My Last Car

My faithful little Miata is getting long in the tooth; I purchased it new off the lot in the summer of 1999. Eighteen and a half years is pretty old for a car, but these days not exceptional.

Still, after spending the weekend replacing ignition components and discovering oil on my hands more than once, I have to admit that the car is not as mechanically tight as it used to be. It’s only a matter of time before it crosses the line from “reliable transportation” to “hobby”. I don’t need another hobby.

From time to time I peruse the Internet, fantasizing about the car that will replace the Miata. Convertible is an absolute requirement, two seats a preference. There are some pretty cool cars in this space, but the frontrunner remains the Mazda Miata. I could spend a lot more and get a somewhat more exciting car, but the Miata remains an excellent intersection between fun and economy, with no serious challengers.

But boy, that F-type purrs like a kitten. A tiger kitten.

As I consider the expected lifespan of my next car, the expected lifespan of me, and trends in technology, it occurred to me: It’s quite possible that this will be the last car I ever buy. Twenty years from now my driving skills will be degrading, and as long as I live in a town of any size, it’s entirely possible that self-driving on-demand cars will be significantly cheaper than car ownership, especially when you take into account how few miles I drive.

My last car. Wow. But…

I don’t really need to replace the Miata at all. There is almost never a time when both the family cars are out of the garage, and the few times it does happen could easily be handled with transport alternatives. I could rent a convertible for road trips. Perhaps I have already bought my last car. Wow.

Often, when I take the old girl out for a spin, I first have to remove the tool boxes and other items piled on top. Home repair and crafts projects lead me to pull items off the shelving next to the car and put them on the top or on the hood for access.

A typical look at the Miata

Perhaps the next four-wheeled item to occupy that slot in the garage will be something like this:

The next thing to live on the right side of the garage?

1

Fun With NORAD

The United States has a massive array of detection equipment all around the world, watching with never-blinking (we hope) vigilance to detect attacks on the US or our allies. Each year that massive network is also put to the much-more-fun purpose of tracking Santa Claus as he makes his way around the world.

The official tracking site is here, and now sports a fun and interactive way to watch the jolly elf’s progress. What a great opportunity to sit down with youngsters over a globe or an atlas and find Santa’s current location, tracking him over places the kid has heard of but may not appreciate as actual places on Earth. What a fun way to have a little geography lesson!

While you’re at it, you might enjoy reading about how this all started. NPR has a short article about how the Continental Air Command got into the Santa-tracking business. It all started with a red phone ringing on the desk of a man whose job it was to be the first to know if we were under attack. A red phone whose number was top secret. It’s a fun story.

8

Journalistic Bias: Not What, but When

There is a curve when it comes to shocking news about a candidate for office. For a couple of weeks after the damning revelations come out, the candidate takes a hit. Then, gradually, the candidate’s numbers recover. We’re seeing that right now with Roy Moore in Alabama. Voters have had time to rationalize voting for someone they would never let near their own daughters.

We’ve seen the curve with candidates from both parties in the past, from a gleefully corrupt Democrat in Louisiana who had time to charm his way out of the doghouse to a presidential candidate who went down to perfectly-timed accusations.

I think this curve is pretty well-known by now. I’ve heard of it, and I’m the last to hear about anything.

So imagine you’re the editor of the Washington Post. You have an explosive story about a candidate in an election of great importance. That election is six weeks away. The story is ready to go — facts checked, sources cross-referenced and background-checked. It’s legit.

I think it’s safe to say the editors of the Washington Post are not big supporters of the Republican Party in its current incarnation. So if you are an editor at The Post who decides when to run this huge piece, there will be a natural temptation to run it at the most damaging time possible for Moore. There would be a temptation to sit on the story for a couple of weeks, to put the sweet spot of the damage curve right on election day.

The Washington Post did not do that. There’s no way to tell if the timing of the story was based on journalistic integrity or incompetence, but they did not time the story for maximum electoral impact. I think that means something.

5

Flat-Earthers are Punking You

99% of Flat-Earthers actually believe the Earth is round. They’re just being dicks.

They’re taking great pleasure as you prove seventeen different ways that the Earth is round, just to shake their heads afterward and say, “Nope, Earth is flat.” Your continued insistence on proving the Earth is round is just plain funny to them.

Welcome to the 4chan world. 4chan is a place where people will say anything if it pisses someone off. It’s “for the lulz.” 4chan is where gamer gate came from, and the place Bannon recruited at least one of his most poisonous people.

Now they are getting all kinds of attention just for saying the Earth is flat. Virtual high-fives were shared between moms’ basements when a few idiot celebrities jumped on board. Kinda like with vaccines. But here’s what you have to understand: Every attempt to expose them, every attempt to use science to show they are wrong, just feeds them. The better your argument, the more fun the “nope”.

Only an idiot would think the Earth is flat. These people aren’t idiots. They’re assholes.

3

I Got To Use My Router Today

It was a big handyman day at Muddled Headquarters today. Relatively speaking.

For one task I needed to cut some grooves in a couple of pieces of wood. I have the perfect tool for that — a very nice router. The thing is, I haven’t used this machine in well over a decade. So a chore that would take an actual handyman maybe fifteen minutes start to finish took me closer to two hours, stretched over two days. First, I had to go to the store to get the correct bit (after searching for and failing to come up with the correct bit in my storage bins). The shopping trip took longer than necessary because I did self check-out wrong. By the time I got home it was dark, and my workshop is the back patio.

This morning(ish) I was right back at it. I have no idea how many trips I made between the garage and the patio — for instance to change the bit on the router I realized one needs a large wrench. Into the garage I went to grab my inch-based set of wrenches, only to discover that they’re all too small. Back into the garage I went to grab all my plus-sized wrenches from where they hang in an orderly row. That made two trips, just to put the right bit into the router. Then there were trips for clamps and shims and scrap-lumber guides, and a special trip for my ruler-square thingie. Then bizz-bang-buzz I was done.

Putting the router away, I pushed aside the guide attachment that would have rendered much of the other fiddling moot.

But I made the grooves. There is something deeply satisfying about a high-precision cut, the clean square groove at just the right location. Making the cut is almost an anticlimax; getting the cut right happens long before the motor of the power tool starts whirring. Carpentry is in the things you do before the blade touches the wood.

6

The Hazing

It was standard at the firm. When a new scientist or engineer was hired, they were given an impossible problem. Sure, it seemed like a reasonable task at first, until it foundered on the fundamental laws of physics. The really bright recruits would catch on in a week or so; most took longer.

Then there was Harper. Six weeks and counting. Burning the midnight oil, submitting massive computation jobs, cursing when she thought no one was listening.

The board had been nervous about Harper. Her academic performance had been good, but not the level the company expected. But Joe Petersen had had a hunch about her. “Give her a shot,” he told the board. “You won’t be sorry.” Now he would have to be the one to eat crow and admit that he had been wrong about her.

It was not the sort of message one gives electronically. It was late but Petersen knew where he would find his latest hire. He knocked gently on her open door before walking into her office. She was sitting back in her chair, her dark hair a mess, deep circles under her eyes, just staring into space, nodding slowly.

“Hello, Alice,” he said.

She seemed to remember where she was. “Hi, Boss.”

“I owe you an apology,” he said. “The task I gave you —”

“I solved it.”

Even worse than he thought. “The task I gave you. It was impossible.”

“Well of course it required super-relativistic interaction between particles with mass,” she said. “Particles going back in time. I saw that right away. But the way you asked the question… It got me thinking.”

“And…?”

Alice Harper shrugged. “And I solved it. I just sent a naked quark back in time to resolve an ambiguous energy state. On paper at least. Can I go home now? I’m very tired.”

“I’ll see you Monday,” Petersen said.

1

It’s the Same Ol’ Lost-Data Story

In the last week I’ve heard from three different friends who all experienced the same heart-stopping, stomach-emptying feeling of doom. The oh-shit-I’m-hosed, no-going-back, if-only feeling of true loss.

Those friends were separated by thousands of miles, and by gulfs of temperament. They are all united in being intelligent, creative people.

In at least two of the cases, the hours of gut-wrenching agony were replaced with vast relief. But even as they expressed their joy to the world, the did not (publicly) resolve to do anything to prevent the same disaster from striking again. They still aren’t backing up their digital files. Two of the three sphincter-clenching moments I witnessed this week were sponsored by lost flash drives.

Aargh! It’s SO DAMN EASY to back your stuff up these days. And free! Dropbox is brain-dead simple and works everywhere. For most people, why do you even have a flash drive? If you DO have a flash drive, why is this little thing that can drop through a hole in your pocket the sole repository of everything you hold dear? I say again, “Aargh!”

Ok, DropBox isn’t the most private cloud storage around (though it isn’t terrible — way better than Google). You can quite easily encrypt your files on DropBox, or perhaps you would prefer tersor.it. Swiss-based DropBox, basically. And speaking of Google, if you don’t mind who reads your stuff, the Goog’s a ubiquitous and free way to back your shit up.

In the IT world, there is a saying: “If it’s not in three places, it doesn’t exist.” I can forgive someone who only keeps their data in two places.

But one place? A flash drive? Sorry, buckaroo, you’re going to have to take my sympathy with an “I told you so.”