Monday, October 28, 2013

HP calculators live on, small thanks to HP

The first pocket-sized scientific calculator in the world was the HP-35, invented by Hewlett Packard and introduced to the world in 1972. HP literally created the market for handheld scientific calculators. Although many worthy competitors arose, none could match HP's quality, reliability and overall superior design. HP was king of the mountain until Carly Fiorina chose to pull the plug on the calculator division sometime in the 1990s, and ceded the entire market to Texas Instruments.

Carly's excuse at the time was that "calculators are not profitable," which was an outright lie. We won't get into that here. That's water under the bridge. The geniuses who invented such dominant creatures as the HP-12C (the financial calculator that refuses to die), the HP-41 series and the HP-48 series, have moved on to other careers. So has Carly. Around HP, some people still spit after they say her name.

HP calculators have a vast and loyal fan base around the world. Some of those fans were later hired by HP to revive the calculator division, but it was too little, too late, and HP has never reclaimed the market. Like I said, that's a topic for another time, and besides, whining about it won't bring back the glory days.

One of the wisest things HP did, after announcing the dissolution of their calculator division, was release their ROMs into the wild. You can find ROM images, and maybe even source code, for many of HP's calculators online. I believe you can even find source code and emulators for the Saturn and other 4-bit CPUs at the heart of the calculators. (No, I won't include links. Go sniffing for them if you want them.)

Thanks to this wise and generous move by some key players inside HP (see the note at the end), their calculators live on. You can now have an HP calculator app on your iOS or Android device. These emulators work as well as the real things, including support for external storage and printers (on some apps).

My (free) recommendations for iOS: i48 (left) and Graphix48 (right).

My (free) recommendations for Android: Droid48 (left) came first. Droid48sx (right) is a beautiful follow-on product.

go48g is a really sweet alternative to Droid48. And if you're an HP-41 fan, go41c is a beautiful (and free!) HP-41 emulator.

On iOS, youcan also buy i41cx, an HP-41CX emulator.
iPhone Screenshot 1

Once you've made the leap from free calculators to ones you actually spend money on, your whole world opens up. You can get expandable versions of the HP48 and HP41 series. You can get the HP-12c and all of its sideways brethren. And you can get my personal favorite, possibly the best overall scientific calculator HP ever made, the HP-42S. What? You've never heard of the 42S? Well, that's another story for another time.

Wait! Don't spend your money yet! Here's an open-source version of the HP-42S emulator! It doesn't use a single bit of HP's ROM images; it merely duplicates the functionality. (Merely? That's a lot of mere.) For iOS (left) and Android (right).
iPhone Screenshot 1 Free42 - screenshot

Free42 is also available for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.

A note about those "key players": The HPers who released all of this code into the wild were not the movers and shakers at the top, who nearly drove this once-great company into the ground. They were a tiny number of HP engineers and engineering managers with a combination of passion, integrity and vision that is seldom seen inside HP anymore. I don't know whether they did it with the executive suite's blessing or not, but either way it was a bold move on the part of the engineers and the engineering managers, for which we thank them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Things we don't do with a telephone or television anymore

With the advance of technology, there are some things we no longer do with our telephones or televisions, although we still use the words. For example:

"Pick up the phone" - It used to be that you answered a telephone call by picking up the handset while the phone was ringing. Or you initiated a phone call by lifting the phone off its hook or out of the cradle. Now you have to press a button to answer the phone or dial a number.

"Hang up the phone" - Most phones today, even cellphones, have a "hang up" button. But you no longer terminate the call and disconnect the line by hanging the handset on the hook on the wall.

"Dial a number" - Numeric touchpads have been de rigueur for over 40 years. I can't recall the last time I saw a dial telephone that still worked. Children and many young adults today don't even know how to use a dial phone.

"The phone is ringing" - Telephones today beep, chirp, warble, and blink. They can also sing you your favorite song or make burping or screaming noises to alert you to a call. But if you want a true ringing telephone, you'll have to download an, um, "ringtone" that sounds like a ringing telephone.

"Turn the TV on/off/up/down" - It used to be that every television had a rotary knob, labeled "ON/VOL" or "OFF/VOL". This knob was a combination on/off switch and volume control, and you had to turn the knob to perform any of the named actions. Other electronic gadgets also had rotary on/off switches, and so "turn me on" became a part of the vernacular. Today, rotary switches are a retro fashion, and they often don't have the same mechanical contacts behind them as the old ones.

"Tune in a channel" - The channel selector used to be a rotary dial with stops at channels 2 through 13. Don't ask about the 1. You wouldn't understand. But even if you turned the dial to, say, 5, channel 5 wouldn't come in clearly until you turned the fine-tuning dial to "tune in" the station. "Automatic fine tuning" was a fancy feature on new TVs in the 1970s, but it still didn't work perfectly. Today, you punch a channel number on the remote, and the TV's electronics take care of the fine-tuning for you. In fact, with digital TV, fine-tuning is a thing of the past.

What I said about TVs also applies to radios.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Feeling sorry for myself: what might have been

A recent tickle from a former colleague on LinkedIn dredged up something from my distant past and sent me on a short tailspin into the Land of What Might Have Been. I'm going to feel sorry for myself, then go to bed and sleep it off. In the morning I'll go to my new job, where I am happy and content and working hard.

This former colleague "endorsed" me for a skill on LinkedIn. She hasn't seen me for about 15 years, so the endorsement doesn't mean much. So I ignored it. Then I fell into my tailspin.

In the late 1990s, I was an extremely competent engineer in my department at Hewlett-Packard. In fact, one year I was the top-rated engineer out of a peer group of about 80 engineers. I was sought after for my technical expertise, my problem-solving skills, and my communication skills. Engineers and non-engineers from other departments came to consult with me.

Our department had three engineering groups. One of the engineering group managers got a promotion, leaving his position vacant. My manager suggested I apply for the position. So did his manager.

I hadn't even considered such a move. I was happy being an engineer. But people had told me over the years that I would make a good manager, and many people had even said, "I would work for you if you were a manager." So I did some research, mainly sounding it out with other engineers and managers, even on the production/operations side, all people whose opinion I valued and trusted. I got unequivocal encouragement from all of them, including votes of confidence from all of the managers, and more "I would work for you" responses from my peers.

The managers' opinions were important to me, because some of them would be on the interview team.

So I applied for the job. I prepped for the interviews. And I did a great job in the interviews. And they gave the job to someone else - one of my fellow engineers was promoted.

Well, she turned out not to be a very good manager. In fact, seeing some of what she did as a manager, I wondered how she had ever gotten the job. I ended up sitting in meetings and on committees with her as the years went by, and - really, this is not  sour grapes - she just wasn't very good at management or leadership.

Then HP and Agilent split. We endured wave after wave of layoffs. I never saw any managers get laid off, or any executives. You would think that the Powers That Be would do the math and figure out that they could save more money by firing one incompetent executive than by laying off ten innocent production workers. Or five hard-working engineers. F#$&ing idiots.

Here's the sorry-for-myself "What Might Have Been" part:

Ten years after leaving Agilent, I am still an engineer, but I am making $10,000 a year less than I was back then, and after ten years of struggle, my personal and family financial situation is precarious.

If I had gotten that promotion, I would now be high up in the management ranks at HP or Agilent. I would be a highly respected manager and leader. I would be making $150,000 a year - or more. We would still be living in that big brick house. And my wife would still have the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom, with all the benefits that go with that. My daughters would not have had to scrimp on their weddings. My musical daughter could have gone to Ithaca College instead of the University of Northern Colorado. We would be living free of debt or other financial worries. And we could be using our time and our wealth to help our children and other people, something we have always wanted to do. Instead, we struggle.

That other engineer that got the job? She has changed employers. At least twice. She has changed careers. She has changed husbands. She has changed her last name. She has even changed her first name. And  she has changed her appearance so drastically that I don't even recognize her photo on LinkedIn. And she has parlayed that promotion into a Chief Technology Officer position in another state. I don't really know her anymore.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Throwing money around "like sewer covers"?

A lot of people don't like Walmart. One of the main reasons is that it's become too big for its oversized britches. Many cities, particularly in the Eastern U.S., are resisting Walmart's attempts to expand buy building in the cities.

Boston mayor Thomas Menino is one of those who don't like Walmart very much. In fact, he dislikes them so much that when Walmart offered to donate to a summer-jobs program in the city, Menino refused their offer. He accused Walmart of trying to buy their way into the city. Said he: "Walmart should settle some of the  social issues they have to deal with first before they come to our city and throw money around like sewer covers."

Really, Mr. Mayor? Is that what people do in Boston? Throw sewer covers - er, manhole covers - around?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Another good "Out of Office" message.

Here's another good "out of office" message.

I’ll be characterizing the performance (simulated vs. actual) of laminated composite low-friction materials against a low-temperature crystalline dihydrogen oxide matrix on Friday the 28th.  I expect to spend 7 to 8 hours performing a complicated series of temperature / altitude / insolation shmoos.  Back on Monday.

The location is Colorado. The date, in case you missed it, is February 28. The intended audience is 12 engineers. Two of them understood the message. Do you?

Monday, July 29, 2013


When I was very young, my mother brought out two different kinds of pie for dessert. There was only enough pie for each person in the family to have one piece. But both flavors looked so delicious, that I couldn't choose.

So when she asked me which one I wanted, I said, with all the innocent honesty of a young child, "Both."

She said, "Then you don't get any."

And she meant it.

How many times in our lives are we given a choice between A and B, and told that we can only have one of them? And how many times in our lives does our indecision leave us with neither one?

It was a harsh lesson to learn, at that young age, and the inhibitions that it built into me have burdened me all of my life.

When my kids were young, we brought out two different kinds of pie for dessert. Just like when I was a child, there was only enough pie for each person in the family to have one piece. One of my children looked longingly at both of them, silent tears forming in her eyes.

I said, "Why don't we give you half a piece of each? Somebody else can take the other halves."

And I meant it.

My children learned a different lesson from the one I learned. Not all of them learned that lesson, but the ones that did have gone on in life to sample and enjoy choices A and B, and also C, D and E. Their lives are richer because nobody put artificial limits on their freedom to choose during their formative years.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My greatest impact

Question from a job interview: "Thinking back on your career, what's the one thing you've done that has had the greatest impact?"

Well, I can't think of one. I'll have to give you three.

First, back in the 1980s, I did something that everybody said couldn't be done. I figured out how to gold-plate the inside of a copper tube. This tube was about 30 centimeters long and had an inside diameter of 7 millimeters. It had to be gold-plated on the inside, to a very exacting specification. I figured out a way to do it that was twice as exact as the specification. That might not seem like much, but these perfectly plated tubes were used to calibrate microwave test equipment, which was in turn used to calibrate and tune the radars in military helicopters and fighter jets. Our two biggest customers were Hughes Aircraft and the U.S. Marines. So, in summary, this is a story like "The House That Jack Built:" I invented a way to gold-plate the tubes, that calibrated the testers, that tested the radars, that went in the aircraft, that were flown by the Marines, that won the Cold War.

Second, I was one of the first 200 employees of Hewlett-Packard's Inkjet Components Operation. We made the printer cartridges that kicked off the inkjet revolution. My job was to turn the nozzle-plate manufacturing operation from a low volume R&D operation to a high volume, high quality, production operation. From 200 employees, our cartridge volume expanded to fill seven factories on three continents. If you open the HP printer on your desk and pull out the printhead cartridge and look at the business end of it, you will see a little gold square, smaller than a postage stamp, with hundreds of tiny holes where the ink comes shooting out. That little gold square is my baby. My work appears in every HP inkjet printer in the world.

But my greatest impact didn't come from my work as an engineer. It came from my work as a teacher. For two years, I taught 7th grade mathematics, and I had an impact on 200 young lives. Some of them came into my classroom hating or fearing mathematics, and unsure of their abilities. Almost every one of them left with an advanced understanding of math, and with increased self-confidence. I didn't just teach mathematics, I taught about math and reading and music and life skills and believing in yourself. Many of my students still keep in touch with me, and it's fun for me to see what they're becoming and what they're doing with their lives. Some of them will change the world, and I will take my share of credit for that. That is my greatest impact.

Note for my seminary students: I didn't mention you in the interview. But for the record, I was an early-morning seminary teacher for 12 years, off and on, over a period of 30 years. I taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through the scriptures, to hundreds of high-school students over those years, for an hour every morning before school started. But it wasn't just book learning. I taught you how to search for and find spiritual truth on your own, how to recognize it, how to test it, and how to apply it in your lives. The spiritual foundation that you young people built for yourselves in my classes has sustained you through the years, kept you morally strong, and guided you through your life experiences as individuals and in your own families. Many of the things that I taught you have been passed down to your own children. That is an impact equal to, or greater than, the impact I had on my mathematics students.

Note for my children and my adopted children: Forget "impact." You are the greatest things I ever did in my life. I didn't mention you in the interview either. I didn't need to.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Stevie Wonder is Wrong to Boycott Florida

Stevie Wonder clearly doesn't understand what "Stand Your Ground" is all about, or he would be for it, not against it.

Florida's "Stand your Ground" law was passed to protect people who are bullied, abused, or attacked. But George Zimmerman did not use "Stand your Ground" in his defense in court. It was the newspapers and media that made all the noise about it, not Zimmerman or his lawyers.

And it was never meant to justify the winner in a street fight. "Stand your Ground" is an outgrowth or extension of the Castle Doctrine, which finds expression in Colorado's 1985 "Make My Day Law," among others. "Make My Day" allows you to use deadly force against an intruder in your home. "Stand Your Ground" simply means that you don't have to cower or run away when someone attacks you; you're allowed to fight back.

In fact, "Stand Your Ground" could be used to justify Trayvon Martin's actions, not Zim's. Martin is not around to give his side of the story, but it could plausibly be argued that Zim attacked him first, and he was fighting back - and winning the fight - when Zim shot him. This plausible argument is the reason that Zim's legal team did not use "Stand Your Ground."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dear Enersys: I'm not going to work for you.

Dear Enersys:

Someone pointed me to a test engineer job opening at your space batteries facility in Colorado. I read the job posting, did some more research on Enersys, and was intrigued enough to apply for the job.

Your online job application webpage is insulting, and tedious in the extreme. It consists of endless pages of online forms to fill out, and a watchdog timer on the website only gives me 45 minutes to fill them out. One of the first pages is the "Upload your resume/CV" page. The subsequent pages all require me to manually re-enter all of the information that already exists on my résumé. I'm not going to re-type all of that.

I didn't wait 45 minutes. After 25 minutes, I decided that if working for Enersys was as painful as applying for a job there, then it wasn't worth any more of my time. And you can bet that if I was put off by the application process, then so were hundreds of other qualified applicants - at least one of which might have been vital to your future success. I'm the only one who bothered to write anything about it.

I would say "I'm sorry," but it's your fault, not mine.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Best Temporary Job in the World

My son is currently serving as a Mormon missionary in California. I write to him every week. Most of my life currently revolves around my job search, and I'm sure my  letters get boring. This week's letter was a little different.

It helps if you know ahead of time that we live in a townhome on a dead-end street. All the garages are on the alleys behind the townhomes.

Hi Chris,

So, this week I decided I should at least get a temporary job to bring in more money than unemployment insurance does, until the real job works out. I contacted a temp agency I'd worked with before, called 10 Til 2. It's run by a lady named Ginny.

Ginny asked if I would be willing to do data analysis. It required some programming skill, and it would be a lot like editing a book. She said that if I were a good writer, I could certainly be an editor. Basically, I had to write computer programs to look for stuff in computer files. What kinds of computer files? She wouldn't say. I asked how much it paid, and she said $50 an hour if I was any good, or $100 for "hazardous duty." I asked what "hazardous duty" was. She laughed. I figured she was making a joke. $50 is pretty good money.

That was Monday. On Tuesday morning, a guy in a black suit showed up at the house. He looked a lot like the government agent that managed the Incredibles. Well, that's not what he looked like, but that's what he reminded me of. He had an old-fashioned leather briefcase. When I let him into the house, he asked to see my office. Well, it's an Ikea desk in the loft. So I took him upstairs.

I kid you not. He pulled a brand-new Alienware laptop PC out of that old briefcase. This thing had 16 GB of memory, and a water-cooled NVidia graphics card. How do you  fit a WATER-COOLED graphics card into a laptop? I don't know, but that graphics card had serious processing power. He said that I wouldn't be using it for graphics. They'd written a special driver that used the GPUs on the graphics card to do really high-speed numerical computations.

I said I would connect it to our DSL router. His face went white, and he looked shocked. He said that I should NEVER do that. The machine had its own cellular modem, all paid for and everything, and he told me to use that exclusively — never WiFi or ANYTHING else. I must have looked suspicious, because he then patted me on the shoulder — PATTED ME ON THE SHOULDER! — and said that they had a lot of corporate secrets to protect, and the cellular modem was 256-bit encrypted. Ooooooookayyyyyyyyyyy.

He set up my email for me, and told me that all my assignments would come via email. I asked him how I should log my time, and he said, "Don't worry about it. Just complete your assignments. If it takes you less time than we expect, that's cool."

After another hour of training, he left. I logged on and found 3 assignments in my email. They were all more or less the same: an FTP location where I could retrieve a ZIP file containing thousands of files; and a list of things to look for in the files. The list in the first assignment was just a bunch of phone numbers. Well, they looked like phone numbers. They didn't have any dashes, but they were 10-digit strings, and the first 3 digits were obviously area codes.

Python is a cool programming language. It can do just about anything. Whatever I couldn't do in Python, I did in C++. Oh, and this computer ran Linux. I LOVE Linux!

So by about 2:30 on Monday, I finished the first assignment and emailed my results to the address at the bottom of the first email. By 4:30 I finished the second one, and I kept working on the third one until 5:45, when I finally hit Send. Mom kept dinner waiting for me.

On Tuesday, I did about 5 assignments, and then I went to a 7 o'clock meeting. When I came back around 9 p.m., I saw about a dozen police cars in our tiny neighborhood, all with their lights off, but people inside. In the alley behind our house were two black cars. Like what Scott drives. Like Men In Black. I had to blink my lights and honk at one to get him to move, so I could park in the garage.

I asked Mom if she knew what all the cop cars were for. She was asleep in the Chair of Eternal Slumber, and hadn't seen or heard a thing. We figured The Neighbor From Hell was up to something. I took Baggy for a walk, in the single-family homes part of the neighborhood, like I usually do. I saw about 3 cop cars up there, crawling along with all their lights off, in the dark. Baggy and I were on the bike trails, but I think the cars were shadowing us.

I was getting rather bold, and if you'll forgive the expression, pissed, so on my way back in, I stopped by one of the MIB cars and knocked on the driver's side window. When he rolled down the window, I said in as rude a voice as I could, "What the hell are you doing?"

The. Guy. Didn't. Even. Flinch. He pointed at the "3230" over the garage door and said, "Do you live here?" When I said yeah, he asked, "Are you SquirrelBait?" That was the email login the Incredibles guy had given me. I said, even more rudely, "Who's asking?" He just said, "Good night, Mr. Depew. We're here to make sure you have a good sleep."

Okay, that was weird.

I got up twice in the middle of the night to  go to the bathroom. The black sedans were still in the alley. I counted three cop cars out front the first time. The second time, I saw six cars(!) on our little street. The cops had cuffed two people and were shoving them into one of the cars. You can bet both your tarjetas that I didn't tell Mom.

When I got up at 6, all of the cars were gone, but there were a green Accord and a white utility van across the street. The Accord was parked close to Newcastle Drive, and the utility van was down at the other end of the street. Both cars had guys in them all day long.

I only had one assignment Wednesday. I had to FTP six huge ZIP files. They were like 30 GB each. It should have taken hours. I think it took 10 minutes at most. Weird. Then I had to search everything in the zip files for three particular patterns, and whenever I found one of the patterns I was supposed to send an excerpt of the file in an email, then open a Skype-like connection, call somebody named "Robert," and report it immediately.

The first three times I reported a hit, Robert just said "thank you" and cut the connection. The fourth time, he got really excited, said "Stand by," and ran out of the picture. Does this feel kind of see eye ay / enn ess ay to you? That's what I thought. When Robert came back into the picture, the Incredibles guy was with him. The Incredibles guy asked me to describe all the cars on Springfield Drive. I ran downstairs, looked out the front window, and ran back up to tell him. He said "DID YOU OPEN THE FRONT DOOR?!!" And I said, "No, I looked out the window." Moron. Then he asked me who was parked out back. So I looked out the bedroom window and told him.

The only unusual cars out front were the Accord and the white van, and the MIB cars had reappeared out back. He looked relieved when I told him that. I heard a BUNCH of sirens in the distance, which usually means one of the old people living in the houses next to the golf course is having a really bad day. I casually mentioned that to Robert and Incredible. They said, "When you hear a knock on the door, close your computer and take it with you. Answer the door and go with whoever's there."

Honestly? I didn't know what was going on. The sirens were getting louder. I said, "What about my wife? She's out shopping." Incredible said, "Don't worry. She's safe." SAFE??!?!! I thought of calling Ginny, telling her this wasn't funny, and demanding more than $100 an hour. I had NO IDEA what I was getting into.

Finally, Robert had the good sense to ask if my search program had scored any more hits. I looked at the output window and it had about 30 hits. I emailed them to him. He got the email and read it while I was standing there, listening to the sirens getting louder. Just as the doorbell rang, he said to somebody offscreen: "They've landed in Phoenix. Move. NOW!" Then he turned to me, and said, "That's your doorbell. Go."

I know what you're thinking: WTF? That's exactly what I was thinking. One the one hand, this was the coolest temp job I'd ever had. On the other hand, I was scared out of my wits. I didn't know what was happening. I felt like I was the confused guy in a Harrison Ford thriller movie. Or Bruce Willis in Die Hard or something.

Did I mention that Baggy was going crazy? You would have thought that UPS, FedEx, the mailman, and Grandma had all driven up at the same time. I didn't know an 82-year-old dog could move that fast. Or make that much noise.

So I unplugged the computer and closed it, and ran down the stairs with it under my arm. Whoever was outside started doing the ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong thing on the doorbell. I grabbed Baggy and flung open the door and there was the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen.

She was about five-six, wearing an emerald-green business suit — you know, a skirt and jacket. She was built like a ... well, a Miss America winner with an extra 30 pounds of beef on her bones. Solid muscle, though. She had long, wavy, dark-brown hair. Well-turned legs, and heels the same color as her suit. And she was carrying a semi-auto pistol that said "H&K" on it. I've seen enough of your Airsoft guns to know what she was doing. Her finger was beside the trigger, and the safety was on, but she obviously meant business.

I just stood there with my jaw on the tiles, and drool running down my chin. I had the computer under one arm, and Baggy's collar in the other hand. I didn't know what to stare at: her face, her gun, or her chest. I must have been staring at her gun, because she said, "Don't worry, Mr. Depew. This isn't meant for you. It's meant to protect you. Come with me please. MOVE!"

I don't know if it was the imperative tone in her "MOVE!" or the two guys dressed in black BDUs with M16s, like you when you're playing Airsoft, standing out at the curb, but I MOVED. I shoved Baggy behind the door, stepped out and closed it. The. Lady. Locked. The. Door. (Where did she get the key? I STILL don't know.) The two BDU guys weren't pointing their guns at me, by the way. They had their backs to me, and were pointing 'em everywhere else. We all piled into a crap-brown Pontiac Aztek sitting in front of The Neighbor From Hell's house.

I said, "ARE YOU KIDDING? AN AZTEK? YOU GUYS ARE KIDNAPPING ME IN AN AZTEK?" I think I threw some four-letter words in there for extra effect.

As the driver took the corner at Newcastle on two wheels, and on two wheels again at Tabernash, he said, "The body is the only Aztek thing in here. The windows are an inch thick. The body panels and floorboards are backed with laminated armor plate, made of cobalt-steel and Kevlar. The suspension is adapted from a Humvee. The wheels are from Big O, but the tires are puncture-proof Big O lookalikes.The engine and tranny are custom-made by Allis-Chalmers. We've got six forward gears, two reverse, and compound low. It can go zero to sixty in 3.5 seconds and it tops out at a hundred and forty. "

By the time he finished saying this, we were eastbound on Eisenhower, going around the lake. The driver kept talking. "The interior was redone by Northrop Grumman. Angel here," pointing to the gorgeous babe, "has her pistol hardmounted in a gunport." (I thought "That's why they call it 'shotgun,'" but I didn't say that out loud) "And her friends have their M-16s hardmounted in gunports behind you." I looked, and the BDU guys really did. They had their M-16s poking out through the fenders above the rear tires.

I thought, "Chris would wet his pants if he could see this. He'd wet them twice!"

"So," said the driver, "good enough for you?"

I wasn't thinking very straight. Like a true redneck, I said, "Yeah, I guess. But WHY A CRAP-BROWN AZTEK?"

I think that this driver and I were hitting it off. By now we were speeding past Mountain View HS and the stake center. I noticed that we had two police cars clearing the way in front of us, a SWAT van tailgating us, and police cars with flashing lights blocking every. Single. Intersection. The driver grinned and said, "Because, who would ever suspect a crap-brown Aztek of this kind of action? Its ugliness makes it invisible!"

I had to admit: he had a point. In the 30 minutes it took us to get to Denver (yeah — 30 minutes — well, actually, more like 25), he and I hit it off pretty well. Angel, the gorgeous babe, didn't say much. The BDU guys were talking into their mikes almost constantly, and every once in a while Angel would say something into her earpiece, too. I think that the driver kept up the conversation with me so that I couldn't hear what they were saying.

About the time we flew past the Brighton exit and the E-470 interchange, Angel told (not asked, TOLD) me to open my laptop and finish running the analysis of those files. I got about 12 more hits from those megafiles, and that was about it. When we got to the carpool lanes, they were closed and empty. The cop cars smashed through the closed gates, and we followed them down the carpool lanes, taking a left at the split and going right past Coors Field. We drove UNDERNEATH one of the big highrises downtown, and pulled up beside an old rusty steel door.

The rusty steel door slammed open and six more BDU guys ran out and surrounded the Aztek, with their guns pointed outward. Angel, the driver and the two BDU guys hustled me out of the Aztek and inside the door, where we went into an elevator. It had two buttons: UP, and DOWN. They pressed UP, the doors closed, and my stomach fell out through the soles of my shoes.

I was alternating between "Oh wow, this is so cool!" and "Holy crap, what did Ginny get me into?" Once in a while I would think "What about Valerie? What about Baggy?" but mostly it was "oh wow" and "holy crap".

When the elevator stopped, my stomach jumped up into my nasal cavities. I didn't feel the urge to vomit, but if I had sneezed I think that my entire breakfast would have come out my nose. We stepped out onto a floor that was completely open and unfinished. Concrete floor, steel pillars, bare ceiling beams, and dirty plastic dropcloths covering all the windows. In the center of the floor were the elevator and restrooms. Oh, and drinking fountains and a tiny break area. It looked like we were on the top floor of the tallest skyscraper in Denver, but I don't know. I couldn't see much out of the windows. There was a patio door on each side, and my driver muttered to me that there were eight sniper teams and two rocket launchers out on the wraparound balcony.

This whole time, I had been thinking, "What am I gonna do when I get to wherever they're taking me?" Now that I was there, I was thinking, "Now what am I gonna do?"

Then Robert and Incredible walked around the corner from the restrooms. They seemed to be in a big hurry. They grabbed me and pulled me out from the middle of the guns, over to a collapsible table with four or five folding chairs in front of it. And three other laptops running other programs. I saw tracking programs, with vehicle or aircraft tracks superimposed on Google Earth-style terrain, satellite tracking programs, running transcripts of phone and radio conversations, a chat program populated by what looked like a SWAT team somewhere. And SOMEBODY had a Phineas and Ferb cartoon running in a tiny window in the corner.

They told me to turn on my laptop and show them what I'd found. They were pretty rude, actually. There was no "please" or "thank you." It was "do this" and "now do that." I was getting kinda ticked off, and I was sure gonna tell Ginny at 10 Til 2 about it.

There were people sitting at other folding tables, too. But they were all government agents, of one flavor or another. I still didn't know who I was working for. They were looking at other laptops and talking or yelling into telephones and headsets. Finally, one kid about 30 years old pounded on his table, jumped up, pointed at a wide-screen TV hanging from the ceiling, and said, "There they are! LOOK!"

I felt like I was in a Tom Clancy novel. Weird. The TV showed what looked like video from a news chopper, but the crosshairs in the middle of the picture meant that it wasn't from a NEWS chopper. The video showed a white Escalade and a black BMW SUV racing across a desert, past mesquite and sagebrush, and suddenly about a dozen black Ford Excursions zeroed in on them from all directions. The BMW tried some crappy Hollywood evasive maneuver and rolled. One Excursion peeled off to follow the BMW, but the rest forced the Escalade to stop. Then a Humvee with a big monster machine gun turret on the roof pulled right up to the Escalade's nose.

The Escalade tried to back up. There was a puff of smoke from the muzzle of the machine gun, and then a  cloud of black smoke from under the Escalade's hood. I thought, "Holy crap, I'm glad the police in Fort Collins just pull you over and ask to see your license." Then I thought "I wonder what the bad guys look like?" Sure enough, the next second they pulled, like, EIGHT bad guys out of the Escalade and made them lie facedown in the desert. They looked like regular old American businessmen, except they had dark, curly hair and tan hands.

And no, I'm not profiling. That's what they looked like.

Everybody cheered, and then they all started talking to each other. But nobody talked to me. Somebody said, "Yeah, they said six flights. Six different airports, six different targets" Somebody else said, "We figure over 100,000 lives saved." Finally Robert came over and said, "Mr. Depew, your work just helped us stop another nine-eleven incident. We brought you here because we knew your life would be in danger if these guys knew what you were working on, and because we need you to do some more analysis for us."

It wasn't even lunchtime yet! It was, like, 10:30 in the morning. And suddenly I realized that my heart was pounding faster and harder than the engine in my old Mustang.

They made me stay in that unfinished penthouse for two more days. They said Mom was okay and that she had armed bodyguards. I'll bet she was loving that.

I sat at the same table with everybody else, but instead of emailing me the assignments, they would shove a USB stick at me and say, "Here. Analyze this." We ate well. These guys had breakfast burritos, gourmet pizza, Chinese food, and fantastic barbecue takeout, three times a day. Plus awesome munchies and gourmet soda pop. Well, half of them drank Coke nonstop. I slept on a sleeping bag on the floor, and didn't shower for three days.

On Friday about 4:30, that same crappy brown Aztec pulled up in front of the house and let me out. I didn't get a police escort this time. All the bad guys had been caught. As I walked into the house, Mama was sitting in the Chair of Eternal Slumber, chatting with Angel, who was sitting on the couch wearing VERY tight jeans and a men's white dress shirt. Angel stood up, said goodbye to Mom, shook my hand, and went out the door. She got in the passenger side of the Aztek and waved as the thing drove away.

Then I turned to Mom, and she said, "What was THAT all about?" I gave her the U.S. Government check for $8000. Not bad for one week's work. Especially as a temp. Her eyes bugged out and she looked at me with a big question mark over her head. I said, "Overtime, hazardous duty, and a bonus, because we caught the bad guys."

She said, "What bad guys?"

I said, "You'd never believe it if I told you."

Not one word of this story is true. I wish it were. Wouldn't that be an awesome temp job?


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

This Church is All About Love

The Mormon church found itself under the harsh spotlight of national scrutiny during the 2012 presidential campaign. Most of the scrutiny involved people who were curious and, for the first time in their lives, wanted to know what Mormons believed, why they believed, how they lived, and so on.

Some of the scrutiny came from people who had already made up their minds about the Mormons, and were looking for evidence to support their preconceptions. One of these false notions is the idea that Mormon men hold onto power in the church by keeping the priesthood for themselves and by maintaining a strict hierarchy.

Because the church doesn't have a paid clergy, members serve voluntarily and without pay in leadership positions. Members do not campaign or lobby for positions; rather, they are asked, or "called," to serve in these positions after considerable prayer and meditation by their leaders. They are expected to serve for only a few months or a few years in any given position.

I have served for three years in the leadership councils of our local stake - a collection of congregations, similar to a Catholic diocese. In all the stake councils and meetings that I have attended, I have been constantly impressed at how the focus is always on the individuals in the stake, how the leaders of the stake know them all by name, and how much they love them.

They love these people with the pure love that Christ had for the Samaritan woman at the well, for the woman taken in adultery, for the woman who touched the hem of his robe as he walked by, and for his beloved friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The leaders of the Mormon church, all these men in their business suits, white shirts and ties, wielding the priesthood of God, are motivated by only one thing: love.

Power has nothing to do with it. Here is an illustration of the love that motivates these men.

In a recent meeting of the local stake, over 1200 people gathered to see a new stake president installed. The night before the meeting, a woman in the stake had her feelings deeply hurt by some other women in the stake.

I'm certain that the offenders did not mean to offend. In fact, I'm certain that they didn't even know that they had hurt this woman. Nobody is to blame; they did not know her situation, and had they known, I'm sure that they would have held their tongues. There is no need to confront them or hold them accountable.

However it happened, this poor sister went home on Saturday night so hurt that she could not bring herself to attend the meeting the next day. She had wanted to participate in the program, to show her honor and love for the outgoing stake president; but instead, she stayed home.

She did not make a big deal out of it. But her absence was noted, a friend made inquiries, and word of her hurt made its way quietly - and confidentially - and swiftly - to the very top of  the stake. The leaders made arrangements to quietly visit this woman in her home, and to make sure that she knew firsthand of their love for her.

Do you remember what Jesus said to the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' robe as he walked by? "Daughter, be of good comfort." And do you remember what Jesus said about giving alms to the poor? "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." Without fanfare or publicity, these leaders simply "[go] about doing good," following the example of their Master, Him for whom the church is named.

You see, "Mormon" is just a nickname. The true name of the Mormon church is "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I Can Feel Her Staring at Me!

"I Can Feel Her Staring at Me!" A Scientific Analysis

When I was in high school, there was a girl in the cafeteria who stared at me. Every day. My friends and I would sit at a table at one end of the cafeteria, laughing and joking and eating our lunch, and I would get a creepy feeling that somebody was watching me. Sometimes I would turn around and catch this girl, sitting clear across the cafeteria, eating alone and staring at me. Other times I would point furtively, in the direction the creepy feeling was coming from, and ask my friends if somebody over there was staring at me. They would look in the direction I was pointing and announce that yes, she was staring at me again.

When we would catch her staring, she wouldn't look away, get embarrassed, or deny it. She would just smile, wave and continue staring.

I eventually got over the creepiness. She was a nice kid, and in time we became friends. But I always wondered why I could feel her staring at me, and why I could tell where she was sitting. I think I've finally got it figured out. Here is the scientific reason for why you can feel someone staring at you. It's rather long and involved, and admittedly anticlimactic, but hey, somebody's got to do it.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

First, you need to know a few things about the electromagnetic spectrum — the "rainbow."

Everything in the universe radiates energy. You're most familiar with the energy known as "visible light" — you know, ROY G. BIV, the colors of the rainbow. But not all light is visible. If you go past violet light, you find ultraviolet light, then X-rays, and then gamma radiation. On the other end of the rainbow, beyond red light, you have infrared light, then microwaves, and finally radio waves.

You have to get comfortable with the words "radiation" and "light" being synonymous. Normally we think of "light" as the good stuff we can see, that makes our world bright and warm and happy, and "radiation" as the dangerous stuff we can't see, that makes our world dangerous and sunburned and radioactive. In science, all electromagnetic radiation, from gamma rays through visible light and all the way down to radio waves, is called "radiation" — or, in the vernacular, "light." All of it. Scientists use the two terms interchangeably.

Light, or radiation, has different colors, or "wavelengths". Each wavelength has a different amount of energy associated with it. The higher the energy, the more stuff the light can shine through. For example, X-rays have enough energy to shine right through a human body, although they don't shine as well through teeth or bone as through soft tissue. That's why doctors and dentists find them useful. Gamma rays have so much energy that they can only be blocked by several inches of lead, or several feet of concrete. Microwaves have so little energy that they can be contained in a metal box the size of, well, a microwave oven.

What does all this have to do with that girl in the cafeteria? We're getting there. First, let's see what you can do with light.

Absorption, reflection, and radiation

All material things in the world absorb light. The fact that they absorb different wavelengths of light is what makes the world so colorful. Consider four automobiles: a white car, a red car, a green car, and a black one. The red car absorbs all the light from the sun, except for the red light. It re-radiates, or reflects, the red light away from itself. Your eyes see the red light and perceive the car as red. Likewise, the green car absorbs all but the green light and reflects the green light, which your eyes see. The white car absorbs very little light, reflecting most of it back to your eyes. The black car absorbs most of the sun's light, in every wavelength, reflecting just enough light for you to see the lines of its body.

What do things do with the energy that they absorb? They have to do something with it; it can't just disappear. They turn it into another form of energy. Solar cells take visible light and turn it into electrical energy. Plants use visible and ultraviolet light to power the photosynthesis engines in their cells. (In fact, plants use most of the visible light. The only wavelengths they can't use are yellow and green, so they reflect those colors, which is why we see grass and trees as green.)

Objects also emit, or radiate, their own energy. The sun radiates a mixture of wavelengths which, when combined, appear to our eyes as white light. A hot stove radiates energy in the red and infrared wavelengths. Your eyes can see the red, and your body can feel the heat, or the infrared energy, radiating from the stove top.

Some objects absorb light at one wavelength and re-radiate it at a different wavelength, usually (or always) a lower-energy wavelength. Fluorescent paints or dyes absorb ultraviolet light and re-radiate the energy as various colors of visible light.

Most objects, however, absorb the energy from light, turn it into heat energy, and radiate it as infrared light. This is why a black dog lying in the sun gets so toasty warm. And, going back to our example of the cars, this is the reason why a black car gets hotter sitting in the summer sun than a white car. The white car reflects most of the sun's energy, while the black car soaks it all up, turning it into heat and raising the interior's temperature to unhealthy levels.

The fact that everything radiates energy is why infrared goggles and cameras can "see in the dark." They're not looking for visible light, but for the infrared light that everything radiates.

Now let's talk about eyeballs.

Black bodies

The wavelength of light emitted by an object depends on the amount of energy in the object, and the amount of thermal energy stored in an object is determined by its temperature. So theoretically, everything at a given temperature emits the same radiation.

Physicists like to talk about an imaginary object that absorbs all the energy that hits it. Like the black car in our example, which absorbs most visible light, physicists imagine this object painted a black that even absorbs the invisible radiation below red and beyond violet. They call this imaginary object a "black body."

The U. S. Air Force has a few aircraft that are pretty good at absorbing radiation and not reflecting any back, and not radiating very much of their own, either. These Stealth aircraft are painted a dull black on the outside, and they're made from materials that even absorb the radio and microwave energy of radar beams. They have special air channels to cool down the hot exhaust gases of their jet engines. They're practically invisible in the night sky — they are the physicists' "black bodies."

The Holy Grail for these physicists is an "ideal black body" — one that would absorb all wavelengths or energies of electromagnetic radiation that shine upon it, and not reflect or radiate any energy at all. If such an object existed, it would be the purest black you've ever seen. It would have a surface that was a deep, soft black — deeper and softer than black velvet, blacker than the soot on the inside of a chimney.

The problem is that any object you can make — say a black velvet brick, dipped in soot — will still reflect just enough light that you can see its edges, discern its shape. The "ideal black body" would be so perfectly black that, sitting on your kitchen table, it would look like an odd-shaped hole in the fabric of the universe.

(See the end of this article for a cool update about that "odd-shaped hole in the fabric of the universe.")

One of the most useless things I learned in school, I thought, was how to make an ideal black body. Imagine you have a block of coal or charcoal — something really black. Now imagine that there's a bubble inside this block, a spherical cavity near the surface, like the bubbles in a block of Swiss cheese. Now, shave away at the surface of the block, one thin layer at a time, until you just barely break into the bubble. If you shine a flashlight beam — or better yet, a laser pointer — through that pinhole into the bubble, the light will bounce around on the curved inside walls until all of it is absorbed and none of it comes back out the hole. That cavity in the block has all the characteristics of an ideal black body.

When I was in college, I could think of few mental exercises as useless as that ideal black body. I could think of nothing in the world that approximated such a construction. Many years later, looking into the eyes of my newborn son, I found one.

Think of the human eye. It's a spherical shape. It has a pinhole opening in the front — an adjustable pinhole called the "pupil." The pupil admits light into the eye, where it bounces around until most of it is absorbed. The lens behind the pupil ensures that most of the light gets absorbed at the back of the eye, in a remarkable structure called the "retina." The cells of the retina absorb different wavelengths of light, converting the light's energy into electrochemical signals that are sent to the brain and help us perceive light, color, and shapes — red cars and green cars, black dogs and laser pointers.

The eye is not quite an ideal black body: its inner surface is not painted black. If you take a flash picture and the flash is too close to the lens of the camera, then the blood vessels on the inner surface of the eye will reflect red light back to the camera, resulting in the obnoxious "red-eye" effect that has plagued casual photographers since the days of Pocket Instamatic cameras.

Okay, now imagine a room where everything in the room is at the same temperature, so everything is emitting the same wavelength, and mostly the same intensity, of radiation. Through an infrared camera, you would see an even grey (or green) picture — well, not "even," but uniformly random.

Now, imagine that somebody in the room lights up a cigarette, or pulls out one of those hand-warmer packets you see at ski resorts. Using an IR camera, you will see a non-random, bright spot against the uniformly random background. If infrared light were visible light, the sudden appearance of this visible light would draw everyone's attention like a strobe or a flashlight beam.

(Time for a mental detour!

Question: Why does everybody turn in the direction of a flash, a sudden movement, or other changes in their field of vision?

Answer: I think it's an instinct that goes back to the days of cavemen, of predator and prey. The ability to notice a change in the wind, the sound of a snapping twig, or a moving shape among the trees, could mean the difference between life and death. Those who noticed subtle changes in their surroundings survived, and those who didn't notice, didn't survive. The instinct remains with us today, being useful on the basketball court, on the battlefield, and in the corporate boardroom.)

Now, imagine the same room as before, and this time somebody has a shoebox with a lid, the inside painted black, and a hole cut in one end. When the hole is turned to face the camera, the IR camera sees the hole as a non-random, black spot against the uniformly random background — just like the cigarette or the hand warmer, but dark instead of light. Why wouldn't everyone's attention be drawn to the sudden appearance of the black hole?

Well, what makes you think that it isn't?

Feeling is believing

We need to change the subject for a moment: let's talk about biology. Your skin has nerve endings just under the surface. These nerve endings give you the sense of touch. Some nerve endings respond to skin temperature: cold, warm and hot. Skin can be warmed or cooled by air, water, rocks, dogs — or light. (Well, warmed by light, not cooled by it. We already talked about that.)

In some creatures, these temperature-sensitive nerve endings are directional. Pit vipers, such as rattlesnakes, have organs in a pair of "pits" on their snout, which they use to "see" heat in three dimensions.

My theory is that the temperature-sensitive nerve endings in your skin are also somewhat directional. When camping in the woods on a cold night, you can close your eyes, hold up your arm, and turn your hand like a vane to find the source of warmth that is the campfire, even from a considerable distance. Try it sometime. You can also use your face, your neck or any other exposed skin to find the campfire.

Now, imagine that you're standing in the center of a ring of campfires, on a cold night, and there's a gap with no campfire. (You may not be able to really try this.) Your brain and all the thermal receptors in your skin will work together to find the direction of that gap in the ring — the absence of radiated heat — even with your eyes closed.

Okay, so what about that girl staring at you?

Now you've got all the pieces to answer the question of why you can feel somebody staring at you. It's time to put all the pieces together.

You're sitting in a crowded restaurant. People are milling all around you, minding their own business, nobody looking directly at you. But then the thermal receptors on your ear, your cheek, or the back of your neck detect an anomaly in the uniformly random infrared background — a dark spot, a pinpoint absence of energy.

Two pinpoints, in fact. Someone all the way across the restaurant is staring at you. The pupils in her eyes are the focal points of two ideal black bodies, absorbing instead of emitting infrared radiation.

Your directional, sensory nerves communicate their readings to your brain, which subconsciously processes the anomaly, determines its location, and either sends your motor nerves the instinctive command to turn your head and glance in that direction, or sends the emotional center of your brain a creepy feeling, one that makes you ask your dining companion, "Is somebody staring at me from over there?" while you make furtive gestures over there. If you or your friend look, you may catch the person staring at you.

With any luck, she will flash a radiant white smile at you, which will warm you instantly — and all because two ideal black bodies in her head caused a low-energy anomaly in the random thermal background radiation, which your rattlesnake-like sense of touch detected, all the way across the room.


UPDATE, April 17, 2017: The Smithsonian Magazine has written about two black pigments that are so black that they reflect only a miniscule fraction of light. Objects painted with these pigments really do look like "odd-shaped holes in the fabric of the universe." The pigments are not without controversy in the artist world, ironically. Here are the links to read about vantablack and Black 2.0.

© 2013 Zyzmog Galactic Headquarters. If you copy or reprint this, just let me know. That's all. And include the reference in your paper or blog. If you plagiarize, your professor will find out. Both professors and plagiarism detectors read this blog.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The IRS "Apologizes"

The news outlets are full of words from IRS officials, saying "we apologize" for targeting certain groups which had applied for non-profit status in the past six years.

Do they "apologize" for all the extra money those groups had to spend to comply with the demands of the IRS? Do they "apologize" for the lost time that those groups had to spend? Do they apologize for, let's be honest, harassing those groups and effectively abridging their freedom of speech?

You know, in a lot of cases, a victim will be charitable and noble and say, "I don't want their money. I don't want them to go to jail. I just want a sincere apology."


The IRS is in the business of taking our money. That's their mission. If they don't get the money they're due, they will fine you, garnish your wages, shut down your business, throw you in jail, and commit all sorts of other legally-sanctioned nasty things.


We want to see the IRS treated the same way, when they abuse tax law, as the rest of us are treated when we abuse tax law. And more, because they acted from a position of ultimate power.

We want to see heads roll. We want to see people fired. We want to see people forbidden from ever having another job that includes handling other peoples' money. We want to see them reduced to WalMart greeters and lawnmower operators.

Moreover, we want to see the guilty parties jailed. From the minions all the way up to the directors, we want to see everyone in the chain of command, who knew about this or should have known about it, and who could have done something to stop it but didn't - we want them to serve jail time.

And we want to see financial restitution. That's right: we want to see the IRS financially penalized for their evil behavior. Hit 'em where it counts, just like they do to us. It would be really nice to see the money distributed among their victims.

But none of this will happen. A few people will get fired, but not very many, and certainly not the guilty ones. After six weeks or less, we'll be back to business as usual. That's the way Washington works.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

From 'Sideshow' to Three-Ring Circus

Yesterday I posted a short article, rebutting the Obama administration's assertion that the Benghazi affair was just a 'sideshow.' Boy, how things have changed overnight.

It turns out that the Obama administration is engaged in a full-blown three-ring circus. After last night's bombshell about the Associated Press, we have the following three scandals involving the Executive Branch. And if they weren't scandals before, they are now — or will be soon.

1. Benghazi. It is now clear that the State Department never told us the truth about what happened in Benghazi. Secretary of State Clinton's "What difference does it make?" dismissal of some of the important facts will come back to haunt her next year, should she decide to run for President.

2. The IRS. It is now clear that the Department of the Treasury was using the IRS as a tool to hound and harass non-profit groups with a clear political agenda  — in short, abridging their freedom of speech. It is also clear that higher-ups in both the IRS and the Executive Branch were aware of this practice long before they said they were, and that they allowed it to continue. One could even accuse them of ordering it or mandating it. The IRS and the Treasury Dept. stomped on Americans' constitutional right to free speech.

3. The AP phone records grab. This is brand-new news, and it is developing even as I write this blog entry. But it is already clear that the Justice Department secretly and illegally stole two months' worth of telephone records from Associated Press reporters. DOJ's excuse for doing this was that they were trying to stop an unauthorized leak from inside the White House (as opposed to an "authorized leak"? what a bunch of clumsy idiots!) , but they totally flouted the law to do this, acting imperiously, maybe even dictatorially, and having a potentially chilling effect on the AP's ability to investigate and report the news. This time it was DOJ that stomped on Americans' constitutional right to free speech, to due process, and to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

That's the three-ring circus, folks. And I hear that other acts are waiting for their turn in the ring.

I didn't start out anti-Obama. I was one of the independents who said, "Give the guy a chance." I note with chagrin that presidents Reagan, Carter and (Bill) Clinton had similar problems during their terms in office. Reagan was completely oblivious to what his staff was doing, Carter was too trusting of everyone, and Clinton's staff were merely following the boss's dishonest and conniving example. I don't know what Obama's excuse is.

But we've heard enough of the president and his staff dismissing all of this as partisan bickering, Republican grandstanding, and so on. They have acted unethically, if not illegally, they have used terribly poor judgement, and they have attempted to cover their tracks or to shift the blame to other, innocent parties. It's time for them to stand up and be accountable for what they have done.

And we need to make sure that the former Secretary of State, who once said she would "do whatever it takes" to get elected president, doesn't get that chance in 2016.

(Image copied from I would ask for permission to repost this if I could contact them. I hope that this attribution/credit will be enough for them.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Obama calls Benghazi controversy a 'sideshow'

(Title copied from a article published May 13.)

No, Mr. Obama, the Benghazi controversy is not a 'sideshow.' The birth-certificate controversy was a sideshow. It came complete with its own clown, the bewigged Donald Trump.

But this, the Benghazi affair, is the main event. It's in the center ring right now. And, to mix metaphors, it's going to keep creeping out from under the rug no matter how many times Obama or his staff try to sweep it back under there. It won't go away until the President or the State Department face it head-on and give a full accounting for their actions or inactions.

This IRS scandal, where it turns out that the IRS was using its power to attempt to abridge the free speech of some political groups, is something else that bears watching. Right now is not a good time to be an unelected official or bureaucrat in the Executive Branch. (Since the Executive Branch has only two elected officials, that covers just about everybody. And the two elected officials aren't too comfortable right now either.)

On the other hand, now is a good time to be an elected member of the Legislative Branch. As long as the spotlight shines on the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury, it's not shining on the inaction and dysfunction of the Congress of the United States. In fact, this is the Congress' time to come looking like a collection of heroes and defenders of the American Way.

UPDATE: The sideshow got bigger overnight. Check out my next article, "From 'Sideshow' to Three-Ring Circus."

Monday, April 22, 2013

What Dear Abby should have said

I don't often disagree with Dear Abby, but I think she missed a golden opportunity on this one.

This was in her April 20, 2013 column:

DEAR ABBY: I have been dating my boyfriend, "Adam," for three years. Although we are young, we are serious about our relationship. Not too long after we started dating, Adam began staying over at my house on most weekends. I live with my mom, who is 47.

For the past year when Adam comes to visit, my mom has been coming out of her bedroom in her bra and panties, for the most part exposed. She also makes flirtatious comments to Adam that I feel are completely inappropriate.

I have tried talking to her about it, letting her know how uncomfortable Adam and I and some of my friends are about it. I hoped she would understand, but she continues with the flirting and underdressing. What can I do about this? I'm desperate to try anything. -- DESPERATE IN MAINE

This was Dear Abby's response. She put the blame, rather unfairly, on the girl's mother.

DEAR DESPERATE: You may be desperate, but not as desperate as it appears your mother is for attention. Because talking to her hasn't helped, accept that she is not going to change her behavior. Have Adam stay over less often. When you meet with your friends, do it at someone else's house. And if you can afford to move elsewhere, you should consider it.

Here's what Dear Zyzmog would have written:

DEAR DESPERATE: Let's back up this train, all the way to the station. You say that your boyfriend comes over for sleepovers on the weekend. When you say you are "serious in your relationship," I assume that means he's not sleeping on the couch, and you two aren't keeping your foot jammies on all night long.

Then you say that you feel uncomfortable about your mother running around in her underwear while Adam is there, and that she makes "inappropriate" and flirtatious comments. 

Don't you see the (logical or moral) inconsistency here?

If you don't feel that it's "inappropriate" for your boyfriend to shack up with you on the weekends, in your mother's house, then you have no right to feel that it's "inappropriate" for your mother to run around in her own house in her skivvies. At least she's wearing skivvies. You two aren't.

You say that you are young, but your mother is 47. That makes you about 20, I would guess. Sweetie, where I come from, 20 isn't young; it's about two years past voting age and deep into "old enough to know better." And if you're old enough to sleep with Adam, then you're old enough to live on your own. 

Are you really desperate enough to try anything? Then try this.

Move out of your mother's house, so she can run around in her underwear all she wants. Get a place of your own, so she doesn't have to carry your freeloading weight anymore, and so your boyfriend won't see her when he comes over. You're a grown-up. Try acting like one.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why would you want to be a teacher in today's system?

How many more teachers' careers will be ruined before the states realize that standardized testing, as it is currently administered, is ineffective and counterproductive? And when the states finally discontinue standardized testing, who is going to apologize to those teachers and make amends for ruining their careers and taking away their dignity?

Standardized testing today has nothing to do with education. It is nothing but a well-intentioned but tragically misguided fad. It is a myth that the educational establishment has bought into - everyone except teachers, that is. It has turned our schools into factories, our administrators into frightened cowards, unwilling and unable to act for themselves, and our teachers into disposable assets, to be used up and then thrown away when they break or wear out.

Why doesn't anybody listen to the teachers? Why, instead, do they "discipline" the teachers? Why would anybody want to be a professional teacher in today's hostile environment?

Monday, April 1, 2013

All I wanted was some breakfast

This morning I went downstairs to get some breakfast.

I saw the high chair sitting in the dining room, and thought, "I should put that away."

I saw some crumbs and stuff in the high chair tray, and thought, "I'll take this into the kitchen and clean it off."

Someone had mounted the tray crooked on the high chair last night. The release mechanism wouldn't engage. I thought, "It's gonna take a screwdriver to pry this loose. But no, I don't wanna distract myself." (Too late!)

So instead I went into the kitchen to get a wet, soapy dishcloth to wipe the tray. The sink was full of dirty dishes from last night's family feast. I thought, "I should put these in the dishwasher first."

The dishwasher was full of clean dishes. I thought, "I should put these away first."

When the dishwasher was half-empty, my sweet wife called out from upstairs, "Now I know why the house smells like ham. I left the crockpot full of ham juice after last night's feast." I thought, "I should get rid of that ham juice for her." I cleared out the kitchen sink, just enough to pour the ham juice down the drain.

That the left the crockpot insert greasy and gooey. I set it in the sink and filled it with hot, soapy water, intending to scrub it out as soon as I took care of the other dirty dishes.

The aluminum foil that had covered the crockpot was covered with ham juice and couldn't be recycled, so I put it in the trash. I noticed that the trash smelled too, and it was pretty full. So I took it out to the garbage can.

Back in the house, I put a new liner in the kitchen trash can. I finished emptying the dishwasher. I refilled the dishwasher with dirty dishes. For good measure, I put the hammy crockpot insert in the dishwasher. I made a mental note to start the dishwasher after breakfast.

Breakfast! I'd forgotten all about breakfast.

But the sink was still dirty, so I scrubbed it out first. Then I got a wet, soapy dishcloth and wiped down the high chair tray. I went out to the garage, got a screwdriver, jimmied the tray loose, and put it on straight. I made a mental note to put the screwdriver away when I leave for work.

I put the high chair in the basement. When I got back upstairs, I looked around at my neat, orderly dining room and kitchen. My stomach growled. I thought, "This is a funny story. I should write it down before I forget it."

So I pulled out my computer and turned it on. Now I'm sitting at the computer, entering this story in my blog.  I still haven't gotten my breakfast. And I'm worried about what will happen when I try to put the screwdriver away.

Note: I know you read these funny stories online or in magazines, and you wonder what kind of creative mind could make up such a story. Well, it's not made up. This is a true story. It happened to me only minutes ago. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

More Toys for your Toys

In January, I wrote about some cable-management and gadget-management solutions I had found on the web. I hesitated to buy the Signum cable tray from IKEA, because it was larger than I really wanted. Our desk is in a rather exposed location, a loft at the top of the stairs, and the cable tray is one of the first things a viewer will see when climbing the stairs. I wanted something more understated or unobtrusive. My goal is to reduce the amount of visual clutter in my house.

So rather than purchase the Signum item, I kept looking. I found an intriguing alternative on Amazon, the Wire Tray, made by Viable Inc, or Doug Mockett & Company. The Wire Tray is made of black ABS instead of white or silver powder-coated metal. It's narrower than the Signum cable tray, by a factor of two, making it much less obvious under the desk. It can be mounted on a vertical surface like a wall, or a horizontal surface like the underside of a desktop or countertop. Installation is a cinch: you install an aluminum track, then you slide the Wire Tray elements onto the track, and finally you put end caps on the track. You can cut it shorter than 35 inches (about 1 metre), or you can make it longer by installing multiple units.

My only beef with it is that it looks like it's made in China.

NOTE: Photos are from the manufacturer's website.

Friday, March 15, 2013

MIscellaneous word peeves

I think I like this writer, Ben Yagoda. I don't have a very high opinion of the quality of writing over at (especially their Atlantic Wire articles - gag) but Ben cares about words and language. His most recent article, 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to, is definitely worth reading. And before you start pointing out all the mistakes in that title, consider for a moment that he probably put them there on purpose.

Towards the end of his article, he lists several word peeves which I'm going to quote directly. Here they are. Enjoy! - z.

  • Don't use begs the question. Instead use raises the question.
  • Don't use phenomena or criteria as singular. Instead use phenomenon or criterion.
  • Don't use cliché as an adjective. Instead use clichéd.
  • Don't use comprised of. Instead use composed of/made up of.
  • Don't use less for count nouns such people or miles. Instead use fewer.
  • Don't use penultimate (unless you mean second to last). Instead use ultimate.
  • Don't use lead as past tense of to lead. Instead use led.

I hesitate to state what should be obvious, but sometimes the obvious must be stated. So here goes: Do not use it's, you're or who's when you mean its, your or whose. Or vice versa!

Friday, March 8, 2013

American Royalty

The United States of America has always prided itself on not having a king or queen. In the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we are all equal, so they say, and there are no class distinctions.

Then what are the velvet ropes for, the ones that line the red carpets leading into the theatres and auditoriums hosting the Emmys, the Grammys, the Oscars, and all these other awards shows? The velvet ropes are to keep the common people away from the American version of nobility, the stars and starlets who we honor and worship and fawn over as if they were a cut above the rest of us.

And who are the owners of all of those fancy yachts tied to the piers in Myrtle Beach, San Diego, and hundreds of other exclusive, high-priced communities along the sunny coasts? Who are the owners of the mansions in the Hamptons, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Sausalito, Aspen, West Chester, and other high-priced enclaves from sea to shining sea? Who are these people that never have to ask how much something costs, and who carry black American Express cards? They are the American aristocracy. Not all of them live lives as public as the Kennedys, but they life lives of opulence that the rest of us cannot even imagine.

And do you know what happens to the people that we elect and send to Washington, D.C., or to those who are invited to accompany those elected ones to Washington, and never leave? They become the American royalty. Over time, they acquire all the trappings of royalty. They never leave Washington without their retinues, and they are always preceded by the 21st Century equivalent of the forerunners, crying "Make way for the king!" They gather power to themselves, becoming increasingly out of touch with the common people and eventually forgetting who sent them to Washington.

In many ways, the class distinctions of the old royalty and nobility still exist in the U.S.A., but we blindly refuse to acknowledge these distinctions. We cling to the myth of equality and equal opportunity, as voiced in our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights ..." In truth, we are not even created equal, and that inequality grows larger as time passes. We may all be endowed with the same rights, but not with the same opportunities. In this country, as in every other country, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

I don't advocate class warfare, or a French revolution to bring down the upper classes. Honestly, I wouldn't mind living their lifestyle myself. And as an upper middle-class American, I don't have much to complain about. But I choose not to join in the obsession with these people, the obsession that fuels the popular media and gives us a constant flow of photos and stories about them. I would like to think that, if I were to encounter a member of the upper class, I wouldn't treat them any differently from anyone else.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


In his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven R. Covey speaks about circles. Specifically, he talks about Circles of Concern, which include all the things that we worry about, and Circles of Influence, which include all the things that we can affect.

In my mind, there is a third kind of circle. This is the Circle of Things That Matter. This is a much smaller circle than the other two. Part of acquiring wisdom is learning to shrink the other two circles so they approach this one in size.

Actually, my life is full of a fourth kind of circle, multiple instances of it. These are Circles of People That Matter. In my life, most of these are BIG circles. The smallest and tightest of these circles includes used to include just my wife and our natural children. What's funny about this circle, called "family," is that we keep widening it and adding other people to it — not just children-in-law and grandchildren, but others whom we come to love so much that they become part of our family.

It's fun at Christmas time, to host an open house for the people in all of these different circles, then to sit back and observe the collisions and the intersections between the circles. Some sparkling gems are found in those intersections.

For example, my circle of former mathematics students consists of roughly 200 people. My circle of LDS young single adults currently living in our town or nearby is of about the same size. I was delighted to find three of my former math students in this YSA circle. I'm sure it doesn't mean as much to them as it does to me, and I try desperately not to make an outward show of things, but I get all, um, gleeful inside every time I see one of them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Phineas and Ferb - why we do stuff

This Phineas and Ferb screen grab floated through the ether yesterday, and I grabbed it quickly.

In the movie "You've Got Mail," Tom Hanks' character says: "The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question." I think you could say the same thing about Phineas and Ferb, at least for my life.

For example, why do engineers and scientists do the things they do? Here's why:

POSTSCRIPT: If not Phineas and Ferb, then maybe Calvin and Hobbes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Undoing Wrongful Convictions: Texas Attempts to Make Things Right

For years, I have harbored a silent, but firm, dislike for Texas-style justice. I do not know anyone personally who has been convicted of a crime and sent to prison in Texas, but over the years I have read two different kinds of news reports about the Texas justice system. One kind tells about the enthusiastic and dedicated prosecution and conviction of murderers and other heinous criminals. The underlying theme of these reports is "you do something wrong in Texas, and we will hunt you down and make you pay." The second kind of report tells about someone who gets released from prison after serving years — sometimes decades — for a crime he didn't commit. The underlying theme of these articles is "Texas is too quick to convict, and their prosecutors will do anything to get a conviction." You can interpret the word "anything" as broadly as you wish.

Usually a person's wrongful conviction is overturned because of new DNA evidence. Sometimes it's overturned because the real culprit speaks up. It used to be that the Texas justice system stubbornly refused to give up these wrongly convicted people, even when their innocence was beyond dispute. In one sad case, they executed Cameron Todd Willingham, a man wrongly convicted of arson and murder, long after his innocence was established and while his defenders were still hacking through the red tape to save him.

So, in my mind, Texas has earned, and deserves, its reputation as a "hang 'em high, and justice be damned" state. Every time an innocent man is released, I cheer deep inside and hurl silent curses in the general direction of the Lone Star State.

But my opinion of Texas-style justice has been softened. Sweetened, even. Today, a 58-year-old man, Randolph Arledge, is being set free after serving 30 years of a 99-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit. Arledge became the 118th person in the Texas legal system to have his conviction overturned. When Arledge went to prison, his children were 4 and 7 years old. They believed in his innocence and kept the faith all these years, and they were with him when he was released. Arledge had been convicted because two eyewitnesses had lied. He was released based on DNA studies of critical evidence saved for this many years.

Here comes the really cool part.

Texas cannot restore the 30 years they stole from his life. They cannot restore the 30 years they stole from his children's lives. However, in recent years the state of Texas has passed several laws aimed at: (1) preventing wrongful convictions; (2) making it easier for inmates convicted of a crime to have access to new DNA testing; and (3) paying restitution to those who have been wrongly convicted and then released.

You can't really put a cash value on a wrongful conviction, or on the 30 years the state stole from Arledge and his family. But you can try. And the state of Texas has tried. According to one article, the state "has the nation's most generous law for ex-inmates who have proven their innocence, providing a lump-sum payment of $80,000 for each year someone wrongly spent behind bars, as well as an annuity and other benefits."

Money talks. This is the way Texas says "I'm sorry." While I'm still inclined to lump Texas for their overeager prosecutors and their hanging judges, I am equally inclined to applaud Texas for this truly generous attempt to put things right.


By the way, much, if not all, of the credit for Arledge's release goes to the hard-working people at the Innocence Project. This posting is about Texas, not about the Innocence Project, but I invite you to visit their website and see what they're about. Even Republicans will find it enlightening.

Other entities around the country working on the problem of wrongful convictions include the Michigan Innocence Clinic


The great English jurist Sir William Blackstone said in 1765: "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." In 1785, Benjamin Franklin upped the ante, writing: "It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer." In modern times, Ben's words have been misquoted and misattributed, but the principle remains the same, and forms the basis for many of the clauses in the Bill of Rights. (Source: "Blackstone's Formulation," Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Toys for your Toys

My sweet wife and I are looking for a cable management system for our new Ikea desk. Right now, the floor beneath the desk is a rat's nest of cables and wires. While I was searching online cable management solutions, I ran across some websites with cool stuff that might help some of you.
I've mentioned Zagg before, so I'll mention it again at the end. But here's some other cool stuff that I found.
BlueLounge has some imaginative solutions for cable management, smartphone and table tending, and some other cool stuff. I think it's rather attractively priced as well. My beloved spouse may disagree. I'm going to get their Cable Box.
We should have looked at Ikea at the start. I'm going to buy two 70-cm  lengths of their "Signum, Cable management, horizontal" cable baskets and mount them underneath the desk, along the back.
Recoil is is a Kickstarter-financed startup company based in Park City, Utah. They have a line of spring-powered cable winders that may look a bit pricey ($10 each, for any of their products), but they are an innovative design that fills a basic need. These gadgets aren't for the desk; they're for the briefcase or gym bag.

And finally, Zagg:
Zagg sells both essentials and optional accessories for smartphones, iPods and tablets, and some laptop PC stuff besides. However, they add some style to their accessories - like what BlueLounge does, only different.

The only problem, I believe, is that most of the products that I've mentioned are made in China. I'm still trying to favor merchandise that is made in the USA, Canada, or Mexico - or Scandinavia, in Ikea's case. It's still not easy.

UPDATE: I found a cable tray that I like better than IKEA's Signum cable tray. You can read about it in my article, More Toys for your Toys.

Remember that my product recommendations are independent, honest, unsolicited and not for sale. I don't get compensated in any way for writing this. I just found some good stuff on my way to solving my own problem, and I thought it might help you as well. If you don't believe me, go read my post, Blogging for Dollars.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Importing Your Contacts into a Google Nexus 7

Here's a simple, easy, three-step procedure for copying your email Contacts or Address Book to your new Google Nexus 7. I think it will work on other Android devices as well. You don't even need your Android device to do it. Just do it all on your computer.

Here are the steps:
  1. When you first started up your Nexus 7, you were required to set up a Gmail account. If you didn't do it then, just do it now. It's not that hard. And you don't have to use it; you only need to have it. You can set it up from any computer, by pointing your browser to
  2. Open your email program, or login to your browser-based email application. Go to Contacts or Address Book, and find a way to Export your contacts or address book as a CSV file. Most email programs can do this. (CSV stands for "Comma-separated values." If you open the file in Notepad to have a look at it, you will see that it's everything in your address book, separated by a bunch of commas.)
    (Note for those who care: You can also export your contacts or address book as a VCF file, but the beauty of my procedure is that you don't need to. A CSV file works just fine.)
    (Note for those who don't care: VCF stands for "Virtual Card File." I know; the "F" is redundant. Hey, I didn't invent it.)
  3. Log into Gmail. Click on the "Gmail-downArrow" button and select "Contacts." In Contacts, click on the "More-downArrow" button, and choose "Import...". Click "Browse" to find and select the CSV file you just created in Step 2. Then click the "Import" button.
That's all there is to it: you create a Gmail account, you export a CSV file from your existing email program, and you import it into Gmail.

You don't need to use Gmail on your Nexus; you can keep using your regular account. All of those imported contacts are in the People app on your Nexus, and your email account automatically knows about all of them.

UPDATE, FRIDAY 9:30 A.M.:  This method doesn't import those collections of addresses known variously as Groups, Distribution Lists, and Mailing Lists. Neither CSV files nor VCF files were designed to hold lists like that. If any of my readers knows how to import Distribution Lists, please comment on this post and enlighten us. Until then, I guess you'll just have to recreate them manually.

UPDATE, ABOUT A YEAR LATER: As emil pointed out in his comment, you need to make sure that the Google account in your Nexus 7's Settings menu is the same one you use in Step 3 to import the contacts.