October 31, 2012


Who said D&D is just a time-wasting hobby? I've just read an interesting summary of a new study. A cognitive scientist mentioned in casual dinner conversation that one of the open questions in his field is whether people fix their gaze on people's eyes, or on the center of their faces, where the eyes just happen to be.

The researcher's high-schooler son pointed out that many D&D monsters have eyes in places other than the center of their faces. (So do a fair number of horror movie monsters, but I guess the kid wasn't into that.) So they did an experiment: they hooked up a bunch of victims undergrads into gaze-monitoring kit, and showed them a variety of pictures from the D&D Monster Manual. It turns out that while gazes initially went to the center of the head, viewer focus shifted to the eyes as soon as they figured out where those eyes were.

The press release/news article is here. I am amused.

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Pixar Still Does Amazing Shorts

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October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Welp, Hurricane Sandy blew through. And I guess the remnants are going to continue blowing through for a few more days, but the exciting parts are over. We got heavy rain, a little hail, and winds gusting up to 45 mph, which is nothing. A few years back, my alma mater famously posted the following: "Warning: Strong winds are predicted for today, with gusts of up to 60 mph. Please exercise caution when walking between buildings." That's right, my school doesn't close classes unless the local government closes down the roads.

There have been brief power outages and some down branches, but I haven't seen any entire trees down. So no big deal up here. But boy was that a doozy downstate. I don't envy NYC the repairs. I mourn their dead, too, although some of those people brought their fates upon themselves. It's not like this was a surprise storm, so if you choose not to evacuate, you bear quite a bit of responsibility for your own fate.

It also brought back some unpleasant memories. The day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was assigned as Assistant to the Squadron Duty NCO. There was a TV in the duty hut, so whoever was not on rounds could watch whatever the wanted– usually sports or a movie. We were glued to the Weather Channel all day and night, and people kept stopping by to get updates. About 30% of the squadron's total strength was in a detachment based just outside New Orleans, so we all knew people being affected. And then the very next day we were tasked to fly all available assets down to NOLA and help with rescues. Sadly, I didn't get to go– whenever a unit deploys, some people stay behind as "rear party" and keep the lights on at the base. I was just senior enough that my shop head trusted be to work alone in the rear, so I got the short straw and was one of the 25 people that stayed behind.

That was also the month I picked up corporal. Being awarded a rank requires a formation, and normally its the whole squadron. And getting corporal is a really big deal, it's the transition from "junior enlisted" to "non-commissioned officer". My formation consisted of a captain read the warrant (instead of the CO, a Lt. Col), a random sergeant to pin me (instead of a person of my choice), and two Marines standing at attention to be the witnesses. Even so, that was 20% of the total personnel still in the state. So it goes.

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October 26, 2012

So Very Tired. Also, Murder Was In the Air

Yesterday the weather was glorious, so Hil and I went for a bike ride. Today the weather was supposed to be good until mid-afternoon, so I decided to go on a solo ride after lunch.

The bad weather arrived a little sooner than expected, so while I remained dry, it got quite windy. "How windy was it?", I hope at least one of you is asking? Well, my ride was basically a square. In order, I did the eastbound section at 18 mph, the northbound section at 12 mph, the westbound section at 18 mph, and the southbound section at 21 mph.

When I get back from a ride, I normally take a quick cold shower to rinse off the sweat and get my body temperature back to normal. Today, I took a long hot shower just to feel normal again. Then I sat around blankly for an hour, I think because I had exhausted my glucose reserves and wasn't thinking very clearly.

After dinner, Hilary and I went to the Ghostlight Theatre, a local church that has been converted to a playhouse. They put on plays with amateur local actors, many of them written by their artistic director. Every October they put on a scary drama, and this year it was The Spiral Staircase, based on the 1933 novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White. It's been adapted for the large and small screens at least four times, and there has also been a radio play. I am a little embarrassed that I'd never heard of it.

The story is set in a mansion in small-town Massachussets, where a serial killer has murdered three handicapped women within the last few days. One of the maids in the mansion, Helen, is mute, and general suspicion is that she will be the next victim. But who is the killer? I confess I guessed incorrectly, because the correct suspect was behaving so incredibly suspiciously that I assumed it was a red herring. Congratulations are in order to the late Ms. White for having used my expectations of the genre against me.

The acting was decent enough, about what one would expect from volunteer community theater. Ironically, the worst actor of the lot was the theater company's artistic director, who directs every show that they put on. He over-emoted, playing far too over-the-top for my taste. But all in all, it was a good time. It was short enough that it didn't drag on, and the rain held off until after we got home.

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October 23, 2012


For quite some time I've been annoyed with Hil's garage door opener. The device itself is quite nice, it even has a battery backup that can open and close the door when the power is out. But it was wired to a permanently-installed extension cord, and that is not the proper way to do things.

I'm serious about the "permanently installed" part, too. The extension cord actually was connected to structure with wiring staples, and passed through the overhead joists[1] through drilled holes. It was one of those extension cords where you take some wire of whatever length and then attach plugs at each end, so the installer clearly did 90% of the work of actually wiring things correctly (e.g. drilling holes, banging in staples) but then screwed on a male and a female plug at the relevant ends instead of putting up an outlet up near the actual garage door opener, and wiring the other end into the existing outlet.

So I ripped out the old wire and replaced it with new, and put in a proper outlet. Naturally, things never go according to plan, and I ended up also installing a new junction box on the wall, because the existing outlet was too crowded to get more wires inside, which is probably why the original installed went and did the wrong thing in the first place.

In the process of doing this, I learned yet more about the crazy wiring in Hil's house. For instance, there is a circuit breaker labelled "garage". When I tripped it, it did indeed cut off power to the garage. It also killed one of the lights in the basement, but as that light is near where the power line exits the basement to head to the detached garage, I am sympathetic to whomever wired that in. On the other hand, it turns out that the overhead light in the dining room is also on the same circuit as the garage. The reasoning behind that mystifies me.

I finished the job as it was getting dark, turned the power back on, and confirmed that the door did indeed go up and down as it ought. Then I transferred two giant paper bags full of fallen leaves from the garage to the curb, because tomorrow is the day when the city will collect said leaves, and we don't have a compost pile here. When I finished, I pressed the button to lower the garage door… and it refused, flashing to indicate that it's obstruction sensor was tripped. I am assuming I bumped the sensor while moving bags of leaves around. Trying to get the sensor properly aimed again was not going very well in the dark, so I overrode the sensor and I guess I'll go out there and fix that part tomorrow.

Also on the agenda is seeing why the overhead florescent lights sometimes do not turn on when the switches are flipped. I'm about 90% sure the switches have gone bad, so I'll probably start with replacing them. Or, ooh, new thought– before I go to the hassle of replacing any switches, I will carefully put a temporary jumper across each switch and see if the lights go on. If not, I know it's the ballasts.

[1] I originally wrote "ceiling joists", but upon reflection, there is no ceiling in the garage.

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October 16, 2012

RIP Java

We put Java to sleep this evening, about an hour ago. If you look back three posts ago, I was hoping that we might have him for another few months. I was foolishly optimistic. He declined with fearsome rapidity. Really, it would have been kinder to put him to sleep yesterday– today his abdomen hurt too much for him to sleep comfortably prone, and if he rolled over he couldn't breathe. But I wanted Hil to have a chance to come home and be with him a few more hours. Poor Java did seem more comfortable when the two of us were with him. At least he knows he was loved.

Still, six months and two days. That's a pretty crummy lifespan, with just a single month living in a loving home. But I guess that one month is better than nothing.

Sit tibi terra levis, Java.


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October 09, 2012

A Word Problem

Three merchants have formed a company. The first invested I know not how much, the second put in 20 pieces of cloth, and the third has invested £500. So at the end of their business, their gains amounted to £1000, wherof the first man ought to have £350, and the second must have £400. Now I demand: how much did the first man invest, and how much were the 20 pieces of cloth [worth that] were invested?
This was a homework problem in The well spryng of sciences, a math textbook written by Humfrey Baker in 1562. I came across it in Deborah Harkness's The Jewel House, a history of science in Elizabethan England.

Click the "spoiler" to reveal what I calculate to be the answer:

Naturally, I might be wrong- I don't do that much algebra these days, especially not before breakfast!

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October 07, 2012

A Winner Is Me

On a more cheerful note, apparently my MA project was awarded the prize for best project of the 2011-2012 academic year by my department. And no one told me I'd won, until I got an email asking me to fill out a W-9 form to pay taxes on my award.

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October 05, 2012

He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

On September 7th, Hilary and I got a wonderful black cat from the SPCA. He was about 10 weeks old, and we named him Java.

He came home with a nasty cough, but that is common for cats that have been living in the close quarters of the shelter. The vet told us to give it a week, and he'd get well and we could carry on with his required vaccinations.

His cough cleared up, but he continued to have a fever, and lost interest in food and toys. We switched his diet to only wet food, and he started eating more, but still was not well, and losing weight rather than gaining it. We've been dosing him with meds twice a day, bringing him to the small animal hospital at least once a week, while the vets tried to figure out what was going on.

Well, today we know. He has (effusive) Feline Infectious Peritonitis. If you don't want to follow that link, here's the bullet point version:

  • Non-contagious, immune system disease found only in cats
  • No cure, and very limited palliative care available
  • Behaviorally, cats conceal symptoms, so by the time diagnosis is made, the end is near
I've only known Java for a month, but in that time I've come to love him dearly. Perhaps I will know him for two months, but probably not three.

During the phone call reporting the results of the lab work, the vet gently suggested that we could have him put down any time. I think Hil and I will hold out until Java stops eating or drinking, or his breathing becomes labored. He doesn't seem to be suffering now, but I don't want to prolong his life past when it becomes a burden to him.

The animal hospital is just three miles away. It's a ten minute drive.

I'm not sure I'll be able to make that drive.

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