis. Part of that was a lack of confidence, part of that was a lack of skill and time to understand how interconnected some of these projects can be. Whatever the reasons, I’d persisted in these communities in the fringes, typically the local expert among those I know, but not deeply involved.

While I’ve never been as active as I want to be, the reasons for wanting to be involved has remained the same. It feels good contributing to an open source project. It’s exciting when a patch (or pull request these days) I’ve prepared gets accepted into a project. I like knowing that code I’ve written is being run across the globe, by a lot people, but it’s most thrilling knowing that another developer had seen the value of my contribution.

There is more than simply the desire to be recognized, however. Spending time in Academia, particularly now that my wife is working toward an eventual PhD, I’ve seen how Free Software can be used to help drive knowledge in ways that have little to do directly with computers. I’ve seen how the fields of scientific computing seem to have come further in the last six years or so, than they had for decades prior, in part due to the availability of free software in their field. My interest in Free Software began very much as an academic issue. By contributing and working toward the common good, taking the best ideas (or at least the best ideas right now), knowledge can increase much more quickly than if we operate in vacuums. The dynamic and exciting environments that people have often associated with start-up companies, has always existed around Free Software, because the structure affords people the freedom to come and go between projects to a certain extent, which, for many projects, can help to ensure that the project is always exciting.

More recently, my devotion to the ethos has been ramped up by a technology landscape that has become increasingly hostile. We’ve got laws that make circumventing even ignorant DRM a crime. We’ve got software and hardware providers actively working to restrict access to their devices, in ways all but guaranteed to stifle innovation. Even relatively open platforms, are being modifies to close them up awkwardly tight. I’m looking at you AT&T, with your removal of the “Third Party Sources” option on your Android handsets!

That’s the core reason I’m devoted to the ethos. Free Software doesn’t have anything to do with cost. Software is expensive to make, no matter how you slice it. It’s about the freedom to make mistakes. To do stupid things. But also to create amazing things. To go further than before. Sometimes you need to take a few steps back to be able to move forward, even if those steps back are the painful results of pretty bad mistakes. We need computing freedom for that world to exist, and while I’m not truly opposed to commercial software, I firmly believe that supporting Free Software, and it’s tenets, is the best way to keep us from being artificially crippled as we move forward.

Fitness Update

With my recent vacation, I missed a full three weeks at the Gym, the third of those weeks lacking the excuse of being halfway across the country. Regarding body shape, I know that I put on some additional girth, as one would generally expect during vacation, and I assume that I must have lost a bit of muscle as well, since my weight didn’t seem to have changed much since I’d left. Where I really noticed the problem was how badly my endurance crashed while I was out of town. On Wednesday of last week, I swam laps for twenty minutes, and as I exited the pool, I got a pretty nasty head rush. I knew my heart had been beating harder than had been normal for the workout I’d done, but it still surprised me how hard it hit me.

Knowing that I needed to take things easier, to rebuild my stamina, I’ve adjusted my workouts accordingly. I hope to be back up to a reasonable level within a month, but we’ll see.

In addition, this week was the first opportunity I’d had to take advantage of the free body composition testing that the Student Rec Center periodically offers. As I said, this was my first opportunity, so I was establishing my baseline for their particular test a lot later than I really wanted to. However, at least I have a baseline figure.

Now, the test as administered by the UREC Personal Training Staff is a trivially simple one. It was a skinfold test, but one that only required measurements from 3 locations. The Chest (pectoral region, near the shoulder), Abdominal (about belly button height, on about the same line as the chest), and thigh. Each measurement was taken twice, and then summed together and a chart was consulted.

As I said, this isn’t exactly an accurate test. According to the chart, I have about 30.2% body fat, which, according to a 2002 reference, is about 8% more body fat than is appropriate for a man my age. Now, I kind of doubt some of this test, since based on the surgery footage of a great uncle (who’s body shape I share) getting heart surgery, my barrel shape may not be indicative of large amounts of fat. But as long as the test is administered similarly in the future, it still serves as a metric that can be tracked.

I will however, grant that this test is a hell of a lot more interesting than the Body Mass Index (BMI), which considers me morbidly obese. Thing is, with my body type, even if I were to get down to 8% body fat (the lowest ‘healthy’ body fat, per the chart I have), my BMI would still put me in the at least Obese Class I, but probably Class II. And yet people try to use that bullshit test as a measurement of health.

I would be interested in having a Bioelectrical Impedance test, since that at least sounds like a more scientific test. But, at this time, I think I’ve still made quite a bit of progress, I know that I’m generally happy with the results. Now, I really ought to finish my data import analysis of the Star Trac data that I can get out of the cardio machines at the gym, so that I can more easily track progress (I don’t like the website I have available to me).

Saint Louis' Forest Park

Catherine and I have been winding down our two-week vacation, which had us put nearly 2000 miles on our rental car as we drove from Branson, MO to Petersburg, KY and a hell of a lot more between. Our last few days, we spent in Saint Louis, MO. We didn’t make arrangements to go see a Cardinals game (though we probably should have), since we weren’t entirely sure when we were going to be through town, and we had some other things we wanted to see.

Those other things, consisting largely of the Saint Louis Zoo and the Saint Louis Science Center. It was a little odd, being nearly thirty and childless going through the Science Center, but Saint Louis has a truly amazing facility with some really great exhibits, and both are in Forest Park, the site of the 1903 World’s Fair in Saint Loius.

And the zoo is clearly world class, particularly in some of it’s newer areas where it boasts elaborate and accurate habitats for the animals that it keeps. Somehow, they do all of this, without charging an admission. It’s free to enter either facility, and to view the vast majority of it’s exhibits. There were a ton of dedication plaques around the exhibits, which showed how much of the new consruction and other things were financed, but for the ongoing costs (these facilities seem to employ many, and they can’t all have been volunteers), it is clear that the city of Saint Louis, and it’s people, are immensely generous to these organizations.

We spent the majority of a day at the Zoo, though it was very hot in the early part of the day, and as we passed through the African Jungle exhibits, which featured Hyenas and the like, the animals that we did see, were almost all sleeping in the dens that were dug into the habitat for them, desperately trying to stay cool. However, in that area of the park, they have an amazing Hippo exhibit, which is set up with an underwater viewing area, so you can watch the Hippo’s swim (usually staying underwater fro 5 minutes or more) and play, but also see how the cicilids that inhabit their tank coexist with the Hippos, usually by picking at the Hippo’s skin for mites and other things, while the Hippo’s longued in the relatively cool water. Next were the Elephants, including one fairly large one we got to watch spray himself down with water using his trunk.

The hilight, in my wife’s mind at least, was the Stingray Pool, which did carry a cost of $3 per person, but given that the maintenace area for the pool was at least as large as the pool itself, and the half-dozen people attending the exhibit, was still cheap. At the Stingray pool, you get the opportunity to reach into the water and pet the Stingrays (which have had their venomous sting trimmed), of which there were two varieties and a range of ages. There was an opportunity to feed the rays, using small fish that they were selling, however, we didn’t. The rays tended to approach us as if we might have anyway.

There was plenty to see, particularly as the temperature dropped some, and the animals got to be a bit more active. Including the indoor exhibits (we only got to the bird house, the Monkey house and Herpatarium closed before we reached them), there is a ton to see at this facility, and the habitats were, as I said, excellent. There was also many interesting exhibits about the work that the zoo engages in, though a surprising number of them focused on reproduction inside of Zoos. Apparently, a lot of females are kept on IUDs to keep them from getting pregnant, and that contraceptive pill that they’re working on for human men? Apparently, the Zoo’s are hoping to be able to apply it to their charges as well.

And all of that is important, after all, the last thing the Zoo’s want are a bunch of inbred animals running about, because we got pretty close to seeing Giraffe sex as a female giraffe was, we believe, pretty clearly propositioning a male who was apparently just not in the mood.

But the Zoo is far from the only activity in the park. The Jefferson History Museum seemed to be mostly free, except for the Catholic Artifacts exhbiit they had visiting, though we didn’t spend too much time there, or in the Art Musueum. There are botanical gardens, which surround an area known as the ‘Jewel Box’, which I’m sure is beautiful in June, but was a bit crispy in August. There’s Paddleboats, and an Amphitheater, and a Pavilion at the highest point in the park, overlooking Saint Louis. There are amazng statues all over the park as well. It’s nice to walk through, even in the heat.

But, where we spent the majority of our second day in the park, was at the Saint Louis Science Center, which again, is almost entirely free to the public. The Pacific Science Center in Seattle, which I’ve visited at least a dozen times, currently costs $?? so this was a really surprising deal. From the park, you enter through the Planetarium, which I think is the best way to enter the Science Center, as they have real Gemini space capsules, which were evidently built in Saint Louis, as well as spacesuits worn during those missions. As you walk toward the overpass, there is a detailed history of NASA, as well as a collection of toys and memorobilia from America’s obsession with space, ranging from Muppet Babies Astronaut Lunchboxes to Cognac decanters commerating Apollo 11. There is even a Ground Control thing that you get to take the controls of. Regrettably, this was closed for the entire day of our visit.

After the Space exhibit, there is a series on Structures, from bridges (suspension and trestle), arches (including two large arches that you can build), and earthquake resistance. As a special exhibition (which did carry a cost), there was an exhibit about a Pirate Ship that has been being recovered for the last twenty-five years or so, the Wydah, which was taken by a storm off the coast of Massachusetts three hundreds years ago. The exhibit is set up to tell two stories. First that of the ship, as it began it’s journey hauling slaves. Then, the story of the man and crew who took her and changed her into a Pirate ship.

The exhibit was really excellent, as the efforts had recovered some really amazing artifacts, including a Sun King Pistol in remarkable condition, and several three- and four-pound cannons. The exhibit presented the Pirates, not in a romantic light, but an honest light. Making it clear why so many chose to ‘go on the account’ and join a pirate crew, when it was the best chance most sailors would ever have not only of getting wealthy, but of actually earning a wage, since many legitimate captains evidently did not pay their crews the wages they were promised. The Pirates were democratic. Even the Captain was elected and held to the same articles as the rest, sleeping with the crew in common quarters. When the Wydah was captured, one of the first things the Pirates apparently did with it was remove the cabins on deck, mostly to improve the ship as a fighting platform, but it also got rid of all the amenities of class common on other ships.

It was an amazing exhibit, well worth the $16 admission, which Catherine and I viewed as partially going to cover the cost of the rest of the visit to the science center.

We then proceeded to go through the ‘History of Life’ exhibit, which was a breath of fresh air after our visit earlier this week. The dioramas were excellent, and the detail on the animatronic T-Rex was pretty cool. There were some exhibits on the automobile and gearing, and the future of energy independence. But the Life Sciences exhibits really got Catherine excited. They have some really nice mountings of birds and smaller mammals for viewing, a fossil room with a T-Rex Metatarsal and other large dinosaur bones. There was even a lab targetting 10-12 year olds where they would get the opportunity to simple, yet exciting experiments like DNA extraction, fingerprinting and a few other things, all while wearing real lab coats.

The other exhibit we spend a lot of time in, was, of course, Cyberville! They’re exhibit on the history (and future) of computing was good, though I kind of wish there had been a few other things. There was a kiosk letting you play with the binary representation of ASCII, but the best of the Binary exhibits was a train that let you send it commands, first for direction, then speed, then time. The instructions were AWFUL, but I worked with a ten year old to figure them out, and then we were able to do a basic job teaching boolean math to a few other kids. There was a robotics exhibit using LEGO Mindstorms, a laser harp, a room with a variety of sensors you could interact with. An Art room with a simple 3-D modeler, a VR exhibit (which was not functional), exhibits on how the basics of how the Internet works, and a cooperative game where you work in a team of three to create a building designed by one of the partners.

I spent WAY more time in this part of the museum than was probably necessary, but I had a lot of fun, and had a few mothers thank me for helping their kids understand the exhibits a bit better, which was nice.

Catherine and I are currently childless, but if you have children, Forest Park really seems to have something for just about anyone. And the vast majority of it is free. We really enjoyed our trip to Saint Louis, the people were nice, we found an amazing restaurant, and while it was extremely hot the majority of the trip, it was well worth the few days we got to spend in this city, and I look forward to getting to return.

Don't Forget Your Safety Checks!

Catherine and I just got back home a bit ago after receiving a painful reminder of why we’re supposed to do walk around safety checks before going anywhere in your vehicle. While we were preparing cat food, we decided to take a break halfway through to go get something to eat for ourselves. On the drive to the restaurant, I heard some weird metal sounds from the car, but I thought they might be something in the engine, which we’ve known was causing us some trouble.

We got to the restaurant fine, but we got less than a quarter mile away before suddenly the car started making terrible sounds and shaking badly. As soon as I began pulling into a nearby parking lot, the driver’s side, back corner of the truck fell to the ground and I had to drag it into the spot, and watch as the tire rolled down the street a little ways, stopping traffic as it went. Awesome.

After getting pulled in, I immediately went to retrieve the tire, eliciting some ‘funny’ comments from the barely-out-of-high school kids on the road, but not any actual help. The truck had a jack, of course, but the jack was designed for replacing a flat tire, not a missing one, and there was no way to get it under the axle to jack up the vehicle. Luckily, I do own a 2-ton floor jack. Of course, it was across town. Catherine made some calls and we were able to get a friend to come down and drive me to get the jack. Which then wasn’t tall enough. So we found someone with a taller jack, and proceed to do the ‘jack shuffle’ to get the new jack into the proper jack point so we could reattach the tire.

Of course, we’re missing a full set of lugs nuts, so we had to scavenge a few from the other tires so we could at least reattach the fallen wheel, and drive home. Between a few trips back to the car, it took at least an hour and a half to take care of this, and I still need to go to the local auto parts store to get a set of lug nuts to replace the missing ones.

The kicker? Catherine had had this wheel off the truck a couple months back, when she was doing break work with a friend while I was feverish. Apparently, they had failed to get the nuts back on correctly, though it wasn’t a huge problem given how long it took to materialize as a big problem. However, I can’t blame her. On the drive to the restaurant, I’d noticed some oddities in the handling and a couple of odd noises that should have prompted me to do the walk around that I know I was told in Driver’s Ed I should always do. And even if I hadn’t had those warning signs, if I’d made that habit in the first place, I probably could have avoided this problem, and the damage to the body that came with it.

Weight Is Not Health

Recently, Scott Hanselman, software technologist and diabetic, has been periodically tweeting details of daily weigh-ins, in an effort to use the community to hold himself accountable as he tries to lose a few pounds. And he is far from the first. Jason Calacanis was doing this some months back with the help of a wifi-enabled bathroom scale. I’m not sure it was that particular scale, but it was a similar product.

Now, I’m big. My weight is around 325 pounds (give or take a few), but I’m about six foot and broad shouldered, so I think I wear it better than many people who would be 325 pounds. I ended up with a large share of the genetics from my paternal grandmother. She had a big family, and while I’m noticably taller than her and her siblings, I still have their barrel-like body shape.

It’s not going to go away, but a few months back, I began working out regularly, utilizing the Student Recreation Center at Washington State University, which is both convenient, and probably cheaper than any other local facility. However, while all my clothes fit noticeably looser than they did when I began, my weight has remained a near-constant. This is with at least four, but often five, visits to the gym per week.

While I do look forward to being thinner, the core reason to being an excercise program, and to modify your eating habits, should be general health. For most of us, getting somewhat thinner/lighter should be a side-effect of better health, not the goal.

One of the benefits at the SRC is that most of the cardio machines are configured with USB interfaces to load progressive data about the state of the workout, current speed, heart rate, calories burned (or an estimate at least), and a host of other data based on the type of machine I’m on. With a chest strap heart rate monitor (a free checkout), I can ensure that the measurements are reasonably accurate (occasionally the strap starts erroneously reporting my heart rate at being around 225 beats per minute).

Of course, the only place I can use this data right now is the eFitness website that UREC works with, but I’m working on reverse engineering the data format. Ultimately, these are the metrics that are more important. Am I able to work out harder over time?

We need to stop focusing on one of the less important characteristics of health, our weight, and start focusing more on those other indicators, which largely come down to being able to perform at a higher level that before. Plus, daily fluctuations are less than useless. Daily fluctuations are apt to be largely water-based, or dependant on the size of your last meal. I suspect the real reason people look at weight is that it’s an easy metric to get, it’s convenient. However, it’s simply not an accurate measure of health, which is the real end goal that we should have in mind.